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Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review - Tony Platt Review

This review appears in the September 8, 2002 issue of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

by Tony Platt

The 20th century began with the promise of humanity rising on new foundations and closed with unregulated capitalism triumphant, a dangerously polarized world and communism dead and buried, with "no evidence," observes Max Elbaum, "that Marxism-Leninism's resurrection lies anywhere on the horizon." Between the late 1960s and 1980s, tens of thousands of American activists joined or supported what Elbaum calls the New Communist Movement. By the 1990s only a few hundred die-hards remained, with most veterans, like myself, abandoning communism. What happened to a political tendency that flared so brightly and dissipated so quickly is the subject of this trenchantly argued book.

Elbaum is a longtime political activist who in the 1960s was a member of Students for a Democratic Society and from 1976 to 1989 a leader of Line of March, one of the main new communist organizations. "Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che" is neither a confessional renunciation of communism--following the example set in 1950 by Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright and other prominent intellectuals of a previous generation who publicized their disillusionment in "The God That Failed"--nor a romanticized, self-serving memoir of a professional revolutionary trying to justify how he has spent most of his life. Instead, Elbaum has written a complex, nuanced analysis--based upon interviews with ex-communists, internal documents of leftist organizations, his own political experiences and a wide range of secondary sources--that will be the basis of future studies of the fall of American communism.

In 1968 it was evident to millions in this country that revolution was in the air. The Vietnamese Tet offensive challenged the invulnerability of American militarism; the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. triggered widespread black rebellions; activists on campus, in the labor and women's movements and in communities of color generated an unprecedented challenge to the status quo. An opinion poll reported that more college students (20%) identified with Che Guevara than with any of the presidential candidates, and hundreds of thousands thought that this country needed a "mass revolutionary party." In May 1970, protests against Nixon's escalation of the Vietnam War led to what in effect was a campus general strike, with Business Week sounding the alarm that popular protests threatened "the whole economic and social structure of the nation."

But only a minority of '60s activists, observes Elbaum, "believed revolution was not only desirable, but possible--and maybe even not too far around the corner." They formed organizations led by dedicated, trained cadres who would "ensure that the revolutionary potential glimpsed in the 1960s would be realized next time around." As one who turned to revolutionary Marxism, I fit the profile of an important sector of the New Communist Movement: the white, middle-class son of parents who had participated in the inter-war Old Left; an adolescent who came of age as the countercultural movement unleashed a torrent of rebellious images and possibilities; and a young professor, starting my first teaching job at Berkeley in 1968, committed to practicing what I preached.

The movement attracted not only the white, disaffected sons and daughters of privilege, many of whom joined the Revolutionary Union or other Marxist-Leninist groups, but also thousands of recruits from impoverished communities who were drawn to such organizations as the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords Party, La Raza Unida Party, the American Indian Movement, Detroit's League of Revolutionary Workers and I Wor Kuen.

Though the number of radicals who became full-time cadres remained relatively small--estimated at never more than 10,000--Elbaum argues that in the 1970s the movement "constituted the most dynamic section of a vibrant anticapitalist left," its influence radiating throughout the antiwar movement, anti-racist struggles at the community level, and study groups and bookstores. Revolutionary literature--such as Frantz Fanon's "The Wretched of the Earth" (1968), Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy's "Monopoly Capital" (1968), and Felix Greene's "The Enemy: What Every American Should Know About Imperialism" (1971) engaged millions of readers. William Hinton's "Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village" (1966) alone sold a remarkable 200,000 paperback copies. In its formative years, Elbaum reports, the New Communist Movement was bursting with audacious creativity. He takes issue with the simplistic thesis, first articulated in Todd Gitlin's book "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage" (1987), that communists hijacked and wrecked the idealism of New Left activists. Rather he argues that "the young activists who built the New Communist Movement ... tried to mesh the political tenacity of the Old Left and the fervor of the New Left into a powerful revolutionary party." Unlike the Communist Party that was constrained by its fawning relationship with the USSR and American trade union bureaucracy, the movement was much more eclectic, drawing upon the experiences of the Vietnamese and Chinese Communist parties, Marxist-led liberation movements in Africa, anti-imperialist struggles in the Caribbean and Latin America and cultural rebellion in the West.

But this innovative dynamism quickly stalled as activists "became mired in dogmatist orthodoxy and moralistic intolerance, reproducing the worst traits of their predecessors instead of their strengths. They ended up making party building a fetish and constructed only sects." What caused such a promising revolutionary movement to implode? Part of the problem was the movement's failure to unite into a single organization or even an alliance of cooperative organizations. Instead, internecine struggles produced endless splits, posturing and denunciations. Moreover, Elbaum argues, there was almost no continuity between the '30s and '60s generations of leftists because the New Left wrote off the Old Left as "stuffed shirts," while the old guard regarded the upstarts as self-indulgent hippies and traitors to the USSR.

It didn't help, Elbaum adds, that the movement embraced "a strong current of anti-intellectualism," which took the form of a dogmatic scouring of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist texts in search of the communist grail. The emphasis on fundamentalist truths and revolutionary purity substituted for the hard task of creating and applying new ideas: "The movement paid a terrible price for embracing this quest for orthodoxy."

It is ironic, observes Elbaum, that a movement whose raison d'etre was the struggle against inequality should reproduce autocratic leadership and anti-democratic tendencies. Most of the new communist groups demanded unquestioning loyalty and obedience from its cadres: "Dissenters were either brought into line, pressured to quit, or expelled." More significantly, the Marxist movement minimized the struggle for gender and sexual equality and thus drove out many activist women, gays and lesbians into autonomous organizations. In this respect, the new communist line on "the woman question" was very similar to the Old Left's attitude to "Proletarian Morality," which according to Arthur Koestler, "consisted in getting married, being faithful to one's spouse, and producing proletarian babies." (Koestler's essay is available in a new edition of "The God That Failed," which features an insightful forward by historian David C. Engerman.) While Elbaum critically observes that "most Marxist-Leninists shared the homophobia prevalent in society as a whole," in my view he underestimates how much damage was done to the revolutionary left by its policies of sexual bigotry and adulation of machismo leaders.

"Revolution in the Air" demonstrates that the New Communist Movement, with its quest for ecumenical internationalism and rejection of the Old Left's fixation on the Soviet Union, ended up with its own dependence on China. The Marxist left continually exchanged fierce diatribes about the revolutionary virtues and sins of the world's two communist superpowers but actually, charges Elbaum, prior to 1976 "knew little about what had really happened in the USSR and less about what was actually taking place in China." Just as many Old Left communists broke with the Communist Party in 1936 after the Soviet show trials and again in 1956 after Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes, so too, many Maoists left the New Communist Movement in the wake of the Sino-Soviet split, especially after Nixon's visit to China in 1972. The recognition by China in 1973 of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile was the beginning of the end of the American left's love affair with Maoism. With Mao's death in 1976 and subsequent revelations about the crimes of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the relationship was over. By 1989--the momentous year of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and massacre in Tiananmen Square--the American Marxist lefts, old and new, had reached a political dead end.

Finally, it is important to note, as Elbaum does, that the ultimate failure of American communism was rooted in the resiliency of capitalism and the decline of revolutionary mass struggles at the global level. "A central problem" of the New Communist Movement was its "outright misassessment of how ripe capitalism was for defeat." Marxist leftists, says Elbaum candidly, had "an exaggerated evaluation of their potential," especially by the mid-1970s when the New Right was quickly climbing the ladder of power. Rather than adjusting to the demise of radical movements and focusing on the less glamorous challenge of creating a viable left force in American politics, the New Communist Movement "ultimately dissipated rather than coalesced the forces that could have accomplished that task." For example, the Marxist left essentially boycotted George McGovern's antiwar candidacy in 1972. By the time radicals made an effort to support the 1984 and 1988 Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns and build the Rainbow Coalition into a viable left-of-center political tendency, the effort was too little and too late. "Just when the ascent of Reagan underscored the need for a left," the movement sank "into crisis and collapse" and quickly "squandered its initial energy, dedication and potential."

Elbaum's book helps us to appreciate why "at no time since the birth of the modern socialist movement has the left needed such a top-to-bottom overhaul." It should be required reading for those interested in the modern history of social movements and for radicals of my generation who are trying to figure out what went so wrong. And to the generation of anti-globalization activists who continue the journey for social justice, "Revolution in the Air" passes on the advice that they need to chart a new map.

Tony Platt, professor of social work at Cal State Sacramento, has been a member of the editorial board of the journal Social Justice since 1974.