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Molecules and Vectors

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.

Ignatiev’s account of work and struggle in the steel mill is an important corrective to those who would ignore what workers think, or argue that socialism follows a predetermined course understood solely by the leaders of the parties and unions who are supposed to guide the working class, or the teleologically minded intellectuals whose privileged knowledge of the laws of history has granted them oracular powers. While the workers at Ignatiev’s mill all belonged to the United Steel Workers, the union had minimal presence in daily life; it negotiated contracts and presented them to its members, but its structure acted as a bulwark against the class struggle. One of Ignatiev’s anecdotes is an apt illustration:

I attended a few union meetings shortly after I began, and found that the only people there were paid officials and those seeking to replace them. I once complained to one of the incumbents about the ineffectuality of the union.

“What’s your grievance?” the official asked me.

“This job sucks.”

“That’s not a grievance; that’s a gripe.”

He meant that if the company were paying me less than the contract called for, or was assigning overtime unfairly, he could do something about it, but as for my complaint, there was nothing he could do. That about summed it up for me.

Ignatiev had learned this lesson even before his time in Gary, when he worked at another factory making street lamps. After he was promoted to the position of drill press operator, Ignatiev writes, “my fellow workers taught me how to run the machine and also how to sabotage it when I needed a break. They 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.” In Gary, he saw the same practices in everyday life inside and outside the factory, which too many appointed representatives of the working class failed to recognize:

Shortly after starting in the mill, I visited a well-known radical, who was president of the local union at a nearby mill. I asked him about the movement among steel workers.

“What movement?” he said. “There is no movement.”

I knew that in the mill where the man worked it was common for the men to finish their work in half a shift and spend the rest of the shift in the tavern across the street. I asked him about that.

“So what? They’ve been doing that for years. It doesn’t mean anything.”

I had read about the history of the struggle for a shorter work day and I thought that the men spending their time in the tavern were doing something significant, but said nothing. I remember a rainy night when a foreman came into a shanty. I was sitting with a few other maintenance workers. Some were drinking coffee, some were playing cards, some were snoozing. The foreman asked two of them to see about a certain piece of equipment that was broken.

“Can’t you see I’m busy?” said one, as he picked up the cards for the next deal.

“We’ll get it when the rain stops,” said another.

In everyday sabotage and insubordination, Ignatiev saw the capacity necessary for organized action against the employer and ultimately against the capitalist system. “The union, at best, is a defensive organization,” he writes, “but something more is needed to free the working class from its subordination to capital.” Meanwhile, it was the Sojourner Truth Organization that had offered Ignatiev “a vision of mass organization independent of the unions,” seeking to support workers’ self-organization and cultivate the emergence of new kinds of solidarity.

What is the process by which we can move from the everyday resistance which exists within capitalism to the organized power that can overturn it?

This vision is not easy to maintain, especially when even the meager defenses that U.S. history has allowed to labor are being further eroded. And there is nothing to guarantee that everyday acts of insubordination and sabotage will develop into wildcat strikes and mass organizations, much less a revolution against the entire capitalist system. What is the process, then, by which we can move from the everyday resistance which exists within capitalism to the organized power that can overturn it? Natacha Michel sums it up as the tension between two deceptively simple political statements: “people think,” which means they can conceive of what else is possible in a situation, and “politics doesn’t always exist,” since what is possible rarely actually comes into existence.

But without commitment to the break—to the legacy of the emancipatory ruptures that have happened in the past, and the vision of new ones in the future, despite the fact that, as inventions, they are by definition unknowable to us now—the resolution of this tension is not only unlikely but impossible. The careful reader will notice that one of the most important themes of Acceptable Men is the daily process of maintaining this commitment. “From the time I was a youngster I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to revolution,” Ignatiev writes. “What drove me to it I cannot say.” To dedicate one’s life to human emancipation is a decision one could decline to make; yet it is also a condition that seems as if it were imposed from birth, and on more days than others, it is a burden that defeat makes painful to bear. It is a life that is oriented toward the brilliant horizon of possibility but mired in the grim and murky swamp of reality.