Notes on privilege theory’s critique of Marxism (2)

by Jehu

Continued from here

2. The special duty of white communists …

When Noel Ignatin put his pen to paper to raise questions about the strategy of the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) in 1966, he probably had no idea it would give birth to what we now call the privilege theory critique of ignatievMarxism. Many of his ideas are drawn from works and writings that predate his own argument and from a historical schism within American communism itself over the “Negro Question”.

However, in his polemic Ignatin was concerned to make a single and over-riding the point: White revolutionaries had a specific responsibility in their revolutionary work to carry out education among the white working class in the US of the situation of the black workers and to convince white workers to put aside their racist attitudes and support the cause of black liberation.

This poorer sector of the working class was characterized by a quote from W.E.B. Dubois as a “basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.” The emancipation of man was, in DuBois’s view, the emancipation of labor and the laboring class was far more complex and varied than it was typically conceived in communist activism as identical with the organized (and mostly white) labor movement.

At the time Ignatin wrote his polemic, this more complex working class movement was engaged in struggle on a number of fronts, not the least of which was the black liberation movement in the United States. Ignatin’s criticism of the PLP was, in first place, a criticism that the group belittled the importance of this overwhelmingly working class struggle and saw it as a movement that was separate from the working class movement itself.

Ignatin’s critique of PLP begins with this observation:

“While you pay a great deal of attention to the Negro liberation movement, and correctly recognize it as a part of the global struggles for national liberation, you fail to discover the specific role it plays in the proletarian revolution in the United States. Thus, in your strategy for the proletarian revolution, you place the Negro question outside of the class struggle.”

In Ignatin’s view, the African American people were largely working class and the character of their struggle was decidedly proletarian. According to Ignatin, the PLP held to the view,

“that white workers have “their own class demands” which are separate from the demands of Negro liberation (which you summarize as “more jobs, housing and full political rights”), and that in the parallel struggles of two groups of workers for two sets of demands lies the path to the unity of black and white workers.”

Ignatin’s criticisms along this line are significant, because he was a contemporary of Harry Haywood and worked with him in an effort to reconstitute a revolutionary communist party after the CPUSA was accused of revisionism. (Ignatin was later expelled from the group.) One of the points Haywood made, was that the CPUSA betrayed its long standing position on the so-called Negro Question, which Haywood had played a key role in formulating in the early 1930s.

Ignatin’s critique of the PLP thus drew from a particular brand of ideas on the role of race in the labor movement associated with Haywood’s life work. Although, in conversations with me, Haywood never endorsed the “white blindspot” thesis, what they held in common, beyond all doubt in my mind, was the contention expressed by Ignatin in his polemic that white communists have a particular duty to combat racism among white workers. This duty went well beyond simply criticizing racist ideas and practices among white workers, but also arguing for a broader conception of a multinational, multi-racial working class that is more complex than most communists assumed in practice, as well as a programme, strategy and tactics consistent with this broader conception of the working class.

This theme, that the working class is not just a bunch of well paid white union guys, runs through Ignatin’s polemic. Not only is the working class in the US drawn from many different nations, at a global level, this class is overwhelmingly yellow, brown and black. Ignatin was arguing against the tendency in the PLP to portray the yellow, brown and black members of the working class as separate from the organized labor movement (that was overwhelmingly white at the time); and to argue that the demands of these mostly marginalized workers was a component part of the working class’s demand. The demands of the black and Latin workers were the demands of the working class as a whole, not separate demands.

The argument Ignatin was making in this regards had deep roots among communists going back to the 1920s-1930s. Moreover, every turn the CPUSA made toward what the group around Haywood called opportunism in the 20th century was signaled by its willingness to downplay the “Negro Question”. The white blindspot Ignatin refers to in the polemic is the willingness of white communists to ignore their particular duty in the struggle for working class unity.

It is critical to understand what was happening in the larger movement at this time. The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, an important young activist movement in the black liberation movement, had expelled its white members and demanded they begin organizing work among southern working class whites. This was a profound change in the direction of the movement, which had, until then, focused mostly on organizing black people and liberal middle class whites. A letter by the legendary southern activist, Anne Braden, from that period, showed the impact this decision had.

“One of the very good effects that has come with the call for Black Power from the freedom movement is that today more people are recognizing the necessity to organize in the white community.

Some of us have been saying for a long time that this is a necessity—and to its everlasting credit, SSOC [Southern Student Organizing Committee — Jehu]  people were among those who saw this before it became a popular concept. Now there is much more general acceptance of the idea.

We have SNCC to thank for this, of course. Stokely Carmichael has been quoted as saying SNCC is not interested in saving this country, it just wants to save black people. But it may well be that if SNCC does the correct things to save black people, it will save the rest of us as a by-product.”

This shift in the focus of white activists around SNCC was a vindication of the long time CPUSA insistence that white communists had a special duty to work among white workers to unite the class. White blindspot the polemic, therefore, does not appear in a vacuum, but in tandem with the events occurring in the movement in the South. It was an attempt to restore to the consciousness of white communists their special responsibility in forging working class unity.

So-called “black demands” were not , in fact, black demands at all but the demands of the working class as a whole. When black workers marched for political rights, this was the working class marching for political rights. It was not something to be tacked on to the bottom of class demands — “Oh. And by the way, black people should have voting rights.” The working class was being denied voting rights, because black workers were as much a part of the working class as whites.

The duties of white communists followed from Ignatin’s group’s core belief that in the US working class unity was impeded by racism.

“The greatest ideological barrier to the achievement of proletarian class consciousness, solidarity and political action is now, and has been historically, white chauvinism. White chauvinism is the ideological bulwark of the practice of white supremacy, the general oppression of blacks by whites.”

Although, in theory, no communist should have disputed Ignatin’s claim, by 1972 we have polemic doing just that. Alan Sawyer pushed back against Ignatin’s polemic, stating:

“While indeed there are privileged outposts jealously guarded (usually by craft unions) such as construction jobs, etc., these do not make up the “average” for the American proletariat and the white workers within it.”

In other words, racism is a problem for working class unity, but it is not THE problem. The problem, Sawyer argued, can be defined as one of a small labor aristocracy.

“Indeed, to pose the question of the masses of white workers in a deal is to obscure the real situation and to impose upon the masses of white workers the material situation of only a small upper stratum.”

The argument Sawyer makes, recapitulates a key formulation in Ignatin’s own paper that the capitalists had concluded a white supremacist compact with white workers. The argument is not over whether this compact was actually concluded, but the extent of the parties to such a compact among white workers. While Ignatin claims all white workers cash in on their “white skin privilege”, Sawyer argued any such an agreement only extends to a small segment of the working class.

Moreover, the complicity of whites in the wars of aggression against the working classes of other nations is accompanied by the active participation of African Americans in these wars of conquest. Sawyer asks:

“Now, why would Black and Third World people join the army if they are not getting these few crumbs that the whites have made a deal to get in return for which the whites are supposed to be in the army?”

Sawyer concluded there was no such deal, but that all workers are being coerced by the state to participate in its wars of aggression. According to Sawyer, race privilege was only a secondary factor in the problem:

“If race privilege enters in at all, it is to make coercion more palatable for some whites, to confuse the issues and divide the working class. But as a means of compulsion, it is absolutely secondary and therefore a mistake to put it primary as the DEAL does.”

In this polemic by Sawyer, we can see the outlines of what will become two lines of argument in the ongoing conflict between the “orthodox” Marxist school and its privilege theory critics — and it is also to see what both sides have in common. Both sides agree that the source of the conflict within the class is the capitalist class and its state, who manufacture and spread racist ideology among the class to keep it divided, disorganized and subject to exploitation.

The distinction to be made, as Sawyer puts it, is whether Ignatin was “putting a secondary tactic of the bourgeoisie’ in primary place generally.” The question Sawyer believed must be answered is whether the fight against racism is the “central, immediate task of the proletariat today”. And he does this by offering, as so many “orthodox Marxists” will again in the coming decades, as a false choice between the struggle against capital and the struggle for working class unity.

“Does the proletariat have to wait for white supremacy to be eliminated before it (through its vanguard) takes action against its class enemy? Or is white supremacy eliminated precisely in mobilizing the proletariat (through its vanguard) against its enemy and in the process eradicating white supremacy and other wrong ideologies as they appear in their true form as obstacles to class unity, to class struggle?”

In this ongoing conflict the two sides have since mobilized history, theory, empirical evidence and (frankly) no little amount of demagoguery on behalf of their respective positions. However, I don’t want to appear to be neutral in this discussion: insofar as both sides are wrong, the privilege theory critics of Marxism are so far less wrong than the defenders of “orthodox Marxism” that they might as well be right.

In a world where the working class is overwhelmingly yellow, brown and black, the position of “orthodox Marxism” in this debate is ridiculous. Moreover, since the working classes of the most advanced regions of the world market are mostly non-brown, the capitulation of the working class in these countries to their respective fascist states is indefensible.

I do not buy the argument that the working classes of the advanced countries are somehow tricked into electing and then re-electing murderers and war criminals. Obama got re-elected by an electorate composed overwhelmingly of proletarians, who each knew full well of his war crimes. They voted for him not because he would put an end to those war crimes, or would commit fewer war crimes than his opponent, but because they don’t care about his war crimes as long as they get their food stamp socialism.

If you cannot defend the basic assumptions of historical materialism on this basis, and have to import non-historical materialist explanations to explain this sort of behavior (like the argument of Robinson), you are not a historical materialist, but a charlatan.