Theodore W. Allen: Working-Class Scholar

— Jeffrey B. Perry

THEODORE W. ALLEN WAS an independent, anti-white supremacist, working-class scholar when he pioneered his “white skin privilege” analysis in the mid-1960s and when he wrote The Invention of the White Race in the 1990s. He was also a self-avowed Marxist and historical materialist who believed that class struggle was the driving force of history.

Starting in the 1960s he began an important 40-years-long study and reflection on white supremacy, racial oppression and the class struggle in American history. In this he was informed by the civil rights, anti-colonial and national liberation struggles; by his prior experience as a communist, labor activist and student of history; and by close readings of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction and Marxian political economics.

An organizationally independent working-class intellectual, Allen combined the drive to end oppression and exploitation with the thirst for understanding and awareness based on historical evidence and analysis.

In 1966, during what he described as “the changed ambience of the African American Civil Rights struggle . . . [and] the peace movement,” Allen began his historical research in earnest. He was specifically inspired by Du Bois’ insights that the South after the Civil War “presented the greatest opportunity for a real national labor movement which the nation ever saw” and that the organized labor movement failed to recognize that “in black slavery and Reconstruction” could be found “the kernel and meaning of the labor movement in the United States.”

At that time Allen conceived of the idea of writing a historical study of three crises in United States history in which, as he would later explain, there were general confrontations “between capital and urban and rural laboring classes.” The crises were those of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Populist Revolt of the 1890s, and the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In analyzing those confrontations Allen would find that “the key to the defeat of the forces of democracy, labor and socialism[,] was in each case achieved by ruling-class appeals to white supremacism, basically by fostering white-skin privileges of laboring-class European-Americans.”

Drawing again on Du Bois and his notion of the “Blindspot in the eyes of America,” Allen spoke of “the white blindspot” and would go on to describe the role of the theory and practice of white supremacy in shaping the outcomes of those three great crises. This is detailed in one of his major unpublished works — “‘The Kernel and the Meaning’ . . . A Contribution to a Proletarian Critique of United States Historiography.”

Life and Politics

Theodore W. “Ted” Allen (1919-2005) was born in Indiana. He also lived in Paintsville, Kentucky and graduated from high school in Huntington, West Virginia (having been “proletarianized by the Great Depression”).

At age 17 he joined the Communist Party and Local 362 of the American Federation of Musicians. He served as a delegate to the Huntington Central Labor Union, AFL, worked as a coal miner in West Virginia, and was a member of three different United Mine Workers locals including Local 6206 (Gary) where he was an organizer and local president and co-organized a trade union organizing program for the Marion County West Virginia Industrial Union Council, CIO.

After moving to New York in the late 1940s Allen did industrial economic research at the Labor Research Association, taught economics at the Communist Party’s Jefferson School (in the 1940s and ’50s), and taught math at the Crown Heights Yeshiva in Brooklyn and the Grace Church School in New York.

In the late 1950s, desirous of challenging what he considered to be opportunism in the CPUSA and “white chauvinism” in the proletarian movement, he worked with the Provisional Organizing Committee. He soon grew disenchanted with them over their appeals to higher authorities in the international Communist movement and their inability to be of service to the Civil Rights Movement because that struggle did not conform to their theory of the “national question.”

At that point, in the early 1960s, he sought to figure things out for himself. Over his last 40 years, while living at the edge of poverty in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, he worked as a factory worker, retail clerk, mechanical design draftsmen, instructor at Essex County Community College, postal mail handler, librarian (at the Brooklyn Public Library) and independent scholar.

Allen pioneered his class struggle-based “white skin privilege” analysis in 1965. His work influenced sectors of the Students for a Democratic Society and sectors of the “new left.” He did not agree with those in SDS who denied that “white skin privileges” existed; he did not agree with those who didn’t want to talk about or address the issue of “white skin privileges;” and he did not agree with those in SDS who argued that “white workers” were bought off by “white skin privilege.”

Allen thought that “white skin privileges” existed and that they were not in the interest of working people.  The fullest treatment of the development of Theodore W. Allen’s thought can be found in my article “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy” at http://www.jeffreybperry.net/files/Perry.pdf.

November-December 2017, ATC 191

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