Marx & Philosophy Review of Books, September 2018

This review was published by the Marx & Philosophy Review of Books September 12, 2018

Review of Revolution in the Air

By Derek Wall

I bought Max Elbaum’s book about the US New Communist Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s on my way home from London, after watching The Young Marx. Raoul Peck’s film hugely enthused me and, waiting for a train at Waterloo, I spotted Revolution in the Air, and it seemed appropriate to buy it. I wasn’t disappointed. Both Max Elbaum and Raoul Peck celebrate a Marxism that is exciting, militant and conceptually sophisticated; a book and a film to put in the hands of any young activist to inspire more effective forms of practical intervention.

Elbaum’s book, first appearing in 2002, is a new edition published as part of Verso’s 1968 series. From Paris and Belfast to Vietnam and Oakland, California, popular protest erupted in 1968. The later 1960s were an era when revolutionary energies seemed to make anything possible, an atmosphere which is distant, yet brought to life in this book. Elbaum’s intention is not, however, to provide a simple narrative reconstruction of a bygone age of radicalism. Instead he has aimed to provide an account of the US left in the 1960s and 1970s specifically for the left activist of today. He is conscious that the successes and failures of the old American Left have equipped his own generation of young revolutionaries with some potential lessons. In turn, the weaknesses and strengths of Elbaum’s cohort might have something to say to the new American radicals. This is a laudable goal, and is enhanced by an engaging foreword by Alicia Garza, a founding participant of Black Lives Matter.

While there are interesting comments on a range of left organisations, such as the Communist Party, the once dynamic US Socialist Workers Party and the democratic socialist strain that evolved into the now growing Democratic Socialists of America, the book focuses on the ‘New Communist Movement’ (NCM). Subtitled ‘sixties radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che’, the the book looks at new organisations created in the 1960s and 1970s. Rejecting both the Communist Party and Trotskyism, these were Leninists who looked mainly to China, and to a lesser extent Cuba, for inspiration. Much of the early chapters are taken up with defending this as an area of interest. The reaction of many potential readers will be to ask, why even pick up a book that deals mainly with Stalinists and, at that, Stalinists who lost? Both authoritarianism and failure are powerful reasons for ignoring the US ‘New Communist Movement’. There are anti-Stalinist voices within the NCM; the Sojourner Truth Organisation, for example, is discussed, but these were a tiny minority. The NCM groups were inspired by the Communist Parties of China, Cuba, Vietnam and, to some extent, African liberation movements such as that of Amílcar Cabral’s African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde. China, from this account, seems dominant. A host of groups, from the Black Panther Party to the Bay Area Revolutionary Union, were reading Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ and seeking to apply its lessons. Maoism seems to have provided a strong political analysis of the situation in the 1960s. China broke with the Soviet Union, with the Chinese Communist Party condemning the Soviets as revisionists because of the Khrushchev 1956 speech denouncing Stalin. Stalin, while criticised in some respects, was seen either as a revered figure in his own right, or important as a bridge between Lenin and Mao. Without going into these debates in depth, it is clear that most NCM organisations were strongly opposed to Trotsky and embraced an authoritarian interpretation of Leninism, derived from Mao and Stalin.

It is clear too that while attracting thousands of dynamic young activists in the late 1960s and 1970s, the NCM organisations had largely collapsed by the 1980s. So it would be very easy to ignore both the movement and Elbaum’s book. However, whatever one thinks of the NCM, they are a social fact and were certainly the most dynamic part of the US left in the 1960s and 1970s, worthy of study even if the lessons are negative. However, the lessons are not purely negative; the NCM organisations built some foundations of a wider left that has persisted, which is less white and sexist than the traditional US left. If you like, they can be seen as the basis of a revolutionary politics which knows that class intersects with race and gender.

The book has an encyclopaedic feel. The NCM was made of varied organisations, but rather than being a dull survey, the personalities and political stakes are made clear. Elbaum, despite or because of his involvement in the NCM, has a measured, non-sectarian tone and takes seriously a variety of viewpoints. Of course his rather pluralist perspective might be seen as evidence of revisionism, however one gets the feeling that he takes a range of debates seriously, explains their nature, even to those of us who are unsympathetic, and rejects dogma.

Early chapters provide a detailed and convincing outline of the context, noting how both the civil rights movement and international events energised an anti-imperialist US left, which drew in African Americans. The middle section, entitled ‘Gotta Get Down to It: 1968-1973’, provides some of the most interesting chapters. Chapters 7 and 8 would have something to say to anyone interested in practical Marxist politics, dealing with notions of the party and party organisation. Chapter 7 is a carefully presented examination, moving from Marx to Lenin and showing how a particular, perhaps flawed conception of Leninism, inspired the NCM groups. The African National Congress’s Joe Slovo is quoted approvingly:

It is clear that a sizeable portion of the diet of Leninism on which we were nourished was repackaged Stalinism. Much of it was Stalinism in search of legitimization. The technique was to transform moments of specific revolutionary practice into universal and timeless maxims of Marxism which served to rationalize undemocratic methods both within the party and society (154)

While Elbaum concentrates on a number of strategic lessons, Slovo’s analysis captures his core concern, that specific practices, even when correct in context, should not be transformed into universal lessons that can be applied in all circumstances. However, Elbaum is also keen to show positive lessons from the NCM experience. This is most apparent in a fascinating chapter on movement culture. Chapter 8, ‘Bodies on the Line: The Culture of the Movement’, is a detailed examination of the precise political practices of NCM organisations. It covers practical questions that any left organisation should deal with, ranging from political education, to challenging racism, to how to combat police infiltration. These are very specific issues that might be missed by a broader discussion of political philosophy. Elbaum notes that for all the failures of the NCM it was able to produce organisations that trained cadres, and that any organisation on the left, revolutionary or not, ultimately needs effective activists, i.e. cadres to carry out particular tasks.

The book though, ultimately, focusses on the forces that led to the disintegration of what was briefly an apparently dynamic movement. Building the left in the US, the bastion of imperialism and capitalism, is unlikely to be easy. Nonetheless, specific failures are identified; Elbaum argues that the contradictions of Chinese foreign policy devastated the movement. Mao’s China split from Soviet Russia during the 1960s led to peace with the US by the 1970s, embarrassing US followers. The image of Nixon in China in 1972 was shocking. Either NCM groups dropped their affiliation to China or supported Chinese foreign policy that seemed far from anti-imperialist.

Maoism is seen by Elbaum as damaging in a more profound sense. While in China Maoism was a product of different and sometimes contradictory forces, it was seen as a pure form of theoretical orthodoxy by most NCM members. Mao’s conception of the two-line struggle was especially problematic. This suggests that within any Marxist party there was a correct proletarian revolutionary line that could be contrasted with an incorrect bourgeois reactionary line. The result was the closure of debate, sectarianism and sterility. Difference was based on correct or incorrect class understanding, so disputes became bitter. Elbaum is, however, clear that while the Maoist notion of the two-line struggle was destructive, Marxists from a variety of perspectives have tended to acknowledge one ‘true’ form of revolutionary doctrine and to view alternative viewpoints as flawed. This is damaging to serious attempts at understanding a particular political context and to construct practical forms of intervention. Elbaum notes that Lenin argued that revolutionaries should engage not with thousands of people, but millions. A misplaced emphasis on theoretical purity diminished the NCM, reducing would-be Leninist Parties to ever smaller numbers of participants. Mini-Leninism, while common, leads to marginality rather than to the transformation of society.

Elbaum argues that elaborate doctrine was not accompanied by strong roots in the working class, although he does note much activism at a shop floor trade union level. Paul Saba has thoughtfully critiqued Revolution in the Air, arguing that far from having too much theory, the NCM had too little. He challenges the notion of revisionism. Maoists used the term ‘anti-revisionism’, arguing that the Soviets had ‘revised’ Marxist doctrine. Revision was seen as reformism that led to a compromise with bourgeois society. Saba notes that the NCM needed to reject the idea of a pure Marxist essence in danger of heretical revision. Instead he argued that the new context theory needed to be developed; no thinker, even Marx or Lenin, had a monopoly on theory. Changing circumstances demand theoretical innovation. Marxist theory is, potentially, productive because it demands the production of new concepts that can be used to guide material change.

Saba’s critique might be subjected in turn to criticism. The Althusserian inspired innovation that he advocates can be creative, but equally can lead in unforeseen and far from radical directions. In the UK, Althusserian theory inspired profound thinkers like Stuart Hall, but in attempting to understand the particular conjuncture, eventually led to a more centrist socialist movement via the journal Marxism Today. Some might say that Tony Blair’s right wing Labour Party was a product of this theoretical innovation. Nonetheless, the respectful debate between Saba and Elbaum suggests that theoretical labour is part of the process necessary to produce effective left politics. This too is strongly emphasised in Raoul Peck’s film; the young Marx argues that both orientation to the oppressed and clear concepts are necessary to make revolution. You can disagree with almost everything Elbaum writes, not that I do, and still value the clarity with which he poses the questions relevant to an effective anti-racist, feminist and class-conscious revolutionary movement in the 21st century.

12 September 2018


Derek Wall teaches political economy at Goldsmiths College, London. A former International Coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales, his latest book is Hugo Blanco: A Revolutionary for Life (Merlin Press).