Unexpected Sledgehammer: Noel Ignatiev’s Communist Education
Acceptable Men: Life in the World’s Largest Steel Mill by Noel Ignatiev
Treason to Whiteness Is Loyalty to Humanity by Noel Ignatiev
Noel Ignatiev worked for over two decades in factories in and around Chicago where he developed an uncommon approach to workplace organizing and observation in conjunction with a variety of communist groups, most notably the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO) in the 1970s. His experiences there would forever mark his thinking, informing his militant historical scholarship and theorization of the role that the small revolutionary group could play in working-class self-transformation and the attack on white supremacy.
In two recently released texts, Acceptable Men: Life in the World’s Largest Steel Mill and the career-spanning collection Treason to Whiteness Is Loyalty to Humanity (edited by Geert Dhondt, Zhandarka Kurti, and Jarrod Shanahan), readers are given a comprehensive view of factory militant and abolitionist Ignatiev’s powers of investigating the unstable, often ambivalent “complexities and contradictions” that shape existence under capitalist social relations. Whether on factory floors or through economic ebbs and flows, Ignatiev presented class struggle as a sequence of enigmatic forms of conflict, accommodation, and rapprochement. He traced, in microcosm, how the revolutionary processes initiated through the daily activities of ordinary people constituted important “outposts” of a future socialist society in the present. Given the political history and trajectory of capitalist development in the United States, capitulation to the color line and the “poison” bait of white-skin privilege was an overriding possibility. But in the actions of workers in motion, their deeds rather than words, Ignatiev perceived a genuine alternative.
Ignatiev liked to recount one memorable experience from his time as a machine operator in the tool and die shop at the International Harvester’s Tractor Works plant in Chicago in the late 1960s. The plant was situated across the street from the McCormick Reaper Works, where the fight for an eight-hour day had raged and where the 1886 Haymarket Incident led to the raising of the red banner on May Day worldwide. Tractor Works remained an important venue for pitched battles between workers and bosses eight decades later. As Ignatiev puts it, the plant was “heir to some of the most militant traditions” of the working class in the United States. The length and intensity of the working day, however, presently a product of the insoluble conflict between classes, was negotiated by means less apparent than we might think. Though in the core industries of auto, mining, and steel, the eight-hour day often embodied more stalemate than settlement, and workers and capital fought over its meaning daily, it was not always clear who had the upper hand.
The machine Ignatiev was stationed at, a horizontal boring mill, was manually operated, requiring deliberate and conscious energies from its operators. It was originally expensive and, despite being antiquated by the time Ignatiev was posted to it, remained a valuable piece of machinery to the company. The boring mill turned out high-quality precision cuts in metal parts and was time-rated for eight hours production per day, depending upon the specificities of the particular job or contract being fulfilled. Production in the factory was continuous, divided into three shifts within a 24-hour period. Mill operators, who could exceed the eight hours rate on any given day by producing above the piece rate, relied upon the incentive of bonus pay for a sizable portion of their take-home pay. A mundane arrangement, on the surface, but one that could become the stake of a clash over the entire edifice of the labor process.
Tellingly, the hated system of compulsory overtime was never allowed to gain a foothold at International Harvester, setting it apart from many other companies. The machinists there had developed an informal yet highly sophisticated system that took advantage of the practice of using timecards for logging hours and instances of downtime officially allotted by the company, which consisted of intervals spent waiting, replacing tools, or replenishing fluid for the mill. Eventually, all those moments not directly engaged in production became for the workers opportunities to cushion their paychecks. By claiming time where no excess production occurred, the workers could collect bonus pay by inflating the hours they worked on the boring mill. When asked to name the most useful tool in his toolbox, after Ignatiev was instructed by a veteran machinist to grant himself the raise the company would not, he would reply simply by holding up his pencil.
For Ignatiev, this aspect of command over time — the fact that workers could, though expending the bare minimum of effort, get paid for “working” 10 or 11 hours during an eight-hour shift — comprised a significant node of workers’ control over planning production. Even if no formal coordination existed among the machine operators themselves and no diminution in production occurred, as Ignatiev asserted in another text, their actions represent a distinctly collaborative “drive to reorganize society so that they become the masters of production instead of the servants of production.” While the practice of timecard forgery was common knowledge to the company as well as the workers, its implementation was not “organized” in the classical sense, nor did it result in any essential transformation in relations of production there or elsewhere. And yet such phenomena hinted at more expansive, universal effort and a different kind of political collectivity. For Ignatiev, it was this movement, beyond the form of absenteeism it took on, that constituted the “essential meaning of socialism.” Located in the unseen “shop-floor battles that had ripped half the day out of the hands of capital” is what Ignatiev called, following his mentor, the Trinidadian Marxist C. L. R. James, the “new society.”
As a testament to the gravity of the timecard disputes, repeated strikes were waged in the steel industry during the preceding years over a defense of the traditional timecard system. At another Chicago Harvester subsidiary, for instance, workers submitted their cards to foremen directly, which the company hoped to overturn by mandating card submissions at the mill entrance. To outsiders, the notion of strikes over such a seemingly inconsequential detail would prove perplexing. But Ignatiev asked around and found out many coworkers had private arrangements with their foremen: they could hand in their cards and subsequently go do what they wished for the remainder of their shift. This ad hoc setup would be thrown out of joint if they handed in their cards to plant guards at the entrance. The question of workers’ control of production extended into the larger domain of social reproduction and leisure time, too: namely, the weekend. In 1979, United Auto Workers laborers resisted the imposition of Saturday shifts by launching a successful five-month strike that marked the terminal decline of International Harvester.
In another International Harvester story, this time in 1968, Ignatiev recounts a worker’s impressive disregard for management. The worker was being targeted for discipline for absenteeism, but his conduct was vigorously defended in the company’s hearing by his union grievance committee chairman, who objected to the company’s case for dismissal, asserting that to the best of his knowledge they had no knowledge of the personal setbacks or hardships causing him to miss an insignificant 17 days of work over the course of a year. “‘Hold on, Bill,’ replied the personnel director. ‘These aren’t the days he missed. These are the days he came to work last year.’” The best management could wrangle from the union was a mere 30-day suspension for the worker.
Short of imposing a fleet of foremen to monitor the machinists directly, management at Tractor Works could not hope to curb unwanted self-organization like timecard forgeries, just as the capitalist class as a whole cannot hope to block once and for all the development of socialism in the future repertoires of collective action from unforeseen sectors. The company could still retaliate by attempting to impose technical changes from on high. The introduction of a new tape-controlled machine which halved production times and required fewer workers to operate was one such innovation at Ignatiev’s plant. The company hoped to reverse the workers’ tactic whereby the company’s machinery became an appendage to the will of the operator. Performance rates on the previous mill machine (now used for overflow production) were pegged to the new machine and retimed by Tractor Works management. The prospect of receiving bonuses dissolved, and, in lieu of strenuous exertion, the incentive system failed to inspire normal production rates among the machinists where pay cuts were preferred to the prospect of living with the speed-up.
Remarkably, in Ignatiev’s recollection, the choice to enact a slowdown took place without any formal meeting among the three machinists, who continued to operate the horizontal boring mill. Because each of them encountered the other only at the end of their shift, the practice of sharing information about the time spent working became routine. The new production norm workers set for themselves: somewhere around 45 minutes per working day. Eventually, Ignatiev, ranking the lowest among the three in seniority, was given the option to retrain on the new tape-controlled machine, while the other two machinists were transferred to other departments. The old horizontal boring mill was sold off at a fraction of its value, foreshadowing the fate of the entirety of International Harvester’s property holdings in the mid-1980s. Ignatiev summed up their efforts:
The three of us had destroyed that horizontal mill just as effectively as if we had taken a torch and sledgehammer to it. Although it remained physically intact and capable of performing the tasks for which it had been designed and built, it no longer existed as capital, the only form of value in a capitalist society.
It might seem outdated to dwell on these anecdotes today, years removed from capital’s not entirely successful attempt to restore its right to plan production, through deindustrialization and the gutting of manufacturing strongholds in the United States — not to mention the devastating effects large-scale industrial production processes have wrought on the health of those populations and ecologies. What drew Ignatiev’s attention in this context was above all the countless “daily encounters” between workers who were atomized from each other once they stepped outside the plants, returning home to scattered neighborhoods demarcated by racial differences. Acceptable Men brings together his descriptions of interactions mainly between Black and white workers at US Steel Gary Works, where he worked on the maintenance crew, during the era of the Sojourner Truth Organization. With the careful eye of an insurgent sociologist-cum-guerrilla historian schooled by the impulse to abandon whiteness, what he referred to as being a race traitor, Ignatiev did not simply observe timesheet struggles and work slowdowns, nor the choices workers faced at critical junctures. He worked alongside them, seeing a set of experiments, failures, and lessons that could serve to guide action in the present and form the basis for future communist theory.
In the mid-1980s, after many of the revolutionary collectives of the 1960s and ’70s had dissolved, Ignatiev left the factory floor and enrolled at Harvard University for doctoral studies in history. A suggestive thesis found in Ignatiev’s academic work was that plant closures and the general crisis of industrial employment constituted a concerted effort on the part of capital to “break the continuity of the workers’ movement,” to smash the “patterns established over decades of invisible struggle” that workers undertook to plan production in its entirety. The physical evidence of this project to overturn the beachheads of workers’ control could be found, as he noted in the unpublished 1984 text “Present Depths” (parts of which can be found in Acceptable Men and Treason to Whiteness), in the “vast amounts of plant and equipment they are willing to scuttle in its pursuit.”
His entrance into Harvard did not stop him from tracking currents of resistance as they arose across a socioeconomic landscape no longer dominated by massive industrial concentrations. Through the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, Ignatiev, along with a cohort of experienced activists and younger comrades, would continue to explore and chronicle the dilemmas and openings that pressed on the fault lines of working-class life through the self-published journals Race Traitor and Hard Crackers. Across these projects, he exhorted his admiration for the bold actions and fearless tactics of small groups of agitators — the abolitionists, the Wobblies. As a historian he penned critical texts on US labor history, defending and expanding on W. E. B. Du Bois’s argument that the Reconstruction-era governments in the South introduced accomplishments for proletarians as radical as those of the Paris Commune or Petrograd Soviet.
With How the Irish Became White, he would examine the process by which a subordinated social group in one context can become part of the oppressing group in another, as a way to “secure an advantage in a competitive society.” Irish assimilation in the United States provided a case study for how the oppression licensed by whiteness operates: how the dominant class of the social order (though that class is itself often divided) enlists a portion of the dominated to ally with the dominant class in an alliance, granting this portion a superior status and material advantages. Like any form of political hegemony, racial oppression functions through coercion and consent. An important target across this set of texts was the “new labor history” of the 1960s and ’70s, which, in advancing an approach to the study of working-class culture based on lived experience, sidelined discussion of white chauvinism, even among “labor radicals,” to the margins. In this sense, Ignatiev’s prior political work in the shops and confrontations with the internal barriers to workers’ control offered insights into historical debates over what he deemed the “formation (or non-formation) of an American working class.”
In an intriguing metaphor, Ignatiev termed whiteness as a “sort of disaster policy for the ruling class.” It would not be destroyed, he argued, without serious challenges to the mechanisms of social advantage that discourage solidarity and limit political imagination. Ignatiev had much earlier identified a compelling argument to remain in the white club: “The white workers are […] conditioned to believe that every step toward racial equality necessarily means a worsening of their own conditions.” This base-level anxiety has certainly emotionally charged the volatile waves of right-wing reaction that have fed off the failures and limits of previous mass movements. He would continue to refine and adjust his analysis of white supremacy and its accompanying privileges as people of color entered into high-level administrative jobs and positions of power. But he was quick to recall that whiteness was an ideological structure that seeped into all aspects of US society; it was reproduced through institutions that could draw in other nonwhite populations to ensure political stability. What also stands out in the writings of this later period, often co-written and polemical, is an attentiveness to both the creativity and uncertainty of people’s collective response to the intolerable, “soul-destroying” circumstances they find themselves in. Ignatiev insisted that charges about the quiescence, apathy, or “backwardness” of workers or dispossessed groups revealed more about the person making that assumption than about the situation at hand.
Ignatiev was nothing if not a committed revolutionary. He was concerned with the intelligence and activity of exploited and dispossessed people around him and how they indicated a different world through their action. The stories Ignatiev relays are fragmentary contributions to this larger project of emancipation. How might the gaps be filled in and the lessons pieced together today? “Every genuine struggle against entrenched power,” he wrote near the end of his life, generates elements of the new society, which “spring up like mushrooms after a summer rain.” The battles of the US workers’ movement of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s cultivated repositories of dissent that Ignatiev had to reckon with when he entered the manufactories of Philadelphia and Chicago. How many threads can we draw between the actors of the George Floyd rebellion, one of the largest mass revolts in the history of the United States, and the tenacity and determination of those embedded in the contemporary sparks of labor militancy (including strikes against the inclusion of a classic instrument of division in union contracts, the two-tiered wage system)? Or tenants’ struggles against real estate capital, on a terrain irrevocably altered by a global pandemic and its whiplash societal effects? Ignatiev sought to “recognize and record” the new society in its fragile appearances, to aid in stitching them together.
Dylan Davis is a graduate student in politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Patrick King is a member of the Viewpoint Magazine editorial collective. He lives in Seattle.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Andrew Koppelman is happy with “Liberalism and Its Discontents” by Francis Fukuyama....
Joshua Sperber takes a look at “A People’s Guide to Capitalism” by Hadas Thier and “Can the Working Class Change the World?” by Michael D. Yates....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.