A symposium on Michael Staudenmaier's Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969–1986.
Symposium: Truth and revolution
In May of this year, AK Press published Michael Staudenmaier's Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969–1986. Sojourner Truth Organization was most often known as and spoken of as STO.
Insurgent Notes invited members of STO that we were able to contact and individuals of organization that we knew had been influenced by one or more of the aspects of STO's theory or practice to respond to a series of questions:
For STO members:
1. What aspects of the STO history do you think that MS most accurately captured and which aspects, if any, do you think that he might have missed?
2. What do you think are the lessons of the history of STO for today's revolutionaries, including those of you who still consider yourselves as such?
3. What else, if anything, would you like to say about the organization or the book?
For those who have been influenced by the organization:
1. What aspects of the history, as presented by MS, were most surprising and why?
2. What do you think are the lessons of the history of STO for today's revolutionaries?
3. What would you have liked to learn more about?
Not surprisingly, our respondents didn't always answer the questions we asked. But what they wrote is well worth reading. We look forward to further discussions on the book and on the politics of the Sojourner Truth Organization.
We have arranged the submissions of STO members more or less in the order of their entry into the organization. The comments of non-members are not organized in any special fashion.
Originally posted: October 15, 2012 at Insurgent Notes
One of the principal tasks of the historian is to periodize. Mike divides the history of STO into three periods, a workplace-organizing period, an anti-imperialist solidarity era, and a direct-action, tendency-building phase. While I might still label the periods differently, I think on the whole he gets it right, thereby providing a necessary tool for analysis. I shall direct my remarks to the first of these, and conclude by posing some questions.
STO's line on workplace organizing and its experience in implementing it were, and in my opinion remain, the most distinctive and valuable aspect of its history. It is that aspect, more than anything else, which justifies John Garvey's description of STO as “the single most remarkable political organization of its era.”
STO had about forty members in Chicago and northwest Indiana in the early 1970s. It included people in heavy and light industry, in hospitals, in unionized and non-unionized workplaces, and some unemployed. They were organized in three branches, largely geographically-based; one of the branches, as I recall, took on political work in the military, although not as its exclusive focus. Although many of the members had campus backgrounds, I don't recall any students. Among them the forty were situated well enough that they naturally heard about and were able to connect to virtually any workers' uprising that took place. Perhaps the biggest tribute to STO's work was the report, which we heard through the grapevine, that the CP was concerned about our growing influence.1
Briefly put, STO saw itself and sought to act as the organization of the anti-white- supremacist workers councils.2 Given the American context, “anti-white-supremacist” and “workers' councils” were necessarily linked.3 But the joining of the two created problems. The greatest sympathy for extra-unionism was among black workers, and the greatest clarity on the role of unions was among black revolutionaries.4 For reasons that have been widely discussed, most black revolutionaries at the time were committed to building all-black organizations. We in STO respected that, but whether we did or not, their commitment to that path cut down on our ability to gain members from among the pool of experienced black revolutionaries who shared our politics, and condemned us to being an organization mainly of “white” people. It was a paradox we would strive to live with, but it was never easy.5
My aim in writing these comments is not to tell war stories; Mike recounts some, and some are reflected in the sample of shop papers and leaflets published as an appendix to Workplace Papers. (Although Workplace Papers is online at the STO Digital Archive, the appendix is not; I am willing to copy and send it out electronically to people who write and ask me to do so.) I hope the renewed interest in STO reflected in Mike's book and this symposium will persuade someone to make available more of the shop papers and leaflets than the few reproduced in the appendix. Those interested in learning more should get in touch with veterans of those years and get them to tell their stories while they are still able.
My aim in writing this comment is to reflect upon the lessons of my experiences in STO, and to pose some questions. I shall do this in a series of numbered points. Never in my life have I gained such a political education as I did in the years 1970 to 1975:
1. STO developed its members' ability to distinguish one political line from another in practice.
2. It examined and decided tactics on the basis of strategy.
3. It stressed the need to seek out and debate the programmatic implications of theoretical differences, and to search for the theoretical roots of programmatic differences.
4. It encouraged its members to engage positions at their strongest points, and to eschew demagogy.
Those were some of the things I learned in the first five years of STO.6
Around 1975, the organization began shifting its emphasis from point-of-production organizing to what Mike calls anti-imperialist solidarity, which came to mean direct support for the national liberation movements.7 (Before proceeding further, I want to say that while STO held the view that workers in large-scale production, communications and transport had a special role to play in the revolution, it did not limit itself to issues that arose in that sector: in 1971 it undertook a city-wide campaign for a general strike against the Vietnam War. To avoid ridicule I add that we did not really believe we could pull it off; we were simply hoping to provide a framework for the work we were doing in various workplaces.) Moreover, the group was always willing to engage with people outside of production, for example around police violence and consumer issues.
I didn't like the shift. I had always believed that the best support US revolutionaries could give to the peoples oppressed by US imperialism was to wage the class struggle in the United States, and I felt that the shift represented a shirking of that responsibility. In spite of my misgivings, I didn't oppose it. I grumbIed, I dragged my feet. I think everyone knew I didn't like it, but I didn't oppose it or offer an alternative.8 My reasons for failing to do so are instructive.
In 1973 a reform candidate, Ed Sadlowski, had been elected director of district 31 (Chicago–northwest Indiana) of the steelworkers union. Alone among radicals in the steel industry, STO had not taken part in his campaign. Now the reformers decided to run him for president of the International and Jim Balanoff, president of the local at Inland Steel and a longtime CP labor activist, for director of district 31.9
What to do? I had worked at US Steel Gary Works since 1971, during which time I had made friends among my fellow workers, taken part in direct actions of no consequence, organized together with others in our branch public meetings that were poorly attended, waged a campaign that went nowhere against the racial policies of the Company and the Union, and published several issues of a regional paper that elicited no response from the popular audience at which it was aimed. I had even worked for a friend in his unsuccessful campaign to replace the division committeeman (justifying my participation on the basis of friendship and “tactics”). But there was no way I was going into the swamp of union reform exemplified by the coming “battle” for President of the USWA.10 Meanwhile, I had nothing to show for my efforts to pursue a different course. Our branch in Gary, which at one time had ten or so members, had evaporated, more from discouragement than political differences. (Without a political or personal commitment, who would want to live in northwest Indiana?) In 1975 I said farewell to my beloved steelworkers (who I am told were also Lenin's favorites) and left the mill. My years there largely coincided with what I now consider STO's best period (although I did not know it at the time) and indeed with the best years of my political life (so far).
I tell this story because I think it is representative of what was going on with STO people generally at the time, even if the problems were not equally in evidence everywhere. STO called it a period of “lull.” Let me suggest a thought experiment: Suppose we had accepted the fact that the struggle at the workplace had ebbed. Could we have become more open to engaging in struggles elsewhere without abandoning the classic Marxist position that the workplace, where workers are “disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself,” occupies a central place in strategy? Suppose further that we had been able, by an effort of will, to maintain a direct presence in industries we deemed strategically significant. Could I have kept working at Gary Works while looking beyond it for the political activity that gave meaning to my life? Could I even have quit the mill and gone to Harvard and become a professor while continuing to maintain ties with workers in large-scale manufacture, transport and communication?11
The lull is coming to an end. Like the first daffodils of spring, mass resistance is beginning to sprout. So far, with the exception of a few places (dockworkers in the Pacific northwest, Republic Windows in Chicago), the struggles have not yet reached the workplace. As sure as god made little green apples, they will. How different would the situation be had STO maintained even a skeletal presence in large-scale industry, transport and communication? (Other radical groups have maintained ties with the workplaces; but they don't have STO's politics.)
I want to close this comment with two stories: the first deals with the Communist Party of Portugal. When the Salazar dictatorship collapsed in 1974, the CP held its first public meetings in almost a half-century. Despite the repression it suffered during its years of underground existence—the 36 members of the Party's Central Committee had, in the aggregate, experienced more than 300 years in jail—it had burrowed among the workers at the Lisnave shipyards and the Lisbon docks and the agricultural workers in the Alentejo region. And it had preserved its apparatus (with the help of Moscow). The day the dictatorship fell, CP cadres occupied the headquarters of the regime's labor-front unions, and quickly became a contender for power in Portugal. I hope I do not have say that I hate the Portuguese CP, that I would rather live under the miserabilist social-democratic regime that governs the country now than under the regime of the Stalinist CP head Alvaro Cunhal. But its example is instructive.
My second story concerns the Communist Party of China. After reactionaries crushed the workers' movement of 1925–27 and slaughtered Communists in the cities, Mao Tse-tung led a faction of the Party to the countryside. There they built a peasant army that, as everyone knows, overthrew the feudal regime and brought the CP to power. I am in awe at Mao's accomplishment in getting fastidious Chinese students, schoolteachers, librarians (he himself was a librarian), and mandarins, more steeped in traditions of class superiority than any other people on earth, to go and live with diseased peasants and eat out of filthy bowls and pick lice out of their bodies. It was one of the most heroic episodes in history, and one of the greatest revolutions. But—and this the point of my story—although Mao and his comrades called themselves, and undoubtedly believed they were, Communists, it was not a communist revolution, nor could it be, because it was not based in the proletariat, and when it comes to revolution, communist and proletarian are interchangeable terms.
People looking for substitutes for the working class (and those currently infatuated with Maoism) need to ponder that lesson.
Could STO have combined the dedication of the Portuguese and Chinese CPs with its autonomist politics and the focus on the workplace of its first five years, and would the situation be different today had it done so?
One final point: On reading Mike's book I was amazed by the amount of work we did and the many areas in which we were involved (some of which I had forgotten). Yet even with all his research, he left out some important things, for instance the Joanne Little defense work; I think others are writing about this, so I won't say more. All things considered, STO was greater than the sum of its members. As individuals, we are less than we were when we were part of STO.
- 1I am limiting this discussion to the Chicago area. Groups in Kansas City and the Quad Cities that had independent histories and would later become part of STO had rich experiences in workplace struggles, in some cases richer than Chicago's; those experiences are not adequately represented in Mike's book, but no book can include everything, and the omissions do not fundamentally alter my opinions.
- 2The term was an adaptation of Gramsci's description of Ordine Nuovo as the newspaper of the factory councils. STO arrived at extra-unionism largely independently of Gramsci, but it recognized itself in him, and one of the first pamphlets it published was Soviets in Italy, a collection of his 1919–20 articles, reprinted from, as I recall, New Left Review. Another was a factory-by-factory account of the May 1968 General Strike in France, reprinted from I-forget-where. Another was an account of extra-union struggles at FIAT during the Hot Autumn of 1969, reprinted from Radical America.
- 3The Italian group, Potere Operaio, recognized the League of Revolutionary Black Workers as the American expression of extra-unionism, and North African workers at Renault and Citroen played a big part in the “French” General Strike.
- 4It was in the air. In the days before the Democratic Convention, black transit workers struck against the CTA and their union; I passed out leaflets on their behalf at carbarns. Similar things were happening in Mahwah, New Jersey, Fremont, California, and around the country. I attended a conference in 1968 or early ’69 in New York City where I first met people from the League, Harlem Fightback, and others who clearly articulated the politics of extra-unionism against the entire conventional left. I recall a League activist telling, in a matter-of-fact tone devoid of personal animosity, one of the radical union reformers, a person with a long history of opposition in the UAW who was lecturing him that his rejection of union reform was sectarian, that she was a “racist.” Up until then I had, without thinking about it, operated with the standard leftist assumption that if there is no union the job was to organize one and, where there is a union, the job is to organize a rank-and-file caucus to oust the incumbent reactionary leadership. The presence of people from the League and similar groups electrified me and their arguments stayed with and influenced me.
- 5In its second period STO did recruit several “people of color,” individuals who for one reason or another joined STO rather than one of the organizations of “national liberation.” The situation was problematic since they had chosen not to join organizations which STO was doing its best to support and maintain close ties with, and it led to big troubles for them and for STO as a whole; but that is beyond the scope of this comment.
- 6While I played the biggest role in formulating, popularizing and defending STO positions on race and unionism, especially important in the first five years of the organization's existence, the person most responsible for integrating these positions and developing an organization that could put them into practice was Don Hamerquist. When I speak of what I gained from STO as distinct from what I brought to it, I am acknowledging my debt to Don.
- 7Lowell makes the important point that the shift occurred almost imperceptibly, being seen at first as merely a tactical move, a “flank attack,” and only later becoming a matter of strategy.
- 8With one exception: at a national meeting in Kansas City I forget-what-year, one other person and I made a presentation challenging the whole direction and calling for a return to a point-of-production concentration. The discussion got pretty hot. One person who is a dear friend today told me then that if my position prevailed he would quit the organization. He had no reason to fear; we were resoundingly defeated, smashed, quelled, annihilated. Looking back, I'm not sure we wanted to win and weren't provoking a debate for the fun of it. If there is a serious point here, it is that we felt free to do so because we knew that the organization would yank us back from the precipice.
- 9Many US unions are known as “Internationals” on the strength of their having members in Canada, the title having little to do with their politics. The early seventies was a period of hope for labor reformers; encouraged by the election of Arnold Miller in the UMWA and similar stirrings elsewhere (all of them now forgotten except by diehard sectarian leftwing union reformers).
- 10My issues with trade unionism were captured in an exchange I had with a local union official in front of the union hall. “What's your grievance?” he asked me. “This job sucks,” I replied. “That's not a grievance, that's a gripe,” he said. He was in effect saying that if the Company was not paying me the rate that had been set by the contract, or if they were not respecting seniority, he could fix it. As for the situation of the worker in the capitalist system, to address that was beyond his powers. His answer explains why I and millions of other workers had lost interest in unions.
- 11Only in the United States, and to a lesser degree Britain, both lands where Puritanism reigns supreme, was it widely held that in order to do political work in the working class it was necessary to be a worker. I understand that Dave Ranney has written a piece critical of the idea of a lull, arguing that it should be seen instead as a period of capitalist counter-offensive following the popular upsurge of the 1960s. I think Dave is right, but I am not convinced it would it have made a difference had we adopted his view of the period instead of the one we did adopt.
Mike Staudenmaier did a good job of understanding who Sojourner Truth Organization was and capturing some sense of us, quite an undertaking. Thanks to Mike for the book and to John Garvey for this symposium/addendum. Reading the book has taken me back, I am personally grateful. Thinking about the symposium has given me a chance to think about what has changed over the past 30 years—and what hasn't. I look forward to reading everyone's memories and thoughts.
In STO, we were revolutionaries—energetic, optimistic, experienced and talented organizers who believed in the possibility of insurrection, replacing capitalism with a truly egalitarian economic order—communism—“from each according to her ability, to each according to her needs.” We understood that to accomplish revolution, you have to focus on revolution. For work to be worth our time it had to have some revolutionary aspect; meaningful reform was not enough.
Small yet undeterred, we expected to be near the center of the revolutionary storm. We hoped that the day-to-day experience of working people being exploited at the workplace along with our philosophical clarity would provide the essential ingredients necessary to transform wildcats into uprisings, insurgencies into revolution. We understood white privilege as the barrier to class unity; we believed the party would emerge from the activity of the class and the struggle for national liberation.
We knew unions were not class organizations which “…always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.” Unions are organizations of identifiable groups of workers, striving for their members to get better wages and benefits under capitalism. Unions mediate class relations; they do not challenge them even when they are striking. Some strikers' issues will be broader than others, e.g., teachers that may include issues pertinent to education; healthcare workers may include standards of care, etc. Some strikers will be for backward demands, like keeping prisons open or fighting for jobs to build pipelines, etc. For STO the central questions for any of our mass work was—is it a progressive struggle, if so, how do you work on it to best clarify the need for, and or the potential of revolution. With this understanding, we focused on mass autonomous action at the point of production, in communities, wherever we were engaged.
We organized before de-industrialization had totally transformed the Midwest into the rustbelt. Some of our workplaces were huge, none small. We lived our lives on alert for opportunities to collectively challenge exploitation and confront white skin privilege, not as grievance filers, but as activists. We marched en masse to foremen's desks, sat down until something was resolved or like John Strucker did—hid co-workers from La Migra. I loved going to work, even in the most oppressive workplaces; I was on a mission in a place that promoted solidarity, collectivity.
The big shops were almost villages, all kinds of people: readers, gamblers, cooks, singers, thinkers, hustlers, dopers, bikers, immigrants and hillbillies. There were unlikely pairings of friends—Black and Mexican, Hillbilly and Black, old and young. Sometimes we spent more hours there with each other than anywhere else. We felt at home wherever we worked.
It is often assumed that people who work with their hands are less smart than people who work with their minds. The distribution of intelligence or talent or kindness is spread equally in the population. In the shittiest jobs, among the homeless or unemployed, in prison cages, shantytowns, refugee camps…everywhere, are smart, talented and kind people.
We thought that on basic levels of life experience it was clear that capitalism was not a good way to run the world. We looked for ways of illustrating that understanding by activity, not just saying it. We understood that people are philosophers, whether or not their philosophy is conscious or coherent. We acted to change their philosophy through our collective activity. We acted to demonstrate the need and the possibility of us running the world for ourselves together rather than living and toiling in the existing system designed for the profit of a few. Our co-workers were our comrades—we were “no condescending saviors.”
Our work discussions were discussions of theory and our theory discussions were discussions of work—it was a question of emphasis. Revolutionary thought and activity is necessarily intertwined. Our mass work and life experience clarified our theoretical understanding; it was the grist for our thought.
Our job was to notice and make noticeable to others how society works. What creates the context of our lives goes unnoticed, it is background, it is assumed to “be just the way things are.' When we allow it, that “background” shapes who we are. In our personal lives often the work of women is unnoticed; in the society it is the work of workers and the relations of capitalism that go unnoticed. Our job was to show it is not “fixed,” “final,” or the only way to be, to demonstrate that we have power to change our world if only we can see that and then exercise that power, together. Our mass work deepened our understanding; and we were learning to be more creative in our mass activity and written materials.
We looked for fissures in the seemingly solid society: places where people experienced outrage at inequities or their own collective power or some indication of break in the 'normal.' We sought places, movements, moments to intervene, interact and deepen those fissures. We spent years in factories, communities, doing solidarity work. I was a founding member (in 1969) and stayed until 1983. We had various levels of interaction and success. We made many friends and changed people's understanding of their own lives. And yet it wasn'tenough. We didn't pull “it” off.
If a people's revolution is to happen, it must be worked on explicitly. That does not mean mass work harps on revolution; sometimes it should, sometimes it shouldn't. Revolutionaries should harp on creating a vision of another way to live.
Dave Ranney is quoted in the book as saying that we were probably more influenced by the Communist Party than we realized. He meant it as a criticism. I think he's right, but I think it was a good, not a bad, influence. Our roots were not in participatory democracy, churches, Democratic Party liberalism, Quaker circles or the women's movement. Our frame of reference probably was The Party, although much of what we believed was in reaction against both its theory and its practice. We had vigorous discussions, encouraged questioning. We made decisions by majority votes. Having an agreed upon form and practice for an organization simplified functioning. [The General Assemblies of Occupy today had difficulties making decisions—from who gets to vote to modified consensus. By breaking up into smaller focused work groups they have had better success.]
We were Gramscians, not Stalinists, Maoists or Trotskyites. We understood the role of philosophy to test activity with ideas and ideas with activity. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world… the point is to change it.” We ruminated about hegemony, superstructure, contradictions and organic intellectuals. We believed in the centrality of the working class because as workers we were socialized to act collectively and because the people who did the work were the class that could change capitalist relations of production. [Capitalists need workers; workers don't need capitalists.] We were accused of being dual unionists, but actually we were interested in dual consciousness and dual power. Like other Left groups, we had a coherent worldview and a willingness to make collective decisions about how and where we would work. We were alive, connected to each other, the class and history. It was electric, heady.
* * *
Way before STO imploded (I was gone for several years by then), the scent of people's revolution was no longer in the air. We could not have changed that. Staudenmaier identifies a problem, more accurately a contradiction, about our organization's sense of itself that inevitably led to its demise.
We did not recruit enough. As we did our mass work, only select workers knew us as communist members of STO. We didn't think that was important. What mattered was the ability of the class to coalesce and act as a class. We thought that the activity of the class would explode [like Egypt or Occupy or Flint, Michigan, in 1937] and the leadership of the class would emerge. We thought whatever happened we could join or intervene because we would be respected leaders from our own plants [or community or solidarity work] or, at minimum, as printers. We never built STO as aggressively as other Left organizations did. Most groups focused on workplace organizing knew of STO, so too Black Nationalist organizations, Chicago Puerto Rican nationalists and various European organizations. But we were not widely known or considered by those in the larger national white communist organizations or among enough of the workers we worked with. We recruited workers, but not lots, but we didn't recruit lots of anybody. Except for Bread and Roses and Insurgent Workers our extensive mass materials were not under the name STO. Our Left pamphlets and journals got around, but not as much as they should have, although we tried.
We were relying on mass insurgencies to shift everything, but that is the only way a revolution can develop. With the passing of a revolutionary period, naturally, we would fade away; there would be no activity to elaborate thinking. The problem with that is in a new revolutionary period there is no continuum of practice or easily found mentors.
Political Defense Work
For STO most of the nation's prisoners were political prisoners whether or not anyone ever heard of them and whether or not they were in political organizations. The fact they were in the criminal “justice” system made their cases, de facto, political. Some cases were better than others for communities to pull together to stand up for the defendant and to experience their power…in the best instances. We defended regular people against regular crimes and the people doing the defending were from their own communities. Lynn French, Patty Bigelow, Hilda Ignatin and I did this work. The Joe Green case was the best and most successful example of our approach and done early in our history. The JoAnne Little case was several years later; it sheds light on the work of the Chicago Women's Defense Committee, an organization that we were influential in pulling together; by then Lynn, Hilda and Patty had left STO.
Joe Green, a Cabrini Green (Chicago Housing Project) resident, a young Black man, was picked up the police and then used by Edward Hanrahan (the State's Attorney who assassinated Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton) to take the fall. Hanrahan was overheard saying “Joe Green could either get convicted of murder or produce the actual killer.” Hanrahan was holding Green hostage. Hanrahan needed to convict anyone for this Black on white murder.
Late on a hot Saturday in Old Town, a Greenwich Village–like area on Chicago's Northside, a white young man and his fiancé returned to their car several blocks from the noise and lights of the clubs on a dark street near the projects. They were robbed and the young man was shot and killed by a young Black man in front of his fiancé. Joe Green was arrested for the murder. With little investigation it was clear that Joe was innocent. We worked in cooperation with the Green family, Joe's attorney, Howard Savage, and Savage's private investigator, Joe Butler. We knocked on doors in the projects, visited area churches, talked to ministers and other community leaders, got help from the staff at the Chicago Park District Field House where Joe was a basketball coach for younger boys.
By the time the trial started we had 2 buses lined up to take people to the court every day to sit with Joe's family as a sign of support for Joe. All the people were Black except Patty, Hilda, and several members of the Young Lords Hilda had brought and me: old, young, neighborhood people, ministers, sometimes a teacher of a Park District employee, all dressed in their best clothes mostly quietly witnessing the proceedings with occasional spontaneous sighs or groans or looking at each other and shaking our heads. People brown bagged it for lunch and would eat together in the hallways, quietly talking. For the entire two weeks, the courtroom was full and by the end of the trial it was overflowing. The case was the talk of the projects, how people were coming together to support Joe. There is absolutely no question that without that support, Joe Green would have been convicted and likely received the death penalty. In addition to getting Joe off, we demonstrated a collective way of neighbors defending people beyond lawyer's arguments.
Several years later we were doing defense work again, through the Chicago Women's Defense Committee, an organization that Alarie and I pulled together with friends and contacts from my high school days and our social worker days including networks from the Welfare Rights Movement. Our committee varied between 10 and 30 women, mostly Black from the South and West sides, although there was a connection between Ginger Mack on the Southside and Big and Little Dovie on the Northside that led to some citywide work around welfare issues. We took on several cases, but none as big as the Little case.
JoAnne Little was a cause célèbre of the black movement, the anti-death penalty and women's movements. Ms. Little was in a North Carolina jail cell on shoplifting charges when her jailer raped her; she stabbed and killed him in the course of the rape. A national defense was already getting underway when we heard about her and she was out on bail. We contacted her lawyers and arranged for her to come to Chicago.
We plastered posters all over the Southside and filled a Church on 49th and Dorchester with an overflowing a crowd of mostly Black women of all ages. We used the occasion to introduce some of the local cases we were working on. We explained the importance of going to court with people so that they weren't alone and so that the judge or the jury would witness the support they had from the community. Her case catapulted our Committee into prominence in Chicago's Black community.
When Ms. Little arrived she was almost hugged to her death. While she spoke people cried. At one point in the rally, we were collecting money, with a few women counting it during the speeches. Ginger Mack was moderating the program. As the speeches filled the hall, several of us kept the collection plates moving through the crowd. We were near the end of the rally when a very small old shriveled dark and dusty woman shuffled out from one of the rows into the aisle where I was standing. Reaching into her brassiere, she pulled out a sock that held a small leather change purse in its toe. She clicked open the purse and pulled out a tiny many times folded $5 bill. She pressed it in my hand. There was a break in the speaking, I held up the bill and said, “$5 more from…(her name).” Ginger conferred for a moment and shouted into the microphone in delight “that makes a round total of $800”—the place went crazy with happiness, the old lady and I hugged. She wept. I was ecstatic.
We sent ten Black women from the South and West side to North Carolina for the opening day of JoAnne Little's trial. Leotta Johnson remembers all this and more to this day. Ms. Little was acquitted. It was an astonishing inconceivable outcome—a jailed Black woman acquitted of killing a white sheriff in the south!
We defended about 14 or 15 individuals. But our work did not leave any lasting organization. The Chicago Women's Defense Committee did not last more than 18 months.
A Few Print Shop Observations…Plus
Staudenmaier noted the importance of our print shop. In addition to being able to produce all our own left and mass literature, the print shop was an organizing tool. We could show up to places where activity had broken out but we knew no one and volunteer to print for them [Western Electric and the Truck Strike were examples of this]. We saw it as so useful we set up shops in St. Louis, K.C., and Denver. All of the shops were privately owned, C and D by me and Don originally [hence the name], later by Don and Janeen. We printed literally tons of literature. Some things that are still available, but also tens of thousands of leaflets, shop newsletters, posters, stickers for mass work, all of it long gone, passed out. Alas I have memories of giving away the few pieces I kept as a file, one at a time as people came through Chicago who were interested in our work. I remember thinking I would regret this, but thought the activity of the moment was more important than history.
Quite naturally I am a fan of print shops, but maybe they are not so important anymore—the Internet has in many ways replaced paper, but not in every way. Occupy Oakland still uses posters. They have a silk screen set up at most of the big days, producing posters and T-shirts on the spot. Occupy Wall Street had three gorgeous broadsides in English and Spanish while it was happening—300,000 copies of the first two papers were printed on Long Island and distributed out of Zuccotti Park. I like stuff you can hold, touch, put on the wall or wear and they become part of our culture.
All cultural expressions that challenge authority are important in undermining the strength of the dominant culture. They signal, drive, inform, exhort—give us ways to express our humanity, our rage, despair, joy, love, determination, stance. Music, poetry, graffiti, movies, comedy, videos are especially important in this chaotic time with great reach and speed of reach. I highly recommend you sing, dance, beat the drums, laugh, make videos, rap, paint, love when you can. These are revolutionary acts and this is your life.
A Few Thoughts About The Present
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the beginning of capitalism, the world has undergone continuous change at ever-increasing speed. This is not the world of 1848, 1886, 1905, 1917, 1937 or 1968. We need strategies for today.
Revolt is happening in the world today. We have seen stirrings here with Occupy, but nothing like Egypt or Syria or even Greece yet.
Global finance capital is the ruling capitalist sector: not the owners of the means of production. These most significant centers of capital cannot be seized, banks and stock exchanges transact in cyberspace. Only hackers could hurt them, but that is not a collective act.
There are fewer workers and easily replaced; what used to take hundreds of humans is done by machinery.
The United States is the only superpower. We wage pre-emptive war, explicitly torture, hold people without trial, spy on everyone everywhere, have drone strikes on people we are not “at war” with. We have 23 million people unemployed, 2.5 million human beings caged [80,000+ in solitary, some for decades].
As wealth accumulates at the top, immiseration spreads. Conditions will worsen even without factoring in catastrophic impacts from climate change. Water is increasingly a commodity and will become scarce. The earth is suffering, if not already dying.
Capitalism teetered on the verge of worldwide systemic collapse in 2008. It still is unstable [we Marxists have been saying that for 175 years]. Ruling classes are no longer interested [or able to?] in providing generous distributions of wealth and privilege to pay for social stability for the populations of the countries once at capital's core—Europe and the United States. The lives of the masses of people at the center will no longer be so much better than the rest of the world's. Sticks instead of carrots will be used to control us. Police control and austerity is the hegemonic mantra. The cloak of democracy is shredding.
The ruling class has had the Cato and Heritage Foundations working for decades figuring out how to manipulate and divide us. Propaganda is their highly developed art. They confuse us and reinforce the reality that serves them. They are masterful, ruthless, shameless and murderous. Their work is central to the maintenance of our consent to live like we do. They prop up and paste over those fissures in the cracking structures of bourgeois democracy. They might have read Gramsci too.
The population is armed to the teeth and their guns are not pointed at the bourgeoisie. White people, who see themselves as white more than as people, are increasingly nervous as US demographics indicate they will soon be a minority. They are a mass base for fascism. The police have lots of tools and technology. So, socialism or barbarism? I'd say the bad stuff has a head start.
People will occupy, riot and rise up. Threat and opportunity, two sides of a coin—the same Chinese character for both.
Looking Forward: On Uprising
I always thought mass general strike would be the vehicle for successful anti-capitalist revolt. By definition, large numbers in concerted activity, solidarity in action—common action for the common good. Mass general strikes can shut down everything. If people stop work, they can shift economic social relations “mid-air,” by “simply” throwing off their current view of the world and seeing the world as it is and comprehending their power to change it. Then work could begin again, for what we need, for each other, not for the bosses or financiers, the polluters, but for us…and then the transition to something new is not so perplexing…theoretically.
But now it is hard to imagine US employed workers in political general strikes. Jobs are so scarce they are a privilege. Europe is class conscious, has a tradition of political strikes, but not us. With good reason today it is difficult to get people to strike at all, when they do, it's for their own needs; that may be good, even great and essential, but it is not enough, and not “…represent[ing] the interests of the movement as a whole.”
The eviction of Occupy is not the end of revolt. Small eruptions portend the big ones. The economic irrelevance to capitalism of vast numbers of people, especially youth, will find expression. At some point[s] the dispossessed, the youth, the hungry, the desperate will rise up. But uprising does not mean revolution and revolution does not mean victory. Disruption is one thing, revolution, transition to a new society and survival are additional “things.” For an anti-capitalist revolution to succeed, masses of employed workers will have to join.
The old formula for revolution—the working class will seize the means of production from the bourgeoisie—will not work today [not that it ever did happen]. Disruptions, occupations, riots will take different paths. History, culture, level of hardship and expectation, response of the state, geography, capacity to survive autonomously etc., etc., etc., will determine the trajectories and scope of each revolt separately. Movements grow, die, explode, surge in waves, unexpectedly stop and start. They influence each other and impact the political terrain.
A shift in the political terrain [a break in the cultural hegemony], in the ideas and understanding that bind us, is critical to revolution, not just desperation or fear or rage. A shared vision of a new future across population sectors can inspire grand activity and reveal the potential of success. There will be argument and a need to listen and compromise. To win we need more than people willing to go to flash mob or occupy or go to some barricades, we need a groundswell, enough…to heave in a mass, to become a human tsunami, a population that…swarms.
A Few Final Ruminations
The rapid shift in the earth's balance has some environmentalists debating the necessity of disruptive direct action to keep the Earth habitable. Around the world from every stratum of society, conscious people are quite rightly panicked. Some, of course, are becoming anti-capitalist. This makes for a much bigger pool of potential allies.
It is not a given that various forces, such as those that ideologically oppose capitalism and populations who are suffering under capital's heel, can be allied. But conceivably, they could be and they should be. The youth, the dispossessed, the environmentally conscious and workers of the world united together may be the only hope to create the world we need and every single on of us deserves.
Struggles for reform are part of the path to revolution, but the relation to revolution is complex. [This is a big subject that is best played out in life, not in theory alone.] Reform is by definition not revolution: it stops short. Reform is easier; it is customary, it means a less protracted struggle, not being “unreasonable.” It is a victory to get reforms, concessions. Concessions are limited; if, in no other way, they are limited to issues posed only by those in motion. These days in the economic arena it appears the concessions may be harder to come by, they may not even be offered at all. Heavy-handed repression is the handmaiden of austerity. We may all be on the road to being less entitled and more oppressed, and that may also be the road to revolutionary confrontation.
The social and economic changes needed to cut back the flow of CO2 enough to keep the plant habitable are also revolutionary—nothing less will do.
The globe has shrunk. Maybe a worldwide movement is possible. All it takes is worldwide understanding [that has begun] and alliances and action. It will take a lot of work to make a new and better world, but all people seek meaningful work.
This is a good project, and Mike has written a fine book, though not the one we'd have written.
One aspect that I think misleads readers, and probably distorted Mike's own perception of STO, is his dichotomy between the so-called “heavies” (Don, Noel, and me) and the rest of STO's membership. In fact, there was never a time when the three of us were in agreement on fundamental doctrine, let alone personal style. And we each came to STO from widely different political groundings and experience. Often other members perceived those differences to be even greater than they actually were, which tended to energize their engagement in political debates. But there was never an instance when the three of us were united at one pole and the rest at the other pole.
I was the person who introduced STO to James, and James to STO, when I invited Noel Ignatin (now Ignatiev) to a public meeting in Chicago with Nello as the speaker in 1968. Noel described that event and its effect on him in his “Meeting in Chicago” chapter of C.L.R. James: His Life and Work, the Summer 1981 special issue of STO's journal Urgent Tasks. Noel was better known on the left for having popularized the term “white skin privilege” in his 1967 pamphlet White Blindspot (published originally under the byline J.H. Kagin), which was based on lessons that he had drawn from Du Bois's Black Reconstruction.
At the time, Noel and I were friends. His politics were Stalinist; mine were not, but I did not regard Stalinists as enemies. I had met Noel originally at the 1960 national conference of the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute a Marxist-Leninist Communist Party in the United States, where he gave a humorous report on his trip to Cuba, along with Theodore W. Allen (known in the POC as Molly Pitcher). Ted was later Noel's collaborator, author of a public letter to Noel that came to be titled Can White Workers Radicals be Radicalized? in reprint editions of the White Blindspot pamphlet. The POC was an ultra-left split from the Communist Party; among its original leaders was Harry Haywood (Haywood Hall, Jr.), the author of the CP's old line on the Negro Question that had advocated self-determination for the Black Belt.
Noel and I had both been founding members of the Union of (White) Organizers, a group of Chicago leftists who were attempting to honor the Black Power challenge. Among younger white radicals at the time, and as SDS was splitting into three warring factions with worse to come, those issues and opposition to the US war in Vietnam were more central to our political lives than attitudes toward the USSR, China, Albania, Czechoslovakia, and other international flashpoints that absorbed the Old Left. (The co-founder of STO with Noel, Don Hamerquist, had been an important figure in the Communist Party, slated for greatness until he opposed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.)
I had followed an entirely separate political trajectory after that. I still possess the copies of White Blindspot by J.H. Kagin that Noel gave me to reintroduce himself to me, probably in 1967. While I was gratified that his position and M's (Ted Allen, whom I had met as Milton Palmer and Molly Pitcher) in the pamphlet were much closer to Facing Reality than to any of the major Marxist parties, I did not and do not like the slogan “Repudiate White Skin Privilege.” Noel has a penchant for slogans that surprise and puzzle people to whom they are addressed, in hopes of challenging them to think, a useful didactic gambit but a poor political one. The actual result was and is more likely to confuse. Noel enjoys explaining, “No, that isn't what I mean,” but it also means that his slogans don't communicate, incite, and/or inspire on their own, do not convene a constituency that roars with a single voice, and without his guidance are often misconstrued or misunderstood. A few months ago on the SNCC listserv I took the trouble to demystify privilege as a method of social control—deployed in many ways, not just or mainly by skin color—in response to visceral resistance to Noel's old slogan. I have a similar objection to Treason to Whiteness. These are fine concepts as theoretical constructs, but bad as agitational slogans.
Even Mike didn't quite “get it” when he wrote, “But the traditional idea of privileges granted by capital and the state…” Privileges were imposed, not granted. They were and remain a curse, not a blessing, and their importance as a method of social control, one of many, varies a lot from time to time. But they don't exist because white workers requested them while the bourgeoisie resisted, preferring to treat all their subjects equally. Yet nothing prevents the ruling class from reversing racial or caste privileges in a particular conflict, such as employing previously excluded workers as strikebreakers. This misconstruction is typical, and illustrates well how faulty the slogan is.
Besides that, Noel's politics were always Marxist/-pre-Leninist, never fully embracing Imperialism, either theoretically or in its strategic consequences. He reminded me more than once about POC leadership debates, when Armando Roman would hold forth about the Puerto Rican independence struggle and Harry Haywood would reply, “If it's so important to him, why doesn't he go there?” For Noel, exploitation always overshadowed national oppression as the cause of revolutionary struggle, though he seldom challenged the STO line directly and accepted the line as discipline required.
Don was almost the opposite. When Noel introduced me to Don, possibly around the time of the National Conference for New Politics gathering in Chicago, they gave me a copy of Don's mimeographed book, Notes for Development of Revolutionary Strategy, annotated by Noel, which I still have. Don was still in the CP, but obviously on his way out. Compared to the CP line, it represented a major improvement, but fell short of the infectious revolutionary current of the time. Don was plainly the Leninist that Noel wasn't, and was prepared even to subordinate or marginalize pre-imperialist struggles in order to make a priority of the most radical insurgency that was manifest at the time. Whatever fad was dominant among scholastic Marxists, Don wanted to join the debate (Althusser, Gorz, Emmanuel, Eurocommunism, capitalist restructuring, and so forth). To me those were mostly a waste of time and a distraction. But Don did dwell on dual power, which was the central and essential point of strategic agreement among us all, a point that every STO member embraced yet is not developed in Mike's book.
Temperamentally, both Don and Noel were Bolsheviks and I wasn't. Noel sent me a copy of “An Organization for the Workplace” in May of 1970 (date of the postmark). Regardless of my sympathetic reading, I would not join STO at that time, if only because I had no desire to be a member of an organization that included George Schmidt. [George was the most visible STO member to my spouse and to other comrades I worked closely with at the time. He meant well, but made a nuisance of himself, and had a well-deserved reputation for factionalism and undemocratic manipulation.] But Noel and I worked together in the Union of (White) Organizers, which was mainly a federation of RYM I and II activists citywide. By the time I did join STO in about 1976, I was in Mississippi, so my day-to-day political work wasn't much subject to collective scrutiny. Overall discipline, yes, but that's why the Third World Caucus split was unavoidable. I had no resistance to reporting my work to Pam and Scottie (two women who were leaders of STO's Third World Caucus) and did so by mail, but the idea that their direction from Chicago could override or contravene requests or instructions from Imari Obadele or Chokwe Lumumba, with whom I was working continually on a basis of trust, was preposterous and, as the debate unfolded, unprincipled. It would have amounted to outside manipulation of the RNA. Otherwise I was more Third-Worldist than either Don or Noel, with particular affection for revolutions in Africa (I introduced STO to SAMRAF) and Latin America.
Mike reported a snarky comment by Kingsley (Clarke) about my use of the name Jasper Collins, but never asked me about it or explained the actual reason for using it. For years before I joined STO, my political work was in other organizations—by the mid-1970s mainly SCEF (board, staff, writer, and editor), Covert Action Information Bulletin (writer, researcher, and member of the editorial collective), AFSC (full-time staff and director of a statewide anti-surveillance project), United Methodist Voluntary Service, and National Anti-Klan Network. My political views were well known to everyone I worked with in those groups, but my roles in some of them required that they be my primary organizational identifiers. AFSC made this explicit. I was not a pacifist, but to be the head of an AFSC project meant that I could not, while so identified, publicly declare support for armed struggle. CPUSA and PWOC members on the AFSC staff operated by the same rules I did. Covert Action was a united front with “no enemies on the left.” To have publicized my STO affiliation, and authorship of positions that provoked intense disagreement and debate on the revolutionary left, would have been a betrayal of the sort we condemned when Maoists and Trotskyists used positions of respect and influence in mass movements for partisan advantage.
Furthermore, every revolutionary organization addresses this requirement in the same manner, which is why labor is invariably divided between people whose assigned duties are mainly for the organization and others whose duties are mainly in mass movements or outside coalitions.
Mike stated that STO “never fully understood the extent to which the personal is political.” To the contrary, we not only understood it, we repudiated it as an operating principle. He cited papers by STO women in support of the concept, but never explicitly reported that they were defeated. He cited the Phantom Pheminists, but failed to report that they were defeated, that one of the authors (Cathy) herself repudiated and apologized for the PP initiative, and that the only aspect that was upheld was a specific charge of male chauvinism that would have been equally upheld by any decent Marxist organization of earlier vintage, while a second charge was defeated, despite one-sided lurid personal evidence that went unanswered by the accused. Our unambiguous position was that the personal is not political except to the extent that it is unavoidable, a position that caused both STO and Facing Reality to reject Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa's Wages for Housework line, which also was rejected by Big Flame, but was supported by such comrades as Kit Komatsu. Mike is entitled to his own position on feminism, but ought to have differentiated, say, the revolutionary feminists of Redstockings, who had my support whenever they sought it, and their leftish enemies, such as Gloria Steinem. STO supported and built CARASA, and opposed NARAL, which was a principled, positive intervention in the women's movement.
Iranian politics are caricatured and STO's political stance is garbled in Mike's telling, evidently based on Ed Voci's anecdotes of sectarian silliness in Chicago, which was at least partly warped by the disruptive presence of SAVAK agent George Youssefi at the Central YMCA. Even on that narrow terrain, I think Beth Henson probably has a more sympathetic and generous view of the ISA. However, Chicago wasn't the only place where STO and STO allies engaged in Iranian solidarity activity. Here is a more straightforward summary of the Iranian background and the groups we supported:
In 1953, the CIA and MI-6 overthrew the leftist-nationalist elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh and restored Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to the throne. The shah's government violently crushed all opposition, ruthlessly and with severe cruelty that included medieval and Nazi torture. The Tudeh party (pro-Soviet CP) had been the mass left formation, but was shattered. In the wake of the coup, the Tudeh party adopted a strategy of “survival,” meaning postpone all public political activity until the regime relaxed its terroristic grip, and maintain a skeleton illegal structure to await that opportunity. By 1970, a new generation, including young members of the radical Islamic National Front, refused to await the opening that never had come. The Organization of Iranian People's Fedayee Guerrillas was formed out of this younger radical nucleus, and one of their members, Amir-Parviz Pouyan, wrote their manifesto, The Necessity of Armed Struggle and Refutation of the Theory of “Survival.” Pouyan's book was important to STO's development, and to our Puerto Rican comrades, far beyond anyone's involvement in Iran solidarity work.
Pouyan argued that the absence of opposition was a consequence of the Iranian state's monopoly of violence. If a challenge to that monopoly were raised, revolutionaries would rally to the group that led the attack on the shah's police. In keeping with that doctrine, the OIPFG launched the armed struggle in 1971 with an attack on the gendarmerie at a small town called Siahkal. Nearly all the guerrillas who participated in the attack were captured, tortured, and executed, but the event electrified the public, made the people aware that the guerrilla movement existed, that it was capable of clandestine existence and surprise attack. Dozens of young people joined.
Another of the early members, Massoud Amadzadeh, wrote a more elaborate doctrinal manual, Armed Struggle: Both a Strategy and a Tactic, which he based on Régis Debray's so-called foco theory set forth in the then-faddish book Revolution in the Revolution? Both Pouyan and Amadzadeh had been members of the National Front before they joined the OIPFG, and lacked backgrounds in or understanding of mass mobilization that was central to Marxist tradition. Both were martyred—in 1971 and 1972, respectively—before they ever faced a political challenge to their doctrine. Their line was based on the view that revolution was at hand, and needed only the example of courageous guerrilla actions to bring down the regime. It was as mistaken as Che Guevara's expectations in Bolivia, the basis of Debray's book.
The Tehran center of OIPFG had been built by veterans of the Tudeh's youth group; one of the leaders there, Bizhan Jazani, wrote an alternative manifesto that became the OIPFG majority doctrine: Armed Struggle in Iran, the Road to Mobilization of the Masses. Under Jazani's line, armed actions were subordinate to political, social, economic, and ideological activity, and in concert with it. In addition to the OIPFG, a quasi-Marxist Islamic group, the People's Mojahedin of Iran, and a Trotskyist group called Left Platform, engaged in armed actions. OIPFG and PMOI had an arrangement of mutual recruitment, with secular recruits being referred to OIPFG and religious recruits to PMOI. All these groups had a large presence among Iranian students in the United States, and each comprised an ISA faction.
After Siahkal, the most important event in advancing the revolutionary struggle was the 1974 treason trial of the communist poet Khosro Golsorkhi, accused of conspiring to kidnap the shah's son. Golsorkhi's trial was televised, and he turned it into a reprise of the Dimitrov trial, bringing radical and revolutionary Marxist opposition to the regime into every Iranian household, but using poetic and religious language of the masses. I am lucky enough to have viewed it with simultaneous English translation at the Leipzig International Documentary Film Festival. Golsorkhi's trial tactics outshined any political defense I've seen in a US courtroom.
Those events were the backdrop to the various factions of the Iranian Student Association when we became involved with them, and we supported them all unconditionally. We debated them all privately, but in practice the OIPFG, and later the IPFG, were the ones who preferred to relate to us, which is why we became publishers of their political manifestos despite our political rejection of their Stalinism and Amadzadeh's foco strategy. When I was arrested and convicted for inciting a riot during an Iranian student demonstration at Jackson State University, it was IPFG Ashraf Dehghani followers and PMOI Massoud Rajavi followers who freed me. After that, they supplied me with English translations of their positions for STO to publish.
* * *
I never understood how individual examples of moral courage could contradict spontaneous mass self-emancipation; it seemed clear to me that they would be complementary. Karl Marx thought so too, as Jasper Collins (my pen name when writing for Sojourner Truth Organization) showed in 1978, in the Preface to the second edition of STO's pamphlet on White Supremacy and the Afro-American National Question:
Marx wrote that “the proletariat, which will not allow itself to be treated as rabble, regards its courage, self-confidence, independence, and sense of personal dignity as more necessary than its daily bread.” Some will argue that this quote from 1847 reflects a youthful humanism which Marx later outgrew. That isn't true either.
Here is how Marx ended his Inaugural Address launching the First International in 1864:
If the emancipation of the working classes requires their fraternal concurrence, how are they to fulfill that great mission with a foreign policy in pursuit of criminal designs, playing upon national prejudices, and squandering in piratical wars the people's blood and treasure? It was not the wisdom of the ruling classes, but the heroic resistance to their criminal folly by the working classes of England that saved the West of Europe from plunging headlong into an infamous crusade for the perpetuation and propagation of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic. The shameless approval, mock sympathy, or idiotic indifference, with which the upper classes of Europe have witnessed the mountain fortress of the Caucasus falling a prey to, and heroic Poland being assassinated by, Russia; the immense and unresisted encroachments of that barbarous power, whose head is at St. Petersburg, and whose hands are in every Cabinet of Europe, have taught the working classes the duty to master themselves the mysteries of international politics; to watch the diplomatic acts of their respective Governments; to counteract them, if necessary, by all means in their power; when unable to prevent, to combine in simultaneous denunciations, and to vindicate the simple laws of morals and justice, which ought to govern the relations of private individuals, as the rules paramount of the intercourse of nations.
The fight for such a foreign policy forms part of the general struggle for the emancipation of the working classes.
Proletarians of all countries, Unite! [my emphasis]
Marx felt so strongly about this that he quoted the lines about proletarian morality in the opening lines of the 1871 pamphlet, The Civil War in France, his stirring defense of the Paris Commune.
In September 1865 the International unanimously adopted a resolution addressed “To the People of the United States of America”:
Since we have had the honor of expressing sympathy with your sufferings, a word of encouragement for your efforts, and of congratulation for the results, permit us to add a word of counsel for the future.
As injustice to a section of your people has produced such direful results, let that cease. Let your citizens of to-day be declared free and equal, without reserve.
If you fail to give them citizens' rights, while you demand citizens' duties, there will yet remain a struggle for the future which may again stain your country with your people's blood.
The eyes of Europe and of the world are fixed upon your efforts at re-construction, and enemies are ever ready to sound the knell of the downfall of republican institutions when the slightest chance is given.
We warn you then, as brothers in the common cause, to remove every shackle from freedom's limb, and your victory will be complete.
Finally, in May 1869, Marx wrote the “Address to the National Labor Union of the United States.” In it the International urged the NLU to oppose vigorously moves by the US government toward war with England, just as the English workers had prevented the European powers from going to war for slavery in the United States. The victorious war against slavery “opened a new epoch in the annals of the working class.” A war would crush this movement. What follows next is the most explicit statement of our argument to be found in Marx:
The next palpable effect of the civil war was, of course, to deteriorate the position of the American workman. In the United States, as in Europe, the monster incubus of a national debt was shifted from hand to hand, to settle down on the shoulders of the working class. The prices of necessaries, says one of your statesmen, have since 1860 risen 78 per cent, while the wages of unskilled labor rose 50 per cent, those of skilled labor 60 per cent only. “Pauperism,” he complains, “grows now in America faster than population.” Moreover, the sufferings of the working classes set off as a foil the new-fangled luxury of financial aristocrats, shoddy aristocrats, and similar vermin bred by wars. Yet for all this the civil war did compensate by freeing the slave and the consequent moral impetus it gave to your own class movement. [my emphasis]
To locate myself on the STO timeline, I joined the organization in early 1971 and remained a member until 1978, when I quit over the issue of autonomy for the Third World Caucus. I worked at the Stewart-Warner (S-W) auto parts factory on the near-Northwest Side of Chicago from late 1970 until 1983, toiling as an automatic screw machine operator—a job for which I displayed astoundingly little aptitude and almost no learning curve. At S-W I helped found and put out STO's in-plant newspaper Talk Back. My other STO work included Puerto Rican solidarity and support for the Farah strike and the independent truckers' shutdown in 1974.
Michael Staudenmaier (hereinafter “Mike”) has done an incredible job with Truth and Revolution (T&R). He has written a history that is detailed, comprehensive, and scrupulously fair (no easy task) to the various factions and personalities that developed, coalesced, and occasionally split from STO. I gradually lost touch with the details of what happened after I quit in 1978, so the book also filled me in on what I missed. But T&R is no dry recitation of dates and facts. Mike projects STO's story against the social, cultural, and economic backdrops of those times, he meticulously documents the shape-shifting of the US and European left in that period, and he does a masterful job of explaining and interpreting for modern-day readers the political ideas that distinguished STO. In fact, you could learn a ton of Marxism just by reading Mike's discussions of STO's position papers and internal debates, because Mike takes the time to summarize the classic texts and STO's interpretations of them.
I was never a leader or “heavy” in STO, but I was nearly always in whole-hearted agreement with the majority positions while I was in the organization. I want to be clear: I don't blame Don, Noel, Carole, or Ken for where I think we went wrong—STO's mistakes were almost always my mistakes. Indeed, it is only in hindsight and with a hefty nudge from Truth and Revolution that I can begin to identify and articulate some of those missteps.
First, I now believe that our devotion to Leninism may have been our most serious and costly mistake. To be fair to the times, STO and the other new communist organizations had little choice in this area: Leninism was in the air in 1970, and any group had to lay claim to it if they were to have a prayer of attracting new members. I certainly subscribe to the well-known knocks on Leninism, such as it was more suited to achieving a one-off coup d'etat in the tottering Tsarist autocracy than to waging protracted struggle against the multi-faceted capitalist hegemony of a modern state. But Leninism had some deleterious effects on STO that were unique to us. Nowadays, it seems obvious to me that our Leninist view of the party (albeit more democratic than most) was in tension with our simultaneously held Gramscian view of the party. Gramsci described the party as a kind of school or research lab where militants from the working class and radical intellectuals learned together and from each other by analyzing, reflecting on, and responding to changing conditions.
In the early 1970s when revolution seemed just around the corner, one could argue that our version of Leninism made more sense: rising mass movement party-as-spearhead = revolution. But once the “lull”1 started, Leninism not only became increasingly less relevant, it may have impaired our ability to make a clear-eyed reassessment of the situation. We never really figured out how to fight what Gramsci called “a war of position.” As the mass movement subsided and US factories began to close, our Leninist convictions ultimately led STO to focus more heavily on party-building and gradually shift out of factory work and other mass work. Although I was far too myopic to realize it at the time, I now agree that we were right to shift away from factory work.
However, we were also wrong to focus on party building or at least the specific party building approach we took. STO's approach involved committing the majority of our people and resources to the active support of liberation struggles (Puerto Rican, Iranian, South African) in hopes of recruiting the North American radicals working in and around those struggles. I don't mean to imply that we weren't genuinely in support of these struggles for intrinsic political reasons, only that a major part of our motivation was party building.
In any small organization, to concentrate on one thing is to exclude not only doing but even contemplating doing something else. Faced with the lull, what were our alternatives? It would have been unthinkable to me then, but it makes sense in hindsight to have interpreted our understanding of the need to fight white supremacy in the context of the “new working class” (NWC). NWC theories had circulated in the early days of SDS, but they were roundly denounced by the Revolutionary Youth Movement and Progressive Labor that came to define SDS.
Yet now we see the subsequent evolution of various NWC occupations—teachers, social workers, healthcare workers, office workers, and some lawyers. Since 1975, these professions have added huge percentages of women and African American and Latino workers. The fields of education, medical care, and law have been involved in major economic battles over the distribution of resources to the working poor and the working class as well as key human rights battles on behalf of minorities, women, and LGBT communities. I'm not saying that if STO had gotten involved in organizing in the NWC we would have grown by leaps and bounds, much less brought on revolution—only that it surprises me now that we never really considered this option.
One of aspect of Leninism that backfired on STO was Lenin's insistence on the necessity of clarifying political differences. STO was justly proud of the intellectual strength of our writings, and during the lull STO became more convinced than ever that political clarity was our main selling point to potential recruits. What's not to like about clarity? Well, premature clarity or incomplete clarity is not so great. Organizations can be clearly wrong as well as clearly right, and clarity based on a wistful out-of-date analysis of objective conditions runs the risk of being clearly wrong. To put it another way, the three splits in STO during my time in the organization involved clarifying our ideas and excluding or dismissing others. What if we had been willing to live with more ambiguity on the splitting questions involving trade union participation, democratic centralism, and the role of third world cadre?
How could we know that Mike Goldfield and those who supported him were wrong to argue for engaging in trade union struggles? We had no evidence; we deduced that they were wrong by clarifying our line through explication de texte and logical, legalistic arguments.2 Speaking of the new working class, I remember one comrade who was successfully engaged in organizing substitute teachers. He got little support and recognition in STO for his efforts from me or other comrades. On what evidence did we conclude that he was on the wrong track? In another example, we relied heavily on the work of STO lawyers for our neighborhood workers' rights centers, but saw their legal work as a means to an end and their profession as not worth organizing. The Third World Caucus split, of which I was a part, saw an organization—whose centerpiece was the fight against white supremacy—place its version of democratic centralism above the expressed preferences of its own third world members. What harm would have occurred if we had allowed the five third world members to exist in an ambiguous relationship to democratic centralism?
To put it another way, if we had been more “Gramsci than Lenin,” viewing STO as more of a workshop or school, perhaps we would have been more willing to live with ambiguity on issues where the evidence had yet to be gathered. Moreover, if we had been more “Marx than Lenin,” perhaps we would have viewed the lull as the time to gather more evidence about a changing world and conduct some good-faith experiments, rather than trying to build a party primarily on ideological clarity. Reading Mike's history of STO in the years after I quit left me with some sadness. It seemed like fewer projects were generated within the organization as STO appeared to rush from one issue or coalition to another.
Being interviewed by Mike and then reading T&R dredged up powerful memories. It forced me to re-examine issues and events that over the years I had compartmentalized or flat-out attempted to delete. Good histories should have that effect on you. I take strong exception, however, to Mike's musings that “sections of an increasingly globalized capitalist class will jettison traditional forms of white supremacy just as they are quickly relieving themselves of most vulgar forms of homophobia,” or later in the same paragraph where he writes “the traditional idea of [white skin] privileges granted by capital and the state may come to mean less and less as the new century progresses” (T&R, p. 312). Despite the fact that the one-percenters have integrated Martha's Vineyard, white skin privilege is alive and well in today's America—whether one looks at the black and brown gulag that is the US prison system, the growth in child poverty, or the continuing increases in inequality in employment, education, health, and housing.
I don't think Mike missed much of STO's story except for couple of areas. First, many of us in STO we were very close to each other—we saw each other at work, at weekly meetings, and over many a long night in the print shop. Don, Carole, and Noel were like older siblings to me, so leaving the organization was very wrenching. We lent each other money and cars and helped each other through divorces. As part of that closeness, we had a lot of fun together. This doesn't come across in the organization's somber tomes, but it can be glimpsed in some of our plant newspapers, or in random acts of hilarity. One time a young worker from Stewart-Warner accompanied us to an Iranian student demonstration in downtown Chicago. Like other production workers, the pounding noise of the factory had done a number on his hearing. When the chant went up, “The Shah is a fascist butcher—down with the Shah!” he began to intone, “The Shah is a fascist booger…!” Interestingly, his Shah-as-booger version immediately caught on among those standing around us and drew angry stares from others. Following on the last point, the story that remains to be told is what became of the workers and community residents who worked closely with us and in some cases briefly joined our group? What is their take on those times and their experiences? How did they resume “normal life”?
One of Carole Travis's favorite admonitions about our political work was that people could well ask us, “If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?” (That is, if you radicals know so much, why aren't you successful?) There were a lot of reasons beyond our control why STO didn't strike it rich in the sense of making a revolution. I don't fault myself or STO for that. But I do wish we had left more to guide the generations who will follow us. I wish we had tried and evaluated more things and left more pitons in the rock. On the other hand, we should thank Mike for writing T&R and for reminding us that sometimes in those days we wrought better than we thought, and that some of what we thought still resonates.
- 1As the “lull” dragged into its third or fourth year, I remember Ted Allen’s remark on the dormant state of the mass movement: “We keep waiting for capitalism's ‘other shoe to drop,’ but sometimes I think we might be dealing with a one-legged man.”
- 2For their part, most of the groups who split with STO were just as obsessed with clarity. It reminds one of the old joke about the two Trotskyist groups that called a unity conference which, after days of debate, resulted in five Trotskyist groups.
My remarks focus on the second question which will spill a bit into the third.
Having observed some of the current interaction of today's activists with unions, I think that a lot of young activists are confused about the trade union question. Therefore the discussion of STO's independent mass organization concept in Mike's book is very important. But more about the context of that concept needs to be discussed. It is a mistake (which Mike touches on) to think that the reason for our stance was that unions are always corrupt or that they are limited because of some Leninist notion of the limits of “trade union consciousness.” Some of us had this limited view at the time. This made us, similarly to activists today, vulnerable to the wiles of “good unions” or ones that use radical rhetoric. Trade unions based on labor laws that are designed to maintain the capitalist system will always attempt to limit and contain labor activism that threatens the system. But there are some particularities in the United States that are also important. Today's US trade unions are all the product of an era when trade unions made a deal with capitalism in the period after World War II. A share of the considerable bounty from the post war boom was traded for assurances of continuity of production and support for US foreign policy, undermining radical labor activism at the time. Part of this deal involved a purge of radical forces within unions and in this weakened state the unions accepted labor legislation that institutionalized the arrangement. When we were active in the late sixties and throughout the seventies, the capitalist class was in the process of canceling their end of the bargain by moving jobs to lower wage regions of the world. We interpreted, incorrectly in my view, the ongoing process and the resulting worker discouragement as a “lull” rather than an attack on labor by the ruling class. It led to the shift in STO that Mike describes in the book. What was needed at the time was an all out attack on organized labor from the left and an effort to defy and render useless, labor law itself. I am of the opinion that now as then we are in a period of a massive shift in the way capitalism works globally. Unions are concerned about their future viability as institutions and will fight even harder against left forces that could threaten existing labor unions. The recent actions of unions to contain the insurgency in Wisconsin and that of the longshoremen on the West Coast are examples of this.
This leads me to a related point. Mike rightfully placed a great deal of emphasis on the shift in STO from an emphasis on point of production organizing to support for national liberation movements. I was at the meeting when this decision was made. The main justification for this was the slowing of militant workplace activism by workers resulting in the decline of mass organizations at the workplace generally including those we had been involved in organizing. STO interpreted this development as “a lull.” And as an organization we increasingly involved ourselves in the support of national liberation struggles—particularly Black and Puerto Rican nationalist organizations. In hindsight the notion of a lull did not begin to get at what was going on. Capitalism was in a state of classic crisis and the ruling class was preparing an all out assault on workers in the industrialized nations of the world. None of us saw this which would have had important implications for our practice. At the very time the industrial working class was under attack we abandoned the industrial project. All of the information needed to make this analysis was available at the time. Yet none of us (including me) had the inclination to make a detailed analysis of objective/subjective conditions. I raise this not as a point of self criticism but because I believe we are at a similar juncture today and would hope that young activists do not interpret the decline of fortunes of parts of the Occupy movement as something akin to a “lull.” There is much, much, more going on out there.
Finally, I want to say a few words about STO's white skin privilege analysis. I thought that the point made by Mike, that the white skin privilege line could easily be vulgarized was well taken. Despite efforts by Noel and others to combat this, a number of groups—some supportive and some hostile to the analysis and its practice—avoided the relationship of class and race when characterizing our ideas. We did leave ourselves open to this by not being sharper about both the racial dimension of class and the class dimension of race. This was weakness inside STO as well. This is because the form of presentation was often a critique of other groups' positions (like PL's “smash racism”) or other groups' priorities in specific activities. But also our lack of clarity inside STO led us to broad characterizations of Black and Latino groupings as “Third World” or “The Black Community,” etc. And this weakness became greater as we shifted priorities from the workplace where the class dimension was clear to the national liberation struggles where it was blurred. This is very important today. The white skin privilege analysis needs to be worked out anew in the context of ongoing struggles. Today's activists face a world in which black and Latino leaders from the President of the United States, to academicians, politicians, and clergy claim to speak for the “community” while representing the ruling class. And while the original conception of color as a political rather than a racial category is still critically important, many more people of color are being admitted to “the club.”
Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy…
—William Butler Yeats
According to Truth and Revolution, Sojourner Truth Organization's history is “fundamentally a tragic tale” (p. 307), and “the overall trajectory of STO's strategy was undeniably toward failure” (p. 327). This writer and former STO member disagrees. Radical political organizations never disappear; they disperse into the future with anticipation of periods of joy. Nonetheless Truth and Revolution has achieved a couple of things.
First, the book recounts in substantial detail STO's significant achievements and major contributions to theory and strategy (white skin privilege, dual consciousness and autonomy of agency which are explained and discussed throughout the book and summed up at p. 310) and its organizational functioning (p. 331):
[STO] emphasized…the priority of common action over strict adherence to a precise theoretical line, the need for a highly democratic internal culture of debate, and the responsibility of the party to “articulate and organize popular aspirations in a framework of class struggle,” rather than to provide top-down leadership and direction to the masses [citations omitted].
Secondly, with this book Sojourner Truth Organization now has a substantial, independently published history. In addition, others have archived, disseminated and referenced STO's various publications and documents. Still others claim to be its progeny. No other group of revolutionary North Americans from the latter half of the twentieth century, excepting the Black Panther Party, is comparable.
Truth and Revolution surpassed this writer's expectations both in depth and scope. Aside from a few lapses into typical leftist jargon (e.g., “the personal is political,” p. 324), it is well written. Although the interview methodology is spotty, the thoroughness, references, summaries and organization of STO's documentary record is generally commendable. However, the book's value ends with that chore (at p. 306). Putting aside several other quibbles, Truth and Revolution's conclusions are its major weakness (its conclusions are spread throughout, but drawn up in chief at pp. 307–333, “Conclusions: Reading STO Politically”) and “lessons learned” (p. 322).
The weakness is due in large part to the book's success/failure fetish and its desire to please current political faddists (the anti-hierarchy milieu, mostly), but also because of incomplete or imperfect information. That STO did not “make” a North American revolution (p. 332) or “catalyz[e] or inspir[e] insurgent mass movements” (p. 333) are short-sighted, if not silly, metrics. The book claims not to take a “linear approach to revolution” (p. 307, fn. 2), but its political conclusions are lineal: because the formally organized STO did not in some way result in a social movement that resulted in revolution, STO is a failure. Particularly revealing of the book's analogue analysis is its pontification that “revolution […] was arguably further away” after 15 years of STO's functioning (p. 307). This kind of outlandish assessment brings to mind Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character who, when faced with Charlie Wilson's celebrating the CIA's war against the Soviets in Afghanistan as a categorical success, quotes a zen master: “Well, we'll see.” As to STO's influence, well, we shall see and, even then, we shall see.
With respect to imperfect information, Truth and Revolution, for example, concludes without citation to authority that STO's activities with and among the Iranian Student Associations “was marked by failure on almost every level” (p. 177). Rather than discover and cite to fact, the book makes a factually inaccurate appeal to melodramatic sensibilities:
Unfortunately, the eventual fate [after the Islamic Revolution] of most of the returning exiles was imprisonment, death, or imposed political withdrawal and silence. Halfway across the globe, STO was largely helpless to assist its comrades and, despite many lessons learned [!] the groups experience with Iranian solidarity work was marked by failure on almost every level.1
Anecdotally, less than 5 percent of the Iranian students in North America returned to Iran and many of those who did return sided with the Islamic Republic. Most remained in North America or ventured to other Western Countries (word came that STO was known among cab drivers in Paris during the 1980s). Furthermore, after the Islamic Revolution STO remained in contact with Left-ISA members and assisted with campaigns and demands to various United Nations bodies for intervention against the persecution of Khomeini opponents (both in Iran or to prevent or delay deportation of ISA members or other regime opponents to Iran from European or Middle East countries).
More significantly, Truth and Revolution misses the priority mission of the Iranian Student Associations in North America: organizing other expatriate Iranians against the Shah and later against the Khomeini regime. With this task STO's involvement achieved much. At ISA meetings publicized by STO-printed leaflets, STO members spoke to enthusiastic audiences. An STO member appeared in the media speaking about the mistreatment of Iranian students by the police, FBI and immigration agents and documentation of the mistreatment was disseminated nationally and internationally. Another STO member, as part of a larger demonstration, disrupted a speech by Jimmy Carter after he hosted the Shah in exile. On another occasion, hundreds of Puerto Ricans, Iranians, Palestinians, Native Americans, Central Americans and North Americans marched through the night from Gary, Indiana, to downtown Chicago protesting US support for the Shah. STO played a large supporting role in organizing the protest which drew considerable attention. In fact, ISA events were frequently better attended than most North American leftist meetings. All of this activity by STO supported and contributed to a vibrant Iranian student movement which equaled or surpassed its North American counterpart and converged with the radical North American internationalist milieu.
Other than to Truth and Revolution (pp. 175–176), STO's formal position to defend the Islamic revolution against US intervention mattered little and Iranians had much to do with informing it. The ISA call for international opposition to the Khomeini regime often blended with American hysteria during the embassy hostage episode, something which STO carefully recognized and carefully avoided. (As one veteran ISA member who had been imprisoned and tortured by the Shah's police wryly opined to STO about the Khomeini regime: “Shah? Not such a bad guy.”) What mattered more to ISA was STO's active support on the ground for ISA's organizing Iranians against the Shah and subsequently against the Khomeini regime. This support was substantial and also informed at least a slice of North Americans at large about the historic US domination of Iran at a time when the US government was forming intervention contingencies.
The book makes too much of both STO's formal organizational ending and the reasons for its ending. If a metric is useful at all, it may be whether and how STO's former members are currently engaged. The current period of mass movements across much of the globe includes Occupy Wall Street in North America—which Ignatiev rightly assessed as the most significant social movement since the 1960s (speech to Occupy Boston, November 15, 2011). While for some former STO members the cock has crowed thrice, others have persevered having been prepared to act either with or without organizational formalities. Still others have veered off (“I'm not engaged at all”; “I'm a union hack”). If as Lenin, Ignatiev, and many others (including Truth and Revolution, p. 307, fn. 2; p. 313) have observed (repeatedly in Ignatiev's case), revolutions are unpredictable and can happen at any moment, “How many people did STO prepare for this unknown eventuality?” is one of only three relevant questions. The second question is: “What are these people doing now in a period of global motion?” The third: “How do they politically justify their actions?”
“Shifting objective conditions” and a “failure of will” (p. 308) may be necessary parts of explaining the banality of STO's formal disintegration, but it is hardly sufficient. Shifting conditions are part and parcel of political life and dealing with such are its essence. Failures of will and lack of individual resiliency, on the other hand, usually have specific precipitating causes.
The book cites “de-industrialization” (p. 308), lack of quantitative growth (p. 329), and “informal hierarchy” (p. 328) as factors in STO's organizational demise. Each will be addressed here, but the book does not attribute the unraveling to concern over risk-taking attendant to STO's involvement with “direct action” and, for some (Katz and Zeskind most notably) over Zionism. On the latter, the book does not recount how the massacre of over 3,000 Palestinians at the Sabra and Shitila refugee camps during the 1982 war in Lebanon (including the bombing of a US Marine barracks) fueled STO's foray into Palestine arena most significantly by sponsoring the splendid speaking and multi-media presentation tour by Maher Ahmed (now “Ahmad”). Ahmed's recorded presentations were requested by and sent to the STO Kansas City branch where the debate around Zionism was particularly intense due in large part to Zeskind's presence.
On the former, i.e., differences over risk-taking, the book does recount some of STO's activities around the mass illegal activity theme, but does not capture how facing personal risks created deep tensions (internally and externally) or how many members viewed STO's direct action (its own “self-activity”) not as abandoning its commitment to theory, but rather as applying dialectics by intervening in the Hegelian master-slave dialectic (“it is only by risking life that freedom is obtained,” Urgent Tasks, vol. 7, p. 22). It was an approach that assessed who—among the masses and among STO itself—was at that point of consciousness, had a willingness to act and wanted to organize around action. Some simply did not “have the stomach for it.”
Truth and Revolution cites “de-industrialization” as the result of “globalization from above” or “neo-liberalism” (p. 308). The book does not explain or expound on the term “neo-liberalism.” Even Professor Bracey in his “Foreword” declines to elaborate on “neo-liberalism” (“…whatever that is…,” p. vii) despite David Harvey's having written A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism. Harvey identifies neo-liberalism's origins as political movement initiated by Hayek and Friedman at a Swiss spa in 1946. The neo-liberal grouping consisted of pro-capitalist theoreticians who set out to remove all statist constraints on capital and to apply statist policies solely to protect capital from any interference. Foucault places neo-liberalism's origins with Walter Lippmann and French intellectuals in 1937 France where and when the term “neo-liberal” was supposedly coined. Hayek's vision for the neo-liberal project is haunting: “…dispense with the need for conscious control and…provide inducements which will make individuals do desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do” (quoted by Engelmann, p. 148, Imagining Interest in Political Thought: Origins of Economic Rationality).
The neo-liberal movement has profoundly influenced the political mainstream in North America, South America and Europe. The leading popular exponents of neo-liberalism were Thatcher (her mentor was Hayek) and Reagan (Friedman was his). The movement had been furthered along in North America by the likes of Gary Becker, Lewis Powell, Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan, Richard Posner and, if Posner is correct, Bill Clinton (Greenspan and Posner, at least, recanted during the 2008 crisis). Truth and Revolution's giving short shrift to neo-liberalism is likely explained by its anti-Leninist bias displayed in its murky critique of STO's Leninism (pp. 315–316). Lenin also famously used Switzerland as a base of operations during his exile in 1917 but also, ironically, at a Swiss spa during earlier years.
The neo-liberals, these pro-capital “Leninists,” have emphatically proven a point that is uncomfortable for Truth and Revolution: a small group of highly committed and skilled people with theoretical muscle can indeed (literally, in deed) change the world. This accomplishment by the neo-liberal movement should come as no surprise since Truth and Revolution heaps attention on STO's grasp of the dualities involved with consciousness and revolution itself, i.e., both having the potentials of rightwing (fascist) negations.
Truth and Revolution misplaces “de-industrialization” at the hands of the neo-liberals and because it misses the arguments against Hamerquist's “secular crisis” position (that capital was restructuring, i.e., “de-industrializing”) in the late 1970s and early 1980s (pp. 2820–284). Hamerquist argued that the Asian Third World would leapfrog industrialization just as he had argued that Third World national liberation movements would leapfrog capital and construct socialism directly out of wars of national liberation. The secular crisis critiques argued that the secular crisis position assumed the replication in East Asia of North American capital's organic composition; essentially that automated production would obviate the need for human labor to an unprecedented degree internationally. The critics argued that capital's flow to East Asia was orthodox intra-class wage competition that Marx saw as the principal pillar of capital's domination of labor. The “deindustrialization” of North America meant the industrialization of East Asia since it had not yet (1970s) been penetrated by advanced international capital. The critics proved to be correct as dramatically evidenced by Foxconn and other factories in Guadong Provence and in scores of other East Asian production centers replete with class antagonisms and rebellious worker self-activity. The point here, in terms of STO's formal demise, is that regardless of whether or how capital has shifted, flowed or deviated from its orthodox constitution, the tasks of revolutionaries never disappear; they change and modulate in intensity.
Finally, Truth and Revolution finds more failure in STO's “informal hierarchy” that resulted from the functioning of a more experienced and more talented few casually referred to as “the heavies” (p. 328). The book gives due credit to the heavies' heavy lifting in preparing the extensive dialectics training materials and organizing the study sessions, but decries the fact that they remained as a leading force. Sadly, the organizational utopia that Truth and Revolution fancies for STO failed to materialize. The fact is that many STO members were enriched by the dialectics materials and sessions and emerged as leaders of one stripe or another.
Truth and Revolution offers vague and, from its own point of view, troubling solutions to “informal hierarchy” by “establishing precise limits on this power .…” [and] …other measures to broaden and deepen the available pool of leaders…”) (p. 329). Interestingly, the “establishing precise limits on this power” part sounds like instituting hierarchy over the hierarchy! Because of its hierarchy fetish (“STO's […] standard sort of appeal to authority that sounds dated and sectarian to contemporary ears” p. 316) Truth and Revolution views gifted individuals as a problem as opposed to a strength. The problem more likely rested among those who were not comfortable or not capable of dealing with extraordinary or stronger intellects and extensive experience. Many STO members were unable to successfully challenge the “heavies” and this inability sometimes led to frustration and at other times to accusations of one kind or another. Nonetheless the “heavies” not only faced this situation squarely through the dialectics training generally speaking, but also in stark particularity with a study question from the dialectics syllabus: “How does the ‘average person’ retain his/her views in the face of a superior intellect?” (Urgent Tasks, No. 7, “How to Think,” p.26). Ken Lawrence's answer to this question in one of the early dialectics sessions was, “on faith.” And therein lies the rub, since taking anything “on faith” was anathema to the dialectics training itself and to STO's staunch anti-Stalinism. Marx's famous communist formulation, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” expresses the universal differentials within the realm of human abilities and needs. Tensions among them can only be superseded through a process of takings (“to each”) and givings (“from each”). This dialectic occurred within the voluntary associations of STO. A brain surgeon by virtue of her or his ability has a hierarchal (master) relationship to the patient (slave), yet at the same time the patient or collectively the patients (now masters) need continual service from the brain surgeon or collectively brain surgeons (now slaves). If both actors voluntarily associate in an unmediated social situation (and have a multiplicity of such unmediated voluntary relationships), they have constituted communism. A similar dialectic operated within STO and the rest, as they say, was in details of misunderstanding, jealousy, whining, or disingenuous posturing.
Furthermore, the book misses the important point when it claims merely that the dialectics training did “raise the overall level of theoretical discussion” (p. 329). The point of the dialectics training was to “impart an ability to evaluate political situations critically and to decide independently on proper courses of action […] to elevate the effectiveness of our political work by elevating the quality of our ‘product.’ […] we are concerned with the organization and presentation of criticism, whether of strategy, general tactics, or as issue-oriented practical work…” (Urgent Tasks, Vol. 7, pp. 19–20). Noel Ignatin once said: “Look, you and I could take a lot of time and I could impart to you all that I know and even then you might not attain my level of ability. The prudent thing is to take a shorter, intense time and develop in you a capacity of how to think about what you need to know to function politically.” The “heavies” inculcated (a dangerous word no doubt) in the membership that STO's potential was a Gramscian “army of generals.” Many members took that challenge seriously and the resulting uplift in self-confidence was palpable. Members, who rarely spoke, spoke up. Those, who rarely volunteered for uncomfortable tasks, began to volunteer. Those who rarely or never wrote for Urgent Tasks or the Internal Discussion Bulletin began to do so. Again, if one is so disposed, assessing whether and how former STO members are currently engaged during this period of global movements and Occupy Wall Street might be the better measure of how and whether the “informal hierarchy” was resolved.
Truth and Revolution may serve some people as a “Sparks Notes” of sorts to the life and times of STO (the dialectics syllabus was seen by STO as “the Marxist equivalent to a Berlitz language course”). It may also serve as an introduction to serious radical politics or as an antidote to political fads and hack Leftism. At the very least it is a refresher source and a trip down memory lane for those who lived and continue to live STO.
- 1Truth and Revolution, p. 178.
For those of us who witnessed much of the tangled history of STO, this book represents a bold and well appreciated achievement. I don't have any problem with Michael casting his analysis of STO in the framework of his own political views, though some of the references to anarchist alternatives felt grafted on, but I do think that the author's political baggage projected the STO history down paths that were in some cases inaccurate and to a large degree counterproductive in our common desire to learn the most to do the best.
Let me confess at the outset that I realize I may have been able to contribute some of these observations as the manuscript was in development, and probably should have.
A methodological error begins in the opening chapter in laying out the historical groundwork. The rendition of the ’60s struck me as more empirical than analytical, more sociology than politics, more lineal than interactive. Michael suggests that it was a spate of wildcat strikes that inspired the turn towards workplace organizing. I believe such actions were more effect than cause. The unrest in factories, like that among youth in the student and anti-war movements and women, was inspired by the Black civil rights initiatives—which created the initial crack in the wall—and that in turn was inspired by stiffening anti-imperialist/nationalist movements that swept the world beginning well before the sixties but culminating then. Contrary to what is suggested in the book, the whirlwind of ideas and action arising out of the rise and fall of SDS, including the turn toward the workplace, was not essentially a disconnected phenomenon, but was profoundly linked to an underlying context. In my view, it was in this incubator that STO's founders learned in real world circumstances from the working class in both its national and racial forms early on and in its general form later, about the bedrock politics of white skin privilege and dual consciousness.
The initial failure to cast the rise of STO as a creation as well as a creator of mass activity belies a problem that plagues the script throughout and eventually leads to a set of wrong conclusions that gives STO too much credit in the beginning and concomitantly too much blame in the end, too much emphasis on the few and the subjective and too little on the mass and objective conditions. This overemphasis on the members of STO finally leads Michael to treat the organization as a failure because its membership disbanded, but I would argue that to the extent STO expressed rebellious impulses in practical theory that informs our movement to this day, the demise of STO as described in this book was greatly exaggerated.
In the process, we see a number of indicators of this basic misstep. From the use of obscuring terms like middle class in chapter 1, to the definition (p. 283) of our view of the fundamental contradiction of capitalism as a dynamic that has no humans as forces of production (!), to the criticism of Noel for holding white workers accountable for being “given” privileges—all of this and more takes responsibility, subjectivity and even identity from workers, and transmits them to various activists.
It should come as no surprise then that Michael finds the problem with STO's shift from the workplace to more activist arenas as a series of errors that arose from the heads of the members, rather than the fact that we broke—in steps that were so small that they were virtually imperceptible (certainly to me)—away from the class. It would not occur to those who do not appreciate the role of water, that taking fish out of water is fatal. Not that STO couldn't have survived the lull, but only if we had not broken so thoroughly with our class base, only if we had maintained that strategic orientation in fact instead of just in form, where we consciously accepted that direct organizing work in the factories was no longer as available, and that the structural shift would involve a perhaps lengthy period without such contact, but that in that time we should stay porous to the event, to use the more recent vernacular. What would it have meant to STO and the class had we been around when the P9 struggle broke out? The uprising in southern Mexico? The austerity struggles? Madison? Michael says at one point that the Chinese revolution undercut class orientation, but that's only true if you use empiricism as your instrument. What Noel had learned and written in his piece on state capitalism could have forewarned and forearmed us to the possibility that the Chinese “revolution” was to be a means to more effectively develop capitalism and a huge new section of proletarians, as we have seen.
Instead, we, well most of us, succumbed to the lure of the activist milieu and warnings that we were in the midst of cataclysmic crisis. This was the mistake that doomed STO as an organization, namely that we went to a place that Michael and the anarchists, for the most part, actually think, as a general proposition, we should be.
Acknowledging the tremendous amount of excellent work that Michael poured into this book, I would still like people to come away with a different set of lessons, ones that realize that we hold ourselves in high revolutionary esteem at our own peril, that there is a reason why the highest and best organic relationship for revolutionary purposes has been the working class and the more associated with creating commodities that are useful and openly stolen, the better, and that radical subjectivity on the part of activists is useful only when it is informed by and embraceable and embraced by the broader class.
Finally, for now anyway, as a person who has been heavily involved in the rebirth and use of the dialectics course, I would be remiss if I didn't respond to what has become standard critique of the course, that it's outdated. This is true if the course were about things, events, issues—but it's essentially not. It's about what it says it is about: how to think—or more particularly how to think in terms of changing categories of thought so that we don't think of things like nationalism as static entities. It's about how change has both quantitative and qualitative dimensions, how reality is often obscured by the apparent, and a number of other concepts that I firmly believe would make a difference in our common ability to forge a common path.
I think this book is as near perfect as a book of its sort can be. I do think that my advisors would say that it is theoretically naïve and lacks a theory of historiography itself, that it is insufficiently self-reflective, without an analysis of its own narrative. In that case, I would disagree with my advisors. I hope Mike's own experience in graduate school does not encumber his ability to tell a story.
I have read a number of histories, memoirs, and biographies of the new left, in English and Spanish; this is the only accounting that combines useful intellectual history with a vivid sense of lived experience. He understands what we were about—the dilemmas we faced, our theoretical underpinnings, and the larger context where we worked. That someone his age could do that gives me hope.
The most difficult kind of history is that of the still living: one is a pioneer, without a previous analytical or thematic scaffolding. But more important is the need to protect the living, to avoid alienating sources, to avoid reviving old conflicts, to choose between versions of events which still have partisans and which could still affect people's lives. These are difficult decisions.
I noted two places where Mike's discretion was apparent and where I think he made the right choice. One was his omission of the events that followed on the Phantom Pheminists: the trial and punishment of a male leader by the Women's Commission. He was right to let that go; some of us were holding our breath, wondering just how many dirty sheets would be laundered. This may have added to the opacity of the discussion of gender relations, which could hardly be coherent without naming names, but it saved us the descent to titillation and gossip.
Another place where Mike finessed the discussion had to do with our relations with the MLN and the PR underground. For decades I have wanted to tell certain stories as cautionary tales and I have not figured out how to do so without putting people in danger, since the lived experience that is the center of the narrative cannot be told.
Finally, I would like to know who excerpted from my memoir and sent it to Mike without my knowledge. It would have been nice to inform me, especially since it was later extensively rewritten. Did you think I wouldn't notice?
I first became aware of STO in the late 1980s, a few years after the organization disbanded. Compared with most of the left groups I was aware of, STO seemed like a breath of fresh air. Here was a Marxist organization that promoted both revolutionary politics and genuine open debate, and that combined practical work with nuanced, sophisticated analyses of major issues like white supremacy and fascism. Whatever its failings, I knew this was a model worth learning from.
In Truth and Revolution, Mike Staudenmaier writes about how STO developed the dialectics study to help strengthen and equalize theoretical understanding within the group. I took the dialectics course in 1989, taught by two former STO members, and I remember them emphasizing that if you want people to be able to provide constructive leadership and make good political decisions, then people have to be able to think for themselves. The course format itself reflected this, in that our teachers welcomed suggestions from participants for changes to the curriculum and encouraged all of us to take turns leading the discussions. The dialectics study and related STO readings had a big impact on me. They didn't make me a sophisticated thinker in terms of high theory, but they helped me develop some practical analytical tools, based especially on treating contradiction as a dynamic process and a crucial historical reality.
The analysis of white skin privilege, which was central to STO politics from beginning to end, highlights what was distinctive about STO's theoretical approach. Lots of leftists and liberals have embraced the white skin privilege concept over the past forty-odd years, but too many of them have interpreted it to mean that white people, including white workers, are simply bought off, co-opted into being supporters of the status quo. To me, the key thing about STO's take on this issue is that it treats white workers' situation as contradictory. STO said that white workers have a material stake in the system of racial oppression but are still part of an exploited class that has the potential to make a revolution. And this contradictory situation embodies part of the basic contradiction of capitalism, which is internal to the working class itself.
STO's analysis of fascism is one of its contributions that has most directly affected my own work. Mike's book traces how, in the late 1970s, STO shifted from a conventional Marxist view of fascism (as the last defense of capitalism when bourgeois democracy fails), to an understanding that fascism has its own dynamic and an important degree of autonomy from capitalist control; that it has a genuine revolutionary, anti-capitalist dimension; and that it has the potential to gain a mass following, specifically within the white working class. Here again, the analysis hinges on the idea of contradiction, specifically, fascism's contradictory relationship with the capitalist system. STO came to regard fascist movements and state repression as threats that were interrelated but also distinct and increasingly at odds with each other. By the early 1980s, STO was treating anti-fascist organizing as an area of strategic importance in its own right. Within the framework of building a defensive united front against fascism, STO promoted a militant approach that rejected reliance on the state.
One other area of STO's legacy that I want to highlight concerns the politics of solidarity.
Truth and Revolution details the organization's work in support of national liberation and “Third World” revolutionary groups, especially between the mid 1970s and early eighties. Parts of this account are not very flattering. For example, STO defended the Khomeini government as a bulwark against US imperialism, and “while it was quite willing to criticize other anti-imperialist organizations…for subordinating themselves to the organizational or ideological outlook of various revolutionary nationalist groups, in practice STO all too often did the exact same thing…” (p. 320). Yet the former STO members I met in the late 1980s were vividly aware of these mistakes. While recognizing that white (and US) privilege was a factor that could not be wished away, they were sharply critical of the model that said white leftists should simply “take leadership” from Third World revolutionaries, an issue I was struggling to untangle at the time. One of them recounted a situation where STO received opposite instructions from a black nationalist group and a Puerto Rican group they were working with closely, which underscored the point that they had to figure it out for themselves.
STO made many contributions and had many shortcomings, and I think Truth and Revolution does an excellent job of highlighting both in a fair and constructive way. But from the standpoint of learning from its legacy, it seems to me that STO's strengths are much more distinctive than its weaknesses. Many of the problems that Mike discusses—the informal hierarchy, the imbalance between men's and women's participation, the millenarianism leading to burnout, the failure to stick with one strategic direction for more than a few years, the failure to grow—were and are common problems on the left and beyond the left. That doesn't mean we should minimize or excuse them, but rather that we probably need to look beyond the specifics of STO's story to understand and avoid these problems. By contrast, STO's contributions to revolutionary theory, its efforts to promote critical thinking as a necessary complement to practical work, its fundamental humility regarding its own role in building a revolutionary mass movement—these were and are much more rare.
I am a member of Unity and Struggle in Atlanta and I volunteered to respond to Insurgent Notes's invitation to participate in a symposium on Michael Staudenmaier's STO history book. I'm presently the only one in U&S who has read the book, though as a group we have been significantly influenced by the writings of the Sojourner Truth Organization. These are my perspectives and they don't necessarily reflect the views of Unity and Struggle.
I had a personal history with STO before joining U&S. I was formerly a part of a now defunct propaganda circle that was active in Kansas City, MO, in the early part of the 2000s. We made the acquaintance of an ex-STO militant who would play the role of a sometimes mentor and who made available their writing. The relationship we had with him would be short-lived but the influence of what we read would be profound. While we were not successful in building a functional organization, a couple of us felt it urgent to make STO's literature available to other revolutionaries and latent formations who might benefit from it because of the originality and theoretical deftness of what we had read. We initiated a website devoted to those writings. We were right. This web archiving project would serve as a bridge in our activity which put us in contact with other militants, including Staudenmaier, and some in Unity and Struggle, which I joined later.
Communists then and now live with the ghosts of social democracy, Stalinism, Maoism, and Trotskyism, but the "ultra-left" reading of Marx and Lenin that STO had as well as the centrality of W.E.B. Du Bois, Antonio Gramsci, and C.L.R. James, who were of largely marginal importance to the orthodox Marxism's listed above, opened a world of unorthodox interpretations, and to Marx himself, whose writings, according to the STO, “must be considered a totality” (a category unknown to official Marxism).
I'm going to respond to question two since that is by far the most pressing and relevant question asked of revolutionaries inspired by the legacy of the STO. As I see it, the lessons of STO are twofold. There's that of their organizational experience, internally and externally, and that of their written work. These things are certainly a dynamic; their practical work and experience no doubt influenced their theory and politics and new conclusions led to new orientations and practices. STO shouldn't have been alone amongst the New Communist movement in living that dynamic but they were and this is both unfortunate but also what has generated so much new interest in them among the Left in this period of crisis and regroupment.
For our purposes, I'm going to focus on the issues of communist organization and regroupment, the racial composition within STO, and their analysis of white-skin privilege and its relationship to the current era.
A key lesson for militants to take from the STO experience is the question of communist organization and regroupment. In the early years of the organization, the line was essentially that theory was of secondary importance while practice required the utmost unity. The separation of theory and practice this way necessarily had grave consequences for the group. While there was broad agreement on questions of race and white supremacy, the bankruptcy of the unions, and the need for direct action at the point of production, the actual experience of factory work without a higher level of agreement led to splits in STO within a few short years: a rightist split, that tended toward a more party-centric approach and a short time later, a leftward split that believed that STO should dissolve itself into factory organizations. Each of these splits was the result of underdeveloped theory on the role of an interventionist organization and the behavior of the unions. The results of this led what remained of STO to place a higher premium on theoretical agreement. Of course, this experience was necessary for them to discover why theory should be so critical.
Of equal importance is the question of the racial composition of STO, specifically the fact that they failed in the long term to build a multiracial and majority people of color revolutionary cadre organization. This remains one of the essential tasks of revolutionaries today in the US.
This failure is not without an aspect of irony as black Marxists James and Du Bois, who saw the immediacy of black struggle, were among their greatest influences and in large measure so was the concept of autonomy which lays at the feet of the oppressed the task of liberating themselves. White supremacy lives still—though not as it did in STO's time. The subjectivity that will be responsible for overthrowing this institution will be those objectified by it. This means it is the task of people of color in building forms of organization to do this.
However, this does not mean that white supremacy does not affect white working people and that they don't have a role to play in its destruction. For Marx, what makes humans human, or a “species being,” is that they change their material world and, in the process, are changed by their own doings. Under capitalism, humans are divided into manual laborers and mental ones, whereas communism is the revolutionary reunification of thought and action, or what Marx called practical-critical activity or praxis. When white workers fight alongside people of color they are transformed by this experience and assume an identity more likened to their species-beings.
STO can't bear the sole blame for its composition as this was a material and historical problem of their era, but what is useful in Staudenmaier's history were the mistakes and internal dissension over these questions which no doubt contributed to its overwhelmingly white membership. They couldn't seem to find a role for people of color in STO even though they viewed "Third World" struggles as the vanguard of revolutionary change. This took the form of encouragement by some in the organization for members of color to be active in revolutionary Third World organizations within “their” community. For people of color within STO, this meant joining largely Stalinist organizations that were in diametric opposition to the liberatory current that STO was building.
Without a doubt, STO's development of a theory of white-skin privilege placed them head and shoulders above the entire revolutionary Left in their time and eventually this theory became hegemonic, though with certain costs. White-skin privilege pointed to a material basis for white supremacy rather than using the un-Marxist “false consciousness” argument that white workers were just victims of racist propaganda. Rather, they were given tangible incentives to oppose the black struggle which benefitted them as white labor-power but opposed them as alienated labor. In fact, white-skin privilege tied them more closely to their capitalist masters. The black struggle, though an effect of the particular experience of black people, had a universality that stood to benefit the global working class though it undercut the logic of the benefits of white labor-power. This perspective of the inequality of labor-powers through the form of race is what made STO more unorthodox but yet more Marxist than the existing tendencies of their time.
Today, there's been downward pressure on the white working class which has taken away a lot of the privileges it received in the 1970s. White-skin privilege has less use for the ruling class since there's no insurgent black movement threatening to destabilize capitalist social relations. In one sense, this is proof that white workers haven't in the long run benefitted from privilege. The various white ethnic patronage systems that were powerful machines in some cities 30 and 40 years ago have overseen the dismantling of entire industries where privilege was institutionalized. The consequences of white workers' acceptance of privileges decades ago have made their social position more precarious in the contemporary period.
White supremacy today is nowhere more apparent than in the absorption of the black power movement into black “representation” and the election of black mayors, police chiefs and, much later, black presidents. It has meant having a seat at the table of the management of capital. Black representation has rubber stamped and overseen the deepening of white supremacy as black folks continue to be incarcerated at higher rates, have higher rates of mortality, are murdered by police far more often, less likely to be employed, earn less wages, etc. Black representation is white supremacy in new form. Jim Crow and even white liberal democracy could not rule in the old way and had to incorporate black struggle in order to rebuild legitimacy. Capital accumulation and management had to assume new forms.
There's much more that could be said about the Sojourner Truth Organization. Aside from its commitment to rigorous internal and democratic debate, an emphasis on direct action, workplace strategy and tactics, and a critique of the unions retains much relevance for revolutionaries today and we in Unity and Struggle have taken inspiration from all of the above.
Mamos, Amaranto, and The Fish
Mamos, Black Orchid Collective
Amaranto, Black Orchid Collective
The Fish, Advance the Struggle
In August 2012, members of Advance the Struggle, Black Orchid Collective, one revolutionary from New York, and several comrades from Seattle and Oakland came together in Oakland to discuss and learn from each other. Instead of a conference aiming to hash out a comprehensive program, this was more of a combined study group and strategizing meeting, blending theory and practice. In the weeks leading up to the conference, we had read and discussed several texts together, including Truth and Revolution, and had begun critically reflecting on our own interventions in the Decolonize/Occupy movement. During the conference, we participated in a workshop that analyzed key themes from Truth and Revolution and from our recent experiences in struggle. We are sharing our notes from this workshop in the hope that other groupings, collectives, communities, and crews around the country might find them useful in their own reflection processes.
We decided that the goal of our collaboration with each other is not to immediately form a small national cadre organization and then recruit people to it. We are simply coming together to share skills and tools with each other so that we can draw new lessons from the struggles we've been through the past years that gave birth to our organizations and shaped them—especially our different experiences intervening in the Occupy upsurge and its aftermath. This workshop is an example of the kind of discussions we've been having. In the upcoming year, we hope to open up these conversations to include more revolutionaries from other regions and political tendencies, and we hope to engage more with similar conversations that are happening among other revolutionary networks. We hope that sharing this workshop can help with this process, and we hope that over time this process will start to gather revolutionary forces around a common trajectory of theory and practice that could lead to new breakthroughs in revolutionary struggle and revolutionary organization.
We are not sharing our answers to all of the workshop questions for several reasons. First, we have different answers, not a solidified organizational line. Secondly, in the current moment, any answers to these questions are provisional since our generation has only just begun to struggle and reflect at the level necessary to really generate new theories and long term strategies. It will take a while yet to answer all of these questions. Thirdly, in the current climate of the US Left, there is a tendency to freeze groupings into positions based on one or two things they say at a specific moment, instead of seeing our organizations and crews as dynamic works in progress. At our early stage of development, this is frustrating and harmful.
If other groupings are studying Truth and Revolution, we hope they find this workshop useful, and we are looking forward to hearing their answers to these questions, and sharing our own.
Part I: Race, Ruptures, and Revolutionary Consciousness
1. to debate how revolutionary consciousness emerges
2. to understand the forces of capitalist hegemony that prevent it from emerging, especially white supremacy
3. to debate the role of revolutionary organizations in breaking down this hegemony, and unleashing this consciousness.
Texts covered: Chapter 3 of the STO book
The previous day, we discussed the concept of class composition, based on the Italian autonomist Marxist movements documented in Steve Wright's book Storming Heaven. Class composition is the idea that the proletariat is not some fixed identity; it is always changing as proletarians struggle against the way capitalism is organized, and the capitalists reply by co-opting, crushing, or incorporating their resistance, creating more dynamic forms of capitalism that reorganize the proletariat. In reply, the workers then reorganize themselves to initiate a new cycle of struggle. To study class composition, we can do what Marx called workers inquiry—interviewing, learning about how workplaces, cities, working class culture, etc., are changing, and learning about how people are fighting on the job and outside of it.
Class Composition, Ruptures, and Class Consciousness (20–40 min)
Here are three different positions on how class composition relates to the creation of revolutionary consciousness:
1. Economic determinism: the class composition at any moment automatically determines the ways in which the working class struggles. The working class will automatically struggle in these ways, even if they are not fully conscious of it.
2. Class consciousness comes from ruptures: Don Hamerquist argues that revolutionary working class consciousness is not automatically determined by class composition. Instead, it emerges through events that serve as conscious ruptures from the status quo. Something is a rupture if it is a beginning that ensures new beginnings—a reference point that builds our confidence as working class people to break with the legitimacy of capitalist “business as usual,” including its forms of acceptable and easily dismissed protest. So the next time a crisis emerges, instead of reaching for the usual activist tools that involve pleading with government officials or bosses, we turn toward more disruptive and creative methods like unpermitted demonstrations, blockades, wildcat actions on the job, strikes and walkouts, etc. All of these require a reasonable hope that we can get each other's backs under intense pressure, and that hope is a lot more concrete when we know we did it before. Of course, the struggles that generate ruptures are often in response to the given class composition at any time.
Based on these criteria, what are some examples of ruptures? How can we tell whether something is a rupture or not?
3. Position held by some people in the Kasama network: There is conflict in society over oppression and political power, but it is not necessarily always about class. Class composition does not determine revolutionary consciousness. Instead, we need to build a “revolutionary people,” which includes people from various classes who have developed communist consciousness. Communist consciousness comes from events and ruptures, but primarily from the way in which revolutionaries interpret and believe in the power of these ruptures. As Alain Badiou puts it, to be a revolutionary you need to “live in fidelity to the event.” In other words, revolutionaries create new values, new ideas, and new culture through our collective willpower.
Spectrum debate on these 3 positions: Everyone who agrees most with the economic determinist position goes to one side of the room; everyone who agrees most with the first position goes to one side of the room, everyone who agrees most with the third goes to the other side, and everyone who agrees with the second goes to the middle. People in between each position line up on a spectrum between them, depending on which one they are closest to. Then the facilitator asks people from each pole in the debate to present their positions and then facilitates each pole responding to the other ones. People can move closer to another pole if they are convinced by arguments that people in that pole are making.
Note: In this debate, most of us were close to the second pole, the idea that class consciousness comes from ruptures, but there was significant discussion about what exactly constitutes a rupture and how you can tell when one is happening.
Follow up question: How do these different theoretical positions generate different organizational practices? What is the right balance between working class flyering/organizing/consistent community building on the one hand, and rapid, flying-squad interventions in ruptures like Occupy on the other hand?
Discussion questions on hegemony, white supremacy, and class consciousness (20 minutes):
1. What happened at the Melrose Harvester plant? How does this show STOs perspective on race, especially in the workplace?
2. What is hegemony? How is white supremacy an example of hegemony?
3. What were W.E.B. Du Bois's arguments about race and class in America? How did STO draw from these?
4. What were Ted Allen's arguments about how white supremacy started?
5. Why did the civil rights movement make these issues so central for radicals in the 1960s? Think about the experience of SNCC. What do we think about the conclusions that radicals drew from this experience?
6. Was STO a multiracial organization or a white solidarity organization? What contradictions did they have around this? Why did those contradictions emerge? How did STO relate to Black-only or Latino-only organizations? Do you agree or disagree?
7. Summarize the concept of privilege politics and the critique of it that some folks in our tendency have made. How is STO's line similar to privilege politics? How is it different?
8. Who were the Weathermen? How was Noel Ignatin's argument about white skin privilege different from the Weathermen's idea of privilege?
9. How did STO relate to Latino workers (pp. 98, 99)?
10. What were Ignatin's arguments in his Black Worker, White Worker speech? Do you agree or disagree?
11. What were the main critiques of Ignatin's speech from other factions in STO? Do you agree or disagree with these critiques?
Consciousness, Struggle, and Revolutionary Organization (20 min):
How do workers become revolutionaries? Here are three positions discussed in Truth and Revolution. Different people and factions in STO emphasized aspects of these three positions at different times in the organization's history, which lead to a tension in the organization that was sometimes productive, sometimes destructive, and sometimes both.
CLR James: Gardener/seeds of socialism/invading socialist society: everyday working class life includes seeds of the new socialist society growing within the shell of the old. For example, in the 1960s, aspects of daily life in Black communities, Black popular culture, and Black resistance at work all pointed in a socialist direction. The role of revolutionaries is to be a gardener: simply to “recognize and record” these seeds as they organically grow.
Gramsci: Dual consciousness: workers have contradictions. To some extent, they have bourgeois consciousness, and to some extent they have working class consciousness. Through struggle, working class consciousness grows beyond its own limits of class belonging, becoming communist consciousness. They key thing is to embrace struggles that go beyond the limits of “legitimate” protest, which often means breaking with legality. It is through these kinds of experiences of “getting each others' backs” under pressure that communist consciousness grows.
For example, there is a civil war in the minds of white workers—on the one hand, they buy into their white skin privilege, but on the other hand, they realize it doesn't compensate for their exploitation as workers, and that they need to fight side by side with Black workers to end this exploitation. The role of revolutionaries is to convince white workers to side with Black workers' militant demands, and to show that these demands are actually in their own class interest. In this way, they overcome their racism.
Orthodox Leninism: Workers on their own can only develop “trade union consciousness.” Communist consciousness comes from the outside, from petty bourgeois intellectuals who build revolutionary organizations that bring consciousness to the workers.
For example, white workers have “false consciousness” and are blinded by their own racism. That's why we need to build a revolutionary organization which can teach them not to be racist.
Discussion question: Which of these positions is Noel Ignatin's Black Worker, White Worker closest to? Why?
Spectrum debate on these three positions: CLR Jamesian “seeds of socialism” on one side, orthodox Leninism on the other, and Gramscian dual consciousness in the middle.
Part 2: Interventions
Texts Covered: Chapter 2 of the STO book
Chapter 2 Summary
The inherited Marxism of the New Left led to a focus on employed heavy industrial workers. The May ’68 experience radicalized the world, and showed how the labor bureaucracy often plays a negative role. The Italian Hot Autumn showed that rank-and-file insurgency was still possible. The DRUM showed that US workers could insurrect in a revolutionary way, organized around the demands of black workers. STO drew from Antonio Gramsci's idea of “hegemony,” meaning the influence of the ideas of the ruling class. They saw the primary form of hegemonic ideas in the United States as white supremacy, and focused much of their agitation on that. STO rejected trade unions as vehicles for healthy workplace organization, and instead promoted independent workplace groups. Many workplace orientations in the Chicago area, tension always between supporting workers no matter their decisions and agitating for certain approaches and politics.
STO Western Electric: 6-day long wildcat in response to lay-offs and speedup. Union told the workers to wait for an investigation, but they struck instead. They demanded reduction in work, new bathroom, removal of a racist foreman and a direct negotiating committee with management. Chicago left tried to orient to it, but the workers were like “we don't need any of that socialist shit.” STO persisted and offered legal advice and the use of their printing press, and STO accepted this support role. Management offered a deal: “we'll give you your demands if you stop discussing this struggle with other workers.” STO was just in a support role, and so they didn't intervene. Compare to an intervention of your own.
STO Truckers' Struggle: Went on several day wildcat in response to an increase in gas prices. They demanded a price control on gasoline. STO members moved to a local truck stop in Gary, Indiana, and helped the strikers produce propaganda. They also offered technical assistance in organizing meetings and reaching out to contacts. Eventually had strategic discussions about where the strike was going. Compare to your own interventions.
STO Gateway Industries: A factory staffed almost entirely by immigrant women from Mexico prepared to close and move to Mexico; the workers found STO at their labor legal clinic. STO “prompted” them to organize against the plant closure. When a manager offered to meet with an STO lawyer, the workers organized a sneak attack and confronted him. He offered the women jobs at a new factory, but after discussion they tore up the contract STO had brokered with the management.
Your experience here—themes to think about:
Intervention vs. autonomy
Political vs. economic
2b: Types of Workplace Organization
Surplus Populations / Noel Ignatiev: unionized workers are conservative; unions being destroyed is good and the new insurgency will come from the unemployed and the 89 percent.
STO: unions are labor managers, independent workplace organizations are the form for workers' struggle that moves in a revolutionary direction.
Orthodox Trotskyism: unions are mass working-class organizations with bad leadership that we should regain control of and push towards revolution.
3. Organizational Forms
Texts covered: Chapters 1 and 4 of the STO book
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) Split, Chicago, June 1969
The collapse of SDS shows how loose networks can all of the sudden transform into hardened organizations based on the pressure of events.
Could we see existing networks today hardening? If so, into what factions?
Defining Democratic Centralism
Boston Group's definition of democratic centralism: “precisely the organizational form recognizing the necessity for a single direction of the proletariat and disciplined democratic discussion of its strategic and tactical options.” It is opposed to federalism which “implies the equality and inviolable integrity of different political lines… but liberalism of this kind is incompatible with an organization seeking to serve the interests of the oppressed and exploited” (p. 120)
STO X's definition of democratic centralism—“For the [Federation], democratic centralism means a decision to carry out joint activity… without such a decision, and such activities, it is quite possible to continue to function as if every position and tendency has equal status. Second, it means implementation of divisions into clear majorities and minorities on all disputed questions with the understanding that the majority ‘rules.’ This, it means that a minimum concern with developing our political positions into a coherent perspective entails the organizational purging of elements which consistently adopt minority positions which are closer to that of other political tendencies than to the [Federation]. Fourth it means a very careful and reasoned concern with not mechanically imposing a majority decision on the minority, for the simple reason that no minority that is serious will accept such treatment in a grouping so new and so weak. Fifth, it means definite protections of the right of minorities to argue their positions.” (p. 121)
Spectrum Debate: Everyone who agrees most with the network position goes to one side of the room and everyone who agrees most with the national cadre / programmatic development position goes to one side of the room.
Networks: We can find provisional unity in developing a fighting network. We can figure out the theory as we go because we cannot use theory to predict the future. We don't even know our real dividing lines of debate; we will only discover this through struggling together.
National Cadre / Programmatic development: We need to promote theoretical unity before regroupment. Taking actions with those of different political tendencies will tear us apart. We need to prepare for future upsurges and we can only do this by starting with theoretical unity and recruiting to it.
Note: Below is a summary of one position between the poles.
Coming Together So that We Can Turn Outwards: Our network should avoid the twin pitfalls of a) prematurely building a Marxist cadre organization that closes us off from broader multi-tendency revolutionary networks and b) liquidating our political tendency into the ideological confusion that currently exists within broader multi-tendency revolutionary networks. Instead we should form an informal network prioritizing our own collective learning and development, with little overhead in terms of structure. The primary purpose of this network should be to help each other develop a clear strategy for how to intervene in broader struggles in collaboration with people from other tendencies. We should agitate folks we collaborate with, by proposing solid strategies around organization, race, gender, workplace organizing, and class struggle in ways that don't cut us off from the rest of the milieus through sectarian polemics and dogmatism. Studying the Marxist method together is a key part of developing our capacity to make these interventions in a non-dogmatic way.
Response by Michael Staudenmaier
From the moment I embarked on the project of writing a book-length history of the Sojourner Truth Organization, I hoped that it would be received as a political intervention with relevance to contemporary revolutionary struggles. It is therefore highly gratifying to see the intensity of response to the book, not only in this forum but also in the sort of collective discussions described in the submission from the Black Orchid Collective. Anyone who waded through the acknowledgements in Truth and Revolution knows that I have a tendency to over-thank people, but I want to begin by recognizing the substantial effort that John Garvey has put into organizing this roundtable. I am also grateful for the contributions from so many former members, as well as from a number of younger revolutionaries. Thank you all for sharing your memories, your perspectives and your experiences.
There are a number of issues raised here that deserve significant attention. Given limited space and time, I can only address some of them. In this piece I will deal specifically with the question of success and failure, the contrast between objective and subjective conditions, the vagaries of privilege based narratives of oppression, and the matter of history from the top down and bottom up, followed by a few closing comments on Marxism, anarchism, the legacy of STO, and finally a public apology.
The most frequent criticism I have received since the book was published concerns my assertion that “the history of STO is fundamentally a tragic tale” (p. 307). Some version of this criticism is shared in this forum by former members Lowell May and Heyworth Sempione. To be clear, I didn't and don't intend “failure” and “tragedy” to suggest that no positive outcomes emerged from STO's experience. If I believed that, I wouldn't have written the book. Instead, I hoped to acknowledge the rather enormous task that the founders of the group set for themselves, one that was shared by those who came after them. As Carole Travis puts it, “We hoped that the day-to-day experience of working people being exploited at the workplace along with our philosophical clarity would provide the essential ingredients necessary to transform wildcats into uprisings, insurgencies into revolution.” Of course, as Carole says, “We didn't pull ‘it’ off.” This failure was not unique to STO; all revolutionary history to this point is the history of failure. At a book talk I gave in this summer, someone suggested that my perspective was one-sided, even un-dialectical. I answered that it only appears to be un-dialectical if we believe that history has stopped. I don't. I am a revolutionary optimist, so tales of failure (or at least the lessons we can learn from them) inspire rather than deflate me. I hope other readers view things similarly.
Lowell also suggests that I place “too much emphasis on the few and the subjective and too little on the mass and objective conditions.” While I think he misinterprets my views on the few vs. the mass (more on that in a minute), I will definitely agree that I tend to focus on subjective rather than objective conditions. I have always been more of a voluntarist than a determinist. I think this is better than the opposite, but I struggle as a historian to maintain a proper balance.
John Strucker challenges my prognosis regarding white skin privilege. He is absolutely correct that white supremacy and white skin privilege persist and in many ways have gotten worse since STO ceased to exist, especially regarding the criminal justice system. In this regard, I think Tyler Zimmerman's commentary on the ways in which black “representation” has been progressively incorporated into the functioning of white supremacy expresses my own position on the subject more clearly than I did in the conclusion to my book. Part of my mistake involved conflating the actions of capital with those of the state, especially in the context of the prison industrial complex. While the latter continues and accelerates its devastating attacks on black communities, within capital the tendency to disregard white skin privileges has become more and more pronounced in recent decades, though this process is not without countervailing tendencies.
Then there is the classic issue of history from the top down vs. the bottom up. I have always been a “from below” person, but a number of people have pointed out that my depiction of STO itself is top-down, driven in particular by the intellectual production of the “heavies” as opposed to the organizing efforts of the rank and file members of the organization. Comments from Carole, John and Dave Ranney remind me that I spent far too little time trying to recover the experiences of the factory workers, community members, and activists who encountered STO over the years. As John aptly puts it, this is a “story that remains to be told.”
In terms of the heavies, Ken Lawrence argues that “there was never an instance when the three of us were united at one pole and the rest at the other pole.” My primary point was not that he, Noel and Don didn't disagree, but in fact that their frequent disagreement was precisely the thing that kept them in positions of power so consistently. Truth and Revolution suffers from too much attention to them, or at least from too little attention to others, but this is symptomatic of the imbalance between intellectual and social history for which I apologized in the introduction.
There is another aspect here, which gets back to Lowell's point about the few and the mass. It is notable that Lowell and Heyworth, despite a shared rejection of my assertions regarding “tragedy” and “failure,” fundamentally disagree on this particular question. Heyworth's odd but spirited defense of Leninist cadre formations on the grounds of their formal similarity to the grouplets that facilitated the rise of neo-liberalism is a far cry from Lowell's concern that my narrative “takes responsibility, subjectivity and even identity from workers, and transmits them to various activists.” While I am skeptical of Heyworth's top-down sketch of the rise of neo-liberalism as primarily the outgrowth of a small cabal of intellectuals, my general point was never that narrowly constructed cadre formations can't change the world by themselves, but rather that it is frequently not a good thing when they do. In my estimation, despite their otherwise vast differences, the histories of the Soviet Union post-1917 and Chile post-1973 testify to this basic anti-authoritarian position.
Thus, it will hopefully be clear that Lowell misjudges my version of anarchism when he suggests I think the focus ought to be squarely on small groups of activists intervening in moments of crisis. In fact, I—along with the broad class struggle tendency within anarchism with which I identify—fully share his conviction that “radical subjectivity on the part of activists is useful only when it is informed by and embraceable and embraced by the broader class.” In this sense, STO was both creation and creator, and I tried to capture this dialectical interplay in various ways throughout the book. To the extent that Lowell doesn't see it, others may not either, which would be a failure on my part. To say the least, I didn't pay enough attention to the international context within which STO emerged, developed, and eventually collapsed. My book tended to be national, regional and local, rather than transnational, in scope.
Given more space, I would also love to wade more deeply into the perpetual left conversation on Marx, Lenin, and their respective -isms. As an anarchist who has spent the past several years sympathetically engaging with one small branch of the Leninist family tree, it is sometimes wrongly assumed that I aspire to a libertarian Marxism stripped of its Leninist (authoritarian) distortions. If anything, writing Truth and Revolution convinced me that Lenin's brilliance as a strategist of revolution was fatally compromised by an authoritarian and amoral impulse embedded within Marxism from the very beginning.
There is much more left to be said about STO's resurgence as a focus of inquiry for contemporary revolutionaries, a trend that clearly accelerated during the time I spent working on the book. I hope that Truth and Revolution helps raise the group's profile among younger radicals while simultaneously puncturing any unexamined assumptions that STO represents the model of a perfect revolutionary organization to which all contemporary formations should aspire.
One small correction is in order. Noel suggests that the appendix to the Workplace Papers collection is not available on the internet, but it can in fact be found on the STO web archive.
Finally, I owe Beth Henson an apology. I can say with certainty that Noel sent me the excerpt from her manuscript back in 2006, but I take full responsibility for failing to follow up with her directly once I received it. I certainly made many errors in the process of completing this book, but as someone whose politics have been heavily influenced by multiple strands of feminism, this one is especially embarrassing. Several years too late, I apologize.