|This review was originally posted to the Marxism Mailing List by the moderator of that list, Louis Proyect. It is also available at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/american_left/elbaum.htm
Revolution in the Air
By Louis Proyect
Despite some serious differences with the analysis found in Max Elbaum’s “Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che”, I strongly recommend this recently published Verso book to anybody trying to make sense of the state of the left today. While focused on the “New Communist Movement” of the 70s and 80s (that I prefer to call Maoist), the lessons Elbaum draws are applicable to all vanguard party-building projects including those of the Trotskyist movement that I participated in.
For obvious reasons, Elbaum tends to exaggerate the importance of the Maoist formations and deprecate Trotskyism, its chief rival. As a veteran of this milieu, he would naturally be place a higher importance on it than either the CPUSA or the Trotskyist SWP. However, in his haste to put Maoism at center stage of American leftwing politics in this period, he gives short shrift to its rivals.
I was in Houston in 1974 when the Maoist movement was getting off the ground. The SWP dominated politics in this city after having successfully put the Ku Klux Klan on the defensive. With over 100 members, including some Chicanos who had played a leading role in Houston politics, the branch has a very high visibility. Around the same time, the only functioning Maoist group was the Revolutionary Union, which eventually became the RCP. Its members were clustered in a few key plants and refineries in town where they were attempting to influence trade union politics, rather ineffectively in my opinion. From what I can glean from Elbaum’s book, this was the modus operandi for Maoist groups all around the country. Seeking to implement a “deep industrial concentration”, their efforts were essentially the same as the CP of the 1930s which sought to colonize basic industry. In contrast, the SWP had a rather negligent attitude toward Houston’s trade unions. Most of the branch members worked in banks, hospitals or on campus and saw jobs as merely a means to an end. Political activity began after 5pm and was geared to maximizing the party’s public image. This meant selling the newspaper at grocery stores, organizing forums on current events or running election campaigns.
There was a minority in the branch that did take industrial jobs and worked side-by-side with the Maoists. They belonged to a faction that had made an alliance with the European Trotskyists. If they had any impact on politics inside a factory, it was not obvious to other party members. In general, these colonization efforts of the 1970s made very little impact.
Elbaum’s basic conclusion is that this turn to the working class was based on a severe overprojection of the objective possibilities. Ironically, the American Trotskyist movement adopted the same orientation just around the time that the Maoists were crashing on the rocky shores of American political reality. The economic downturn of the mid 1970s did not radicalize the working class at all. In fact it had a conservatizing effect as workers sought individual solutions to a social problem. Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” presents a vivid picture of an atomized working class in Flint, Michigan as ex-auto workers seek to move to Houston or raise rabbits for profit. By 1979, the Maoist movement had all but collapsed. In that year, the SWP leadership announced that the working class had become “center stage” in American politics and demanded that all its members colonize industry in a fashion that the Maoists had found so unfruitful. In addition, the SWP leadership adopted the same megalomaniac style of the dozen or so Maoist sects which tended to view all political differences as reflecting divergent class interests. In the SWP, this was called the “scratch to gangrene” syndrome, based on Trotsky’s warnings about the “petty-bourgeois” opposition in 1938-39. In the Maoist milieu, the same manichean approach to politics was justified under the rubric “two-line struggle”. As Elbaum puts it:
“In terms of inner-party debate, two-line struggle meant that there was a premium on identifying one viewpoint as a ‘bourgeois line’ and its strongest supporters as a ‘bourgeois headquarters’. Those within that ‘headquarters’ were subject to being on the capitalist road–objective representatives of the bourgeoisie who, if they persisted in their erroneous ways, could only become self-conscious agents of the enemy class–or, in countries where the communists held state power, a new bourgeoisie themselves.”
By the late 1970s, many long-time Maoists had begun to question these sorts of assumptions and form local networks and study groups to act on their new understanding. Elbaum’s book is a treasure-trove on this evolution, which is much closer to my own post-Trotskyist experience. In 1980 I hooked up with ex-SWP’er Peter Camejo who was in the process of forming the North Star Network with members of the Bay Area Socialist Organizing Committee, a typical “antidogmatic” and “antirevisionist” collective, to use Elbaum’s language. BASOC involved veteran Maoist leaders including Steve Hamilton (I believe), who had at one time been a leader of the Progressive Labor Party. Along with former Guardian writer John Trinkl, Camejo and the BASOC leaders sought ways to regroup the left on a nonsectarian basis. A couple of years later, the Line of March–a group that Elbaum led–had begun to take steps to dissolve itself after drawing similar conclusions about sterile “party-building” approaches. Under severe strains from trying to propel itself into a kind of mass party, Line of March began to fall apart in 1987. The party chair developed a substance abuse, just as did the leader of the Democratic Workers Party (more later). The survivors and the North Star Network launched a magazine called Crossroads that tried to popularize nonsectarian ideas and regroup broad sectors of the left. Unfortunately it did not succeed. My explanation (http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/organization/crossroads.htm) for its failure goes into more depth than Elbaum, who as a former editor seems rather anxious to move on to other topics. Perhaps it is too painful. His reluctance is all the more peculiar in light of his perceptive remarks on the demise of the Guardian newspaper, another Maoist stronghold at one time. He believes that its failure to draw on readers for financial support and to even announce beforehand that it was ceasing publication was a “debacle” that “underscored the battered state of the Marxist left”.
One of the last Maoist groups to go out of business was something called the Communist Workers Party, which was founded in October1979 by ex-PLP leader Jerry Tung. Just six months later, five members and supporters of the party were gunned down in Greensboro, North Carolina by KKK’ers and Nazis during a CWP-initiated rally. The action had an ultraleft character (unfortunately not characterized as such by Elbaum) that called for openly driving the KKK out of Greensboro. In the aftermath, the defense was also mounted in an ultraleft fashion with the CWP calling for the need to “Avenge the CWP 5”.
I met my first CWP’er in the NY chapter of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador in 1982, who was an extremely talented and likable African-American named Ron Ashford. At one point Ashford invited CISPES members to attend a CWP function, which I dutifully agreed to do out of a spirit of solidarity. It featured Jerry Tung giving an over-the-top, ultra-dogmatic analysis of political perspectives in the USA. Only two years later, Tung had decided to dump all his old convictions. According to Elbaum, Tung was urging party members to study “futurists” like Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt just as Carl Davidson, another former Maoist, would do in his cy.Rev study group in Chicago. (http://www.cyrev.net/index.html) He also suggested reading theorists of the corporate organization like ITT Chair Harold Geneen. The purpose of such research would be to substitute the framework of the “whole people” for the “working class and oppressed nationalities”. As should come as no surprise, the CWP would disband in a year or two.
In 1990 I began work at Columbia University, where I heard through the grapevine that there was another programmer who had belonged to a revolutionary organization. I finally had lunch with him and learned about his frightful experience in the Democratic Workers Party, which was sufficient to turn him against activism altogether. The DWP was one of the rarer birds in the New Communist Movement that did not fit into neat Maoist categories. Formed in 1974 in the Bay Area by a group of thirteen women, the DWP was essentially a cult around Marlene Dixon, a college professor with a checkered career. Not surprisingly, with a leader like this, the group dabbled in academic theory, Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory in particular. They also valued Harry Braverman’s “Labor and Monopoly Capital”.
Notwithstanding the rarefied intellectual style of the party leadership, the ranks were lashed into carrying out a 24-hour per day party workload, which my co-worker spelled out in chilling detail. You practically had to get permission to go to a movie on saturday night. Perhaps these folks read Braverman for all the wrong reasons, to figure out how to make the rank-and-file even more robotic than the typical cult-sect member.
Just as was the case with the Line of March, the DWP began to crack under self-imposed pressures. Marlene Dixon developed substance abuse problems and the group began to feed on itself in the early 1980s, seeking to drive out members who shirked their responsibilities to the revolution, which one might surmise entailed going to the bathroom more than once a day. Eventually, Dixon went the same route as Tung and decided that revolution was a waste of time. In 1984, she declared that “Marxism-Leninism as a strategy for revolutionary change in the advanced capitalist couuntries must be seen as a failure.” In the fall of 1985, when Dixon was off at some academic conference, the party expelled her and voted to dissolve itself.
With such as string of reversals, it is not surprising that Elbaum questions the value of “Marxism-Leninism” in his final chapter. Unfortunately, this term pretty much amounts to the Maoist experiments of the 1970s and 80s that have very little do with Lenin’s party as does the Trotskyist efforts of the same time, which also led to nowhere. He posits the Bolshevik Party as a new kind of party that differed radically from Western European socialist parties. In reality, this was not the case at all. Every single Leninist “contribution” had been defined earlier in the Second International. Lenin’s goal was to build such a party in Russia. When addressing the question of how a “vanguard” functions in What is to be Done, Lenin pointed to Kautsky’s party that stood up for the right of a university to choose its own rector and other rather modest initiatives.
We have the same requirement today that existed in Russia in 1902 and in the USA in the 70s and 80s, namely to unite scattered Marxist circles and individuals. Understandably, there is a certain amount of gunshyness among Elbaum’s generation. The idea of forming a new organization is probably the last thing on anybody’s mind who has been through this experience. But there is no alternative. We are entering a stormy period that will require all of us to rise to the occasion. I strongly recommend “Revolution in the Air” as a case study in what should not be done. What is to be done, of course, is another matter altogether.
I first became active in socialist politics in 1967, the beginning of my 11 years in the American Trotskyist movement. Despite my profound respect for Leon Trotsky as a Marxist thinker, I view the Trotskyist movement as such a sectarian mistake. Throughout most of the 80s, I was active in the Central American solidarity movement, first with CISPES and then with Tecnica, an organization that sent computer programmers and other skilled professionals to Nicaragua. The project eventually took root in southern Africa as well, where it worked with SWAPO and the ANC. More recently I have given workshops on the Internet to community and union groups, as well as moderating a Marxist mailing list on the Internet that can be linked to above. I am also writing a book on Marxism and the American Indian as an attempt to correct some dogmatic flaws in Marxism.