Max Elbaum book on American Maoists reviewed

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Jul 3 05:36:15 MDT 2002

Village Voice, Week of July 3 - 9, 2002

Mao Mix
by David J. Garrow

Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che 
By Max Elbaum 
Verso, 370 pp., $30
Landmark 1960s social-change groups such as the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)
are widely remembered for their progressive impact upon American society.
But the raft of overtly revolutionary political organizations that emerged
in the wake of SDS's demise, such as the Revolutionary Union (RU) and the
Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) (CPML) probably ring few bells except
among aging veterans of those groups. 

Filling this memory void is Max Elbaum's impressive and thoughtful new
book, Revolution in the Air. A longtime activist in what he calls the "New
Communist Movement" (NCM), Elbaum is a trustworthy guide to left radicalism
from the late 1960s into the early 1990s. The breadth of Elbaum's
knowledge, and the depth of his familiarity with long-forgotten
publications, marks this book as an absolutely first-rate work of political
scholarship from which today's young activists can draw important—if

The late-1960s-early-1970s emergence of these NCM groups resulted from a
combination of at least three major influences, Elbaum explains. One was
the growth of support within SDS for a tightly disciplined, Leninist-style
revolutionary vanguard party, in stark contrast to the largely unstructured
organizational style that had predominated among New Left student groups. A
second influence was the Black Panther Party (BPP), founded in late 1966,
for "the BPP's character as a disciplined, centrally led, cadre party,"
Elbaum writes, legitimized "the notion of a tight revolutionary party among
young radicals." A third major factor was the political irrelevance of the
Communist Party USA (CPUSA), a moribund, Soviet-funded entity that had
"failed to engage the new radical generation as a partner-in-struggle"
while resolutely championing "Soviet actions that were backward if not

In contrast to the CPUSA and the Soviet Union, the new, post-SDS
revolutionary leftists looked to Mao Zedong's People's Republic of China as
their international lodestar and embraced anti-imperialism, anti-racism,
and the creation of cadre-staffed, working-class-oriented organizations as
their defining commitments. Elbaum wants to rebut the belief that the
post-1968 revolutionary left was entirely just a "silly or even
pathological reaction to the upheavals of the sixties," and he instead
stresses "the breadth and depth of grassroots enthusiasm for revolutionary
politics that existed in 1968-1973." 

Elbaum is most impressive when analyzing what doomed all of these Maoist
organizations to relatively brief lives. Two problems predominated: a
profound "misassessment of how ripe capitalism was for defeat" in the
United States, and an utter lack of humility about each organization's
ideological proclamations and prospects for movement leadership. The latter
shortcoming was endemic to any self-declared vanguard party, and stood in
sharp contrast to the remarkably successful grassroots organizing efforts
that SNCC had mounted in African American communities across the Deep South
in the early 1960s. 

While Maoist cadre believed that it was up to party members to educate
grassroots workers, SNCC's far more perceptive attitude was that movement
cadre should encourage citizens to articulate their own needs and that they
could learn as much or more from the people as the people could learn from
them. As Elbaum notes with dismay about the new communists, "most of the
movement gave little attention to—or actually opposed—the development of
forms reflecting bottom-up initiative and working-class self-organization
outside party control." 

What's more, even within the NCM's most successful organizations, first the
RU, and then CPML, "revolutionary zeal tended to enclose cadre in a
self-contained and distorted world" that could not have been more different
from what SNCC organizers had experienced in their group's prime or what
the CPUSA had manifested during its heyday in the 1930s. Just as the
CPUSA's undeviating loyalty to Moscow had rendered it irrelevant to 1960s
leftists, the new Maoists' loyalty to China became highly problematic in
the mid 1970s once the People's Republic moved beyond polemical criticism
of the Soviet Union and actively allied itself with the Nixon
administration against the USSR. 

Yet international power politics were only one aspect of the movement's
downfall. "The tendency of a movement disproportionately composed of
individuals from the intelligentsia to lose its sense of proportion about
theoretical differences and fall into self-destructive infighting" was
equally deleterious, Elbaum concludes. Although the movement reached a
numerical peak in 1973-74, soon thereafter the movement's "dogmatic
tendencies . . . assumed hegemonic force." As even the movement's strongest
groups undertook "a never-ending quest for orthodoxy and a constant
suspicion of heresy," the energetically radical potential that the movement
had exhibited in its earliest years calcified into political and
organizational rigidity. 

Between 1979 and 1981, the CPML, which had become internationally
recognized as China's favorite American party (CPML chairman Mike Klonsky
was repeatedly feted with state-dinner-level visits to Beijing), dissolved
in a rapid series of factional splits and departures. Elbaum sadly relates
the human and emotional toll exacted by the movement's implosion, as "many
veterans experienced something resembling post-traumatic stress syndrome."
For many, their bitterness was so profound that they "simply abandoned
political work altogether." 

Elbaum notes that for many Maoists, once their political organizations
crumbled, they successfully re-entered "the better-off strata from which
they had once defected." Some, like onetime CPML chairman Klonsky, now an
education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, have
undeniably retained more than a modicum of progressive politics. However,
other former top CPML ideologues nowadays include a millionaire venture
capitalist who worked for many years at the Blackstone Group and a
management executive for a prominent Florida-based restaurant chain. 

Revolution in the Air cogently narrates the history of a highly instructive
failure. Max Elbaum readily admits that there is "no evidence that
Marxism-Leninism's resurrection lies anywhere on the horizon" and
acknowledges it is "extremely unlikely" that young people who become
radicalized now will seek affirmative guidance from that all-but-vanished
tradition. Yet in much the same way that SNCC's legacy can teach
present-day progressive organizers how they should interact with others,
the New Communist Movement's history is a powerful lesson in how not to
pursue the progressive transformation of society

Louis Proyect
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