On Revolution in the Air

Against the Current, No. 103, March/April 2003

Barry Sheppard

PATRICK QUINN’S REVIEW of Max Elbaum’s book Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, by (ATC 101, November/December 2002) rightfully states that the book is “must reading for all those who consider themselves part of the left today and for future generations of socialists as well.” I want to take up two points of difference with Quinn’s review.

The first is Quinn’s puzzlement over the fact that the Maoist current which is the subject of Elbaum’s book embraced Stalinism. Quinn writes, “Perhaps it was inevitable that the early New Communist Movement would be Maoist … but why did much of the movement ultimately come to embrace Stalin and Stalinism?”

He goes on to question why those in this movement who later rejected Mao and Maoism didn’t turn to the explanations of Trotsky, Victor Serge and Ernest Mandel after they had rejected Maoism.

But Maoism and Stalinism were not opposites. Maoism was a form of Stalinism. Those sixties radicals who turned to Maoism were indoctrinated in Stalinist politics and the cult of Stalin right from the beginning. Mao and the Chinese CP leadership were the foremost force in the world to continue defending the cult of Stalin after the 1956 Khrushchev revelations of Stalin’s crimes right up through the defeat of the “gang of four.”

The New Communist Movement defended every one of Stalin’s counterrevolutionary policies including the smashing of soviet democracy and liquidation of the Bolshevik party, forced collectivization of agriculture, massive purges and repressions, the ultraleft stance towards the rise of Hitler, the “peoples front,” chauvinist policies in World War II, the crushing of the East German workers’ uprising in 1953, and so forth (this list is hardly complete).

Part of the training these younger Maoists received was the demonization of Trotsky and other left opponents of Stalinism. That this current stuck with Stalinism — both those who continued to defend Maoism and those who rejected it — is certainly not a big mystery.

The second point concerns Quinn’s agreement with Elbaum’s view that the New Communist Movement was “the preeminent revolutionary socialist political current that emerged from the radicalization of the 1960s . . .” in Quinn’s words.

The claim of preeminence appears to be based on Elbaum’s assertion that something like 10,000 people were involved in the Maoist movement at one time or another. But even if this claim were true, these 10,000 were dispersed in many different groups that fought each other and were never able to coalesce into a single organization. Elbaum documents this.

Moreover, this current played no role in leading the antiwar movement. Can a current which failed this test be considered “the preeminent revolutionary socialist political current that emerged from the radicalization of the 1960s”?

The Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party were the two preeminent socialist groups in the antiwar movement, with the SWP playing the leading role in keeping the movement in the streets, winning the movement to the position of immediate withdrawal of the U.S. from Vietnam, winning it to oppose anti-communist exclusion, orienting it to the soldiers and ordinary working class Americans.

The Maoists opposed the antiwar movement on the ultraleft premise that revolution was imminent in the United States, and that therefore the movement had to “go beyond” its focus on the war.

One factor in the Maoists’ failure to build a united organization was that the various groups aped the cults of Mao and Stalin internally. “Chairman Avakian” and “Chairman Klonsky” couldn’t agree on who was to be “Chairman.”

These comments are not meant to detract from the importance of Elbaum’s book. It is a well-researched critical history of this current by a leader of it, which helps in understanding this aspect of the “1960s.”

ATC 103, March-April 2003