Treason To Whiteness Is Loyalty To Humanity
Transcript January 6, 2020
[edited for clarity]
A discussion hosted on Laborwave Radio dedicated to exploring the political life and legacy of Noel Ignatiev, author of How The Irish Became White and editor of the journals Race Traitor and Hard Crackers. Noel Ignatiev passed away on November 9, 2019 at the age of 78. We held this interview with Jarrod Shanahan, an activist, educator, and researcher. His writing, which has appeared in outlets including Jacobin, Commune, Vice, and The New Inquiry, can be found at jarrodshanahan.com. This conversation largely builds upon the reflection on Noel Ignatiev written by Jarrod Shanahan published by Commune Magazine at https://communemag.com/noel-ignatiev-1940-2019/
[How The Irish Became White is] a story about how the Irish, newly arrived in the United States, had a lot more in common with African-Americans than they did with their white betters. A lot of the Irish socialist-republicans back home were encouraging them to build ties of solidarity with African-Americans to fight against slavery and resist racial chauvinism. Irish-American immigrants chose instead to join the clique of white laborers, and in exchange for forswearing solidarity with Black workers they were rewarded with the “wages of whiteness.”
Laborwave: Who was Noel Ignatiev, and what were his most important contributions to leftist thought?
Jarrod Shanahan: Noel Ignatiev was a lifelong revolutionary. He entered the movement in his teenage years in the mid-1950s, and, as I tried to lay out in the article for Commune Magazine, he remained a revolutionary Marxist until the end, which is more than most folks from his generation can say.
Noel's major contributions to the movement, I would say, are primarily his theory of “white skin privilege,” which has, for better or worse, imprinted itself on contemporary leftism and even contemporary liberalism, and a host of strategic interventions that he wrote about over the years regarding the ability of small organizations and small groups to intervene in labor struggles. These ideas specifically considered how small groups could pursue a revolutionary agenda within a much larger political context as a minoritarian tendency. Some of his writing on the anti-slavery Abolitionist Movement in the United States really sheds a lot of light on how he thought about the possibility of small groups of dedicated radicals having broader societal impact.
LW: I was really struck by the article mentioning his thoughts on the Abolitionist strategy, which he described as “creative provocation,” where you write that “the biggest problem facing a small group is not how to attract the masses into its ranks but how to best make its modest forces reverberate throughout society with maximum impact.” So what did Noel believe was the way to make maximum impact as a small group, and how did the Abolitionist strategy reveal that?
JS: To begin with the second part of your question: Noel would always point out that the Abolitionists were never more than a small group of dedicated radicals. Slavery did not end because 51% of Americans became Abolitionists. Slavery ended because of a complex interplay of antagonistic forces that were sparked on many points by Abolitionists, and specifically by the figure of John Brown, which forced the contradictions that were rumbling just beneath the surface of American society into the foreground so that people were no longer able to turn away from it, and the State itself had to get involved.
Creative provocation, as I understand it, proceeds from the premise that it's not the purpose of a small political organization to win over a majority of people to xyz political line. Our time is better spent reading the objective conditions of the moment, identifying contradictions that are particularly pronounced, and orienting ourselves to exacerbating those contradictions and creating a situation in which ordinary people have to act.
LW: What do you think Noel would claim are the current pronounced contradictions in society that we should focus on in order to instigate “creative provocation?”
JS: I would say, and I can't speak for Noel so I'll just give you my own answer, the “color line” remains in its role just as visceral and as central to American society as a did back when Noel was formulating the original theories of white skin privilege, which were based on his reading of Black Reconstruction In America, the [WEB] Du Bois classic.
To my mind, the movement around police shootings, and more interestingly even it's reverberation in popular culture through the NFL athletes taking a knee during the national anthem, demonstrates a particularly raw fault line that runs through American society. I have a great friend and collaborator of mine recently move to the American South after living most of her life in New York City. She attended a college sporting event in one of these massive stadiums with something like 10,000 people in a town of 10,000 people, and said to me afterwards, “I finally understand why the Colin Kaepernick protest was such a big deal.” Today's football games are saturated with patriotism, pro-law enforcement messages, and all kinds of ceremonious performances of law and order that for Kaepernick to do that in solidarity with the anonymous proletarians being gunned down in these highly segregated Black neighborhoods was immensely provocative.
LW: Absolutely, so much so that our current president commented on these protests, and sought to make it even more difficult on a legal level for professional athletes to express their political viewpoints.
JS: Yes, exactly.
LW - As you mention, Noel’s largest theoretical contribution was on the idea of “white skin privilege.” I'm hoping that we can deepen the conversation by learning more about what he meant with the term “white skin privilege,” and also what did he mean in the journal Race Traitor with the slogan “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity?”
JS: I'll try to take this slowly because there's a lot of delicate moving parts, and I don't think I'm actually capable of doing the nuances of Noel’s theory justice, but I'll give it a shot. First of all, unlike a lot of people, including people on the left today who talk about race, Noel Ignatiev did not believe that there are different races of people. In fact, a lot of his historical work such as How The Irish Became White and some of his other historical essays about early America, emphasize the ambiguity between the so-called races which prevailed prior to the ossification of contemporary categories of race. Noel did not believe that there was such a thing on some kind of biological or ontological plane as white people. What Noel believed was that European Americans, in coming to the United States, likely did not consider themselves anything besides their particular nationality, religion ,or even locality within the country from which they came from.
If you were from Italy you likely did not consider yourself an Italian per se, but might be incredibly provincial in terms of how you identified. So Noel argued that these European Americans did not consider themselves yet part of the white race. What happened in the United States was that the solidification of modern organized and stratified proletarian racial distinctions, which had been baked into the country’s division of labor by slavery, assumed an increasing importance specifically around what Noel calls “white skin privilege.” Once again a lot of this comes directly from Du Bois.
If you read How The Irish Became White it's a story about how the Irish, newly arrived in the United States in the early parts of the 19th century, had a lot more in common with African-Americans than they did with their white betters. A lot of the Irish socialist-republicans back home were encouraging them to build ties of solidarity with African-Americans to fight against slavery and to resist racial chauvinism. Noel’s argument in that book, which is very provocative historically, is that Irish-American immigrants chose instead to join this clique of white laborers, and in exchange for forswearing solidarity with Black workers they were rewarded with the “wages of whiteness.”
Now what does this mean? At the time it meant membership in unions; it meant the ability to do a host of jobs that were not available to Black workers; what the wages of whiteness have entailed has changed a little bit over time, but from the Race Traitor perspective what it means to be white is no more or no less than white skin privilege.
LW: It reminds me of an article that Robin DG Kelley wrote shortly after the election of Donald Trump [linked below] where he specifically talked about the wages of whiteness. Just to paraphrase his core argument, he effectively said that the current need is to expose for white people how the wages of whiteness are “paltry wages.” I think he was trying to get at identifying how the broader capitalist society oppresses us all, in uneven and particular ways, but it still oppresses everyone so we would all benefit from uniting and destroying it.*** Do you think Noel would argue similarly about what it means to be white and how to break down and abolish whiteness?
JS: Ironically enough I think that Noel would have come down a little bit harder than Robin Kelley on that question saying that ‘no actually the wages of whiteness are real.’ Now in his final years, in some of the stuff he wrote for Hard Crackers, he was beginning to rethink these questions, especially with regards to the shocking degrees of poverty, mortality rates, suicide rates, etc. in economically disinvested white communities, but I think that Noel’s main intervention around this question typically amounted to saying ‘the white worker does benefit in the short-term and we cannot ignore this.’
What the white worker forfeits by taking what he called the “poison bait of white privilege” is the ability the wage struggle in the medium to long-term. But, in the short-term-- and when you think about what most working people are concerned about in the United States today it’s not next year, it's not ten years from now, it's immediate survival-- in the context of immediate survival I think that white skin privilege actually does have substance to it. This is where it becomes more difficult it. If we can just say that, ‘oh this is all just an illusion; white workers actually have nothing to lose but their chains,’ it would be easier.
In fact, Noel says in a lot of places that white workers do have a lot more to lose than their chains. They have to lose their white skin privilege. I think that if you look at different theoretical interventions that Noel made over the years; specifically I would point your listeners to Black Worker, White Worker [linked below]; Noel makes this argument in a very complex analysis of what he called the “civil war in the consciousness of the white worker.”
Suffice it to say that if you're working in a factory where the most dangerous jobs, and the shittiest jobs, are reserved for Black workers, and a white worker in their second year can get promoted on top of a Black worker in their fifth; those wages are very real and you don't want to abstract from that because it actually downplays the magnitude of serious anti-racist praxis.
LW: This reminds me of some of the arguments you two made in Hard Crackers, which was a journal that you and Noel both edited. I'm thinking specifically on the question of how to strategically confront white supremacy in a way that pays attention to the real wages of whiteness; you both wrote, “American society is a ticking time bomb and attentiveness to daily lives is absolutely essential for those who would like to imagine how to act purposefully to change the world.”
As you mentioned before, when folks are immediately trying to survive under capitalism clinging to the wages of whiteness is a pretty rational response, and it's something that, like you say, isn't just about losing their chains because there's more to lose. So why does it matter to pay attention to daily life and those struggles, and how does that help expose better strategies for addressing white supremacy?
JS: The main theoretical impetus behind that statement, I believe, comes from Noel’s affinity with CLR James, which lasted for some years. CLR James, and his contemporaries in the Johnson-Forest tendency [linked below], which is where I think he did his best work, believed that the impetus for revolutionary struggle was not going to come from some kind of prefigurative party, but will come from the daily activity of ordinary working people. It takes Marx’s hypotheses about proletarian self-activity to a fairly radical extent.
Hard Crackers was in many ways a continuation of that project to pay very close attention to the goings-on in the daily lives of what they called “ordinary people,” or what some folks in these circles called “regular ass people.” The wager is that beyond all the clamor of online leftist talking heads, and the Twitterati, and the think-piece industrial complex, and all the rest who loudly proclaim to speak for this, that, and the other community; there's millions of people just living their lives amid near cataclysmic social crises, and that attention to the contradictions that we find in these lives is incredibly important.
Actually you could read a lot of this back into, once again, Black Worker, White Worker, which Noel begins with a simple story about an act of multi-racial solidarity in a factory where I believe Noel was employed. The story concerns a Black worker being installed at a job which had been previously exclusive for white workers, and he got this with the help of white workers in the factory. This leads into the next scene where a number of the same white workers proceed to participate in a racist community meeting basically meant to, I think, preserve their autonomy from a newly elected Black mayor. Noel says it’s important to be very careful in analyzing what's going on here, because we can't just say ‘look at these white workers, they’re poisoned by ideology,’ and we also can't just say, ‘oh look the future society exists in embryo in the workplace solidarity being created at the point of production,’ which was Marx's hypothesis. What's going on is actually much more contradictory and more complex, and we need to take it very seriously.
LW: I want to keep teasing out some of the strategic implications of Noel’s thought. Going back a little bit to the claim that small groups could execute creative provocation to maximize impact throughout society: I'm also curious what your take is when it comes to, as you mention in your article in Commune, the tendency of small groups within the left to self-aggrandize their own significance and importance. This could be a contradiction to Noel’s idea in itself. How do we have these small groups who maximize their impact on the society by attending to daily struggles and that kind of analysis, but also don't simply fall victim to this strange self-aggrandizing belief that what they're doing is so radically significant and important to the broader cultural zeitgeist?
JS: I’ll happily answer that question as myself, and not as some kind of medium channeling Noel, as much as I would love to do that. [laughter]
LW: Thanks for your willingness. [laughter]
JW: Yeah it would be a much more interesting interview. Anyway-- so, I've fallen over the years with crews who had a dramatically exaggerated sense of their own importance in the unfolding of events. They are fairly easy to make fun of, but I really appreciate the dedication and the sincerity that folks like that bring to political organizing. Often times the alternative is you can either roll with somebody like that, who thinks that the flyer that they are working on is going to initiate a general strike, or you are stuck with these Facebook irony lords who have never handed out a fucking flyer in their life. If I had to choose I would go with the sincere LARPers.
I think small groups can maneuver in such a way that it holds open the possibility for having a big impact in the world without taking it itself too seriously. I think there's actually a little bit of that in the article in Commune about Noel’s early experiences in the Communist Party. To my mind, a group that is willing to consider its activity as primarily geared toward spurring events outside of it, and is willing to dissolve itself into a broader movement, that group can take itself as seriously as it wants. Now, as soon as a group starts to look inward to begin purifying itself; ‘let’s study the relationships of everybody in this group who are dating;’ ‘let's conduct an investigation into whether this person is actually a chauvinist, or this that or the other;’ that's when you can basically just go to the beach because it's over. That is a group that is admitting its irrelevance by its willingness to completely turn inward and scrutinize itself unto death. But I think a small group that maintains an outward focus is free, and almost obligated, to take itself very seriously.
LW: Where are some of the clear pitfalls in all of this? As you're mentioning taking yourself too seriously and all this attention to a flyer, I've also experienced it where people painstakingly go over a mission statement that won't go anywhere, takes months to even draft and get approval, which then just goes into the abyss. All these kinds of ways that we painstakingly interrogate ourselves, and we try admirably to bring prefigurative practices to our spaces... How do you move in a way that is more focused on the external impact versus the internal scrutiny and interrogation that happens so commonly on the left?
JW: To my mind, and once again I'm not communicating with Noel at this moment, it involves a very serious and open-minded assessment of the objective conditions that exist outside of your tiny little group. Let's say you’re rank and file organization within a large union, which is what I spent the last couple of years doing at the City University of New York (CUNY). We had a fairly clear understanding of the terrain in which we were operating, what we were out to accomplish, the different tactics that were available to us, and so forth. We could evaluate our activities based upon their relative success and failure. Now, let's say you and your three friends, who just read Das Kapital together, say ‘we're going to go initiate the revolution,’ and you don't even know your neighbors, and you don't talk to anybody at work, or maybe you don't have a job; you're in big trouble. [laughter] There's no A to B connection.
Over the years I've come to believe that if you're in a group and the primary question the group is asking is ‘where do we intervene,’ pack up, go home, go to the beach, there's no point for that group to exist. There should be some basic answer to that question at the onset of the group's creation. When you actually have real stakes, when there's some kind of struggle no matter how low the stakes, that you can interface your work with that prevents a lot of the pitfalls that I've seen in these just completely rudderless organizations that become forums for clashing egos, and endless giving of soliloquies about their fucking feelings. You know, just real unserious middle-class crap.
LW: Another thing I experience a lot in organizing spaces is this assumption that, among other goals, the need is to persuade everybody else that your political position is correct. That it’s necessary to educate the masses and “enlighten” the minds of everybody, and with that kind of political education mass societal changes ensue. In the article you mention how Noel had a head-on disagreement with this; writing that he apparently believed he won every argument he's ever had but didn't actually change a single person's mind. So what are the political organizing lessons that Noel is trying to convey with this statement?
JW: I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s actually one of the lessons that I cherish the most from knowing Noel. It comes down to the basic question over how consciousness develops. You’d think within all this postmodernism that just soaks all our culture, and even our left political educations, that we would have thrown out the idea that people are won over by rational appeals made in lengthy texts. It’s simply not a practicable method of winning people over in politics. Aside from small pockets of nerds who might dedicate all their time to studying this stuff, like me and I gather you, according to Noel’s conception of how consciousness develops it’s circumstances that change people’s minds, not arguments.
I think that one of the most powerful circumstances that you can engineer in somebody’s mind is changing political horizons. Most people hate their job, most people want to fucking kill their boss, do they do it? No! They say, ‘well this is the way the world is, and it could be worse.’ When you see these movements that are kicking off-- god it feels like 2010 doesn’t it-- in some of the last places you’d expect, people who might not have considered themselves activists or protestors or revolutionaries a couple weeks ago are now taking to the streets and risking death. That’s how you change someone’s consciousness. By providing not arguments but a change of material circumstances that they can see in the world and that they can insert themselves into.
LW: I take it that you’re referring the wild cat strikes that teachers have been leading in red states, and often against the direction of recognized formal labor unions. Standing Rock, I feel was also one of the moments that, people who were paying attention likely could have predicted it, but I don’t think the general population was expecting it to pop off in the way it did. Where do you think some of these material circumstances are changing that can expand political horizons?
JS: I’m going to fall back on, once again, my recent experiences organizing a rank and file movement in the CUNY system. It was called the $7K or Strike [linked below]. I was involved in a small group, influenced in part by Noel’s old factory organizing, called CUNY Struggle. Based on my analysis of how that struggle played out, we’re in almost what the Endnotes folks would have called “a holding pattern.” A moment of protracted crisis that has yet to really pop off in the United States.
The struggles that you see coming up in what we would call “”social reproduction, like these teachers strikes, which were awesome and swept so-called Red States, and some really exciting rank and file militancy by nurses in New York and Chicago; the fact that these initiatives are being taken in fields that of social reproduction might actually contain the key to understanding what the next wave of struggles in the United States is going to look like.
Because it seems like what’s going on around the world even, and definitely in the United States, with the move against police and prisons, is that the austerity regime, which has been holding on for the last forty or so years amid sluggish rates of profit and the restructuring of capitalism that some folks call neoliberalism; is meeting with serious challenges. It is, in terms of its legitimacy and possibly its material practice, increasingly unable to reproduce itself. We might actually be on the verge of another wave of something like Occupy Wall Street, coming soon to a city near you in the United States. I certainly hope so.
LW: I feel like I am witnessing it as well. In the article it’s interesting to read about Noel’s criticisms of the labor movement, or union formations specifically, and maybe these were old-school thoughts of his and maybe he changed in his later years, but I’m under the impression that the labor movement right now is revitalizing in ways to be at the forefront of these major movement struggles. What do you think of that assessment?
JS: I think if Noel’s position on unions changed over time he had less use for them in his later years than he did when he was writing that stuff, and I’m inclined to agree with him- I’ll believe it when I see it. I think anywhere that you see a serious challenge being posed to austerity by a so-called union what you’re actually looking at is pressure from rank and file workers which was then institutionalized and captured by the union bureaucracy. For instance my old union in New York City, the union of CUNY professors and staff, has done more since I’ve been around to actually clamp down on rank and file dissent than it has to fight austerity. I think that is a very common feature of American unions in both the public and private sector. They have been carefully managing their own downward grind into obsolescence for a very long time.
These challenges [to austerity] we’re seeing now do not come from the union bureaucrats, and the bureaucrats would’ve killed this stuff in its crib if they could. These same CUNY labor experts, that love to write books about radical workers movements, if they were in those unions at those times they would’ve been against them. I think that goes for the whole strata of professional labor movement organizers and labor theoreticians. They hold on to this thing called the labor movement that stands over and above the class struggle. What I’ve learned from Noel, and from what I’ve practiced, is that you have to invert that. The labor movement is only as useful as it promotes the class struggle, and otherwise it can often be an impediment.
LW: Something I’m thinking would be interesting to close our conversation on is that, whereas, labor unions represent institutions, not necessarily leftist ones but maybe that the left can claim, you make a point of stating that Noel himself became an institution on the left. You say it’s important to criticize institutions and have them at the same time. Why do you feel Noel was an institution on the left, and why do you think it’s a good thing that he became such an institution?
JS: Usually these projects, especially the small groups on the far-left or ultra-left, can be reducible to a small group of big personalities who write the theory, organize the meetings, and put the chairs away when everybody goes outside to smoke cigarettes. In political circles where you don’t have people getting paid to organize as their job a lot of people just sort of come and go on the wind. It takes a dedicated core of people to provide consistency, both theoretical consistency but also practical consistency, in showing up to every meeting, identifying when fliers need to be done or publishing deadlines, and to preserve a clarity of purpose and clarity of vision over time. Noel was certainly this kind of person.
The flip side to it is these people often have huge egos. Many political projects become obsessed with what people should be like. When you’re doing real politics you’re dealing with people as they are, so a person’s strengths are also their weaknesses. Someone who is possessed by charisma, energy, drive, willing to go all in on a project and see it through for years and years, those same people usually are big ego swashbucklers, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. I’m starting to think you almost can’t have one without the other.
***I feel compelled to improve my attempt at paraphrasing Robin DG Kelley’s arguments, because I believe I have misrepresented his eloquence on the matter. A direct quote from the original article does him better: “We cannot change this country without winning over some portion of white working people, and I am not talking about gaining votes for the Democratic Party. I am talking about opening a path to freeing white people from the prison house of whiteness. True, with whiteness comes privilege, but many of the perceived privileges are inaccessible to most, which then generates resentment. Exposing whiteness for what it is—a foundational myth for the birth and consolidation of capitalism—is fundamental if we are to build a genuine social movement dedicated to dismantling the oppressive regimes of racism, heteropatriarchy, empire, and class exploitation that is at the root of inequality, precarity, materialism, and violence in many forms. I am not suggesting we ignore their grievances, but that we help white working people understand the source of their discontent—real and imagined.”
Read Jarrod's full article commemorating the life and legacy of Noel Ignatiev at Commune Mag: communemag.com/noel-ignatiev-1940-2019/
Further links: Opening Space for the Radical Imagination III www.imaginativespaces.org
Noel Ignatiev Works Referenced:
Black Worker, White Worker http://www.sojournertruth.net/bwww.html
How The Irish Became White https://www.routledge.com/How-the-Irish-Became-White-1st-Edition/Ignatiev/p/book/9780415963091
Hard Crackers hardcrackers.com/
CUNY Struggle cunystruggle.org/
$7K or Strike 7korstrike.org/
Robin DG Kelley “After Trump” forum http://bostonreview.net/forum/after-trump/robin-d-g-kelley-trump-says-go-back-we-say-fight-back
CLR James and Johnson-Forest tendency For a good introduction into this strain of socialist thought, see The Invading Socialist Society by CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya, https://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1947/invading/index.htm