Rank-and-File Marxist Theory: The Sojourner Truth Organization Workplace Papers

A new generation of students and workers has inherited the crisis of capitalism.  Capital must always expand, but now it finds itself in one of its inevitable crises of reproduction that annihilates “the future and constructs the youth as a subject of social protest.”1 A new generation is seeking tools for coping with crisis and cuts, and some are turning towards political struggle as a solution.  The question then arises: what political method do we use for battle?  Which traditions do we draw from heavily and which do we mostly leave aside?  Huey Newton for instance dealt deeply with this question when he found no group he wanted to work with and decided to create a new method.

Click on the image to download the Full PDF

Reading revolutionary militant and decolonial theorist Frantz Fanon as well as Karl Marx and Mao Zedong transformed his political thinking, providing a framework for why and how to build the Black Panther Party.  The Panthers spread like wildfire through the US because the fighting history and readiness of the Black working class met its reflection in an anti-imperialist Marxist theory developed and propagated by Black militants.

Another US attempt to build a new approach was the Johnson-Forrest Tendency (JFT) started in 1940 by Trotskyist militants CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya.   Separating from Trotsky over their analysis that the USSR was capitalist rather than socialist, the JFT produced ground-breaking revolutionary theory but split in 1955 over ” the proper orientation of organized revolutionaries.”2  In 1969, a new group called Sojourner Truth Organization was founded which eventually attempted to apply the theoretical content of JFT in practical form through rank-and-file workplace newsletters. These were not the dry parliamentary papers of union officialdom, or the narrow party-line perspective of Trotskyist and Stalinist operations, but an attempted application of JFT politics taking race, gender, culture, and theory seriously within the landscape of the workplace.  In a handwritten flyer from 1973, dealing with the combination of class, race and gender oppression, STO writes:


The company has reached a new low for dirty tricks. They are sending the women up on the furnaces to work clayman3.

To make things worse they have assigned the White women to office jobs so that only the Black sisters will be sent on the furnaces. They must not be permitted to get away with this. The women are fighting, but they need help. (As usual, no help can be expected from the union.) Discuss with friends near you what ACTION to take to prevent this OUTRAGEOUS INJUSTICE. If we don’t stop this indecency, we have no right to hold our heads up (pass this along).”

Click on the image to download the full workplace papers PDF

As  non-profiteers, Trotskyists, Maoists and insurrectionists enter the field of struggle, many are discovering internal contradictions of their method and becoming open to an alternative.  The rank-and-file orientation coupled with serious organizing, focus on mastery of the Marxist method and serious attention to race and gender make the STO workplace papers an invaluable source for a new generation of activists, students and workers.  In a time of Greek rebellion, Nepali revolution, the Chicago Republic Doors and Windows occupation and much other working class resistance to the effects of the capitalist crisis the STO workplace papers can be a powerful tool to develop the politics and framework for dynamic class struggle in the midst of this crisis they’re making us pay for.

1. The Glass Floor by Theorie Communiste
2. Corrected by a reader, thanks Mike!
3. A clayman is a steelworker that fills mud guns and prepares the iron trough for the blast furnace.

25 responses to “Rank-and-File Marxist Theory: The Sojourner Truth Organization Workplace Papers

  1. Excellent post. I see this as picking up right where Crisis and Consciousness left off and expanding the discussion about how to fight the budget cuts in the workplace. The rank and file approach ya’ll are discussing here seems to be a key point of contention between us (what you call the class struggle Left) and the Trotskyists who tend to trail the union bureacracy.

    I agreed with almost all of the Crisis and Consciousness peice, but there are a few points I think that need to be developed further. In particular, I worry that some readers saw it as an outright dismissal of engaging with union politics, which I know from your interventions in Oakland is not your position. I see ya’ll engaging with the rank and file workers who are in unions and trying to build independent activity while also putting pressure on the union bureacracy.

    Studying and discussing the workplace papers has helped us think through what organizational forms and methods we can take when we do that. STO picked up on the Johnson Forrest Tendency’s emphasis on “recognizing and recording” the self activity of the working class, and their workplace newsletters did this. But they also built workplace groups to intervene in struggles as the leaflet you posted demonstrates. They brought together layers of workplace militants , some conscious revolutionaries and some not, to fight together indepednent of the union bureacracy. Studying their work informed how folks built For a Democratic University and International Workers and Students for Justice here in Seattle.

    I think a lot of us agree that the union bureaucracy plays a role in reinforcing capitalist social relations and in holding back rank and file workers’ self-activity. But what should be our organizational approach in unionized workplaces to challenge that? Should we advocate “dual unionism” or building more revolutionary unions to replace AFL CIO unions? Should we build radical caucuses within the existing unions to push for better policies like wildcat strikes (what appears to be Labor’s Militant Voice’s approach based on the “how not to capitulate to union bureaucracies” piece)? Or should we build independent workplace groups that can move without the permission of the bureaucracy? If we build these independent groups what relationship should they have to radical/ progressive caucuses? In workplaces that aren’t unionized should we unionize first and then build an independent group? Or should we just try to build a rank and file group without unionizing? Or should we try to unionize through a more radical union like IWW or United Electrical?

    One of the Workplace Papers, “Reflections on Organizing” takes a strong position against union caucusing of any type: http://www.sojournertruth.net/reflections.html. This review of that piece by the libertarian Marxist group Big Flame critiques some of it’s undialectical and vanguardist understandings of consciousness: http://www.sojournertruth.net/thompson.html. Finally, STO writes “Trade Unions and Independent Organizations” which revises some of their earlier positions based on the challenges they encountered in practice (some things we’re experiencing here as well): http://www.sojournertruth.net/unionsorganizations.html. In that last peice they realized that it’s not just the union bureacracy that holds back worker’s self activity; at times the rank and file’s lack of confidence can contribute to folks leaning on the bureacracy even when they hate it. We are seeing a lot of that right now in Seattle. STO says at times you need to retreat into various forms of semi-caucus work with an eye constantly torwards pulling out of it and taking independent action again as soon as folks confidnece increases.

    What else can the Workplace Papers teach us about building a “third tendency” or “authentic class struggle Left” in the workplace? Is it primarily about advocating wildcat strikes when the centrists and the bureaucracy say we can’t? Or does focusing only on that aspect of it frame the question too much in terms of tactics instead of in terms of underlying methodology? In other words, are there times when strikes are not the best thing to agitate for but we still should agitate for some form of rank and file unauthorized/ wildcat job action that goes further than what the union bureaucracy and its centrist defenders would want? How do we consolidate rank and file power and organization during periods of lulls in struggle so that the rank and file will be stronger and able to engage in things like mass strikes during new upsurges in struggle?

    • hammer and sickness

      mamos, as always, raising the right questions. a little further down, mikey does a good job clarifying the historical trajectory of group formation (something i DO think is very important for us to ponder). katey, posing a question that is kinda eerie – a post-union epoch?

      in general, i would say that “we” (class struggle left, marxists), can make the tactical decisions that are appropriate for a given workplace. the answers to all of mamos rhetorical questions are, it depends. the criteria for our decision should always be, what impact will our action have on the working class as a whole (at least the wc within a given region)? tactics should align with strategy, which should be aligned with our analysis, which should be aligned with principles which must be in line with our theory of revolution, and this in turn is a product of our philosophic method. it is the outcome of our tactical decisions which should loop us back reconsideration of our theory, which must always be grounded in reality. this is what makes us dialectical MATERIALISTS.

      in other words, the tactical dimension is where the cycle of knowledge from particular to general to particular recycles.

      i guess this is mostly a conversation, though about strategy. the “independent workplace group” strategy seems the most consistently potentially revolutionary to me.

      the key question is what consciousness surfaces from what type of organizing and what type of action. i am a bit of a leninist in the sense that i think there are certain ideas that have to come from the outside – not outside the working class, but outside a given workplace, and from a broader party type organization.

      the ideas im talking about are the ones derived from information not naturally gleaned from everyday life or from standard bourgeois education or popular culture. namely, the marxist propositions about the inner dynamics of commodity-production, the source of value, capitalist crisis, and history of the class struggle. all this has to be brought from the outside to particular workers or groups thereof.

      and not only that. this information, taken in its totality, triggers certain conclusions, in fact carries these conclusions within them. specifically, the conclusion that proletarian revolution is necessary and that we must organize to prepare for it.

      in my opinion, “recognize and record”-ism, theories of working class “self-organization,” and the STO didnt assert their revolutionary politics enough, or if you will, assert their theoretical leadership enough. they seem to have emphasized the form side of the equation of agency, and belittled the content side. revolutionary content was said to lie in embryonic form already, subsumed under contradictions of bourgeois consciousness, and just had to be coaxed through action to reach full maturity. seeds need to be watered, and i see the proletariat as a garden more than an autonomous ecosystem in some isolated rainforest or something. revolutionaries must water and fertilize. do either one in excess though and the plants will suffocate and die. ignore your role as a gardner and it will be overcome by weeds. thats the balance we need to strike.

      ironically, the one area where blatant imposition from the outside of revolutionary consciousness was fully recognized (by STO at least) was on the question of white supremacy. i agree this should be blatantly confronted and countered. however, there are a multitude of aspects of revolutionary consciousness that also need to be blatantly put forth. this CAN be done in a way that doesnt squash workers’ consciousness from becoming/blooming from within. i would call the combination of methods for the development of working class consciousness from within and from without Freirean-Leninism.

      its like recognize and record but with more of an obvious agenda, which if we are to be honest as revolutionaries, we certainly do have and the people we work with certainly do have the right to know what our agenda is. we have a duty as conscious individuals to share our agenda openly, and proudly, without crossing the line into arrogance or authoritarianism.

      through cycles of reflection and action, cycles both on a micro-scale within one workplace or one neighborhood and with one (albeit fluctuating) group of working class people, consciousness raises. revolutionaries should initiate spaces (forms) where this process can be launched from. but we should also intervene throughout the process with the wisdom produced by previous micro-projects like this and from our studies.

      also on a macro-scale, cycles of reflection and action effect the working class as a whole. the crisis of the 30s forced the working class to reflect on what the fuck was wrong with a society that could have such a convulsion. then they acted through strike waves etc. then they reflected again and saw that racism and imperialist war were a big barriers to their further progress. no revolutionaries existed on a macro scale that could overcome these barriers (CP was pretty good on race, but bad on imperialism vis a vis USSR, the SWP was not that good on race, but better on imperialism, etc etc)

      in terms of unions, these can be said to be like gardens that were taken over by agribusiness and turned into monocrop cultivation of bourgeois ideology. i dont have anything to say really about how to relate to them other than to develop revolutionary minded workplace groups, link these up across workplaces, de-isolate proletarians and bring them into communities of consciousness and thus consolodate the potential for agency. then let the chips land wherever they do. many of these attempts at micro-level agency will fail, but a lot of data will be collected by workers as to how to proceed. this is a time of experimentation. revolutionaries have to be involved first hand in order to get all the facts and put them in historical perspective. thats why as many workers as possible must be exposed to revolutionary theory and trained in it overtly.

      so on the micro and macro scales, revolutionary theory does have to be asserted from “the outside” although i think its a mistake to percieve the outside to mean outside the class. after all, the class struggle generates the data for consciousness to reflect upon, and these days, even the educated “middle class” layer that makes up much of the revolutionary population is basically proletarianized…

      • Agreeing-to-Disagree

        Up front I’ve got to be clear: I’m not a Leninist. But I do agree with Loren Goldner that as an historical actor Lenin was a “supreme example of a certain coherence of theory and practice,” but also agree with Loren that although Lenin “wrote about philosophy, about literature, about the Russian economy”… “He was a hack in philosophy, not terribly inspiring about literature, quite problematic in his economics.” Simply stated, Lenin was an inheritor of the traditions of Kautsky and the Second International, with which he never fully broke.

        Marty Glaberman considered himself the last “unreconstructed Johsonsite” (J.R. Johnson was CLR James’ pen name) and some of my comrades and I place ourselves as part of that tradition, differing only in not holding Lenin in the same high esteem that they did. In “Facing Reality,” (1958) the breakaway from of Johnson-Forest, the Correspondence group (CLR James, Grace Lee, & Pierre Chaulieu [Castoriadas]) wrote about of the greatness of Lenin but how Leninism as a transhistorical ideology had become a perversion, saying:

        “… the study of Leninism and our own experiences should confirm us in what the Hungarian Revolution has unmistakably shown: the specific organizational theory of Leninism, the theory of the Vanguard Party, must now be rejected root and branch.”

        “It was a particular theory, designed to suit a specific stage of development of society and a specific stage of working class development. That stage of society is now past. The theory, and the practice that went with it, are now an anachronism, and, if persisted in, lead to one form or another of the counter-revolution. The first thing we must do is purge ourselves of it (p. 87).”

        Then they go on to say:

        “Now, half a century after [in 1956], what do we see? The trained professional agitator, the revolutionary socialist type of Lenin’s day is today the basis of the bureaucratic machines of the unions, the political parties, and the governments. Society has moved on since that time and these elite types have now become the greatest obstacles to that release of popular energy and creative power which has always been the most powerful motive force in the creation of a new society (p. 89).”

        How did this come to be? I’d say we have to look at the parallels between Kautsky and Lenin. Here’s what Kautsky wrote in 1901 in “Neue Zeit” as a response to the Hainfeld Program:

        “Socialism as a theory is of course as rooted in modern economic conditions as is the struggle of the proletariat, and both arise equally from the struggle against the mass poverty and mass misery which capitalism produces. But they arise parallel to one another and not out of each other, and they do so under different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness can only arise on the basis of profound scientific understanding, and modern economic knowledge is in fact as much a precondition for socialist production as is modern technology. But with the best will in the world the proletariat can create neither one nor the other; both arise out of the contemporary social process. However the bearer of science is not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia. Modern socialism first emerged among certain members of this group and through them was first conveyed to the intellectually advanced proletarians. They then introduced it into class struggle, where conditions permitted. Socialist consciousness is therefore something that is brought into proletarian struggle from the outside and not something that grew naturally from within it. The old Hainfeld Programme was therefore quite right to say that it was the task of Social Democracy to introduce the proletariat to the consciousness of their conditions and of their tasks (p. 79).”

        A year later, in 1902, Lenin praises these “extremely striking and important words of Kautsky’s” and says “one cannot talk of an autonomous ideology formulated by the working class themselves in the course of their movement (from “What is to be Done?”).”

        And Lenin makes the same thesis elsewhere, in the famous quote where he says:

        “The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness, i.e. the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophical, historical and economic theories elaborated by the educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals (“What is to be Done”).”

        O.K., I doubt anyone needs convincing about how deeply flawed history has proven these ideas of both and Kautsky and Lenin to be. One need only look at the long list of near-revolutions, insurrections, uprisings, lengthy general strikes, massive factory occupations, etc., etc., since 1917 to see what the working class is capable of without a vanguard to lead it or tell it what to do.

        This belief that radical ideas must come from external sources, outside the class, demonstrates a flawed dialectic. As we’d all probably agree, Marx’s theories come from Hegel’s dialectic; the latter uses the master-slave narrative to demonstrate that the slaves must not only struggle against their masters but also against elements of their own class.

        CLR James’ “Notes on Dialectics” is a brilliant, if long, exposition of this. In “Facing Reality” he makes a more concise summarization of dialectics:

        (A) All development takes place as a result of self-movement, not organization or direction by external forces.

        (B) Self-movement springs from and is the overcoming of antagonisms within an organism, not the struggle against external foes.

        (C) It is not the world of nature that confronts man as an alien power to be overcome. It is the alien power that he has himself created.

        (D) The end toward which mankind is inexorably developing by the constant overcoming of internal antagonisms is not the enjoyment, ownership, or use of goods, but self-realization, creativity based upon the incorporation into the individual personality of the whole previous development of humanity. Freedom is creative universality, not utility.

        Hammer and sickness wrote:

        “CP was pretty good on race, but bad on imperialism vis a vis USSR…”

        This was once true, but by the 1930s the Communist Party began its rightward move. But prior to World War II the CP had distinguished itself for its anti-racism in connection with class struggle, especially in supporting the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti and providing lawyers in the defense against the legal lynching of the Scottsboro Boys. By 1941 the CP was attacking A. Phillip Randolph’s proposed civil rights March on Washington, saying it undermined the unity needed for the war effort. The CP’s pro-war patriotism pushed its racism further: it expelled all Japanese American Party members and their spouses and supported the mass imprisonment of all Japanese Americans. World War II also marked the period when the CP went to bed with the Democratic Party and never got up.

        I don’t think there’s any single path to fomenting class struggle in the direction of revolutionary activity. I think hammer and sickness makes many good points. But from my experience the most important thing, to paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, is to learn to fight by fighting. Theory is crucial too; they must form a dynamic interplay of experiment and critical self-reflection. That’s why I think the Johnson-Forest “full fountain pen” approach is still useful. These things can’t be brought in from outside; they can only occur by being full immersed in the class.

  2. Hello all,

    Thanks for posting this. I like your take on the contemporary relevance of STO’s attempts at workplace organizing, but there are some unfortunate historical inaccuracies, at least one of which has some importance to contemporary political questions.

    First, the mostly petty part: the Johnson-Forestt Tendency is normally said to have been disbanded in 1955, when “Johnson” (CLR James) and “Forest” (Raya Dunayevskaya) split over the proper orientation of organized revolutionaries. After that point, Dunayevskaya’s faction became known as “News and Letters,” which still exists today. The folks loyal to James’ position were known through the fifties and sixties as “Correspondence,” and later – after another split, this time with Grace Lee and James Boggs, among others – as “Facing Reality.” It is this latter group that dissolved itself in the late 1960s, not the JFT as such, which was long gone by then.

    More importantly, no one from Facing Reality (or indeed from any of the other factions that emerged in the aftermath of the JFT) was involved in the founding of the Sojourner Truth Organization. To the best of my knowledge, in 1969 only one founding member of STO (Noel Ignatin) was even attentive to the politics we now associate with CLR James. It is true that over the course of STO’s existence the Jamesian influence grew within the group, but this process took many years. At its founding, STO was committed to a version of Leninism that James had long-since rejected, especially in terms of attempting to create a unified revolutionary party. The Jamesian element can certainly be seen in early STO documents like Ignatin’s wonderful essay “Black Worker, White Worker,” but it is largely absent from most of the other pieces that appear in the Workplace Papers collection, all of which were written in the early-to-mid seventies, when STO still thought of itself as engaged in party-building efforts.

    A key underlying factor here is that no one involved in founding STO had any background with or affinity for the Trotskyist tradition from which James emerged. The backstories of the founding members of STO include time spent in the old original Communist Party (CPUSA), the so-called “anti-revisionist” split from the CP known as the Provisional Organizing Committee (POC), which was effectively Stalinist in orientation, and the various formations of the New Left of the 1960s, including Students for a Democratic Society, the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party. None of these formations was heavily influenced by Trotskyism or by James. For example, one of the largest political influences on the early STO was the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) in Detroit, and even though the leading members of the League personally knew and respected James and others from Facing Reality, they largely rejected James’ critique of vanguardism in favor of a form of Maoism. The influence of Maoism was present inside STO as well, although the organization never conceived of itself as Maoist. If anything, STO was too eclectic an organization from the very start to have been identified strongly with any of the major strands that emerged from Leninism.

    On one level this is just nit-picky, but on another level it has important lessons for revolutionaries today. The main one, it seems to me, is that political lineages are often less important than the innovations that accompany new formations. Thus, STO took ideas from a range of previous organizations and theorists, and created a theory and a practice built around challenging white supremacy and expanding the consciousness and autonomy of the working class. In turn, contemporary revolutionaries owe it to groups like STO to avoid simplifying (or worse, romanticizing) our own past influences. No group, whether STO or the Panthers or anyone else, was perfect; if they had been, the revolution would have long-since been won.

    Similarly, times and contexts change, and what worked for STO in the early 1970s not only needs updating today, when industrial production happens largely outside of the US, it needed substantial corrections even in 1980, which was one of the problems with the publication of Workplace Papers itself. Despite a serious attempt, STO was not able to recreate in the early 80s the sorts of industrial successes it had in the early 70s.

    Okay, I’ve gone on long enough. I’m excited to see more people taking STO seriously, and my contribution here is intended to further that process, not knock down your efforts in that direction.


    • Yo Mike,

      I thought Ken Lawrence was in Facing Reality and later joined STO.

      • Yep, brain fart, sorry about that. Lawrence was in Facing Reality, although he did not participate in founding STO and didn’t become a member until several years later.

    • Can you or Noel elaborate on how Lawrence made the leap from “recognize and record” to joining an interventionist organization? To qualify, when I say interventionist I mean actually entering into existing struggles to fuse with them and push the most insurgent elements and most radical demands. JFT and Correspondence were not interventionist and associated any kind of interventionism with vanguardism and that the task of a Marxist is to functionally abstain. I’m aware that STO was influenced to a considerable extent by James in particular, but I’d like to know what caused Lawrence to break from the abstentionist position.

      • Hey Krisna,

        I don’t want to speak for Lawrence, but based on my interviews with him and others, I’m not sure he ever held a strict “recognize and record” position, even when he was in Facing Reality. He had a wide-ranging background in the far left during the 60’s, and I suspect his attraction to FR had more to do with his appreciation of James’ take on race and his approach to culture than specifically to the anti-vanguardist stuff. (To be honest, I’ve long thought that the “recognize and record” approach, at least in its short-hand version, is incoherent at best and self-deceptive at worst, but that’s a different issue.) But Lawrence’s shifts in political approach were, I think, conditioned by the changing revolutionary milieu as the seventies progressed, and especially as the popular upsurges of the sixties shifted and in many cases receded. He eventually became one of the more ardent proponents in STO of its party-building efforts, which Noel rightly points out were quite different from those of most of the rest of party-building left (although I think Noel over-sells the point in his comments below). Hope this helps a little bit.


  3. Interesting post and terrifically thought-provoking comments!

    Lately I have begun to seriously question the existential viability of unions as we know them in the US. In other words, not only do I think that most unions have demonstrated a structural inability to function as adequate fighting organizations, I believe that the organizations themselves are going extinct.

    I may be wrong, but I think that overall union membership has been flat-lining or worse for decades, and there is little indication that this will change anytime soon. Indeed, considering the fact that union density has remained relatively “strong” only in the public sector, and considering that this area is under intense assault, the prognosis is grim indeed for mainstream unions.

    Of course, I may be dead wrong. But if I am correct, how do we prepare ourselves for a “post-union” future? Does this possibility have any bearing on our methods as we grapple with our relationship with unions today?

  4. Yeah, I agree, interesting thread. Although I find inspiration in some of their ideas and activity, I’m not as enamored with STO as the rest of you. As many of you might know, Marty Glaberman pretty much carried on the tradition of the Johnsonite faction of the Johnson-Forest Tendency until he died in 2001. He did this by being willing to get in his car at his home in Detroit and drive as far as Toronto in Canada and Youngstown in Ohio to read “Das Kapital” for a session with comrades in study groups in those – and other — places. Back in the 1960s George Rawick, who was teaching some members at Wayne State, introduced Marty to the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and he read “Capital” with them. Marty also kept alive the tradition of J-F by reprinting texts with his own Bewick Editions (named after the street he lived on in Detroit for decades).

    And Marty’s own writings can be instructive for those of us struggling from the shopfloor today, but like some of the STO articles –as Mike correctly points out – they are somewhat dated because deindustrialization and other major changes in class composition have happened since they were written. That’s why I’d recommend to anyone engaged in workplace struggles the many relevant writings of Staughton Lynd. When I met him, he placed himself in the tradition of CLR James and had been very good friends with Marty Glaberman, good enough to edit the collection of the latter’s writings called “Punching Out.” Staughton now works closely with the I.W.W. and his more interesting writings and talks can be found online (often on the I.W.W. website), or in texts like “Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding The Labor Movement From Below” written in 1992.

    I went on strike at a non-profit ESL school in San Francisco in March 2008 and the single most important book that the core of us who went on strike read was Staughton’s “Labor Law for the Rank and Filer: Building Solidarity While Staying Clear of the Law” (available on the I.W.W. website: http://www.iww.org/organize/laborlaw/Lynd ). I can’t emphasize enough how important the legal, tactical and strategic information in that book is. A comrade in the Pacific Northwest who works in retail food actually attached a copy of it to the employee bulletin board with a chain at the beginning of a series of disputes with management so that everyone would always have access to it.

    Another close friend of Staughton’s was Stan Weir, who like Marty devoted his life to building solidarity on the shopfloor while at the same time fighting against the racism that makes the working class divided and weak. A book of his writings, called “Singlejack Solidarity,” is another must-read for working class militants fighting the class war. To me, his most important text is “Informal Work Groups” (available here: http://www.flyingpicket.org/node/21 ) because it is an example of class-struggle-from-below and it shows how unions had already become not only enemies of working class self-activity (as CLR James said, the “bodyguards of capital”), but foreshadows how they went on to become one of the most significant counter-revolutionary institutions in society today. Nearly every one, whether in AFL-CIO, CtW, or independents like UE, has all the passion for social change of an insurance company. And that is at their best. They’re overriding concerns are growth in members for more dues, but they literally operate on a corporate model like an insurance company. These “business” or “service” unions take in dues, like insurance premiums, and offer members services in the form of things like representatives to bureaucratically handle grievances. A thorough account of this process, of the mainstreaming and institutionalization of unions, is Steve Early’s “Embedded with Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home.” Although I don’t agree with his conclusions, his descriptions of the current state of unions is excellent.

    But at worst unions are simply appendages of the capitalist political parties. Labor unions give hundreds of millions of dollars to the anti-labor Democrats and slightly less to the anti-labor Republicans. In the 2008 elections alone the AFL-CIO contributed over $400,000,000 to the election industry; the SEIU gave $80,000,000 to the Obama campaign. Instead of dues-payers’ money going to build strike funds or for organizing the rank-and-file, labor unions fit the right-wing accusation of being “special interests” because they spend more money lobbying than for any kind of – even weak and symbolic – struggle or fight.

    And I defy any of you to find any mention in any contemporary union literature that says anything about “class,” “social class,” or “class struggle.” They simply avoid those words like the plague. And herein lies the crux of the problem. In my research of working class history in the U.S. I’ve found accounts of 16 citywide general strikes. What made those possible were a kind of class consciousness that transcended sectoral division and allowed whole communities to fight as a class “for itself.” That kind of consciousness is all but gone today and we have to start from scratch and build class-based organizations, whether we call them unions, councils, or whatever. One example I’ve always been inspired by was the One Big Union that broke away from the I.W.W. and was created in 1919 in Canada (here’s an account of their actions: http://manitobia.ca/cocoon/launch/en/themes/strike/3 ). It made the general strike its central weapon and spread throughout Canada and down the West Coast with branches as far south as Oakland. It’s influence was greatly felt in the month-long Winnipeg General Strike in 1919. Unlike the industrial unionism of the I.W.W., the O.B.U. practiced class-based unionism. This, I think, should be the model for whatever organizational form we give to our efforts in class struggle today.

    Lastly, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that overall unionization went down a tenth of a percent last year and is now 12.3%. In the private sector it went down an equal amount to 7.2% (seen here: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm ). And as Katy pointed out, the strength of unions is the public sector, which is also where unions are coziest with political allies in the tradition of patronage and loyalties to political machines. Frankly, short of a rank-and-file rebellion that would involve lots of wildcats, they’re fucked. But it also begs the question why so much of the question of class struggle is centered on unions when the rest of the working class, like myself, are part of the 87.7% who are unorganized.

    We need to understand how we got here, but the first step is talking with your fellow workers to prepare to build solidarity from the shopfloor. And it wouldn’t hurt doing an updated version of a “Workers’ Inquiry” (like this one here: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/04/20.htm ), in the spirit of Marx, to discover how the class has been recomposed and to have a “positive” knowledge of working class conditions (even if they’re only your own at first) under the conditions of globalized capital.

    For the Class War,


  5. It was a fascinating post about a little known part of left history. The STO was quite “New Left” having bounced off of SDS. They were part of the huge Maoist milieu that came out of SDS that went on to spawn the RU/RCP, the October League/CPML and a host of other groups few of which are actually around today.

    I ran into STO in Kansas City, of their main organizing centers or so their members told me. This was back in 1977 or so. What I knew of them was their theory on “White Skin Privilege” a kind of super-Black nationalism that argued that white workers *directly* were privileged over their Black and Brown co-workers receiving exploited surplus value by their generally higher wages and seniority, and so on. I kind of internal-Imperialism.

    I don’t want to do an injustice to them but their theories are available online, I believe. They were a fascinating group. They also functioned fairly underground and while they were in the same unions we were, we really never saw them work in the unions, at least not openly as communists.

    Various ex-STOers are still around and hopefully they can clear up their history for those that are interested.


    • noel ignatiev

      Few discussions strike me as more mystified, detached from reality and pointless than the one about STO, the Johnson-Forest Tendency and the vanguard party. JFT was not against revolutionary organization, STO never sought to build the kind of “party” that most Marxist-Leninists understood by the term, and the “Leninist party” was not central to Lenin’s thinking (although he did, rightly or wrongly, advocate a certain type of organization for a certain period under particular circumstances, and another type under other circumstances). Some things seem self-evident:

      1) People join organizations like STO or Facing Reality or Unity and Struggle voluntarily and as individuals because they think they share the organization’s goals. This is not true, for example, of most US labor unions, where membership comes automatically with employment, nor is it true of factory committees or neighborhood assemblies in a period of general upsurge, where people “belong” because of where they work or live.
      2) Every organization has certain beliefs that distinguish it from other organizations and that it thinks allow it to make a unique contribution to society; otherwise it would not exist.
      3) Every organization decides what to do from among different proposals.
      4) Every organization differentiates between members and non-members.
      5) Membership always carries rights and responsibilities.

      To function openly or clandestinely, to elect people to positions of responsibility or rotate tasks, to hold delegated meetings or meetings of the full membership, to finance its activities through dues, contributions, bank robberies or a combination of them, to permit its members to disagree in public and even act contrary to the organization’s views (for example, taking part in capitalist elections)—every organization decides these issues based on what it thinks will enable it to carry out its tasks most effectively.

      PM Press recently published A New Notion: Two Works by CLR James. In the Introduction I tried to provide a brief but coherent summary of James’s world view, including his view on organization. I wrote it with two audiences in mind: 1) those who think James opposed any form of organization that assigned special tasks to those who have chosen to dedicate their lives to making revolution, and praise him for that; and 2) those who attribute that view to him, and criticize him for it. Without wishing to engage in unseemly self-promotion, I encourage people to read my Introduction (not to mention the rest of the book). It will be posted on http://www.bringtheruckus.org/.

      Noel Ignatiev

      • Hey Noel,

        Can you clarify which discussion you’re referring to when you mention “STO, the Johnson-Forest Tendency and the vanguard party.” Your following points were clear and I’d largely agree, but I’m not sure what this is in response to.

        Also, what are you getting at in describing the differences between voluntary and involuntary organization? Again, I formally agree with those differences, I’m just trying to find the relationship between that and the discussion happening in this thread.


  6. STO Knowledge?

    It would be good if STO people could comment on what the new generation could learn from STOs strengths and weaknesses. Any thoughts Noel or others?

  7. I have been repeatedly appalled by seeing people who begin as revolutionaries dump everything they ever believed and lose themselves in trade union activity as soon as they discover a local union that shows signs of life. STO sought to identify the patterns of activity that embody the potential of the working class to build a communist society, and distinguish them categorically from those that reproduce capitalist relations—unions, electoral activity, etc. That effort underlay the Workplace Papers, and it would be unfortunate of the discussion of it were to become bogged down in bibliographic references to STO antecedents, as I think Mike’s comment does. Notwithstanding its talk about a “party,” STO never, not for one minute, saw itself as the embodiment of the new society—the hallmark of Marxist-Leninists and Trotskyists—or sought to substitute itself for the forms arising within the mass movement that represent the new society within the shell of the old. It saw its function as helping these emerging forms become stronger, better organized and more conscious of their direction, and all of its discussions and decisions were in pursuance of that goal.

  8. Don Hamerquist

    I don’t find this discussion to be “pointless”. That would imply that the questions posed are meaningless or that they have already been answered conclusively. I’m confident that Noel would agree that neither is the case.
    Having read several of his long posts I expect we differ on the reasons, but I find myself, with Hieronymous, ‘not as enamoured’ of STO. The useful aspects of our approach to class organizing have to be weighed against our failure to adequately comprehend the changes in capital; in the nature of the work process, in the social function of white supremacy, and in the prospects for the international revolutionary movement. Different strands of the organization had differing responsibilities for these inadequacies, but we all fell short of what was needed and parallel problems still face the revolutionary movement.
    STO had an activist and interventionist orientation while recognizing the difference between developing a radical class movement and expanding our organizational influence, but we certainly didn’t solve the political and organizational issues facing a mass communist working class movement. In my opinion the same is also true of all of the strands of the Johnson-Forest tendency and I am wary of discussions that would combine our weaknesses with theirs.

    Don Hamerquist

  9. Mamos- I think you’re asking the right questions, and honestly given the near total absence of the left in mass struggle, ones that the left is presently unable to answer. I think some of this is contextual. In some instances I think it makes sense to build new unions, recognizing the near term limitations of such. In other cases, based on the objective strength of the workers in the shop, I think it’s best only to pursue fights and not build permanent unions. I’m skeptical about caucuses in unions, but i think independent tendencies of militants can be effective. The broader strategy though is where are we at as the left, working class movements, and unions. Speaking generally I think the left is largely segregated from recent struggles, and there are no real mass movements in the US grounded in class. Working class militants need to be present in sites of struggle, and need to try and build and expand struggles that exist and new struggles. This has to be tempered though by understanding that struggle is historical. We are likely to have very limited successes and transitory achievements. In our present time I think we need to focus on qualitative changes in militants, solidifying/developing/retaining militants built in struggle, and preparing for the next fights and future ruptures. This is in contradiction with quantitatively building or mere ideological preparation.

    I second the big flame critique of the leninist orientation towards consciousness in some early STO stuff!

    Hammer and Sickness- The problem with the consciousness-from-without schema is where does consciousness come from and how does it get into workers? Lenin thought (in some places) it came from the ability of left sections of the bourgeois to study based on their free time and intellectual access. He had a very mechanical conception of implanting the ideas of the party into the workers, and I think this largely one-way orientation is getting translated into how you’re reading Freire.

    Glaberman is the person I know who made the most radical break with that stuff (Weir too). Glaberman gives a number of examples from struggle where action proceeds consciousness. That is to say workers exhibit revolutionary consciousness in struggle they are not necessarily aware of or would have thought before the struggle. As a model, if we are going to have to teach this consciousness, i think we are in big trouble because i don’t think explicit instruction can compete with the ideological reproduction apparatus of capitalism.

    We need to think historically. Often in revolutionary upsurges the workers out pace the left. This was the case with Lenin who would become to the right of sections of the peasants and workers, and who was instrumental in reimplanting capitalism (taylorism, managerial control, etc) against the soviets. The left is not external to the class, but is internal to it. We don’t have privledged access to consciousness, but are subject to the same forces of reactionary consciousness as anyone. Thinking historically then, our strategy needs to be to facilitate growths in revolutionary consciousness within the working class, and attack the reproduction of ruling class ideology. Some of this will be explicit, but on a mass scale it will only be the autonomous development of consciousness within the working class in struggle that can make a mass revolutionary movement possible.

    Likewise with unions dying Katy. It’s true at this moment, but the danger with unions is less the present. STO was good about this, they found unions were less overtly repressive than they thought. The problem is not unions in general, but that in high times of struggle unions provide a means of diverting and containing struggle. In normal times, it may merely be non-present or sometimes supportive (while undermining future autonomous organizing). I think it’s on the table for the ruling class to reinvent a labor peace deal if struggle were to bubble up. Our orientation needs to be how we can build autonomous class militants that can outlive the struggles they’re born out of.

    white supremacy- I actually don’t think the problem with white supremacy is consciousness of the working class. It is a reflection of the problem, but the bigger issue is the role of a system of white supremacist divisions within the class. Combating white supremacist ideas then would only touch a fraction of the working class and a fraction of the problem, and as I said above I don’t think it would be effective. The only way to challenge divisions in the class is to attack the reproduction of white supremacy, and try to create class consciousness in struggle.

    Shameless plug, a comrade from my group MAS wrote a piece on Freire here:


  10. About Katy’s comment about unions being outmoded, it’s one thing to write off unionism as a strategy, it’d be another to do so in a way that writes off (ie, abdicates any serious attempt to interact with) the membership. That’d be particularly problematic given that people have not really taken seriously the fact that there’s been a major demographic shift in the make up of unions with regard to both race and gender. Whatever else there is to be said about the mainstream labor movement, I’d bet the unions are more diverse racially and in gender terms than the aggregate America pro-revolutionary left.

  11. Kingsley Clarke

    I am gratified that this discussion continues. STO went through various stages of practice in its approximate 15 years of existence. Further, there was never, to the best of my knowledge, lock-step, unanimous ,agreement on “The Line”. Certainly, no such agreement was enforced. Therefore, it is important for those who look to STO history for some minimal guidance in answering present questions not to become particularly “textual”: i.e. “this was written in 1969, thus it was an STO line”….
    Also, let me state one thing for damn sure: we did a lot more than recognize and record!

  12. Just to clarify: I am not writing off the rank and file workers (otherwise known as “us.”) I hope it didn’t come off that way. My only observation is that I believe that unions are in a death-spiral. Back in the nineties much was made within the AFL-CIO bureaucracy about target numbers for rebuilding membership. Dire predictions were made about the fate of unions if membership didn’t grow by X numbers in Y years. That was the impetus behind Sweeney’s election and the rhetorical push for resources to be redirected to organizing. Not much came of it – unless I’m mistaken, membership numbers have remained virtually unchanged since then. This makes me doubtful of the long-term viability of the formal union structures we know today. In light of this, we have to ask ourselves if they can be saved, if they should be saved, and by whom? What exactly is the nature of our rank-and-file membership to the union structure? From what I see, most of us who are members don’t even vote in union elections, don’t attend union meetings, and are generally pretty turned off by the whole shebang. I understand that, since it seems like the majority of union resources and energy flows toward electoral politics.
    Anyway, I just want to be really clear that I was referring to the bureaucratic union structures as they exist now, not the rank-and-file workers they claim to represent. My concern is that we figure out a way to come out stronger as workers, rather than going down with the ship.

  13. Katy, rereading my comment it sounds like an accusation, sorry about that, not my intent. I do worry, though, that a significant tendency on the left writes off the mainstream labor movement. I agree with the general points about the labor movement as not being a vehicle for revolutionary change. I also happen to think that the immigrant rights movement isn’t a vehicle for revolutionary change – it’s still super important, something to defend from the capitalist offensive against it. Ditto for the labor movement (not in every single instance, of course, like say police officers unions, but in many instances). I think this is a particularly important thing to think about for people who care about race and gender – unionization benefits women more than men, and the labor movement is lot less the “white male industrial workers” stereotype than it used to be and than some people on the left tend to think. That demographic shift in union membership strikes me as worth taking very seriously.

    On Noel’s point above – “People join organizations like STO (…) voluntarily and as individuals because they think they share the organization’s goals. This is not true, for example, of most US labor unions, where membership comes automatically with employment, nor is it true of factory committees or neighborhood assemblies in a period of general upsurge, where people “belong” because of where they work or live.”

    I’m not sure about this. People in a neighborhood or workplace committee may well be entitled or allowed to participate because of where they live or work, by their actual participation is another story. Likewise for active vs passive members of unions. And in 22 US states private sector unionization is not compulsory as a condition of employment. It’s no surprise that unionization is lower in those states but that’s still about half of the US and people in those states join unions voluntarily. I’d also be interested to know more about laws about public sector membership. Unionization in the US private sector is about 7%, in the public sector it’s about 37% (and more than half of US union members work in the public sector). I’ve looked briefly but can find info on public sector union membership laws — I work at a public sector job, where I work there are unionized and non-unionized units. In the unionized units, membership is not compulsory but voluntary. I don’t know if non-union employees in those units have to pay a fee to the union or not, I know in some states they do and in others they don’t. In any case, my point is that unions are voluntary associations in more cases than Noel lets on. And in my experience they’re value laden more often than a lot of people htink, in the sense that many people participate in them for reasons beyond self interest narrrowly/economistically understood (“I have to join in order to get this job” etc). And, there’s also the matter of new organizing by unions, as poorly as that often goes, which stands or falls with the voluntary association of the people being organized.

    I’m sure someone’s going to see me as politically wrongheaded here (Todd said to me the other day something like “when you defend the unions like this it makes your politics seem different than they are”), but I just think there are a lot of questionable assessment made of unions among far left folk. Even though I do ultimately agree that the unions (in the dominant sense of the term anyway) are not a route to revolution and I agree in the short term with the substance of the advocated by Mamos and Todd.

  14. I was a member of STO in the 1970s and of News and Letters (the organization founded by Raya Dunayevskaya (aka. Freddie Forest) after the JFT split in the mid 50s. So I have been reading the discussion about STO and JFT with interest. There are a lot of things to comment on here but what I wish to focus on is the trade union discussion. It is important to place this discussion in historical context. It isn’t a matter simply of being for or against trade unions as some of this discussion seems to do. The position taken by STO and the JFT was specific to the nature of U.S. trade unionism at that time. After WWII the geo political center of capitalist power shifted to the US where there was a very militant trade union movement. A part of the new post World War II hegemony of world capitalism involved the ability of US capital to raid the developing world for its resources and establish massive and predictable industrial production in the U.S. To achieve this, the union leadership was offered a reasonable share of the surplus value produced by the U.S. (white) working class in return for labor peace and the support of the union leadership for U.S. foreign policy which used various means to prevent any interruption of the ability of U.S. capital to raid the developing world and take needed resources. In this period we saw the expulsion of “reds” from the unions, the merger between the more conservative AFL and the relatively leftist CIO, the enactment of labor laws – especially Taft Hartley – that would ensure production continuity, and the establishment of CIA operations within the AFL-CIO. That in a nutshell was the US labor movement for 30 years beginning around the mid 1950’s. Toward the end of that period there were many instances of global workers insurgency. In the U.S. much of this came from workers of color who had been left out of the deal with organized labor. JFT and STO both supported these insurgencies including those that directly attacked and challenged the established trade union movement. And we rejected efforts that many leftists supported to reform a basically rotten union structure or to find a common ground to unite the working class that excluded the specific issues of women and people of color. . In the mid 1980s the deal with established organized labor fell apart as global insurgency and classical capitalist crisis forced the ruling classes to shift strategies. Turning fictitious capital (debt) into a commodity and developing technologies that would greatly enhance capital mobility and domestic monetary policies that encouraged capital flight (strong dollar) — the crux of the new strategy that we sometimes erroneously labled “globalization”– caused the collapse of manufacturing in the U.S. and caused the unions to change their tune. Yet the same old union structure and practices were and are still in place (the CIA got kicked out of the AFL-CIO offices but everything else is largely in place). As some of you have suggested it may be that new forms of worker organization will emerge out of this. Working people will attempt to unite in line with their perception of class interests. Some of this activity will have some seeds of a new society. But not all of it. As revolutionaries we need to do far more than simply “recognize and record” these embryonic seeds. (Disagreement with the recognize and record formulation was the basis of the JFT split). It is up to us to meet the new initiatives by pointing out what in worker spontaneous organizational activity contain the seeds of a new communist society and support the progressive initiatives. Dunayevskaya’s formulation was that there is a movement from practice (spontaneous worker activity) that is a form of theory; but it must be met by a movement from theory that is a form of philosophy. That is, revolution consists of a dual movement. The latter is the task of conscious revolutionaries. We have listen to the voices of revolt but we also have an active role to play. It may at times mean joining in a struggle that has a union base being cognizant that this struggle will have to move beyond the bounds that even the more progressive unionists will be willing to support. At other times it may mean relating to activity outside trade unions or even initiating resistance to activities that threaten workers.
    Dave Ranney

  15. I’m also an ex-STO member. I’m coming to believe that STO’s “eclecticism”, which I saw mainly as a willingness to evaluate, test and try again, was the reflection of a broader reality. Like continually engaging in a game of wackamole we tended and tend to try to resolve the intervention issue one way or the other. The problem is as soon as we recognize the preeminence of less conscious initiatives, like immigration (which I see as having immense political significance), we turn and find the opposite: conscious intervention (John Brown, the early IWW, the Black Panthers) and,of course, various clear combinations, like the Zapatista movement and the Agentine factory takeovers.
    Masks often cover the eyes of workers and oppressed people, and our eyes, too. Cracks in the masks are sometimes made primarily by spontaneous reactions to oppression, sometimes by conscious revolutionary intervention, sometimes by a close combination of both, to the extent that we can separate one from the other.
    Keeping in mind the centrality of emphasizing and respecting self-activity and self-emancipation, I would like to see the further development of an approach that combines humility and an acknowledgement of our responsibility to sometimes light the flame, sometimes fan the flame, sometimes just join the cheers when the smoke clears.

  16. I was a member of Harper’s Ferry Organization in NYC, which had some connection to STO. Later I joined OL, then CPML, then LRS. The I took a long break and, together with a small group in Chicago, spent 16 years re-studying EVERYTHING, while also taking part in various forms of mass practice and struggle. Later I joined CCDS, a pluralist socialist group that doesn’t pretend to be a party.

    But today back in Western PA, living near where I was born and raised, I spend some time organizing among workers, unionized and non-unionized. Unfortunately, the vast majority of workers have no organizations at all, save perhaps their churches, bowling leagues, volunteer fire departments or, in some cases, street gangs.

    Lenin’s frequently made point, which I completely agree with, was that organization was our key weapon. Without it, the workers didn’t have much of anything.

    So for any of you who think unions are an obstacle, don’t worry about it. In 90 percent of the workplaces, you had a clear shot at whatever you want to do. If you have a better way, go for it and show us how it’s done. Start with Walmart, the largest employer, and work your way down.

    More seriously, we work with workers who, first, are interested in political activity and, second, progressive-minded. They are a minority, but a fairly large one, of the class overall. We had to create an organization they could see as their own and we could see leading to wider battles in the future.

    We picked Progressive Democrats of America, but built it our way. We focused first on HR 676 Medicare for All, then ‘Out Now’ from the wars, EFCA, Green Jobs and Debt Relief for Students and Homeowners. We got three city councils and all the local unions and labor councils to sign on to HR 676.

    We joined the Obama campaign, working mainly with the unions, the Black community and the youth volunteers. The regular Dems didn’t do much of anything.

    We grew threefold as a result.

    We also work with union staffers and members on other issues where we can, organizations of retirees, ministers and church groups, ie, wherever we can. For the most part, our work with the few union locals left has been positive. We are ‘pro-union’ but not limited by them.

    We also take up the study of socialism for the 21st century and the matter of the ‘solidarity economy.’ A number of workers here are fascinated both by the Steelworkers initiative with the Mondragon coops in Spain and the Evergreen Coops in Cleveland. We’re planning a trip to Cleveland to study them, and see if we can create something like them here.

    I would say the most important method I’ve learned from the old days, apart from the centrality of dealing with white supremacy and the white-skin privilege, is ‘the mass line.’ Start by talking with people, and gathering up their ideas. Start where they are and what they can see as their own, whether you like it or not. Then move on from there, placing the part in the context of the whole, and the present in the context of the future. Then network with others, horizontally and vertically. Keep your eyes on the prize, and see where it goes. As one old comrade, now deceased, often put it, ‘the truck is always easier to steer once it’s moving…’

  17. Pingback: Union Debate: Mara Responds to Jocelyn and James | Advance the Struggle

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