|This review appeared in June 2009 on the Rethinking Anarchism Blog
Mini-Review: Revolution in the Air
I’ve been living in the same rental house for about a year now. It was built around 1900. It’s pretty run down, and kind of quirky. There are always little surprises- the toilet overflows, the stove stops working, you find something wierd behind radiator, or you finally get keys to the attic… there’s always some reminder that you’re not the first to live in the house, and that you really don’t know the place that well.
Reading Max Elbaum’s “Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao, and Che” was kind of like finding a room in your rental house that you didn’t know about. People lived here before, in some of the same ways we do, but in different ways too.
Elbaum’s book is about the rise of the “New Communist Movement.” As the 1960s drew to a close, young radicals took inspiration from the uprisings of 1968 and the surge of anti-imperialist organizing in the Third World, deciding to create a new Marxist-Leninist vanguard organization from the ashes of Students for a Democratic Society. SDS collapsed in 1969, splitting into one faction, which later became the Weather Underground organization, and a second faction called “Revolutionary Youth Movement II.” Elbaum’s work focuses on the fate of RYM II.
Many of the new vanguardist organizations engaged in “industrial concentration.” Their cadre entered workplaces to organize wildcat strikes and build a proletarian base. They had to confront many of the questions we grapple with today. What is the role of the revolutionary organization? How do we deal with racism? Is the working class revolutionary? Are trade unions a possible vehicle for social transformation? The would-be vanguardists of the time answered these questions with (mis)quotations from Mao, Che, and Lenin. They built dozens of would-be vanguard parties, each announcing that it had the “correct” political line to lead the masses to the glorious revolution that never came…
By the end of the 1970s, most of the party-building efforts lay in ruins. The refugees of the movement mostly burned out. Some entered the middle class, others sought careers in education or as trade union bureaucrats or non-profit workers. Others went insane, which accounts for the old guy in camo gear sitting next to you on the bus muttering about revolution. In the 1980s, a few of the remaining grouplets united, forming Solidarity, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, the Revolutionary Communist Party, and a couple other authoritarian wolves in sheep’s clothing.
For those of us on the libertarian left, Elbaum’s story can be a cautionary tale. We’re not the first to live in the creaky old house of the radical left. Let’s take some time to look around and get to know the place, find the skeletons in the closet, and make some repairs. There were others here before us. It didn’t work out for them. But this is our house now.