Feature 09.01.2020 8 minutes

The Communist Roots of “White Privilege”


You’ll never be radical enough.

Americans are struggling to come to terms with the significance of the ongoing insurrection on America’s streets. How does one understand the motives of those who chant “Black Lives Matter” while demanding to topple a statute erected by freed slaves to celebrate their own emancipation?

After 9/11, American citizens were encouraged by leftists to ask, “Why do they hate us?” Today the same people, trained by years of victim-blaming to hold themselves accountable for terrorism both foreign and domestic, are asking a similar question. “What flaw of ours makes these nice mobs so angry?”

The approved answer appears to be “because of our white privilege, which must be dismantled.” If the presence of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility atop the New York Times Top Ten Bestseller’s list is any indication, many Americans are coming to accept this response.

What is “White Privilege?” The National Museum of African American History and Culture offers the following definition, produced with your tax dollars:

White Privilege
Since white people in America hold most of the political, institutional, and economic power, they receive advantages that nonwhite groups do not. These benefits and advantages, of varying degrees, are known as white privilege. For many white people, this can be hard to hear, understand, or accept—but it is true. If you are white in America, you have benefited from the color of your skin.

This view of America—as a country with a racial caste system—has long been prevalent in academia and has spread to the culture more broadly, even to the government. Government bureaucrats are increasingly pushing such rhetoric in mandatory trainings, as City Journal’s Christopher Rufo has been tirelessly documenting.

But it did not arise out of thin air.

The idea that there is an inherent white privilege which must be shed by individuals for society to progress stems from the desire of American Marxists to understand their own history of failure.

Despite decades of socialist labor agitation, radical union organizing and a robust revolutionary vanguard in the United States stretching back to early 1900s, the radicals of the 1960s were at a loss to explain why their revolution—which they perceived as inevitable—had repeatedly failed. They noted many potential reasons, including America’s view of itself as an exceptional nation, the open tracts of freely available land, social mobility, historical labor shortages, and the relative ethnic diversity of the working class.

But as prospects of revolution again began to emerge over the course of the ’60s, the question of how to prevent this new uprising from failing took on a new dimension.

Things came to a head amid debates within the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) over how best to proceed. The Worker Student Alliance-Progressive Labor Party (WSA-PLP) faction emphasized class consciousness, seeking to embed revolutionary students within the (predominately white) working class. They argued against growing Communist support of national liberation movements and in favor of a largely traditional Marxist-Leninist interpretation of history.

Their opponents in the Revolutionary Youth Movement faction of the SDS argued instead that it was a lack of racial, rather than class, consciousness which held back Marxist organizing in America.

The “Anti-Fascist” Con

One of the leading theorists on this topic was Theodore “Ted” Allen. Allen was a communist party member, a labor organizer, and eventually a researcher and teacher on labor organizing at the Communist Party-founded Jefferson School of Social Science.

From his experience working to educate the working class about Communism, and drawing from the work of W.E.B. Du Bios, Allen became convinced that the “white working class” would never be compelled to rebel as long as they accepted the “white-skin privilege” which the capitalist system had evolved as an artificial but deeply-rooted method of control to divide the white working class from the black working class, preventing a united proletariat.

Indeed, this problem of “white skin privilege” was as operative among the white radicals seeking revolution as it was the white working class, and as a result, only by purging themselves of their privilege could the New Left radicals succeed where their predecessors had failed. Allen wrote in his 1967 tract “Can the White Workers Radicals Be Radicalized”:

It signifies that the road to power begins with drawing from these few courageous examples two general rules of attack: First, face the problem of the necessity to repudiate the white-skin privilege. Second, act; repudiate the privilege by violating the white “gentleman’s agreement” as completely as you can at every opportunity. Once radicals adopt such an approach to radicalizing the white masses, the implications for particular areas of activity will not be hard to find. If in doubt at first, just make a list of the privileges and start violating them. Whether the white workers can today or in the future be radicalized in a historically more important and lasting sense than in past crises of our history, depends mainly upon the function of the white radicals.

Allen’s partner in this effort and another leading theorist on “White skin privilege” was another former Communist party member Noel Ignatiev, aka Noel Ignatin. Together their work played a key role in SDS split, with the Revolutionary Youth Movement faction arising triumphant.

The RYM would also fracture into The Weather Underground and Revolutionary Youth Movement II, which would later evolve into the New Communist Movement. But the concept of White-Skin privilege was instrumental to both factions.

Self-criticism sessions aimed at eliminating white-skin privilege would become a major facet of life in the WUO collective and would result in repeated purges and recriminations. No Weatherman, no matter how radical, could ultimately escape their “white privilege.”

While the Weather Underground sought to destroy their white privilege with Maoist-style struggle sessions and by carrying out violent terrorist acts, the more practical Allen and Ignatiev focused their efforts in more traditional areas.

Through the Harper’s Ferry Organization and the Sojourner Truth Organization, these two radicals and others emphasized targeting white privilege in the workplace, seeking to support black workers, and re-educate white workers about their privilege. The groups would lead “wild-cat” (non-union-authorized) strikes against perceived racial injustice in the workplace. They opposed meritocracy in hiring as essentially racist. While these cadres were never large, their tactics were influential, and their ideas even more so. Ignatiev would go on to teach at Harvard as one of the leading proponents of the concept of “White Privilege” and the burgeoning field of critical race theory.

While the Weather Underground and its splinter factions would come to influence the ideology and tactics of Antifa, who nightly take to the streets to wage insurrection against a country they view as inherently white supremacist, the legacy of Ted Allen and Noel Ignatiev would come to have tremendous impact on the left’s understanding of its perceived base.

The influence of Allen and Ignatiev is still reflected in the way the left full-throatedly cries “fascism” whenever it fears the white working class has abandoned it. American “anti-fascist” organizing took off in the 1980s against the backdrop of vociferous leftist accusations that Reagan was a fascist white supremacist, after working-class “Reagan Democrats” were perceived to have abandoned the Left.

Likewise, Trump’s election win spawned a multitude of think pieces about his support among working-class white voters coming as an alleged result of inherent racism. Among the most notable of these was one by Politico writer Joshua Zeitz, who borrowed heavily—although he does not cite—from Allen’s “white skin privilege” concept in his post-election piece, “Does the White Working Class Really Vote Against Its Own Interests?” And of course, renewed antifa violence has been aimed squarely at Trump’s supporters, as well as police and any who refuse to accept the current dogma that America is inherently racist and white supremacist.

The modern American Left—which has entirely adopted the assumptions of the New Left—genuinely believes that through the elimination of “white privilege” the last stumbling block between it and its long-promised revolutionary utopia will be removed. But of course, this is not so, because their fundamental assumptions about Americans and American society are wrong.

Everyday Americans must realize that even while the radical Left demands they kneel and renounce their privilege, the reality is that they can never be appeased. And so the riots and violence will continue, along with the academic, corporate and bureaucratic struggle sessions, until we unambiguously repudiate them.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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