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From “Class Suicide” to Working-Class Rebirth

Heading South

May 18, 2020

Here, Paul McLennan reflects on his time spent as a fellow traveler of the Sojourner Truth Organization, and his experience of leaving behind a “petit bourgeois” upbringing in order to take up working class struggle. The STO was an anti-racist and revolutionary socialist organization, active throughout the American Midwest in the 1970s and ’80s, which focused on organizing workers within their workplaces. You can read an interview with him,  by a younger Unity & Struggle comrade at “On Class Suicide.”

When the concept was first explained to me in the early 1970s, it made sense. You don’t have to read a lot of Marx to understand the strategic role the working class plays in making everything run. The 2020 coronavirus crisis has revealed how much we all depend on essential workers. If workers hold the power to either move or shut down the economy, then it would make sense to join that class in order to be in the right place to leverage that power against the ruling class. Being young and eager to find a way to contribute, I decided to do my part to implement this strategy. 

It might seem strange that someone who came from a white, middle-class Chicago suburb, went to a college prep private high school, and was accepted at a well-known university would reverse course, drop out of school, and get a factory job. There was historical precedent for this, though. Amilcar Cabral wrote about the concept of “class suicide,” which meant that members of the petit bourgeoisie could choose to “reject the temptations of becoming more bourgeois” and commit “suicide as a class in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong.” It is a deeply personal and transformational process. 

Chinese revolutionaries called this concept of changing your class position “remolding your world outlook,” taken to the extreme, led to policies of sending intellectuals to the countryside to learn from the peasants and transform their class alignment. I could take all the skills and training I had acquired from privileged schooling and use it to advance myself or I could take these talents and put them in the service of the people. My decision was made in the spirit of a quote crafted by Aboriginal rights activists in Australia: “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

The first socialist group that I met was the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO) which came together partly as an outgrowth of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). STO was unique in its focus on the role of race in the development of the working class. The first study group I attended was with Noel Ignatiev who later became well-known as an author and historian. At that time, study groups were seen as an essential tool for small numbers of people to study and discuss radical theory. Noel later became co-editor of the journal “Race Traitor” which promoted the idea that “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” Similar to “class suicide,” white workers needed to become traitors to their upbringing to join with their sisters and brothers of color. 

In the fall of 1973, I was 19 years old and got my first factory job as a machine operator at Chicago Transparent, located on the near northwest side of Chicago. It was hard work handling the large rolls of polyethylene film which were used for packaging and  bags. Next, I moved to a Motorola factory in Franklin Park, a near western suburb of Chicago. I got a job on an assembly line making TVs using an air gun to insert screws in while the TVs moved steadily down the line from one worker’s position to the next. We put out a newsletter, “Breakout,” and the Motorola Organizing Committee was formed to organize workers in this nonunion plant. I soon got laid off and found another job as a machine operator at Stanadyne in Bellwood. The factory was part of the supply chain that served auto manufacturers by making engine parts. The plant was represented by United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 59 and I became an organizer with members of STO in our rank and file, “Worker’s Voice” caucus.

In our newsletter, we defined a rank and file caucus as “an organized force within the union, whose goal is to steer the union in a fighting direction. Membership is based on commitment to a program of struggle. An effective caucus must represent all workers and must tailor its program to the problems and needs of the rank and file.” We addressed issues of democracy, better communication, and transparency in our union, put the fight against discrimination against workers of color and women at the forefront, relied on organized, militant struggle not cooperation with management “as the only sure way to win our just demands,” and stressed the importance of support for other workers’ and freedom fighters’ struggles. We believed that “Our struggle extends beyond the plant walls and this demands building UNITY with other workers who are fighting for the common rights and dignity of all laboring people.” 

We used the newsletter as an organizing tool to popularize our demands and program and criticize the entrenched, sell-out union leadership. We fought for a more democratic grievance process where the steward who had first-hand knowledge of when the union contract was violated would be present through all the steps. I circulated a collective grievance in my department about the heat and bad ventilation to sixty people, and we fought for a Union Safety Committee. We challenged management over productivity rates and an end to discriminatory pay classifications for women. Three hundred signatures were collected to have Dr. King’s birthday made an official holiday in our next contract. We ran a slate of candidates for union office to challenge the incumbents who put out their own flyers attacking us for “pouring forth venom, slander, and poison about Local 59.”

By putting the fight against white supremacy at the center, we applied what we had learned from working with STO. “We offer a program to unify our Local 59 by fighting the greatest barrier to our unity—racist and sexist discrimination. We feel this is the only course that can lead to victory in our fight for better lives as workers.” We called on white workers to take action in solidarity with their sisters and brothers as a way to build trust and stronger unity. We mentioned discrimination against women but it was more additive and tacked on because gender was not as central to our discussion as race and class were. This was a mistake I would look back and reflect a lot upon later.

In our slightly dogmatic writing style, we talked about the legacy of slavery in the South and how the main people to benefit from a divided workforce were the “big Capitalists and Landowners.” As awkward as these attempts may have been, the good news is we were learning how to popularize concepts like “surplus value.” I wrote an article for our newsletter, “$11 Million In Their Wallet—12¢ In Our Hand,” that compared Stanadyne’s profit with the 12 cents an hour raise they offered in the first year of their contract proposal. “Where do Stanadyne’s profits and Michael Perrin’s salary come from?,” I wrote. “They come off our backs and out of our hands! We get paid a wage and then the company takes what we make and sells to customers (like Caterpillar and Ford) for a profit. There is a huge gap between what we earn in a day and how much what we make sells for.”

It might seem strange that someone who came from a white, middle-class Chicago suburb, went to a college prep private high school, and was accepted at a well-known university would reverse course, drop out of school, and get a factory job.

As is true with any organizing, what matters most are the relationships. I respected Zeke (Z.C.) Sanders who was a model steward in my department. His credibility was unquestioned even by management. Howard Walker took me to my first jazz club where I was struck by how the audience politely clapped after a set was done. It was such a contrast from the rowdy atmosphere of the northside “Peanut Barrel” blues club I loved to go to on a Saturday night. We would go out after work on second shift when things were just getting started in some clubs around 11 p.m. Another musical introduction to the South was through a young white worker who played the Allman Brothers’ “Eat a Peach” album and it became a favorite of mine. The South was never far away as Black workers at Stanadyne had a social group with people who met and sent money back home to Mississippi, often making the reverse migratory trip down Interstate 55. 

We were clear on how we saw ourselves in relationship to both management and the union bureaucrats. We were unapologetically anti-racist and won respect because we were willing to act on our beliefs. When the family of a fellow Black UAW member from another local was threatened when he moved into a mostly white neighborhood, we stood watch with him all night. Because of the youth culture that existed at that time, we could cross racial lines and win the support of young white workers, too, who had more in common with us than the old union hacks. In these early years, I was learning far more than I passed on and I was fortunate to have good teachers along the way who were very patient as I made my share of mistakes. 

I got fired and learned a lesson about discipline on the job, especially when you are an organizer who has become a threat to management and the union bureaucrats. My regular machine was broken so I was put on the surface grinder which was a big turntable where the parts would go around and I would take the parts that were finished out and insert new pieces. Management was watching and I had admittedly let some pieces go through twice trying to keep up with the pace. They decided to weigh my work one night and called me in to say that the counter showed a higher number of pieces done than the weight indicated. An important lesson learned at 20 years old was, if you are organizing and make a mistake in job performance, management will not hesitate to act against you. To maintain credibility, you better keep your own house in order. 

In 1974, a few of us who had been in the STO study group decided to join the October League (OL),  a revolutionary socialist organization. There were many choices of groups to join at that time, usually based on personal connections and sometimes influenced by which group held the best parties. In 1969, the October League formed out of the Revolutionary Youth Movement II (RYMII), developed from a split in SDS. The Georgia Communist League was formed around this same time and the two collectives merged to become a national organization in 1972. Other collectives around the country also merged with the OL and by the fall of 1972, the October League was putting out a national, monthly newspaper, The Call/El Clarin, and engaged in many workplace and community struggles across the country.  

The OL was connected to an international network who were most often united by their support for the Chinese revolution. In Chicago, we hosted David Sibeko from the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), another anti-apartheid organization besides the African National Congress (ANC). We hosted comrades from Norway who interviewed me and two other comrades about youth organizing for their newspaper. We tried to bring workers to a miore revolutionary perspective by inviting them to these political events and study groups. I remember sitting anxiously in an apartment living room waiting for the downstairs buzzer to ring that meant someone new was coming to join our study group. More often than not, we never heard that buzzer ring. We also had an unwritten rule that when we had an event, you should bring someone from work—otherwise what was the point? We had to demonstrate our attempts to connect our ideas with the people we most wanted to become involved. 

Because of the youth culture that existed at that time, we could cross racial lines and win the support of young white workers, too, who had more in common with us than the old union hacks.

We integrated ideas from the Chinese experience into our organizing. Concepts like “serving the people” gave us an orientation to be selfless and wholeheartedly dedicated to the interests of the masses. We were guided by Mao’s understanding that “the people, and the people alone, are the motive force in making world history.” We read that “correct ideas” can become a material force to change the world and that it is in the dialectical back and forth between developing an idea and testing it in concrete practice that the right direction can be found. We learned that “To Be Attacked by the Enemy Is Not a Bad Thing but a Good Thing” because you are provoking them to react. Contradictions will always arise but they shouldn’t all be handled the same. For example, the fundamental class contradiction found in capitalism is handled differently than one between comrades. However, we should “combat liberalism” and not “let things slide for the sake of peace and friendship when a person has clearly gone wrong.”  We adopted an audacious “Dare to Struggle. Dare to Win” spirit.

As part of the New Communist Movement, the OL rejected the Soviet Union as a model for socialism. We followed China and their line that the Soviet Union had not only become capitalist but also played an imperialist role in its dealings around the world. Like a previous generation of socialists who wanted to imitate what was happening in the Soviet Union, we copied China. We mistakenly believed that what works in one country can be replicated in another. We blindly romanticized the Chinese approach and the anti-intellectualism promoted in a movie like “Breaking with Old Ideas” which was released in 1977 and was one of the few made during the Cultural Revolution. The movie went to the absurd lengths of suggesting that the calluses on the hand of a peasant were all the qualifications needed to be admitted to higher education but I remember being very moved at this thought.  We competed with other U.S. revolutionary organizations to become their fraternal party and renamed ourselves the Commuist Party (Marxist-Leninist) in 1977 the same year we were given that status. 

We didn’t understand that any revolutionary process has to emerge organically from local conditions. In Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, he describes the positive role the Communist Party organizers played in working with Black Alabama sharecroppers in the 1930s to frame an understanding of the roots of the poverty and systemic racism they were facing. It was a struggle, however, for these cadre to learn that “black working people entered the movement with a rich culture of opposition that sometimes contradicted, sometimes reinforced the Left’s vision of class struggle.” It was the respectful exchange and merger of different radical values, traditions, and worldviews that made the CP’s organizing successful. Our dogmatism interfered with our ability to enter into an equal relationship with people because we were trying to impose preconceived ideas and practices.

We were caught up in the Leninist notion that a “vanguard” of party organizers in a single organization could topple a government and “seize” state power. The idea that one organization could hold all the truth was very misguided, to say the least. We handled internal differences in a very binary, extreme way. Slight differences could escalate into major splits and there was no freedom to consider nuances in a position. It bothers me still that at one meeting of our unit, someone asked to see the full document in question written by someone we were supposed to criticize. He did not want to be handed an already digested version. You could have heard a pin drop in the room at the idea that anyone would have the nerve to question what we had been given to read. No one said a word. Being raised Catholic, it was more familiar than I realized at the time to strictly follow or suffer the  consequences of being shamed or ostracized.

Atlanta was prominent in the development of the October League because of its leadership in a militant, seven-week wildcat strike by the mostly Black workers at Mead Packaging. I saw a Newsreel film about the strike and it was used as an effective recruiting tool. Organizing in the South was important to the OL due mainly to a belief in  a position that the old Communist Party (CP) had once adopted that Black people composed a distinct nation of its own in the region. Veteran African-American CP member, Harry Haywood,  formulated the theory in the 1930s and it was the dropping of it by the CP in the 1950s that became one of his reasons for joining the “anti-revisionist” OL along with a handful of other CP comrades such as Otis Hyde and Nannie Wasburn who I would later meet in Atlanta. The first time I saw a map of the Black Belt, a crescent stretch of land from Virginia to Texas where African-Americans are more densely concentrated, I knew there was something special about this part of the country. It is the place where chattel slavery existed for almost two hundred and fifty years. It was also the place where a deep, rich culture and history of resistance simultaneously existed. My previous experiences had prepared me for this shift in consciousness connected to geography and strategy. 

We were caught up in the Leninist notion that a “vanguard” of party organizers in a single organization could topple a government and “seize” state power. The idea that one organization could hold all the truth was very misguided, to say the least.

Haywood’s 1948 book Negro Liberation was reprinted by the OL’s Liberator Press in 1976. In it, he asserted that “the basic requisite of the Negro struggle for equality – the fight for democratic land-redivision and the liberation of the Negro nation in the Southland” had to be put back front and center on any revolutionary group’s agenda. The right of self-determination for this Black Belt nation was seen as critical for African Americans to control their political destiny and the land they had once worked. Black workers would have a critical role to play here, so becoming a part of the labor movement in the South seemed like a good idea. It made sense to go to the site of this country’s original crimes of genocide and slavery. As the Black Freedom Movement had already demonstrated, what happened here can have world-shaking consequences.

From 1974 to 1977, I bounced around with some memorable experiences. Walking in the snow, I went to work in the cold, winter darkness before dawn to Jefferson Electric, a company that made electrical transformers. This factory had its own cafeteria where they served grits, a food new to me. Again, this was because so many Black workers had migrated from the South to industrial cities like Chicago and brought their culture with them. There was the nonunion, pinball machine factory that people said was owned by the mafia where I operated a punch press and carpooled with Latino workers who took me under their wing. We worked long winter days when it was dark when we got there and dark when we left. I got a job at a small factory, Alloy Manufacturing, that made automotive replacement parts where I met a “Rosie the Riveter”-type white woman who had left Chicago to go to California to work in a defense plant as an overhead crane operator during World War II. You could tell what a life-changing experience this had been for her. This was another UAW local and one day at work  I was told to come to the union meeting that night because there was going to be a strike vote in support of one of our co-workers. Everyone knew this worker had a drinking problem but the union felt it was not right for him to be fired, especially with all his years of seniority. The strike vote was taken and the workers won rehabilitation for Felix Aranowski instead of termination.

My last job in Chicago was at U.S. Steel’s South Works located in South Chicago. There was a very sexist belief in many political organizations at that time  that getting jobs in auto and steel were the most important because these workers could potentially have so much power over the economy. While I kept applying for these jobs, I ended up in light manufacturing where more women worked. Obviously, these were important places to organize, too. Following this directive, I finally got hired. What became South Works had begun in 1857 under the name of the North Chicago Rolling Mill. By 1951, South Works had 11 blast furnaces, 8 electric furnaces, and 12 rolling mills, and employed some 15,000 employees. At its peak, the steel mill employed some 20,000 people.

I was hired into the rod mill and the massiveness of the operation struck me. It was a long walk from the gate entrance to where I actually worked and on my way,  I saw the ships coming from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan delivering iron ore. There was all the noise and heat and the sense you were a small part of an important process. On my way out the gate after the night shift, I saw the open bar across the street which struck me as very unusual at first but later understood a drink after work meant a drink after work even if it was early in the morning. Under a United Steelworkers Union’s contract, we had plenty of paid holidays, health benefits, and a grievance procedure but like most unions there was also the fight against corruption and cooperation with management. As I left the mill on my last day, the guard said it was just as well because layoffs were coming. The layoffs came, jobs were lost, communities were devastated, and U.S. Steel closed the plant in 1992 and demolished it. 

Black workers would have a critical role to play here, so becoming a part of the labor movement in the South seemed like a good idea. It made sense to go to the site of this country’s original crimes of genocide and slavery. As the Black Freedom Movement had already demonstrated, what happened here can have world-shaking consequences.

I got married in 1976 to my girlfriend whom I had met at Northwestern University and got arrested with at an anti-war protest four years before. The wedding was held at a Norwegian friendship hall on North Kedzie in Logan Square on the northwest side near where we and many other comrades lived. The neighborhood was a mix of Puerto Rican and Polish and my best man was a Puerto Rican brother who I had met in our political organizing and who had become a close friend. Our wedding ceremony had to include language for vows used by the Chinese comrades, of course, and was followed right after by a party. My new wife was from Charlotte, North Carolina, so when the request was made for us to join other OL comrades to organize in a cotton mill in Kannapolis, 25 miles north of Charlotte, we said yes.

My personal and political transformation was taking place on multiple levels simultaneously and my experience in Chicago had laid a good foundation. I had begun a life-long journey of organizing with and learning from the working class. My consciousness had been raised about the need to fight white supremacy and to use the privileges I had been given to serve the interests of the movement. Last but not least, I had learned many lessons about the role of patriarchy not only from the abuse of my father and my experience with a pedophile priest but also from the strong feminist movement that had a great impact on Chicago’s movement. Formed in 1969, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU) “was the most significant of the socialist feminist women’s unions established during the “second wave” feminist movement.” In that same year, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective began working on publishing information about women’s health and sexuality that led to the first “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”. This book was visible in movement circles in Chicago and necessary reading for movement men to consider in their intimate and political relationships. The power of the women’s movement set a tone that demanded respect for women comrades, sharing home and child care responsibilities, and appreciation for challenges that were being made to binary gender divisions, as women broke free from the chains of heteropatriarchy. Women who were leaders in this movement also became leaders of the October League which was very weak on gender issues and blatantly homophobic but this exposure to feminists and feminist politics would bear fruit many years later. I was ready to move South.  



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