Reviewed: Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969-1986 by Michael Staudenmaier, AK Press, 2012, 347 pages, softcover, $19.95.
Revolutionary organizations are not “structures”, nor “categories”, but rather “something, which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.” While E.P. Thompson is describing class here in the preface of his potent and enduring Making of the English Working Class, we can assert that it is the micropolitical affects and flows that in turn construct revolutionary organizations. And so the task of Michael Staudenmaier in the book Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969-1986 is to show these human relationships and how they happened.
The Sojourner Truth Organization (STO) throughout its seventeen-year existence sought to address in a practical and engaged manner the various crises and challenges of a revolutionary organization in the post-1968 years. For a small cadre organization it worked on a dizzying array of initiatives, including workplace organizing, international solidarity, reproductive rights, the movement against police brutality, and the antiwar movement. While the party-building and vanguard models utilized by the STO have been discredited with the passage of time, many of the questions it grappled with – most notably, “the attachment of white workers to the privileges of white skin” – are contemporary ones.
Herein Staudenmaier produces an absorbing work of history in a work which is readable and properly periodized within STO’s stages of development. But periodization is not necessarily contextualization, and the book would have been improved by further engagement with neighboring organizations as well as the political environs and debates of the day. Furthermore, Staudenmaier’s conclusion, to read the STO politically, missed the opportunity to directly confront the misunderstandings prevalent in current movements around white privilege and class struggle.
Staudenmaier’s book, recently-released AK Press, is one amongst many that document white revolutionary organizations of the 1970s and 1980s. A number of the others that have appeared in the past few years include: Outlaws of American (2005), Revolution in the Air (2006), The Hidden 1970s (2010), Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power (2011), and Oppose and Propose (2011). These are part of larger trend documenting the 1960s through to the 1980s as numerous titles on organizing by Black, Puerto Rican, and Native American revolutionaries have appeared; including biographies of their core and peripheral members.
As the antiwar movement fragmented following the dissolution of Students for a Democratic Society in 1969, STO was one of the many formulations that turned to organizing in working class neighborhoods and factories. The members cobbled together a unique array of influences – including Leninist and Gramscian Marxism, the Industrial Workers of the Work, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, various Revolutionary Union Movements and Black Nationalist currents, as well as the European worker-student uprisings of a few years earlier. Largely a Chicago-based organization through this period and throughout most of its existence, they envisioned themselves as part of the “Petrograd-Detroit proletariat” and had a direct line to a previous generation of militants in Detroit through Ken Lawrence, who was part of Facing Reality with CLR James and Marty Glaberman.
Utilizing workplace committee models, broadsheets and workplace newsletters, and a commitment to ultra-left politics, they sought to organize white industrial workers to challenge their position within the racial hierarchy. STO argued that the business unions were in collusion with capital and refused to challenge the white privilege of their members. By white privilege they meant that those with white skin gain privileges of power, wealth, and station by the simple fact that they are white. In turn STO created a workers council structure proposed by Gramsci, James, and others. Expecting a major upsurge in militant activity, STO planned for a workers rebellion that didn’t in fact take place. Furthermore, they were surprised by the conditions and perspectives of the white working class, as Noel Ignatin (later Ignatiev of How the Irish Became White and Race Traitor) stated in the preface to their 1980 collection Workplace Papers:
We found that, while we were able, for pedagogical purposes, to clearly distinguish between the autonomous and subordinated aspects of workers' behavior, in practice the distinction wasn't so clear. We found direct action mixed up with inner-union maneuvering, sabotage along side of legalistic activities, etc. — and we found that the workers we encountered were unwilling to make a categorical separation between one course of action and the other.
Time and again we encountered workers, with whom we had cooperated in shop-floor battles and who understood that no fundamental change could come through union reform, being drawn into unproductive inner-union squabbling — usually starting with the notion that it was purely tactical but, after a time, being wholly absorbed by it.
STO, in Ignatin’s words, fumbled to find a clear point of intervention. Herein the workers themselves were unencumbered by the strangleholds of revolutionary theory and hence were able to read the possibilities for struggle, but are equally “drawn into unproductive” activities. It is the dyad between revolutionary theory and self-activity that will haunt the organization, and many others, and finds its clearest expression in autonomy and autonomist Marxism in the years that follow. STO sought to confront the actually existing complexities of working lives and in turn develop strategies that practically addressed these complexities; hence Staudenmaier attests, and I would agree, that they are worth reexamining for our present moment.
Rather than adopting a utopian or ideological position, as many of their contemporaries did, they attempted to meet the white working class where it stood, slept, and drank. In the process STO removed itself from direct contact with much of the left, which was then stumbling with the collapse of the antiwar movement, and moved increasingly toward a “commitment to the autonomy of workers in struggle,” as Staudenmaier puts it.
STO entered factory organizing during the century’s peak of labor unrest with active wildcat strikes tearing apart the Taylorist work discipline. Herein a party-building project within the industrial sphere seemed not only likely but necessary to further the revolutionary potential of the working class. But STO and their contemporary party builders were wrong. Following a heated debate STO turned toward creating autonomous workplace organizations outside of the unions.
It is through this dedication to autonomous working class struggle and publications such as Workplace Papers – typifying the workerism of the 1970s and 80s – that many contemporary radicals discovered STO. Undertones of this work can be found in the workplace newsletters of European precarity movements and point of production organizing of the Starbucks Workers Union. But it was the question of white privilege, which the STO turned to in the context of their campaigns, that found its way into the present – though this popular discourse on the left is oft without reference to the STO’s legacy.
Drawing on W.E.B. DuBois' Black Reconstruction in America and neighboring work, STO sought to overcome the errors of white activists in the civil rights movement and the missteps made by white, middle-class activists during the movement against the Vietnam War. While these particular debates within STO are beyond the scope of this review, Staudenmaier illustrates the complexities of these discussions as the organization sought to address the “public and psychological wage” white workers gain over black workers. Furthermore, Ignatiev and others spoke of the “white blind spot” that prevented white workers from seeing their common struggle with black workers.
Another STO pamphlet of the time, Don Hamerquist’s “White Supremacy and the Afro-American National Question,” is worth reading in its entirety. Herein STO outlines its strategy of centralizing the struggle against white supremacy as Hamerquist pronounces “[t]he specific shape and content of white privileges are determined through class struggle. The ruling class attempts to shape both reform concessions and the direction of repression in ways which maximize the strategic divisions within the working class. Thus while white supremacy does not eliminate the class struggle, it limits, confines, and channels it into forms that make a conception of group interest based on skin color appear to over-ride class interest for the masses of people.” Further, from Truth and Revolution, “Ignatin argued powerfully that white supremacy was the main roadblock to working-class unity in the US. And since unity of the working class was an essential precondition to any revolutionary upsurge, the repudiation of white skin privileges by white workers was a necessary first step on the road to revolution.”
Unlike many current formulations, and illustrated above, STO saw the struggle against white supremacy (now reduced to ‘privilege’) a practical rather than a moral one. Partially derived from colleague Ted Allen, STO identified white supremacy as developing concurrent with capitalism in the US. Hence it has a material-basis in class divisions and relations of production rather than simply being a question of individual bias, representation, or legal exclusion. Taking their factory organizing into account, STO viewed the struggle against white supremacy as the necessary first step toward class unity and subsequent class struggle in the US. But what does this mean for our contemporary organizing now decades following deindustrialization with precarious and decentralized workplaces? And what does the struggle against white supremacy become when it is addressed in workshops held in infoshops and amongst friendship networks?
Addressing white privilege on individual terms, outside of organizing campaigns – as well as the reduction of race, class, gender, and class to a checklist – is an unfortunate part of our contemporary movement culture. White privilege and intersectionality of oppression, the latter derived from women of color feminism, have degraded into balance sheets (vague notions such as checking privilege) and hierarchies of who is the most oppressed (and hence the most revolutionary) rather than an expression of a complex set of social relations. STO member Jasper Collins, in the Preface to the 1978 edition of the aforementioned Hamerquist pamphlet, argues “there is no direct correspondence between degree of oppression and revolutionary potential.” Furthermore, STO clearly understood that oppressive social relations in a capitalist society are material, class-based ones and that the struggle against them must address the ‘distribution of life chances,’ to use a current phrase.
Staudenmaier states, “[f]or an organization with a highly developed theoretical position on white supremacy and white skin privilege, it is perhaps surprising that STO was never able to formally resolve the practical question of whether it was multiracial or all-white.” Herein he illustrates the often-striking gulf that exists in revolutionary organizations between the richness of their ideas and their inability to put these into practice organizationally. Important for the diligent reader, Staudenmaier tells the story of STO’s interpersonal allegiances and factions. Herein we are provided a glimpse into the various complexities and struggles that take place within a revolutionary organization. Furthermore, by introducing the debates contained within various STO publications – which are available online at the STO digital archive (http://www.sojournertruth.net/) – the theoretical synthesis of such thinkers as Marx, DuBois, Lenin, Gramsci, James, and others are shown to confront the realities of the anti-war, workplace organizing, feminist, queer, anti-fascist, and anti-nuke movements. Those seeking a route out of the stasis of our post-counter-globalization and post-Occupy moment should turn, in part, to the reflections contained within Truth and Revolution lest we continue to repeat the debates and arguments of a previous cycle of struggle.
Reading the STO politically is Staudenmaier’s task. Our urgent task is reading the history of the STO, and parallel people’s histories, as we consider the current predicaments of our own revolutionary organizations.
Kevin Van Meter is a member of the Team Colors collective and has just relocated to Minneapolis, Minnesota to complete his doctorate in Geography.