“Revolution in the Air” by Max Elbaum, published 2002
This book is about “the new communist movement.” As a former member of the ‘Trend’ here in Minneapolis, I intersected with the ‘new’ communist movement (“’N’CM”) for a time. Max Elbaum was an independent radical around the Guardian newspaper in San Francisco, and was briefly in the Guardian clubs. He and others around that paper, including the famed Irwin Silber, formed the organization “Line of March,” part of the anti ultra-left correction to the ‘N’CM, and also part of the ‘Trend.’ Elbaum highlights the period between 1968 to 1973 as the ‘N’CM’s high water mark, then traces it slow decline throughout the rest of the 70s and 80s. At least two U.S. organizations still exist from this movement, one of them the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, which is actually two organizations now, and the second, the Revolutionary Communist Party ("RCP").
I am grateful for histories of this period that do not denigrate the left. Todd Gitlin’s “The Sixties” for instance is completely antagonistic to the later revolutionary developments in SDS. But I also don’t want to read a history that is only a partial history. Full disclosure here. I was in SDS, Progressive Labor Party, the “Trend,” a supporter of the Spartacist League; then a member of the Global Class War tendency, a “Marcyite” splitoff of the SWP and Worker’s World Party; then a member of Socialist Action, then of the Communist Party, and then the Labor Party. So I’ve been around the block, checking every pretender to Leninism. I’ve been, for periods of time, an anarchist, a Maoist, a Stalinist, a Trotskyist of various types and a labor activist, so, there you go.
It’s not pretty. But on the other hand, as Elbaum points out, some of the most dedicated, hard-working and competent people joined the communist organizations of the time, desiring to overthrow capitalism. And what is wrong with that? They could have been pricks and gotten careers, but then they would have missed all the fun. I never got a career, but then we didn’t overthrow capitalism - yet.
Elbaum details each and every collective, third world organization, rank and file committee, group and party that took up mostly Maoism in the period after the split in SDS in 1969. They were all mentioned on the pages of the Guardian, a national paper that most everyone read sometimes. Probably because of its intense identification with the ‘N’CM, it folded when this movement collapsed in the late 80s, closing it's doors in 1992. The Guardian had started during the presidential campaign of Henry Wallace in the 50s, and became more left wing in the 60s, and later specifically attached itself to this tendency in the 70s.
While Elbaum mentions Amilcar Cabral or Che or Castro or Ho Chi Minh, or every other Marxist and semi-Marxist in the world, it was Mao “ZeDong” that the “new” communist movement grouped around. Which is why I have a beef with the term “new” communist movement. While the left in the U.S. was influenced by Che “moral incentives” Guevara and Kwame “Black Book” Nkrumah and Nyguen “People’s War” Giap and even the Port Huron statement, the ideological foundation of the vast majority of the ‘new’ communist movement was Mao. And Mao wasn’t really all that new. He was trained by the Soviets, and developed his own ideological twists in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Elbaum uses the term to distinguish the ‘new’ communists from those in the CP and those in the Trotskyist organizations, who were the ‘old’ communists. I think a more correct and honest term would be the new Maoist movement or just Maoist movement. The organizations that were dedicated to Cuba, Venceremos for instance, were marginal. The Communist League, which Elbaum includes in the ‘new” movement, was anti-Mao and pro-Stalin. But they got a stipend to be called ‘new’ while PL, who used Mao against Mao himself, got called ‘old.’ This was a movement that read Stalin’s “On the National and Colonial Question” and called themselves ‘new.’ Go figure. Elbaum uses the terms “Leninist” and “Marxist-Leninist” in the same proprietary way as he uses the term ‘new communist movement,’ as if they owned these phrases. They didn’t, and still don't.
In fact, no Party in this crowd got the Cuban ‘franchise” or the Vietnamese "franchise." And even the Chinese, more interested in making a block with Nixon and the U.S., encouraged only “U.S. – China Friendship” associations during this period. No Peking millions for some lucky Lenin! Avakian and Klonsky must have been miffed. Even Progressive Labor, when it was recognized by Peking prior to the block with the U.S., probably did not get too much in the way of aid. Signs of things to come.
But I digress.
I respect historians who specify what part of a river they are studying. To me, the wonder of the 1960s and 1970s is that it gave world-wide birth to many Marxist movements, of various stripes. Even the sclerotic Communist Party USA was able to increase its membership during this period, especially behind Angela Davis. The focal points of this book are organizations like Revolutionary Union / RCP; Worker’s Headquarters / October League; Communist League, Communist Workers Party, League of Revolutionary Struggle, DRUM, Puerto Rican Socialist Party and Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committees, all part of this “new’ communist movement. However, the world wide Marxist upsurge also gained recruits in the U.S. for the ‘old’ Trotskyist (at the time) Socialist Workers Party, the ‘old’ Schactmanite International Socialists, the ‘old’ Marcyite Worker’s World Party, the ‘old’ CP, and even the ‘old’ PLP. So the question naturally aries, why does Elbaum only focus on part of the river? An historian interested in the whole revolutionary U.S. worker’s movement would cover all the groups. But Elbaum was hip deep in his end of the movement, and it is understandable that he might not feel qualified to write about the rest of the movement. I assume that is his motivation.
However, when some of his descriptions of the rest of the movement read like a clever and diplomatic “Line of March” theoretical article, I begin to wonder if this is a history, or another, more ‘objective’ polemic from that journal.
Elbaum’s tale goes something like this. There was the bureaucratic and reformist Kruschevites of the CP. The radicals of PL split from them, carrying the revolutionary banner until they got too sectarian (or perhaps hostile to the politics of the other factions in SDS). Later PL went crazy and denounced Mao for blocking with U.S. imperialism against the Soviet Union. Well, someone had to uphold the revolutionary banner, and who better qualified than the loyal and reasonable Maoists of RYM II (a grouping within SDS.) SDS collapsed, PL became insignificant, and the only real forces that mattered from 1968-1973, were the multifarious organizations of the ‘new’ communist movement, until it too went off the rails in the late 70s, and had to be corrected by the magnificent “Trend”, which saved us all to work within the Rainbow Coalition in the 80s. The end. I joke, but not much.
I’ll admit to being one of those ‘prairie’ roughnecks who, perhaps too late, began to give the various left leaders in New York and San Francisco a hard time (Elbaum is from San Francisco, headquarters of several left organizations, including Line of March.) From my own experience, our Minneapolis SDS did not collapse after the convention in 1969, unlike Elbaum’s fable. We had a large presence in 1972, during the anti-war rebellion here on the U of M campus. PL cadre, along with the SWP, organized Local AFSCME 1164 of the U of M Hospital Workers union in the period PL supposedly became irrelevant. While PL was doing this, Maoism dominated the original May Day Books located on Selby-Dale and Franklin Avenue.
Maoism did inspire many organizations in the U.S. across a large ethnic spectrum - black, Latino, Asian and white. The Panthers, legend goes, sold the Red Book to radicals at Berkley to make money, and didn’t read it until later. The Puerto Rican Socialist Party probably had more influence from the ‘old’ Communist Party than from Mao, but was still inspired by that milieu. Black working class radicals in Detroit, working in the auto industry, read and acted on Maoist teachings, and developed a powerful strike wave in that industry, and a mass presence for a time in some of the shops. This to me is the high point of the Maoist movement’s positive influence. The League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Black Workers Congress, DRUM, ELRUM, FRUM and the whole Detroit movement are a great expression of the work Marxist cadre can do in the labor movement. This work is wonderfully described in the book “Detroit: I Do Mind Dying” by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin.
From my experience, as I moved to Chicago during part of this period, the left was pretty balkanized, based on city. Perhaps the ‘N’CM had a large role in the Bay Area or Detroit. Perhaps other groups were strong in Atlanta or New York or Minneapolis? Elbaum’s selectiveness is such that he reports on splendid auto walkouts in Detroit lead by DRUM, and ignores walkouts lead by PL – Mack Avenue in 1973 for instance. Why? Because it does not fit with the fable. Or the overwhelming presence of the Socialist Worker’s Party in the national MOBE and other anti-war groups. Or the campus presence of Youth Against War and Fascism in New York. A Freedom Road comrade here in Minneapolis told me that Line of March never had comrades in factories, and claims Elbaum’s book does not identify factory work done by some forces in the ‘N’CM. I’m sure many comrades could say the same thing as to the carefully chosen nature of this history.
Elbaum points to events in Boston in 1974-75 as showing the first large failure of the RU/RCP, which was the largest of the 'N'CM's organizations at that time. RU/RCP thought the main problem in Boston was busing, not racist attacks on busing. So the RU paper attacked the busing scheme, and black activists noted that their line and the line of ROAR were coincidentally the same. Progressive Labor, which was supposedly dead according to the fable, lead 2,500 people waving red banners in Boston in 1975, marching against the racists in ROAR, this mostly from the New York and Boston branches of the party. PL also organized a summer project that year that brought hundreds of anti-racist students to the city to oppose racism. The main large demonstration at Boston’s Carson Beach during that summer, to ‘integrate’ the beach, and against the racist violence of ROAR, was lead by forces close to the SWP, NAACP and INCAR. Where is the ‘N’CM in all this? Elbaum identifies the most correct group as the “Proletarian Unity League”, a handful of comrades in Boston. I.E. the ‘N’CM managed to have almost no presence on the progressive side of this fight, while the “old” communist movement did. But that is not in this book. As an aside to this 'feet on the ground' issue, PL, in all it's ultra-left and thuggish glory, had a split of 100 people in Boston at the time. I think this split alone had more people in it than the organized cadre in the whole Boston 'N'CM.
Ideologically, Elbaum reports that the ‘new’ communist movement was initially inspired and guided by the ‘deep’ political work of the RU – principally Red Papers I, II and III, authored by Bob Avakian, a red diaper baby who went on to lead the RCP. As someone who tried to wade through those documents can tell you, they were turgid, cliched and slavishly Maoist. This was not clear, concise, factual, working class prose. This was a copy of something from China. Elbaum heralds his own group, Line of March and later ‘Rectification’ as producing the only sizeable theoretical work in the ‘N’CM. I don’t know if he’s right, but it couldn’t have been difficult to claim that title.
The second great failure Elbaum indicates was the debate over the USSR. Crucial to the ideological development of the ‘N’CM was the theory of the USSR as a capitalist and ‘social-fascist’ country. Mao’s bloc with Nixon in 1971 later lead the Chinese CP (minus victim-of- plane-crash Lin Piao) to attacking the Soviets as the ‘main enemy of the people of the world’ in 1971, a consequence of the erroneous theory of magical capitalist restoration. Somehow PL gets no credit, as Maoists, for immediately recognizing the logical consequences of this theory, and breaking with China. This same theory is opposed 6 years later by Elbaum and the developing “Trend” during a ferocious debate within the ‘N’CM over the Cuban intervention in Angola in the late 70s. The "Trend" lined up in support of the Cuban intervention. While most CP and Trotskyist forces in the world supported the Cuban intervention against South Africa and their front groups, the pro-Chinese groups opposed the Cuban intervention. The Chinese incidentally lined up with U.S. imperialism, which also opposed the Cubans and entered on the side of South Africa.
In order to hide how correct the “old” communist movement continued to be on the issue of the class character of the USSR, Elbaum uses Tariq Ali (unnamed affiliation, but a British Trotskyist at the time) to attack the semi-Trotksyist Schactmanite IS for exaggerating the capitalist nature of Russia. The funny part here is that Max Schactman developed his theory of the USSR’s ostensible capitalist nature about 20 years before Mao. Even in error, the ‘old’ communists beat the Maoists to the punch! Not in this book, of course.
Elbaum rightly shows the drift of the U.S. to the right and the dispersal of the working class as the objective cause of the destruction of the ‘N’CM. He also identifies deep flaws in Maoist and Stalinist thinking and organization. This theoretical re-evaluation of the ‘N’CM occurred during the time of the “Trend” in the late 70s as the Angola situation developed. This effort was lead by groupings of local Marxists in various cities like Philadelphia (PWOC), Tucson (TR), Boston (PUL) and San Francisco (Rectification) that began to question ultra-leftism in the party-building Maoist movement, and tried to create an organizational and theoretical alternative, the "OCIC" - Organizing Committe for an Indeological Center. Minneapolis also had a “Trend” group, which had a large presence at Honeywell, leading a rank and file caucus in Teamster’s Local 1145 of about 40 individuals for a time. Elbaum asserts that later forces in these Trend groupings formed the organizational basis for the left in the "Rainbow Coalition" movement in the 80s, behind Jesse Jackson.
Elbaum especially highlights the growth of the social-democratic organizations and papers, like Democratic Socialist of America ("DSA") and In These Times, and the weakening of the Maoist papers and organizations in the 80s, as a political barometer of the times. For example, Elbaum traces the trajectory of the New American Movement as it moved from engaging the Marxist left in the 70s, to later joining with DSOC to form DSA in the 80s, as indicative of the winds of 'bad' change.
Elbaum, while disappearing Trotskyism, sometimes repeats the same old slanders. In one passage, he slams the semi-Trotskyist IS as sectarians, a group he accuses of always splitting hairs, and unable to unite with anyone. (As the joke goes, if you had 2 Trotskyists in a room, you’d have 3 factions.) An astute reader of this book will notice the constant splits the ‘monolithic’ Maoists were prone to. But later in the book he includes Trotskyism as part of the left, and treats the Communist Party like something other than a ‘social fascist’ organization, which reflects his growing fairness. Elbaum himself seems to have ended up politically somewhere just to the left of the CP, but seems to be a person who now has a deeper understanding of the legitimacy of the various organizations across the whole left.
The most powerful part of reading this book, no matter what tendency you are in, is that it chronicles the times and events that we all lived in, and tried to react to politically. Whether it is the postal workers strike, the gas ‘crisis’, the Detroit walkouts, the Boston busing crisis, the Angola war, the Baake decision, the Air Traffic Controllers strike, the wars in Central America, or the election of the insurgent Harold Washington in Chicago, this makes you realize the tumultuous history we have lived through in such ostensibly ‘quiet times.’
And these cadres and former cadres – in whatever organization, from whatever party, who still struggle against capitalism in and out of the labor movement - should be given credit. Whether it is the activists in town from Freedom Road, which came out of the former Maoist movement, or Socialist Appeal and Socialist Action, which are part of the world Trotskyist movement, or the CP, which is still recruiting, or the TDU / Labor Notes groupings, influenced by IS; or those independent Marxists still lying in the organizational weeds – whatever the background, they are part of the Minneapolis/St. Paul workers movement. Quite clearly, we have all been in this together – our similarities are much greater than our differences. No history should pretend we don’t exist, or if it notices our existence, then disappear it. Read this book, but mind the gaps.
And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog, 1/13/2008