Tangled Up in the Milieu: An Interview with Max Elbaum, Author of Revolution in the Air

Revolution in the Air
REVOLUTION IN THE AIR: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che by Max Elbaum

I first met Max Elbaum in Vermont in 2002 at a conference against the war organized by the Burlington (VT) Anti War Coalition.  We had communicated via email and telephone before about his book Revolution in the Air and the imperial state we were quite obviously living in.  Since then, we have stayed in touch via email.  Revolution in the Air is being released as a paperback by Verso this month, so MRZine‘s editor, Yoshie Furuhashi, asked me if I would take the opportunity to ask Max a couple of questions. 

Hi Max.  Your book on the US new communist movement of the 1970s and 1980s is due to be released in paperback this month I believe.  I remember reading it when it first came out a few years ago and thinking how nice it was to have someone put all of that history in one place.  In addition, as a participant in the movement, it was good to read about it in its greater context.  Does the new edition contain any new information or commentary?

Thanks for the kind words Ron.  My main goal in writing Revolution in the Air was to fill in a missing piece in the literature on U.S. radicalism.  The idea was to provide a history of the path taken by thousands of 1960s/70s activists who turned to Third World-oriented strands of Marxism and tried to revitalize U.S. communism.  The book also offers my own balance sheet on the strengths, weaknesses, and lessons of that path.  But that is a secondary aspect of the volume.  The main purpose is to provide enough information — a basic roadmap — so that everyone can access this rich experience and form their own conclusions about what it might mean for movement-building today.

I especially hope the book can help construct a political bridge between older and younger radicals.  During the 1960s, relationships across generational lines were extremely conflicted and often very unhealthy.  I think it’s a top priority to avoid repeating that dynamic as new generations move center-stage today.

Revolution in the Air  was written before 9/11.  This new edition includes a new preface offering some thoughts on what the experience of the late 1960s/70s left looks like from a post-9/11 vantage point.  My experiences as I immersed myself in the antiwar and anti-racist efforts of the last five years have changed my opinions in various ways.  So has the very welcome criticism and debate which followed my book’s initial publication.  New conditions combined with collective discussion have pushed certain factors more to the foreground in my thinking and others to the back.

The new edition also includes a selected bibliography that was not in the hardback.  A fuller bibliography, as well as a chronology of events from 1954 to 1992 compiled while I was researching Revolution in the Air (it’s as long as the book itself), is available at the book-related website, www.revolutionintheair.com.  So are other articles, book reviews, and comments.

In a general way, what would you consider to be the greatest lesson a leftist reader of Revolution in the Air could learn?

I don’t think I’m able to pick out one paramount lesson from this very complex experience, which took place in a period quite different from the current one.  The best I can do is highlight a few important themes.

In its opening chapters Revolution in the Air  tries to paint a picture of the vast scale, scope, and diversity of the 1960s upsurge which gave rise to the new communist movement and other revolutionary trends.  What stands out is the number and diversity of “everyday people” who embraced political action.  Sparked by the Civil Rights Movement beginning in 1955, for nearly two decades one constituency after another entered the fray.  In the mid and late 1960s, youth-led movements among Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans added their weight to the energized Black community and the early anti-Vietnam War demonstrators.  A new women’s movement and then a gay and lesbian movement took shape.  There were more and harder-fought labor strikes in 1969 and 1970 than any year since 1946.

The protest movements, millions-strong, were spearheaded by a Black freedom movement that expressed the aspirations of the most dispossessed and offered an emancipatory vision that captured the imagination of people from all backgrounds.  Sixties’ protesters’ outlooks stretched from maximalist revolutionism to narrow recipes for reform.  Grassroots movements were able to force, and take advantage of, divisions in the ruling elite.  The peace and justice movements held the moral high ground and were linked to a worldwide popular uprising against imperial domination, white supremacy, and what was seen as a shallow, consumerist and anti-human culture.

It took resistance of this scale, scope, and duration to deliver the setbacks to segregation, racism, the war in Vietnam, and other injustices that the sixties movements accomplished.  And it was only in the context of upheaval on this scale that such a large left developed — a left numbering in the tens of thousands, with a significant proportion prepared to organize almost every aspect of their lives around their revolutionary vision. 

Recalling this breadth and participation, in my opinion, focuses our attention on what it will take to change U.S. society in significant and ultimately fundamental ways.  That this scale of resistance came relatively soon (in historical terms) after McCarthyism is a reminder that change is possible, that both individuals and broad social layers can and do change their outlooks and political behavior.  I think these points are vital for combating impulses toward accepting marginal status as a permanent fact of life, which inevitably afflict a left that is as weak and divided as the U.S. left is today.  We are defeated before we start if we surrender the idea that it is both necessary and possible to play a vital role in movements of millions.

Against this general backdrop, there are more specific points that are worth pondering carefully.  I don’t think it is any accident that the driving force of the sixties popular upheaval was the Black freedom movement or that the central axes of 1960s protests were opposition to racism and imperial war.  These are repeating threads in U.S. history.

It is also noteworthy that the anti-capitalist left grew in tandem with, not in opposition to or separate from, much broader and more fluid popular movements.  The specific left tendencies and groups that were able to make the biggest contribution (and grow themselves) were those that found ways to galvanize or participate in very broad coalitions and play pivotal roles in moving those coalitions forward.  Success was in part due to styles of work that focused on finding points of agreement with others and healthy, non-bridge-burning ways of discussing points of difference.  It also was related to how accurately one or another tendency assessed what was possible at any given moment and the real sentiments (not the ones we might wish for) among key constituencies, in particular different communities of color and various layers of the working class.

Revolution in the Air also includes a detailed discussion of the ways in which the new communist movement’s stress on the centrality of anti-racism and internationalism contributed to the initiative it held at various times.  Many pages are devoted to examining the ways new communist groups constructed disciplined, hard-working, self-financed, multi-racial organizations, where the bulk of members held working-class jobs, rooted themselves in exploited communities, and did their political work as “volunteers.”  The book describes the movement’s ideological frameworks and organizational models, which I argue — in Revolution in the Air’s final chapter — contained fundamental flaws.

Today’s left seems scattered and even meek in comparison to the left movement of the period covered in your book.  The nominally sectarian groups are small in number and membership and a good portion of the so-called left seems to be involved in yet another attempt to save the Democratic Party from its corporate self.  Even the International Socialist Organization — a Trotskyist-oriented group and probably the largest revolutionary organization in the US — probably has fewer than 2,500 members.  Do you see any possibility of this changing?  If so, where do you see the impetus coming from?  The antiwar movement?  Youth?  The immigrant rights movement?

The main reason for the difference in strength between the U.S. left today vs. the late 1960s/70s is the vast difference in the conditions each operated in.  That earlier left developed in the wake of nearly two decades of sustained popular protest.  During that time important victories were won.  Key constituencies — communities of color, women, the poorer layers of the working class, students — gained material strength, expanded freedom of action, and great (maybe in retrospect too great) political self-confidence.  Millions of people believed that each individual could rise, speak, and act for justice and make a real difference — because these millions had actually seen it happen, in the Civil Rights struggle above all.  The left, in various forms, held considerable initiative across the globe.  The U.S. economy was in the last stages of the long post-war boom.  The capitalist class was divided and anxious about its prospects.

Today we face the consequences of 30-plus years of counter-attack from capital and the far right.  Many gains from the 1960s — even the 1930s — have been rolled back or are under severe threat.  There has been an immense transfer of wealth upward.  Many of the openings to exert influence (via “mainstream politics” or otherwise) that popular constituencies pried open in the 1960s have been narrowed or shut.  Constituencies which generally serve as the social base for the left have been materially weakened and feel powerless.  Key institutions — such as the trade unions or grassroots organizations in the African American community — are in difficult straits.  Moods of fear and powerlessness are widespread among young people in a way that inhibits rather than fosters risk-taking and collective rebellion.  The left worldwide has suffered many blows; while there are promising developments recently in Latin America, it has a long way to go before regaining the kind of moral and political high ground radicalism held through most of the 20th century.  And since 9/11 there are all the additional complications accompanying the open-ended “war on terror.”

Therefore I think it is probably more useful to take a look at how 2006 compares to, say, 1956-59 (the early years of what in hindsight is called “the sixties”) than 1969-1975.  Once that is done, a more hopeful picture comes into view.  Still quite sobering, but more hopeful and I think accurate.  There are grassroots stirrings on a number of fronts, such as the ones you mention, that have potential to become sustained and powerful movements.  And if they do (not something under the left’s control) there is every reason to think that what has happened within previous popular movements will happen again: A set of activists will emerge (some new to politics, others not) who try to take a long-range view of each movement and what will keep it united, growing, and advancing toward ever more ambitious objectives.  These activists will identify and get to know each other and attempt to cohere a left wing of their specific movement in one or another form.  They will form alliances with like-minded activists in other sectors and cohere a general left trend in U.S. political life. Such a process takes time and has ups and downs.  Its progress depends among other things on how constructively existing left organizations and individuals interact with developing, often fragile, movements — and with one another.  But it’s at least possible to envision scenarios where in ten years U.S. politics includes an identifiable, healthy and dynamic left trend, one that numbers in the thousands and plays a positive role in movements that mobilize hundreds of thousands and have the sympathy of millions.

As to specific movements, Ron, you have pointed out in other articles that the antiwar movement has had its ups and downs since 9/11.  There is a big disconnect between the breadth of anti-Iraq war sentiment and the scale of on-the-ground antiwar activism.  That could continue.  But it is also possible that there could be leap in on-the-ground antiwar activity and in support from large constituencies.

The immigrant rights movement is the single most exciting mass-action development within the last year.  It faces many obstacles and a naked racist backlash.  But it holds tremendous potential because of the number of immigrants and their increasing role in the economy; the close inter-connection between the fight for immigrant rights and the fight of Latinos against all forms of discrimination; and likewise the inter-connection between the struggles of Latinos here and the popular upsurge across Latin America.  A lot will depend on the capacity of the grassroots immigrant rights groups to solidify their strategic orientation and organizational capacity.  The issue of alliances is also vital, with labor and, above all, the African American community.  The latter challenge is connected with the development of the Black left, which the limits of the post-Katrina protest movement shows is not in good shape.

Regarding the leftists who continue to work in and with the Democrats — how much of this activity do you think can be attributed to the Jesse Jackson Rainbow Coalition of the 1980s — a phenomenon that you write involved hundreds of the new communist participants?

The main reason many leftists work in and with Democrats is that the bulk of politically-minded folks in constituencies that are key to social change — communities of color, the working class and the unions, women, the LGBT community — have some relationship to the Democrats.  And most of their base that votes, votes for Democrats.

The relationships that different layers have to the Democratic Party vary considerably.  So do the strategies different left tendencies adopt to grapple with that reality.  There are efforts like Progressive Democrats of America to construct a self-conscious left wing within the party.  There are activists who work in local Democratic Party clubs where these have some kind of participatory character.  There are folks who focus on grassroots, non-electoral movement-building but then give some attention to pressuring and perhaps endorsing (and walking a few precincts for) one candidate or another at election time.  Many left-minded people work exclusively on grassroots issue campaigns and don’t go near the electoral process — except they “hold their nose” and vote for one or another Democrat on election day.

Sometimes these approaches are based on a long-range strategy.  Sometimes they are simply pragmatic responses to immediate circumstances in local, state, or national politics.  In one way or another they are all responses to the fact that the winner-take-all, two-party system is deeply entrenched in U.S. society.  It is accepted as the legitimate “rules of the game” by large numbers (and as “lousy-but-not-possible-to-change” or “lousy-but-there’s-no-better-alternative” by many more).  And it’s a response to the fact that key constituencies think who is in office as important in terms of advancing or protecting their interests and in most cases believe — based on their experience — that a Democrat will do so better than a Republican.

The Rainbow Coalition of the 1980s was one effort to grapple with all the dilemmas this poses.  Several thousand Marxists, socialists, and revolutionary nationalists in Black and Latino communities participated in the Coalition.  For most of them, this Black-led “party within a party” was seen as a way to build a base of millions, impact government policy in key areas (affirmative action, nuclear freeze), and maintain enough independence from the Democratic Party structure to exercise political leverage.  It was also a space where folks attracted to the Rainbow could (and did) move leftward and join revolutionary organizations.  Some on the left believed a powerful Rainbow could eventually dominate the Democratic Party.  (Analogies were made to the far right’s “takeover” of the Republicans).  Others foresaw an eventual polarization and split within the Democrats.  They believed that the stronger the Rainbow, the larger would be the social base that eventually would break with corporate Democrats to form, with others, a left or people’s Rainbow party.  There are several good histories of the rise and decline of the Rainbow for those who want to get the details of what happened and probe the experience for lessons.  One chapter in my book goes into considerable depth about the work of radicals (a few of the new communist organizations in particular) within the Rainbow, and the evolution of a 1980s “Rainbow Left.”

What’s your take on the Greens?  I know that they are a different type of animal in every place they exist and that your experience in the San Francisco Bay Area is probably different than someone from Baltimore, but do you see them as having any potential for motivating the nascent left?  Should they?

An effective “third party” can play an important role in presenting an alternative vision to a broad public and moving political debate leftward.  The problem, which people on all sides of electoral strategy debates emphasize, is that current electoral laws are a major obstacle to third parties breaking out of the ideologically motivated margin.  They put huge structural obstacles in front of third parties that are trying to take root and win enough elections to exercise serious political clout.

So electoral reform is a key priority.  The level of discontent with money-dominated politics means there is a potential social base for major change here.  Instant runoff voting is making some headway at the local level.  In the wake of the 2000 and 2004 elections there is more widespread discussion about scrapping the discriminatory Electoral College.  I think changing the myriad laws and practices which disenfranchise people of color ought to be at the top of the electoral reform agenda.  These lie at the cutting edge of today’s fight for democratic rights in the political/electoral arena.  Right-wing efforts to suppress Black voter participation are on the rise and there is a growing assault against Latino voting rights in the wake of “today we march, tomorrow we vote.”  If Green activists throw themselves into such efforts and intensify efforts to take up anti-racist campaigns, they can gain a wider hearing.  If Greens carefully listen to what constituencies of color and poorer workers in specific communities are saying about their discontents with current, usually Democratic, officeholders; and if the Greens show the capacity to mobilize their current, largely white base behind struggles of the more dispossessed and exploited — then they will maximize their contribution to both immediate battles and a renewed left.

What’s your take on non-violence these days?  How do you define it in the light of the ongoing violence of the State and the nature of the oppositional movements in the US?

Traditionally the left has always tried to struggle on the most peaceful, nonviolent level possible.  We advocate nonviolent social change within whatever country we live.  We stand with the most ardent opponents of war between nations and peoples.  Violence and war are humanitarian disasters.  They involve tremendous suffering and death.  In wars or any large-scale violence, it is the laboring classes and the oppressed peoples who make up the bulk of the casualties (both civilian and military).  They pay the heaviest human and economic price.  Large-scale violence and war has a special and disproportionate impact on women and children.

Also: the left stands among, with, and for the majority of people — while violence, the police and military apparatus, and war are at bottom weapons wielded by ruling elites to keep popular majorities under their thumb.  The more we can restrict the use of violence and military force, the better prospects the majority have to advance all our struggles, from struggles for democratic rights to battles for national liberation to ending capital’s domination of the planet.  I think this general proposition takes on even greater importance in an era where weaponry has become so destructive and the state’s capacity (particularly the U.S. state’s capacity) to devastate millions of people is so immense.  I’m for setting our sights on building the broadest possible movement for non-violent social change.  I think to succeed we have to resist all the romanticization of violence that pervades this society.  And likewise, it’s important to resist all those made-in-the-U.S.A.-impulses to employ violence as a short-cut or quick-fix method of making change.  This is almost always a temptation for small groups of radically minded people, but it is morally problematic and in practical terms it doesn’t work.

Still, for me, this doesn’t translate into complete pacifism.  There are unfortunately many situations where nonviolent options have been exhausted or are unavailable.  In those cases popular constituencies — I’m talking about people in huge numbers — have had to turn to armed rebellion or war in order to combat the naked violence of imperialist, capitalist, or fascist states and their mercenaries.  It is our responsibility to defend the right of peoples to resort to arms under those conditions.  A significant part of the new communist movement’s work in the 1970s and ’80s involved doing just this.  The movement originated among activists who supported the National Liberation Front in Vietnam.  New communist groups were immersed in campaigns of solidarity with the FMLN in El Salvador, with the struggles in South Africa and Palestine which had an armed dimension, and so on across the globe.  We also took up campaigns backing the American Indian Movement militants besieged at Wounded Knee and the right of the Black Panthers and Puerto Rican revolutionaries in government gunsights to defend themselves.  Our groups had their own self-defense apparatuses as well: after all, at least seven new communist cadres were victims of political murder.

Given the naked war-making of the U.S. government today, I think we have similar obligations today, making the point that oppressed peoples have a right to resist with arms and being willing to engage straightforwardly in the very difficult discussion of what distinguishes legitimate armed struggle from terrorism.  I don’t see this as contradicting a strategic perspective that says we go every possible extra mile to wage the struggle for change in nonviolent, peaceful fashion.

Now, on to other things.  What are you doing these days?  I know that War Times just came out with a new print issue for the first time in several months.  What prompted that?  On a similar note, what do you think the antiwar movement needs to do to gain some effectiveness?  After all, Iraq has become the debacle we feared, Afghanistan is in similar straits, Israel recently destroyed Lebanon at the behest of Washington, and a potential attack on Iran lurks in the ever closer background.  There’s got to be something more effective than voting for antiwar Democrats (not that that doesn’t help, but . . .).  What is it?

War Times/Tiempo de Guerras is the main activist project I’ve been involved in the last few years.  The idea of a nationwide, free, bilingual antiwar paper grew out of a series of “Radicals of All Generations” meetings in the Bay Area in fall 2001.  An ad hoc group of a couple dozen of us put together a pilot issue in February 2002.  Over the next two years we published 19 issues, printing 100,000 copies per issue.  The paper was distributed by hundreds of people in all 50 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico.

The idea behind War Times was that a missing piece of the antiwar mosaic was an accessible source of information and analysis that could be given to folks rather than something requiring people to come to us.  We conceived of War Times/Tiempo de Guerras as an “entry-way” effort.  We weren’t trying to duplicate the work of other organizations and media outlets.  We wanted to add a vehicle for introducing new people to the essential arguments against the “war on terror” and draw them toward on-the-ground organizing projects and coalitions.

Our target audience was the “unconvinced,” ranging from soft supporters of the war to vacillating opponents.  Sociologically, we tried to produce a paper useful to all constituencies, but especially aimed at workers, communities of color, and immigrant communities.  Hence the paper’s bilingual character.  In just about every big city in the country today (and many small towns and rural areas), rooting oneself among working people requires efforts at least in Spanish as well as English.

The project was funded overwhelmingly via individual donations from folks who found the paper useful.  As the antiwar movement went into ebb in fall 2004, donations tapered off.  We no longer had the funds to print hundreds of thousands of papers.  We decided to keep the effort alive as a web-based effort, producing bilingual downloadable flyers, monthly news recaps, and other materials.  We hoped this would play a modest role in supporting antiwar and anti-racist organizing projects.  And we wanted to keep our infrastructure in place in case conditions changed and another round of print publication seemed both necessary and possible.  (There’s a fuller evaluation of our 2002-2004 experience on the War Times website, war-times.org)

In the wake of Israel’s invasions of Gaza and then Lebanon last summer, we felt the need to revive our in-print effort.  The incredibly one-sided coverage in the mainstream media — typical when news about Israel is concerned — meant there was an urgent need to get an alternative view out as widely as possible.  We scrambled to raise extra funds and alerted our 5,500-member e-mail list of grassroots activists that a print issue would soon be available for distribution.  The special issue came off the press in mid-September.  The full text, in English and Spanish, can be accessed at the website.

As for the antiwar movement overall, I don’t see any quick or easy road to generate large-scale, durable momentum.  I don’t think there is any single tactic or direction or creatively crafted message that can and will short-cut us to a much better position.  We just have to face a lot of hard, slogging day-to-day work.  Folks rooted in particular sectors need to keep digging in and figuring out how to encourage and build on every expression of antiwar sentiment and every action no matter how tentative.  I think the efforts of US Labor Against the War, IVAW, Vets for Peace, Project YANO, and various local counter-recruitment groups have some advanced experiences in that area.  Creative ways to get coverage in the mainstream media and put a message forward in appealing ways are of immense value.  There’s a lot to learn from Cindy Sheehan and Code Pink here.  The fight against racist dehumanization and demonization of Arabs and Muslims — a major priority of War Times/Tiempo de Guerras from its inception — is a task that the left in particular must take on.

Above all I think the movement has to keep a focus on looking outward.  We should search for every possible way to come in contact and engage in dialogue with folks who are well beyond our current ranks.  We need to offer a welcoming face and draw people in step-by-step.  We should remember that people change their views most radically and most rapidly once they take that first step, get involved in a struggle on however minimal a level, and come to know and trust the folks they meet within a movement.

I think it is also valuable for the anti-imperialist tendencies within the antiwar movement to intensify dialogue and cooperation.  It requires a collective effort to stay abreast of and interpret rapidly changing developments.  We need to strengthen working relationships with groups much larger than ourselves, who hold different politics.  That means, among other things, strengthening broad, nationwide coalitions that require great effort to build and maintain, such as United for Peace and Justice.  The combination of reaching out to the broadest possible constituencies while building a more united left wing seems to me a good general guideline.

Thanks, Max.  Anything you want to add?

One of the most counter-productive and painful features of the new communist movement was its tendency to mistake toughness for commitment.  Rigidity for steadfastness.  Attacks on other leftists for adherence to principle.  Movement participants were intensely devoted to revolutionary change.  This devotion frequently unleashed a tremendous amount of hard work and self-sacrifice.  It often prodded people to stretch their minds and their imaginations in very positive ways.  But ultimately a political culture of ideological conformity within each group and political rivalry with all those outside prevailed.  So did an inflexible posture that put permanent labels on groups and ideas.  Change was resisted, even feared, as a threat to some kind of purity derived from tradition or classical authority.  There is a profound irony here, since the entire premise of revolutionary organization is that societies, classes, peoples, and individuals can and do change — and that masses of people can bring about changes whose depth we can barely even imagine.

Though today’s left has far different ideological and theoretical leanings than the new communist movement, some of those same negative patterns persist.  Slapping labels on people or ideas one disagrees with, or stressing every possible area of difference rather than unity — these are not behaviors that were left back in the 1970s.  And a downside of today’s “internet culture” is the tendency in at least part of it to foreground snap judgments, rapid escalation of disputes, and even harsh personal disrespect and mean-spiritedness.  These are off-putting and counter-productive to say the least.

I find it hard to imagine how we will be able to revitalize the U.S. left without a maturation in our collective political culture.  It is a daunting task to establish the left as a powerful moral, intellectual and political force in nationwide politics.  I think attracting millions requires forging a democratic atmosphere of flexibility, openness, generosity of spirit, respect for every individual, and fundamental belief that people (including ourselves) and the world will change.  To construct that kind of welcoming and sustaining political culture, rooted in the U.S. experience, I suggest we ought not to look only to the Marxist pantheon.  We can and must learn a great deal from other traditions as well — such as from the towering contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King.  From the experience of SNCC at the height of its contributions.  From the best of indigenous peoples struggles that emphasize respect for past and future generations and for the earth.

Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch‘s new collection on music, art and sex: Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at <rjacobs3625@charter.net>.

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