Revolution in the Air by Max Elbaum (Verso, 2018)
Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air looks at the late 1960s and early 1970s, the wave of mass protest and labour action, and the socialist organizations that rose and eventually fell in this period. It’s first chapter opens with this quote:
Almost all urban specialists agree: all signs point to a grim summer of riots in the nation’s cities…They note: (1) cuts and restrictions in federal programs fit for the jobless (2) a hardening of white-black antipathies; (3) a growing police emphasis on repression and weaponry. Some of their conclusions: “nothing can stop it”…the nation is “building toward organized insurrection within the next few years” – Newsweek, February 19, 1968.
This passage sounds like it could be written in 2020, and makes it clear why this period of American history has been so intensely studied and why it continues to be a source of rich lessons and experiences for activists and justice-minded people today. Revolution in the Air offers a unique perspective on the period. Elbaum, who was a member of Students for A Democratic Society (SDS) and later a group called Line of March, was deeply rooted in the generation of young activists who turned towards the teachings of Lenin, Mao, Che and others to help make sense of the period and to try to win a socialist future in what seemed like a time on the cusp of revolutionary change.
The book, first published in 2002 and reprinted in 2006 and 2018, traces the history of what Elbaum calls the New Communist Movement (NCM). The NCM refers to the waves of people who, between 1968 and 1973, were inspired by and involved in the mass upheavals and protest movements of the time and searched for “an ideological framework and strategy” to bring about the revolution that felt as though it were just on the horizon. These people were mainly young and came out of groups like SDS, the anti-war movement, and were inspired by or participated in the Black rebellions in cities across the US. Opinion polls in 1971 showed that more than 3 million people thought a revolution was necessary, this was the basis for the growth of the NCM.
Third World Marxism
Many young people looking for a way to understand the upheaval and carve a path forward looked outside of the traditional “old left” that experienced a similar surge in the 1930s. For sure the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and Trotskyist organizations like the Socialist Workers Party experienced an influx of new members during the period, but the political tendency that grew the most were those influenced by what Elbaum refers to as Third World Marxism.
Third World Marxism made sense as a political framework for activists radicalized by the 1960s protest movements because opposition to racism and military intervention were at the heart of its theory and practice. As Elbaum notes, “it embraced the revolutionary nationalist impulses in communities of color, where Marxism, socialism and nationalism intermingled and overlapped. It linked aspiring US revolutionaries to the parties and leaders who were proving that “the power of the people is greater than the man’s technology.” Third World Marxism drew inspiration and connection with the Vietnamese and Chinese Communist Parties, Amilcar Carbral, Che and the Cuban Revolution, and for those coming out of the student and community-led movements of the sixties felt like a better fit than the “Old Left” shaped by the Soviet Experience and oriented toward the trade union movement.
Elbaum describes the pull of the moment and the commitment of the people who took up these politics: “Partisans of Third World Marxism included organizers from every front of the 1960s rebellion. Committed to turning their new-found outlook into a powerful force, thousands spurned professional, academic or business careers in favor of the activist life. They took steps to root themselves in industrial jobs, working class neighbourhoods and communities of color; threw themselves into antiracist and international solidarity campaigns; studied late hours of the night and passionately debated revolutionary strategy.”
From those influenced by Third World Marxism emerged a contingent of people who looked to build tight-knight Marxist-Leninist organizations. These activists rejected the anti-Lenin and anti-Political Party outlook of the New Left of the 1960s and instead set out to build what they saw as a new “vanguard party”. They saw the CPUSA as hopelessly “revisionist” and saw themselves as rescuing the authentic Leninist tradition themselves, but were heavily influenced by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party.
The China-USSR split in 1960 and 1963 saw the Communist Party of China (CPC) put itself forward as the genuine guardian of Lenin’s legacy and activists were drawn to that. What was put forward as Leninism and the idea of the Leninist vanguard was seen as very attractive to scores of activists who had gone through the battles of the civil rights movements of the 60s and drawn the need for an organization that could be a vehicle for their revolutionary politics.
“From 1968 through the mid-1970s, the resulting New Communist Movement grew faster than any other current on the US left. At its height it held the allegiance of roughly 10,000 core activists and influenced many thousands more. It was the most racially integrated socialist tendency, with the highest proportion (25 to 30 percent or more) of people of color in its leadership and membership ranks. The largest circulation left newspaper of the time — the Guardian — promoted the new movement’s outlook.”
However, by the mid 1980s, the NCM organizations and publications were all but gone. What went wrong? What kept the groups of the NCM from building the revolutionary party they planned on and leaving behind almost no institutional legacy to speak of?
1968 was a watershed moment in the birth of an upsurge in revolutionary consciousness and organization. The Tet Offensive shook the foundations of US imperialism, the assassination of Martin Luther King and the Black uprisings in 100 US cities, the forced resignation from the Democratic Primaries of President Lyndon B Johnson and an upturn in workplace militancy all made it seem like winning an alternative power was possible. As a result, the minority of activists who advocated revolutionary politics before 1968 was joined by a huge radicalization of leaders within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), SDS, and whole layers of Black, Latinx, Asian American, Puerto Rican and Indigenous activists.
Elbaum’s description of the time period is absolutely fascinating, but where this book becomes really valuable is the lessons he draws from the period. First, let’s look at the mistakes and pitfalls that beset the movement. Leading to the NCM’s ultimate failure to build a lasting revolutionary pole of attraction in US politics, Elbaum identifies three major factors: 1) The objective conditions of the time period and the political traditions of the US, 2) The role of Maoism as a political tendency, and flowing from that 3) “A misdirected quest for orthodoxy.”
1) Elbaum identifies the potential of the moment and the unique pitfalls to the NCM. While mass protest rocked the US and left-wing movements gained power from surging Third World Marxist and National Liberation movements, there were some key obstacles that prevented turning that moment into a long-term radical allegiance. The historic weakness of the socialist tradition in the US, the deepness of racial divisions within the working class, and the electoral system proved hard to overcome. The young activists that made up the NCM radicalized in the 60s and, because of that, focused mostly on the positive aspects of the 1960s moment and took for granted how unusual the period of protest was and how hard it would be to win the majority of the US population to socialism.
The certainty that revolution was around the corner meant that aspiring revolutionaries’ immediate task was to consolidate what they thought of as a “vanguard” organization. But as Elbaum states, they “fostered hyperinflated rhetoric, organizational structures and an overall style of work that was out of touch with the sentiments of the social base the revolutionaries were trying to reach” and “the missassment of the historical moment pushed the NCM toward ideological frameworks that reinforced rather than tempered their voluntarist bent.” This is the opposite of Lenin’s actual conception of a vanguard organization, and instead led to burn out and made it nearly impossible to adjust to a downturn in struggle.
2) Elbaum blames the politics of Maoism. The attraction of Maoism was obvious for the layer of activists who made up the NCM who were “not rooted in the traditional working class, and overflowing with moral fervor. So it was not surprising that many were attracted to an ideology that proclaimed that all the truths of Marxism could be summed up as ‘to rebel is justified’; that stressed the power of correct ideas to transform the reality almost regardless of objective conditions; that presented nationalism in the most positive light and obscured the distinction between radical nationalism and working class politics.”
An uncritical following of Maoism and the Chinese Communist Party often meant that NCM activists were not acting strategically based on the conditions around them, but carrying out politics based on what was good for the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign policy. As Harry Haywood, a former CPUSA member active in the NCM noted, following China’s Three Worlds Theory “portrayed the Soviet Union not only as an enemy but the ‘main enemy’ of the world’s people…There was a logic inherent in the Three Worlds Theory which pushed it in the direction of class collaboration and an underestimation of US imperialism.” Dan Burstein, a prominent China supporter and editor of the Call, said the uncritical adherence to Maoism and the CPC made it hard to have debate and democracy in the organization and led to sectarian practices that separated them from others, turning Marxism-Lenimism into “more as a religion than a science…” It also led the groups to have homophobic stances towards the emerging movements for gay liberation.
For Elbaum, the Maoist slogan “the correctness or incorrectness of the ideological and political line decides everything,” exemplifies the problems of the NCM. “This dictum was cited endlessly by the main Maoist groups, despite the fact that it completely ignored material conditions and the balance of political forces, and it was on its face, a break from Marxist materialism…it not only fostered ultraleft analyses and tactics, but a theoretical purism that led directly to bitter confrontations over minor points of doctrine and constant organizational competition.”
3) There were other groups in the NCM that were not strict adherents to Maoism, but they too fell prey to a quest for ideological orthodoxy. This tendency led groups to dogmatism, restrictions on democracy, and a problem for all groups: the notion that there was one and only one revolutionary tradition. “They all believed that upholding their favored version of genuine Marxism-Leninism was the key to building a revolutionary movement. This established a never-ending quest for orthodoxy and a constant suspicion of heresy at the very centre of the movement’s outlook,” Elbaum describes.
This meant that NCM groups were mostly uninterested in exploring new theoretical terrain or trying to make unique intellectual contributions analyzing the conditions of US society. The certainty that past doctrine would cover current reality led to voluntarism, dogmatism, sectarianism and undemocratic practices that left the movement shrunken and ill-equipped to deal with a changing political terrain.
Successes of the New Communist Movement
Of course, the NCM was not just a negative experience. As much as there is to be learned from their failures, there is as much to learn from their successes. In Revolution in the Air, Elbaum traces the history of how Third World Marxism and specifically Marxism-Leninism came to be a home for the newly radicalized layer of young activists. With its focus on the revolutionary potential of national liberation movements and its ability to connect the anti-racist struggle in the US to the anti-imperialist struggles worldwide, the NCM had something to offer that felt absent from the Old Left. The CPUSA with its strict adherence to every aspect of USSR policy, and the Trotskyist movement’s failure to connect with those inspired by Third World movements meant that it did not engage this new generation of radicals as significantly as the NCM.
Elbaum, active in the NCM for its entire life span recognizes its power and emphasizes, “the movement’s strengths centred on three crucial issues that — albeit in altered form — remain pivotal to any future attempt at left renewal: commitment to internationalism and anti-imperialism; the centrality of the fight against racism; and the urgent of developing cadre and creating organizations capable of mobilizing people and the oppressed.”
We can see the continued importance of these areas today. This focus was important, because it was a crucial challenge to the “America is the greatest country in the world” narrative that is so deeply ingrained in US popular political culture. As Elbaum puts it, “anti-imperialism served as a vital corrective to the racist prism through which millions view global realities.” The politics of anti-racism and anti-imperialism that were so present in the NCM influenced others on the US left and led to practical activity that provided material and political aid to oppressed people in the US and in countries far away.
The NCM’s understanding of the importance of racism and imperialism in the capitalist system gave them an advantage over other groups who didn’t have that understanding. Groups in the NCM insisted that challenging racism, and supporting the leadership of racialized people, lay at the heart of the revolutionary project. As a result the NCM “put the fight for equality at the centre of its politics and devoted immense attention to analyzing the history, structures and pervasive impact of white supremacy” and stressed the importance of winning white workers to antiracist politics–believing it was in the class interest of all workers to combat racism.
The NCM worked hard to break out of the base of white academics and professionals that many other predominantly left tendencies found themselves in. Groups insisted on the need to build multiracial working class organizations and “showed that a group that makes antiracism a priority in its theory, organizing and internal life can break deep-rooted patterns of segregation.” The NCM groups that were most successful at creating multiracial organizations were the ones that “gave priority to the particular demands of people of color; paid careful attention to the racial composition of events or activities; implemented racially conscious cadre training and promotion policies; and published materials in Spanish, Chinese and other languages.” These lessons are important for today, where some on the left criticize “identity politics” as a barrier to left organizing, sometimes counterposing race-specific demands against class-wide demands. If our project is to build a multiracial working class movement, the experience of the NCM gives us a small glimpse of how.
Read this book
Max Elbaum and Verso have done a great service by publishing this history of an under-documented movement from such a well-documented period. The experience of the NCM in its successes and failures offers some vital lessons for those looking to build a revolutionary socialist political current. Read Revolution in the Air and dig into the stories, facts and figures, and analysis that will help you think through the many of the burning political questions of our time.
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