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J. Sakai's "Settlers": A Meta-Review

Although J. Sakai's Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat was published in the mid-1980s it has remained at the edges of "acceptable" social theory, just at the threshold of obscurity.  Perhaps the reason for its academic neglect can be blamed on its unsober use of language and rhetorical tone: those who study political theory within the polite confines of academia tend to zone out when they read phrases and words that break the implicit rules of intellectual chivalry.  Or perhaps the academic dismissal of Settlers is due to the fact that it was published by a fringe press and presented in a somewhat unorthodox manner: the type-setting, use of found images and collage, and 8.5x11 graphic novel size does not fit the acceptable standards of an "authoritative" book.

And yet, though it is always tempting to blame the author or the publisher for a book's failure, Sakai's Settlers would have never received normative academic acclaim even if the author and his publisher had chosen to play by certain rules.  For it is the content of Settlers itself, like the content of every vital piece of social theory, that breaks the rules ahead of time.  If Sakai had changed his tone and written the same theory according to academic sobriety, Settlers might be read by more academics but it would be met with hostility, derision, and dismissal.  And though it is true that the publishers often create audiences––promotion and distribution predestining sales––Settlers content is such that it was banned a priori from those academic presses, even the leftwing ones, that could possibly create a larger audience.

This is not idle speculation: one only needs to examine how Settlers is perceived by those academic leftists who also fancy themselves activists, that academic population who would be, had Sakai's book received "proper" publication and distribution, its niche market.  The reviews of Settlers in Upping the Anti and the New Socialist magazine, by Tyler McCreary and Sebastian Lamb respectively, are snide and dismissive.  Both reviewers pretend, because they are good leftists, that they sympathize with Sakai's position, but their sympathy is more tactical than substantial.  In neither case is the actual content of Settlers taken seriously: they both straw-person the book, making it appear like a flawed and simplistic version of what it actually is, highlighting potential flaws in reasoning to dismiss the larger argument.  (In both cases, when I read the reviews, I thought I was reading a review of another book.)  These impressionistic readings, both focusing on surface details, allow the reviewers to ignore and reject the overall theory.

Here is a sad example of the fallacy of composition: if some of the parts are wrong (if they are wrong), then the whole must be wrong as well.  I doubt these reviewers would apply the same faulty reasoning to those pieces of acceptable leftwing theory that they study and love.  Would they dismiss Marx's analysis of capitalism because some of its abstractions do not accord with exceptional concrete moments?  I would hope not!  Most probably, if an anti-Marxist told the New Socialist reviewer that Capital should be dismissed because of the potential problems in some of its abstractions, the reviewer would probably reply (although one is never sure these days) that the abstractions were necessary in order to establish scientific categories.

So why this reaction to Settlers?  Lenin remarked, in multiple contexts, on "a veritable campaign against the philosophy of Marxism" launched by "would-be Marxists."  He often noted, at the beginning of State and Revolution for example, that the academic acceptability of marxist philosophy was often in contradiction with the actual commitments of marxism.  Thus vital and revolutionary marxist theories would be dismissed and attacked by the academic elite because they threatened these would-be marxists' privilege.  Settlers is part of a long tradition of vital revolutionary theory––descendant of Marx and Engels, Lenin and Mao, Fanon and Cabral, DuBois and Malcolm X.

The reason why Settlers offends the academic radicalism of the aforementioned reviewers, I think, is because it attempts to expose historical and material foundations of North American, but most specifically USAmerican, settler-colonial society.  Sakai's position, that has so offended these reviewers, is that:
"While there were many exploited and poverty-stricken immigrant [colonizing] individuals, these… Euro-American workers as a whole were a privileged labor stratum.  As a labor aristocracy it had, instead of a proletarian consciousness, a petit-bourgeois consciousness that was unable to rise above reformism." (Sakai, Settlers, 24-25)
And Sakai does not arrive at this position, regardless of language and presentation, in an idealist or spurious manner.  He is a dialectical materialist interested in filling in the blank spots of Capital.  He is performing the Maoist regionalization of marxism within his social and historical context.

Settlers is an attempt to answer some of the following questions: how does the history of colonialism and slavery influence class struggle in the United States, what does the fact of ongoing settler-colonialism mean for the composition of the proletariat, how does race intersect with class, why has the white working class most often refused radicalization, and how do we organize class revolution in this context. In order to answer these questions properly and systematically, however, Sakai needed, like Marx with Capital, to look for universal categories rather than become trapped at the level of confused appearance where no scientific conclusions can be drawn.  But it is not really his method that is the issue for the reviewers (and the straw-person arguments present the reader with a Sakai who lacks a method), even if they want us to think this is the case when they quibble over details.  Lamb dislikes Sakai's use of the concept "labour aristocracy" even though it's unclear whether Lamb actually understands how Sakai, following the entire and ongoing history of non-white and third-world marxism, is using it to begin with (the rejection of this concept is en vogue amongst privileged marxists these days).  McCreary's analysis is even cruder because he actually imagines that Sakai believes in racial ontology, and that the world is much more "complex" than the black vs. white reality he believes Sakai is presenting (this is the nadir of straw-personing).

That the white working class will not, as a whole, become Marx's revolutionary subject and lead the revolution in North America, that racialization has given it reasons to side with oppression, that we should stop speaking of its historical victimhood and ask how it collaborated with colonial victimization and what this meant for class consciousness… These are not comfortable topics.  Rather than do the hard work and actually try to understand what Sakai is saying about class, the reviewers react in a knee-jerk manner: "is he saying that race is the basis of organization and not class?  Let's stop reading this now and relegate Sakai to our historical dustbin."  And yet Sakai is not claiming that class struggle should be substituted by racial struggle.  In fact he goes out of his way at numerous points in Settlers to argue that class and not racial ontology is fundamental.  Nor does he believe that white workers cannot be revolutionary––he just argues that they form a labour aristocracy and, as with every aristocracy, individuals can change sides and consciousnesses.  His point is to interrogate how race and class intersect and how the history of settler-colonialism in America has distorted class composition.  Any honest reading of Sakai would arrive at this conclusion.

In the second edition of Eurocentrism Samir Amin writes that American ideology "delayed the development of class consciousness" amongst the white working class so that "[w]hile in Paris the people got ready to assault the heavens (here I refer to the 1871 Commune), in the United States gangs formed by successive generations of poor [white] immigrants killed each other." (Samir Amin, Eurocentrism, 47-48)  Why the members of the white working class were killing each other, as well as participating in colonial genocide, rather than uniting to overthrow oppression, is a question that Sakai is attempting to answer.  We need to take both the question and Sakai's analysis seriously.

I am not claiming that Settlers should be accepted dogmatically and exist in some heaven beyond criticism.  The best theories invite critique and debate and no theoretical argument is divine.  And yet Settlers has been banned from theoretical debate and proper critique, dismissed for dubious reasons.  The lack of rigour in the aforementioned reviews demonstrates, I believe, an unwillingness to accept Sakai's arguments because of a vested interest and class position––how else can we explain the trite dismissal?  How else can we explain the typical euro-communist rejection of "the labour aristocracy––a concept that is not passe in third world marxist circles, but is quickly dismissed by those who do not want to imagine that their working class might experience a certain level of privilege because of others?

So when Sakai argues that the white working class of North America constitutes, within the confines of settler society, a labour aristocracy, a valid counter-argument is not to snidely point out, as if Sakai was historically ignorant, that there is no such thing as a labour aristocracy because these white settlers were actually poor, exploited, and callously used by the colonizing aristocracy and bourgeoisie.  Sakai already accepts that this was the case but is tired of the colonial ideology that asks the colonizer to recognize that the settler working class is also exploited.  Following Fanon and every anticolonial theorist, Sakai wants to examine the ideology that permits the settler working class to occupy an oppressing position.  He wants to answer the question asked by Amin and others: why did this white-working class as a class fail to generally become a class for-itself, what were the terms of its composition in America (it arrived as predatory, Sakai argues with a significant amount of historical data), and what were the historical and materialist reasons for its structural development?  It is not valid to cite the sporadic moments in North American history when the white working class "got it right" as evidence against Sakai's position; there are often exceptions to the general rule, and it is not as if Sakai has dismissed these exceptions (he discusses, for example, the IWW).  Settlers is attempting to map the development of the ideology Sakai calls "settlerism", the material conditions behind its emergence, and its ramifications for class struggle.

Of course in any great work of social theory there are always possible errors and blind-spots.  For example, I think that Sakai's analysis of A. Philip Randolph and Marcus Garvey is somewhat problematic; I also believe that he often ignores the colonial contradictions between black slavery and indigenous populations.  I do not think these problems, however, mean that the general analysis in Settlers should be rejected––just as I do not think that Engels' far more serious oversights in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State mean that Engels' arguments and insights are garbage.

Moreover, it is all too easy to point out the blind-spots of a theory that is trying to account for large-scale historical phenomena.  There is a blind-spot, for example, in Sakai's Settlers when it comes to gender, but this did not prevent Butch Lee and Red Rover from using the Settlers analysis and adding a queer feminist dimension in their book Night Vision.  Nor should the fact that Sakai does not believe in the Trotskyist-inspired notion of "socialism from below," the favourite marginal theory of the New Socialists and its reviewer, mean that his analysis is wrong.  (In fact, maybe this reviewer could have learned something about an actually relevant and historically salient theory of organizing, unlike "socialism from below" which is only theorized and talked about by a small group of North American academic marxists, called "the mass line".)  If theoretical blind-spots and sectarian differences were the ultimate criteria for a book's acceptance or rejection, no piece of social theory would survive the cull.

In the end, perhaps we can say that Sakai's refusal to write and publish according to acceptable academic standards is what demonstrates Settlers' vitality.  It was never aimed at comfortable lefty academics still enamoured by "the mythology of the white working class."  The language of immediacy, the zine-esque presentation, the ability to translate theoretical concepts and arguments to street level discourse––all of these characteristics demonstrate that Settlers is meant to be a revolutionary text.  It is aimed at and read by the people who exist at the bottom of capitalist society, though apparently they are not the "socialism from below" that the New Socialist reviewer means.

We often forget that Marx wrote Capital for workers and not the academic elite (otherwise he would have published the Grundrisse instead), that Mao wrote for peasants, that Lenin was addressing revolutionaries and not marxologists.  If Settlers belongs in this vital tradition, then it is the job of those of us who are "leftwing scholars", if we truly believe our political principles, to treat Sakai's theory seriously.


  1. Great review!

    It's shocking that academic/activist leftists dismiss this book. It's quite damning to suggest, as you do, that these reviewers are attacking the work because to accept it would threaten their privilege.

    It seems petty that a critique which takes into account race and class is dismissed because it is deemed too simplistic-- wouldn't Sakai's contribution further complicate and broaden all of our understandings of marxist race and class in this particular context? Sakai's contribution helps us to understand how their class position changed in the move from Europe to America in relation to the colonial genocide that was taking place. Further, how does the ascendency of North America as the material and military super power impact the relationships of the revolutionary class across continents with huge disparities in wealth?

    Maybe the reviewers became so defensive because they misunderstand that race does not place white revolutionaries into a bind that can not be overcome? Maybe they struggle with the idea that being a part of the labour aristocracy does not preclude the possibility of changing sides. "His point is to interrogate how race and class intersect and how the history of settler-colonialism in America has distorted class composition." (As you put so well.)

    It's great that you begin with a consideration of the physical possibilities for the books obscurity: type set, images, and size are the first impression one gets from a book. And you know what is said about first impressions: they are quite hard to shake off. And you come full circle at the end by rightly pointing out that the accessible language and layout place the book in the tradition of Marx's Capital (or the Manifesto comes to mind too). That the people who are most likely to understand and accept the book are the most likely to be the revolutionary class anyway.

  2. I think there's a general fear, amongst a certain group of marxists, that Sakai and similar marxists (usually of the Maoist-influenced brand) are replacing the notion of class struggle with racial struggle. This fear, though, probably comes from white privilege where any discussion of racism (or sexism, or homophobia, or etc.) is dismissed as "identity politics" even when it's not identity politics. For though I agree that identity politics analysis needs to be substituted for concrete materialist theory, the term "identity politics" is often applied in a rightist and unmaterialist manner to anything that threatens a very specific, very western, very essentialist notion of class.

    (And now that you've posted here, Vicky, maybe people will stop thinking this blog belongs to you!)

  3. Sounds great Josh, I'll have to check this out. Interesting indeed that it was so ignored, since David Roediger's 'Wages of Whiteness' was published just a couple of years after and was so successful. I'm sure there are major differences in their arguments, but it does sound there is some overlap, since Roediger is concerned with the way that 'whiteness' is constructed precisely in order to mobilize racism/white supremacy within the working class. I guess only white guys are allowed to call out the white labour aristocracy?! Yikes.

  4. Well McCreary's dismissive straw-personing review mentioned Roediger's book and the possible overlap - before going on to writing the most fanciful analysis of Sakai to say why it wasn't good (based on said fanciful imaginings and lazy readings).

    There definitely is an overlap, and a strong connection, but I think Sakai's analysis is superior. (Not that Wages of Whiteness is bad - it's an important text as well.) The problem is that Sakai's use of movement language, the sort of immediacy of his lingo, is less "academically acceptable" than Roediger's book. Generally speaking, though, I think Sakai's notion of "settlerism" as an ideology that race/racism emerges from is far more significant and ground-breaking than Roediger's account which, in some ways, doesn't explain the foundations of the racism. For Roediger racism is still an ideology that only divides the working class, mobilized by the bourgeois. Sakai would agree, but he also says that, in the colonial context of North America, the ideology of settlerism is prior to this mobilization and rests on certain material foundations that determine class and race. He traces the history of the development of the white working class in this regard, and rearticulates Lenin's theory of the labour aristocracy to explain the composition of class.

  5. Although I have not (yet) read the book, this was a great introduction. I'm currently interesting in reviewing my own settler identity and history, and how that relates to a childhood upbringing which was explicitly "settler" in its institutions - protestant, boy scout, and bilingual (English-French). Funny, in Canada we claim to have "multiculturalism in a bilingual context", when in fact we have an imperial colonial program which utilizes (and has always utilized) multiple cultures to hold the land for the crown.

  6. Glad you liked the review...
    The multicultural ideology does indeed obscure the colonial context. Although Settlers is USAmerica specific, many of its theoretical insights could be used to explain the Canadian situation as well.

    There's a recent interview with Sakai that's worth reading if you're interested in the book:

  7. Very good review! We have translated Sakai's book into Russian and publish it in Also our editors believe that Sakai's analysis is applicable to the settler state of Israel and that the US-Israel strategic alliance, in part, owes to the shared settlerist foundation.

  8. Thanks! I would like to see how your editors apply Sakai's analysis to Israel. Obviously it can be adapted to the Israel-Palestine context - I definitely agree that the US-Israel strategic alliance has a shared colonial ideology. In fact, I discussed this in my doctoral dissertation. Sakai's analysis, I believe, is helpful for the remaining settler-colonial contexts, though it would need adaptation and importation due to the difference of national concrete circumstances.

  9. In my humble opinion WHOEVER, like Sakai, exposes Westerners -- gender, age, complexion, and social status regardless -- as the utter parasitic, unproductive, decadent, and self-opinioned trash that they are merits INSTANT RECOGNITION. In short, Sakai has committed the Cardinal Sin of the Very Highest Order; to wit, telling Westerners what is plain, simple truth to anyone with at least half a brain. The peoples of Africa, Latin America, and the Muslim countries generally might be pardoned if Sakai is not found that exciting (except possibly for carrying a US passport and NOT being an arrogant, imbecilic Yank).

  10. These reviewers clearly don't check the MANY MANY MANY excessive references Settlers has. My reading of it alternates between reading an extrodinairy claim, checking the refernce, finding out it's true, and then moving on to the next paragraph.

    It seems that there will always be sections of any revolutionary movmement that falls into the same trap. I've met feminists who deny cisgender privelege, and Sakai meets workers who deny white privelge.

  11. Well reactionary analyses can also mobilize references: the trick is to actually examine the origin of the references in general.

    As for the feminist versus trans debates, I think these occupy a different level (though maybe sometimes there are clear parallels to be drawn), though I agree with you in general. While I agree that there are sectors of the feminist movement that demonstrate a very problematic transphobia, there are also those feminists who get upset when some trans activists deny that being born biologically male in a patriarchal society does not produce a certain cultural capital. There's been a lot of stupid misunderstandings because of this and I've seen just as many feminists rely on appeals to patriarchy to mask their transphobia, as trans activists use an appeal to cisgender privilege to hammer through political positions that may sometimes be anti-feminist.

  12. Are you aware of anything worth reading that extends or modifies Sakai's analysis into a Canadian context?

  13. Unfortunately, no: I think this still needs to be done. The broad brush-strokes are useful, but as for the actual historical materialism this still needs to be done in a Canadian context.

  14. Thanks for the reply. It seems to me the need for this analysis is pressing- I hope to eventually have something to contribute. Take care.

  15. Yes, this analysis is pressing. And if you do have something to contribute, I look forward to seeing it.

  16. "In the end, perhaps we can say that Sakai's refusal to write and publish according to acceptable academic standards is what demonstrates Settlers' vitality."

    Many people publish fanzine or 'low/no budget' documents. Sakai's 'refusal to write and publish according to acceptable academic standards' does not demonstrate anything. What demonstrates the vitality of Settlers is it's continued resonance and growing popularity despite it's low/no budget production.

    I have some comments on Saki and his errors.

    From review:

    "And yet Sakai is not claiming that class struggle should be substituted by racial struggle. In fact he goes out of his way at numerous points in Settlers to argue that class and not racial ontology is fundamental. Nor does he believe that white workers cannot be revolutionary––he just argues that they form a labour aristocracy and, as with every aristocracy, individuals can change sides and consciousnesses. His point is to interrogate how race and class intersect and how the history of settler-colonialism in America has distorted class composition. Any honest reading of Sakai would arrive at this conclusion."

    1) Saki's error is that he sees the terrible truth but pulls back from it. In an unmistakable way 'race war' is the fundamental contradiction.

    2) However, he makes another error. He merely posits two extremes as the only possible alternatives; class struggle or race struggle.

    The error is in the word 'race struggle'. Whenever, the term 'race' is used, it implies that African American's are oppressed because of their race, that is their genetics, their mental abilities, their so-called lack of education, their 'laziness', etc. However, African Americans are not oppressed because of their race or anything that has to do with black people. They are oppressed because of white supremacist brutality combined with complacent white liberalism. In other words, we don't see a black problem. We see a white ruling caste problem.

    Objective is not to kill or oppress all white people. Dear me. The objective is to get the white ruling caste out of power and to elevate the black proletariat to the ruling class position i.e. the dictatorship of the proletariat (which does not mean bourgeois 'dictatorship'. It merely means a state where the proletariat's interests are paramount, which can be a formal democracy or not, just as 'dictatorships of the bourgeois' existed as formal democracies or military juntas).

    In other words, Saki sees and describes a caste struggle in meticulous detail, however, then he shy's away from it's from it's obvious conclusion, the black people are the proletariat.

    3) He also sees the black liberation struggle as a anti-colonial struggle. This implies that the vanguard should fight for Lenin's formula - 'national self-determination'. Or in effect, they will end up fighting for black Bantustans in America. Obviously, this would be horrendous for the black proletariat and very convenient for white supremacy. A ruling black proletariat would have to necessarily include control of the entire country if there was to be any meaningful redistribution of wealth.

    Only the American Communist Party accepts the black proletariat line.

    1. First of all, your cherry-picking of quotes is somewhat strange, here. The first one you quote, and then complain about zine laziness assumes that I'm making some universal statement: defiance of academic standards means quality. I am doing no such thing; if I believed this, I wouldn't be an academic. I was indicating that there are times when non-academic subterranean literature does possess a freshness that academic literature does not possess. On the other hand, most "screw academia" literature is, as you indicate, crap.

      Secondly, I get the feeling you misunderstood the point that Sakai was making. Nowhere does he claim that there is some sort of genetic "race struggle" but, rather, that class struggle in a settler society is overdetermined by race. Hence his appeal to the concept of the labour aristocracy. And yes, this would be a "white ruling caste" problem, though I find the term caste completely erroneous unless it is being used as a metaphor.

      And where, precisely, does Sakai say the objective is to kill or oppress white people? He's merely arguing that the white working class (which he does not think is the same as the white ruling class, and never claims this) is not a proletariat in the classic sense of the word because of the way that colonialism has affected the development of capitalism (and thus the development of class struggle) in the US. In this sense, he claims the agent of revolution (which is the proletariat, according to Marxists) is not the white working class as a whole. So this whole "two extremes" business is a pretty erroneous reading of Sakai: the point is that class struggle is racialized, that is what he is arguing, and that it has deformed even the working class––that is what he is arguing.

      You are correct that he does recognize the Black Nation, but there is a lot of debate now in New Afrikan circles about what this means. The NABPP has a different solution to this problem than Sakai, as does the NCP(LC) or the MCG––all of which recognize, in different ways, the way in which class struggle has been racialized by white supremacist settlerism.

      Finally, back to the comments about the way in which Settlers was published and type-set, I do have to admit that I prefer the updated edition where it looks like the kind of book I could get my university students to read.


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