- Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che
In Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, Max Elbaum presents a valuable but flawed study of a host of Marxist-Leninist vanguard parties and groups—the “New Communist Movement”—that arose as one significant offshoot of the social movements of the United States in the 1960s. Elbaum, a former leader of this movement, seeks to answer three principal questions in his book: first, what gave rise to the movement and why did it adopt as its guiding principle what Elbaum terms “Third World Marxism”? Second, why did the movement fail? And finally, what lessons does the New Communist Movement’s experience offer to a new generation of activists?
To answer these questions, Elbaum offers a declension narrative whose outcome is virtually determined by its point of origin. According to Elbaum, the [End Page 226] New Communist Movement (NCM) emerged during an unprecedented period of social ferment. It seemed to activists of the late 1960s and early 1970s that the United States was on the defensive everywhere it turned: in Latin America and Asia, especially, but also at home in the uprisings of African American people, Chicano and Puerto Rican peoples, Asian-Americans, students of every racial stripe, and the white women’s movement as well. Moreover, as Elbaum argues, not only activists, but sectors of America’s ruling elite believed that the United States was foundering in this sea of popular struggles. On the one hand, because the NCM arose when it did, it adopted anti-racism and anti-imperialism as guiding principles, elements that Elbaum suggests are critical to the development of any positive movements for social change in the United States. On the other hand, because it arose at a time when the US social system was on the defensive, activists seriously underestimated the strength of America’s institutions, believing that American capitalism was “ripe” for defeat. “This error,” Elbaum argues, “was fundamental to the failure of the entire revolutionary left” [p.88].
Similarly, because national liberation struggles seemed so powerful, and because the most powerful of these struggles were led by political parties calling themselves Marxist-Leninist, activists gravitated to this doctrine—“Third World Marxism”—together with its organizational forms. Believing that the US’s downfall was imminent, activists urgently threw themselves into the task of setting up their own Marxist-Leninist vanguard in the United States. Third World Marxism’s successes, however, blinded activists in the US to what Elbaum refers to as the undemocratic character of these vanguards and to the limitations of nationalism, blurring the distinction between revolutionary nationalism and working class internationalism.
So long as struggles against the United States retained their strength, so long could movement activists creatively and unreservedly throw themselves into the project for social change. But by 1973, as the United States successfully limited its losses in Vietnam, and reasserted its strength at home, the contradictions that lay at its founding came to the front and set the New Communist Movement reeling. Faced with practical defeats, and having no meaningful Old Left to counsel them on the vicissitudes of social struggle, activists began to place a higher value on orthodoxy than on concretely organizing movements for social change. Instead of coalescing as a single Marxist Leninist revolutionary vanguard, the various “pre-party” groupings peeled off and each established its own, true variant of Marxism-Leninism: the Revolutionary Communist Party, Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), Communist Workers’ Party, Democratic Workers’ Party, Communist Labor Party, Communist Party USA (Marxist-Leninist), and Line of March, to name some of the more prominent sects.
Several shortcomings mark Elbaum’s declension narrative. Most important, Elbaum fails to situate his New Communists in their historical relation to the black nationalist movement and to the white women’s movement. Elbaum’s treatment of the Revolutionary Union (RU)—predecessor to the Revolutionary Communist Party—is a case in point. Elbaum devotes several pages to the RU’s origins as the first, the largest and...