On Sojourner Truth Organisation: some thoughts

On Sojourner Truth Organisation: some thoughts

We were asked to write about how we relate to the 1970s American revolutionary group, Sojourner Truth Organisation (STO). Amongst other things, they were involved in workplace organising and developed thinking around race and white skin privilege.

We agree with Noel Ignatiev when he says that the workplace organising phase of STOs political legacy is the most valuable. When we came across STO around a year ago, they immediately struck a chord with us because we are trying to do something similar in west London. We try to be a bit ‘strategic’ in where we get jobs, in sectors we find politically interesting because of its class composition. We decided to get jobs in some of the bigger factories and warehouses located in London’s hinterland – workplaces that are crucial to supplying this hungry city. These daily experiences of working life – comprising zero-hours contracts, agency work, minimum wages, migrant sweat, shop-floor humiliations, class rage and a hope for a better future– form the basis for our organizing efforts and political work. This idea of ‘being strategic’ about working class political activity is anathema to many in ultra-left and anarchist circles. It is often seen as the preserve of Leninist and Trotskyist groups, associated with entryism, substitutionalism and murky tactics, which is a shame. Anyway, we were glad to discover that we’re not the only weirdos to situate ourselves in places where the main motivation is not money or career, like our STO comrades did when some of them went to Gary in the 1970s because that’s where the steel mills were and black workers were organizing. We would still defend that idea now – not necessarily forgoing all family life and moving anywhere- but getting rooted in a working class community.

Whilst the terrain of the revolutionary left and the capitalist landscape itself are both very different now from when STO was formed, there are still some similarities that make their history relevant to us. We, too, find ourselves in a minority position within the revolutionary left with regards to our political orientations and what is often labeled as ‘workerist’ attitudes – although like STO, we do not confine our activities to workplaces. We face similar problems with how to be ‘militants’ at work and how open or secretive to be in our interventions. We are confronted with the race question in terms of how we analyse and confront racism at work – although it is not the ‘black worker/white worker’ so much in our neck of the woods as workers from Poland against workers from India, or workers from Hungary against workers from Romania. We agree with STO that the unions contain class struggle (reaffirmed by first-hand experience by the bigger established unions at least) and we orient ourselves around workers self-organisation as the basis for the generalisation of class struggle. (However, we are not too ideological about it – we would join a union if there is one in a workplace and are open to experimenting with the relationship between workers self-organisation and the union vehicle in specific circumstances). We also grapple with the relationship between forms of self-organisation – which are often short-lived amongst a relatively transient population of precarious workers – and a more stable organizational form. To try and bridge this gap, we publish a workers’ newspaper, have monthly film screenings and slowly try and build some kind of solidarity network. [1]

Unlike STO though, we are too small to have had any major theoretical disagreements or factional splits!

When we came across Michael Staudenmaier’s book about STO, we thought it would be interesting to hold a day school with some friends about it. We had some interesting discussions about the role of unions, questions on organization and dual consciousness and hegemony. But in this text we want to concentrate on STO’s work around race theory and white skin privilege and its application today.

The race question: different contexts across time and space

It is a good time to re-assess STO’s race politics. As we write this, a state of emergency has been declared in Charlotte, North Carolina over the public response to the murder of another black man. And in Britain a few weeks ago, a man from Poland was murdered for being Polish. Since the Brexit vote, racist incidents reported to the police have increased sharply. [2] Racism is in the news and resurgent on our streets. Are STO’s theories on race still relevant and helpful in these contexts? In order to answer this question we try and briefly chart how working class divisions have changed along racial lines over time as well as looking at the differences in the contexts of the USA and the UK over the last 50 years or so.

Brief summary: USA and UK/Europe

At the moment, the situations in the USA and UK seem pretty different in terms of intensity and visibility of struggles. While Islamophobia is a tendency that cuts across the European and North American contexts, a ‘progressive’ counter-movement to this specific issue has not emerged. Instead, the major movements in the US have largely been by black Americans protesting against cop/state violence whereas protests, riots and demonstrations over here have not had ‘race’ explicitly as their focus – although of course, the right-wing anti-refugee protests (e.g. Pegida in Germany) draw their power from discourses around the racialised and invading ‘other’. In recent years, street movements and violence against the cops/state in many European cities have been more explicitly a reaction to nose-diving living standards and unemployment after the bank bail outs and attempts to cut the social welfare bill (or ‘social wage’). These have now largely dwindled (although there are some street battles in France at the moment in reaction to the Government’s attempts to change the labour laws there).

While struggles against racism specifically have been absent in the social movements we have seen across Europe over the last few years (Greece, Spain), the issues of race and racism are not absent. Rather, they play out within a broader context of: the refugee crisis; defending the European border regime; the Greek debt crisis and the rise and fall of the fascist group, ‘Golden Dawn’; the repression and channelling of working class anger on the streets and squares against neoliberalism; failed western military interventions abroad; the dominant narrative about the scarcity of resources because of ‘austerity’ policies in the ongoing and never-ending aftermath of the global financial crisis; Brexit; and the systematic use of (EU-internal) migration by the state to undermine local conditions. This is fertile ground for the resurgence in racism – both by the state to detract from their war against the working class, and between workers as they face increasing competition, stagnant wages and worsening conditions.

While this broader context has given rise to a more overtly nationalist and xenophobic politics across Europe [3], the reaction has been decidedly more muted when compared to what we see happening in the USA (we would include the riots in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charlotte, Milwaukee, as well as more the more militant expressions of Black Lives Matter protests as expressions of such a reaction). Whilst across Europe there have been mobilisations to ‘welcome refugees’, as well as some smaller occupations by ‘illegal’ refugees in Germany, and clashes with border control and local police en route to central and Western Europe, the ‘oppressed subjects’’, in both voice and action – have had little space to speak and act for themselves. Unlike the upsurges of anger on American streets by black Americans, it is mainly white, left-wing supporters who have taken up the refugees’ cause.

Seeing ‘ordinary people’ coming out onto the streets alongside the pockets of workers struggles that have taken place across the States in the last few years (Chicago teachers strike, fast food workers, Walmart, prison strikes), we have the outsider’s impression that things are bubbling and brewing over there, with the potential at least for these different expressions of working class anger to come together into something more coordinated and sustained.

Jim Crow vs. ‘integration’

The USA and UK have different historical contexts of racism, which need to be considered when contextualizing STO’s work around white-skin privilege, as well as how racism operates in both countries today. Because of slavery and Jim Crow, the divisions amongst the working class across black/white racial lines were/are starker than in the UK. The civil rights movement was still attacking institutionalised racism (segregation laws, redlining, denying black people access to housing market etc.), whilst a rigid racist division of labour regarding skilled and unskilled trades still existed on the shop-floor and was partly defended by reactionary white trade union policy. The material effects of explicit racism from the state and shop-floor level cemented and reproduced black peoples’ disadvantage. The effects of the sub-prime crash in 2008 had the worst effects on black people, already at the bottom of the heap. This crisis of capitalism effectively pushed wealth inequality, poverty and unemployment for black proletarians back to levels 20 years before. The black/white divide that is inextricably linked to poverty and class relations rears its ugly head again, with anger spilling out onto the streets with flash points being the murders of black people by the police. Riots, protests and the like that have race at their centre are hardly surprising in this context.

In the UK, the race question became more diffuse. While racism certainly existed in the UK, it was not so visibly entrenched at the level of law and civil society as the Jim Crow laws. There were some ‘race riots’ (Notting Hill in 1958, Chapeltown in 1975, Toxteth in 1981 and Brixton in 1981 and 1985), often sparked by police mistreatment, but the UK government instead favoured a strategy of integration and containment in the form of neoliberal multiculturalism. Migrant workers were encouraged to see themselves as part of a (cultural) community. The official line during the 1990s was, “Migration can enrich our lives”, but behind this rhetoric migration was used to increase competition in the low-wage sector and by the 2000s ‘communities’ had become less of a multicultural unit, and more a form of containment, policing and hyper-exploitation. As a result of struggles and integration today black and brown UK citizens have a privileged position vis-a-vis white migrants from Eastern Europe (e.g. property wealth, access to supervisory positions or access to welfare) – although they might still become victims of racist aggressions. However, it is the increase in physical attacks on Polish migrants following the Brexit result that are grabbing the headlines. [4] We would not simply advocate a ‘community response’ in this situation when there is a chance for them to come together with other groups of scapegoated migrant workers facing increased marginalization and exploitation in Britain. But will people from Poland be able to relate to previous Black struggles such as the Asian Youth Movement [5] that practiced self-defense against racist terror in the 1970s? Or will they refer to a common ‘Christian’ European identity in order to justify the fact that despite being victims of nationalist anti-migrant violence they don’t want to be seen as being in a similar position as Asians a generation ago?

STO on race

While we should see any analysis based on the social and historical context of the time it was developed or gained popularity, it is interesting to see how STO’s politics of race stand up to the USA and UK contexts as outlined above.

STO’s analyses on race we’d like to pick out are:

1) The reproduction of racism is not that of the bosses but the racism of the workers themselves and their support of racist workplace divisions.
2) The support by white workers is not just ideological but has a material basis.
3) Capitalist rule depends not so much on outright state repression but the tacit support of the majority of workers, which is expressed in the way workers compete against each other in order to get ahead. This competition uses race to demarcate further lines of division and hierarchy amongst workers.
4) Bringing together black and white workers under colour blind ‘common demands’, as was the usual tactic by Leninist/Trotskyist organisations at the time, does not work at addressing the racial division of labour. Black workers demands should be taken up by all workers for the ultimate benefit of all workers.
5) Their endorsement of separate organisations of white and black workers to foster a ‘black autonomy’.

1) The reproduction of racism is not that of the bosses but the racism of the workers themselves and their support of racist workplace divisions.
2) The support by white workers is not just ideological but has a material basis.

To take points 1 and 2 together, we agree and would also emphasise that racism cannot simply be tackled at the level of discourse. Only telling people that they are racist and need to change their attitudes does not address the specificities of why there are upsurges in racist attitudes, such as we are seeing against Muslims and Polish people here in the UK. There are many factors at play here: media poison, tough and racist rhetoric by politicians on immigration, rising inequality, stagnant/declining wages, confusion around why things are so bad and getting worse etc. While most leftist commentators focus primarily on the first two points, talk about the ‘marginalised and overlooked white working class’ replaces any in-depth look at the general state of the working class and the changing labour market that causes people to feel angry and look for someone to blame. This affects a much wider group than the ‘old white working class’, and would account for the fact that a) many non-white (often petty bourgeois) groups also want tougher immigration rules and have no problems being explicitly racist themselves; and b) many EU workers e.g. those form Eastern Europe, have no problems being racist towards other ethnic/national groups and repeat the assertions that “there’s too many people here”.

This is nothing new – we fight amongst ourselves rather than the common enemy that pits us against each other. Whilst there are pre-existing ‘racist attitudes’, in many cases, these racial divisions are also materially enforced. For example, the more established groups of Indians who came to Britain in the 60s and 70s are now the shopkeepers, landlords and middle managers. The new Polish people that come over do not differentiate between these people and the newer Indian migrants they work alongside who are on insecure visas, do not speak English and have as little hope as them of getting on the property ladder. They are all brown and not to be trusted. It doesn’t help that the workers from Poland generally also have little knowledge about the hard struggles of Asian and Afro-Caribbean workers in the 1960s, which allowed a lot of them to get out of the most marginalised positions.

We can see another example of ‘material enforcement of racist ideas’ in the case of Agnes. She is the woman from Poland who is the employees’ main contact from the temp agency. She ends up being closer to the Polish agency workers because they speak the same language and are useful to the agency woman to find out what we all get up to and talk about when she is not there. This turns into allegations of Polish favouritism when it comes to who gets the shifts and overtime. Workers see these differences in treatment and project characteristics onto all people of that nationality (what Ted Allen calls the reduction of every member of the subject group to a status beneath any member of the dominant group), although in this case we would see the situation in more micro-terms i.e. amongst minority groups rather than between white and non-white groups. However, it is obvious to us that bosses actively exploit workers’ different citizen statuses and nationalities to divide and control the workforce, otherwise we would see Agnes making more efforts to treat us all fairly.

While we understand STO’s underplaying of the bosses’ role in reproducing racism as a way of placing more agency into the power of workers to change the situation, it does contradict the fact that racial divisions are materially enforced and the bosses play an integral role in this aspect. STO recognize this when they say that it is difficult for white workers to take on black workers demands because in reality this usually means a worsening of conditions for everyone. What then is the answer?

STO suggest that the role of the militant is to make the argument that it is in the interests of all working class people to fight for the most oppressed groups. There does seem to be an over-reliance here on a Leninist conception of raising class consciousness for workers to overcome the contradiction between losing out materially in the short-term and winning the communist lottery in the long-term. We would rather expect that the most down-trodden will fight themselves into a more equal position vis-a-vis the established working class, rather than that the established working class can be ‘politically’ mobilised to fight for the (migrant, foreign, less privileged) lower ranks of the working class. But maybe our positions are not so different. After all, in our newspaper, we write ‘political’ articles that spell out our position on things like nationalism.

However, in the case of warehouses in west London in 2016 where the gap between different groups of workers on the shop-floor are much smaller – especially in terms of wages and skill levels- the situation seems to have more potential for collectivity. While everyone likes to grumble about this group getting a better deal than that group, in reality, it is fairly easy to argue that while favouritism does operate, we are in a similar position as ‘all being agency workers’, or ‘all getting the same wage’ and ‘everyone having similar problems with bullying managers’ and ‘everyone not being British’.

3) Capitalist rule depends not so much on outright state repression but the tacit support of the majority of workers, which is expressed in the way workers compete against each other in order to get ahead.

This competition uses race to demarcate further lines of division and hierarchy amongst workers.
Point 3 points to the objective fact of competition amongst workers at the same time as placing their support for such a system as the main reason for it’s continuation. Do workers have so much choice in this regard? Especially when the objective conditions of labour market participation are largely outside of our control? For example, a worker from Romania ‘chooses’ to come to the UK to work and compete with Goans, Africans and Hungarians because job prospects are poor in their countries and even a manual job in London will give them a big boost in spending power back in Romania. We doubt the political benefits of framing the idea of migration primarily on ‘choice’ when most people do so because of financial and quality of life reasons. We would rather explain the reproduction of capitalist rule using the tools of class composition e.g. how the different sections of working class relate to the state and each other; how much of the crumbs those sections deemed important to maintaining ruling class power are given; how much other sections manage to wrestle from the state and capital etc.

4) Bringing together black and white workers under colour blind ‘common demands’, as was the usual tactic by Leninist/Trotskyist organisations at the time, does not work at addressing the racial division of labour. Black workers demands should be taken up by all workers for the ultimate benefit of all workers.

We thought point 4 was really articulately explained in the book (via the Black Worker/White Worker speech). We agree that race and gender oppression need to be fought at work in and for itself as an essential part of the class struggle. In our situation, migrant workers’ struggles in general are the reference point for generalisation of class struggle. This is because of the types of work these groups are concentrated in –low paid, de-skilled, precarious, disciplined –are becoming the norm across other sectors e.g. in universities. As the people who are usually blamed for sinking wages, when these groups of workers struggle for something better, the effects of ‘class unity’ are more powerful than empty clarion calls for the same. This has some echoes with STO’s earlier assertion of black workers being a revolutionary vanguard – but without the identitarian categorization. While groups who bear the brunt of class oppression will be the ones that potentially are more revolutionary, we tend to see ‘interesting’ struggles as those that:

a) have the potential to generalize (across different groups of workers, different sectors, waged/unwaged work, to other marginalized groups e.g. the unemployed);
b) develop organizational forms that break the traditional union template and encourage workers’ self-organisation; or
c) are able to utilize some strategic power e.g. because of their position in the ‘essential industries’ of capitalist reproduction.
These criteria formed the basis for our decision to live and work in west London, which is an area made up largely of recent migrant workers, working in the cluster of the international food production and logistics industries, who are at the coalface of arbitrary border regimes and a crumbling and increasingly exclusionary social welfare system, with an international CV, who can share those work and life experiences from Sudan or Bangladesh or Italy with other workers.

5) Their endorsement of separate organisations of white and black workers to foster a ‘black autonomy’.

One of the splits in STO occurred because of the contradictions arising from the fact that they were black solidarity organization questioning the idea of white-skin privilege within an all-white organization. This was most questionable when it came to the idea that black people should organize within black organisations – seemingly regardless of the political content of those organisations. This led to the few black members eventually leaving the group. The limits of this type of identity politics – even if we understand the political climate of the time that gave rise to it – are obvious. While self-organisation on the basis of race and gender are sometimes necessary, the lack of attention given to the composition of these ‘communities’ normally leads us down a path of privileging self-appointed ‘community leaders’ who probably have different class interests than the majority within that group. We see this with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which ends up getting into bed with all kinds of reactionary and conservative religious elements in their struggle to defend Muslims from state racism. In the Black Lives Matter movement too we think that there should be more spaces to articulate the links between the reproduction of racism and inequality that is based on the normal functioning of capitalism. [6]

Although expressed in racial terms, perhaps the motivation for separate organization in STO’s time was more of a black (working class) reaction towards middle-class (white) leftist organisations, who also patronised other working class organisations, as can be seen in separate (white) working class organisations such as the Young Patriots, Rising Up Angry or October 4th Organisation, which split from SDS, or other middle class formations.

In the current context of racism in Britain, organizing within separate nationality groups has its limitations:

a) Because not just one distinct ethnic, national or racial group is being targeted, separate organizing means it is easier to pick off groups one by one e.g. Muslim groups are being targeted through the Prevent agenda in universities;
b) As so many of these different nationalities are working alongside each other anyway (from our experience of working in the low-waged sector in west London), it is a good opportunity to make common cause and build on the already existing daily cooperation, experiences and interactions between migrant workers;
c) Separate organizing on the basis of anti-racist nationality/ethnic groups is more likely to invite a cross-class alliance that is led by ‘community leaders’ and self-appointed spokesmen with different interests from the lower rungs of the working class. It is also more likely that special traits of the group are used to bolster their standing over and above other groups e.g. the Polish trading on the fact that they are ‘hard-working’ and don’t claim benefits [7].

Some conclusions

Ignatiev wrote recently [8] that any black struggles in the US –liberal, moderate or radical – psychologically punches above its class weight. This may be true but we are all aware of the limits of street clashes and the fact that the state and prison-industrial complex and rubbing their hands with glee at the chance to incarcerate more people. In light of this, we are interested in how links are being made between ‘rioters’ and workers. Workers’ position in the 70s was stronger in the sense that many black workers worked in the auto plants and steel mills. The comrades of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers described it as a revelation that they, as black, oppressed people, were able to get through police lines during the curfew of the Detroit riots in 1967 when they showed their Ford, General Motors or Chrysler company badge and telling them they had to go to their shift. Try that with a McDonald’s company ID-card – you’d probably get an extra beating! Today, many black proletarians are stuck in the low-paid retail, services and food sector, which do not have the same structural importance. What implications does this have for STO’s various positions on the race question? We would assume that racial divisions amongst workers in these workplaces (along the lines of skill and wages) are not so relevant in the service industries where low pay and de-skilling is ubiquitous for all workers. In this context, having demands or a strategy specifically for ‘black workers’ would make less sense than having demands/strategy for all low-waged workers. Current embryonic strikes in Charlotte against police oppression and for $15 seem to point in the right direction.

The street/social movements, which are framed primarily in terms of race, would have to modify their political analysis to take this into account in order to build effective solidarity with low-waged workers. Otherwise we get a situation like the one we had in England last summer when there was an attempt to organize a ‘Polish Strike’ to demonstrate the UK economy’s reliance on the work of Poles. This was in reaction to anti-migrant propaganda painting them all as benefit scroungers and health tourists bleeding the NHS dry. The ‘Polish-only’ response did nothing to challenge the homogenizing sentiments against them, nor did it question the narrative of ‘productive citizens’, the aim of which is to divide working class people. It also did not highlight the general realities of low-waged work in which many different migrant and working class groups participate.

Black Lives Matter developed as an immediate reaction to an immediate experience in poor urban areas. While we can criticize the lack of real radicalism at the heart of this movement, it does provide a starting point from which to develop a class position from within that is also able to address the experience of non-black working class poverty, marginalisation and exploitation. While murders by the police and police brutality disproportionately affects black people, there is an opportunity to widen the parameters of the debate and action towards more revolutionary aims. This will necessarily entail breaking the cages of ‘community’.

Footnotes

[1] https://workerswildwest.wordpress.com/

[2] In England and Wales in 2013/14, there were 47,571 ‘racist incidents’ recorded by the police; Islamophobic attacks doubled in London between 2013-15 and there was a reported 57% increase of racist incidents since the Brexit referendum results.

http://www.irr.org.uk/research/statistics/racial-violence/

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/brexit-hate-crime-racism-reports-eu-referendum-latest-a7106116.html

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/05/22/world/europe/europe-right-wing-austria-hungary.html?_r=0

[4]

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-essex-37291524

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leeds-37337290

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-36633388

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/brexit-eu-referendum-racial-racism-abuse-hate-crime-reported-latest-leave-immigration-a7104191.html

[5] https://libcom.org/files/politics%20of%20asian%20youth%20movement.pdf

[6] http://www.brooklynrail.org/2016/05/field-notes/black-representation-after-ferguson

[7] http://www.thenews.pl/1/10/Artykul/232899,YouGov-survey-shows-British-perceive-Poles-as-hardworking

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/aug/20/polish-migrants-strike-blood-donation-protest

[8] http://www.hardcrackers.com/black-lives-matter-and-standing-rock/

For more information about STO please go to their excellent and informative archive: http://www.sojournertruth.net/

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AngryWorkersWorld
Oct 17 2016 19:43

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  • The comrades of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers were able to get through police lines during the curfew of the Detroit riots in 1967 when they showed their Ford badge. Try that with a McDonald’s company ID-card – you’d probably get an extra beating!

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Comments

Steven.
Oct 22 2016 11:23

Great article, thanks for writing/posting. Particularly interesting teasing out the differences between classic US style white skin privilege theory and the more nuanced situation we have in the UK today with religion and nationality being equivalent factors stratifying the working class.