Eleven Minutes with Ethan Young on the Deranged Predecessors of the Sputnik Left (Part 1)

The Anti-Imperialism of Fools and Little Boys

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Ethan Young/Fair Use.

Ethan Young is a moderator of the fabulous website Portside and a veteran of that strange moment in the late-Sixties known as Maoism, aka the New Communist Movement, aka the implosion of Students for a Democratic Society.

In a witty book review for Jacobin of Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, Young writes:

For those of us active in that period (and the ‘70s and ‘80s in my case), the old buzzwords– ‘democratic centralism, ‘proletarian internationalism’–really had cache. They don’t any longer, but some of our worst tendencies, a sectarianism that comes in all flavors and styles, are alive and well with us today…What was the appeal of forming small, multi-city propaganda groups named ‘workers’ this and ‘revolutionary’ that? For one thing, with a hierarchical collective grounded in strong politics, we could get a whole lot done in a short time with few people. It inspired us in ways that no plodding, day-to-day organizing project could offer. We had long meetings, but they were focused, and we sometimes came away learning something about society, class, and politics (although the practical prescriptions too often involved inserting our heads up our asses).

In this two-part episode of 11 Minutes, Young dissects the strange phenomenon we call the Sputnik Left. In Part I, he describes how Sixties radicalism (d)evolved into the New Communist Movement era.

Here’s a brief primer that sets the stage for the period Young is discussing. This will define some of the archaic Lefty jargon dropped in the interview, which might strike 99% of our readers/listeners like minutiae from Star Trek lore.

In the early 1960’s, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was formed on college campuses by predominantly-white Baby Boomers who were deeply inspired by the Black civil rights movement and terrified of being drafted for the Vietnam War. This became a locus of antiwar organizing energy that mobilized many thousands of people around the country.

By the start of the 1970s, things were looking pretty bleak with the election of Richard Nixon, a seemingly endless continuation of the war, and the ramp-up of the COINTEL-PRO campaign against groups like the Black Panthers. Meanwhile, and partly in response to this external scenario, SDS imploded into a number of New Communist Movement (NCM) cults evangelizing various Third World Marxist creeds that, while both ultra-left and mutually-antagonistic, all said that the old Communist Party USA was a bunch of elderly “revisionist” sell-outs. Maoists claimed China offered a new Socialist Motherland that radicals could orbit around, akin to the old Communist Party USA of the 1930s, back when it did important work around Black civil rights and labor union organizing.

A major draw for radical Communists has always been an ethic of internationalism and international solidarity, something that existed in the 1920’s and 30’s with the Soviet Union’s Communist International (Comintern). In theory, the Comintern was presented as a multinational front of worker and peasant solidarity. In practice, it resulted in Communist parties worldwide being slavishly subservient to Russian diktat. Sixties Maoists claimed they would build a new Communist International and that American Maoists were uniting into a worldwide revolution, with all the attendant apocalyptic delusions of grandeur that implies.

All of this matters today because the Sputnik Left, which includes RT and The Grayzone, mimic polemics from the Sixties in a fashion that sometimes borders on plagiary, particularly in the meandering Ben Norton, who often seems to be cribbing lines directly from old copies of the Maoist Guardian newspaper and back issues of Monthly Review.

Young and I don’t agree on everything. He’s much more sympathetic than I am to Bernie Sanders and Democratic Socialists of America, which includes a prominent tendency seeking to take over the Democratic Party. I think spending any amount of time doing anything but destroying the Democrats is insane. But I found his insights very enjoyable and deeply illuminating.

Episode 10: Ethan Young (Pt. 1)

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