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). Or Adolph Reed’s “Black Particularity Reconsidered,” or CLR James’ classic The Black Jacobins.
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. Rhizzone.net, an online message board where shit-tier Maoist Third Worldists and other random nerds can meet and mingle, spearheaded the initiative to relaunch ReadSettlers.org 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.
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.