"Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War on America’s Maoists – The Revolutionary Union / Revolutionary Communist Party, 1968-1980," by Aaron J Leonard and Conor A Gallagher, 2015
If you lived through this period and were part of the communist movement, this book will be interesting to you even if you were not a partisan of Mao. Revolutionary Union’s (RU) allegiance to Mao’s China led the FBI to impact RU by using highly-placed informants and encouraging splits or disunity with other parts of the left. Because of this, the book has broader insights for the whole left. It is also something of a paen to the RU, even though the authors now understand many of its weaknesses. Leonard was a member of the RU/RCP but left for obvious reasons. He is off the frame of the somewhat ridiculous cover photo, a picture of the RCP fighting police in a demonstration against the ‘capitalist-roader’ Deng Xioaping in 1979.
Like most left groups, the RU had its strengths – when it didn’t have its weaknesses. The biggest lesson from this book is that the FBI and the government do not want unity among leftists, and they will do everything they can to promote sectarianism and disunity.
|RCP Anti-Deng Demo in 1979|
The authors focus on key figures in the RU, especially Leibel Bergman, an old communist who came out of the CP, then visited China and helped found the RU in San Francisco. They consider him one of the key U.S. leftists of this whole period. Other well-known figures include Bob Avakian, the present ‘exiled’ leader of the RCP who was radicalized by Eldridge Cleaver; H Bruce Franklin, who led a ‘guerilla war’ split from the RU and edited the works of Stalin; Steve Hamilton, an activist out of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and William Hinton, who wrote the famous laudatory description of the rural revolution in China – “Fanshen.”
RU got its start by attacking Progressive Labor, (“PL”) a well-organized pro-Mao split from the CP led by labor activists from Buffalo, New York. Some RU members like Bergman had passed through PL but rejected it partly due to its perceived line on black nationalism. In a climatic scene in 1969 members of RU, then called the Revolutionary Youth Movement – RYM - blocked with the “National Office” of SDS - future members of the Weathermen - to ‘expel” PL from SDS. SDS was the mass organization of U.S. students. This happened even though the majority at the 1969 SDS conference in Chicago was led by PL. (In essence the minority expelled the majority…)
In their meticulous research, the authors discovered an FBI memo that encouraged their informants to take the side of the National Office in the SDS voting. The memo states: “All REDACTED informants were instructed to support the National Office faction in SDS against the PLP faction.” It continued: “PLP control of SDS would transform a shapeless and fractionalized group into a militant and disciplined organization.” All former PL members can stop laughing now.
In 1971 PL denounced Mao for blocking with Nixon and the U.S. and the coast was clear for RU to take on the Maoist mantle. The authors claim that PL ‘stagnated’ after that, but they seem unfamiliar with the continuing efforts of PL or other organizations. In 1971 PL led the Mack Avenue sit-down strike in Detroit and in 1975 it led a summer project in Boston that opposed the racist anti-busing ROAR organization, holding a May Day march of 2,500 in Boston. This at a time when the authors point out that the RU OPPOSED busing in Boston, as did ROAR. It was common on the left of that period that almost everyone was too sectarian to notice the strengths of other organizations. RU’s long-term efforts in the coal fields or their role in the Attica Brigade and VVAW were also unknown to many. Those efforts are detailed here. For the most part this is still true. Little has been learned by those who fancy history.
At any rate, this FBI pattern of working for the disunity and weakness of the left continued throughout the history of the RU, mostly due to its significant Chinese connection. Another FBI memo details the assignment of informant/FBI agent James Burton. “The major purpose of my assignment from 1972 to 1974 was to develop a position of contact and trust within other left-wing political groups in this country, to prevent their cooperative action, specifically the merger of Revolutionary Union (“RU”) and the October League (“OL”).
RU later dropped their position that they should be a nearly all-white organization and also began to orient towards the working-class, similar to PL. They embarked on a promising unification effort through the “National Liaison Committee” in 1972. The RU’s effort at ‘party-building’ led to joint efforts with the Black Workers Congress, the October League, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party/Young Lords and I-Wor-Kuen, a group of Asian Maoists. However, a key RU central committee individual in charge of this effort, D.H. Wright, took a different line on the national question than the RU – and the NLC fell apart. Bergman suspected that Wright was an ‘agent’ for the FBI, working for the defeat of the effort. The authors provide some back-up evidence that might confirm that. To complicate the matter, the RU was changing its line about the national question re the ‘black belt’ and black leadership of the revolutionary movement at the same time.
After the NLC effort collapsed, RU went on to attack all these groups in 1974, proclaiming itself as the one and only ‘correct’ Maoists in the U.S., even as China’s path to the right increased. This cheerleading for the Chinese ultimately undermined their fate. The RCP itself formed in 1975 after the collapse of the NLC and it following this with a series of ‘actions.’ It pulled out of union working-class sites and tried to base itself on the poorest workers – prisoners, gang members, welfare recipients. RCP led a 4,000 strong demonstration in 1976 against the Bi-Centennial orgy in Philadelphia, though outside a larger anti-Bi-Centennial protest of 30,000.
Events in China brought forth a massive debate within the ‘new’ Communist movement on Mao’s ‘Three Worlds Theory,” which ultimately stated that the USSR was the main enemy of the people of the world. Given China had blocked with the U.S. on events around the world like the Angolan civil war, this could not help but impact American radicals. This was followed by a subsequent split in RU in 1978 when Avakian supported Lin Piao and the ‘Gang of Four” while about a third of the RCP supported Den Xiaoaping in the form of the “Revolutionary Headquarters” and were subsequently expelled, among much typical sectarian acrimony.
According to the authors, Avakian left the U.S. in 1979 after the anti-Deng demonstration to avoid criminal charges and later quite consciously built a Mao-like ‘cult’ around himself, a cult which continues to this day. Looking back, RU/RCP was always dependent on the Chinese franchise. The authors understand this too. When that ended, RCP had no more reason for existence than any other left group, whether based on Trotskyism or other independent brands of Marxism. The clarity and truth of their positions, their roots in actual class struggle and the sanity of their organization was all they had left - and that was quite diminished. At the same time the ultra-left and sectarian collapse of PL into a “more Mao than Mao” ‘straight-to- communism’ group mirrored RCP’s path, so both ‘enemies’ went down together.
For further reading, this is one of a series of in-depth histories on the ostensible “new” Communist movement in the late 1960s and through the 1970s. (It was not ‘new’ because it basically followed what it considered to be Lenin, Stalin and Mao.) Max Elbaum’s “Revolution in the Air” (reviewed below) and Dan Georgakis and Marvin Surkin's study of the Detroit Black Workers Congress, “I Do Mind Dying” are two others. There are also various histories of the Black Panther Party, which embraced an eclectic mix of Maoism, black nationalism and African socialism. These books are also available at May Day Books.
And I bought it at May Day Books at the excellent author’s talk.
August 10, 2015