History (U.K.), October 2003

This review appears in the Oct. 2003 issue (Volume 88, Issue 292) of History, the 92-year-old journal of the U.K. Historical Association based in London.

Revolution in the Air

By M. J. Heale

This fascinating book provides a major service in surveying in dizzying detail the course of Marxist-Leninist groups in the United States since the 1960s. Their popular followings, of course, were small, and for this reason they have received little notice in major newspapers or mainstream histories. But the author, an activist himself, confidently charts the splits, mergers, regroupings and demises of an array of organizations from the El Comite-MINP to the Revolutionary Workers League. His principal sources are the printed documents generated by these groups, augmented by his own informed memory.

The story effectively begins in 1968, with the domestic unrest intensified in part by the Tet offensive, which suggested the vulnerability of the United States, and in part by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the imposition of Hubert Humphrey on the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, which suggested the hopelessness of reform from within. A new generation of revolutionaries arrayed themselves against ‘the system’ and took inspiration from Marxist movements in the third world, especially Mao’s China. Elbaum takes exception to the view that the New Left began well but later degenerated into irrationality and violence. The ‘good sixties/bad sixties’ thesis, he argues, focuses too much on white middle-class radicals, and he impressively documents the importance of racial and other minority groups in the revolutionary fervour of the early 1970s.

He also skillfully explains why Marxist-Leninism had such an appeal for radicals at that time. None the less, he ultimately concedes that the New Communist Movement was unrealistic in its assessment of the conditions it faced, which after all was one of the charges of its critics. The book is revealing on the convulsions experienced by the various revolutionary groups as a consequence of their tendency to look to China for ideological reassurance. When the Sino-Soviet split occasioned China to align with the United States in some international situations and when the Chinese leadership renounced the Cultural Revolution immense difficulties were caused for these radicals, ultimately compounded by the Tienanmen Square massacre. The collapse of the Soviet Union further discredited the socialist project, and by the mid-1990s little was left of the revolutionary groups that had sprung out of sixties excitements. But for a generation thousands of Americans had shown courage and idealism (if too much dogmatic rigidity) in attempting to find an alternative to the racism and militarism of a business civilization.

  1. J. Heale is a professor of American history at Lancaster University in Great Britain.