The philosophers have merely interpreted the white race; the point, however, is to abolish it. How can this be done?
The last time I saw Noel Ignatiev was a few weeks before his death in 2019. He was very sick, yet he agreed to travel a couple of hours to speak at an emerging community space in Providence, Rhode Island. It was unseasonably warm, and the turnout was unimpressive. He scrapped his notes on the talk he was slated to give about U.S. politics in the lead-up to the 2020 election and instead led an impromptu discussion about how to build community power in our city. He spoke to the issues that we faced, the skills that we had and those that needed improvement, and the seeds of organic resistance and how we might help them grow. He summed up the meeting by saying, “All of our efforts are failures until we win.”
Ignatiev taught my teachers, and he taught me. Decades after the dissolution of the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO), an organization that he helped form, Ignatiev and other comrades helped to facilitate an intensive dialectics course originally created by STO. Its purpose was to develop the functional skills of organizers—to improve their understanding of how and why revolutionary change happens, to assess the socio-political terrain they found themselves on, to act strategically, and to evaluate the impact of those actions effectively and honestly. The course was titled “How to Think.” More than helping to keep this specific political education training alive, Ignatiev also embodied this method of situational analytic critique, questioning issues many others would have missed or lacked the ability to articulate. He had a biting wit and a persistent, grouchy optimism, and he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He loathed what he called “love fests”—political unity based on shallow self-congratulatory opposition, which lacked depth, new insights, or a clear course of action. His ideal was never to divide the room, but to elevate the discussion.
Ignatiev is perhaps best known for How the Irish Became White (1995) and a career devoted to understanding whiteness and challenging white supremacy. Ignatiev’s posthumous Treason to Whiteness is Loyalty to Humanity (2022) charts the evolution of this work, but in both subtle and overt ways, it also captures an aspect of Ignatiev that set him apart—the pursuit of truth through honest and relentless critique. He called on everyone to be more observant, intellectually scrutinous, analytically precise, and willing to stake and defend a position. Critical and unyielding, but also patient, caring and generous, he believed that nothing could be gained politically from false agreement—nothing learned by blind adherence to an ideological line, authorities beyond question, or accepting the conventions into which we are raised.
The book left me feeling as I did whenever I had the privilege to share space with him: his sharp, critical seriousness in the book commands self-reflection, while the clarity of his convictions is persuasive and inspiring. It is a nuanced illustration of praxis, a dialectical approach to politics that both accounts for the lived experience of trying to transform society and hones strategies based on study, debate, accumulated knowledge, and the emerging capacities of those around us. As the “new normal” presents an uneasy teetering between socialism and barbarism, anyone seeking a spot on the side of liberation will find in Treason to Whiteness honest reflections from decades of struggle, an engaging set of provocations, and practical discussions of revolutionary strategy.
The central pillars of Ignatiev’s thought are summarized in the book:
After sixty years of political activism and study I can boil down what I have learned into three propositions: 1) Labor in the white skin cannot be free where in the [B]lack it is branded; 2) For revolutionaries, dual power is the key to strategy; 3) The emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves.
Ignatiev began seriously grappling with the whiteness question as an industrial worker and member of revolutionary organizations three decades before whiteness studies emerged in the U.S. academy. Born in 1940, he dropped out of college in the early 1960s and worked in industrial plants over the next twenty-three years, mostly as a steelworker (his memoir Acceptable Men: Life in the Largest Steel Mill in the World was published in 2021). Throughout his life he maintained membership in revolutionary organizations that prioritized attacking institutions of white supremacy. He was a member of the Communist Party-affiliated Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (POC)—which organized against police brutality, for Puerto Rican independence, and through rank-and-file organizing in the workplace—later joining Students for a Democratic Society and the Revolutionary Youth Movement-II faction. In 1969 he helped to form STO.
Ignatiev’s essays from this period offer a useful political history of understudied radical organizing immediately prior to the emergence of the New Left—through its various shifts and evolutions, into the New Communist movement, and after. When STO dissolved in the mid-1980s, he applied to the Education graduate program at Harvard without an undergraduate degree. They accepted him. He helped launch the journal Race Traitor in 1993, received his PhD in 1994, and published How the Irish Became White the following year. He was close with members of Love and Rage anarchist federation in the 1990s and a major influence and mentor to those in the Bring the Ruckus national revolutionary organization in the 2000s. Meanwhile, he taught history at numerous universities, receiving tenure at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. In 2016 he helped launch Hard Crackers, a quarterly journal highlighting the revolutionary potentials within daily life, which remains in publication.
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How the Irish Became White and the journal Ignatiev co-edited from 1993–2005, Race Traitor, advance a historically grounded vision of white privilege that seek to abolish it. Yet as whiteness studies was first emerging as a topic of research, Ignatiev observed that of “those who wanted to make careers (in journalism, social work, organizational development, education, and the arts)” by calling for the end of white privilege, “the last thing in the world they wanted was for the white race to be abolished; if it were, they might have to make an honest living.”
In his analysis of the racist processes of power, wealth, status, standing, and consciousness that have constituted whiteness and its exclusionary benefits, Ignatiev builds on the foundations laid by W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction in America (1935). Indeed, to a great extent, the transformative value (or lack thereof) of the discourses surrounding “privilege” might be measured by how far they stray from Du Bois’ original historical materialist conceptualization. Du Bois defines the “wages of whiteness” as inter-related economic, political, and social-psychological processes. These broad “wages,” or “privileges,” are both the benefits afforded to non-elite whites and the glue that adheres them politically to the ruling class through white racial solidarity. In his discussion of Reconstruction, Du Bois refers to this as a white cross-class alliance. Paraphrasing this idea, Ignatiev argues that whiteness is both a durable structure and a choice, a system of control over others and conformity to the existing order: “The white race consists of those who partake of the privileges of the white skin in this society. Its most wretched members share, in certain respects, a status higher than that of the most exalted persons excluded from it, in return for which they give their support to the system that degrades them.”
Ignatiev focused on how white workers accepted this deal, but always noted its vulnerability. “If whiteness is a historical product, then it must be transmitted.” This challenged not only whiteness but, by logical extension, racial structures generally. Indeed, his work was central in staking out a new abolitionist politics. Excoriating liberal elaborations, he writes: “The focus shifted to an emphasis on scrutinizing every interpersonal encounter between [B]lack people and whites to unearth underlying racist attitudes and to guide people in ‘unlearning’ them.” He argues that this amounted to “a tendency to strictly enforce the boundaries between the races—not only (as in the past) by white supremacists but by proponents of what might be considered [B]lack advancement.” Put more directly: “The abolitionists study whiteness in order to abolish it—not to ‘reframe,’ or ‘redeem,’ or ‘deconstruct’ it.”
His case study of the Irish in the United States illustrated whiteness as a social and historical construct, in large part because it showed how and under what conditions Irish exclusion was tractable. Irish immigrants made individual choices and engaged in collective action to gain entrance into whiteness—and to exit housing and work segregation, as well as eugenicist public ridicule which characterized them as less-evolved, violent, and unassimilable. They did so against both structural constraints and amid historical change that brought new rewards, such as the enormous growth of public sector employment in the early-twentieth century and greater access to suburban home ownership.
Ignatiev revealed that the rewards of whiteness and cross-class alliance vary over time. In industrializing cities whiteness for the Irish, Italians, Jews, or Poles meant access to housing, bank credit, the better side of segmented labor markets, access to unionized public sector jobs, local political power, or the ability to police their own neighborhoods. Inclusion in the suburban white melting pot concretized their place in the white club. In these cases benefits came from proof of loyalty to the white race. Extralegal (but almost entirely state-sanctioned) collective racial violence was the clearest and most consistent form of loyalty. Irish anti-Black violence was visible in the 1863 New York City draft riots and in the Irish gangs that enforced segregation in northern cities after the Great Migration, including their role in the race riots during the Red Summer that followed World War I.
In the postbellum United States, the economic fruits of whiteness accumulated over just a handful of generations. The gulf between white workers and Black and Latino workers, however, expanded most dramatically in the boom years after World War II. The relative decline of the real wages of most white people since the 1970s has been central to the rise of neo-fascism and sympathetic political groupings (most notably the Republican Party). As I’ve argued elsewhere, the psychological wages of whiteness should not be underestimated in white authoritarian political mobilization.
“Make America Great Again” (MAGA) aims to reconstitute the economic, political, and social psychological wages of whiteness that existed before neoliberalism harmed all workers through de-unionization, declining real wages, and increasing costs of living. MAGA is a clear political strategy to reconstitute what Pierre van den Berghe named a Herrenvolk democracy: “democratic for the master race but tyrannical for subordinated groups.” While the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is quietly harkening back to the New Deal (with a nominal commitment to racial inclusion this time), the MAGA crowd wants the “Old Deal” back. Indeed, they pledged allegiance to what Cedric Robinson called racial capitalism in exchange for a measurable cut of the proceeds. In Race Traitor Ignatiev, John Garvey, and Beth Henson aptly describe our present moment and the stakes that we face: “[O]nly the vision of a new world can compete with the fascists for the loyalty of those angry whites who think that nothing less than a total change is worth fighting for. . . . Abolitionists must draw a line between themselves and the ‘loyal opposition.’ If they fail to do so, they will not be heard.”
The cornerstone of Race Traitor, and what sets it apart from liberal analyses of whiteness, is its unwavering commitment to the politics of revolutionary class struggle. Rather than choosing race or class as a primary issue, Race Traitor’s strategy to build a free society involves negating the mutually constitutive processes of race and class. It analyzes the people and movements that saw race and class as forces to be attacked simultaneously, exploring the lessons they offered.
In the three decades since the launch of Race Traitor, liberal identity politics have further entrenched the tendency to see identity in static, ahistorical, personal terms that gloss over the systems of power that differentiate and oppress. In this context intersectionality has been refashioned to complicate the liberal framing of identity politics without offering any vision of a free society or a path toward it. For Ignatiev, identities constructed through lived experiences are largely products of material social relations (economic, political, social, cultural) and thus complex and contradictory. He described, better than almost anyone, how the prospects for a free society are present in the minds and actions of working people. Their thoughts and activities need to be recognized, highlighted, and sharpened into tools which can cut the ties that bind us to elites and support the existing order.
In the first half of Treason to Whiteness, Ignatiev analyzes what these battles looked like on the shop floor in the 1960s through the ’80s, illustrating both the power of cross-racial solidarity to build deeper bonds among workers as well as white workers’ complicit reproduction of racial and class orders. In his writings about the lessons of STO, which formed the foundation of Race Traitor (and later organizations such as Bring the Ruckus), Ignatiev argues that the struggle against white supremacy and capitalism are fused: capitalism has shown no ability to exist outside the hyper-exploitation of racialized workers and the accompanying demand that white workers ally themselves with capital and against non-white workers. He distinguishes this approach from the “Unite and Fight” call for a multi-racial class struggle that stops short of attacking all expressions of white supremacy: “The time-honored ‘Unite and Fight’ approach will lead nowhere. Instead, when it comes to slogans, we prefer ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’ or the same thing in a different idiom: ‘Remember them that are in bonds as bound with them.’” Solidarity, he argues, “premised on the reproduction of inequalities within the working class, with the elimination of those inequalities to come later in ‘the sweet by and by,’ is no solidarity at all.”
For Ignatiev solidarity requires white people “to ‘lose’ their white-skin privileges, the prerequisites that separate them from the rest of the working class, that act as the material base for the split in the ranks of labor.” Race Traitor asks and interrogates the question: “What if the white skin lost its usefulness as a badge of loyalty? . . . . And if color no longer served as a handy guide to the dispensing of favors, so that ordinary whites began experiencing the sort of treatment to which they are normally immune, how would this affect their outlook?” In other words, what if people socially defined as white chose to reject their white identity in pursuit of a better society?
Assigning white workers a pivotal role in attacking systems of white supremacy drew two common critiques to Race Traitor’s analysis. Critics charged that it centers white people’s role in liberation too much, allotting them too much agency and failing to account for structural constraints. Treason to Whiteness addresses these charges. Ignatiev held no illusions that individual white people could exalt themselves out of history simply through will of action:
We know how devilishly difficult it is for individuals to escape whiteness. The white race does not voluntarily surrender a single member. . . . But we also know that when there comes into being a critical mass of people who, though they look white, have ceased to act white, the white race will explode, and former whites will be able to take part, together with others, in building a new human community.
In regard to agency, Treason to Whiteness suggests a symbolic breaching of racial expectations or racial performance. Ignatiev called for race traitoring as an active process, something that could take subtle forms. However, he believed that in the context of demands for radical change, the white rejection of privilege could help undermine the institutions under attack. At a 2011 speech given at Occupy Boston, Ignatiev described how his politics might be practically implemented. He urged white activists to support prison abolition as a show of commitment to radical change:
Part of that demonstration will be by showing persistence, creativity, and resistance to repression, including by means other than those deemed acceptable according to the rules of conventional politics. The famous words of Malcolm X—By Any Means Necessary—must become our motto. Another part of the demonstration will be by projecting a vision of a new society, so different from what exists that it will overturn all existing social categories, including race. . . . Can the Occupy movement embrace a vision of a world without prisons?
Ignatiev’s discussion of revolutionary strategy in this collection identifies openings to engage struggle at work, at school, and within movements. His approach to the question—“What is to be done?”—is more important than the answer. “The task of revolutionaries,” he writes, “is not to organize the workers but to organize themselves—to discover those patterns of activity and forms of organization that have sprung up out of the struggle and that embody the new society, and to help them grow stronger, more confident, and more conscious of their direction.”
In “Introduction to the United States: An Autonomist Political History,” one of the strongest chapters in Treason to Whiteness, Ignatiev sums up this task: “A revolutionary strategy is, in short, a strategy of dual power. It is the treating of revolution as an act for today, as a part of the continuous struggle, instead of a dream to be indefinitely postponed in the interest of ‘realism.’” The concept of dual power, attributed to V. I. Lenin, describes when revolutionary forces compete to exercise legitimate power against the regime being overthrown. This concept thus requires a counterpower. Addressing the 2010 Baltimore Book Fair, Ignatiev explains:
The masses of ordinary people will not transfer their allegiance from the dominant institutions, an allegiance based largely on habit, to a new society unless the institutions of the new society already exist in tangible form. At the same time, every popular upheaval gives rise to institutions that prefigure the new society.
Ignatiev’s definition of a dual power strategy offers a strategic framework that is not only revolutionary but also democratic: it is applicable to our daily lives and rooted in the necessity of building a new world in the present. Invoking Gramsci, Ignatiev provides a framing that fits our current moment well: “The old is dying and the new has not yet been born. The paradox of the moment is that, while social democracy can no longer call forth the energies of the revolutionary class, the forms of activity that anticipate the new society do not yet constitute a visible alternative. Where to look for them?”
While the final section of Treason to Whiteness explicitly addresses dual power, this approach to politics is woven throughout the text. Ignatiev always orients us to seek glimmers of a new world in our existing society; to identify key social contradictions and exploit them, even with the understanding that human consciousness is fragmented, contradictory, and often differs from people’s actions (both good and bad). He identifies the elements of a dual power strategy, which largely revolve around the three practices and skills.
Recognize and Record
In the chapter “The World View of C. L. R. James,” Ignatiev writes, “As a person who had decided to devote his life to revolution, my job was to Recognize and Record the new society as it made its appearance.”
While the contributions of figures such as Marx, Du Bois, and Lenin were central to how Ignatiev percieved the world, C. L. R. James probably most influenced Ignatiev’s ideas about the kind of world that revolution could build. A major figure in mid-twentieth-century Pan-Africanism and a central theoretician of what is known as the Johnson-Forest tendency, which saw the Soviet Union as a form of state capitalism, James centered the activity of the working class at the heart of any viable, non-authoritarian, communist project. As Ignatiev argues, James helped show how “the struggle for the new society was a struggle between different philosophies as they are lived out. The role of the ‘thinker’ was to make the ordinary citizen conscious of the process of which he or she was a part.” He summarizes these lessons, writing:
That is the new society and there is no other: ordinary people, organized around work and activities related to it, taking steps in opposition to capital to expand their freedom and their capacities as fully developed individuals. It is a leap of imagination, but it is the key to his method. The new society does not triumph without an uprising; but it exists. . . . If you want to know what the new society looks like, said James, study the daily activities of the working class.
The Civil War of the Mind
Ignatiev, James, and Gramsci all understood that human consciousness is not fixed. Working-class consciousness is also emergent, shaped by human action, major events, and the choices and understandings those changes produce.
The thoughts and actions of white workers, especially around race and class, animated Ignatiev’s study. He did not hold the naïve and condescending view that white workers were duped by the ruling class or merely bought off. Ignatiev grappled for decades with difficult questions about the internal life of white workers, what he called the “civil war in the mind of the white worker.” In different spheres of life, the worker has two ways of perceiving the world: “One way represents solidarity with the [B]lack worker and the progressive forces of society. The other way represents alliance with the forces of exploitation and repression.” Again, drawing from James, he believed that overcoming “internal antagonisms, not external foes” was the key to working-class action.
“Unreasonable Acts” and Strategic Action
John Brown is a key historical reference point for Ignatiev, as both the epitome of a race traitor and someone who helped advance a dual power strategy. Embodying the “impractical revolutionary” over “pragmatic progressivism,” Brown identified the role he could play, gauged the possible impacts of his actions, and moved swiftly. In the long sequence of events which challenged slavery, he identified an opening and made himself useful to that cause. As Ignatiev writes: “The slave system bred rebellion, which provoked repression, which led [B]lack people to leave the South, which gave rise to a [B]lack community in the north, which was the basis of Abolitionism, which engendered John Brown, who provoked Southern retaliation, which compelled northern resistance.” Brown’s actions illustrate the value of action rooted in a critical understanding of the central conflicts of his day. A small number of people can strategically escalate conflicts to help bring about major historical change.
Treason to Whiteness embodies Ignatiev’s commitment, humility, observation, attention to detail, and persistence. A week before he died, I received a letter from him asking which local Providence bookstores might want to sell Hard Crackers. Though it was not intended as such, the mission statement for Hard Crackers, the journal he co-founded and dedicated much of the last years of his life to, also describes who he was: “political but not defined by party or program, literary but not pretentious, scholarly but not academic.”
Over six decades of political activity, Ignatiev honed the ability to analyze, observe, and identify practices that constitute the new world in the old. His work models how to reflect and nurture that new world—to draw out the revolutionary potential of working people, rather than bestowing lessons on them or paternalistically shepherding them. Ignatiev’s description of C. L. R. James is an apt tribute to his own disposition, with “implacable hostility toward all ‘condescending saviors’ of the working class, and undying faith in the power of ordinary people to build a new world.”
Ignatiev showed us that the answer to “What is to be done?” is not a simple slogan or the regurgitation of sacred texts. It is asking the right questions, learning how to listen, and knowing how and where to strike when an opportunity arises. As one of Ignatiev’s closest mentees, Joel Olson, reframed the question: “What is the most damage I can do, given my biography, abilities, and commitments, to the racial order and rule of capital?” Ignatiev did far more than his share.
“Down with crackpot realism! Be realistic! Demand the impossible!”