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ISR Issue 53, MayJune 2007
1960s radicals turn to party-building
REVOLUTION IN THE AIR
Verso, 2002 (paperback, 2006)
380 pages $23
Review by GEOFF BAILEY
REVOLUTION IN the Air chronicles the rise and fall of the new communist movement that emerged from the ashes of the student movement of the late-1960s. Author Max Elbaum, a former member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and later a leader of the group Line of March, documents the reasons why thousands of student activists turned to “Third World” or “anti-revisionist” Marxism and attempts to defend the move towards revolutionary politics and party-building, while at the same time examining the mistakes that led to the movement’s ultimate break-up and collapse.
The strongest sections of Elbaum’s book attack the “good sixties/bad sixties” caricature that separates the broad, reform-oriented movements of the early 1960s from the later turn to more radical politics. “Supposedly the early 1960s movements stand out as humane, sensible and worthy of emulation in contrast to the heartless, violence-prone, and irrational tendencies after 1968.” “[This view],” writes Elbaum, “rests on dubious political assumptions, which lift the late 1960s out of their historical context and gloss over the substantial differences between the challenges facing activists in 1968–73 as opposed to 1960–64.”
The two movements that dominated the 1960s, the Black freedom struggle and the movement against the Vietnam War, both exposed the limitations of earlier attempts at reform. Activists found that far from being exceptions, racism and war were part of the very structure of American capitalism. Millions of people who had been radicalized turned to revolutionary politics as a means to try to chart a way forward. A poll conducted by the New York Times in 1970 found that four out of ten U.S. college students—four million people—believed that a revolution was necessary.
At the same time, the struggles were hitting an impasse. Neither the student movement nor what emerged as the radical Black nationalist movement seemed capable of effectively challenging American capitalism. Thousands of activists began turning to Marxism as a means of breaking out of the impasse.
However, the Marxism they discovered tended to be one or another variation of Stalinism—looking to China, Vietnam, Cuba, or other states as the model for revolutionary change.
The radical, anti-imperialist language of the leaderships of these countries, particularly those of Mao Zedong in China, gained a wide hearing. Moreover, Maoism’s emphasis on moralism and idealism—the idea that capitalism could be overthrown through the determination of a committed minority regardless of objective conditions—appealed to student activists cut off from a wider class base.
It also tended to accentuate some of the worst aspects of the student movement: its intense verbal radicalism and its willingness to substitute itself for a broader movement.
In these variants of Marxism, activists found a double-edged sword. Emphasis on strong, centralized organizations provided a welcome step forward from the looser student formations of the 1960s. And ideas about the power of the working class seemed to offer a concrete way to confront capitalism. Elbaum provides an amusing illustration, recounting an early-70s strike of Washington, D.C., municipal workers. When they struck, the workers left a number of key bridges raised. A few thousand workers managed to do what tens of thousands of students had failed to do just a few months earlier—shut down the capital of the United States.
Elbaum describes the attempts to build new revolutionary organizations—and to sink roots in the working class and communities of color, though a particular weakness of the book is that there is little information about the actual work done on the ground.
But much of this work is viewed through the particular lens of “Third World Marxism,” particularly its Maoist variant.
“Party-building” was approached with a model of socialist organization that was top-down, authoritarian, and profoundly undemocratic. Here Elbaum provides a brief, but useful, overview of the ways in which Lenin developed his theory of a vanguard party. He stresses that Lenin’s model was intended as a democratic, flexible means by which to organize revolutionaries. And he charts the ways in which Lenin’s conception of the party was influenced by developments in Russia, particularly after the 1905 Revolution. Elbaum then contrasts it to the way Stalin and Mao distorted the theory into a justification for the lack of democracy in China and the Soviet Union. Lenin’s theories were turned on their head and replaced with a model of rigid centralism and hostility to any dissent.
Particularly damaging was the idea that each country could only have one vanguard and that any ideological differences represented “foreign class elements.” Soon, every new communist group, regardless of size or class composition, was proclaiming itself the true vanguard and denouncing opponents, internal as well as external, as class traitors. It was a recipe for sectarianism and splits.
It is also worth noting—Elbaum overlooks it—that underneath the radical phrases of Maoism, lay the theory of the bloc of four classes, that stressed the need for cross-class alliances, even with sections of the bourgeoisie, in the fight against imperialism. While most activists were attracted to the more radical slogans, it was the latter that would provide the theoretical justification for the Maoist flip-flopping from ultra-left adventurism into support for reformist parties once the movements had subsided.
Allegiance to the policies of the Chinese ruling class also was a massive distortion. As the rift between China and the Soviet Union deepened, the Chinese leadership moved closer and closer to the United States. It opposed any national liberation struggle backed by the USSR, which the Chinese Communist Party believed was a greater threat than U.S. imperialism. Activists found themselves in the untenable position of defending China when it opposed the national liberation struggle in Angola, recognized the Pinochet government in Chile, and supported the sale of arms to South Africa.
Elbaum is quite critical of the new communist movement’s reliance on Maoism. He is clearly more sympathetic to strands of the new communist movement that tried to avoid the ultra-leftism, voluntarism, and sectarianism that dominated much of the Maoist Left. These attempts, however, never broke out of the bounds of Stalinism. As a result, he recognizes a fundamental contradiction in any attempt to develop theoretical alternatives within the so-called Third World Marxist tradition:
Repudiating the policies of Mao [and his successor] Deng [Xiaoping] either sent one backwards toward a defense of Stalin (not an attractive option) or raised uncomfortable questions about the validity of the whole anti-revisionist edifice.Noticeably lacking is any engagement with anti-Stalinist currents of revolutionary Marxism, particularly the ideas of Leon Trotsky. The strengths and weaknesses of the largest Trotskyist organization in the United States, the Socialist Workers Party, are passed over in a single page. And the work of the International Socialists (IS) is given only a single paragraph—despite the fact that of all the revolutionary groups to emerge out of the student movement of the 1960s, only the IS was able to establish any lasting organization based in the union movement—building a sizeable rank-and-file network in the Teamsters union that led to the formation of Teamsters for a Democratic Union.
The result is that Elbaum is on shaky ground when he puts forward alternatives. He holds up the work of new communist movement groups supporting Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns, despite the fact that they ended up bringing the movement back into the fold of the same Democratic Party that it had rejected twenty years earlier. And while Elbaum makes a welcome defense of the project of building Leninist organizations today, it is by no means clear on what basis those organizations should be built.