Science and Society 2004

A shortened version of this review appears in Science and Society Vol. 68, No. 2, Summer 2004

by Alan Wald

Posing Some Challenges to Those Who Come After

Max Elbaum, a veteran of the 1960s New Left as well as a seasoned activist in the “anti-revisionist” or Maoist movement of the 1970s and after, has fashioned an extraordinary survey of the upsurge and erosion of the Marxist political trend with which he is most conversant. Revolution in the Air is not merely an encyclopedia of Mao-influenced socialist groups in the United States and corresponding political positions. It is an insider’s analysis of a twenty-year political effort to construct a mass revolutionary movement led by a Leninist party, premised on the belief that all preceding Marxist groups were reformist or irrelevant.

This lucid and detailed volume in “The Haymarket Series” of Verso/New Left Books, is divided into five parts preceded by an “Introduction” and succeeded by a useful “Glossary of New Communist Movement Organizations.” An insert of twenty photographs displays to us the faces of some of the chief leaders and inspirers, although the volume is sparse about “naming names” of those other than public figures. Elbaum reluctantly came to this decision due to his fear that anticommunist prejudice could damage the careers of those who are identified as having once held membership in a Leninist party. This judgment may also explain why biography in general is minimized in his narrative.

Elbaum’s Introduction presents a digest of the context in which revolutionary politics, and a “Third World-oriented version of Marxism,” issued from the protests of the 1960s. Central features of the decade include the attendant condition of national upheaval; a burgeoning belief in the failure of capitalism; an admiration for the achievements of the Vietnamese and Chinese Communist parties, along with other Third World revolutionaries such as Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Amilcar Cabral; and the perception that the pro-Soviet and trade union oriented “Old” Communist tradition in the United States was corrupted due to a fixation on “Eurocentric models” and too much “political caution.” As a result, diverse organizations that could be called a “New Communist Movement” were launched in the late 1960s. By the mid-1970s, this political tendency “held the allegiance of roughly 10,000 core activists” with at least 25 to 30% “people of color in its leadership and membership ranks.”

Yet the late 1970s witnessed the exodus of many leaders and activists, along with crises in and the collapse of central groups. Some of the survivors enrolled in the Rainbow Coalition and presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson, but this strategy failed to check the wearing down of the New Communist Movement, which was consummated by 1989-90. Elbaum regards this twenty-year chronicle as integral to a grasp of 1960s radicalism and its aftermath, and he was motivated to write Revolution in the Air by the absence of any body of scholarship that provided a “comprehensive and analytic treatment of the New Communist Movement’s origins, outlook, activities and impact….”

With workman-like rigor, Elbaum next presents the reader with four dense but lucid sections of the book that trace the swelling prestige of Third World Marxism in the 1960s; the emanation from this milieu of a “distinct New Communist Movement,” pioneered by the Revolutionary Union; the beginning of political shifts in this trend that were accelerated by the conflicts over school busing in Boston in 1974 and the gyrations of Chinese foreign policy in 1976; and an account of the increasingly smaller organizations that battled on until the demise of the Rainbow Coalition and the Soviet Union. A final section of two chapters chronicles the impact of the old soldiers of the movement on more recent politics, and strives to appraise the legacy and lessons of Third World Marxism for future revolutionary activists.

Elbaum is candid about his own political biography, which is helpful in assessing the strengths and limitations of the study. Although he provides no information about his class, ethnic, religious, or family background (including the often relevant information as to whether he was a Red Diaper Baby), he recounts that he joined the Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Wisconsin and aligned himself with the Revolutionary Youth Movement II faction. After a sojourn in Milwaukee he moved to San Francisco where he became a founder and then leader of the Line of March. There he was a full time worker, editing the group’s newspaper and journal, and handling relations with other Left organizations, until its demise in 1989. Subsequently Elbaum engaged in efforts to encourage a dialogue among and perhaps regroup radicals from a broader range of political tendencies by editing Crossroads from 1990 to 1995.

This background is rather crucial to the achievement of Revolution in the Air. Whether or not one shares Elbaum’s analyses of various episodes in the political history of the Left, or his judgement in regard to alleged accomplishments of the New Communist movement, one knows that this is the work of an activist-scholar doing his finest to recount events because he genuinely understands the stakes for the Left in having a candid and accurate record, a balance sheet of where it did well and poorly (and, more often, mixed the two). As a result of his feat, future scholars of United States radicalism in the 1960s who ignore the New Communist Movement will do so at the peril of falsification. The same applies to anyone who continues to harangue the Left for failing to attempt to understand its own flaws and defects.

That said, Elbam’s book poses some genuine challenges for those who come after. On the one hand, Elbaum admits that he was partly driven to this project because, while editing Crossroads, he came to appreciate the foolhardiness of the New Communist movement cadres in dismissing their radical predecessors. Yet he writes poorly (when he writes at all) about the pro-Soviet Communists (CP-USA), Trotskyists, socialists, anarchists, and other forerunners and rivals. Indeed, Elbaum is like a novelist who brilliantly recreates the world of his or her own experiences but whose characters grow thinner and insights more banal as he or she moves into less familiar areas. What will be required, at some future date, is a scholar of enormous capacity and wide-ranging experience to put together the entire picture of the broad Left of the 1960s and after. Indeed, such a synthetic study has never been achieved even for the 1930s and 1940s, despite the fact that comparative contexts are crucial for judgment. Moreover, in the 1930s as well as the 1960s, the international dimensions of coterminous radical movements are often given short shrift, except in regard to highly focused studies such as those about participation in the Spanish Civil War or concentrated on the year 1968.

This need for a richer comparative assessment of the New Communist experience will be crucial for comprehending the remarkable patterns of continuity to be found with precursor movements, especially the CP-USA. Like the CP-USA, the New Communist Movement traveled through strikingly ultra-Left periods followed by reform-oriented ones. For the Communists it was the Third Period of “united fronts from below” and the call for “a Soviet America,” followed by the Popular Front’s demand that independent struggles in general and the socialist struggle in particular be subordinated to unity around a democratic capitalist program. For the Maoists it was the demand to create “anti-imperialist” coalitions followed by submersion into the Rainbow wing of the Democratic Party. Likewise, the CP-USA identified dogmatically with the USSR, experiencing crises during the twists and turns of Soviet policies, and massive defections following Stalin’s death as revelations of atrocities were disclosed. In a parallel development, the New Communist Movement latched onto China (some wings later turned to Albania), spiraling into decline after Mao’s death. The “Old” Communists as well as the “New” also experienced much painful suffering at the hands of those proclaiming themselves the guardians of “orthodoxy,” and both missed the boat in trying to grapple with the emergence of the new and increasingly repressive Right wing forces in the 1950s and 1980s.

A outstanding difference, however, is that the CP-USA at its height was many times larger in membership (perhaps, during the 1940s, eight times as large). More significantly, the CP-USA held the vast majority of Communists together in one organization, rather than proliferating into dozens of mutually hostile sects. Thus the CP-USA was able to elect people to Congress and head major trade unions. Even the much smaller Trotskyists led a major Teamsters Strike in 1934, unmatched by any labor activity of the New Communist movement, and the once-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in the 1960s was a central force in the U.S. anti-war movement that Elbaum fails to fully appreciate.

What, then, accounts for the ultra-fragmented character of the New Communists, as opposed to the Old Communists? Part of the explanation may lie in the highly individualistic culture of the 1960s, in many respects a youth culture in which middle class students blended a rage against parental control as well as stifling sexual norms with their revolutionary ideology. Part of the explanation may also arise from the ability of the CP-USA to incorporate earlier generations of socialists and radicals into its ranks, and to create a family-oriented culture that allowed one to remain part of the movement even as raised children, advanced in one’s career as a union militant or professional, went on vacations (often to Left-wing summer camps), and enjoyed popular Left entertainment that reinforced collective values. No doubt the correspondence of the rise of industrial unions with the Communism of the 1930s provided a stable base for many of its cadres. Additional explanations will no doubt emerge from future writing and discussion, which Elbaum’s pioneering research has now made possible.

Alan Wald is Director of the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan and most recently author of Exiles From a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Literary Left (2002). .