New Politics 2003

This review appears in the Winter 2003 issue of New Politics.

Revolution In The Air

By Steve Early

“If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t going to make it with anyone, anyhow….” –John Lennon & The Beatles in “Revolution”

In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that I was never a big fan of the “new communist movement” (NCM), whose rise and fall is chronicled so exhaustively in Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air. The doctrinaire shenanigans of the NCM did little to build durable rank-and-file organization in any unions or industries targeted for colonization, in the 1970’s, by its various alphabet soup groups. A number of “cadre organization” veterans continued to be active in unions after their enthusiasm for “Third World Marxism” waned and their respective sects imploded. Some have managed to secure comfortable careers for themselves within the labor officialdom and the bureaucracy of the “new” AFL-CIO. Once big boosters of China’s cultural revolution, their political activity now includes cheerleading for “cadre” from the Democratic Leadership Council–Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and their innumerable state and local clones.

During the heyday of the NCM, some actual Third World Marxists were just beginning the process of building broad-based, multi-tendency anti-capitalist parties, rooted in militant unions and community groups. In Brazil, for example, the long, patient, and pragmatic march of the Workers Party has finally led to the election of former metal workers leader Luis Inacio (“Lula”) da Silva as president of the country. In contrast, 10,000 or so NCM adherents embarked, 30 years ago in the U.S., on a much shorter march–this one to political marginalization, organizational disintegration, and–for many–personal estrangement from radical politics in any form. Much of the emancipatory spirit of the Sixties, so full of hope and new political energy, ended up being channeled here into the dreary sectarianism of the 1970’s and 80s– thanks in no small part to the NCM and its many little would-be Lenins, competitors all.

Elbaum’s book explains, in great detail, what went wrong with the NCM and what today’s generation of campus and community activists might learn from this sorry experience. A veteran of Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Wisconsin and now a volunteer staffer for the valuable West Coast peace publication, War Times, the author is himself a recovering sectarian. For more than a decade, he was part of “Line of March”(LOM)–which, he now acknowledges, may have adopted “the worst name ever chosen by a party-building group.” Previously known as the “Rectification Network,” Line of March quickly displayed the kind of dogmatism that earned it the derisive nickname, “March in Line!” As an aid to readers, Elbaum includes a “Glossary of New Communist Movement Organizations,” most of which now RIP (Rest in Peace); without this, it’s very hard to keep track of the book’s bewildering array of organizational acronyms–RCP, CLP, CP-ML, CWP, DWP, MLP, LRS, RWL, PRRWO, OCIC, et al. Any reader with the good fortune not to have been around when many on the list were still active will need to consult this glossary early–and often. According to Elbaum, new communists’ tendency to march in line–and right over the cliff–was one of the NCM’s major weaknesses, along with being “disproportionately composed of individuals from the intelligentsia” who had little “sense of proportion about theoretical differences and fell into self-destructive infighting.”. Blinded by the light of Mao’s shining path, NCM adherents linked their “never-ending quest for orthodoxy” with “a constant suspicion of heresy.” No sooner was the NCM born, when it got busy dying–via inter-organizational feuds, internal factionalism, and eventual splitting over “minor points of doctrine” borrowed from “Cultural Revolution Maoism,” “traditional Stalinism,” or Cuban Communism. What Elbaum calls “the proliferation of ever-smaller vanguards” did, of course, create “leadership” opportunities for losers in various theoretical debates, because the latter invariably picked up their marbles and left, only to form their own group, based on a new and improved brand of “left purism.”

Within the NCM, “democratic centralism” and party discipline became a cover for abuses of power by various ego-tripping males–and, apparently, a few out-of-control female authority figures as well. Here, for example, is Elbaum’s memorable description of the not-so-democratic internal life of the “Democratic Workers Party,” a “secret cadre organization “formed “by “thirteen women (all white) in the San Franciso Bay Area in 1974, under the influence of Marlene Dixon, a charismatic intellectual from a working class background.” (Dixon had “a deep-rooted dictatorial streak and major substance abuse problems'”–a dangerous combination in any maximum leader!):

“In its internal functioning, DWP was rigid and top-down to a degree unusual even by the hierarchical standards of the New Communist Movement. Members were subject to nearly 24-hour-a-day discipline and internal political debate was suppressed via the argument that it was ‘class standpoint’ rather than political line that determined a cadre’s mettle–with the precise definition and practical tests of class standpoint subject to constant change and leadership manipulation. Dissent was harshly dealt with, and purges and expulsions were commonplace. General Secretary Dixon ruled with an iron hand, and almost all major party documents were attributed to her or to other members working under her personal guidance. In practical campaigns, DWP rejected united-front cooperation with other left groups in favor of setting up mass organizations strictly under party control.”

Not surprisingly, most normal people–regardless of their class background–did not last long in outfits like this. Many survivors of “new communism”–like former cult-members–“experienced something resembling post-traumatic stress syndrome,” Elbaum reports. The burn-out and bitterness was so deep among some individuals that they “simply abandoned political work altogether” after leaving–or being expelled from–the hermetic world of the NCM. While freely confessing–and not absolving–the NCM’s many sins of “ultra-leftism,” Elbaum nevertheless expresses a certain lingering admiration for the movement’s ability “to maintain itself as a militant, anti-capitalist current for longer than most other tendencies that came out of the upheavals of the 1960s.” He even manages to find nice things to say about the DWP–how it “represented a breath of fresh air” and produced “analytical work on women’s oppression [that] was far more sophisticated than the mechanical perspectives that had dominated the pre-1973 party building movement.”

The NCM’s bizarre ideological contortions reached their zenith in the late 1970s, when various groups–or their top commissars–began “to see splitting controversies in every disagreement over international affairs.” While proclaiming itself to be “new,” the internal dynamic of the NCM was not unlike that of the old CP-USA, from the 1920s to the mid-1950s, in that party members were frequently torn apart by abrupt ideological flip-flops, decreed by the leadership in response to political developments abroad–in this case splits between Russian, Chinese, and Vietnamese communists, Cuba and China over Angola, China and Albania, and even various Central American revolutionary factions. (Particularly jolting was Beijing’s official recognition of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, just a year after thousands of leftists were killed, exiled, or imprisoned in that country’s military coup.) As longtime Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) activist Tim Sears observes, “the basic political outlook of the new communists struck most people at the time–even most people inclined toward radical or progressive politics–as incredibly wacky.” NCM ideas haven’t improved with age, either. If anything, many Maoist conceptions of “anti-imperialism” seem more wacky and other-worldly today than they did 25 or 30 years ago. How many of us remember, for example, that “by 1975, the October League–having achieved premier status in the Maoist camp–was arguing that the main blow must be directed at the USSR and calling for steps to strengthen NATO.” Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were only too glad to comply!

Elbaum also cites, as one of the NCM’s achievements, the intervention of competing NCM factions–in the twilight of their movement– into Jesse Jackson’s two presidential primary campaigns during the 1980s. This section of the book is a case study in the behavior of small, secretive, “vanguard groups” when they seek influence within–and attempted control over–“mass organizations.” During the grim Reagan years, Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” initially showed much promise of becoming an on-going mass-based, multi-cultural political insurgency with a progressive agenda. It quickly became a magnet for nearly every lefty in town:

“With campaign committees and Rainbow structures sprouting all over during late 1983 and 1984, and with traditional Democratic Party operatives hostile or hanging back, there was plenty of room for skilled leftists to assume leadership roles. LRS [League of Revolutionary Struggle] and Line of March cadre played the largest role, but PUL, RWH, and CLP also made their presence felt, as did a number of independent left veterans of other party building groups.”

Elbaum’s Line of March, to its credit, “stressed the importance of a Rainbow structure based among grassroots activists who had a major say in decision-making” and opposed “allowing the Rainbow to languish” during non-presidential campaign years. LOM’s objective was to turn the Coalition “into a progressive vehicle not completely dependent on the appeal of its charismatic standard-bearer or susceptible to pressures from the Democratic Party high command.” Meanwhile, the LRS–which closed up shop in 1990–proceeded to aid Jackson’s project of keeping the Rainbow securely under his personal control. According to Elbaum:

“LRS emphasized what traditional communist doctrine termed a ‘united front from above,’ and worked to forge strong ties with Jackson’s inner circle, local elected officials, labor and community leaders. The organization pressed for structures and tactics that would be comfortable for figures with an established base, and were reluctant to set up a bottom-up, membership-based Rainbow….LRS was likewise more willing than most others on the left to subordinate building the Rainbow to the immediate needs of Jackson’s campaign apparatus when these were considered by Jackson to be at least partly in conflict.”

Maoist labor work in the 70’s was, on the other hand, characterized by spectacular adventurism and “ultra-leftism,” combined with a similar penchant for manipulation and behind-the-scenes maneuvering that hardly had a liberating effect on the working class, or even that small portion of it touched–and usually turned off–by NCM activity. As Elbaum admits, “most of the movement gave little attention to–or actually opposed the development of forms reflecting bottom-up initiative and working-class self-organization outside party control.” Unfortunately, as Christopher Phelps points out in a recent Left History review, Revolution in the Air contains little detail on the trade union practice of “new communists”–ie what they actually did in factories, workplaces, and unions halls while trying to connect “party building and mass working class organizing.” We learn more about what Marxist-Leninist colonizers criticized than what they proposed as a strategy for union radicalization. For example, in the middle of Ed Sadlowski’s 1976-77 “Fight-Back” campaign–the biggest challenge to the Steelworkers’ leadership in that union’s history–the October League denounced Sadlowski as one of “the main scabs and slickest defenders of the system.” His candidacy for the USWA presidency–which, as Elbaum notes, “grew out of a militant rank-and-file movement”–was, according to these Maoists, merely “a trick by the bourgeoisie to “channel the revolutionary aspirations and strivings of the masses into reformism.”

As part of its rival effort to “sink roots in the working class,” Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Union (soon to become the Revolutionary Communist Party) sent some of its operatives to West Virginia to become coal miners in the early 1970s–one of the toughest assignments that any group of colonizers faced anywhere. They arrived amidst considerable political turmoil within the United Mine Workers and a wildcat strike movement of epic proportions. For better or worse (depending on your point of view), RCPers helped shape the latter as rank-and-file militants in the “Miners’ Right to Strike Committee,” which sought an open-ended grievance procedure in the union’s national contract with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association. Little or nothing of this experience makes it into the pages of Revolution in the Air–despite the rich material provided by such adventures as the RCP’s politically suicidal May Day marches in Beckley, W. Va. (One annual exercise in red-flag waving led to the near lynching of their small band of coal field supporters–some of whom were forced to take refuge in the office of their attorney, a National Lawyers Guild member, who was more used to fending off injunctions, damage claims, and contempt citations arising from wildcat strike activity).

Such local color rarely enlivens Elbaum’s book. Instead, Revolution in the Air suffers from a Talmudic preoccupation with textual interpretation. Well-written and carefully researched, the book charts every ideological twist and turn of long-dead sects, as reflected in the author’s voluminous collection of their now-yellowing flyers, mimeographed manifestos, newspapers, internal discussion bulletins, and “theoretical journals.” As feminists have noted, however, “the personal” is also “political.” What this history really needs is a human face–some personal profiles of those who once tried to change the world through NCM groups, more information about their family backgrounds and life on the job and in the community as radical activists, insights into how they felt about their political work then and how they evaluate it now, and an answer to the obvious question in the minds of many curious readers: “where are they today?”

Labor historians Alice and Staughton Lynd have provided a revealing retrospective look at the workplace experiences of several NCM colonizers–who tell their stories in their own words–in interviews published in The New Rank and File (Cornell, 2000). Unfortunately, Elbaum eschews this approach–or any other involving narrative journalism–on security grounds.

“Individual names are used sparingly in this book…only activists whose role was both highly public and important are mentioned by name, and even many who meet those criteria are not identified. This approach stems mainly from the power that anti-communism still exercises in US society. Today, it is considered at least semi-respectable to have participated in 1960s protests and joined some kind of radical group–but to have been a member of an organization that defined itself as Marxist-Leninist is still regarded as beyond the pale. Public acknowledgment of such membership can cost a person dearly….”

The possibility of creating personal embarrassment–for ex-cadre now on the capitalist road themselves–might be an additional reason for the author’s reticence. According to civil rights movement historian, David J. Garrow, who reviewed Elbaum’s book favorably in The Village Voice, “former top ideologues [of the Communist Party-Marxist Leninist, successor to the October League] nowadays include a millionaire venture capitalist who worked for many years at the Blackstone Group and a management executive for a prominent Florida-based restaurant chain.” According to Garrow, CP-ML chairman and founder Mike Klonsky—the toast of party circles in Beijing during the late 1970s—is currently an education professor at the University of Illinois, having taken the more usual path for “new communists” to re-enter what Elbaum calls “the better off strata from which they had once defected.”

Emphasizing the importance of cross-generational lesson-sharing, Elbaum has promoted this book with admirable entrepreneurial zeal of his own. The web site for Revolution in the Air ( announces its second printing, tracks the author’s extended book tour, and features both reviews and reader comments. Elbaum wants to foster a “dialogue with many talented individuals from today’s new generation of activists, to gain insight into how they see things and what they have and have not learned from the past.” If the book “sparks criticism and further discussion of the left’s history and future, it will have a met a major part of its goal,” he says. He is certainly correct in concluding that:

“Every new generation reinvents the left, whether by transforming existing groups or by forming new ones of their own. This is both necessary and positive, not least because youth are far less likely than veterans to be shackled by the ‘tradition of all the dead generations [which] weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,’ as Marx put it. This is especially crucial today, since at no time since the birth of the modern socialist movement has the left needed such a top-to- bottom overhaul.”

One can only hope, though, that Elbaum’s nostalgia for certain elements of the NCM experience is not contagious. As Garrow observes, the “movement’s history is a powerful lesson in how not to pursue the progressive transformation of society.” Elbaum’s book illustrates how difficult it has been for radicals to build lasting and effective “intermediate organizations”–from rank-and-file caucuses to rainbow coalitions–much less left-wing political groups that have any semblance of mass appeal in American society. If the current attempts at “socialist regroupment” are going to be anything more than linking together the walking wounded, what’s left of the Left today must find a way to connect its anti-capitalist critique to the multiplying crises of real existing capitalism. Corporate globalization, the post 9/11 mix of war and economic distress, the widening attacks on labor and renewed meltdown of the U.S. health care system, the mounting evidence of long-term environmental catastrophe–all these conditions and more provide openings for expanded organizing initiatives. Revolution may not be in the air, but there’s more than enough human suffering and popular unrest in America today to enable radicalism to break free from the confines of narrow sectoral struggles and single-issue politics. Left-wing activists may not have Lenin, Mao, and Che as their guides this time, but–based on the evidence in Elbaum’s book–that may be one more factor in their favor.

Steve Early has been involved in union organizing and reform activity for the last 30 years. In the late 1960s, he was a member of SDS and active in the campus-based movement against the Vietnam War.