This review appears in the Asian American Revolutionary Movement E-zine, Dec. 29, 2003.
Revolution in the Air
By Mike Liu
Azine Boston began a Political Reading Group earlier this year. Members alternatively choose various readings for discussion. From time to time, we will post notes from members of the group.
Revolution in the Air (Verso 2002) a recently published assessment of the New Left by Max Elbaum begins well enough. In explaining the development of the Sixties radicals, Elbaum makes their social movement understandable by documenting the contemporary context and the international seismic changes of which this movement was a part. Domestically the country had liberally i.e. reluctantly confronted the trauma of race, internationally the U.S. found itself on the wrong and indefensible side of colonial liberation struggles. Elbaum cites a 1970 New York Times poll that three million students in the U.S. considered U.S, revolution as necessary.
Another welcome insight is the due credit Elbaum gives to the activism of people of color in this period–people in Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization, August Twenty-Ninth Movement, I Wor Kuen and many other organizations–and their influence. This intends to be a revisionist rendering of the 60’s as primarily shaped by middle-class and self-indulgent white activist. This is the picture given by most accounts of the times, most notably by former SDS’er now Columbia faculty member Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties.
Unfortunately as the book goes on, Elbaum’s recounting suffers from several flaws. He sees the “New Left” through the prism of organizational machinations. As a result, ideological hair-splitting and their related serpentine international allegiances overwhelm the story. These byzantine details overshadow the real world, domestic developments and the advances of the movement. Consequently he places the height of the movement as 1973-4 before polemical infighting was at its height.
His characterizations of China and Soviet Union and their role seem to be more biased than objective. Elbaum blames the end of the movement primarily on China and its supporters, on Maoism’s (itself a pejorative term) concept that “to rebel is justify.” For many of those I worked with, what we learned from Mao was instead “to serve the people” and “the mass line.” Even if it could be argued that others induced other ideas from Mao, were they more damaging than for example, Lenin’s idea of a “vanguard party?”
Finally and more importantly while he claims optimism, the organizational conflicts he describes is ultimately discouraging. A number of younger activists who read the book repeated this to us. Unrelated to real life, these tortuous struggles are a waste unless they ultimately ground themselves in whom the movement serves. To gain some understanding of how the movement arose, the early section of the book is worth reading.