Big Flame

1970-1984

SOJOURNER TRUTH ORGANIZATION (Related Political Organisations no 1)

Posted by archivearchie on May 9, 2009

This post is something of a departure. It’s not strictly about Big Flame. So why is it on this website? Before I come to that issue, I want to introduce the Sojourner Truth Organization.

 The Group

workplacepapers-p1

The  Sojourner Truth Organization was a political group in the USA. It was named after a 19th century African-American campaigner for the abolition of slavery and women’s rights Sojourner Truth. The group started out in Chicago, expanded to some other parts of country. It then shrank back to Chicago before disappearing. Here are a few points about the group:

 –  Its lifespan was almost identical to that of Big Flame. It existed between 1969 and 1985.

–   It started out focused almost exclusively in industrial workplace struggles (at a time when this wasn’t so common in the USA). Their approach was for members to get jobs in targeted factories. Later STO became involved in anti-imperialist struggles and social movements.

–   In part its political ideas were influenced by currents on the Italian left (ideas like autonomy and mass direct action), although there were other influences such as the Facing Reality Group (which was in turn influenced by C.L.R James).

–   It emphasized anti-racism, playing a significant role in spreading amongst the US left the view that white people benefit materially and psychologically from the oppression of black people.

 The Web Sites

There are two websites – run by different individuals – which relate to the STO.

STOfront

The first is called Sojourner Truth Organization 1969-1985 Digital Archive and aims to make available copies of STO’s newspapers (Insurgent Worker), pamphlets, shop leaflets, theoretical journal (Urgent Tasks), collaborative works (Collective Works, Tendency Newsletter), and other publications. The website isn’t set up to allow discussion of  items published.

The second is called The Sojourner Truth Organization: Notes Towards a History. This site has been put together by someone who wasn’t an STO member and comes from an anarchist background. He is working towards writing a book about STO. His site is a blog and allows comments on posts. Posts often focus on themes such as industrial concentration, white skin privilege, extra-union organising, STO’s culture, anti-imperialism and so on. A few posts stray off topic and they have become less frequent over the years (for personal reasons as the author explains).

Why this Post

 That there are some similarities between Big Flame and STO should be clear from what I have said above in introducing the group. However my main reason for attention to the two websites is that they have a parallel purpose to this site. Each represents in relation to STO, an objective I have for this site and Big Flame. Firstly, to inform people about what Big Flame was. Secondly, to try to initiate a discussion about the ideas it represented (although so far we have been less successful in the latter. Hopefully future posts will provoke more of a discussion).

 Here are a few more connections between STO and Big Flame in case you are still not convinced.

 –  A Big Flame member responded to a STO document called ”Reflections on Organizing” after its publication by Radical America in 1972. STO published this in its collection Workplace Papers in 1980. Therefore, it can be found on the STO digital archive as Review of “Reflections on Organizing”.

–  The STO: Notes Towards a History website includes positive references to Big Flame in posts on Feminism and Theory (see second comment at the bottom of the post).

–  A member of BF travelled to Chicago around 1974 and wrote a brief report on STO. The writer is repeatedly critical of the group (I am somewhat surprised that the writer didn’t express greater sympathy in finding group in the USA with at least some similarity in politics). For example STO is criticised for the extent of its focus on production, a neglect of women’s struggles, being unclear on the relationship between spontaneity and organisation, the organisation’s internal life, and passivity in the relationship between members and leaders.

–  Later in 1980 two members of STO traveled to London to hold talks with Big Flame about how much they were part of the same political tendency.

Can anyone add more on the extent of contacts between Big Flame and STO? 

Sites about Other Groups

I would love to hear about any sites on the internet which go back in time to examine any political organisation with related politics to Big Flame. They need not be of exactly the same era. Do you know any sites you would recommend?

 Archive Archie

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21 Responses to “SOJOURNER TRUTH ORGANIZATION (Related Political Organisations no 1)”

  1. Nate said

    You may already know of these, but there’s a short collection of texts by the UK group Solidarity and the French group Socialism or Barbarism here – http://classagainstclass.com/

    There’s a pretty extensive online archive for the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union here – http://www.cwluherstory.com/

    In terms of discussion, I’m really up for discussing this stuff but I need time to read first. There’s some really substantial material here and I’ve not got time to read any of it yet. Thanks for putting all this online, though, it’s a great resource.

    cheers,
    Nate

  2. Nate said

    Oh just found this one too – http://www.connexions.org/RedMenace.htm

  3. Neil said

    How about the Irish group Revolutionary Struggle in the 1970s, they published a journal called The Ripening of Time. They were similarly influenced by Italian currents – albeit seemingly more favourable to some of the armed groups – and had contacts with STO
    ( e.g. see http://www.sojournertruth.net/italianrevleft). Can’t find much about them online at the moment. I remember the late Nina Hutchinson – a sometime Big Flame member who I got to know through supporting Irish prisoners – telling me that there was some commonality between BF and RS. The group wound up in around 1980, and some of its members were later involved in Dublin Sinn Fein.

  4. a useful resource on the post-1968 left (with a focus on maoist groups but also some stuff from other orgs/currents) in Germany is http://mao-projekt.de/ plenty of stuff of the French FI section LC/LCR (sister of the IMG) from this period can be found here http://asmsfqi.org/

  5. p.s.: as far as I know, BF maintained some contacts with the “non-dogmatic maoist” organisation Kommunistischer Bund (KB, Communist League) in Germany … the KB had a strong emphasis on anti-fascism and was culturally far less conservative than other organisations inspired by maoism in Germany … a good study on the KB is Michael Steffen: Geschichten vom Trüffelschwein. Politik und Organisation des Kommunistischen Bundes 1971 bis 1991 (2002, only in German) … as far as I can remember, BF isn’t mentioned there. Other organisations in Europe with whom the KB had more or less fraternal relations in the 1970ies were e.g. Lotta Continua in Italy, Organisation communiste des travailleurs in France and Movimento de Esquerda Socialista in Portugal

    • max farrar said

      that’s true – we (BF) did have some contacts with the KB, but they were pretty loose so far as I can recall. Was it KB that published the extraordinary dossier (around 1977) which traced the Nazi roots of almost all the leading figures in West German society? If so, they brought their book and made a speech at one of our conferences. And the libertarians among us were impressed/alarmed by Berlin’s Kommune 1.

      • archivearchie said

        In response to Max’s question, I’ve just been looking at an article in the Big Flame newspaper no 69 December 1978. It mentions a book published by KB called Special Units of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) – the Steady Development of a New Gestapo. The article says that the book amongst other things “documents the presistance of former Nazis in the state apparatus”, which sounds like it must be the one Max mentions.

        At this time KB was being prosecuted for publishing the book under article 90 of the FRG constitution which deal with “defamation of the state and its symbols”. Specifically the charge was that the book “presents in the eyes of the unbiased a picture of the FRG as a state deserving contempt”.

        Kb was receiving a lot of support for what was seen as an attack on press freedom. I don’t know what the outcome of the prosecution was.

  6. archivearchie said

    Yes, in the late 70s and early 80s BF and KB were involved in something called the European Co-ordination. This involved some of the groups (not BF) putting up candidates at the 1979 European Parliament elections (one Mario Campana of Democrazia Proletaria in Italy was elected), but meetings carried on after that to discuss topics of interest such as the nature of soviet-type societies.

    Amongst the other groups involved at one time or the other in the Co-ordination apart from BF and KB were: VS (Denmark), MC (Spain), OCT (France), PLS (Belgium), DP (Italy) [Lotta Continua had disappeared by then], Socialist Youth (Norway), SOAK (Luxemberg), Sinn Fein (Ireland), Scottish Republican Socialist League, and even the British SWP [apologies for not spelling out the names of these groups in full, but I wanted to keep this comment to manageable length].

    The Big Flame newspaper of February 1980 reported a split (20% of members leaving to join the Greens) and a national conference of KB. What happened to the organisation after that?

    • max farrar said

      and wasn’t there a huge pop concert allied to the Co-ordination? I had the albums that were released. Pretty dire, at least as far as those who followed Funk, Reggae, Two Tone, Jazz etc, were concerned.

      • archivearchie said

        For those (probably everbody) who don’t known about these LPs. They were record at a concert in Brussels on the 31st March/1st April 1979. It was titled “Contr’Eurovision 79” and put on by CAFIT (Collectif d’Animation pour la Formation et l’information des Travailleurs) and the newspaper POUR. Two albums were released later that year: one of Folk & Songs and the other of Rock, Reggae & Songs. The event became a little better known when Misty in Roots (who were featured on the second LP) released their own first LP – titled “Live at the Counter Eurovision”. For anyone reading this who lives outside Europe – Eurovision was (and still is) an annual pop song contest for nations across Europe.

  7. both (KB and Gruppe Z) worked inside the Greens in the early eighties, the latter (calling themselves “Eco-Socialists”) played a relatively influential role on the Green’s left wing up to 1987/88, the KB stopped its “entryism” around 1985. A majority of the Eco-Socialists left the Greens around 1990/91 without being able to form a coherent political project (some joined the PDS (now DIE LINKE), one of their former spokespeople, Juergen Trittin was Minister for the Environment 1998-2002. The KB remained stable up to ~1990 and dissolved itself in April 1991 after splitting into a pro-PDS majority and an anti-nationalist/”anti-german” minority (of whom some around the journal BAHAMAS have shifted to culturalist/anti-muslim right wing positions) … the former paper of the KB (former Arbeiterkampf (Workers Struggle), now Analyse und Kritik (Analysis & Criticism)) is stil alive as a high quality non-dogmatic and independent leftist monthly, published by some people of the former KB majority and some younger comrades. Generally speaking, in Hamburg and some other areas of Northern Germany, you find today a relatively large number of decent political activists who have been members of the KB in the 1970ies but are now unaffiliated

  8. p.s.: around 1987, acoording to the KB’s paper, they had some contacts with the RCP in Britain

    • max farrar said

      oh dear, did they? But at least the RCP comrades were rather well dressed. And Frank Furedi (their guru) tells me he remains ‘an old style 60s libertarian’.

  9. archivearchie said

    I have been looking through some BF documents from its latter days, around 1982-83. There are mentions of international contacts with some groups from the late 1970s European co-ordination like MC (Spain) and VS (Denmark).

    Also mentioned is a US group Solidarity, who I haven’t seen mentioned before in this context. There is a group in the USA today with this name, but according to its website it was founded to 1986. Does anyone know anything about the group BF linked with in the early 1980s?

  10. max farrar said

    I don’t remember MC (Spain) but I’ll ask someone who might. I recall VS visiting one of our conferences. I have no knowledge of US Solidarity, but many of us read the UK Solidarity pamphlets in the early 70s – their sympathetically critical approach to anarchism was one of the things that pushed me towards BF. The thing to bear in mind is that BF was in every sense unorthodox, organisationally. There were no torrid conference debates about our international affiliations – if someone in BF knew people in European (including Irish), Latin American or US organisations, and broadly liked the positions they took, their comrades might come to our conferences, visit our houses, talk endlessly with us – but I don’t recall any organised discussions about the finer points of what they stood for, examination of their doctrinal pedigrees etc, still less settling down to make formal links. Just before I joined BF our libertarian group had close links with Chilean refugees in MIR, and the BF group in Leeds briefly had links with Islamic Marxists (remember them?) exiled by Khomeini’s regime who still supported the Islamic Revolution because of its roots in the masses and its strongly anti-imperialist line. They went back and got shot, I think. But we didn’t debate all this – they seemed like good guys, so we gave some support. I remember a French delegation turning up once at a BF conference and being so gob-smacked by our gender politics (men cooking, washing up and changing nappies were the crucial points) that the women went home and tore up their organisation. I think one of them stayed and had babies with one of the BF men. The huge dispute about gender in Lotta Continua (documented in the book by Pete Ayrton with a title like Letters to the Comrades, Pluto Press) was similarly highly influenced by LC comrades seeing what was going on in BF on those issues. But this was entirely informal – no documents were exchanged, so far as I know, no resolutions passed at conference etc. This is what we mean, I think, when we talk today about networks and movements . . . the best political-intellectual work is done through conversations, affiliations, exchanges. Pin it down, tie it up, dot the Is and cross the Ts . . . that’s the way to stifle thought and build the sect.

  11. archivearchie said

    Thanks for the comments on the impact of BF on other groups. Extremely interesting.

    I am think about covering MIR in a future post in the “Related Political Organisations” series.

    I don’t think the US early 80s group Solidarity (maybe I should call them Solidarity #1 to distinguish them from the current US group) had any connections with the earlier British group. The left has a habit of recycling the same set of names.

    Re: Solidarity #1. I have found a BF document from 1981 which says they were a split from the New America Movement in late 1980, and wrote to BF after coming across the 1980 Introduction to Big Flame pamphlet, and seeing similarities in the politics.

    At this time, 1981, BF also had links (not sure how close) with a third US group – Workers’ Power (a split from the US Interational Socialists – sister organisation of the British SWP – but then breaking with Trotskyism). Later in 1986 Workers’ Power was one of three organisations who came together to found Solidarity #2.

    This is all getting far too complicated for me. So I’ll leave it there.

  12. max farrar said

    Yes, it is complicated. I have no memory at all of Solidarity (US) or a US group splitting from the US SWP approaching us in BF. And I was one of those who read all the internal and published material quite carefully. Anyway, it goes to show how pleasantly loose we were. Wikipedia seems pretty accurate to me on UK Solidarity (though tellingly silent on its implosion): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solidarity_(UK) And it explains to me how I came to be reading their pamphlets! Wiki also refers to the great Cornelius Castoriadis, who was of course the co-author, with Grace Lee and CLR James of the foundational ‘Facing Reality’ (1958). If Tony Cliff had listened to James when they met in the early 1960s, the British International Socialists might not have degenerated into the SWP. Oops, sect-speak re-emerging?

  13. archivearchie said

    With help from members of a newsgroup whose members have a detailed knowledge of left sectariana, I can now provided more information on the Solidarity group, with whom BF had links.

    The New America Movement (NAM) was founded in 1974. It has been described as “a sort of New Left/Eurocommunist group”. In 1983 a sharply divided NAM national committee, reflecting a torn membership, decided to merge with Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC). The new organization was christened the Democratic Socialists of America.

    Solidarity: a socialist-feminist network (SaSFN) was born out of a slow split within NAM in 1979-81, in opposition to the merger talks between NAM and DSOC. It differed from NAM not just on the issue of NAM’s move towards the Democratic Party, but also on organisation, seeing themselves as more Leninist, and being more supportive than the NAM leadership of gay/lesbian rights and feminism.

    Its main branches were in Boston, New York, the Bay Area and Los Angeles. During its couple of years of life it was active mainly in reproductive rights, anti-militarism and El Salvador solidarity. It was influenced by Marxists like Antonio Gramsci.

    SsSFN maintained from the time of its split from NAM that it was too small to exist as a separate organization and that regroupment was necessary for survival. It held merger discussions with several other left groups with which members felt some affinity: the Socialist Party-USA, Workers Power, and International Socialists. These led nowhere, and SaSFN dissolved in 1983-84. Some members joined Workers Power, and thus became part of the new Solidarity in 1986.

  14. Calum said

    Thanks so much for this site, and all the hard work that must have gone into creating it.

    On the STO, Michael Staudenmaier, whose site was the second one you mentioned at the top of the page (it seems to be defunct now), finally had his history published by AK Press in May 2012:
    Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969-1986, 400pages, $20.

    In May he did a book launch tour in the US, and the Boston event was filmed and posted on youtube (1hr 47mins in two parts).

    A short interview about his project is at http://www.areachicago.org/p/issues/6808/legacies-sojourner-truth-organization

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