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.