Tarred with the same brush

April 20, 2015

BEING BOTH an admirer of Theodore W. Allen's two-volume The Invention of the White Race and an adherent to the classical Marxist analysis of race oppression, which is that of the ISO, I was a bit surprised to find my loyalties put in conflict by the article "Privilege and the working class."

Isn't Candace Cohn being a bit mechanical about the history of privilege theory when she suggests a pamphlet such as White Blindspot is of a piece with the idea that white workers "must renounce their imperialist privileges--i.e., their wages, benefits and possessions"?

True, there is the notion of renouncing white privilege in White Blindspot, but it comes within the framework of fighting for militant working-class unity--i.e., within the context of supporting white workers' struggle for wages and conditions, and of understanding racism as an obstacle to their fighting capacity.

See, for instance, the following passages from White Blindspot:

White workers today are generally better off than the Black people, who are engaged in a militant struggle for more jobs, housing and full political rights. But even today, where white workers are fighting for the same demands, they are also ruthlessly wiped out, like the unemployed coal miners of Hazard, Kentucky, or the 80,000 laid-off white railroad workers, victims of the Johnson-bosses-union gang-up or the Teamsters shot at in a recent Tennessee strike.

They, too, meet up with violent repression at the hands of the ruling class... [Editor's note: This and the preceding sentence were not written by Ted Allen or his co-author Noel Ignatin, but were a quotation from a document they criticized.]

The ideology of white chauvinism is bourgeois poison aimed primarily at the white workers, utilized as a weapon by the ruling class to subjugate Black and white workers. It has its material base in the practice of white supremacy, which is a crime not merely against non-whites, but against the entire proletariat.

Image from SocialistWorker.org

I don't see anything here suggesting that white supremacist ideology benefits white workers at the expense of Black workers. I see nothing but the classical Marxist analysis of oppression, as a weapon of the ruling class to divide the working class and turn it against itself.

It is quite clear that privilege theory became something else in the 1970s and '80s. The writings of J. Sakai of the Maoist Internationalist Movement are, to this reader, the clearest exposition of a theory where white workers are just not part of the revolutionary subject, and are considered instead as active beneficiaries of the system. This is a dangerous, demobilizing theory, and the ISO is correct in fighting it. But I certainly think it is unfair to tar Ted Allen with the same brush.

In solidarity,
Sylvestre Jaffard, Paris

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