Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Lessons of the Sojourner Truth Organization

Truth and Revolution, A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, by Michael Staudenmaier

The Sojourner Truth Organization was one of the many small revolutionary left groups that dotted the American political landscape in the 1970s, spawned by the wave of radicalization that followed the upheavals of the 1960s. STO was also one of the many small revolutionary left groups that disbanded in the 1980s in the depths of the Reagan era. A wonderful new book, "Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization 1969-1986," by Michael Staudenmaier, has just been published by the anarchist book house AK Press that documents the rise and fall of a group that has long passed into leftwing legend.

While the book is a meticulously documented product of a close read of STO's printed archive and years of interviews with former members of the group, Staudenmaier is clearly not just performing an academic/historical exercise. The author has a history in the movement, and his attention to important discussions really shows. Many of the issues that STO innovated and grappled with remain relevant today, even though the face of the left is barely recognizable from STO's time. The period of STO's vibrancy may seem like ancient times, but as I myself can attest, many of us who were active in that long-ago era find ourselves still — or perhaps, again — active today, can look to STO's story for lessons about how to be revolutionaries in America. Staudenmaier astutely notes the relevance of this tale from a past wave of radicalization for today's Occupy-era radicals.

I confess that the first thing this book inspired in me was a wave of nostalgic memories. I'm 53 today and I joined my first communist organization back in 1976 fresh out of high school. My own political demoralization and falling away from the organized left occurred ten years later, about the same time STO disbanded. Indeed the last organization I was a member of (and the one I was a member of for the bulk of that period) , the Revolutionary Socialist League, itself disbanded a couple years later. (I'm also happy to report my return to ranks of the revolutionary-minded politically active in the current radicalization).

I joined the communist left in Chicago, which was in fact the home base of STO. The descriptions of STO's work, first in factory-floor organizing, and later in anti-imperialist solidarity work, anti-fascist activism and in regroupment-oriented party-building on the left, were all intensely familiar. The language that STO used to discuss its work and direction was the language I learned. The era of post-radicalization "lull" and de-industrialization was the era I grew up in politically; these were the same issues the RSL dealt with as well. I left Chicago for New York in 1981, but many of the scenes and issues and forces described in "Truth and Revolution" were as I remembered them. It made me wonder if all the groups struggling to stay relevant in that dark time of counterrevolution were all going through the same process without realizing that a period of organizational decline was universal among communist and socialist groups.

Interestingly, there was a brief moment when we in the RSL, then on a trajectory away from the Trotskyism and even Leninism that it had grown up in, were all fascinated by the Sojourner Truth Organization and discussed trying to orient to them in some way. I'm not sure whatever happened to that idea. Staudenmaier discusses at great length the unique path that STO traced. Its core founders were old left, but it grew up in the world of the so-called New Communist Movement, that is generally meant as the "Maoist" wing of the left that emerged from the 1960s student movement and rejected both the established Soviet Union-sponsored world communist parties and also the existing critical/oppositional Trotskyist communist movement. One could discuss endless factional hairsplitting among the parties and sects of that era, but the STO walked its own unique line. With a critique of "Stalinism," an affinity for the one-time Trotskyist and theorist of black liberation C.L.R. James, and a strong commitment to supporting "Third World" liberation organizations, as they were called back then, STO couldn't be easily pigeonholed.

One of STOs groundbreaking pamphlets: Understanding and Fighting White Supremacy
Staudenmaier discusses at great lengths STO's reputation for discussing and developing theory. He details how they tried to advance the ideas of Marxism and of Marxist theorists like Antonio Gramsci into a time like the 1970s and a country like the United States that presented so many challenges for revolutionaries. I found his discussions of STO's theory of "dual consciousness" incredibly thought-provoking.

Staudenmaier explains how STO, largely through the theoretical work of one its members, Noel Ignatin, made a name for itself addressing the key question for American radicals: racism. Ignatin addressed the theories of white skin privilege and the white blind spot, and explained how the white working class came to be poisoned by its material attachment to white supremacy. STO came to believe that the prime directive for white workers, indeed for white revolutionaries, was to support the autonomous organizing of black people, of Puerto Rican people, of world revolutionaries fighting against American hegemony. The arguments on racism and white supremacy are deeply compelling. These are arguments far removed from "traditional Marxism" and yet very familiar to many schools of political and cultural thought today. It strikes me that this theory of white supremacy is ripe to be returned to the sphere of making revolution. Nothing says "white supremacy" quite like today's allegedly post-racial consciousness.

And yet STO's theoretical innovations revealed a contradiction unsolved by STO that proved to be one of its unmaking: do white revolutionaries unite with black revolutionaries in a single organization? How are the theoretical differences that might arise breached? If revolutionaries support the autonomous organizing of oppressed and working people in all kinds of struggles, what is the role of a party to that autonomy? STO was not afraid to get its hands dirty in the struggle, but it somehow managed to get tangled up in its own argument and failed to recruit masses of people from the struggles in which it engaged.

Indeed it is in the issue of building an organization that can fight for the necessary massive societal change, a party of revolutionaries, that I found "Truth and Revolution" most thought-provoking. Clearly the 1970s/1980s model of competing hair-splitting self-proclaimed vanguard sects did not work. Much of the left globally is stuck in this model that seems quaint at best and cringe-worthy at worst. How to synthesize the many best traditions of Marxism, of Leninism, or of Anarchism, Maoism, or even Trotskyism, into something that might, you know, actually be capable of waging an actual revolutionary struggle and overturning the wretched mess that is globalized capitalism? This seems incredibly relevant.

For me, the Occupy movement has really made it clear that the first task of revolutionaries is to stay connected to changing reality, and engaged with the consciousness of people in motion. Contrast, for example, this exercise in sterility and self-righteous abstentionism from one ultrasectarian grouplet at this link to the wonderful "It's Five Minutes to Dawn and the Wind Smells like Freedom" statement of the Kasama Project aimed at Occupy activists. Some of the failures of the STO seem self-inflicted. But some of its failures were borne of the simple reality that fifty or a hundred people, even if they're all brilliant, committed and heroic, is not enough people to defeat an empire. But when the balance of forces shifts, people need to be ready and organized to ride the wave. Creating a vehicle that is creative, self-aware, flexible, and awake to the possibilities around us seems like an important thing.

"Truth and Revolution" is history. I suppose it's ultimately the story of a defeat: I don't think we understood how the reality Reaganism ushered in was going to be so successful in undoing the 1960s. I know we didn't understand the change that was happening to the world. But something is changing in the world, and as we try, again, to get it right, it's definitely worth going over the story of a group like the STO.

"Truth and Revolution" is available directly from the AK Press and also from mainstream vendors like Amazon.

Much of STO's published work is available on the internet at the remarkable Sojourner Truth Organization Digital Archive.


  1. I was in STO and I, too, remember RSL, and personally working with them up to and during the All People's Congress (APC). I even recall at the conference STO hanging out "next door" to RSL, and I particularly recall lots of personal conversations, but can't remember anyone's names. Like you, I have no recollection of whatever happened to what could have been some sort of relationship.

    I also remember what a mess the APC gathering in Detroit became with Worker's World almost precipitating a rumble amongst other things. It was a moment lost.

    We had our own problems in Detroit. Another STO member and I were the two primary people responsible for STOs participation and work in both the People's Anti-War Mobilization and the APC (God, I remember too numerous nights on the phone late arguing with this guy from WWP), but when we got to Chicago our leadership shunted us aside and took over. Actually, I comment a bit on this in the book. It was disappointing, especially considering what we were about.

    Meanwhile, feel free to check out my blog SCISSION at

  2. Thanks so much for your comment Oread. I will check out your blog.

    I didn't go to the APC but I remember the brief moment when it seemed like it might have been other than a WWP front. That party is a whole 'nother story.