My Friend and Comrade, Noel Ignatiev (1940–2019)

The following is more a reminiscence than an obituary.

I first became aware of Noel Ignatiev (then known as Noel Ignatin) during the crackup of the New Left ca. 1968 or 1969. At the final conference of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in Chicago in June 1969, Noel broke through to national prominence as a spokesperson for RYM II (Revolutionary Youth Movement), where the Progressive Labor Party (PLP or more commonly PL) took over SDS just as it was disintegrating, in the larger context of the disintegration of the 1960s “Movement,” in effect taking over a corpse.

I had spent the 1960s in the San Francisco Bay Area, more specifically in Berkeley, in the Independent Socialist Clubs (ISC), which around that time changed their name to International Socialists (IS) and which over the course of the 1970s spawned five or six break-away groups, the most visible for a time being the International Socialist Organization (ISO). Many is comrades left Berkeley in 1970 to organize in Detroit auto plants and, with more success, in the Teamsters. I became an independent, and stayed in Berkeley until I decamped for New York in 1976.

I pretty much lost sight of Noel until he appeared in Cambridge, Massachusetts, around 1984. I was working in the Harvard Library system, and Noel came to Harvard to do a PhD. As he put it, in one of his many memorable formulations, “In Russia, when you fail in politics, you go to Siberia; in America, when you fail in politics, you come to Harvard.” We were introduced one evening by a mutual friend from Italy.

I was initially standoffish, knowing little about Noel as a person, and still harboring bad memories of his association with Maoism and with the term “white skin privilege” which over decades has morphed into “white privilege,” of near universal acceptance today on both the soft and hard left, and which appears as such in the New York Times. Noel was in that way a pioneer, even if he rejected most of the currents which picked up the term and integrated it into a left-liberal respectability he loathed. Loathing was a leitmotiv of his political judgments; when I would criticize some formation such as Labor Notes (cf. below), Noel would say “I want to hear some loathing.”

We began to meet, off and on at first, as refugees from the post-1970 shipwreck of the left. My hero from the history of revolutions was (and remains) Rosa Luxemburg; Noel’s was John Brown. I was oriented to the radical currents of the European revolutionary movements, and the American groups which looked to them; while Noel was knowledgeable about them, and had had ties to Italian Autonomia, he was far more rooted than I in American currents, from the pre–Civil War Abolitionists onward. He talked at times of re-creating for the present John Brown’s action at Harper’s Ferry, by which he meant some kind of action that would polarize the situation as Harper’s Ferry had done in 1859. We converged around a recognition of the IWW as the most radical current to date in the history of the American working class. The decades of absence of any mass radical movement in the streets in the United States never put these divergences to the test.

My past association with the currents growing out of the 1960s isc kept me focused, from afar, on their organizing in the Midwest, above all, again, in Detroit. In 1993, I persuaded Noel to attend a conference of Labor Notes, one of the most successful mini-mass creations of the “industrialized” is comrades. We conferred on the sidelines, unenthused. Noel reminded me of some 1960s conferences in Chicago where the tone had been set by black radicalism and where “it was the is types who were relegated to the sidelines.”

Noel was no hard-nosed Marxist philistine; he listened to Mozart day in and day out; I was occasionally puzzled by his lack of interest in black-inspired music, which was then my orientation; he showed no interest in jazz, which in those Cambridge years was my focus. He said once “jazz is about being cool,” which did not interest him. African culture was also a dead key for him. He read widely, far more than I, in contemporary novels, while I settled in to writing a PhD thesis on Herman Melville, on whom we did converge. My choice of Melville did grow out of an interest in the questions of race and class, which owed a great deal to my discussions with Noel. I could honestly say that Noel got me intellectually and culturally interested in America, which had previously been eclipsed for me by Europe.

We staked out a bench by the Charles River, on which we proclaimed hegemony. Noel referred to Harvard as the “boneyard,” to which we had come to retire. Noel had a personal warmth and humor which was infectious. He was very successful in attracting women, an ongoing topic of conversation between us. He was also intent on having children, and had a son and a daughter in the 1980s. He quoted Joe DiMaggio, who said that of all the things in his life of which he was proud, his grandchildren were the most important.

We traveled together on occasion, once to Philadelphia, from where we visited the nearby Amish country, because the radical religious sects already in the late seventeenth century had attacked slavery. In 1989, we drove down to Pittston, Virginia, where a long and militant miners’ strike was underway. One striking miner invited us to his home, where Noel held back from expressing his thoughts on the limits of trade unionism. The miner offered to meet us again the next day and show us around, then caught himself and said “No, wait, I have a date with a wild turkey!” What struck me most of the way back to Cambridge was the contrast between the miners’ scene in Appalachia, truly a separate world, and the endless stretches of suburbia.

Noel could be overbearing, and told me more than once that “I could still save my soul, by which he meant (I suppose) becoming an “Ignatievite.” I attended a founding editorial meeting of what became Race Traitor, which appeared from 1993 until 2005 (I had my own plans, and held back, though I did submit a couple of articles, my two-part series on “Race and the Enlightenment,” and in 2010 co-founded Insurgent Notes, with a number of comrades).

In the year 2000, I left Cambridge for New York, which had always been my intention. My contact with Noel over the remaining two decades of his life was mainly on the phone. Not a week before he died, he was trying to draw me out once again on the issue of Lenin vs. Luxemburg on the national question; he was relentless when there was any kind of serious disagreement. It was to be our last phone call. I wrote to him a day or two before he died, care of his son John Henry:

Dear Noel,

John told me 1–2 hours ago about your decision to forego any further surgery and let nature take its course. Very courageous, as your dealing with your deteriorating condition over the past weeks has been courageous.

I just wanted John Henry to read this to you as I doubt we will talk or write again.

I plan to write an article or some such about our friendship for Insurgent Notes.

We became friendly in Cambridge in the early ’80s and have been friends, with ups and downs, ever since. For me, it goes without saying, it was a great privilege. You taught me to see America and American history in a way I never had. Beyond that, your very magnanimous spirit and warmth were always infectious. When I was down and out because of crises with different girlfriends, you were always there to help and above all to listen. Those days on our “bench” next to the Charles, during our enforced retirement after the 1970s collapse of the left, will always stay with me, as all the other shared memories will stay with me.

I am glad we were able to write and above all talk until quite recently. I will always remember you, with great affection.

Your friend and comrade always.

Love

Loren

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