Clyde Reviews Settlers: Mythology of the White Proletariat

Settlers offers a stinging critique of U.S. society and the supposed revolutionary potential of the white working class. Chapter after chapter Sakai takes apart U.S. history, examining the development of this settler empire and its white working class as it relates to oppressed peoples, especially Afrikans, Native nations, Mexicanos and Chinese.

The early settlers, Sakai says, didn’t come for freedom as is widely believed, but “in search for less work and more money” especially land.

“What lured Europeans to leave their homes and cross the Atlantic was the chance to share in conquering Indian land, when we hear that the settlers ‘pushed out the Indians’ or ‘forced the Indians to leave their traditional hunting grounds’, we know that these are just codephrases to refer politely to the most barbaric genocide imaginable….The point is that genocide was not an accident…(but) the necessary and deliberate act of capitalists and their settler shock-troops. The second aspect of Colonial Amerika’s foundation was, of course, slavery….this exploitation dictated the very structure of Euro-Amerikan society.”

Euro-Amerikan workers earned at least twice what British workers made.

“It was only possible for settler society to afford this best-paid, most bourgeoisified white work force because they had also obtained the least-paid, most proletarian Afrikan colony to support it.”

All parts of settler society benefited from slavery.

Labor struggles of Euro-Amerikan workers are often cited as evidence of the revolutinary potential of the white working class. But as Sakai shows

“Every advance…of European trade-unionism meant the ‘clearing’ of Afrikan workers out of another mill, factory, railroad, warehouse or dock.

“The relationship between Euro-Amerikan labor and Afrikan labor…was not separate from, but a part of, the general relation of oppressor nation to colonized oppressed nation

Even the I.W.W. which Sakai credits with being “the best industrial union that class conscious white workers could build” played this game. In the 1914 Hop Pickers Strike near Maryville, California, Japanese workers:

“were persuaded to withdraw in order to help the I.W.W., since ‘…the feeling of the working class against the Japanese was so general throughout the state that the association of the Japanese with the strikers would in all probability be detrimental to the latter’. The I.W.W. considered it ‘Solidarity’ for oppressed Asian workers to be excluded from their own struggle, so that the I.W.W. could get together with the open racists. It should be clear that while the I.W.W. hoped to establish the ‘unity of all workers’ as a principle, they were willing to sacrifice the interests of colonial and oppressed workers in order to gain their real goal-the unity of all white workers.”

What was true for the I.W.W. was doubly true for less radical unions. The C.I.O.’s policy in the 1930s and ’40s for example promoted:

“integration under settler leadership where Afrikan labor was numerous and strong and … segregation and Jim Crow in situations where Afrikan labor was numerically lesser and weak. Integration and segregation were but two aspects of the same settler hegemony.”

Sakai claims that: “The actual history disproves the thesis that in settler Amerika ‘common working class interests’ override the imperialist contradictions of oppressor and oppressed nations when it comes to tactical unity around economic issues. The same applies to the thesis that supposed ideological unity with the Euro-Amerikan ‘left’ also overrides imperialist contradictions, and hence, even with their admitted shortcomings they are supposed allies of the oppressed against U.S. imperialism. Could it be the other way around? That despite their tactical contradictions with the bourgeoisie, that Euro-Amerikan workers and revisionist radicals have strategic unity with U.S. imperialism?”

Sakai holds that the white working class is insignificant as far as making the revolution, that it isn’t even an issue. “Why” he asks “in amerika’s 400 years has the white working class always been loyal to its capitalists (and thus its Race) not its Class?” Still Sakai writes that

“Every nation and people has its own contribution to make to the world revolution. This is true for all of us, and obviously for Euro-Amerikans as well.”

What can Euro-Amerikans draw from this history about our role in world revolution and how the white working class fits in?

David Gilbert points out that “the predominance of white supremacy is not genetically determined nor is it carved in stone historically.”1 that “A system of white supremacy that was historically constructed can be historically deconstructed.” His hope is “to look for what conditions and movement activity can promote anti-imperialist organizing within the white working class.” Gilbert thinks it likely that social movements like youth, Lesbian-Gay-AIDS, anti-war and anti-nuke, ecology, housing, health and education “can play more of a role in involving white working people in a progressive struggle than traditional, direct forms of class organizing” and wants to push these social movements:

“to ally with national liberation, promote women’s liberation, and deepen their class base, while at the same time drawing out the connections among the different social movements into a more coherent and overall critique of the whole system.”

Sakai’s outlook is less hopeful, but he does leave us with a tip:  “in seeing classes as they really are… we learn that truly change oriented classes are new classes. Young, being born in the contradictions of social structures. Young classes that are self-consciously creating themselves as much as they are being created by anonymous social-economic forces.”

Here we can draw connections with the autonomist movement, which seeks to create (relatively) autonomous communities of resistance with culture, forms of interaction, and social structures based on collectivity and free of oppressive bullshit. Our personal revolutionary demands don’t include the $50,000 a year job which would allow us a more equal share in imperialist plunder, but center around control over our own lives. By building communities based on squatting, Food Not Bombs, bartering, and low consumption we gain more control over our lives and change our relationship to the means of production, remaking class as Sakai suggests.

Settlers should be widely read and discussed as a base in the political education of North Amerikan radicals. I do have a couple criticisms. First, Settlers does a weak job of addressing patriarchy and women’s liberation, waiting until page 150 to let us know that “Women’s Liberation is an essential part of the world revolutionary future”. Second, Sakai’s needs to be taken with a grain of salt sometimes around his praise of vanguard partyism, but anti-authoritarians should not let this political difference distract them from the great contributions made by this book.


This review originally appeared in Slingshot #52, a radical paper from the East Bay.  For information contact the address below. Long Haul (Infoshop, Infoshop Mail Order, Slingshot etc.) 3124 Shattuck Ave Berkeley, CA 94705 U$A tel: 510-540-0751 fax: 510-845-8816 resist@burn.ucsd.edu


 

Further Reading

In 1999, J. Sakai agreed to be interviewed by Solidarity Publishing and Distribution, a prisoner-support project based here in Montreal. The text of this interview is available alongside Kuwasi Balagoon’s The Continuing Appeal of Anti-Imperialism in the pamphlet When Race Burns Class, published and distributed by Kersplebedeb. The text of the interview, along with Balagoon’s review, are both provided here, so you can read them online.

In 2004, J. Sakai was interviewed by Ernesto Aguilar for KPFT Pacifica Radio. It is available in audio here, and the transcript became the pamphlet, “Stolen At Gunpoint: Interview with J. Sakai On the Chicano-Mexicano National Question,” and is currently hosted at anti-imperialism.com. (A lightly edited version also appears in the newest edition of Settlers as an appendix.)

Here is a list of links to other texts, discussing and debating Settlers:

More by J. Sakai

More on Global Class Structure


  1. Quotes taken from Looking at the White Working Class Historically. All other quotes are from Settlers. With emphasis in the original. 

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