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Green Left Weekly (Australia) - Barry Sheppard review

This review appears in Green Left Weekly (Australia), July 14, 2004.

by Barry Sheppard

Drawing the lessons from the sixties

In Australia, and all over the world, people from different backgrounds are looking for ways to rebuild the left to take advantage of the growing ferment against imperialist war and globalisation. Not surprisingly, many are looking back to the upsurge of the 1960s and 1970s for lessons - both positive and negative.

Max Elbaum was a leader of one of the left currents which developed at that time. The book offers a critique/self-critique of a political tradition - Stalinism/Maoism - which did great damage to the left. But unlike many other repudiations of Stalinism, Elbaum's book defends the idea of revolution, socialism and Marxism. It stresses the need for socialist organisation at a time when many veterans of the movement have abandoned the idea that healthy socialist organisations are possible, and many younger people are sceptical. He also calls for breaking down the old barriers within the left.

Elbaum offers an insider's critique of Stalinism/Maoism that the remaining defenders of those currents have not been able to refute. The book has been widely reviewed and discussed in the US - not just by organised left groups and veterans of the 1960s, but also by anarchists, global justice activists and young people of colour interested in 1960s groups like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

The book chronicles the rise and fall of the "new communist movement", an attempt to build a new socialist party based on Maoist principles. It covers a myriad of organisations from different backgrounds who considered themselves part of the "new communist movement", at least for a time.

Some of the questions these mainly young people grappled with, including how to build strong multi-racial organisations, are with us today.

Elbaum focuses in some detail on how a section of these radicals came to Maoism out of the disintegration of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1969. Beginning with a positive anti-imperialist and anti-racist consciousness, these young radicals were seduced by the pull of what appeared to them to be the embodiment of their aspirations in the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Elbaum indicates that the high point of the attempt to create the new party was in the early 1970s. This project was never realised. Elbaum explains in some detail why the disparate organisations of the "new communist movement" could not possibly have founded a new party - indeed the major groups were never able to get together themselves.

A case in point he presents was the massive struggle in Boston in 1975 over a plan to desegregate the public schools, which saw big mobilisations of the Black community against violent mobilisations of racist whites. The different Maoist organisations took opposite positions on the battle, some even opposing the Black community's demands. Even those groups that supported the demands failed to join the battle for sectarian reasons, standing on the sidelines of the struggle because it was led by the "reformist" National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Elbaum implies that the emergence of the "new communist movement" was the most important organisational and political outcome of the radicalisation of the '60s. To bolster this conclusion, he has to put together in one bag a host of organisations calling themselves Maoists, all of whom were battling each other, to come up with a total of perhaps 10,000 people who were members of one or another of these groups.

In 1973-78, the fast growing Socialist Workers Party had more members, had a larger circulation of its press and was better organised than any one of the Maoist groups. The SWP had wider influence than all of them combined, due to its previous central leadership role in the anti-Vietnam-war movement, and its important, if much more modest role, in the Black, Latino and women's struggles.

The SWP also played a leadership role in the Boston desegregation struggle, and was widely appreciated for launching a major legal and political challenge to repression of all progressive movements through an ultimately successful lawsuit against the government. The Communist Party was even larger than the SWP, and also grew during the radicalisation. A weakness of the book is its treatment of currents other than the Maoists.

Elbaum explains well the dedication, hard work, personal sacrifice and revolutionary fervour of those who joined the various Maoist organisations. This was also true of the other groups attempting to build revolutionary organisations. No-one who joined any communist group in the US did so out of careerist motivations.

In addition to pointing to the positive achievements of the various groups in the "new communist movement", Elbaum offers an insightful critique of why it failed, citing its sectarianism, ultraleftism, embrace of Stalinism, and the Maoist doctrines themselves. A fascinating aspect of the book is its description of the impact on the Maoist organisations of the twists and turns of Chinese foreign policy. When the CCP adopted the position that the main danger was the USSR and began to support Washington's imperialist foreign policy, the impact on the Maoist groups was fatal.

Some went along with the Chinese position and became pro-imperialist. Others broke with the CCP, and stuck to their original anti-imperialist positions (including the group Elbaum was a leader of), but most of the rank and file melted away.

Some former Maoists evolved away from ultraleftism, toward its equally dangerous opposite, class collaborationism through support (albeit critical) for a wing of the Democratic Party. Elbaum supports this position.

Elbaum's book is thorough and well-researched, giving a rounded and critical view of his subject, and as such is a welcome addition to the literature about the period. It joins books such as Outlaw Woman, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a personal-political memoir of a young woman embracing feminism and revolution; No Surrender, a just published book by David Gilbert who was a leader of the Weather Underground Organization and is currently serving a 75-year prison term for an armed action by a successor of that group; and Love and Revolution by Signe Waller, a leader of a Maoist group, five of whose members were assassinated in 1979. As more of such memoirs and histories are published, a broad picture of the many facets of the period is emerging.

There is a lot of questioning and exploration going on among the new generation of radicalising youth, more interest in the 1960s and 1970s than any time in the last decade. That needs to be encouraged, for the more study there is of the radicalism of that time, its strengths and weaknesses, the better equipped the new generation will be.

Revolution in the Air provides a detailed history of its subject, and should be on the bookshelf of every serious revolutionary who wants to understand the history of the '60s in the United States.

Barry Sheppard is presently writing a political memoir of his experiences as a member and leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and of the Fourth International from 1960 through to 1988. The first volume of his memoir will be published shortly.