Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Bill Gallegos

They Wanted to Serve the People
Chicanos and the Fight against National Oppression in the New Communist Movement

First Published: Freedom Road, No. 3, Winter 2003.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Madness seems to be on a dizzying march. While the US economy continues to crumble, poverty in the country reaches new levels, 41 million people lack any health insurance, and each day brings new revelations of massive corporate crime, President George W. Bush prepares the Final Solution for Iraq, a massive war of destruction opposed by nearly the entire world community. Even as tens of thousands of activists throughout the world work to jam up the US war machine, there seems to be little hope on the horizon for bringing about peace, much less a society not dominated by the most voracious and destructive capitalist system ever known.

Quite a change from 1968, the starting point for Max Elbaum’s examination and analysis of what was called the New Communist Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, a movement that attracted thousands of activists from all of the major social struggles–challenging the US war in Vietnam, and against national oppression, racism and women’s oppression at home. Elbaum is no detached scholar. He is a grizzled veteran of those years, as a member of Students for a Democratic Society and a leader of Line of March, one of the main organizations in the New Communist Movement. Elbaum must be credited with provided a compelling and complex analysis of a movement that was as varied and changing as the social movements from which it emerged. His book is a much needed breath of fresh air compared to the usual genre of books that examine the radical movements and organizations of that period through the prism of a “white blind spot,” completely ignoring the role of activists and organizations of color, or a cynical anti-communism that blames Marxist-Leninists for destroying all the social movements of the time.

In contrast, Revolution In The Air takes a much deeper look at the conditions and dynamics that attracted some of the best leaders and activists to create and build Marxist-Leninist organizations in the sincere belief that a better world was truly in birth–and in the not-too-distant future either. I was one of those people. I was an activist in the Chicano Movement who had been attracted to that movement’s left wing (the Crusade for Justice, Brown Berets, La Raza Unida Party) and helped to form the August 29th Movement (ATM), the first primarily Chicano communist organization in the US. Later I participated in the creation of the League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS), one of the main New Communist organizations, with probably the largest concentration (80%) of members of color.

Capturing the Movement’s Strengths and Weaknesses

I was drawn to the New Communist Movement because it helped me to understand the root cause of Chicano oppression, what Chicano Liberation could actually look like (i.e., self-determination), what social forces could actually achieve a revolution (the working class and U.S. national liberation struggles), and a socialist vision of an alternative society. As a revolutionary nationalist madly seeking answers to all of these questions, Marxism-Leninism was the only alternative providing not only political direction, but dynamic and disciplined organizations to support our work. Elbaum gets it right when he describes anti-racism as a defining characteristic of the New Communist Movement.

The movement also insisted that challenging the oppression of peoples of color lay at the heart of the revolutionary project, and that people of color movements–the Black freedom movement in particular–played a cutting-edge role in driving forward the democratic advance of society as a whole. The New Communist Movement put the fight for equality at the center of its politics and devoted immense attention to analyzing the history, structures and pervasive impact of white supremacy.

For many of us, these ideas were not mainly a product of reading the works of Marx, Lenin, or Mao, but of our own life experiences. We emerged from communities that had suffered a history of slavery, annexation, racial exclusion laws, wartime round-ups into concentration camps, and “no dogs, Negroes or Mexicans allowed” type of segregation. It was real. Marxism-Leninism only helped to validate our experience and to explain its causes and possible paths to liberation. All of us who came from these movements could identify with Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Vietnamese revolution. Ho had described how he wept when he discovered Marxism-Leninism because it showed him how his people could win their freedom. Many of us wept too.

One of the great strengths of Elbaum’s book is in identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the New Communist Movement. He provides some important lessons for today’s activists–not only the newer generation of anti-globalization, anti-sweatshop, environmental, and peace activists, but for us veteranas y veteranos as well: a dogmatic insistence on the purity and inviolability of each organization’s own political line, uncritical subscription to the politics of the USSR, China, or other socialist countries, homophobic policies, and a sectarianism that consistently placed unnecessary obstacles in the way of uniting our organizations into a single group (which could have numbered more than 10,000 members).

Even as Elbaum takes a sharply critical look at the errors of the new communist organizations, he articulates their strengths in a way that should have powerful resonance with today’s activists: the need for disciplined multiracial organizations, for sinking roots among the poorest sectors of working people and oppressed communities, of making anti-racism and anti-imperialism a central focus, and combining theory and practice. This last is important at a time when anarchist ideas–with a sharp anti-theoretical bias–exert a strong influence among many younger activists.

Coming Up Short on the National Question

On the other hand, Revolution in the Air suffers from some of the same failures as the movement it describes. As a leader in organizations that held–and hold–strongly to the view that oppressed Black and Chicano nations exist within the borders of the US, I cannot agree with Elbaum’s description of the organizations that adopted those positions simply as groups of blind doctrinaires who attempted to shoehorn uncomfortable historical facts into the National Question mold developed by Joseph Stalin. From my point of view, the issue of Chicano liberation mainly got short shrift from both the Old and New Communist Movements. The August 29th Movement was one of the few organizations that attempted a serious analysis. But the analysis did not start with Stalin’s definition of a nation, but from a look at the dynamic movement that was taking place at the time, a movement that involved hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from the working class, in struggles ranging from land rights to union rights, and from language equality to open admissions, and whose tactics ranged from electoral politics to mass actions to armed struggle.

For the August 29th Movement, the starting point for understanding the Chicano National Question was not a somewhat obscure text from the Soviet Union, but the historical fact of annexation. ATM tried to address the determinative question: What has been the impact on the Chicano people of military conquest and colonial domination by the US? And its answer was that annexation and the subsequent colonial domination of the US Southwest had forcibly prevented the Chicano people from evolving as a part of the Mexican nation, while racism and national oppression had prevented them from becoming part of the dominant Anglo-European nationality. In ATM’s (and later the League of Revolutionary Struggle’s) view, something new was born–an oppressed nation with the right to self-determination.

ATM and LRS embraced both the broader and stricter definitions of self-determination. As an oppressed nation, we felt that Chicanos had the right to democratically decide whether to remain as part of the United States. This was our answer to the issue of annexation: renunciation of annexation and upholding the national rights of the annexed peoples (Native Americans and Chicanos). But ATM also practiced and supported self-determination in its more popular meaning–as the right of oppressed peoples to choose their own leaders, to create their own organizations, and to pursue their own path to freedom. Members of ATM were among the founders of MEChA, the Chicano student network; of La Raza Unida Party in California, an effort to break the stranglehold of Democratic Party politics among Chicanos; and of many other nationally specific forms of organization. In fact, ATM and LRS opposed the efforts of some communist organizations to replace groups like MEChA with multiracial student organizations that supposedly represented a “higher form” of organization.

While Elbaum gives props to ATM and CASA as two of the main socialist-oriented organizations working among Chicano-Mexicanos during that time, he misses the important fact that both organizations–despite their differences on other questions–recognized that the Chicano people have national rights. ATM expressed it as the right to self-determination, and CASA expressed it as “socialist reunification” of the Southwest with Mexico. Both organizations recognized that annexation represented a historical shift in the development of Chicanos and had to be taken as the starting point for understanding the Chicano Movement.

The Chicano Struggle, the Sunbelt and the Border

Elbaum is not alone in his weakness on this question. The New Communist Movement gave little theoretical attention to Chicano Liberation. Most organizations concluded, with little analysis, that Chicanos were a national minority, and not an oppressed nation. Even many of those that correctly upheld the concept of an oppressed Black nation seemed to feel that one oppressed nation with the right to self-determination was enough, thank you very much.

As arcane as this issue might seem to some activists today (if it is considered at all), it is an extremely relevant issue that will influence our efforts to rebuild a powerful radical social movement, a rejuvenated Left, and new socialist organizations. The Chicano struggle, located largely in the Southwest, will inevitably play a major strategic role in any efforts to fundamentally transform society. The 2000-mile border that the Southwest shares with a volatile Mexico, and the central importance of the Sunbelt region to the short and long-term survival of US capitalism, means that the Chicano Liberation struggle, potentially embracing more than 20 million people, mostly workers, mostly poor, and all oppressed, could be an Achilles’ heel for an energy- and low-wage dependent capitalism. Whether or not this potential is finally realized will depend in large part on whether progressives, radicals, and revolutionaries are ready to give this movement the serious study and support that it requires–theoretically as well as practically. If there is one important lesson from the New Communist Movement that I would like to add to Elbaum’s pioneering analysis, that would be it.

Bill Gallegos is Coordinator of the Oppressed Nationalities Commission of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization.