"Treason to Whiteness is Loyalty to Humanity": A Posthumous Collection of Noel Ignatiev's Radical HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: Whiteness, radical history, Noel Ignatiev, working class history
Mike King is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Bridgewater State University and author of When Riot Cops are Not Enough: The Policing and Repression of Occupy Oakland.
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.