A Balance Sheet That Doesn't Add Up

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Review of 'Revolution in the Air', Max Elbaum, Verso £20

By the end of 1970, in the wake of Nixon's invasion of Cambodia and the resulting explosion of anti-war activism across US campuses, the 'New York Times' reported a survey stating that 3 million college students thought a revolution was necessary in the United States. Out of this radical milieu a smaller but nonetheless significant layer of activists set out to actively build new revolutionary organisations.

This book by a former leader of a Maoist organisation in the US during the 1970s and 80s is an attempt to distil the lessons of that period. He focuses on the turn by many of the best activists from the anti Vietnam War and black liberation movements to building revolutionary socialist organisations in the US.

Elbaum challenges very effectively what he calls the 'good 60s/bad 60s' thesis--the claim that the methods of the mid-60s New Left, with its emphasis on loosely structured organisational models prevalent in the civil rights movement and early stages of the opposition to the Vietnam War, are to be preferred to the later post-1968 turn to 'party building'. He insists that in the face of the US state's response to insurgency overseas and at home, particularly the wave of black urban rebellions sweeping US cities in the late 1960s and the vicious suppression of protest at the Chicago Democrat Convention of 1968, the turn to revolutionary politics by many was a logical development rooted in the concrete experience of a whole generation. It was very much a step forward for the movement.

The majority of these young activists adopted what he describes as 'Third World Marxism', above all Maoism. The combination of a high estimation of the revolutionary potential of Third World nationalism, illusions in China and a strong belief by many that revolutionaries by their own actions alone could move mountains (or 'voluntarism', as it is sometimes known) all played a role. This was reinforced by the relatively weak roots of many of the new revolutionary groups inside the US working class. Elbaum also touches on some of the weaknesses of the competing alternatives, including the failure of the main Trotskyist organisation to keep step with the radicalisation taking place.

The rest of the book is an often insightful attempt at a measured balance sheet of the successes and failures of the Maoist organisations. Elbaum is sharply critical of both the voluntarism of the Maoists and the strong pull of ultra-leftism and sectarianism that existed within its various currents. He is, however, adamant in his defence not just of the commitment and seriousness of those who sought to build these organisations but also that they were right to attempt to do so whatever errors were involved. He is inclined to be uncritical of the rightward shift of many Maoists and former Maoists in 1980s, particularly their involvement in Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Alliance and the Democratic Party.

For all the energy and commitment displayed by a whole generation of activists, the politics of the Maoists did enormous damage to the revolutionary left in the US and elsewhere. But in offering useful insights into how and why many activists turned to building revolutionary socialist organisations in the early 1970s, by drawing a frank balance sheet of those attempts and above all by continuing to insist that all this retains a real relevance to the renewal of the left today, Elbaum has performed a valuable service.