The Heavy Radicals: An Interview with Aaron Leonard
RCP mem­bers are con­fronted by police at a 1979 rally in Wash­ing­ton D.C. against Deng Xiaop­ing.

Formed in 1968, the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union (RU), which trans­formed into the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mu­nist Party (RCP) in 1975, would become one of the most rec­og­niz­able com­mu­nist for­ma­tions of the 1970s in the United States. In their recent book, Heavy Rad­i­cals: The FBI’s Secret War on America’s Maoists, Aaron J. Leonard and Conor A. Gal­lagher trace the his­tory of the RU, draw­ing in par­tic­u­lar on declas­si­fied mate­ri­als to doc­u­ment how the FBI attempted to repress not just the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union, but all the rad­i­cal move­ments of the era. In this detailed inter­view, Doug Enaa Greene talks with Leonard about the vibrant strug­gles of the 1960s and 1970s, pay­ing close atten­tion to the RU’s his­tory, orga­niz­ing efforts, chang­ing strate­gies, and above all the expan­sive state repres­sion it elicited.

Doug Enaa Greene: Before we begin dis­cussing the book itself, could you share with our read­ers some of your polit­i­cal and pro­fes­sional back­ground and how it led you to write this book? 

Aaron Leonard: I worked with the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mu­nist Party for a very long time. As it says in the intro­duc­tion, I became rad­i­cal­ized when I was in high school. I caught the tail-end of the six­ties and we started our own rad­i­cal, proto-com­mu­nist Maoist group. Then I met the party in 1976. I was first with their unem­ployed group – Unem­ployed Work­ers Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee (UWOC), then the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mu­nist Youth Brigade (RCYB) when it was founded as a tran­si­tion from the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Stu­dent Brigade. Then I wrote for the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mu­nist Party (RCP) news­pa­per for many years. Today I’m a his­to­rian, pri­mar­ily a rad­i­cal his­to­rian. I’m no longer a polit­i­cal activist in the con­ven­tional sense, although the book has an activist ele­ment to it in mak­ing peo­ple striv­ing to make a bet­ter world aware of how secret police oper­ate. I’m not orga­ni­za­tion­ally affil­i­ated nor do I plan to be in this life, as it were.

DEG: In your book, you show how the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union/Revolutionary Com­mu­nist Party USA (hence­forth RU/RCP) was a sig­nif­i­cant and vibrant mass move­ment. By the late 1970s, it pos­sessed 1,500 mem­bers, boasted a large periph­ery, and could punch far above its weight class. In fact, as you recount in the book, when the stu­dent orga­ni­za­tion, Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­tic Soci­ety (SDS), broke up in 1969, most of the rad­i­cal forces within it grav­i­tated toward the RU and not the Weather Under­ground Orga­ni­za­tion (WUO). Yet other groups like the WUO, though much smaller, have received more media cov­er­age and appear much more in the his­to­ries of that era. Indeed, even in books by rad­i­cal his­to­ri­ans who deal with that period, such as Max Elbaum, author of Rev­o­lu­tion in the Air: Six­ties Rad­i­cals Turn to Lenin, Che and Mao, the RU/RCP still receives an arguably mar­ginal treat­ment. Could you offer an expla­na­tion as to why the RU/RCP has been either mar­gin­al­ized or left out of his­to­ries of the 1960s?

AL: It’s a good ques­tion and I can spec­u­late to a degree. I wrote a paper that was my senior the­sis at NYU inves­ti­gat­ing the role of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union in SDS, and I had no idea what its actual role in SDS was and how it emerged out of that. It was a very small group at the end of SDS with prob­a­bly 20 peo­ple or so. But it was very influ­en­tial, a lot of which I wrote about in the book. When I was research­ing this the­sis, I read this book by David Bar­ber, who wrote a book for Uni­ver­sity Press of Mis­sis­sippi, enti­tled A Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why it Failed. And you know, Bar­ber is not sym­pa­thetic with the RU or the pol­i­tics they put for­ward in SDS, but he makes this point that the kind of things the RU was argu­ing for – about bas­ing them­selves in the work­ing class, but wrapped in this more con­ven­tional Marx­ist lan­guage – as he wrote, “The Red Papers [the RU’s orig­i­nal man­i­festo] nev­er­the­less rep­re­sented the future of where most of RYM II [the non-Weath­er­man fac­tion at the core of SDS] were headed.”

And SDS did indeed fall apart. It was a wide open move­ment and the national office was con­trolled by peo­ple like Bill Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, and Mark Rudd and they went off to be the Weath­er­men. And they did gar­ner a lot of press. I think from the stand­point of the moral com­pul­sion of these folks, my sense is that they felt a gen­uine and burn­ing desire to put an end to the Viet­nam War and all the var­i­ous injus­tices that they came to see asso­ci­ated with the United States. Tac­ti­cally and strate­gi­cally, they flamed out very quickly. And they are still being talked about, mainly as a pro­to­typ­i­cal exam­ple of how rad­i­cal­ism is a failed way to go.

But the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union did kind of emerge out of that. As we dis­cov­ered in research­ing the book, peo­ple would tell us, “not that many peo­ple in SDS went to the RU.” And then you would ask some­body “were you in SDS?” and they would say “oh yeah.” We have met quite a few for­mer SDS peo­ple who went on to be part of the RU. And there were also peo­ple like Mike Klon­sky who was in the national lead­er­ship of SDS who formed another com­mu­nist orga­ni­za­tion (The Octo­ber League) and oth­ers who also formed new com­mu­nist orga­ni­za­tions.

As for Max Elbaum’s book, he did a sur­vey of all these groups and he does men­tion that the RU was the biggest. But he does tend to equally address all the var­i­ous groups. I feel that my and Conor’s book is a lit­tle bit more pro­por­tion­ate in terms of who had the larger impact. And as we say in the book, it had a lot to do with the RU’s asso­ci­a­tion with China. By the early 1970s, the RU had what was pop­u­larly called the “Chi­nese fran­chise.” They formed the US-China Peo­ples Friend­ship Asso­ci­a­tion which was the group you had to be in if you wanted to tour China. And they couldn’t have done that if the Chi­nese had agreed that this was some­thing to do. This model of Maoist China in the early and mid-1970s and the RU’s asso­ci­a­tion with that was very impor­tant to its abil­ity to move for­ward and to cohere as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary force in a time when the upsurge of the 1960s was wan­ing.

DEG: You touched on this, but many 1960s rad­i­cals, whether in the WUO or the RU, con­sid­ered them­selves com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. Why were they will­ing to become com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. And more specif­i­cally, what was the nature of the appeal of Mao­ism, which the RU adopted?

AL: It’s a tough ques­tion. It’s funny because I was in high school when I became rad­i­cal­ized and I met all the peo­ple around me, these older kids who were slowly grav­i­tat­ing towards Marx­ism-Lenin­ism. And it had a lot to do with what hap­pened in China dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion – a per­cep­tion of rebel­lion, stand­ing up against author­ity, stand­ing up against tra­di­tion, stand­ing up against the rule of a gen­er­a­tion that seemed to be ossi­fied. In Cuba there was a rev­o­lu­tion where a small group of peo­ple seemed to humil­i­ate the United States. Com­mu­nism was the pro­claimed ide­ol­ogy behind these forces. And it had an impact on the stu­dent move­ment here. One needs a model. If you say you are a rev­o­lu­tion­ary, you need a model or an alter­na­tive to make rev­o­lu­tion for. And in the late six­ties, it appeared as if there were such mod­els.

Today we can talk about what we know and what we under­stand and what we should have under­stood then to fig­ure out if those were in fact appeal­ing mod­els. I think we have to put that aside for the sake of what we are talk­ing about here, back in the late 1960s and 70s, the peo­ple who were rad­i­cal were look­ing at these things and they seemed viable, that was what they pro­ceeded from. Peo­ple were dis­gusted with the Demo­c­ra­tic Party, which had sys­tem­at­i­cally drawn peo­ple into this mur­der­ous and awful war in Viet­nam. Peo­ple were reject­ing the half-mea­sures of reform pol­i­tics and move­ments, and, by con­trast, Marx­ism-Lenin­ism in places like China and Cuba, and rev­o­lu­tion­ary thought in gen­eral, was appeal­ing.

DEG: Now in the for­ma­tive period, the RU saw itself as a “pre-party for­ma­tion.” What does this exactly mean? And why did the RU later decide to turn itself into a party despite this ear­lier for­ma­tion?

AL: What I wrote in the book drew a lot from Steve Hamil­ton, who was a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union founder. He’s a very inter­est­ing char­ac­ter – he was from the work­ing class and he ini­tially wanted to study to go into a the­o­log­i­cal field. He was given a schol­ar­ship to attend Wheaton Col­lege, but he made a turn and decided to study his­tory at Berke­ley. And he landed at Berke­ley with the start of the Free Speech Move­ment and he became a mem­ber of the Pro­gres­sive Labor Party (PL), which was the Maoist for­ma­tion before the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union. Pro­gres­sive Labor Party ended up tak­ing another road, which is another story to tell. But Hamil­ton was in PL and instru­men­tal in Stop the Draft Week in 1967. He was arrested and kicked out of Berke­ley. He and Bob Avakian went to Rich­mond, Cal­i­for­nia to try and immerse them­selves in the work­ing class and orga­nize for rev­o­lu­tion­ary change. Hamil­ton thought that just moral calls were not enough, the whole sys­tem needed to be brought down. I men­tion all this about Steve Hamil­ton because he left the RU around 1973-4 and he wrote a two-part his­tory which was rev­e­la­tory for me. He makes the point that the RU was already a national orga­ni­za­tion and essen­tially act­ing as a party. He argued against mys­ti­fy­ing what a party was. In look­ing back, it seems that the evi­dence cor­re­sponded with what Hamil­ton, and Leibel Bergman too, said. Inad­ver­tently, two FBI infor­mants said in 1970 that the RU is prob­a­bly going to merge with a bunch of orga­ni­za­tions and become this new com­mu­nist party, which is inter­est­ing in and of itself.

One of the most star­tling things we dis­cov­ered was that the RU was attempt­ing to merge some orga­ni­za­tions to form a multi­na­tional party. They were try­ing to merge the Black Work­ers’ Con­gress, the Young Lords’ Party which had changed its name to the Puerto Rican Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Work­ers Orga­ni­za­tion, and a rad­i­cal Asian orga­ni­za­tion called I Wor Kuen. They tried to merge these groups, they’d actu­ally signed a unity state­ment and then two weeks later it all fell apart. These groups were sup­posed to join together and form a party. The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union printed a whole pam­phlet about the polem­i­cal bat­tles that led to the destruc­tion of that.

But as we doc­u­ment in the book, the cen­tral com­mit­tee mem­ber Don­ald Wright, who was the RU’s point per­son on this National Liaison Com­mit­tee, played a promi­nent and destruc­tive role. He basi­cally put for­ward a dif­fer­ent posi­tion from the offi­cial RU posi­tion. And as we looked into Don Wright’s back­ground, we dis­cov­ered more and more ques­tion­able things. He was some­one who came out of the Ad Hoc Com­mit­tee (AHC), which was sup­posed to be a super-secret sec­tion of the Com­mu­nist Party USA (CPUSA) that was more rad­i­cal than the CPUSA. We dis­cov­ered that the AHC was actu­ally an FBI con­coc­tion, a fully-cre­ated entity from the mind of spe­cial agent Her­bert K. Stallings. All of which adds another dimen­sion to why the National Liaison Com­mit­tee fell apart.

All of this goes to your ques­tion about the form­ing of the party. In hind­sight it looks like the RU was in fact a party. As we point out in the book, the group evolved in a cer­tain way and fol­lowed a cer­tain con­tin­uum. The RU turn­ing into the RCP was basi­cally the adop­tion and cod­i­fi­ca­tion of posi­tions they had devel­oped in their for­ma­tive period.

DEG: You touched on the FBI which had infil­trated, sur­veilled, and dis­rupted the RU/RCP. And of course the FBI had done this to other far left orga­ni­za­tions for sev­eral decades. What were your sources for FBI dis­rup­tion of the RU/RCP?

AL: Firstly there was the  Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act (FOIA) doc­u­ments. We hit the mother lode with Steve Hamilton’s files. He died in 2009 and because he was an early leader of the group, every time his name got men­tioned, which was at most of the lead­er­ship meet­ings, a copy went to his FBI file. So the biggest thing we found was these infor­mant files from some­one who had joined the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union by its third meet­ing in April 1968. We actu­ally didn’t know the group was cre­ated in early 1968, we always heard it was cre­ated in late 1968. Appar­ently it was cre­ated in Jan­u­ary or Feb­ru­ary 1968 and the FBI had an infor­mant in place and got him on the regional exec­u­tive com­mit­tee. And this per­son metic­u­lously typed sin­gle-spaced 6-10 pages of the inau­gu­ral strug­gles and debates that were going on in the RU. In it, he names all the prin­ci­ple fig­ures – Larry Har­ris, Leibel Bergman, Bob Avakian, Bruce Franklin. And you see their strug­gle in the RU about attack­ing Pro­gres­sive Labor Party. Bruce Franklin, Bob Avakian, and Steve Hamil­ton ini­tially didn’t want to start a big polem­i­cal war with PL, but they were brought around. You see the strug­gle around Stalin and its strik­ing. Bob Avakian didn’t ini­tially sup­port Stalin and that all got resolved because there’s an infor­mant in there report­ing on the evo­lu­tion, if you will, of people’s views. And the infor­mants  records went into Steve Hamilton’s files and were tucked away in the National Archives. We asked for them and they sent them to us and there it was. That was a big source.

But then a lot of this stuff is just sit­ting out there because no one really looks at the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union. We dis­cov­ered that the FBI had instructed its infor­mants in SDS to vote with the national office because that record was sit­ting in the FBI’s “vault” of released doc­u­ments. One of the doc­u­ments was on SDS and there it was. A pro­fes­sor, Art Eck­stein, who we shared that doc­u­ment with, caught that par­tic­u­lar instruc­tion. But if you’re not look­ing at the RU, you don’t find it. And as you said ear­lier, nobody talks about the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union.

As we doc­u­ment in the book, major peo­ple have writ­ten about SDS, such as Todd Gitlin and Kirk­patrick Sale. Unfor­tu­nately, they rel­e­gate the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union to foot­notes and in doing so, they inad­ver­tently mis­con­strue his­tory. The RU was never that big when they were part of SDS, or in rela­tion to the CPUSA in its hey­day of the 1940s, but in the late 1960s and 1970s, they were very influ­en­tial among a good per­cent­age of the most rad­i­cal youth. They appeared to have answered some fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about how to effect rev­o­lu­tion­ary change with­out  going pell-mell into launch­ing rev­o­lu­tion right away. That was just rush­ing into a dis­as­trous thing and you’d get destroyed very quickly.

DEG: What kind of repres­sion did the RU/RCP face from the FBI? You’ve men­tioned some exam­ples, but do you want to go a lit­tle more into it?

AL: Regard­ing the strat­egy, and this is impor­tant because it comes up with the Weath­er­men and Bruce Franklin who broke away from the RU, there was a paper that argued it was pos­si­ble to start a kind of pro­tracted urban guer­rilla war. And the FBI had a very clear assess­ment of this – these peo­ple want to go off and do vio­lence, they’ll become iso­lated from the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion really quickly and be killed or put in jail. That’s one way – from the Bureau’s out­look – to deal with a cer­tain kind of rad­i­cal.

Now the way of deal­ing with these more strate­gic-minded orga­ni­za­tions is more strate­gic. The FBI made sure that all the lead­ers were mon­i­tored and put on their Secu­rity Index, which was later changed to their Admin­is­tra­tive Index. This meant every six months, the FBI needed to dou­ble-check to see where peo­ple lived, where they were work­ing, because the point was they would be arrested when the time came, and the lead­er­ship of the RU, the most impor­tant peo­ple, would be put in jail. That’s con­sis­tent with what hap­pened to the CPUSA as World War II ended and gave way to the Cold War. They invoked the Smith Act, they arrested the top CP lead­er­ship and effec­tively par­a­lyzed the group. That’s one thing – mak­ing sure they had a bead on the lead­ers.

The other thing was they had infor­mants at every level, includ­ing in the lead­er­ship. And this is actu­ally aston­ish­ing to me, as a mat­ter of doc­trine, the FBI attempted to infil­trate groups as they were start­ing out. They did this in a period in the 1950s when the Com­mu­nist Party was reform­ing and they did this with the RU in the early 1970s. We have now doc­u­mented not one, but two FBI infor­mants on the cen­tral com­mit­tee of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union of 1971. So they’re actu­ally in there on a lead­ing body. They’re not just giv­ing infor­ma­tion, but they’re in there, one would imag­ine, argu­ing for pol­icy and push­ing things one way or the other. I think back to the exam­ple of the National Liaison Com­mit­tee that I gave ear­lier, of how that entity was destroyed, there is a big ques­tion of what role the FBI played in that dis­so­lu­tion. This is not to say that the FBI was able to do what­ever it wanted. The RU grew, despite all this stuff.

So there’s all these kind of things – mon­i­tor­ing the lead­er­ship, divid­ing peo­ple at every turn. And this is insid­i­ous like the one FBI memo that pro­poses writ­ing a fake novel under Leibel Bergman’s name that puts for­ward a pro-Soviet line. It’s a long memo, but it says “we should write this fake novel, say it’s by Liebel Bergman, say it’s argu­ing the Soviet line to make him look bad and look like a cop.” They ended up say­ing we’re not going to do that since it would have been a lit­tle too ambi­tious. That’s the kind of inter­est­ing stuff. Or the poi­son pen let­ters claim­ing that so-and-so is an infor­mant. There was an idea of a comic book. There is a comic that attempted to show Leibel Bergman was an FBI infor­mant, and which was sent to Lib­er­a­tion News Ser­vice sur­rep­ti­tiously, allegedly from Marv Treiger, who had been in the RU and left. We actu­ally called Lib­er­a­tion News Ser­vice peo­ple who are still around and they said “we got this car­toon, but we don’t enter into these polem­i­cal bat­tles and take sides. So we didn’t print it.” Which was a good pol­icy to have, because in this instance that car­toon seemed a provo­ca­tion.

What the FBI was doing at every turn was to stir peo­ple up. They took Red Papers and they said, “let’s send this to Pro­gres­sive Labor because Red Papers 1 had a polemic against PL.” So in that way, they wanted to fuel the fires, so they tried to cre­ate divi­sions at every turn, divi­sions between orga­ni­za­tions, divi­sions within orga­ni­za­tions, and divi­sions among lead­ers. There’s a num­ber of memos talk­ing about how to set Bruce Franklin against Leibel Bergman. Now, the repres­sion was dif­fer­ent from what the Black Pan­thers faced, where peo­ple were in shoot-outs or ended up with seri­ous jail time. The approach to the RU was dif­fer­ent, this was a strate­gic orga­ni­za­tion and the FBI was deal­ing with that strate­gi­cally. And of course they did have these infor­mants at the top level which raises the whole ques­tion of the inter­pen­e­tra­tion between the secret police and this rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion. When you have FBI agents on the cen­tral com­mit­tee, the FBI is part of your group, maybe not the main part or nec­es­sar­ily the deter­min­ing part, but it’s unhelp­fully dis­mis­sive to not think they’re play­ing a sig­nif­i­cant role.

This was star­tling to me. I thought I under­stood some of this stuff, but I was rather shocked to learn the degree to which this was going on. I can also say this: it didn’t stop peo­ple from join­ing or the group from grow­ing. Larger forces ulti­mately deter­mined what was pos­si­ble and what was not pos­si­ble. That said, I think it is being blind to some real­i­ties to not under­stand how inter­twined, how dialec­ti­cally inter­twined, the oper­a­tion of the secret police is with a group that is attempt­ing rad­i­cal change – the polit­i­cal police are in there and a major player. They are inti­mately in your shit.


DEG: You brought up the Black Pan­ther Party, which viewed FBI repres­sion as a sign that the United States was becom­ing fas­cist. How did the RU try to under­stand or diag­nose this repres­sion? Did they have a par­tic­u­lar strat­egy for deal­ing with it? And to what extent, if any, did their struc­ture and inter­nal life allow for sab­o­tage or pre­vent it?

AL: I can’t really speak to it. Hav­ing not been on the cen­tral com­mit­tee or privy to that infor­ma­tion, I don’t know what they may or may not have done. It’s kind of obvi­ous look­ing back that they didn’t do very well. What we did learn was about how the FBI was able to do what they were able to do, and not just in the RU. For exam­ple, we dis­cov­ered this very inter­est­ing file for Aaron Man­ganiello. He was a Chi­cano activist, for­mer Brown Beret, and rev­o­lu­tion­ary and was part of a group called Vencer­e­mos around the Palo Alto area in Cal­i­for­nia. Bruce Franklin merged with this orga­ni­za­tion after he left the RU to con­tinue his polit­i­cal work and to pro­mote this more mil­i­tant – some would say adven­tur­ist – model. For a short time, Man­ganiello was chair­man of the cen­tral com­mit­tee of Vencer­e­mos, although he was later demoted down to a reg­u­lar mem­ber.

Vencer­e­mos gets caught up in some very extreme stuff. Some of the peo­ple asso­ci­ated with the orga­ni­za­tion were impli­cated in the killing of two prison guards. Man­ganiello had been in jail at the time for a demon­stra­tion when this hap­pened. The FBI approached him while he was in jail and rather than just telling them to go away and shut­ting up, he attempted to out­smart them. He talked to them, basi­cally fig­ur­ing that he was more clever than they were. And you read this FBI report and they pegged his talk­ing to them as a sig­nal that they might have some lever­age with him. Then they have another con­ver­sa­tion with him. They lit­er­ally draw up a bud­get of what they are will­ing to pay for him to become an infor­mant. They broach this sub­ject with him, and he doesn’t say yes, the file just ends there. He seems to send them away, but the FBI agents don’t report that the door is totally closed.

I know this does not directly answer your ques­tion about the RU, but the episode is rather instruc­tive as to how things worked and what was swirling around. As for the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union, I don’t know how the cen­tral com­mit­tee dealt with this repres­sion. I know back in the day, they would have secu­rity at events and pre­vent peo­ple from rush­ing the stage and things like that. But as far as hav­ing a beat on who joined, screen­ing peo­ple, and things like that, I really don’t have much of a sense. But what I do know is how the FBI actu­ally oper­ated and attempted to insin­u­ate itself into these groups, and I think peo­ple can learn from that. I don’t know exactly what lessons peo­ple can take from it, but for me, under­stand­ing how this actu­ally works is enor­mously help­ful. Hav­ing been around the move­ment, every­body has the­o­ries about how the FBI works, how the under­cover police work, and some of it is help­ful, but a lot of it is just spec­u­la­tion. And what we try to do in our book is to under­stand how it really works and get off this grand the­ory model.

And also, as I’ve said, the book is very hum­bling. Any­body who says they know how this stuff works or thinks they’re more clever than the FBI, I think they ought to read the book, take a breath and eval­u­ate their think­ing against it. I’m not gonna tell peo­ple what to do, but I did come away very hum­bled about the sophis­ti­ca­tion of what the FBI was able to do. They can fuck up greatly too, they could be totally pre­pos­ter­ous, absurd, and all that. That’s all true, but they could also be very sophis­ti­cated.

DEG: The RU/RCP looked to the Black Pan­thers and the Chi­nese Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, but they also looked back to the 1930s Com­mu­nist Party and its focus on orga­niz­ing at the point of pro­duc­tion and around “day-to-day” issues. The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union  brought these two poles together in their prac­tice and strat­egy. Could you tell me a bit about the RU’s over­all strate­gic vision dur­ing the 1970s such as going to the work­ing class? What were some of its suc­cesses and lim­i­ta­tions?

AL: It’s just ironic because one gets a sense that they were try­ing to be smart. Unlike the Weath­er­men, they weren’t going off to do some excit­ing actions and wait­ing for the rest of the world to rise up. This is heavy shit. These young peo­ple, a lot of them from the mid­dle class, had the prospect of good careers in front of them, but basi­cally said “I’m going to ded­i­cate my life to mak­ing a rev­o­lu­tion in the United States.” They decided to work in steel mills, meat­pack­ing fac­to­ries, gar­ment cen­ters in order to live among the work­ing class, get to know peo­ple, and influ­ence them with com­mu­nist pol­i­tics. This is a big untold story of the 1970s. Per­son­ally, I find it rather impres­sive. Now it was very tough because the work­ing class in the United States is in a rather priv­i­leged posi­tion and the abil­ity to bring these pol­i­tics to peo­ple was really dif­fi­cult. There were some sig­nif­i­cant suc­cesses like the Rich­mond oil strike in 1968 and the Farah strike, for which the RU was instru­men­tal in build­ing nation-wide sup­port. But there were many dif­fi­cul­ties, too. A lot of RU/RCP cadre felt iso­lated, some being red-baited, some beaten up by union offi­cials who had no inter­est in see­ing them gain­ing a foothold.

The big­ger prob­lem is that the dynamic in the work­ing class in the United States was shift­ing. The ground was shift­ing under­neath their feet and they didn’t know it. They were locked into this model of cap­i­tal­ism in ulti­mate decline, argu­ing that eco­nomic cri­sis would push the work­ing class down and that work­ers would be more amenable to these pol­i­tics. We know now that there is a global cap­i­tal­ism in oper­a­tion and things were shift­ing. The work­ing class as it existed from the 1940s to the 1970s was trans­form­ing. A lot of indus­try was mov­ing over to Mex­ico, into the south and into Asia. David Har­vey made an inter­est­ing point a cou­ple of years ago that the pro­le­tariat in China today is mainly women. That’s emblem­atic of major shifts in cap­i­tal­ism and the global sys­tem. The RU/RCP was try­ing to com­bine some of that 1930s logic with the six­ties spirit, but this had its lim­i­ta­tions. I think this is a ripe area for dis­sec­tion.

DEG: Con­sid­er­ing that I live in the greater Boston area, one thing that still lingers here is the legacy of Boston bus­ing, when a Fed­eral judge in Mass­a­chu­setts, issued a rul­ing that Boston school author­i­ties had car­ried out a pol­icy of sys­tem­atic seg­re­ga­tion. The court ordered Boston schools to imple­ment a bus­ing pro­gram to inte­grate the schools. This meant trans­fer­ring stu­dents between black and white neigh­bor­hoods. This in turn led to a racist back­lash as black chil­dren were attacked by white mobs. Unlike the major­ity of the left, who sup­ported bus­ing, the RCP opposed the bus­ing. Peo­ple on the left still remem­ber the RU/RCP posi­tion on bus­ing. I was won­der­ing if you could talk about that a lit­tle bit.

AL: We con­tex­tu­al­ized the Boston bus­ing and I almost feel like there is a big­ger story to be told and we don’t have all the evi­dence. After the col­lapse of the National Liaison Com­mit­tee, you really see a pivot in the posi­tion of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union going from being big advo­cates and sup­port­ers of the Black Pan­ther Party and black, Latino, and other oppressed peo­ples to one of empha­siz­ing a multi­na­tional work­ing class. By 1974 or so, they were lit­er­ally argu­ing that the main dan­ger in the com­mu­nist move­ment was nar­row nation­al­ism. And I think a lot of this is really bound up with what hap­pened in the National Liaison Com­mit­tee that col­lapsed. There was more going on in that col­lapse than just the polit­i­cal debates – the Bureau seemed to have been inter­ven­ing in its way – even though at the end of every­thing the polit­i­cal dis­agree­ment may have been the fun­da­men­tal rea­son for the breakup.

They came out of that strug­gle and went into the Boston bus­ing issue argu­ing that work­ers’ unity was crit­i­cal and that the bosses, the cap­i­tal­ists, were try­ing to split peo­ple up with this bus­ing plan. They effec­tively ended up on the wrong side. They were ridiculed and ostra­cized. Black kids were being tar­geted by angry white mobs and the RU was effec­tively say­ing that the issue here is multi­na­tional unity, not that the bus­ing is a good thing and a pos­i­tive rem­edy, it’s impor­tant and should be sup­ported even if it is com­ing down from the high­est pow­ers. If you read their posi­tions, they attempt to be nuanced. They’re not coarsely racist or any­thing like this; they just end up in a con­vo­luted sit­u­a­tion of being on the wrong side.

DEG: The RU was involved with a num­ber of social move­ments in the late 1960s and 1970s. One was the anti­war veteran’s move­ment, per­haps most vis­i­bly rep­re­sented by an orga­ni­za­tion called the Viet­nam Vet­er­ans Against the War (VVAW). The group had some very famous mem­bers, such as John F. Kerry, the for­mer Sen­a­tor from Mass­a­chu­setts and cur­rent Sec­re­tary of State. The group was also rather mil­i­tant, as when many mem­bers threw their medals back in 1971. Inter­est­ingly, by the mid-1970s, the RU/RCP had effec­tive lead­er­ship of the VVAW. How did this come about, and what ulti­mately led the two groups to part ways?

AL: It came about because the national lead­er­ship of VVAW was very rad­i­cal and it had no inter­est in com­ing back under the US polit­i­cal fold. They had their own falling out, John Kerry and oth­ers left because they weren’t rad­i­cal and didn’t want to be asso­ci­ated with that kind of rad­i­cal­ism. VVAW also went into decline as the Viet­nam War ended. After all, their very rea­son for exist­ing was to oppose the Viet­nam War. As it cohered, the national lead­er­ship decided to join the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union since they wanted rev­o­lu­tion and had no inter­est in mak­ing Amer­ica work. Many of them had been forced to do things at the behest of the United States gov­ern­ment and they totally rejected it. And through a vote, the group decided to align itself with the RU. It was a demo­c­ra­tic vote and the VVAW has a stock­pile of released doc­u­ments show­ing that they actu­ally counted the num­ber of votes.

They brought them­selves into the RU, but fell out when China turned. We write this chap­ter that when Mao Zedong died in 1976 there was this inter­nal strug­gle in the RCP over whether or not to sup­port Hua Guofeng and the new Chi­nese lead­er­ship or to sup­port the four Polit­buro mem­bers who had been arrested in what was essen­tially a coup d’etat. The RCP broke apart into two pieces over that. One group wanted to sup­port the Chi­nese lead­er­ship and one group wanted to sup­port these Polit­buro rad­i­cals who claimed they were the true advo­cates of Mao Zedong’s line. The group that left the RCP formed some­thing called the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Work­ers Head­quar­ters (RWHq). Leibel Bergman, who had been crit­i­cal of form­ing the RU and had been in the Com­mu­nist Party since 1937, been in Pro­gres­sive Labor for a short time, and had been in China dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, he along with Mickey Jarvis, who had come out of SDS, left and took about a third of the mem­bers with them. Four or five hun­dred mem­bers, I don’t know the exact num­bers. VVAW split mainly along regional lines with the lead­er­ship and most of its mem­ber­ship going with the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Worker Head­quar­ters and a smaller group, nam­ing itself VVAW-Anti-Impe­ri­al­ist, remain­ing aligned with the RCP. RWHq went on to reform within other for­ma­tions, some peo­ple fell away. Sim­i­larly with the RCP, it con­tin­ued on and kept the name RCP, but a lot of peo­ple fell away.

DEG: You got a bit into my next ques­tion about the split in the RCP. Did the FBI play a role in that split?

AL: That’s a very good ques­tion and let me answer: I just find it hard to believe they didn’t. The turn in China was a big deal and it just put the mat­ter of “what are you going to do?” squarely in front of you. That was a time for ques­tions of the first order to be answered and debated. And there was an attempt to come up with quicker answers, to ana­lyze fast and jump to con­clu­sions. Roughly forty years later, China is a rather big cap­i­tal­ist coun­try. Obvi­ously things develop a cer­tain way for cer­tain rea­sons and a lot of that needs to be under­stood with some depth beyond the char­ac­ter­is­tic anti­com­mu­nist tropes or dog­matic wish­ful think­ing of how you think it is.

What role did the FBI play in this? All we know is that the FBI, when­ever it saw divi­sions and dis­sen­sions, tried to pull things apart as far as pos­si­ble. The doc­u­ments about what they may or may not have done are forth­com­ing. We’re con­tin­u­ing to research, and may learn some more.

DEG: You end the book in 1980, when the RCP is split, and when there has been some high-pro­file actions and state repres­sion against its lead­ing mem­bers and cadre such as Bob Avakian. But the RCP still exists to this day. Why did you end your book in 1980 and not look at later activ­i­ties of the party?

AL: Well the book had to end some­where. Ini­tially it seemed like it was too ambi­tious. The fur­ther away I get from it, the hap­pier I am that we ended it there because the group that exists today is a much dif­fer­ent group than in 1977. If you read the last chap­ter of the book, you get a sense of how the group changed into what it is today. They dropped this notion of try­ing to base cadre in fac­to­ries. They aban­doned the notion of bas­ing cadre any­where. They devel­oped the view that through a news­pa­per, you can raise a rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment. They ini­ti­ated this notion of the unique lead­er­ship of Bob Avakian, which we dis­cussed. Avakian him­self argued, in this period, about build­ing a cult around him­self. The out­li­nes of the group today can be seen in the last chap­ter of our book. The group today is one of many far left sects, which is not to say they couldn’t be under­stood with some depth or per­haps there is a story to tell. The group has a whole his­tory through the 1980s and 1990s. It’s not the book we wrote.

The book we wrote began when we came across this 1976 doc­u­ment in which the FBI said the RCP and its front groups are a threat to the inter­nal secu­rity of the United States of the first mag­ni­tude. This is a very heavy thing. This is the kind of thing that J. Edgar Hoover said about the Black Pan­thers. When the FBI is call­ing you a threat of the first mag­ni­tude, that’s an action­able state­ment, it’s not just the­o­ret­i­cal. We came across a doc­u­ment from 1978 that basi­cally fol­lowed the Attor­ney General’s guide­li­nes, which ended its inter­nal secu­rity inves­ti­ga­tion of the RCP and ordered all its infor­mants redi­rected. Now there’s a caveat: if any­one had any asso­ci­a­tion or per­ceived asso­ci­a­tion to advo­cate direct vio­lence, the inves­ti­ga­tion con­tin­u­a­tion. I can say that the FBI con­tin­ued to pay atten­tion to cer­tain key peo­ple and that was cer­tainly true after the Deng Xiaop­ing demon­stra­tion of 1979. One does get the sense of a mea­sure of con­ti­nu­ity between 1968 and 1978 in par­tic­u­lar, but they were not the same going for­ward. In fact, what we out­line in the book is a lot of what the RU/RCP encoun­tered in the 1979-1980 was local police Red Squads which hadn’t been fully reined in yet.

Now what’s going on today? Or what went on in the 1980s and 1990s? Things have changed. There are dif­fer­ent agen­cies and dif­fer­ent pos­si­bil­i­ties, all of which I can’t speak of. I think end­ing in 1980, it was a dif­fer­ent group.

DEG: Every­one on the far left in this coun­try pretty much knows who Bob Avakian is, and it is gen­er­ally not a pos­i­tive view, to put it mildly. But we get another view of Avakian from Heavy Rad­i­cals as a polit­i­cal leader and cen­tral orga­nizer in both the RU and RCP. I was won­der­ing if you can talk about Avakian’s actual con­tri­bu­tions and lim­i­ta­tions to devel­op­ing the RU/RCP?

AL: One of the things is that we focused on four peo­ple when we wrote the book, as a way of mak­ing the story come more to life, and because we thought they con­sti­tuted a foun­da­tional lead­ing core – though we learned there were other crit­i­cal founders as well We focused on Leibel Bergman, Steve Hamil­ton, Bruce Franklin (a scholar, a very bright guy, who became rad­i­cal­ized as a result of the Viet­nam War, and became a Marx­ist-Lenin­ist after spend­ing a semes­ter in France with his wife Jane Franklin. At Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity he rad­i­cal­ized quite a lot of peo­ple, includ­ing the future lead­ers of the RU), and Bob Avakian (who was a Berke­ley stu­dent, par­tic­i­pated in the Free Speech Move­ment, had gone to Rich­mond, Cal­i­for­nia with Steve Hamil­ton). The idea was to look at the four together, see­ing this group as more of a col­lec­tive, which appears to be more the case in its begin­nings. Now these are four white guys I’m talk­ing about, but that was never the sum total of the RU. There were, for exam­ple, women lead­ers from the very begin­ning, peo­ple like Jane Franklin, Mary Lou Green­berg, and some oth­ers.

We tried to be a lit­tle cir­cum­spect in not nam­ing peo­ple who haven’t been pub­licly asso­ci­ated with the group. It was mainly a white group with some Latino and a cer­tain Asian com­po­nent. And that was by design. One gets the sense that groups were sup­posed to merge. I even sus­pect that the Black Pan­thers were part of that design which would never come to fruition. The RU delib­er­ately directed black rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies to the Black Pan­thers instead of recruit­ing them, which ended up work­ing against them as the Pan­thers devel­oped the way they did.

We talk about Avakian in this con­text. Look, he made con­tri­bu­tions. I was just think­ing about this today: of all these peo­ple I’ve talked to in the RU/RCP, these were prob­a­bly the peo­ple in your high school or col­lege who were the most com­mit­ted, the most rad­i­cal, and the most thought­ful. It seemed like that’s who the RU was attract­ing. Avakian’s there and it seems like he had a cer­tain abil­ity for speech and writ­ing that was help­ful, but in con­cert with every­body else, they were at least ini­tially able to nav­i­gate some of the rocks and shoals that were destroy­ing other peo­ple. I think Avakian deserves a place in the his­tory of the 1960s and 1970s in this regard, as do Steve Hamil­ton, Larry Har­ris, Gertrude Alexan­der (who was a Com­mu­nist Party woman), Barry Green­berg, and Chris Mil­ton (who was in the Red Guards in China and was a found­ing mem­ber of the RU). They all brought a cer­tain some­thing to this. Now in hind­sight, I find their argu­ments about what was hap­pen­ing in China prob­lem­atic. I think big­ger ques­tions con­front us. I think Avakian exists in that con­text, but then Mao died and things fell apart. Deep chal­lenges were put on peo­ple and dif­fer­ent peo­ple responded in dif­fer­ent ways – this is where we find our­selves now. Our book doesn’t end with some model or par­a­digm of what to do. What I’m com­fort­able doing is attempt­ing to under­stand things that actu­ally hap­pened, not just to revisit the past, but because I think there is some rel­e­vance if you kind of con­cen­trate on it.

DEG: Are there any impor­tant lessons those of us in social move­ments should take from your work?

AL: Well, it mat­ters how repres­sion actu­ally works. The big thing we dis­cov­ered is that it’s very dif­fi­cult to fight for a far bet­ter world. When you see some­thing is deeply wrong and you want to strug­gle against it, it’s tough to fig­ure out how to respond effec­tively, and then it’s just as tough to work with like-minded peo­ple and find that you dis­agree. A lot of peo­ple have a lot of dif­fer­ent ideas on how to do things. And then you have the secret police who are seiz­ing on those dis­agree­ments at every turn to try and destroy you. As I say, with the RU/RCP, the state was pit­ting orga­ni­za­tions against each other, pit­ting lead­ers against each other, pit­ting sec­tions of the move­ment against each other, and indi­vid­u­als against each other. There’s a real need for think­ing crit­i­cally and pro­ceed­ing based on evi­dence, not just on spec­u­la­tion. And its very impor­tant to find a way to respect dis­agree­ments – being able to dis­agree with peo­ple and have a cer­tain respect for peo­ple who are osten­si­bly on the same side of a metaphor­i­cal bar­ri­cade. That’s one thing, a pretty pro­found chal­lenge that I don’t have the answer to.

And the other thing is, as I keep say­ing, it mat­ters how this stuff actu­ally hap­pened. We have doc­u­ments show­ing how FBI agent Her­bert Stallings was able to write a bul­letin argu­ing for a Maoist line in a com­mu­nist party. The FBI had some­body who could prob­a­bly argue Mao­ism bet­ter than many cadre in the RU/RCP could. That was actu­ally a lit­tle shock­ing.

The point of all this is that now we know bet­ter what actu­ally hap­pened; we don’t have to spec­u­late about some aspects of this his­tory any­more. And under­stand­ing exactly how the state, and espe­cially the FBI, strug­gled to dis­credit, dis­man­tle, and under­mine a rad­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion can actu­ally be quite use­ful for us today. Of course, the state appa­ra­tuses in this coun­try have changed dra­mat­i­cally, and repres­sion has cer­tainly grown more sophis­ti­cated. But repres­sion still exists, and as social move­ments con­tinue to develop today, and as groups begin to form and unite, some of the same tac­tics – such as exac­er­bat­ing rival­ries, forc­ing divi­sions between and within groups, and infil­trat­ing orga­ni­za­tions – might be reused against con­tem­po­rary move­ments. There’s still a great deal we can learn from this his­tory.

Authors of the article

is a writer and historian. He publishes regularly in,, History News Network, and Physics World. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

is an independent historian living in the greater Boston area. He has been published in Socialism and Democracy, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, MRZine, Kasama, Counterpunch, Socialist Viewpoint, Green Left Weekly, Open Media Boston, Jacobin, Cultural Logic and Red Wedge magazine. He was active in Occupy Boston and is a volunteer at the Center for Marxist Education in Cambridge, MA. He is the author of a forthcoming book Specters of Communism on the French communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui from Haymarket Books.