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