This review appears in the January 17/18, 2004 edition of CounterPunch. The review was also published earlier in Clamor Magazine.
Something in the Air
by Ron Jacobs
I can remember the moment as if it were yesterday. I was at a 1973 Impeach Nixon rally in NYC when some rather loud young people marched into the park where the rally was being held. I took a leaflet proffered by one of the folks in the group and looked for their name, something I almost always do when handed a piece of propaganda. On the bottom of the second side it read “Attica Brigades.” This group was the youth-student wing of the Revolutionary Union, which was one of many Marxist-Leninist groups in existence at the time. That was my introduction to the Seventies Left in the United States. Max Elbaum’s new book, Revolution In the Air, introduces today’s reader to the milieu. In addition, it explains many of the nuances I missed during my involvement-something that was easy to do since my perspective was colored by my involvement with the Attica Brigades successor-the Revolutionary Student Brigades.
Elbaum’s text traces the history of what many called the New Communist Movement in the United States. This movement, which was made up of several groups espousing variations of Marxist-Leninist (usually with a good deal of Mao thrown in) thought, was born out of the disintegration of various organizations in the antiracist/antiwar struggle, especially the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). and the growing realization among many of the period’s most committed activists that the New Left’s rather amorphous politics were not enough to rid the world of US imperialism. Another trend that rose from this disintegration was that of armed struggle/terrorism-a trend best exemplified by the Weatherman/Weather Underground Organization and the Eldridge Cleaver wing of the Black Panther Party (which eventually gave birth to the Black Liberation Army). Revolution in the Air, like much of the Sixties literature, pinpoints 1968 as the year that forced a realization among many US left activists that revolution was the solution to the systemic racism and war they were opposing. Likewise, Elbaum also discards the so-called “good sixties/bad sixties” dynamic favored by many Sixties commentators whose politics since that period have moved to the right. This dynamic assumes that the early days of SDS and SNCC-before the takeover of Columbia in Spring 1968 and Black Power-were the best days of the Movement and the days post-1968 were “bad’ because that’s when the Marxist-Leninists and crazy anarchists bent on revolution took over. When one operates from this context, s/he is likely to present an incomplete and ultimately unlikely history.
For one who was there, Revolution in the Air is like a flashback without the rhetoric. Elbaum details the New Communist Movement’s attempts to educate itself in the Marxist-Leninist canon and apply it to the events of the early 1970s in the United States. He identifies the key players: the groups from which the activists came-organizations organized along revolutionary nationalism representing African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans, mostly white radical youth and student groups, revolutionary worker’s organizations, and the independent socialist weekly The Guardian. In addition, he tells how and why the young activists of the anti-racist and antiwar movement moved towards party-building and away from the spontaneity of the popular extra-parliamentary movements of the Sixties decade. Primary to his analysis is the belief held by Elbaum and many of the New Communist Movement’s adherents that the events of 1968 were tantamount to the events of 1905 in Czarist Russia. If one accepted this consciously or otherwise, than the next step was to build a party that could make certain that the mistakes made in the failed rebellions of 1968 would be corrected and America would see a Seventies’ version of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
On the other hand, if one is new to the anti-capitalist movement and/or the Left, than reading this book requires a short history lesson on the Sixties movement against war and racism and the role of the Left in that movement. The first chapter and the introduction are a good beginning to that lesson, but today’s young activists most likely will want to read more. Elbaum does a more than adequate job on describing the role of the Old Left in the U.S. and its influence on the New Communist Movement, especially because much of the New Communist Movement’s analysis and activities were defined in reaction to what they perceived to be the revisionism of the Left (especially that of the CPUSA) that preceded it. Even more fundamentally, today’s young activists might wonder what was the attraction of the Leninist model in the first place, given today’s almost religious insistence on decentralization and non-vanguardism prevalent in most sectors of the current popular left and anarchist movements. Revolution in the Air takes this question seriously and answers it accurately and effectively.
This is done via a brief but workable history of the development of Marxist-Leninist thought and its application since the 1917 October revolution. The reader is told how that development was affected by the application of the theory and interpreted, or misinterpreted. For example, how Lenin’s firm belief in the necessity for dissenting opinions within the revolutionary party while maintaining a unity of action became Stalin’s insistence on total allegiance to the party. Unfortunately, many formations in the New Communist Movement eventually echoed this intolerance, at least in their reaction to other leftist organizations. Elbaum writes of the positives of this movement-the energy, commitment and solidarity-and cautions activists of the new century that “the fact that no movement organization could sustain such positive features over the long haul indicates that a better way of political organization than Stalinist hierarchy needs to be found.”
To prove his point, Elbaum relates the next phase of the movement’s history, writing about the turmoil in the movement caused by the attempts by Boston government officials to bus working-class and poor Black students from the Roxbury section of Boston to the mostly white Southie and Charlestown working-class sections. RU’s dramatic turnabout regarding the existence of a separate Black nation in the U.S. caused it to see busing in Boston not as anti-racist but as an attempt by the rulers to split the working-class along racial lines. Although a couple other Marxist-Leninist groups (some composed primarily of people of color) shared this analysis, only the Revolutionary Union (RU) aligned itself with some of the more racist elements of the anti-busing movement. Meanwhile, RU was distancing itself from many of its youthful supporters by opposing the counterculture, homosexuality, and calling for those unmarried couples living together to get married. All of this was in an attempt to relate to what they considered to be the proletariat and stemmed from their understanding of (and allegiance to) the communist theory they were reading and discussing. Of course, RU was not alone in its odd twists and turns. The shrinking base of support combined with a fundamentalist adherence to the texts of Lenin, Stalin and Mao caused many groups in the movement to make similar mistakes. It was only because of RU’s larger size and early leadership that their mutations had a greater effect. After the busing battle was over, RU’s leadership in the movement was gone. What followed was a series of struggles for leadership by other sects, a virtual collapse and rebirth with different organizations at the helm in the 1980s, and the eventual disintegration of the movement after the fall of the Stalinist bureaucracies in Europe and China’s total embrace of capitalism. In a similar manner, Elbaum describes the other issue that was even more decisive in splitting the New Communist Movement. This was when China shifted its foreign policy by identifying the Soviet Union, and not U.S. imperialism, as the biggest enemy of the world’s working people. For a movement that had come out of one of the greatest anti-imperialist struggles in the history of the United States-the movement against America’s war in Vietnam-this shift was like an earthquake.
In short, the entire movement suffered from ultraleftism throughout most of its history. This was not merely because of its members’ attraction to this type of communism. It was also related to their belief that the best way to build a large party was to begin by building a small, revolutionarily “pure” party. This insistence on purity was bound to foment sectarianism and infighting, especially as the movement’s potential base of support-the US working class-turned rightward while US capitalism went through recession after recession and took it out on the workers. Despite its many faults, however, the New Communist Movement honestly attempted to address every aspect of US capitalist society. Furthermore, it took seriously the task of organizing a revolutionary challenge to US imperialism. Nothing was immune from its members’ critical eye. Max Elbaum does a more than credible job at documenting the movement’s development, its mistakes, its effects on the radical movement in the United States, and its relation to the world. As histories of the Sixties and their aftermath go, Revolution in the Air is one that stands with the best, not only in regards to its approach and style, but especially in the lessons both historians and activist can learn from it. Like Elbaum comments in the text: “hindsight should not be used to smugly dismiss [the New Communist Movement], but to analytically disentangle its positive from its negative side.” This book is an essential part of that analysis.
Ron Jacobs is an anti-imperialist activist who works in a library. He is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (Verso, 1997)