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Month March 2020

Our Symposium on the Life and Work of Noel Ignatiev

Noel Ignatin was born on December 27, 1940, in Philadelphia. The family had changed its last name before Noel was born; his grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Noel changed it back to something closer to the original name in the 1980s. Noel graduated from Central High School in Philadelphia and attended the University of Pennsylvania, but after his third year there he dropped out. He worked in steel mills and other factories, mostly in Chicago. He had become a radical activist while still a teenager, primarily in a group called the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute a Marxist-Leninist Communist Party in the United States (poc). Noel wrote a brief account of his experiences in that group, titled “In My Youth.”

After being laid off in 1984, Noel applied to the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University and, despite his lack of an undergraduate degree, was accepted. He earned his master’s degree in 1985. He became a lecturer at Harvard while working toward his PhD in American studies, which he received in 1994. His dissertation was published as How the Irish Became White in 1995. He edited two other books—The Lesson of the Hour by Wendell Phillips and A New Notion: Two Works by CLR James: “Every Cook Can Govern” and “The Invading Socialist Society.” He taught at several institutions over the years, mainly the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

He submitted occasional articles and comments to Insurgent Notes, including an abolitionism study guide, and in our symposium on the Sojourner Truth Organization.

Over sixty years of political activism, he was most notably known for his work with the Sojourner Truth Organization, the Race Traitor journal and Hard Crackers magazine. I worked with him as a co-editor of Race Traitor and I am a member of the editorial committee of Hard Crackers.

On January 25 of this year, I spoke at a memorial for Noel at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. During those remarks, I said:

Noel had a profound influence on several generations of political activists—the student radicals of 1968, the workplace activists of the 1970s, the anti-fascist Anti-Racist-Action fighters of the 1980s, the anti-globalization protesters of the turn of the century, and the Occupiers during the last decade. Though he is no longer with us, I’d suggest that we are not yet done with Noel and he is certainly not yet done with us.

We need, I think to develop a fuller accounting of the depth and breadth of his political thought, its coherence and its value for revolutionary action in the years to come. Indeed, I think it’s an obligation that we owe Noel. He mostly wrote for the moment and the movement and we need to take stock of all his writings and actions. There are plans underway to publish some of his own writings and the recollections of others as well as a collection of his writings but those should only be first steps.

This symposium is a small contribution to that process. We thank all the contributors and especially want to thank the historian, Staughton Lynd, for permission to publish a lengthy email exchange he had with Noel in 2015.

Readers are encouraged to comment.

We may have more contributions to publish in the future.

A final note—this issue also contains a review of Jeremiah Moss’s Vanishing New York: How A Great City Lost its Soul (2017), by Loren Goldner.