Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che

Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (London & New York: Verso, 2002).

This is a sui generis volume on a subject-Third World Marxism in the US and its major organizational form, Maoism-that has more importance than at any time in the last decade, for pretty obvious reasons. Russian-style Communism is gone, but the Third World is as explosive as ever; Chinese leaders themselves have taken the road of (state) capitalism, but the restlessness of the South that their predecessors embraced remains Washington’s Problem and, in important ways, the world’s hope.

Max Elbaum knows: an SDS activist of exceptional talent, he became a leading intellectual/activist in the New Communist Move ment over the next twenty years. Many (I include myself) who took a different course and considered the NCM misguided nevertheless looked to Elbaum as the best that this movement had to offer. In the decade since the NCM denouement, he is the one to look deep within, to grapple with the contradictions and their larger significance.

Revolution in the Air (the phrase comes characteristically from Bob Dylan) has within its first chapter one of the best introductions to the 1960s Movement that I have seen anywhere, and that alone would commend it to readers; indeed, I wish it were a pamphlet to sell inexpensively to undergraduates and community activists, and I strongly suspect that Xeroxed copies are going out hand-to-hand. Elbaum overviews the ways in which, during the 1960s, criticisms of particulars (racism, later sexism, homophobia, etc.) became a criticism of “the system” and of its imperial core. He depicts the emergence of a self-avowed revolutionary movement, from ghetto to campus, in the shadow of a Third World rebellion that threatened (or so we believed) to turn capitalism upside down.

The rest of the book fills out the picture with a close study of the NCM, its organizations, strategies and personalities. Save for lengthy polemics and brief essays, this task has never been seriously undertaken, and its writing awaited a scholar who looked carefully at the documents, then looked between the lines. After weighing the political logic by which more activists chose Maoism than, say, the Communist Party or the various Trotskyist alternatives, Elbaum begins his detailed coverage with this pregnant phrase: “Describing the general logic of the turn among activists to Third World Marxism is not the same as detailing the process as it occurred.” Nothing could be more true.

I’d like to add a small footnote at this point, because the vast majority of student and community activists of 1969 chose none of these alternatives-and because at least a handful of others, notably the International Socialists who became the core of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, found success that forever eluded the NCM. Elbaum passes rather swiftly over the mistaken but widely-held feeling that the Movement had hit a formidable bump but would find itself again, not in small vanguard parties but in another large wave of liberation, including the demographic transformation of the working class, the impact of feminism and gay liberation, and the role of radicalized Vietnam Vets. This was, I think, another of the large wrong answers to the crisis of the Left in the early 1970s: we expected “the Revolution,” at least one successfully sweeping Asia, Africa and Latin America into a post-capitalist world, within near time; and some of us (Elbaum) believed that only a vanguard, reconstituted on an improved model of the old Communist Party, could undertake the struggle properly within the US. Most of us knew at the time that the second point was mistaken, and suspected the first; but we were powerless to offer workable alternatives as the New Left crashed.

In any case, it would be a mistake to underrate the value of Elbaum’s narrative on that account. He shows with great precision that the NCM emerged organically out of identification with the Black Panther Party and other Black Nationalist movements, likewise Chicano, Puerto Rican and most inevitably, Asian-American radical impulses. Maoism seemed, to so many of the talented activists of the day, the place to go.

By 1920-to reach back to historical precedent again-most of the American Left had reoriented itself behind the young Soviet Union, both to its long-run detriment and also to its many short-run advantages. Leninism, however ill-understood (and ill-used as a bludgeon by intellectuals and politicos to carve out their own spheres of power), was the model, and among its chief virtues was an emphasis on the “national question,” ethnic and racial minorities struggling to gain their place in the sun. Ironically, the Communists had their greatest success among white ethnics, especially Jews (but also Finns, Lithuanians, Hungarians and others). Their aspiration to wide influence among African Americans, Chicanos and others was cut off by the Cold War; but in truth, while they had sometimes been able to lead impressive movements, they found recruitment in minority communities extremely difficult-with the limited exception of Chinese-Americans, and even here, the following counted for much, membership for little.

Maoism seemed in cadre terms to have started off much stronger but, while providing leadership in local situations, never got much beyond the intellectual fringes of non-white movements in recruitment. Indeed, one very great frustration was that the waning Communist Party, with its track record of interracial activity and influence, continued to have influence in the Arts and among the Black ministry which the NCM could not rival. It could not rival the old Socialist Party on “the woman question,” beginning at about the same miserable place as the 1920s Communists, who foolishly scorned the “bourgeois” struggle for women’s advance, and began to recover a position only as the Cold War fell across the landscape. Worse could be said about the responses to homosexuality: Maoists were generally if not always homophobic, at least in their official documents if not in local practice.

Elbaum also does not quite get around to reflecting on the significance of relative numbers. The Communist Party emerging in the early 1920s had lost most of the 80,000 claimed for the (mostly foreign-born) Left within the Socialist Party of 1917, and leveled, until the middle of the Depression, at under 30,000. The New Communist Movement groups altogether could claim only about ten percent of that number and, most crucially, unlike the old CP, lacked the ethnic fraternal societies that gave neighborhood presence to the Communist faithful. Way back then, the new industrial union movement found its cadre among ethnic communists, its early meetings in the ethnic halls and its demand for industrial unionism there. The NCM struggled for a relevance of this kind, but found little. Its cadre, set upon party-building, lacked the human constituents.

And yet: Maoists gave themselves over to the opportunities at hand. A case in point, once the blush had gone off the rose of early revolution, was the Rainbow Coalition of 1987-88 and the Jesse Jackson campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Given the opportunity to get beyond past sectarianism, NCM veterans conducted themselves admirably, serving as the think-tank of the Jesse team and as the advance guard of the successful David Dinkins campaign for the New York mayoralty, effecting crucial coalition arrangements with the environmental justice movements, feminists and religious activists.

Some of the most important of the Third World Marxist currents as well as some of the most nutty (the Democratic Workers Party, a Bay Area-based personality cult around Marlene Dixon) began to dissolve formally not long before, marking another unique moment in the American Left. They perceived, I think, that the actual movement had not been equal to the task at hand, and the time had come for reconsidering organizational alternatives. Elbaum himself was definitely among the rethinkers. Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Soviet Union, and the triumph of the market economy in China.

Politically intact survivors (e.g., the Revolutionary Communist Party and the NION antiwar coalition, in which they now play a central role) would say that Elbaum suffers a failure of nerve. They would be wrong. The closing chapters of Revolution in the Air strive to make sense of the collapse of Maoism as representing a political moment which has passed, but which had its own significance for the future. When the Guardian newspaper died in 1992, an era had ended. Hundreds (at least) of ex-NCMers took jobs in nonprofits, worked in the labor movement, or joined a variety of service occupations where they put their idealism to work without the confining dogma. They, the survivors of a political failure, became in many ways, at many levels, the teachers of the young, the next generation (sometimes literally their children) who, more likely to be self-described “anar- chists” than anything else, sought to redeem the planet from domination and destruction. These now middle-agers had definitely not made The Revolution as they imagined, but they had become another generation of American radicals.*

Reviewed by Paul Buhle
Brown University

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