In the Smithy of His Soul: A Steel Worker and Scholar

Noel Ignatiev speaking at Occupy Boston.

On May Day 1986 Noel Ignatiev, the former steel worker, was aboard the good ship “New Boston,” on a harbor cruise from Rowe’s Wharf in Boston to Mary Mount in Quincy Bay. With fellow passengers from Haiti, Ethiopia, Peru, Somerville, Cambridge, Jamaica Plain, and Southie, he was celebrating with the kids dancing around the May Pole at the Harbor campus of the University of Massachusetts, and now he was sailing to the first May Pole dance in North America by anti-Puritanical “savages” in 1627 at Mary Mount over there in Quincy. Looking spiffy as ever and with an eloquence born in decades of Marxist revolutionary agitation, Noel spoke of the struggle of the working class from then to the present day in 1986, the centenary.

The signs of the times were clear. Four days earlier reactor number four at Chernobyl, Ukraine, broke into an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction, initiating days of radioactive isotopes of caesium, strontium and iodine which were wind carried across Europe menacing water, fauna, and flora. Four days later on May Day itself in 1986 1.6 million workers in South Africa, under a new organization, Congress of South African Trade Unions, embarked on a general strike called a “stay away.” This massive show of force did not end apartheid at once, but it started it. The people’s toi toi dance had begun.

What did we make of those signs of the times, the mortalities inherent in constant capital (the machine), the possibility of liberation in variable capital (the people)? Thirty-five years later amidst plague, flood, fire, and extinctions conditions are dire.

Having worked at the International Harvester Tractor Works and U.S. Steel blast furnace division Noel spoke with authority. He came from Chicago to Boston, from the city of Carl Sandburg, Nelson Algren, Jane Addams, and “Jane” (code for underground abortion access) to work for a Harvard Ph.D. in the city of Cotton Mather, and gangs of tight-lipped bankers, blue-stockings, and snobs.

It was the hundredth anniversary of the Haymarket massacre. Noel told us the story of Haymarket from the iron molders strike for the eight hour day to the rainy meeting at Haymarket Square which the cops sought to disperse. Dynamite exploded, a cop was killed, and hell’s gates opened to the repression afterwards. Four were hanged. The story is now known all over the world; it is labor’s day, a day for the international working class. It began in America, in Chicago, among metal workers.

That’s what Noel Ignatief had to tell us: The story of the working class.

In a perverse way that is also the story of steel. Steel forms the plates making ships’ hulls. Steel forms the girders to bridges and skyscrapers. Steel makes the bodies and engines of cars. Steel makes the railways and the trains. Home appliances. Tools. Weapons of war. “Structure” and “infrastructure” alike consists of steel. That is the material of our world.

What have we become? The issue is clear: not only do men make steel, it makes them. Under what conditions? Who? Whom?

Noel edited four journals: Urgent Tasks, The Calumet Insurgent Worker, Race Traitor (“treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity”), and the last one, Hard Crackers, takes its name from the meager fare dished out to Union soldiers during the Civil War. Hard Crackers brings our attention to another Civil War kind of sustenance, the food for thought found in Rebecca Harding Davis, Life in the Iron Mills, published in 1861. Taking place in Wheeling, West Virginia, it is about the steel production necessary for that first war dependent on railways, or the iron and steel workers who made possible the mobilization and transportation of soldiers and the victory over the slaveocracy.

In lines that might apply to Noel’s Gary, Indiana, works, she wrote, “Not many even of the inhabitants of a manufacturing town know the vast machinery of the system by which the bodies of workmen are governed, that goes on unceasingly from year to year. The hands of each mill are divided into watches that relieve each other as regularly as the sentinels of an army. By night and day the work goes on, the unsleeping engines groan and shriek, the fiery pools of metal boil and surge. Only for a day in the week, in half-courtesy to public censure, the fires are partially veiled; but as soon as the clock strikes midnight, the great furnaces break forth with renewed fury, the clamor begin with fresh, breathless vigor, the engines sob and shriek like gods in pain.” The only difference a century later was the absence of a Sunday break. In Noel’s time it was 24/7.

“Their lives were like those of their class: incessant labor, sleeping in kennel-like rooms, eating rank pork and molasses, drinking – God and the distillers only know what; with an occasional night in jail, to atone for some drunken excess. Is that all of their lives?” This was capitalism red in tooth and claw. The boss’s son pays a visit, and the steel worker responds, “Never! He had no words for such a thought [of equality], but he knew now, in all the sharpness of the bitter certainty, that between them there was a great gulf never to be passed. Never!” On the workers’ side of that gulf in 1861 were Welsh, Cornish, Irish, and mixed race people of color.

“Nothing remains to tell that the poor Welsh puddler once lived, but this figure of the mill-woman cut in korl.” Korl is the rock-like substance left over as slag from the the iron has been separated from the ore. The puddler is an artist! “I see a bare arm stretched out imploringly in the darkness, and an eager, wolfish face watching mine: a wan, woeful face, through which the spirit of the dead korl-cutter looks out, with its thwarted life, its mighty hunger, Its unfinished work.”

And, now, seventy years later, we might well ask, what is the unfinished work?

The struggle to form a union took another eighty years after the Homestead defeat (1892), to the Great Steel Strike of 1919, to the Memorial Day Massacre in south Chicago (1937). The National Labor Tribune, March 1878, quoted the effort to bring together the crafts to make the “industrial union.” (The iron puddler worked among heat and fumes and was generally finished off by his thirties.)

Heater, roller, rougher,

Catcher, puddler, helper,

All unite and join the fight

And might (for right) encounter;

In the name of truth and justice

Stem the tide of evil practice

Mammon’s sordid might and avarice

Our land from ruin save.

Katherine Stone, “The Origins of Job Structures in the Steel Industry,” Review of Radical Political Economy, 6 (1974) describes the introduction of the stop watch, clipboard, and white coat, that is “scientific management.”

Sometime after the three month steel strike of 1959 John F. Kennedy ran for president and Noel Ignatiev walked under the gates of U.S. Steel in Gary, Indiana.

Studs Terkel, another Chicago voice, wrote Working (1972),describes what it was like for steel workers around the time that Noel passed under those gates. Terkel interviewed Steve Dubi, hired on by U.S. Steel as a waterboy in 1929. He worked forty years. He was still paying off mortgage on his house and loan for his car. “You’re just a number out there. Just like a prisoner. A lot of people die. Who knows what they die of?” He continued, “I told my sons, ‘If you ever wind up in that steel mill like me, I’m gonna hit you right over your head. Don’t be foolish. Get yourself schooling. Stay out of the steel mill or you’ll wind up the same way I did and what have I got to show for it. Nothing.” Why would Noel enter a mill?

Another steel worker, Mike Lefevre says, “I’m a dying breed. A laborer. Strictly muscle work… pick it up, put it down, pick it up, put it down.” And then mocking the naïve communist wannabe who infiltrated the mill, “I cannot picture myself singing to a tractor, I just can’t. (Laughs.) Or singing to steel. (Singsongs.) Oh whoop-dee-doo. I’m at the bonderizer, oh how I love this heavy steel. No thanks. Never happen.” (The bonderizer coats the steel with an anticorrosive phosphate solution, usually in preparation for the application of paint, enamel, or lacquer.)

It’s a famous passage, the epitome of ‘the blue collar blues.’ Fifty years later looking at Mike Lefevre testimony and something else stands out. He wouldn’t fight back in the same way against the foreman who demanded, not work, but obedience. The foreman pointed his finger at Mike who grabbed his finger instead of his throat! He was no longer single but married. It’s not just for his wife, the mother of his children, but the children who he wants to stay out of the mill and wear a coat and tie. 5-10. The nuclear family is the rebel’s ball and chain.

Noel liked Marx: “The free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Communist Manifesto), or “Labor in the white skin cannot be free where in the black it is branded” (Capital). He admired the oratory and writing of Wendell Phillips. He liked C.L.R. James. He loved John Henry who died with a hammer in his hand, lord, lord. But it was to W.E.B. DuBois to whom Noel turned again and again – the wages of whiteness, the historian’s blind spot, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (1935).

Those in the know, the militants who paid attention, the cognoscenti of the struggle, already knew Noel from the coinage, “white skin privilege,” a coinage at the center of the politics of the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO). Formed in the wake of the disintegration of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), it took its name from the former slave of Ulster County, New York, Sojourner Truth (1797-1883). She ran away to freedom, became an abolitionist, a charismatic preacher, militant during the Civil War, an organizer who refused to abide by the street car conductor ordering her off the vehicle, and became an advocate for land for the former slaves now free.

Ted Allen wrote, “We believe that three centuries of history show that the key to bourgeois domination in this country is white supremacy, as we have said before: The principal aspect of United States capitalist society is not merely bourgeois domination but bourgeois white supremacist domination. It follows from this that proletarian revolutionary strategy in the United States must direct the main blow at white supremacy.”

Noel wrote in the preface to Workplace Papers (STO), “Briefly stated, this perspective was as follows: in modern industrial societies, bourgeois rule depends on the development of a variety of ‘systems’ that channel the outbreaks of the exploited class and allow their absorption by capital; that the specifically American framework for this process is the white-skin privilege system — the conferring of a favored status on the white sector of the proletariat; and that the trade unions cannot be understood apart from this framework.”

Or, again, “The white race is a historically constructed social formation. It consists of all 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 that of the most exalted persons excluded from it, in return for which they give support to a system that degrades them.”

Hard Crackers: Chronicles of Everyday Life provided a special issue for the spring 2021 as tribute to Noel Ignatiev, 1940-2019. It contains testimony, memories, critique, biography, correspondence, a poem, jokes, argument, good humor, and lots of love. John Garvey summed up: Noel had a profound influence on several generations of political activists – the student radicals of 1968, the anti-fascist Anti-Racist Action activists of the 1980s, the anti-globalization protesters of the turn of the century, the Occupiers during the last decade, and anti-police insurgents of today.”

At Harvard (the Harvard Corporation) Noel leaned back in his easy chair and gloated, “If the guys back in Gary, Indiana, knew how good I have it here, the entire steel industry would come to a halt.” Noel studied Ireland and Irish Americans. Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) concludes with words that apply to Noel and his revolutionary yearnings. “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” A former steel worker and an aspiring scholar, anti-capitalism was as clear as ever in his sights. In 1995 he submitted his dissertation and a year later it was published as How the Irish Became White.

Acceptable Men is the title of Noel’s memoire. It is actually about his years employed in the blast furnace division of the U.S. Steel, Gary, Indiana works. It was the largest steel mill in the U.S. in the largest steel corporation. The book has a clear description of he labor process and its architecture. It amasses well told stories, worker’s witticisms, deft characterization, humorous anecdotes, straight up political opinion, and persistent solidarity with all his fellow workers, cleaving to the black. Iron ore originating in the Mesabi of range of northern Minnesota was shipped from Duluth in freighters upon Lakes Superior and Michigan. Here I must make another digression. Well so it seems. Actually it gives us two clues as to our unfinished business.

Many of the miners in the Mesabi range were Finnish, specifically ‘forest Finns’ who migrated at the beginning of the last century. Oral poetry maintained the memory of the mythic origins of the world. My colleague, Mikael Lövgren, explained to me that in Finland these became the Kalevala, the national saga. And were brought to the Mesabi iron range of Minnesota by Finnish miners and metal workers. A blacksmith and shaman, the archetypal artificer, named Ilmarinen forges Sampo, a wealth-making machine, or talisman, often interpreted as the sun. Ilmarinen is akin to Daedalus. There are many stories of his search for a wife and his failure, until he forges a woman of gold! With bellows, forge, and ore he fashions cross bow, skiff, heifer, and plow. These creations do not please. He then creates Sampo, solar like source of energy and power.

The eternal magic artist,
Ancient blacksmith, Ilmarinen,
First of all the iron-workers,
Mixed together certain metals,
Put the mixture in the caldron,
Laid it deep within the furnace,
Called the hirelings to the forging.
Skilfully they work the bellows,
Tend the fire and add the fuel,
Three most lovely days of summer,
Three short nights of bright midsummer,
Till the rocks begin to blossom,
In the foot-prints of the workmen,
From the magic heat and furnace.


Leave my native fields and woodlands,
Never shall I, in my life-time,
Say farewell to maiden freedom,
Nor to summer cares and labors,
Lest the harvest be ungarnered,
Lest the berries be ungathered,
Lest the song-birds leave the forest,
Lest the mermaids leave the waters,
Lest I sing with them no longer.

The clues here are first, gender, and second, meaning myth. The steel worker for all his brawn, bravery, and bull cannot have whatever woman he chooses. Certainly not if she must leave the harvest and the birds. He may be allied with the fire, she is allied with earth and air. The problem of climate change will not be solved without smashing the patriarchy. She simply will not have it. Such is the meaning supplied by the tale of Ilmarinen. Superstition or class consciousness? It was part of the lore of the Finns. The other clue may also be found in West Africa.

The Yoruba deity, Ogun, was the orisha, or spirit of iron and metal working. Among the Mande of West Africa the forge was an altar and sanctuary as well as a place of craft. Iron smelting was active in Dahomey and Benin cultures from six centuries B.C.E. Children were apprenticed to learn the nyama, an axiom that knowledge is power if property articulated. The weapons and the agricultural implements upon which material subsistence depended were made by these iron workers. They are also strict gender regimes. Robert Farris Thompson writes, “Thus, across the Atlantic, iron instruments are all, in the end, the children of Ogun, carried on his broad and mighty shoulders…. Oguin marches only with the spiritually vital and the quick of hand.” It was Ogun who throughout African America, Bahia to Haiti, accompanied the liberation fighters against slavery.

The archaeologist and historian V. Gordon Childe explains that the metal worker was the first crafts person in human history preceding even the potter and the weaver. The craft involved discoveries of geology and chemistry and transformation under heat. Smelting and casting were not simple procedures. The abstruse knowledge or craft lore was bound with magic, and eventually the workers formed a “mystery” or guild.

Noel Ignatiev did not hear these historically profound myths, one from Scandinavia and the other from West Africa, though his fellow workers had ancestors from both regions. We cannot imagine for a moment that Ogun hovered over the men in the maintenance shed at the U.S. Steel’s Gary works, men playing cards, men napping on the bench, men sharing a cold sandwich, men hassled, annoyed or destroyed by a thousand tricks played by management. Nor do we find Ilmarinen among them glorifying his powers of creation. Alienation is the theme, refusal of work is the survival method, and with it a mite of joy, a tad of pilfering. To read how the maintenance crew, black and white, repaired a motor-boat engine and organized a fishing trip is the feint sign of another world of self-activity, commoning, and cooperation. It becomes one of those anecdotes of what Noel comes to call “ordinary people.” He has faith enough in us not to call it “prefigurative.” We could do that ourselves.

Noel writes with pleasure and wit, prodding and smiling as he goes. The memoire is introduced with a quotation from The Apocrypha, “For gold is tried in the fire, and acceptable men in the furnace of adversity.” Much of the adversity is unsaid. Of course it involves longing for the other half of the human race. Ogun, Ilmarinen, and Rebecca Harding Davis help discern it. More is involved than, as the I.W.W. used to say, pork chops.

Let us conclude with DuBois who can still help us with our ‘unfinished business’ and ‘uncreated conscience.’ He said that the “basic principles of Reconstruction in the United states during 1867-1876 – Land, Light and Leading for slaves black, brown, yellow and white, under a dictatorship of the proletariat.” He omits the basic person, the native American, who is essential to the world to come. A word about each, land, light, and leading. “Land” must mean the expropriation of the expropriators and the first nations. No longer real estate, no longer scenery, no longer resources to be extracted. Here was the anti-ecological, metabolic rift. “Light” is the learning, it is the knowledge, the art, the experiences of the class expressed. It is epitomized by the korl sculpture of the woman mill worker . “Leading” is when the corner stone is the stone the builders rejected. It is strategic. It turns the world upside down.


V. Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936), and What Happened in History (1943)

John Garvey et al, Hard Crackers: Chronicles of Everyday Life (2021)

Noel Ignatiev, Acceptable Men (Charles Kerr, forthcoming)

David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor (Cambridge 1987)

Scott Reynolds Nelson, Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend (2006)

Katherine Stone, “The Origins of Job Structures in the Steel Industry,” Revierw of Radical Political Economy, 6 (1974)

Studs Terkel, Working (1972)

Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy (Vintage, 1983)

W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction, An essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880


Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: