|This review appears in the No. 3, 2003 issue of the Swedish magazine Clarte. Translation into English was generously provided by Eva Petterson.
By Olle Josephson
Revolution in the Air
Max Elbaum was one of the leaders of the Marxist-Leninist movement in the U.S. during the 1970s and 1980s.
With intelligence and knowledge, basically in solidarity but not without criticism, he writes about the history of the movement. He writes about its fast growth as a movement among students during the 1960s, about its more proletarian and disciplined character in the 1970s, and its decline after the Vietnam War and the defeat of the Cultural Revolution in China. He notes the strength of the Third World perspective and of a dedicated cadre organization, the weakness of the thin social base, the lack of connection with the older communist tradition and taking on the Chinese Communist Party’s analysis uncritically. When Beijing established contacts with Washington the in the middle of the 1970s, the movement did not manage to distinguish between the realities of the foreign policy of a large Third World country and the tasks for a revolutionary movement in the center of imperialism.
But there are also differences [with what happened in Sweden]. The Marxist-Leninists seemed weaker in the U.S. According to Elbaum, the active, well-organized cadre was at most around 10,000, which would be equivalent to around 500 people in Sweden. The anti-racist movement’s tasks were for obvious reasons more important in the U.S. In these areas they were relatively successful and their organizations were composed about equally between people of color and whites even on the level of leadership.
Another difference is that the U.S. has significantly more large voluntary organizations of many types than Sweden. In these groups the experienced cadres could find new areas to work in after their own cadre organizations fell apart. These organizations might no longer be revolutionary but do have a progressive platform.
Why did the Marxist-Leninists fail? Elbaum points to the objective conditions: it would take a lot for a revolutionary movement to succeed in Rome 100 AD, in Great Britain in 1870 or in the U.S. in 1975. But he also mentions subjective reasons. One is the dogmatism of the Marxist-Leninist movement, another is the voluntarism of the Maoist movement with its slogan “the political line decides everything.” No it doesn’t if the enemy is so much more powerful on all fronts.
Some positive lessons discussed include the central role of the anti-racist movement and the importance of a well-disciplined organization – interesting in these networking times.
In Sweden Elbaum’s book has been noted earlier in a mainly positive review by Kjell Ostberg in the Worker magazine (No. 43, 2002). Ostberg also does comparisons with Sweden and says that Elbaum’s book supports the point that KFML/SKP’s [a Swedish Marxist-Leninist organization] biggest mistake was the nationalism it developed during the 1970s. Yes, one can find plenty of simplifications in the defense of Swedish national independence toward the European Economic Community (EEC) or the Soviet and American pressures which that party then pointed out as an important task. The relationship between the national and international tasks is not always easy. But it is hard to see anything else but that this defense of the nation basically coincides with the interest of the working class. And in any case, it is more today’s “professional leftists” who mainly have something to learn from the 1970s. From what I can see, Elbaum gives no support either for the propositions put forward by Ostberg. On the contrary, he argues that support of movements in the Third World was one of the U.S. Marxist-Leninist movement’s best sides.