Revolution in the Air
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Aug 10 15:29:01 MDT 2002
Despite some serious differences with the analysis found in Max
Elbaum's "Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao
and Che", I strongly recommend this recently published Verso book to
anybody trying to make sense of the state of the left today. While
focused on the "New Communist Movement" of the 70s and 80s (that I
prefer to call Maoist), the lessons Elbaum draws are applicable to
all vanguard party-building projects including those of the
Trotskyist movement that I participated in.
For obvious reasons, Elbaum tends to exaggerate the importance of the
Maoist formations and deprecate Trotskyism, its chief rival. As a
veteran of this milieu, he would naturally be place a higher
importance on it than either the CPUSA or the Trotskyist SWP.
However, in his haste to put Maoism at center stage of American
leftwing politics in this period, he gives short shrift to its rivals.
I was in Houston in 1974 when the Maoist movement was getting off the
ground. The SWP dominated politics in this city after having
successfully put the Ku Klux Klan on the defensive. With over 100
members, including some Chicanos who had played a leading role in
Houston politics, the branch has a very high visibility. Around the
same time, the only functioning Maoist group was the Revolutionary
Union, which eventually became the RCP. Its members were clustered in
a few key plants and refineries in town where they were attempting to
influence trade union politics, rather ineffectively in my opinion.
From what I can glean from Elbaum's book, this was the modus operandi
for Maoist groups all around the country. Seeking to implement a
"deep industrial concentration", their efforts were essentially the
same as the CP of the 1930s which sought to colonize basic industry.
In contrast, the SWP had a rather negligent attitude toward Houston's
trade unions. Most of the branch members worked in banks, hospitals
or on campus and saw jobs as merely a means to an end. Political
activity began after 5pm and was geared to maximizing the party's
public image. This meant selling the newspaper at grocery stores,
organizing forums on current events or running election campaigns.
There was a minority in the branch that did take industrial jobs and
worked side-by-side with the Maoists. They belonged to a faction that
had made an alliance with the European Trotskyists. If they had any
impact on politics inside a factory, it was not obvious to other
party members. In general, these colonization efforts of the 1970s
made very little impact.
Elbaum's basic conclusion is that this turn to the working class was
based on a severe overprojection of the objective possibilities.
Ironically, the American Trotskyist movement adopted the same
orientation just around the time that the Maoists were crashing on
the rocky shores of American political reality. The economic downturn
of the mid 1970s did not radicalize the working class at all. In fact
it had a conservatizing effect as workers sought individual solutions
to a social problem. Michael Moore's "Roger and Me" presents a vivid
picture of an atomized working class in Flint, Michigan as ex-auto
workers seek to move to Houston or raise rabbits for profit. By 1979,
the Maoist movement had all but collapsed. In that year, the SWP
leadership announced that the working class had become "center stage"
in American politics and demanded that all its members colonize
industry in a fashion that the Maoists had found so unfruitful. In
addition, the SWP leadership adopted the same megalomaniac style of
the dozen or so Maoist sects which tended to view all political
differences as reflecting divergent class interests. In the SWP, this
was called the "scratch to gangrene" syndrome, based on Trotsky's
warnings about the "petty-bourgeois" opposition in 1938-39. In the
Maoist milieu, the same manichean approach to politics was justified
under the rubric "two-line struggle". As Elbaum puts it:
"In terms of inner-party debate, two-line struggle meant that there
was a premium on identifying one viewpoint as a 'bourgeois line' and
its strongest supporters as a 'bourgeois headquarters'. Those within
that 'headquarters' were subject to being on the capitalist
road--objective representatives of the bourgeoisie who, if they
persisted in their erroneous ways, could only become self-conscious
agents of the enemy class--or, in countries where the communists held
state power, a new bourgeoisie themselves."
By the late 1970s, many long-time Maoists had begun to question these
sorts of assumptions and form local networks and study groups to act
on their new understanding. Elbaum's book is a treasure-trove on this
evolution, which is much closer to my own post-Trotskyist experience.
In 1980 I hooked up with ex-SWP'er Peter Camejo who was in the
process of forming the North Star Network with members of the Bay
Area Socialist Organizing Committee, a typical "antidogmatic" and
"antirevisionist" collective, to use Elbaum's language. BASOC
involved veteran Maoist leaders including Steve Hamilton (I believe),
who had at one time been a leader of the Progressive Labor Party.
Along with former Guardian writer John Trinkl, Camejo and the BASOC
leaders sought ways to regroup the left on a nonsectarian basis. A
couple of years later, the Line of March--a group that Elbaum
led--had begun to take steps to dissolve itself after drawing similar
conclusions about sterile "party-building" approaches. Under severe
strains from trying to propel itself into a kind of mass party, Line
of March began to fall apart in 1987. The party chair developed a
substance abuse, just as did the leader of the Democratic Workers
Party (more later). The survivors and the North Star Network
launched a magazine called Crossroads that tried to popularize
nonsectarian ideas and regroup broad sectors of the left.
Unfortunately it did not succeed. My explanation
for its failure goes into more depth than Elbaum, who as a former
editor seems rather anxious to move on to other topics. Perhaps it is
too painful. His reluctance is all the more peculiar in light of his
perceptive remarks on the demise of the Guardian newspaper, another
Maoist stronghold at one time. He believes that its failure to draw
on readers for financial support and to even announce beforehand that
it was ceasing publication was a "debacle" that "underscored the
battered state of the Marxist left".
One of the last Maoist groups to go out of business was something
called the Communist Workers Party, which was founded in October1979
by ex-PLP leader Jerry Tung. Just six months later, five members and
supporters of the party were gunned down in Greensboro, North
Carolina by KKK'ers and Nazis during a CWP-initiated rally. The
action had an ultraleft character (unfortunately not characterized as
such by Elbaum) that called for openly driving the KKK out of
Greensboro. In the aftermath, the defense was also mounted in an
ultraleft fashion with the CWP calling for the need to "Avenge the
I met my first CWP'er in the NY chapter of the Committee in
Solidarity with the People of El Salvador in 1982, who was an
extremely talented and likable African-American named Ron Ashford. At
one point Ashford invited CISPES members to attend a CWP function,
which I dutifully agreed to do out of a spirit of solidarity. It
featured Jerry Tung giving an over-the-top, ultra-dogmatic analysis
of political perspectives in the USA. Only two years later, Tung had
decided to dump all his old convictions. According to Elbaum, Tung
was urging party members to study "futurists" like Alvin Toffler and
John Naisbitt just as Carl Davidson, another former Maoist, would do
in his cy.Rev study group in Chicago.
(http://www.cyrev.net/index.html) He also suggested reading theorists
of the corporate organization like ITT Chair Harold Geneen. The
purpose of such research would be to substitute the framework of the
"whole people" for the "working class and oppressed nationalities".
As should come as no surprise, the CWP would disband in a year or two.
In 1990 I began work at Columbia University, where I heard through
the grapevine that there was another programmer who had belonged to a
revolutionary organization. I finally had lunch with him and learned
about his frightful experience in the Democratic Workers Party, which
was sufficient to turn him against activism altogether. The DWP was
one of the rarer birds in the New Communist Movement that did not fit
into neat Maoist categories. Formed in 1974 in the Bay Area by a
group of thirteen women, the DWP was essentially a cult around
Marlene Dixon, a college professor with a checkered career. Not
surprisingly, with a leader like this, the group dabbled in academic
theory, Immanuel Wallerstein's world systems theory in particular.
They also valued Harry Braverman's "Labor and Monopoly Capital".
Notwithstanding the rarefied intellectual style of the party
leadership, the ranks were lashed into carrying out a 24-hour per day
party workload, which my co-worker spelled out in chilling detail.
You practically had to get permission to go to a movie on saturday
night. Perhaps these folks read Braverman for all the wrong reasons,
to figure out how to make the rank-and-file even more robotic than
the typical cult-sect member.
Just as was the case with the Line of March, the DWP began to crack
under self-imposed pressures. Marlene Dixon developed substance abuse
problems and the group began to feed on itself in the early 1980s,
seeking to drive out members who shirked their responsibilities to
the revolution, which one might surmise entailed going to the
bathroom more than once a day. Eventually, Dixon went the same route
as Tung and decided that revolution was a waste of time. In 1984, she
declared that "Marxism-Leninism as a strategy for revolutionary
change in the advanced capitalist couuntries must be seen as a
failure." In the fall of 1985, when Dixon was off at some academic
conference, the party expelled her and voted to dissolve itself.
With such as string of reversals, it is not surprising that Elbaum
questions the value of "Marxism-Leninism" in his final chapter.
Unfortunately, this term pretty much amounts to the Maoist
experiments of the 1970s and 80s that have very little do with
Lenin's party as does the Trotskyist efforts of the same time, which
also led to nowhere. He posits the Bolshevik Party as a new kind of
party that differed radically from Western European socialist
parties. In reality, this was not the case at all. Every single
Leninist "contribution" had been defined earlier in the Second
International. Lenin's goal was to build such a party in Russia. When
addressing the question of how a "vanguard" functions in What is to
be Done, Lenin pointed to Kautsky's party that stood up for the right
of a university to choose its own rector and other rather modest
We have the same requirement today that existed in Russia in 1902 and
in the USA in the 70s and 80s, namely to unite scattered Marxist
circles and individuals. Understandably, there is a certain amount of
gunshyness among Elbaum's generation. The idea of forming a new
organization is probably the last thing on anybody's mind who has
been through this experience. But there is no alternative. We are
entering a stormy period that will require all of us to rise to the
occasion. I strongly recommend "Revolution in the Air" as a case
study in what should not be done. What is to be done, of course, is
another matter altogether.
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