Ken Lawrence

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 16, 2012

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.

My collection of worldwide political protest memorabilia, with the archivists' descriptions, is on flickr.

* * *


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]