Book Review: Looking at the U.S. White Working Class Historically

Looking at the U.S. White Working Class Historically can be ordered directly from the publisher at Left Wing Books, or from AK Press and Amazon

On October 20, 1981 David Gilbert was arrested for his participation in an ill-fated expropriation of a Brink’s truck to fund the revolutionary activities of the Black Liberation Army. In his comments on Looking at the U.S. White Working Class Historically, the anti-colonial media theorist Jared Ball describes Gilbert as “our generation’s John Brown,” and unlike most comparisons nowadays to the Old Man, this one is perhaps no exaggeration. In confronting the American state’s genocidal assault on Black life, Gilbert did not succumb to a safe and professionalized reformism supposedly based on how conditions are different for those “in the belly of the beast,” but really based on fear of the immensity of the revolutionary task; instead, he forged his very life into a weapon, and he dared to wield it against that beast.

Unlike many of the “revolutionaries” who have grown into liberals over the decades, whether via plea deals or professorships, Gilbert has not faltered in his commitment to liberation for oppressed peoples. Behind bars, he has continued to campaign for justice. As he writes here,

The main purpose my writing from prison is to contribute what I can to developing effective movements against imperialism. “Imperialism” is, I think, the best brief way to name the prevailing system, which encompasses a range of oppressions and horrors: a global economy that condemns billions of human beings to abject poverty; the wars, coups, assassinations, manipulations used to enforce that; the patriarchy that not only attacks and restricts the lives of half of humankind and generates vicious homophobia and transphobia, but that also diminishes the humanity of all of us; the stark class divisions and exploitation; the countless ways, such as ableism, that people are demeaned and limited; the rapacious and hyper-wasteful global economy that is rapidly destroying the earth as a habitat for humanity.

gilbert 3The bulk of Looking at the U.S. White Working Class Historically is a reprint of a 1984 essay with a similar name that surveys and critically appraises three texts – W. E. B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction, Theodore Allen’s two essays in the Sojourner Truth Organization’s collection White Supremacy, and J. Sakai’s Settlers – toward an understanding of the reasons behind the betrayals of the white working class, and the white left, of the national liberation movements of Black, Native, Chicanx, and other oppressed peoples. This older work is supplemented by more recent ones: a new preface, a brief assessment of the ascendancy of Trump to the presidency, and a substantial concluding essay updating Gilbert’s analysis to the present day. The book ends with an assessment of the central essay by J. Sakai, one of the authors reviewed.

This review will not so much be an overview of the book’s contents. It is essential – you should read it. Instead, what I’ll aim for here is deepen his discussion at some points, draw some lessons from his insights for solidarity activism, and even at other points disagree, and in doing so hopefully help push forward the very kinds of conversations Gilbert hopes to spark. Much more could be reflected on and said; Gilbert helps illuminate many threads that I don’t touch on.

One particularly refreshing aspect of this book is Gilbert’s commitment to an honest criticism of his past views, writing that his 1984 essay is “deeply flawed in a number of ways” (p. 4). Gilbert recognizes that his initial critique of Allen for his neglect of Native dispossession was too restricted; genocide and land theft are not simple qualifications to Allen’s argument. Allen’s thesis, that the formation of the “white race” has its roots as “ruling class social control formation” in response to Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 – imagined as a progressive, multiracial struggle against the plantation bourgeoisie – necessitates shelving the centrality of settler colonialism to the rebellion and its class affinities. As Gilbert puts it,

Allen’s silence about the genocidal wars on the Indigenous populations means his analysis, while having some valid points, is fundamentally flawed… In addition, Allen glosses over the differences from the beginning between white indentured servants brought here under onerous contracts and Africans hunted down and shipped over in chains. (p. 5)

More recent studies, such as Ethan Schmidt’s The Divided Dominion, have made it clear that the genocidal drive to eliminate Native nations was not some ancillary and later transcended component of Bacon’s Rebellion, as Allen suggests, but was instead its central concern and basis of unity. Allen failed to grapple with the implications of how, as the Kanaka Maoli liberation theorist J. Kēhaulani Kauanui has outlined, this was a “class solidarity based on a shared desire for land [that] entailed violently expropriating it from indigenous peoples.”

Gilbert does not shrink, either, from the reality of majority white support for Trump. A number of authors, especially in regard to the region I organize in – Appalachia – have striven might and main to retain the white working class as racial innocents. An entire sub-genre of apologia has arisen, with a range of authors suggesting that to see regional white supremacy as an explanation of Trump’s popularity is a malicious stereotype of big city cultural elites. It is quite common to find what Gilbert criticizes as a species of white opportunism: Appalachian activists seem to specialize in “romanticiz[ing] that history [of the white working class] by presenting it as much more anti-racist than reality merits” (p. 2), so much so that some activists – such as Don West, a member of the Communist Party and founder of the Highlander Center – plainly lied in order to invent a regional anti-racist tradition, casting virulent white supremacists as principled and egalitarian abolitionists. White Appalachians would generally rather pretend racism isn’t a problem here, or say other parts of this imperialist settler colony aren’t any better (so what?), than confront the region’s noxious white supremacy. As Gilbert notes,

Among all voters making less than $30,000 a year, 53% voted for Clinton and 41% for Trump. For white voters at that income level, it was 34% for Clinton and 58% for Trump. We can’t meet the challenges ahead by touting grossly misleading statistics. Instead, we need to face the reality that among working-class whites who voted the majority went for the billionaire demagogue who spear-headed his campaign with racial scapegoating. (pp. 9-10)

Yet, here we must also note that a vote for Clinton is not an indicator of anti-racism or anti-imperialist commitments; Clinton is responsible, in a direct fashion, for the deaths of untold numbers of women, children, men, and non-binary persons in the Global South. This is the war criminal who bragged that “we came, we saw, he died” when Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was anally raped and murdered by NATO-supported terrorists, who supported the sterilization of Haitian women, demonized Black people in the U.S. as “super predators” and even kept slaves, helped engineer a military coup in Honduras and enabled the assassination of Indigenous women there, staunchly defends the colonization and genocide of Indigenous people in Palestine, champions global economic policies that directly lead to the deaths of untold many across the world each day, and much more.

Of particular importance, too, is Gilbert’s conclusion that revolutionaries in the Global North must forge authentic bonds of solidarity with revolutionaries in the Global South, as “the [world’s] vast majority have a fundamental interest in stopping capitalism’s exterminationist assault on people and the environment” (p. 72). Here, Gilbert supports that old Leninist adage that the chain of imperialism will break at its weakest links, at those points where its exploitation is keenest. The political movement of the Global South is obscured in the Global North by both mainstream and alternative media outlets, which all but ignore events such as the strikes of millions of workers in India, Bangladesh, South Africa, and elsewhere. Internationalism and anti-imperialism must be central to our organizing efforts, and this also means taking leadership from progressive movements and organizations in the Global South – and providing solidarity beyond statements.

In light of this, Gilbert’s consideration of Showing Up for Racial Justice as part of a “sparkling stream of struggle” (p. 76) in the Trump era is disappointing in light of that organization’s attack on militant Black self-defense – published in a statement eulogizing white supremacist police. (Neo-)liberal and NGO-ized “anti-racist” groupings are an expression of white opportunism in the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist struggle. Our task as solidarity activists is not to convert as many white conservatives as we can into white liberal “anti-racists.” Our task is not to dictate moral standards to Black and Native liberation. Our task is to win as many whites as we might to decolonization and the liberation of the Global South from imperialist domination. Our responsibility is to make more John Browns, and maybe even make some David Gilberts while we’re at it.

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