Radical media, politics and culture.

Geert Dhondt, "Toward an American Revolutionary Praxis"

Anonymous Comrade writes:

"Toward an American Revolutionary Praxis"

Geert Dhondt, The New Formulation

Reviewing: How the Irish Became

By Noel Ignatiev

New York: Routledge, 1995

Race Traitor

By Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey (editors)

New York: Routledge, 1996


The Lesson of The Hour: Wendell

on Abolition and Strategy

By Noel Ignatiev (editor)

Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2001.

[O]f all struggles in which a popular
victory would fatally weaken U.S. Capitalism, the fight against White Supremacy
is the one with the greatest chance of success. — Noel Ignatiev(1)

One hundred years ago, W.E.B. Dubois wrote in The
Souls of Black Folk
that “The problem of the twentieth century is
the problem of the color line.” How has this analysis from one of this
nation’s greatest revolutionary intellectuals influenced American anarchism?
Not much, I guess. Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, for example, did not
write much on the “Negro Question,” nor did many of their contemporaries
in the heyday of the anarchist movement. While the Industrial Workers of the
World (IWW) were a welcome exception to this phenomenon, most of the revolutionary
proletariat did not pay much attention to the color line. The famous Eugene
V. Debs even stated that revolutionary politics was “white men’s
business.” In the late 19th century and early 20th century, much of the
revolutionary proletariat—in which the anarchist movement was based—was
from Europe or of European decent and their outlook and experiences reflected
these origins. The European immigrants brought with them anarchism and other
revolutionary traditions from Europe, but—of course—this here is
not Europe; the United States, while part of this global capitalist system,
has its own peculiar development, with its own fault lines and its own revolutionary
heritage, and U.S. anarchists are frequently much less familiar with it than
with the European revolutionary tradition. Anarchists in the United States tend
to know more about Russia’s Makhnovist movement or the details of the
Spanish Civil War than about—for example—the Abolitionist Movement,
the Reconstruction era, or the Civil Rights Movement. The New Abolitionists,
with their Journal Race Traitor, are a refreshing exception to this.
They are looking not to the European revolutionary legacy to imagine the possibility
of social revolution in this country, but instead look at America’s own
revolutionary tradition, to people such as the Abolitionists and the Wobblies,
to try figure out a strategy for revolution in the belly of the beast.

New Abolitionist politics have had an increasing
influence on the anarchists in the United States. The politics were present
in the now defunct Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation,(2) they
have influenced the new revolutionary group that is forming around the Bring
the Ruckus Draft Proposal
(3) and they have had some influence in the Northeastern
Federation of Anarcho-Communists. This book review will look at three books
by New Abolitionist Noel Ignatiev.

Noel Ignatiev—who has called himself an anarchist
among Marxists, and a Marxist among anarchists—has been involved with
revolutionary politics since the 1950s. He was involved with man movements,
among them the Civil Rights movement, the Sixties movements, the Sojourner Truth
Organization, and (briefly) with Love and Rage. After nearly a half-a-century
of agitation and writing,4 his ideas are finally available in book form.

How the Irish Became White

Probably the most interesting history book
of 1995
... — Nell Irvin Painter, Historian5

In the historical literature on race relations,
there is much that safely can be ignored. However, from time to time a study
comes along that truly can be called path-breaking, seminal, essential, a
must read.
How the Irish Became White is such a study. Noel Ignatiev
has produced that rare work of historical scholarship that, while firmly grounded
in past events, also speaks forcefully to current concerns
. — John
Bracey, W.E.B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies, University of Massachusetts,

After spending many years working and organizing
in the factories in the Midwest, Noel Ignatiev—lacking a bachelor degree—went
to graduate school to study History at Harvard; How the Irish Became White
was the result. This book is one of the many great books on “Whiteness”
studies that came out in the 1990s. These books—including The Rise
and Fall of the White Republic
(Alexander Saxton), Wages of Whiteness
(David Roediger) and The Invention of the White Race (Ted Allen)—target
the New Left Labor Historians, such as David Montgomery, Herbert Gutman, and
Eric Arnesen.(7) While these historians focus on the experience of the daily
lives of ordinary people, they get race wrong, downplay racism, or overlook
racism. These books, following in the footsteps of DuBois’s Black Reconstruction,
try to make a political intervention. While changing the world is what is important,
your strategies spring from your understanding of how the world works, and these
books and historical controversies are important contributions to the development
of an American revolutionary praxis. An American revolutionary praxis needs
to recognize the pivotal role that racialized slavery played in the formation
of the working class in this nation, and this praxis needs to recognize what
W.E.B. DuBois and C.L.R. James(8) recognized long ago—the centrality of
the struggle against white supremacy in the fight for a new and free society.

How the Irish Became White, divided in
six chapters, focuses on how the Irish went from being part of an oppressed
race in Ireland to being members of the oppressing race in the United States
in the 19th century. The Irish Catholics were victims of a type of discrimination
in Ireland which was analogous to what we consider racial discrimination in
the United States. Through the story of a revolutionary of Irish stock, John
Binns, Ignatiev shows how Binns transforms from being an Irish revolutionary
militant on one side of the ocean to fighting with the Irish on this side of
the puddle to establish citizenship in the White Republic. At the same time,
in 1841, Daniel O’Connell—an important and influential political
leader of the Irish liberation struggle—wrote an appeal to the Irish in
America to join with the Abolitionists to overthrow slavery and to treat the
Negro as their brother. The racially oppressed Irish in Ireland and the Abolitionists
linked their struggles to overturn racial subjugation in both places. The Irish
in America, though, rejected this and chose to reject their love for Ireland,
and instead fought to gain access to the privileges of the white club in their
new White Republic.

The Irish did not automatically become a part of
the white club just because they had white skin. They had to earn it. Malcolm
X describes in his autobiography how he was witnessing European immigrants getting
of the plane and he then said, “Pretty little children. Soon they’re
going to learn their first English word: nigger.”(9) The Irish had to
earn membership in the white club and thus gain access to the material benefits
and the public and psychological wages of whiteness by distancing themselves
from Blacks. The Irish—or the white Negroes, as they were called—had
to create barriers and separate themselves from the black population with whom
they lived in the ghettos. They also had to fight to overcome the resistance
from members of the white club and demand their own civil rights from the Protestant
elite. The Irish forced themselves into the White Republic—insisting that
they deserved the rights of citizenship enjoyed by whites—by joining in
the subjugation of Blacks.

Ignatiev details this struggle for Irish membership
in the white race; he describes how the Irish used the riot, the Democratic
Party, the labor unions, and the church to transform themselves from “white
Negroes” to respectable citizens. One example of this, as portrayed in
the recent popular fictional film, Gangs of New York, were the draft riots in
New York City in July, 1863. These riots, which were initiated by the unfair
practices of the Civil War draft, lasted a week and in the process the Irish
turned against the Black population of New York, killing up to 1,000 of them,
while they raised the Confederate Flag and fought to exclude Blacks from civil
service and other jobs that the Irish and Blacks both held. The Irish rioted
not just against the unfair drafting practices of the bourgeoisie but also to
defend and define the White Republic. They wanted a monopoly on certain jobs;
they did not want the war to turn into a war against slavery; and they were
in the process fighting to gain entrance into the white club and not for a racially
free republic. The Irish used the riot to distance themselves from the Black
population and thus helped shape a White Republic.(10)

How the Irish Became White ends in 1877
with the end of the Reconstruction, when the new color line that the Irish helped
define was marked. “If the abolition of slavery had called into question
the meaning of whiteness, the overthrow of Reconstruction marked the restoration
of the color line on a new basis. No longer did it coincide with the distinction
between freedom and slavery; it now came to correspond to the distinction between
free, wage labor and unfree, semi-feudal labor, and between those who had access
to political power and those who did not.”(11)

This story of the Irish is a powerful one. Noel
Ignatiev writes that “no one gave a damn for the poor Irish. Even the
downtrodden black people had Quakers and abolitionists to bring their plight
to public attention (as well as the ability to tell their own stories effectively),
but there is no Irish-American counterpart of the various Philadelphia studies
on the condition of free colored people.”12 Ignatiev goes on to offer
a possible explanation, “perhaps it reflects a perception that the striving
of the Negro for full freedom carried within itself a vision of a new world
for everyone, while the assimilation of the Irish into white America meant merely
more of the same.”(13)

In the same spirit, C.L.R. James, when he was looking
for the new society in the present—a society where self-organization would
replace bureaucracy—wrote that the Afro-American people were the most
self-organized people anywhere. James also wrote that the task of the revolutionary
was to study, observe, and write down what the workers are doing since they
are already creating the new society. James advised that the daily ways in which
the worker creates the new society should be recorded in a paper. To a certain
degree Noel Ignatiev, John Garvey, and others have been publishing a journal,
Race Traitor, that has detailed how people are unmaking the white race.

Race Traitor (1996)

...the most visionary, courageous journal
in America.
— Cornel West(14)

...among the strongest, funniest and most
politically charged critiques of whiteness to appear since slave storytellers
spun out the ‘Master and John’ tales.
— David Roediger(15)

While How the Irish Became White was a
study of how a group of non-white people became white, Race Traitor
is about the very opposite of that. It is about how people who think of themselves
as white might become non-white, and thus, as Malcolm X wrote, human.(16) Race
Traitor: Journal of New Abolitionism
is a journal that first appeared in
1993 and the book is a “best of” collection of articles from the
first few years. The book is divided into six chapters and defines new abolitionism;
describes how white people, individually and collectively, challenge the white
race; discusses how race has changed over the years; analyzes current events
and popular culture from a new abolitionist perspective; and contributes to
the development of a new revolutionary praxis in the American context.

“[T]he key to fundamental change in the US
is to challenge the system of race privilege that embraces all whites, including
the most downtrodden.”(17) The goal is not just to strive for equality
of opportunity within the existing society, but to focus on race privilege,
on the white race, as a strategy for revolution. New abolitionism is something
different from what is usually defined as anti-racism. New abolitionism strives
to challenge the institutions that reproduce race as a social category. New
abolitionism seeks to abolish the white race. “The white race is a historically
constructed social formation—historically constructed because (like royalty)
it is a product of some people’s responses to historical circumstances;
a social formation because it is a fact of society corresponding to no classification
recognized by natural science.”(18) Ignatiev and Garvey explain that “the
white race consists of those who partake of the privileges of the white skin
in this society. Its most wretched members share a status higher, in certain
respects, than the most exalted persons excluded from it, in return for which
they give their support to the system that degrades them.”(19) To further
explain what new abolitionists mean by the white race, the editors use the analogy
of a country club to describe how race functions. “The white race is a
club that enrolls certain people at birth, without their consent, and brings
them up according to its rules. For the most part the members go through life
accepting the benefits of membership, without thinking about the costs.”
Race Traitor’s goal is “to dissolve the club, to break
it apart, to explode it.”(20)

Why would this make any sense at all? Race is a
historically constructed political category, but so is gender and even class
for that matter. One can argue that gender or class exists in such a way that
those categories also cut across all others and that members assigned unwillingly
to the dominant gender at birth also place these gender interests above class
and race or any other interests they might hold. Why focus on race? And why
would this focus be a strategy for revolution? To answer this it will be useful
to look at the particular way that race developed in the United States.

When the first pilgrims settled in Virginia race
as we know it now did not yet exist. As in Ted Allen’s book title, the
white race had to be invented. Why?

The rulers in colonial America had a problem. After
they stole and cleared the land of the American Indian people, backbreaking
work needed to be done to turn the land into arable pastures. They were not
going to do this work themselves, so where were they going to get the labor
to do this? They brought in bound labor from Europe and Africa. The indentured
servants would become free after a period of perhaps seven years. After these
seven years they usually did not become wage-labor—since this was very
rare at that time—but instead became independent commodity producers or
farmers. Black and white indentured servants toiled together, lived together,
escaped together, and revolted together. Thus the rulers of 17th century Virginia
had a major problem in addition to the labor shortage that characterized economic
life in the colonies. Who was going to police the laborers in a place where
land was up for grabs? It became necessary to enlist one part of the workers
to police the other part. Toward the end of the 17th century, Virginia started
to pass a series of laws to drive a wedge between African and European decedents—
laws such as those forbidding marriage between Europeans and Africans. By 1705,
Virginia’s rulers had driven the wedge between Black and white wide enough
to give every white bond laborer a musket after they finished their term of
indenture—while only twenty-five years previously Virginia was plagued
by servile revolts. The rulers created race by drawing discriminatory lines
against Africans and Indians. The white race was the product of political choices.
Race did not exist—it had to be invented to divide the masses and to police
the labor force. Racialized slavery solved both of colonial Virginia’s
major problems: it solved the labor shortage and created docile workers. The
invention of the white race started the way in which special privileges were
granted to one part of the labor force, including the extension of democratic
rights to the white population.(21)

Capitalism is a system that recognizes nothing
but individuals acting independently in an impersonal market and thus is colorblind.
It can exist without race, as it does in other places in the world. However,
the problem for us today in the United States is that capitalism developed hand
in hand with white supremacy; working class formation and the concept of the
white race developed simultaneously and thus in a sense created a white and
a non-white working class.(22) While capitalism everywhere develops its own
gravediggers, in the US race developed as a system of social control, to control
the internal contradictions inherent in capitalism. Race in the US then functions
much as social democracy does in Europe; both make exploitation more tolerable
for certain segments of the working class. The white race is central to understanding
the functioning and history of U.S. capitalism and to understanding the social
movements that struggled against exploitation.

Each and every time the white race was challenged
by social movements—as it was by the abolitionists in the 19th century
and by the civil rights movement in the 20th century—this struggle opened
up opportunities for revolution by temporarily breaking down the system of social
control. Today, the criminal justice system has inherited this role in the capitalist
society from slavery and Jim Crow.(23)

While the Race Traitor anthology offers
interesting personal stories of how certain individuals temporarily step outside
the white race, these acts by themselves don’t threaten the institutions—such
as schools, the criminal justice system, the labor market, and hospitals—that
perpetuate white supremacy in our society. Only collective action as demonstrated
by the abolitionist movement in the 19th century and the civil rights movement
of the 20th century will threaten the system of social control and create the
space for revolution.

Nevertheless, one very interesting and fascinating
story in the anthology is the one of Joel Gilbert. Gilbert grew up alienated
from society and was attracted to the neo-Nazi movement in the Midwest. Later,
Gilbert was exposed to the Black power movement and became a left wing revolutionary.
Now Gilbert wants to “destroy this so-called white society. I don’t
want any more kids to grow up like I did. I don’t want to see psychiatry
being used to hurt people. I don’t want to see cops beating down anybody,
black or white. I don’t want to see families destroyed the way mine was.
The kid this society gave birth to and tried to socialize has rebelled.”(24)

There are also many other outstanding pieces in
the anthology, including a critique of multicultural education, a great analysis
of the Rodney King riots and of police killings, Lorenzo Komboa Ervin’s
account of his experience behind prison walls, and many other articles that
together play an important part in the creation of an American revolutionary

The Race Traitor project follows C.L.R.
James in recognizing the importance of the struggle against white supremacy
and the centrality of this fight in the United States in the struggle for human
liberation. James wrote in Facing Reality that every country “has many
national political issues peculiar to it, some of them rooted deep in the national
historical development.”(25) One task of the revolutionary is to bring
these issues to the forefront. Another is to show how this peculiar history
has been challenged in the past. Noel Ignatiev’s collection of the speeches
of Wendell Phillips shows that we can learn much from the radical abolitionists
about revolution today.

The Lesson of The Hour: Wendell Phillips
on Abolition and Strategy

By the South, I mean a principle, and not
a locality. I mean an element which cannot tolerate free speech, and punishes
it with stake. I mean the aristocracy of the skin, which considers the Declaration
of Independence a sham, and democracy a snare—which believes that one-third
of the race is born booted and spurred, and the other two-thirds already saddled
for that ride. I mean the intellectual, social, aristocratic, South—the
thing that manifests itself by barbarism and the bowie-knife, by bullying
and lynch-law, by ignorance and disease. That South is to be annihilated.
This Country will never know peace nor union until the South (using the words
in the sense I have described) is annihilated, and the North is spread over
. — Wendell Phillips(26)

For “South” read “the white
race,” and for “locality” read “physical type,”
and you will have the outlook of the new abolitionism, perfectly stated.

— Noel Ignatiev(27)

The collected speeches of Wendell Phillips are
very powerful. Included among others are “The Philosophy of the Abolitionist
Movement,” “The Lesson of the Hour,” and “Disunion.”
These speeches, along with five others, are prefaced by a long and excellent
introduction by Noel Ignatiev.

The introduction is at once a short history of
the radical abolitionist movement and an analysis of how the abolitionists created
a crisis and a dual power situation that yielded possibilities for a social
revolution in the U.S.. Historians have argued that the period after the Civil
War is the closest the U.S. ever came to a social revolution. Ignatiev quotes
C.L.R. James to show how the abolitionists were revolutionaries who sought “to
tear up by the roots the foundation of the Southern economy and society, wreck
Northern commerce, and disrupt the Union irretrievably...They renounced all
traditional politics...They openly hoped for the defeat of their own country
in the Mexican War...They preached and practiced Negro equality. They endorsed
and fought for the equality of women...”(28)

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Phillips delivered
a passionate speech in which he argued for the break up of the Union and stated
that for all of his grown-up years he had been “devoted to creating just
such a crisis as that which is now upon us.”(29) This crisis opened up
space in the struggle for human liberation. At the outbreak of the war, the
task for the abolitionists was to transform the war for the Union into a war
against slavery.

Previously, after John Brown’s raid on Harpers
Ferry in 1859, Phillips had given a powerful speech in his defense, entitled
“The Lesson of the Hour.” Phillips stated, “I think the lesson
of the hour is insurrection. Insurrection of thought always precedes insurrection
of arms. The last twenty years have been insurrection of thought.”(30)
Later in the speech he explains the power of John Brown. “Virginia did
not tremble at an old gray-headed man at Harpers Ferry; they trembled at a John
Brown in every man’s own conscience.”(31)

In 1853, Phillips gave a speech that called for
“Immediate, Unconditional Emancipation.” In “The Philosophy
of the Abolition Movement,” Phillips argues for revolutionary politics.
“The cause is not ours, so that we might, rightfully, postpone or put
in peril the victory by moderating our demands, stifling our convictions, or
filling down our rebukes, to gratify any sickly taste of our own, or to spare
the delicate nerves of our neighbor.” And he continues, “The press,
the pulpit, the wealth, the literature, the prejudices, the political arrangements,
the present self-interest of the country, are all against us.” Thus, “he
who cannot be reasoned out of his prejudices must be laughed out of them; he
who cannot be argued out of his selfishness must be shamed out of it by the
mirror of his hateful self held up relentlessly before his eyes.”(32)
Wendell Phillips was not seeking to win over others by talking, reasoning or
arguing with them, but instead by drawing lines, by agitating to change the
boundaries of the debate.(33)

Anarchists are more part of a scene than part of
a revolutionary social movement. The anarchist scene is plagued by disorganization
and lack of analysis, vision, and strategy. Even those who are organized and
serious revolutionaries often draw on European anarchist roots to create a revolutionary
praxis at home. A serious reflection on the United States’ own historical
development and revolutionary tradition will be necessary if we are going to
get out of our scene and develop a serious movement that will be part of the
struggle for a free society. How the Irish Became White, Race Traitor,
and The Lesson of the Hour are essential contributions to the creation
of this American revolutionary praxis. I hope that these three accessible and
fast-reading books will be widely read and hotly debated by American anarchists
and other revolutionaries.


1. Noel Ignatiev, “The White Blindspot”
(1976) cited in Bring the Ruckus reading packet for the November 2002 meeting
in Phoenix, AZ.

2. A New World in Our Hearts, ed. Roy
San Filippo (Oakland: AK Press, 2003).

3. See http:// www.agitatorindex.org

4. See “The White Blindspot” (1966,
from Bring the Ruckus meeting reading packet) and An Introduction to the
United States: An Autonomist Political History
(Denver, CO: Final Conflict,

5. Nell Irvin Painter in The Washington Post,
cited on back cover of Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White
(New York: Routledge, 1995).

6. John Bracey cited in Danny Postel, “Interview
with Noel Ignatiev,” Z Magazine, http://www.zmag.org.

7. See David Montgomery, Citizen Worker
(Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1993) and Eric Arneson, Waterfront Workers
of New Orleans
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1991).

8. See Scott McLemee and Paul LeBlanc, “The
Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States” in C.L.R.
James and Revolutionary Marxism
(Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press,
2000) and Grace Lee, Pierre Chaulieu and J.R. Johnson, Facing Reality:
The New Society, Where to Look for It, How to Bring It Closer
Bewick Editions, 1958/1974).

9. Cited in Danny Postel, “Interview with
Noel Ignatiev,” Z Magazine, http://www.zmag.org

10. Ibid.

11. Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White,

12. Ibid., 178. Much has been written by and
about the Free Blacks of Philadelphia. The autobiography of Frederick Douglass
is perhaps the most famous work. Philadelphia was not only the home of many
Free Blacks, but also the home of many Irish immigrants. Not that much has
been written about the latter group.

13. Ibid., 178.

14. Cornel West cited on Race Traitor
back cover, 10, Winter 1999.

15. David Roediger on back cover of Race
, ed. John Garvey and Noel Ignatiev (New York: Routledge, 1996).

16. The full quote is from a longer passage when
Malcolm X is waiting at a red light and another car pulls up and asks him,
“‘Do you mind shaking hands with a white man?’ Imagine that!
Just as the traffic light turned green, I told him, ‘I don’t mind
shaking hands with human beings. Are you one?’” Cited in Joel
Olsen, Democratic Problem of the White Citizen (Ph.D. diss.; University of
Minnesota, 2001), 1. Book forthcoming: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

17. John Garvey and Noel Ignatiev, eds. Race
(New York: Routledge, 1996), 1.

18. Ibid., 9.

19. Ibid., 9-10.

20. Ibid., 11.

21. For a longer treatment of the topic, see
Theodore Allen, Invention of the White Race (New York: Verso, 1994), Joel
Olson, Abolish the White Citizen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, forthcoming),
Noel Ignatiev, Introduction to the United States: An Autonomous Political
(Denver, CO: Final Conflict, 1978), and Jacqueline Jones, American
Work (New York: Norton, 1998).

22. See “Interview with Noel Ignatiev”
by The Blast! reprinted in Race Traitor, 287-292 for discussion on
the relationship between capitalism and whiteness.

23. For an article that lays out four successive
“peculiar institutions” from the first slave society to the first
prison society, see Loic Wacquant, “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration,”
in New Left Review 13, Jan/Feb 2002. Also see Christian Parenti’s Lockdown
America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (New York: Verso, 2000) fo