Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, by Max Elbaum. Verso: London, 2006.
Today, when the U.S. left consists of little more than Barbara Ehrenreich, a couple of blogs, and an anarchist burrito stand or two, it’s hard to imagine a time when the left was so vast and powerful that it could accommodate a vital and influential revolutionary fringe. Nowadays, this description applies to the right, with its Birchers and seasteaders aiming their doctrines toward the power centers of the Republican Party and its various para-organizations. But in the 1970s, it was the left that dominated American politics from Congress to the street corner.
A mostly forgotten chapter of this history is the New Communist Movement, veterans of 1960s radical politics who were inspired by national liberation movements in the Third World, antiracism struggles in the U.S. and, above all, Mao Zedong’s Communist Party of China. While the stories of “moderate radicals” like the early SNCC and SDS movements have been well chronicled, and the accounts of the Weatherman tendency have proliferated all out of proportion with that group’s actual importance, the New Communist Movement is overlooked, even though at its height in the early 1970s it had thousands of adherents and could claim influence in protest politics and some trade unions.
The New Communists – organized into groups like the October League and the Revolutionary Union – were firmly convinced that the West was on the brink of large-scale revolution, and that Marxism-Leninism was the only philosophy capable of providing guidance for people looking to shape the future. It’s to Elbaum’s credit that he establishes this as a plausible belief in the context of the times rather than the ludicrous fantasy it seems today. The upheavals conveniently labeled “the Sixties” didn’t end on Dec. 31, 1969, and in the early years of the subsequent decade there were larger protests than ever over the invasion of Cambodia and the massacre at Kent State. In 1970, there were more strikes involving more workers than in any other year since 1946, and mutinies in the military were so common that in the month of May that year, an average of 500 GIs deserted. Henry Kissinger himself said “The very fabric of government was falling apart.” And, of course, the president of the United States himself resigned from office in disgrace in 1974.
In that context, the idea that Leninism showed the way forward was, if not self-evident, at least arguable. And while the New Communists were always a minority within a minority, their energy and idealism helped them win broader influence within the left. But a movement so yoked to the lunatic example of Mao’s Cultural Revolution was always in danger of shaking to pieces, which is what happened as the decade wore on.
Elbaum is a sympathetic observer, and attributes a great deal of the movement’s stagnation and failure to systemic changes in the U.S. economy and political system during the 1970s. The postwar economic boom finally ended in 1973, followed by the large-scale deindustrialization that gutted the labor movement. The oil shock and bitter recession of 1974-1975 sapped worker militancy, while fights over school busing in the North destroyed cross-cultural agreement between blacks and whites over the best way to attack racism. Finally, the right spent the decade organizing, making an early comeback with Jimmy Carter in 1976 before the full-blown Reaganist tidal wave four years later.
All of this is true, and yet it’s hard to escape the impression that the New Communist Movement was doomed from the beginning because of its internal flaws. Most of all, the movement was yoked to Mao’s China, which damaged it in two ways: first, by inculcating a Cultural Revolution-style obsession with ideological purity, and second, by forcing the constituents to constantly revise political positions based on whatever Beijing decided was expedient. The most significant example of the latter problem was the revolution in the Portuguese colony of Angola, which eventually helped topple the fascist government in Portugal itself. Most of the worldwide left, including the Soviet Union, were on the side of the MPLA rebels. But China, to counter its Soviet rival, joined with the United States, apartheid South Africa, and Portugal in first opposing the liberation movement and then supporting the fascist UNITA group. The New Communist Movement bitterly split, and never really recovered.
The examples of how ideological purism damaged the movement are still with us in the form of one of the last remnants of New Communism: the Revolutionary Communist Party, led by Revolutionary Union principle Bob Avakian, who has turned it into a tiny, quasi-religious sect that venerates him as a Maoist prophet. Anyone who has had the misfortune to read RCP literature or engage an RCP cadre in conversation can attest to the deadening intellectual effects of embracing the correct line above all.
This is a good book, but a dry one. The personalities who shaped the movement must have been rich and dynamic, but Elbaum spends very little time with them. He is more interested in ideas than people, which sometimes turns the book into a rehashing of decades-old quarrels over historical events that now seem to have less relevance to political life than the average game of Dungeons & Dragons. But as the only general-interest history of a significant part of American political history, it’s a major accomplishment.