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Up in the air: The legacy of the New Communist Movement

An interview with Max Elbaum

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 30 | December 2010


On October 17, 2010, Spencer A. Leonard interviewed Max Elbaum, author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao, and Che, to discuss the New Communist Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. The interview was aired during two episodes of Radical Minds on WHPK–FM Chicago, on October 26 and November 9. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

Spencer Leonard: To start off in the broadest possible way, how and when did the New Communist Movement emerge? What sort of politics did it espouse?

Max Elbaum: During the late 1960s there was a broad radicalization across many sectors of society, responding mainly to racism and the Vietnam War. It was a time when the Third World was alive with national liberation movements, most of which identified with some form of Marxism or Marxism-Leninism: the Cuban Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, Vietnam, Southern Africa, and a number of political movements in the Middle East. Revolution seemed like a possibility to many. People were looking around for some framework. While Trotskyism and the established Communist Party [CP] had their adherents, the majority of those who turned to revolutionary politics looked toward Third World national liberation movements. They embraced various versions of Marxism-Leninism influenced by what they thought—what we thought—were the lessons of those Third World revolutions. Many decided that building some kind of new Leninist party would harness the emerging revolutionary sentiment.

So from 1968 through the early 1970s, large numbers of young people, some of whom had been involved in various liberation movements, all gathered into a common but loose political trend that called itself the New Communist Movement or the Anti-Revisionist Movement. This included former members of the Black Panther Party, SNCC, white students from SDS, the Puerto Rican movement, the Chicano movement, the Asian-American movement. By styling themselves “anti-revisionist” they intended to say that the official CP had surrendered its revolutionary perspectives for a non-revolutionary revision of Marxism-Leninism.


Black Panthers dare to struggle at a rally in Oakland, 1969.

SL: Today it seems almost unimaginable that in the 1970s Marxists constituted a dynamic section of a vibrant anti-capitalist Left. The entire Left now barely registers in U.S. politics. Advocates of revolutionary politics have only the barest foothold in popular movements and, among them, anarchists and revolutionary nationalists exercise greater influence than Marxists. Given the radical difference between the 1970s and the 2000s, why reexamine the history of the New Communist Movement? When you published the book in 2002, what intervention in the contemporary left did you hope to effect?

ME: After the group I had been in during the 1970s and 1980s disbanded, I was working in California on an ecumenical socialist magazine called CrossRoads. I was also working to organize opposition to a range of anti-working class, anti-immigrant propositions on the California ballot. In both projects, we began to encounter young people who had been radicalized during the first Gulf War. It was striking how little these people who had come up from 1989–1995 knew about what had happened after the 1960s. Many had heard of the Black Panther Party, and there was literature about the CP, and so on. But there was nothing about the New Communist Movement. I thought that some book should cover that history since, after all, it was an important part of the political experience of that generation. I also felt more generally that the Left in the 1990s had failed to appreciate the strengths and the weaknesses of the New Communist Movement. So I wanted to get all of this on the record.

SL: What are some of the lessons you felt were being neglected?

ME: For one thing, there was a fetish of ideological purity in the different trends of the New Communist Movement, a certain kind of voluntarism that attempted to leap over objective conditions. These problems affected our generation and glimpses of them came through again around Seattle in the World Trade Organization protests in 1999. We were also afflicted by rigid ideas about organization. Both led to various kinds of sectarian squabbling. There was also a general underestimation of how much serious theoretical and strategic assessment needed to be done regarding the society in which we live. A kind of American anti-intellectualism affected the New Communist Movement even as it promoted slogans like Lenin’s “Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.”

On the positive side, the New Communist Movement was dedicated to internationalism and to building a multi-racial movement committed to fighting racist discrimination. That was unusual for the time and produced some very strong bonds across social barriers. It also managed to produce some political victories, albeit often on only a small scale. The effort to sink roots in the working class, the effort to try to build long-term organizations, ones that have some staying power—indeed, the idea that you would go through some ebbs and flows—these were some of the strengths of the ideas that infused the Communist Movement. I do not agree today with some of our theoretical explications, but there was a lot that was positive there.

For one thing, the organizational model back then stands in contrast to what people today call the nonprofit industrial complex: large numbers of people organizing in and through NGOs. Nonprofits have their place, but there is nothing for the Left like an individual membership forming a voluntary organization focused on common goals.

SL: The founding moment of the New Communist Movement came in the late 1960s, when activists involved in anti-racist politics and the protest movement against the Vietnam War came to discover Marxism. Many of these activists, as you write, felt that if their moment was itself not revolutionary, it was at least pre-revolutionary, a 1905 moment prior to a coming 1917. There was the idea that the 1960s were a dress rehearsal for a revolution expected to take place in the activists’ lifetimes. Can you elaborate the grounds on which leftists in the 1960s and early 1970s based their assessment of their historical moment? What consequences did this assessment have for how they oriented and conducted their politics?

ME: The picture of the world that people held at the end of the 1960s was that the U.S. was the most powerful country in the capitalist world, that a whole section of the world had broken off from the capitalist system—the Soviet bloc, China, and so on—and that these were  “socialist” or “counter-system” states or what have you. Of course, there were many debates around this question. In addition, Third World countries engaged in late-stage decolonization struggles voiced socialist aspirations. According to this picture big chunks of the world were already non-capitalist and whole other chunks were moving away from capitalism. Given this we searched for movements within the capitalist world which, while beginning largely with young people and students, nevertheless seemed poised to forge links with the American working class, as we understood to be happening in France and Italy. In addition to this, many thought the profits within the imperialist metropole were going to be squeezed, requiring more concessions from the working class, which might prompt further radicalization.

Moreover, there was a certain intangible ideological quality to the moment. People who were 22, 23 in the late 1960s were old enough to remember those southern governors standing at the universities saying, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” A few years later, Jim Crow was outlawed. In terms of the change in the laws, and in light of the huge Freedom Movement, people felt they could identify with the people involved in the Freedom Rides and sit-ins. You knew those people if you were not one of them yourself. In addition to all the cultural ferment, a certain intellectual viewpoint emerged as to what the map of the world was, and with it a sense of having lived through a period of incredible change in which ordinary people had come on the stage and made a huge difference. Together these factors made revolution seem extremely plausible. That said, I don’t think many of us thought, “The revolution is coming tomorrow.” Certainly, those of us who had some political experience knew it was not going be a straight shot, one linear ascent all the way to revolution. But you are right to say that we understood ourselves as inhabiting a 1905 moment. The 1960s were our dress rehearsal: Contradictions were going to intensify, and in a decade or so there would come another movement that could be bigger, broader, and farther to the Left. That was the mindset.

SL: Would you say that the New Communist Movement really came too late, or that mistakes were made that might have been able to generate, as you say, more of an in-it-for-the-long-haul revolutionary current, one more resilient than what actually survived till today?

ME: Well, yes. The spirit of the book is that the revolutionary project is legitimate, positive, and desirable. Revolutionary politics are reaffirmed, if you will. But the book is also a self-critique about mistakes made along the way. Still, I do not think that we could have accomplished a revolution even if the generation of 1968 had made no mistakes. That said, were it not for our mistakes the 1970s would have been different, the 1980s would have been different. There’s a long debate about which mistakes were avoidable and which were not. It is impossible to do anything without making some mistakes. So how many of those mistakes could have been avoided, exactly which ones, what occurred at the level of individual shortcomings—such reflections can spin off into purely philosophical questions, or become an indulgence in alternate history. But certainly we took some wrong turns, and distinguishing these from the impulses and directions that moved things forward is what the book attempts to do, first of all by laying out all the facts of a history that most people are unaware of.

For example, given the goal of revolution, one still has to decide whether one is entering an offensive period or a defensive period. Are you going into a period that’s likely to produce advances and gains, or are you going into a period that will require consolidating gains already made while staving off a counterattack? You never know for sure, but you abandon materialism if you fail to make an estimate of the forces that are on your side and those arrayed against you. You have to ask, What are the tendencies? What is likely and whom do you work with? That is integral to Marxism, figuring out what is on the agenda within the constraints of objective circumstances. Marxists seek to understand their circumstances without apologizing for or accommodating to them, so they can know what they should do. We wrongly assessed our circumstances and the balance of forces. We overestimated the strength of the forces opposed to capitalism worldwide and underestimated U.S. capitalism’s counterattack.

We also took a whole bunch of things for granted. We thought that the gains of the welfare state, for example, were here to stay. We thought there was no significant tendency that could become dominant the way neoliberalism has become dominant. Had we assessed that better, we might have adjusted our strategies, our tactics and organizational approaches, to preempt and weaken the counteroffensive while keeping our side strong. I do not think that the revolution was going to happen in the 1970s or the 1980s, but had the generation of 1968—not just the New Communist Movement, but all of us who had turned to leftist, radical, and revolutionary thinking—done it better, we certainly could have entered the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond in a much stronger position than we did.

SL: Respecting the relative merits of the Chinese, the Cuban, and the Vietnamese parties, what pitfalls arose from attempting to constitute proletarian politics on the basis of examples from largely agrarian societies such as these?

ME: I do not think anyone in the New Communist Movement thought that we could duplicate the revolutionary processes or approaches of Cuba, China, or Vietnam. I mean, everyone understood that those were Third World societies with huge proportions of peasantry while the U.S. was a majority working class society, an advanced industrial society. So on that level I do not think people within the New Communist Movement sought simply to import those models. Still, this was a period when violence was in the air, confrontation was very intense, the level of conflict in the street had risen, and people had witnessed, to take one example, the repression leveled against the Black Panthers. Of course, there were some patterns taken from those revolutionary experiences that were unfortunately imported into politics here. Additionally, the complexity and importance of dealing with the electoral arena was not fully appreciated.

SL: Within the New Communist Movement, what sense had developed of the potentials concentrated in an advanced capitalist country such as the United States, potentials that could not be grasped by looking to politics developed under more adverse conditions?

ME: It was not until later that some of Gramsci’s ideas became popular, so we did not sufficiently grasp the complexities of dealing with radical politics in an advanced bourgeois democracy such as the United States. This was partially because we looked mostly to groups in the Third World for inspiration. There was interchange and study back and forth with people in Italy and Portugal and Western Europe and Japan, but probably not as much as there should have been.

There was a general ideological notion that the received theory of Marxism-Leninism was sufficient theoretically. While certainly it had to be applied to concrete conditions in the United States, the big theoretical questions were thought to have been solved. I no longer agree with that. Nor am I certain that everyone completely agreed with it at the time, though it was at any rate the dominant stance, and people more or less proceeded accordingly. Even the anti-revisionism phrase indicates a return to orthodoxy as opposed to breaking new ground.

There was, of course, a positive side. After all, this was a period—it is a little different today although not completely—in which few recognized that white people in the United States might have something to learn from societies and people of color in the Third World. That advancement was important for human equality and democracy. It does not mean you follow and adopt ideas uncritically, but it certainly means that you might learn something as well as teach.

SL: To what extent was the necessity of expressing solidarity with the Left through critique of the Third World movements felt among this generation of intellectuals?

ME: There was no shortage of criticism of parties around the world. There was no notion that people in the Third World can do no wrong and we just have to follow them. Different people within the New Communist Movement tended, as much out of sectarianism as anything else, to embrace one or another ideological schema and then do battle with the other ones. That was a common problem and it has been a problem for the Marxist Left, and for the Left generally, for a long time. But this raises the question of how one can develop critical solidarity given the complexities of U.S. domination of the Third World, and given how little people know about what is going on there. It’s a real challenge and the Communist Movement did not meet it particularly well, but I am not sure that it was much worse on this account than other Left tendencies. Indeed, in some respects it was better. Of course, that is not a good enough standard if we are talking about how to reconstitute the Left today.

SL: To what extent was there a project of developing intellectual and theoretical leadership in the United States, where so much potential is concentrated in terms of education and theoretical development? How much did young people in the New Communist Movement see that as a responsibility? Also, to what degree was there tension between orienting towards the Third World, on the one hand, and trying to develop workers’ political consciousness here in the United States, on the other?

ME: It’s hard to generalize about the New Communist Movement in that regard because there was a strong anti-intellectualist strain that was more dominant in some groups than in others. But there were also Capital reading groups and other attempts at an exploration of theory. It was a mixed bag.

SL: A lot of the questions point towards the question of orthodoxy. But it is not exactly clear how we inherit this orthodoxy, or how orthodoxy can be said to establish itself and its credentials. When we look back historically, prestige surrounds revolutionary success, and in a sense, guarantees orthodoxy. But this begs the question of how the whole history of revolutionary communism is assessed, of what constitutes “success.” There is, for instance, the question of Stalinism and the political transformations within the Eastern Bloc. But allow me again to press on the tension between the orientation towards the Third World movement and the project of  “sinking roots in the working class.”

ME: The word “tension” is apt. The basic standpoint of the New Communist Movement was that the capitalist exploiters who ran the U.S. were the common enemy of the Third World and American workers. To defeat that common enemy meant liberation for both. We were bound together by international proletarian solidarity and we shared a common enemy. On the other hand, there were tendencies impassioned by the brutality of the wars in the Third World, tendencies that shared resentment toward those Americans who seemed not to share their visceral anger. This tension could lead to Weathermen-style politics that simply denounced the vast majority of the population as collaborators with the enemy and arguing for the need to “fight the people.”

More generally, the New Communist Movement did not pay much attention to the visionary component about what progress and socialism could look like in the U.S. in an era of abundance. This may have stemmed in part from anti-consumerist ideas inherited from the New Left. But while there were shortcomings in how the New Communist Movement dealt with internationalism, there was, as I say, a widespread understanding that Vietnamese workers, Uruguayan workers, Palestinian workers, American workers, all had a common enemy. The problem was turning this into effective practice, and I certainly think that the New Communist Movement did not master that.

SL: Throughout the New Communist Movement, you saw young people politicized in the 1960s turning away from middle class professions and proletarianizing themselves for the sake of left politics. You write that the New Communist Movement

worked overtime to present itself—and actually become—culturally in and of the proletariat. This was no simple task. Faced with a badly divided working class and fuzzy borders between the working class and other classes, it was hard to locate any kind of uniform or clear-cut working class culture. Within people of color communities there were identifiable cultures of resistance, and a few organizations had some success in meshing into and helping sustain them. But there were few left-wing cultural milieus that simultaneously crossed racial lines and had a mass character. (170)

Wanting to fuse itself with the proletariat, leaders within the New Communist favored “working class” styles of dress, discouraged or banned drug use and homosexuality, adopted what you call a “crude anti-intellectualism masquerading as hostility towards elitism,” and even encouraged alcohol use. This points to how the New Communist Movement came to understand the working class as something uniform or clear-cut that had identifiable tastes and practices, rather than as something to be intersected and even criticized. How did this conception of class and class politics develop, and in what ways might it have limited the activity or imagination of the New Communist Movement?

ME: That kind of reification of workers did not work. It came from a lot of inexperience, prejudices, stereotypes, and a certain kind of orthodoxy, in the sense of a certain image of what had happened in the 1930s, which many tried simply to reproduce despite vastly altered conditions. In many cases the image itself was largely constructed, and does not correspond to what actually happened in the 1930s. As time went on, those New Communist Movement groups that managed to get past an initial stage and acquire enough staying power that they had some relationship to at least some group of workers—a group of a few hundred or perhaps a few thousand at most—usually shed the sort of practices and prejudices you mention.

The Communist Party in the 1930s grew to some tens of thousands of members, about half industrial workers. None of the New Communist Movement groups approached such a size or depth of influence in the working class. So, of course, their conceptions, interactions, were more primitive; idiosyncratic factors of different individuals can exert much more influence in a small group, and even become dominant, in a way that does not usually happen when you actually become a mass sociological phenomenon, which the New Communist groups at their best were only ever on the edge of. We never quite made it over that hump. Some tendencies still exist, but none of them developed the kind of organic roots in the working class the way the communists did in the 1930s.

SL: The commitment to anti-racism was a defining element among all New Communist tendencies, but the specifics of anti-racist politics became intensely divisive. During the Boston busing crisis, for example, the movement was divided over whether forced integration of Boston schools was actually part of a ruling class plot to divide the working class. Judged in retrospect, from the perspective of today’s functionally post-racist society—whose social barbarism towards racial minorities nonetheless matches or even exceeds the past, in the sense that in Obama’s America we are, in a way, facing both a more and less racist society—the anti-racist politics of the New Communist Movement feel misguided or anachronistic, if not destructive. In particular, what are the limits, as you see them today, of viewing the racial composition of the American working class in terms of oppressed national minorities, given all the difficulties this led to in the 1970s and before?

ME: Most of the New Communist Movement embraced the resolutions of the 1928 and 1930 CP grappling with the oppression of African-Americans in the U.S. The CP was trying to deal with the reawakening of politics that addressed race head on—peoples of color across the world, national liberation movements, the Marcus Garvey movement, and so on. So there was an effort on the CP’s part to deal with the fact that there was a distinct dynamic to the black freedom movement; it had a cross-class dynamic against racial discrimination, it was progressive, it was for equality and democracy. The particular theoretical frame that emerged in the writing on this is that African-Americans constituted or formed a nation, so their struggle was a national liberation movement from within. African-Americans in the Black Belt in the South constituted a nation and African-Americans elsewhere in the country constituted a national minority.

There was a lot of debate in the CP, and there has been a lot of historical debate about how much the actual “nation” aspect in this formulation of the “Black Belt” thesis had to do with an advancement of practice in the CP through the 1930s or 1940s, and how much had to do with the fact that the working class had to embrace the demands for equality being put forth by blacks. By the 1970s, most groups had a version of the black nation thesis, though some did not. But certainly all the groups in the New Communist Movement felt that the struggle against racism had its own independent dynamic. It was not simply reducible to the issue of class, but was an important struggle to be taken up by the working class as a whole.

Protestors march against integrated busing in Boston's Charlestown neighborhood.

So that was the background to the Boston busing crisis. The controversy within the New Communist movement revolved around the final ruling, whether it had to be supported as a product of the desegregation struggle that had been waged by Boston’s black community and its allies for more than a decade, or whether it represented a plot by the ruling class to divide workers. A few groups argued that the judge’s decision was a ruling class ploy, but most recognized that the working class was already divided by racism. On the ground, the resistance to the busing ruling was principally a “keep blacks out” movement. That resistance took violent form. There were mobs attacking buses with school children, and so forth. Most of the Left, and most of the New Communist Movement, took the point of view that blacks had the right to go to any school they wanted, and that this was an anti-segregation struggle: “It’s not the bus it’s us,” as Jesse Jackson, who was involved in that movement, put it. Most of the NAACP and most of the black freedom movement, most of the New Communist Movement, the Trotskyist groups, all took the line that it was an anti-racist struggle.

The Revolutionary Union, which was the largest New Communist Movement group at the time, and a few others, took the line that it was a ruling class ploy to divide the workers. So the New Communist Movement was not united in its opposition. It was pretty much the first time since the New Communist Movement’s emergence in the 1960s that it was not united, in a practical sense, around a particular struggle. There had been all these theoretical debates around national oppression, the Black Belt thesis, national struggles, but it had not yet been translated into taking different sides in a practical struggle of large significance. By the mid-1970s the Boston busing crisis had taken on national importance. There were national demonstrations. Boston had become a flashpoint of the anti-racist struggle and the New Communist tendency provided no unified direction.

What that had to do with the actual existence of a “black nation” or not, I don’t know. It is still difficult for me to figure out how exactly that fits in to the political struggle around Boston’s busing. I think the debate had more to do with one’s understanding of mass struggles and reforms and how the ruling class makes concessions, whether its concessions are plots that divide and weaken or whether they have a dual character. On the one hand, concessions such as the busing decision had been wrung out of the ruling class through mass struggle. On the other hand, the ruling class, when it makes concessions, always tries to make them on its own terms and in a way that is also likely to benefit them. At any rate, the Boston busing crisis was a turning point in the New Communist Movement’s capacity to unite and in its stature as a pole of attraction for the Left as a whole. Combined with struggles over Chinese policies, this proved divisive. The New Communist Movement lost the strength of attraction it had exercised from 1969 up until that point.

SL: The relationship between the Black Belt thesis and whether to interpret the busing decision as a ruling class plot remains opaque. While I agree that problems of racism and the politics of anti-racism remain, the way these were argued—in terms of the presence of third world nationalities in the USA, or even the idea that American minorities naturally “belong” to or have some other nationality than American—seem very foreign to the present moment. That a black person could be a corporate manager or indeed the commander in chief of American imperialism is something that most people take for granted today.

ME: The New Communist Movement group I was in did not think that the Black Belt thesis was theoretically sound even in the 1930s, much less the 1970s. We argued a very different point of view. There is a whole school of thought around this that has evolved into critical race theory and various other strands that look at the history of racial categories, race relations, racism, and race in America. I agree that strictly only using the tools of nation and nationality is not particularly useful in analyzing the history of race in America.

At the time, we had some sharp polemics in the New Communist Movement over this, and the debate lingers today. The folks whom I disagreed with then, even if I did not think the theoretical tools were the right ones, were nevertheless largely sensible. When looking at the theory debates, it is clear that much of it often came down to whose ideas, in the abstract, better imitated the prevailing orthodoxy or seemed to show greater loyalty to it. There were a lot of gymnastics around that, but when it came down to analyzing concrete struggles, the majority of the folks were pretty good. Even if they used theoretical frameworks I disagreed with, many of them engaged in quite advanced practice around the struggles of the 1970s.

For approaching today’s society, though, I do not think the idea that there are oppressed nations within the borders of the US is helpful in terms of understanding the political economy and social relationships, unless perhaps you are referring to specific Native American tribes who have treaty relations with the U.S. government, but that is a far different situation.

SL: You argued that the New Communist Movement was mistaken in its assessment of how ripe capitalism was for defeat. I wanted to raise the question of how we think about possibility and the defeat of possibility, retrospectively. In particular, can we really accept our defeat as evidence of the unripeness of capitalism for revolution? Doesn’t defeat or, at least, the form that defeat has taken render capitalism less ripe for future revolution? In making such assessments do we run the risk of imposing a false necessity upon history, and treating accomplished fact as inevitable? Reflecting on the politics of the 1970s, your book does not shrink from a recognition of defeat. But to what extent might we say that the limitations of our past politics are responsible for the present—in other words, to what extent might it not simply have been the case that “someone else won,” but also that we won in ways we did not expect to, and which now trouble us? Even the right-wing today seems to have been molded in important ways by the experience of the 1960s and 1970s radical left, not only in the sense that the right was forced to make concessions, but also in the ways that radical politics of the past have been stabilized, as a new status quo. Indeed, it is this ability to stabilize the status quo that we truly refer to when we speak of the strength of the right. Doesn’t history task us with the unpleasant necessity of taking responsibility for the present? In what ways do you think your book does this?

ME: I do not think we can let ourselves off the hook, nor should we delude ourselves into thinking that the current situation has nothing to do with what we did. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that the current situation resulted only from what we failed to do, and not also from what we actually participated in. We cannot only give ourselves credit for good things and let ourselves off for the bad things. We are part of it. That said, there needs to be a sense of proportion: There are some things the Left had control over, and many we did not. To assess the histories of social movements, you need to understand what the potentialities were at a given moment, and the extent to which these possibilities were realized.

I do not think Marx, for instance, was responsible for the failures of the 1848 revolutions. Some of what Marx said and did could have affected the outcome in some way, but fundamentally it was an issue of the balance of forces at the time. Of course, the failures of the Left worldwide have something to do with why the beginning of the 21st century looks the way it does. The U.S. Left in the 1970s were in a position to change the outcome of some political battles that took place between then and now, but certainly not all of them. Even with all the thought and energy so many of us expended, the fact is that we did not become powerful enough to decisively impact the overall balance of forces. So exactly how much change we could have effected is a matter of ongoing debate, and one that is not simply a question of historical “facts.” So, yours is a question with various moral, political, and philosophical dimensions. Struggling for the right sense of historical proportion is, after all, ultimately a matter of political judgment. |P

Transcribed by Ana Lilia Torres