By Rishi Awatramani
Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air reads like a riveting horror movie, the kind where the lonely protagonist hears a noise in the woods. You find yourself screaming at the character to defy their well-worn path to certain death when, instead of walking away, they walk towards the unidentified noise, never to be seen again (in one piece). Readers of Revolution in the Air might find themselves screaming at the characters in Elbaum’s historical account of the New Communist Movement of the 1960s and 70s, to not fall for the same traps or repeat the same errors so familiar to leftists across generations.
You can watch an interview with Revolution in the Air author Max Elbaum on the Marc Steiner Show on the Real News Network here.
The book retells this missing chapter in the history of the New Left from its post-1968 heyday, which emerged out of the radicalizing and most innovative elements of 1960s social movements, to its total collapse in the 1980s. This is the book’s third edition, published 16 years after it first appeared. This edition was released in honor of the 50th anniversary of 1968, the year of worldwide rebellion. As when it first appeared, the book is intended to be a relevant guide for present-day organizers and revolutionaries, and this latest version includes introductory reflections from long-term organizer and Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza. Many of the book’s storylines could be repackaged and retold in relation to contemporary left struggles, including the New Left’s rejection and later embrace of electoral strategies and the challenges that movements faced in tackling the seeming contradiction between Marxism and Nationalism. This review will summarize the sweeping historical arc of the book, and then it will consider some of the questions and lessons generated by Elbaum’s rigorous work that most clearly apply to our present-day struggles.
Elbaum explains that the New Left and the militant mass movements of the late 1960s precipitated a small but dense layer of revolutionaries who were inspired by Third World Marxism and committed to building a vanguard revolutionary party. The second half of the 60’s decade was marked by the radicalization of activists in SNCC and SDS, the rise of the Black Power movement, waves of urban rebellions, and militant and victorious anti-colonial movements around the world. Combined with the explosive events of 1968, the year of global revolutions, this radicalizing context generated wide-eyed optimism about the possibility of revolution in the United States. For those new left militants who emerged out of this rebellious milieu, Third World Marxism provided a framework for that revolution. The communist-led movements and governments in China, Vietnam, and Cuba appeared to be the most effective opponents of US-led imperialism, and so the opposition to the war in Vietnam and to US foreign policy led thousands of activists towards Marxism and the Leninist parties at the forefront of the world communist movement.
Revolution in the Air examines the New Communist Movement (NCM) as it emerges after 1968, and it especially focuses on the Maoist tendency within the NCM. The Sino-Soviet split had divided Marxists’ allegiances, with the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its sympathizers accusing the Soviet Union of abandoning revolutionary ideals and favoring peaceful coexistence with the West (which was termed “revisionism”). The CPC presented itself as the true descendent of Marxism-Leninism and the leader of the global upsurge against white domination. Filled with enthusiasm that was inspired by the major protest movements at home and the liberation movements outside of the US, many US activists aligned themselves with the anti-revisionist position of the CPC (and, consequently, against the USSR). These activists determined that revolution was both possible and inevitable. If revolution was not immediately on the horizon, then would follow future explosions of mass discontent. They believed that building a Leninist vanguard party to lead millions towards revolution was their primary task.
Elbaum tells the history of the NCM in three phases. The first phase stretches from its formation in 1968 to its peak potential in 1973. In this period, the primary pre-party organizations of the NCM were founded: The Revolutionary Union, the October League, I Wor Kuen, the Union of Democratic Filipinos, the Black Workers Congress, Workers Viewpoint, and many other smaller groups populated the first round of Marxist-Leninist groups that were aspiring to found the vanguard party. These early, heady years of the movement were very generative, not only of revolutionary fervor amongst thousands of radical activists, but also of attempts to produce new revolutionary theory by applying the writings of Mao and other Third World Marxists to an analysis of conditions in the United States.
These organizations were embedded in many important social movements, concentrated in communities of color. They assessed that capitalist development in the US was precarious, and that short-term recoveries would soon give way to more large-scale protest and the rise of conditions that would be ripe for revolution. This led the movement to oppose electoral engagement, and, whether by default or design, to oppose strategies that involved building broad-based mass progressive fronts. Despite that fact that many cadre of these early NCM organizations were based in grassroots movements, Elbaum argues that the movement as a whole did not achieve significant strength in the working class. Their certainty that revolution was on the horizon compelled these activists to overemphasize theoretical differences and attempt to move more quickly towards revolution through highly confrontational ultraleft tactics. Their theoretical orthodoxy, ultraleft tactical orientation, and overly centralized leadership structure would prove disastrous in the coming years.
The second phase in Elbaum’s history runs from 1974- 1981, during which the movement succumbed to its core weaknesses, leading ultimately to its near-collapse. The economic crises of the early 70s had many consequences for anti-revisionist communists, including both the weakening of the sectors in which these groups had built up their working class base (e.g. auto manufacturing) and the turn towards conservative, anti-tax politics across the country. While popular movements shrank, NCM pre-party groups accelerated further to the left. They advanced plans to launch their respective vanguard parties, each with competing claims to the self-appointed leadership of a revolutionary movement in the US. As Elbaum writes (p. 191), “a fundamental premise of anti-revisionism was that only one vanguard could exist in any country,” so many groups claimed the status of true heir to the Marxist-Leninist lineage, leading to extreme sectarianism and competition to be viewed as the bearers of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy.
From the pre-party groups emerged the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), the Communist Labor Party (CLP), the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), the League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS), the Communist Workers Party (CWP) and other smaller vanguard parties. Dramatic policy shifts by the Communist Party of China were untenably adapted by these parties with much confusion and acrimony. Further ideological splits, especially in how each group viewed Black oppression (whether they upheld Black people as an oppressed nation or emphasized their ‘special oppression’ in the context of structural racism) created irreversible splits. By the beginning of the 1980’s, nearly all of vanguard parties had either collapsed or shrunk to irrelevance.
The Movement’s last gasp, captured in the third main section of the book, was defined by many groups learning from their experiences in the ‘70s by committing to avoid ultraleftism and prioritize the work to build mass struggle instead of digging in their heels over doctrinal debates. This new anti-ultraleftism was adopted by groups like the League of Revolutionary Struggle that continued to align with China against the USSR (leading to unfortunate occasional alliances with US imperialism), as well as by a new but smaller anti-dogmatic trend that broke with the movement’s doctrinaire support for the CPC. The organizations belonging to this new trend included Line of March, the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center, and the North Star Network. They appeared to provide a lifeline to the ailing movement, recruiting many new young activists of color to their ranks, and discussing the possibility of forming a new national organization that would align the remnants of the NCM under an anti-dogmatic banner (i.e. regroupment). One expression of this orientation was the deep participation of both Line of March and the LRS, along with a host of smaller organizations, in Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. These organizations viewed the campaign as either an expression of Black self-determination or as a multi-racial united front with the potential for becoming a radical mass democratic organization. Unfortunately, in the end their anti-dogmatic sensibilities emerged too far into the right’s political ascendency and well after large-scale popular movements had been largely demobilized. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 heralded the complete demise of the New Communist Movement.
Elbaum effectively distills the movement’s main weaknesses in his closing chapter. For starters, organizers misidentified the post-1968 period as either a revolutionary moment or as a dress rehearsal for an impending revolution. As a result, they failed to see the immiserating transformations taking place amongst their social base, and they abandoned important realms of political struggle, like electoral politics, that were out of step with the impending insurrectionary tide that they believed was on the horizon. Furthermore, the movement’s fidelity to the Chinese party created political incoherence as US parties radically altered their program and practice to accommodate dictums from the CPC in Beijing and its drastic shifts in party line in response to the needs of the Chinese state. Finally the movement’s dogged commitment to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy did not lead to movement- or party-building, but to the formation of small orthodox sects capable of effecting a lot of sectarian debate but little change in society as a whole.
Some of the NCM’s successes offer straightforward lessons for today’s left organizers and activists, particularly its success in building multiracial organizations, mostly led by people of color. However, Elbaum argues that the failures of the NCM leave us with many important lessons: contemporary leftists must base their strategies on sober assessments of the existing political and economic conditions. Large scale disruptive protest movements are necessary for revolutionary change, but they cannot be willed into existence. In the absence of sustained protest movements, left strategies must shift to reflect non-revolutionary conditions. A diverse set of mass-oriented organizations with different constituencies and tendencies is needed for the strongest movement possible, and we must focus not on building cadre organizations based on narrow ideological unity (for example, anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninism), but rather on building broad left fronts that are united around a shared program (for example, socialism).
The book raises a number of important questions about left strategy in the US, all of which are relevant today. The first question is: if NCM cadre been able to more clearly assess their political and economic conditions, would they have had more success, or were the structural trends that were in motion at the time too strong for them to succeed? In other words, would they have failed regardless of what their strategic choices were? Elbaum argues that many of the drastic changes to social structures that were under way in that moment were beyond the capacity of the NCM to effect. NCM cadre could not generate and sustain large protest movements based on hard work and sheer will. He argues that, if cadre had a more sober assessment of the prospects for revolutionary change in the 1970s, they might have adopted less sectarian approaches and focused primarily on mass organizing, building left radicalism at the grassroots, and promoting left unity instead of trying to build the vanguard.
Activists can certainly be forgiven for getting caught up in the swirl of radicalism of the late 1960s and for their hopeful belief that they were part of a global upsurge against capitalism and US-led imperialism that was bound for victory. But these activists paid insufficient attention to the changes in the social structures of capitalism in their times, including changes to the way work was organized and profit was accumulated. This made it difficult for NCM organizations to develop strategy that was based on a realistic assessment of which social forces possessed the kind of structural power they would need to overturn the social order. Arguably, the contemporary left shares these weaknesses; short-term prognoses of social conditions and ideological commitments continue to drive strategic considerations. Indeed, Elbaum’s analysis of the rise and fall of the NCM would have been stronger is if it had explored the role of these structural conditions in the collapse of popular movements of the 60s and early 70s and the NCM itself. Explanations of this sort would make it possible for us to understand whether the left’s collapse after 1973 was inevitable or whether it was largely the result of the movement‘s internal failings.
This raises another important question for revolutionaries of all generations: what is effective left strategy for winning political power in the United States? In his conclusion, Elbaum argues that New Communist cadre were only partially aware of the difficulties they would face in winning a majority of the US population to socialism. But it is not evident that Marxist-Leninist organizations of this period were even trying to win a majority over to socialism. Some groups imagined that a militant minority would engaged in armed struggle and lead the way. Many other groups didn’t seem to specify their strategy beyond implicitly suggesting that increasingly militant mass movements would lead to an insurrectionary break, which would in turn advance into a socialist revolution. In the absence of a more explicit strategy, leftists’ default revolutionary path tends to be insurrectionary, based on the belief that, if we can only work hard enough and organize deeply enough, mass movements will spill forth with the capacity to overturn capitalism. This strategic orientation doesn’t grapple sufficiently with insights generated by many branches of the Marxist family tree that have examined the capacity of political and civic institutions to absorb and ameliorate social and class conflict. Like our forbearers, the fate of today’s left will be shaped by our capacity to articulate a revolutionary road and a strategy that can adequately address these challenges.
Finally, Elbaum’s book raises the critical question of the status of electoral work in left strategy. Until the Harold Washington and Rainbow Coalition years, the NCM was largely hostile to engagement in electoral work. But, as Elbaum argues, elections represent the main way in which the vast majority of people take political action. Shunning the electoral realm has grave consequences for the left’s capacity to engage in meaningful mass mobilization. Engagement within the Democratic Party was firmly off the agenda for most of the NCM years. This meant that social-democrats had the initiative in this realm, but they were too weak, both ideologically and organizationally, to use the electoral realm for anything other than attempting to defeat the right wing within the Republican Party. The collapse of the many NCM groups and vanguard parties forced activists in the 1980s to reassess their positions. The communist groups that survived this period came to view electoral politics more favorably, seeing their political relevance and their potential for mass mobilization. Jesse Jackson’s candidacy and his left-progressive political platform in the Democratic primary elections of 1984 and 1988 appeared to conform to many critical tenets of the NCM (anti-racism and opposition to US foreign policy). The growth of the Rainbow organization renewed their belief that building mass left organization was possible. The importance of electoral engagement and struggle within the Democratic Party are hot topic strategy questions for the US left today.
Revolution in the Air is a reminder to choose to build a relevant left that is rooted in mass politics, unburdened by sectarianism, and armed with clear strategy and a patient analysis of the trajectory of capitalist development. We don’t have to investigate the noise in the woods. The noise is sectarianism and orthodoxy, and we know how that story ends. A smarter left is possible. And it’s coming.