Class 1: Sojourner Truth Organization
These three chapters from “Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization 1969-1986” cover STO’s history from their beginnings in 1969, at the tail end of the revolutionary upsurge of the 60s, to the late 1970s—well into the deindustrialization and retreat of workplace radicalism that STO characterizes as “the lull.”
“Reorganization in Difficult Times” addresses questions of revolutionary strategy, organizational form (via debates on democratic centralism), autonomous organizing within Black and racialized communities and women, and STO’s relationship to the landscape of the left. The differing interpretations of democratic centralism covered in this chapter all relate back, conceptually, to the relationship between the class as a whole and the revolutionary organization, which similarly influence interpretations of strategy. And STO’s commitment to supporting the autonomy of Black and “Third World” struggle confused the question of what the organization’s relationship to its own racialized members was, which eventually led to a split.
“Anti-Imperialism in Theory and Practice” elaborates on the theme of autonomy, outlining how STO shifted away from workplace organizing in response to “the lull” and focused on anti-imperialist solidarity work with Puerto Rican and Iranian fighters. It covers STO’s responses to debates on the “national question” within Marxism. Unlike many leftist groups at the time, STO maintained that Black people in the United States constituted a nation, and that a class-conscious national liberation struggle would/could be a revolutionary force—one that would benefit the entire US working class. STO’s approach to solidarity and autonomy relates to our theory of Indigenous and working class people joining together, without subordinating either social group’s interests to the other’s.
“The Politics of Culture and the Culture of Politics in a Revolutionary Organization” elaborate on themes of power, leadership, intellectual work, and culture that are woven throughout the other two chapters. It describes STO’s accountability process and approach to combating male supremacy, commitment to theorizing and internal education, and the group’s understanding of and practice of the relationship between culture and politics. Red Braid has similarly been addressing questions of organizational culture for well over a year now, always with an emphasis on the political basis of our organization.
- Michael Staudenmaier, “Reorganization in difficult times” to “Organization,” in Truth and Revolution: A history of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969-1986, (Oakland, AK Press, 2012), pg. 113-230.
- What are the historical conditions that STO found itself in over the course of this decade, and how did the group’s political orientations, goals, and strategies reflect their interpretation to those conditions? How did their strategic responses to the “lull” refer to Hamerquist’s insistence that “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class” (123), or the Urgent Tasks motto that that the revolutionary should “represent the interests of the [working class] movement as a whole, to point out to this movement its ultimate aim and its political tasks, and to safeguard its political and ideological independence” (130)? Think about this question in terms of base-building.
- What was STO’s analysis of the relationship between Black liberation struggles and working class struggles? What was their analysis of the relationship between working class struggle and anti-imperialist struggle? How are their approaches similar or different to our “two braid” approach? Articulate your answer in terms of “theory” and “practice.”
- Do you agree with Hamerquist’s definition of democratic centralism (pgs 120-123)? Does it seem consistent with how STO operated, as described in these excerpts? How is it similar or different to our organizational model?
- Why did the Phantom Pheminists (206-212) publish their critiques anonymously? What limitations in democratic discussions do you think led to the tactic of an anonymous letter? What do you think the organization should have done in response to the Phantom Pheminist letter? In addition to critiquing the group’s accountability process, the authors of the letter complain that the women’s wing meetings feel just like regular meetings, except without the presence of any men. Why might that have been?
- STO emphasized theoretical debate and internal education. It seems that many members appreciated that political commitments were the basis of affinity between members and were attracted to the group precisely because of its intellectual rigour. But many members also complained about the domination of political debates by “intellectual heavies” or the informal hierarchies that appeared based on experience and theoretical prowess. STO’s response to the former concern was to organize an intensive internal education group to make “theoreticians” out of its participants.
- When is intellectual leadership counter-productive to the work of social revolution? What can be done to ensure that intellectual leadership does not produce a culture of deferring the work of thought to other people? What stands in the way of achieving this? Answer concretely, in terms of organizational form, protocols, processes.
Class 2: Indigenous organization
From the beginning, the readings from Hugo Blanco focus on organizational problems, using terms that are encoded within the language of Marxist groups: the “party,” the “vanguard,” the “cell,” “mass organizing,” “syndicalism,” and the “transitional program.”
Blanco was a Peruvian Marxist, actually a Trotskyist, and inherited this language from these political traditions that he drew from. But he was also Indigenous, and his concerns in these chapters were about the application of these class struggle terms to the realities and challenges of Indigenous struggle in Peru.
Let’s define these terms:
The Party: Blanco defines the Party in the text as “a disciplined nucleus, completely conscious of the role it would have to play in the process” of the political activity of the Indigenous masses. There is a lot to say about the organizational form that the Party has taken in revolutionary traditions, but the overall principles are that Party is:
- Rooted-in and accountable to the class that it represents, and which composes it. A working class party is, necessarily, incompletely formed during non-revolutionary periods because working class consciousness is incompletely formed while dominated by capitalism. An Indigenous party may be pan-Indigenous (as Ray Bobb explains in this article) or it may be national; but its form would have to represent the sovereignty interests of its Indigenous base.
- Composed of the vanguard of the social group it represents, particularly in its leadership layers. See below for a discussion of the vanguard.
- Bound by rules of internal discipline in clearly defined terms of decision making and action, which differ according to the needs of the struggle and the social base at a given moment.
- Dedicated to winning power for its social base.
Vanguard: Vanguard is usually the prefix for the Party, in Leninist terms. Vanguard directly means the people or forces at the forefront of a group or phenomenon. In organizational language, it refers to a hierarchical structure in the movement where the most conscious and disciplined members of the group form an organization where they play a set role as full time revolutionaries, including making decisions about the direction of the movement.
The vanguard-style of organization has gotten a bad name over the years because some Marxist parties have abused the idea; investing a presumed authority in themselves as a self-proclaimed vanguard without a social base.
But Blanco’s description of the vanguard as those who emerge from an active, politically conscious movement is a different matter, it’s more of a description than a claim. On page 45 he says “mass mobilizations are very closely tied to the whole conception of the class struggle, of the formation of the elements and sectors of the vanguard.” This formulation places the vanguard as a layer of the movement that only exists as a layer, which depends on the self-activity and organization of the movement, not in isolation.
Cell: A group within the party dedicated to a specific task, campaign, or issue.
Mass organizing: Similar to what we call campaigns; mass organizing puts the revolutionary group in conversation with its social base, tackling immediate issues according to the strategies and tactics that the group decides are most relevant to the moment. The goal of mass organizing is to win greater layers and numbers of the social base over to the revolutionary program of the group/party.
Ray Bobb’s “Overview of the Red Power movement in Vancouver”
Ray Bobb presents a different telling of the development of the solidarity and militant movements of the 1970s than the we read last week in the Sojourner Truth Organization history. Here, solidarity movements were part of the expression of the international character of the Indigenous struggle: Ray Bobb sees an anti-colonial militancy as growing out from the international rising up colonized peoples against colonialism.
The Native Alliance for Red Power (NARP) say Indigenous people are “an internal colony of the Canadian imperialist settler-state.” Thought, then, was central to the formation of NARP, even though Bobb is critical of the group’s over reliance on theory. He says it was this over-orientation to theory that pushed its members, ultimately, into the academy instead of into struggle.
- Hugo Blanco, “The Party,” “Two lines,” “Dual Power,” and “The question of Armed Struggle and Putchism,” in Land or Death: The Peasant Struggle in Peru, (New York, Pathfinder Press, 1972), pg. 36-92.
- Ray Bobb, “Overview of Red Power movement in Vancouver, 1967-1975,” Revolutionary Initiative.
- Ray Bobb says that it was wrong of NARP to place education ahead of action. Why? What were the particular characteristics of his group that he thought were not well served by education work?
- What is the difference (on page 46) between how Blanco identified leaders of the peasant movement versus the ways the Communist Party identified leaders? Which method seems right to you? Why did the Communist Party use education as the best indication of a leader, while Blanco’s group used the authority invested in a leader by the group? What are the political meanings of this organizational difference?
- Blanco says that a feature of the Peruvian peasant movement (the Indigenous movement) was its geographic separation. He says that a solution to that problem was the creation of a Party that could unite these disparate communities politically. Is a “vanguard” party necessary to develop such a unity? How would you describe unity of a geographically divided movement? What are the components of this unity and what is the role of a “nucleus” in forging this unity?
- Why does Blanco argue that “the lack of a party was the chief cause of the destruction of the movement”? (pg. 74)
On “Dual Power”
- What does Blanco mean when he says “the coexistence of power does not always imply duality of power”? (pg 53) When is two forms of power “dual,” and when it is just two expressions of the same root of power?
- Blanco also argues that there is no “dual power method,” that describes a state of affairs, not a goal. (pg 56) Explain.
- Nevertheless, he describes the partial forms of dual power that formed in Indigenous peasant communities. How was the organizational and political power of Indigenous peasants informed and limited by the forms and limitations of these limited sorts of dual power?
- How did Blanco understand the role of his Party in expanding and increasing the political consciousness of Indigenous peasants that emerged in the experience of these forms of dual power? What does this tell you about the role of the party activists in the movement?
- Blanco describes two approaches to armed struggle: the Maoist and “Fidelista” version that is based in the foco (the small geographic area controlled by the guerilla army) and the style adopted by his group, which treated the armed struggle as a “tactic” rather than a “strategy.” What are the political characteristics of the difference between armed struggle as strategy versus armed struggle as tactic?
- What is “putchism”? How is it different from revolutionary insurrection? Why is Blanco blaming putchism for a lack of interest in party building? What is the organizational form of putchism and what interests does it represent? (pg. 74)
Consciousness and Class
- Ray Bobb says that NARP’s identification of Indigenous peoples in Canada (including themselves) as “third world people” was confused because it did not account for their “petty bourgeois conditioning.” How determined does Bobb see Indigenous peoples’ position within a global movement by consciousness, rather than structures? What are the differences and relationships between consciousness and structure?
- What is a “class eccentric” and what is their role, for better or worse, in a revolutionary group?
Class 3: The Bolshevik experience
This class is the first time that we will have seriously talked about the Russian revolution. Marxists regard the 1917 revolution as the most significant touchstone of the revolutionary tradition of Marxism because they consider it to be the “first workers revolution.”
I think that in truth, the first workers revolution was the Haitian slave rebellion, which freed enslaved workers from bondage. But the Russian revolution is important for a few reasons.
One: the Russian revolution was the first time that workers organized themselves to take over factories where they had sold their labor power to capitalists in exchange for wages. These councils, which Russians call Soviets, were the central organizing form of the Russian revolution and the Soviet Union.
In this discussion on the organization question, the organizational form of Soviets, and what Soviet leader VI Lenin called, “a state of a special kind,” or, “a state of the Paris commune form,” is invaluable.
The Soviet Union is famous in Canada and the United States for being a totalitarian state, with a very strong central body, that oversees every aspect of economic, political, and social life. This bureaucratic myth has nothing to do with the original organization of Soviets, which characterized the organizational form of the Soviet Union for the first few years of its existence.
What does this mean for us in talking about organization?
First, it shows that organization is not abstracted from political dynamics. What is possible organizationally is determined by the context of the struggle. And what we develop organizationally is a reflection of the forces that we represent in the struggles. So: a democratic leadership is one that is accountable to an organized and self activated social base, which does not bind itself to bourgeois and colonial definitions like national borders. Bureaucratic leaderships, however, represent a privileged layer within the struggle and seeks to disguise and further the interests of this layer in particular rather then international class or group as a whole. One of the most important questions that define the character of a movement or leadership is the national boundaries that it accepts.
The focus of this reading is on most democratic moment of the history of the Russian revolution: of insurrection, which was characterized by the development of a dual power that commanded production on their own terms through the activity of workers themselves. This power was seated exactly on the active power of workers themselves, in the field of production and for the needs of communities themselves.
This does not mean that their power was not political. There was a difference between the democratic activity of the Soviets, and the sort of power that exists in a strike, for example. While workers in a strike are directly taking power away from their bosses by stopping production, in the Soviet democracy, this self activity at the point of production was expansive rather than limited; it was about the political life of the whole society and the power of the capitalist class as an entire group, not just about power in one location.
I think that we can think about the Soviets as an example of non-representative power, but not in a horizontal sense with no delegation of responsibility or political representation with no one speaking for the group. Political representation in the Soviets had a different character than in bourgeois power because political representation was active in the same way that workers power was active. The continuity between worker’s power and the speech of the delegate, which could be immediately withdrawn the moment they strayed from the direction of the workers, formed a non-representative representation. The tether of representation in bourgeois power is extended over four years, while representation during the self activity of the Soviets was like the crest of a wave rising from the ocean. It is the wave that crashes upon and destroys the merchant ships, but the wave moves only as the deep throes and currents of the seas down to its darkest fathoms, commands.
- John Reed, “Notes and explanations,” to “On the Eve,” from 10 Days that Shook the World, (New York: International Publishers, 1982), pg. Xxxix-73.
- Leon Trotsky, “The new power,” “Dual power,” (pg 180-215), and “Lenin summons to insurrection,” “The art of insurrection,” (pg 124-199), in History of the Russian Revolution, (New York: Monad Press, 1980), Pages above.
- Explain the relationship between the workers exercising dual power at the point of production and the Council of Soviets.
- Explain the relationship between Soviets, the council, and the street mobilizations that were the point of the sphere of insurrection.
- How does Trotsky characterize dual power? What are the component parts of dual power in the moment of revolution in Russia, 1917?
Class 4: League of Revolutionary Black Workers
The League of Revolutionary Black Workers was part of the black power movement that formed out of the ruins of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 70s. Unlike the Black Panthers, which is the more well-known section of this movement, the League was focused on organizing industrial workers in the Rust Belt of the United States. Many Black workers had moved north during the great migration after the failure of Reconstruction, settling in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and other cities where industrial production predominated, and many auto plants hired Black workers as a lower-wage workforce.
The Union of Auto Workers, UAW, was, by the 1970s a strong force in Rust Belt America, and was already playing a conservative role in the re-organization of production as neoliberalism loomed in the near distance. The UAW carried on a segregationist policy even after the union was officially integrated. So white workers occupied management positions, and shop steward positions, and the more skilled job positions, while Black workers languished in manual labor, dangerous work jobs, and the lower paid rungs of the union structure
So Black workers face two problems in the auto plants: a racist and exploitative boss and management structure, and also a racist segregationist structure within the union itself. In order to deal with these two problems, revolutionary Black workers came up with an innovative solution, which we are looking at as an organizational model.
The League of Revolutionary Black Workers was made up of Black members of the UAW. They formed workplace committees that organized for Black workers’ rights within the union and within the workplace. These workplace committees were distinctly organized in different plants, under names like the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and the Ford Revolutionary Union Movement (FRUM).
The Revolutionary League of Black Workers itself was a vanguard organization that carried out political work between these plant organizations, while developing revolutionary theory that centered on the self activity of black workers in the auto plants. The shop committees spoke to the immediate needs of workers in particular plants, and the League politicized those struggles and involved workers on the shop floor who were not necessarily formal members of the League.
The League and its plant organizations faced tremendous political repression from the Michigan government and police, as well as from managers and bosses, and the UAW. The Detroit police department in partnership with the FBI formed a special committee called STRESS, specifically to target the League and it’s shop floor organizations. STRESS had the power to carry out extrajudicial killings in the name of public safety and security, and they exercised these powers against League members. I’m not going to go on about this dynamic because it is taken up in the book Detroit I Do Mind Dying, which we are reading excerpts from.
The dynamic I would like to focus on when we read about the League is about their model of autonomous organizing within a multi racial workplace and overall unified class project where workplace politics are controlled by a bureaucratic union leadership. There are important questions here about the meaning of autonomous organizing within class struggle, but there are some particularities here that do not immediately translate over to other political settings.
- Dan Georgakas and Martin Surkin, “Black Worker’s Congress,” “Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets: STRESS,” “Mr. Justin Ravitz, Marxist Judge,” and “The 54-Hour Week,” from Detroit: I Do Mind Dying,” (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1998), pg. 131-202.
- Michael Hamlin, “Black and white, unite and fight,” “The positive channeling of rage,” and “What is your analysis?”, from A Black Revolutionary’s Life in Labor: Black Worker’s Power in Detroit, (Detroit: Michael Hamlin with Michelle Gibbs, 2012), pg. 33-62.
- Film: Finally Got the News, produced by the Revolutionary League of Black Workers (1970, 55min)
- The League faced a difficult terrain of struggle because they were not organizing autonomously within a space where the white majority welcomed their efforts. The white-dominated union actively opposed their efforts to create space for black organizing and power. So they faced both the bosses and the white unionists, at least the white union leaders, as different sorts of enemies. Does autonomous organizing require a compliant (or at least somewhat compliant) majority group to operate within?
- Why did the league fight for greater union democracy within these corrupt organizations rather than turn away from the union movement altogether?
- Why did the US government intervene to break up the League’s activity? Why did the state not mobilize the same pressures against the UAW? What political prices did the UAW pay in exchange for relative freedom to exist as a union? Think about the racial price paid in fealty to whiteness, and how this payment modified or entrenched white power in the workers’ movement. And also think about what this meant for workers (white or Black) who were then sold out by the UAW as industry was shut down and offshored in the subsequent years.
- How can we think of the League as an autonomous organization? Is this framework helpful? What are the limits of autonomism for class struggle?
Class 5: The dangers of a historical downturn
Barry Shepherd‘s memoir is a hindsight look at the decline of the Socialist Workers Party, the first and most significant of the Trotskyist parties in the United States. All other Trotskyist parties that have existed and still exist have split off in one way or another from the SWP.
Shepard was a leader in SWP for many years, including through the so-called turn to industry, which others have characterized as the beginning of its decline into an irrelevant sect that is disconnected from class struggles and social movements, and has become concerned primarily with its own survival.
The Socialist Workers Party prided itself in its heyday on being a democratic organization where there was ample opportunity for disagreements and difference, and for members to organize against the positions and structures of the formal leadership of the party. This democratic culture was important to the SWP because, for them, it differentiated their Trotskyist movement from the Soviet Union parties like the Communist Party USA and Canada. The Communist Party, following the norm of the Soviet Union party, and as-directed through the Communist International, had banned factions starting in 1919, and an increasingly conservative internal political climate grew in the decades that followed. So the SWP, which fashioned itself as an opposition to the bureaucratic trends in the Soviet Union, held the right to disagree as an organizational principle.
The question asked in Shepherd’s book is: why did this group, which held disagreement and difference as a fundamental principle, turn into narrow sect where a single leadership exercises complete control over the party and its members?
In the Soviet Union, the growth of bureaucracy was directly linked to the demobilization of the class struggle on the ground. And in the SWP (to a much smaller degree), the bureaucratic leadership group at the centre grew with the demobilization of the class struggles of the 1960s and early 70s.
The SWP had connections to class struggle through their social base in industrial workplaces, similar to those links described in last week’s readings on the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and then in the antiwar movement and Latin American solidarity. As those movements dried up and industrial workers went into retreat as factories closed, the SWP lost its roots.
The first question prompt for these readings is: why did the downturn in the movement, which people called “the lull,” produce this bureaucratization and corruption in the SWP?
It might be correct to say that the SWP, because of its connections to class struggle, suffered the same fate as those classes as they went into retreat and decline and collapse. If that were the case, we could think of the SWP’s failure to bounce back with the more contemporary movements as more of a refusal to re-orient towards the middle-class base of the new social movements.
Secondly, why did SWP members take it?
I know some former SWP members, and I have heard them reflect on the problem of the growing sectarianism and bureaucratization of the SWP. One former SWP member told me that she remembers being at a meeting in Detroit when a leader from the national centre came to visit them and pitch them this new phase of the turn to industry. In the turn to industry, all members were required to leave their current jobs and communities and move to industrial centers or meat packing plants, where they would be available then to take leadership in the coming insurrections, which the leadership was sure would come out of these spaces.
A former SWP member told me that she and everybody else that she knew in the Detroit branch thought that this was stupid. She thought that there was no chance that this policy would pass, because everyone on the ground had a different sense of direction of things. She was shocked to see that after the national council leader spoke, all the people who had been doubters suddenly were convinced. She asked her friends why they changed their minds and they said that if the national leadership thought that this was the right direction, then it must be the right direction. The problem she said was that these workers were conforming to the leadership’s direction without question. It was a culture of conformity.
Why did the radical worker members of the SWP go along with a leadership that was increasingly incorrect? Why did they not fight back? Was this a matter of formal policy? Or a problem internal culture?
- Barry Sheppard, “A new situation in the Fourth International,” “Rebuilding the International,” “Disturbing developments,” “The turn to industry,” Chapters 13 to 15, pages 130-142, and “The turn derails,” “An alternative path for the turn,” “Faction fight and split,” and “My culpability,” Chapters 26-29, pages 267-301, (London: Resistance Books, 2007), see pages above.