InTheseTimes - August 2018

This is a history that's worth excavating in its own right, given how significant the NCM was at the tail end of the New Left. But it is also history that radicals today would do well to wrestle with. Socialists in the 21st century don't have to completely reinvent the wheel — they can learn from the often-heroic efforts of radicals several decades ago.Revolution in the Airis essential reading for the new generation of radicals that wants to get anti-capitalism right this time, avoiding the same sectarian, undemocratic, purity-obsessed mistakes that the past generation of Marxist-Leninists did.

... It's hard to come away from reading Elbaum's book without thinking that the movement made far more missteps than achievements. As we explore in our conversation below, the movement's orientation towards “Third-World Marxists” and left nationalism gave it some redeeming characteristics, like its steadfast commitment to anti-racism and creating a multiracial movement. But it also quickly became a movement rife with undemocratic behavior, obsessed with doctrinal purity, and orientated towards regimes like China that radicals later realized were far from successful democratic, socialist societies.

... I recently interviewed Elbaum about his book. Our conversation focused on the history of the NCM and—especially—what it can teach members of the DSA.

Micah Uetricht: Let’s start with the basics. What was the NCM?

Max Elbaum: The NCM was an effort by several thousand people to revitalize communism, during a period when traditional communism had been stagnant. It evolved out of the radical movements of the 1960s and had some momentum on the left from the late 1960s into the 1970s. At that point, it was the predominant trend within the Left. It had the highest proportion of people of color and some influential political initiative.

It ran into difficulties into the mid- to late-1970s. Some parts carried on into the 1980s, but was finished as a coherent force by the late 1980s.

Micah: What was meant by “communism”?

Max: The movement arose at a time when Third-World revolutions were shaking the empire, and when several of the leading organizations within those revolutions identified with Marxism-Leninism — versions of it that were not strictly within the ideological niche of the Soviet Union, particularly the Chinese Communist Party and the Cubans. The NCM identified with those movements politically and ideologically, and defined itself as building a genuinely revolutionary party as opposed to what it saw as “reformism” or “revisionism” of the Communist Party USA.

The idea was to build a new revolutionary vanguard on the basis of a more orthodox, left version of Marxism-Leninism, one especially inspired by the liberation movements then existing throughout what we called the Third World.

Micah: Why was the NCM so ascendent in the post-New Left?

Max: It attracted a plurality of people who turned to revolutionary politics — not necessarily a majority, but a plurality. It was particularly strong in freedom movements from communities of color among those who turned to revolutionary politics. People who went into it had an extremely strong commitment to revolutionary politics and made sustained efforts to sink roots in the working class and oppressed communities.

The largest left newspaper of the time, the Guardian, embraced these politics. It was a time when the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cuban Communist parties and other left-led national liberation movements had very high prestige, and this movement identified with those forces. All of this gave the movement initiative. ...
Read full interview at InTheseTimes