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New Book Showcases FBI Efforts to Sabotage the US Left

“Heavy Radicals” outlines how the FBI infiltrated ’60s Maoist political groups.

(Photo: Zero Books)

According to writers Aaron J. Leonard and Conor A. Gallagher, The Revolutionary Union (RU) and its later incarnation, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), were products of 1960s left-wing radicalism.

“Leaders emerged from the anti-HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) protests, the Free Speech Movement, the Peace and Freedom Party alliance with the Black Panthers, and the struggles in the final years of SDS, among other key events of the time,” they write.

As Maoists inspired by China, they found kindred spirits among disaffected Communist Party USA members and a host of others who were eager to align with like-minded activists to organize and agitate against war and oppression. At its height, they continue, the RCP had more than 1,000 members and several thousand active supporters.

Heavy Radicals tells their story and serves as an instructive guidebook on two distinct levels. First, it showcases the ways that ego and dogmatism led to fractures within both the RU and RCP. Secondly, it highlights the multiple ways that the FBI and local police departments worked in tandem to undermine progressive unity and sabotage effective protests and organizational development.

Leonard had what he calls “a decade’s long relationship with the RCP,” and while longtime RCP chair Bob Avakian and other former and present-day party members refused to be interviewed for the book, his personal experiences, in concert with a wealth of archival materials and FBI files, give the book gravitas.

That said, by ending in 1980, the text misses an opportunity to interrogate the RCP’s ongoing attempts to influence the left and the overall body politic. In addition, by steering clear of Avakian’s cult-like status among RCP members – some of whom literally wear pins bearing their leader’s likeness and, at least in New York City, run their book shop, Revolution Books, as a near-shrine to him – they sidestep important lessons about leadership, the role of personality in organizing campaigns, and the role of dissent and disagreement in promoting democracy.

However, Heavy Radicals is at its best when focused on the ways the US government worked to sabotage the RU and RCP. For example, not only were a host of individual infiltrators used to disrupt momentum, but whole groups were developed to ignite a frenzy of activities that the police then attacked or shut down.

Case in point: Leonard and Gallagher report that in the early 1970s, the bureau utilized agent James Burton to launch “the Red Star Cadre, a fake New Communist organization . . . Among Burton’s efforts was joining together with several other New Communist Movement [NCM] groups for a conference in Canada with the aim of creating a new party. Of the seven groups participating, five were from the United States: American Communist Workers Movement, Marxist-Leninist; Association of Communist Workers; The Red Collective; The Communist League; and Red Star Cadre. Two of these groups, Burton’s Red Star Cadre and the Red Collective, were FBI manifestations.”

Yes, this would be mighty funny if it were a skit on Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show, rather than something real. The same can be said of other FBI tactics, among them having agents discourage Communist League members from coalescing with the Revolutionary Union by smearing RU members as “old line members of the Communist Party who were working for the FBI.”

Indeed, it was truly the pot calling the kettle black – and then some.

FBI employees also made sure to sabotage potential mergers between left factions. For one, between 1972 and 1974, agents worked tirelessly to prevent the October League (OL) from joining with the RU to create a larger and potentially more vital new organization. By circulating rumors and prodding individuals to distrust one another, Heavy Radicals points out that the bureau successfully nurtured paranoia, in one instance making OL members question the political integrity of their potential RU comrades.

And then there were the bureau’s cozy relationships with people in the media. Among the FBI’s sleaziest strategies was the feeding of news stories to sympathetic journalists who dutifully wrote what their FBI handlers wanted reported.

Take Victor Riesel (1913-1995), a New York “labor beat” columnist – and FBI lapdog – whose syndicated work ran in more than 350 newspapers for upward of 40 years, from the 1940s to early 1980s. His writings routinely slammed the Black Panther Party, Bob Avakian, the RU/RCP, and the New Left more generally, all at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover and his henchmen.

This despicable collaboration came to light during the 1975-76 hearings before the Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, better known as the Church Committee.

“Typically,” Heavy Radicals notes, “a local FBI agent would provide information to a ‘friendly’ news source on the condition that the bureau’s interest in these matters be kept in the strictest confidence.” Riesel, of course, was not the only “friend” at the ready. Among others, The San Francisco Examiner’s Ed Montgomery served as a prominent West Coast ally.

Not surprisingly, all of this happened without RU/RCP members having the faintest inkling that they had been infiltrated or were being monitored by employees of the US government. In fact, Leonard and Gallagher write that paid informants frequently rose to organizational prominence and became the most vocal celebrants of the group’s “tight security.” This, in turn, helped unsuspecting members relax in the assumed safety of trusted colleagues. “For all its extolling of discipline and adhering to democratic centralism, it was too-often the case – and this from the very beginning – that the two entities with the fullest understanding of the groups were the small number of leaders at the top of the organization and the FBI,” Leonard and Gallagher conclude.

The irony, of course, is blatantly apparent. “While such principles of discipline could be effective in keeping certain matters secret, the fact of informants at the top of the organization meant that such practices were often nothing more than an exercise,” the authors continue. “Worse, it created the perilous situation where RU/RCP cadre and supporters knew far less about the group than the Bureau did.”

Such revelations will likely leave readers of Heavy Radicals shaking their heads in dismay, disgust and disbelief. At the same time, if we forget the dastardly dirty tricks utilized in previous eras, we will operate at our peril today, for only by being forewarned can we be forearmed.

Obviously, FBI agents continue to lurk within progressive movements. Knowing this, we need to keep our eyes and ears open. In addition, if progressive movements operate in a way that is more open and less top-down, we can create a more egalitarian and just alternative to the current capitalist system and involve a wider cross-section of interested parties.

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