Heavy Radicals (Zero Press, 2015) by Aaron J. Leonard and Conor A. Gallager

The book ends with an warning that I think we should begin with here:  neither to dismiss the FBI nor attribute powers to them that blames them for the dissolution or irrelevance of the 1960’s left-wing movements in the US. Many reviewers of this book will probably see in it how the FBI was able to destroy a principled Marxist-Leninist group as well as the US new left.  Other reviewers will see it as an anti-communist track replete with the normal tropes of such literature.   I found Leonard’s and Gallager’s work here riveting, but I see neither narrative being entirely true from the information presented in this book, or when paired with other books, such as Max Elbaum’s Revolution In the Air, Muhammad Ahmad‘s We Will Return in the Whirlwind, and Kirkpatrick Sale’s Rise and Development of the Students for a Democratic Society.   Indeed while Hoover’s FBI definitely seemed like a threat to even the US’s own notions of liberty, it is important to remember that the Cheka, Stasi, Gestapo, and even CIA used much, much more lethal tactics in dealing with dissent groups in the past, and communists coming out of the second red scare, such as Liebel Bergman, would have known that.  COINTELPRO was massive, efficient, unethical, and probably illegal, but it was not as ruthless of other opponents of various lefts were even in the time period discussed.

This book is important and a very quick read–in some ways, despite itself.  While, as a friend says, the RU/RCP is often ignored because it is see as annoying or past its prime, this book shows you that it was important in ways that many people involved with organizations in which it played a formative role no longer want to deal with.  You get a sense of the intersection to RU, in particular, had with history with figures like Alan Dershowitz, Rudy Guilliani, James Burnham, and Robert Scheer all playing bit parts prosecuting, defending, or inspiring members of the group.  Heavy Radicals is sympathetic to the RU/RCP in ways that even most of the left are not.  RCP’s descent into cultishness during the late 1980s in its attempt to built a vulgar personality cult around Bob Avakian has been a joke by left-wing activists and even other Maoists since the 1990s.  This book focuses on the 1960s and 1970s, culiminating in the split between Liebel Bergman and Bob Avakian, which may have, but has no direct evidence of being, caused by the FBI. Indeed, while the FBI played often played a key role in accelerating frictions within the group, there most of the friction occurred in response to political developments within the Soviet Union and the PRC as well as in the context of fall-out in the SDS-WMO.

Leonard and Gallager’s use FIOA documents constructs not just a coherent history of FBI’s interaction, it also creates a much more specific history of RU-RCP that has been provided by either Steve Hamilton or Bob Avakian’s writing. Casually, Leonard and Gallager will sometimes point out that Avakian’s memoirs are vague or self-aggrendizing at key moments as well as play down key figures such as Bergman and Hamilton.  Leonard and Gallager point out the twists and turns on RCP’s dealing with the left-wing national question, trying to catch up with the twists and turns of Mao on three worlds theory–including the forgotten but standard CCP interreptation post-Lin Biao’s death that the Second World, not the First World was the greater imperailist threat.  The RU opposed the Progressive Labor Party’s stance against the Black Panther Party’s nationalism and even was able to wrestle semi-official recognization by CCP from them, but then came to the nearly identical conclusion from reading Marx and from watching the dissolution of BPP itself just a few years later.

This is not to say that FBI was not deeply integrated into the organization that even militarily-trained informants saw as extremely disciplined.  The discipline, as Leonard and Galager note, didn’t seem to stop informants from getting into the central committee from the earliest days. If anything, the lack of transparency within the organization and its centralism actually may infiltration more effective.  Indeed, we know most of the internal debates and history of the 1960s RU because of FBI informants at all levels of the organization.   It was not, however, the FBI that was the most dangerous external threat to the group ultimately.  Local police informants in the late 1970s and 1980s as well as private security organizations with ties to the John Birch Society were much more active in their dealings with RCP.  Indeed, the dead of a cadre in 1980 was either prompted by street gangs with local police involved or, at minimum, the police used informants to encourage the group into a dangerous situation.  In addition, the Klan and Neo-Nazis had a direct body count on organization.

What Leonard and Gallager make clear, however, is that group’s real threat was history itself. It’s volunteerism seemed lead to more desperate situations in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  A group that had tried to join and organize the working class found out that “what could be done in Richmond California in 1968, could not be done in West Virginia in 1978.”  Avakian’s rhetoric became more strident, not less, during these periods.  When the cadres in the factories got into monogamous marriages, had children, drank beer, and listened to country music, many felt the discipline of the party was not helpful.  When several of the organizers were killed by the Klan in the late 1970s, the attempt to integrate with working class was more or less abandoned. The party then aimed to be a mass base and to abandon the force on the working class, which it saw as increasingly reactionary (a position it had criticized the SDS for maintaining in the late 1960s).   Yet it was this attempt that led to the cult of personality around Avakian and an adoption of shock-tactics that did exactly what the RU had said the would (and did) bring down the Weathermen: stunts that involved symbolic destruction of property and counter-violence against police. It was this that led to Avakian being a wanted man and exiling himself to France.

I give these details because this book is about more than the FBI’s war on America’s Maoists.  It is about the impossibility of those Maoists to move with shifts of history while under-said attack.  Particularly after the Bergman and Avakian split, which seemed inevitable in the differing Maoist intereptation of the end of the cultural revolution, the group struggled to find and keep its way.  It was not just the RCP that was damaged by this even. It had the same effect on Maoists that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and then Stalin-FDR partnership had had on the first generation of communists a generation prior, which the fall-out of had led to defections from the CPUSA to RU by Bergman and many cohorts in the first place.  The FBI, however, was there to continually pour gasoline on the fire.

The authors tone on the book seems conflicted.  In quoting people like Mike Ely, who left RCP to form Kasama and who has heavily criticized the organization, one sees a critical edge.  Although Ely was important to organizing of coal miners in West Virginia, Ely ultimately left in frustration with the RCP’s inability to change its stance on religion and homosexuality in time with the rest of the left, or even many communist states themselves.   Leonard and Galllager allude to this “communist puritanism” a few times, but don’t go into the controversies it caused with the remenants of the organization. To be fair, this happened after the period discussed. The RCP still exists, Revolution Books is still open, and you can find BAsic publications all over Berkeley.  Yet, Bob Avakian is not a name that invokes a mass base, and indeed, in many ways, that development obscures the role the RU played in many organizations more than has spread any inevitable revolution. Indeed, Leonard and Gallager admit that even it height of its influence, it has at most 2000 members.  What they did, however, was influence the leadership of much larger organizations, and they did this most effectively when they only had around 300 cadres.  Still these numbers do not a mass organization make.

The dual roles of watching a group that seemed unable to deal with historical changes and the deceptive tactics of the FBI as well as outright deadly influence of local police involvement (through selective neglect, at minimum) is why this book is important.  It is also why the history of the RCP is important even if its ideology seems to have not survived its contact with history with any coherence left.  This book is important: for what it says about post-New Left Marxist-Leninists, for what it says abou tthe FBI, and for what it doesn’t say about them.  It is critical, but fair. Sympathetic, but honest.  Still, though, I think it paints a less rosy picture of the post-68/69 socialists and communist movements than I think the authors intend.  It should be read with that in mind and cross-referenced with the other histories of the California and NY post-69 US communists.

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