The recent film “The Coop Wars” which played at the Minneapolis - Saint Paul International Film Festival and on Twin Cities Public Television stirred memories of a conflict almost 50 years old. But despite that distance in time, the documentary can’t resolve the contradictions that the coop movement exposed.
A number of former members of the Coop Organization have been meeting to sort out our own histories and lessons learned that were not fully represented in the film. We’ve dug through personal archives, archives at the Minnesota History Center, SNCC archives, and other sources because there is much to be learned and used about a conflict that continues to stir emotions and interests even after 50 years.
So here’s the story as I tell it to myself. Of course there are other stories.
I’d returned to Minneapolis in late 1971 after a nearly 4 year sojourn east: first to attend graduate school at Stony Brook, then as an organizer of student strikes on Long Island in response to Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and repression of the Black Panther Party, then, briefly, as a member of an organizing commune in Greenport Long Island, working in a fish processing plant, then as a member of a professional theater company in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and an organizer for a music festival called Granola to raise money to support a local draft information center. I’d never finished my thesis on Shakespeare’s politics; the fish factory burnt down and everyone else went back to school; the theater went bankrupt, and the music festival ended with the season. I didn’t have anywhere else to go, so I went home.
My parents were in poor shape. My father had lost confidence as much as skills as the result of a stroke 7 years earlier. My mother was absolutely refusing treatment of a skin cancer. They both drank a lot.
I started crashing with an old undergrad roommate in a dumpy apartment on 25th Avenue that had a kerosene heater and no doors but only curtains separating rooms and. It was awkward. I’d spent a good deal of off time in Pennsylvania studying classic socialist literature: Marx, Lenin, Deutscher, Mandel and was a regular reader of the Guardian. So I was happy to find that the newly announced New American Movement (NAM) had established their first national office and a local office just around the corner in an old church on Franklin Avenue.
I was soon an active member: working as office staff, teaching classes in the Praxis School; and solved my housing issues by joining a newly formed commune in a house on Bryant Avenue with new NAM acquaintances and, when we advertised for an additional roommate, V showed up at our door.
1972 had been an intense year of activity in the movements: Honeywell Project held a week of War Crimes Tribunals in the January; in May, the campus had erupted in reaction to Nixon’s bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong, shut down both University and Washington Avenue with barricades for a week despite police spraying protestors with teargas from helicopters. We’d allied our Minneapolis chapter of New American Movement to the Indochina Peace Campaign organized by Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, and Holly Near. Our Northcountry Peace Campaign ran in parallel to the McGovern presidential campaign despite our deep suspicions of electoral politics and of the Democratic party after the suppression of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats in 1964 and the police riots in Chicago in 1968. We’d been ‘on tour’ in Duluth in October when Kissinger announced ‘Peace is at hand’ and confused and deflated much of the anti-war opposition. A few weeks later, Nixon won re-election in a landslide. Now in December of 1972, Nixon launched new bombing campaigns in Vietnam as a ‘negotiation tactic’ and our outrage seemed impotent. We stood in a Christmas Eve snowstorm in front of Dayton’s Department Store handing out leaflets to Christmas shoppers.
Our momentum carried us for a time. Brian Coyle suggested that we launch a ‘Campaign ‘73’ to offer an alternative for post-McGovern depression. And so we did. Tom and Jane came back on tour and spoke to decent size crowds. We locals again toured to Rochester, Marshall, St. Cloud, and Duluth for rallies.
But despite this motion, it was becoming increasingly clear that the ‘movement’ was at some kind of a crossroads.
V gave birth to our daughter T on Christmas day 1973. In Bryant House, Tom and Sue got together leaving Gordy, who’d been partnered with Sue, out. Larry and Marilyn split up and moved out. Lorraine moved in. I was hardly meeting the stereotyped role as a ‘good provider’. I quit as a taxi driver after being held up at knifepoint. I lost a job as a film processor when, with all of the other processors, we refused to process Honeywell anti-personnel weapon test film.
The war was coming to an end. The draft was done. American troops were being withdrawn in what Nixon called Vietnamization. In a little more than 2 years, “The War” would be over. It was that war, Coyle observed, that ‘kept throwing us people even faster than we could turn them off’. The movement for Black Liberation which had set the example of struggle and courage for many, was fractured by repression and internal contradictions. Nixon’s strategy was to turn the movement for black power toward black capitalism and to co-opt many of the community organizations and institutions formed in the ‘war on poverty’. The movement split in many directions. SNCC no longer existed by 1973. One stream moved toward electoral politics (Bobbie Rush from the surviving Panthers, John Lewis from SNCC) while another moved deeper underground (RAM, BLA), and another pushed toward organizing the industrial proletariat (LRBW, BWC).
As the movements came apart, so did our households and personal lives. Bryant House broke up when T was 2. After a fairly long bout with pneumonia as things came apart I was in a hard place to make plans or arrangements for myself. Eventually B and G generously invited me to move into a duplex apartment with them on the other side of Powderhorn Park from where V and T lived. I was pretty much a wreck.
Many in the anti-war movement had learned that the problems of war and exploitation of the ‘third world’ were systemic, imperialism and neo-colonialism, that were not resolved by the Vietnamese victory. Before he was assassinated, King had coupled the struggle against the war in Vietnam to the movement for Black Liberation as systemic struggles. African revolutionaries like Amilcar Cabral told surviving black leaders in the US to focus their struggles in “the belly of the beast.”
So here we were in the Belly of the Beast as our mass movements ebbed and faded in the midst of a recession and earlier victories.
Organizers and organizations looking to engage people in a struggle need at least two points of clarity: A strong sense of their constituency and a narrative of how the desired change will come about. The movements as a whole at that point had neither and argued about both.
Only in the most general sense was there anything like agreement that the problems we had uncovered were systemic and intertwined: economic exploitation, racism, and sexism. Many sought some clarity and direction in Marx and Lenin and contemporary socialists. It seemed reasonable to conclude that the system that was the root and source of oppression had suppressed this knowledge as a defense. So some of us sought out those texts and argued while others wondered how anything connected to anything and especially to them.
It is unlikely that anyone, even the FBI, has an accurate count of the organizations that emerged in this period as part of the “New Communist Movement”. In the Twin Cities there were at least four.
When the Coop Organization (CO) emerged out of struggle within the coop counter-culture and with connections to a larger movement, many of us were ready to listen and looking for direction. The CO defined its constituency as the broad working class rather than the counterculture. The CO’s narrative certainly wasn’t complete but followed from the experience and lessons of previous left movements.
1) The Coop system could be part of a financial base for a broader revolutionary movement and thus help avoid dependencies and cooptation. This requirement for a strong financial base was also the impetus for James Forman’s Black Economic Development Commission.
2) The driving force for this movement would be the leadership of white working class women in combination with leaders from the black and other ‘national’ movements to overcome the impact of racism.
3) The movement should be led by a ‘democratic centralist’ organization with a high degree of secrecy and covert operation to overcome the subversion and sabotage of police agents like COINTELPRO program that disrupted the Black Panthers, SNCC, and many other revolutionary organizations and murdered emerging leadership.
People in the New American Movement (NAM) in Minneapolis were drawn into the discussion and debate. The momentum of ‘the movement’ had covered many contradictions. As some sought to move away from educational programs toward more working class organizing, those contradictions surfaced.
V and L, who’d left NAM as Bryant House broke up, studied with CO organizers in a short-lived women’s organization and returned to challenge the weak class orientation in NAM. They brought with them a challenge to study ‘Dialectical and Historical Materialism’ and Mao rather than more esoteric thinkers like Andre Gorz, and others of the New Left. That led to contentious study groups. We’d come to call ourselves revolutionaries. The question now, as many asked, was who was serious?
I was an early recruit and then a lead in the ‘transformation’ of NAM. Somehow I got word to meet my first contact Clarence in Frogies restaurant on Lake Street in Minneapolis. I’d never met him before and that in itself was encouraging to see a part of the movement growing rather than shrinking. In a hushed voice he spoke of directives and discipline and possible orders to ‘blow up a bank’. It was all very romantic but seemed serious. Soon enough I was repeating the rap to old friends in one on one meetings in cafes and cars.
By the fall of 1975 NAM had split and programs were discontinued with a good number of members recruited to the CO.
We shut down NAM, closed the office and changed the locks. Many new recruits to the discipline of the CO became first members of “The Committee to Support the Aims of the Coop Movement” in a new storefront office on Franklin and 11th Avenue.
Out of that office I joined a number of others in the back of the Coop Milk truck. When the truck arrived at Seward Coop, we jumped out of the truck, quickly expelled Leo Cashman and Kris Olson from the store and declared Seward Coop a liberated part of the Coop Movement. There’s been a good deal of noise about the ‘violence’ of that takeover, but what I recall is the big and burly milk truck driver lifting Leo in a bear hug and carrying him out the front door with his feet kicking the air. He went across the street and called the cops. Within an hour, after confusing the cops enough to avoid arrest, we were all expelled from the store and the doors locked. From there the battle went into court and I lost track of it.
It’s not to the point here to spend much time analyzing the initial struggles in the Coops and the People’s Warehouse -- some of those stories have been told many times and someday may be told well. For here just say that after taking control of the warehouse and some
neighborhood coops by various means, the CO lost control of the warehouse, Selby Coop, and others to opposition forces and the laws of private property.
Nonetheless, the momentum generated by that struggle led by the CO generated and/or redirected a wide range of progressive programs and campaigns: bookstores, childcare, new food coops in previously unserved neighborhoods, a women’s health program, unionization drives, resistance to police repression, new bakeries, as well as infrastructure for movement in print shops, computer labs, and other businesses.
But the CO’s focus shifted after the loss of the People’s Warehouse and the prospect of a robust economic basis for an expanding revolutionary movement. The CO became the O with the intent of forming a cadre organization of revolutionaries. Lenin’s slogan “Better Fewer but Better” circulated as those less committed to organizational discipline or more individualistic or ‘factional’ were purged and remaining individuals went through their first assessment process.
From one perspective, the O was one of many new Marxist-Leninist groupings that emerged as the mass movements ebbed due to external repression and their own internal contradictions. Many of those organizations developed in response to the failures and destruction of earlier organizations. Most attributed earlier failures to opportunistic leadership, betrayal of principles, and errors in ‘line’ or theory of change. The O’s approach was different. Rather than focus on differences in line or the opportunism and betrayals of others, the O observed “Groups and organizations talk about using Marxism-Leninism as a guide to their practice but in fact ignore the concrete application of these tools as they come into conflict with their self-interest.” Opportunism, using a movement for personal benefit over stated objectives, looked to be nearly universal.
The O internally moved from the assessment process to an ideological transformation process (ITP) based on the observation that people in a capitalist society are conditioned to reproduce the relations of production in any organization they form without conscious and ongoing transformation. That insight had roots in women’s revolt against assignments to ‘jobs they are good at’, and in issues raised in early SNCC programs by the arrogance and condescension of some white student volunteers and by some funders who sought control and saw donations as investments. In the coops, an early CO organizer observed, “some people walk around like they own the place and others just wait to be told what to do or just complain.” Without conscious struggle everything devolves to relations of domination and subordination.
The O’s leadership elaborated these observations to define a set of ‘ideological forms’: Male chauvinism/Sexism; White Chauvinism/Racism; Class. This, in itself, is not verydifferent from some more contemporary discussions of ‘Intersectionality’ and the role of ‘Allies’.
Tying these ideological forms to capitalist relations of production the O’s ITP was derived from Marx’s Theory of Value. Marx posited two types of value within capitalism: Use Value and Exchange Value. The relation between these two forms, according to Marx, is the dynamo of capitalist society driving capital accumulation. Looking at a personal level to develop cadre leadership, the O posited ‘ a personal’ value (Value to yourself) and a ‘social’ value (Value to others in the market). Everyone within a capitalist society is born into an ideological form and learns means to maximize their own values in ways that preserve and protect the existing capitalist relations.
The roots of this diagnosis probably trace to James Forman, and perhaps to James and Grace Lee Boggs, and even to Frantz Fanon and to early reports from Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The focus of movement in that moment was to create the conditions for leadership development more than to “build power” as in most forms fo progressive organizing. Even in the early days of the CO, members were often assigned to tasks and projects that, in the current vernacular, were ‘outside their comfort zone,’ or in the O’s vocabulary ‘heightened their contradictions’. This meant providing people opportunities to realize value outside of their conditioned sense of personal and social value. Thus people who were often deeply subordinated within coops and other organizations were elevated to positions of leadership in programs; people whom nobody expected to hear from became spokespersons. As the ITP developed, people were assigned to programs, households, and locations based on their assessed development needs.
Over time the framework of ideological forms was elaborated into a more complete vocabulary of motives with concepts of identity, forms of motion (i.e. relationships), and an etiology tying personal contradictions to family relationships and structures.
[For example, my mother is my dominant influence; my ideological form is Sexism (Obedience); my mode of thought is metaphysical (materialist/static as opposed to idealism); my primary form of identity is Unity and my form of motion/relationship within that identity is positive vs. negative.
The O’s programmatic work in this period focussed on developing leadership skills and economic knowledge, often in commercial enterprises like People’s Nutritional Bakery, more than on bringing new people into a movement. Cadre in development moved frequently between households and occupations.
In the spring of 1975 as the coop struggle still wore on, I got word from my contact that I would be moving to Chicago. I sold my books, my only really valuable possession, bought a cardboard suitcase from Goodwill, and, on instruction, met Smitty in the Saint Paul Bus Terminal for a ride to Chicago.
I joined the O as an underemployed liberal arts dropout taxi driver. I worked in an assembly plant, and a half dozen print shops in various roles over the next 7 years. I lived in three cities and in more households than I can recall. I managed a print shop and a bookstore. And at the O’s direction, I took math and statistics classes at the U and then a 16 month course in night school to get a computer programming certificate. I gained many skills and some confidence and direction that lasted beyond my time with the O. But I wasn’t ideologically transformed.
The ITP didn’t work. Some people still walk around like they own the joint while others wait to be told what to do or just complain. We face the same problems of economic exploitation, social oppression, structural racism and misogyny now exacerbated by environmental crises and looming fascism without much sign of any ‘vanguard’ leadership having been developed in any part of the movement. The O’s programs and campaigns have followed a natural life cycle and disappeared. But the failure of the O’s project is not a simple reproach.
I left in early 1982, but some continued for another decade although at that point most all political programs were long discontinued.
The O was, in the words of one member, like a lab experiment that blew up.
It’s worth picking apart the specific contradictions in the practice of the O for a more general understanding of building sustainable struggles.
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” -- Karl Marx (inscribed on his gravestone).
Making the Internal the Dominant Aspect of Organization:
The O’s diagnosis of the roots of opportunism in movement organizations, the insight that dysfunction in those organizations mirrored capitalist relations of domination and subordination, was profound. Movement organizations fracturing or falling for cooptation were evidence. But a diagnosis is not a treatment plan. We stumbled developing methods of correction.
After the loss of the People’s Warehouse, the practice of the O became increasingly focused on developing cadre for future struggle. Even open, external-facing programs like the Working Woman and Man Bookstores, new Food Coops in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and People’s Nutritional Bakery were aimed primarily at developing leadership as other objectives for developing infrastructure and an economic foundation failed.
Movements, programs and progressive initiatives are naturally prone to defeats, errors, and missteps, especially perhaps when led by people assigned for development purposes to tasks that ‘heighten their contradictions’ and push them beyond the roles they are conditioned to in capitalist society. Successes in the short term, on the other hand, may reflect opportunities for leaders to maximize their capitalist value. Capitalist relations of production may represent the universality of the contradictions, but not all errors and missteps can be solved by immediately overthrowing the relations of production.
How then were errors to be addressed? The nearly universal practice in the movement was called Criticism and Self-criticism (CSC) though that notion comprised some very different practices.
As the O focused on internal struggle over external, the role of criticism was less directed at improving performance in struggle for power and more at simply exposing ideological roots of individual practices. CSC in the O, meant primarily Confrontation. That emphasis might be the result of previous experiences in organizations that failed or also a response to the ‘carbon monoxide’ of Minnesota nice. But Confrontation, by itself, doesn’t lead to real methods of correction. As likely, it leads to defensiveness, intimidation, and a lack of openness and trust amongst people who aspire to be comrades. Negating the personal and social value of individuals put a focus on humiliation rather than progress.
In some ways then the ITP framework was turned upon itself. “Ow, I hit my thumb with the hammer”. “Where was that coming from in your world outlook? Why weren’t you paying attention?” The vocabulary itself became a tool for domination and bullying, macho posturing, and procedural domination. In time the focus on Confrontation internally led to minor physical violence. There were boxing matches and swats with a paddle adopted as ‘methods of correction’. But they corrected little and covered up a lack rather than accelerating development.
The internal focus was reinforced by isolation created by organizational security practices. Much of this too was in reaction to earlier and contemporary movements experience. COINTELTPRO generated police surveilance and infiltration, sabotage, and murder. People in the O lived in small households with assigned roommates and worked in programs that generally were short staffed. Social contact with other cadre outside of assigned work was discouraged. Few had much of a view of the overall state of the organization or even of who, outside their immediate scope, was ‘in’ or ‘out’. Information was shared only on a strict need to know basis. Oddly perhaps there was little discussion of events in the external world: in China and the Soviet Union, in the emerging LGBTQ movements, or even in family life cycle events.
“Social unity” was seen one-sidedly in the O as a leading contributor to opportunism and organizational decay but a full rejection of community and cultures of resistance undercut resilience as movements ebbed. A kind of puritanism reinforced isolation.
Forms of Organization and Forms of Struggle:
Organizational ‘transformation’, in the view of the O, meant dissolution and a complete restructuring of organizations that had developed replicating bourgeois relations of production. In the cases of many of the coops and People’s Warehouse old forms usually meant an ultra-democracy developed in reaction to strict hierarchical structures but which allowed privilege and wealth to dominate without much accountability. Few could expect working class people outside of the counterculture to sit through hours and hours of meetings on sometimes poorly defined operational issues. Those most able to dominate in such meetings were most often educated white males with a gift for mansplaining, jargon, and meeting manipulation. Some who were able to finance or fund their proposals most often carried the day and remained in a kind of ‘ownership’ position.
The CO’s alternative proposed for the People’s Warehouse and All Coop Assembly was “democratic centralism”. What that meant was never fully developed as control of the Warehouse was lost. After setbacks in the coops, the CO and then the O never sought to organize a broad based constituent organization.
Internally, the O was never a democracy. Our recent historical research has uncovered a few moments when decisions were put to a vote: the initial decision to occupy the warehouse; the purging of some in an early ‘two-line struggle’, but for the most part, from the point of view of the rank and file, the O operated on a command and control system reinforced by the internal focus and organizational security noted above.
This lack of customary democracy, or the giving up of personal control, may seem strange in retrospect. But it was reinforced by three factors: first, reliance on a command and control structure is common for groups ‘at war’, and, given the history of violent subversion and suppression, the necessity of ‘closed forms’ was not an outrageous assumption for O cadre. Second, for those who had spent time in the organizational chaos of the new left and coop movements, a commitment to getting work done rather than the frustration and exhaustion of ‘participatory democracy’ was attractive. Also, since the aim of the ITP was to heighten contradictions by assigning people to tasks and positions they would be unlikely to take on their own, a command authority was a requirement of the process.
Out of a period of confusion and disillusion, a strong voice of authority was welcomed by many.
Accounting and Strategy:
Somewhere near the end of the recent “Coop Wars” film, someone says “In some ways I suppose the CO won.” They are wrong but the observation is interesting. They’re wrong because time has allowed some to frame the old struggle as a contest over the types of food carried in Coop stores and the economic management of the stores.
Coops in the Twin Cities and surrounding areas now have a full line of groceries and other health care and deli items in lush markets that have little in common with the funky coops with bags of beans that existed during the “Coop Wars”. The CO argued that the coops should be stocked and organized to support the grocery needs of the working class, not just hippies; the opponents argued that the CO was ignoring health issues in conventional diets.
Outside the old Mill City Coop on a late winter day in 1976, an old acquaintance and anti-war hero accused me of wanting to ‘feed poison to a worker’ by stocking white sugar.
The real issue, for which the food stock was only an emblem, was about the class stand of the food coops. That issue has not been resolved in the favor of the working class. Contemporary coops are professionally managed and governed within the legal framework and licensing established for consumer cooperatives. In some cases coop workers are unionized. Most see them as expensive but high quality alternatives to other grocery chains, not alternatives to capitalism.
The CO and the O should be understood on the basis of their own strategy and goals. The goal of the CO was to transform the coop system into an economic and educational base for working class struggle. The goal of the O was to develop ideologically transformed cadre leadership for that struggle. In retrospect it’s easy to trace both of these goals to earlier movement experience, especially in the civil rights and black liberation movement.
SNCC, like many other organizations in the Civil Rights movement, relied on external funding. That is the organizational activities themselves did not generate funds but did generate donations from supporters otherwise uninvolved in the struggle for rights. Even the Mississippi Summer project of voter registration and Freedom Schools lived on a shoestring and almost had to shut down in the middle of the summer until rescued by a last minute donation raised by Sidney Poitier and Harry Bellafonte.
As the movement moved beyond the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts toward fundamental issues of power and justice, the economic base became even more precarious. When SNCC leadership raised the call for Black Power, liberal contributions fell dramatically.
Financial problems were not the only cause but a likely contributing factor to the end of SNCC in 1973.
So it is not surprising that veterans of these struggles understood the importance of establishing some kind of economic base. James Forman, former Executive Secretary of SNCC, drafted a Black Manifesto and founded the Black Economic Development Conference (BEDC), to demand reparations for slavery from churches and to manage distribution of the funds received. The BLA robbed a Brinks truck.
The CO’s ambition to harness the economic development potential of the Coop movement for a broader agenda of social justice is consistent with the goals of BEDC. For that matter the CO was supported and joined by some of the original founders of the food coops, and the objective of ‘building a new society in the shell of the old’ was as old as the coop movement my grandparents were a part of.
But the CO’s attempt to turn the coops in that direction, first through long debate and then through physical take over of People’s Warehouse, Seward and other coops fell in the face of legal, police, and political opposition. The takeover did succeed in engaging and expanding the political conflict and drew me and other NAM comrades into the process. Economically, the tactics were a failure. The warehouse lasted and suffered through about a year of shrinking markets and revenues and eventually the issues of ownership were sorted out by courts and bankruptcy lawyers. The CO went on to establish other food coops in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, but like most early coops those efforts suffered from under capitalization and failed to establish significant markets. Eventually those coops faded away while other original coops like Seward and The Wedge attracted greater capital investment, expanded markets -- sometimes at the expense of other original coops -- and grew toward their current prosperity.
Following on the CO, the O established businesses in printing, a bookshop, a child care center, and then in software and software services. The modest goal for most of these enterprises was simply to be self-sustaining and useful infrastructure.
The most naive thing I ever heard from O leadership was the notion that ‘If you understand the laws of capitalism, you should be able to make any business make money’. This notion was naive in theory and disproven in practice. The businesses didn’t prosper and didn’t last. They survived only on the unpaid labor and funds of O cadre. The irony is that the mistaken notion of how businesses make money is a pretty complete reflection of capitalist ideology: ‘wealth and prosperity come to those who have skills, knowledge and hardwork’.
Internal contradictions split apart the key organizations of the civil rights, black liberation, and anti-war movements. This is not to discount the role of political subversion and police repression, but an honest history needs to recognize that even organizations aimed at revolution reproduce within them the relationships they seek to overthrow. That was a foundational insight of the O, probably derived from the ferment and fracturing of SNCC and the cluster of revolutionary workers organizations around Detroit in the earliest 70s.
The O offered potential cadre a path to personal transformation in service of the people. This too was not unique amongst movements on the left. In Cuba, Che Guevara talked about creating a ‘new socialist man’ free from the selfishness and greed of a capitalist society. In China too, early reports of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution told of mass movements of young people rooting out any remnants of capitalist relations within China.
To the process of transformation the O brought two practices. First, a centralized approach to organizational assignments of tasks and roles that emphasized developing peoples’ capabilities and skills rather than simply exploiting them. Second, the Ideological Transformation Process (ITP) provided a vocabulary of motives for describing and struggling against bourgeois relations and practices within an organization. There was much insight within the ITP that was unfortunately wrapped in a heavy Maoist vocabulary.
There may be a good deal to be salvaged from the ITP insights. Many of the same issues seem to me to be being addressed in current discussions of inter-sectionality and allyship. There’s much to be sorted out here. Ultimately, we failed to develop sustainable leadership for the organizations and movements we need now.
Learning from the O
There is something remarkable about a relatively short lived organization that originated nearly 50 years ago that commands attention even now. Can we sum up and learn anything from the O?
Was the O a cult? From my perspective it’s not so much a yes or no question as a meaningless one. Given the range of uses of the word cult -- from suicidal space worshippers, to Trump followers, from Q-Anon to ISIS, from Mormons to Jonestown-- there’s not a lot of
meaning left. What many people seem to mean when they describe a ‘cult’ is that they can’t otherwise understand the motivations of people in a group. In some cases, people ascribe their own previous behavior to their loss of their own agency in a ‘cult’. Several former O members have turned their experience into advanced degrees and careers as ‘cult’ experts.
But describing the O as a cult seems to me to lose most opportunity to learn anything specific from the experience many of us expended years on. I’ve tried in this paper to address motivations in a historical context as an alternative account.
A key part of the ‘cult narrative’ is the role of a key leader in the development of the organization. The “Coop Wars” producers describe “The mysterious founder of the Cooperative Organization (CO), ‘Smitty' claimed involvement in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. Mixing orthodox Marxism-Leninism with psychological control....” This portrayal is both self-serving and lazy.
It is true that the CO leadership held back from public view and thus perhaps contributed to the ‘air of mystery’ that enveloped some. But the context here is critical. People who worked in and with the organization had direct experience of the violence and repression of the COINTELPRO program, the murder of Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, Sam Napier, and more than 25 other members of the Black Panther organization; the legal harassment of SNCC leadership leading to dissolution of that organization, the use of agent provocateurs in the later days of SDS, etc.
Theophilus Smith’s early history in SNCC is not a ‘claim’; it’s easily accessible in the SNCC archives. He was a part of the historic voting rights struggle and march in Selma, was arrested with Stokely Carmicheal and others in Prattville, Alabama and held in isolation and tortured by police there when he was 20 years old.
The path that led to “Smitty” organizing study groups at Winding Road farm that led to the CO is not entirely clear. In my version of the story, he arrived through mutual connections and perhaps on assignment from some fragment of the movements in Detroit. At some point in the history of the O, he seems to have lost that connection. James Forman, a likely mentor whose works the O published and studied, went through some kind of mental health crisis and hospitalization sometime in the late 70s or early 80s. Smitty suspected that he had been ‘dosed’ with some psychotropic drugs.
I lose whatever thread I may have a handle on for those earlier years in the CO / O. Smitty, according to the retrospective narratives of others, took advantage of his position, exploited others, especially women, and chased increasingly bizarre projects and money making schemes. There’s a huge gap, from my perspective, between the insights and structures of the ITP and some of the magical thinking and missing education reported in some of those later narratives.
I’m reminded of the difficult later acts of some other key movement leaders in the 70’s: Rap Brown, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Stokely Charmichael, and on. James Bevel, who was a key strategist of the Selma marches that Smitty took part in, ended up endorsing Ron Reagan for President and worked with the Unification Church and Lyndon LaRouche and faced criminal charges for incest. Those leaders were slightly older and probably better educated than Theo Smith. They all, however bad their endings, deserve some gratitude and compassion along with criticism.
So from where I sit I find the ‘Smitty made me do it’ narrative, like the general cult narrative, unhelpful. The O was never about personalities.
My Own Conclusions....
I was born in 1946 and so am probably just a little older than most of the hundred or so people who were a part of the CO and O. In the early 70s, we were all young, almost exclusively white, and, in the language of the time, ‘middle class’ with some certainly ‘upper middle class’. Coming of age in the mid to late 60s, we were caught between “The fierce urgency of now” and the equilibrium of midcentury middle class life constructed from postwar prosperity and subtle counterinsurgency aimed at preventing the reemergence of the left movements of the prewar depression.
When the civil rights movement and then the antiwar movement and the womens’ movement tore open the illusions of ‘middle class’ life, we were unsettled. Just as the recession of the early 70s raised questions for parents about passing on an even better lifestyle to their children, we didn’t want to live like our parents. More than to be comfortable, we wanted our lives, in Marge Piercy’s phrase, “to be of use”, to be meaningful.
The state, then governed mostly by ‘good liberals’, had discredited itself in Vietnam and in Mississippi. Perhaps we maintained a bit of idealism, a bit of post-war ‘can do’ attitude. We weren’t cynical. We hated the ruling class. Where else could we go?
“There was music in the cafés at night And revolution in the air” Bob Dylan
We’d come to glimpse the intersections of Racism, Sexism, economic exploitation, imperialism through the experiences of the 60s. A fix required a revolution, and the vocabulary of revolution was Marxism Leninism. The power of Marxist thought was enhanced by a generation of suppression and cold war. So much that had been hidden from us could now be found.
I remember Smitty telling me about digging up a wooden box of literature that had been hidden in someone’s backyard in Alabama at the height of the 50s Red Scare. Kaganovich’s pamphlet on organization reportedly came out of that box.
At this point in my life, it would be as impossible to walk away from the insights and tools provided by Marx and Marxists as it would be to walk away from what I understand of the Newtonian laws of motion. But now it seems to me that the flaw in Marx's account of the world, inherited from Hegel and perhaps as old as history itself, is the notion, the meta history, that history will have an end. For Marx, the state will ‘wither away’ with the elimination of class contradictions. Lenin elaborated that theory considerably and it became a justification for much Marxist Leninist strategy: the ends justify the means. Maybe so, but to employ means with clarity requires more clarity about the end. As Brecht wrote “ Anger, even against injustice /Makes the voice hoarse. /O, We who wanted to prepare the ground for friendship /Could not ourselves be friendly.”
I no longer believe in an end to history. The world, it seems to me now, can’t be ‘fixed’ but only healed. “Justice, Justice, you shall pursue so that you may thrive....” says the Deutoronomist. Rabbis have interpreted the repetition of the word Justice to mean that the pursuit of justice is never completed and never perfected.
As the Freedom Singers sang: “They say that freedom is a constant struggle (3x) Oh Lord we’ve been struggling so long
we must be free, we must be free”
The CO and the O took on many perceived injustices and asked sacrifice from members.
But in its time it was hardly unique. Friends from another NAM chapter in North Carolina left NAM for the Communist Workers Party. They did some remarkable factory organizing, took on the Klan, and in a rally in Greensboro were shot, some killed, and some paralyzed by Klansmen.
We were sometimes foolish, misguided, and sometimes did harm to ourselves and others. Ultimately, the O failed to establish an economic base for a movement or sustainable leadership. But given the interlocking crises we now face, along with the threat of emerging fascism, wouldn’t it be good if we had.
Addendum: How I left
In the winter of 1981, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as President; the Soviet Union had been locked in a quagmire war in Afghanistan for more than a year; The FMLN launched a revolutionary civil war in El Salvador; the Chinese Government put the “Gang of Four” on trial for counter revolutionary activity.
I was working full time as a printer, working at the WW&M Bookstore, working at the print shop after bookstore shifts, and on weekends working on a donut machine at the PNB. I was directed to move into a duplex in the Summit University neighborhood in Saint Paul just off University Avenue.
It was a big move since my roommate in the old apartment had grabbed his personal belongings and left the O suddenly. So I ended up moving boxes and boxes full of household items, cooking utensils, as well as my personal stuff. No place, need, or time to deal with the redundancy, I left boxes on a side screen porch until I could deal with them.
Sometime in the next couple of weeks, the house was broken into. The robbers must have taken a sledge hammer to the old wooden back door and shattered it to bits. We lost a television and Mark B’s wedding ring. We cleaned up the best we could, replaced the door, and added 2x4 crossbars to keep it from opening. Then we were broken into again.
It was the height of the ‘intensification’ period of the Ideological Transformation Process. Word came down, I believe, to my roommates to confront me with the fact that the break ins were my fault for leaving boxes on the back porch; “decay attracts decay” was the slogan. I was already under criticism as a liberal for not confronting others, so I decided to respond with a simple observation: perhaps the problem was three white boys with newish cars moving into a largely black neighborhood without taking any time to get to know neighbors was a more likely invitation. This earned me denunciation as a full blown racist. I was ordered to appear at an “ideological tribunal” at a local motel the coming weekend.
The bookstore at that time was running a regular film series on Friday nights at the Phillips Community Center. I’d pack up the study guides and schlep the films to a contact in Duluth on Saturday morning for another showing. I rushed back to Saint Paul, in a sloppy end of winter snow storm, for my tribunal.
I had some time to think on the drive back and forth. It just didn’t make sense to me that the boxes on the porch were the cause of our break-in problem. But perhaps that was a problem in my thinking. I was beginning to have my doubts. The intensification campaign made life in the O difficult and certainly not something to bring a new person into. Few bookstore customers, and there were few, came in looking for deep ideological criticism of their own flaws. Some came looking for interpretation of current events, but the O had little to say about external events. How were we to rebuild a movement and build an organization?
I remember very little of the tribunal. The cheap motel room was hot and crowded. I remember Robbie, Alex, Kathy, and, I think, George B and others whom I hadn’t seen in years. I had no defense and really not much to defend. I think I was boarded a number of times and then we all went home.
It took a couple of months to make the decision and the arrangements to leave. I left on my own, had no friends or family to take me in and, at any rate, I wanted to be alone and work things out. I found an SRO apartment in an old Ford Motor dormitory in St. Paul for $150 a month. I sold the gun I’d purchased in Chicago to cover a month’s rent. Then one day in spring I took a day off work, packed a box full of books and papers and wrapped my clothing in a big polyester comforter I’d bought at KMart, and took off. I left a note that said something about needing to spend some time on personal problems and not wanting to burden others with them. I thought I left a door open to return.
Some weeks later, I got a message though I don’t remember how, that I owed the O my tax refund. Since I was or had been the nominal owner of the bookstore and the print shop, I’d write those losses off of my income taxes. I had about three hundred dollars in a refund check. So by some arrangement I met my last roommate on Franklin Avenue and turned over the cash. He told me that I’d left all of my socks in a drawer in a dresser as I left. I told him he could keep them.