Making the Future’s History: Interview with Max Elbaum
By Chris Crass
Max Elbaum is a longtime activist and author of Revolution in the Air, crucial reading for all of us who want to build movement for collective liberation. Elbaum uses his experience, knowledge, research and passion for social change to give us a critical examination of the New Communist Movement of the 60s-80s. Looking at the political discussions, debates and organizing of the time, he gives us a detailed list of lessons drawing from the mistakes and the successes. As an anarchist who believes that neither anarchism nor Marxism hold the exclusive rights to the truth, I think we can move forward if we have the courage to look at our movements honestly, evaluate and strategize accordingly. Elbaum’s book is a useful tool to help us get there.
Chris: What were the motivations and goals for writing Revolution in the Air?
Max: In the mid-1990s I was at CrossRoads Magazine. I was spending a lot of time interacting with veterans of the different left currents out of the 1960s and 70s, taking a fresh look at the paths we had taken. I was also getting to know many activists from the generation that swung into motion beginning with protests against the Gulf War. In the course of those conversations I was struck by the absence of any detailed written history of one of the main 1960s-generated left trends, the thousands of people who turned to Third World-oriented versions of Marxism and, within that, the contingent that tried to build new revolutionary parties. The main goal of Revolution in the Air is to fill in that missing piece. It’s to provide a basic roadmap of this section of the movement, what the folks in it thought, what they did, how their work played out between 1968 and the 1989-92. Hopefully this will allow a much larger set of people, both veterans and new generation activists, to enter the conversation about what lessons can be drawn from this experience. In the book I offer my own interpretations of what those lessons are. But that’s really a secondary point of the volume. The main thing is to provide the raw material for a broader discussion, and hopefully stimulate other folks to write about parts of that experience I missed or present their alternative interpretations. And especially to help construct a political bridge between older and younger activists. During the 1960s, the relationships between older and younger radicals were extremely conflictive and often very unhealthy. It’s a major goal of mine to try to avoid duplicating that costly problem as a new generation takes center-stage today.
Chris: What is your political background and where do you fit into the history you document in the book?
Max: Like so many of us sixties kids, I was appalled by the gap between what I had been taught in school about this country history and supposedly democratic ideals vs. what was actually going on around me. Segregation, police dogs attacking peaceful civil rights protesters, military interventions in the Dominican Republic and Vietnam. I became alienated from what I saw as a general pattern of social hypocrisy and lies. By 1965-66 when was 18-19, I considered myself some kind of radical, in 1967 I went to my first meeting of Students for a Democratic Society, in spring 1968, shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, I decided that working for revolution would be my life’s central thread. From then through the mid-1970s, in Madison and Milwaukee Wisconsin and then San Francisco, I was involved in antiwar organizing, a hospital worker unionization campaign, radical educational work, all within the general milieu of activists who were inspired mainly by that era’s “two, three, many Vietnams.” In 1976 I was a founder of a one of the “second wave” new communist groups, the Line of March (soon referred to by our rivals as “March in Line”). Line of March disbanded in 1989 after a collective, two-year self-critique of vanguardisim and ultra-leftism. We turned over the group’s remaining resources to help start CrossRoads, a magazine of left dialogue. I was managing editor of CrossRoads from 1990 until 1995, when I resigned to start working on Revolution in the Air. I completed the final revisions in the manuscript the week before 9-11. Since then, I helped launch and serve as one of the editors of War Times, a nationwide, free bilingual antiwar paper.
Chris: As an anarchist coming of political age in the early 90s, the people who called themselves communist party builders were the Revolutionary Communist Party, Workers World Party and the Sparticist League. To me Leninist Vanguardists were themselves the best argument against that set of politics. Your book does an excellent job of describing why so many radical organizers looked to Marxist-Leninist politics in the late 60s. What lessons do you see from Leninism and Vanguardist politics for today’s generation of radicals?
Max: Thousands from my generation were drawn to the versions of Leninism then espoused by the Communist Parties in China, Cuba, Vietnam and other Third World countries because they foregrounded the struggles that were animating our passion for revolutionary change. They put opposition to racism and imperialist war at the center of analysis. They riveted attention on the intersection of economic exploitation and racial oppression, pointing us toward building a base in the most disadvantaged sections of the working class. They promised a break with Eurocentric models of social change and offered a framework for building a multiracial movement and breaking down segregation within the left. Leninism seemed to offer a mechanism to build grassroots-based, participatory organizations, with accountable leadership and able to resist state repression and infiltration. In the 60s many of us had become frustrated with chaotic organizations which ended up being led by media-selected or self-appointed individuals, mostly from privileged backgrounds, not accountable to the rank and file and not able to deal with sophisticated police infiltration. And Leninism inspired us to study history and political economy, to push ourselves to take broad responsibility for all dimensions of the class struggle, to set our sights on influencing millions and not be satisfied with self-marginalization in a small corner of the society. Of course, every left framework, not just Leninism, has its more flexible and creative vs. its more rigid and dogmatic versions. In the late 60s and early 70s, when we were immersed in a vibrant mass movement – and at brief moments in some groups for the next two decades – the more flexible variants of Leninism predominated. But over time, the general trajectory was for the formulaic and hierarchical side of the Leninist tradition to come to the fore. Groups that began with an audacious, creative spirit drifted toward what my book terms a “quest for orthodoxy” in which the focus was not on the real world around us but on scared texts. Early on most NCM groups asserted that a leadership role in popular movements had to be earned through hard work in day-to-day struggles; later they fell into thinking that they were automatically destined for vanguard leadership because they held a certain ideology. Organizations that once had a dynamic, give-and-take interaction with popular movements – and internally – hardened into sects that issued prescriptions instead of facilitating workers’ self-organization. The challenge as I see it is to disentangle the positive from the negative sides of that Third World Leninist experience. And to bring the positives to the table where folks from other traditions are all trying to create viable revolutionary frameworks and strategies for the 21st century.
Chris: Your book offers an evenhanded look at the NCM. You detail the successes without romanticing and critically examine the mistakes without self-flagellation. What were some of those successes and mistakes?
Max: The New Communist Movement was the most racially diverse radical tendency coming out of the 1960s. Its core activists succeeded for a decade or more in rooting themselves in industrial jobs, working class and people of color communities. NCM cadre were central to many of the sharpest anti-racist and labor struggles of the 1970s and 80s, spearheading the nationwide campaign against the Supreme Court’s initial attempts to roll back affirmative action (the Bakke case), leading battles of cannery workers, mineworkers, and auto workers; anchoring solidarity efforts with Chile, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Palestine, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines and more. NCM cadre learned a tremendous amount in these fights, and many remain key fighters and leaders in social movements today, especially in labor (both the “official” trade union movement and “unofficial” forms such as workers centers) and communities of color, the constituencies in which the NCM concentrated its efforts. But the movement failed in its goal of constructing a mass-based revolutionary advance guard. In part this was due to factors beyond the movement’s control – a key part of my book is the effort to sort through how much of what happened in the 1970s left was due to broad historical and economic factors over which the movement had no control and how much was due to its own strengths and weaknesses. But even given unfavorable historical conditions, the movement made a host of blunders that hurt rather than helped the mass movements and its own development. Nasty infighting and sectarian stances toward potential allies, instances where groups tried to take over – and ended up destroying – vital mass organizations. The development of top-down internal structures and a quest for monolithic unity – this produced a lot of bitterness among members who made big personal sacrifices for the revolutionary cause. And the NCM groups which dominated the movements early years had a terribly backward stance toward feminism and the then-exploding gay and lesbian movement. The movement was afflicted with a one-sided perspective on the process of revolutionary change in general; coming of age at a time when actual revolutionary assaults on the state seemed possible not too far down the road, we were riveted on the question of how to assemble enough of a base and strong enough organizations to accomplish that. We gave lip service but not real priority to a long haul perspective that emphasized the importance of initiative from below at every stage.
Chris: From your experience, how can people debate and struggle with each other about political vision, strategic planning and organizing in healthy ways that prioritize movement building?
Max: Virtually every radical trend says somewhere in its doctrine that change is made by “the masses in their millions,” that revolutionaries need to be accountable to popular constituencies, that it’s a long haul. But especially at times when progressive movements do not exist on a millions-strong scale, and given that activists necessarily spend a lot of their time interacting in coalitions or meetings with one another, there’s a strong pull toward forgetting that. And of course we take (and should take) our views and our organizations seriously. But again, there are pressures to forget the context within which we operate, and we can become prone to weighing our differences with others on the left far out of proportion to where they fit in the long-term struggle of millions. Plus, because many battles truly are urgent, we can tangibly feel the stakes in whether a decision about how to proceed goes one way or another. So it’s a constant challenge to retain our sense of proportion and respect for others we disagree with. Meeting that challenge isn’t helped by adopting frameworks – from whichever radical tradition – that imply there is only one way to do everything, only one true revolutionary pedigree, and that every difference of opinion represents the influence of the enemy class within our own ranks. I don’t think there will ever be a time when radical movements can be free of all sectarianism and internal battling – what to one person is sectarianism to another is a matter of principle. But I sense a widespread hunger among activists from all generations to do a lot better today than much of the left has done in the past.
Chris: Your book doesn’t spend much time looking at the groups out of the 1960s that adopted the model of being white anti-racist solidarity organizations working mostly with nationalists of color in the US and around the world. You also write that the NCM took a principled stand against the strategy of white people organizing white people against racism in exclusively white groups. As someone who organizes with white activists to challenge white supremacy, I’d like to hear your thinking about this.
Max: I don’t write much about those groups mainly because my book is focused on one particular trend, which in part was defined by its commitment to building multiracial, multinational communist organizations.
While I touch on other currents, including the ones you mention here, I don’t try – nor am I equipped – to make the same kind of extended analysis of them that I make of the NCM. On the substance of the important issue you raise, my experience has been mainly positive with the groups today whose focus is on challenging white supremacy among whites. I’m very encouraged to see forms like the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop, the Heads Up Collective [white anti-war, anti-racist solidarity group] and others not just recognize that whites have a special responsibility to challenge racism among other whites, but actually try to put that into practice via educational work and participation in anti-racist and other campaigns. At least on some points, however, it seems to me there are differences between the way these groups approach this issue today and the perspective advocated by some of the main groups that seemingly had a similar approach in the 70s and early 80s. During those years, different NCM groups – multiracial with anywhere from 10-20 percent to 60-80 percent of members and leaders of color – along with other multiracial socialist groups were in the thick of the most crucial anti-racist battles. Meanwhile white advocates of the “whites-organize-whites” model generally fell into one of two camps. First, there were groups who put in their programs that they “supported independent organizations of people of color” and then went about their business organizing whites giving little or no practical attention to actual anti-racist struggles. These folks were invariably on the sidelines of the fight against racism no matter how many times support for self-determination was written into their points of unity. Second, there were white activists who argued that the only legitimate revolutionary model was for groups to organize on racially exclusive lines with the all-white groups actively supporting the all people of color groups. The white folks who went this route made many contributions to concrete campaigns. But their model simultaneously invisibilized all the revolutionary minded folks of color who were members or leaders of multiracial revolutionary organizations. These leaders of color were considered “less revolutionary” but, since the white folks who advocated this model were reluctant to say that up front, they simply acted as if these activists of color did not exist. Thus, though whites pursuing this model were often the first to say they supported Third World self-determination, in practice they did more picking and choosing of which activists of color “really” (to them) represented communities of color than even many liberals. And on another level, again, that was a period when revolutionary groups were seriously trying to sink roots in exploited constituencies – organizing bus drivers, nurse’s aides, building a base in a particular poor neighborhood and so on. And when you started work in those constituencies with a left politics that included a powerful anti-racist component, you immediately started making connections with folks of color and the most democratic-minded and anti-racist whites. What did it mean if your message to the white folks you met was “happy to meet you, come join our group, we want you to become a leader” but your message to bus drivers or nurse’s aides or poor folks of color was “we support you but we don’t want you to join our group, go find some other group made up only of folks of your racial background to join”? That kind of perspective led to many unsavory situations and did not attract the majority of the folks of any color or nationality who were most committed to building a durable movement against white supremacy. Most of the NCM, in contrast, argued that there was a place for multiracial revolutionary organizations as well as autonomous/independent revolutionary organizations of folks of color or of particular oppressed racial or nationality groups, that white revolutionaries had special responsibilities to challenge racism among whites, and that groups made up exclusively of whites, while they would inevitably arise in a heavily segregated society, should take up the fight against racism and if they did, it would push them and should push them toward breaking down their all-white character. I could be wrong, but most of the groups I see today that work with white activists to challenge white supremacy, don’t promote the “whites-organize-whites” “folks of color organize folks of color” as an exclusive model. Rather, you seem to have very commendable antennae as to what kinds of problems and shortcomings tend to crop up in all-white groups, and you’ve found some creative ways to address them.
Chris: Finally, you use the term anarchist in several places throughout the book. When you use that term, it reads as though a lot of assumptions have already been made about it politically: anarchism as naive and clueless. While an evenhanded analysis of anarchism would certainly show significant historical mistakes, political and strategic weaknesses, and disastrous failures, there is more to it then that. While not trying to win you over, I ask with the deeper question of how do we work together to build anti-racist, multiracial, feminist, queer and trans liberationist, anti-capitalist movements for collective liberation?
Max: We’re all products of our particular historical time and place. As one of your earlier questions noted, what Leninism means to much of your generation is largely shaped by your experience with some of the groups that today self-identify as Leninist. Likewise, my initial views about anarchism were shaped by the particular circles and groups who were the most prominent advocates of anarchism in the late 1960s and 70s. By and large, and recognizing some exceptions, these were not nearly as immersed in grassroots-based mass struggles as that period’s Marxists; they tended to advocate and carry out small-group actions divorced from popular struggles; they were virtually all white and rooted in the more privileged layers of the socioeconomic structure. They were often indifferent or unfriendly to the revolutionary movements in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America that were such an inspiration to my generation. So, while I had read some books and developed a certain appreciation for some of anarchism’s insights and its valiant role in other situations, I didn’t spend a great deal of time delving into what this tradition had to offer. In the last few years, as I’ve had more and more contact with today’s anarchist movement, I’m getting a much better appreciation for the pluses that anarchism can bring to the table. I find much of what comes from today’s anarchist movement to be a breath of fresh air. To the extent I see manifestations of the kind of problems I described just above, I differ with the sections of the anarchist movement who seem to represent those perspectives. But overall my ideas about anarchism are changing as I have more contact with actual anarchists on the ground. Unfortunately for me and for my book, most of that contact face-to-face has come since I turned in those final revisions. I would have handled those passages differently, and my book would have been improved, Chris, if for instance I had the kind of relationship with you two years ago that I am fortunate to have now. Well, politics among other things is a lifelong learning process, and for me anyway better late than never. Not that I feel it isn’t important to accelerate the learning process we are all going through. To the contrary, the dangers facing this small planet and all the people in it are if anything greater than ever, and it behooves all of us to strain every nerve to try to build that movement for collective liberation as rapidly and effectively as possible. The story I try to tell in my book is about what tens of thousands of young activists from my generation thought and did based on that same motivation. We made a difference on a number of issues, but misassessing the historical moment, adopting overly rigid models, and descending into sectarian intolerance, we accomplished far less than we could have. All of us are in a new century now, every part of the left comes out of the old one with both achievements and shortcomings on our balance sheets. And even beyond all that, new conditions demand something that is more than just the sum of even the best of our previous insights. I believe anarchists and socialists, Greens and Leninists, revolutionary nationalists and Marxists, feminists, queer liberationists, folks whose activism stems from a spiritual or religious place and many others, all have something to contribute to a revitalized fight for what Robin Kelley in his wonderful new book has called our Freedom Dreams. And the stakes are too great for all of us not to open our ears and do our best to listen to others as well as toss our own perspectives into the pot.
Chris Crass has been a social justice organizer for the past 13 years. He works with the Anti-Racism for Global Justice project of the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop. Contact him c/o ONWARD.