Noel Ignatiev’s radical commitments
Acceptable Men: Life in the Largest Steel Mill in the World by Noel Ignatiev. Charles H. Kerr, 121 pages.
Read Noel Ignatiev’s life story as history: a chronicle of capitalism and industrial decline, of work and labor organization, of the composition of class and race. But read it also as a story of militancy, of the coming together of vectors which, if we have any prospect of awakening from the nightmare of history, will have to become all of us. “By the time I began working at Gary Works I considered myself a communist revolutionary,” writes Ignatiev in his posthumously published memoirs Acceptable Men. “Going to work in the mill itself was for me a political act.”
In 1961, Ignatiev dropped out of college with two aims: “First, I wanted to be close to the working class, which I viewed as the revolutionary class of the age. Secondly, I wanted to help the class in its struggle for communism.” A decade later he arrived at the blast furnaces of the largest steel mill in the country, the U.S. Steel Gary Works, where iron ore and coke are combined with a limestone catalyst to make pig iron, the brittle alloy that is converted into steel. It was here that he heard a racist remark that in Acceptable Men prompts a longer biographical reflection on a night Ignatiev spent in jail just before he went to college, when he tried to stop a white police officer from beating a black man. Such experiences were the basis of the work he would do much later when he left the factory to become an academic. As he wryly puts it: “In the United States black revolutionaries I knew personally went to prison for decades or were murdered in their beds, while so-called whites went to . . . graduate school.”
In everyday sabotage and insubordination, Ignatiev saw the capacity necessary for organized action against the capitalist system.
Years before Ignatiev arrived in Gary, and decades before he wrote How the Irish Became White, he coauthored a groundbreaking pamphlet with Theodore Allen, the author of The Invention of the White Race. “White Blindspot,” known for introducing the term “white-skin privilege,” took its title from W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, which serves as its first epigraph. “Only the Blindspot in the eyes of America, and its historians,” Du Bois wrote, “can overlook and misread so clear and encouraging a chapter of human struggle and human uplift.” Contrary to the racist and elitist “propaganda of history” that represented the reconstruction of the Southern states following the Civil War as a period of waste and corruption, Du Bois showed that it was actually “the widening and strengthening of human democracy”—a period in which black people proved, against the “contempt and unbridled abuse that has been put upon them,” that they were capable of self-government.
It was this principle that would define Ignatiev’s revolutionary aims—the principle not only that ordinary people have the capacity to govern themselves, but also that despite the relentless everyday repetition of domination and exploitation, despite the condescension with which they are deprived of control over their own lives, they persistently demonstrate this capacity. And so it was that Du Bois wrote, in the passage which provides the second epigraph to White Blindspot, that “the emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown, and black.”
Ignatiev belongs to this precious, yet precarious tradition: the revolutionary tradition of those who struggle for the emancipation of all humanity, for the self-government of ordinary people which recognizes no distinction of identity—which seeks to abolish every identitarian division just as it seeks to abolish the existence of classes. For Ignatiev, the struggle against white supremacy was the struggle to abolish the white race, not to achieve a virtuous whiteness, a whiteness which confesses its sins and flagellates itself for its fragility.
He conducted his factory organizing as a member of the Chicago-based Sojourner Truth Organization, named for the abolitionist and women’s rights activist who fled and resisted slavery. As Michael Staudenmaier recounts in his history of the STO, Truth and Revolution, the name had been proposed by founding member Lynn French, a black woman who had been a member of the Illinois Black Panther Party, headed by Fred Hampton until his murder by police in 1969. The name was meant to evoke, said French, “the multiracial success of the Underground Railroad.” Well after French’s departure, the challenge of building a multiracial revolutionary organization would remain at the center of the STO’s existence.
This revolutionary tradition was, in some part, inherited; as Ignatiev recounts, his grandparents arrived as immigrants in the United States just after 1905 as the mechanization of agriculture drove millions from Eastern Europe. On his mother’s side, his grandparents were communists who read the Party newspaper in Yiddish. His father was “a bohemian radicalized by the Depression,” who made his living delivering newspapers “seven days a week for eighteen years without a day off, not even a Sunday.” Both of Ignatiev’s parents were communists and autodidacts. Nevertheless, it was not inevitable that he would take the revolutionary path; noting that his siblings, who grew up in the same home and in similar conditions, chose otherwise, Ignatiev muses: “I sometimes think of myself as the product of an accidental coming together of molecules and vectors.”
Such, too, is the nature of the revolutionary struggle to which he was dedicated: there is the everyday continuity of ordinary people’s capacity, but for politics to take place the daily must be punctuated by exceptional moments that turn accidents into events. In her own recent memoirs Le roman de la politique, Ignatiev’s French contemporary Natacha Michel describes how the revolutionary organizations she participated in encountered this problem through their practice of “inquiry.” Militants entered the factory not to impose a line but to learn what workers thought; in 1972, as Ignatiev began at Gary Works, Michel’s organization conducted inquiries at a number of auto factories, where they learned that there was a “desire for autonomy from the unions, whose sole preoccupation was negotiation with the employers in favor of their own interests”—a desire especially strong among immigrant workers whose concerns about housing, deportation, and state racism were not represented by the existing organizations. Engaging in inquiry, Michel explains, did not mean prejudging workers in factories, but “postulating their existence and their political capacity,” with the ultimate aim of “the invention of another kind of organization with them.” But even as people always have and always display the capacity to invent new forms of thought and action, it’s not very often that these inventions result in a break with what already exists, a break that makes new things possible. This is the great, foundational tension of emancipatory politics: to explain the persistence of both people’s capacity and the order of domination that towers over them; to affirm that this capacity is continuous, but also to understand inventions on their own terms, rather than dissolving them into general theories of society or the laws of history.