Response by Michael Staudenmaier

Submitted by Juan Conatz on November 12, 2012

From the moment I embarked on the project of writing a book-length history of the Sojourner Truth Organization, I hoped that it would be received as a political intervention with relevance to contemporary revolutionary struggles. It is therefore highly gratifying to see the intensity of response to the book, not only in this forum but also in the sort of collective discussions described in the submission from the Black Orchid Collective. Anyone who waded through the acknowledgements in Truth and Revolution knows that I have a tendency to over-thank people, but I want to begin by recognizing the substantial effort that John Garvey has put into organizing this roundtable. I am also grateful for the contributions from so many former members, as well as from a number of younger revolutionaries. Thank you all for sharing your memories, your perspectives and your experiences.

There are a number of issues raised here that deserve significant attention. Given limited space and time, I can only address some of them. In this piece I will deal specifically with the question of success and failure, the contrast between objective and subjective conditions, the vagaries of privilege based narratives of oppression, and the matter of history from the top down and bottom up, followed by a few closing comments on Marxism, anarchism, the legacy of STO, and finally a public apology.

The most frequent criticism I have received since the book was published concerns my assertion that “the history of STO is fundamentally a tragic tale” (p. 307). Some version of this criticism is shared in this forum by former members Lowell May and Heyworth Sempione. To be clear, I didn't and don't intend “failure” and “tragedy” to suggest that no positive outcomes emerged from STO's experience. If I believed that, I wouldn't have written the book. Instead, I hoped to acknowledge the rather enormous task that the founders of the group set for themselves, one that was shared by those who came after them. As Carole Travis puts it, “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.” Of course, as Carole says, “We didn't pull ‘it’ off.” This failure was not unique to STO; all revolutionary history to this point is the history of failure. At a book talk I gave in this summer, someone suggested that my perspective was one-sided, even un-dialectical. I answered that it only appears to be un-dialectical if we believe that history has stopped. I don't. I am a revolutionary optimist, so tales of failure (or at least the lessons we can learn from them) inspire rather than deflate me. I hope other readers view things similarly.

Lowell also suggests that I place “too much emphasis on the few and the subjective and too little on the mass and objective conditions.” While I think he misinterprets my views on the few vs. the mass (more on that in a minute), I will definitely agree that I tend to focus on subjective rather than objective conditions. I have always been more of a voluntarist than a determinist. I think this is better than the opposite, but I struggle as a historian to maintain a proper balance.

John Strucker challenges my prognosis regarding white skin privilege. He is absolutely correct that white supremacy and white skin privilege persist and in many ways have gotten worse since STO ceased to exist, especially regarding the criminal justice system. In this regard, I think Tyler Zimmerman's commentary on the ways in which black “representation” has been progressively incorporated into the functioning of white supremacy expresses my own position on the subject more clearly than I did in the conclusion to my book. Part of my mistake involved conflating the actions of capital with those of the state, especially in the context of the prison industrial complex. While the latter continues and accelerates its devastating attacks on black communities, within capital the tendency to disregard white skin privileges has become more and more pronounced in recent decades, though this process is not without countervailing tendencies.

Then there is the classic issue of history from the top down vs. the bottom up. I have always been a “from below” person, but a number of people have pointed out that my depiction of STO itself is top-down, driven in particular by the intellectual production of the “heavies” as opposed to the organizing efforts of the rank and file members of the organization. Comments from Carole, John and Dave Ranney remind me that I spent far too little time trying to recover the experiences of the factory workers, community members, and activists who encountered STO over the years. As John aptly puts it, this is a “story that remains to be told.”

In terms of the heavies, Ken Lawrence argues that “there was never an instance when the three of us were united at one pole and the rest at the other pole.” My primary point was not that he, Noel and Don didn't disagree, but in fact that their frequent disagreement was precisely the thing that kept them in positions of power so consistently. Truth and Revolution suffers from too much attention to them, or at least from too little attention to others, but this is symptomatic of the imbalance between intellectual and social history for which I apologized in the introduction.

There is another aspect here, which gets back to Lowell's point about the few and the mass. It is notable that Lowell and Heyworth, despite a shared rejection of my assertions regarding “tragedy” and “failure,” fundamentally disagree on this particular question. Heyworth's odd but spirited defense of Leninist cadre formations on the grounds of their formal similarity to the grouplets that facilitated the rise of neo-liberalism is a far cry from Lowell's concern that my narrative “takes responsibility, subjectivity and even identity from workers, and transmits them to various activists.” While I am skeptical of Heyworth's top-down sketch of the rise of neo-liberalism as primarily the outgrowth of a small cabal of intellectuals, my general point was never that narrowly constructed cadre formations can't change the world by themselves, but rather that it is frequently not a good thing when they do. In my estimation, despite their otherwise vast differences, the histories of the Soviet Union post-1917 and Chile post-1973 testify to this basic anti-authoritarian position.

Thus, it will hopefully be clear that Lowell misjudges my version of anarchism when he suggests I think the focus ought to be squarely on small groups of activists intervening in moments of crisis. In fact, I—along with the broad class struggle tendency within anarchism with which I identify—fully share his conviction that “radical subjectivity on the part of activists is useful only when it is informed by and embraceable and embraced by the broader class.” In this sense, STO was both creation and creator, and I tried to capture this dialectical interplay in various ways throughout the book. To the extent that Lowell doesn't see it, others may not either, which would be a failure on my part. To say the least, I didn't pay enough attention to the international context within which STO emerged, developed, and eventually collapsed. My book tended to be national, regional and local, rather than transnational, in scope.

Given more space, I would also love to wade more deeply into the perpetual left conversation on Marx, Lenin, and their respective -isms. As an anarchist who has spent the past several years sympathetically engaging with one small branch of the Leninist family tree, it is sometimes wrongly assumed that I aspire to a libertarian Marxism stripped of its Leninist (authoritarian) distortions. If anything, writing Truth and Revolution convinced me that Lenin's brilliance as a strategist of revolution was fatally compromised by an authoritarian and amoral impulse embedded within Marxism from the very beginning.

There is much more left to be said about STO's resurgence as a focus of inquiry for contemporary revolutionaries, a trend that clearly accelerated during the time I spent working on the book. I hope that Truth and Revolution helps raise the group's profile among younger radicals while simultaneously puncturing any unexamined assumptions that STO represents the model of a perfect revolutionary organization to which all contemporary formations should aspire.

One small correction is in order. Noel suggests that the appendix to the Workplace Papers collection is not available on the internet, but it can in fact be found on the STO web archive.

Finally, I owe Beth Henson an apology. I can say with certainty that Noel sent me the excerpt from her manuscript back in 2006, but I take full responsibility for failing to follow up with her directly once I received it. I certainly made many errors in the process of completing this book, but as someone whose politics have been heavily influenced by multiple strands of feminism, this one is especially embarrassing. Several years too late, I apologize.