I recently read two good things on US Marxist-Leninist groups in the ’70s and ’80s: Out of Oakland: Black Panther Party Internationalism During the Cold War (2017), and “Lessons From One Left to the Next: Revolution in the Air Revisited”. The first is a book on the Black Panther Party (BPP) and its international organizing efforts, and the second is a book review on the New Communist Movement.
It is extremely interesting to see how the BPP, as it started to fall apart after 1971, started to very rapidly turn toward electoral politics. And this turn didn’t even try to maintain much of a veneer of revolutionary communism. In 1973, the BPP more or less fully pivoted away from revolutionary struggle and focused on electing Bobby Seale as Mayor of Oakland, and Elaine Brown to the Oakland city council. Their leaflets urged voters to “Elect Two Democrats”; they advocated for the economic benefits of having police officers live within city limits; and they proposed a “Multi-Ethnic International Trade and Cultural Center” on the grounds that it would help trade and cultural exchange with developing countries and help grow local businesses and tourism. By the end of the decade, the BPP was basically nothing more than an appendage of the Democratic Party; Elaine Brown attended the 1976 Democratic National Convention as a delegate for Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign. (Malloy 217-9).
What the hell happened? The book doesn’t go into much detail, since its much more about the way BPP’s politics and philosophy on internationalism changed over time, than about the internal dynamics of the party domestically. My own hypothesis, as argued here, is that the BPP was materially dependent on social bases outside of its lumpen-proletarian core membership, namely elite white liberals and black businessmen. For a short while, these groups were willing to support the BPP in its radical program. But as the Vietnam War winded down and the US government opened up space for the emergence of a black middle class, these groups became increasingly moderate, and the BPP was forced to follow this moderating trend.
Of course, the BPP wasn’t the only revolutionary group operating during this time period, even if it was the biggest and most visible. The New Communist Movement saw a number of radical left groups organizing explicitly around Marxist-Leninist lines in the ’70s and ’80s, in the aftermath of the New Left movements of the ’60s. Unfortunately this area of organizing seems rather understudied comparatively to the ’60s movements, which is why resources like Paul Saba’s bare-bones website, part of the Marxists Internet Archive, are so useful. The Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which is now a creepy cult around its leader Bob Avakian, is one relic from this era. Another large and relatively well-organized group was the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), which was founded in 1977 and collapsed in 1982 — perhaps for the better, given that the party opposed gay liberation, supported the Khmer Rogue, and called on the US to arm mujaheddin fighters in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in ’79. This report, written by a leading member who resigned in 1980, seems like very interesting and insightful reading on the trials and tribulations of the CP(ML).
Around the same time, another very interesting group formed, the League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS), which unlike the CP(ML) was largely composed of people of color organizing around national liberation movements. The LRS was a merger of I Wor Kuen (made up of Chinese Americans), and the August 29th Movement (made up of Chicanos). It soon merged with the East Wind Collective (made up of Japanese Americans), Seize the Time (made up of Blacks and Chicanos), and Amiri Baraka’s Revolutionary Communist League.
Sounds super cool, right? Except, skimming through the documents, the most active campaigns that the LRS seems to have engaged in was…campaigning for Jesse Jackson in the Democratic Party primaries in 1984 and 1988.
What is it with Marxism-Leninism and milquetoast electoralism???
But snark aside, the post-’68 movements are extremely interesting, not to mention important, given that they were attempting to organize and (supposedly) trying to stir up revolutionary struggle at precisely the time when capitalism was restructuring into its modern neoliberal form. Taking a closer look at the activities and internal debates of the New Communist Movement groups could tell us a lot about how to deal with such a terrain of struggle, give us a better understanding of US radical organizing that is more recent than the ’60s, and of course give us valuable lessons for today at a time when the debate within the radical left around democratic socialism, revolutionary struggle, and the Democratic Party is heating up.