This review was originally posted to the Marxism Mailing List by Melvin P.
by Melvin P.
Revolution in the Air
Max Elbaum set himself the task of tracing the formation of the various grouping that constituted the “New Communist Movement” of the early 1970s and 1980. This is a formidable task and herein resides the value of this work which should be a part of ever revolutionary’s library.
“Revolution in the Air” is a complex work that weaves together the story of a sector of the social movement of two decades, with the ideological thread of the “New Communist Movement” that it is describing.
The strength of this work is its weakness.
To make sense of this period of history Elbaum divides history into several time increments: 1968-1973, 1974-1981 and 1982-1992. Although not stated in these terms, the great strength of this book is that it openly acknowledges that the African American peoples movements set the pace and stage that birthed – first, the black youth and then black student movement, which called forth and served as catalyst for a broad Student Movement across the depth and breath of America. This is the specific stage the social movement went through once one understands what happened in Montgomery Alabama.
What happens is that the adults and leaders of the spontaneous movement were jailed and no more troops are available except the youth. Most of the other adults have to go to work to pay the rent and pay for the social movement. The youth are throw into the struggle because it is better to die on one feet than live on one knees. The youth movement or social movement amongst the youth, sparks the student movement. It was on this basis that America experienced a reawakening to Marxism.
We should understand the social process a little bit better.
The second strength of this book resides in its conscious effort to rewrite history to conform to what a generation of revolutionaries experienced. Each generation is charged with the task of rearticulating history fused with their experience and on the basis of their given state of development of the productive forces. This is so because this framework clarifies and documents the subtle changes in class relations as various class sectors decay and new sectors rise to the fore.
The Third strength of “Revolution in the Air” – no matter what ones political tradition, is that it outlines – more or less, the mechanics of how revolutionary theory and ideology enters the working class. One literally takes propaganda – books, articles, newspapers and films to the insurgents generated as the spontaneous movement.
People do not come and will never come to a class politic on the basis of simply “fighting back.” The Communist Manifesto is distributed – sold, and study circles are formed with the willing. In this sense revolutionaries do not and cannot create “revolution.” Rather, the revolutionary impulse is generated on the basis of changing in the means of production and in this instance we are talking about the liquidation of the sharecroppers as a class and the need to dismantle the system of Jim Crow that trapped the black on the land.
The final strength of this book is that it describes the kind of lives the insurgents lived to effect and affect the social movement in America. Elbaum describes why the Leninist forms of organization appeal to a segment of this generation in combat with the state, segregationists, fascists and corporate power. Centralism was the affirmation of democracy and the only known roadblock to police penetration and the agent provocateur. Centralism means the systematic fulfillment of plans, checking up on assignments and unity of action. Unity of action means once the decision is made the discussion comes to an end and one carries out what has been decided by the collective.
One does not have the right to “fight for their position” after they have been voted down until the next convention dealing with policy change.
Elbaum treatment of the CPUSA and the SWP as a backdrop is reasonable and more than less balanced because the story of the “New Communist Movement” is not about them. There is an Appendix: Glossary of New Communist Movement Organization on page 339, which pinpoints the organizations that are the focus of this study.
Elbaum discuss the political tendency from which I come in a candid and frank manner, admitting that we were neither Maoist, “New Communists,” uncritical supporters of the CPSU – most certainly not Trotskyites, nor did we evolve from the student movement. For this I am personally grateful. Nor were we led by anarcho-syndicalist ideology – as evident in twenty years of publishing the “Peoples Tribune.” This is not to say that individuals were not infested with this ideology – I for one, and will probably die with a peculiar love and fondness for men and women in heavy industry.
For the audience of Marxmail “Revolution In the Air” will broaden one perspective.
My disagreements with “Revolution In the Air” – which does not out weigh its contribution, is wholly political in the sense that we were not an organic part of the “New Communist Movement” although we went through organizational transition during this era, which is why we are mentioned as a part of an era. I personally remember the five main groups Elbaum pinpoints as the nexus of the “New Communist Movement.” We attempted to incorporate any and ever body on the basis of unity of action and the general program of communists, which is “victory to the workers in their current struggle.”
On such meeting with the folks in the Revolutionary Union I shall never forget. At one point in the conference all the RU members stood up in unison with copies of the Red Book – Quotation of Chairman Mao, in their right hand, bending elbow in unison saying something about something. All of us in the Communist League – the overwhelming majority of this meeting in Detroit, looked at one another in amazement.
I love Chairman Mao as much as the next admirer and most certainly had my own personal copy of the “Red Book” – and had memorized important passages (for those who understand the ideology of the period go to page 212) but – damn. We all looked at each other and said to ourselves, “we might not be able to integrate these guys into the organization” and in Detroit we were the most dogmatic section of the Communist League, which would drive Nelson Peery up the wall. The bottom line was that one had to go to work the next day and win over someone.
Elbaum outlines the rigid structures of the “New Communist Movement” and their control of their membership, which would be more than less comfortable to any industrial worker with a few years under his belt. Nothing on earth is more controlling than the assembly line. In other words the ideology of the “New Communist Movement” was industrial ideology – not sectarianism. Sectarianism is something different in the living context of the 1970s and 1980s.
Elbaum states that a main weakness of the “New Communist Movement” was that is overestimated the revolutionary potential, but a review of all the literature from every political grouping espousing communism will revel this to be true of every one of them. Further, one can investigate on their own and discover this was also an error of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. The point is that we have only recently – in the last ten years, figured out exactly where we are in the evolution of history – transition in the mode of production. No one can figure this out before the transition takes place. The human eye cannot see transition, but rather only that, which has emerged. “That having emerged” can be witnessed because it has emerged and is visible, and this indicates that you are at the second stage of the process.
In the end Elbaum book is reasonable and worth owning, but he apparently is incapable of breaking with his roots in the Anglo-American student movement, although he understands and articulates its inherent limitation. The “New Communist Movement” – of which we were never an organic part, was birthed by the SDS in the last instance.
The strength of this movement and of this work is its weakness.
- My review of “Revolution In the Air” can be reprinted and published anywhere without reservations, including this response.
- Revolution in the Air was a painful and difficult book for me because it summarizes a period of history I am familiar with. Perhaps it is this personal experience that blinded me to pages 235-236.
- My name is Darryl Mitchell, but I write under the name Melvin P. or simply “Waistline.” I was recruited into what would become the old League of Revolutionary Black Workers by General Baker, Jr at age 16. My work in the Civil Rights movement dates back to age 11, when Uncle Leroy – my father’s brother, ran for Secretary of Treasure on the Freedom Now ballot in Michigan. Leroy Mitchell was and is a Pan Africanists that moved his family to Ghana in the mid-1960s and is formerly of the Faculty of Art, Ust, Kumasi, Ghana, West Africa. Leroy currently resides in Detroit.
– Leroy’s daughter – Aretha Mitchell apparently dated General Baker Jr., their teen years or very early 20s. As a young man General disagreed with Uncle Leroy’s point of view and deeply felt that our battle ground resided in America and not Africa.
– My father – Maurice Mitchell, Sr., worked at Ford Motor Company after a stint in the armed forces fighting in the Philippines (One moment fighting on the side of the Huks and the next under the barbaric leadership of imperialists) and became a skilled worker – electrician, Ford Rouge Local 600. Dad was what was called in that era a “race man,” a semiprofessional boxer in the armed forces and an authentic bully boy. That is to say be believed in fighting the police. Dad’s first cousin – Napoleon Mitchell (yes, Napoleon) was arrested and jailed in the late 1950s for impersonating an FBI agent and sent to Jackson Penitentiary, where he won his release by winning the “Golden Gloves” boxing prize for the state of Michigan.
Apparently the Mitchell clan were destined to fight to the death.
Ardell Cynthia Jones – Mitchell, my mother, had a father named JD Jones. JD was an early follower of Elijah Poole who would later evolved into the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and found the “Lost-Found Nation of Islam” in the wilderness of North America. 🙂 Ardell’s sister Leona, would later in life become the Financial Secretary of the old Bud Wheel Local for over a decade.
Ardell had another sister, Johnnie Mae, whose daughter would decades later become the lead organizer of the Union – UAW, at the Casinos in Detroit – specifically the MGM.
I have an older brother, Maurice, Jr. He is an International Representative of the UAW having first won the position of Committeeman at Sterling Stamping in 1984. Sterling Stamping is a Chrysler Motors facility and the largest stamping plant in North America – if not the world. Committeeman is the highest elected union position in a UAW/Chrysler shop and at that time his district consisted of 1700 people. Today the same district consist of a little less than 500 people.
As I write this Maurice is in my home and we have been discussing the technological revolution and the revolution in the technological regime. This discussion is abstract but based on what is actually in front of us. I can only repeat this discussion in general terms as a law system. A new technological innovation is injected – grafted upon, an existing infrastructure and an incremental process of change begins. A qualitatively enchanted production process begs another and begins the reconfiguration of the existing infrastructure. The quantitative addition of new technological innovations no simply destroys the quantity of labor needed in the production process, but hits a barrier halting expansion on the same basis.
“On the same basis” means that adding new technological innovation to an existing infrastructure or rather the pathways of an old infrastructure hits the wall or barrier of the old infrastructure – pathways, and requires the creation of new pathways for a qualitative expansion of the new quality. It is my brothers contention that this barrier has been hit in the stamping division.
Although the new stamping process have reduced the workforce from 1700 to five hundred people, the new equipment only process 75%-80% of what the old labor of human beings produced. The other side of the equation is the 70% rise in quality or consistency of product.
In a word the apparent barrier being hit is the pathway of the industrial stamping process. Perhaps “liquid metal” or enhance plastics allows technique to supersede the industrial process and give rise to a qualitatively new process. The point is that the discussion continues as does the fight against capital.
Pardon, but I needed to get these ideas down on paper.
- At age 51, I retired from Chrysler Motors October 2001 at age 49, having completed a 30 year tour.
I am a founding member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and founding member of the following organizations: The Black Student United Front in Detroit, The Communist League, the Communist Labor Party, the Equal Rights Congress, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionist (Detroit) and former Executive Board Member and the American Writers Congress.
A former editor of the Southern Advocate, and participant of the Detroit II Liberation Theology Conference in the Americas. Vice Chairman of the Unemployed Council of Local 51 and former Committeeman and Chairman of the Shop Committee at Mound Road Engine, Local 51. Committeeman automatically makes one a member of the Executive Board of the Local Union in the UAW/Chrysler system.
I am also a communist and was won over to Marxism many years ago.
Somewhere in my memory are the first several issues of “Line of March,” a concept rejected by primarily the so-called Trotskyite leftists.
Generally, the comrades who were a part of or fell under the influence of our political orbit, have maintained a very low profile for three decades. To my knowledge I am the first one to write publicly. I have my personal as well as political reasons for this.
All the majors people mentioned in Revolution in the Air – in relations to the LRBW and the Communist League I have a personal relationship with.
Revolution in the Air is a one of a kind book with vast source material and will stand the test of time, no matter what ones political and ideological inclinations.
I review this wonderful book on a listserver with a Trotskyite heritage and probably would have written the review differently if this was not the case. I have little patience for ideological Trotskyism and a substantial record to stand on to sustain my inclinations. Thus, I am afforded a certain latitude – freedom. others cannot maintain and sustain.
I would suggest minor adjustments to the text concerning history I am familiar with. Page 104 states that the “CL published a newspaper, the Western Worker.” It would be more accurate to state the “CL published the People’s Tribune and the Western Worker.”
Before the LRBW split it was an article from the Peoples Tribune that altered by concepts of the national question called “Take Negro Nation Day to the People.”
It did disturb me that nothing was said of the “Vote Communist Campaigns” in Detroit during 1976 and 1978, but much of this is our fault for not making the literature historically retrievable. There was a 1978 article in our Theoretical Journal – Proletariat, called “Communist Work in the Trade Union,” featuring an article by General Baker.
Revolution in the Air is must reading for a new generation seeking its own passion and inspiration.