It was spring 1968 when Gerald Kirk and “Herb” met one evening at the Hyde Park Theatre on the South Side of Chicago. Kirk was a young student and Communist Party (CP) member. Herb was several decades his senior. He argued to Kirk that the time had come to break with the party.
The CP had become “anti-revolutionary” and “revisionist.” Herb was part of the “Ad Hoc Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party” and was seeking to recruit true revolutionaries out of the CP’s cadres. Kirk declined, but not merely out of party loyalty. He was a paid informant tasked with keeping tabs on the CP for the FBI.
Unbeknownst to Kirk, Herb was also an informant. In fact, the entity Herb was supposedly part of, the “Ad Hoc Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party,” was almost certainly a creation of the FBI. Kirk was tasked with spying on the CP; Herb was tasked with disrupting it. Neither were aware of the other’s efforts.
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The revelation that the FBI went so far as to invent a fictitious Marxist organization in their efforts to disrupt and destroy the American left came to light through the research of Aaron Leonard and Conor A. Gallagher, who have written two books on the FBI’s harassment, infiltration, surveillance, and disruption of Maoist organizations.
Their first, Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War on America’s Maoists: The Revolutionary Union / Revolutionary Communist Party 1968–1980 focuses on the FBI’s campaign against the Revolutionary Union (which later became the Revolutionary Communist Party), doubling as an organizational history of the group and a look at the FBI’s actions against it. Their second work, A Threat of the First Magnitude: FBI Counterintelligence & Infiltration From the Communist Party to the Revolutionary Union – 1962–1974, builds on their research in the first to examine the role of FBI infiltrators.
For contemporary activists who are only familiar with the current iteration of the Revolutionary Communist Party and its peculiar promotion of its leader Bob Avakian, or readers who find Maoism unpalatable generally, it might be difficult to understand the early appeal of the RU/RCP. (Though they were distinct organizations at different historical moments, for clarity, I’ll refer to them as one, following the authors’ lead in their first book’s subtitle.)
Leonard and Gallagher make a case that for certain sectors of the Left, at a time when the New Communist Movement (NCM) was dominant in the United States, this group held a huge appeal, in part based on its founders’ role in movements against the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Vietnam War, or in support of the Black Panthers. The RU was the largest organization in the NCM.
But one does not need to agree with the RU/RCP’s politics to recognize that Leonard and Gallagher have engaged in impressive archival research, including obtaining access to never-before-made-public FBI documents. In so doing, they have made a monumental contribution to our understanding of the FBI as a political police force whose principal task in the United States has been not just to monitor dissent, but to actively attempt to destroy it.
Leonard and Gallagher argued that while the RU is often written out of history, they were an important vehicle for carrying 1960s radicalism into the next decade. The group emerged within the tumultuous final years of Students for a Democratic Society. After SDS’s disintegration, they were uniquely poised to pick up the pieces (at least among those finding themselves oriented toward Marxist-Leninism, a significant section of the Left at that time).
RU/RCP put special emphasis on combating racial oppression. Unlike other fragments of SDS, they also understood the importance of building a mass organization. The RU helped form a “National Liaison Committee,” an attempt to form a “multinational” left organization which included such groups as the Black Workers Congress and Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization. They also organized around an oil strike in Richmond, California, and embedded themselves among coal miners in West Virginia.
As many of the student radicals (along with organizations dedicated to racial oppression) began to turn to Marxist-Leninism, early on, the RU seemed poised to connect these threads. Its founders also included not just New Left radicals, but veteran organizers like Leibel Bergman, who had been involved with the Communist Party but opposed its rightward drift.
But the organization endured several splits, with each one leading not only to a loss of members, but a more rigid, sectarian organization. The worst, according to Leonard and Gallagher, stemmed from questions about how the organization related to China after Mao. Some members thought China remained a socialist state, but ultimately they were pushed out as the party adopted the position that the arrest of the Gang of Four, Mao’s successors, constituted a revisionist coup and China ceased to be socialist.
In the RU/RCP’s minds, the collapse of socialism in China meant revolution seemed to now hinge on the RU/RCP. While the belief that the US was soon to enter into a revolutionary situation was always quixotic, as the 1970s turned into the 1980s, it became increasingly absurd.
The party began openly promoting a cult of personality around its leader, Bob Avakian, and even pursued openly reactionary positions. It shifted lines around national/racial oppression, leading the RU/RCP to disastrously oppose the Boston busing plan, an attempt to integrate the city’s schools in the mid-1970s, as an affront to working-class unity. The RU/RCP also abandoned mass work like its base-building among workers and started pursuing adventuristic tactics, like leading needlessly confrontational demonstrations such as their attempt to “turn DC upside down” in response to Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s visit to the White House, which led to years of legal wrangling over felony charges. (For the RU/RCP, Deng represented a “revisionist” turn in China away from socialism.)
As part of its opposition to the supposed bourgeois “misdirection” of the women’s movement, the group opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. It also espoused a reactionary, homophobic position that homosexuality was a form of bourgeois decadence that would disappear in a socialist society.
The RU/RCP eventually took a cultish and occasionally reactionary turn. But that turn was not necessarily preordained. Here, Gallagher and Leonard’s work proves particularly important. As the FBI took notice of the group in the 1960s and ‘70s and disrupted the group, they may have helped spur the RU/RCP’s turn towards extreme sectarianism.
The FBI’s Secret War
Heavy Radicals contains a bombshell that upends our understanding of the disintegration of SDS. There were a number of FBI infiltrators at the fateful last SDS convention where the faction that went on to become the Weather Underground outvoted the Progressive Labor Party (PLP). Heavy Radicals shows that the FBI gave its infiltrators explicit instructions on how to vote — against the PLP.
The FBI’s reasoning was that they could handle the isolated adventurism of the group that would soon become the Weather Underground, but they feared the PLP could turn SDS into a disciplined, mass organization. The fear of such an organization, Leonard and Gallagher argue, is key to why the FBI targeted the RU/RCP.
Promoting splits and schisms wasn’t unique to SDS. As mentioned above, A Threat of the First Magnitude seems to show that the Ad-Hoc Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party was not what it claimed to be.
A shadowy entity of which little was previously known, it published a series of bulletins purportedly written by a dissident faction within the Communist Party sympathetic to Maoism. They seriously rattled the CP leadership, who characteristically decided that the Ad Hoc Committee was the work of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party.
While there’s a certain comical nature to the Communist leadership blaming the Trotskyists, part of their fears was right: the bulletins were not a good-faith effort to revive Marxist-Leninism but were meant to destroy the Communist Party. Thanks to their archival work, Leonard and Gallagher are able to shine a light on what this group was for the first time. They make a compelling case that the “committee” was very likely a creation of the FBI.
In the 1970s, a number of new Marxist-Leninist groups, inspired by Third World revolutions, emerged from the general milieu of 1960s radicalism. The RU/RCP was part of this larger “New Communist Movement.” With a number of groups jockeying to become the “vanguard” party, there were also some efforts to unify the movement.
One organization was steadfastly opposed to any unification of the movement: the FBI. As Leonard and Gallagher document, FBI infiltrators actively worked to prevent unity between the RU/RCP and the October League, another New Communist Movement group.
To be fair, anyone who has spent time on the Left knows that leftists can be prone to factional behavior. Disagreements over ideological points both small and large can lead to divisions. But the FBI sought to exacerbate and encourage these divisions.
Heavy Radicals also shines light on an often-overlooked aspect of the FBI’s political policing: its use of friendly journalists to transmit its message.
The Church Committee, the landmark Senate investigation into intelligence agencies, contains an entire section on “Media Manipulation” by the FBI. The FBI cultivated relationships with friendly journalists who they would supply information on subversives. The information was given on the basis that it was not to be traced back to the FBI.
Victor Risel was one particularly friendly journalist. Risel was a syndicated columnist who covered labor issues. He was also a vehement anti-radical, who would even go so far as to defend programs like COINTELPRO. He carried on regular correspondences with several high-level FBI officials, including FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
Risel wrote a number of articles assailing the RU/RCP’s influence on industry. In the case of his articles about the RU/RCP’s involvement in the Richmond Oil strike, the FBI fed him information, making it clear the source was not to be mentioned. The FBI also used his work to further disrupt the Left, attempting to hamper the Black Panthers’ distribution of their paper by getting unions to boycott shipping it. As part of this plan, Hoover directed thirty-nine field offices to send out a column by Riesel to the Teamsters and other unions.
While Heavy Radicals focuses on the history of FBI subterfuge against the RU/RCP, A Threat of the First Magnitude hones in on the FBI’s use of infiltrators. A particularly jarring case explored is that of Richard Aoki.
Aoki had been a member of the Young Socialist Alliance, the Black Panther Party, and later a student strike for ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. Aoki by all accounts was respected by those who knew him. In 2012, journalist Seth Rosenfeld uncovered that Aoki was an informant. While those claims were initially met with outrage by many Bay Area leftists, since then, Aoki’s 3,000-page informant file has been released.
His file shows that Aoki first came onto the FBI’s radar when he joined the Army. Aoki was asked if he was a member of the Communist Party. He was not, but he proceeded to volunteer the names people who suspected were Communists. The Army, impressed with his willingness to inform on radicals, forwarded this information onto the FBI.
After some vetting, the FBI decided to use him as a paid informant infiltrating the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth group of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. According to A Threat of the First Magnitude, at one point Aoki was reporting on seventy-five different young socialists to the FBI.
Aoki would later go on to become a member of the Black Panther Party. His role here is particularly controversial. Aoki is widely credited with helping the Panthers acquire weapons. A paid FBI informant procuring arms for the Black Panther Party sent shock waves for the obvious reasons. Yet Leonard and Gallagher argue that overly fixating on this point distorts the historical record. As they point out, armed patrols where the Panthers followed the police to make sure they did not engage in brutality were their founding purpose.
When Aoki went into academia, he assured the FBI he was still of use to them. As a professor of Asian-American Studies he claimed he would come into contact with radicals. Nonetheless, the FBI decided he was providing little information and demanding a high price. They finally ended their relationship with him in 1977.
Local police departments from Philadelphia to Los Angeles engaged in their own surveillance. Heavy Radicals recounts how an LAPD officer, Fabian Lizarraga, infiltrated the RU/RCP in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was present on April 22, 1980, when RU/RCP members were attacked, allegedly by gang members, while canvassing in the Pico Aliso Gardens housing projects, leaving one member, Damián García, dead. He would also march at the front of the RU/RCP’s 1980 Los Angeles May Day march and carry on a sexual relationship with another party member. (Lizarraga was exposed, comically, because the LAPD made him carry out other duties during his infiltration. A RU/RCP member saw him on duty, in uniform, walking his beat.)
In addition to local and federal law enforcement, Leonard and Gallagher point out the problems of private spies. The LAPD was sharing information about the RU/RCP with private security group Western Goals. On the Western Goals payroll were two people who had in the 1970s infiltrated the RU/RCP on behalf of the FBI and D.C. police. (Western Goals is no longer in the spy game. They ceased operations after congressional investigations in the late 1980s uncovered their involvement in the Iran-Contra Scandal.)
The Western Goals case is hardly unique. Private security companies have always menaced the Left alongside their state counterparts. The American Legion gathered information on “un-American activities,” some of which was introduced into the deportation proceedings of labor leader Harry Bridges.
More recently, Tiger Swan, a private mercenary firm, was paid by the pipeline companies to spy on Standing Rock Water Protectors. They eagerly shared their evidence with law enforcement and prosecutors. During the failed prosecution of Trump Inauguration (“J20”) protesters, federal prosecutors introduced evidence recorded by infiltrators from the right-wing group Project Veritas (which also recently infiltrated the Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America chapter).
Cooperation between the state and these private spies also raises particularly troubling questions. Law enforcement is, in theory, subject to some limitation by the US constitution (and oftentimes even more stringent state and local limitations). Private spies are not.
In criminal trials, the defense is not entitled to the same breadth of discovery when it comes to evidence gathered by these private parties than by law enforcement. These private spies are inherently bad, but if law enforcement is willfully using these spies as a sort of legal loophole to get around checks on their power, this presents a huge problem of accountability and democracy.
The authors argue that infiltration is one of the most common and destructive forms of law enforcement repression. To support this argument, they cite the Church Committee’s findings that electronic surveillance (presumably mostly wiretaps) were used in only 5 percent of domestic intelligence investigations, but informants were used in 85 percent. In spite of this, “higher-tech” types of surveillance dominate the popular imagination.
As someone who is involved in anti-surveillance work, this rings particularly true for the current activist scene. After Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s bulk collection of data, policy conversations on the national level have largely focused on that type of high-tech mass surveillance. What’s almost never mentioned is that the FBI and local law enforcement still routinely spy on left-wing groups using old-school methods of infiltration.
It is informants and infiltrators who act as agent provocateurs, often convincing desperate people to join nonexistent terror plots so the FBI can arrest them. These “stings” have largely targeted the Muslim-American community.
On the local level, activists are often rightfully pushing transparency around their local police department’s purchase of high-tech spy gadgets, like cell-site simulators (“stingrays”). But there’s little grassroots groundswell for taking on the use of infiltrators, even though there is a whole arsenal of possible legislative remedies that could regulate such practices.
While activists should be concerned about infiltration, reckless accusations about others being informants or excessive paranoia are corrosive in their own way. The FBI is fully aware of this, which is why they engaged in “snitchjacketing.”
Snitchjacketing is the practice of falsely accusing someone of being an infiltrator. Infiltrators sometimes spread rumors that other members were themselves informants. As Leonard and Gallagher document, FBI informants within the RU/RCP would falsely spread rumors that other members were agents. The FBI also sent anonymous letters to RU/RCP members containing similar allegations.
The infiltration described in Gallagher and Leonard’s books poses interesting questions for “security culture.” The RU/RCP developed a rigid internal structure, where for the sake of security, the leadership was privy to information the membership base was not. Yet this did little to prevent disruption, because the FBI had infiltrators in the highest ranks of RU/RCP leadership from the very beginning. The end result is that an extremely perverse situation where the FBI knew more about the organization’s internal workings than its own members.
Today’s activists should be acutely aware of the threat of infiltration, which Threat of a First Magnitude correctly identifies as a pernicious weapon of state repression in the past. Yet, activists also need to realize that even closed, secretive groups can be infiltrated. Siloing off information with a leadership clique doesn’t help if that clique is infiltrated. And while activists need to be on the guard, an atmosphere of distrust and paranoia within leftist groups is exactly what the authorities want.
Where the Bodies Are Buried
Those interested in political surveillance but not the contours of American Maoism might question the utility of a study with such an intense focus on the RU/RCP. But as Leonard and Gallagher correctly point out, when it comes to FBI political surveillance, groups like the RU/RCP are “where the bodies are buried.”
One of the earliest books on the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO activities focused almost exclusively on the Bureau’s activity against the Socialist Workers Party (and was published by the party’s press). Explorations of the FBI’s machinations against specific groups, movements, or individuals are invaluable to understanding the Bureau’s overall war against radical politics.
The FBI’s internal security assessment of the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party dubbed them a “threat of the first magnitude.” How they responded is illustrative of the lengths to which the FBI will go to destroy radical political organizing. Heavy Radicals and A Threat of the First Magnitude are important contributions to unmasking the full extent of the FBI’s war on dissent.