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 writings of the Sojourner Truth Organization. These are my perspectives and they don’t necessarily reflect the views of Unity and Struggle.
I had 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 STO’s literature available to other revolutionaries and latent formations who might benefit from it because of the originality and theoretical deftness of what we had read. We initiated a website devoted to those writings. 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. Du Bois, Antonio Gramsci, and C.L.R. James, who were of largely marginal importance to the orthodox Marxism’s listed above, opened a world of unorthodox interpretations, and to Marx himself, whose 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.
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 was 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 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 laborers 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 likened to their species-beings.
STO can’t bear the sole blame for its composition as this was a material and historical problem of their era, but what is useful in Staudenmaier’s history were the mistakes and internal dissension over these questions which no doubt contributed to its 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 of 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.
Without a doubt, STO’s development of a theory 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 more closely 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 less use for the ruling class since there’s no insurgent black movement threatening to destabilize capitalist social relations. In one sense, 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’ acceptance of privileges decades ago have made their social position more precarious in the contemporary period.
White supremacy today is nowhere 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 its commitment to rigorous internal and democratic debate, an emphasis on direct action, workplace strategy and tactics, and a critique of the unions retains much relevance for revolutionaries today and we in Unity and Struggle have taken inspiration from all of the above.