Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


Revolution in the Air

Max Elbaum
Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che
Verso, London 2002, £20

THIS book is a history of the Maoist-Guevarist organisations which came out of the youth and student radicalisation in the USA in the late 1960s, from their origins to their eventual collapse in the 1990s. Elbaum’s reasons for writing it are in part to draw lessons for any revival of the left in the USA, and partly to polemicise against the ‘good sixties, bad sixties’ analysis of Todd Gitlin’s Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1987).

The book is structured in five parts. Part I deals with the antecedents of the ‘New Communist Movement’ in the process of radicalisation in the late 1960s, and the reasons for the unattractiveness of the ‘old left’ to the newly-radicalising forces. The latter are gravely overstated, since it is quite clear that outside the Far East Maoism only attained the sort of strength it attained in the USA in those countries where the Trotskyists were either very weak to start with, or deliberately abstained from involvement in the far left of the student radicalisation (as happened in the USA and a few other countries).

Part II deals with the apogee of the movement in 1968–73, describing the several organisations as they formed and their various attempts to go beyond ‘pre-party formations’ either to regroupment, or to launching themselves as parties. I expected this part to take me into a foreign world, but in reality the political culture described is not that far from the culture of the Trotskyist organisations in the same period: commitment to more-or-less Stalinist (or at least post-1921) versions of Leninism, vigorous activism, and attempts to reach the mass of the class through campaigns and fronts.

Part III deals with the movement’s loss of the political initiative and slide into crisis between 1973 and 1981, triggered initially by the difficulties of class and race analysis in the Boston busing crisis of 1974, exacerbated by separate ‘party turns’ by the major organisations which ended the hope of a broad regroupment, and then by the Beijing CPC-PRC leadership’s open bloc with the USA against the USSR and those Third World movements influenced by Moscow, which triggered a divide between those trends in the movement which clung to Beijing and those which shifted towards more general Third Worldism.

Part IV discusses, more briefly, the involvement of Maoist and post-Maoist trends in the Rainbow Coalition, and the impact on these trends of the collapse of the USSR.

Finally, Part V contains a chapter discussing the ex-Maoists’ ‘adjustment to civilian life’, and Elbaum’s lessons and conclusions. These are, broadly speaking, that the movement had a foreshortened sense of the imminence of revolutionary crisis which made it ill-fitted for the long haul; that Maoism was massively damaging, particularly in creating a mind-set of ‘theory-as-orthodoxy’ and producing sectarianism and anti-democratic internal practices; but that, on the other hand, internationalism and anti-imperialism, anti-racism and the effort to form an activist cadre, remain fundamental to any effective left. At the end of the day, a critical conclusion is that ‘basing an organisation’s unity on an ideological system (say, Marxism-Leninism) rather than a political programme (say, socialism) is fraught with danger … The result is a strong pull not just toward dogmatism but toward constant suspicion of heresy.’ (p. 336)

Considered as a history, I found the book an interesting read, but in some ways disappointing. The problem is that in some ways, because of the range of organisations whose history he is trying to cover, Elbaum paints with a very broad brush, so that it is hard to get a strong sense of the effective relation of forces between the different organisations or of any of their specific ideological dynamics. At the same time, this is so much a participant history as to be almost myopic. World politics are seen through the eyes of the anti-imperialist US left and in particular its Maoist wing, and there is little sense of the dynamics of the post-1968 Leninist and semi-Leninist far left elsewhere (even, for example, of the Guevarist and other trends in Latin America who might have been the natural allies of the American ‘New Communist Movement’). At the same time, some of his lessons are very pertinent. The experience of the Trots in Britain has also been one of early 1970s dynamism, later 1970s inability to work out a clear path through more complex political problems, and repeated sectarian declarations of small groups as ‘the party’ (albeit the Socialist Labour League–Workers Revolutionary Party, International Socialists–Socialist Workers Party and Militant–Socialist Party were all vastly bigger and better implanted than any US Maoist group). Trotskyism has functioned just as much as an ideological system, as opposed to a programme, as Maoism. It’s worth a read, then, if only to see how much like ourselves the US Maoists were.

Mike Macnair

Updated by ETOL: 22.10.2011