A Revolutionary Left

by Sojurner Truth Organization, 1981

NOTE: Sojourner Truth Organization was a revolutionary cadre organization in the 1970s and '80s that followed the ideas of the radical Marxist theorist C.L.R. James. STO's analysis of race has strongly influenced Bring the Ruckus's politics. (Ex-STO members edit the journal and web site Race Traitor, which has also been influential within BTR.) Many of us in BTR have also been influenced by STO's distinct approach to developing revolutionary theory and strategy. STO placed the struggle against white supremacy at the center of class struggle. They also argued (with James) that a free society emerges from the desires and actions of the working class itself, not the teachings or leadership of a vanguard.

In this article, STO sets out what it believes are the basic political points a revolutionary organization needs to adopt in 1981. We publish it here because we feel it's worth thinking about how these points apply to our situation in 2004. In the midst of the frenzy within the left to get out the vote for Kerry and to defeat Bush, there are important lessons to learn from STO's attempt "to organize counter to a real drift to the right within the left."

A Revolutionary Left

For a number of years Sojourner Truth Organization has worked to develop a distinct tendency. Initially, we defined this tendency as "anti-imperialist," but our attempts to define it further and to consolidate it organizationally convinced us that it could not be developed out of those groups which labeled their politics as anti-imperialist. Differences on central political issues and the absence of any overriding external pressure towards unity were too much to counter.

STO has been rethinking its concepts over the past couple of years. We have not moved away from the view that the development of a political tendency holds out more potential that any of the traditional party-building models, but we have changed our conception of the character of the tendency and of the steps involved in building it. Below we include our conception of what the politics of such a formation should be. Of course, much more is involved this project than political agreement on points of unity, and we are also including some of our ideas about the current political situation in the country and about how the tendency should initially be brought together.

The objective ingredients of a social crisis exist in this country, but until this point they have only manifested themselves in brief episodes of mass struggle. It should be clear, then, that we are not purporting to describe current reality when we argue that the restricted options of the US ruling class, combined with the degree of polarization in mass consciousness, require that we plan in anticipation of rapidly accelerating mass struggle and confrontation.

Our experience of a period of mass struggle, and that of most of those we address, derives from the sixties. Although we do not want to minimize what can be learned and applied from that experience, particularly in terms of the rapidity and explosiveness with which the movement can change, we believe that there will be significant differences in the eighties. These need to be stressed.

The mass Black movement and its revolutionary component was a tremendously important innovative factor in the sixties. There are some hopeful signs that this movement is recovering from the massive attacks it received during the early seventies, but it looks like a long process with many ups and downs. At this point neither the Black nor any other mass vanguard force apparent to us provides an underlying dynamic parallel to the one that pulled the entire movement forward during the sixties. While we must do what we can to facilitate the development of the Black movement, those of us whose main activity will be with the white working people cannot rely on that movement to provide the same leadership that it did in the previous period-at least for the relatively short-term perspective addressed here.

In the sixties, the world revolutionary movement, Algeria, Cuba, China, and above all Vietnam, constituted a very important pole of attraction for radicalized sectors which developed in all areas of struggle. The potential-and the reality-of national liberation and socialism appeared much less ambiguous than they do today. It is hard to believe that the notion of joining people around the world in an inevitably victorious struggle will find the sort of spontaneous mass audience which it did in the sixties.

Another difference that must be considered is in mass working class attitudes and potentials. This is a complicated and controversial topic, but we would make some generalizations. The insurgency of the sixties in the U.S., unlike Italy and France, did not involve workers as workers until the end of the period, and, even then it was limited to specific areas and issues. However, the sixties had a deep impact on working class consciousness. This is expressed in an openness to radical ideas and radical methods, a massive disaffection with "their" organizations and "their" leaders, a willingness to challenge patterns of oppression and privilege on questions of race and sex, identification with anti-capitalist aspects of popular culture. Combined with these factors is the impact of the qualitative deterioration of the economic and social conditions of working class life in the last decade. This all contributes to a massive sentiment of no confidence-no confidence in the system, but also no confidence in the future and in the working class. An extremely volatile situation. One way or the other, the insurgencies of the eighties will be based in the working class. The class will not be indifferent or passive. It will be the decisive arena of struggle, containing active poles of revolutionary anti-capitalism and fascist reaction.

The final point, which we would make, is also a difference in the sixties. Then the communists and their parties were not much of a factor. The CPUSA was lost in a dead right-wing sectarianism and the rest were extremely weak and, with a few exceptions, unable and unwilling to recognize and capitalize on the potential of the mass movement. At first thought it might appear that now we are far ahead in this regard. One of the most visible remnants of the sixties is a significant stratum of organized leftists and communists. It is inconceivable that any major struggle will develop without the immediate intervention of communists of a variety of affiliations. In many cases, individual communists will achieve positions of mass influence. Unfortunately it is not clear to us that this marks an advance over the sixties.

The overriding tendency of the US left, cutting across what appear to be insurmountable organizational barriers, is towards centrism and away from its function as a genuine left providing to the best of its ability an alternative to all forms and alternatives of capitalist power. There are some smaller groups which do attempt to present something of a left-critique of this dominant tendency, but they are either hopelessly sectarian, hysterically posing themselves against mass struggles and short-circuiting the process of internal development within the struggle, or they flop their position the moment they achieve the slightest bit of mass influence. This situation requires the development of a left-tendency, willing to function as a left, but avoiding any messianic sense of its own "vanguard" character.

We know that the ingredients for such a tendency exist. It would not be developed from nothing; however, the various components must be organized in some kind of national framework in order to have any impact. This involves a series of problems.

The difficulty of achieving agreement among those who are defined by their proclivity towards disagreement and criticism is obvious. Achieving political agreement is not our only difficulty; there is also a problem in developing a sense of a practical project held in common. We are proposing to organize counter to a real drift to the right within the left. This drift is clothed in all sorts of rationales and arguments. It is "realistic politics"; it is actually concerned with mass needs and grievances, not its own plans and projections. "Concrete" objectives are counter posed to "utopian" visions and "ultra-left" rhetoric. Potential participants in the tendency we are projecting are commonly quite pessimistic about their ability to resist effectively the general drift to the right. We have a problem then, of accumulating a sufficient "critical mass" to embody the exiting political agreement and perspectives in joint activity and organization.

There is no single organization, and by that we mean specifically STO, that can gather such a tendency around itself. However, there will inevitably be suspicions, based on very real experiences in other "tendencies" that this is exactly what we have in mind. We do not expect that any who are skeptical will accept our professions of intent at their face value. Nor should they. However, we hope that the specific ways which we propose to begin the process will minimize doubts.

The following five points are STO's conception of the politics of this tendency. In a certain sense, they derive from our notion of proletarian autonomy, if the revolutionary force creating itself through overcoming of its internal antagonisms-a notion that calls for recognition of both the actuality of the revolutionary process and the self-contained elements that prevent its fulfillment. They are not our minimum points; nor are they the totality of our politics, but what we believe are the best way to define a distinct tendency of the revolutionary left. We understand that any serious group will want to debate them and offer alternatives, and that discussion we see as one aspect of the initial formation of the tendency.

1. White supremacy is a decisive feature of U.S. history. Any workable revolutionary strategy must confront it directly as it affects the ideas and actions of white working people. The institution of white supremacy rests on white privileges, relative advantages economically, politically and socially, which are the necessary other side to the denial of equality to people of color. White supremacy heavily influences the politics of white working people, but it is not the only determinant. In fact it is counter to their class interests, interests which are forced to the surface in the course of social production and class struggle. This contradiction in the experience of white working people makes it possible to challenge white supremacy effectively in a mass way by building on the experience of class solidarity that cut across racial and national lines. The main guarantee that white supremacy will be dealt with in a principled and effective manner is the existence of a autonomous movements of nationally oppressed peoples. Respect for such autonomous forms is an essential condition for the development of a mass movement in the US. Further. They constitute an essential mass prefigurement of the possibility of revolutionary reconstitution of the social order.

2. The issues confronting masses of people in this country stem from systemic problems of capitalism. There is a widespread popular appreciation of the depth and magnitude of the problems. This adds to a passivity that grows and cynicism in combination with a deeply radical sense of the character of the problems, lowest common denominator organizing strategies will not be effective even with their limited sense of efficacy. The left must meet this situation by posing an alternative to all the policy options of the ruling class, not just those presented by the "right," nor those of the sector which now has governmental control. While it is our estimate that US capitalism currently has relatively little of the economic and political flexibility which would provide the motives for and possibility of major reforms, this does not mean that a revolutionary alternative to it is presented within the struggle for limited objectives. On the other hand, involvement in such struggles must be tempered with the understanding that their likely frustration is going to expand the base for a fascist movement.

3. As the mass movement develops in this country, it will show little respect for the "order' and legality which the system has established. The major mass institutions which embody this capitalist hegemony, trade unions, electoral parties, will lose their popular legitimacy as the become unable to organize a legal struggle for reforms while being unwilling to organize for more basic change. It must be expected that any real mass movement will be met by organized state repression which will force it to move beyond a "legal" protest and to utilize various forms of mass violence. A left, which does not count on this development, is myopic. One, which fears and opposes it, is not a left in any real sense.

4. Women will play an important role in the revolutionary struggle. Fighting the yoke of both class oppression and make supremacy, their quest for total liberation has the potential to lead women to take a revolutionary stance. A left must recognize that sexual equality and sexual freedom, in their broadest interpretation, are essential issues and demands that the revolutionary movement must take up. A full understanding of the question therefore involves respect for the autonomous organizations of women that have played a key role in insuring that women's liberation is taken up and insuring that the movement develops a revolutionary character.

5. Socialism (communism) grows out of and embodies the creative self-emancipation of the working class. It is not a gift bestowed by a revolutionary vanguard. It is not nationalized factories and state farms. An understanding of and appreciation for the existing elements of mass creativity and a program to develop and generalize them is an essential feature of the relationship of a left to the broader movement. It is also the basic point of reference from which the debate about the nature of socialism, and of societies which so defined themselves, must proceed. We believe that this debate is vital and oppose any attempts to close it off by establishing rigid definitions and principles at this point.

We would also argue that there is no point to the formation of a tendency which is not oriented towards immediate and active intervention in the mass struggle an in the left-particularly on a national level. Of course this must be done within the limits of our scarce resources, but we see no potential for a grouping that is defined by joint work, nor for a perspective that sees the various elements of activity on a local basis as the essential character of the tendency.

Finally, STO puts a large priority on theoretical work. We will argue that the tendency must do this also. We believe that there is a crisis of Marxist theory, that all of the major questions of analysis and perspective are open questions and that wide-ranging debate and discussion are not a subtraction from an activist orientation, but an indispensable addition to it. In no way do we see the points of political agreement above as functioning to end debate or even to limit it. They are a proposal for some provisional initial positions, a point from which to begin.