Libertarian Marxism meets Leninism: some thoughts on STO’s “Towards a Revolutionary Party” (1971)

Towards a Revolutionary Party, the Sojourner Truth Organization

I am a member of Unity & Struggle in Texas and I want to share an early pamphlet of the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO) that I re-read recently that has been a critical supplement for me of our group’s organizational studies.  It is called “Towards a Revolutionary Party” (TARP) and was written in 1971, just two years after STO was founded and after the collapse of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the national student civil rights and anti-war network from which it emerged.

STO, like many New Communist organizations, grew out of the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) opposition to the Progressive Labor Party’s (PLP) dominate tendency in SDS called Worker Student Alliance (WSA).  When PLP took the position that all nationalism is reactionary it overnight put them in opposition to every national liberation struggle and hence every revolutionary Left tendency including the American Black movement which was then seen by many as a national liberation fight.  RYM formed as a broad opposition to the WSA which inevitably led to another broad opposition to the Weathermen faction (which became RYM I), a group that emphasized and undertook armed struggle then and who felt that the American working class was inherently backward, and RYM II.  It was out of RYM II that many Marxist Leninist pre-parties and grouplets would take shape and this included what would become the STO.

STO was a peculiar and highly original (as well as obscure) New Communist organization as they saw race and specifically white privilege as the main impediment to a united working class struggle against capitalism.  They believed the only way a united struggle could be built was to directly challenge the social basis of white supremacy (white privilege) by organizing white workers to support independent black struggles and demands.  They argued that such demands benefited the class interests of white workers.  White privilege for them, while not without its problems, was very different from the various academic manifestations of privilege politics today which abstract away history, class and struggle.  They developed a sophisticated theory that sought to understand how previous US labor movements had been defeated along racial lines.  For STO it was not because white workers had false consciousness.  It was ultimately because they took material advantages: better jobs, attended better schools, and were protected from the worst of capitalist crises in exchange for refusing to support or opposing Black movements.  It was this historical materialist analysis that marked STO’s understanding of white privilege.  Though there were inherent theoretical and programmatic pitfalls to their understanding of privilege, it is beyond the scope of this piece to address it.

The last thing I’ll say introducing STO and building off false consciousness is that they explicitly rejected any simplified and wooden approaches to understanding and changing consciousness.  This is no doubt due to the fact that STO, unlike RYM II, RYM I, and WSA were not a Maoist organization and took great influences from Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Communist who spent years in prison theorizing the relationship of consciousness and practice, and C.L.R. James, a Caribbean Marxist from the same generation as Gramsci and who came out of the Trotskyist movement and later broke with it.  James and the Johnson-Forest Tendency (JFT) of which he was a part, like Gramsci, also sought to more dynamically link thought and action which was facilitated by returning to Marx’s early philosophical writings, some of which they were responsible for publishing the first English translations.  Here is an excerpt from the pamphlet which sufficiently summarizes their understanding mass or popular consciousness:

“this collective consciousness is not a coherent and systematic ideology, and its reflection within each specific group of workers is also fragmentary, confused, and contradictory; a mixture of good sense, error, prejudice, and ‘borrowed’ features of capitalist ideology.”

The tendency of Maoism and Stalinism in the New Communist period toward consciousness was one where communists struggle to replace one coherent ideology with another one.  This was done through propaganda efforts and political education and was largely something separate from popular struggles.  In contradistinction, STO saw consciousness as dynamic, changing, contradictory, fragmentary, etc. all on its own.  Through struggle and reflection these contradictions can work themselves out in favor of something more coherent and revolutionary.  It wasn’t just their emphasis on the need for communist education that was problematic of Marxist-Leninists, it was their belief that everyday people are simply liberals or that someone’s professed and obvious politics are in complete harmony with their actions.  The experience of mass struggle show those things to be in constant tension.

So while STO’s theoretical influences clearly places them in a libertarian Marxist camp unlike the rest of the American New Left, they were also self-described Leninists (at least at the time of the writing of TARP) which automatically creates an uncomfortable tension with their theory–JFT specifically was opposed to building a Leninist party.  STO had one of the most unorthodox takes on Leninist/vanguardist organization precisely because they were trying to provide a dialectical relationship between mass struggle and revolutionary organization which most Marxist-Leninist (i.e. Stalinist) organizations did not.  Most were torn between the dichotomy of tailism (falling behind liberal leaders and refusing to raise independent perspectives or strategies) or absentionism (refusing to participate because the politics of the movement weren’t purely revolutionary).  This dynamic has not changed much today.

Yet original as their Leninism was, they were still Leninist which I contend is in fundamental contradiction with Marxism.  While I don’t want to write an exhaustive critique of this pamphlet, I did want to open a few things for discussion.  For starters, why is Leninism fundamentally at odds with Marxism?  JFT felt that revolutionaries must recognize and record but not intervene in mass struggles.  But can this interventionist component have a libertarian, i.e. non-Leninist content?  What would it look like to break from STO’s Leninism but retain an emphasis in intervention?

While they lead off in TARP from Lenin’s 1902 book What Is To Be Done?–which has been a starting point for virtually every revolutionary Marxist organization–that revolutionary change isn’t possible without the interventions of a Leninist party, the experience and mass participation of the working class is something which is given great emphasis and which a Leninist party must not subordinate but engage and expand.  Here STO argues that revolutionary consciousness, the consciousness of the need to overthrow the capital relationship and value production, isn’t merely injected by revolutionaries “from without” but is gained through the experience of struggle.  This not only departs from the Left but from Lenin himself (at least where Lenin was when writing that book).  STO sees a similar dynamic of M-L organizations who, like the various trade union bureaucracies, seek to organize and direct mass actions from the board room instead of creating openings to provide for the greatest amount of participation and experience to the working class.  Creating such openings is a central task of a Leninist party according to STO:

“The party must develop tactics which maximize the opportunity for mass participation in struggle, not passive participation; as an audience, or bodies at a demonstration, or a voting bloc — the things stressed [by] the C.P. and the S.W.P., in their ‘mobilizations’ — but participation which gives workers the experience of wielding power and shouldering political responsibility. Often Marxists regard these sorts of tactical considerations as sentimental utopianism, and it is true that they are often raised in a utopian or an anarchistic manner. Nevertheless, it is a basic mistake for the party to subordinate the development of active mass participation in the struggle to what is felt to be ‘good organization’ or ‘efficiency’.”

The pamphlet is largely polemical in nature (which shows their Leninist influence goes beyond organization matters) and captures well the bankruptcy of the existing Left.  It is on this topic that STO offers the most practical usage for communists today.  First, they lay out the existing approaches to mass struggle by the then existing communist tendencies.  Later, in two sections of the pamphlet, THREE ASPECTS OF THE REFORM STRUGGLE and ‘UPPING THE ANTE’ STO gives attention to the areas of demands, tactics, and theory and the relationship between the three, or rather, the theoretical dimension of tactics and demands.  The use the example of a typical strike to illustrate these three areas.

“…there is more to a struggle than demands and tactics. The typical strike involves a group of workers who manifest to some degree both the problems and the possibilities of the whole class. The group will embody or reflect the partial interests and the divisions within the class. Perhaps this will involve both a relatively privileged status for older, white, male workers, and resentment and reaction against these privileges; and both racist ideology and a reaction against it. Beyond this, the workers involved in the struggle will have a certain range of ideas about its meaning and importance; about the social group (class) of which they are a part (or believe themselves to be a part); and about what is generally right, good, and proper. Clearly, these, and the other aspects which make up the ideas and attitudes of the group of workers will be filled with internal contradiction and confusion. Not only will there be differences between various individuals and subgroups, it is likely that specific individuals will think and act in contradictory fashion.

“Even though the specific group of workers will seldom be a completely representative cross-section of the entire class, every group will reflect the major elements of the collective consciousness of the class.”

As the quotes indicate, the ideas of workers are an objective element of struggle that must be sufficiently theorized and oriented to.  Just having demands and set of tactics to carry them out is insufficient to the needs and vicissitudes of struggle nor do they have the potential to bring out those elements already existing in workers’ consciousness that foreshadow their potential to rule society.

“Although the term does not accurately convey just what we have in mind, we will call this third feature of every reform struggle its ‘ideology’.”

“First, once the ritual posturing of the union leadership is ended by the beginning of the strike, the demands generally turn out to be far less than what the workers need to make any real change in their situations…”

“Real struggle over demands and tactics are kept inside the inner-leadership caucuses in the union, and confrontation with management is limited to the top union-management bargaining meetings. The mass of the workers have no way to participate in or even to directly influence, these aspects of the strike. For them the entire process grows more institutionalized and alienated, more a matter of formal than substantive struggle.”

This is eerily close to the nature of struggles today, except it is rarely the union bureaucracies who are at the helm of leadership but non-profits.  The same dynamics of decision-making over demands, the methods of struggle and how the demands are backed up, all take place behind the backs of those who are supposedly at the center of struggle.

“Either a base of popular understanding for a certain demand exists, or it does not exist. When the party sees its role as winning a formal acceptance of ‘better’ demands, without developing any program to actually convince the particular constituency of the significance of these demands, most of its biggest ‘successes’ will be turned into weapons against it.”

“…the party should agitate for demands which reflect the real needs of the struggle, and should expose demands which are sops or which rest on illusions, or which would lead away from class unity…The problems arise when the question of which demands becomes more than a technical and tactical question and is allowed to assume a strategic significance in itself. This always subordinates the real problems and possibilities involved in organizing the workers as a revolutionary class, to a search for gimmicks and shortcuts.”

I think what’s important to take note of is that they are making a distinction between theory/perspectives and demands.  In my own organizing, we’ve tended toward conflating the two where demands are basically the bullet points of theory.  The problem we’ve run into is that our demands were always larger than what we and the forces we were able to mobilize (taken together with spontaneous upsurges of struggle) were able to carry out.  This conflation was never a problem for the theory as we consistently would contextualize the fight within a broader picture, propagandize for the need for fundamental social transformation, and discuss with folks what to expect from the rulers.  With demands so large, however, there was never any sense that we had won anything save for intangibles that mattered a lot to us but weren’t so clear to others.  We felt our demands needed to be more radical than others and that we needed to “up the ante” lest the fight be contained within reformism and liberalism.

Returning to STO’s theoretical Leninism, there is a deeper theoretical reason for their orientation to the class that breaks from the Kautskyian categories of Lenin’s thought in WITBD, categories Lenin never fully breaks from for the remainder of his life.  That is, they see the potentiality for communism within the activity of the working class and this potentiality is expressed in contradictory and fragmented ways.  For Lenin, the potentiality of communism is in his one-sided understanding of “productive forces.”  Productive forces for Lenin are largely a technical and technological formulation that denotes a society’s capacity to produce at a given level and rate.  This understanding was taken over from the German Social Democrat Karl Kautsky who represented the second generation of Marxists to popularize Marxism after the death of Marx and Engels.  It is unfortunate that Lenin never got to read Marx’s early works, particularly the German Ideology, where Marx argues that the cooperation of workers is itself a productive force.  James, Raya Dunayevskaya and the rest of the JFT had this advantage and it explains why they gave so much primacy to the working class and mass struggle.

The central lapse in STO’s libertarian Marxism and the essence of their Leninism was their view that the final and definitive break with capitalist relations made real through smashing the State is contingent purely upon the party’s intervention.  In fact, they set up their entire pamphlet with this fundamental perspective in mind:

“The daily struggles of the workers against the capitalists do not develop to the point where the class is sufficiently organized and conscious to undertake the revolutionary reconstruction of society. From this it is clear that the struggle for a socialist revolution is not, ‘inherent’ in the spontaneous class struggle. Whether or not the circumstances and conditions of the daily conflicts between workers and capitalists develop into the basis for revolutionary struggle depends, fundamentally, on the intervention of conscious revolutionaries.”

While revolutionary organizations have an important role to play in that regard, historically it has not always been dependent upon a party’s leading role as to whether this final rupture and destruction of the State happens.  Ironically enough, it was Correspondence (the grouping to emerge after JFT left the Trotskyist movement) who wrote the book Facing Reality which describes the historical process of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 which was organized and lead by workers, soldiers, and farmers assemblies without the intervention by existing parties or trade unions–in fact, Correspondence contended, it was against them.  Not only that but it was a successful revolution insofar as they smashed the Soviet satellite state and institutionalized working class self-governance through factory committees and other popular means.  It was overthrown only from the outside, by an invasion of Soviet tanks 11 days after the revolution began.

While there is much to gain theoretically and practically from a study of STO’s pamphlet, it should be borne in mind that though their Leninism is highly dynamic and original, it is still Leninist and as such must be categorically broken with if a libertarian Marxist tendency is to ever emerge and take shape.

  • http://aintwhereyafrom.wordpress.com/ Tyler Zimmerman

    http://anarchowhat.blogsome.com/2008/07/27/mass-organization-and-political-organization/

    Yo, I failed to look for other reflections on this pamphlet first which would have been helpful (and courteous!).  Doh!  Ain’t read this joint from Scott Nappalos yet but will do so immediately.  Thanks Mike Staudenmaier for putting me on to this!

  • S Nappalos

    Whoa! It’s crazy to read one’s writings later. I know some of the ex-STO folks, and I think most of them would raise critiques with TARP as written about a number of factors (role of the party, national liberation, race, mass movements, crisis, etc). Had I rewritten my sketch notes today, I think I would have taken a more critical position both of mass movements and revolutionary organizations, and tried to argue for a more historical understanding of the relationship between trajectories of struggle and such organizations. Good discussion!

  • http://www.bringtheruckus.org Gio

    Thanks for this–always glad to return to STO!

    A couple things:

    1.) I’m glad you cite the material element of white supremacy that STO foregrounded, but alongside CLR James there was also WEB Du Bois, for whom the wages of whiteness were both material and psychological. In TARP, STO calls this “relative advantages in [both] income and status.”

    2.) I’m not sure I agree that STO’s Leninism is accurately described when you write “the final and definitive break with capitalist relations made real
    through smashing the State is contingent purely upon the party’s
    intervention.” Of course STO (and many others since) supplement “recognize and record” with the need to also intervene consciously, but this doesn’t lead automatically to a caricature of Leninist vanguardism, as the quote from STO shows in a more nuanced way.

    Gio

    • http://aintwhereyafrom.wordpress.com/ Tyler Zimmerman

      Agreed about Du Bois.  I honestly don’t know why I didn’t mention him.  The categories of Black Reconstruction informed to a great extent STO’s theory of race.  I also agree that there’s a key psychological component that should guard against an over-materialistic approach.  Here I was trying to bend the stick against all the false consciousness mess that pervades the Left and academia.

  • http://aintwhereyafrom.wordpress.com/ Tyler Zimmerman

    from Don Hamerquist:

    I was mainly responsible for the various versions of the piece. In fact,
    the portion of the argument that follows Gramsci on issues of strategy
    and organization predates STO and goes back to the opposition tendency
    in the CPUSA that I was part of.  This was not an important document for
    STO and I can’t remember a single organized discussion of it. The
    issues of dual consciousness and the critical approach to radical theory
    and action which were important were typically dealt with in other
    frameworks. It’s been decades since I looked at it and I would place a
    number of issues differently now. In some cases, such as the conception
    of revolutionary organization, this reflects a change in position. In
    other cases this is because elements of the piece, such as the intro on
    ‘party building’, reflected organizational compromises where I was in a
    minority.

      I like your introduction, but disagree with one of its major
    conclusions – the particular option for Marx and against Lenin.You might
    be aware of this disagreement from some things I have written recently,
    e.g.; the passage below. If you want, feel free to add this to your
    discussion – worked over and presented in any way you think appropriate.
    This was in the ‘Jappe’ article on Khukuri which was slightly different
    from the version on Talking Heads. I’d appreciate it if any reference
    were to Khukuri, rather than the discussion list.

    “It is never ‘the masses’, nor the ‘movement’ that as a whole carry the
    principle of engenderment of the new, but that which in them divides
    itself from the old.” (Cited from Badiou in Bosteels, p. 136)

    The new potentials that develop in the explosively expanded struggles of
    periods of capitalist crisis aren’t necessarily cumulative and
    irreversible. They don’t emerge in a linear process. I think that
    Badiou’s formulation raises the contradictory character of this process
    and the necessity to counter the strategic unevenness through organized
    political interventions in a much stronger way than we are accustomed to
    look at it. Before capitalism can be overthrown, a number of very
    uncomfortable elements of the internal dialectic between a revolutionary
    communist component of a mass movement and the mass popular
    constituency of that movement will have to be worked through. This well
    be necessary to prevent popular insurgencies from overdosing on their
    own victories – real and illusory. As Badiou also points out, far too
    often:”…once the mass festivals of democracy and discourse are over,
    things make place for the modernist restoration of order among workers
    and bosses. (Cited in Bosteels, P.279).

              Capitalism will not topple “…through…exhaustion…”. It
    will not “…stop running on its own…” as Jappe suggests. It must be
    overthrown by a politically conscious mass counter force, and the
    primary issues for us concern how such a force might develop. I’m more a
    Leninist than a Marxist on such questions which will probably raise
    eyebrows – and not only from the anarchist crew. I think that this
    particular strategic process and its associated dilemmas underscore the
    importance of Lenin’s position on the ‘art’ of revolution. And, although
    Lenin would certainly have disagreed, I think that rather than an
    extension and elaboration of Marx, this is a break with Marx – certainly
    it is a break with the Marx of Jappe, that implies that capitalism
    might collapse from the working out of a simple internal contradiction.

  • http://aintwhereyafrom.wordpress.com/ Tyler Zimmerman

    These notes were not written in a systematic process, were likely oversimplified, and lack nuance.

    My points were to put the positive contributions of the pamphlet (which
    are in the realm of
    demands, tactics, and theory and their relationship, the centrality of
    mass participation, and working class consciousness) in conversation
    with the pamphlet’s Leninism which I think cannot coexist.

    What I said to Don in my email to him was that my post comes off as
    anti-Lenin when it should be more anti-Leninist.  In fact, I think
    communists should study Lenin and not just to see what we’re against.
    There are many contributions Lenin has made to organization, strategy,
    politics, and philosophy, some of which can be wrested from his orthodox
    Marxism (Kautskyism) and incorporated into a “libertarian” Marxism that
    doesn’t negate intervention the way Correspondence and Facing Reality
    had.  I think this pamphlet comes close to it but there wasn’t the
    necessary rupture with the requirement of intervention of the
    revolutionary party in the overthrow of capital.  To me, the Hungarian
    Revolution of 1956 is instructive of this as it was a revolution not
    only without a Leninist party but against it.

    Don has said that Ken Lawrence feels differently about the Hungarian Revolution and I’d love to read his take on that question.

    • Japaridze

      This is such an interesting piece and I learned much from it. I am still wrapping my head around it, but I do want to ask a question about the Hungarian Revolution.

      How did Hungary become “communist” and do you consider the Communist Party of USSR after Stalin a Leninist organization?

      • http://aintwhereyafrom.wordpress.com/ Tyler Zimmerman

        Hey, thanks.  I wasn’t sure it contributed a whole lot, but it was more about being a conversation starter.  Because of my lack of knowledge and time, I thought I’d leave the nuances to others.

        I’m not sure I understand the first question.  Do you mean, when did Hungary become a satellite of the USSR?  If so, I think it was after their revolution of 1919 which I know nothing of.  They were at least officially communist then, though I’d take exception to the content of such communism.  I imagine it began like many revolutions do, as a genuine and self-organized uprising of the workers that was later recuperated by a bureaucracy as a new form of capital accumulation through the State.

        I’d consider the CPSU at least formally Leninist but really Stalinist.  Of course, I knew my blog post would raise a conversation over the content of Leninism–is Stalinism the logical outgrowth of Leninism (good or bad) or a bastardization of it?  I fall on neither the Stalinist, anti-Communist, nor Trotskyist side of that question.  I’m inclined to believe that Stalinism is a potentiality (emphasize “potentiality”) within Lenin’s conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat (which was contradictory) and not Marx’s.  For a very useful elaboration of this and the problems of Lenin’s “State and Revolution” from a libertarian Marxist perspective, check out Chris Wright’s “Contra State and Revolution.” (http://libcom.org/library/contra-state-and-revolution)

        Though Lenin felt that “every cook must learn to govern” and had written of democratizing the Soviet state through greater participation in administration, he made this critique from within the growing and isolating bureaucracy which he still felt had some value.  Lenin is not personally responsible, of course, for Stalin and the Soviet bureaucracy and so the conversation should not be about vindicating or demonizing Lenin which does nothing.  Rather, his thought needs to be placed historically and materially in relationship to Marxism and the class struggle.

        I hope this is useful.

        • James

          On Hungary: there was a short-lived Soviet republic in the immediate aftermath of WWI, but from 1920 or so up until WWII, the country was a parliamentary democracy with pretty strong autocratic and monarchist tendencies. It wasn’t until the end of WWII that Hungary became a satellite of the Stalinist USSR. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 took place in the context of a revolt against a relatively new Stalinist system. 

          Anyways, thanks for the heads-up on this STO pamphlet. I think I’ll enjoy reading it. 

          I wanted to add something to the discussion of Leninism and, in particular, WITBD. This has to be the most misunderstood document in the history of the revolutionary movement. For those interested in a fresh way of looking at it, I’d strongly recommend Lars Lih’s recent book “Lenin Rediscovered: WITDB In Context.” 

          • http://aintwhereyafrom.wordpress.com/ Tyler Zimmerman

            Hi James.

            Thanks for historical clarification and that context definitely helps.

            I’m glad that you mentioned Lars Lih’s book.  A member of U&S recently read it and shared notes on it with us and it was very interesting to get Lih’s take.  I definitely agree with what I understand to be Lih’s fundamental premise; that  both the narratives of the anti-Communists and the Leninists on WITBD and Iskra-ism must be rejected.  This is something I’d ideally like to have added to my notes on STO.

          • James

            Not wanting to derail the thread, but I think Lih’s findings are definitely relevant to this discussion. There are a couple things in his book that are especially pertinent. 

            One is his contention that Lenin was essentially a Kautskyite right up until (at least) 1914. I think that’s debatable, but it definitely jibes with some libertarian communist critiques of Leninism. 

            The other thing Lih does is explode some of the misunderstandings of WITDB shared by conservatives, libertarian socialists, and others: that Lenin wanted to “divert” the class struggle, and that he thought class consciousness came from “the outside”–i.e. from a revolutionary elite. Obviously if taken literally these things could be a recipe for an authoritarian form of vanguardism, and the common reading is that Lenin said this in WITDB, therefore Stalinism is the natural result of Leninism. I think Lih does a good job of showing why this is a faulty understanding of WITDB.