Author Ken Lawrence

Memories of Noel Ignatin

I first met Noel in 1960, at the second national conference of the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute a Marxist-Leninist Communist Party in the United States (known as the poc, pronounced pee-oh-see; only enemies called it pock). Noel had just returned from Cuba. He gave an enthusiastic report about the revolution, spiced with humor that poked fun at Fidel and Che as leaders trying to figure out how to guide an economy they did not understand:

Fidel: Che, I put you in charge of the bank because you said you’re an economist. Why is everything screwed up?

Che: Economist? I thought you said “communist.”

Most poc leaders used pseudonyms. Ted Allen was “Comrade Molly” (Molly Pitcher), who penned the “Economic Situation in the United States” column in the poc tabloid Marxist-Leninist Vanguard under the byline Milton Palmer. But Noel was always Comrade Noel. They were Stalinists; I was not. But I admired poc members’ militancy, discipline, and enthusiasm for the daunting challenges of mass work.

The poc leader I admired most was Tom Scribner from the West Coast, an old Wobbly who published a mimeographed monthly bulletin called Lumberjack News and Unemployed Worker, always a livelier read than Vanguard. Tom sided with Noel on most issues, which elevated my respect for him despite his rigid Stalinism. Over the course of the following year, the poc became more sectarian, faction-ridden, and insular, so I drifted away.

I joined the Industrial Workers of the World and the Young Peoples Socialist League, quickly becoming an iww organizer and a leader of the ypsl’s Libertarian Socialist tendency. Noel became a Maoist in search of a political home after the poc expelled him in about 1966. In the lingo of ultra-left sects, we became one another’s “contact” (prospective recruit, allied in mutual mass work) after Noel moved from Philadelphia to Chicago.

In 1967, on his way home from the post office, he brought me a bundle of his new pamphlet, White Blindspot, that had just arrived in the mail from New York. This time he had used a pseudonymous byline, J.H. Kagin, in honor of John Henry Kagi, an abolitionist who had been second in command of John Brown’s raid on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal in 1859 where he was shot and killed by Robert E. Lee’s militia. The pamphlet reprinted a political letter Noel had sent to Progressive Labor followed by a letter of support by Ted Allen (signed “M”).

White Blindspot publicized and popularized the phrase “white-skin privilege,” for which Noel has written his name into history although Ted had coined it originally. I thought at the time, and still do, that it was didactically useful but counterproductive politically (that is, for the purposes of agitation and mass propaganda), which is also my criticism of Noel’s later formulations of the same line, such as Race Traitor. Not only was it a step beyond what can be achieved agitationally, its very ambiguity leads to misconstruction.

Thus, in a Students for a Democratic Society Revolutionary Youth Movement reprint of White Blindspot two years later, under Noel’s and Ted’s real names, Noel explained in an introductory author’s note:

Some people mistakenly speak in terms of “giving up” or “sacrificing,” rather than repudiating the white-skin privilege. The distinction is not merely semantical. In spite of the Mad Hatter, words are not simply a question of who is to be master. The choice of language is both a result of, and an influence upon, the train of thought.

When workers are on strike and the police attack them with clubs, do the workers respond by “sacrificing” the blows? White-skin privileges are blows against the working class. They are the real secret of the rule of the bourgeoisie. That is why the bourgeoisie will not let the white worker escape them, but instead pursues them everywhere, raining white-skin privileges unremittingly down on his head. To repudiate these privileges is an act of class struggle, requiring at least as much militancy as the defense against a police attack.

Today’s widespread common propagation and usage of “white privilege” requires the same corrective. Even Michael Staudenmaeir’s sympathetic book published in 2012, Truth and Revolution, fails the same test:

But the traditional idea of privileges granted by capital and the state may come to mean less and less as the new century progresses (page 312).

Privileges are not “granted.” As a means of class rule, they are imposed more widely than ever, not only by color of skin, but by every social category subject to divide-and-rule dominance. If a historian immersed in study of the political line that Noel originated has failed to grasp that point, how could we have expected it to serve as a lever for mass mobilization?

My criticisms notwithstanding, in 1967 I regarded Noel’s political trajectory as positive and in some respects congruent with my own. In the summer of that year I had joined Facing Reality, the organization led by C.L.R. James. I returned Noel’s favor by presenting him with some of our literature, which represented a fresh revolutionary viewpoint for him to ponder, notably Negro Americans Take the Lead. Those exchanges cemented a comradeship that endured dozens of fierce clashes and wrong turns.

August of 1967 brought the National Conference for New Politics to Chicago. Among the participants was Don Hamerquist, then a dissident member of the Communist Party’s national leadership, who remained afterward to work with the leaders of sds, hoping to align the cp with the younger generation of New Left revolutionaries. Noel brought Don to my home, introduced us, and left with me his copy of Don’s 74-page, single-spaced, legal-size mimeographed manifesto Notes For Development Of A Revolutionary Strategy, with Noel’s annotations in red ink. I was happy to meet Don, but unimpressed with his paper. He had framed his analysis in the context of European Marxist theoretical debates that Facing Reality had by then repudiated.

In 1968 I brought C.L.R. James to Chicago as a guest speaker, and invited Noel to his public lecture. From the floor Noel spoke admiringly of Mao Tse Tung, to which C.L.R. waved his finger and said, “That was a great revolution, but it isn’t Marxism.” Noel has written about that encounter as a watershed. He subsequently became more enamored of C.L.R.’s theory of state capitalism than I was.

In the wake of sncc’s Black Power challenge, Noel and I became founding members of the Union of (White) Organizers, a citywide mainly sds council of activists, which persisted until sds splintered in 1969. (Many years later, Noel tried to compose a song about that experience, but to my knowledge he wrote only the opening lines: “In nineteen hundred and sixty-nine, Bernardine Dohrn was a friend of mine….”) Don and Noel founded Sojourner Truth Organization rooted in workplace organizing. In 1971 I moved to Mississippi as a staff member of the Southern Conference Educational Fund. Before I left, I gave Noel a scef memorandum by Walter Collins that fleshed out and made explicit the challenge to white organizers.

Less than a year after I left Chicago, Facing Reality dissolved. By the time Noel and Don recruited me to sto in 1975, sto’s principal orientation had been redirected into anti-imperialist solidarity, which I regarded as positive, but Noel resisted. Although Staudenmeier names Don, Noel, and me as the sto “heavies,” there was never a time when the three of us agreed on the line and strategy of the organization. For that period of our comradeship I can’t do better than refer to my remarks in the Insurgent Notes symposium on Truth and Revolution.

Despite our differences, maybe because of them, Noel and I continued to correspond and debate privately after he had departed for academia and sto disintegrated. He paid three visits to us in Pennsylvania during recent years. The last time he came, we had family members and guests who were sympathetic to radical politics but had no movement experience, which led to a lively dinner conversation, and a chance to promote his book.

From summarizing his analysis, he pivoted to an explanation of his name change. When he moved to Harvard, he decided he could honor his father’s Russian Jewish forbears, surnamed Yignatievsky, by adopting more of their name, which in turn emphasized his political brand as he stood in solidarity with Palestinians.

Over the half-century that Noel and I shared ideas and disagreed, the benefit for both of us was that we could discuss undeveloped threads of analysis without fear of embarrassment.

Our final political exchange rekindled our differences over Stalinism. Noel was still mired in a state-capitalist analysis; I regarded Stalinism as socialist Bonapartism. Noel’s dilemma was how to extricate himself from abstention during World War II (whereas for me, any and all anti-Nazi positions were preferable, including the most opportunistic).

He explained, “The times were complicated, and I’m not sure how I would have responded even without my hereditary Stalinism. Someone recently asked me where, knowing what I know now, I would have been in, say, 1937, and it got me thinking.”

I sent him the transcript of Leon Trotsky’s forceful argument in 1940 that the Socialist Workers Party should support the cp presidential ticket despite the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the Popular Front policy, and Hal Draper’s article, “The Myth of Lenin’s Revolutionary Defeatism,” but pressed my own Bonapartist analysis. Noel replied: “In order better to understand Bonapartism I am trying once again to read War and Peace.”