A Marxist view of the Asian American National Questions
San José, CA – Over the last two years, hundreds of thousands of Asian Americans and their supporters have taken to the streets to protest the wave of violence against Asian Americans. From the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when a Burmese family was assaulted in Texas; to the Atlanta Spa killing in April 2021, where six of the eight people killed were Asian American women, this wave of violence against Asian Americans inspired protests across the country, even including middle-school students.
These protests were the largest ever to draw together Asian Americans of different nationalities. This was in part because the targets of the hate crimes were Chinese American, Korean American, Burmese American, and others. Although the hate and national chauvinism was mainly driven by anti-Chinese sentiment fanned up by racist politicians such as President Trump, the racists did not know and did not care about their victims’ nationalities. There is also a growing common experience of young Asian Americans who were either born here or grew up in the United States, of their common experiences because of the national oppression as people of Asian descent in the United States.
The fight against violence against Asian Americans also pulled many of the different classes in our communities: workers as well as members of petty-bourgeoisie such as small businesspeople, professionals and managers. However other types of national oppression, such as unjust treatment by ICE and immigration can differ, given that more well-to-do Asian Americans better able to afford legal representation.
The struggle against violence against Asian Americans is part of a larger struggle for full equality and against national oppression. Asian Americans have a long history of struggle against racist and discriminatory government laws and actions, from Foreign Miners tax in California in the 1850s to the witch hunt against Chinese American academics today. Asian Americans have also faced racist discrimination in housing, in the labor force, in marriage, in every facet of life.
The struggle against the national oppression aimed at Asian Americans has always had connections with the oppression of African Americans and other oppressed nationalities. Anti-miscegenation laws originally aimed at African Americans were also applied to Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans. On the other hand, restrictive covenants, which banned non-whites from buying many homes (to keep neighborhoods white), were first found in San Francisco, again aimed at Chinese Americans. But these racist restrictions in housing deeds also spread nationwide to enforce housing segregation against African Americans.
The fight against national oppression has also crossed over between Asian Americans and other oppressed nationalities. In 1894, American-born Kim Ark Wong was denied re-entry to the United States after having traveled to China to see his family. The Chinese American community fought a legal case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and 1898 won a decision that guaranteed citizenship for American born children of non-citizens. This was especially important for Asian Americans, as Asian immigrants could not become U.S. citizens until the 1940s. This case was important to the Chicano community as well as other Latinos who have immigrated to the United States.
At the same time the struggle of other oppressed nationalities, especially African Americans and Chicanos, both benefitted and inspired Asian Americans. 1947 Mendez v. Westminster decision ended legal segregation of Chicano and Asian children in public schools in California. More than anything else, the upsurge of African Americans in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the early 1960s set the stage for the end to the racist 1924 Immigration Act, which imposed quotas in the hundreds on immigrants from Asia. Without this change, Asian American would be much smaller and vastly different today, with only Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipinos as the main nationalities. Many of the young organizers of protests against anti-Asian violence said that this was not their first protests, they first marched after the death of George Floyd.
While Chinese, Japanese and Filipino Americans had fought for their rights since the 1850s, often alongside Chicanos in particular, the first consciously unified Asian American fight didn’t happen until the 1960s. The struggle sparked by Black Students for Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, led to the formation of the first explicit Asian American organization, the Asian American Political Alliance or AAPA, in 1969. AAPA was the major Asian American organization on campus fighting for both a department of Asian American Studies and a College of Ethnic Studies that would include Black, Chicano and Native American Studies departments.
The rise of African American revolutionary organizations in the 1960s also had a large impact on Asian Americans. The Black Panther Party inspired the formation of I Wor Kuen or IWK in the late 1960s. IWK was named after an anti-imperialist uprising in China in 1900, but their political program was based on the Black Panther Party’s Ten-point Program. IWK turned towards Marxism-Leninism in order to better grasp the class struggle within the Chinese American community, and eventually merged with other M-L groups that came out of movements of oppression, such as the largely Chicano August 29th Movement and the largely African American Revolutionary Communist League, formally the Congress of Afrikan People, a pan-Africanist organization.
Revolutionaries and Marxist-Leninists in the African American and Chicano movements revived the understanding that African Americans in the Black Belt South and Chicanos in the Southwest were, in fact, oppressed nations in the United States. As nations – that is a historical community with a common language, culture, economy and territory – they had the right to self-determination, up to and including the right to separate and form their own countries.
While a few voices raised the concept of an Asian American Nation, this had no basis in fact. Asian Americans do not share a common language, with most Asian American nationalities speaking different languages other than English at home. They have many different cultures, although they have some historical ties. In fact, Asian Americans comprise many different nationalities from East, Southeast, South and Central Asia: Chinese American, Filipino Americans, Indian American, Japanese Americans, Korean Americans and Vietnamese Americans just to mention some of the larger nationalities.
But most importantly, there is no common territory for Asian Americans in the United States. The most concentrated population of Asian Americans on the mainland is in the San Jose-San Francisco Bay Area, which over the last 20 years has developed two small cities that are majority Asian American. In contrast, in the Chicano Nation there are large cities such as San Antonio, Texas and Los Angeles, California, more than 70 counties across seven states, and even the entire state of New Mexico that are majority or near majority Chicano.
There are many Chicanos and Mexicanos who live outside the Chicano Nation. Some even live in majority Chicano/Mexicano counties such as Adams and Franklin counties in eastern Washington. Chicanos and Mexicanos in eastern Washington are certainly oppressed nationalities faced with economic, political and social inequality. Many have lived in the Chicano Nation, and/or have family there. But with the northern edge of the Chicano Nation some 800 miles away, how could they act on self-determination and separate in any practical way?
In the same way Asian Americans, while certainly oppressed nationalities, cannot be considered to be a nation with the right to self-determination. As communists, we fight for the full equality of the Asian American nationalities, including language equality, political power, etc. in areas of concentration.
We also fight for working-class leadership of Asian Americans and other oppressed nationalities in their fight against national oppression and for full equality. This includes both struggling against reformism, such as promoting voting as the answer for all issues, and narrow nationalism, which sees other oppressed nationalities as the problem (an example of this is opposing affirmative action).
Our strategy for revolution is a united front against monopoly capitalism – against the rule by the billionaires and massive corporations. At the core of this united front will be an alliance between the working class, on one hand, and oppressed nationalities, on the other. Asian Americans will play a growing role in this, both as the fastest growing oppressed nationality, and as a rapidly growing part of the working class.
Masao Suzuki is chair of the Joint Nationalities Commission of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization and a former member of I Wor Kuen.