Hard Crackers: the Revolutionary Legacy of Noel Ignatiev

Noel Ignatiev speaking at Occupy Boston.

Back in 1996, while browsing through the Marxism section at Labyrinth Books near Columbia University, where I was working as a programmer at the time, I spotted a book that stopped me dead in my tracks. Titled “How the Irish Became White” and written by Noel Ignatiev, it did not just promise to be about a particular ethnic group’s embrace of white supremacy but how all whites enjoy privileges that help to keep the working class divided. I purchased the book, took it home and read it over the next couple of days. It remains one of the most important studies of class and race I have ever read.

I had no idea who Ignatiev was at the time but assumed that he was a radical academic who had a lengthy CV, with dozens of books and articles to his credit. In fact, this was the only book he had ever written. Based on his Harvard University history dissertation, it was produced under much different circumstances than by other PhD’s. To start with, Ignatiev had not even completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. It turned out that his reputation as one of the left’s most important public intellectuals helped open the door. He had dropped out in the late 50s in order to get a job in industry, just as I had in 1978 as part of the SWP’s “proletarianization” turn. I lasted one morning as a spot welder while Ignatiev held down one steel mill or factory job for the next 20 years. It was his experience working with white and black workers under unequal conditions in such places that provided the insights that led him to write “How the Irish Became White”, a book that while meeting Harvard’s scholarly expectations was also a call to struggle. Unlike the typical Marxist tome destined for the university library’s bookshelf, this one had a back cover blurb by Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Imagine how surprised and delighted I was to get a Facebook friend request from Noel exactly twenty years after I bought his book. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that we were on the same wave length. We both found Sandernista versions of “democratic socialism” to be a mockery of the revolutionary socialism that both of us senior Marxist citizens still believed in. Noel was five years older than me but we were both 60s radicals. He started out as Communist Party member in the late 50s but departed as an “ultraleftist” opposed to Khrushchev’s reforms as part of a small group known as the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (POC). As silly and bombastic their name, this tiny sect had some formidable members besides Noel, including Theodore Allen and Nelson Peery. While much of their discussion revolved around the correct way to reinstitute proper Stalinist principles, they also began to explore the question of white supremacy that they felt key to the coming American revolution. Allen, a white man, would write “The Invention of the White Race”, a two-volume work, while Peery, an African-American, would contribute his own lived experience to their joint theoretical project.

It didn’t take long for Noel to close the door on Stalinist sectarianism and to become a leader of SDS where his political acumen and working-class credentials were held in high regard. After SDS fractured, he became a leader of the RYM II faction that eventually spawned Bob Avakian’s RCP. Not satisfied with the direction the shards of SDS were going, Noel founded his own group called the Sojourner Truth Organization that embodied his own views on white supremacy as well as elements of CLR James and Gramsci’s Marxism. After the STO folded, Noah put out the magazine “Race Traitor” whose title speaks for itself.

In 1985, Noel entered Harvard’s graduate school at the age of 45. This was a turning point in his life. Factory jobs were drying up and his approaching middle-age made this type of activism onerous. After getting his PhD, Noah took a job at Massachusetts College of Art where he gave classes related to his life-long research on race and class.

Not long after we became FB friends, he asked me if I could help out with his latest project, namely a new magazine called Hard Crackers that embodied both his politics as well as a new way of writing about American workers. Instead of the typical sociological hokum, the magazine would solicit contributions from working stiffs about their problems and their hopes.

I introduced the magazine to my blog readers on July 26, 2016:

There is something decidedly old school about Hard Crackers. There is no website [of course, there is one now: https://hardcrackers.com/], a gesture that is consistent with the esthetic of the magazine that has the redolence of the factory floor, the billiards parlor, the bowling alley and the saloon whose juke box features Hank Williams and Hank Ballard.

The articles in the premiere issue of Hard Crackers were just the kind that I dote on. They remind me of Harvey Swados’s classic 1957 Bildungsroman “On the Line”, a collection of stories about being an auto worker in the Mahwah Ford Plant. Or Michael Yates’s In and Out of the Working Class. Or even the novels and short stories of Charles Bukowski, who while by no means being a Marxist, conveyed through his fiction the observation made by Karl Marx in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844: “…the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.”

I imagine that this is the kind of reading material that most CounterPunchers would relish.

Turning now to the memorial issue for Noel, I found it a real joy from cover to cover. Eschewing hagiography, it depicted the great Noel Ignatiev, warts and all. The one time I met him in person was a very pleasant experience, like old soldiers recounting war stories. However, some of the stories about him made him sound like a real pill. He never budged an inch on political differences and was capable of cutting remarks. You might even call him a fanatic like someone else in American history as recounted by Jarrod Shanahan in the opening article: “It’s no coincidence that Noel lived his life in emulation of John Brown, who he claimed was perhaps the only white person to ever completely transcend whiteness.”

This comparison made perfect sense to me. Basing himself on Protestant evangelicalism, Brown was an absolutist who refused to compromise with slavery. It had to be abolished even if he was the only man willing to confront it. In 2021, the task is still abolitionism but of wage slavery. If you are not ready to devote your life to smashing it, you’d better find something other than revolutionary socialism to give your life meaning. Noel Ignatiev was an uncompromising enemy of wage slavery and the remnants of chattel slavery. He fought tooth and nail both on the factory floor and in the college classroom. I urge you to purchase the commemoration issue and to become a subscriber to Hard Crackers. There is no other magazine quite like it and its existence is the final cornerstone in Noah Ignatiev’s revolutionary legacy.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.