Madison Insurgent – October 2002

This review appears in the October 2002 issue of the Madison Insurgent.

Rainbow Book Review: A New Look at the End of the “New Left”

By Allen Ruff

Revolution was in the air. At least that’s what we thought, those of us who came of age politically, radicalized in the late 1960s. Talk of it was everywhere, — in the music, the popular culture, so palpable and real, you could feel it, almost taste it. 1968 was the pivotal year. The Tet Offensive across (then) South Vietnam, a mass student-led strike in Paris, the SDS-led strike at Columbia, the assassination of King and the resultant ghetto rebellions, the police assault on the antiwar movement assembled at Chicago, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia’s reformist “Prague Spring,” the rise of “Black Power” and presence of armed Panthers confronting “the pigs” and calling for revolution — it all seemed to suggest that a “change was gonna come”. Word had it on the street it was coming, that it was on the horizon and “you’d better get your ass ready.” And that’s what many young people, thousands of them, did.

Now, over thirty years down the radical road, Madison hometown boy cum radical political activist Max Elbaum has given us an important history, a significant critical look at a particular part of that diverse movement which rejected reform demands and took up the call for revolutionary change in the “belly of the monster”. His “Revolution in the Air” explores the trajectory of that particular trend known as the “New Communist Movement,” that wave of cadre-based Marxist-Leninist organizations that took up the challenge to build a revolutionary party based in the US working class. Inspired by the “Third World Marxism” of Cuba and Vietnam, and most of all by a still revolutionary Maoist China with its rejection of “Soviet revisionism,” several thousand “New Leftists” moved into political groupings committed to anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-racist transformation.

Elbaum’s history comes as a much needed antidote to some of the earlier short-sighted accounts of the US Left during the period. Importantly, it goes beyond the overly simplistic “good sixties/bad sixties” analyses of Todd Gitlin and others. Focused primarily on the mainly white Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), those studies have argued that the movement somehow went crazy following the spring ’68 student strike at Columbia, the rise of “Black Power” from the remains of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the disintegration of SDS in 1969. Blinded by the sound and the fury that was the Weather Underground and other adventurist false starts of the period, such studies ignored what became of the numerous activists who remained political in the early seventies; who moved beyond reformism but took up neither the gun nor the “propaganda of the deed”.

Committed to building a class-based vanguard party, many radicalized youth, mainly in their twenties at the time, helped form and joined a new wave of organizations committed to revolutionary change. Not simply “anti-corporate,” they were anti-capitalist. Schooled in their opposition to the US war in Southeast Asia, they went beyond demands for “peace now” and calls to “bring the boys home” to anti-imperialist politics, a deeper analysis of a US empire driven by the expansionist imperatives of capital. Clear, as well, in their understanding of the structural and institutional nature of racism in US society, they placed the struggle against racism central to their critique and the heart of their work.

Elbaum has successfully resurrected a richer and fuller history of that diverse movement that was the Maoist trend. While most accounts of the post-1968 movement have focused on the “white” left, this account gives the black liberation struggle the prominent — even central — place it deserves in the consciousness of Sixties radicals of all colors. It displays a deep knowledge of developments in the often-ignored Puerto Rican, Chicano, and Asian-American movements, and the influence of Marxist-Leninist and other radical currents within those movements. Elbaum reminds us that the movement attracted not only the white, disaffected sons and daughters of privilege, many of whom joined the Revolutionary Union or other Marxist-Leninist groups, but also thousands of “people of color” drawn to such organizations as the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords Party, La Raza Unida Party, the American Indian Movement, Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Workers and the Asian-led I Wor Kuen.

What makes Elbaum’s account important is its critical perspective. A trend participant, Elbaum, unlike many of his former comrades, has remained political. His commitment and staying power, his ability to weather the up and downs of the movement have provided him a rare vantage point. Able to assess the successes alongside the failings, the misjudgments and misassessments of American Maoism, his work stands as an important lesson for the current generation of radical aspirants.

The work stands as a key examination of the trend’s failings: its vanguardist sectarianism and infighting, its myopic abeyance to a distant, flawed Chinese socialist experiment which left them high and dry as Mao’s successors embarked on their capitalist road in alliance with US imperialism. Damaging, as well, were the dogmatic, anti-democratic and anti-intellectual impulses that marred the US trend.

Most significantly, the trend misassessed actual conditions, in the US and worldwide. Revolution was not on the horizon. The strength and staying power of US capitalism, the fact that the country was actually moving to the right through the ’70s; the movement’s inability to grow and actually expand its base, the obstacle of deep seated anti-communism, all of that was missed as an increasingly sectarian movement retreated into incessant infighting. The failure of not all, but certainly most of the trend in dealing with sexism and homophobia also hampered its development.

Despite its failings, that history remains important for today’s activists. Activists schooled in the NCM understood the need to build alliances and coalitions across the chasms of racial divide commonly referred to as the “color line.” They also understood the need for political organization, a party with staying power. They remained exemplary in their serious commitment to disciplined political education and practical work. Clear in their understanding that capitalism was the fundamental problem, they rejected an often attractive anarchism or do-your-own thing leftish libertarianism, and turned instead to socialism, class politics. Now often viewed as movement elders, those like Elbaum who remain active bring years of invaluable experience to the current activist scene. Their experience, positive and negative, should not be lost to the current generation.

Allen Ruff, based in Madison, WI, is a historian, anti-imperialist activist and member of Solidarity.