This article, a slightly edited version of a presentation made at Johns Hopkins in spring 2018, was posted on the Critical Historical Sociology Blog here on November 30, 2018
Revolution in the Air: Lessons from the 1960s
By Max Elbaum
In this piece, I want to discuss the political climate and experience of revolutionaries of the 1960s to better understand today’s political landscape and what I think could be some useful directions forward for the battles we are engaged in now. I think a useful way to start this discussion is to briefly paint a picture of the outlook of those of us who turned toward revolutionary politics in and around the watershed year 1968. From there I will summarize the experience of a large layer of 1960s revolutionaries who embraced Third World Marxism and built what was called the New Communist movement.
The Vision of the 1960s: From Fear to Hope
So to 1968, when I was 20 years old, and the years just before and after: One side of my generation’s experience is that in our teens we had either directly experienced or witnessed tremendous shock, horror and destruction. We had been gripped by fear of imminent nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile crisis. We were jolted by one assassination after another–two Kennedys, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King. We shuddered as police dogs were unleashed on civil rights protesters and saw mobs of young whites beating up Black people for the crime of sitting at a lunch counter.
And then there was the U.S. war on Vietnam, a war brought into every home every night on TV–not like today when pictures of the killing are hidden. Just about every day we saw a Vietnamese person or U.S. soldier shot in a news report, not to mention photos of the My Lai massacre and watching as a U.S. officer say with a straight face, “we had to burn down this village to save it.” And of course, if we weren’t sent to Vietnam ourselves, we all knew someone who had been, or who was coming back wounded or in a body bag.
So those of us who came of age in the ’60s lived with pain, fear and often desperation.
But there was another side. Despite all that, we were filled with optimism and hope. That was dominant. We were going to win and build a better world.
We had seen southern governors standing at university doors saying “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” But less than two years later, Jim Crow was outlawed. After that the Black freedom movement, anchor of the ’60s upsurge, didn’t stop. It gained momentum.
Vietnam was threatened with genocide, but the Tet offensive in early 1968 shook the U.S. war machine to its core and made it clear that however long it took, Washington’s empire-building project was going to lose a war for the first time in its history. And it wasn’t just Vietnam. All across what we called the “third world,” freedom movements were shaking colonialism and foreign domination, from Uruguay to Palestine, from South Africa to the Philippines.
And when, on 31 March 1968, Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the presidential race and announced that talks with the Vietnamese would begin, every one of us who had protested believed we had taken part in overthrowing a president of the U.S., not by the cruelty of assassination, but by engaging in mass political action.
Revolution wasn’t just in the air in the global south. I recall when the member of my Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter who had spent 1968 studying in Paris reported on her experience in the French May. Ten million workers on strike and students on the night of the barricades came within a hair’s breadth of overturning a government in the heart of Western Europe. I can still feel my heartbeat surge when she recounted the slogan they chanted as they marched through the streets where the Paris Commune of 1871 marked the first working class seizure of power in world history: “We shall fight, we shall win! Paris, London, Rome, Berlin!”
Is it any wonder that so many of us became revolutionaries in the wake of experiences like those?
We had a vision. We were part of an unstoppable human surge toward a better world. It was anchored in the rising of the wretched of the earth, but it embraced and welcomed all who had a conscience. It had a moral as well as political foundation. Yes, we knew we had to fight against the “hopeless sinners who would hurt all mankind just to save their own,” as that wonderful 1960s anthem, “People get Ready,” by Curtis Mayfield, put it. But we didn’t see it as a fight of good people vs. evil people. It was a fight against unjust systems of oppression. These systems hit hardest on the most marginalized, but afflicted everyone. Our aim was to build a better world for all and usher in a new and brighter stage of human history. And everyone who joined that fight had a contribution to make.
Third World Marxism
Now on from vision to the messy world of politics on the ground. Especially after Martin Luther King’s assassination, a whole layer of 1960s protesters decided that the socio-economic and political system in the U.S. could not be reformed and a social revolution as necessary to bring about peace, equality and justice. So we looked around for the kind of theory, strategy, and organization that could bring such a revolution about. Inevitably, the different directions in which we went were shaped by the historical moment and, in particular, the contours of the radical left across the world at that time.
Inspired by the dynamic liberation movements that threatened to besiege Washington with “two, three, many Vietnams,” as Ché Guevara put it, we decided that a Third World-oriented version of Marxism was the key to building a powerful left here. In tune with the central axes of 1960s protests, Third World Marxism put opposition to racism and military interventionism front and center. It riveted attention to the intersection of economic exploitation and racial oppression, pointing young activists toward the most disadvantaged sectors of the working class. It linked aspiring U.S. revolutionaries to the parties and leaders who were proving that “the power of the people is greater than the man’s technology”: the Vietnamese and Chinese Communist Parties; Amilcar Cabral and the Marxist-led liberation movements in Africa; Che, Fidel and the Cuban Revolution.
Third World Marxism also promised a break with Eurocentric models of social change, and pointed a way toward building a multiracial movement out of a badly segregated U.S. left. For many of us, Third World Marxism seemed the best framework for taking the most radical themes struck by Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and César Chávez–the US figures that most inspired rebellious ‘60s youth–and transforming them into a comprehensive revolutionary ideology.
Within the Third World Marxist ranks, a determined contingent set out to build tight-knit cadre organizations. These activists believed that new upsurges lay just ahead and that it was urgent to prepare a united and militant vanguard so the revolutionary potential glimpsed in the 1960s could be realized the next time around. To guide this process, not just Marxism but Marxism-Leninism was deemed indispensable. Partly this was because the Third World parties we looked to for inspiration advocated Marxist-Leninist ideology. But we were also drawn to Leninism out of our own experience in exceedingly sharp confrontation with state repression.
This current on the left, the New Communist component of the Third World Marxist layer, was not the only one that attracted 1960s radicals. All sections of the left grew–traditional communism, social democracy, Trotskyism, anarchism, radical feminism and others. But this current attracted the largest number, and especially the largest to come out of the freedom movements in communities of color. A detailed historical analysis of rise and decline of these movements can be found in my book, Revolution in the Air. In what follows, I want to focus on a few critical themes from this historical experience that are important to draw lessons about the present moment.
1) Political strategies and tactics must be tailored to the particular historical moments in which activists operate. Any strategy or tactic that ignores the broader historical context will lead to isolation and failure.
First, I want to target what I think was our most costly error. We misassessed the historical moment we were in, the balance of forces we faced, and the resilience of the U.S. political system. That error led us to adopt strategies and tactics that isolated us from the constituencies we were so committed to root ourselves in, despite all our determination and effort. We had become radical at a time of intense, rapid change, and when masses of people in the U.S. were in an explosive mood. We weren’t so naïve as to think that would continue uninterruptedly. But we did think that after a relatively brief ebb, a broader upsurge was all but sure to occur, and that it would inevitably be toward the left. We also thought that because masses had rejected one or two presidents and taken to the streets, that millions of people were ready to abandon the U.S. political system, that is, electoral politics, altogether. So we prepared for offensive battles, regarded electoral involvement as at best a waste of time, and built narrow organizational forms unsuited for the time.
But the 1970s went in a completely different direction: the ruling class regrouped and retrenched, skillfully cultivated a racist, sexist and homophobic backlash against ’60s movements here and abroad. And once the Vietnam War was over and equality was proclaimed in law even if not anywhere near realized in reality, the more progressive masses in their millions understandably tried to resist using the most legitimate and ready-at-hand tool available, that is, fighting on electoral and policy terrain. We forgot Lenin’s admonition that what may be obsolete for revolutionaries is not obsolete for masses, that exhorting people to be more radical has minimal effect, that only going through the experience of trying to take what the system offers as far as it can go and then being stymied, will millions take harder and more risky roads.
The result of all this was that instead of the 1980s bringing us an even bigger 1968, it brought us Ronald Reagan. And by the time we realized what had occurred and threw ourselves into the Rainbow movement connected to Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns, we had suffered too many losses to regain momentum as a collective and dynamic force.
The point being, we needed a big dose of hard-headed realism to go along with our revolutionary passion. We need to keep in mind that forces far more powerful than ourselves are setting the agenda. As I explain in Revolution in the Air:
“If, when and how masses swing into motion is generally not something under radicals’ control. But it is the activity and consciousness of popular constituencies that must shape radical efforts. Many of us once thought that becoming a revolutionary meant seeing the world through the filter of passages from Lenin. But we overlooked one of the things Lenin wrote that actually has a “universal” meaning – something not particularly “Leninist” at all but common to effective radical leaders of all persuasions: ‘politics begin where millions of men and women are; where there are not thousands, but millions.'”
Radicals must strain every nerve to gain and keep a connection to these millions. We need a connection in life, sustained over time, though durable organizations and institutions – not merely in theory or in self-conception or during brief moments of high-tide protest. This places a premium on resisting all sectarianism and flexibly adapting to new and often unexpected conditions.
2) To be able to account for the transformations in the historical context, critical and revolutionary theory should stay away from the “quest for orthodoxy.”
Second, I want to open up for discussion this movement’s complicated relationship with revolutionary theory. One of the things that gave the movement great dynamism in its early years was the proliferation of study groups, forums and debates. This extended beyond the student milieu and was a prominent feature in our workplace and community organizing efforts. For some years, the chasm that usually separates activism, that is either dismissive or even hostile to big picture theoretical exploration, from the radical academy, often divorced from and inaccessible to non-academics, was dramatically narrowed in this sector of the left.
Also, there was some creative theoretical and historical work done. Movement groups and circles produced a host of studies exploring the conditions of different communities of color in the U.S. and debating strategies for meshing the fight for equality with the working-class project of socialist revolution. At least two strands within the movement did pioneering work on the white-Black dynamic in U.S. history, the social construction of race, the development of unique U.S. racial categories, and the ways slavery and racism were foundational to U.S. capitalism. One of those strands was pioneered by Noel Ignatin and Ted Allen under the heading of “the invention of the white race” and the other, which shaped my thinking, came out of the circles in which Harry Chang was a central figure.
But it proved difficult for the movement overall to do the creative work of which it was capable, and even for its more theoretically-adept sectors to realize their potential. This was because we pretty much all had bought into what I called a “quest for orthodoxy”–interpretation of Marxism-Leninism where there was one true canon and everything had to be squared with and justified by reference to that canon’s founding fathers. New explorations were inhibited by suspicion of possible heresy, dubbed revisionism. We therefore had huge gaps in what we even paid attention to, missing for example absolutely crucial mattes like the growing environmental crisis and species-threatening character of a fossil-fuel based economy. And over time, especially as the movement declined, solutions to political problems were sought in ideological purification rather than rethinking our theories, assessments, and strategies.
3) Any theory and political strategy for change has to be rooted in particular local histories. The U.S. is not an exception.
Third, looking to the Black Freedom Movement as a reference point, anchor, and driving force of all progressive fights in the particular history of the U.S. was a strength of those who turned to Third World Marxism. Certainly there has been a great explosion of new theoretical and historical work illuminating the condition of African Americans, the dynamics of anti-Black racism, the centrality of slavery to the development not only of U.S. but of global capitalism since the 1970s and 1980s. And a welcome explosion of new and innovative forms of organization and communication as a new generation of activists moves center stage.
But the overarching point is that a strategy for change in this country has to be rooted in the particular history of the U.S.; and a key particularity of the U.S. is the way Black labor has built the country and Black movements have most often been the driving force not only in advancing the struggle of African Americans but in widening the scope of democracy for everyone. This was true in the Reconstruction era, which saw the most progressive state governments that ever existed in the U.S.; it was true in the 1950s and 1960s when it was the Black-led civil rights movement that broke the back of McCarthyism, defeated Jim Crow, and opened up space for all the new movements of the 1960s and after in what is aptly termed the “Second Reconstruction.” It is why the framework utilized by Rev. William J. Barber and others launching the new Poor People’s Campaign–the call for a “Third Reconstruction”–has such resonance and potential today. Rooted in the Black Prophetic tradition, and adding the issue of defending the natural environment to the three great evils Martin Luther King named in his “A Time to Break The Silence” speech–racism, militarism, and the extreme materialism that creates terrible poverty alongside ostentatious wealth–the Campaign’s vision is to bind together all our fights toward the Revolution of Values that Dr. King called for.
4) Today’s challenging task is to defeat authoritarianism in a way that will help institutionalize the strength of the emergent progressive sections of society and prepare them for more advanced stages of a struggle for systemic change.
Last, we cannot help but take note that we live in the era of Donald Trump. A white nationalist surge drove him to the presidency, and unfortunately, similar regimes based in racist and xenophobic authoritarianism are afflicting many other countries across the globe. At the People Get Ready conference in Berkeley right after Trump’s election, my longtime friend and comrade Linda Burnham, currently Research Director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, made this crucial point in her keynote speech:
“We cannot let the harsh realities of the moment stifle our revolutionary imagination; at the same time, we cannot let our revolutionary imagination blind us to the harsh realities of the moment.”
The challenge we face today is that the balance between these two is not as favorable as it was in 1968. At that time, the initiative was with those full of revolutionary imagination. Today it is those who are inflicting harsh realities on people all over the world who are setting the agenda and are putting in place mechanisms to stay in power and enrich themselves, whether it be voter suppression, mass incarceration, attacks on the media, freedom of expression and civil liberties, or outright war.
We need to be sober-minded about this. The trick is not to deny the challenge, but to identify and nurture the shoots of resistance which are the building blocks of the future and the source of our hope.
Today there is a massive anti-Trump front taking shape in this country. Its core lies in communities of color and among young people, but it stretches all the way from corporate power brokers in the Democratic Party through the millions who turned out for Bernie Sanders and a re-energized women’s upsurge to many Marxist revolutionaries. So of course it includes players with contradictory interests. But that is always the case in truly large mass movements. And we need to remember that no radical project has succeeded when it tried to fight all its enemies at once. Divisions in a ruling elite, and movements that can and do take advantage of them, have been a key factor in every successful movement for revolution or radical reform in history, in the U.S. and around the world.
And within this huge, complicated coalition against the far right there is a growing and dynamic progressive sector, showing itself in the women’s marches, in electoral insurgencies, in defense of immigrants, in demanding an end to police killings, in the movement for single-payer health care, in the recent teacher’s strikes. If that layer can coalesce–and if it can make efforts to end militarism and war as strong as its campaigns on other fronts–an agenda of peace, jobs, justice, and saving the planet can attain a measure of power.
Let me elaborate a little bit on this point. There have been three great leaps forward for popular movements in U.S. history: the surge that ran through abolitionism and the Civil War through Reconstruction; the organization of workers in mass production and the broader New Deal-era efforts of the 1930s; and the Civil Rights Movement-led Second Reconstruction of the 1960s that overthrew legal Jim Crow, won a number of other important democratic victories, and sparked a host of new social movements. All had a number of common ingredients: a period of substantial change in underlying political economy and the shape of global politics and power relations; militant and sustained mass direct action making a lot of trouble from below; these factors exacerbating fissures within the ruling class and turning those into a deep division; an extremely broad front uniting against the main enemy of the day; and the use of forms of struggle ranging from electoral action to disruptive protest and even in some cases resorting to armed self-defense or, in the Civil War, armed offensives. All of these elements were necessary to accomplish the main task of each period: abolition of slavery in the 19th century; the end of complete despotism at the workplace and staving off a corporatist or fascist solution to the depression of the 1930s; the overthrow of Jim Crow, racist immigration quotas, and ending the Vietnam War in the 1960s.
It is crucial to recognize, though, that after the main enemy of each phase was defeated, the coalition that defeated that enemy splintered. And in each case the ruling-class sector was able, over time, to weaken or outright crush the progressive contingent and roll back many hard won gains: Klan terror and restriction of voting rights in the gutting of Reconstruction; McCarthyism to roll back the militant workers’ movement in the 1950s; and, after the Second Reconstruction, the backlash crusade that has unfolded for the last 40 years and has now reached a zenith with extreme perils to the country and the planet now that full-blown white nationalism has captured the GOP under Donald Trump.
So our challenge is two-fold. First, to use all the elements mentioned above, from disruptive action to truly massive street protests to electoral engagement, in building the broad coalition necessary to oust the GOP and Trump an all their hangers on from power. And second, to institutionalize the strength of the progressive wing of this coalition to the point that, if and when we do defeat the right, we will not be pushed to the sidelines. Rather, we will be able to fight for and win the initiative, grab and hold a measure of political power in cities, states, and at the federal level, and have a foundation on which to move on to more advanced stages of struggle for systemic change.
And this is where building not just a progressive realignment, but a revolutionary left force within it, comes in. A radical left with a transformative vision and effective strategy is needed to keep that broader progressive current on track; as the communist manifesto puts it:
“The communists do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement. The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”
Fortunately, there are more and more young people today who, like the generation of 1968, are flocking toward a revolutionary vision and looking for illuminating theory and effective strategy and organization. The task of my generation is to get in behind the new radicals, support them, offer what we’ve learned from our experience in the spirit of “take whatever is useful and leave the rest.” And let’s see if together we can move history along a little further this time around.
Max Elbaum is is an American historian, author, and social activist. He has written extensively about the New Left, Civil Rights Movement and anti-war movement. He is the author of “Revolution In The Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che“.