[sixties-l] Review of Max Elbaum's New Book

From: Ron Jacobs (rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu)
Date: Thu Jun 27 2002 - 08:50:41 EDT

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    This review appears in the July/August issue of Clamor Magazine (check out
    this magazine--it's the best of the youth-oriented antiestablishment
    journals-ron jacobs)

    Something In the Air:
    A Review of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che
    Max Elbaum, Verso, NY, 2002

    -Ron Jacobs

    I can remember the moment as if it were yesterday. I was at a 1973 Impeach
    Nixon rally in NYC when some rather loud young people marched into the park
    where the rally was being held. I took a leaflet proffered by one of the
    folks in the group and looked for their name, something I almost always do
    when handed a piece of propaganda. On the bottom of the second side it
    read "Attica Brigades." This group was the youth-student wing of the
    Revolutionary Union, which was one of many Marxist-Leninist groups in
    existence at the time. That was my introduction to the Seventies Left in
    the United States. Max Elbaum's new book, Revolution In the Air,
    introduces today's reader to the milieu. In addition, it explains many of
    the nuances I missed during my involvement-something that was easy to do
    since my perspective was colored by my involvement with the Attica Brigades
    successor-the Revolutionary Student Brigades.
            Elbaum's text traces the history of what many called the New Communist
    Movement in the United States. This movement, which was made up of several
    groups espousing variations of Marxist-Leninist (usually with a good deal
    of Mao thrown in) thought, was born out of the disintegration of various
    organizations in the antiracist/antiwar struggle, especially the Student
    Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic
    Society (SDS). and the growing realization among many of the period's most
    committed activists that the New Left's rather amorphous politics were not
    enough to rid the world of US imperialism. Another trend that rose from
    this disintegration was that of armed struggle/terrorism-a trend best
    exemplified by the Weatherman/Weather Underground Organization and the
    Eldridge Cleaver wing of the Black Panther Party (which eventually gave
    birth to the Black Liberation Army). Revolution in the Air, like much of
    the Sixties literature, pinpoints 1968 as the year that forced a
    realization among many US left activists that revolution was the solution
    to the systemic racism and war they were opposing. Likewise, Elbaum also
    discards the so-called "good sixties/bad sixties" dynamic favored by many
    Sixties commentators whose politics since that period have moved to the
    right. This dynamic assumes that the early days of SDS and SNCC-before the
    takeover of Columbia in Spring 1968 and Black Power-were the best days of
    the Movement and the days post-1968 were "bad' because that's when the
    Marxist-Leninists and crazy anarchists bent on revolution took over. When
    one operates from this context, s/he is likely to present an incomplete and
    ultimately unlikely history.
            For one who was there, Revolution in the Air is like a flashback without
    the rhetoric. Elbaum details the New Communist Movement's attempts to
    educate itself in the Marxist-Leninist canon and apply it to the events of
    the early 1970s in the United States. He identifies the key players: the
    groups from which the activists came-organizations organized along
    revolutionary nationalism representing African-Americans, Latinos and
    Asian-Americans, mostly white radical youth and student groups,
    revolutionary worker's organizations, and the independent socialist weekly
    The Guardian. In addition, he tells how and why the young activists of the
    anti-racist and antiwar movement moved towards party-building and away from
    the spontaneity of the popular extra-parliamentary movements of the Sixties
    decade. Primary to his analysis is the belief held by Elbaum and many of
    the New Communist Movement's adherents that the events of 1968 were
    tantamount to the events of 1905 in Czarist Russia. If one accepted this
    consciously or otherwise, than the next step was to build a party that
    could make certain that the mistakes made in the failed rebellions of 1968
    would be corrected and America would see a Seventies' version of the
    Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
            On the other hand, if one is new to the anti-capitalist movement and/or
    the Left, than reading this book requires a short history lesson on the
    Sixties movement against war and racism and the role of the Left in that
    movement. The first chapter and the introduction are a good beginning to
    that lesson, but today's young activists most likely will want to read
    more. Elbaum does a more than adequate job on describing the role of the
    Old Left in the U.S. and its influence on the New Communist Movement,
    especially because much of the New Communist Movement's analysis and
    activities were defined in reaction to what they perceived to be the
    revisionism of the Left (especially that of the CPUSA) that preceded it.
    Even more fundamentally, today's young activists might wonder what was the
    attraction of the Leninist model in the first place, given today's almost
    religious insistence on decentralization and non-vanguardism prevalent in
    most sectors of the current popular left and anarchist movements.
    Revolution in the Air takes this question seriously and answers it
    accurately and effectively.
            This is done via a brief but workable history of the development of
    Marxist-Leninist thought and its application since the 1917 October
    revolution. The reader is told how that development was affected by the
    application of the theory and interpreted, or misinterpreted. For example,
    how Lenin's firm belief in the necessity for dissenting opinions within the
    revolutionary party while maintaining a unity of action became Stalin's
    insistence on total allegiance to the party. Unfortunately, many
    formations in the New Communist Movement eventually echoed this
    intolerance, at least in their reaction to other leftist organizations.
    Elbaum writes of the positives of this movement-the energy, commitment and
    solidarity-and cautions activists of the new century that "the fact that no
    movement organization could sustain such positive features over the long
    haul indicates that a better way of political organization than Stalinist
    hierarchy needs to be found."
            To prove his point, Elbaum relates the next phase of the movement's
    history, writing about the turmoil in the movement caused by the attempts
    by Boston government officials to bus working-class and poor Black students
    from the Roxbury section of Boston to the mostly white Southie and
    Charlestown working-class sections. RU's dramatic turnabout regarding the
    existence of a separate Black nation in the U.S. caused it to see busing in
    Boston not as anti-racist but as an attempt by the rulers to split the
    working-class along racial lines. Although a couple other Marxist-Leninist
    groups (some composed primarily of people of color) shared this analysis,
    only the Revolutionary Union (RU) aligned itself with some of the more
    racist elements of the anti-busing movement. Meanwhile, RU was distancing
    itself from many of its youthful supporters by opposing the counterculture,
    homosexuality, and calling for those unmarried couples living together to
    get married. All of this was in an attempt to relate to what they
    considered to be the proletariat and stemmed from their understanding of
    (and allegiance to) the communist theory they were reading and discussing.
    Of course, RU was not alone in its odd twists and turns. The shrinking
    base of support combined with a fundamentalist adherence to the texts of
    Lenin, Stalin and Mao caused many groups in the movement to make similar
    mistakes. It was only because of RU's larger size and early leadership
    that their mutations had a greater effect. After the busing battle was
    over, RU's leadership in the movement was gone. What followed was a series
    of struggles for leadership by other sects, a virtual collapse and rebirth
    with different organizations at the helm in the 1980s, and the eventual
    disintegration of the movement after the fall of the Stalinist
    bureaucracies in Europe and China's total embrace of capitalism. In a
    similar manner, Elbaum describes the other issue that was even more
    decisive in splitting the New Communist Movement. This was when China
    shifted its foreign policy by identifying the Soviet Union, and not U.S.
    imperialism, as the biggest enemy of the world's working people. For a
    movement that had come out of one of the greatest anti-imperialist
    struggles in the history of the United States-the movement against
    America's war in Vietnam-this shift was like an earthquake.
            In short, the entire movement suffered from ultraleftism throughout most
    of its history. This was not merely because of its members' attraction to
    this type of communism. It was also related to their belief that the best
    way to build a large party was to begin by building a small,
    revolutionarily "pure" party. This insistence on purity was bound to
    foment sectarianism and infighting, especially as the movement's potential
    base of support-the US working class-turned rightward while US capitalism
    went through recession after recession and took it out on the workers.
    Despite its many faults, however, the New Communist Movement honestly
    attempted to address every aspect of US capitalist society. Furthermore,
    it took seriously the task of organizing a revolutionary challenge to US
    imperialism. Nothing was immune from its members' critical eye. Max
    Elbaum does a more than credible job at documenting the movement's
    development, its mistakes, its effects on the radical movement in the
    United States, and its relation to the world. As histories of the Sixties
    and their aftermath go, Revolution in the Air is one that stands with the
    best, not only in regards to its approach and style, but especially in the
    lessons both historians and activist can learn from it. Like Elbaum
    comments in the text: "hindsight should not be used to smugly dismiss [the
    New Communist Movement], but to analytically disentangle its positive from
    its negative side." This book is an essential part of that analysis.
    -Ron Jacobs is an anti-imperialist activist who works in a library. He is
    the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground
    (Verso, 1997)

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