Introduction to Theodore Allen’s Notes on Base and Superstructure

He made proposals. We carried them out. — Bertolt Brecht

Theodore Allen’s magisterial two-volume work of US labor history, The Invention of the White Race, is the product of three decades of empirical research in the colonial archives of Virginia and many years of arduous writing and revision. Published by Verso in 1994 and 1997, Invention made its appearance, fortuitously, just as a new discipline was being established in the US academy — a field called “whiteness studies.” One of the great ironies of Allen’s scholarship is that he hadn’t the slightest idea his work would find a receptive audience in English and comparative literature departments. As a historian, his ambition was to make a direct intervention in US labor history from the standpoint of what he termed “a class struggle approach to American history and society.” The irony is that while US academic historians (his intended audience) have neglected his work, in the field of cultural studies (a discipline foreign to Allen) it is highly regarded. Indeed, in many scholarly books and articles in whiteness studies Allen is cited as a major theorist and one of the field’s founding scholars.

Allen was close to 80 by the time the second volume appeared — a fact that was startling to me, assuming naively as I did then that cutting-edge scholarship is performed in an intellectual’s prime. Allen’s iconoclasm was evident in every aspect of his being. Shortly after the second volume’s publication, I conducted a series of interviews with him at his Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment in Brooklyn, New York. By that time my review essay on his first volume had been published in the Minnesota Review, which was the first engagement in the US academy with Allen’s thesis. Also by that time I had developed a friendship with Ted that had to do not with professional scholarship and labor historiography but with watching basketball, partaking in the pleasures of ice cream and curry goat, doing dishes and going to the laundromat, Mark Twain, and Duke Ellington. In fact, I became a regular visitor to 97 Brooklyn Avenue and would miss a Friday afternoon with Ted only if stricken by a serious illness, to which fortunately I have not been prone.

It turns out that Ted wanted to talk a lot about “the individual and collective,” and many conversations passed between us devoted to this favorite subject of his. He told me one day that, were it not for the persistence of white supremacy, he could have given himself over completely to an exhaustive study of this dialectic, which he considered the base of socialist society. He hated white supremacy for all the best reasons. And as I think about Ted today, two years after his death, it’s clear to me that our friendship was sealed on this simple understanding: that the worst thing about racial oppression is that it makes every worker’s life a misery, try as people might to blame their suffering on one proximate cause or another. To be a class-conscious American worker means that you can’t begin to figure out what you really want to do with your life until white supremacy is overthrown and every part of it completely eradicated, all its ghosts exorcised and its immoral and antidemocratic customs ruthlessly attacked on every front. For Ted, to be “white” meant to be a boss — to lord a privileged social status, conferred by the capitalist ruling class, over all those who are by racist law and custom deprived of basic civil rights and responsibilities. In this way anybody can act white, without reference to complexion.

I began to see — although I admit it took too long — that Ted’s lifelong work on the historical origin of racial oppression in the United States and its logical outcome, the invention of the white identity, was a necessary labor in order to free his mind for work on his principal passion and positive obsession: the social relations of production under socialism, or the individual and the collective. Tragically, just as Ted was beginning this study, satisfied that his work on white racial oppression was in excellent shape for present and future use, cancer invaded his body and in a matter of months took his irreplaceable life.

Before the cancer took control, Ted was able to deliver a lecture on the individual and the collective at Michael Zweig’s superb bi-annual conference on “How Class Works,” at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Zweig had read both volumes of Invention and was excited to have Ted come out to Stony Brook for the conference.* It’s obvious, I think, based on the ideas in his lecture as well as his brilliance and efficiency as both a researcher and writer, that had Ted evaded the cancer we would be reading today the first of several volumes on this critical and fascinating subject. Below is Allen’s lecture as he delivered it at Stony Brook on June 11, 2004.

Allen was born on August 23, 1919, in Indianapolis, but came of age in the small coal-mining town of Huntington, West Virginia, where his father in 1929 had relocated the family. Eschewing college, after high school he went to work in the mines instead. In Prenter, West Virginia, he became an active member of the United Mine Workers and a few years later, in Gary, Local President. During these years (the late 1930s), he joined the American Communist Party and helped set up the trade union organizing program for the Marion County West Virginia Industrial Union Council, CIO. While working in the CIO, Allen met Ruth Voithofer, a well-known communist organizer for the United Electrical Workers. They fell deeply in love and in 1939 married. But just a few years later Allen and Voithofer came to face an anguishing dilemma not uncommon to young communist organizers in love. Voithofer was offered a key position organizing mineworkers in Pennsylvania, while Allen was invited by the party to move to New York to work there in its anti-white-supremacist organizing drives in schools and factories. Ruth took the job in Pennsylvania, Ted left for Brooklyn, and their dynamic marriage came to a sudden end. They never saw each other again.

Throughout the 1950s, Allen worked in the party as a labor organizer and civil rights activist in New York, teaching classes in economics at the party’s Jefferson School at Union Square in Manhattan, and working a variety of jobs: factory, retail, and drafting. Yet by the end of the decade Allen had left the party to join a new organization called the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute the Communist Party (POC). Allen’s participation in the POC ended abruptly when his position on the relations between US imperialism and white racial oppression came into conflict with the organization’s official stance. In fact, Allen’s strong disagreement with the POC on how to approach the struggle against white supremacism provided the seed for the full flowering of his main thesis in Invention: that rather than benefiting from US ruling-class colonialist conquest, white workers are in their effort to gain political power and an upper hand in the class struggle severely crippled by it. The essence of this thesis was first proposed in February 1974 in a lecture he delivered at a Union for Radical Political Economics meeting in New Haven, a version of which was published a year later in Radical America and then in pamphlet form as Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race.

Two departure points, or intellectual premises, might be noted before pondering Allen’s speculative thesis in the 2004 lecture below. The first has to do with the distinction between base and superstructure; the second is the theory of working-class revolution.

Allen’s main thesis in Invention, which he substantiated empirically through archival research in Virginia, is a clear example of Marx’s base/superstructure distinction. In this study, Allen shows that the “white race” is a ruling-class social control formation and hence an ersatz “middle class” identity manufactured politically by the Anglo-American capitalist class. This project began during the early 18th century in direct response to a massive slave uprising in 1676 known as Bacon’s Rebellion, which had been led by a multiethnic front of African American and European American bond laborers.

In the age of so-called post-Marxism, created by the wholesale importation of French theory into the US academy, the base/superstructure distinction is supposedly a false one — or rather is merely a “discursive formation” or “social construct.” At all events, Allen to his great advantage had never bothered with Foucault or Derrida and thus retained this conceptual distinction in his every approach to philosophic as well as political problems and questions. In the case of the political invention of the “white race,” the white identity is part of the superstructure (or the imaginary relations) that administers the base (the social relations of production) — worker and capitalist. This distinction when applied to white racial oppression is immensely important because, from this starting point, it can be seen lucidly that whiteness is not a material benefit or advantage to the European American worker who adopts it. Rather, whiteness is a “baited hook,” as Allen put it.

Moreover, this perspective underscores the crucial fact that African American workers have been an essential part of the base from the nation’s inception. In this respect, Allen was always asking: Why would a capitalist pay one worker more than another worker for the very same labor-power? Why wouldn’t he, as is par for the course historically, keep all workers at the same minimum level of compensation, raising wages only when forced to by a mass labor movement? Allen agreed with Dr. Du Bois that whiteness is “the Achilles heel” of the US labor movement. Hence, failure to begin with Marx’s concept of base and superstructure, when understanding the question of race in the US, leads to a monumental cul-de-sac: If white workers benefit from racism, why would they ever do anything against it?

Now it’s possible to put it more precisely. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the race problem in US society is not a “black” one but rather a “white” one. America’s “Peculiar Institution” is not black slavery but whiteness. In other words, while the base of US capitalist society is no different than the base of any other capitalist society (worker and capitalist), its racialized superstructure is completely anomalous, with only one or two parallels internationally: Protestant religio-racial oppression in Ulster against the Catholic Irish, and the South African apartheid regime — yet the latter parallel is imprecise due to the majority Black South African population. Likewise, the parallel to Israeli racial apartheid in Occupied Palestine is limited for the same reason: Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem greatly outnumber the Jewish Israeli settler-colonialists.

The US system is therefore wholly unique: a situation in which the immigrant settler-colonialist population (poor and propertyless European Americans) has been deliberately made to significantly outnumber the native (American Indian) and enslaved (African American) populations. In fact, this essential component of the US nation-state’s establishment in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is the centerpiece of Allen’s first volume of Invention, in which he analyzes what he terms “the Irish mirror” (English/British colonialism in Ireland), as well as “the compelling parallels” between racial slavery in the British Caribbean and racial slavery in the US. In the case of the Caribbean, Allen shows that, as a result of the British ruling class’s failure to maintain in its plantation colonies a white colonial-settler population large enough to socially control the masses of African chattel-bond laborers, racial slavery was abolished in 1808 and then in 1830 the system of racial oppression in the British Caribbean was phased out and replaced by national oppression.

The 800-year-long English colonial project in Ireland is more complex. Allen demonstrates that it served for the British colonizers as a laboratory of social control experimentation, on a vast and horrifying scale. The first half of vol. 1 is devoted to understanding the crucial lessons learned by the English ruling class during its genocidal conquest of Ireland and then throughout its centuries-long murderous subordination of the Catholic Irish to the British plantation system of capital accumulation. The main lesson was that racial oppression is indeed the ideal order from the standpoint of any capitalist ruling class, since under it the super-exploitation of colonized labor-power does not require the costly employment of a colonial army. Yet, racial oppression is extremely difficult to maintain precisely because it depends not on a paid army of plantation patrollers but, rather, on the constant reproduction of a new “civil society” social control group — a class of collaborators with colonialism drawn entirely from the colonial-settler population itself, which in the case of the Irish situation was the Scots. Eventually the British were forced to give up on the Scots as a social control group, for many different reasons. One should consult Allen’s first volume for a thorough explanation. Suffice it to say that the Scots, being so close to home, could always abandon the Irish plantation system once they had had enough of it, or conversely they could join the Catholic Irish, as they often did, producing what became known as the “Scotch-Irish.” In short, the British in Ireland tried but failed (except in Ulster) to produce a numerically superior class of local enforcers, or, in Allen’s terms, a “social control buffer stratum.”

Thus by the time Allen turns to the continental colonies of Anglo-America, the stage has been already set: the task for the Anglo-American ruling class was to produce facts on the ground which made certain that rather than too few colonial-settlers there were too many. As he documents, this was achieved with specific articles to the Constitution that classified all European arrivants as “immigrants” and all Africans as “imports.” These first immigration policies christened each European immigrant, upon his arrival in the US, with special rights and privileges of citizenship, no matter how poor and propertyless he was. As Allen has it, they were the new nation’s first “white-skin privileges,” and they ended up determining the peculiar shape of the American South, in which the capitalist slave-owning class worked constantly to keep poor Euro-Americans in the majority, however slight that majority actually was. In fact, the highest rate of slave uprisings in the South was in areas where a “white majority” could not be delivered. But in the areas with a white majority, the slave empire functioned with relative ease.

Still, the question persists: How have Euro-American workers come to join en masse and thus further enlarge this peculiar anti-worker social monolith? After all, the majority of European Americans has gained almost no social mobility over the course of three centuries of mass immigration to the US: they remain firmly ensconced in the social relations of production as workers. But they do not act socially and politically as workers. In fact, they continue to oppress other workers in the base who are like themselves in every respect except skin-tone: black workers. Allen called this a classic case of “class collaborationism”: white workers doing the dirty social control work of bossing and patrolling workers necessary for the capitalist class to stay in power and accumulate profits. In return, the capitalist class treats the white workers like pets.

In this regard, Allen’s thesis helps to answer a lot of political questions in the current conjuncture. For instance, seeing that the US capitalist class is unwilling — and perhaps unable, structurally — to prevent the further erosion of white working-class wages, isn’t the time ripe for a new attack on corporate profits by white workers? Where is their political leadership on the question of rising corporate profits and rapidly declining real wages? As the white-skin privilege bribe loses its ideological value, isn’t exposing it been made easier? Allen’s answer is that the problem lies in the superstructure, or political education. Since the Democratic Party’s abandonment of the African American civil rights agenda, symbolized by the birth of the Reagan Democrats in 1980 and then in the 1990s by the establishment of Clintonism (the Crime Bill and the repeal of Welfare), anti-racial-discrimination discourse has gone from central to marginal. And with the marginalization of civil rights has come the displacement of class as the main analytic category of the American Left.

To put it differently, which is to say nothing profound or surprising, the Democratic Party is dead precisely because of its failure to offer white workers a class struggle vision of social change, which is the simple and clear thesis that white workers have been bamboozled once again by a new class of the rich and their politicians — fooled into thinking that their socioeconomic problems are “racial” and not class: that is to say, by the use of the anti-Affirmative Action rhetoric of so-called “reverse racism,” as well as all the anti-immigrant hysteria. Allen’s work demonstrates that while the white supremacy racket is indeed 300 years old, it is today very close to exhausting itself. Hence the urgent need for political education on the white identity and how it has always worked to the disadvantage of white workers — perhaps never more clearly than now.

Allen’s second departure point is the theory of working-class revolution. Allen was optimistic about a swift and relatively bloodless socialist revolution in the US precisely because of whiteness’s artificial character. He proposed a cunning theory: that you don’t need all white workers to defect from the white social control group, only about one-third. Being a monolith — superstructural and not material (i.e. not economic, biological, or psycho-cultural) — the white identity is always vulnerable to sudden political collapse. The African American civil rights movement is the best example of this; but Allen also pointed to two other historical conjunctures: the great populist movement of the 1890s and the communist movement of the 1930s. In each mass movement, white-skin privilege was identified as a ruling-class stratagem — as a race card that had to be pulled from the deck if working-class self-emancipation was to be realized.

Thus, Allen’s foray into the base of socialism — the dialectical unity of the individual and the collective — did not grow out of his historical scholarship on racial oppression but rather preceded it or, better, was its precondition. As Herbert Marcuse had it in An Essay on Liberation:

The social expression of the liberated work instinct is cooperation, which, grounded in solidarity, directs the organization of the realm of necessity and the development of the realm of freedom. And there is an answer to the question which troubles the minds of so many men of good will: what are the people in a free society going to do? The answer which, I believe, strikes at the heart of the matter was given by a young black girl. She said: for the first time in our life, we shall be free to think about what we are going to do.

It’s useful, then, to consider Allen’s proposal below, the last proposal he left us, as the beginning intention of all his work: to turn our attention to preparing in advance new social relations of production that enable each of us to “be free to think about what we are going to do.”


*After Allen’s death, Zweig, who is Director of the Center for Study of Working Class Life at Stony Brook, helped establish the “Theodore W. Allen Scholar Program.”

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