'Revolution in The Air' by Elbaum (Verso) (fwd)

PANKAJ MEHTA pankay at physics.rutgers.edu
Wed Sep 11 10:08:21 MDT 2002

I was wondering what the people on the list think about this analysis of
the implosion of the 60's left...I have not personally read the book but
the review is nice.

Pankaj Mehta

> Sunday, September 8, 2002
> Los Angeles Times Book Review
> All That Is Solid Melts Into Air
> REVOLUTION IN THE AIR: Sixties Radicals Turn to
> Lenin,
> Mao and Che, By Max Elbaum, Verso: 370 pp., $30
> By TONY PLATT, 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.
> 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.

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