This review appears in the Dec. 2003 issue (#102) of Theoria, a journal of social and political theory published in South Africa.

Revolution in the Air

By Richard Pithouse

Elbaum begins his book with the insurgent promise of 1968. Together with other forms of rebellion the Tet offensive in Vietnam and Black rebellions in more than 100 cities, with flames reaching six blocks from the White House, meant that “For several years after 1968 the US could not conduct business as usual.” Radicals who were not yet born at this time and who will never have the opportunity to visit the US are often inspired by accounts of this opening in American politics. Malcolm X’s biography and George Jackson’s prison diary remain, for example, standard reading for many young radicals from Gaza to Johannesburg.

Elbaum goes on to show how many young people radicalized in the late 60’s moved towards a range of small Leninist organizations that he collectively identifies as the New Communist Movement. This new movement distinguished itself from the American Communist Party by its focus on the third world, and often China in particular, (as opposed to the USSR) and by its commitment to anti-racism in the US and internationalism abroad. Elbaum estimates that by the mid 70’s the number of cadres had grown to almost 10,000 and he explains that many of these people subordinated themselves absolutely to the discipline of their organizations – often taking up jobs in factories and committing a major part of their time, skills and resources to building organizations that they hoped would develop into vanguardist parties. But sectarianism, fundamentalism and authoritarianism took a high toll on the movement during the late seventies and early eighties and although there were still enough cadres around to help to build Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in the late eighties the movement effectively collapsed with the Berlin wall and cadres, often exhausted and disillusioned, had to adjust to civilian life.

Elbaum gives his readers very little insight in to the lived experience of life in New Communist Movement organizations or the workplaces and communities in which the Movement worked and struggled. This book is primarily a mapping of the trajectories of various communist sects and will certainly be useful to anyone seeking an account of the rise, fall, ideological commitment, structure and strategy of these sects.

Elbaum affirms the movement’s commitment to anti-racism and internationalism and is critical of its aggressive factionalism, authoritarianism and “never ending quest for orthodoxy and constant suspicion of heresy.” His affirmation of the movement’s anti-racism is persuasive but his affirmation of its internationalism is less persuasive. On occasion it seems that the movement’s solidarity was with Communist leaders and parties in other countries rather than with the people and communities in those countries. His critiques of sectarianism, fundamentalism and authoritarianism are merely noted, briefly, and are not explored in any significant depth. He says that they are unfortunate but does not make a serious attempt to theorize why these pathologies were so persuasive in the movement or to think a way through them. In fact he is often quite defensive and is even dismissive when he writes that “every tendency from left to right…made errors” or that these “afflictions…can be rationalized by a multitude of ideological prescriptions.” He doesn’t take seriously the possibility that the New Communist Movement made a particular and ultimately fatal error by taking ‘Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought’ and its high priests as a transcendent end in-itself at the expense of an understanding and engagement with the actual struggles of actual people.

He mentions that Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth was an influential text but doesn’t consider Fanon’s commitment to thought and action on the plane of immanence and to the view that an authentic consciousness must recognize that “the unemployed man, the starving native do not lay a claim to the truth; they do not say that they represent the truth, for they are the truth.”When Fanon insists, further on in the same book, that “the tool never posses the man” he means that theory and political ideology are tools with no value in-themselves and must, therefore, be subordinated to humanity just as firmly as any machine in any factory. Although Elbaum writes about cadres’ commitment to the American working class and communities of color, a commitment that was solid enough for cadres to be murdered by the Klan and agents of the Marcos dictatorship, he gives us no real sense of these people or their struggles. The real focus is always on the organizations and their theoretical disputes. In fact he often slips in to a discourse that assumes or explicitly states that the success of Marxist ideas or organizations rather than transformative action towards social justice is what really matters. For example he celebrates the success of the South African Communist Party in being a key part of the alliance that took power after apartheid. But in the realm of lived experience the South African Communist Party is widely acknowledged to be an authoritarian force that intervenes to defend bourgeois nationalism and neo-liberalism from much more militant and democratic community movements and trade unions independent of the party. Its success may have been good for Communism’s scoreboard but it has been a disaster for the poor in South Africa. And, indeed, Elbaum does not have one word to say about what the South African Communist Party has actually done for the oppressed in South Africa. It seems that his politics is more ontological – one must be communist – rather than a practical commitment to effective, transformative struggle.