By Nate Hawthorne
AK Press recently published a book about a small revolutionary group that existed from 1969 to 1986, called the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO). The book is called Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, by Michael Staudenmaier. You can buy it here. It’s an excellent book. It reads well and its content is relevant to anarchists today for a variety of reasons. I’m going to focus on a few of those reasons in this review, but there’s even more to this book. Read it.
Sojourner Truth Organization is relevant to anarchists today because of the usefulness of the writing and concepts that STO produced, for examples provided by STO’s activity, for the organizational questions that its practices raise, and for the group’s Leninism. STO’s writing remains good reading today. It’s often well-written and always serious, material written by nonprofessional volunteer activists motivated by a sincere commitment to revolution and a desire to understand the world and their activity as well as they could. That kind of thing is always good for radicals to read. More specifically, STO pioneered two strains of thought that inform the development of much of anarchism in from the late 1980s until the present. One strain is anti-fascism. The group’s work in trying to understand the potential threat of fascism and engagement with anti-fascist activity speaks to recent development. Furthermore, former members of STO have remained active in discussion and analysis of these themes, as Staudenmaier’s book details. STO also pioneered the analysis of white supremacy and white skin privilege that later became a big part of US anarchism. STO’s analysis of white skin privilege would be continued by former STO members who edited and wrote for the journal Race Traitor.
The theory and analysis that STO produced around race remains pressing and relevant in the present in part because our society remains deeply racist. The work remains relevant, as does the relationship between STO theory and its practice, because of the shortcomings of US anarchism. STO had organizational ambiguities and problems with regard to race from early on. The organization was multi-racial, but barely, never having more than members of color in the single digits, and often the organization was entirely white. Furthermore, the organization wasn’t sure whether or how to recruit members of color. This lack of clarity was tied in part to its analysis of white supremacy. The group largely believed that the advantages that white people tend to get in a racist society helped divide the working class. The role of white radicals like the vast majority of STO was to get the white working class to stop buying in to those divisions that helped support capitalism. That emphasis helped push STO toward the white working class. When STO did engage with people of color struggles, the group tended to engage primarily with radicals rather than workers struggles, as in the case of the group’s work around the movements for Puerto Rican independence, and in that work STO was often unclear exactly what it’s role was in practice. Similar difficulties often confront white anarchists, making this book instructive reading both on the theory of white supremacy and on antiracist practices.
STO’s activities are relevant to anarchists in other ways as well. Throughout its life the group moved between what Staudenmaier calls “mass work” and “left work.” “Mass work” means organizing working class people and engaging with struggles over immediate concerns of life under this society while “left work” means network and activism among and alongside others in the political left. Clearly both kinds of activity are important, but there are practical limits imposed by the scarce resources and time and energy that radicals have, especially in small organizations and milieus. (And STO was small, having maybe 100 members at its peak, though it accomplished a lot for its small size.) There are only so many people involved and so many hours in the day, so groups have to prioritize what they’re doing and why. I’m not sure how much success STO had in any of these efforts. Furthermore, I think its priorities and the way it set priorities were a problem in that the group repeatedly put long term projects on the back burner in response to a new development that was treated like either an emergency (sometimes because it really was, involving serious state repression) or treated like a new opportunity not to be missed. I think the limits of how STO set its priorities are part of what makes Staudenmaier’s book valuable for anarchists – we learn as much or more from failures as from successes. STO’s various attempts to engage with radicals within social movements, such as national liberation and anti-nuclear movements, as well as STO’s occasional efforts to form new organizations – perhaps involving dissolving STO – are relevant for issues that some anarchists have been discussing today, including conversations among some class struggle anarchists about regroupment.
Finally, STO’s Leninism makes this book important. I don’t say this as someone with sympathies for Lenin or Leninism. In fact, while I think the book is excellent I do wish that Staudenmaier, himself an anarchist, had been more polemical with regard to Lenin and Leninism. Still, the book does three important things regarding STO’s Leninism. One thing is that it’s clear some of the time how STO’s Leninism hampered the group. That’s valuable to see, in part because Leninist groups still exist and there are occasional rumblings of new Leninist groups or informal returns to Lenin, and anarchists need to be able to deal with that in a clear way. Second, and related, the book’s footnotes and its treatment of STO’s internal discussions over Lenin offer resources for anarchists to get to know Lenin and the Leninist tradition. In my view, this is something we could stand to do. I can say for myself, my own anti-Leninism has been quite thin. I knew I rejected all of that and so did not do enough to learn about what I rejected. This hampers my ability to critically engage with that tradition and present adherents to it. I’m not the only anarchist like this. STO’s Leninism was smart and unorthodox, making it useful for anarchists to learn about as part of learning to criticize Lenin and Leninism. Third, while I have been making what some might call a sectarian point – that we should get to know Lenin and Leninism in order to more effectively oppose those ideas on the left – it’s important to be able to co-exist and work with people despite serious political disagreements. While many anarchists are and should be anti-Leninist, the “anti-“ there means something different from our being, say, anti-police. That is, the character of our opposition is different. Seeing how much STO managed to accomplish within (and despite!) its Leninism is useful for remembering that we are able to disagree strongly but still find points of commonality politically.