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All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

REVOLUTION IN THE AIR: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, By Max Elbaum, Verso: 370 pp., $30

September 08, 2002|TONY PLATT | Tony Platt, professor of social work at Cal State Sacramento, has been a member of the editorial board of the journal Social Justice since 1974.

The 20th century began with the promise of humanity rising on new foundations and closed with unregulated capitalism triumphant, a dangerously polarized world and communism dead and buried, with "no evidence," observes Max Elbaum, "that Marxism-Leninism's resurrection lies anywhere on the horizon." Between the late 1960s and 1980s, tens of thousands of American activists joined or supported what Elbaum calls the New Communist Movement. By the 1990s only a few hundred die-hards remained, with most veterans, like myself, abandoning communism. What happened to a political tendency that flared so brightly and dissipated so quickly is the subject of this trenchantly argued book.

Elbaum is a longtime political activist who in the 1960s was a member of Students for a Democratic Society and from 1976 to 1989 a leader of Line of March, one of the main new communist organizations. "Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che" is neither a confessional renunciation of communism--following the example set in 1950 by Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright and other prominent intellectuals of a previous generation who publicized their disillusionment in "The God That Failed"--nor a romanticized, self-serving memoir of a professional revolutionary trying to justify how he has spent most of his life. Instead, Elbaum has written a complex, nuanced analysis--based upon interviews with ex-communists, internal documents of leftist organizations, his own political experiences and a wide range of secondary sources--that will be the basis of future studies of the fall of American communism.

In 1968 it was evident to millions in this country that revolution was in the air. The Vietnamese Tet offensive challenged the invulnerability of American militarism; the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. triggered widespread black rebellions; activists on campus, in the labor and women's movements and in communities of color generated an unprecedented challenge to the status quo. An opinion poll reported that more college students (20%) identified with Che Guevara than with any of the presidential candidates, and hundreds of thousands thought that this country needed a "mass revolutionary party." In May 1970, protests against Nixon's escalation of the Vietnam War led to what in effect was a campus general strike, with Business Week sounding the alarm that popular protests threatened "the whole economic and social structure of the nation."

But only a minority of '60s activists, observes Elbaum, "believed revolution was not only desirable, but possible--and maybe even not too far around the corner." They formed organizations led by dedicated, trained cadres who would "ensure that the revolutionary potential glimpsed in the 1960s would be realized next time around." As one who turned to revolutionary Marxism, I fit the profile of an important sector of the New Communist Movement: the white, middle-class son of parents who had participated in the inter-war Old Left; an adolescent who came of age as the countercultural movement unleashed a torrent of rebellious images and possibilities; and a young professor, starting my first teaching job at Berkeley in 1968, committed to practicing what I preached.

The movement attracted not only the white, disaffected sons and daughters of privilege, many of whom joined the Revolutionary Union or other Marxist-Leninist groups, but also thousands of recruits from impoverished communities who were drawn to such organizations as the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords Party, La Raza Unida Party, the American Indian Movement, Detroit's League of Revolutionary Workers and I Wor Kuen.

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