This review appears in the Winter 2002 issue of the Bay Area Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism newsletter
by John Trinkl
The question of how socialists should organize themselves has been around since Marx’s time. In the U.S. today, with the left so weak and fragmented, maximizing the influence of socialist efforts is critical. The CCDS has grappled with this question since its founding, not only how it should organize itself, but what strategy to follow to build toward a larger, more significant socialist organization in the U.S.
There are no easy answers to this question. But history does provide some lessons. Bay Area activist Max Elbaum has performed an extremely valuable service in his new book, Revolution in the Air, documenting and analyzing the self-described party-building movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Several tens of thousands of activists were either involved in this movement or directly influenced by it, yet its story is virtually unknown to many present-day activists.
This grouping characterized itself as the “New Communist Movement,” differentiating itself from the Communist Party USA which it regarded as hopelessly reformist. A whole book could be written about the critique of the CP by the NCM, and vice versa. Suffice it to say for now there were valid critiques on both sides. These activists took their inspiration from the forces they saw as offering models to oppose U.S. imperialism: the Communist Parties of Vietnam, China, and Cuba. Hence Elbaum calls the overall politics of this movement “Third World Marxism” to distinguish it from the more orthodox Soviet Marxism It’s easy nowadays to dismiss the sects of that time. But important lessons, positive and negative, can be learned.
The bulk of the book is a well-researched history of the efforts of the many groups of this period to build a new party. I won’t attempt to summarize that history here; a scorecard would be needed to keep track of all the groups. But the value of the book is not a dry recounting of the history, but an analysis of all the efforts at building new organizations, their strengths and their weaknesses. What started in the early 1970s as perhaps the most dynamic and energetic movements dissipated to almost nothing by the end of the 1980s.
Many of the groups made strong positive contributions to the struggles of the time and the book recounts positive achievements. But seeds of the problems that would bring the movement down were present at its creation. Lacking, or rejecting, an organic connection to the previous tradition of socialist and communist struggles in the U.S., the groups tended to import contemporary foreign models, particularly the Chinese Communist Party, en toto. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was very congruent with experiences activists had in the New Left. The Marxist-Leninist “classics” were adopted as bible. Hoping to create a new vanguard party in the U.S., by-and-large the groups ended up creating toy Bolshevik parties. Rather than being an actual vanguard, they were self-declared vanguards. A strong dose of voluntarism also affected the movement. There was a widespread feeling that an extremely dedicated group of activists, armed with the correct theory could accomplish anything.
Too many movements have passed from collective memory and been forgotten. Elbaum has performed an extremely valuable service in summing up many of the experiences and lessons of these Marxist groups of the 1970s and 1980s. “A great deal can be learned from previous left experience, and identification with the history of the revolutionary movement can be a great source of strength,” he writes. “The contributions of Marx and Lenin still shed light on the workings of capitalism and the process of social change. They stand out for their breath of vision and insistence on linking theory, practical work, and organization-building in an internationalist project.” He adds, “But it is an unwarranted leap from there to belief in a single and true Marxist-Leninist doctrine with an unbroken revolutionary pedigree from 1848 to the present.”
Elbaum provocatively argues that “the whole epoch that began in 1917” [with the Bolshevik Revolution] has come to an end. But he offers three important lessons that were stressed by the Marxist movements of the 1970s that remain important: “commitment to internationalism and anti-imperialism; the centrality of the fight against racism; and the urgency of developing cadre and creating organizations capable of mobilizing working people and the oppressed.” The book has sparked much discussion. (See for example, http://www.revolutionintheair.com/) CCDS members won’t agree with all the book’s conclusions, but a debate of the issues it raises can only benefit the CCDS and the left as a whole.
John Trinkl is an editor and writer in San Francisco. He covered the U.S. left for the (National) Guardian Newsweekly from 1976-1985.