Hayworth Sempione

Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy…

—William Butler Yeats

According to Truth and Revolution, Sojourner Truth Organization's history is “fundamentally a tragic tale” (p. 307), and “the overall trajectory of STO's strategy was undeniably toward failure” (p. 327). This writer and former STO member disagrees. Radical political organizations never disappear; they disperse into the future with anticipation of periods of joy. Nonetheless Truth and Revolution has achieved a couple of things.

First, the book recounts in substantial detail STO's significant achievements and major contributions to theory and strategy (white skin privilege, dual consciousness and autonomy of agency which are explained and discussed throughout the book and summed up at p. 310) and its organizational functioning (p. 331):

[STO] emphasized…the priority of common action over strict adherence to a precise theoretical line, the need for a highly democratic internal culture of debate, and the responsibility of the party to “articulate and organize popular aspirations in a framework of class struggle,” rather than to provide top-down leadership and direction to the masses [citations omitted].

Secondly, with this book Sojourner Truth Organization now has a substantial, independently published history. In addition, others have archived, disseminated and referenced STO's various publications and documents. Still others claim to be its progeny. No other group of revolutionary North Americans from the latter half of the twentieth century, excepting the Black Panther Party, is comparable.

Truth and Revolution surpassed this writer's expectations both in depth and scope. Aside from a few lapses into typical leftist jargon (e.g., “the personal is political,” p. 324), it is well written. Although the interview methodology is spotty, the thoroughness, references, summaries and organization of STO's documentary record is generally commendable. However, the book's value ends with that chore (at p. 306). Putting aside several other quibbles, Truth and Revolution's conclusions are its major weakness (its conclusions are spread throughout, but drawn up in chief at pp. 307–333, “Conclusions: Reading STO Politically”) and “lessons learned” (p. 322).

The weakness is due in large part to the book's success/failure fetish and its desire to please current political faddists (the anti-hierarchy milieu, mostly), but also because of incomplete or imperfect information. That STO did not “make” a North American revolution (p. 332) or “catalyz[e] or inspir[e] insurgent mass movements” (p. 333) are short-sighted, if not silly, metrics. The book claims not to take a “linear approach to revolution” (p. 307, fn. 2), but its political conclusions are lineal: because the formally organized STO did not in some way result in a social movement that resulted in revolution, STO is a failure. Particularly revealing of the book's analogue analysis is its pontification that “revolution […] was arguably further away” after 15 years of STO's functioning (p. 307). This kind of outlandish assessment brings to mind Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character who, when faced with Charlie Wilson's celebrating the CIA's war against the Soviets in Afghanistan as a categorical success, quotes a zen master: “Well, we'll see.” As to STO's influence, well, we shall see and, even then, we shall see.

With respect to imperfect information, Truth and Revolution, for example, concludes without citation to authority that STO's activities with and among the Iranian Student Associations “was marked by failure on almost every level” (p. 177). Rather than discover and cite to fact, the book makes a factually inaccurate appeal to melodramatic sensibilities:

Unfortunately, the eventual fate [after the Islamic Revolution] of most of the returning exiles was imprisonment, death, or imposed political withdrawal and silence. Halfway across the globe, STO was largely helpless to assist its comrades and, despite many lessons learned [!] the groups experience with Iranian solidarity work was marked by failure on almost every level.1

Anecdotally, less than 5 percent of the Iranian students in North America returned to Iran and many of those who did return sided with the Islamic Republic. Most remained in North America or ventured to other Western Countries (word came that STO was known among cab drivers in Paris during the 1980s). Furthermore, after the Islamic Revolution STO remained in contact with Left-ISA members and assisted with campaigns and demands to various United Nations bodies for intervention against the persecution of Khomeini opponents (both in Iran or to prevent or delay deportation of ISA members or other regime opponents to Iran from European or Middle East countries).

More significantly, Truth and Revolution misses the priority mission of the Iranian Student Associations in North America: organizing other expatriate Iranians against the Shah and later against the Khomeini regime. With this task STO's involvement achieved much. At ISA meetings publicized by STO-printed leaflets, STO members spoke to enthusiastic audiences. An STO member appeared in the media speaking about the mistreatment of Iranian students by the police, FBI and immigration agents and documentation of the mistreatment was disseminated nationally and internationally. Another STO member, as part of a larger demonstration, disrupted a speech by Jimmy Carter after he hosted the Shah in exile. On another occasion, hundreds of Puerto Ricans, Iranians, Palestinians, Native Americans, Central Americans and North Americans marched through the night from Gary, Indiana, to downtown Chicago protesting US support for the Shah. STO played a large supporting role in organizing the protest which drew considerable attention. In fact, ISA events were frequently better attended than most North American leftist meetings. All of this activity by STO supported and contributed to a vibrant Iranian student movement which equaled or surpassed its North American counterpart and converged with the radical North American internationalist milieu.

Other than to Truth and Revolution (pp. 175–176), STO's formal position to defend the Islamic revolution against US intervention mattered little and Iranians had much to do with informing it. The ISA call for international opposition to the Khomeini regime often blended with American hysteria during the embassy hostage episode, something which STO carefully recognized and carefully avoided. (As one veteran ISA member who had been imprisoned and tortured by the Shah's police wryly opined to STO about the Khomeini regime: “Shah? Not such a bad guy.”) What mattered more to ISA was STO's active support on the ground for ISA's organizing Iranians against the Shah and subsequently against the Khomeini regime. This support was substantial and also informed at least a slice of North Americans at large about the historic US domination of Iran at a time when the US government was forming intervention contingencies.

The book makes too much of both STO's formal organizational ending and the reasons for its ending. If a metric is useful at all, it may be whether and how STO's former members are currently engaged. The current period of mass movements across much of the globe includes Occupy Wall Street in North America—which Ignatiev rightly assessed as the most significant social movement since the 1960s (speech to Occupy Boston, November 15, 2011). While for some former STO members the cock has crowed thrice, others have persevered having been prepared to act either with or without organizational formalities. Still others have veered off (“I'm not engaged at all”; “I'm a union hack”). If as Lenin, Ignatiev, and many others (including Truth and Revolution, p. 307, fn. 2; p. 313) have observed (repeatedly in Ignatiev's case), revolutions are unpredictable and can happen at any moment, “How many people did STO prepare for this unknown eventuality?” is one of only three relevant questions. The second question is: “What are these people doing now in a period of global motion?” The third: “How do they politically justify their actions?”

“Shifting objective conditions” and a “failure of will” (p. 308) may be necessary parts of explaining the banality of STO's formal disintegration, but it is hardly sufficient. Shifting conditions are part and parcel of political life and dealing with such are its essence. Failures of will and lack of individual resiliency, on the other hand, usually have specific precipitating causes.

The book cites “de-industrialization” (p. 308), lack of quantitative growth (p. 329), and “informal hierarchy” (p. 328) as factors in STO's organizational demise. Each will be addressed here, but the book does not attribute the unraveling to concern over risk-taking attendant to STO's involvement with “direct action” and, for some (Katz and Zeskind most notably) over Zionism. On the latter, the book does not recount how the massacre of over 3,000 Palestinians at the Sabra and Shitila refugee camps during the 1982 war in Lebanon (including the bombing of a US Marine barracks) fueled STO's foray into Palestine arena most significantly by sponsoring the splendid speaking and multi-media presentation tour by Maher Ahmed (now “Ahmad”). Ahmed's recorded presentations were requested by and sent to the STO Kansas City branch where the debate around Zionism was particularly intense due in large part to Zeskind's presence.

On the former, i.e., differences over risk-taking, the book does recount some of STO's activities around the mass illegal activity theme, but does not capture how facing personal risks created deep tensions (internally and externally) or how many members viewed STO's direct action (its own “self-activity”) not as abandoning its commitment to theory, but rather as applying dialectics by intervening in the Hegelian master-slave dialectic (“it is only by risking life that freedom is obtained,” Urgent Tasks, vol. 7, p. 22). It was an approach that assessed who—among the masses and among STO itself—was at that point of consciousness, had a willingness to act and wanted to organize around action. Some simply did not “have the stomach for it.”

Truth and Revolution cites “de-industrialization” as the result of “globalization from above” or “neo-liberalism” (p. 308). The book does not explain or expound on the term “neo-liberalism.” Even Professor Bracey in his “Foreword” declines to elaborate on “neo-liberalism” (“…whatever that is…,” p. vii) despite David Harvey's having written A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism. Harvey identifies neo-liberalism's origins as political movement initiated by Hayek and Friedman at a Swiss spa in 1946. The neo-liberal grouping consisted of pro-capitalist theoreticians who set out to remove all statist constraints on capital and to apply statist policies solely to protect capital from any interference. Foucault places neo-liberalism's origins with Walter Lippmann and French intellectuals in 1937 France where and when the term “neo-liberal” was supposedly coined. Hayek's vision for the neo-liberal project is haunting: “…dispense with the need for conscious control and…provide inducements which will make individuals do desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do” (quoted by Engelmann, p. 148, Imagining Interest in Political Thought: Origins of Economic Rationality).

The neo-liberal movement has profoundly influenced the political mainstream in North America, South America and Europe. The leading popular exponents of neo-liberalism were Thatcher (her mentor was Hayek) and Reagan (Friedman was his). The movement had been furthered along in North America by the likes of Gary Becker, Lewis Powell, Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan, Richard Posner and, if Posner is correct, Bill Clinton (Greenspan and Posner, at least, recanted during the 2008 crisis). Truth and Revolution's giving short shrift to neo-liberalism is likely explained by its anti-Leninist bias displayed in its murky critique of STO's Leninism (pp. 315–316). Lenin also famously used Switzerland as a base of operations during his exile in 1917 but also, ironically, at a Swiss spa during earlier years.

The neo-liberals, these pro-capital “Leninists,” have emphatically proven a point that is uncomfortable for Truth and Revolution: a small group of highly committed and skilled people with theoretical muscle can indeed (literally, in deed) change the world. This accomplishment by the neo-liberal movement should come as no surprise since Truth and Revolution heaps attention on STO's grasp of the dualities involved with consciousness and revolution itself, i.e., both having the potentials of rightwing (fascist) negations.

Truth and Revolution misplaces “de-industrialization” at the hands of the neo-liberals and because it misses the arguments against Hamerquist's “secular crisis” position (that capital was restructuring, i.e., “de-industrializing”) in the late 1970s and early 1980s (pp. 2820–284). Hamerquist argued that the Asian Third World would leapfrog industrialization just as he had argued that Third World national liberation movements would leapfrog capital and construct socialism directly out of wars of national liberation. The secular crisis critiques argued that the secular crisis position assumed the replication in East Asia of North American capital's organic composition; essentially that automated production would obviate the need for human labor to an unprecedented degree internationally. The critics argued that capital's flow to East Asia was orthodox intra-class wage competition that Marx saw as the principal pillar of capital's domination of labor. The “deindustrialization” of North America meant the industrialization of East Asia since it had not yet (1970s) been penetrated by advanced international capital. The critics proved to be correct as dramatically evidenced by Foxconn and other factories in Guadong Provence and in scores of other East Asian production centers replete with class antagonisms and rebellious worker self-activity. The point here, in terms of STO's formal demise, is that regardless of whether or how capital has shifted, flowed or deviated from its orthodox constitution, the tasks of revolutionaries never disappear; they change and modulate in intensity.

Finally, Truth and Revolution finds more failure in STO's “informal hierarchy” that resulted from the functioning of a more experienced and more talented few casually referred to as “the heavies” (p. 328). The book gives due credit to the heavies' heavy lifting in preparing the extensive dialectics training materials and organizing the study sessions, but decries the fact that they remained as a leading force. Sadly, the organizational utopia that Truth and Revolution fancies for STO failed to materialize. The fact is that many STO members were enriched by the dialectics materials and sessions and emerged as leaders of one stripe or another.

Truth and Revolution offers vague and, from its own point of view, troubling solutions to “informal hierarchy” by “establishing precise limits on this power .…” [and] …other measures to broaden and deepen the available pool of leaders…”) (p. 329). Interestingly, the “establishing precise limits on this power” part sounds like instituting hierarchy over the hierarchy! Because of its hierarchy fetish (“STO's […] standard sort of appeal to authority that sounds dated and sectarian to contemporary ears” p. 316) Truth and Revolution views gifted individuals as a problem as opposed to a strength. The problem more likely rested among those who were not comfortable or not capable of dealing with extraordinary or stronger intellects and extensive experience. Many STO members were unable to successfully challenge the “heavies” and this inability sometimes led to frustration and at other times to accusations of one kind or another. Nonetheless the “heavies” not only faced this situation squarely through the dialectics training generally speaking, but also in stark particularity with a study question from the dialectics syllabus: “How does the ‘average person’ retain his/her views in the face of a superior intellect?” (Urgent Tasks, No. 7, “How to Think,” p.26). Ken Lawrence's answer to this question in one of the early dialectics sessions was, “on faith.” And therein lies the rub, since taking anything “on faith” was anathema to the dialectics training itself and to STO's staunch anti-Stalinism. Marx's famous communist formulation, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” expresses the universal differentials within the realm of human abilities and needs. Tensions among them can only be superseded through a process of takings (“to each”) and givings (“from each”). This dialectic occurred within the voluntary associations of STO. A brain surgeon by virtue of her or his ability has a hierarchal (master) relationship to the patient (slave), yet at the same time the patient or collectively the patients (now masters) need continual service from the brain surgeon or collectively brain surgeons (now slaves). If both actors voluntarily associate in an unmediated social situation (and have a multiplicity of such unmediated voluntary relationships), they have constituted communism. A similar dialectic operated within STO and the rest, as they say, was in details of misunderstanding, jealousy, whining, or disingenuous posturing.

Furthermore, the book misses the important point when it claims merely that the dialectics training did “raise the overall level of theoretical discussion” (p. 329). The point of the dialectics training was to “impart an ability to evaluate political situations critically and to decide independently on proper courses of action […] to elevate the effectiveness of our political work by elevating the quality of our ‘product.’ […] we are concerned with the organization and presentation of criticism, whether of strategy, general tactics, or as issue-oriented practical work…” (Urgent Tasks, Vol. 7, pp. 19–20). Noel Ignatin once said: “Look, you and I could take a lot of time and I could impart to you all that I know and even then you might not attain my level of ability. The prudent thing is to take a shorter, intense time and develop in you a capacity of how to think about what you need to know to function politically.” The “heavies” inculcated (a dangerous word no doubt) in the membership that STO's potential was a Gramscian “army of generals.” Many members took that challenge seriously and the resulting uplift in self-confidence was palpable. Members, who rarely spoke, spoke up. Those, who rarely volunteered for uncomfortable tasks, began to volunteer. Those who rarely or never wrote for Urgent Tasks or the Internal Discussion Bulletin began to do so. Again, if one is so disposed, assessing whether and how former STO members are currently engaged during this period of global movements and Occupy Wall Street might be the better measure of how and whether the “informal hierarchy” was resolved.

Truth and Revolution may serve some people as a “Sparks Notes” of sorts to the life and times of STO (the dialectics syllabus was seen by STO as “the Marxist equivalent to a Berlitz language course”). It may also serve as an introduction to serious radical politics or as an antidote to political fads and hack Leftism. At the very least it is a refresher source and a trip down memory lane for those who lived and continue to live STO.

  • 1. Truth and Revolution, p. 178.