Clinic essay-header

Spinning One’s Wheels for the Revolution

by Jay Kinney

Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization 1969-1986, by Michael Staudenmaier, AK Press, 2012, 387 pages, $19.95

When most of us think of historic urban strongholds of leftism, New York City, San Francisco, Berkeley, or perhaps Seattle come to mind. Chicago? Not so much — unless one harks back to the Haymarket Square riots of over a century ago.

Yet, lest we forget, Chicago was ground zero for the dramatic climax of Sixties leftism. It played host to the Democratic Convention in 1968 with its “police riots” and the subsequent dragged-out prosecution and trial on conspiracy charges of the Chicago Eight — or Chicago Seven, once Bobby Seale was separated out. Chicago’s largely-black West Side housed both the national office of SDS (Students for a Democratic Party), the leading national student anti-war organization of the era, and the Chicago branch of the Black Panther Party, whose charismatic leader, Fred Hampton, was fatally ambushed by Chicago Police while asleep in his own bed.

Chicago was also the spawning grounds of the SDS Weatherman faction’s “Days of Rage” in the fall of 1969 and, most significantly for the book at hand, a variety of post-SDS revolutionary groups that reverted to Marxist-Leninist modeled efforts to build a communist vanguard party to lead the “proletariat” — Marx-speak for the working class — to a communist revolution.

The Sojourner Truth Organization (STO) was one such group and it is the organization that Michael Staudenmaier examines in depth in his detailed, yet ultimately frustrating, history.

Named after Sojourner Truth, the free-black abolitionist organizer of the Civil War era, the STO was a self-contradictory product of its era. Much of SDS, and especially Weatherman, had written off the white proletariat as the engine for communist revolution. The Black Panther Party had been designated by SDS (and one might note, by the BPP itself), as the vanguard of the supposedly impending revolution. Given that the white working class constituted the majority of the proletariat, the push for a communist revolution required — according to this analysis — white workers to disavow “white privilege” and acknowledge non-whites as the revolutionary vanguard.

In a period when all workers were having to deal with declining or static standards of living, the call for white workers to renounce their supposed privileges was an extremely uphill battle, just as tough as convincing any workers that communism was a goal to work towards in the first place. One is tempted to call it a fool’s errand, compounded by the salient fact that the STO itself was an almost entirely white organization. Thus, in an effort to renounce its own “white skin privilege”, STO gave itself over to mainly providing support to black and brown militants within industrial plants, to third world national liberation struggles, and to anti-Klan activism. It did this through its own movement printshop, its propaganda, and practical support for wildcat strikes and the like.

Much of that was par for the course with many M-L groups, but one of the things that distinguished the STO from the rest was its emphasis on supporting workers’ “autonomy”. Based on the theory that the crucially sought-after “revolutionary consciousness” of workers was generated through the workers’ own struggles with management, STO eschewed working through unions or trying to recruit workers to build its own membership. While most M-L groups were happy to place themselves in the role of revolutionary mentors, dragging the blinkered working class along in their designated role of revolutionary vanguard, STO felt obliged to let the proletariat discover this for themselves. As Staudenmaier relates in considerable detail, this was heroically altruistic to a fault, contributing to a series of splits in STO as members felt that their pet projects or local successes were given short shrift by the organization as a whole. Incessant activism by undermanned chapters led to burnout or the perception that presuming to have a family with children was not looked upon favorably by one’s fellow revolutionaries. The ever-receding revolution always took precedence over members’ personal lives.

Staudenmaier relentlessly recounts the chronology of STO’s efforts to have a political impact even as it shifted from one strategic priority to another. Factory organizing gave way to “party building,” which was succeeded by third world liberation support, followed by militant opposition to domestic white nationalism, particularly as embodied in the Klan. None of these strategies and tactics achieved a clearcut success, a somber fact that might suggest to some that the whole enterprise was a well-meaning pipe dream.

But Staudenmaier delays any such conclusions for the book’s first 300 pages, contenting himself to relate STO’s history within the Marxist-Leninist logic of its leaders and cadre. In trying to forge a way forward for the revolution, STO’s delineation of the path to be followed had to be justified through reference to the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and other Marxist theorists. Studenmaier shows that within those theoretical confines STO was sometimes willing to align itself with ideas that ran counter to most orthodox Marxism-Leninism — most notably the aforementioned revolutionary “autonomism” — and concepts touted by the Italian communist Gramsci and the Caribbean Trotskyist C.L.R. James. Nevertheless, STO’s overall goal of a communist revolution was already spelled out by preceding generations of Marxist-Leninists. Staudenmaier does a noble job of tracing the intricacies of their ideological perorations, but I came away from the effort with the unavoidable impression that STO was no less a sect of true believers than the nicely dressed Jehovah’s Witnesses earnestly exhibiting copies of Watchtower on the corners of San Francisco’s Mission St.

It is only in the concluding chapter of the book that Staudenmaier breaks rank with STO’s assumptions and ventures a few criticisms. These largely have to do with STO’s strategy and tactics, not with the group’s Marxist-Leninist goals. I found this somewhat odd, given that Staudenmaier’s author’s bio emphasizes his anarchist credentials. I no longer identify with anarchist (much less Marxist-Leninist) goals, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that those who still do display some ideological consistency. However, I think we can fathom some of Staudenmaier’s gingerly approach when we consider his position.

As his introduction to this book notes, he stumbled upon the still-continuing existence of the former-STO printshop in Chicago by accident (or coincidence), and was led to discover and ponder the history of the STO by this unexpected meeting. Inspired to write a history of the group, he set out gathering what information he could from former leaders and far-flung branch members. It is a natural inpulse to not want to upset or insult any of your sources of first-hand information. However, this possibly led to Staudenmaier abbreviating any criticisms of the STO that might have occurred to most readers of his history of the group.

Despite having access to internal STO documents that outlined disputes within the group and disciplinary hearings on misconduct by one of the group’s leaders, Staudenmaier seems to have been reluctant to air old dirty laundry that could prove embarrassing to someone still in the public eye. In effect, Staudenmaier recruited himself to virtual cadre status in a group that disbanded itself three decades earlier. I can only imagine that Staudenmaier acquiesced to pressure from former members along the lines of “Mr. X would be very unhappy were you to dredge up that old scandal of his which we’ve kept private all these years.”

This tendency on the left to circle the wagons lest old mistakes be revealed strikes me as one of the reasons that the most honest and revealing histories of the left seem to be written by lapsed leftists who have become disenchanted with their former comrades and ideological beliefs and feel they have nothing to lose if they spill the beans. Whittaker Chambers, David Horowitz, or Ronald Radosh have unquestionably had axes to grind and have gained pariah status on the left, but they have also revealed uncomfortable truths that most of the left would just as soon not discuss or would deny altogether.

The detailed history of the STO that Staudenmaier provides is the chronicle of a Marxist-Leninist sect that tried to do nearly everything “by the book”. There is no question of their sincerity, diligence, or revolutionary fervor. But as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. While Staudenmaier excels at describing STO’s motivations, strategies, tactics, and goals, he remains neutral on the relevant question of whether any or all of these things were mistaken, misguided, or delusional. Perhaps this is an attempt at historical objectivity on his part, but it doesn’t feel like it. Rather, it feels like an opportunity for grappling with the whole Marxist-Leninist belief system and all its attendant baggage was squandered in the interest of not ruffling anyone’s feathers.

In the end, I couldn’t help but think that Truth and Revolution’s saga of the Sojourner Truth Organization might be better summed up as “Little Truth and No Revolution”.

Reproduction is prohibited without permission of the author. Contact Jay Kinney.