"Revolution in the Air" website announcement

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 16 06:38:50 MDT 2002

Now in its second printing, ‘Revolution in the Air’ by Max Elbaum has been
reviewed in the Los Angeles Times (text below), the Village Voice and
several radical publications. You can read these reviews -- and post your
own comment on the book and the issues it raises ­ at a new website,

To order a copy of ‘Revolution in the Air’ go to the above site or to

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

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.

September 8 2002
Los Angeles Times Book Review

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

Louis Proyect

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