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Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

A Response to Statements about Theodore W. Allen Made by Dan La Botz in his “Lessons of the American Revolutionary Left of the 1970s . . .” by Jeffrey B. Perry

The anti-white supremacist, working class intellectual/activist Theodore W. (Ted) Allen (1919-2005) was one of the most important writers on race and class in twentieth-century America. His seminal, two-volume magnum opus, The Invention of the White Race, which is being published in a new expanded edition by Verso Books in November 2012, is increasingly recognized as a classic and his writings have much to offer us today.

For a host of reasons, however, Allen’s writings have often been inaccurately described, improperly cited, and ignored rather than having been read, engaged with, and given the serious attention they merit.

It is with the aim of encouraging engagement with Allen’s work in mind, and in a fraternal spirit, that I offer the following comments in response Dan La Botz’ statements about Allen in his “Lessons of the American Revolutionary Left of the 1970s: A Review of Truth and Revolution” published in Solidarity.

1. Regarding La Botz’ statement that “white skin privilege” was “a theory first suggested by Noel Ignatin and Ted Allen” --

As documented and discussed in my 2010 Cultural Logic article “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy (esp. pp. 8-9, 31-34) the record is quite clear that Theodore W. Allen pioneered the “white skin privilege” analysis in 1965 and that he was the originator and principal developer of the theory.

Noel Ignatin (Ignatiev), explains: “My first act in 1966 on finding myself outside the group [POC] was to get back in touch with Molly [Theodore W. ‘Ted’ Allen]. It was then he introduced me to his thinking on white-skin privilege, which he had developed after he left the POC [in 1962] . . . not to be too grandiose about it, if Ted was Darwin, I was his Huxley.” (Noel Ignatiev to author, June 17, 2005, possession of author.)

Ignatiev adds that in the fall of 1966 he became convinced of “the correctness” of the “position that the white-skin privilege has been the Achilles’ heel of the labor movement in the US, and that the fight against white supremacy (beginning among white workers, with the repudiation of the white-skin privilege) is the key to strategy for revolution in this country.” (Noel Ignatin (Ignatiev) “Author’s Note,” October 5, 1969, in Noel Ignatin and Ted (Theodore W.) Allen, “White Blindspot” & “Can White Workers [crossed out] Radicals Be Radicalized?” (Detroit: The Radical Education Project and New York: NYC Revolutionary Youth Movement, 1969.)

2. Regarding La Botz’ statement that Allen argued that “white skin privilege” was a set of “benefits” that “accrued to those determined to be white” -- this is simply not what Allen argued.

Allen repeatedly argued that for European-American workers the “white skin privileges” were not “benefits” – they were “poison,” “ruinous,” a baited hook – they were against the class interests of working people. (See “The Developing Conjuncture . . .” pp. 34, 78-80.)

He emphasized that the ruling class deliberately instituted and maintains a system of “white skin privileges” (in their class interests) for purposes of social control.

In the above cited “Can White Workers [crossed out] Radicals Be Radicalized?” article (pp. 15, 18) Allen writes: “history has shown that the white-skin privilege does not serve the interests of the white workers, it also shows that the concomitant racist ideology has blinded them to that fact.” He further explains, “The day-to-day real interests of the white workers is not the white skin privileges, but in the development of an ever expanding union of class conscious workers, white and black.”

In his 1975 pamphlet Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race Allen explains that the “three essentials [that] have informed my own approach in a book I have for several years been engaged in writing . . . on the origin of racial slavery, white supremacy and the system of racial privileges of white labor in this country” are:

First, racial slavery and white supremacy in this country was a ruling-class response to a problem of labor solidarity. Second, a system of racial privileges for white workers was deliberately instituted in order to define and establish the ‘white race’ as a social control formation. Third, the consequence was not only ruinous to the interests of the Afro-American workers but was also ‘disastrous’ . . .for the white worker.

Clearly, Allen consistently argued that “white skin privileges” are not “benefits” – rather, they are ruinous to the class interests of European-American workers and all workers.

Finally, I think it important to call attention to the fact that Allen pointed out that slogans such as “‘Solidarity forever!’ means ‘Privileges never!’” have meaning for contemporary struggles as do such slogans as “Workers of the world unite,” “Abolish the wage system,” and “An injury to one is an injury to all!”

Thus, in addition to encouraging people to read Allen’s writings, I would also like to encourage readers of “Solidarity,” while looking at the masthead, to think about the slogan “‘Solidarity forever!’ means ‘Privileges never!’” Read More 
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