|This review appears in the May 6, 2002 issue of “It’s No Accident”
Sparks on the Prairie
by John Lacny
I was once in a conversation with an older radical (by older, I mean older than me — not *old*, per se; if by chance he’s reading this right now he might remember me), a Vietnam veteran who was radicalized during the war. Like many a young activist in those days he had hooked up with a “cadre” organization in the early Seventies — in his case, one called the October League. I confessed to not knowing what the October League was, a fact that was an immediate source of much amusement for the other, er, older radicals around the table — all at the expense of themselves and not me — who wondered aloud if memories of the October League had disappeared into history’s (or rather, History’s) proverbial dustbin. When I ventured that, from the name, it sounded like a Trotskyist organization, the prevailing mood escalated from the bemused to the uproarious. “Naw, Maoist. We used to bring guns to meetings — ‘Let those Trots try to start something.’ Now, some of my best friends are Trots.”
In Revolution in the Air Max Elbaum tells the story of the Sixties radicals who joined the self-described “New Communist Movement” and attempted to build “Marxist-Leninist” revolutionary parties in the United States. Under the influence of the anticolonial struggles then sweeping the world, these (overwhelmingly) young radicals looked with disfavor on the orthodoxies of pro-Soviet Marxism, and instead turned to the example of Third World revolutionaries for inspiration. Their numbers included both Maoists and the followers of more heterodox revolutionary theories — and their partisans clashed with one another in ideological combat almost as much as each attempted to take on the system of US capitalism and imperialism.
And indeed, Elbaum gives the reader more than a little dose of the sectarian squabbling of those years; to many a reader hitherto unfamiliar with the issues involved, there are parts of the book that may seem like a blizzard of acronyms, each one standing for an organization of a few hundred members at most. As a former participant in this trend (he was a member of the Line of March organization and later an editor of the much more ecumenical left-wing publication, *CrossRoads*), Elbaum treats his subject with care and sympathy, but the passage of time — as well as an obvious deep-seated political realism — allows him to engage in thorough criticism.
The picture that emerges is scarcely flattering: organizations bickered over relatively unimportant points of abstruse dogma while failing to confront major political developments (such as signs of the rise of Reaganism); more than one group raised a patently ludicrous slogan (such as “Superpowers Out of Puerto Rico!”) in order to meet ideological requirements; a hankering after foreign models led to a neglect of analysis of domestic political questions. His former factional opponents will no doubt quibble with Elbaum over one point or another, but few will dispute his assessment of the “New Communist Movement” as largely a series of disappointments and lost opportunities.
What is unique about this book, however, is Elbaum’s insistence on drawing the positive as well as the negative lessons from these revolutionary experiences, and in many ways Elbaum is breaking new ground in the historiography of US radicalism in doing so. Ever since the publication of Todd Gitlin’s *The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage* — and arguably even before then — orthodox left historians have focused almost exclusively on Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) as the most representative radical organization of the period; in a related vein, they have argued that a promising, idealistic early New Left (as exemplified by SDS’s Port Huron Statement) was supplanted some time after 1968 by a gang of rhetoric-slinging militants out of touch with American concerns. Elbaum does much to counter these myths.
First, he takes pains to note, the partisans of the “New Communist Movement” began as activists who rejected the armed adventurism of the Weather Underground and similar political cults. Secondly, these activists sought — however clumsily at first — to root themselves in working-class settings and in communities of color, and in many cases were responsible for some fine organizing work therein. Thirdly and most importantly, Elbaum discusses in-depth the developments outside the “white left” that is the default unit of analysis for historians like Gitlin; Elbaum gives the black liberation struggle the prominent — even central — place it deserves in the consciousness of Sixties radicals of all colors, and he also displays a deep knowledge of developments in the little-discussed Puerto Rican, Chicano, and Asian-American movements, and the influence of Marxist-Leninist and other radical currents within those movements.
Despite their failures, Elbaum argues, their choice of political course was a rational response to their experiences in Sixties activism. In an atmosphere of surging radical movements worldwide, it was not unreasonable for US radicals to attempt to ally themselves with the struggles of people around the world. And in practical matters, these activists had been turned off by the “loose” forms of organization that characterized so much Sixties activism — groups that often operated by consensus and in fact reproduced patterns of domination by historically privileged groups (educated white males, for example) under the guise of “non-hierarchical” structures. Instead these activists would seek to build groups with visible and accountable leaderships, where individual activists were in turn accountable to the group and where people willing to take on difficult activist work could get together free from the distracting rhetoric of do-nothing blowhards. (That the “cadre” organizations may have “bent the stick” too far in the other direction does not change the fact that the consensus model and so-called “non-hierarchical” organizations are fraught with problems.)
Elbaum draws on a wealth of activist experience to tease out the lessons for the future that we can derive from the history of the last generation of radical activists. His book is well worth reading for today’s younger activists, for his “ruthless criticism of all that exists” is not intended to discourage revolutionary enthusiasm but to sharpen it. For while social transformation is difficult and complex, it nevertheless remains possible. The future is bright; the road is tortuous.
“It’s No Accident” is a political column by John Lacny, a student activist at the University of Pittsburgh. Until recently he was also the moderator of the Marxist Listserv group on Yahoo where this review also appeared. To subscribe to “It’s No Accident” send an e-mail to: email@example.com