Noel Ignatiev's Blog


By Noel Ignatiev

In the summer of 1961 I left the University of Pennsylvania and took a job at a factory in Philadelphia. I did so for two reasons: first, I wanted to be close to what I regarded as the revolutionary class of our age; and second, I wanted to help the class in its struggle for communism. Today I guess people would say I identified as a worker. I had been unsure about going to college in the first place, but after my third year decided I had had enough. (To be precise, I had got the job over the summer and when the fall term started I simply didn’t return to school.)

My background was lower (definitely lower) middle-class. Throughout my growing-up years my father delivered the Philadelphia Inquirer door-to-door—seven days a week, eighteen years without a day off. From the time I was eleven years old I used to get up at 4 a.m. three or four mornings a week to help him; we would work for a few hours, then have breakfast, which he would cook, after which I would catch a little sleep before going to school. My mother and I helped with the collections on Saturday. On Sunday we would stop at the automat, which was a treat: to this day I can taste the sausages. One of the high points of breakfast was eating with the drivers who delivered the papers in bulk; I was fascinated by their conversation; one of them said to my father (speaking of me), “Good kid. Don’t say much.” (People who know me now may have a hard time believing that, but I have always been inclined to listen to working-class people.) The route was in a mostly-black neighborhood in West Philly; my father used to say that there was not another white man in the city who could have handled it; many of the customers would stop and tell me what a fine man he was. I was proud to be doing a man’s job.

My father had attended Penn but left after three years; my mother had no college. In his youth my father had hoped to become a writer, my mother a dancer; three kids ended those hopes. They were both former Communist Party members, (my mother second generation: both of her parents had been Socialists and later Communists, part of the army of eastern-European immigrants of Jewish background seeking to escape ghetto life who were the backbone of the Party in the big cities of the east). By the time I became conscious of such things (around 1948), they called themselves Progressives. They were both largely self-educated, a testimony to their background and to the radical milieu in which they circulated. I grew up in a house full of books and classical music; our dinner-table conversation consisted of discussions of ideas.

Unlike in the case of one recent high-profile person who chose to identify with a group to which she had not been born and whose parents were hostile (probably ashamed) and even “outed” her, my parents, while they thought I was mistaken in leaving college, and said so, respected my decision. I remember them smiling at each other when I reported that I was paid for the Labor Day holiday; they understood what it meant to me to be part of the tradition that had won paid holidays. And I remember when some of their friends criticized my decision, my father told them, He’s doing what he wants to do—can you say the same? Their support made a big difference.

The factory employed a couple of hundred people making the lamps that were suspended over the city’s streets. My first job was as an assembler. The pay was $1.35 an hour. Did I take the job from a “real” proletarian? Undoubtedly: every person’s job is one that might have gone to someone else. Did I get the job because of my middle-class background? Hardly; I was hired because I went back a second time after having been told they were not hiring, and the plant manager happened to be in the office when I did, and remembered that I had been there before. After a few months I was upgraded to the position of drill press operator, at ten cents per hour more. I did not get that promotion because of my verbal skills but because I came to work regularly and on time. There I learned my first lesson of factory life: it was my fellow workers who taught me how to run the machine, and also how to sabotage it when I needed a break, and who taught me what was a reasonable amount of work to turn out so that I neither broke the rate nor let my fellow workers down. I remember especially one co-worker, about fifty, Joe, nicknamed “I’m-Hungry-Joe,” and the time they sent the two of us to the basement to grind the rough edges off large lead-alloy castings, using a sanding belt. (Cough, cough.) We had eight of them to do, and after about six hours of fooling around and telling stories, we had done two, and Joe said, “I don’t want to work on these tomorrow. What say we finish them off now?” which we did. He later joined our little communist cell, probably because he responded to my obvious sincerity, and because he was lonely.

Except for the couple of men who swept the floor, the workforce was all white. Did I take a job that might have gone to a black man (or woman)? I sure did, and so did every other worker in the place. One of my goals became to destroy that pattern, which a black comrade told me was typical of manufacturing plants in the city.

My first goal was to fit in with my fellow workers, most of whom lived near the plant, in what was then (for those who know Philadelphia) called Fishtown. In order to do that I thought it wise not to let them know I had three years at Penn. That was easy, since no one expected a Penn near-graduate to be working there, and therefore the question never came up. I also thought it wise, when I was asked, “What are you?” (what nationality—at the time I used the name Ignatin, which provided no ethnic clue) to not reveal that I was of Jewish background—not because I had anything against Jews as such but because it would have been a tipoff that I was from a different social class from theirs. (In my years as a worker in industry I encountered exactly three Jews, all skilled men, leadmen and foremen—not counting the dozens who, like me, left college to take jobs in industry for political reasons.) So I said I was Russian. It was the truth, and it may have even been the essential truth, but it was a different order of truth than if I had said I was a Jew, and it produced a different response—that is, no response, which was what I wanted.

So began my career “passing.” It was made easier by class being the product of history not biology, “an active process, which owes as much to agency as to conditioning . . . something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships . . . always embodied in real people in a real context” (E.P. Thompson)—no less than that other social construct, race, that has received such attention, with class membership (in the U.S.) as a rule less visibly marked than race. (I could write a book on the comparative ease of pegging people by class or race, looking at Ireland, where it is impossible to tell a “Protestant” from a “Catholic” by sight, or at Israel, where it is impossible to tell an individual “Jew” from an individual “Arab” by sight, compared to countries in which the visible markers of class are more obvious than in the U.S., where television, universal secondary education and ready-to-wear clothing have made it difficult to tell a shopgirl from a lady by appearance alone. Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins.)

I do not intend to review the political work I did in my years in the shop. Certainly I made mistakes: some would probably have been avoided by someone born to the proletariat; others were the result of stupidity, which cuts across class lines. Suffice it to paraphrase Othello: I have done the movement some service, and they know it. No more of that. Instead I propose to recount, as well as I am able, the complications of living as something I was not but also was.

In the first place, from the time I entered the factory I was on my own: no special assistance from my family, other than the normal Christmas and birthday gifts. In the second place, whatever “cultural capital” (an inaccurate term because, unlike the capital Marx wrote about, it cannot be alienated) I had managed to acquire at home and at college did me no good in industry; on the contrary, it added to my difficulties and on at least one occasion jeopardized my position: shortly after I started at U.S. steel as a motor inspector helper, the company announced that it was discontinuing the helper jobs and all the helpers would either have to enter the apprentice program (a measure I had resisted) or take a layoff. I chose the former; in order to do so I had to produce a copy of my high school diploma, which I did not have. So I wrote to my high school (Central H.S. the “smart Jewish boys’ school”) and asked them to write to the personnel office at U.S. Steel and assure them that I had, indeed, graduated high school. They did more than that: they wrote saying that I had finished near the top of my class, had been a National Merit finalist and had won a prestigious scholarship to Penn—in short, they almost blew my cover. Fortunately, it did not set the personnel department’s antennae to quivering, and I was able to enter the apprentice program. Once in the program, whatever verbal skills I possessed were outweighed by the skills of my fellow apprentices, most of whom had grown up working on cars, boats and tractors and doing plumbing and wiring around the house—while I was learning to conjugate French verbs.

I can only imagine the loneliness of those who, born to a group they regard as unjust and oppressive and not wanting to be part of that group, are left on their own to figure their way out; it is tempting to try and join the group they identify with, even if that may not be the best for all concerned. So it was with me; but I had an advantage over those who are alone: I had a loving, supportive family, and I was part of a movement, more specifically an organization made up of people from all social classes (mainly the working class), who accepted me for who I was as well as for who I was trying to be—a good communist. (My first organization was a tiny “Marxist-Leninist” sect, but in it were proletarians of many nationalities experienced in class struggle, from whom I learned a lot; I wouldn’t trade the experience for a million dollars; I wouldn’t repeat it for a million either.)

I was laid off after a few months at the streetlamp factory, but found another job in the Frankfort district of northeast Philadelphia. I don’t remember what they made there, but I remember an assembly line by a large door that for some reason was kept open even in winter, with the result that I would be freezing on one side of my body and sweating on the other. The foreman, named Howard, who stood well over six feet tall and weighed almost three hundred pounds, used to stand at the end of the line under an overhead heater and scream at us to work faster. One day Larry, an Italian kid about my age from Camden, New Jersey, who was maybe five feet six inches and one hundred forty pounds, couldn’t stand it any more and told Howard, “Come out on the street, you fat motherfucker, I’ll kill you,” but nothing came of it. He and Darryl, Afro-American (or as we said then, Negro) from North Philly, were close friends, on and off the job, and welcomed me as one of them. I soon left that place and got another job assembling scales. It was extremely frustrating work, and I remember losing my temper and throwing some parts against the wall. The foreman told me to go home. I came back the next day and nothing was said. At another place I ran a turret lathe, making three hundred parts a day for something of which I had no idea. The pay was $1.15 an hour. The owner, foreman and set-up man were brothers, named Herman, Moe and Jake. I wrote a jingle about them which I crayoned onto the wall in the toilet: it began, “Herman and Moe and Jake, my ass they are trying to break.” Most of the other workers there were young black men. Once a week or so we would cook hot dogs on the heat-treating furnaces and eat them on Wonder Bread; few meals have ever tasted as good. To give an idea of how bad the place was, one of the workers punched his card out in April and didn’t return until October; he had worked construction over the summer, for real money. On his return he took his card out of the rack, punched in and went to work. Nobody ever said anything. I quit that place to go to San Francisco. I told the owner on Wednesday that I was leaving in two days. He asked, “Is that all the notice you give?” I asked him how much notice he would give me if he was going to lay me off. He said it depended on what his reason was. I said I had a good reason. “What is it?” he asked. “I found a better job.” “That’s a darkie trick,” he said. “Just for that,” I said, “I’m leaving now,” and I took off my apron, handed it to him and walked out.

In San Francisco I got a job at Simmons Furniture Company at Bay and Powell. The man in the personnel office who hired me explained that they had a bonus system, ten cents for every hour worked. “If you work four hundred hours,” he asked, “how much will your bonus be?” My answer satisfied him—all that cultural capital—and I was assigned to the inspection department to help the chief inspector, who had more work than he could handle. The two of us spent so much time shooting the shit and visiting the ladies in the sewing department—I was beginning to get the hang of this—that they hired another man to help us, and the three of us did less work than the inspector had done alone.

So many years, so many memories. How can I recall the specifics of my evolution? I know that my four years in the steel mills were important to me, because there I got to know a greater number of workers from a variety of backgrounds, and to know them better than I had before. I learned that everyone had a story: there was Slick, who had stopped off in Gary on his way to the West Coast from Detroit (where he was in trouble with the law), intending to stay a few weeks to accumulate a stake—twenty years earlier–who had his clothes tailor-made from fine fabrics and was an authority on jazz. There was Monroe, who had come up from Missouri and raised five children and sent them all to college, and who was a champion bridge player; there was the other guy whose name I forget who was working in the mill while pursuing a degree at the University of Chicago. One person liked opera, another was an expert on the space program, another bred dogs, another had published a book (with drawings) proving that the earth was flat, etc. Gradually I learned that if I didn’t wear my education as a badge of superiority, I would be accepted as just another person with his own peculiarities.

Over time I relaxed and came to understand that “It ain’t where ya been, it’s where ya goin’.” But it didn’t happen right away, and sometimes I fell back. I remember one time in the factory one of my fellow workers, a hillbilly, asking me what kind of music I liked, easy listening? I couldn’t imagine a greater insult. On another occasion I had the good fortune to be at a dinner party at the home of Eleanor Burke Leacock, the anthropologist, and her husband, James Haughton, the Harlem activist. (Also present was Eleanor’s father, Kenneth Burke, the philosopher.) To make conversation Eleanor asked me, “What’s your line?” I replied, biting off the words in my best proletarian manner, “I have no line, I’m a worker.” Another guest, who knew me, laughed and outed me, “He’s a Jewish intellectual.” I deserved it.

During the years of my proletarian journey, I slept on benches on the midnight shift alongside my fellow workers and went fishing with them in the morning, cursed the company and the foremen along with them, got drunk and had fistfights with them, got chased with them down a street by a mounted policeman during a strike, and attended their weddings, funerals and the christenings of their children. It is my judgment that no one not born to the working class can ever absorb to the bone the reactions of someone “born one morning when the sun didn’t shine, who picked up his shovel and walked to the mine” (although some may come close). I think I came close, but there was always present in me a certain self-awareness that led to the native hue of resolution being sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought and prevented me from reacting as a born worker.

I worked in the steel mill with a black worker who, every time the foreman called him, would ask, “Who, me?” I asked him why he did that. He answered, “Two reasons: the first is to give myself a moment to think what I might have screwed up so I can get my story ready. The second is, I figure it’s to my advantage if he thinks I’m stupid. It means he expects less from me.” In spite of my politics, I was never able to achieve the total, visceral separation from bourgeois values he had; of all the things that offended me about my supervisors, probably the one that most got under my skin was being thought stupid; that attitude was a legacy of my class background.

I have told the following story elsewhere, but it can bear retelling: I once worked a midnight shift in a metalworking plant. There were two other workers in the department on that shift, Jimmy and Maurice. Maurice had been having money troubles, which caused him to drink more than he should, which led to missed days and more trouble on the job, which led to troubles at home, etc. I came to work one night after missing the previous night, and Jimmy told me that Maurice had brought a pistol to the plant the night before, planning to shoot the general foreman if he reprimanded him in the morning about his attendance. “Did you try to stop him?” I asked. “No, what for?” queried Jimmy. “What happened?” I asked. “When the foreman came in,” explained Jimmy, “instead of stopping to hassle Maurice, he just said hello and kept going to his office. He doesn’t know how close he came to dying.”

I, of course, did not want Maurice to shoot the general foreman because I did not want him to spend the rest of his life in prison for blowing away an individual who was no worse than the generality of his type. Jimmy looked at matters differently: for him, Maurice’s life was already a prison that could be salvaged by one dramatic NO, regardless of the consequences. Who was right? Well, I had read all the books and knew that ninety-nine times out of a hundred nothing would come of Maurice’s action: the plant guards or the cops would take him away or kill him on the spot. But on the hundredth time, something different might happen: the workers would block the plant guards, fight the cops, and the next thing you knew you had the mutiny on the Potemkin. The new society is the product of those two kinds of knowledge, Jimmy’s and mine, and neither could substitute for the other.  

In 1984, after twenty-three years, I left the factory to pursue a master’s degree at Harvard in education. My intention was to spend a year or so there, reading and taking a break from the factory, but I liked it, and did well enough at it that Harvard made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and so I found myself pursuing a doctorate. I remember the first time I visited one of the undergraduate “houses” (dormitories), sitting in a leather chair with oriental rugs on the floor and bound volumes of Punch on the wall and looking out two-story windows onto the Charles River while listening to undergraduate music majors play a Schubert quartet, I said to myself, I sure hope the rest of the fellows back in Gary, Indiana don’t find out how good I’ve got it here, or they’ll all leave and there will be nobody left to make iron.

Did class privilege play a part in my admittance to Harvard? Without a doubt. I was able to get in because I knew someone who was enrolled there; like me, he had left college and worked in industry; we had done political work together in Chicago, and now he was going back to school; he wrote a letter to Admissions on my behalf. (The Harvard Graduate School of Education prides itself on admitting a small number of non-traditional students every year: the other one my year was an indigenous Australian.)

Adding the years at Penn to the years at Harvard and the years teaching at colleges, I have put in more time in the academy than I had in industry. Nevertheless, to paraphrase Melville, a blast furnace was my Harvard College and my Yale. When I applied for my present job, someone at the interview asked me how I happened to be there after the years in industry. (He had my cv in front of him.) I answered, “I was laid off from a steel mill, and decided to take a step down and go to Harvard.” Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I stayed in the mill: I would have had enough seniority to ride out temporary layoffs, and would have been retired long ago, with a good pension; on the other hand, I might be dead.

Some of what I regard as my best political work I did while I worked in industry. (Mike Staudenmaier recounted some of it in his book Truth and Revolution. As Huck Finn said about Mark Twain, “He told the truth, mainly.”) And some of it I did after I left industry, most notably Race Traitor.

All in all, taking into account my lifetime in radical politics, including my mistakes, did I help subordinate the working class to capital, or, worse yet, contribute to its erasure? Is the working-class movement worse off for my participation? I think not.As Twain said, “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

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