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.