New Socialist (Canada), October-November 2002

This review appears in the October/November 2002 issue of the Canadian magazine New Socialist.

By Sebastian Lamb

Review of Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che

The dominant images of “the Sixties” in Canada and the US today are mostly of music, drugs, clothes and sex. Yet the period between the middle of the 1960s and the mid-1970s was marked by mass radicalization on an international scale. In the US, the struggles of African Americans against segregation and systemic racism led to the birth of a New Left, the “second wave” of feminism, and other movements. In the Canadian state, anti-colonial Quebec nationalism spearheaded the New Left.

Even among those who know something about the real history of these years, few realize that by the end of the 1960s several tens of thousands of North American radicals considered themselves Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries. In Revolution in the Air, Max Elbaum recounts the history of this current in the US from its emergence in the late 1960s to its collapse in the early 1980s right through to the dissolution of most of its fragments after the fall of the USSR. A long-time activist in this “New Communist Movement”(NCM) who still considers himself an anti-capitalist revolutionary, Elbaum’s motivation isn’t academic or nostalgic, but political: he believes there are important positive and negative lessons in the NCM experience for radicals today.

Revolution in the Air explains how thousands of mainly young people drew revolutionary conclusions as they came to see that the US war against Vietnam was the product of imperialism rooted in the capitalist system and that civil rights wouldn’t uproot racism. With the National Liberation Front heroically battling the US in Vietnam, China’s leaders proclaiming “To Rebel is Justified” and African American, Latino/a, Puerto Rican and other movements demanding liberation, many young activists were drawn to what Elbaum calls “Third World Marxism.” Out of countless study groups and local collectives there developed many regional and national groups, all committed to building a revolutionary party (a similar process took place in Quebec and to a lesser extent in English Canada).

The book provides a detailed account of the NCM and a good sense of its culture. Elbaum is critical of its dogmatic approach to theory. He notes that almost all of the NCM championed “the Stalin-Mao model” of socialist organization, and thought that little groups could adopt it and build a party. When combined with voluntarism (exaggeration of what can be accomplished by willpower alone), this “proved disastrous.” NCM groups ignored or opposed workers’ self-organization not under their control, often setting up fronts instead of working within real mass organizations. The NCM suffered from ultra-leftism and lacked roots in the working class that would have served as a counterweight. The NCM was generally weak on women’s liberation and strongly homophobic. Ultimately, its flaws “overwhelmed its positive features.” It “was unable to accurately assess the conditions it faced” and “squandered its initial energy, dedication and potential.”

Despite this honesty and insight, Elbaum’s critique of the NCM doesn’t go nearly far enough. He accepts that the “Communist” countries were actually socialist, rather than anti-socialist bureaucratic dictatorships. And he believes Stalinism (the “Marxism-Leninism” of USSR-aligned Communists or the NCM’s “anti-revisionist” version) is a politics of socialist transformation. Both notions weaken the book’s analysis.

Elbaum argues the NCM offers positive lessons on three issues: internationalism and anti-imperialism, organization-building, and anti-racism. I believe that more can learned about the first two issues (and others) from the theory and practice of anti-Stalinist Marxists than from the NCM. Only on anti-racism do activists have more to learn from the multiracial NCM than from the socialism from below current of the time.

While the political lessons of the NCM are almost all negative, they’re still valuable. Few of today’s anti-capitalists understand much about the last New Left, so we risk repeating some of its mistakes. This makes Revolution in the Air worth reading.

Sebastian Lamb is an editorial associate of NEW SOCIALIST.