Revolutionaries Who Can Think: Interview with Michael Staudenmaier, author of Truth and Revolution

by Andrew Sernatinger on July 30, 2013

truthTruth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization 1969-1986 by Michael Staudenmaier (AK Press, 2012).

Introduction

In the past few years, there’s been a rediscovery of the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO), a small Marxist organization that counted itself as part of the New Communist Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. My first encounter with the STO revival came about five years ago among anarchist friends of mine. These folks and others, veterans mainly of the anti-war and post-Global Justice period, went looking for experiences and theory to guide in a new time marked by the beginning of the crisis with no clear anti-capitalist pole to push back. Left communism generally became appealing insofar as it made a bridge to Marxist political economy and compatible portions of communist traditions while maintaining a hard and fast criticism of “the state” and illegitimate authority.

Sojourner Truth is interesting as an unlikely finalist for left influence in the 21st century. Lucky for us, we can gain some insight from anarchist activist and scholar Michael Staudenmaier, who released an all too-rare history of the organization written for activists, Truth and Revolution. I interviewed Michael in April 2013 after a book talk he gave here in Madison. Since our conversation followed his lecture about the group, it may be helpful to explain some things about STO and Truth before readers wade in.

Sojourner Truth was founded in 1969 by a group of former worker-activists from the Communist Party. While still considering themselves “Leninists” in the official sense, politically they drew from the inventive theories of CLR James, WEB Du Bois and Antonio Gramsci rather than from Mao, Castro or Trotsky. Staudenmaier’s narrative delineates the group’s activity into a set of distinct phases in an attempt to keep pace with the rapidly changing political landscape of the 1970s and 1980s. He marks these as starting with a period of factory organizing (a priority shared with the International Socialists and a number of Maoists looking to “colonize”), and then moving roughly every four years to anti-imperialism, direct action, and tendency-building.

For that reason, it’s difficult to definitively pin down STO, but typically their legacy rests on their earlier work and theory. The group’s guiding politics and analysis are all codependent, but I think we can roughly pull these apart. First, STO’s continuing appeal has tended to be in their more-autonomous Marxism. Inspirations for the group came not as much from the Third World revolutions as from the Prague Spring, the Paris general strike, Italian autonomists (operaismo) and the work of CLR James. For cadre leaving behind a revolutionary theory shaped by Stalin, crafting a functioning worldview that centered on the self-activity of the working class and the oppressed, unclaimed by unions, parties or other leaders, left behind a wealth of ideas that have survived the group.

Second was STO’s distinct approach to factory organizing. Informed by their autonomous perspective, the group’s factory organizing was markedly different from that of their communist cousins. While others developed strategies for rank-and-file caucusing or winning union leadership, STO lent their resources directly to semi-spontaneous worker initiatives and aimed to build organizations independent of the union structure, taking close care to base their theories off of practice. Staudenmaier notes STO’s interest in Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the historic Industrial Workers of the World, arguing that bourgeois legality would be a barrier to radical activity. Unfortunately, although it’s clearly a rich subject, Truth and Revolution doesn’t dive much deeper into STO’s workplace activity.

Lastly, Sojourner Truth Organization developed a unique theory of “white privilege” as a major strategic barrier to the development of the revolutionary working class in the United States. Looking at it from our vantage in 2013, this might not seem all that interesting, but for its time, it was one of the central positions that set them apart from other organizations. Here, STO combined ideas from Du Bois and Gramsci to create a materialist understanding of race in the U.S., and their ideas about subverting white-skin privilege would carry into all of their work. Staudenmaier writes, “While rejecting the notion that racist ideas and attitudes were hardwired into white people, Ignatin and Allen refused to accept the liberal position that racism could be eliminated simply by changing peoples’ minds…White skin privileges could be repudiated in struggle, and this created the possibility of a reunified proletariat capable of overthrowing capitalism.” (88)

Andrew Sernatinger is an activist and journalist based in Madison, Wisconsin. The original audio of this interview is available from his podcast, Black Sheep Radio.

Michael Staudenmaier is a veteran of anarchist, anti-imperialist, and anti-fascist movements, and is now a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He lives in Chicago with his wife Anne, and their two children.

The first thing I wanted to ask you Michael is why you think there’s been a resurging interest in STO now? I’ve seen some old pamphlets put up on a website collected for them and now it seems like there are a number of groups who are putting out their own work inspired by STO.

It is a really fascinating thing that happened, because when I started working on the book that wasn’t there at all. I actually remember when someone sent me a link to the web archive and I subsequently became good friends with the guy who started it. But even then I was like, “wow, other people are interested in this group I think of as being so obscure?”

I think a couple things happened. One is that the web archive really helped. But the other thing was that there are some people who are a little bit older than me who came of age politically and had youthful encounters with STO. One of them was Joel Olson, who for whatever reason had this early encounter with former members of STO, and as he became more widely known, he brought those politics with him. Joel was a member of Bring the Ruckus, there were former members of STO that were in Bring the Ruckus, and then Bring the Ruckus developed some collaborative relationships with some of these other small autonomous Marxist groups, some of which still exist: Unity and Struggle, the Black Orchid Collective, Advance the Struggle in the Bay Area. Those groups started reading what they could, a lot of it off the web archive, so I think that’s sort of how that happened.

But in terms of a lesson to draw from it, I think it has to do with in our moment, especially as a post-Seattle moment, anarchism is close to being hegemonic on the left. And so people who are looking for something that retains some of the best insights of anarchism but doesn’t have its perceived flaws are looking back at obscure variants of the Marxist tradition, and STO is one that happens to be well preserved. I think that’s a lot of what’s at play, where for a long time when Marxism and Leninism were really hegemonic on the left, the alternative was to look for things that fell outside of that.

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I think at this point the book is being read equally by people on both sides of the isleMarxists and anarchists—its kind of a remarkable thing about the book, where people are drawing insights from it where normally you’d expect to see more divisions.

It’s been a totally amazing experience in terms of doing these book talks. I did a tour on the East Coast that started with the Montreal Anarchist Book Fair and the very next book talk that I did was in Boston and was organized by somebody who works on the Kasama Project, so the room was full of these various sorts of people with Maoist-inspired politics, where the room in Montreal was full of young anarchists. I like that about it a lot. Its something that’s drawing in people from both sides of the isle—I like that phrase.

The other thing that I thought was really interesting about the book is that is has a kind of narrative progression about how each generation of left is formed. You talk about how STO had members who were in the Communist Party at one point and saw themselves as continuing in the best of that tradition but rejecting what they thought were its failures. I asked this question about why the book is relevant now because it seems to be a similar experience where people are rejecting the problems that they’re inheriting and looking for something to carry on in the best of a tradition as well.

I guess I do feel like that’s a universal aspect of left history as it unfolds. If you want to be grandiose about it you could argue that it’s dialectical unfolding or something like that.

I think what’s interesting about STO in some ways is that there were a number of people who lasted through all of its iterations, but at every stage they’re being challenged by people who are fairly new, and they’re coming to STO because of what they perceive to be its strengths, which are not necessarily the things that members of longer standing perceive to be its strengths. That produces some of the more interesting dynamics; some of the splits are a result of that. It’s a position that’s in motion.

Thinking about what the appeal of STO is now at this point, to some extent I think that, especially around Occupy, there was a debate about how to relate to organized labor. I think STO played a kind of informative role. Groups like Black Orchid Collective put out polemics about how to relate to the labor movement and saying that they were autonomous while trying to develop an inside-outside approach at the same time. I’m wondering what you think about this distinguishing aspect of STO’s labor work?

It’s funny because in the conclusion, I deliberately avoid drawing any lessons from the labor organizing because at the time before Occupy happened I thought labor organizing in ’72 looks nothing like labor organizing in 2012. I still think that that’s true, but it is interesting to see these instances, especially in the Occupy venues, that people are clearly drawing specifically on this.

For a long time, the legacy of STO’s labor organizing was actually inside the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW has had up on its website a bunch of excerpts from the Workplace Papers, which was this mini-book/mega-pamphlet thing that STO produced in 1980. That was where that stuff had found its home until around the time of Occupy. I love that a group like Black Orchid Collective had decided to take that approach and to draw on these insights of STO about both labor organizing and autonomy to do exactly as you said, to deal in a productive respectful way with labor movements in struggle while still saying “that doesn’t mean we subordinate ourselves to you.”

That’s so often what’s missing, I feel, especially in terms of radicals interacting with unions. In Chicago for example, there’s been a lot of instances of radicals interacting with either UNITE-HERE or SEIU and being willing to be used to be shock troops for the symbolic actions that those unions decide to undertake. But there’s no engagement with the actual rank and file with the unions. That’s what I’ve been liking about this resuscitation of a bygone era, that it’s had this model.

I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask something about the white privilege theory. It’s something that Sojourner Truth Organization is most well known for; it was controversial then and it seems to be somewhat controversial again now, though maybe for different reasons. At this point, it seems that the white privilege concept has been so thoroughly associated with its liberal counterpart that thinking about how that relates to STO is hard to imagine. How effective was this as a guide to them? As you point out in the book, the group wasn’t able to retain their members of color or become a multi-racial organization. It doesn’t seem as though they were particularly successful, even by their own standards.

That’s true, but I’d say that some of their lack of success was due to their lack of clarity about what they thought was success. There was always this question for them, “Do we want to be a multi-racial organization? Does that make sense given our politics? What would that mean?”

It took some work for me to inhabit the position that STO experienced in a couple of particular ways. One of them was the labor organizing stuff, because that’s never been work that I’ve undertaken and because the nature of the workplace is so different from what it was then. The other one was this question of trying to realize that white-skin privilege was not always this dominant, omnipresent model for understanding race relations in our society. It was actually in that process that I came have an approximate analysis of how this very militant, very Marxist theory, ends up being basically stripped of all its interesting aspects and placed in this terrain that has no class sensibility whatsoever and becomes now what a lot of us critically associate it with.

I will say that a significant part of my political coming-to-consciousness was through things like the “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” workshop stuff, like critical whiteness workshop things, which happen a lot on college campuses—I went to several of those as an undergrad, and I think in the end they had a positive impact on my politics. But they’re very limiting in a lot of ways.

I don’t in the book advance this particular argument, but I wrote an essay while I was in the middle of working on the book about how privilege theory generally moved from being this marginal thing to being totally ubiquitous. I argue that what happened was that a section of second wave feminists and especially lesbians recognized the parallel model of male privilege, heterosexual privilege, used this and abstracted this language of privilege away from specific questions of white-skin privilege where it had been developed in a class-specific context. I certainly do not hold anything against the women who undertook that work, it made a lot of sense in the moment in which it was done, but you can sort of from there see how it gets credentialed in an academic context and from there diffuses more broadly into society.

It’s a long process of being progressively removed from its radical content. I don’t think there’s a single moment where that happens. I don’t think it had to have happened that way, but it did. One thing that STO did that didn’t put its vision of white-skin privilege in a good spot to combat that was its dismissive attitude toward what it saw as a lot of white second-wave feminism. That didn’t give it the authority to intervene in those circles where it’s possible that a class-based analysis of privilege could have won the day and still would have had problems, but it wouldn’t have had the same problems we now associate with it. Who knows?

The book is called Truth and Revolution and there’s a sort of dance with revolutionary theory going on throughout it. Sojourner Truth is dancing with the traditional revolutionary theory that they get from a Stalinist Communist Party and the era that they were a part of, which they try to put their own print on that is more in tune with their thinking. And then you have your own interjections throughout, the problems they encounter and some of your opinions. Could you hash that out? I see it as something that plays itself out repeatedly, y’know, there’s a lot of back of forth about what’s autonomous and what’s not, how consciousness is spontaneous or how its not, all of that starts to move in an interesting direction…

It does! The point of origin for STO is the kind of thing we were talking about earlier with the limits of what comes before. Some of that is a frustration with the limits of orthodox Comintern politics; some of that is with Students for a Democratic Society, student movement, New Left politics. In that situation, the idea that you have to develop revolutionary theory, that it isn’t just there for the taking, that it’s not just guaranteed at any moment in time. It’s not a surprising response but it is different. What I think STO tries to do is marshal what is sees as the best aspects of some of those traditions and it harkens back to Marx and Lenin directly.

I feel like my goal in writing the book was to be as open as I could to a generous reading of the various things that STO tried to do, both in theory and in practice. I’m constantly finding myself passing internal judgments as I do the research. I used to have this little game, “Would I have left in that split?” It’s hard to do because it’s hard for me to imagine a point where I would have joined STO. It is not where my politics are, but on a meta-level a lot of what it was trying to do, thinking critically about how to construct a revolutionary politics, is something I admire greatly.

Let me ask you pointedly then: When you were introducing yourself you were talking about your affiliation with Anarkismo and First of May Anarchist Alliance. I’m curious, how does your research on the book interact with your politics and the work you do?

This is funny, a couple people ask me about this. The outcome for me has been the opposite of what people might expect. What people would have anticipated is that I would be won over to some sort of “Marx without Lenin” model. I think that’s what a lot of these newer autonomous Marxist groupings have done: they look at STO and say, “What’s great about STO is the autonomy stuff, what’s not there is their fervent commitment to Leninism, as an –ism.”

I had the opposite reaction. I became not exactly soft on Lenin, but I came to a point where I understood why STO attached itself to the particular vision of who Lenin was and what Leninism could be. There’s always this age-old debate about, “can you deduce Stalin from Lenin”, where’s the seed of all of it going wrong? I think if anything I started to see some of the limits of Lenin coming from his indebtedness to Marx. I became a harsher critic of Marx and Marxism and a more sympathetic critic, although not very sympathetic, of Lenin and Leninism. In that way, I think it’s the opposite move of what people probably anticipated happening to me.

First of May is distinguished in a number of ways politically within the anarchist milieu, but one of the things that marks us as unusual is a particularly stark critique of Marxism, a rejection of the idea of a Marxist-anarchist synthesis if you will. I don’t necessarily like the particular wording that that’s given in the general documents we’ve produced; it is unfortunately read as a form of sectarianism when I don’t think that’s what it is. I don’t think the people who wrote it intended it to be that way or are themselves sectarian. But the idea is that we are not and are never likely to be Marxists is actually important to me. I like that First of May has that.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dan La Botz August 6, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Readers of this interview might like to read my review in New Politics:
http://newpol.org/content/lessons-american-revolutionary-left-1970s
as well as the response to it by Jeffrey B. Perry.

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