From the perspective of 1968, they asked “now what?”
By Jan Adams
Where Is the Way Forward? Blog
My dear friend Max Elbaum’s thoughtful and exhaustive chronicle of how some of the 1960’s best and brightest US leftist radicals charged off down a Leninist party-building rabbit hole for a couple of decades — Revolution in the Air with a new foreword by Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter — has come out in paperback. This history of well-intended struggle and idealism losing touch with the realities of its own society is well worth preserving; Max’s comprehensive account of the New Communist Movement ensures that experience won’t be entirely inaccessible to new generations of activists.
The social and student movements of the 1960s in this country and throughout the world, the civil rights and Black freedom struggles, mushrooming resistance to the imperial US war in Vietnam, and more, all reached a zenith in 1968 — and that explosion of energy left a lot of young people wondering where to go from here. Max’s subject (of which he was a leader) is the direction a devoted subset of those young people came up with.
… a portion of those who participated developed a long term commitment to political activism. Many of them — seeing how intransigent “the establishment” was in resisting racial equality and defending imperial prerogatives — decided that “the system” could not be reformed. … Within the Third World Marxist ranks, a determined contingent set out to build tight-knit cadre organizations. … Deciding that the real problem was that the Communist Party USA wasn’t Leninist enough, they set out to build a new vanguard of their own. From 1968 through the mid-1970s, the resulting New Communist Movement grew faster than any other current on the US left. ….
… the New Communist Movement can be understood as one more in a century-long series of (so far) unsuccessful efforts to make socialism a significant force in US politics. This movement’s consensus was that a breakthrough could finally be made if top priority was given to tackling three longstanding dilemmas of US radicalism: How can the US working class movement be put on a firm internationalist, anti-imperialist basis? What strategy can mobilize a successful fight against racism? And how can revolutionary cadre be developed and united into an organization capable of mobilizing workers and the oppressed to seize power?
Although at this remove the third element of that triad (seizing power) seems batshit crazy, in that super-heated moment, “revolution” was in the air. And the other two priorities — figuring out how leftists in the belly of capitalist empire should relate to the rest of the world, while struggling to overcome the multi-faceted, ingrained racism(s) of their society — remain central tasks for all in the US who care for human beings and the planet.
Max recounts the New Communists’ intricate twists, turns and permutations and is unflinching about their failures.
History’s trick on the generation of 1968 was that — despite appearances –the odds were stacked against building a revolutionary movement in the 1970s. … [T]he realities of US politics did offer prospects for the consolidation of an energetic radical trend, numbering in the thousands, anchored in anti-racism and anti-imperialism, with institutional stability at the capacity to galvanize stronger popular resistance to the rising right wing. The essential failure of the New Communist Movement is that it ultimately dissipated rather than coalesced the forces that could have accomplished that task.
… the backward US two-party system, the winner-take-all electoral system erects tremendous barriers to revolutionary forces translating gains made in periods of exceptional upheaval into a lasting base among the country’s exploited and dispossessed. Navigating this difficult terrain requires tremendous flexibility; the pulls toward surrendering revolutionary politics in order to gain temporary influence on the one hand, or remaining pure but marginalized on the other, are immense. … the New Communist Movement did not even put this essential problem at the center of its deliberations. …
… for all the movement’s audacious plans for social revolution, in a sense its failure was not due to thinking too expansively. Rather, it was because the movement shunned the true broad mindedness and flexibility displayed by successful revolutionaries in favor of a narrow and mechanical perspective that this book dubs “miniaturized Leninism.”
… this book has been written partly to identify the markers on [the] slippery slope to sectarian irrelevance …
The book includes a chapter on what this slice of US radicals did with the their lives after their little lefty formations imploded. Some dropped out of collective activism, but many — gradually — found new opportunities to plug into the justice struggles of new times. After all, they got into this to struggle for human liberation, even if they lost their way for a season.
Max will be doing a bit of a book launch tour for this new edition, beginning on Saturday, April 21 from 4-6pm at the First Congregational Church of Oakland. A full national schedule of events is available. Max is not only an historian — he’s a wise observer of contemporary events, always worth listening to when the opportunity offers.
The decade of the 1970s has also become the proper subject of history, yet unlike the explosive ’60s and the reactionary Reaganite ’80s, it lacks a distinctive image, even among those of us who lived through it. Anyone seeking background about the 1970s could do worse than look at a couple of histories I’ve discussed here: Judith Stein’s Pivotal Decade and Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive.