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SF Weekly - Peter Byrne Review

Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che A subjective history of American communism in the Cold War era

By Peter Byrne

Oakland resident Max Elbaum has written a detail-laden account of American revolutionary communism, a political trend born inside the protests of the 1960s. The author, who participated in the radical movement he analyzes, outlines the history of several serious attempts to build competing "vanguard" (i.e., professionally led) communist groups in the United States. Elbaum says that the Marxist-Leninist trend failed to become a significant political force because its several thousand practitioners were trapped inside "ultra left" dogmatisms that effectively kept them from "serving the people."

The author relies upon archives, interviews, and his own memory to tell the story of how young Americans -- black, white, and Asian -- once looked to Third World socialists for political guidance, even orders. Unfortunately, Elbaum has a veritable toolshed full of his own ideological axes to grind. As the erstwhile leader of a now-defunct organization, he doggedly promotes his party's agenda -- which treated the U.S.S.R.'s invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 as an act of liberation -- as the best politics his generation had to offer. Important theories and organizing practices that Elbaum dislikes, principally Maoist, Trotskyist, and black nationalist, get short shrift. In addition, he all but ignores the radical feminism that was a touchstone of revolutionary communism. Despite the book's rampant subjectivism, however, it should still be of interest to those looking for lessons in how not to organize a revolution.

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The following Letter to the Editor appeared in the SF Weekly, September 4, 2002

A Commie Ragging

Better read than dead: The next time you assign someone to write a review of an important political book like [Max] Elbaum's Revolution in the Air [capsule review, Books, Aug. 28], please assign someone who has some basic familiarity with left-wing politics and doesn't have his own ax to grind. "American revolutionary communism, a political trend born inside the protests of the 1960s"? Come on. You'd think the U.S. [hasn't had] a Communist Party from the 1920s on. Elbaum is writing about the "new communist movement," and Mr. Byrne couldn't even get that basic fact right.

Allegations [that] Elbaum gives short shrift to Maoist, Trotskyist, and black nationalist trends simply aren't true. In fact, chapter after chapter closely examines Maoist ideology and political practice, while Elbaum carefully assesses the overlaps and differences between black nationalist currents and those of the new communist movement. In fact, this is one of the best books on the American left written in years.

Elbaum explains why so many '60s movement activists turned to revolutionary politics from 1968 to 1973, and the enormous strengths and insights of the movement that have been left out of the historical record. For young activists and more experienced ones simply trying to get our bearings in a right-wing world, Elbaum's book offers positive lessons about what we should learn from the new communist movement's experience -- like its emphasis on anti-imperialism and anti-racism -- and mistakes we should avoid.

It's invaluable.

Hany Khalil