What Today’s Socialists Can Learn From the 1970s New Communist Movement

An interview with Max Elbaum, author of Revolution in the Air.

Micah Uetricht August 16, 2018

Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton holds a press conference on his return from China where he met with Chinese leader Chou En Lai. (Getty Images)

With the pop­u­lar­i­ty of politi­cians like Bernie Sanders and Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez and the explo­sion in mem­ber­ship in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), social­ism is all of a sud­den cen­tral to the nation­al polit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion. And it’s hap­pen­ing in the Unit­ed States. Despite being a coun­try long argued to be unique­ly aller­gic to all talk of class con­flict and any alter­na­tive to cap­i­tal­ism, here we are, watch­ing many Amer­i­cans ques­tion whether we should remake our polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sys­tems from top to bottom.

Politics is addition — you need to get more people on your team.

But this isn’t the first time mass num­bers of peo­ple in the Unit­ed States have con­sid­ered social­ism. The last time was half a cen­tu­ry ago, when the New Left raised ques­tions about cap­i­tal­ism, impe­ri­al­ism, racism, sex­ism and much more. At the tail end of the 1960s, those ques­tions were tak­en up by the New Com­mu­nist Move­ment (NCM), a col­lec­tion of groups in the Marx­ist-Lenin­ist tra­di­tion. While the move­ment was made up of orga­ni­za­tions that had dif­fer­ent answers to burn­ing polit­i­cal ques­tions, on the whole, these groups were inspired by the left-nation­al­ist projects of the day, includ­ing domes­tic move­ments like the Black Pan­thers and Puer­to Rican nation­al­ist groups, and inter­na­tion­al com­mu­nist move­ments in Cuba, Viet­nam, and espe­cial­ly China. 

Max Elbaum was deeply involved in that move­ment. After join­ing Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Soci­ety (SDS) as a col­lege stu­dent in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin, Elbaum co-found­ed the NCM group Line of March. He end­ed up devot­ing his life to var­i­ous move­ments against war and racism, and served as the edi­tor of the left­ist mag­a­zine Cross­Roads through­out the 1990s.

Elbaum is the author of Rev­o­lu­tion in the Air: Six­ties Rad­i­cals Turn to Lenin, Che, and Mao, reis­sued in April by Ver­so Books with a new fore­word by Ali­cia Garza, cofounder of #Black­Lives­Mat­ter. Though he was a par­tic­i­pant in some of the orga­ni­za­tions and cam­paigns and the over­all move­ment that he chron­i­cles in the book, Rev­o­lu­tion in the Air takes a more dis­pas­sion­ate look at the NCM, fair­ly weigh­ing its achieve­ments and missteps.

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.

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 Air is 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.

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.

Mic­ah: Your book isn’t real­ly a defense of the NCM. Most of it is quite crit­i­cal. But you also repeat­ed­ly point out some of the pos­i­tive fea­tures of that move­ment. Can you briefly sketch out the good and the bad from those movements?

Max: My book is an effort to doc­u­ment what the move­ment did and thought and what its com­po­nents and parts were. So in a sense, it’s resource mate­r­i­al for peo­ple to draw their own con­clu­sions of what the strengths and weak­ness­es were. (Though I do, at the end, draw my own bal­ance sheet.)

For my part, on the pos­i­tive side, the move­ment did see how cen­tral empire-build­ing and racism were to U.S. cap­i­tal­ism. There was a strong com­mit­ment to sink­ing roots in those com­mu­ni­ties that had the great­est poten­tial to make rad­i­cal change. The move­ment grasped the impor­tance of col­lec­tive action and the idea of peo­ple pri­or­i­tiz­ing polit­i­cal activ­i­ty and advanc­ing it in a col­lec­tive way.

The move­ment did make some head­way in break­ing out of a U.S.-centric view of the world. And there was an attempt to learn from and offer ideas to rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in oth­er coun­tries, and a strong sense of inter­na­tion­al­ism. In its ear­ly years, cer­tain com­po­nent parts did some inter­est­ing work on U.S. pol­i­tics, espe­cial­ly on the par­tic­u­lar role of the spe­cial oppres­sion of com­mu­ni­ties of color.

On the neg­a­tive side, all sides of the move­ment were afflict­ed with a mis­as­sess­ment of the con­di­tions in the coun­try, espe­cial­ly the resilience of cap­i­tal­ism. Lots of peo­ple were off-base in the late 1960s and 1970s, but the move­ment couldn’t adjust when it became clear that the motion of nation­al pol­i­tics was mov­ing to the right.

The ide­o­log­i­cal frame­works of the dif­fer­ent com­po­nent parts of the move­ment were rigid in their quest for ortho­doxy — see­ing Marx­ism-Lenin­ism as a kind of omni­scient sci­ence. Those ide­o­log­i­cal frame­works were off-base.

The move­ment was gen­er­al­ly afflict­ed by ultra-left ten­den­cies and a ten­den­cy to polar­ize forces that weren’t, in their view, as rev­o­lu­tion­ary as them. The mod­el of orga­ni­za­tion the move­ment imple­ment­ed was minia­tur­ized Lenin­ism”; we essen­tial­ly built small sects instead of flex­i­ble, mass rev­o­lu­tion­ary groups. This was relat­ed to our mis­as­se­ment of the his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions. There was a pro­lif­er­a­tion of sec­tar­i­an atti­tudes over polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences, some of which were impor­tant but many weren’t.

Mic­ah: What was the ori­en­ta­tion towards sup­pos­ed­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary states like Chi­na and the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party?

Max: The move­ment had dif­fer­ent com­po­nent parts on that ques­tion, but it tend­ed to over­es­ti­mate both the strengths and the poten­tial for build­ing a new soci­ety of the coun­tries that had had rev­o­lu­tions in the under­de­vel­oped world. It was most pro­nounced in the sec­tions of the move­ment that looked to China.

In the late 1960s and ear­ly 1970s, there was a much broad­er lay­er of the Left beyond the NCM that was infat­u­at­ed with Chi­na. The Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion was pre­sent­ed to the world as a grass­roots ver­sion of social­ism, more demo­c­ra­t­ic than what had tak­en place in the Sovi­et Union. In ret­ro­spect, that was very off-base. But impor­tant parts of the NCM fell into that trap.

Oth­er sec­tions of the move­ment were more sym­pa­thet­ic to the Cubans or Viet­namese, and had a some­what more bal­anced view of the strengths and weak­ness­es than those who fol­lowed Chi­na. But even there, it was con­nect­ed to the view of Marx­ism-Lenin­ism that was dog­mat­ic. The nature of these coun­tries, espe­cial­ly on the issues of democ­ra­cy, was off-base. Pret­ty much the whole NCM accept­ed the idea of the one-par­ty state and com­mand econ­o­my as mod­els of social­ism. Most of the Left now is in a much dif­fer­ent place about the one-par­ty state, and the ques­tion of the eco­nom­ics of social­ism are up in the air.

Mic­ah: In the late-1960s and ear­ly-1970s, the NCM was the dom­i­nant rad­i­cal left­ist for­ma­tion in the Unit­ed States. Today, it’s the DSA. The obvi­ous ques­tion one has in read­ing your book is what the lessons for DSA are.

Max: There are a few. One, you have to con­stant­ly assess and reassess the his­tor­i­cal moment. What stage of the mass strug­gle are we at? What’s the poten­tial for change at a giv­en moment? How do you avoid think­ing that we can make all kinds of gains that actu­al­ly aren’t pos­si­ble? On the oth­er hand, how do you avoid mak­ing the oppo­site error and then falling into pas­siv­i­ty and not push­ing the enve­lope as far as it can be pushed?

Anoth­er is, how do you build a move­ment that inte­grates strug­gles for racial and gen­der jus­tice and the class strug­gle that gives due weight to those spe­cial oppres­sions? The NCM has some lessons, both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive, in how you build a class move­ment that deals with the cen­tral­i­ty of racism and how chal­leng­ing it is to build a mul­tira­cial move­ment on that basis.

There are also lessons about inter­na­tion­al­ism and avoid­ing the U.S.-centric men­tal­i­ty, while at the same time not try­ing to emu­late mod­els from oth­er coun­tries that won’t work in the Unit­ed States. There’s also some oth­er issues about orga­ni­za­tion, col­lec­tive work, try­ing to put polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences in a sense of pro­por­tion. That last one is always a chal­lenge: how you fig­ure out which dif­fer­ences of opin­ions are worth a seri­ous strug­gle over, and which issues are sec­ondary or tertiary.

Mic­ah: The NCM had a basic coher­ence around Marx­ism-Lenin­ism. The DSA has noth­ing like that. There are prob­a­bly a major­i­ty of mem­bers who claim no par­tic­u­lar social­ist tra­di­tion and just like Bernie Sanders and poli­cies like Medicare for All. There are anar­chists, there are Trot­sky­ists, there are Marx­ist-Lenin­ists. The ide­o­log­i­cal spread in DSA is quite wide. This pos­es a par­tic­u­lar set of dif­fi­cul­ties. Is there any­thing on this front that DSA can learn from the NCM?

Max: The NCM believed in build­ing orga­ni­za­tions on the basis of a com­mon ide­o­log­i­cal frame­work, Marx­ism-Lenin­ism. DSA is a whole dif­fer­ent sto­ry. It’s unit­ed on a polit­i­cal pro­gram, social­ism. You don’t have to adhere to a par­tic­u­lar ide­ol­o­gy to be in DSA. One of the lessons of NCM is that there are grave dan­gers in orga­ni­za­tions formed on the basis of ide­ol­o­gy. They tilt an orga­ni­za­tion in the direc­tion of ide­o­log­i­cal purism, mak­ing every­thing con­sis­tent with an ide­o­log­i­cal tra­di­tion, giv­ing undue author­i­ty to the top lead­er­ship which sup­pos­ed­ly has mas­tered that ideology.

You have a dif­fer­ent set of prob­lems when you’re unit­ed on a polit­i­cal pro­gram as opposed to an ide­ol­o­gy. But groups unit­ing on an ide­o­log­i­cal basis leads to a lot of prob­lems. In the NCM, it was a split­ting dif­fer­ence over what your assess­ment of Stal­in was. This isn’t pro­duc­tive. It sti­fles all kinds of inter­nal debates.

On the oth­er hand, there were cer­tain fights that the NCM had that were nec­es­sary to have. The biggest one was in the mid-1970s, when Chi­na shift­ed its for­eign pol­i­cy course to align with U.S. impe­ri­al­ism against the Sovi­et Union, argu­ing that the Sovi­et Union was the more dan­ger­ous of the two super­pow­ers. Who was the main dan­ger in the world? That was a fight you had to have. The peo­ple who believed that the Sovi­et Union was the main ene­my end­ed up sup­port­ing NATO, and oppos­ing demands to cut the mil­i­tary bud­get, on the grounds that the U.S. had to be part of a unit­ed front against the Sovi­et Union.

You had to have that fight. All kinds of things about where you stood in all kinds of issues of the class strug­gle depend­ed on what side you were on in that fight.

Mic­ah: Some activists who con­sid­er them­selves peo­ple who just want to get things done” might respond to that ques­tion and ask, What does this ques­tion of ally­ing with or against one super­pow­er or anoth­er have to do with me get­ting things done orga­niz­ing with the work­ing class?”

Max: To answer this ques­tion, let’s take the Poor People’s Cam­paign today. It’s a cam­paign against the three great evils that Dr. Mar­tin Luther King iden­ti­fied — pover­ty, racism and mil­i­tarism — as well as fight­ing for the envi­ron­ment. If you think the U.S. mil­i­tary is going to play an impor­tant pro­gres­sive role in the world, you’re not going to take a stand in a cam­paign like this one against U.S. mil­i­tarism — in call­ing for cut­ting the mil­i­tary bud­get, or oppos­ing U.S. inter­ven­tion around the world. This issue cuts to the heart of all kinds of things — hous­ing, health care, demo­c­ra­t­ic rights, sex­ism, all of it.

Mic­ah: That makes sense. But of course, an orga­ni­za­tion like DSA can’t address every sin­gle issue all the time.

Max: An orga­ni­za­tion like DSA today has to think about which issues offer them a chance to direct­ly impact soci­ety, as well how to orga­nize today in a way that lays the ground­work for more advanced strug­gles tomor­row. Then, you have to think about how to get enough uni­ty of action to make the orga­ni­za­tion a coher­ent force. That’s the frame­work you have to use.

The major­i­ty of a demo­c­ra­t­ic orga­ni­za­tion will choose a direc­tion based on the key things that are need­ed in a giv­en moment: health­care reform, defeat­ing the white-nation­al­ist author­i­tar­i­ans run­ning the gov­ern­ment today. Some mix of direct-action activism and base-build­ing and elec­toral cam­paigns is going to come out. The para­me­ters can be a lit­tle wider or nar­row­er based on the sit­u­a­tion, but you have to have some para­me­ters that the orga­ni­za­tion is oper­at­ing within.

Then there’s the mat­ter of dif­fer­ent ten­den­cies or indi­vid­u­als that may not agree with those deci­sions. A healthy orga­ni­za­tion has to have bound­aries with­in which peo­ple can raise their dif­fer­ences. If peo­ple with­in the group are mov­ing in a way that’s under­min­ing and pre­vent­ing the orga­ni­za­tion from being able to estab­lish its polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty and make an impact, then you have to do some­thing to pre­vent that from happening.

You’re not going to have every­one unit­ed. The Left won’t ever reach a point where every­one agrees on all the major points and all joins the same orga­ni­za­tion. The world is too com­plex for that. So you have to have cer­tain bound­aries. You have to have major­i­ty rule that can allow the orga­ni­za­tion to move. There’s no for­mu­la for fig­ur­ing out what exact­ly that looks like. Once a group sets up a healthy orga­ni­za­tion­al cul­ture, you can sort those things out.

DSA is in a for­ma­tive peri­od. It’s a new orga­ni­za­tion. It has trans­formed. While it has a cer­tain insti­tu­tion­al con­ti­nu­ity, there’s so many new things about the orga­ni­za­tion — most obvi­ous­ly that over 85 per­cent of the orga­ni­za­tion wasn’t in it two years ago. So it’s estab­lish­ing its new polit­i­cal cul­ture. As far as I can tell, there have been some mis­steps, but there have also been some real­ly pos­i­tive things.

Fig­ur­ing out how to build this orga­ni­za­tion and what to work on and how to oper­ate is extreme­ly chal­leng­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly giv­en the cur­rent polit­i­cal moment. But DSA mem­bers also have to real­ize that what they are doing now is part of build­ing a move­ment for the long haul. Every­one has to approach that with the most matu­ri­ty and gen­eros­i­ty of spir­it possible.

Mic­ah: In the book, you quote Vladimir Lenin: Pol­i­tics begin where the mass­es are, not where there are thou­sands, but where there are mil­lions.” Then you write that rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies must not accept mar­gin­al sta­tus as a per­ma­nent fact of life — much less a mind­set that glo­ri­fies mar­gin­al­i­ty as a sign of true rev­o­lu­tion­ary faith. … Plant­i­ng the ban­ners and wait­ing in a left-wing strong­hold for peo­ple to come to us will not cut it.”

When I read that, I think of the cri­tiques of mass cam­paigns like Medicare for All or for politi­cians like Bernie Sanders and Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, which have shown that they can bring the idea of social­ism to mass num­bers of peo­ple who have nev­er heard this term before. Some of those cri­tiques are valid, like the wor­ry that engag­ing too heav­i­ly in elec­toral pol­i­tics will water down DSA’s rad­i­cal pol­i­tics to the point that the orga­ni­za­tion ceas­es to advance a bold social­ist vision. But most of them seem more root­ed in peo­ple cling­ing to that pure” mar­gin­al­i­ty — at a moment when social­ism has an oppor­tu­ni­ty to become a tru­ly mass move­ment. The oppor­tu­ni­ty to reach the mil­lions” that Lenin ref­er­ences is here, but ori­ent­ing a left­ist orga­ni­za­tion in that direc­tion involves ditch­ing some of the habits of glo­ri­fy­ing mar­gin­al­i­ty.

Max: I think the Bernie cam­paign, the insur­gent cam­paigns, the way peo­ple are learn­ing to speak to large num­bers who are envi­sion­ing mov­ing the coun­try as a whole — all of that is extreme­ly pos­i­tive. Pol­i­tics is a mat­ter of look­ing at the bal­ance of forces and where the mass­es are at and inter­ven­ing in a way that moves the nee­dle. We have to speak to the major­i­ty and build a majori­tar­i­an movement.

We’re obvi­ous­ly a long way from a major­i­ty of the Unit­ed States not just sup­port­ing fun­da­men­tal change and an alter­na­tive to cap­i­tal­ism, but tak­ing steps and risks to make that hap­pen. That’s not going to come about by offer­ing only a max­i­mal­ist pro­gram and try­ing to move in one leap from where we are now to that max­i­mal­ist program.

It’s cer­tain­ly legit­i­mate and nec­es­sary to real­ize there’s uneven devel­op­ment in soci­ety — you’re going to have an advanced guard, what Lenin called the con­scious ele­ment.” That’s the point of hav­ing a social­ist orga­ni­za­tion where peo­ple are unit­ed on the long-range goal. But it works in dif­fer­ent lay­ers. It has its imme­di­ate base and its periph­ery, and it works in coali­tion with out­side forces.

So I think that the purist ten­den­cies, the ones that are crit­i­cal of any­thing that is less than their total vision of what a rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ist pro­gram would be, are self-defeat­ing. Because you nev­er break out of the margins.

The idea that you just plant the flag and every­one will come to you if you have the cor­rect line has nev­er worked. That’s not how pol­i­tics works. Pol­i­tics is addi­tion — you need to get more peo­ple on your team.

The Left has been mar­gin­al for a long time in the Unit­ed States. For some peo­ple, that’s their com­fort zone. When you mix it up in broad mass pol­i­tics, there’s always a dan­ger that you com­pro­mise some key prin­ci­ple and fall down a slip­pery slope. Those are real dan­gers. But every suc­cess­ful move­ment for rad­i­cal reform or rev­o­lu­tion has to engage in those broad mass pol­i­tics. There’s no oth­er way to build a majori­tar­i­an move­ment from where we are now to a majori­tar­i­an move­ment for socialism.

Mic­ah: Through­out the book, you crit­i­cize the vol­un­tarism” of the NCM, espe­cial­ly in Maoist groups. What is vol­un­tarism, how did it play out in these groups, and why it was such a problem?

Max: Vol­un­tarism was the notion that if you worked hard enough and had the cor­rect line and the willpow­er, you could pret­ty much make any­thing hap­pen. That kind of think­ing was strong in the NCM for a few rea­sons. The young rad­i­cals of the 1960s had seen changes hap­pen real­ly fast; we didn’t appre­ci­ate all the struc­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal rea­sons why that explo­sive peri­od came to be. We start­ed to attribute those changes to our own actions more than the con­flu­ence of the con­di­tions and what the broad mass­es were doing.

Some of that ide­ol­o­gy was rein­forced by the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments of the time, in par­tic­u­lar the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Par­ty. Mao had a slo­gan: When the Party’s line is cor­rect, then every­thing will come its way.” Which fos­tered the notion, of course, that if you were cor­rect and worked real­ly hard, every­thing would come your way.

When you’re think­ing that way and are in the midst of a mass flow, it does make you push your­self and can have some ben­e­fi­cial effects. It moved things for­ward in many impor­tant strug­gles. But as a long-term method of doing pol­i­tics, it plays out in neg­a­tive ways. 

When you’re in an ebb peri­od rather than a flow peri­od, it leads to a num­ber of things. You tend to find scape­goats for why things aren’t work­ing as well. Because you’re sup­posed to have a cor­rect line, yet things aren’t work­ing out like you want them to. So the mass­es must be back­wards or the cadre aren’t work­ing hard enough. If you get locked in that men­tal­i­ty, you can’t have a bal­anced assess­ment. It ends up under­min­ing your abil­i­ty to lis­ten to peo­ple and to build a healthy demo­c­ra­t­ic organization.

Mic­ah: Chap­ter six of your book is called Elab­o­rate Doc­trine, Weak Class Anchor.” Can you explain this basic problem?

Max: If you don’t have a class anchor and a mass base of sub­stan­tial size, you’re not account­able, you’re not ground­ed, and you’re not in a posi­tion to sense the chang­ing moods among the key con­stituen­cies in soci­ety. And it’s also a recipe for splits and sec­tar­i­an­ism: You are just float­ing. When you have a real­ly large mass base, there’s con­se­quences if orga­ni­za­tions divide or have stu­pid fights. Because there are tens or hun­dreds of thou­sands or mil­lions of peo­ple who are affect­ed. And if you’re their polit­i­cal arm, you get checked.

You need that con­nec­tion to the base. Hav­ing a large, mass anchor is cru­cial. You can’t make social change with­out it. They’ve got the mon­ey, they’ve got the guns; we’ve got the major­i­ty. So build­ing that major­i­ty, from the mas­sive rebel­lion of work­ers, is crucial.

But get­ting a crash course in Marx­ism is a lot faster. That’s not real­ly easy, either, but you can cob­ble togeth­er a fair­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed idea of what social­ism is fair­ly quick­ly if you’re read­ing and debat­ing socialism.

The NCM did have some roots in the work­ing class, but it was weak rel­a­tive to the inten­si­ty of the study. Every­body read. You’d have six-month cours­es on Marx­ism-Lenin­ism, peo­ple would stay up till late at night debat­ing ideas. This was good, but it was dis­pro­por­tion­ate in com­par­i­son with build­ing the work­ing-class base.

Mic­ah: You say in your book that for all the NCM did wrong, it is impor­tant to devel­op cadre. I think when a lot of peo­ple hear that term, cadre,” they think of unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic orga­ni­za­tions with­out a mass base, and they don’t want any­thing to do with this. Why is cadre devel­op­ment important?

Max: Because the NCM and oth­er com­mu­nist par­ties built orga­ni­za­tions that were termed cadre orga­ni­za­tions” and were ide­o­log­i­cal mono­liths and had anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic prac­tices, the term cadre” has been asso­ci­at­ed with top-down, mono­lith­ic orga­ni­za­tions where the mem­bers, the cadre, are cogs in a big machine. The rejec­tion of that kind of orga­ni­za­tion is a good thing. A sect mod­el will not real­ize our potential.

But that’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly what cadre is. Every polit­i­cal project has cadre. Repub­li­cans, unions, white nation­al­ists, social­ists — every­body has cadre. The term just refers to peo­ple for whom mov­ing the polit­i­cal project for­ward is a cen­tral fea­ture of their life. They learn the skills and art of doing just that. They don’t devote them­selves exclu­sive­ly to polit­i­cal work — they have bal­anced lives, hope­ful­ly — but they learn the spe­cial skills of pol­i­tics and how to use them.

You can’t move a polit­i­cal project with­out peo­ple who are pre­pared to take it up that way. Some of them will be paid by the move­ment; oth­ers, the major­i­ty, are peo­ple who go to work and earn a liv­ing, but play cru­cial roles in advanc­ing the project. When you build a mass-base orga­ni­za­tion, it’s a mix. You have some peo­ple who have tak­en a cadre role, oth­ers who don’t. This is flu­id. Peo­ple might go back and forth between play­ing a cadre role or not. And then there are oth­er peo­ple on the periph­ery, who are sym­pa­thiz­ers or sup­port­ers from afar. With­out devel­op­ing a lay­er of peo­ple who are in the move­ment for the long haul, no rad­i­cal project can succeed.

Of course, the idea that they then make all the deci­sions in the orga­ni­za­tion and aren’t account­able — absolute­ly not. But you need cadre to move the project. I get the sense that many of the peo­ple who are flock­ing into DSA are think­ing that way.

Mic­ah: For a num­ber of rea­sons includ­ing sec­tar­i­an­ism and the right­ward drift of the coun­try, the NCM even­tu­al­ly fad­ed away. But it didn’t have to end up that way. What was the best-case sce­nario for the NCM? What’s the most they could’ve hoped for?

Max: If the NCM, as well as a num­ber of oth­er trends on the Left, could have real­ized dur­ing the seri­ous 1974 reces­sion and stir­rings of the so-called New Right” that a counter-attack was com­ing from the Right, and been more aware that cap­i­tal­ism wasn’t going to fade away and we weren’t head­ed for the final con­flict any time soon, it would have been pos­si­ble to unite five, 10, 15 thou­sand peo­ple in an orga­ni­za­tion that had a rad­i­cal pro­gram inte­grat­ing racial and gen­der jus­tice, envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice, keep­ing labor as strong as pos­si­ble, and build insti­tu­tions that would keep social­ism in the pub­lic conversation.

That could have helped sus­tain a Rain­bow Coali­tion-type form that could have spear­head­ed an insur­gency both inside and out­side the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. If that kind of orga­ni­za­tion had man­aged to stay togeth­er, the grow­ing pains of an orga­ni­za­tion like DSA might be less today.

Mic­ah: The his­to­ry of the NCM is some­what bleak, giv­en how the move­ment end­ed up. But things do seem on the upswing now. Do you feel hope­ful today?

Max: Yes, I’m hope­ful. I’ve been on the Left for a long time. A lot of hor­ri­ble things in the world have been done over my life­time, and things are reach­ing a whole oth­er lev­el of dam­age under Trump. It will take a long time to undo that damage.

That said, the scope of pop­u­lar resis­tance to Trump in the Unit­ed States, the ener­gy in the pro­gres­sive wing, and the num­ber of peo­ple — espe­cial­ly young peo­ple — inter­est­ed in social­ism is extreme­ly encour­ag­ing. If we can beat the white nation­al­ists who are run­ning this coun­try right now in 2018 and 2020, and we can sus­tain the kind of mass action in the streets that’s we’ve seen through the teach­ers strikes and Black Lives Mat­ter and all the oth­er non­elec­toral protests, the pro­gres­sive move­ment (with­in which the social­ist move­ment will play a key role) can gain some real power.

Mic­ah Uet­richt is the deputy edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine and host of its pod­cast The Vast Major­i­ty. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty (Ver­so 2014), coau­thor of Big­ger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Cam­paign to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism (Ver­so 2020), and is cur­rent­ly at work on a book on New Left­ists who indus­tri­al­ized.” He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.

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