|This review appears in the January-February 2003 issue of Because People Matter, a progressive newspaper based in Sacramento, CA.
By Dan Bacher
A Much-Needed Balance Sheet
A number of interesting, reflective books have portrayed the experiences of sixties left activists, including Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage and autobiographical accounts by Tom Hayden and Bill Ayers. However, these works focus on the white middle class anti-war and student movements and neglect the dramatic contributions of the “New Communist Movement” that included many people of color and working class activists in its leadership.
Max Elbaum’s book, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che is a badly needed analysis of the successes and failures of this movement, a departure from the condescending attitude of analysts like Gitlin who separate the movement into the “Good Sixties” and the “Bad Sixties.” The “Good Sixties” included the civil rights movement and the early stages of the student and anti-war movements, while the “Bad Sixties” featured the formation of radical, isolated underground groups like the Weather Underground that focused on bombings and “armed struggle.”
What this simplistic “Good Sixties, Bad Sixties” analysis leaves out is the very substantial, disciplined organizing towards “party building” that took place in the sixties, seventies and eighties by groups like the Revolutionary Union, League of Revolutionary Struggle, KDP, Line of March, as well as the revitalized “old left” parties such as the Communist Party, USA and Socialist Workers Party.
As Roxbanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of Red Dirt and Outlaw Woman says, “In the contentious interpretations of the volatile sixties and their aftermath, one key element is virtually excluded: the independent Marxists who tried to develop a collective revolutionary project. Although their effort failed – for reasons brilliantly analyzed in this book – those involved continue as key thinkers and activists for social justice. Finally, here is a book that tells their story, and mine.”
When I first approached his book, I was apprehensive. I thought it would be a valuable work, but bogged down in endless factional struggles and details. What I found instead was an enthralling, novel-like page turner, full of impressively researched accounts detailing the rise and demise of the movements and their many dedicated activists. In the last decade I’ve read a lot of books, both fiction and non-fiction, but this rates in the top five. In depth and sheer readability, it greatly eclipses all of the sixties “recollections” I’ve read, including those by Gitlin, Ayers, Joan Baez and Tom Hayden.
Whereas other sixties analysts – most notably Todd Gitlin, who is now red baiting the current peace and social justice movement – avoid discussing the independent Marxist movement, Elbaum takes a hard, yet sympathetic and at times humorous look, at this significant political movement. Although this movement built some great coalitions, such as the anti-Bakke Coalition, and took a leadership role in Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, it left no permanent organizations or institutional structures like the CPUSA did in the thirties and forties.
Elbaum emphasizes how groups of this movement all suffered from excessive “voluntarism” – the belief that embracing the “correct idea” and dedicating all to the cause of building a “party” would overcome the obstacles of objective political reality.
“Beyond generally underestimating capitalism’s resilience, the movement did not sufficiently appreciate the structural obstacles to gaining a foothold in U.S. political life,” says Elbaum. “But the New Communist Movement did not even put this essential problem at the center of its deliberations. Rather, based on the hypothesis that upheavals even larger than those of 1968 were on the near-term horizon, the movement believed that it could completely circumvent the country’s existing political structures and still position itself to lead millions a short way down the road.”
The movement was contradictory in the political elements of “Third World Leninism” that it embraced, including Lenin, Mao, Che and Stalin. The China-oriented groups, such as LRS and the October League, came to some bizarre stances as they dealt with a Chinese foreign and domestic line that become increasingly allied with the U.S. As China came to declare “Soviet social imperialism” was the main enemy, not U.S. imperialism, the groups became increasingly isolated from groups on the left that supported revolutionary groups close to Cuba and to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union, including the FSLN in Nicaragua and FMLN in El Salvador.
As I read the book, I recalled how the October League – the Maoist Party officially recognized by China – actually supported the genocidal Khmer Rouge and celebrated the glories of “agrarian revolution” in a booklet written about a “fact finding mission” to “Democratic Kampuchea” in the late 1970’s. Numerous reports at the time were already coming back from refugees who survived Pol Pot’s reign of terror, yet some of the “New Communists” persisted in the fiction that the thousands of eyewitness reports were all “imperialist” or “social imperialist lies.” Thankfully, the Vietnamese people saved the Cambodian people from certain destruction by invading the country, one of the few invasions in history that I support.
Elbaum pointed out how the movement’s strengths centered on “three crucial issues that – albeit in altered form – remain pivotal to any future attempt at left renewal.” These are the 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.”
Nonetheless, the increasing dogmatism of the movement led to its dissolution into sects and the movement’s eventual demise. “They tried to mesh the political tenacity of the Old Left and the fervor of the New Left into a powerful revolutionary party,” says Elbaum. “But they became mired in orthodoxy and moralistic intolerance, reproducing the worst traits of their predecessors instead of their strengths. They ended up making party building a fetish and constructed only sects.”
This book should be made required reading in college curriculum on modern American history, particularly in those courses that focus on the social movements of the sixties and seventies. Every activist involved in today’s social justice and peace movements should read this book to make sure that we don’t repeat the same mistakes that were made by the dedicated, well-meaning activists in the “New Communist Movement.”
Dan Bacher is an activist, journalist, editor and satirical songwriter from Sacramento, CA.