The Sojourner Truth Organization

When the book Truth and Revolution by Michael Staudenmaier came out, some of my comrades were ecstatic. This book is close to them due to their relationship with STO and to the author of the book. One of my comrades, Tyler Zimmerman, wrote a reflection on the book after reading. I am very proud of him and of this reflection. I think it is very on point. Here goes.

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I am a member of Unity and Struggle in Atlanta and I volunteered to respond to Insurgent Notes’ invitation to participate in a symposium on Michael Staudenmaier’s STO history book.  I’m presently the only one in U&S who has read the book, though as a group we have been significantly influenced by the writing of the Sojourner Truth Organization.  These are my perspectives and they don’t necessarily reflect the views of Unity and Struggle.

I have a personal history with STO before joining U&S.  I was formerly a part of a now defunct propaganda circle that was active in Kansas City, MO in the early part of the 2000s.  We made the acquaintance of an ex-STO militant who would play the role of a sometimes mentor and who made available their writing.  The relationship we had with him would be short-lived but the influence of what we read would be profound.  While we were not successful in building a functional organization, a couple of us felt it urgent to make available their literature to other revolutionaries and latent formations who might benefit from it because of the originality and theoretical deftness of what we had read.  We were right.  This web archiving project would serve as a bridge in our activity which put us in contact with other militants, including Staudenmaier, and some in Unity and Struggle, which I joined later.

Communists then and now live with the ghosts of social democracy, Stalinism, Maoism, and Trotskyism, but the “ultra-left” reading of Marx and Lenin that STO had as well as the centrality of W.E.B. DuBois, Antonio Gramsci, and C.L.R. James, who were of largely marginal importance to the orthodox Marxisms listed above, opened a world of unorthodox interpretations, and to Marx himself, who’s writings, according to the STO, “must be considered a totality” (a category unknown to official Marxism).

I’m going to respond to question two since that is by far the most pressing and relevant question asked of revolutionaries inspired by the legacy of the STO.  As I see it, the lessons of STO are twofold. There’s that of their organizational experience, internally and externally, and that of their written work.  These things are certainly a dynamic; their practical work and experience no doubt influenced their theory and politics and new conclusions led to new orientations and practices.  STO shouldn’t have been alone amongst the New Communist movement in living that dynamic but they were and this is both unfortunate but also what has generated so much new interest in them among the Left in this period of crisis and regroupment.

For our purposes I’m going to focus on the issues of communist organization and regroupment, the racial composition within STO, and their analysis of white-skin privilege and its relationship to the current era.

Organizational Experience

A key lesson for militants to take from the STO experience is the question of communist organization and regroupment.  In the early years of the organization, the line was essentially that theory was of secondary importance while practice required the utmost unity.  The separation of theory and practice this way necessarily had grave consequences for the group.  While there was broad agreement on questions of race and white supremacy, the bankruptcy of the unions, and the need for direct action at the point of production, the actual experience of factory work without a higher level of agreement led to splits in STO within a few short years: a rightist split, that tended toward a more party-centric approach and a short time later, a leftward split that believed that STO should dissolve itself into factory organizations.  Each of these splits were the result of underdeveloped theory on the role of an interventionist organization and the behavior of the unions. The results of this led what remained of STO to place a higher premium on theoretical agreement.  Of course, this experience was necessary for them to discover why theory should be so critical.

Of equal importance is the question of the racial composition of STO, specifically the fact that they failed in the long term to build a multiracial and majority people of color revolutionary cadre organization.  This remains one of the essential tasks of revolutionaries today in the US. This failure is not without an aspect of irony as black Marxists James and Du Bois, who saw the immediacy of black struggle, were among their greatest influences and in large measure so was the concept of autonomy which automatically lays at the feet of the oppressed the task of liberating themselves.  White supremacy lives, still though not as it did in STO’s time.  The subjectivity that will be responsible for overthrowing this institution will be those objectified by it.  This means it is the task of people of color in building forms of organization to do this.

However, this does not mean that white supremacy does not affect white working people and that they don’t have a role to play in its destruction.  For Marx, what makes humans human, or a “species being,” is that they change their material world and in the process are changed by their own doings.  Under capitalism, humans are divided into manual labors and mental ones, whereas communism is the revolutionary reunification of thought and action, or what Marx called practical-critical activity or praxis.  When white workers fight alongside people of color they are transformed by this experience and assume an identity more liken to their species-beings.

STO can’t bear the sole blame for their composition as this was a material and historical problem of their era, but what was useful in Staudenmaier’s history were the mistakes and internal dissension over these questions which no doubt contributed to their overwhelmingly white membership. They couldn’t seem to find a role for people of color in STO even though they viewed “Third World” struggles as the vanguard of revolutionary change.  This took the form encouragement by some in the organization for members of color to be active in revolutionary Third World organizations within “their” community.  For people of color within STO this meant joining largely Stalinist organizations that were in diametric opposition to the liberatory current that STO was building.

Theoretical Advances

Without a doubt, their development of white-skin privilege placed them head and shoulders above the entire revolutionary Left in their time and eventually this theory became hegemonic, though with certain costs.  White-skin privilege pointed to a material basis for white supremacy rather than using the un-Marxist “false consciousness” argument that white workers were just victims of racist propaganda. Rather, they were given tangible incentives to oppose the black struggle which benefitted them as white labor-power but opposed them as alienated labor.  In fact, white-skin privilege tied them closer to their capitalist masters.  The black struggle, though an effect of the particular experience of black people, had a universality that stood to benefit the global working class though it undercut the logic of the benefits of white labor-power.  This perspective of the inequality of labor-powers through the form of race is what made STO more unorthodox but yet more Marxist than the existing tendencies of their time.

Today, there’s been downward pressure on the white working class which has taken away a lot of the privileges it received in the 1970s. White-skin privilege has littler use for the ruling class since there’s no insurgent black movement threatening to destabilize capitalist social relations.  In one since this is proof that white workers haven’t in the long run benefitted from privilege.  The various white ethnic patronage systems that were powerful machines in some cities 30 and 40 years ago have overseen the dismantling of entire industries where privilege was institutionalized.  The consequences of white workers accepting the privileges decades ago has made their social position more precarious in the contemporary period.

White supremacy today is no where more apparent than in the absorption of the black power movement into black “representation” and the election of black mayors, police chiefs, and much later, black presidents.  It has meant having a seat at the table of the management of capital.  Black representation has rubber stamped and overseen the deepening of white supremacy as black folks continue to be incarcerated at higher rates, have higher rates of mortality, are murdered by police far more often, less likely to be employed, earn less wages, etc.  Black representation is white supremacy in new form. Jim Crow and even white liberal democracy could not rule in the old way and had to incorporate black struggle in order to rebuild legitimacy.  Capital accumulation and management had to assume new forms.

There’s much more that could be said about the Sojourner Truth Organization. Aside from the above their commitment to rigorous internal and democratic debate, emphasis on direct action, workplace strategy and tactics, and critique of the unions retains much relevance for revolutionaries today and we in Unity and Struggle have taken inspiration on all the above.

Austin Left falls short yet again.

When I first started coming around this space for formally incarcerated youth, we had conversations of what this could become and it was very exciting. The idea of having a space for young people to come in and work together autonomously is something we don’t see enough of these days. I feel like often younger people are treated like they do not have a mind of their own and told what to do or are coddled. I felt like this was something I would dedicate time and energy in for sure.

But after the meeting I had on Friday with one of the “caretakers” I have decided to not continue to work with them.

Overall, I have noticed a trend in the two caretakers I work with being very controlling over this space. For example, I have not once been invited to bring ideas, help facilitate discussions, bring in projects or anything. When I have tried to step up more recently, I was pretty much shot down. First, I brought up doing some more activities, perhaps doing some readings, with C (since at the time he was the only one showing up weekly) and was told that we (not including me) would have to think of some thing that will make the space more exciting. I recently had written an email to the caretakers saying I wanted to be more hands on in this space. I talked about wanting to do more in and out of the space, and offered to head up events or projects with C. I have even tried to push to do projects with them outside of the space and am always shot down.

Last week when I came in I decided to push to hang out more with the young people who came by talking to them directly. I have tried with C in the past but he was going through a lot and didn’t seem enthusiastic about hanging out with me. This could be because he was feeling anti-social. It could be because this space is now not as exciting as it first was and has now become a paid job, something he has to do. Or he might just not want to hang out with me. But whatever the case, on this day both C and J were there and I decided to try at it again with the both of them. It was going to be impossible to develop the kind of relationship I wanted to have with them just by showing up on Tuesdays alone. Also, I wanted to try to push organizing, something they both showed interest in doing and wasn’t happening in this space.

My first attempt: There was an art project that needed to be completed. I offered to do this with them during the weekend. This way the project could get completed, I could head up a project for the first time, and I could have time to develop my relationship with them. But this was shot down immediately as one of the caretakers said she wanted to be involved and we could just wait until a Tuesday to do it. I felt again that they were controlling and wouldn’t let me do any of the work. On top of that I was shocked that they wouldn’t be pushing for me to be wanting to participate in a more hands on fashion, instead they saw this as a threat. But, I didn’t push the issue. I could have asked C and J if they wanted to wait until a couple weeks or if they’d prefer to do it that weekend. I didn’t push it though.

My second attempt: Then at the end of our session I asked both C and J if they would be interested in doing some readings with me. A group that I am involved in was meeting during the weekend and I thought it would be cool if they came out. I got J’s phone number (I already had C’s) and said I’d hit them up during the weekend (something I did and was unable to get a hold of C so far, but J said he was interested in coming out to a meeting of this group working around prison issues that I am a part of).

The next day I got calls, voice messages, an email and a text message from R, one of the caretakers. He wanted to set up a meeting with me for Friday. I wasn’t entirely sure what would happen, and again, thinking back I could have used this to push for more transparency and suggest we wait until Tuesday to discuss issues of this space without everyone being present. Not thinking into it enough I agreed to go and went alone.

During that meeting I saw some of the worst aspects of the Left here in Austin shining through. I was told that if I wanted to continue to work in this space I would need to learn “the process”, agree to the terms of learning that process, and once I earned the trust of everyone there and have shown that I understand the process then and only then could I begin to contribute to the space.

I was told I was disrespectful to the caretakers by getting the contact information of J. Pretty much that my relationship with them is only through this space and should not exist outside of it. I was also told that the role of a mentor is not to be friends with these young people, that there must be constant distance between us.

I guess my idea of what it meant to be a mentor was different than the expectations of me as such within this space. My understanding of a mentor is someone who has more experience and plays the role to hang out, talk and challenge, to learn and grow with, someone you trust and look up to, someone who can teach you about their experiences but give you the tools to find your own way also. So when I approached this space, and the young people who came around, I did it with the idea that being a mentor is a full-time gig, not a once a week thing. I knew I would have to develop a relationship with them first, one of trust and respect both ways.

I tried to think about talking to them more than just in that space, to make our relationship stronger and not just be based on a once a week time for a few hours. I invited them out to come to a study group because I wanted to again, build our relationship, and also to get them reading new things, talking about their experiences as young people who, for C, was incarcerated and continues to deal with a lot of stresses at home, and in life, and J, who also has so much to offer and express that I feel I could learn from them both and would hope I had something to offer as well. There is nothing sneaky or wrong about this. I thought the point of this space was to share ideas, to grow together, to create art and also movement.

But after talking to R, I see that my understanding of my role in this space was wrong. I was told that I should come and observe and learn the process, and only when I know the process then can I contribute to this space in any other capacity than that. And when I said I thought that this was my space to create and participate equally to others I was told, basically, that I am not an equal and that I should learn and be quiet and follow.

But what is this process? It is one that comes from the “elders”. It is learning how to use art to create social change. That art is so powerful that it alone can cause people to get together to fight, something both C and J argued against. It is the method of pedagogy that has been passed down from the ex-pinta that started this space to the caretakers that resign there now. Although they are very  focused on bringing in youth their approach to young people is backward. R explained to me that these young people are “vulnerable” and that they (the caretakers) need to protect them against things, including recruiters – which I apparently am. Also by not allowing new ideas to be shared with them without first going through the caretakers it suggests that these young people can’t think for themselves to the point that even ideas need to be censored.

And when we talked about this rigid process, R expressed to me that at times he feels they are going backwards, but you have to trust in the process and in the elders and keep it up. There is no changing with the times, no evolving, growing, changing. They are so stuck to this process that even the young people who participate in the space can not influence this process. There is no room for autonomy here. You can not build here.

 

There is a serious failure here for the left. Why are we pushing out willing excited people who want to do the work? Why can’t we be up front and honest with young people and allow them to come to their own conclusions, make their own choices? If we would listen we would see that they have a lot to teach us. Instead the left is holding on to old ass political “processes” that have failed us in the past, why should we idolize our elders to the point of being unable to critique them? Let’s build something new, not forgetting the past or our elders, but by growing from where they left us, by moving forward. Are we so afraid to fail that we won’t move at all? The youth is going to lead the way whether we are ready for it or not. I’d rather learn and grow with them than push them away. They are not children. They are fighters, they express wanting to fight and are trying to learn how by being in this space but instead of being able to grow they are only offered the methods of the past. C and J have fought against some of the methods of this space. Yet when they do it is not taken seriously only ended on the note “I disagree”. I say step out of the way viejos and let the young lead the way!

¡Viva los jóvenes!

Art vs Organizing???

Today I went to chill with C again, in the same space. There was also this young man J there who is a very sharp young cat.

So the two caregivers there – the ones who have run and dominated that space – always have these planned activities to do. Usually they are meant to write poetry, or to discuss some of their politics with everyone there. Today was like that.

She put up a video of a poet – i can’t remember her name now – talking about the power of poetry. Ultimately, she argued that poetry can create movements, cause people to fight. This is a mentality I have seen a lot here in Austin. A lot of people who spend all their time doing art in place of organizing. I think there definitely is a place for art – obviously – in any movement. But for people who think they are contributing by only participating in art that is supposed to change the world, I disagree.

C and J made really good points against those kinds of ideas. They said that it’s not what gets people out, it is a way of expressing these things we are fighting for, but it is not why people struggle.

I think that the left definitely needs to learn how to incorporate more art and music in our activities, but it can never be a substitution for struggle.