Democratic Left Mailing List, 2002

This review was originally posted to the Democratic Left Mailing List.

Revolution in the Air

By Tim Sears

Elbaum’s book is well-written and thorough, covering a tendency that has largely been ignored or passed over quickly by most historians of the Left. He’s certainly right that most histories of Sixties radicalism and the New Left generally get to the break-up of Students for a Democratic Society and just say, well then everything went to hell in a handbasket. He rightly criticizes the simplistic “good 60s/bad 60s” point of view, that dismisses post-1969 radicalism as unworthy of serious attention. His book is the first one I’ve seen that takes the rise of the “new communist movement” (Maoism and the related Third World Marxist-Leninist currents) seriously in its own right, and discusses the development of the various groups in some detail. There’s a lot of information here I never knew, as well as lots that I had (mercifully) forgotten long ago.

Interestingly, Elbaum’s approach is historiographically pretty traditionalist — he’s mostly writing about the development of organizations, not social or cultural history. Although his political perspective is very different, his historigraphical approach is not unlike Theodore Draper’s in his classic two-volume history of the early period of the Communist Party. And like Draper, Elbaum seems to have kept a copy of every leaflet handed out at every rally for about two decades.

But one thing that’s very different about Elbaum’s approach — and I found it maddening — is his reluctance to identify people, to name names (apparently partly out of fear that some former new communist activists might now be subject to red-baiting/blacklisting/retaliation if their roles in the new communist movement were revealed). Of course, the FBI and the other professional red-baiters had all these names a long time ago, so I’m not sure who is being protected from whom. (As Dostoevsky said, the cloak of anonymity is frail…) But Elbaum’s reluctance to identify specific individuals engaged in political activity gives the book an oddly impersonal tone — various organizations identified by acronyms do things, but very few actual human beings appear on these pages.

The anonymity of the new communists in Elbaum’s account even extends to people who were quite prominent at the time; some are mentioned by name but only fleetingly. Indeed, the book includes photos with captions identifying some of these folks, but they are not mentioned at all (or at best, only in passing) in the text. So the red-baiters get the name and photo, but the reader doesn’t learn anything specific about that person’s activities in the movement.

Elbaum, who was himself a leader of Line of March, writes from a perspective of considerable sympathy for the new communist movement, and while he’s certainly entitled to his opinion, that sympathy distorts his judgments. It’s true, as he says, that the new communist movement highlighted the critical importance of multi-racial organizing — but he downplays the destructiveness of the radicalized white guilt-tripping that too often accompanied that emphasis. And even as he acknowledges the fundamental error underlying the entire new communist movement — the plainly delusional belief that the period when Richard Nixon was re-elected by a landslide was actually in a pre-revolutionary situation in the United States, comparable to the interregnum between the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 in Russia — he takes care not to be too harsh in judging the new communist project. He seems not to understand that, whatever the accomplishments of the new communists in organizing in this or that specific struggle, the basic political outlook of the new communists struck most people at the time — even most people inclined toward radical or progressive politics — as incredibly wacky.

The inherent contradictions in the politics of the new communist movement are particularly obvious in Elbaum’s discussion of the turn towards mainstream politics in the mid-1980s. His discussion of the new communist plunge into Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign and the Rainbow Coalition is remarkably uncritical. He seems not to “get it,” not to understand that the new communists’ organizational model of Third Period Stalinism was inherently inconsistent with participation in a broad, mainstream American political movement. For instance, consider Elbaum on the role of the League of Revolutionary Struggle in the Rainbow Coalition:

“LRS’s combination of hard work, cultivation of ties with influential leaders, and deployment of mostly secret members had produced results. A number of cadre attained high posts within progressive organizations — including what remained of the Rainbow apparatus — and LRS members assumed control of a number of student and community groups. But as LRS utilized its positioning to expand its influence and limit that of its rivals, charges that a hidden apparatus was manipulating things began to multiply. Some attacks were little more than simple red-baiting. But LRS’s reliance on secret membership combined with its drive for organizational positioning had produced situations where more than the anti-communism of some opponents was at work.” (p. 299).

But it was precisely these sorts of secret manipulative tactics that, ever since Chicago trade unionist John Fitzpatrick was betrayed by the Communists in the farmer-labor party movement in the early 1920s, have led one democratic radical after another to adopt a posture of principled anti-communism. The resulting conflicts tore apart one progressive coalition after another, from the National Negro Congress to the American Veterans Committee to the industrial unions of the CIO. Anyone trying to organize a trade union or a civil rights group or a peace group on an open and democratic basis inevitably runs into conflict with an outside cadre organization operating by means of the “deployment of mostly secret members” and acting as a disciplined caucus within the broader movement. In the case of the LRS, there really was “a hidden apparatus… manipulating things” in the Rainbow and various other progressive organizations, and other activists rightfully resented that manipulation. The Stalinist tactic, copied with precision by the new communists, of “reliance on secret membership” combined with the drive for organizational control, is fundamentally incompatible with democratic political action.

While Elbaum is quite facile in tracing the evolution of various sectarian Left grouplets, he — like the new communist movement itself — has only the crudest understanding of the forces at play in mainstream American politics. So he, like the new communist movement, seems disoriented by the fact that the Rainbow did not develop into a grass roots, bottom-up democratic mass organization. At the same time, he is still dismissive of those on the Left — especially DSA — who did not follow the new communists in essentially dissolving into the Rainbow:

“The most glaring failure was DSA’s…. DSA stayed mostly aloof from the first Jackson campaign. The reasons lay in DSA’s white racial blindspot, its reluctance to take any stance that might strain ties with AFL-CIO officialdom (which engineered an ‘early endorsement’ of Walter Mondale), and the Zionist influence within its ranks. In 1988, when Jackson ran a more broad-based effort, DSA was more supportive, but its prestige in Rainbow circles never recovered from its 1984 abstention.”

Almost every word of this is wrong — most obviously, the tripe about “its reluctance to take any stance that might strain ties with AFL-CIO officialdom,” since DSA members within the labor movement were the leading opponents of the AFL-CIO’s reactionary foreign policy at that time. DSA played a crucial role in opening doors for Jackson within the labor movement. DSA gave an early and enthusiastic endorsement to Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, and DSA co-chair Michael Harrington was a speechwriter for Jackson in that campaign. What plainly has never occurred to Elbaum is the possibility that DSA, with its greater experience and better understanding of the dynamics of mainstream American politics, understood from the outset that Jackson was not going to permit the Rainbow Coalition to become the kind of democratic, bottom-up organization that the new communists imagined. Indeed, I recall Harrington talking at a DSA National Executive Committee meeting about his discussions with Jackson regarding precisely this issue, that Jackson was not going to risk embarassment by giving up control of the Rainbow and allowing a bunch of sectarians to take over.

None of the new communist groups made long-term advances in the 1980s. None of the new communist organizations came out of their all-out commitment to the Rainbow in any shape to deal with the challenges they faced. Whatever short-term gains they may have won, the Rainbow experience left these organizations weak and directionless, incapable of coping with the world-wide collapse of the Leninist legacy in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Tim Sears is on the National Political Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America.