Noel Ignatiev and the Great Divide

One of the finer scholars of his generation, a mighty class warrior, and an unapologetic emblem of his ideological tendency has joined the pantheon of great revolutionaries. Noel Ignatiev, whose classic monograph How the Irish Became White and an anthology co-edited with John Garvey, Race Traitor, belong on every shelf in Trumpland, passed away on November 9, 2019.

Ignatiev’s major contribution was proliferation of the argument that abolition of racism was the catalyst to workers revolution in America. Fusing the thought of C.L.R. James, W.E.B. Du Bois, Karl Marx, and Antonio Gramsci, he articulated with his comrades a refined analysis of white skin privilege as the chief ideological project retarding revolution in America. At the moment when the academic Left was reverting to the nebulous incomprehensibility of postmodernism and poststructuralism run amok in the 1990s, Noel and his comrades created Race Traitor, a thoughtful but also quite accessible magazine that sought to speak to working people about shucking off the poison chalice of white supremacy and racism in all its formulations.

As an organizer-activist today with Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a national network dedicated to organizing so-called whites to oppose white supremacy, this periodical is perhaps one of the most important of the past 30 years, far more helpful than the incomprehensible Derrida, Chantal, Mouffe, and so many other Marxist intellectuals who seemed to wander off to Laputa ( when Francis Fukuyama tricked them into believing History was over. In a world where so many Sandernistas seem intent on using an obscure 1960s photo of the holy guru being arrested for participation in a desegregation protest as the imprimatur’s seal that their candidate is absent all racial prejudices and shortcomings, Noel’s work sets a high watermark for basic decency in political discourse. Sure, Sanders probably has some great racial politics when compared with Charles Schumer. But the lack of critique of systemic white supremacy and the refusal to argue for racial abolition is a shortcoming he needs to own rather than a crass workerism that invites white supremacist logic.

Noel’s writings on James were numerous and useful. His comparative textual critique of Eric Foner’s history of Reconstruction against Du Bois’ magisterial Black Reconstruction in America will remain a classic of both political as well as historiographic and literary scholarship for decades to come. At a time when Democratic Socialists of America, the Communist Party USA, and many other Left political groups cry havoc about Trump and loose the dogs of the Popular Front, it is useful to reread “”The American blindspot”: Reconstruction according to Eric Foner and W.E.B. Du Bois” ( and understand why today’s radicals have much to learn from the failures of the white Left during the postbellum years.

I spoke with Noel a few times. At first we were able to have some very cheerful conversations. As we began to further discuss issues, things soured, concluding with a phone call that left me in tears.

Forgive a digression for the moment here but I think it is worth consideration. It underwrote my differences with Noel and it is my way of mourning.

I start with a quote from Slavoj Zizek:

We don’t need local democracy. Of course, when it functions, it’s nice. But isn’t it that all the big challenges that we have today are challenges that need even more than state power, we will have to organize ourselves at a trans-national level. Jean-Pierre Dupuy…was in Fukushima two days after the earthquake, the tsunami, all that. And he told me that for one day, a little bit less, the Japanese government was in a total panic because they thought that the pollution will be so strong that will have to evacuate the entire Tokyo area, 30 million people. If this were to happen, can you imagine, where will they put them? The rational solution would have been, of course, to ask Russia to give part of Eastern Siberia… But how can you do it? No mechanisms [exist] to do it! We have to confront these problems! No, we need larger global organisms!

I’ve overcome my onetime over-estimation of the Slovenian Elvis of philosophy, particularly in light of his rather disgusting comments pertaining to Muslim immigrants in Europe. But this point he raises, that the challenges of multinational neoliberal corporate power, biogenetics, catastrophic climate change, and other struggles of this increasingly-repulsive century requires a reformulation of internationalism that entails the holding of state power and even blocs of states on a geopolitical stage, is an important one.

Right now, America and Europe are witnessing a reversion to the most reactionary strains of politics within liberal democracy seen in over 80 years. The xenophobia of Trump, Orban, and AfD in Germany all stem from a kind of laissez-faire approach on a geopolitical level to the administration of Global Southern refugee relocation and resettlement. Yes, refugees have human rights to migration, but those rights include the right to not being left to rot in a gutter or a cage, something that is the default receiving position of the liberal democratic North. The EU, UN, and the vast assortment of NGOs that proliferate across the Global North, politically-neutral by design, do not incubate the growth of a politicized cadre of Left officers that can effectively challenge the rise of the right while implementing a humane and meaningful refugee settlement policy. The Soviet Union and its various institutions were certainly flawed in a multitude of ways, many of which Noel’s hero-cum-philosophical inspiration C.L.R. James elaborated upon.

But the ideal that the Soviet Union’s project aspired to, the formation of an inter-state revolutionary project that would articulate a meaningful and practical method for taking state power worldwide, is something that our current political moment requires.

We do not need a repetition of the Comintern’s top-heavy, dictatorial, “Bolshevized” schematic that failed to accommodate the nuances of the constituent national Communist Parties within their local contexts.

Likewise we do not need the overly-submissive Eurocommunism that began as a project that was skeptical of subservience to Moscow’s agenda but ended as warmed-over social democracy (cf. Syriza’s genuflection to finance capital to see what that tendency remains capable of once elected to power).

We as a species have little to gain from Trotskyism (Autonomism is a form of Trotskyism owing to its orientation, inherited from Old Man Leon by way of C.L.R. James, towards individualist analysis), Maoism, or its various offspring. (And we also do not need the sorts of misbehavior that led to the collapse of Students for a Democratic Society, a matter Ignatiev played an important role in, which included as a result the birth of the Weathermen…)

We need governments that take power for the people, build institutions that serve the most vulnerable, and militantly oppose, to the point of state violence if necessary, biases like xenophobia, racism, sexism, and other chauvinisms, to take a term from the era Noel hailed from.

And we need these things on a timetable that regrettably will not accommodate the project of building bottom-up local democracy and neighborhood assemblies that C.L.R. James and Ignatiev’s Autonomist Marxist current uphold as their political goal. It very well could be less than 12 months from now when a catastrophic storm, such as a hurricane, causes a massive displacement of populations on a scale that reaches upwards of the millions. Syria is in the midst of a war, lasting close to a decade, that was catalyzed in no small part by the Assad government’s mishandling of droughts that caused the immiseration of millions of rural farmers. New Orleans is an absolutely-privatized school system, exclusively charters, because of Hurricane Katrina. Catastrophic climate change is on a calendar that is not the same as the framework that local democratic assemblies occupy.

In short, we absolutely need states, now more than ever, controlled by the people, to form a viable form of protection from the ravages of what Naomi Klein called ‘disaster capitalism.’

Noel and I disagreed over Israel-Palestine. To be absolutely clear, my position is simple: Do the absolute most possible to alleviate the maximum amount of harm for the largest number of people facing the violence of the Israeli state by whatever means will be most productive.

Americans have a key role to play in reaching that goal and I cannot comprehend how anyone does not see things in terms of a first responder during a major emergency, pull the most vulnerable (those in Gaza and the Occupied Territories) out of the firing line of the Israeli state as quickly as possible.

The harms done the Arab minority in Israel proper are profound and unforgivable.

But to flatten that and argue that there is no difference in degree or brutality between what happens in Gaza, the Occupied Territories, and Israel proper is simply at odds with reality.

The Arabic minority in Israel proper is not forcibly compelled daily to poison their children owing to lack of potable water, which is the case in the Gaza Strip following the catastrophic Operation Protective Edge.

If there be a much more immediate way than the international legal route, so be it, but right now the international consensus (as well as most predominant currents of the Palestinian solidarity movement) rely upon the international legal framework in order to articulate their demands. This is a return to the query raised by another of Noel’s heroes, Rosa Luxemburg: Reform or revolution…

Noel argued that the one state solution was the only acceptable thing in the world. There’s nothing in the international legal opinion calling for that and trying to build consensus for that in America could take another decade, thereby prolonging the suffering of the most vulnerable. He argued that international law was “pirate law,” certainly true.

But the contradiction, of course, is that calling for the foundation of any sort of state anywhere in the world is to make an appeal to international law and the creation of a legal apparatus/structure that materializes within the auspices of international law. (Incidentally, if the Soviet Union were still in existence this might be a quite different discussion…)

That is the ultimate dialectical divide inherent in the Zionist settler-colonial project and struggle to unmake it.

This also defines a stumbling block of the Left in the United States, the matter of taking state power. If there is one major lesson of twentieth century Marxist-Leninist governments, it is that there is a profound and distinct difference between leading the movement to take power and the actual act of governing. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, and the rest made mistakes not because of their character failings (well, not entirely), it was because they were not technicians with training to take over the administration of the state. Che Guevara alluded to this in 1965 when he said “Socialism is young and has its mistakes. We revolutionaries often lack the knowledge and intellectual audacity needed to meet the task of developing the new man and woman with methods different from the conventional ones; conventional methods suffer from the influences of the society that created them.”

Our words were heated and he cut off from me there. I tried to email him to clear things up but it didn’t work. This perhaps will be a great regret for the rest of my life.

C.L.R. James was a great man but he died before the onslaught of the End of History. Would he have seen the collapse of the Soviet Union as a great outcome for humanity after thirty years have seen the immiseration of the Russians under Yeltsin? Would he have said the defeat of Stalinism was still justified despite the most extraordinary hardship of workers worldwide, both in the remaining Marxist-Leninist states and in the liberal democracies? Would he have subscribed still to the idea that local assemblies are the way to go despite the fact a properly-functioning municipal state requires a vast, alienated apparatus of plumbing, electric, and other municipal and state services to function? Would he have been found every week at his local farmers market or said “oh wait, I like eating fresh fruit in the winter, bring back the interstate food transport system”? The notion of local assemblies he and later Noel advocated is a beautiful one in an ideal world. (In fact James modified his views on the postwar Southern Marxist-Leninist projects of Castro and Maurice Bishop…)

But with the calamities at hand, I wonder if we have the luxury for ideals anymore. As it currently stands, the most powerful counter to American economic power is China, which doesn’t sound to encouraging.

But if it’s a choice between Beijing and the Koch brothers, with your rinky-dink local assembly playing no major role in the discussions…

What is to be done?

Noel claimed Du Bois as one of his heroes. I find no finer tribute to such a revolutionary than this passage from “The Comet,” a short science fiction story in the anthology Darkwater. In this brief moment, during a post-apocalyptic reprieve when a Black man and a white woman find themselves to be the last two humans on earth, Du Bois simulates the abolition of the white race. We need to dream of this future in tribute to Noel so to best work towards its materialization in history.

“Have you had to work hard?” she asked softly.

“Always,” he said.

“I have always been idle,” she said. “I was rich.”

“I was poor,” he almost echoed.

“The rich and the poor are met together,” she began, and he finished:

“The Lord is the Maker of them all.”

“Yes,” she said slowly; “and how foolish our human distinctions seem—now,” looking down to the great dead city stretched below, swimming in unlightened shadows.

“Yes—I was not—human, yesterday,” he said.

She looked at him. “And your people were not my people,” she said; “but today——” She paused. He was a man,—no more; but he was in some larger sense a gentleman,—sensitive, kindly, chivalrous, everything save his hands and—his face. Yet yesterday——

“Death, the leveler!” he muttered.

“And the revealer,” she whispered gently, rising to her feet with great eyes. He turned away, and after fumbling a moment sent a rocket into the darkening air. It arose, shrieked, and flew up, a slim path of light, and scattering its stars abroad, dropped on the city below. She scarcely noticed it. A vision of the world had risen before her. Slowly the mighty prophecy of her destiny overwhelmed her. Above the dead past hovered the Angel of Annunciation. She was no mere woman. She was neither high nor low, white nor black, rich nor poor. She was primal woman; mighty mother of all men to come and Bride of Life. She looked upon the man beside her and forgot all else but his manhood, his strong, vigorous manhood—his sorrow and sacrifice. She saw him glorified. He was no longer a thing apart, a creature below, a strange outcast of another clime and blood, but her Brother Humanity incarnate, Son of God and great All-Father of the race to be.

He did not glimpse the glory in her eyes, but stood looking outward toward the sea and sending rocket after rocket into the unanswering darkness. Dark-purple clouds lay banked and billowed in the west. Behind them and all around, the heavens glowed in dim, weird radiance that suffused the darkening world and made almost a minor music. Suddenly, as though gathered back in some vast hand, the great cloud-curtain fell away. Low on the horizon lay a long, white star—mystic, wonderful! And from it fled upward to the pole, like some wan bridal veil, a pale, wide sheet of flame that lighted all the world and dimmed the stars.

In fascinated silence the man gazed at the heavens and dropped his rockets to the floor. Memories of memories stirred to life in the dead recesses of his mind. The shackles seemed to rattle and fall from his soul. Up from the crass and crushing and cringing of his caste leaped the lone majesty of kings long dead. He arose within the shadows, tall, straight, and stern, with power in his eyes and ghostly scepters hovering to his grasp. It was as though some mighty Pharaoh lived again, or curled Assyrian lord. He turned and looked upon the lady, and found her gazing straight at him.

Silently, immovably, they saw each other face to face—eye to eye. Their souls lay naked to the night. It was not lust; it was not love—it was some vaster, mightier thing that needed neither touch of body nor thrill of soul. It was a thought divine, splendid.

Slowly, noiselessly, they moved toward each other—the heavens above, the seas around, the city grim and dead below. He loomed from out the velvet shadows vast and dark. Pearl-white and slender, she shone beneath the stars. She stretched her jeweled hands abroad. He lifted up his mighty arms, and they cried each to the other, almost with one voice, “The world is dead.”


Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.