|This review appeared on January 15, 2007 on the website and listserv Portside
Different Shade of Red
by Ethan Young
With the assassination of King and the urban explosions that followed, civil rights reached its exhaustion point as a mass movement. The demand for black power/black liberation swept the country, and new political formations emerged and fought to define a way forward in the wake of mass radicalization and state repression.
US aggression in Indochina also contributed to radicalization among young men and women – from ex-college students to street freaks, gang members, high schoolers, prisoners and Vietnam vets, and even active duty military personnel. As a result, the antiwar movement, greatly inspired by King’s unconditional support, itself grew massive.
Revolution in the Air by Max Elbaum, recently republished in paperback by Verso, brings to light one of the important efforts to shape a revolutionary politics out of this mass radicalization. The post-King, post Black Panther Party “new communists” were the most numerically significant and influential advocates of self-styled, wide-open Marxism-Leninism since the “class-against-class” days of the early 1930s Communist Party.
The New Communist Movement of the 1970s and 80s penetrated society on a number of fronts, and was joined by a significant number of activists of color, in proportion to both pro-capitalist groups and most of the left – a factor explored by Elbaum. Unlike the Trotskyists and 1960s Maoists, these groups came from the social movements of the day, not the Communist movement that emerged with World War I and the Russian Revolution. “Half horse, half alligator,” the groups with names like October League and Revolutionary Workers Congress made a determined, if quixotic, attempt to bring political theory drawn largely from Maoism to bear on the practice of radical activists turned revolutionary cadres.
Elbaum’s book is a serious and thorough start to the documentation of a failed political movement that deserves historical recognition. Revolution in the Air documents the details of the development of the movement – not to enshrine or resurrect it, but to retrieve for succeeding generations of activists the lessons and experiences, positive and negative, of two decades of work by some thousands of revolutionaries.
The book itself serves as an example for a mature approach to the subject, as it attempts to review the phenomenon soberly, without nostalgia or recriminations. Elbaum spurns the grinding wheel and tosses aside the many axes he once held, as a veteran of an embarrassingly intricate series of sectarian fights. While he puts his own views front and center, there is no hint of “told ya so” or “look what they made us do.”
Most importantly, he puts a minor but rich political movement in its broader historical context, a practice that these very groups often took great pains to do in their own time–and a practice that has largely been lost to the decimated, confused and atomized left political movements that have survived or emerged since the late 1980s.
The reappearance of Revolution in the Air offers an opportunity to address some contemporary questions in a transformed historical landscape.
The new communist groups, for all their flaws, sought to reverse the incoherence and dissolution of social movements after Nixon came to power. They had the right string, whether or not they had the wrong yo-yo, and the lack of coherence on the left in its current anti-politics, anti-organization atmosphere underscores this.
The Maoism of the New Communist groups, and even the broader context that Elbaum calls Third World Marxism, drew adherents based on the promise of “existing socialism” – living social models that inspired confidence that capitalism was being replaced by an alternative born of revolution. In contrast, despite growing hopes for revolutionary progress in Latin America, no alternative on the scale of Maoist China exists today.
Even as China’s image as a “red sun” dimmed in the mid-70s, people turning left saw anti-imperialist governments cropping up all over the Third World. But in the Mideast, the nexus of 21st century imperialist expansion, the resistance is identified with religious fundamentalism, not egalitarian socialism. Americans, however furious they get with the Iraq war, will find no appealing model in Bush’s proclaimed enemy – especially since our own homegrown variety is a major factor in the public’s disillusionment with the right.
Any attempt in the current situation to help the disillusioned to become active agents for democratic change must face that “we” are on our own – with the rest of the world. The left is left to work our way toward our own social models, without the benefit of a counter-force to imperialism in the form of a powerful socialist nation-state, real or idealized.
This could turn out to be a great thing. It could bring about a new, omni-lateral international dialogue with leftists worldwide, the Internet willing. In fact, such a process is unfolding and spreading everywhere, every day, but we in the metropolitan wilderness are only beginning to find a role in it.
As people all over the world are discovering, while recognizing that in the long view political leadership is indispensable, it is worthless at best when it is alienated from social movements. For example: it is important that Cindy Sheehan met with Hugo Chavez. Equally, and in the most practical terms, it is important that Chavez met with Sheehan. Because without the masses they inspire, they are – each in their own circumstance – just a soldier and a civilian.
Revolution in the Air appears at a point when the strongest intellectual output on the American left comes from historians. Elbaum’s effort reflects this, but draws contemporary lessons from his research to reach and teach activists, more than to contribute to academic discourse. His final chapter and his new introduction to this edition, presenting a valuable political overview, make a great starting point for study for contemporary activists of any age. But the history in between, when read with care, will help prevent stupid mistakes, inspire independent thought, and tantalize the imaginations of left activists in the perilous times ahead.