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