Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air

Against the Current, No. 101, November/December 2002

Patrick M. Quinn

Revolution in the Air:
Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che
by Max Elbaum
(London and New York: Verso, 2002) 370 pages, $30 hardcover.

MAX ELBAUM’S REVOLUTION in the Air is a damn good book, one that should be must reading for all those who consider themselves part of the left today and for future generations of socialists as well.

Elbaum has done the left a great service in crafting this incisive history and analysis of the rise and demise of the preeminent revolutionary socialist political current that emerged from the radicalization of the 1960s, broadly definable as Maoist, which he calls the “New Communist Movement.”

Elbaum’s account is marked by the first-hand knowledge of a participant and indeed major leader of the current. It is lucid, well-written, closely reasoned and, perhaps most importantly, honest in a refreshingly forthright manner.

Not since Kirkpatrick Sales’ SDS has such a solid, serious work on a significant component of late twentieth-century radicalism in the United States appeared. Revolution in the Air will stand as an effective correction to previous efforts such as Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, which pays little attention to the organized far left of that period.

In 370 pages dense with historical reportage, political analysis and a balanced summing up, Elbaum traces the emergence and growth of the multi-faceted socialist political tendency, spawned in the radicalization of the 1960s, that came to command the allegiance of perhaps 10,000 committed young revolutionaries during the 1970s, yet would implode with astonishing swiftness during the 1980s, leaving but two or three small groups in its wake.

Elbaum’s book is divided into five parts. It is perhaps instructive that of the five parts, only Part II is devoted to describing and analyzing the New Communist Movement at its zenith. Part I is essentially a prelude and Parts III, IV, and V describe the movement’s denouement.

The New Generation

In Part I, “A New Generation of Revolutionaries, 1968-1973,” Elbaum traces the political transformation of thousands of young student radicals, mainly but not exclusively from white, middle-class backgrounds, many of whom were members of the largest and most significant left organization during the 1960s, SDS (Students for a Democratic Society).

Beginning as activists against the war in Vietnam or participants in the struggle for the civil rights of African Americans into conscious Marxists, the radicals became passionately committed to a struggle to replace capitalism with socialism.

Elbaum situates this transformation amidst the magnetic appeal of revolutionary movements in the “Third World,” especially the attraction of the Cuban Revolution, Vietnamese resistance to U.S. imperialism, and the struggles of people in Latin America for socialism and in Angola, Mozambique and elsewhere in Africa for national liberation.

He describes in detail the allure that the Chinese Revolution had for young members of the New Communist Movement. Ironically, the grip that Maoist ideology came to have on the early New Communist Movement was largely the result of the Revolutionary Youth Movement II (RYM II) faction of SDS having to out-Mao the then-Maoist Progressive Labor Party faction of SDS (which had its origin in a pro-China split from the Communist Party USA in 1962).

RYM II, in order to defeat PL, had to become more Maoist than Mao. Perhaps paradoxically, the Chinese Communist Party had actually done little to warrant the allegiance of the Maoist current other than being the power that governed the world’s most populous nation since the Chinese Revolution of 1949.

To be sure, the Chinese Communist Party benefited by its geographical proximity to the struggle of the Vietnamese people against U.S. imperialism, yet China had provided much less support to the Vietnamese than had the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the original major organizations that comprised the New Communist Movement became Maoists who took their ideology from Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party.

In Part II, “Gotta Get Down to It, 1968-1973,” Elbaum describes and analyzes the origins and growth of the first major organizations of the New Communist Movement, the Revolutionary Union, which became the Revolutionary Communist Party (the RCP still exists, led from exile by its historic chairman Bob Avakian) and the October League led by Mike Klonsky.

He notes that this phase in the evolution of the New Communist Movement occurred while much of the white working class in the United States was still enjoying the benefits of the post-World War II prosperity, and clearly not inclined to question the capitalist system. This desynchronization would frustrate the expectations of many in the New Communist Movement.

One of the most interesting and informative chapters in the book is in Part II, Chapter 8, “Bodies on the Line: The Culture of a Movement,” in which Elbaum describes what is was like to be a cadre in one of the organizations in the movement.

He emphasizes here, as throughout the book, that the New Communist Movement included in its ranks large numbers of African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and Puerto Ricans. Many key organizations in the movement were founded by or comprised exclusively or primarily of people of color.

Elbaum also observes that one of the weaknesses of the movement was its inability or reluctance to adequately challenge sexism, gender inequities, and homophobia, since it regarded many of the broad organizations that engaged these issues as petty bourgeois.

Impact of Recession and Conservatism

In Part III, “Battered by Recession, Restructuring, and Reaction, 1974-1981,” Elbaum analyzes the adverse impact of the rightward turn in U.S. politics, which broke the momentum of the growing movement. He discusses the shift in China’s foreign policy towards a pro-U.S. stance, which sharply divided the movement into pro and anti-Maoist components.

Out of the difficulties of this period emerged two new organizations that replaced the Revolutionary Communist Party and the October League as the major organizations of the New Communist Movement — Line of March, which evolved away from Maoism toward a more traditional Stalinist type of politics, and the League for Revolutionary Struggle (LRS), which maintained a pro-Maoist line for a longer period.

Part IV, “Walking on Broken Glass, 1982-1992,” concentrates on two major themes: the role that members of the New Communist Movement played in building the Rainbow Coalition during Jesse Jackson’s two presidential campaigns (1984 and 1988) and the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during 1989 and 1990, which had a devastating impact on the New Communist Movement.

Clearly Elbaum regards the role that the New Communist Movement played in building the Rainbow Coalition as one of the movement’s “shining hours.” Yet in chapter 13, “The Survivors Build the Rainbow,” his descriptive powers appear to outweigh his analysis.

The critical concept of and urgent need for independent working-class political action (independent of the Democratic Party) did not strike a resonant chord within the New Communist Movement. Neither Elbaum nor his movement comrades seem to have been able to come to grips theoretically with the problematic posed by the Democratic Party, at least partially because most African Americans in the United States remain the Democratic Party’s most loyal base of support.

The challenge facing the left, of course, was how to build the Rainbow Coalition outside of and as a counterweight to the capitalist Democratic Party. The Democratic Party problematic was also acutely posed by the Harold Washington mayoral campaigns in Chicago in which activists coming from the New Communist Movement played a role.

The inability to adequately confront this problem might also be partially attributed to the influence of the U.S. Communist Party — whose history and practice carried considerable weight in the New Communist Movement — which since 1935 has encouraged its members to work within the Democratic Party to build a left pole of attraction. For almost seven decades, however, this project has proven a chimera.

An End and Beginning

The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe came as a hammer blow to members of the New Communist Movement and was, for many, the “last straw” as movement organizations including Line of March and the League for Revolutionary Struggle (LRS) rapidly collapsed, imploded or otherwise disappeared.

Part V, “End of the Long March,” recounts the reentry of thousands of members of the New Communist Movement into mainstream society. Most remained progressives if not activists as they pursued their careers or raised their families.

Many found good jobs in trade unions, non-profit progressive organizations, academia and the like, but only a few joined other socialist organizations that had not been components of the New Communist Movement.

In his last chapter, “Lessons from the New Communist Movement,” Elbaum draws a balance sheet of the Movement’s experiences and legacy. Most survivors of other Marxist political groups or currents that existed during the last third of the twentieth century would probably agree with almost all of the lessons that Elbaum draws and commend him for his honesty, his forthrightness, and his analysis and assessment of the strengths, weaknesses and accomplishments of
the New Communist Movement.

They would concur with his emphasis on the centrality of the struggle against racism and the need to build multiracial socialist organizations comprised of large numbers of people of color. Many would also agree with Elbaum’s commendable reluctance to throw out the baby with the bathwater regarding the usefulness, when and where appropriate, of a Leninist conception of political organization, as opposed to the caricature of a Leninist model which most groups in the New Communist Movement (and other sectors of the left) embraced.

Members of other organizations on the left would be familiar with Elbaum’s description of cadre burnout due to “voluntarism” (a reliance on individual hyperactivism to compensate for unfavorable objective conditions) and they would recognize the debilitating impact that sectarianism towards other political groups had.

Also familiar would be the ultraleftism that crippled many organizations in the New Communist Movement. Few socialist organizations were immune to the appeal of ultraleftism, which derived in part from a mistaken emulation of the perceived tactics of “Third World” liberation struggles, which, while inspiring, also contributed to romantic illusions.

Moreover, ultraleftism served as a short cut substitute in transcending difficult objective conditions.

Beyond Dogmatism and Vanguardism

Another weakness that Elbaum describes, dogmatism, was also a common feature of other organizations on the left besides the New Communist Movement. Many were led astray by the temptation to mechanically rely upon quotations from the texts of prominent Marxists, whether these be Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin or Mao, as a substitute for Marxist methodology as a critical analytical tool in both theory and practice.

Common too, among the New Communist Movement and elsewhere on the left, was “vanguardism,” the tendency to ascribe to one’s own organization a role (based upon a misunderstanding of Lenin) as the vanguard of the working class, a role in which the organization would through linear growth and correct theory and practice come to lead the masses in making the American revolution. Real life, of course, posed a much more complex scenario.

Finally, the New Communist Movement, like many of its counterparts on the left, drew unwarranted optimism from the vibrant, dynamic political upheavals of the 1960s radicalization in which it had been formed.

Projecting a continuation of the radicalization, the radical left in general terribly misjudged the “nature of the period” during the late 1970s and 1980s, anticipating a turn to the left in the United States when in actuality the country was turning to the right as its rulers strove to reestablish their authority that had been severely tested during the 1960s.

This turn occurred in the context of a downturn in the economy that marked the end of three decades of unparalleled prosperity. The downturn threatened the economic status of “middle-class America,” which fed the right turn that became known as the “Reagan revolution.”

The Tragedy of Stalinism

Elbaum’s cogent and insightful analysis of the weaknesses (and strengths, and there were many) of the New Communist Movement notwithstanding, and even given the main reasons (the unfavorable objective conditions in the 1970s and 1980s combined with cadre burnout and demoralization) for its rapid decline and extinction, there remains something quite troubling about his overall assessment of the New Communist Movement’s experience.

There is a lesson that Elbaum never draws or perhaps never confronted: Was it positive or negative that an important component of the New Communist Move<->ment, a component that included his own organization, Line of March, turned to Stalin and Stalinism for inspiration and guidance after it had rejected Mao and Maoism?

While he accurately locates among the movement’s weaknesses the corrosive role of voluntarism, dogmatism, ultra-leftism, sectarianism and self-ascribed “vanguardism,” as well as its hyper-optimistic misassessment of political reality in the United States during much of its existence (these afflictions to one degree or another, as noted above, also affected most other groups on the left), he never engages this fundamental issue.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the early New Communist Movement would be Maoist, given the relative numerical weakness of the available political alternatives to Maoism, but why did much of the movement ultimately come to embrace Stalin and Stalinism?

Surely there were ample analyses available that offered a trenchant critique of the role that Joseph Stalin and Stalinism had played in destroying the Russian Revolution, in murdering the leading cadres of the Bolshevik Party, in imposing a brutal dictatorship in the Soviet Union, and in sabotaging revolutionary struggles throughout the globe.

Indeed, Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Lenin of the Russian Revolution, had astutely analyzed the role of Stalin and Stalinism in many of his writings (The Revolution Betrayed, The Third International After Lenin, and numerous other important contributions) before he was murdered by Stalin’s agent in 1940.

Other partisans of the Russian Revolution, such as Victor Serge, had also illuminated the counterrevolutionary role of Stalin and Stalinism. During the 1960s, `70s and `80s, the widely available works of Ernest Mandel, among others, also offered an incisive critique of Stalin and Stalinism.

Surely the adherents of the New Communist Movement might have found these critiques compelling and with merit, certainly as compelling as the arguments of Irwin Silber, the chief proponent of Stalin and Stalinism within the New Communist Movement. Alas, it was not to be.

This, one might argue, is one of the saddest legacies of the New Communist Movement. One might have hoped that Elbaum would have addressed this issue. Did the New Communist Movement commit a grievous error in not opting for a democratic revolutionary socialist alternative to Maoism?

Is there not some sense of pathos in the fact that thousands of young revolutionary socialists, whites and people of color, ardently committed to the struggle for socialism — who did very good work in building the progressive movements for social, political and economic justice in the United States, who fostered solidarity with the struggles for self-determination and liberation in the Third World, and who engaged in the fight against racism in the United States — nonetheless saw as their model and exemplar Joseph Stalin and Stalinism?

Perhaps this real tragedy constitutes one of the most important lessons that future generations of socialist activists should draw from the New Communist Movement’s experience.

Having said what needed to be said, it is important to note that Max Elbaum is one of the regrettably all too few members of his generation who has retained his commitment to revolutionary socialism, and is still a socialist activist today.

These times at the beginning of the twenty-first century require the formation of a broad new socialist movement, democratic, non-sectarian and creative. Max Elbaum and indeed all those who survived the collapse of the left in the United States during the last two decades of the twentieth century, whatever their political allegiances during those times, can build upon the positive lessons they learned, most the hard way, and come together as a link to the new generation of activists who are produced by the inhumanity of capitalism.

For these new movements, almost all the lessons that Elbaum draws from the experiences of the New Communist Movement are well taken. That Elbaum encouragingly looks more to the future than the past, is evidenced by his conclusion:

“This book has been written partly to identify the markers on that slippery slope to sectarian irrelevance in hopes of better equipping a new generation to take a different path. But an equally important goal has been to call attention to the ways in which dedication to constructing a revolutionary apparatus can act as a potent positive force, unleashing individual creativity, building solidarity across socially imposed barriers, stimulating theoretical exploration, and strengthening activists’ commitment to peace and freedom.”

Well said. The challenge is daunting, but we must have confidence that it can and will be met.

ATC 101, November-December 2002