by Paul Buhle
Michael Staudenmaier, Truth and Revolution: a History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969-1986. Oakland: PM Press, 2012, 304pp, $19.95, pbk.
(Swans - August 27, 2012) This intriguing volume, ably written by a scholar too young for the conflicts of the age he describes, interprets the life and demise of a Marxist group smaller than the sometimes influential Trotskyist movements of the 1930s-'40s (their maximum group membership: 500), but with a life and significance of its own, mainly in the ambivalent 1970s when the renaissance of the Empire remained in doubt and several thousand New Left veterans sought solutions in assorted, heterodox versions of Leninism.
One wishes from the outset that the author had written a first chapter (nay, a whole volume) on the group that immediately preceded and somewhat overlapped with the subject in question. That is, the so-called Johnson-Forest Tendency (JFT), quasi-Trotskyist or post-Trotskyist, led by C. L. R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Grace Lee. Never numbering more than fifty, the JFT contained high-powered intellectuals who emphasized the Hegelian contribution to Marxism and the transformation of the industrial workforce demographically from white and male to increasingly non-white and female. For them, as for the Marx and Lenin they envisioned and interpreted, this was a very good thing: the fulfillment of working-class destiny.
This view became pressing and almost obvious for the New Left of the later 1960s because the radical movement was trapped on campus and looking for something, almost anything, beyond. And because the largest strike wave since the years following the Second World War, roughly 1969-72, had begun, in many cases among sectors of the workforce (post office, for instance, but also health care) outside most earlier militance and increasingly accessible to poor communities of color with so many looking for steady work, but also for the continuing flow of women into the workforce. A kind of Marxian orthodoxy or fundamentalism also called out to young intellectuals, some of them with real union experience, most of them eager to enter the workforce, or blue collar neighborhoods, with a vision of a possible future.
Staudameier has done his work by examining documents and conducting interviews. He is too forgiving, in my view, of the ways in which these points were pressed within the later 1960s student movements, most especially Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Some of the future savants to STO (as the Sojourner Truth Organization was called), veterans of sections of the Old Left, became factionalists more eager to recruit newcomers to their ideas than respective of the struggle to build a mass base movement such as they (or any of the rest of us) would never see again on campus. The hammer-blow to be delivered to opponents and doubters was "White Skin Privilege," a theory and historical sensibility that contained a large dose of guilt and a larger dose of reductionism.
That said, the New Left and SDS in particular were in the process of imploding, leaving not much behind but many thousands of activists who did not know what to do next. For this, STO had its own solution: build a radical movement based upon the transformed proletariat, most especially on the racially-transformed proletariat.
The strategy made ever less sense within a decade, because the factories were shutting by the dozens, with hundreds more to come in the following decade, leaving a workforce disproportionately old, white, male, and as likely to be drawn to Ronald Reagan as any radical ideas. This outcome, like the recovery of the American imperial juggernaut, was not foreseeable, or at least not by many of us who watched the strikes and handed out the leaflets or community tabloids (underground-newspaper-looking, full of funny graphics and good humor, these competed with more staid-looking radical sheets for a few years, until both versions fell by the wayside).
Meanwhile, the several dozen cadre of the STO also cogitated theory. If there was another group that merged Trotskyism and Maoism, it must have come later, because these folks were eager to think through the revolutionary traditions. The high point -- for this biased reviewer -- was the special issue dedicated to the life story and political-intellectual work of one C. L. R. James. That such a notable escapee from the Vanguard theory of change was encompassed by activist/thinkers who continued to think of themselves as a section of the emerging Vanguard was a puzzle not to be unwound, but interesting anyway.
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About the Author
Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. His last production (2011) is Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land, edited with Harvey Pekar, and reviewed in these pages. (back)