Don’t bother reading Settlers



So after I pos­ted this a couple days ago it was picked up by Anti-Fas­cist News, which linked to it along with the sole re­mark that it was “in­ter­est­ing.” This led some fans of Set­tlers to then launch a cam­paign against me per­son­ally, re­fer­ring to me as “a sac­ri­fi­cial pig to be made an ex­ample of” (a Mar­rano, per­haps?) and ap­plaud­ing the fact that I’d been doxxed in the past as a “com­mie Jew” by Storm­front neo-Nazis. One per­son even threatened to send people to my door, all be­cause I cri­ti­cized a book she likes. Joshua Mou­fawad-Paul of the blog M-L-M May­hem, whose meta-re­view I linked and whose name I un­for­tu­nately mis­spelled, also re­spon­ded to the post.

Now the per­son who threatened to send people after me is de­mand­ing a re­trac­tion and an apo­logy, fol­lowed by “mon­et­ary re­par­a­tions will be made to the mul­tiple Black and in­di­gen­ous people who have had to de­fend their his­tory from the de­valu­ation of a White per­son for their labor.” You can’t make this shit up; it’s way too elab­or­ate and de­ranged. Rather than en­gage with a small group of ded­ic­ated and ob­vi­ously dis­turbed trolls, however, I’d prefer to sub­stan­ti­ate some of the cri­ti­cisms made in my open­ing tirade. Ad­mit­tedly, most of this con­sisted in me sum­mar­iz­ing en­gage­ments with Set­tlers un­der­taken by oth­er Marx­ists, with very little in the way of ori­gin­al com­ment­ary. Hope­fully this ad­dendum will give some sense of what it is I ob­ject to in the book.

To provide just one ex­ample of Sakai’s shoddy his­tor­ic­al re­search, he writes on page 53 of Set­tlers: “The pro-im­per­i­al­ist labor ar­is­to­cracy — which in 1914 Len­in es­tim­ated at roughly 20% of the Ger­man work­ing class — were the lead­ers of the Ger­man trade-uni­ons, the ‘so­cial­ist’ party, etc.” Un­sur­pris­ingly, no men­tion is made of what text Len­in sup­posedly made this es­tim­a­tion in (much less a cita­tion). I have scoured through all of Len­in’s writ­ings and have yet to find any­where he claims twenty per­cent of the Ger­man work­ing class be­longed to the “labor ar­is­to­cracy.” Neither in 1914 nor in any oth­er year.

Fur­ther, it’s very frus­trat­ing that Sakai nowhere ex­plains what his cri­ter­ia are for someone be­long­ing to the “labor ar­is­to­cracy.” In­stead he just cites US Labor Bur­eau stat­ist­ics, but then fol­lows it by par­en­thet­ic­ally claim­ing that “60% of this sec­tion is labor ar­is­to­cracy.” As if that were a cat­egory the Labor Bur­eau would ever use. On the fol­low­ing page he just baldly as­serts that “the set­tler labor ar­is­to­cracy is con­sid­er­ably lar­ger than its hard core, per­haps com­pris­ing as much as 50% of all male Euro-Amerik­ans.” Be­cause Sakai provides no in­form­a­tion for how he ar­rives at this fig­ure, there is no way of as­sess­ing its ac­cur­acy.

The “labor ar­is­to­cracy” thes­is first ad­vanced by En­gels dur­ing the 1890s and then ex­pan­ded upon by Len­in between 1905 and 1922 has already been chal­lenged con­vin­cingly by writers such as Charles Post and or­gan­iz­a­tions like the In­ter­na­tion­al Com­mun­ist Cur­rent as first “a myth” and then “a so­ci­olo­gic­al the­ory to di­vide the work­ing class.” Even grant­ing some an­ec­dot­al valid­ity to the ob­ser­va­tion that there’s an elite strat­um of skilled laborers — who, to use Len­in’s meta­phor, “fight for the scraps that fall off the im­per­i­al­ist ta­ble” — there’s no em­pir­ic­al ground­ing of the thes­is. Mostly it’s just a post-hoc ra­tion­al­iz­a­tion of work­ing class re­form­ism and de­feat.

Char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally, moreover, Sakai neg­lects to men­tion that op­pressed pop­u­la­tions in the New World have just as of­ten been at each oth­er’s throats — e.g., the “Buf­falo Sol­diers,” all-black vo­lun­teer cav­alry units which served with dis­tinc­tion in mas­sac­ring Plains In­di­ans for nearly a quarter-cen­tury. Sev­er­al cen­tur­ies earli­er in what today is Mex­ico, the ma­nu­mit­ted Afric­an slave Juan Gar­rido be­came a highly suc­cess­ful Span­ish con­quista­dor. He also helped con­quer Pu­erto Rico, Cuba, Guada­lupe, Domin­ica, and Flor­ida. Or the Cher­o­kee lead­er Stand Watie, a slave-driv­ing plant­a­tion own­er who fought on the side of the Con­fed­er­acy dur­ing the Civil War and rose to the rank of bri­gadier gen­er­al. Watie was the last South­ern gen­er­al to stop fight­ing. Jews owned some of the ships in the Dutch and Eng­lish transat­lantic slave trade. Treach­er­ous at­ti­tudes and be­ha­vi­ors to­ward oth­er ex­ploited and op­pressed groups was hardly lim­ited to the white work­ing class.

Need­less to say, as a side note, I do not in any way deny the hor­rors en­dured by black and in­di­gen­ous people in Canada, the US, and else­where throughout the world. For a far bet­ter ac­count of ra­cism and white su­prem­acy check out Theodore W. Al­len’s The In­ven­tion of the White Race (1994), Bar­bara and Kar­en Fields’ Race­craft: The Soul of In­equal­ity in Amer­ic­an Life (2012), or Loren Gold­ner’s ma­gis­teri­al es­say on “Race and the En­light­en­ment” from Race Trait­or (1997).

Spanish inquisition, Marrano Jews 1

Open­ing tirade

J. Sakai’s 1983 screed Set­tlers: The Myth­o­logy of the White Pro­let­ari­at has been mak­ing the rounds again lately. Pre­sum­ably be­cause it of­fers a readymade ex­plan­a­tion for why the so-called “white work­ing class” voted for Trump en bloc, a premise which is it­self de­bat­able. Rhizzo­, an on­line mes­sage board where shit-tier Maoist Third Worldists and oth­er ran­dom nerds can meet and mingle, spear­headed the ini­ti­at­ive to re­launch Read­Set­ amidst the 2016 US Pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. You can fol­low the #read­set­tlers hasht­ag on Twit­ter, and there’s even been a tumblr ded­ic­ated to the in­junc­tion.

Un­for­tu­nately, the “ana­lys­is” offered in Set­tlers is tenden­tious garbage. Few Marx­ists have had the pa­tience, however, to read through the book in or­der to of­fer a point-by-point re­but­tal. This isn’t so much due to its style, which fam­ously flouts aca­dem­ic con­ven­tions and es­chews ac­cep­ted dis­curs­ive norms. I’m all for shit­ting on MLA writ­ing stand­ards, to say noth­ing of the stil­ted jar­gon of ad­juncts and pro­fess­ors. But if you’re go­ing to make de­tailed stat­ist­ic­al claims about the per­cent­age of white col­on­ists in­volved in vari­ous lines of work dur­ing the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, I ex­pect a foot­note ex­plain­ing the meth­od­o­logy used (how data was col­lec­ted and sor­ted, what “class” means in this con­text, etc.).

Of the vari­ous at­tempts to of­fer a Marx­ist reply to some of the out­rageous claims Sakai makes, Doug En­aa Greene’s “Race and Class in the United States: J. Sakai and the Polit­ics of Re­volu­tion” is doubt­less the most ex­haust­ive. He ex­plains that “Sakai denies the ex­ist­ence of a mul­tina­tion­al pro­let­ari­at, since white work­ers are sup­posedly just op­press­ors… What Sakai ad­vances is just ut­ter false­hood.” Greene ac­know­ledges that

Marx­ists need a ma­ter­i­al­ist his­tory and ana­lys­is of US so­ci­ety, its ex­ist­ing class re­la­tions, the role of race and na­tion­al op­pres­sion and to identi­fy those agents of re­volu­tion­ary change. But Sakai’s Set­tlers does not provide that un­der­stand­ing. The work is marred by gross meth­od­o­lo­gic­al and fac­tu­al er­rors and the polit­ic­al con­clu­sion leads one to see white work­ers in the US as one hope­lessly “re­ac­tion­ary mass.” For Sakai, there is no strategy for unity; rather di­vi­sion of the work­ing class is seen as a per­man­ent fea­ture.

Like­wise, Tyler Mcreary con­cludes in his re­view of the 1989 reed­i­tion of Set­tlers con­cludes that “Sakai em­ploys es­sen­tial­ist con­cepts throughout the text, un­will­ing to en­gage ideo­lo­gic­al com­plex­ity and con­tra­dic­tions… Des­pite Set­tlers’ vi­tal­ity, the crit­ic­al in­quiry it at­tempts is hobbled by cer­tain crit­ic­al lapses and overly strict con­cep­tu­al cat­egor­ies.” Se­basti­an Lamb sim­il­arly main­tains that “the ideas of Set­tlers are so flawed that they are ac­tu­ally an obstacle to de­vel­op­ing the kind of anti-ra­cist work­ing-class polit­ics needed today. Yet be­cause its ideas have some in­flu­ence among an­ti­cap­it­al­ists, they de­serve to be chal­lenged.”

Even many oth­er Maoists largely find the ar­gu­ments Sakai makes un­con­vin­cing. Not all, of course. Joshua Moufa­wad-Paul in his “meta-re­view” de­fends Set­tlers from the barbs dir­ec­ted at it by Lamb and Mcreary, and Mat­thijs Krul — who is quite open about his “con­sid­er­able sym­pathy and agree­ment with the Third-Worldist view­point” — nods ap­prov­ingly in Sakai’s dir­ec­tion on sev­er­al oc­ca­sions. Kev­in “Rashid” John­son of the New Afrik­an Black Pan­ther Party of­fers a scath­ing cri­tique of Set­tlers, and by ex­ten­sion the en­tire school of thought in­spired by him, in a long post ded­ic­ated to the ques­tion of race and class:

Cent­ral to the cre­ation of the Maoist In­ter­na­tion­al Move­ment/“vul­gar labor ar­is­to­cracy” line was J. Sakai’s Set­tlers, an anti-Marx­ist ana­lys­is of race (which re­places race for class as the prin­cip­al form of op­pres­sion in America). Set­tlers cites epis­odes from the ex­tens­ive his­tory of “white” ra­cial op­pres­sion of people of col­or in Amer­ica and the re­l­at­ive priv­ileged status that “whites” at all so­cial-eco­nom­ic levels have en­joyed at the ex­pense of peoples of col­or, and which has al­lowed even work­ing class and poor whites to be­tray the in­terests of their coun­ter­parts of col­or. The main theme of Set­tlers is “white” ra­cial treach­ery, be­tray­al, bru­tal­ity and priv­ilege that claims to know no class dis­tinc­tion. The con­clu­sion be­ing that these factors com­bine to cre­ate a uni­form class of “white­ness” that has no pro­let­ari­an sec­tor. We con­trast Sakai’s nar­row work with the broad­er and ex­haust­ive works of Marx­ist pro­let­ari­an in­tel­lec­tu­al Theodore Al­len, par­tic­u­larly his two volume study The In­ven­tion of the White Race. Ap­ply­ing a polit­ic­al eco­nom­ic ana­lys­is he demon­strates that race and ra­cism were/are cre­ated and ma­nip­u­lated by the rul­ing class as a tool to di­vide the work­ing class against it­self, only to the be­ne­fit of the rul­ing class.

Sakai’s work is geared more to the in­cite­ment of vis­cer­al re­ac­tions to the hor­rors of the prac­tice of white su­prem­acy and driv­ing home the sub­ject­ive theme of in­her­ent treach­er­ous­ness of “whites.” This to the end of in­cit­ing people of col­or to look upon all “whites” as a col­lect­ive op­press­or class and to erase the class lines that ex­ist between and sep­ar­ate rul­ing class and work­ing class “whites.” Sakai’s non-ma­ter­i­al­ist study read­ily ap­peals to the af­fect­ive mind. Al­len’s work by con­trast ma­ter­i­ally ex­am­ines the meth­ods and his­tory be­hind the rul­ing class’s schemes that cre­ated race and ra­cism, and in­cited work­ers and oth­er strata against each oth­er in the name of ra­cial su­prem­acy and counter-ra­cial nar­rat­ives which have per­petu­ated on­go­ing ra­cial ali­en­a­tion, com­pet­i­tion, sub­or­din­a­tion and so on. This has served to sup­press and di­vert the col­lect­ive out­rage of the over­all op­pressed masses in­to chan­nels that have pro­tec­ted and ad­vanced the wealth, power and in­terests of the rul­ing class. Al­len also ex­am­ines how the concept of “white­ness” has been used and serves to blind “whites” to the suf­fer­ings im­posed by “white­ness” on ra­cial­ized “oth­ers” and he fur­ther demon­strates that ul­ti­mately “whites” do not be­ne­fit from ra­cism or the sense of ra­cial priv­ilege and en­ti­tle­ment. Al­len’s work is geared more to the ma­ter­i­al­ist mind that is in­ter­ested in un­der­stand­ing the ori­gins, roots, and pur­pose of race and ra­cism and how to counter its di­vis­ive and of­ten cata­stroph­ic im­pact on op­pressed peoples of all col­ors and es­pe­cially the pro­let­ari­at.

In­cid­ent­ally, Sakai him­self no longer seems to think the cent­ral thes­is of Set­tlers holds with re­spect to the con­tem­por­ary US, a fact which ought to com­plic­ate mat­ters for those who in­voke his au­thor­ity to prove the in­cor­ri­gib­il­ity of the white work­ing class. “Mod­ern Pan-Is­lam­ic fas­cism [is] press­ing home its war on a glob­al bat­tle­field,” wrote Sakai shortly after the 9/11 at­tacks. “The small but grow­ing white fas­cist bands here in the US picked up on this im­me­di­ately; they had polit­ic­al brethren in the Muslim world. Polit­ics is thick­er than blood. ‘Any­one who’s will­ing to drive a plane in­to a build­ing to kill Jews is al­right by me,’ said Billy Rop­er of the Na­tion­al Al­li­ance, the largest white fas­cist group here. Like is drawn to like: not race and not re­li­gion but class polit­ics.”

My open­ing tirade thus draws to a close. Without any fur­ther ado, then, I leave you with Noel Ig­natiev’s brief but in­cis­ive 1985 re­view of Sakai’s Set­tlers. I don’t agree with all that Ig­natiev has writ­ten in the past, but much of it is quite good — in­clud­ing this re­view. And like Sakai he writes in a dir­ect man­ner without pre­tense or con­des­cen­sion.

Re­view of Set­tlers, by J. Sakai

Noel Ig­natiev
Spring 1985

Ac­cord­ing to J. Sakai’s Set­tlers: The Myth­o­logy of the White Pro­let­ari­at (1983), “the en­tire set­tler eco­nomy was raised up on a found­a­tion of slave labor, slave products, and the slave trade.”

Of course it was, and as Set­tlers points out, the fish­er­man, the for­est­er, the clerk, the cooper and the farm­er were “de­pend­ent” on the sys­tem of slave labor; so was the child who ten­ded a loom thir­teen hours a day in a cot­ton-mill. Not only that, the slave was “de­pend­ent” on the mill work­er and the fish­er­man.

Ever since the di­vi­sion of labor, hu­man be­ings have de­pended on oth­ers for the things they need to live. In mod­ern so­ci­ety all laborers “de­pend” on the ex­ploit­a­tion of oth­ers. To at­tempt to give this tru­ism a pro­founder sig­ni­fic­ance is to em­brace the world view of the bour­geois­ie, which holds that its mode of reg­u­lat­ing the so­cial di­vi­sion of labor through the mar­ket is nat­ur­al.

(As an aside, why lim­it the cat­egory of “set­tler” to those from Europe? People from Africa were im­por­ted to the west­ern hemi­sphere to pro­duce sur­plus-value, which was sub­sequently trans­formed in­to cap­it­al. Were they “set­tlers” too? And what about Mex­ic­ans and In­di­ans already here, and Chinese im­por­ted later? They also pro­duced wealth used to dom­in­ate oth­ers.)

Stand­ard bour­geois eco­nom­ics teaches that a job is prop­erty. Set­tlers shares that view, as well as the out­look of the white work­er who thinks that a ra­cial mono­poly of the “bet­ter” jobs is worth de­fend­ing. Who could be more sub­or­din­ated to cap­it­al, more blinded to pro­let­ari­an class in­terests?

No sec­tor of white so­ci­ety has thus far sep­ar­ated it­self cat­egor­ic­ally from the in­famy. Per­haps none ever will. The priv­ileges of the white skin have done their pois­on­ous work. As many people have poin­ted out, class is not a list­ing of in­di­vidu­als by oc­cu­pa­tion but a pro­cess whereby some people come to see they have com­mon in­terests, and that these in­terests in­clude the build­ing of a new so­ci­ety. Only events will de­term­ine wheth­er any sec­tor of European-Amer­ic­ans will take their stand with the glob­al pro­let­ari­at.

For European-Amer­ic­ans who think that re­volu­tion is ne­ces­sary, what bet­ter use could there be of their time, in­tel­li­gence, and en­ergy than the ef­fort to crack open white so­ci­ety? To do that, they need a the­ory that will point out the fis­sures in it, not deny their ex­ist­ence.

19 thoughts on “Don’t bother reading Settlers

  1. “Ever since the di­vi­sion of labor, hu­man be­ings have de­pended on oth­ers for the things they need to live. In mod­ern so­ci­ety all laborers “de­pend” on the ex­ploit­a­tion of oth­ers. To at­tempt to give this tru­ism a pro­founder sig­ni­fic­ance is to em­brace the world view of the bour­geois­ie, which holds that its mode of reg­u­lat­ing the so­cial di­vi­sion of labor through the mar­ket is nat­ur­al.” amazingly insipid

  2. tHE rHizzonE is the cool place to hang out. You can find most of the cool comrades there. In tHE rHizzonE you can just chill and do whatever and totally relax. “all reactionaries are paper tigers” is the tHE rHizzonE motto, for example, that’s how laid back it is there. Show up if you want to have a good time. Another good reason to show up is if you want to hang out with comrades.

  3. You know what’s the worst thing? This is isn’t even a good review, probably is one of your most crappy posts until today, but thanks to these butthurt sheeps we are missing a real opportunity to discuss this subject on a more serious level.

    For example, Moufawad-Paul (while ranting) indicated this:

    «Come on: Wolfe’s opening tirade before he posts the Ignatiev article is trash. There is nothing even approaching an argument in it and he demonstrates his refusal to read and think. For example, he approvingly cites McCreary’s review and Lamb’s review. I criticized these, demonstrating how they both didn’t even read the material they criticized (they attributed claims to Settlers that were not in Settlers), in a review that Wolfe links to but: a) doesn’t even represent the arguments made in that review or bother responding to them; b) misrepresents the review (implying that I endorse Settlers 100%); c) gets my name wrong, implying that he can’t read or is just an asshole.»

    which honestly sounds kind of on point, maybe(?). I don’t know, all these 1rst world problems sound kind of weird to me (a South American). What I’m trying to say is, ignore these rants, but maybe this is a good opportunity to write down a USA’s 18th Brumaire and explain all the difference between sub-classes, their material conditions, their interests and their developments these last 2 centuries. I don’t know, it’s early morning and probably I should stop following this show-bussinessy gossiping. Good luck with the cyber-lynching, it will fade in a week or two.

    • >>but maybe this is a good opportunity to write down a USA’s 18th Brumaire and explain all the difference between sub-classes, their material conditions, their interests and their developments these last 2 centuries.

      its called “Settlers” by j. sakai

      • Actually, I’ve been reading a little (tiny) bit of the book yesterday. It’s interesting for say the least, but I can’t help but conclude -if all the data and analysis in the book is true- POC minorities in first world countries should be classified as a second ladder of the labour aristocracy, at least compared to -for example- copper miners in my country (you know, like the famous ones who got trapped in 2010), Mexican automotive industry, Salvadorean cane cutters, Sri Lankan tea harvesters, etc. In other words, the problem isn’t the ‘white proletariat’ but the totality of ‘waged workers from developed countries’.
        That sounds counter-intuitive :/

    • >>In other words, the problem isn’t the ‘white proletariat’ but the totality of ‘waged workers from developed countries’.

      Dont know if you read Spanish or if you know this work by the brasilian marxist Mauro Marini. If you do not know it, give it a go, it explains clearly this contradiction inside the international working class.

      And Ross: I think we would all benefit if you reviewed this work too.

  4. The child who made your shoes wouldn’t need more than 20 minutes to have a complete understanding of the concept of a labor aristocracy, and yet like every other blood-gargling Trot imbecile you managed to read multiple books on the topic and remain totally dumbfounded through shear force of will.

    That’s the sign of a great intellectual.

  5. get a better thesis adviser, doughboy. as always, you wrote a ton and managed to say little, except that you consider yourself very well read.

    if there’s no class “analysis” in settlers, there isn’t one in Marx’s manifesto either: Sakai uses virtually identical social relations to demonstrate why colonialism was so effective in driving landless workers from a europe in which they possessed decreasing social mobility to the “new world.” Sakai does not deny an international proletariat: he points out how consciously parts of it have used their marginal advantages to oppress other parts for their own benefit. this should definitely make us uncomfortable because it doesn’t permit us to take refuge in theories of false consciousness, of a victimized working class duped by their oppressors into kicking the next guy in line. sakai also does marxists the favor of pointing out a huge difference between african/indigenous labor and the white working classes: the relation of the latter to capital actually gave them a chance of becoming landowners, to say nothing of the ones who went to own slaves themselves. the white working classes have often acted in full awareness of what it had to gain by reproducing slavery and racism, respectively. oh. pardon me, let me write a fuck’n essay on “whiteness” you pedantic ninny. the point is that by downplaying white supremacy’s integral role in america’s history (with the help and often disturbing zeal of white working people) for a much nicer narrative about proletarian class struggle, you write a moving portrait missing the one thing that makes it history. is that a problematic claim because you know of several counter-examples? sure: everything is problematic if you spend enough time looking for cracks, and that might be make a difference if your line of work is writing provocative hot takes, but it changes very little.

    go read some erik olin wright or bourdieu and then blog about it.

  6. Tickled pink that it took in the neighborhood of 6 weeks from invoking a curse on the Rhizzone that Ross “Hot to Trots” Wolfe did in fact visit them with a haunting.

    This shit sucks, go outside and stop fucking writing.

  7. Ok, great, you’ll post comments, but do you accept any of this criticism, “comrade?”

    Tbf most Rhizzone posters can’t handle it either but they’re nowhere near this out of touch.

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