Reviews: valuable lessons from the Sojourner Truth Organization

Reviews: valuable lessons from the Sojourner Truth Organization

Nate Hawthorne's review of Michael Staudenmaier's Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969–1986, for the Industrial Worker.

Staudenmaier, Michael. Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969–1986. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2012. Paperback, 304 pages, $19.95.

“Truth and Revolution” is about the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO), a small radical group based in Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s. Historian Michael Staudenmaier presents a good overview of the political world that the organization lived in. The STO first formed during the tail end of the civil rights movement and the New Left of the 1960s. STO members paid attention to rising black radicalism in the United States and social upheavals in France and Italy. Later, the group engaged with political events, including the Iranian revolution, the movement for Puerto Rican independence, the feminist movement, the anti-nuclear movement and the anti-fascist movement. Staudenmaier summarizes each of these important pieces of history, and his footnotes offer a lot to people who want to do further reading on any of these topics.

IWW members in particular should read this book because the STO focused heavily on workplace organizing and wrote about that experience. I will return to this, but first I want to say that the STO’s flaws make them particularly good for IWW members to read about because the limits and failures of the STO speak to the problems that we are still working on as we build the IWW we want to see. The STO was predominantly white, probably never had more than 100 members, repeatedly split in a way that left them on the edge of collapse and held some really bad political perspectives, tied in large part to their Leninism.

Despite the improvement, the IWW remains a small organization. Our successes are inspiring and exciting but often temporary and partial, while our failures are often heartbreaking for the organizers involved. This reality of our organization means that Straudenmaier’s book offers us a kind of mirror to help us think about ourselves. While the STO was briefly national in scope and engaged in dialogue and published for a national audience, at its largest the STO was the size of a mid-to-large IWW branch today. There are both positive lessons we can learn and inspiration we can draw from the STO and there are negative lessons from which we can learn about things we should avoid.

STO members did some workplace organizing throughout the organization’s lifespan, but the group only focused heavily on this for about five years. The STO’s workplace activity will be familiar to people active in IWW organizing. The group printed and distributed leaflets at workplaces, both where they had members and where they did not, ran workers’ centers that offered legal support, engaged in strike and picket support, and helped create job actions in members’ workplaces.

The STO confronted a few persistent difficulties in their organizing, which also speaks to both the strengths we have and the difficulties we face in the IWW today. The STO rarely managed to recruit members out of its workplace organizing, in part because they weren’t sure how, or if they should even try to do so. Likewise, the organization often built new organizations depending on the facility or company they were organizing in, and encouraged non-members to participate. This approach had its strengths, like placing a priority on collective action, but it had one major downside: it inhibited organizational growth. While this approach seemed like it was based on respect for the independence of the workers involved, it resulted in STO members specifically being able to make decisions that had an impact on the workers without the workers’ input. This happened above all because of the organization’s decision to make workplace organizing into much less of a priority.

One quality of the STO that was both positive and negative was that the organization tried to pay a lot of attention to and analyze changing social and economic conditions. This is important, but the way that the STO did it resulted in a sort of ambulance-chasing mentality whereby the organization repeatedly changed its priorities based on an analysis that assumed that the latest social/economic change meant that something really big was going to happen next. Staudenmaier quotes one former member of the STO who criticized the organization for sometimes having a “get rich quick” mentality whereby the group would drop everything and focus on the latest new development in the class struggle in the hopes of finally hitting the revolutionary jackpot. This resulted in a neglect of long-term organization building, as well as a turn away from the slower but ultimately more productive practices of long-term workplace organizing. IWW branches often have these same problems. This is not to say that workplace organizing is the only thing that matters, but rather that, since we see the IWW as a workplace organizing group, we should make that our main emphasis in terms of time and energy. We should also be very honest with ourselves about what our non-workplace activities actually do to help build the organization and to improve our workplace organizing.

Finally, one of the STO’s most enduring contributions that the IWW can learn from is its writings. This matters in at least three ways.

First, despite the organization’s deeply flawed Leninist perspective, the STO consisted of a group of radicals who were very serious about understanding and analyzing capitalist society. The group’s intellectual efforts were engaged with struggle and were intelligent and thought provoking. These writings remain worth reading today because they convey important information about race, gender, sexuality, and the history of the Left, among other topics, but they also remain worth reading because reading serious revolutionary thought is one of the things that makes us better radicals.

Second, the STO’s collection “The Workplace Papers” lays out views shared within the IWW about the limits of state staterecognized unions and about the importance of building workplace organizations outside the normal labor-law framework. Indeed, when I first joined the IWW in Chicago, organizers in the branch spoke repeatedly of the power of the political and theoretical perspective in “The Workplace Papers” and its relevance for our style of workplace organizing.

Third, the IWW can learn from the simple fact that the STO had such a commitment to writing. Writing helps people think. As individuals, putting ideas into writing makes our ideas clearer, and identifies the areas where our ideas and practices are still murky. As an organization that is too big and dispersed to interact face-to-face or by phone, we can only think collectively by writing, reading and responding, over and over. This is an area where the IWW could improve. While reading this book, I was repeatedly struck by the fact that the STO was doing good workplace organizing of a type that I was basically already familiar with because IWW members are doing this stuff. But I only know about it because I’m friends with a lot of IWW members. By not writing that stuff down (and by not being better about saving and distributing and systematically using the writing that we do produce), we don’t learn as much from it and we don’t share those lessons as much across our organization and beyond, and newer members often have a hard time learning about the IWW’s own activity in our recent past. I was also struck that the STO often had a clearer and better idea of what they were doing while they were doing it, while our organizing is often less theoretically clear while in the middle of our actions. That is actually a strength of the IWW, as it means that we put our emphasis on fighting bosses even if we can’t dot all the theoretical i’s and cross all the t’s about what exactly our every move contributes to ending capitalism. Still, in the aftermath of our actions we could stand to write and reflect more.

I hope I’ve convinced you that this book is worth your time to read, and after you read the book, read some of the STO’s original writing, especially “The Workplace Papers.” You can find them online at http://www.sojournertruth.net. If you do read any of this, consider writing a letter to the IW to make some points about it and engage other members in a discussion.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2012)