Noel Ignatiev’s Conflicted Antifascism

Noel Ignatiev1 left a conflicted antifascist legacy. As a member of the Sojourner Truth Organization (sto), Ignatiev made important contributions to understanding fascism, above all its autonomous political character and contradictory relationship with capitalist interests. His insights remain valuable today and have directly or indirectly influenced many antifascist activists and researchers, including myself. But in later decades, Ignatiev moved away from the view that fascists represent a serious threat that needs to be combated directly. In addition, several times he gave a platform to far-rightists or even endorsed them, actions that undermined antifascist work and bewildered and angered many of us who respected his commitment to critical thought and revolutionary politics. These changes of priority and instances of bad antifascist practice highlight the complex and changing nature of Ignatiev’s political work, but they offer some useful lessons, and they don’t negate the value of his theoretical contributions.

sto was active in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the us radical left was dominated by Marxist organizations, nearly all of which regarded fascism as essentially an extreme form of pro-capitalist politics. The Communist Party and the various Maoist groups upheld the Comintern’s 1933 definition of fascism as “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital.” This definition had served both the Comintern’s Third Period strategy of denouncing social democracy as “social fascism” (and attacking it more aggressively than real fascism), and also the Popular Front strategy of abandoning revolutionary politics in favor of defensive, antifascist alliances with social democrats and liberal capitalists. Trotskyist organizations, meanwhile, followed Leon Trotsky’s conception of fascism as a mass movement based mainly in the petty bourgeoisie, which exploited middle class resentments of big business but whose main purpose was to smash the workers’ organizations in the service of capitalism. Some leftists were also influenced by Black Panther George Jackson’s argument that fascism’s “most advanced form” already ruled the United States, operating through a combination of police repression, consumerism, and mass spectacle.2

Until the late 1970s, sto argued that fascism posed no real threat in the United States, because the system of white skin privileges gave capitalists an effective system of social control that made fascism unnecessary. As sto member Maryon Gray noted in a 1981 talk, this position “stood in contrast to that of most sections of the New Left who applied the term fascism to every instance of state repression.” But as the Ku Klux Klan and other hardline rightist forces began a resurgence, sto changed its position. In the words of sto member Ken Lawrence, “we failed to understand fully that the system of white supremacy, once firmly established by the bourgeoisie, develops a life of its own; it is not simply a complaisant tool of the ruling class.”3 Lawrence and other members of the organization made important contributions to this analytical shift, but—judging by the documentary record—Ignatiev’s role was key.

Ignatiev helped initiate sto’s theoretical reassessment of fascism with the 1978 essay “Fascism: Some Common Misconceptions,” which criticized the us left’s reliance on 1930s Comintern policy. Three years later, Ignatiev moved beyond critique to sketch the outlines of an overall analysis. He offered a set of “Draft Theses on Fascism in the United States” to sto’s April 1981 general membership meeting, and the organization adopted them with a few additions. The adopted theses were published in Urgent Tasks, the group’s theoretical journal, together with a 2,800-word “Comment on Theses” by Ignatiev. Taken together, these documents broke new ground in a number of areas.4

Challenging orthodoxy

One of Ignatiev’s most basic contributions to antifascist politics was to challenge received Marxist orthodoxy. In “Some Common Misconceptions,” pointing out that Communist parties in one country after another had failed to stop fascism’s rise in the 1930s, he described Comintern writers’ major works on fascism as “an official blueprint of failure.” And he tore apart the Comintern definition of fascism quoted above, arguing that “every element in the definition is either mistaken, inadequate or subject to serious questioning.” For example, he disputed point by point the Comintern’s claim that fascism represented the ruling class’s “most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist” wing. In Germany, he noted, fascism was actually resisted by the bourgeoisie’s most reactionary sector—“the traditionalists, the old officer corps, the Prussian nobility”—because the fascists sought (in brutal fashion) to modernize everything from production to warfare to social engineering. Nor were the Nazis chauvinistic (in the sense of promoting extreme nationalism), because their aim to establish a master Aryan race transcended nationalities and was, in fact, internationalist. Even imperialist didn’t fit, because Lenin’s (and thus the Comintern’s) concept of imperialism centered on the profitable export of capital, whereas fascism sought the opposite: importing capital through the systematic plunder of conquered countries. “If this was imperialism, it was a new stage and deserved to be recognized as such, something which the Comintern definition does not do.”

This kind of critique may not seem particularly noteworthy today, when us leftists who treat 1930s Comintern policy as received wisdom are fewer in number and widely ridiculed as “tankies,” and when many leftists have incorporated ideas about fascism from unorthodox Marxists such as Moishe Postone or non-Marxists such as Roger Griffin and Robert Paxton. But in 1978, Ignatiev’s iconoclastic approach challenged a lot of people’s assumptions. Like a lot of what sto did, his article called on revolutionaries to stop repeating what movement authorities told them and think for themselves. It’s a lesson worth remembering.

Fascism’s relative autonomy

The crux of Ignatiev’s anti-Comintern critique in “Some Common Misconceptions” was the issue of fascism’s relationship with the capitalist class. Against the orthodox Marxist assertion that fascism represented a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, Ignatiev argued that a key distinguishing feature of fascism is its “relative autonomy” relative to all classes. Focusing mainly on the German example as representing fascism in its most developed form, Ignatiev argued that although the fascists were forced to compromise with the bourgeoisie to take state power, they did not abandon their program but simply waited for a chance to implement it—which they got with the outbreak of war. While some wartime measures benefited capitalists, others “definitely ran counter to the bourgeoisie’s interests.”

For example, the diversion of trains for the transportation of Jews, at a time when German supply lines were dangerously strained, was not in the rational interests of the bourgeoisie. The execution of Polish and Jewish skilled workers, which was carried out on ideological grounds, did not serve the interests of the Krupps and Farbens, who hoped to use those workers for production. Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of the contradiction between the fascist program and the rational needs of the bourgeoisie was Hitler’s plan, in the event of Germany’s defeat, to reduce the country to rubble, “to slam the door behind us, so that we shall not be forgotten for centuries.”

These are not the actions of a class which is motivated by the drive for profits; they are the actions of a party with a vision.

The idea that fascism clashed with capitalist interests was a sharp departure from Marxist orthodoxy, but it wasn’t completely new within the Marxist tradition. Ignatiev himself cited the work of the Hungarian philosopher Mihaly Vajda, whose 1976 book Fascism as a Mass Movement argued that while fascism was a product of capitalist society, it “cannot be regarded as a movement which is actually launched by the ruling class, and…it openly contradicts the interests of the ruling class in certain cases.” Ignatiev’s argument about fascism’s autonomy also echoes, and may have been influenced by, British historian Tim Mason’s 1966 essay “The Primacy of Politics” or German Communist August Thalheimer’s writings in the late 1920s and early 1930s, both of which argued that fascism protects the bourgeoisie’s economic power within the workplace but takes away its power to determine state policy.5

Ignatiev continued to emphasize this theme in the 1981 theses, declaring that while fascism has “intimate connections with the needs of the capitalist class,” it also “contains an anti-capitalist ‘revolutionary’ side that is not reducible to simple demagogy.” sto members were among the first us leftists to identify us fascists’ revolutionary side in concrete form. In a speech to the June 1982 National Anti-Klan Network conference, for example, Ken Lawrence emphasized the resurgent Klan movement’s promotion of William Pierce’s The Turner Diaries, a novel that envisions a future Nazi armed struggle to overthrow the us government. As Lawrence argued, the resurgent Klan had shifted from backward-looking defense of the segregationist old order to a new fascist vision and strategy of genocidal revolution. The significance of this shift, which few leftists grasped at the time, was born out in 1983–84, when a new underground organization known as The Order started robbing armored cars and killing people in a bid to put The Turner Diaries into practice, and in 1995, when neonazi Timothy McVeigh and others blew up the Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168 people.6

Trans-capitalism

Ignatiev’s (and sto’s) third major contribution to understanding fascism was to raise the possibility that it might transform capitalism into some other form of class society. In the 1981 theses adopted by sto, Ignatiev argued that fascism “brings about important structural changes both within the ruling class and in the mode of exploitation,” but the extent of these changes, as he noted in the accompanying comment, was left “deliberately vague.” German Nazism had crushed its anti-capitalist wing (the Strasserites), but, Ignatiev argued, “such an outcome is not necessarily determined in advance.” He declared that “Fascism in power in the United States will be both more genocidal against people of color and more radical in its attacks on capital than anything seen so far,” and speculated whether a movement organized around the slogan “the dictatorship of the white proletariat” might at some point share power, or even take power on its own.

Paralleling this question of political power was the economic question, “is fascism capitalism or does it represent a new form of class society based on the appropriation of a surplus product through some mechanism other than the value form?” Here Ignatiev drew on a work that several sto members had cited in their writings about fascism: German Marxist Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism, which was published in English in 1978.7 Following Sohn-Rethel, Ignatiev saw in Nazi Germany the incomplete realization of a shift from a system of exploitation based on market relations and wage labor to one based on centralized state control and direct force. If fully realized, Ignatiev asked, would such as a society still “operate according to the laws of capitalism, in particular the law of value and the law of the tendency of the falling rate of profit,” or would it, as Sohn-Rethel argued, represent a new “trans-capitalist” system? Ignatiev noted further that “the whole question of trans-capitalist elements comes up again in attempting an analysis of Soviet society. Some of the fascists themselves were and are aware of the parallels between the two.”

Two decades later, former sto member Don Hamerquist explored Sohn-Rethel’s idea of fascist trans-capitalism further in his essay “Fascism & Antifascism.” Under the Nazis’ genocidal policy of working whole populations to death, not just labor power but workers themselves were “consumed in the process of production just like raw materials and fixed capital,” thereby obliterating “the distinctively capitalist difference between labor and other factors of production.” Although “normal” capitalist development involves genocide “against pre-capitalist populations and against the social formations that obstruct the creation of a modern working class,” the Nazis brought colonial-style mass killing into industrial Europe, resulting in “the genocidal obliteration of already developed sections of the European working classes.”8

I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s an open question whether these dynamics could foreshadow fascists establishing a genuinely new system of economic exploitation.9 The point here is that the possibility can’t just be dismissed, and Ignatiev was one of the few Marxists willing to raise it.

Antifascist strategy

Ignatiev’s fourth major contribution was to help outline a radical antifascist strategy based on recognition of fascism’s contradictory relationship with capitalism. The 1981 theses called for forging a “left pole” within a broader united front, which would

  1. emphasize both the fascist movement’s autonomous character and its “organic connection [with] ‘ordinary’ bourgeois rule,”
  2. defend parliamentary institutions and labor unions against fascist attacks while posing a revolutionary alternative to them, and
  3. be able to fight the fascists militarily.

These points were both informed by and offered broad direction to sto members who were by then participating in various anti-Klan coalitions and initiatives.

In his “Comment on Theses,” Ignatiev elaborated that antifascists need to “bear in mind the relation between fascism and official policy. At times the two are complementary, at other times contradictory.” Thus struggle was needed on two distinct fronts: “sto considers it necessary to oppose both fascism and official government policy, and to do so in such a way that weakening one does not thereby result in strengthening the other. We question whether it is possible to accomplish the end by directing the same tactics against both enemies, or by attempting to wage the struggle against both through the same organizational framework.” These words offered—and still offer—a far more useful framework for antifascist action than either liberal calls to “defend democracy” or the leftist cliché that “the cops and the Klan go hand in hand.”

In all of these ways—a willingness to go beyond old assumptions, exploration of fascism’s complex and contradictory relationship with capitalist interests, and recognition that fighting fascism and fighting the capitalist state are interconnected but distinct arenas of struggle—Ignatiev played a pioneering role in the us antifascist movement. Directly or indirectly, his ideas have influenced a modest but significant subset of antifascist activists and researchers. These included, for example, activists in the Anti-Racist Action (ara) network, whose discussions helped bring about the 2002 book Confronting Fascism: Discussion Documents for a Militant Movement. That book centers on an essay by former sto member Don Hamerquist and a reply by independent Marxist J. Sakai, both of which place the insights outlined above at the heart of their analysis. Confronting Fascism, in turn, led to the Three Way Fight project and blog, based on the concept that liberatory movements must contend not only with the established capitalist order but also far-right oppositional forces of insurgent or even revolutionary fascism.10 Ignatiev’s ideas about fascism have also influenced a number of organizations that drew inspiration or former members from sto, such as Bring the Ruckus, the Black Orchid Collective, and Unity and Struggle, among others. To varying degrees, the influence of these ideas can also be seen in other radical antifascist sectors, such as Shane Burley’s book Fascism Today and some of the writings published by CrimethInc. and It’s Going Down.11

Antisemitism debate

In the documents prepared for the 1981 sto general meeting, Lawrence noted that Ignatiev’s draft theses failed to address the problem of antisemitism. This was corrected with the addition of Thesis 7, which argued that “virulent anti-Jewish policies, sometimes masquerading as anti-Zionism,” played an important unifying role in the new fascist movement and were “accompanied by a wave of anti-Semitic terror unequaled in recent years.” The thesis declared that “the anti-fascist movement will need to expose and vigorously fight the new wave of anti-Semitism,” and specified two major forms of anti-Jewish propaganda to be combated: “denial of the Nazi Holocaust” and “a bogus expression of sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people.”12 This thesis on antisemitism was important, in part, because it highlighted fascists’ tendency to present some of their views in progressive-sounding terms—terms that could mislead leftists and disrupt or distort liberatory social movements. Over the intervening three decades, fascists have made repeated efforts to pitch their version of oppositional politics to people on the left, and antisemitic conspiracy theories rooted in far-right ideology have repeatedly found their way into leftist and liberal circles.13

Ignatiev’s “Comment on Theses” bracketed Thesis 7 in a way that proved controversial within sto: “To the extent that fascism establishes its independence from the bourgeoisie as a whole, to that extent it is likely that anti-Semitism will diminish in importance within the fascist program, although since it has already developed a life of its own, it may well continue as an ingredient of fascist ideology.” In an exchange of letters published in the next issue of Urgent Tasks, another sto member countered that this prognosis underestimated antisemitism’s centrality and staying power within the us fascist movement, and warned that “although there is not yet a mass anti-Semitic movement in the United States, there is a large potential for one.” Ignatiev’s reply was dismissive, and the dispute contributed to a split within sto in which the group’s whole Kansas City branch resigned.14

[Correction: three former STO members have informed me that only some of the Kansas City members resigned, and the resignations resulted from a disagreement over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not the question of antisemitism within the U.S. fascist movement.]

In retrospect, it’s clear that Ignatiev’s prediction was wrong that us fascism would become less antisemitic as it cemented its autonomy from capitalist influence. Forty years later, us fascists remain deeply at odds with the capitalist ruling class, and their antisemitism remains just as strong. Thanks largely to fascist propaganda efforts, the mainstream taboo against overt anti-Jewish bigotry has significantly eroded in recent years. Anti-Jewish scapegoating and violence has intensified and, with the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October 2018, Jews became a target of mass murder for the first time in us history. Ignatiev can hardly be faulted for failing to predict these developments, but his tendency to underestimate antisemitism’s importance would show up repeatedly in later years, as discussed below.

“Caricatures of reality”

Ignatiev left sto in 1983 and moved on to other political projects, such as the journal Race Traitor, which he cofounded and co-edited with John Garvey from 1993 to 2005, and the Love & Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation, which was active through most of the 1990s. In his post-sto work, Ignatiev rarely treated fascist politics as a major focus, and by the mid-1990s it appears he had abandoned sto’s position that the organized far right represented a significant threat distinct from the established system of social control. An editorial in the Spring 1994 Race Traitor declared that “Racist and far-right groups in the main represent caricatures of reality in this race-defined society; at most they are efforts by a few to push the race line farther than what is currently considered proper.”15 Ignatiev took this argument a step further in an article for the Love & Rage newspaper’s October/November 1994 issue:

The fascists are the vanguard of the white race; however, the big problem right now is not the white vanguard, but the white mainstream. Any anti-fascist struggle that does not confront the state reinforces the institutions that provide the seedbed for fascism. Moreover, every time the fascists are able to depict their opponents as defenders of the existing system, or mere reformers, they gain support among those whites who believe that nothing less than a total change is worth fighting for. An anti-fascist counter-rally where people gather to hear speeches, chant slogans, and shake their fists in rage is a display of impotence, and the more people who attend, the more they reveal their futility.

Fascism and white supremacy will only be defeated by a movement aimed at building a new world.16

This position contrasts dramatically with Ignatiev’s earlier view. In 1982, Ignatiev had written that “sto considers it necessary to oppose both fascism and official government policy, and to do so in such a way that weakening one does not thereby result in strengthening the other.” In 1994 he continued to uphold one side of that formulation—opposing fascism must not strengthen the state—but was silent about its obverse—opposing the state must not strengthen the fascist movement. Now, instead of a two-pronged strategy, he regarded the struggle against far-right forces as firmly subordinate and secondary.

Ignatiev’s change of strategy might make sense if the fascist movement had collapsed between 1982 and 1994, but that was not the case. In the early and mid 1990s, neonazi and Klan forces were again on the upsurge—holding marches, organizing electoral campaigns, and forming a major faction within the rapidly growing new militia movement—a dynamic that culminated in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. This upsurge was countered by newly mobilized anti-fascist forces ranging from liberal and pacifist groups to the militant and largely anarchist-influenced Anti-Racist Action network. Yet Ignatiev asserted all groups that focused on countering the white-supremacist right were pursuing an “erroneous strategy” and “seriously misreading the roots of the race problem.”17 (This was very much a minority position within Love & Rage, which had a significant presence within ara.)

Ignatiev’s new position kept some important elements from before: a recognition that fascist politics grew out of the existing social order and could not be destroyed without overturning that order, and that reformist politics was dangerous, in part, because it allowed fascists to present themselves as the only real oppositional force. But the conception was too narrow in its conception of how racial oppression operates, and too mechanical in its conception of how political movements develop. In calling far-right groups “caricatures of reality,” Ignatiev ignored the concrete, immediate threat of harassment and violence they often pose to oppressed communities. And in describing the relationship between established institutions and fascists as one-directional, as a seedbed and its offshoots, he ignored the dynamic interplay between the two. Fascist forces don’t just grow out of the existing order; in pulling against it they also help to shape it. us fascists in the 1970s, for example, helped pioneer demands to end “reverse discrimination” and to crack down on “illegal immigrants” crossing from Mexico, both of which were then taken up more widely by system-loyal rightists, and later influenced official policy.

Conversely, in dismissing Anti-Racist Action for pursuing an “erroneous strategy,” Ignatiev ignored ara’s reality as a living, evolving movement of predominantly young people responding to a concrete threat. ara didn’t confront white supremacy or capitalism as a whole, but it was militantly anti-authoritarian, refused to rely on the courts or the police, and included significant tendencies actively pushing for a more systemic radical analysis. Ignatiev’s refusal to acknowledge ara’s potential contrasted with his starry-eyed celebration of the militia movement, which a 1996 Race Traitor editorial called “a rebellion against the massive, faceless, soul-destroying system that is sucking the life out of ordinary people in this country and around the world.”18

Dialogue with a Nazi

But Ignatiev didn’t just devalue antifascist activism. There were several instances over the following decades when he interacted with far rightists in ways that were at cross purposes with the antifascist principles that sto had put forward. In 1996, Race Traitor published a lengthy correspondence between Ignatiev and “Arthur Pendragon,” a self-described member of the National Socialist White People’s Party. The dialogue, which Pendragon initiated after reading an interview with Ignatiev in Utne Reader, centered on the meaning and significance of race and race treason. The published exchange was highly controversial: some readers praised it as “brilliant” or as a bold confrontation with “white supremacy at its core,” while others found it deeply offensive. Ted Allen, Ignatiev’s longtime comrade and author of the pioneering The Invention of the White Race, resigned as contributing editor of the journal in protest.19

I don’t think it was inherently wrong for Ignatiev to correspond with a Nazi (whose responses, he wrote, challenged him to formulate some of his ideas more precisely), but publishing the exchange was another matter. Ignatiev explained that the aim was to show readers “that national socialism is oppositional, even revolutionary, and that it possesses a comprehensive world view and morality that its opponents had better take seriously.”20 This has actually been one of my top reasons for studying and writing about far rightists myself, because we need to understand our enemies to combat them effectively. But publishing the dialogue with Pendragon was a bad way to make the point, because it had real costs that Ignatiev ignored. At the same time, the incident challenges antifascists to explain what such costs are, rather than just declare “no platform for fascists” reflexively.

In publishing the exchange, which was conducted in Ignatiev’s words “with mutual respect,” Race Traitor provided a committed, hardcore fascist a public statement of legitimacy. It also gave a public platform for several thousand words of Nazi propaganda, above all including extensive and virulent antisemitism. Pendragon declared, among other lies, that Jews constitute a distinct race with an innate hatred of whites and drive to dominate all other peoples; that Jews hold power in the United States and use materialism, tv, usury, porn, and alcohol to keep non-Jews under control; that white women are being degraded by “the semitic slime coming from Hollywood”; that Jews reaped most of the profits from slavery; that Jews pretend to advocate equality to mask their drive for dominance; that the reason black people complain about racism is that Jews pay them; that Jews engineered the Russian Revolution and then carried out racist slaughter of Russians; that the horrors of World War II were the Jews’ fault; and much more.

Ignatiev left most of these falsehoods unrefuted, a choice that is distressing for those of us who experience an extended stream of Nazi propaganda as a direct attack. He did initially challenge Pendragon’s denial of the Nazi genocide but then conceded, strangely, that “there seems no point in arguing over what actually happened.” In his editorial reply to critics, Ignatiev scoffed at the idea that Race Traitor readers might be “led astray” by Pendragon’s claims, but it’s not clear why. Even if we assume that all of the journal’s readers were committed Marxists and race abolitionists, which is unlikely, there is a long history of leftists moving to the far right, from Benito Mussolini to Lyndon LaRouche (and hundreds of his followers).

Ignatiev was more concerned to refute Pendragon’s claim that his views represented Jewish interests, and to make clear that, although of Jewish descent, he did not consider himself a Jew. More disturbingly, he declared “I hate the propensity of American Jews to whine about the past sufferings of the Jews (which they mostly get wrong and in any case did not experience personally) while enjoying all the privileges of membership in the white race.” As a direct reply to an avowed Nazi, this statement falls painfully short of sto’s recognition that antifascists must “expose and vigorously fight the new wave of anti-Semitism.”

Supporting antisemitic writers

Another type of bad antifascist practice that Ignatiev engaged in was to support anti-Zionist writers who scapegoated and demonized Jews. As sto recognized in 1981, us fascists often frame their antisemitism as opposition to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and use anti-Zionism to spread elements of their ideology to a broader audience. This means that delineating liberatory anti-Zionism from Jew-hatred is a key point of defense for combating fascism.

Israel Shamir and Gilad Atzmon are both writers who have long combined anti-Zionism with antisemitic propaganda and lies. Both have repeated poisonous anti-Jewish claims: for example, that Jews dominate us society, that Judaism teaches Jews to commit evil acts, and that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (which claims that a conspiracy of Jewish leaders has for generations been working to establish a world dictatorship through financial manipulation, war, revolution, and undermining Christian civilization) is true in substance whether or not it is a forgery. Both writers have been denounced and repudiated by many left-wing anti-Zionists and Palestinians as a result. As far as I know, neither Shamir nor Atzmon is a fascist by ideology or affiliation, but Shamir, at least, has repeatedly cozied up to fascists: he borrowed the term “zog” (Zionist Occupation Government) from neonazis to describe Jews’ supposed political dominance, claimed that all antifascist organizations were funded by Israeli intelligence, and urged Palestinians and their allies to work with the National Alliance, the neonazi outfit headed by Turner Diaries author William Pierce.21

Ignatiev publicly supported both Shamir and Atzmon, but in different ways. In 2005, at Ignatiev’s urging, Race Traitor published an article by Shamir titled “Russians in the Holy Land” as part of a special issue on Palestine. The article itself was inoffensive; it described the contortions that the state of Israel made to accommodate 1.2 million Russian immigrants, many of whom are not Jewish, and calls for “a non-racist, democratic state, in which ‘Jewishness’ has no legal value…” Thus publishing the article, unlike Ignatiev’s dialogue with Arthur Pendragon, did not put thousands of words of antisemitic propaganda in the pages of Race Traitor. Instead, it lent Race Traitor’s imprimatur of legitimacy to Shamir, and thus misled readers interested in abolishing systems of racial oppression about the character of Shamir’s politics. Ignatiev’s lengthy introduction to the special issue didn’t caution people about Shamir’s other writings or mention any of the criticisms of him from leftist anti-Zionists. And this time there were no angry letters in the next issue, because the issue on Palestine proved to be the last one Race Traitor published.22

Ignatiev’s support for Atzmon went further. In 2012, as Atzmon prepared for a North American book tour, I helped organize a campaign urging leftist organizations to disavow Atzmon and refuse him a platform to promote his work. The purpose of the campaign was to draw a sharp delineation between anti-Zionism founded on liberatory politics and anti-Zionism founded on antisemitic scapegoating. A statement we circulated to this effect was signed by over 130 leftists in multiple countries, and a separate statement by twenty-three Palestinian activists denounced Atzmon in similar terms.23

Ignatiev spoke out against this campaign. Although he eventually broke with Atzmon for endorsing neo-Confederate statements and coded white supremacism, he had no problem with his antisemitism. Paraphrasing Atzmon, Ignatiev declared his agreement that “the Zionist settler-colonial state is an outgrowth of ‘Jewish ideology’ going back to antiquity,” and that “European Jews…by their actions bore some responsibility for the hostility of their neighbors, which the Nazis were able to mobilize as a political force.” He was silent about most of Atzmon’s other stated beliefs about Jews. Even after breaking with Atzmon, Ignatiev published statements by four Israeli and Palestinian activists defending Atzmon and dismissing the antisemitism accusations against him as “cynical.”24 With these actions, Ignatiev trivialized concerns about antisemitism and, more specifically, undermined an international organized effort to combat anti-Jewish bigotry within the anti-Zionist movement—an effort that was squarely in the tradition of sto’s 1981 “Theses on Fascism.”

Concluding thoughts

I first read Noel Ignatiev’s “Fascism: Some Common Misconceptions,” sto’s “Theses on Fascism,” and Ignatiev’s accompanying “Comment” about thirty years ago. Rereading them now, I’m struck by how foundational they are for my own work on fascism—how many of their ideas I absorbed without being fully aware of it. These writings are relatively short and offer only the beginnings of an analysis, but they are a vastly better starting point for understanding fascism than many book-length works that are better known and celebrated among leftists.

This makes what I consider to be Ignatiev’s later missteps with regard to antifascism particularly distressing. He abandoned part of sto’s groundbreaking analysis, failed to recognize the dangers of giving a public platform to fascists and their allies, and failed to recognize the strategic importance of identifying and combating antisemitism. Yet the theoretical insights that preceded these missteps remain useful and important.

In “Black Worker, White Worker,” which was probably his best-known piece of writing before How the Irish Became White, Ignatiev described the “civil war” in the mind of white workers, the tension and contradiction between class solidarity and defense of white-skin privilege.25 This was one example of sto’s larger insight that the contradictions of capitalism play out not only in struggle between classes, but also within the working class and even individual workers.

It’s tempting to try to explain Ignatiev’s mixed legacy with regard to antifascism as an example of such contradictory consciousness. But my aim here has been to assess and analyze his actions and public statements, so that we can learn from them and try to apply those lessons in our own work. I’ll leave assessments of his consciousness and motivations to those who knew him better. Whatever the reasons behind his actions, it’s helpful to remember the value that Noel Ignatiev placed on critical thinking, including a willingness to question those whose contributions we respect.

Thanks to Cloee Cooper, John Garvey, Michael Staudenmaier, and Xtn for helpful discussions and/or comments and criticisms on an earlier draft of this article.

Matthew Lyons is the principal blogger at threewayfight.blogspot.com, an insurgent blog on the struggle against the state and fascism.


  1. Ignatiev’s original name was Noel Ignatin, and he changed it after leaving sto. For the sake of simplicity I refer to him here as Noel Ignatiev throughout.↩︎
  2. See Extract from 13th Enlarged Executive of the Communist International (ecci) Plenum (held in December 1933) on “Fascism, the War Danger, and the Tasks of the Communist Parties,” reprinted in International Fascism: Theories, Causes and the New Consensus, edited by Roger Griffin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 59; Leon Trotsky, “What is National Socialism?” 1933, published 1943; reprinted in The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology, edited by Isaac Deutscher (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1964), 181; George Jackson, Blood in My Eye (New York: Random House, 1972).↩︎
  3. Michael Staudenmaier, Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969–1986 (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2012), 288–92; Maryon Gray, “Current Debates Within sto,” Speech given in the Twin Cities, December 12, 1981, Urgent Tasks, no. 13 (Spring 1982); Ken Lawrence, “Critique of the Draft Theses,” in Sojourner Truth Organization Internal Discussion Bulletin [hereafter “IDB”], April 1981. A version of Lawrence’s statement was incorporated into the final “Theses on Fascism” adopted by sto.↩︎
  4. Noel Ignatin, “Fascism: Some Common Misconceptions,” Urgent Tasks, no. 4 (Summer 1978); Ignatin, “Draft Theses on Fascism in the United States,” IDB, April 1981; Sojourner Truth Organization, “Theses on Fascism” and Ignatin, “Comment on Theses,” Urgent Tasks, no. 13 (Spring 1982); see also Staudenmaier, Truth and Revolution, 291.↩︎
  5. Mihaly Vajda, Fascism as a Mass Movement (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976); August Thalheimer, “On Fascism” (1928) and “So-called Social-fascism” (1929), reprinted in Marxists in the Face of Fascism: Writings by Marxists on Fascism from the Interwar Period, edited by David Beetham (Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1984); Timothy W. Mason, “The Primacy of Politics—Politics and Economics in National Socialist Germany,” in The Nature of Fascism: Proceedings of a conference held by the Reading University Graduate School of Contemporary European Studies (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968), 165–95.↩︎
  6. Ken Lawrence, “The Ku Klux Klan and Fascism,” Urgent Tasks, no. 14 (Fall/Winter 1982).↩︎
  7. Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism (London: CSE Books, 1978).↩︎
  8. Don Hamerquist, “Fascism & Anti-Fascism,” in Confronting Fascism: Discussion Documents for a Militant Movement (Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2017 [originally published 2002]).↩︎
  9. Matthew N. Lyons, “Two Ways of Looking at Fascism,” in Insurgent Supremacists: The US Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire (Oakland, PM Press, 2017).↩︎
  10. Don Hamerquist, et al., Confronting Fascism; Three Way Fight.↩︎
  11. See for example “Debates on Fascism,” Bring the Ruckus, 10 October 2008; mamos206, “Anti-Repression, Anti-Fascist Strategizing Suggestions,” Black Orchid Collective, 16 October 2012; “Morbid Symptoms: The Rise of Trump,” Unity and Solidarity, 15 November 2016; Shane Burley, Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2017); “‘Fighting in a Way That Makes Us Stronger’: CrimethInc. on the Current Wave of Uprisings” (podcast), It’s Going Down, 27 December 2019.↩︎
  12. Lawrence, “Critique of the Draft Theses,” IDB, April 1981; sto, “Theses on Fascism.”↩︎
  13. Chip Berlet, “Right Woos Left,” Political Research Associates, 27 February 1999; Spencer Sunshine, “The Right Hand of Occupy Wall Street: From Libertarians to Nazis, the Fact and Fiction of Right-Wing Involvement,” The Public Eye, Winter 2014; “An Investigation into Red-Brown Alliances: Third Positionism, Russia, Ukraine, Syria, and the Western Left,” Ravings of a Radical Vagabond, 15 January 2018.↩︎
  14. [An sto member] and Noel Ignatin, “Correspondence on Fascism and Anti-Fascism,” Urgent Tasks, no. 14 (Fall/Winter 1982); see also Staudenmaier, Truth and Revolution, 295–96.↩︎
  15. Anti-Fascism, ‘Anti-Racism,’ and Abolition” (editorial), Race Traitor, no. 3 (Spring 1994).↩︎
  16. Noel Ignatiev, “To Advance the Class Struggle, Abolish the White Race,” Love and Rage, October/November 1994.↩︎
  17. “Anti-Fascism, ‘Anti-Racism,’ and Abolition.”↩︎
  18. Aux Armes! Formez vos Bataillons!” (editorial), Race Traitor, no 5 (Winter 1996); on ara see Rory McGowan, “Claim No Easy Victories: An Analysis of Anti-Racist Action and its Contributions to the Building of a Radical Anti-Racist Movement,” The Northeastern Anarchist, 22 July 2003.↩︎
  19. Noel Ignatiev and “Arthur Pendragon,” “Exchange with a National Socialist,” Race Traitor, no. 5 (Winter 1996); Ted Allen, et al., “Letters,” Race Traitor, no. 6 (Summer 1996).↩︎
  20. And Now the Editors Reply,” Race Traitor, no. 6.↩︎
  21. On Israel Shamir see for example the following articles by him: “The Marxists and the Lobby,” Unz Review, 20 November 2003; “Bloodcurdling Libel (A Summer Story),” The Writings of Israel Shamir, undated; “Christmas Greetings to Hellenes,” Unz Review, 5 January 2004; “The Shadow of Zog (Exegesis of Besson),” Unz Review, 24 April 2003; and “Rock of Dissent,” The Writings of Israel Shamir, [2002]. See also Roland Rance, “Israel Shamir: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” Socialist Viewpoint, vol. 4, no. 8 (September 2004); and Ali Abunimah and Hussein Ibish, “Serious Concerns About Israel Shamir,” www.abunimah.org, 16 April 2001. On Gilad Atzmon, see the following articles by him: “Swindler’s List,” Gilad Atzmon (website), 3 April 2008; “The Herem Law in the context of Jewish Past and Present,” Gilad Atzmon, 16 July 2011; “Never Again,” PeacePalestine, 17 July 2006; “Credit Crunch or rather Zio Punch?Gilad Atzmon, 16 November 2009; and “Dreyfus, The Protocols and GoldstoneDissident Voice, 13 February 2010. See also Shabana Syed, “Time for world to confront Israel: Gilad Atzmon,” New Age Islam, 19 June 2010.↩︎
  22. Noel Ignatiev, “Introduction,” and Israel Shamir, “Russians in the Holy Land,” Race Traitor, no. 16 (Winter 2005).↩︎
  23. Not Quite ‘Ordinary Human Beings’—Anti-imperialism and the anti-humanist rhetoric of Gilad Atzmon,” Three Way Fight, March 2012; “Granting No Quarter: A Call for the Disavowal of the Racism and Antisemitism of Gilad Atzmon,” us Palestinian Community Network, 13 March 2012.↩︎
  24. Noel Ignatiev, “Exchange with Gilad Atzmon,” Noel Ignatiev’s Blog, circa March 2012; and Ignatiev, “More on the Atzmon Controversy,” Noel Ignatiev’s Blog, circa March 2012.↩︎
  25. Noel Ignatin, “Black Worker, White Worker,” Speech, 1972.↩︎

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