Revolution Then and Now -- Lessons from the Past for Today's Radicals

Revolution in the Air – the title of Max Elbaum’s book and upcoming talk (and a line from a Dylan song) was something many of us felt in the late 1960s.  And once again today, many sense that possibility.

People can be pushed and pushed until a point is reached where they refuse to be pushed anymore.  A point reached when those who have been shoved realize that pushing back will make a difference.  We are living through one such time.

The shock, anger, and fear that millions felt when Donald Trump was elected was the straw that broke the camel’s back of passive acceptance for countless individuals.  The women’s march the day after Inauguration Day and the mass actions at airports following Trump’s first anti-immigrant order made clear that resistance would be massive and could be successful.

Since then, protest has led to protest, all flowing out of pre-election resistance that had already been manifested in Black Lives Matter, in the pipeline blockade, in Bernie Sanders’s campaign, in Occupy, to name but a few precursors.  Drawing from these movements and the sense of the times they embody, the socialist movement and organized left in all forms has grown too.  Relevant politically for the first time in decades, socialist activism is fueled by a dual sensibility – we can’t take it any more and we don’t have to; we can change the system.

The question is can these movements be sustained and succeed where other radical upsurges have fallen short?  This is the 50th anniversary of 1968, a year when popular discontent exploded throughout the world.  Following a long prelude, that year stands out as a moment when everything seemed possible to those who dared act on the dream of a better world.  As the pace of change began to stall and reaction strengthen, and the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s, thousands of young people tried to build upon that era’s resistance and movement, to give it shape and content, to work to sustain left-wing organization to end war and all forms of oppression and exploitation.  Much was accomplished, but the larger goals were not – a reality painfully evident when we look around this day and time.  What went wrong, what can we learn from past gains and losses in building the socialist movement within the larger current of resistance now?

Addressing that question will be at the core of the talk Max will give on Monday, May 7 at Busboys and Poets on the occasion of the reissue of his book, Revolution in the Air; Sixties Radicals Turn Toward Lenin, Mao and Che.  Originally published in 2002, the work is a detailed account of the activity of radicals who took steps to build revolutionary multiracial organizations rooted in the working class as a means to transform US society.  Elbaum, a veteran of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and a leading participant in the movements he describes, provides an in-depth description and analysis of the variety of organizational forms these initiatives took.  Those efforts helped win some notable victories along the way and saw part of the vision come within reach during Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns and in the creation and growth of the National Rainbow Coalition.  Yet all along the way, one after another organization collapsed or retreated to the margins; by the time the Rainbow disappeared, little was left.  While many – probably most -- who took part in building Marxist organizations remained engaged in campaigns for peace and social justice, they did so through smaller circles, as individuals, with the broader goal of a genuinely mass revolutionary movement fading further and further from view.

When first published, Revolution in the Air struck a chord amongst newly radicalized activists looking to learn from what came before, spurred on by opposition to the war against Iraq and by labor and environmental campaigns against corporate globalization and by immigrant rights movements.  The need for the book is even greater today, with its rebirth of anti-capitalist struggles and in the face of deepening challenges of fascism, war and ecological destruction, as Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza notes in her introduction to this new edition of the book.  Circumstances, of course, have changed in the past decades; learning from the past is only possible if the present is understood in all its dimensions.  Thus the book is not a how-to, nor does it provide a prescription of what should have been done or what should be done now.  Rather it recounts a history that ought to be known and understood by those making decisions as to how best act and organize in our current environment.

Consistent with this goal, Max will be joined in discussion by younger activists: Jessie Mannisto, who is on the editorial board of Democratic Left, the magazine of Democratic Socialists of America; and Arrion Brown, an activist in the American Postal Workers Union (Jessie and Arrion will each be speaking in a personal capacity).  Following those presentations, all who attend will be encouraged to join in the discussion.

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