Radical History Review 2004

This review appears in the Fall 2004 issue of Radical History Review Issue 90

When the Revolution Came

by Roderick D. Bush

During the early 1980s I was part of a disciplined Marxist organization that tried to understand the difficulties and contradictions of working as a revolutionary organization within a hegemonic power in which the conditions for revolution did not exist. As a child of the 1960s Black Power movement, I had long been convinced of the notion, taken from Kwame Nkrumah and Lin Biao, that as the revolutionary third world liberated its territories from the yoke of capitalism and imperialism, revolutionary conditions would come to exist in the capitalist metropole, even in the belly of the beast, the fabled jewel of liberal capitalist civilization, the United States of America. In hindsight, this vision of revolutionary change was not much different from the “long march” position held by most of the post-1968 New Left. Years later, after our organization had dissolved, I asked my old comrades how this 1980s debate within our organization had been resolved since I had been relocated to the East Coast before the debate’s conclusion. No one seemed to know. So I was quite shocked to find the answer to my question in Max Elbaum’s new book, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao, and Che.

I say this as a testament to the brilliance and thoroughness of Elbaum’s new volume, the first book about the sixties upheaval to provide us with a serious analysis of the post-1968 New Left, focusing on those who saw the need to build a new communist party to replace the “revisionist” CPUSA (Communist Party of the USA). Elbaum has performed a service of immense value to all of us by using his formidable analytical skills to fill the extensive gaps in our knowledge about this very important period in our history. In doing so, he has challenged the attempt to dismiss this period from our attention by the use of the facile “good sixties/bad sixties” framework that one finds in the work of many scholars of the New Left (including some former activists). This framework has looked favorably on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) of the early 1960s, whose cadre emerged as humane, sensible, and worthy of emulation in many academic accounts. The same scholars who praised SNCC and SDS mostly denounced the excesses of the post-1968 New Left, which, they held, had turned to violence, irrationalism, Black Power, anti-Americanism, third worldism, and radical feminism. They further argued that the excesses of the post-1968 New Left shattered the left liberal coalition that had won a societal consensus for an inclusive and social democratic program that held great promise for all Americans. In their view, this “Bad New Left” gave U.S. citizens the conservative backlash: George Wallace, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush.1

Elbaum’s work offers a substantive and powerful corrective to this myth. He locates the evolution of the post-1968 New Left within the context of popular mobilizations for justice and equality for people of color, women, and gays and lesbians; for an end to the U.S. war against the people of Vietnam; for an end to the blockade against Cuba; and for support of the anticolonial struggle in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. “All society was a battleground,” argues Elbaum in the opening pages of the book (2). The revolutionary fervor of this period stemmed in part from the all-important recognition “that the power of the oppressed was on the rise and the strength of the status quo was on the wane” (2). In early 1971, polls reported that upwards of 3 million people thought a revolution was necessary in the United States (2).

But this statistic will be no less astounding for the post-1960s generation than to learn the central appeal of third world Marxism to these young rebels. This may indeed seem a powerful anomaly for a generation attuned to the vicissitudes of a political culture nourished within the womb of a devastating class and culture war against the so-called minority poor. But Elbaum’s great achievement is to demonstrate that the logic of the post-1968 New Left fit perfectly into the most emancipatory visions of the American creed-the last shall be first, and so on. Within U.S. borders, the heroes of the post-1968 New Left included SNCC, the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), the Black Panther Party, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Young Lords Party, the American Indian Movement, and La Raza Unida. Outside the United States, their role models included the anticolonial and socialist revolutionaries in Vietnam, Cuba, China, Algeria, Angola, and Mozam- bique. Elbaum demonstrates that during the 1970s, the line of descent from the civil rights movement seemed clear-thus the centrality of opposition to racism and imperialism to the grievances of these rebels. This spectacular and unforeseen rebellion was accompanied by a kind of revolutionary euphoria based on the pace of change they witnessed, and thus the anticipation of certain victory. This mood that Elbaum readily captures clashed with the more cautious approach of the old Left. But Elbaum’s sensitivity to and ability to convey the depth of the oppositional mentalities of that time may also illuminate important discontinuities with the more moderate and conservative tenor of post-1980s political culture.

Elbaum is at his best when he shows the logic of revolutionary thought at every turn. He explains that the rise of a revolutionary current attuned to the influence of third world Marxism in the United States stems in part from the demographic significance of a lower working class composed disproportionately of people of color who have waged courageous struggles to transform America into a more just, democratic, and egalitarian society for all. On the other side of the coin, the policing function of the United States as the hegemonic power of the world system brought Americans into regular conflict with Marxist-led national liberation movements in the third world whose moral authority often inspired idealistic youth to make common cause with them against the obvious immorality of their own government.

Scholars of the New Left have tended to dismiss the internationalism of the movement as youthful immaturity and rebelliousness. But Elbaum contends such arguments constitute a retreat from a systemic critique of U.S. economic and political structures, misleading its exponents to pose their own complacency as maturity. This retreat, he argues, makes it difficult for them to understand the depth of grassroots enthusiasm for revolutionary politics that existed during the period from 1968 to 1973. Periods of intense conflict can alter people’s conception of what is possible and desirable, but in more normal times, it may seem out of bounds to take seriously the prospect of building a U.S. radical movement that is antiracist and in solidarity with the third world.

While Elbaum is impressed by the courage, integrity, and audacity of the young revolutionaries who challenged the colossus with the most effective tools at their disposal, he does not at all shirk from criticism of the post-1968 New Left. In this way, his work restores this history in all of its fullness so that we all may reflect more effectively on the period under scrutiny. Elbaum gives us a wonderfully detailed story and captures both the language and the sensitivity of the times. So if your history of the New Left ends with the implosion of SDS into Weatherman (later called the Weather Underground) and a number of other anti-American sects, and the turn of SNCC to Black Power, you must read this book. Instead of visualizing 1968 as the end of the 1960s, Elbaum tells the story of a quite amazing period in U.S. history, when seemingly an entire generation attempted to manifest the integrity, courage, and intelligence of its foremost heroes: Ella Baker, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Fannie Lou Hamer. As it struggles for racial justice and against imperialist war, it adds another set of heroes that includes Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, Amílcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara.

Elbaum tells the story of the post-1968 period in a far different voice than we have heard heretofore. He is overwhelmed by the democratic spirit of the common people rebelling against the injustices of U.S. society and their place in it. By the fall of 1968, he points out, 1 million students saw themselves as part of the Left, and 368,000 people agreed on the need for a mass revolutionary party. Among African Americans, he argues, revolutionary sentiments contended not just for influence but for preeminence, especially among those under thirty, as more than three hundred rebellions flared up among inner city blacks from 1964 to 1968 (17). He also reminds us that Nixon’s brutal invasion of Cambodia in May 1970 led to the largest explosion of protest on U.S. college campuses in U.S. history. By that time, four out of ten college students, nearly 3 million people, thought that a revolution was necessary in the United States. Business Week lamented: “The invasion of Cambodia and the senseless shooting of four students at Kent State University in Ohio have consolidated the academic community against the war, against business, and against government. This is a dangerous situation. It threatens the whole economic and social structure of the nation” (quoted 18-19).

In this way, Elbaum clearly establishes the social context within which a determined sector of the New Left turned first to third world Marxism and then to Marxism-Leninism. While he covers the split in SDS and the evolution of powerful radical forces within Weatherman and the Revolutionary Youth Movement II (RYM II), he also looks at the evolution of the Puerto Rican Left through the Young Lords, El Comite, and the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. These organizations, according to Elbaum, won tens of thousands to revolutionary politics in the 1970s (78), making Leninism the dominant perspective in the Puerto Rican Left. He argues that while third world liberation movements had a powerful influence on all left-moving youth, for those with powerful communist movements in their homelands, community formation itself became linked to the deepening of a radical sensibility. The third world strikes at San Francisco State and the University of California at Berkeley, he says, proved crucial in the evolution of Asian American radicalism. While cultural nationalism was a strong feature of Chicano organizations such as the Brown Berets, Marxism was the dominant perspective within the Center for Autonomous Social Action (CASA), which did not distinguish between Mexicans born north of the border and those born south of it. Marxist ideas also became established within the Native American movement. Of course the story of black radicals is by now a familiar one, as most people know some of the histories of the Black Panther Party, the League of Black Revolutionary Workers, and SNCC.

But the main contribution of Elbaum’s book is the detailed story it offers of that section of the post-1968 New Left that decided that the most urgent task in order to overcome the weaknesses of the sixties movement was to build a new communist party to replace the “revisionist” CPUSA. It traces the histories of the Revolutionary Union (now the Revolutionary Communist Party), the October League (later the Communist Party Marxist-Leninist), and the Communist League (later the Communist Labor Party and now the League of Revolutionaries for a New America). Here Elbaum also tells the story of the I Wor Kuen, the August Twenty-Ninth Movement, and the Revolutionary Communist League (formerly the Congress of African People), which eventually merged to form the U.S. League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS). The section details the story of the evolution of the Black Workers Congress, which split into a number of smaller groups. It tells of the Revolutionary Workers League (RWL), which stemmed from the merger of People’s College, Malcolm X Liberation University, and the Youth Organization for Black Unity. The RWL would later establish powerful links with the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization, an offshoot of the Young Lords Party, to form the short-lived Revolutionary Wing. It also tells of the Workers Viewpoint Organization, stemming from the Asian Study Group and later becoming the Communist Workers Party, which incorporated a significant number of cadres from the RWL. It tells us the story of the Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP), a group that would later unite with members of the Third World Women’s Alliance and the Northern California Alliance to form Line of March. It also provides some history of the Democratic Workers Party, a party founded by women, and of the Sojourner Truth Organization, which had a quite different orientation to revolutionary organization than most of the organizations in the New Communist Movement, looking more to C. L. R. James, Antonio Gramsci, and W. E. B. Du Bois than to Mao.

In addition to historical sketches of organizations, Elbaum explains the various tendencies in the New Communist Movement and the logic of their plans for building a new antirevisionist party. He constantly interrogates the usefulness of the concept of antirevisionism as propagated by the Chinese Communist Party (CPC). He is critical of this concept but attributes its salience to the influence of Maoism, which tended to promote ultraleftism and dogmatism within the New Communist Movement. At the same time, the foreign policy of the CPC promoted an alliance with U.S. imperialism as a lesser danger than Soviet hegemonism-a sure recipe, it seems, for schizophrenia. This section of the book will almost certainly prove controversial and lead to much debate, since even Mao Tse-tung cautioned that revolutionaries in other countries must operate according to their own conditions and not tail after any other party.

Although antirevisionism was the source of the attempts of the New Communist Movement to transcend what they viewed as the reformist limitations of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) and the CPUSA, Elbaum shows that this theoretical stance frequently led its adherents to dogmatism and left opportunism. While the earliest members of the party-building movement mostly agreed on an antirevisionist stance, they mostly disagreed on how to go about building a new party. Some emphasized building the struggle, consciousness, and revolutionary unity of the working class, while others held the unity of Marxist-Leninist ideals around political line to be key. Some emphasized the need for communists to unite with what they called “advanced workers,” while others still used various combinations of these strategies. Despite these different approaches, innovation, freewheeling discussion, and trial runs with a variety of organizational approaches typified the early history of the party-building movement. Yet this early promise was undermined, Elbaum argues, by “a quest for Marxist orthodoxy [that] led it into a series of dead ends” (162). For the most part Elbaum’s analysis of this complex array of movements proves as clear as a bell, all the more commendable because these movements are so numerous and complex. He locates the pervasive voluntarism of the movement in its 1960s sensibility that history always moved fast “and that they could make it move faster with enough dedication and right ideas” (164). He also locates a source of voluntarism in much of the movement’s adherence to a Maoist framework (which also promoted ultraleftism and dogmatism), rather than seeing “cultural revolution Maoism” as itself a part of the New Left, and thus as a part of the critique of the Old Left.

The zeal of the movement was a double-edged sword. It often led to impatience with those unable to make a twenty-four-hour commitment and thus contributed to rigidity and intolerance. Once the movement was no longer the center of grassroots mobilization, the zeal of the cadre tended to enclose it in a selfcontained and distorted world. But on the whole, the movement’s culture often enabled individuals to transcend their weaknesses, to challenge their prejudices, and to engage in audacious interventions into the life of their communities and the wider social world. People strove to sink roots into the working class, and many took fighting racism and sexism in their personal lives quite seriously-although in my view the movement was much more serious about fighting racism than sexism; an element of left-wing antifeminism pervaded the movement.

The New Communist Movement reached its peak between 1973 and 1974 with several national organizations, dozens of local organizations, and the Left’s largest-circulation newspaper (the Guardian). Recession and then economic restructuring followed the long postwar boom, decimating the social sectors on which the New Communist Movement had pinned its hopes and strategies. Movement activists did not immediately comprehend that they were in the midst of an overall shift in their historical situation, but saw a series of difficulties that they had to face piecemeal.

The movement began to fragment over how it understood racism, the appropriate strategy to oppose racism, relations between activists of color and white activists within organizations, relations between primarily white organizations and organizations made up primarily of people of color, what attitude to take toward nationalist strategies among organizations made up of people of color, and indeed whether one framed this question as a “national question,” a question of national minorities, or a question of an oppressed race. But these doctrinal issues did not necessarily define one’s position on any given issue. During the Boston busing crisis, for example, organizations sometimes clashed bitterly along lines that did not necessarily correspond to their positions on racism and/or the national question.

Party building became the key task for almost all of the groups during this period. But since the mass movement, which had surged in the years from 1970 to 1973, was now ebbing, purism and orthodoxy became the emphasis within much of the movement. Elbaum dubs this “miniaturized Leninism” (195). The Revolutionary Union, it was argued, had become corrupted by its initial emphasis on building the mass movement.2 What was needed was a close study of the classic works of Marxism- Leninism, including the theory of party building. Elbaum credits the Proletarian Unity League, the Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee, El Comite- MINP (Movimiento de Izquierda Nacional Puertorriqueno), the KDP, and the Third World Women’s Alliance with resisting this trend toward dogmatism and purism. By mid-1975, Elbaum argues, a movement beset by “Maoist fundamentalism” (207) and internecine conflict was split down the middle by the decision of the Chinese to side with the United States and South Africa against the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), which was backed by the USSR and Cuba. Elbaum traces the evolution of Chinese doctrine in its shifting international line and its eventual designation that capitalism had been restored in the USSR. While the Soviets continued to regard China as a socialist society, they criticized “the CPC leadership as petty bourgeois nationalists and ultraleftists who were splitting the communist movement and objectively supporting imperialism” (211).

While Elbaum earlier indicated some grasp of the voluntarist streak running through the New Left generation, he constantly pillories the Maoists whose voluntarism, he argues, stacked the deck in favor of ultraleftism and purism. Elbaum locates this error in Mao Tse-tung’s slogan that “the correctness or incorrectness of the ideological line and political line decides everything” (238). To Elbaum, Maoism was the main error of the New Communist Movement, an error eschewed during the second round of party building when a number of non-Maoist and anti-Maoist forces came to the fore. At the time, a number of books critical of the thesis that capitalism had been restored in the Soviet Union were published. An antidogmatist, antirevisionist trend emerged that eventually constituted about twenty local organizations into the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center (OCIC). The Tucson Marxist-Leninist Collective commenced publication of Theoretical Review, which promoted perspectives associated with Charles Bettelheim, Nicos Poulantzas, Louis Althusser, and Gramsci. The Democratic Workers Party emerged with a nondogmatic analytic framework based on the works of Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin, Andre Gunder Frank, and Harry Braverman (but had an ultracentralist organizational culture). Finally, the Rectification Network was founded by KDP leaders Bruce Occena and Melinda Paras, TWWA (Third World Women’s Alliance) leader Linda Burnham, and Northern California Alliance leader Max Elbaum. The Rectification Network eventually became Line of March, which contended mainly with the U.S. LRS throughout most of the late 1980s. By that time, most of the organizations of the New Communist Movement had ceased to exist. By the end of the 1980s, both Line of March and LRS were among the last of the organizations of the New Communist Movement to pass from the scene, leaving the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Communist Labor Party (now called League of Revolutionaries for a New America), and the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (which includes the former Proletarian Unity League). There is also the Committee in Solidarity with El Salvador (CISPES), a category of organization not dealt with in any serious way in Elbaum’s study.

Revolution in the Air is an excellent book. It is balanced, comprehensive, analytic, and sophisticated. It represents the input of many activists from the period under examination. I could not recommend it more. But there is still much to do on this topic. I think there is a need for a deeper understanding of Maoism. Elbaum tends to equate Maoism only with the harsh methods of the Cultural Revolution, not with its democratic ideals. He also associates Maoism with following Chinese foreign policy. Others have used the term China Liners and Soviet Liners for those groups who tended to follow the foreign policy of either of these great powers. Perhaps those terms are also too harsh, and we should just say that this manner of following a leading party cannot serve as a model for the kind of international solidarity that has to be at the heart of any attempt to create a democratic, egalitarian, and just world order. Although all socialist movements have utilized a two-stage strategy in which one first takes state power and then transforms the world, they fail to take into consideration that once one takes state power, one faces the issue of survival in a still-capitalist world.

While small socialist states may be forced to align themselves with the most powerful of the socialist states, China’s position differed. In my estimate, Maoism was a revolutionary and democratic ideology that stood with the peasants in Chinese society. But in the end, China took its own path to modernization and survival in the capitalist world economy, not to revolutionary transformation. Maoism was defeated. For the time being, the party organization was needed to defend the revolution, but it was also the source of class relations within the society. Maoism’s attack on the party and on the so-called capitalist roaders undermined the stability of Chinese society since the Cultural Revolution did not yield viable political institutions to replace the party. Mao Tse-tung viewed the defeat as temporary, arguing that the party would need many cultural revolutions. But does this notion trap us in the prism of our old framework where we substitute the party for the revolutionary classes because they are not yet strong enough to rule in their own right?

There is yet another reason, largely biographical, that I am somewhat sensitive about an attack on Maoism. Maoism has exerted a tremendous attraction for people of color who have been victims of racist humiliation in the pan-European world, especially in the United States. For many of us, Maoism stood with the “wretched of the earth.” This constituted a conscious stand that did not flow simply from self-definition as a Marxist or from being a revolutionary in the third world. It seemed to most of us that Maoism expressed our desire for a just, democratic, and egalitarian world and also recognized the more subtle humiliations reinforcing the sense of pan-European supremacy among all sectors of the population. After the murder of Malcolm X, it was the Maoist Revolutionary Action Movement that called most of us onto the revolutionary path. We also recalled that Fanon had said that when the native hears the European talk about culture, he reaches for his knife. This is difficult territory, I know, but we must negotiate it successfully if we are to move forward.

Despite the above reservation or two, Elbaum’s more important point should not be lost. While the self-designation New Communist Movement was intended to distinguish it from the “revisionist” CPUSA, this movement formed a part of the world Left. Elbaum’s enormously successful achievement is to have restored for us this part of our American collective history, not as a historical oddity but as a continuation of the historical strategy of the Left (which includes SNCC, SDS, Malcolm X, and the CPUSA). He shows that the collapse of most elements of the New Communist Movement during the 1980s and early 1990s was part and parcel of the larger crisis of the strategy of the world Left.

I would ask only for more consistency on this point. Can we say that Maoist organizations were doomed because of a profound misassessment of how ripe capitalism was for defeat in the United States? In 1848, Marx and Engels thought the specter of communism haunted Europe. Lenin talked about moribund capitalism during World War I. Interestingly, it was Mao who argued that revolution was not an event but a process that covered a long historical period of transition from capitalism to communism, including the socialist states who were still creatures of the capitalist world. We all need a more sophisticated understanding of what Fernand Braudel calls “the plurality of social time.” This seems part and parcel of a tendency to confuse periods of economic stagnation, which form part of the cyclical rhythms of the capitalist system, and structural crisis, which is a part of the evolution and undoing of the system. We need to pay more attention to these distinctions and employ them in our strategies for creating a world that is substantively more democratic, egalitarian, and just.3

This is perhaps a minor quibble with a truly superb work of scholarship that raises all of the right questions about our need to question our understanding of social transformation, to examine the historical record of the reform versus revolution debate, and to understand the functioning of the capitalist world economy and its historical trajectory, and thus of the possibilities of social transformation. We may therefore understand the widespread view of 1968 as the demise of the reasonable Left because it marked the beginning of the collapse of the liberal center. We might better appreciate 1968 as the beginning of the long structural crisis of capitalism without the lure of liberal reformism as a stabilizing force. But the upper strata of the world system and the deep structure of social inequality on which their privileges depend should not be expected to pass from the scene quietly. They have and will continue to fight back ruthlessly and sometimes murderously because they understand the stakes. We should view this period as the first battle in a long struggle to create a world substantively more democratic, egalitarian, and just. We are indebted to Max Elbaum for providing us with a thought-provoking, insightful, and analytically elegant analysis of this struggle and the lessons that we might draw for the struggles that are sure to come.

Notes 1. See Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam, 1987); and Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars (New York: Metropolitan, 1995). See also Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). 2. Those who argued this, around 1974 and 1975, included a variety of critics of the Revolutionary Union, such as the October League, the Workers Viewpoint Organization, the Communist League, the Black Workers Congress, I Wor Kuen, the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization, and the New Voice. 3. See Immanuel Wallerstein’s The End of the World as We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); Wallerstein, The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New York: New Press, 2003); Fernand Braudel, “History and the Social Sciences: The Longue Durée,” in Economy and Society in Early Modern Europe, ed. Peter Burke (London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1972), 11-42.

Long an activist in the Black Power and radical movement, Roderick Bush is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at St. John’s University. He is editor of The New Black Vote: Politics and Power in Four American Cities (Synthesis Publications, 1984) and author of We Are Not What We Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century (New York University Press, 2000).