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Journal of Social History - David Barber review

This review appears in in the Fall 2004 (Volume 38, Issue 1) issue of the Journal of Social History.

by David Barber, University of California, Davis

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 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 the "most important" of the New Communist groups until 1973. The RU's June 1969 Red Papers, according to Elbaum, was the "first manifesto" of the New Communists and was "the most influential single document promoting the initial development of a new US Marxist-Leninist trend." In contrast to what it saw as "the racially divided workings of the emerging revolutionary trend," Red Papers, according to Elbaum, "argued that the vanguard-to-be must be made up of activists of all racial backgrounds. It further asserted that a 'major section of the leadership' must and would come from people of color" [pp. 95-99]. Elbaum fails to mention, however, that the "racially divided workings" of the day's social movements derived from the strength of black nationalism. By 1969, both SNCC and the Black Panther Party had won the grudging consent of white activists that organizing the black community was the sole province of black activists and that radical whites needed to be organizing other whites against racism. Moreover, SNCC and the Panthers insisted that black people would play the defining--vanguard--role in the larger struggle for revolutionary change. What gave this charge the power that it had in the white New Left was the tremendous social motion of black people--ranging from massive urban rebellions, to practical struggles for community control and to black student struggles for open admissions and Black Studies Departments. In insisting upon a multi-racial vanguard with people of color as a "major section of the leadership," the RU was not championing the role of people of color, then, but setting itself in opposition to the leading social movement of the day. It was reclaiming a vanguard role for young whites in the struggle for social change. When Elbaum glosses over this he obscures the real origins of the New Communists.

Similarly, Elbaum obscures the NCM's relation to the white women's movement. Here Elbaum acknowledges that the NCM held "an ambivalent attitude toward feminism," and that "outright sexism" played a role in the NCM's rejecting the women's movement [pp. 116, 138]. However, Elbaum also stresses that the NCM was "responding in part to a powerful tendency in the early 1970s women's movement to separate the fight against sexism from the antiracist and anti-imperialist struggle" [p. 332]. To be sure, by 1973, the white women's movement had divorced anti-sexism from anti-racism and anti-imperialism. But in the late 1960s, as the New Communist Movement was forming, a significant sector of the women's movement was genuinely striving to connect the struggle of white women to the battle against imperialism and white supremacy. Indeed, in late 1969 women in the Revolutionary Youth Movement II faction of SDS--that faction from which the RU and the Communist Party (Marxist Leninist) sprang--were promoting a program that insisted that unity between white women and black women could only be achieved to the extent that white women took on the battle against white supremacy. Moreover, the program was an anti-imperialist program and was to have been the foundation for a new mass organization to succeed the Weatherman-led SDS. Although women attempting to connect the battle against sexism with other social struggles were a significant part of the women's movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, leaders of the nascent NCM chose to ignore these women. Uniting with their efforts would have required that the New Communist male leaders seriously take on their movement's male supremacy. The novelist, poet and activist Marge Piercy quite correctly labeled these leaders "machers"--male strong men, whose goal was to build up their own little movement fiefdoms, rather than strengthen a movement for social change (Piercy, "The Grand Coolie Dam," Leviathan, November 1969).

Certainly, Elbaum's work in recalling the immense social turmoil of the late 1960s is valuable. But Elbaum's failure to situate the NCM in relation to the black struggle and the white women's movement undercuts his narrative. Elbaum's New Communist Movement did not develop into sects, but began as sects.