Political Affairs, November 2003

This review appears in the Nov. 2003 issue of Political Affairs.

Revolution in the Air

By Adam Minksy

Max Elbaum, a former SDS member and a veteran of the struggles he writes about, respectfully but not uncritically, analyzes those 1960s radicals who ended up embracing Maoism, or to a lesser extent, some version of Marxist Third World nationalism.

One of Elbaum’s primary goals is to debunk the idea of an enlightened humane “good” 1960s (pre-1968) that is often juxtaposed against an irrational, violent, “bad” 1960s (post 1968). This viewpoint is expressed by sociologist Todd Gitlin in his influential work The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.

In polemicizing against this perspective Elbaum writes, “The turn towards revolutionary politics was a completely logical response to a generation’s concrete experience.” The two most salient aspects of this experience were the movement against the Vietnam War and the struggle for Black liberation.

Elbaum writes convincingly of why many of the most dedicated and militant young people of the late 1960s and early 1970s embraced Maoism. “Mao Tse-Tung Thought held that political line was paramount, irrespective of objective conditions. Maoism reeked of idealism – a revolution could be accomplished on the basis of will alone.”

The turn to Maoism resulted, Elbaum contends, in a political dead end. All the major Maoist organizations of the 1970s are either defunct (October League, League of Revolutionary Struggle) or trapped in the swamps of fierce sectarianism or ultra-left irrelevancy (Revolutionary Communist Party and Progressive Labor Party).

Elbaum believes that the bulk of the blame for this state of affairs can be laid at the door of Mao’s concept of the “two-line struggle.” This idea holds that there exists a constant, unceasing struggle between a “proletarian” and “bourgeois” pole within every revolutionary organization. Once this viewpoint is adopted, the inevitable result is purges, splits and a feverish hunt for heretics.

In order to avoid this scenario, Elbaum advocates that the anti-capitalist left organize around a shared program (socialism) as opposed to an ideology (Marxism). This will help revolutionaries to avoid “constant suspicion of heresy.”

Elbaum’s desire to avoid counterproductive divisiveness within radical ranks is praiseworthy. But one wonders how firm an organization grouped around a vague definition of “socialism” stripped of its Marxist mooring will end up being in times of crisis and opportunity.

Revolution in the Air indirectly points to how important it its to build an organization based on a Marxist working-class perspective, which is capable of intervening in popular movements and struggles. If such an organization is absent in times of mass upheaval, revolutionary-minded activists will find something else to fill the vacuum. In the late 1960s and much of the 1970s that something else was Maoism and Third World nationalism. The results, as Elbaum’s work demonstrates, were not encouraging.