Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 15, 2019

Noel Ignatiev: Remembering a Comrade and a Friend

Filed under: Counterpunch,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:29 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 15, 2015

For all of the opprobrium Facebook deserves, it is still essential for building ties on the left when there are so few opportunities for networking in real space as opposed to cyberspace. Just checking now, it seems that I became a FB friend with Noel Ignatiev sometime in 2015. It was worth it to me to make such a connection, even if it meant putting up with all the ads and heavy-handed automated interference into saying what was on my mind. (I lost FB posting privileges twice for no good reason.)

Back in the mid-nineties, when I was working at Columbia University, I used to make frequent stops during lunchtime at Bookforum, an excellent source of scholarly literature, including that written by Marxists. One day I spotted a new book by Noel Ignatiev titled “How the Irish Became White” that stopped me in my tracks. I had dispensed with the notion long ago that white workers would join a Marxist group just by selling them copies of the Militant newspaper. Even if the book focused on the Irish, it might offer insights into the question of American political backwardness.

Despite being based on Ignatiev’s Ph.D., it read nothing like a dissertation. It was a politically engaged attack on white privilege supported by in-depth research. It also demonstrated a grasp of the broad contours of American culture that suggested the author’s ability to think outside the box. For example, Ignatiev made the case that Huckleberry Finn was Irish based not only on his last name but what Mark Twain wrote in a May 7, 1884 letter: “I returned the book-back [book cover for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn]. All right and good, and will answer, although the boy’s mouth is a trifle more Irishy than necessary.”

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2 Comments »

  1. How does this book compare to Theodore Allen’s “Invention of the White Race”?

    Comment by Robert Green — November 16, 2019 @ 1:34 pm

  2. Same basic analysis. Allen’s book covers more territory (2 volumes).

    Comment by louisproyect — November 16, 2019 @ 1:49 pm


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