[Marxism] Fwd: 100th Anniversary of The Birth of Theodore W. Allen (August 23): His Papers Now Available at UMass-Amherst

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 22 05:43:04 MDT 2019

*100^th Anniversary of The Birth of Theodore W. Allen*

*His Major Collection of Papers is Now Available at UMass-Amherst 
(alongside those of W.E.B. Du Bois) and an initial Inventory is at 


Theodore W. “Ted” Allen (1919-2005) was an anti-white supremacist, 
working class intellectual and activist. He developed his pioneering 
class struggle-based analysis of “white skin privilege” beginning in the 
mid-1960s; authored the seminal two-volume /The Invention of the White 
Race/ in the 1990s; and consistently maintained that the struggle 
against white supremacy was central to efforts at radical social change 
in the United States.  Born on August 23, 1919, in Indianapolis, 
Indiana, he grew up in Paintsville, Kentucky and Huntington, West 
Virginia and, after moving to New York City, lived his last fifty-plus 
years in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

Allen's two-volume /The Invention of the White Race/ (1994, 1997: Verso 
Books, new expanded edition 2012) with its focus on racial oppression 
and social control is one of the twentieth-century's major contributions 
to historical understanding. It presents a full-scale challenge to what 
he refers to as "The Great White Assumption" -- the unquestioning 
acceptance of the "white race" and "white" identity as skin color-based 
and natural attributes rather than as social and political 
constructions. Its thesis on the origin, nature, and maintenance of the 
"white race" and its understanding that slavery in the Anglo-American 
plantation colonies was capitalist and enslaved Black laborers were 
proletarians, contain the basis of a revolutionary approach to United 
States labor history.

On the back cover of the 1994 edition of Volume 1, subtitled /Racial 
Oppression and Social Control/, Allen boldly asserted "When the first 
Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no 'white' people 
there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for 
another sixty years." That statement, based on 20-plus years of primary 
research in Virginia's colonial records, reflected the fact that Allen 
found no instance of the official use of the word "white" as a token of 
social status prior to its appearance in a Virginia law passed in 1691. 
As he later explained, "Others living in the colony at that time were 
English; they had been English when they left England, and naturally 
they and their Virginia-born children were English, they were not 
'white.' White identity had to be carefully taught, and it would be only 
after the passage of some six crucial decades" that the word "would 
appear as a synonym for European-American."

In this context he offers his major thesis -- that the "white race" was 
invented as a ruling class social control formation in response to labor 
solidarity as manifested in the latter (civil war) stages of Bacon's 
Rebellion (1676-77). To this he adds two important corollaries: 1) the 
ruling elite deliberately instituted a system of racial privileges to 
define and maintain the "white race" and to implement a system of racial 
oppression, and 2) the consequence was not only ruinous to the interest 
of African Americans, it was also disastrous for European-American workers.

              In Volume II, on /The Origin of Racial Oppression in 
Anglo-America/, Allen tells the story of the invention of the “white 
race” and the development of the system of racial oppression in the late 
seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Anglo-American plantation 
colonies. His primary focus is on the pattern-setting Virginia colony, 
and he pays special attention to the reduction of tenants and 
wage-laborers in the majority English labor force to chattel 
bond-servants in the 1620s. In so doing, he emphasizes that this was a 
qualitative break from the condition of laborers in England and from 
long established English labor law, that it was not a feudal carryover, 
that it was imposed under capitalism, and that it was an essential 
precondition of the emergence of the lifetime hereditary chattel 
bond-servitude imposed upon African-American laborers under the system 
of racial slavery. Allen describes how, throughout much of the 
seventeenth century, the status of African-Americans was indeterminate 
(because it was still being fought out) and he details the similarity of 
conditions for African-American and European-American laborers and 
bond-servants. He also documents many significant instances of labor 
solidarity and unrest, especially during the 1660s and 1670s. Of great 
significance is his analysis of the civil war stage of Bacon’s Rebellion 
when thousands of laboring people took up arms against the ruling 
plantation elite, the capital (Jamestown) was burned to the ground, 
rebels controlled 6/7 of the Virginia colony, and Afro- and 
Euro-American bond-servants fought side-by-side demanding an end to 
their bondage.

It was in the period after Bacon's Rebellion that the “white race” was 
invented as a ruling-class social control formation. Allen describes 
systematic ruling-class policies, which conferred “white race” 
privileges on European-Americans while imposing harsher disabilities on 
African-Americans resulting in a system of racial slavery, a form of 
racial oppression that also imposed severe racial proscriptions on free 
African-Americans. He emphasizes that when free African-Americans were 
deprived of their long-held right to vote in Virginia and Governor 
William Gooch explained in 1735 that the Virginia Assembly had decided 
upon this curtailment of the franchise in order "to fix a perpetual 
Brand upon Free Negros & Mulattos," it was not an "unthinking decision." 
Rather, it was a deliberate act by the plantation bourgeoisie and was a 
conscious decision in the process of establishing a system of racial 
oppression, even though it entailed repealing an electoral principle 
that had existed in Virginia for more than a century.

Key to understanding the virulent racial oppression that develops in 
Virginia, Allen argues, is the formation of the intermediate social 
control buffer stratum, which serves the interests of the ruling class. 
In Virginia, any persons of discernible non-European ancestry after 
Bacon's Rebellion were denied a role in the social control buffer group, 
the bulk of which was made up of laboring-class "whites." In the 
Anglo-Caribbean, by contrast, under a similar Anglo- ruling elite, 
"mulattos" were included in the social control stratum and were promoted 
into middle-class status. This difference was rooted in a number of 
social control-related factors, one of the most important of which was 
that in the Anglo-Caribbean there were “too few” poor and laboring-class 
Europeans to embody an adequate petit bourgeoisie, while in the 
continental colonies there were '’too many’' to be accommodated in the 
ranks of that class.

In /The Invention of the White Race /Allen challenges what he considers 
to be two main ideological props of white supremacy -- the argument that 
"racism" is innate (and it is therefore useless to challenge it) and the 
argument that European-American workers “benefit” from "white race" 
privileges and white supremacy (and that it is therefore not in their 
interest to oppose them).These two arguments, opposed by Allen, are 
related to two master historical narratives rooted in writings on the 
colonial period. The first argument is associated with the “unthinking 
decision” explanation for the development of racial slavery offered by 
historian Winthrop D. Jordan in his influential /White Over Black: 
American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812/. The second argument is 
associated with historian Edmund S. Morgan’s influential /American 
Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, /which 
maintains that in Virginia, as slavery developed in the eighteenth 
century, “there were too few free poor [European-Americans] on hand to 
matter.” Allen points out that what Morgan said about “too few” free 
poor was true in the eighteenth century Anglo-Caribbean, but not in 

"The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and 
Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White 
Supremacy" (/Cultural Logic/, 2010) describes key components of Allen's 
analysis of "white race" privilege. The article explains that as he 
developed the "white race" privilege concept, Allen emphasized that 
these privileges were a "poison bait" (like a shot of “heroin”) and he 
explained that they "do not permit" the masses of European American 
workers nor their children "to escape" from that class. "It is not that 
the ordinary white worker gets more than he must have to support 
himself," but "the Black worker gets less than the white worker." By, 
thus "inducing, reinforcing and perpetuating racist attitudes on the 
part of the white workers, the present-day power masters get the 
political support of the rank-and-file of the white workers in critical 
situations, and without having to share with them their super profits in 
the slightest measure."

            As one example, to support his position, Allen provided 
statistics showing that in the South where race privilege "has always 
been most emphasized . . . the white workers have fared worse than the 
white workers in the rest of the country."

Probing more deeply, Allen offered additional important insights into 
why these race privileges are conferred by the ruling class. He pointed 
out that "the ideology of white racism" is "not appropriate to the white 
workers" because it is "contrary to their class interests." Because of 
this "the bourgeoisie could not long have maintained this ideological 
influence over the white proletarians by mere racist ideology." Under 
these circumstances white supremacist thought is "given a material basis 
in the form of the deliberately contrived system of race privileges for 
white workers." Thus, writes Allen, "history has shown that the 
white-skin privilege does not serve the real interests of the white 
workers, it also shows that the concomitant racist ideology has blinded 
them to that fact."

Allen added, "the white supremacist system that had originally been 
designed in around 1700 by the plantation bourgeoisie to protect the 
base, the chattel bond labor relation of production" also served "as a 
part of the 'legal and political' superstructure of the United States 
government that, until the Civil War, was dominated by the slaveholders 
with the complicity of the majority of the European-American workers." 
Then, after emancipation, "the industrial and financial bourgeoisie 
found that it could be serviceable to their program of social control, 
anachronistic as it was, and incorporated it into their own 'legal and 
political' superstructure."

Allen felt that two essential points must be kept in mind. First, "the 
race-privilege policy is deliberate bourgeois class policy." Second, 
"the race-privilege policy is, contrary to surface appearance, contrary 
to the interests, short range as well as long range interests of not 
only the Black workers but of the white workers as well." He repeatedly 
emphasized that "the day-to-day real interests" of the European-American 
worker "is not the white skin privileges, but in the development of an 
ever-expanding union of class conscious workers." He emphasized, 
"'Solidarity forever!' means 'Privileges never!'" He elsewhere pointed 
out, "The Wobblies [the Industrial Workers of the World] caught the 
essence of it in their slogan: 'An injury to one is an injury to all.'"

Throughout his work Allen stresses that "the initiator and the ultimate 
guarantor of the white skin privileges of the white worker is not the 
white worker, but the white worker's masters" and the masters do this 
because it is "an indispensable necessity for their continued class 
rule." He describes how "an all-pervasive system of racial privileges 
was conferred on laboring-class European-Americans, rural and urban, 
exploited and insecure though they themselves were" and how "its 
threads, woven into the fabric of every aspect of daily life, of family, 
church, and state, have constituted the main historical guarantee of the 
rule of the 'Titans,' damping down anti-capitalist pressures, by making 
'race, and not class, the distinction in social life.'" That, "more than 
any other factor," he argues, "has shaped the contours of American 
history -- from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to the Civil War, 
to the overthrow of Reconstruction, to the Populist Revolt of the 1890s, 
to the Great Depression, to the civil rights struggle and 'white 
backlash' of our own day."

Allen also addressed the issue of strategy for social change. He 
emphasized, “The most vulnerable point at which a decisive blow can be 
struck against bourgeois rule in the United States is white supremacy.” 
He considered “white supremacy” to be “both the keystone and the 
Achilles heel of U.S. bourgeois democracy.” Based on this analysis Allen 
maintained, “the first main strategic blow must be aimed at the most 
vulnerable point at which a decisive blow can be struck, namely, white 
supremacism.” This, he argued, was the conclusion to be drawn from a 
study of three great social crises in U.S. history – “the Civil War and 
Reconstruction, the Populist Revolt of the 1890s, and the Great 
Depression of the 1930s.” In each of these cases “the prospects for a 
stable broad front against capital has foundered on the shoals of white 
supremacism, most specifically on the corruption of the 
European-American workers by racial privilege.”

               Ted Allen died on January 19, 2005, and a memorial 
service was held for him at the Brooklyn Public Library where he had 
worked. Then on October 8, 2005, his ashes, as per his request, were 
spread in the York River (near West Point, Virginia) close to its 
convergence with the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Rivers – the location where 
the final armed holdouts, "Eighty Negroes and Twenty English," refused 
to surrender in the last stages of Bacon’s Rebellion.

              Allen’s historical work hasprofound implications for 
American History, African-American History, Labor History, Left History, 
American Studies, and “Whiteness” Studies and it offers important 
insights in the areas of Caribbean History, Irish History, and African 
Diaspora Studies. With its meticulous primary research, equalitarian 
motif, emphasis on the class struggle dimension of history, and 
groundbreaking analysis his work continues to grow in influence and 

For writings, audios, and videos by and about Theodore W. Allen and his 
work see


For information on /The Invention of the White Race/ Vol. I: /Racial 
Oppression and Social Control/ [Verso Books] (including comments from 
scholars and activists and Table of Contents) see


For information on /The Invention of the White Race/ Vol. II: /The 
Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo America/ (including comments from 
scholars and activists and Table of Contents) see


For the fullest treatment of the development of Theodore W. Allen’s 
thought see “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert 
Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against 
White Supremacy” at


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