Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969-1986
by Michael Staudenmaier. Oakland: AK Press, 2012.
As Max Elbaum pointed out in his acclaimed 2002 book, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, there was more to the 1960s than just dope smoking and free love. Importantly, there was the New Communist Movement (NCM) that developed in an effort to revolutionarily transform the United States from what it was to what it was imagined it could be. Elbaum took a critical look at the NCM, but he all-but-ignored arguably one of the most important organizations that developed within the NCM, the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO).
However, Michael Staudenmaier has now given us an excellent, critical and in-depth examination of STO. This is an important organization that Staudenmaier believes has considerable relevance today, and he clearly wrote it with the idea of understanding STO to the greatest extent possible so as to provide on-going guidance for revolutionaries today. Importantly, and allowing a level of detachment that makes his study even more relevant today, Staudenmaier is not a veteran of the ‘60s, although he’s been politically engaged in the anarchist world for a considerable number of years.
STO, Staudenmaier asserts, organized its work over the 15 or so years it existed in three main areas: prioritizing workplace organizing (approximately 1970-75), anti-imperialist solidarity (1976-80), and then direct-action, tendency-building from the late 1970s-to its demise by 1986). There are important things to learn from these experiences, and the work produced by this small organization (which never had more than about 50 people) over the years is impressive.
What makes STO so important in my viewpoint, is its focus on theoretical work: at best, their theoretical understanding contributed to their practice and their practice, in turn, was reflected upon and then utilized to confirm/falsify and/or develop their theory. I have not heard of nor seen anywhere near this level of intellectual work by any comparable organization of that period, regardless of size. In other words, in an era in which other Leninist organizations dogmatically asserted the correctness of their respective “political line,” Sojourner Truth discussed and debated theoretical issues publicly, and sought to take greatest advantage of its extensive and oftentimes innovative practice. Staudenmaier notes,
On an intellectual level, several key themes recur throughout the group’s history. In every area and at every point in time, STO emphasized the importance of mass action, the rejection of legal constraints on struggle, the question of consciousness within the working class, the central role of white supremacy to the continued misery of life under capitalism, and the necessity of autonomy for exploited and oppressed groups, not only from capitalism and white supremacy but also from their supposed representatives, various self-proclaimed vanguards, and any other ‘condescending saviors’ (p. 4).
And Staudenmaier argues “two essential theoretical innovations in particular marked STO’s contribution to the revolutionary left” (4). He explains, “the group articulated Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s understanding of hegemony as an analysis of ‘dual consciousness’, arguing that the working class displayed both a broad acceptance of the status quo and an embryonic awareness of its own revolutionary potential as a class,” (4) and they presented “an analysis of white-skin privilege as a bulwark of white supremacy” (5). He adds that they later added the concept of “autonomy” to their theoretical universe.
And, when differing levels of intellectual development threatened the integrity of the organization, the organization consciously decided to address this theoretical “gap” by educating its members in political theory, transforming members into theorists to supplement (not replace) their practical work, reducing internal differences. This was an organization that consciously used theory not to dissuade dissidents, but to elevate its practice and the intellectual capabilities of its members. (Obviously, STO’s small size over the years indicates that considerable number of self-styled “revolutionaries” did not value or see the need for this, but STO’s approach to this internal problem is another example of its innovative approach.)
The book examines this interaction between practice-theory-practice over the group’s history. This is done with considerable sympathy to STO’s efforts, yet with a critical perspective that refuses to give them a pass for their mistakes or their, at times, “less-than-saintly” efforts, both externally and internally. Staudenmaier is particularly astute in addressing the implications of their theoretical developments, some which were brilliant, while others were not considered. He has gotten access to a considerable amount of STO’s material—both publically disseminated and internally confined—and examines theoretical debates, internal conflicts, and changing political approaches. (A considerable amount of this original material is currently available on-line at www.sojournertruth.net.) He has interviewed a number of people who were active at different times—both those who left the organization and those who stayed—and at differing levels of power and influence within the group, combining understandings from these oral interviews with published material. His material on the internal life of the organization, and how it affected members and others, is important.
The first eight chapters are brilliant: Staudenmaier handles an amazing amount of material deftly and with panache, and he gives about as full of an accounting of an avowedly revolutionary organization as can probably be done by an outsider. In addition to the organization itself, he carefully contextualizes it in the times, and offers astute comments in relation to other organizations of the New Communist Movement. Further, I give him tremendous credit for weaving his accounts of theory and practice together innovatively. And as one who had some contact with STO over the late 1970s-early ‘80s—but never joined—I had a hard time putting the book down, and I consumed its 333 pages carefully over a three-day period (in addition to work-related responsibilities). In short, I give the overall bulk of the book the highest accolade one author can give another: I wish I had written this book.
That being said—and sincerely meant—I was disappointed in his concluding chapter where he tried to extract lessons from STO’s experiences for today’s revolutionaries. As stated above, Staudenmaier’s political experience has been in the revolutionary anarchist movement. Obviously for one from this background, he challenges STO’s Leninism, however innovative and non-dogmatic it was, and especially its theoreticians’ reliance on quotes from Lenin in their theoretical debates. Nonetheless, he recognizes the strength of the group’s broadmindedness towards theory, noting STO had “three distinct and competing leaders” who “routinely disagreed with each other on major issues,” and “each of them was frequently challenged by newer members who had their own theoretical insights” (315). Further, he noted that STO’s theoretical work was based on the writings of Marx and Lenin, but supplemented by thinking by Gramsci, W.E.B. Du Bois and C.L.R. James, which were “anything but commonplace touchstones among the revolutionary left at the time” (315). Obviously, STO was not a typical Leninist organization by any stretch of the imagination, whether in range of thinkers considered or by the amount of internal democracy where members were encouraged to discuss and debate the issues before the organization and movement.
All of that being recognized, however, Staudenmaier does not push himself theoretically around two issues. He does not question Marxism itself, when his own material suggests that he should have done so: could Marxism, based on the interaction between forces of production and relations of production, explain white supremacy and especially the concept of white skin privilege from within its theoretical parameters? Considering the importance of Marxism and challenging white supremacy to the organization, should not this combination been examined, especially so many years after the demise of the organization? Or could it explain male supremacy? I don’t think Marxism can explain either white or male supremacy within its theoretical parameters, but in any case, Staudenmaier does not even question it, nor what might it mean for self-identified Marxists to transgress “the founder’s” limitations, seeing Marxism as necessary but not sufficient for their purposes…?
Secondly, and perhaps even more immediately important for his chosen tasks, Staudenmaier fails to interrogate the concepts of “revolution,” and “revolutionary change.” He uses these concepts uncritically, but what do they mean? What does it mean to assume the mantle of “revolutionary organization”? This is one issue whose examination/non-examination would appear to have made a significant impact on the organization. If by revolution, one means an apoplectic, almost orgasmic, rupture with the established social order (ala the initial seizure of power by the Bolsheviks), then what does that mean when that doesn’t happen…? Or if by revolution, one means an extended armed struggle, ala China or Vietnam, how does that affect your organization? Or, if by “revolution,” one means a long-time, gradual but relatively peaceful period of change that may or may not end up with armed warfare at the end—recognizing that changes won earlier may or may not positively effect subsequent developments—what does that mean? And even if the concept of revolution was in the air in 1969-70, as Elbaum asserts, what does it mean after 1971 when the draft ended, or 1975, when the war in Southeast Asia ended, or 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan, and why wasn’t this critically interrogated? I think doing so in these later periods would have significantly affected STO’s subsequent development, and Staudenmaier does not provide any evidence that this took place, nor did he question its lack.
These problems—critically interrogating Marxism, recognizing its importance but questioning its sufficiency as a “total” analysis, and the non-questioning approach to revolution—demand specific attention from Occupy and subsequent activists, at least in my opinion. This probably isn’t their most pressing issue, admittedly, but I suggest it essential for long-term development.
Nonetheless, despite my dissatisfaction with one chapter, how do I rate this book? I think it is excellent, and Michael Staudenmaier should be recognized for writing an important and insightful book. Quite frankly, whatever one’s politics from left-of-center leftward, I think this is a critically important book, no matter what one might think of the Sojourner Truth Organization, and I think everyone should read it and carefully consider the issues they faced, their approaches and solutions, to see how we can surpass their efforts. This, as Staudenmaier clearly intends, certainly extends to the Occupy Movement. There’s a lot to learn from between the covers of this book—and I think each of us would be a fool not to take advantage of this exemplary work.
Kim Scipes is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana, and Chair of the Chicago Chapter of the National Writers Union, UAW #1981. His latest book, AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?, was issued in paperback in 2011: http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/book.htm.