Air Maoism

Goldner on Elbaum

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Commune
has a new review out of the 2018 reissue of Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air, which recounts the trials and travails of the New Communist Movement in the US. Written by Colleen Lye, “Maoism in the Air” is very sympathetic to the book’s central thesis: namely, that three distinct strands of American Maoism (Cultural Revolutionary, Third World nationalism, and orthodox Marxism-Leninism) shaped the politics of the post-’68 generation in a novel and generally beneficial way. Lye even goes a step further than Elbaum, remarking on the NCM’s institutional legacy that “today’s academic field of critical ethnic studies might well be described as a space where anti-racism and anti-imperialism continue, in a different key and perhaps even unknowingly, the Marxist-Leninism of the ’68 generation.”

She may well be right about this, but I hardly think this is a legacy to be proud of. Usually the so-called “long march through the institutions” is seen as a political defeat held up as an intellectual victory. Marxism’s relegation to the academy is a sign of its neutralization, in other words. I can only speak to the field of Jewish Studies, which is what I’m most familiar with, but for the most part I find it a useless discipline — despite my persistent interest in the history of Jews. Regardless, I was somewhat surprised to see such a positive review of Elbaum’s book in the pages of Commune, a magazine that I am very excited about. (For any readers who haven’t already, I encourage you to check out Jay Firestone’s ethnographic survey of alt-Right NYC and Paul Mattick’s outstanding piece on the centenary of the German Revolution.)

Admittedly, I’ve never understood the appeal of Maoism for American communists, either in the seventies or today. Perhaps it possessed some exotic aura back then, or was maybe just a dope aesthetic. Either way, the theory and practice of the Chinese brand of Stalinism ought to have been long discredited by now. Virtually all of the national liberation movements that were supposed to destabilize global capitalism and pave the way for international socialist revolution have been seamlessly reintegrated into the world of commodities. Nowadays, of course, there is the added association of Maoist ideas with the Black Panther Party, which is still celebrated as a high point in the history of revolutionary politics in the US. How much of this is simply mythologization after the fact is difficult to say, but it was certainly influential.

But even in light of this association, the attraction of Maoism is difficult to grasp. It was recently revealed, in fact, that the person who introduced the Black Panthers to the writings of Mao was an FBI snitch. Richard Aoki, the Berkeley radical and leader of the ethnic studies strike, informed his Bureau contact: “The Maoist twist, I kind of threw that one in. I said so far the most advanced Marxists I have run across are the Maoists in China.” Despite this ideological straightjacket, BPP spokesmen like Fred Hampton were able to say fairly interesting things (all this before he was gunned down in Chicago at the age of 21). While it gave Hampton the perspective he needed to denounce the empty culturalism of Stokely Carmichael, whom he referred to as a “mini-fascist,” it otherwise limited the Panthers’ scope of inquiry into capitalist society.

Loren Goldner’s review, lightly edited and reproduced below, provides a much-needed corrective to the laudatory reception Revolution in the Air has met with so far. Goldner grounds his critique of Elbaum in the left communist and heterodox Trotskyist tradition he belonged to at the time, even though he likewise went to Berkeley and knew many of the same characters. Other Maoists, such as Paul Saba, have gently criticized Elbaum’s book over the last few months. Saba contends that the main fault of the NCM — of which he was also a veteran — was its theoretical poverty, and that it might have benefited from a more sophisticated Althusserian-Bettelheimian viewpoint. Quite the opposite holds for Goldner: the New Communist Movement was wrongheaded from the start.

You can read a 2010 interview with Elbaum by clicking on the link, but otherwise enjoy Goldner’s blistering review. Maoism may still be “in the air,” as Lye contends, if the various Red Guard formations are any indication. According to Goldner, however, it might be in the air the same way smog and other pathogens are.

Didn’t see the same movie

Loren Goldner
August 2003

Review of Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che. London/New York, Verso, 2002.

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The sleep of dialectical reason will engender monsters.

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Without exactly setting out to do so, Max Elbaum in his book Revolution In The Air, has managed to demonstrate the existence of progress in human history, namely in the decline and disappearance of the grotesque Stalinist/Maoist/“Third World Marxist” and Marxist-Leninist groups and ideologies he presents, under the rubric New Communist Movement, as the creations of pretty much the “best and the brightest” coming out of the American 1960s.

Who controls the past, Orwell said, controls the future. Read at a certain level, Elbaum’s book (describing a mental universe that in many respects out-Orwells Orwell), aims, through extended self-criticism, to jettison 99% of what “Third World Marxism” stood for in its 1970s heyday, in order to salvage the 1% of further muddled “progressive politics” for the future, particularly where the Democratic Party and the unions are concerned, preparing “progressive” forces to paint a new face on the capitalist system after the neoliberal phase has shot its bolt. Continue reading

Pavlos Roufos live in New York

Saturday, 7-10 PM
November 24, 2018

The Base, 1302 Myrtle Avenue
Brooklyn, New York 11221
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Facebook event page

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Pavlos Roufos presents his new book A Happy Future is a Thing of the Past: The Greek Crisis and other Disasters, published in association with the Brooklyn Rail. Setting the 2010 Greek economic crisis in its historical context, Roufos explores the creation of the Eurozone, its “glorious” years, and today’s political threats to its existence. By interweaving stories of individual people’s lived experiences and describing in detail the politicians, policies, personalities, and events at the heart of the collapse, he situates its development both in terms of the particularities of the Greek economy and the overall architecture of Europe’s monetary union.

With both austerity and debt burdens still present, Pavlos answers the question: If the programs were doomed to fail from the start, as many claim, what were the real objectives of such devastating austerity? This broad examination also illuminates the social movements that emerged in Greece in response to the crisis, unpacking what both the crisis managers and many of their critics presented as a given: that a happy future is a thing of the past.

A careful and penetrating analysis of the cruel torment of Greece, and its background in the emerging global political economy, as the regimented capitalism of the early postwar period, with gains for much of the population, has been subjected to the assault of neoliberal globalization, with grim effects and threatening consequences.

— Noam Chomsky

This presentation is sponsored by Prometeo collective. You can read an excerpt from Chapter 6: Years of Stone, pp. 96-102, below.
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A happy future is a thing of the past
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Reaktion Books | UChicago Press | Amazon

The beach beneath

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The movement that began in Syntagma Square in late May 2011 and very soon spread out to squares all over Greece (thus gaining the nickname “squares movement”), represented one of the most condensed moments of the struggle against the crisis, its consequences and management. Many have argued that it did not have a specific aim or demand; according to one’s politics, this observation had either a negative or a positive undertone. However, there can be no doubt whatsoever that the masses that took to the streets, occupied public spaces and fought for almost two months to defend them, were directly concerned with putting an end to the austerity policies that were underway. And these policies, as we have seen, were nothing but a systematic attempt to render people’s ability to survive in a way that was meaningful to them increasingly difficult. Continue reading

Introduction to Ivan Segré

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My introduction to Ivan Segré’s polemical review of Whites, Jews, and Us (2016), by Houria Bouteldja, follows below. The full review, translated by Ann Manov, can be read over at the LA Review of Books. Be sure to check it out; it’s long but excellent.

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Houria Bouteldja is a controversial figure in France. She is the spokeswoman of the Parti des indigènes de la République (PIR), a group (and now political party) founded in the wake of the 2005 Paris riots to promote decolonial politics, a “third way” beyond divisions of left and right. Decolonial theory originated as a discursive framework among Latin American academics during the early 2000s, but soon spread to other parts of the world. Unlike postcolonial theory, with which it is often confused, the premise here is that one cannot speak of life today as “after” colonialism. For the PIR, despite the collapse of Europe’s overseas colonies, “decolonization has yet to be finished” (as Bouteldja told Saïd Mekki in a 2009 interview). In 2012, Bouteldja described their outlook to a Madrid audience as more of a mentalité: “Being decolonial is above all an emancipated state of mind.” The PIR’s position on this count clearly echoes the work of Frantz Fanon (among others), whose writings are frequently referenced in Bouteldja’s own.

Long before the release of Les Blancs, les Juifs et nous in 2016, Bouteldja was already known to the French public for her incendiary statements. Her book-length debut — a poetic, almost literary text, more manifesto than treatise — continues in this vein. Bouteldja opens with a chapter entitled “Shoot Sartre!”, a common refrain heard from pro-colonial French nationalists during the war in Algeria. She provocatively appropriates the refrain, not because she agrees Sartre should have been shot for supporting Algerian independence, of course, but to criticize his continued support of Israeli independence after 1967. Instead, she claims as a “hero” of decolonial politics former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom Bouteldja praises, with some reluctance, for declaring “there are no homosexuals in Iran” at Columbia University in 2007 — in other words: “at the heart of empire.” She takes the risk of admiring the statement’s provocation, even if she also explicitly recognizes that Ahmadinejad was lying. But in him, she sees “an arrogant indigenous man” speaking up to the West, something Sartre was ultimately — when it came to the issue of Zionism — unable to do. For very different reasons having to do with history and the discourses of sexuality in the West and the Middle East, Joseph Massad, a professor at Columbia, reached a conclusion similar to Ahmadinejad’s a year before in Desiring Arabs, a work Bouteldja cited in her 2013 critique of “gay universalism.” Evidently, avoiding the charge of homophobia is not a priority for Bouteldja. The more important, more fundamental issue (“the only real question,” as she puts it) is the oppressed status of the indigenous. In a chapter titled “We, Indigenous Women,” Bouteldja considers the risk of indigenous masculinity imitating white male masculinity, and asks instead “which part, in the testosterone-laden virility of the indigenous male, resists white domination.” That part can be used, she suggests, “toward a project of common liberation.” Continue reading