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Left Turn - Christopher Day Review

This review appears in the Oct./Nov. issue of Left Turn, at http://www.leftturn.org.

In the Belly of the Beast

By Christopher Day

Lots of young activists today see themselves as revolutionary anti-capitalists and are talking about what its going to take to make revolutionary change. Max Elbaum's new book Revolution in the Air is a welcome contribution to this discussion. I read the book this summer in a study group made up mainly of young activists of color in and around the Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM) at Hunter College.

In the 1960s, millions of young people of all colors were radicalized by the movements for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Many became conscious revolutionaries who sought answers to the same sorts of questions now confronting the radical wing of the Global Justice movement. While many white radicals embraced varieties of anarchism and Trotskyism, and many activists of color turned to forms of revolutionary nationalism, the trend that won the allegiances of the largest group of young revolutionaries was Third World Marxism. Elbaum explains the appeal of this trend:

"Third World Marxism put opposition to racism and military intervention at the heart of its theory and practice…It linked aspiring US revolutionaries to the parties and leaders who were proving that 'the power of the people is greater than the man's technology': the Vietnamese and Chinese Communist parties; Amilcar Cabral and the Marxist-led liberation movements in Africa; Che, Fidel and the Cuban Revolution. Third World Marxism … promised a break with Eurocentric models of social change, and also with the political caution that characterized Old Left groups, communist and social democratic alike. It pointed the way toward building a multiracial movement out of a badly segregated US left."

Third World Marxism exercised a particularly strong pull on radical activists of color. Black, Puerto Rican, Chicano and Asian activists came to understand the struggles of their own communities against racism as part of a worldwide struggle of colonized peoples against imperialism. This was a profoundly liberating realization. Third World Marxism upheld the struggles of each group while promoting unity and solidarity between them as well as with white progressives.

Elbaum tells how Third World Marxism inspired the creation first of local collectives and then of national organizations that identified themselves as part of a common "New Communist Movement" (NCM) that they all hoped would cohere into a larger unified revolutionary party. (Instead it fractured into an alphabet soup of collectives, parties and "pre-party formations"—the RCP, CPML, LRS, and many more.)

Revolution in the Air challenges the "good 60s/bad 60s" view of history that condemns the turn towards revolutionary politics as a betrayal of the values of participatory democracy that animated the movement in its earlier years. Elbaum argues that the turn towards Third World Marxism was a maturation of the movement in the face of real developments in the world.

Considerable failings Experience had taught a generation of activists that the US was an imperialist country that could only really be changed by revolutionary means and that the loose organizational style that prevailed through the 60s was very vulnerable to repression and disruption. Tighter forms of organization went hand in hand with the commitment to actually making revolution.

The NCM had considerable failings. It became progressively more doctrinaire and sectarian as the 70s progressed and its influence shrank. It suffered from machismo and, with a few exceptions, homophobia. Attempts to follow the twists and turns of the foreign policy of the Chinese Communist Party led many groups to increasingly bizarre and indefensible positions.

Elbaum is critical of the failings of these groups without falling into predictable condemnations of the attempt to build serious and disciplined revolutionary organizations. And he appreciates their accomplishments. Thousands of young people, mainly middle class students, immersed themselves in the life of the working class. They took jobs in factories and moved into working class communities. They often took great risks in their efforts to build revolutionary organizations. More than any other trend coming out of the 60s, the NCM sought to, and sometimes succeeded in, building genuinely multi-racial organizations.

It seems easy now to see where they miscalculated. As the country moved to the right in the late 70s, the NCM remained convinced that big upheavals were just waiting to explode. When they didn't, the movement found itself isolated from the struggles that actually were taking place. But it is to Elbaum's credit that he is able to recapture the mood and events that led so many to think that revolution was around the corner.

In the final chapter of the book, Elbaum offers what he considers to be the lessons of the NCM. These include the importance of having an analysis of the role of US imperialism in the world, the strategic centrality of the fight against racism in the US, and the importance of developing trained organizers and disciplined organizations able to actually carry out the work of building a revolutionary movement.

Nobody should want to repeat the experiences of the NCM in the 1970s. But no other recent set of experiences is as rich with lessons for those who want to build a serious revolutionary movement in the United States today. Elbaum relates those experiences, from the appearance of the first Third World Marxist collectives in the late 60s to the last gasps of most of the remaining organizations in the 80s and 90s. He does so in a manner that is neither sentimental nor sectarian. His book is the definitive account of a conveniently forgotten chapter in the history of American radicalism. Nobody who is serious about making revolution in this country can afford to ignore this book.