Photo of Noel Ignatiev taken by Rachel Edwards circa 1995

September 2021

Noel Ignatiev may not be a widely known name, but the man's contributions, and the controversy he invited, are nonetheless familiar to the revolutionary-ambitioned political left of the Western world. Ignatiev was a writer, a steelworker, and a militant communist who worked during a profoundly transformative period in American politics. This period shaped much of the rhetoric still in use surrounding race, whiteness, leftism, and communism, at least in the Anglosphere. Perhaps the most recognizable of his contributions was the introduction of the term "white-skin privilege", though he would come to take issue with  the concept's wide circulation in contemporary activist circles. Ignatiev himself is best known for his book How The Irish Became White, a slim and accessible history of 19th century Irish immigrants' troubled but ultimately successful assimilation into American whiteness.

While it certainly wasn't a best seller, How The Irish Became White does have name recognition and readership beyond the usual insular circles of Marxist literature, as demonstrated by the many confused and enraged customer reviews on online bookstores. To be fair, the book isn't necessarily an easy read— there are sections of detailed historical scholarship, the events recounted are tragic, and the thesis is grim. But Ignatiev could walk the tightrope of accessibility and scholarship in a way that avoided most unnecessary trappings of academia without settling into the patronizingly threadbare schlock of most pop-history books.

Ignatiev's ability to present history to a popular audience, and his conviction that it must be presented without removing depth and controversy, can  be partially attributed to his origins  —  Ignatiev's own personal background is similarly common and peculiar.

In December of 1940, Noel Ignatiev was born into a Russian-Jewish family in North Philadelphia. His grandparents had immigrated from Russia, and they, along with his parents, were communists and members of the Communist Party USA. Noel's father was a newspaper delivery man. They lived in a predominantly Black neighborhood, and the family developed a close relationship with their neighbors and community. Starting as a young child, Noel worked on the paper route with his father before going to school. To his memory, his father only hit him as punishment twice: once for bullying his brother, the other for using an anti-Black slur.

Noel often recounted an incident when, walking through his neighborhood as a teenager, he saw a white policeman assaulting a Black man spread-eagled against a wall. Ignatiev approached the scene and told the cop to stop, as the man was doing as the cop commanded anyway, an intervention for which Noel himself was handcuffed and taken to spend the night in jail. His father paid the court fine for alleged obstruction of justice and told Noel he was proud of him, and their neighbors said likewise. This story and others from his childhood can be found in his One Summer Evening entry in the collection When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories. Here are two sample passages:

 

"At that time, in order to exclude black people, Philadelphia swimming pools called themselves private clubs and sold one-dollar “memberships” to whites only. My parents refused to patronize them, and we shared the black experience of sweltering on the streets in the summers, except for the rare occasions when we managed to open a fire hydrant. When the firemen—all white—came to shut off the valve, we would taunt them from a safe distance while our parents observed from the stoops, smiling."

"My mother was no less dedicated to racial justice than my father. Once a black high school acquaintance invited me to attend a party where I would likely be the only person who was not black. In spite of all my experience I still felt nervous, and decided not to go. I told her of my decision. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” she said. Her rebuke indeed shamed me into going. Of course I had a great time."

 

Ignatiev joined the Philadelphia chapter of Communist Party USA as a teenager in the 1950s, just as CPUSA was buckling under pressure from the Red Scare and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Internally, there were splits and mismanagement related to the confusion in the international communist movement following the death of Stalin and the advent of Khrushchev's de-Stalinization reforms. Ignatiev briefly found himself in a minor breakaway faction of the CPUSA (the Provisional Organizing Committee, or POC). He was later expelled from this split faction. But through this group he met Theodore Allen, a communist from West Virginia, who would become a great influence on Ignatiev.

Allen, born in 1919, had worked as a coal miner in West Virginia since his graduation from high school and was deeply involved in labor organizing with United Mine Workers.  Allen was white, but nonetheless became disturbed by the racial divisions in the coal mines. Black UMW workers received inferior wages, lacked presence in the union leadership, and remained in dirty and dangerous positions long after their white peers had been promoted. This brutal discrimination was not only encouraged by the union bosses and bureaucracy, but also embraced by white rank-and-file miners in the union (not least of all because the exclusion of Black miners from promotion and leadership increased their own prospects for advancement).

Allen served as president of a UMW local for a time and attempted to racially integrate the UMW before being deadlocked and pressured to abandon the post. He moved to New York City in the late 1940s. In NYC Allen did industrial research for the union and taught economics at the Jefferson School of Social Science, an adult education school operated by CPUSA. The Jefferson School was hounded by the US government's Subversive Activities Control Board throughout the ‘50s until it was finally forced to shut down in 1956, after the potential for harassment and investigation from the FBI discouraged new students from enrolling. Though the US government held up the Jefferson School as an example of Russian infiltration and communist indoctrination via CPUSA, in reality the school did not dictate the content of the teachers' classes. These classes were inexpensive, and besides what was taught about Marxist economics and the Russian Revolution, the school also offered a wide variety of nonpolitical subjects including traditional academics, as well as classes geared towards more immediate concerns of working-class students. The offerings included creative writing, art history, health, law, and personal beauty on a budget.

Teaching at Jefferson, Theodore Allen was able to further develop his concerns about whiteness and white chauvinism as an institutional caste system that prevented solidarity among the working class — this was contrary to the official CPUSA line, which treated racism and white chauvinism as merely personal prejudice that was the result of divisive upper class propaganda. W. E. B. Du Bois, a socialist but far from a dogmatic adherent to CPUSA's programme, was among the other faculty at Jefferson School, and was teaching a class on the history of the African slave trade when the school was shut down. Du Bois' magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America, would become an enormously influential work of scholarship for both Ignatiev and Allen.

Allen met the teenage Ignatiev during the factionalization of CPUSA, when both were members of the aforementioned split. The two shared ideas and experiences, as well as developing their study of Du Bois' work. Particularly influential on their line of thinking were sections from his Black Reconstruction such as the following:

 

". . . the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and tides of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule. . .

. . . Most persons do not realize how far this [policy of colorblind racial solidarity among labor organizers] failed to work in the South, and it failed to work because the theory of race was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest."

 

Noel Ignatiev and Ted Allen would become lifelong friends and colleagues. Ignatiev and Allen collaborated on the 1967 essay White Blindspot, which challenged the notion that race prejudice was simply a false ideology that could be eliminated through proper education, which was then the standard position among the predominantly white leadership of the established American communist movement. In White Blindspot, they argued that the primary racial issue in the American left was not that the personal prejudices of white workers discouraged Black workers from joining their ranks, but rather that white workers' attachment to the relatively greater social status that whiteness provided to them discouraged white workers from joining with the Black workers already engaged in active struggle. They write, directing this criticism at the Progressive Labor Party:

 

"You correctly pose as one of the tasks before the working class that of building a third party, a labor party. But just such a party is being born under your very eyes, and you are blinded to it by your chauvinist (might as well speak plainly) lack of appreciation of the significance of the Negro liberation movement, such as the Black Panther Party in Lowndes County, Alabama, and the Freedom Democratic Party in Mississippi, as well as other stirrings in the same direction throughout the country. Of course these movements differ in their degrees of clarity and maturity, but is there any doubt that they represent motion toward a breakaway from the two-party strangle-hold? Suppose the Negro people succeed in launching such a party, will it not contain within it the essentials of a labor party program, in spite of its label as a Negro party? . . . This is true even now of the Black Power slogan, whose significance is not limited to the Negro people. As a white worker, I declare that I would a thousand times sooner live under the Black Power of Stokely Carmichael than under the "white" imperialist power of Lyndon Baines Johnson!"

 

Allen would later write a monumental two volume history called The Invention of the White Race that provided an intensive study of the phenomena Ignatiev describes in How The Irish Became White. Ignatiev, never one to let a good disagreement go to waste, would nonetheless debate Allen on particular points where they differed — especially what Ignatiev considered to be Allen's tendency to attribute to intentional conspiracy what could more plausibly and consistently be explained through the complex overlap of historical processes.

 

Ignatiev, in his 20s, was accepted into University of Pennsylvania and briefly attended before dropping out and moving to Gary, Indiana to work on the floor of a steel boring mill that produced machine tools. Ignatiev worked there and in other factories for over 20 years, from 1961 to 1984. He agitated at the mill and joined the Sojourner Truth Organization, encouraging multiracial organizing within the United Steelworkers union in opposition to the leadership's relegation of Black and Hispanic workers to the most dangerous and low-paying jobs. Ignatiev was relentless, and it won him plenty of enemies among the white union men. His friend Jarrod Shanahan recounts that when the Internet eventually came around, Ignatiev was unperturbed by the vicious comments and hate mail he received, because he had been well prepared by decades of reading threats and insults that some of his coworkers anonymously directed towards him from graffiti on the mill's bathroom walls.

During his career as a steelworker, Ignatiev met C. L. R. James. James, a prolific and unorthodox Marxist scholar, is perhaps best known for Black Jacobins, his history of the Haitian Revolution. Ignatiev had become a great admirer of James’ work, and when they met and conversed, James expressed his admiration for Ignatiev's work in the mill. Ignatiev would later write the introduction to a collection of James’ lectures in the book Modern Politics. In that introduction, Ignatiev describes his first meeting with James: “. . . he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I worked in a factory. He said he regretted that he never had the opportunity to do that. I naturally replied that his writings had helped me make sense of my own experience. Yes, he said, people have told me that, but I still wish I had experienced it directly.”

Though Ignatiev never considered his impact on the union at the mill especially significant, his experiences there cemented his convictions that there was a tangible contradiction between the organization of the working class and the fidelity to whiteness as a caste-institution among white-skinned workers. In his 1972 essay Black Worker, White Worker he describes some of these experiences:

 

"In one department of a giant steel mill in northwest Indiana a foreman assigned a white worker to the job of operating a crane. The Black workers in the department felt that on the basis of seniority and job experience, one of them should have been given the job, which represented a promotion from the labor gang. They spent a few hours in the morning talking among themselves and agreed that they had a legitimate beef. Then they went and talked to the white workers in the department and got their support. After lunch the other crane operators mounted their cranes and proceeded to block in the crane of the newly promoted worker — one crane on each side of his — and run at the slowest possible speed, thus stopping work in the department. By the end of the day the foreman had gotten the message. He took the white worker off the crane and replaced him with a Black worker, and the cranes began to move again.

A few weeks after the above incident, several of the white workers who had joined the Black operators in the slowdown took part in meetings in Glen Park, a virtually all-white section of Gary, with the aim of seceding from the city in order to escape from the administration of the Black mayor, Richard Hatcher. While the secessionists demanded, in their words, "the power to make the decisions which affect their lives," it was clear that the effort was racially inspired.

At a large farm equipment manufacturing plant in Chicago, a Black worker was being tried out for a repair job on an assembly line. The foreman had been harassing the man, trying to disqualify him during his three-day trial period. After two days of this, the majority of the workers on the line, Black and white, walked off their jobs demanding that the man be accepted for the job. The company backed down and work resumed.

Later on, some of the same white workers took part in racist demonstrations at a Chicago high school. The demonstrations were called against "overcrowding" in an attempt to keep out several hundred Black students who had been transferred to the school as a result of redistricting.

What is taking place is a "civil war" in the mind of the white worker. In the community, on the job, in every sphere of life, he is being faced with a choice between two ways of looking at the world, two ways of leading his life. One way represents solidarity with the Black worker and the progressive forces of society. The other way represents alliance with the forces of exploitation and repression."

 

By 1984, employment at the mill was dwindling, as industry in the US rapidly began to automate or outsource its production to the third world, where bosses could deal with unions by means of machetes and bullets. Ignatiev was soon laid off. His own employment at the factory was likely made more precarious because he had been arrested in 1983 for throwing a paint bomb into a strikebreaker's car.

Without an undergraduate degree and with no work experience besides steel boring, Ignatiev nevertheless managed to secure admission to a history PhD program at Harvard. By some friends' accounts, he “charmed” his way in, and they note that he could be frustratingly persuasive. It seems likely that his acquaintanceship with such respected scholars as Du Bois and James also played a large role. How The Irish Became White was Ignatiev's doctoral thesis.

Despite the success of the book, Ignatiev was uncomfortable at Harvard, as might be expected from a third-generation communist coming out of two decades of work in a steel plant. Jay Caspian Kang, a former student of Ignatiev at Bowdoin College, recalls Ignatiev's frustration: ". . . he was also a decade removed from the steel mills, and he was unsure how much a book could really do. Privately, he questioned the value of his new life in the highest reaches of the academy. His on-campus provocations . . . only caused bewilderment among students and administrators."

Perhaps as an outlet for this discomfort, he and his friend John Garvey, a New York City cab driver, started the journal Race Traitor in 1993. With the slogan “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity!”, it ran for 16 volumes, insisting on the necessity of “abolishing whiteness”, providing analysis of whiteness as a caste-institution, and recommending practical measures to immediately challenge such an institution. This journal perhaps courted the most controversy of anything Ignatiev ever wrote, and he remains notorious for this call to abolish whiteness.

The demand is intentionally controversial, almost polemical, but it is nonetheless sincere — Ignatiev and Garvey insisted that just as groups such as the Irish and Italians had been integrated into whiteness, it was possible for a social revolution to result in the divorcing of whiteness from white people. And they did not only believe it was possible: they thought that any genuine proletarian revolution in the United States would simultaneously be a process of abolishing whiteness, since, they argued, whiteness as a caste is the greatest stumbling block for the American working class, and many poor white people would need to renounce the privileges and obligations of the caste for such a revolution to be possible.

The phrase "abolish whiteness" may lend itself more to controversy than clarity, but Ignatiev believed that the shock value of the phrasing would reveal the irrational attachment to whiteness among people who otherwise wouldn't consciously express racial pride. And the persistent bad faith attacks on him as an alleged preacher of “white genocide” seem to confirm this. Right-wing publications readily refer to him as “Harvard professor Noel Ignatiev." Whether a result of poor research or willful misrepresentation, this serves the predictable purpose of casting Ignatiev, a union man who lost his job in a Midwest steel mill to industrial outsourcing (a background that is otherwise the favorite fetish of American reactionaries), as just another out-of-touch, ivory tower, coastal elite liberal.

Ignatiev has always been very straightforward about the meaning of the call to abolish whiteness. Each time he was asked to clarify what he meant by whiteness, he gave a very similar answer, as in this exchange from his interview with Z Magazine

 

Q: Of course this raises the question of exactly what you mean by “white.”

A: Indeed, I’m not referring to people of fair skin, straight hair, or any of the other physical characteristics which we normally think of as white. No one has any control over how they were born, how they look, or any of that. So far as I’m concerned those things make no difference. I’m talking about what’s going on in people’s minds. To me, being “white” means being part of a club, with certain privileges and obligations. People are recruited into that club at birth, enrolled in that club without their consent or permission, and brought up according to its rules. Generally speaking, they go through life accepting the rules and accepting the benefits of membership, without ever considering the costs.

Q: What are the costs?

A: The cost of membership in the white club is that it requires a loyalty and conformity to official American society in a way that’s making life very uncomfortable and even dangerous for all of the ordinary folk in this country— those who are called white, as well as those who are called black. The project of our journal is to break up that club. Essentially the way we think the club can be broken up is by disrupting the conformity that maintains it.

 

Ignatiev sometimes referenced the history of Catholics and Protestants in Europe as an analogy. During the Protestant Reformation through to the 19th century, whether someone was a member of the Catholic Church, a Protestant denomination, or some other designation, had enormous consequences. Religious affiliation in Europe's early modern period had determinative effects on nearly every aspect of a person's social life and personal identity. In contemporary Western Europe, this form of intra-Christian identification is an afterthought, a personal detail that is usually entirely irrelevant. No normal, modern Western European wonders whether the person walking next to them in the street is Lutheran, Anglican, or Catholic. Those places where the Christian designations remain nominally relevant, like Ireland and the Balkans, have long ago transitioned towards treating these nominally religious divisions as ethnic, national, and racial divisions. In Northern Ireland, "Catholic" and "Protestant" are generally shorthands for Irish and British respectively, and it would be a strange Irish Republican that slandered Wolfe Tone, the legendary Fenian revolutionary, on account of him being a Protestant. There is no analogous example of a concerted effort to abolish the differences between Catholics and Protestants, but it is a useful demonstration of a pervasive means of community identification which is tied to status, used to justify massive amounts of violence and dispossession, and appears to those involved to be inevitable and irreconcilable — distinctions that have existed in this way for hundreds of years can become nearly irrelevant within a relatively short period of time.

Though abolition of whiteness was Ignatiev's most controversial position, his largest contribution to the general discourse was by far the concept of "white-skin privilege." Though Ignatiev and Allen credited Du Bois with the concept itself, they are credited as being the first to use and promote the specific terminology of “white-skin privilege” or “white privilege” in Allen's 1965 speech to the John Brown Commemoration Committee and the previously mentioned collaboration on the essay White Blindspot. Despite his role in coining the now extremely prevalent term, Ignatiev was confused by and opposed to the connotations it had taken on when it gained popularity many decades later:

 

"Ted Allen and I always held that the privileges were not ultimately in the interests of white working-class people but served to subordinate them to the employing class; our aim was to challenge white supremacy in order to establish working-class solidarity. Others held that the privileges of whiteness made the white workers exploiters of the downtrodden people of the world.

As the concept of “privilege” entered the mainstream, “privilege politics” became a way of avoiding direct confrontations with the institutions that reproduce race. The focus shifted to an emphasis on scrutinizing every inter-personal encounter to unearth underlying racist attitudes and to guide people in “unlearning” them.  This has developed into a tendency to strictly enforce the boundaries between the races—not only (as in the past) by white supremacists but by proponents of what might be considered black advancement."

 

Ignatiev did not shy away from disagreements with those who he otherwise largely agreed with. While he was working in the factory and active in the Sojourner Truth Organization, he had pointed disagreements with some contemporaries who would seem to otherwise share many of his views, such as J. Sakai, author of Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat. Settlers has recently seen a resurgence. Settlers is influential enough that some sections of the revolutionary-ambitioned US left consider a critical attitude towards the text as indicative of veiled racism or vulgar class reductionism. And it might seem at first glance that Ignatiev and Sakai agree everywhere that counts: they both think that the United States is a fundamentally white supremacist country that was built on enslavement and subjugation of African peoples and genocide of native peoples, and they both are strongly of the opinion that white populations of all classes and backgrounds have been actively complicit in such a process. But Ignatiev draws a distinction between himself and Sakai that he insists is crucial. For Sakai, the complicity of the white poor and working class in slavery and genocide disqualifies them from being considered actually poor or working class. Sakai claims, for example, that ". . . even the very lowest layer of white society was lifted out of the proletariat by the privileges of belonging to the oppressor nation." (Settlers, page 11)

It is no surprise that Ignatiev rejected this position, considering that the greatest influences on his politics were W. E. B. Du Bois and C. L. R James. In The Black Jacobins, James explicitly juxtaposes the “small whites” of colonial San Domingue against the “poor whites” of America to clarify that the humility of these “small” whites was only relative to the “big white” plantation owners and prominent merchants. He writes, in a footnote attached to the phrase “small whites” on page 33 of Black Jacobins: "These should not be confused with the modern ‘poor whites’. . . Some of these, especially in America, live at a standard almost as low as that of the Negroes in their community." That this is taken for granted by James seems significant, though this is of course a passing comment, and James was himself not American (which is not to suggest his insights about the United States were any less relevant due to his Caribbean origins, only that too much should not be made out of a passing comment on a subject of study separate from the topic of Black Jacobins). The lineage of Ignatiev's theoretical disagreement with Sakai is much better identified in Du Bois.

Du Bois appropriately attributed to poor whites an enormous, and enthusiastic, complicity in the upholding of slavery and the counter-revolution against Radical Reconstruction. However, he did not attribute this to the fact that they were not actually poor or struggling, and notably he drew an opposition between the condition of their poverty and the advantages they claimed from their whiteness. Throughout Black Reconstruction he admonishes the complicity of poor whites and notes the relevance of their advantageous access to basic public institutions and civil liberties, but he nonetheless considers this to be ultimately against their own interests as poor working people. Du Bois says that the embrace of white supremacy by white workers was “such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.” (Black Reconstruction in America, page 598)

Because this is the passage that inspired and informed Ignatiev's lifelong political project, it is to be expected that he would be highly critical of Sakai's thesis, which states that "there's a white working class in amerika. . . one that is an oppressor class, by its very nature wedded to capitalism, and not a proletariat. . ." (Looking at the White Working Class Historically, 19) Whatever assessment might be made of Du Bois’ relationship with the Marxist tradition, in this case Du Bois is certainly in agreement with Marx more than he is with Sakai. Without diminishing the independence of Du Bois' own prolific tradition (Ignatiev, Allen, and many others included as its students), Du Bois' position on white supremacy and class rule in the United States — as ultimately denigratory to the cause of the white worker as well as the Black worker —  is basically compatible with Marx's assessment in Capital: “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin when in the black it is branded.” If Sakai's position in Settlers were condensed to a similar phrase, it might read something like, ‘Labor in the white skin is emancipated by its branding of the Black skin.’

Ignatiev's notes on Settlers can be found here. While it is important to draw a distinction between Ignatiev's calls for white people to act in their interest as people by abolishing whiteness, and Sakai's claim that white people are forever marked as racially antagonistic settlers, it is just as important to emphasize that Ignatiev did not see Sakai as a political enemy due to these theoretical disagreements. In the notes linked above, Ignatiev writes:

 

"If a black revolutionary group took the "Settlers" view of European-Americans, and concluded from it that nothing good could ever be expected from them, I would not argue, for it is undeniably true that no black movement ever failed, no black person was ever lynched, for underestimating the good faith of white folks."

 

This is a refreshingly prudent attitude. Even on the seventh page of a deeply critical assessment of Settlers, Ignatiev does not conflate his theoretical criticism with a self-evident strategy of action. He disagrees with Sakai, but disagreement does not itself preclude cooperation. In the passage immediately following the above-quoted passage, Ignatiev further clarifies his practical position on the content of Settlers, in light of his theoretical critique:

 

". . . for people attempting to intervene politically among European-Americans, this stuff is a dead-end. I will not here dispute the "Settlers" version of history: it is admitted that so far neither white workers nor any other sector of white society have separated themselves categorically from the entire infamy. Perhaps they never will. As many people have pointed out, class is not a listing of individuals by occupation but a process whereby some people come to see they have common interests in opposition to the interests of others, and that these interests include the building of a new society."

 

Ignatiev gives an unsparing critique of the content, but he does not conclude with a complete dismissal of the author or the political trajectory of these ideas: when one is engaged actively in struggle, the difference between theoretical departures and practical antagonisms becomes more tangible. The concluding remarks serve as an olive branch, giving reasons for his own willingness to cooperate in spite of theoretical disagreements (i.e. Black revolutionaries could do worse than be suspicious of white people, regardless of whether their theoretical underpinnings for this are sound) and extends a potential justification that Sakai's school may utilize to justify cooperation with those in agreement with Ignatiev if they so wish (i.e. at the very least, potential white race-traitors cannot be organized to stir up trouble on the basis of themselves being irredeemable and futureless). Jarrod Shanahan's remembrance of his late friend Ignatiev's words summarize this sober attitude towards disagreement and organization: "Politics is not arguing with people you disagree with, but finding people you agree with, getting together, and doing things." Ignatiev and Sakai did not agree on everything and their disagreements were meaningful, but they agreed on Black liberation and opposition to white supremacy, and that agreement was a potential opportunity to get together and do things.

Though Settlers is as fair game as anything for ruthless critique (and has received its share), Sakai and his output have received a particular kind of dramatic contempt from certain segments of the revolutionary-ambitioned left, such that it’s worth noting Ignatiev's more diplomatic position (some readers may also be interested to read Sakai's Beginner's Kata, which is in many ways a fantastic reflection on the state of the American left). But the mention of Ignatiev's assessment of Sakai's work is not only meant to differentiate the two writer's politics. Ignatiev's critical relationship with Sakai also provides context for the very different relationship Ignatiev had, in his later life, with those who nominally took up the critique of “white-skin privilege,” and, what he saw to be particularly egregious, “whiteness studies.”

Whereas Ignatiev was reconciliatory and diplomatic with Sakai's camp in the hope that they might find some common ground to fight white supremacist institutions, he was entirely dismissive and suspicious of the emerging milieu of privilege-politics and “whiteness studies.” To Ignatiev, the popularization of (for example) privilege discourse in the 2010s was at best a noncommittal gesture muddying the waters, and more often an actively antagonistic force that worked as a pressure valve redirecting revolutionary sentiments into individualistic soul-searching and white racial self-help. In a fantastic 2018 interview with Orchestrated Pulse, Ignatiev is asked generally about where he sees the role of privilege in his assessment. His answer is worth quoting in full:

 

“Garvey and I began Race Traitor with the goal of breaking up the white race, as a contribution to working-class solidarity. We never used, endorsed or promoted identity politics; we railed against multiculturalism and “diversity”; we were scornful of those who wanted to preserve the “good aspects” of “white culture” or to “re-articulate” or “decenter” whiteness. We wanted nothing to do with the growing academic field of “whiteness studies.” We did share some vocabulary with individuals and organizations that were traveling on different roads to different places.

The most significant instance of this was the word “privilege.” In light of the political travesties that have developed under the term since, we wish we had differentiated ourselves more categorically from those who wanted to make careers in journalism, social work, organizational development, education and the arts, and who insist that the psychic battle against privilege must be never-ending; instead of challenging institutions they scrutinize every inter-personal encounter between black people and whites to unearth underlying “racist” attitudes and guide people in “unlearning” them. Hectoring people about their privileges was never our approach; it is an annoyance rather than a challenge.”

Ignatiev's position on the contemporary conception of "white privilege" is further articulated in an excerpt from a 2019 interview with Kristian Williams posted on their blog. After Ignatiev describes the initial definition of "white-skin privilege" described by himself and Theodore Allen (as explained earlier in this essay), Williams asks in what way the idea of privilege has changed over the years. Ignatiev responds:

 

“As with any concept that reaches a wide audience, white privilege meant different things to different people. Ted Allen and I always held that the privileges were not ultimately in the interests of white working-class people but served to subordinate them to the employing class; our aim was to challenge white supremacy in order to establish working-class solidarity. Others held that the privileges of whiteness made the white workers exploiters of the downtrodden people of the world.

As the concept of “privilege” entered the mainstream, “privilege politics” became a way of avoiding direct confrontations with the institutions that reproduce race. The focus shifted to an emphasis on scrutinizing every inter-personal encounter to unearth underlying racist attitudes and to guide people in “unlearning” them.  This has developed into a tendency to strictly enforce the boundaries between the races—not only (as in the past) by white supremacists but by proponents of what might be considered black advancement.”

 

Ignatiev picked fights and stoked controversy throughout his career, but his late-life comments on the popularized conception of white-privilege read more like contemptuous dismissal than any kind of polemical challenge. Perhaps this can be attributed partially to Ignatiev, in his age, being ungenerous with the growing pains of a reemerging left. But it would be a show of beginner's hubris to wholly dismiss his critique of privilege-politics as the groans of a bitter old man—this is, after all, one of the people who coined the term “white privilege.” Ignatiev was present for the decline of the CPUSA, he modeled his own positions after Du Bois and C. L. R. James, put them into practice throughout decades of agitation for multi-racial workers' coalitions in a steel plant for decades, and never backed down from his position on abolishing whiteness. Of course, there should be no blind appeals to seniority, but it would be just as disastrous to refuse to listen to the testimony of those people who have maintained their commitment to the cause through so many political eras. These people and their perspective are invaluable.

There is an unhappy serendipity in Ignatiev dying the year just before the May 2020 Uprisings (which erupted after the murder of George Floyd), if only for the fact that the event may have given him more hope for the world at the end of his life. The May 2020 Uprisings are of course too large of a topic to sufficiently introduce here, let alone summarize (for a good account of the Uprisings, see The Revolutionary Meaning of the George Floyd Uprising by Shemon Salam and Arturo Castillon). But Ignatiev's words from 2019 seem especially relevant in criticizing privilege-politics not only as theoretically misguided, but also as genuinely dangerous to the integrity of revolutionary action. After the first five or so days of the Uprisings, a counternarrative circulated that claimed, to paraphrase the general sentiment, ‘white people are appropriating the struggle by participating in mass actions, and should know their place and avoid being confrontational.’ The language of ‘outside agitators’, in particular ‘white outside agitators’, was widely promulgated by the media and influential academics, and this effectively sowed doubt and conflict into the ranks of what had previously been spontaneously militant and united insurrectionary fronts (fronts which were already clearly under the leadership of militant, poor Black youth!). This was an extremely difficult narrative to rebuke, not least of all because privilege-politics and the attendant expectations of progressive-stack and deferral are now ubiquitous among even the revolutionary-ambitioned left. Like the Uprisings themselves, an account of these contemporary left milieus cannot fit here, and any attempt at summary would be understandably vulnerable to misinterpretation and suspicion. What remains relevant is that the late-life words of Noel Ignatiev, an elder communist who has seen movements rise and fall and held firm to his political line against white supremacy throughout all of it, seem to predict these failures of privilege-politics when he made claims such as “. . . ‘privilege politics’ became a way of avoiding direct confrontations with the institutions that reproduce race,” and “[Privilege-politics] has developed into a tendency to strictly enforce the boundaries between the races.” The emergent left might very well groan at these sentiments, but should nonetheless remember clearly that this is not a critique coming from a ‘class-reductionist’, it is coming from someone who spent their entire political life tirelessly fighting against ‘class-reductionism’, explicitly under the banner of abolishing whiteness.

 

Though this text cannot commit to any significant critique of Ignatiev's work, there are nonetheless details that should be mentioned in a responsible summary of his life, due to their more rightfully controversial nature.

Ignatiev's characterization of fascism, and his position on what antifascist measures should be adopted by communist organizations, differed significantly from both the socialist orthodoxy and the positions of his own organizational comrades. Mathew Lyons provides a full account here, in an article titled Noel Ignatiev's Conflicted Antifascism. Ignatiev's general departure is in his assertion that fascism is not a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie utilizing nationalistic populism in times of capitalist crisis, and is instead relatively autonomous from capitalism, acting towards its own particular ends. Further, Ignatiev did not think that there was any real potential for fascism in the United States, as he believed the racial caste institutions already in existence made a real fascist movement unnecessary. Though these positions certainly contradict communist orthodoxy regarding the characteristics and danger of fascism, these theoretical departures only became especially significant when Ignatiev applied them to an organizational strategy that made antifascism a very low priority. Similarly, when Ignatiev did concede and agree to include antifascism in the Sojourner Truth Organization's program, he created significant tension by arguing that antisemitism was decreasing in its relevance to fascism and would continue to decrease until antisemitism was no longer inextricably paired with fascism. As Lyon notes in his article, this has been demonstrably false, as antisemitism has instead reestablished its relevance within American fascist organizations in the past 40 years, resulting in explicitly antisemitic attack on individuals and synagogues in the past five years. Ignatiev continued to downplay the threat of an American fascist politics into his old age. Lyon also recounts a controversial episode in which Ignatiev published his own dialogue with the member of an American fascist party in Race Traitor magazine. According to Ignatiev, this was a way of extensively illustrating the internal logic and ideological cohesion of the enemy. While this might be a fair point, it seems to be undermined by Ignatiev's consistent claims that fascism was not a notable enemy.

Besides this potentially objectionable relationship to antifascism, Ignatiev’s own particular beliefs about white abolition led him to likewise unorthodox opinions on individual racial identity. Though his conception of personal race and identity can be drawn from all across his decades of writing, the most illustrative example is in his response to the revelation that Rachel Dolezal, a white woman, had been pretending to be a Black woman for years while leading a NAACP chapter. In the article Beyond the Spectacle: New Abolitionists Speak Out, Ignatiev and John Garvey give a largely sympathetic reading of Dolezal's situation, ultimately coming to the conclusion that her race and relationship to it was the business of her family, friends, and associates. Regardless of one's opinion on their conclusion, they were certainly correct to identify the situation as a spectacle, and if nothing else it is refreshing to see an examination of the incident that doesn't read like a tabloid treatment. Rather than digging into juicy speculation about Dolezal's personal life or using the scandal as a springboard for vague ‘gotcha’ statements about the entitlement of white privilege, they run through a summary of their own theoretical foundation and come to the conclusion that whatever Dolezal might have done wrong, it wasn't up to the public to ogle and condemn her. She lived as a Black woman to some extent or another — the particular extent is of course very relevant (her interiority was undeniably still white in a meaningful sense, and her white interiority would have inevitably influenced whatever degree of social Blackness she lived with), but Ignatiev and Garvey are correct to challenge themselves and the reader to articulate what exactly is the problem with Dolezal trying to live her life as a Black woman. Ignatiev and Garvey end up avoiding the meat of the question with their insistence on it being Dolezal's private affair, but finding a satisfactory answer as to why Dolezal evokes so much immediate contempt is more difficult than it at first seems without recourse to slogans about ‘appropriation’, etc. (which may very well be the basis of a legitimate argument, but deployed on its own is only a deferral). Ignatiev and Garvey are honest enough to recognize that their own conception of race and their own political prerogatives do not leave them much room to condemn Dolezal, even if they do not think it's necessarily a good idea to emulate her. But there are two primary issues that emerge from this position and the way they reach it:

1. Whether or not a condemnation of Dolezal is consistent with Ignatiev and Garvey's view of race and white abolition, they never address the clear fact that many people, especially many Black people, do in fact find Dolezal's situation to evoke feelings of disgust, contempt, discomfort, anger, etc. They are right that spectacular media takes advantage of these emotions to inflate the relevance of the story, but they are wrong to act as if such intense reactions to the story are only the result of spectacular hysteria. The fact that these feelings of disgust and anger towards Dolezal are so widespread — and are almost ubiquitously and intuitively understood as justified revulsions — is in itself very relevant and needs to be addressed.

2. Without addressing the widespread disgust for Dolezal's actions, Ignatiev and Garvey's conclusion that their ideology is not in any particular contradiction with Dolezal does not at all reinforce the strength of their foundational theoretical claims. Without careful argumentation as to why Dolezal's situation should be met with indifference instead of revulsion, they are only distancing their theoretical foundations from the truth of popular revulsion by flatly stating that their calculations find no reason to be upset. Whether being upset about Dolezal is consistent with your political program, and whether or not it is justified to be upset about Dolezal, people are in fact upset about Dolezal — if your program doesn't account for this, it's not accounting for the reality of the situation, and handwaving the issue doesn't make it irrelevant.

All this said, “Beyond the Spectacle” is a worthwhile article to read, not only for its interesting provocations but also for its succinct reiteration of Ignatiev's theoretical foundations. More generally, it should be said that Ignatiev's unusual positions on fascism and personal racial identity would not for most people be objectionable enough to throw out the rest of his life and work. And his positions on these issues are not necessarily included here under the assumption that he is wrong or wholly wrong on these points — only that these topics are mostly likely to demarcate the potential points of inconsistency and flaws in his thought and work. For those who would further critique and consider Ignatiev's life and work, these more controversial points would be of particular interest. 

 /  

Noel Ignatiev died of cancer on November 9th, 2019, at the age of seventy-eight. As a guest on the It's Going Down podcast just a few weeks before his death, he described himself as "a Marxist and a Leninist who thinks Marxism-Leninism is basically useless" before expounding on his politics and answering questions. The text above recounts his life, thought, and struggle more or less on his own terms. An account of his personality and disposition is best left to his loved ones, and it seems appropriate to quote their own remembrances of him at length.

Ignatiev's friend Jarrod Shanahan wrote the following in an article for Commune Mag:

 

I once confided in Noel, following my arrest at a demonstration, that I was having a hard time stomaching the wildly exaggerated sense of self-importance my comrades ascribed to our tiny group and the legal case we had stumbled into. With a smile, Noel recalled his own arrest while flyering for the POC [Provisional Organizing Committee; split from CPUSA] fifty years earlier. Since joining POC, Noel had heard movement elders raving endlessly about the sophisticated police conspiracy against their tiny organization, summoning an image of impending dual power before which the state trembled. When he finally got cuffed for “disturbing the peace”—a law Noel would consistently flout for the remainder of his years—he learned the harsh truth: “They had no idea who we were,” he recalled, chuckling, “and they didn’t care.” ...Noel could grin, with a twinkle in his eye, at the tragicomic vainglory of revolutionary leftism, but in the next breath return to plotting our grand entry onto the stage of world history. How else can you spend a life in the movement without burning out or selling out?...

In his political and personal lives, which often overlapped, Noel possessed an irresistible charisma. Like a lunar body that alternatively pulls or repels others into its orbit with a great force but with ultimate indifference to the collisions and chaos it catalyzes, Noel’s strengths were also his weaknesses. The indefatigable adherence to clarity of principles which propelled his projects for decades simultaneously became the source of a kind petulance, or badgering, or sometimes, bullying. Noel’s thirst for conflict could not be slaked; if he finally won you over or just wore you down, he’d change his position just to keep the fight going. For a long time I told myself that this was probably what it was like to hang out with Lenin, and just tried to just roll with it. Recently, however, I had to tell Noel, to his great disappointment, that unlike him I actually did not enjoy arguing. He complied with a grumble, but not before trying to pick a fight about it!

 

Another friend of Ignatiev's, Adam Sambra, posted a beautiful eulogy to his facebook page, including the following passage:

 

"Noel was a gruff, emphatic, and opinionated person. He was also a remarkably warm and tolerant person. He would argue with you for years to prove that he was right. He also identified with everything that was human, including people who were very different from himself with regard to religion, culture, and gender/sexual identity. He showed rather less mercy for bass, and fishing with him every summer on Packard Pond in Orange, MA while we debated the latest political developments was the highlight of my summers for years. When I lived in Georgia and he was wintering in South Carolina, we met in beautiful Savannah and consumed buckets of local oysters. The last time we met, at Pekah Pamella Wallace's home, he insisted on smoking lamb for us, although he could no longer consume food."

 

In 2016, Ignatiev founded Hard Crackers: Chronicles of Everyday Life. While this would be his final magazine, Hard Crackers remains very much alive and Ignatiev's project survives with it. To hear an overview from the current editors about the magazine, its politics, and their relation to Ignatiev, check out their appearance as guests on this episode of the Antifada podcast.

 

While this piece was not written with the intention of arguing for some position or another with regards to an interpretation of Ignatiev's work or a particular placement of its historical role (a worthy project, just one outside of the boundaries of our own here), I inevitably have taken some implicit positions in the framing of Ignatiev's life and work. 

 

To track Ignatiev's life and work requires an overview of the fundamental continuity of different periods of American socialist politics that can seem misleadingly disparate to us younger inheritors of the tradition. Such specific examples of the relationship between the fracturing of CPUSA in the 1950s and the emergence of "New Left" formations in the 1960s can work as a counterweight against a reflexive feeling that the ‘60s is a much more familiar and comprehensible era to us compared to the apocryphal antiquity of the black & white ‘50s. Much of what we feel to be our living continuity with the political movements of the ‘60s is owed more to a mythology of symbols than any real historical record — just the act of marching to protest racism seems to invariably bring on uncritical equating of our contemporary movements with the ‘Civil Rights Movement,’ even when the commonalities are either superficial or far from uniquely tied to that particular wave of political participation. The living continuities that do exist between our contemporary movements and the ‘60s are invariably continuous with the movements and events of the ‘50s, and so on, etc. The language of cultural decades is a shorthand that can only be detrimental to a real understanding of our relationship with the past. Developing a serious understanding of the lineage of existing struggle requires developing a knowledge of what was particular and contradictory in the various historical strains that have been, in popular culture, subsumed into a vague and misrepresentative sense of inevitable progressive development. Besides even the profound misappropriation of MLK's life and work, the illusion of broadly consensual social progress MLK has come to represent is as much shaped by the terrorism of The Weather Underground in the ‘70s and the liberal populism of Jesse Jackson in the ‘80s as it is by the opportunistic capture of one man's image and words.

So while I do not feel this account of Noel Ignatiev can sufficiently contain a worthwhile dissection of his particular theses, there is certainly an opportunity for marking Ignatiev as one of the countless political strains that can be studied to clear the fog from political lineage. There is a general perception that the existing political discourse surrounding race and racialism is fundamentally a contemporary innovation. For the most part, liberals and left-liberals understand the talk about, for example, social-construction of race, institutional racism, privilege politics, etc., as a good recent development that is part of the good lineage of progressive social justice movements. The story, with varying levels of depth and nuance, goes something like: ‘in the ‘60s and ‘70s they figured out Jim Crowe and overt legal segregation, in the ‘80s and ‘90s there was more positive representation in media and politics, and now we're in the midst of untangling the real roots of the issue by means of Black Lives Matter and understanding privilege.’ Conservatives and reactionaries understand the situation in a basically compatible way: they simply think that racism stopped being a social issue at some point in this sequence of events. Liberals and conservatives essentially agree that the prevailing language of social construction and implicit institutional racism is a recent phenomenon, and that it represents the most developed example of a critique of racism. Segments of both will readily recognize that there were theoretical precursors to the contemporary discourse, but they are understood as implicitly or explicitly ‘ahead of their time’, ‘inventors that long went unrecognized’, or ‘old irrelevant cranks resuscitated by liberal academia.’ Everything is understood in terms that tie the passage of years and decades to a consistent unfolding of progress, whether that progress is considered good or bad.

Human struggle, human movements, organized attempts to influence the world —  these are understood as consequences of the passage of time and the development of ideas, instead of being understood as the catalyzing agent of change. We could quibble about this assessment being potentially ungenerous, and maybe it is reductive, but the basic truth of it is apparent in the fact that this view of a progressive history cannot admit defeat, or at least cannot really understand a defeat as a defeat. The liberal progressive might sympathize with the Panthers, the left-liberal might even largely agree with them, but they can't seem to incorporate into their politics the fact that we live in a world shaped by the Panthers’ defeat, destruction, and capture. The same can be applied to the sabotage of Reconstruction, the capture of the early 20th century unionization movements, etc. An understanding of tragedy is not equivalent to an understanding of defeat. What could justify the perception that we are ‘farther along’ than we were before the defeat of Reconstruction or the Panthers? Was that all just meat for the grinder to move us along to discussions about white fragility and Nancy Pelosi kneeling in kente cloth?

Ignatiev is a useful wedge in this respect because his consistency and influence can't be sensibly incorporated into the general American sense of political progress. As far back as his initial work with Theodore Allen in the mid-60s, Ignatiev's concern with racialist caste-institutions and the racial nature of American capitalism seem perhaps surprisingly familiar to the contemporary reader, especially in the astroturfed hysteria surrounding ‘Critical Race Theory’. But they were very much of their time. Ignatiev and Allen were students of Du Bois’ work and milieu, not unlikely prophets of a discourse-to-come.

 

None of this is to suggest that the real value of Ignatiev's work is his symbolizing of a historical continuity. His work is valuable because it is a serious attempt to understand racial caste-institutions and white supremacy in the United States for the purposes of destroying these things in a social revolution. And it is also significant that his work is difficult to assimilate into the popular understanding of political development in the 20th and 21st centuries. Whatever the accuracy of his assessments or the efficacy of his political agitation, Ignatiev's general thrust remained consistent and responsive to the developments and contingencies of the times without assuming that the popular logic of the times was well-grounded. He called for abolition of whiteness when desegregation was still controversial among white Americans; despite the terminology of white-privilege being his most recognizable cultural contribution, the circumstances of its widespread adoption led him to condemn its implementation instead of claim its pedigree. Ignatiev remained confrontational towards the prevailing assumptions of every time he lived in, up to the end. He knew history was not waiting for him, and he was not waiting for history.

References

[1] W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, page 598

[2] Allen and Ignatiev, White Blindspot, 30

[3] Ignatiev, Black Worker, White Worker

[4] Ignatiev, in a 1997 interview with Z Magazine

[5] Noel Ignatiev, Kristian Williams' Interview With Noel Ignatiev

[6] Noel Ignatiev, Notes on Settlers, page 7

[7] Noel Ignatiev, Notes on Settlers, page 7

[8] Noel Ignatiev, Interview with Orchestrated Pulse, 2018

[9] Noel Ignatiev, Kristian Williams' Interview With Noel Ignatiev

[10] Jarrod Shanahan, 2019, Commune Mag

[11] Adam Sambra, Facebook, 2019