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Noel Ignatiev: Remembering a Comrade and a Friend

For all of the opprobrium Facebook deserves, it is still essential for building ties on the left when there are so few opportunities for networking in real space as opposed to cyberspace. Just checking now, it seems that I became a FB friend with Noel Ignatiev sometime in 2015. It was worth it to me to make such a connection, even if it meant putting up with all the ads and heavy-handed automated interference into saying what was on my mind. (I lost FB posting privileges twice for no good reason.)

Back in the mid-nineties, when I was working at Columbia University, I used to make frequent stops during lunchtime at Bookforum, an excellent source of scholarly literature, including that written by Marxists. One day I spotted a new book by Noel Ignatiev titled “How the Irish Became White” that stopped me in my tracks. I had dispensed with the notion long ago that white workers would join a Marxist group just by selling them copies of the Militant newspaper. Even if the book focused on the Irish, it might offer insights into the question of American political backwardness.

Despite being based on Ignatiev’s Ph.D., it read nothing like a dissertation. It was a politically engaged attack on white privilege supported by in-depth research. It also demonstrated a grasp of the broad contours of American culture that suggested the author’s ability to think outside the box. For example, Ignatiev made the case that Huckleberry Finn was Irish based not only on his last name but what Mark Twain wrote in a May 7, 1884 letter: “I returned the book-back [book cover for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn]. All right and good, and will answer, although the boy’s mouth is a trifle more Irishy than necessary.”

A race-traitor like Huckleberry Finn was not typical, unfortunately. Most Irish became pillars of reactionary values. No better contemporary example of that is Long Island Republican Congressman Peter King, who recently retired. Ignoring King’s open racism and Islamophobia, Senator Schumer tweeted how he “stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” Like many other Irish-Americans, King was also a supporter of the I.R.A. The Secret Service even regarded him as a security risk in the 1980s. King’s double-dealing, of course, was not the only instance of a member of a once-oppressed group siding with the oppressor. Before the Civil War, Cherokees owned slaves. After it ended, emancipated African-American Buffalo Soldiers then killed Indians. Sorting out and resolving these contradictions has challenged the American left since the dawn of the Republic. Recognizing this, Noel Ignatiev devoted his entire political career to uniting the oppressed across the racial, religious and ethnic lines that divide us.

With a Harvard Ph.D., Noel could have settled into a comfortable career as a Marxist academic, attending conferences and writing articles for peer-reviewed journals behind JSTOR’s paywall. Instead, he wrote for an activist readership in Race Traitor and his most recent magazine Hard Crackers. It is just out of such an activist base that Noel emerged. For the better part of sixty-one years, starting with the Communist Party, he tried to build a revolutionary movement in the U.S.A. Unlike the conditions faced by Third World revolutionaries, the American left has had to contend with indifference rather than repression for the most part. To maintain one’s revolutionary fiber in such a politically backward country requires an almost superhuman belief while putting up with ingratitude and disgrace, as Max Horkheimer once put it. Even so, again in Horkheimer’s words, it was preferable to an inconsequential career that led to banquets, honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages.

Coming from a Jewish and Communist family, Neil took the bold step of joining the C.P. at the tender age of 18 in January 1958. Showing a rebellious streak at an early age, he hooked up with an “ultraleft” (his word) split from the party seven months later called the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (POC). Like the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), it took its cues from Mao Zedong rather than Gus Hall. Also like PLP, the POC viewed Black nationalism as reactionary. In the crisis provoked by this and other sectarian positions, the POC began expelling dissidents just as was the case in any other “Leninist” formation going back to the 1920s. They booted Noel in 1962, giving him the freedom to explore the molecular changes that would culminate in The New Left and SDS.

Two years after his expulsion, Noel went to work for a steel mill in Chicago, where he would engage in trade union struggles and socialist outreach until he was laid off in 1984. Taking a job in a factory was not common in those days. It was a throwback to the “colonization” strategy of the Stalinist and Trotskyist left in the 1930s, when workers were open to socialist ideas. Born in 1940, Noel was in a milieu where many CP’ers still held out hope that the workers could become a revolutionary subject and acted on that belief.

In his introduction to C.L.R. James’s “Modern Politics”, Noel discussed his relationship with the author, who remained one of his primary influences, as is also the case with me. When James asked him what he did for a living, he replied that he was a factory worker. James told him that he regretted never having the opportunity to do so.

Noel operated a horizontal boring mill in a plant that made machine tools. After working as a spot welder for one morning, I remain in awe of anybody who can get through the day doing repetitive and muscle-straining tasks, let alone twenty years like him.

In a surprising take on life inside the factory, one you would never have heard from an SWP leader, Noel describes an exchange he had with a well-known leftwing trade unionist in Chicago. Asking him about the movement of workers in the area, the man replied, “What movement? There is no movement.” To which Noel replied that in the man’s factory, it was well-known that they completed their work at noon and spent the rest of the day in a nearby tavern. He argued: “That’s not a movement. They’ve been doing that for years. It doesn’t mean anything.” Noel’s commentary on this dialog is classic:

To him, “movement” meant the number of workers who attended union meetings, voted for the resolutions introduced by his caucus and supported his slate at election time. The accumulation of shop-floor battles that had ripped half the day out of the hands of capital was not part of the class struggle as it existed in his mind.

C.L.R. James taught otherwise. So did Marx, who devoted a chapter in Capital to the struggle over the length of the working day. Of all the dogmas that hold sway among leftists, the most widespread and pernicious is the dogma of the backwardness of the working class. To adhere to it is to reject Marxism root and branch, for Marxism holds that the capitalist system revolutionizes the forces of production and that the working class is foremost among the forces of production.

Armed with many ideas he absorbed from James, Noel and like-minded comrades founded the Sojourner Truth Organization in 1970. An archive of the STO’s magazine Urgent Tasks  will show you the breadth and depth of its Marxism that departed from the sort of dogma I was spouting at the time.

Consistent with the analysis above, Noel wrote an article in the Spring 1981 issue titled “Backward Worker”. In taking up the question of working-class passivity, he referred to different historical examples that would lead you to believe that revolutionary change was impossible:

For civilized peoples, that is, those who have come to treasure existence for its own sake and have lost all sense of the value of life, there is a connection between what is possible and what is tolerable. To survive, they invent mechanisms for blocking the reality from their consciousness. There are always consolations, if not in this world, then in the next. One can easily imagine galley slaves on a Roman ship comforting themselves with the knowledge that fresh air was one of their job benefits!

When a relatively rapid deterioration of conditions cracks the effectiveness of the denial mechanism at a time when no way out has yet become apparent, there follows the appearance, on a mass scale, symptoms of mental illness. Such is the case in the US today.

Now what does all of this have to do with politics? Just this: it is an attempt to explain why the most common approach of the Left to workers doesn’t work and can’t work. Of all the dogma that pervades the Left, the most pervasive is the dogma of the backwardness of the working class.

The STO dissolved in 1985, the same year that Noel entered Harvard. Ten years later, he wrote “How the Irish Became White” and consequently a well-known writer and political leader. The next phase of his revolutionary career was devoted to a new magazine titled Race Traitor that is archived just like Urgent Tasks.

Many of the contributors are well-known, including David Roediger, who along with Ted Allen wrote about white privilege and the need to abolish it. One particularly interesting issue was titled “Surrealism: Revolution Against Whiteness.” The Chicago Surrealist Group wrote the introduction, while its founder Franklin Rosemont wrote an article sharing the same title as the issue title. Rosemont, who was a colleague of David Roediger, was no doubt responsible for lining up Philip Lamantia to write a surrealist poem titled “The Days Fall Asleep With Riddles”.

Philip Lamantia was a leading figure of the new poetry of the 1940s and 50s that included the beats and the San Francisco Renaissance writers. He joined the editorial board of VVV in the 1960s, a magazine Rosemont launched. VVV constituted a link between the 1960s radicalization and the surrealist movement of the 1930s that was sympathetic to Trotskyism. Through its ties to the Chicago Surrealist Group, Race Traitor demonstrated the continuity between the artistic and political avant-garde that has been a red thread in American history going back to Victoria Woodhull’s attempts to unite the oppressed across racial and ethnic lines. As opposed to Frederick Sorge, an “orthodox” Marxist who decried Chinese immigrants taking jobs from Americans, Woodhull, a certified Bohemian, was always exploring ways to build a united movement.

In her time, Black militias were a fixture of northern urban politics. When black men donned uniforms and marched in formation, they were making a statement not only about their full rights as citizens but their determination to back these rights by any means necessary. The black Eighty-Fifth Regiment in New York was one of the more radical and internationalist militias in the city. They had marched alongside Irish New Yorkers in honor of Fenian heroes and gave their units names like the “[Crispus] Attucks Guards” and “Free Soil Guards.” This regiment decided to name Tennessee Claflin, Victoria Woodhull’s sister, their commander and supplied her with a uniform. Woodhull had become the presidential candidate of the Equal Rights Party in 1872 and her vice-presidential running mate was none other than Frederick Douglass. Who knows? If Marx and Engels had thrown their weight behind Woodhull instead of Sorge, the American left would be a lot stronger today. (It’s never too late.)

Hard Crackers was Noel’s last major project. Launched in 2016 just a year after I hooked up with him, I did everything possible to support it politically and financially.

Hard Crackers is not your typical leftist magazine (thank god). Instead of writing abstract treatises on racism, it passed along the everyday stories of ordinary Americans. On the back cover of each issue and in the “about” page on the magazine’s website, you can read about its orientation:

Hard Crackers focuses on people like the ones Mitchell profiled. It does not seek to compete with publications that analyze world developments, nor with groups formed on the basis of things their members oppose and advocate; still less does it consider itself a substitute for political activity. It is guided by one principle: that in the ordinary people of this country (and the world) there resides the capacity to escape from the mess we are in, and a commitment to documenting and examining their strivings to do so.

The Mitchell referred to above was Joseph Mitchell, who profiled different people in The New Yorker during the 40s and 50s. Although I’d never read Mitchell, he seems to have something in common with Harvey Pekar, who, when he wasn’t writing about his own mundane life in “American Splendor”, gravitated to the same sort of eccentrics about whom Mitchell wrote. Before I lost contact with Harvey before he became sick with the lymphoma that would kill him, he told me that his dream was to carry on in the tradition of Studs Terkel, who was to Chicago that Mitchell was to New York and Harvey was to Cleveland. You might say that Hard Crackers covers the same beat. What makes it must-reading in this period is that it puts a spotlight on the red state boondocks whose long-suffering working class will be the first to struggle uncompromisingly just as they did when they voted for Eugene V. Debs a century or so ago.

In September 2018, I finally had a chance to meet Noel in person. He came up to my place on the Upper East Side and I took him out to lunch at a nearby bistro, where we spent about three hours chatting about all sorts of things, including working in factories, being Jewish, the problem of “Leninism”, and most of all the prospects for an American revolution. I only wish that he could have lived for another ten years or so because I loved him. About a month after our meeting, he sent me a copy of Joseph Mitchell’s “Up in the Old Hotel”. It will remain with me as long as I live as a token of the friendship we enjoyed all too briefly.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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