I finished the Elbaum book and I am still trying to figure out my impression of it. So instead here are a few impression.
He knows his stuff. The research strikes me as meticulous and thorough. I am not an expert about these groups, but I am versed in reading researched materials and this one strikes me as thorough.
The book is too well researched. The minutia might have been of fundamental importance to the participants, which Elbaum was, but the distance between them and myself make some of these disputes and disagreements seem petty. I cannot help but suspect that there is an overlooked component to much of the history – leadership, charisma and personality. There is some discussion of some individuals being forces of nature and hence them being the organization, but these discussions are usually about midwesterners (people in Chicago to be more specific.) Is it any shock then to learn that Elbaum participated as an undergraduate radical in Madison, WI.? Despite this fault, however, Elbaum does a great job of never once sounding like a hagiography.
In all fairness to Elbaum, my interest does not seem to intersect with his main interest in writing the book. I am interested less in the groups and more about the intersection of theory and the direct actions taken by the groups. There was some discussion of this but mainly Elbaum focuses on why a group originates – what gap they were trying to bridge in the radical or local community – and why the group dissolved – what faction split into what new group. Most of the talk about direct actions was reserved for the big nationally known groups: The Weatherman, Black Panthers, etc. While this seems to be a criticism of sloppy scholarship it makes sense given the generally underreported nature of most radical actions, especially then.
I am curious why some longer established groups escape the book’s purview though. There is not a single mention of the IWW. I understand radical undergraduates are not exactly the target of IWW efforts but Elbaum spends a significant amount of time discussing labor unions and organizing within them. Is this a serious oversight? Or is it instead my wish for it to be a serious oversight? Ursa can better explain this to me, as I have no idea how prevalent the IWW was in the late 1960s especially around college campuses let alone in the San Fransisco area.
Sadly, Elbaum is an apostate. The books reads as a guilty confession for having not stood besides his now fallen comrades. He sounds as though he will have no problem writing about radicals and maybe even honking his horn in support as he drives past a picket line.
All in all this was a good book as long as one understands Elbaum’s purpose. He makes no attempt to disguise it either as he is very clear in the introduction why he is writing the book. I just chose to overlook the warning and hoped to find something else. Nate would probably enjoy this more than I did. His conslusion was useful if not overly abstract though.
Elbaum, Max. (2002). Revolution in the air: Sixties radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che. London: Verso Books.