Capital and Class 2010

This review appeared in the February 2010 issue of Capital & Class, Vol. 34, No. 1

by Esmee Hanna, University of Leeds, UK

In a period in which the 1960s are predominantly discussed in relation to the recent fortieth anniversary of 1968, Max Elbaum’s book makes a refreshing change by taking a broader perspective. This is not to diminish the importance of the 1960s. Elbaum himself notes, ‘the paramount matter to which I keep returning is the sheer scale and scope of the 1960s upsurge’ (p. xii), and he, like many others who have theorized the radicalism that began in the 1960s, takes 1968 to be the pinnacle of such events. He does, however, provide a rare analysis of such events by taking them as part of a bigger picture, and looking at how the radicalism continued and developed even after the key groups that flourished in 1968 had declined.

In Revolution in the Air, Elbaum sets out a thoroughgoing exposition of the New Communist movement, the US left movement based around Third World Marxism. He details the attempt(s) at building a Marxist-Leninist party, in which the theory of the vanguard party was central. The new communist movement, based around anti-racist, anti-imperialist sentiment, became divided by splits over Chinas changing policies and stances and the way they and Maoism were interpreted internationally, and began a descent into sects and factions, ultimately self-destructing over its own central ambitions of party building. In charting both the origins and scope of this movement as well as its demise and pitfalls, Elbaum combines comprehensive research with personal experience. While his own ‘lens of the left’ is readily evident in the book, he shows a great awareness of this from the outset, and acknowledges that his story and experiences will by no means appease all or tell everyone’s tale of this dynamic and vibrant era. Given the scope and diversity of the left, then and now, this remains unsurprising. The value of Elbaum’s personal experience, as someone who was an insider, is evident in the balance he strikes between discussing the general situation of the New Communist movement, and considering the subjectivity of the era and its events. The balance of subjectivity and universality is something often lost in discourses surrounding the movements that developed in and of events of the 1960s, so Elbaum’s work is refreshing from this point of view.

The book itself is structured according to time periods, useful for those new to the subject or wanting to move beyond the lingering on ’68 that has often occurred. This accessibility is present throughout the text, and Elbaum demonstrates that he is more than adept at providing a potted history of radical America from the 1960s onwards. For example, in the early chapters he gives a coherent exploration of the influences of the US left, highlighting the radical literature of the time. In doing so, he provides both a good background for those new to the subject, and a way in to further exploration of the topic. His systematic approach to the history of the new communist movement creates a very thorough exposition: for example, he provides a detailed analysis of Third World Marxism before moving on to explain how the new communist movement adopted it. For those new to the subject, the depth of information and the approach to the ordering of this knowledge is very useful; while for those who, like Elbaum, lived the reality of what is under discussion, the book is likely to hold equal appeal. This is due in no small part to the clarity with which he documents the memories of a movement, but also due to the analytical framing of the text, whereby he provides a historical account as well as scrutinizing what went wrong, and why.

Within the book, Elbaum is quick to move away from the ‘good 1960s/bad 1960s’ (nonviolent/violent) dichotomy that is often proffered. While Elbaum shows why some might employ such a dichotomy–‘However neat the symbolism seems, the radical surge of the 1960s did not end with a bomb blast in the spring or summer of 1970’ (p. 37)–he is quick to reject it, and in doing so provides a way in to the analysis and exploration of the events often ruled out by the watershed of the ‘bad 1960s’ notion.

The author describes the culture of the New Communist movement as ‘intense’: ‘The sheer amount of time, passion and energy that movement cadre threw into political work made movement life nearly all-consuming’ (p. 163), and this intensity is translated to the reader through the exceptional level of detail provided in the book. The analysis of the movement over a long period of time gives the benefit of also being able to show the history of wider society concurrently–again, for those beginning to research the New Communist movement, Elbaum has produced a very clear point at which research and further reading could commence.

The temptation in analyzing the impacts and effects of radicalism that stemmed from the 1960s is to consign such events to history. More difficult still is to draw from them lessons for today’s left thinkers and activists: ‘Of course, to a degree every new generation reinvents the left … But freeing the left from the shackles of perspectives-gone-by does not mean ignoring the past, but rather learning what has worked and what has failed–and why’ (p. 316). The lessons of the past have often been overlooked, not only in relation to the USA, so the setting out of ‘lessons’ in the final chapter of Revolution in the Air is pertinent and perhaps long overdue.

Elbaum’s account proves that personal reflection need not be rose-tinted and sycophantic, but rather displays how analysis of past movements, of their failures as well as their successes, is a key way in which the next generation of activists can avoid making the same time-honoured mistakes.