I’m moving to a new apartment and it’s a major pain. As part of this, I’ve been going over stuff I have in paper and trying to get rid of it (I think I pitched like 3 copy paper boxes full of photocopied papers, it’s nuts. I also have sold over $200 in books to the used bookstore and donated more to the resale store near my house.)

Among the stuff I’m cleaning out are some printouts of documents by the Sojourner Truth Organization.

There’s much here that doesn’t speak to me or that I actively dislike (it boils down pretty much to them being Leninists and my being pretty sectarian in my anti-Leninism). But there’s a lot I like very much.

Mostly what I like: the emphasis on building mass organizations, and the emphasis on waged workers.

Here’s what I’ve been reading, specifically:
Theses on Workplace Organizing

Best bit:

“6. It is Utopian to attempt to lay out detailed characteristics of an organizational form whose shape must be concretely determined in the course of the class struggle. However, we can indicate three basic features which it must contain in order to solidify and extend its challenge to capitalism.

a. Through dealing with the immediate issues facing workers, it cannot capitulate to the legitimacy of capitalist property.
b. The organization must be self-motivated and the stands and actions it takes must be a true reflection of the will of its members. In no sense can it be regarded as an arm of the “party,” nor can any such Marxist group be permitted to impose a line by virtue of its organization, technical skills and resources.
c. Only a group formed with a firm and unshakeable commitment to full equality for non-whites will be able to evolve sound positions on all issues of concern to working people, and a group that hedges on its commitment in this regard will inevitably find itself compromised on other issues.

These points must guide the approach of communists to their work, or the potentials to which that work is directed will not be realized.”

A Call To Organize

we propose to build a revolutionary mass workers’ organization which can take part in on-going struggles and initiate new ones, which can develop these struggles both tactically and politically, coordinate them, transform them from group to class struggles, and change their character from spontaneous to conscious acts . . . until they are seen as a part of the path to the smashing of capitalism and the taking of power by the working class.

I’ll come back to this issue of revolutionary mass organizations. This document has a lot of criticisms of unions that I like but I think they’re overstated (something which they later say as well, though they’re still more ultra-left than I am); I do really like the criticisms of contractualism in this piece and like their response to critics who shout “dual unionist!”

Reflections On Organizing

I like the point here that workplace struggle can help workers “sense, and then understand, that they have a position of power to use against their oppression.” This activity must be collective, however:

“Individual actions, even those which border on the heroic — and most of the ones that we are considering are quite the opposite of heroic — do not make the workers more aware of this power. They manifest the fact of the workers’ oppression without showing the possibility and the efficacy of collective action by the workers. Thus they can’t be used to draw general lessons about both the necessity and the possibility of independent working-class organization. Since this awareness is vital to our perspective, and since it cannot be lectured into the workers, some experience of collective action, no matter how minimal, is the necessary social condition — the only real base — for our perspective.”

On the basis of this point the document criticizes (rightly, in my view) their earlier A Call To Organize as overly spontaneist and individualist.

What are really important are the examples of collective struggles in the factory and the conditions for further developing these. Though this narrows the initial base, the base is still there, more evident in some factories than in others, of course. So the question is: How can a mass independent working-class movement be built from these elements of collective struggle? Where do we begin? How do we work?

“What does it mean to say that a worker is open to revolutionary ideas? Fundamentally it means that he is open to seeing that working people are a class that has the power to make a revolution (a socialist revolution, that is).” [The gendering of the working class here is unfortunate.]


workers [the piece here means oppressed racial minorities] have a relatively vivid experience of aspects of the capitalist structure where the contradictions are sharper and the crises more advanced than at the point of production. Certainly this makes them more aware that the only real answer to their needs and grievances is a revolutionary answer. But it does not necessarily make them more aware that the working class and only the working class can make the revolution.”

These workers

are more open to general revolutionary propositions than are the masses of workers, but it does not necessarily follow from this that they are more open to the specific forms of revolutionary organization and action which are suited to the point of production.

There’s a long discussion of what communists should and shouldn’t do in the workplace which is worth reading. (I’d actually like to re-issue some STO texts in pamphlet form, edited heavily – so heavily that perhaps it would qualify as a rewriting or distortion, basically by taking out all the stuff I disagree with.)

On spontaneity:

A spontaneous action is not held together by a leadership which sees it as part of a general strategy for sharpening the class struggle. Lacking such leadership, its demands are seldom clearly stated and related to its tactics. Because it is not incorporated into a conscious class-struggle perspective, by a combination of some selective concessions and repression by the management and union working in tandem the action will be absorbed and its energy dissipated over a period of time. The management seldom has to respond to spontaneous direct action, even when it reaches the stage of large-scale wildcat strikes, with blanket repression: firings, suspensions, transfers, not to mention injunctions and police.

A lot of what I really like about the STO documents, aside from the organization and workplace focus, comes down to two main points:
1. The working class does not have a uniform consciousness, but rather has varying and self-contradictory consciousness.
2. Participation in struggle builds improved class (and eventually, communist) consciousness.

Some strikes involve mass participation in struggle, but most clearly do not. No alternative conception of the world is manifested in those strikes where the union and the management co-operate in the orderly closure of operations; where picketing is only a dull and tiring public-relations chore; and where the bulk of the workers just disappear till a new contract is signed. And this is the character of most present-day strikes.

It is in the course of the struggle of the workers themselves to gain some control over the large part of their lives which is spent at work where the alternative conception of the world is most likely to show itself. Such direct actions, as opposed to most officially sanctioned strikes, allow workers to directly participate in defining the problem, setting the goals, working out the tactics. This makes them a party to the various confrontations with the other side. And it is through such participation and confrontation that the “embryonic” alternative conception of the world manifests itself in changed ways that workers think, act, and relate to other workers.

While job action is the necessary basis for building a mass revolutionary movement, in itself it is not sufficient. (…) There must be a conscious leadership that puts the lessons of the particular struggle into a form in which they can be understood and socialized — made into the basis for a new sort of “normal” behavior for the workers. Without such a leadership, both reason and experience indicate that the job actions will peter out and the routine of capitalist control over production will be speedily re-established. If the direct action is not integrated into a revolutionary perspective, it will just buttress one or another aspect of false consciousness among the workers. (…) Direct action at the point of production creates the conditions for the workers to begin to appreciate the necessity and possibility of socialism, but this lesson will only be learned to the extent that there is some grouping attempting to teach it. In the absence of such teachers, the various lessons that capitalism constantly beats into the workers (you get what you deserve, look out for Number One, take it to the union, nobody gives a damn about anyone else) will be the lessons that are learned. Any Left group which relies on direct action to develop an autonomous working-class consciousness and an independent revolutionary workers’ movement by itself, is going to wait forever.

While it’s not the only thing that matters, there “is no substitute for the sort of collective experience involved in direct job action.”

I think this is great:

A grouping whose individual members all regard themselves as “revolutionaries” is not necessarily a revolutionary group. This is the case, not so much because the individuals may be mistaken or hypocritical about their own politics, though that is far from uncommon, but because the test of whether a group of workers is revolutionary is whether it is able to find a programmatic link between the immediate needs of workers and the struggle for socialism. No amount of propaganda and education will build such a link by itself. It comes through the workers’ experiencing in struggle their distinctiveness from the capitalist class; the weakness of the capitalist class; the possibility of working-class unity; and the possibility of constructing a society of freely associated producers — socialism.

But the argument goes even further. Direct action is also needed in order to develop a cadre of workers who can provide the skeleton of a future mass movement. Why is, this true? Because we can’t take an individual’s politics at the value he or she places on them. A worker is revolutionary because he shows in action that he can act in the way necessary to create the conditions for making a revolution, not just because he is willing — or even anxious — to be called a “revolutionary.”

Members of any sort of cadre group must be constantly tested, not by seeing if they can re-state the “correct” position on all of the major questions, but by seeing if they can develop a revolutionary practice and provide leadership for the masses of workers. Everything said in the course of this paper means that this practice must involve developing and leading job struggles of masses of workers in ways which maintain and strengthen the revolutionary potentials that are manifested in such struggles. What should be thought of a worker who claims to be a revolutionary but who is constantly opposed to attempts to generate and lead struggles of the workers? — who always argues that such actions are “premature,” that “the workers aren’t ready”? We should think that it is best to look elsewhere for cadre, that’s what we should think. If the program doesn’t stress direct action from the outset, how can potential cadre be put to this sort of test? As was said earlier, it is not necessarily the case that the workers most ready to adopt a generally “revolutionary” political stance are also those workers most ready to act out a revolutionary political practice.

Next document:
Mass Organization at the Workplace

“What is meant by ‘mass’ and what is meant by ‘revolutionary ?’

Mass organization, in this context, means organization that is open to all workers who are willing to participate in struggles in the interests of the working class and that functions as openly as possible. (…) Experience seems to show that the actual numbers in such an organization will fluctuate as the struggle sharpens and declines, perhaps in certain periods growing to encompass nearly the entire work force, at other times shrinking to a skeleton.”

The mass organization fights for the interests of its members, ‘interests’ defined in relation to some structure of power-over (oppression, exploitation, whatever).

“What is meant by ‘revolutionary?’ To supplant the existing trade unions, an organization is needed which struggles for reforms, but does not confine the struggle within limits which are dictated by capitalism. The influence of a revolutionary mass organization must, in large measure, depend on its success in alleviating the ills of working class life, even while the domination of capitalism continues. To recognize the dominance of capitalism as an obvious fact is not the same as regarding that dominance as a matter settled for all eternity.

To function as the representative of a future ruling class, to at every point of conflict counterpose a new model of society to the prevailing one, to strive to establish and expand the sphere of operation of the new model in the face of fierce resistance from the old – such is the minimum demanded of organizations which aspire to be regarded as revolutionary. In the specific context of the workplace, revolutionary organization must not go along with the management rights clause, the labor-management harmony statement of purpose and the rest of the devices designed to mediate class struggle, and that is what makes it objectively revolutionary.

To call organization ‘objectively’ revolutionary means that Marxists will be involved in a constant struggle within it against various non-revolutionary ideas to prevent its revolutionary character from being submerged and to widen its perspective.”

The point could be made more sharply, but what I like here is the aspect of struggle as a training. I’ve argued before that this same idea was held by (or least implied in the practices and ideas of) at least some currents within the IWW in its heyday, and that it was reasonable to call this an IWW theory of transition, as part of taking the early IWW seriously as people with ideas.

Another STO text:
The Golden Bridge, on William Z. Foster. I’d like to reissue this as a pamphlet as is, it’s very relevant to debates about working within other unions, among other things. (See also New Beginnings on the IWW and Change To Win.) No notes beyond that, can’t find my paper copy.

And… Towards a Revolutionary Party. This is long but I think well worth reading. I think the argument against spontaneity is important but doesn’t work, in the particular focus on the necessity for the revolutionary organization to introduce more radical content. If this is put forward not as a necessity but merely as a reasonable thing to do and a good idea, then I’m all for it.

[Getting tired, will have to come back to this one, also the notes on the Lenin stuff I read. That should probly be another post. After that, revisit this discussion with Todd and read/re-read more of the FdCA stuff on mass organizations and political organizations.]