Maoism and the Air We Breathe

Colleen Lye

Maoism by another name is everywhere on the left. Max Elbaum’s history helps us see it.

Everyone is revisiting the late 60s now, though all too often just to double down on what they’d already thought they knew. As a sure antidote to that, I recommend that everyone read this book, the republication of which comes at just the right time. Originally released in 2002, Revolution in the Air was the first history of the New Communist Movement (NCM)—a concrete current within the late New Left few are aware of, and far more influential than those who are would care to admit. Sixteen years later and amidst a current renaissance of publishing on Third World Marxisms, global Maoism, and the 1968 era, Revolution in the Air has been joined by more histories sympathetic to the late New Left than existed when it first appeared. Notwithstanding, its theoretical power remains unsurpassed.

What was the New Communist Movement? The term “New Communist” is used to refer to activists who were inspired by the Marxist-Leninism of China, Cuba, and Vietnam, and who sought to build Marxist-Leninist parties to rival the CPUSA. New Communists believed in the revitalization of US communism based on fresh energies unleashed in the ’60s by Third World revolutions. While not identical with Maoism, the NCM’s core tenets overlapped enough with specifically Maoist positions, per Elbaum, to give adherents of Maoism an opening to take leadership of the New Communist current as a whole. More importantly, Maoism carried a theoretical prestige for early-70s revolutionaries critical of the USSR, even if it did not officially enlist behind its banner all who were drawn to the perspective of Third World Marxism. Elbaum’s precise and careful terminological distinctions combine with an expansive critical imagination to provide a complex portrait of his subject—an NCM that is coextensive with, though not identical to, Third Worldism, with Maoism the binding element between them.

But what was US Maoism anyway? Elbaum’s capacious view—compared to A. Belden Fields’s or Robert Alexander’s more restricted focus on official Maoist parties and groups in the US—allows us to see how a communist doctrine originating from an altogether different context dovetailed weirdly with sixties counterculture. By the time Elbaum is done with his story, one sees “soft Maoists” everywhere. This doesn’t mean the book isn’t rigorous in its understanding of Maoism. Succinctly and justly summarized by Elbaum, Maoism had three strands: a Cultural Revolution Maoism claiming that socialism would be built mainly through moral and ideological transformation; a Third World nationalism and populism, emphasizing actors in underdeveloped countries rather than a working-class vanguard; and an orthodox Marxist-Leninism that remained more or less faithful to Stalin. All three strands had their NCM manifestations. The first strand was to be seen in the considerable overlap between activists promoting “the personal is political” (a slogan certainly not unique to the NCM) and those most enthusiastic about Mao’s dicta regarding “criticism-self-criticism,” a process of calling oneself to account introduced during the Yenan Period of the Chinese Communist Party and more broadly universalized during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The second strand allowed for a pivot to a dematerialized version of “Three Worlds Theory,” making it easier for critiques of imperialism and racism to be delinked from opposition to capitalism. The third strand turns up as a morbid symptom in the NCM in its late stages, when a quest for orthodoxy led to dead ends, sectarian splintering, and theoretical sterility.

“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.”

So much of the NCM’s weaknesses are chalked up to Maoism that one is constantly brought back to the question of how something so present—indeed, so determinative—within the late New Left could have to this point been so overlooked. But here too, Elbaum’s narrative gives us some clues. The influential organizations from the NCM that survived through the 1980s—the League of Revolutionary Struggle and the Line of March—both had a conflicted relationship to Maoism. Supportive of a China which now condemned Cultural Revolutionary Maoism, the League of Revolutionary Struggle downplayed its former allegiances and never reckoned with them before disbanding, stressing only its contributions to communities of color. Line of March comprised NCM veterans who by the late ’70s had become anti-antirevisionists, or so-called “rectificationists”—renunciants of the Chinese Communist Party line—when China definitively started to align itself with US foreign policy in the Third World, particularly regarding the conflicts in Angola and South Africa. Meanwhile, the NCM group which had the largest membership and that continued to adhere to Cultural Revolutionary Maoism past 1976—the Revolutionary Communist Party (formerly Revolutionary Union), which enjoyed a peak of over one thousand members between 1975 and 1978—was considered a pariah and, indeed, non-Marxist by other NCM groups. In this picture of multiple antagonisms among identities that were once overlapping or even at times synonymous (Marxist, Maoist, Third Worldist), we begin to sense how it becomes possible for a movement that exerted such outsized influence in its time to vanish later, leaving “scant institutional legacy.”

It is an enigmatic conclusion. As Elbaum tells it, tens of thousands passed through the NCM between 1968 and 1990, when the League of Revolutionary Struggle and Line of March finally dissolved. Many of them went into nonprofit advocacy, education, and service groups. Among communities of color, former Marxist-Leninists occupied a full range of institutions, including immigrant-rights organizations, anti-police violence and prisoners’ rights campaigns, anti-environmental racism projects, independent and mainstream media oriented to minority communities, ethnic studies departments on college campuses, school boards, city and state educational administration, and more. NCM veterans went into the Black Radical Congress, Asian Left Forum, and New Raza Left. Many entered radical academic and professional organizations like the National Lawyers Guild and the Union for Radical Political Economics, while yet others moved into artistic and cultural spheres.

What Elbaum means by the NCM having “scant institutional legacy” is that these activists and former activists “will [now] make their contributions as individuals, not as part of a collective effort with a common vision of how to change the world.” At its peak (1970-1975), the NCM had constructed a new “we”:

Those who adopted Marxism-Leninism internalized a commitment to fighting racism and imperialism that transcended all matters of doctrine and orthodoxy (though many decided later orthodoxy was the key to success). This commitment went beyond notions of “support” for the struggles of the oppressed or “alliances” between people of different backgrounds. Cadre of all colors considered themselves an integral part of a universal community of revolutionary peoples. This movement’s “we” crossed racial and geographic borders; that was a key part of its early moral authority and appeal.

The NCM’s theory of social revolution placed anti-imperialism and anti-racism at the center in a moment when the critique of US policy in the Third World was the entryway to a left identity for thousands of radicals. Elbaum’s story of the NCM helps explain how it is that US activists, especially in communities of color, could have defined themselves as radical or even militant in solidarity with armed revolutionary struggle in the Third World, but not necessarily as Marxist-Leninist or even Marxist—bearing a “Marxism-Leninism internalized [as] a commitment to fighting racism and imperialism that transcended all matters of doctrine and orthodoxy.” 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. I suspect that this description might also apply to those nonacademic milieux still populated by NCM veterans, particularly nonprofit, grassroots, or community organizations.

Contra Elbaum’s assessment, then, there are likely many books yet to be written about the New Communist Movement’s substantial institutional legacy—whatever one may think of its efficacy. But if so, this is only because Elbaum has provided us with a rich enough interpretive history to connect past and present.