Several years ago was the first time I heard of J. Sakai’s Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat from Mayflower to Modern. Coming out during the decline of the New Communist Movement (NCM), it left an impression with members of organizations such as the Sojourner Truth Organization, some of its former members being who I heard about this book from.
Over the years, I’ve attempted to read Settlers, but have always been turned off by the Maoist rhetoric. When getting past that, there’s often somewhat controversial claims that have no citations.
For example, in the section on the IWW, he says that the black workers in the historical IWW’s famed Local 8 in Philadelphia left partially because of “race-baiting”. He also claims that during the 1914 Hop Pickers Strike, Japanese workers were more or less forced out. Neither claim has any sort of reference or source. The moderate amount of digging I’ve done has revealed nothing to back up these claims.
Also, in an interview he says: “Finally, an anarchist veteran of the autoworkers’ historic 1937 Flint Sit-Down strike told me that the strike had been Jim Crow, that one of the unpublicized demands had been to keep Black workers down as only janitors….or out of the plants altogether.”
While being no expert on the Flint sit-down strike, this is the first time I’ve encountered this claim. The anarchist goes unnamed. The only anarchist I’m aware of who had some level of involvement in the strike was Rose Pesotta (as a CIO organizer) and who died in 1965. Now, Sakai says he became politically active in the early 1960s, so it is possible that they encountered each other, but haven’t been able to find anything saying so.
This makes me wonder about the rest of the book and is the primary reason I’ve never read it. Are these claims in any way accurate and are there primary sources out there on them?
Reviews by Upping the Ante, M-L-M Mayhem, Kuwasi Balagoon, New Socialist, Slingshot, MIM, and Antidote mention nothing about historical accuracy or the lack of sources. The only thing even close to addressing this I could find is from Doug Greene, who says that some of Settlers has ‘cherry-picked data’.
In a 2004 interview by Ernesto Aguilar, Sakai says:
Actually, although I’ve heard a lot of criticism, there hasn’t been a lot of writing criticizing it. I always tell people I don’t have a problem with criticism, just write down factually where the mistakes are and we can argue about that. At that point, people disappear, because they can’t seem to locate those things.
So it seems that no one has really brought up the issue of sources with Sakai, which is sort of amazing, considering Settlers was originally published in 1983 and was recently republished by PM Press.