Noel Ignatiev

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 16, 2012

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.