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Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy

"The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights
from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen
on the Centrality of the Fight
Against White Supremacy"
by Jeffrey B. Perry

Cultural Logic, 2010

To read the article as standard text CLICK HERE

To read in PDF format CLICK HERE and go to TOP LEFT or CLICK HERE

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"In Defense of Affirmative Action in Employment Policy" Theodore William Allen

To read "In Defense of Affirmative Action in Employment Policy" ("Cultural Logic," Vol. I, No 2, Spring 1998) by Theodore William Allen by CLICK HERE

For additional writings, audio, and video by and about Theodore W. Allen CLICK HERE

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Theodore W. Allen Offers Key Writings for the Study of U.S. Labor History by Jeffrey B. Perry

Those studying of US Labor History would do well to include writings by and about the independent, working-class scholar Theodore W. Allen (1919-2005), especially as put forth in his The Invention of the White Race (2 vols., Verso Books, [1994, 1997], 2012) and his still-to-be-published “Toward a Revolution in Labor History” (2004). (See some of these writings can be found HERE.)

Important insights from Allen’s writings are found in Jeffrey B. Perry, “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy” (Cultural Logic July 2010) available online HERE (top left) and HERE . (This article includes links to many writings by Allen.)

Allen contends, that “the beginning of wisdom for labor historians must be the recognition that from 1619 on the history of African American bond-laborers is a history of proletarians. From this all else follows.”

In his writings Allen seeks to lay the basis for a class-conscious, anti-white supremacist, counter-narrative of American history. He offers “the groundwork for a total re-interpretation of U.S. history” that he considers to be “unfettered by white labor apology which consistently locates Afro-Americans outside the working class.”

Of major importance is Allen’s analysis of slavery in Anglo-America as capitalism, slaveholders as capitalists, and enslaved laborers as proletarians. In describing “the capitalist development which motored the Anglo-American racial slavery system,” Allen’s historical work shows “that the means of production on the plantations were monopolized by one class,” that “non-owners were reduced to absolute dependence upon the owners and could live only by the alienation of their own labor power to the service of the owning class,” that “the products of the plantation took the form of commodities,” and “that the aim of production was the accumulation and expansion of capital.”

He emphasizes that “slaveholders were capitalists – a plantation bourgeoisie – and the slaves were proletarians.” He also points out that the “proposition that the United States plantation system based on chattel bond-labor was a capitalist operation is a widely recognized principle of political economy” and cites a disparate group of writers including W. E. B. Du Bois, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, Lewis C. Gray, Roger W. Shugg, Hubert Harrison, David Roediger, and Winthrop D. Jordan who have taken this position, and he adds that Eric Williams and C. L. R. James “view Caribbean slavery in this light, as well.”

Allen calls special attention to the fact that Karl Marx invariably treated the American plantation economy as capitalist enterprise and quotes Marx that “The production of surplus-value is the absolute law of this [capitalist – TWA] mode of production.” He similarly quotes Marx that “The overworking of the Negro [bond-laborer – TWA] . . . was no longer a question of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products [as in ancient classical slavery – TWA]. It was now a question of the production of surplus-value itself.” Referring to circumstances where both rent and profit go to the owner-employer Marx explained, “Where capitalist conceptions predominate, as they did upon the American plantations, this entire surplus-value is regarded as profit.” Allen also quotes Marx before the Civil War discussing the nature of differential rent and commenting that while free wage-labor is the normal basis of capitalist production, still “the capitalist mode of production exists” in the Anglo-American plantation colonies based on “the slavery of Negroes.”

In the course of his work Allen addresses a question that might be raised – How can slavery be capitalist, since it is not based on wage labor? He responds, “What is historically significant about the wages system is that it is based on the general transformation of labor-power into a commodity, and that in turn is due to the fact that the producers have lost ownership of the means production, and therefore can live only by the sale of their labor power.” He cites Marx’s letter to Lincoln, that the African-American bond-laborer was “sold without his concurrence, while the European-American worker could ‘sell himself,’” and Marx’s statement that “‘the business in which slaves are used [in the United States] is conducted by capitalists,’ and for the same purpose, the accumulation of capital by the extraction of surplus value from the exploitation of commodity-producing labor.”

Allen notes, “the bond-labor form was a contradiction of the basic requisites of general capitalist development – a contradiction that was purged away in the Civil War,” but emphasizes that “[for] a time that form of labor was not a barrier to rapid capitalist accumulation, but its main engine.”

On the topic of slaveholders as capitalists and the enslaved laborers as proletarians Allen quotes from Hubert Harrison in the 1912 International Socialist Review that “The . . . Negroes of America form a group that is more essentially proletarian than any other American group.” Allen adds that in “a presumed reference to African American bond-laborers” Harrison wrote, “the Negro was at one period the most thoroughly exploited of the American proletariat.” After quoting Harrison’s statements that “the duty of the [Socialist] party to champion his [the African American’s] cause is as clear as day” and “this is the crucial test of Socialism's sincerity,” Allen concludes: “the study of class consciousness, ‘the working people’s consciousness of their interests and of their predicament as a class,’ should start with the recognition of that fact.”

Allen draws a similar conclusion from Du Bois’ discussion of the interests of “the laboring class, black and white, North and South.” Over his last forty years he would often cite, and add emphasis to, Du Bois’ seminal words that “the [white] labor movement, with but few exceptions, . . . never had the intelligence or knowledge, as a whole, to see in black slavery and Reconstruction, the kernel and the meaning of the labor movement in the United States.

For Allen, this insight expressed by Du Bois was “a basis . . . for understanding and applying the general Marxist principles in assessing the interests of American labor and the state of American labor’s consciousness of those interests.” As Allen explained:

"Given this understanding of slavery in Anglo-America as capitalism, and of the slaveholders as capitalists, it follows that the chattel bond-laborers were proletarians. Accordingly, the study of class consciousness as a sense the American workers have of their own class interests, must start with recognition of that fact. But historians guided by the white blindspot have, in effect, defined the United States working class as an essentially European-American grouping. In doing so they have ignored or, at best, marginalized the propertyless African-American plantation workers, the exploitation of whose surplus value-producing labor was also the basis of capital accumulation for the employers of those workers."

Also of great importance is Allen’s historical research in which he challenged (almost 50 years ago) what he described as the prevailing consensus among left and labor historians, a consensus that attributed the low level of class consciousness among American workers to such factors as the early development of civil liberties, the heterogeneity of the work force, the safety valve of homesteading opportunities in the west, the ease of social mobility, the relative shortage of labor, and the early development of “pure and simple trade unionism.”

He argued that the “classical consensus on the subject” was the product of the efforts of such writers as Frederick Engels, “co-founder with Karl Marx of the very theory of proletarian revolution”; Frederick A. Sorge, “main correspondent of Marx and Engels in the United States” and a socialist and labor activist for almost sixty years; Frederick Jackson Turner, giant of U.S. history; Richard T. Ely, Christian Socialist and author of “the first attempt at a labor history in the United States”; Morris Hillquit, founder and leading figure of the Socialist Party for almost two decades; John R. Commons, who, with his associates authored the first comprehensive history of the U.S. labor movement; Selig Perlman, a Commons associate who later authored A Theory of the Labor Movement; Mary Beard and Charles A. Beard, labor and general historians; and William Z. Foster, major figure in the history of U.S. communism with “his analyses of ‘American exceptionalism.’”

Allen challenged this “old consensus” as being “seriously flawed . . . by erroneous assumptions, one-sidedness, exaggeration, and above all, by white-blindness.” He also countered with his own theory that white supremacism, reinforced among European-Americans by “white skin privilege,” was the main retardant of working-class consciousness in the U.S. and that efforts at radical social change should direct principal efforts at challenging the system of white supremacy and “white skin privilege.”

As he further developed his analysis Allen would later add and emphasize that the “white race,” by its all-class form, conceals the operation of the ruling class social control system by providing it with a majoritarian “democratic” facade and that “the main barrier to class consciousness” was “the incubus of ‘white’ identity of the European-American.”

Allen discussed reasons that the six-point rationale had lost much of its force and focused on historical analyses. He noted that the free land safety valve theory had been “thoroughly discredited” for many reasons including that the bulk of the best lands were taken by railroads, mining companies, land companies, and speculators and that the costs of homesteading were prohibitive for eastern wage earners. He similarly pointed out that heterogeneity “may well . . . have brought . . . more strength than weakness to the United States labor and radical movement”; that the “rise of mass, ‘non aristocratic,’ industrial unions has not broken the basic pattern of opposition to a workers party, on the part of the leaders”; and that the “‘language problem’ in labor agitating and organizing never really posed any insurmountable obstacle.”

He then focused on what he described as “two basic and irrefutable themes.” First, whatever the state of class consciousness may have been most of the time, “there have been occasional periods of widespread and violent eruption of radical thought and action on the part of the workers and poor farmers, white and black.” He cited Black labor's valiant Reconstruction struggle; the Exodus of 1879; the “year of violence” in 1877 marked by “fiery revolts at every major terminal point across the country”; the period from “bloody Haymarket” in 1886 to the Pullman strike of 1894 during which “the U.S. army was called upon no less than 328 times to suppress labor's struggles”; the Populists of the same period when Black and white poor farmers “joined hands for an instant in the South” and when Middle Western farmers decided to “raise less corn and more hell!”; and the labor struggles of the 1930's marked by sit down strikes and the establishment of industrial unionism. Allen emphasized that in such times “any proposal to discuss the relative backwardness of the United States workers and poor farmers would have had a ring of unreality.” He reasoned, “if, in such crises, the cause of labor was consistently defeated by force and cooptation; if no permanent advance of class consciousness in the form of a third, anti capitalist, party was achieved . . . there must have been reasons more relevant than ‘free land’ that you couldn't get; ‘free votes’ that you couldn't cast, or couldn't get counted; or ‘high wages’ for jobs you couldn't find or . . . the rest of the standard rationale.”

His second, “irrefutable” theme was that each of the facts of life in the classical consensus had to be “decisively altered when examined in the light of the centrality of the question of white supremacy and of the white skin privileges of the white workers.” He again reasoned, “‘Free land,’ ‘constitutional liberties,’ ‘immigration,’ ‘high wages,’ ‘social mobility,’ ‘aristocracy of labor’” were “all, white skin privileges” and “whatever their effect upon the thinking of white workers may be said to be, the same cannot be claimed in the case of the Negro.”
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Brief Comments on the Importance of the Work of Theodore W. Allen author of The Invention of the White Race by Jeffrey B. Perry

I strongly encourage people who want to know what Theodore W. Allen’s The Invention of the White Race” is about to read it in the original.

His two-volume “classic” is approximately 800 pages including some 30% notes and appendices. It includes voluminous primary research conducted over thirty years and offers profound and compelling theses. He knows the contending arguments, he tries to treat those positions seriously and in their best light, and he refers readers back to detailed and specific sources so they can investigate for themselves. It is high quality and very principled scholarship.

Allen has also provided a very helpful Summary of the Argument of The Invention of the White Race

The new expanded 2012 Verso Books edition of The Invention of the White Race includes introductions to each volume, background on Allen and his work, internal study guides, and significantly expanded indexes (especially the index to vol. 2 on The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America).

Allen’s “Introduction” to Volume 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control discusses his work in relation to that of Carl Degler, Winthrop D. Jordan, Oscar and Mary Handlin, Eric Williams, Edmund S. Morgan, Timothy Breen, and others.

The following two reviews by Allen are particularly important --

1) Theodore William Allen, “Slavery, Racism, and Democracy," Review of Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1974). Monthly Review 29, no. 10 (March 1978): 57-63.
2) Theodore W. Allen, "On Roediger's Wages of Whiteness," Cultural Logic, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Spring 2001)

Strongly recommended for understanding the development of Allen’s thought is “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen On the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy,” in "Cultural Logic" (2010) available in pdf format at the top left HERE and also available at Cultural Logic (2010), especially pages 1-6, 8-12, 26, 30-113.

"The Developing Conjuncture . . ." offers some of Allen’s thoughts on work by labor and left historians and writers on history including Frederick Engels, Frederick A. Sorge, Frederick Jackson Turner, Richard T. Ely, Morris Hillquit, John R. Commons, Selig Perlman, Mary Ritter Beard, Charles A. Beard, William Z. Foster, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, Lewis C. Gray, Roger W. Shugg, Hubert Harrison, David Roediger, Winthrop D. Jordan, Edmund S. Morgan, Eric Williams, C. L. R. James, Norman Ware, Herman Schlueter, Philip S. Foner, Harry Heywood, and “James S. Allen” [Sol Auerbach]. Of particular interest are Allen’s thoughts from his unpublished “Toward a Revolution in Labor History.”

A number of additional writings by and about Allen can be found HERE!  Read More 
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Some Statistics Related to Race and Class in America

Some Statistics Related to Race and Class in America

On June 25, 2010, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the after-tax income gaps between the richest one percent and the middle and poorest fifths in the United States had more than tripled between 1979 and 2007.

The concentration at the top of the income scale was the greatest at any time since 1928, immediately prior to the Great Depression. . . .

On July 1, 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that 14.6 million Americans were unemployed, 45.5% of these were long-term unemployed (27 weeks or more), and the official unemployment rate was 9.5 percent.

Another 8.6 million were listed as involuntarily working part-time and 2.6 million more were marginally attached to the economy (they hadn’t looked for work in the four weeks preceding the survey).

Included in this group were 1.2 million “discouraged workers” who had given up looking for work “because they believe no jobs are available for them.”

Overall, the BLS counted 25.8 million workers unemployed/underemployed, some 17 percent of the workforce.

Other workers were turning to the Social Security Administration’s disability program for help and the SSA’s chief actuary predicted “roughly a million more disability applications from 2009 through 2011 than it would have without the recession.”

Approximately 40 million Americans, 13.2% of the population, were living in poverty, fifty percent of children would need food stamps while growing up, over 46 million Americans were without healthcare, home foreclosures hit a record high of 937,840 in the third quarter of 2009, and a newly developed Economic Security Index found that 20 percent of Americans without a financial cushion experienced a 25 percent or greater loss of household income in 2009 (and conditions were expected to worsen).

. . . In addition to recognizing the devastating consequences worldwide, it is especially important to emphasize that poor and working people in the United States are not faring well either.

The World Health Organization reported that “the U.S. health system spends a higher portion of its gross domestic product than any other country,” but it ranked 37th in performance.

The Social Security Administration found that “50 percent of wage earners had net compensation [wages, tips, and the like] less than or equal to . . . $26,261.29 [$505 per week/$12.63 per hour pre-tax] for 2009.

America, according to Michelle Alexander in "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" (2010), has “the highest rate of incarceration in the world.”

At a June 2010 Congressional Summit it was reported that “incarceration rates have increased 800 percent in the last 30 years” and that “90 percent of all criminal defendants fall below the poverty line.”

The Economic Policy Institute compared the U.S. to 19 other industrialized countries and found that it had “weaker unions, lower minimum wages, [and] less generous social benefits” than the other countries.

Not only do U.S. workers work more hours than those in these other countries, they do so without statutorily paid public holidays and they are alone amongst this group in not receiving statutorily paid vacation time.

Most significantly, on the two major measures of household income inequality (the Gini coefficient and the ratio of 90th-to-10th percentile), the U.S. showed the greatest inequality.

White Supremacist Shaping

In the United States the suffering and hardship reflected in these and other areas are intensified by racial oppression.

In July 2010 Black unemployment was reported at 15.6%, white unemployment was 8.6%; in 2008 Black poverty was reported at 24.7%, “non-Hispanic White” poverty was 8.6%.

Ninety percent of Black children will be on food stamps at some point while growing up.

Stark racial disparities exist, and in general have increased, in jobs, housing, health care, education, incarceration and every major social and economic indicator measured in the Urban League’s State of Black America 2009.

That report describes “persistent inequalities” in American society and utilizes an “Equality Index” that considers five areas – economics, health, education, social justice, and civic engagement in order to compare Black to “white” equality (with equality being 100% and an index of less than 100% indicating that Black people are doing worse relative to “whites”).

The overall Equality Index is 71.1%. The index for economics is 57.4%, social justice 60.4%, health 74.4%, education 78.5%, and civic engagement 96.3%.

Incarceration figures are staggering. Black males are incarcerated “at a rate more than six times higher than white males” and Black females at a rate over 3.6 times that of white females.

Alexander, in "The New Jim Crow," emphasizes that “no other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities” and she describes how America has “a set of structured arrangements that locks . . . [African Americans] into a subordinate political, social, and economic position, effectively creating a second class citizenship.”

Jan M. Chaiken, Director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, found “approximately 30 percent of black men ages 20 to 29 were under correctional supervision” and “a young black man age 18 . . . had a 28.5 percent chance of spending time in prison during his life.” . . .

Marc V. Levine of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in 2009, the most recent year for which data were available, reports that “a staggering 53.3 percent of metro Milwaukee’s working age African American males were not employed: either unemployed, or, for various reasons (including incarceration), not even in the labor force.”

Levine points out that “This is the highest jobless rate among working age black males ever recorded in Milwaukee,” which, he notes, also has “the widest racial disparity in jobless rates among forty of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.”

Milwaukee, though extreme, is not alone, however, and the “jobless” figures for adult Black males in other cities are similar: Detroit – 59.5%, Cleveland – 52.3%, Buffalo – 52.3%, Chicago 50.3%, Pittsburgh 50.3%, and so on.

Sources for these statistics and related historical analysis can be found in Jeffrey B. Perry, “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy,” (“Cultural Logic,” 2010) available online in pdf format at (top left) or by Clicking Here
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On "The Invention of the 'White' Race"

[Theodore W.] Allen describes how "the invention of the white race at the beginning of the eighteenth century was the solution to the problem of the participation of the bond-laborers and the poor free in Bacon's Rebellion" and of "how to maintain social control while continuing to base the economy on chattel bond-labor." The "great majority of the free men could not become employers or even secure long-term leaseholders," so they were "enlisted in the system of social control, not by a class interest, but by being ‘promoted’ to the ‘white race." This was accomplished "by conferring on the poor European-Americans a set of white-skin privileges; privileges that did not require their promotion to the class of property owners.”

For more see Jeffrey B. Perry, "The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy" ("Cultural Logic," 2010) Click Here (and go to top left for PDF) Read More 
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Just Published -- “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy” by Jeffrey B. Perry

“The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy” by Jeffrey B. Perry has been published by "Cultural Logic" and is now available at
Appended to the article is a short piece on how "Daedalus," the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based journal of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, handled an earlier, shorter version of the article. Read More 
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“The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy” by Jeffrey B. Perry

“The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy” by Jeffrey B. Perry is now available at (top left)

A pre-publication version of an article that will appear online in "Cultural Logic"
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