by Michael Staudenmaier
Noel Ignatiev died on November 9, 2019, at the age of 78. As both a worker and a scholar, Ignatiev modeled the sort of public engagement that radical academics strive for, even while he represented an era – in the US economy, in academia, and in left politics – that for the most part no longer exists. Deindustrialization and automation have made it far harder to find and keep a job in a steel mill, and the casualization of academic labor has made it all but impossible for someone to get a PhD, much less tenure, without an undergraduate degree. That Ignatiev accomplished all of these things, spending, as he put it in an interview this year, “23 years in industry and 33 years in the academy,” testified above all else to the intensity of his political commitments.
First and foremost, Ignatiev was a militant. Born Noel Ignatin, he was a red-diaper baby who held tightly to a (radically transformed) version of his childhood communist politics throughout his life.
Despite a perpetual tendency to challenge political orthodoxy in all its forms, he spent his life largely as a joiner rather than a political independent. As an adult, he belonged to a sequence of ever-smaller revolutionary organizations: the Communist Party (CPUSA), the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute the Marxist Leninist Communist Party (POC), and the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO), which he helped found at the end of 1969. After leaving STO around 1984, he helped establish two publishing collectives, producing the journal Race Traitor intermittently from 1993 to 2006, and the magazine Hard Crackers.
During his decades of political work, Ignatiev worked best as an agitator rather than an organizer. He wrote and spoke in energizing and often deliberately polarizing ways, highlighting the central issues in language devoid of the jargon so often found in far-left publications. In the mills, he rejected the United Steel Workers (USW) union as a vehicle for struggle, and instead invariably supported grassroots campaigns initiated by his most militant black co-workers, regardless of whether these were supported or opposed by the USW.
He also agitated outside of the steel mills. To offer just one example, in February 1974, a nationwide strike of independent long-haul truck drivers nearly brought the US economy to its knees. On the day the strike began, truckers refused to continue their shipments, and instead congregated at truck stops across the country. One of these was in Gary, Indiana, where Ignatin was living at the time. While the striking truckers were disproportionately white and male, he and STO viewed their willingness to wildcat (as independent contractors, they had no union) and their capacity to disrupt the normal functioning of capitalism to be potentially revolutionary. Ignatin and other members of STO provided material support to the strikers, including printing posters and coordinating communication by helping truckers stuck in Gary make contact with local families of truckers encamped elsewhere.
After leaving STO, Ignatiev moved to Massachusetts and eventually obtained both a master’s degree and a PhD (in History of American Civilization) from Harvard University. In 1993, while completing his dissertation, he cofounded the publication Race Traitor, with its famous masthead slogan, “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” This work, which in many ways marked a continuation of his political work and writing within STO and the steel mills, nonetheless brought his thinking to a far wider audience than he had ever encountered before.
Race Traitor happened to emerge at the right time, as the scholarly consensus that race was socially constructed rather than based in biological differences began to filter more broadly into popular consciousness. The journal, along with his 1996 book, How the Irish Became White, became cornerstones of the emerging academic sub-field of whiteness studies, much to Ignatiev’s subsequent chagrin. While other academics analyzed white identity in order to match the identity politics advanced by radical activists and scholars of color, Ignatiev and Race Traitor wanted to destroy whiteness in order to create the conditions for revolution. Indeed, the journal’s editors adopted the label “abolitionist,” explicitly connecting themselves to anti-slavery radicals of the antebellum period.
This notion of historical inquiry as a practical exercise in radical political struggle against white supremacy was not unique to Ignatiev: David Roediger, Theodore W. Allen, and others in the pioneering generation of “whiteness studies” were similarly motivated, and similarly frustrated to watch as the field become progressively legitimated into the academic mainstream. Ignatiev must share some responsibility, both for better and for worse, for the contemporary ubiquity of privilege-based narratives of oppression. Regardless, he at the very least did his best to mark out the lines of division between what he sometimes called the loyal and the disloyal opposition, with his own commitments firmly in the latter camp.
In historiographic terms, Ignatiev’s major contribution had to do with marrying two lines of thought that were taking the academy by storm in the 1990s: the study of whiteness as a social construction; and the analytic priority given to the “agency” of historically marginalized populations, over and against older scholarly models that centered structural forces in the making of history, including structures of oppression. Ever the historical materialist, Ignatiev’s version of agency was not a form of magical thinking that turned every incident of oppression into a previously undiscovered act of resistance, but rather an empirically grounded argument about collective capacity and responsibility.
Ignatiev’s focus on agency in historical contexts had its roots in his political experience as an agitator in the steel mills of Gary. In 1972, while working in the mills, he gave a speech later published under the title, “Black Worker, White Worker” (a reference to W.E.B. DuBois, specifically to the titles of the first two chapters of Black Reconstruction in America). Here, he linked the black freedom struggle to the possibilities for socialist revolution in the United States and on a world scale. Borrowing tone and terminology from the black Trinidadian revolutionary intellectual CLR James, Ignatin wrote that “the daily activities of the Black people, especially the Black workers, are the best existing model for the aspirations of the workers generally as a distinct class of people. Other groups in society, when they act collectively on their own, usually represent partial and occasionally even reactionary interests. The activities of the Black workers are the most advanced outpost of the new society we seek to establish.” While he later became more concerned about the limits of black radicalism, he always maintained an almost utopian belief that a popular, anti-capitalist revolution could create a free and humane society.
A quarter-century later, in How the Irish Became White, Ignatiev made a related point. Rather than viewing whiteness as a structural force that somehow naturally absorbed newly arrived European immigrants into itself, he demonstrated the important work done by working class Irish immigrants in the antebellum North to advance their own incorporation into whiteness. As he put it, “In viewing entry into the white race as something the Irish did ‘on’ (though not by) themselves, this book seeks to make them the actors in their own history.” (p. 4) Notably, this inverted a common trope in agency-centered scholarship, focusing on the agency of the oppressed to oppress others, rather than their capacity to resist oppression as such. (A similar re-purposing of traditional “agency of the oppressed” logic animates Thavolia Glymph’s 2008 monograph, Out of the House of Bondage, which carefully documents the capacity and agency of white women enslavers for the horrors of slavery.)
Just weeks before his death, Ignatiev laid out his “debt and obligation” to another early revolutionary scholar of whiteness, Theodore W. Allen, whose two-volume The Invention of the White Race, was published two years before How the Irish Became White. The two men had known each other since the 1950s, and Allen had been a mentor to Ignatiev as a young communist. According to Ignatiev, Allen had coined the term “white skin privilege” in the 1960s, and the two had collaborated on a pivotal early piece in the development of the theory, the 1967 pamphlet “The White Blindspot” (another DuBois reference, this time to a famous passage near the end of Black Reconstruction, which decades later also inspired the title of Roediger’s well known The Wages of Whiteness). Like Ignatiev, Allen was a life-long communist militant, though the latter never obtained a university degree and never taught above the junior high school level.
In Ignatiev’s rendering, the two disagreed over how to assign blame for the entirely lamentable emergence of the white race. Where Allen focused overwhelmingly on the actions of a supposed cabal of colonial elites in and around the House of Burgesses in 17th-century Virginia, Ignatiev believed the persistence of white skin privilege “cannot be blamed on bourgeois machinations; one must look instead to its roots within the working-class movement.” But where others saw blame, Ignatiev actually saw opportunity: what had been done could also be undone. If the past held a lesson for the present, it was that white skin privileges could be repudiated in struggle, and a working class no longer divided along racial lines could overthrow capitalism. Even at his most academic, in the midst of a debate about racial distinctions in colonial Virginia, Ignatiev foregrounded the political consequences.
Ignatiev was no saint. While his writing and activism inspired many, both in activist and academic circles, he managed to anger and alienate people with remarkable frequency over his long career. As a result, he made enemies everywhere he went, not only among bosses, reactionaries and white supremacists, but also often among his own (former) comrades and friends.
Even among those who remained close to him, every single friend and comrade could tell a story of confrontation and challenge. In the 1970s, Ignatiev was known to criticize mainstream labor unions involved in strikes, particularly if (as has so often been the case) the striking workers were members of overwhelmingly white unions and the strikebreakers were largely black or Latina/o/x. Bill Lamme, a former member of STO and now a retired public school teacher and Chicago Teachers Union militant, tells a story in which he eagerly explained his work in support of striking factory workers in Iowa around 1975. Ignatiev’s response was to ask, “How can you be sure you are on the right side?”
Later conflicts were even more explosive. In 1996, a year before his own death, Ted Allen demanded that his name be removed from the masthead of Race Traitor, where it had been prominently placed for the first five issues. He did so because he objected to the publication in issue #5 of an exchange of letters between Ignatiev and an anonymous neo-Nazi who expressed, in the pages of the journal, explicit racial hatred toward people of color and toward Jews. This was far from the only time Ignatiev was accused of coddling anti-Semites.
By the mid-2000s, many others had taken serious issue with Ignatiev’s continuing and apparently friendly interactions with the anti-Semitic writer Israel Shamir, whose writing was published in the final issue of Race Traitor in 2006. A similar dalliance between Ignatiev and the anti-Semitic jazz musician Gilad Atzmon ended in 2011, not because of Atzmon’s repugnant views on Jews, but because Ignatiev could not countenance Atzmon’s comparison of the Palestinian right of self-determination to that of “lost cause” white supremacists who upheld the “right” of the Confederacy to self-determination – and slavery – in the context of the US Civil War.
Given Ignatiev’s life-long opposition to white supremacy, such controversial positions can be hard to understand. My best guess is that Ignatiev, who permanently rejected the formal politics of Stalinism in the late 1960s, spent the rest of his life struggling to shed the remnants of Stalinist political method that persisted in his political DNA. He was raised in a world of vitriolic rhetoric and ideologically driven splits inside already small organizations that believed they had sole access to the “scientific” truths of class struggle. In a seemingly endless array of circumstances, Ignatiev saw both principles and people through an instrumentalist lens, as tools or mechanisms through which to accomplish one or another political objective. While these goals – freedom for Palestine, the destruction of white supremacy, the defense of black autonomy, and the ultimate project of communist revolution – were and remain eminently laudable, Ignatiev’s strategic choices were not above reproach, and demand continuing critical scrutiny at a bare minimum.
Whatever his weaknesses and flaws, Ignatiev remains an inspiration for many, including some of us who try to square academic careers with radical organizing and activism. I first met Ignatiev in 1996, and while it would be a stretch to say we were friends, we were long on a first-name basis and had a comradely relationship over the last quarter-century of his life.
Noel was particularly helpful to me as I worked to complete my monograph on the history of STO. Among many other contributions, he uttered the words that generated the working title of the book, before it was finally published as Truth and Revolution: STO, he told me on the phone in 2005, was “an organization of revolutionaries that tried to think.” I don’t know if Ignatiev will have an actual gravestone, but it would be harder to find a more fitting epitaph: “Noel Ignatiev, 1940-2019: A revolutionary who tried to think.”
Michael Staudenmaier is assistant professor of history at Manchester University, in North Manchester, IN. He is the author, among other works, of Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969-1986 (AK Press, 2012).