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Nonviolent Activist - John Trinkl Review

This review appears in the November-December 2002 issue of The Nonviolent Activist, published by the War Resisters League.

By John Trinkl

Say You Want A Revolution

Most activists know something about the 1960s. The civil rights movement was rocking the country; the antiwar movement exploded; there were mass marches, protests and civil disobedience. In popular memory, there was an incredible amount of activism in the '60s, and then nothing.

Max Elbaum's book, Revolution in the Air, corrects this picture. In the 1970s and '80s tens of thousands of activists who had come out of the '60s dedicated their lives to building organizations that could lead to fundamental change in the United States. This is familiar to many NVA readers, but some, inspired by Gandhi and King rather than Marx and Mao, may not be as familiar with the Marxist movements Elbaum describes.

Even as the 1960s movements began to die down, a significant sector of activists concluded that building stronger organizations was key to digging in for the longer-term struggle. They took their inspiration from the forces they saw as offering models to oppose U.S. imperialism: the Communist parties of Vietnam, China and Cuba. Elbaum calls the overall politics of this movement "Third World Marxism" to distinguish it from the more orthodox Soviet Marxism. The New Left of the 1960s either regarded the Communist Party USA as hopelessly reformist or was scarcely aware of its existence. This movement became the self-described "New Communist Movement."

Even activists of the 1970s outside of this movement acknowledged its importance. "A sizeable number of the most serious, hardest-working, most self-critical and most deeply radical people in the present-day left are members of Leninist organizations or would like to be," wrote Jim O'Brien in a 1977 Radical America essay, "American Leninism in the 1970s." It's easy nowadays to dismiss the "sects" of that time. But they carry important lessons-positive and negative.

Party Building

The bulk of Elbaum's book is a well-researched history of the efforts of the many groups of the period to build a new party. Elbaum also corrects the tendency of many of the popular books about the era, such as Todd Gitlin's The Sixties, to focus almost exclusively on the white left. Revolution in the Air chronicles the strong role of African-American, Asian and Latino groups during this period.

I won't attempt to summarize the history of party-building efforts here; a scorecard would be needed to keep track of all the groups. But the value of the book is not a dry recounting of the history, but an analysis of all the attempts at building new organizations, their strengths and their weaknesses. What started in the early 1970s as perhaps the most dynamic and energetic movements dissipated to almost nothing by the end of the 1980s.

Many of the groups made strong positive contributions to the struggles of the time, and the book recounts these. But seeds of the problems that would bring the movement down were present at its creation. Lacking-or rejecting-an organic connection to the previous tradition of socialist and communist struggles in the United States, the groups tended to import in toto contemporary foreign models, particularly that of the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was very congruent with experiences activists had in the New Left. The Marxist-Leninist "classics" were adopted as gospel. Hoping to create a new U.S. vanguard party, by and large the groups ended up creating toy Bolshevik parties instead: self-declared vanguards, rather than actual ones.

Even though many of the groups established a presence in particular struggles, especially those of labor, in many cases there wasn't a strong connection between the organizations and the social movements they sought to influence that could have provided a steadying influence or a reality check. A strong dose of volunteerism also affected the movement. There was a widespread feeling that an extremely dedicated group of activists armed with correct theory could accomplish anything.

"If one word had to be chosen to characterize the culture of the New Communist Movement that word would be 'intense,'" Elbaum writes. "The sheer amount of time, passion and energy that movement cadre threw into political work made movement life nearly all-consuming." Strong dedication is one thing; however, for some the phenomenon went beyond dedication to cult-like behavior. The author Joan Didion pilloried the sterility of one of the groups in her essay, "Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (ML)." Other groups exhibited almost all of the characteristics of what sociologist Erving Goffman calls "total institutions": all activity is in groups and strictly scheduled; all activities are planned to suit a rational goal; there is a privilege system and a particular jargon. These groups became increasingly self-referential and isolated.

Lessons Learned

Too many movements have passed from collective memory and been forgotten. Elbaum has performed an extremely valuable service in summing up many of the experiences and lessons of the Marxist groups of the 1970s and 1980s. "A great deal can be learned from previous left experience, and identification with the history of the revolutionary movement can be a great source of strength," he writes. "The contributions of Marx and Lenin still shed light on the workings of capitalism and the process of social change. They stand out for their breadth of vision and insistence on linking theory, practical work and organization-building in an internationalist project." He adds, "But it is an unwarranted leap from there to belief in a single and true Marxist-Leninist doctrine with an unbroken revolutionary pedigree from 1848 to the present."

Elbaum argues that "the whole epoch that began [with the Bolshevik Revolution] in 1917" has come to an end. But he offers three important precepts of the Marxist movements of the 1970s that remain important: "commitment to internationalism and anti-imperialism; the centrality of the fight against racism; and the urgency of developing cadre and creating organizations capable of mobilizing working people and the oppressed."

This is a story of an intense period during which a number of revolutionary organizations blossomed, then faded and died. Activists who lived through the time and newer activists, people who admire the Leninist tradition and people who hate the Leninist tradition will all benefit from reading it.

John Trinkl is an editor and writer in San Francisco. He covered the U.S. left for the (National) Guardian Newsweekly from 1976-1985.