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.