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.