Toward an American Revolutionary Praxis
One hundred years ago, W.E.B. Dubois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” How has this analysis from one of this nation’s greatest revolutionary intellectuals influenced American anarchism? Not much, I guess. Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, for example, did not write much on the “Negro Question,” nor did many of their contemporaries in the heyday of the anarchist movement. While the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were a welcome exception to this phenomenon, most of the revolutionary proletariat did not pay much attention to the color line. The famous Eugene V. Debs even stated that revolutionary politics was “white men’s business.” In the late 19th century and early 20th century, much of the revolutionary proletariat—in which the anarchist movement was based—was from Europe or of European decent and their outlook and experiences reflected these origins. The European immigrants brought with them anarchism and other revolutionary traditions from Europe, but—of course—this here is not Europe; the United States, while part of this global capitalist system, has its own peculiar development, with its own fault lines and its own revolutionary heritage, and U.S. anarchists are frequently much less familiar with it than with the European revolutionary tradition. Anarchists in the United States tend to know more about Russia’s Makhnovist movement or the details of the Spanish Civil War than about—for example—the Abolitionist Movement, the Reconstruction era, or the Civil Rights Movement. The New Abolitionists, with their Journal Race Traitor, are a refreshing exception to this. They are looking not to the European revolutionary legacy to imagine the possibility of social revolution in this country, but instead look at America’s own revolutionary tradition, to people such as the Abolitionists and the Wobblies, to try figure out a strategy for revolution in the belly of the beast.
New Abolitionist politics have had an increasing influence on the anarchists in the United States. The politics were present in the now defunct Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation,(2) they have influenced the new revolutionary group that is forming around the Bring the Ruckus Draft Proposal(3) and they have had some influence in the Northeastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists. This book review will look at three books by New Abolitionist Noel Ignatiev.
Noel Ignatiev—who has called himself an anarchist among Marxists, and a Marxist among anarchists—has been involved with revolutionary politics since the 1950s. He was involved with man movements, among them the Civil Rights movement, the Sixties movements, the Sojourner Truth Organization, and (briefly) with Love and Rage. After nearly a half-a-century of agitation and writing,4 his ideas are finally available in book form.
How the Irish Became White (1995)
After spending many years working and organizing in the factories in the Midwest, Noel Ignatiev—lacking a bachelor degree—went to graduate school to study History at Harvard; How the Irish Became White was the result. This book is one of the many great books on “Whiteness” studies that came out in the 1990s. These books—including The Rise and Fall of the White Republic (Alexander Saxton), Wages of Whiteness (David Roediger) and The Invention of the White Race (Ted Allen)—target the New Left Labor Historians, such as David Montgomery, Herbert Gutman, and Eric Arnesen.(7) While these historians focus on the experience of the daily lives of ordinary people, they get race wrong, downplay racism, or overlook racism. These books, following in the footsteps of DuBois’s Black Reconstruction, try to make a political intervention. While changing the world is what is important, your strategies spring from your understanding of how the world works, and these books and historical controversies are important contributions to the development of an American revolutionary praxis. An American revolutionary praxis needs to recognize the pivotal role that racialized slavery played in the formation of the working class in this nation, and this praxis needs to recognize what W.E.B. DuBois and C.L.R. James(8) recognized long ago—the centrality of the struggle against white supremacy in the fight for a new and free society.
How the Irish Became White, divided in six chapters, focuses on how the Irish went from being part of an oppressed race in Ireland to being members of the oppressing race in the United States in the 19th century. The Irish Catholics were victims of a type of discrimination in Ireland which was analogous to what we consider racial discrimination in the United States. Through the story of a revolutionary of Irish stock, John Binns, Ignatiev shows how Binns transforms from being an Irish revolutionary militant on one side of the ocean to fighting with the Irish on this side of the puddle to establish citizenship in the White Republic. At the same time, in 1841, Daniel O’Connell—an important and influential political leader of the Irish liberation struggle—wrote an appeal to the Irish in America to join with the Abolitionists to overthrow slavery and to treat the Negro as their brother. The racially oppressed Irish in Ireland and the Abolitionists linked their struggles to overturn racial subjugation in both places. The Irish in America, though, rejected this and chose to reject their love for Ireland, and instead fought to gain access to the privileges of the white club in their new White Republic.
The Irish did not automatically become a part of the white club just because they had white skin. They had to earn it. Malcolm X describes in his autobiography how he was witnessing European immigrants getting of the plane and he then said, “Pretty little children. Soon they’re going to learn their first English word: nigger.”(9) The Irish had to earn membership in the white club and thus gain access to the material benefits and the public and psychological wages of whiteness by distancing themselves from Blacks. The Irish—or the white Negroes, as they were called—had to create barriers and separate themselves from the black population with whom they lived in the ghettos. They also had to fight to overcome the resistance from members of the white club and demand their own civil rights from the Protestant elite. The Irish forced themselves into the White Republic—insisting that they deserved the rights of citizenship enjoyed by whites—by joining in the subjugation of Blacks.
Ignatiev details this struggle for Irish membership in the white race; he describes how the Irish used the riot, the Democratic Party, the labor unions, and the church to transform themselves from “white Negroes” to respectable citizens. One example of this, as portrayed in the recent popular fictional film, Gangs of New York, were the draft riots in New York City in July, 1863. These riots, which were initiated by the unfair practices of the Civil War draft, lasted a week and in the process the Irish turned against the Black population of New York, killing up to 1,000 of them, while they raised the Confederate Flag and fought to exclude Blacks from civil service and other jobs that the Irish and Blacks both held. The Irish rioted not just against the unfair drafting practices of the bourgeoisie but also to defend and define the White Republic. They wanted a monopoly on certain jobs; they did not want the war to turn into a war against slavery; and they were in the process fighting to gain entrance into the white club and not for a racially free republic. The Irish used the riot to distance themselves from the Black population and thus helped shape a White Republic.(10)
How the Irish Became White ends in 1877 with the end of the Reconstruction, when the new color line that the Irish helped define was marked. “If the abolition of slavery had called into question the meaning of whiteness, the overthrow of Reconstruction marked the restoration of the color line on a new basis. No longer did it coincide with the distinction between freedom and slavery; it now came to correspond to the distinction between free, wage labor and unfree, semi-feudal labor, and between those who had access to political power and those who did not.”(11)
This story of the Irish is a powerful one. Noel Ignatiev writes that “no one gave a damn for the poor Irish. Even the downtrodden black people had Quakers and abolitionists to bring their plight to public attention (as well as the ability to tell their own stories effectively), but there is no Irish-American counterpart of the various Philadelphia studies on the condition of free colored people.”12 Ignatiev goes on to offer a possible explanation, “perhaps it reflects a perception that the striving of the Negro for full freedom carried within itself a vision of a new world for everyone, while the assimilation of the Irish into white America meant merely more of the same.”(13)
In the same spirit, C.L.R. James, when he was looking for the new society in the present—a society where self-organization would replace bureaucracy—wrote that the Afro-American people were the most self-organized people anywhere. James also wrote that the task of the revolutionary was to study, observe, and write down what the workers are doing since they are already creating the new society. James advised that the daily ways in which the worker creates the new society should be recorded in a paper. To a certain degree Noel Ignatiev, John Garvey, and others have been publishing a journal, Race Traitor, that has detailed how people are unmaking the white race.
Race Traitor (1996)
While How the Irish Became White was a study of how a group of non-white people became white, Race Traitor is about the very opposite of that. It is about how people who think of themselves as white might become non-white, and thus, as Malcolm X wrote, human.(16) Race Traitor: Journal of New Abolitionism is a journal that first appeared in 1993 and the book is a “best of” collection of articles from the first few years. The book is divided into six chapters and defines new abolitionism; describes how white people, individually and collectively, challenge the white race; discusses how race has changed over the years; analyzes current events and popular culture from a new abolitionist perspective; and contributes to the development of a new revolutionary praxis in the American context.
“[T]he key to fundamental change in the US is to challenge the system of race privilege that embraces all whites, including the most downtrodden.”(17) The goal is not just to strive for equality of opportunity within the existing society, but to focus on race privilege, on the white race, as a strategy for revolution. New abolitionism is something different from what is usually defined as anti-racism. New abolitionism strives to challenge the institutions that reproduce race as a social category. New abolitionism seeks to abolish the white race. “The white race is a historically constructed social formation—historically constructed because (like royalty) it is a product of some people’s responses to historical circumstances; a social formation because it is a fact of society corresponding to no classification recognized by natural science.”(18) Ignatiev and Garvey explain that “the white race consists of 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 the most exalted persons excluded from it, in return for which they give their support to the system that degrades them.”(19) To further explain what new abolitionists mean by the white race, the editors use the analogy of a country club to describe how race functions. “The white race is a club that enrolls certain people at birth, without their consent, and brings them up according to its rules. For the most part the members go through life accepting the benefits of membership, without thinking about the costs.” Race Traitor’s goal is “to dissolve the club, to break it apart, to explode it.”(20)
Why would this make any sense at all? Race is a historically constructed political category, but so is gender and even class for that matter. One can argue that gender or class exists in such a way that those categories also cut across all others and that members assigned unwillingly to the dominant gender at birth also place these gender interests above class and race or any other interests they might hold. Why focus on race? And why would this focus be a strategy for revolution? To answer this it will be useful to look at the particular way that race developed in the United States.
When the first pilgrims settled in Virginia race as we know it now did not yet exist. As in Ted Allen’s book title, the white race had to be invented. Why?
The rulers in colonial America had a problem. After they stole and cleared the land of the American Indian people, backbreaking work needed to be done to turn the land into arable pastures. They were not going to do this work themselves, so where were they going to get the labor to do this? They brought in bound labor from Europe and Africa. The indentured servants would become free after a period of perhaps seven years. After these seven years they usually did not become wage-labor—since this was very rare at that time—but instead became independent commodity producers or farmers. Black and white indentured servants toiled together, lived together, escaped together, and revolted together. Thus the rulers of 17th century Virginia had a major problem in addition to the labor shortage that characterized economic life in the colonies. Who was going to police the laborers in a place where land was up for grabs? It became necessary to enlist one part of the workers to police the other part. Toward the end of the 17th century, Virginia started to pass a series of laws to drive a wedge between African and European decedents— laws such as those forbidding marriage between Europeans and Africans. By 1705, Virginia’s rulers had driven the wedge between Black and white wide enough to give every white bond laborer a musket after they finished their term of indenture—while only twenty-five years previously Virginia was plagued by servile revolts. The rulers created race by drawing discriminatory lines against Africans and Indians. The white race was the product of political choices. Race did not exist—it had to be invented to divide the masses and to police the labor force. Racialized slavery solved both of colonial Virginia’s major problems: it solved the labor shortage and created docile workers. The invention of the white race started the way in which special privileges were granted to one part of the labor force, including the extension of democratic rights to the white population.(21)
Capitalism is a system that recognizes nothing but individuals acting independently in an impersonal market and thus is colorblind. It can exist without race, as it does in other places in the world. However, the problem for us today in the United States is that capitalism developed hand in hand with white supremacy; working class formation and the concept of the white race developed simultaneously and thus in a sense created a white and a non-white working class.(22) While capitalism everywhere develops its own gravediggers, in the US race developed as a system of social control, to control the internal contradictions inherent in capitalism. Race in the US then functions much as social democracy does in Europe; both make exploitation more tolerable for certain segments of the working class. The white race is central to understanding the functioning and history of U.S. capitalism and to understanding the social movements that struggled against exploitation.
Each and every time the white race was challenged by social movements—as it was by the abolitionists in the 19th century and by the civil rights movement in the 20th century—this struggle opened up opportunities for revolution by temporarily breaking down the system of social control. Today, the criminal justice system has inherited this role in the capitalist society from slavery and Jim Crow.(23)
While the Race Traitor anthology offers interesting personal stories of how certain individuals temporarily step outside the white race, these acts by themselves don’t threaten the institutions—such as schools, the criminal justice system, the labor market, and hospitals—that perpetuate white supremacy in our society. Only collective action as demonstrated by the abolitionist movement in the 19th century and the civil rights movement of the 20th century will threaten the system of social control and create the space for revolution.
Nevertheless, one very interesting and fascinating story in the anthology is the one of Joel Gilbert. Gilbert grew up alienated from society and was attracted to the neo-Nazi movement in the Midwest. Later, Gilbert was exposed to the Black power movement and became a left wing revolutionary. Now Gilbert wants to “destroy this so-called white society. I don’t want any more kids to grow up like I did. I don’t want to see psychiatry being used to hurt people. I don’t want to see cops beating down anybody, black or white. I don’t want to see families destroyed the way mine was. The kid this society gave birth to and tried to socialize has rebelled.”(24)
There are also many other outstanding pieces in the anthology, including a critique of multicultural education, a great analysis of the Rodney King riots and of police killings, Lorenzo Komboa Ervin’s account of his experience behind prison walls, and many other articles that together play an important part in the creation of an American revolutionary praxis.
The Race Traitor project follows C.L.R. James in recognizing the importance of the struggle against white supremacy and the centrality of this fight in the United States in the struggle for human liberation. James wrote in Facing Reality that every country “has many national political issues peculiar to it, some of them rooted deep in the national historical development.”(25) One task of the revolutionary is to bring these issues to the forefront. Another is to show how this peculiar history has been challenged in the past. Noel Ignatiev’s collection of the speeches of Wendell Phillips shows that we can learn much from the radical abolitionists about revolution today.
The Lesson of The Hour: Wendell Phillips on Abolition and Strategy (2001)
The collected speeches of Wendell Phillips are very powerful. Included among others are “The Philosophy of the Abolitionist Movement,” “The Lesson of the Hour,” and “Disunion.” These speeches, along with five others, are prefaced by a long and excellent introduction by Noel Ignatiev.
The introduction is at once a short history of the radical abolitionist movement and an analysis of how the abolitionists created a crisis and a dual power situation that yielded possibilities for a social revolution in the U.S.. Historians have argued that the period after the Civil War is the closest the U.S. ever came to a social revolution. Ignatiev quotes C.L.R. James to show how the abolitionists were revolutionaries who sought “to tear up by the roots the foundation of the Southern economy and society, wreck Northern commerce, and disrupt the Union irretrievably...They renounced all traditional politics...They openly hoped for the defeat of their own country in the Mexican War...They preached and practiced Negro equality. They endorsed and fought for the equality of women...”(28)
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Phillips delivered a passionate speech in which he argued for the break up of the Union and stated that for all of his grown-up years he had been “devoted to creating just such a crisis as that which is now upon us.”(29) This crisis opened up space in the struggle for human liberation. At the outbreak of the war, the task for the abolitionists was to transform the war for the Union into a war against slavery.
Previously, after John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, Phillips had given a powerful speech in his defense, entitled “The Lesson of the Hour.” Phillips stated, “I think the lesson of the hour is insurrection. Insurrection of thought always precedes insurrection of arms. The last twenty years have been insurrection of thought.”(30) Later in the speech he explains the power of John Brown. “Virginia did not tremble at an old gray-headed man at Harpers Ferry; they trembled at a John Brown in every man’s own conscience.”(31)
In 1853, Phillips gave a speech that called for “Immediate, Unconditional Emancipation.” In “The Philosophy of the Abolition Movement,” Phillips argues for revolutionary politics. “The cause is not ours, so that we might, rightfully, postpone or put in peril the victory by moderating our demands, stifling our convictions, or filling down our rebukes, to gratify any sickly taste of our own, or to spare the delicate nerves of our neighbor.” And he continues, “The press, the pulpit, the wealth, the literature, the prejudices, the political arrangements, the present self-interest of the country, are all against us.” Thus, “he who cannot be reasoned out of his prejudices must be laughed out of them; he who cannot be argued out of his selfishness must be shamed out of it by the mirror of his hateful self held up relentlessly before his eyes.”(32) Wendell Phillips was not seeking to win over others by talking, reasoning or arguing with them, but instead by drawing lines, by agitating to change the boundaries of the debate.(33)
Anarchists are more part of a scene than part of a revolutionary social movement. The anarchist scene is plagued by disorganization and lack of analysis, vision, and strategy. Even those who are organized and serious revolutionaries often draw on European anarchist roots to create a revolutionary praxis at home. A serious reflection on the United States’ own historical development and revolutionary tradition will be necessary if we are going to get out of our scene and develop a serious movement that will be part of the struggle for a free society. How the Irish Became White, Race Traitor, and The Lesson of the Hour are essential contributions to the creation of this American revolutionary praxis. I hope that these three accessible and fast-reading books will be widely read and hotly debated by American anarchists and other revolutionaries.