(Note: this summary/review is not for the newly released edition, I’m not sure how much has changed or if significant new content has been added)
Written by Aaron Leonard with help from Conor Gallagher, “Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War on America’s Maoists” is at once a movement history and a useful exposition of political repression and infiltration at a key moment for U.S. radicalism - the late 60s into early and mid 70s. However, I think the title of the book mis-sells things: while the FBI specifically (and their files on the RU, which the authors were able to attain through public records requests) plays a role in the story, much of this book is a straightforward history of the Revolutionary Union (later Revolutionary Communist Party) from origins to decline. It takes its place as a more “close-up” examination of a key New Communist Movement organization (for a more general overview of the movement as a whole, “Revolution in the Air” by Max Elbaum is the place to start). However, it is not so detailed as to include many insights on the RU’s organizational practices (how recruitment happened, expectations of members, how RU decided on targets for industrial concentration, etc), which is disappointing for me and will be for others who seek to learn more practical lessons on organization from a group with some relatively impressive accomplishments.
Overall, Leonard’s interpretation of the group’s trajectory misses the mark in some places. He ascribes to “Stalinism” or dogmatism what is better explained by a persistent strain of white chauvinism in the group, as well as a failure to come to terms with the position of the U.S. working class in the global system and the consequent possibility that revolution would not be on the short to medium term agenda in the U.S. This seems to be a common feature among NCM groups, who on the one hand had an admirable ambition to organize deeply and radically within the U.S. working class but on the other hand had no “plan B” that would allow them to withstand the onslaught of neoliberalism and the rising tide of conservatism that defined the late 70s into the 80s. Even if we can’t picture the NCM surviving the changing political landscape with the same energy and vitality it had at it’s peak, could a different, more realistic strategic outlook have allowed more groups and more cadre to pivot towards Third World solidarity work or other areas? Certainly some NCM cadre must have moved towards that work as the movement dissipated, but as far as I know not in an organized manner. The events in China, first the growing re-alignment with the U.S. against the USSR and then the ascent of Deng and the reform period, are also pointed to as a key contributor to the final crisis in the RCP. And it certainly is true that the extensive inspiration the group took from Red China and Maoism in particular put it in a position where such events were bound to disrupt the group and weaken morale. But again, this was not the singular crisis of the group, which had been weakened already by staking out unpopular positions on the radical left (most notably, their anti-busing stance!) and failing to change their predominantly white make-up.
Would it have mattered if they had weathered the storm of 1976? Major social, political, and economic changes in the U.S. were already underway, and their promising work in the labor movement, had it grown further, may have met with increased repression (both from the state and the conservative center of gravity of the U.S. trade union bureaucracy) or simply a point at which communist politics would not appeal to most workers (this limitation already hinted at by some of their work). Similarly, the larger factors at play may have provided natural limits to their organizing among students, or veterans for that matter.
Regardless of these counter-factuals, this book makes a significant contribution to the study of the RU/RCP and the New Communist Movement in general, a movement whose lessons and failures are important to learn for U.S. socialists and anti-imperialists today. Hundreds of highly disciplined, motivated, skilled cadre, trained in the mass movements of the 60s, threw themselves into struggle, achieved some impressive results, but ultimately were no match for the tides of history. If we want to make our own contributions to struggle in the present day, these are some examples we should at least study.
Introduction: The Way from San Jose
The book’s opening helps to answer a question some readers may have (especially if they have come into contact with the present-day RCP): why study the Revolutionary Union? Or by extension, the New Communist Movement? First, because it is one of the only radical organizations that took forward the torch from the mass movements of the sixties:
The RU/RCP’s roots lay in the most important struggles of the sixties. Its leaders emerged from the anti-HUAC protests, the Free Speech Movement, the Peace and Freedom Party alliance with the Black Panthers, and the struggles in the final year of SDS, among other key events of the time. These individuals in turn formed an organization that went from a handful of youthful Maoists, former Communist Party USA members, and China-philes, to become a national organization with well over a thousand cadre and many thousand active supporters.
By 1971, while groups such as the Black Panthers and Weathermen were in disarray, retreat, or disintegration, the Revolutionary Union, the forerunner of what would become the RCP, was ascendant. While some of the more sensational actions of these other groups had captured the imagination of portions of the youth population, it was the RU/RCP that was arguably the largest inheritor of sixties radicalism.
Summarizing the impressive accomplishments of an organization that only counted with at max around a thousand members, and went from formation to obscurity in less than a decade:
Amid the shifting terrain of the crisis-wracked seventies these newly minted Maoists sent cadre to factories to immerse themselves in major US industry. In a few short years they had an established presence in the steel plants across the US, the mines of West Virginia, auto plants in Detroit, meatpacking centers of Tacoma, Chicago, Milwaukee, and dozens of other greater and lesser industries. They were at the heart of militant labor struggles, particularly in the wildcat strike movement in the West Virginia coalfields. Along with this they inspired and lead dozens of chapters of the university based Attica Brigade/Revolutionary Student Brigade. They politically lead—controversially—Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and were a critical force behind the highly influential, US-China Peoples Friendship Association.
Chapter 1: Foundation
This chapter deals with the key founding members of the RU and their backgrounds. It is interesting to see here the mix of different levels of experience - the real veteran of the group, Bergman, had many decades organizing with the CPUSA, then PL, before helping to found the RU. One of the criticisms he held of PL after leaving was their lack of focus on the quiet, deep, organizing work that he saw as crucial to building a new party. This seriousness of focus on organizing comes across when reading about other crucial members as well. Also present among early members was an early focus on anti-imperialism and anti-war activism, specifically moving beyond general street demonstrations into more targeted work:
Despite the arrests, surveillance, and subpoenas, Hamilton’s commitment and determination only increased. By late 1966 he had left PL and become active in Students for Democratic Society—at a time when that group was turning more attention to anti-war work. Hamilton himself was consumed with how to take the anti-Vietnam war effort to a more effective level. As historian Michael Foley points out, Hamilton along with Lennie Heller, “independently arrived at the same idea for a draft resistance movement,” in what would come to be called, “The Resistance.” One result would be a national Stop the Draft Week in October 1967. As part of the week, Hamilton sent a telegram to then California Governor Ronald Reagan, reflecting the level of resolve and frustration that was beginning to characterize the overall antiwar movement, “[d]ebate has accomplished nothing; the war must be stopped.” This was not idle talk, as his note made clear: “We plan to shut down the Oakland Induction Center.” In the course of the protest that took place, hundreds, including Hamilton, were arrested.
RU cofounders like Bob Avakian had fairly extensive contact with the Black Panther Party, and saw room for extensive collaboration, although Leonard has some criticisms’ of the BPP’s lack of political line. It certainly makes an interesting contrast with the RU’s increasingly well-defined (or as Leonard considers it at times, dogmatic) line:
While their ten-point program was relatively straightforward, their overall politics were never as clear; embracing everything from Marxism, Black Nationalism, to anarchism; though revolutionary Black Nationalism would appear to have been their unifying theme. As a result the organization could have Huey Newton, whose thinking went through numerous shifts, proclaim the group, “dialectical-materialist,” but also put forward something he called, “intercommunalism,” which stated, “Socialism in the United States will not exist. Socialism will not exist anywhere in the world, because for socialism to exist, a socialist state must exist, and since states do not exist, how can socialism exist?” Or have Bobby Seale, in a more direct and pragmatic way, state that, “One might say he’s a socialist or a communist, on the contrary, I’m a Black man trying to get some of the wealth out of this country.” As for Cleaver, his views tended more toward action and all that implied. Politically he would come to extol the virtues of the lumpen (or criminal) class in opposition to the working class, a highly fraught strategy, to say the least. Such a range of thinking created a situation, where the idea of the Panthers—disciplined organization, the notion of a larger revolutionary unity, and a willingness to be theoretical—was far more powerful than the actual ideas of the Panthers. This was to prove critical in limiting their ability to go forward.
Leonard summarizes the initial membership and leadership, what brought them together, as well as how white the founding group was, which will end up kneecapping the group in various ways:
It was in the larger Palo Alto area that Franklin would work with the Peace and Freedom Party, as well as the student-oriented, Peninsula Red Guard, based in Palo Alto and comprised of the Franklins and graduate students. But it was on the Stanford campus that he made his biggest mark. Young, charismatic, and intellectually sophisticated, Franklin would exert a great influence on those around him. He would be responsible for radicalizing no small number of the undergraduate and graduate students he came in contact with.
While the four people profiled above were critical figures in the formation of the RU, with Bergman standing out, it would be wrong to limit the group’s creation and early evolution to them. Here one would need to add Jane Franklin and Mary Lou Greenberg of the Peninsula Red Guard, Vern Bown, an ex-CPUSA member and old comrade of Bergman, as well as Larry Harris, Gertrude Alexander, Barry Greenberg, and a number of other was these forces that would form the Bay Area Revolutionary Union in the spring of 1968.
From the beginning the group had a strong percentage of women cadre and leaders, it was the case, however, that this was a mainly white group—though it would draw in some Latino and Asian cadre. The absence of Black and other non-white ethnicities, in the early days especially, appears to have to do with a strategy of the new organization seeing itself, at some point, merging with other organizations, rather than recruiting such forces directly into their organization.
Regardless, what those who initiated the RU held in common was a connection to critical events of the time; the Cultural Revolution, the defiance of HUAC, early and aggressive anti-Vietnam war work, and bold support for the Black Panther Party. Individually and collectively they represented a strain of radicalism that was more disciplined, more theoretical, and more strategically inclined, than most of the other trends in operation at the time.
Chapter 2: SDS, the RU, and the FBI
The exact founding circumstances of the group are laid out in this chapter, as well as the early FBI infiltration and the FBI’s general strategy and attitude towards the radical left in that era.
The standard script of Students for a Democratic Society reads something like this: It arose in the early sixties full of youthful idealism, got down to the hard work of joining with the civil rights movement, transitioned to anti-war activism, became increasingly radical, then self-immolated in sectarian squabbling with a small hard core of Weatherman going off into a brief foray of infantile terrorism, while the rest of the organization faded away. It is a tight narrative, with a strong beginning, middle, and end. There is, however, a problem. Two huge pieces are left out; the emergence of the Revolutionary Union and its critical influence within the grouping, and the FBI’s aggressive and elaborate efforts to destroy the organization.
An initially influential group in SDS, PL, takes openly chauvinist political positions which lead to a loss of prestige among much of the radical left (this basic mistake is later repeated by the RU!):
Though they likely did not know it at the time, the Progressive Labor Party (PLP or just PL), which had assumed the mantle of the key Maoist organization of the US, was moving quickly to the margins. It had recently adopted contrary positions around two of the biggest fault line questions of the day. In regard to Black people in the US, they put forward a position against Black Nationalism, which was at odds with the one animating an entire generation of Black youth and their large body of white supporters. In regard to the struggle in Vietnam, they denounced the National Liberation Front, which was leading the armed struggle in South Vietnam.
On RU’s successful early recruitment among other left groups:
All this was in the context where the RU had hit the ground running. Though it was not yet public, throughout 1968 it was working aggressively to set up left wing caucuses within the Peace and Freedom Party, as a way of extending its organizational reach. The Executive Committee meetings are replete with discussion of PFP, and the need “to strengthen the radical caucus and to extend its control over PFP.” Some of the results were quite good, for example Bruce Franklin reported, “that the Palo Alto group controls Peace and Freedom movement of San Mateo County and PFM of Santa Clara County.” This work would continue for at least the next year, and appears to have been a crucial source of early RU expansion.
An example of how sophisticated the FBI’s tactics were (although unclear if this exact tactic was carried out):
It is worthy of a side note here the Bureau was not just working the RU – PLP rift in targeting the RU at this early date. They toyed with using the RU’s own writings against them:
“We can slightly alter RU publications, have them reproduced by the laboratory and distributed in great numbers to Marxist, Black militants, SDS, left publications, etc. throughout the country. By altering the publications, we can distort the political line of the RU, in fact, turn it into a revisionist line in a subtle manner.”
Leonard turns briefly to the Weather Underground - while not entirely dismissive, he is critical, and takes the opportunity to praise the more “strategic” vision of the RU:
The approach today reads as a rather confusing work in progress—vague statements about a mass revolutionary movement counterposed with a clandestine party and revolutionary violence.
For its part, according to the Executive Committee informant, the RU early on thought there might be a basis to work with this grouping:
“In discussing the Weatherman Group (DOHRN group), the general feeling on the part of the Executive Committee was that this group is pretty good and that the RU should work with them. The RU felt that many of the proposals as to the new organization of SDS set forth by the Weatherman Group in New Left Notes were actually the same proposals that had been made by the RU.”
The actions and strategy the Weathermen adopted, however, would soon render any possibility of the two working together as moot.
In contrast to this, the RYM II faction, which included the RU, in a more traditional Marxist way, advocated the role of the working class. The RU view particularly, saw their role as more than a support apparatus—even an armed one—for revolutionary forces internationally and oppressed populations within the US. Theirs was a view that there was preparatory work for revolution to be done among this base and other sections of society, short of immediate violent revolutionary action. Particularly for the RU, there was an element of waiting in the Maoist sense of, “gaining time to increase [the] capacity to resist while hastening or awaiting changes in the international situation and the internal collapse of the enemy, in order to be able to launch a strategic counter-offensive.” Contained here was a long-term view, less anxious and more strategic.
Chapter 3: Beyond the Student Movement
The RU’s early activity, as they start to get rooted and build momentum.
At a conference with the BPP (not sure if I’d describe Avakian’s rhetoric below as “workerist”):
In the end Avakian did attend the conference, and his speech was widely applauded by many on the left. The 26-year-old Avakian’s speech contained a fair amount of rhetorical jargon, (“the primary ideological content of American fascism is racist white supremacist genocide.”) but it also called up the imagery of the thirties, “We’re going to get the ILWU to stop scabbing on the Vietnamese people and stop loading munitions ships.” This workerist stance would soon come to characterize the emerging Revolutionary Union.
Early attempts at “base-building” and getting rooted in working-class areas:
The attempt to apply this worker-based model, amid the shifting sands of the late sixties, was most clearly on display in the RU’s efforts in Richmond California. At the end of 1967 Steve Hamilton, Bob Avakian, and one other area activist had moved to the relatively industrial area of Richmond. According to Hamilton this was with, a “generalized commitment and optimism in regard to ‘integrating with the working class.’” Initially they focused on building ties in the community, particularly working with the young workers they were meeting and introducing them to projects undertaken by the Black and introducing them to projects undertaken by the Black Panther Party. They also worked with a local section of the Peace and Freedom Party around issues such as community control of police and for a militant perspective within an anti-poverty agency.
An example of a pretty effective intervention in trade union struggle, accomplished by bringing radical students in to support a strike:
The RU’s effort to support a strike by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union is exemplary of their pathbreaking efforts in the working class. Here was a strike ostensibly about wages and other basic union demands, but played out amid tepid union support and Standard Oil’s strikebreaking effort of importing scab, non-union labor. It also took place amid a larger societal upsurge, the police rampage at the Democratic Convention the previous summer, a violent effort to break a strike at San Francisco State College demanding Third World Studies, and ongoing protests against the Vietnam War. When the Richmond strikers found themselves being beaten and maced by police on their picket lines, some made profound connections, as one striker remarked,
“[W]e believed what we read in the newspapers. Now we know what kind of coverage we have been getting from the press, and I think we should be finding out what’s happening from the people actually involved and we should be supporting them, just like they have supported us.”
The fact that students, on four separate occasions stepped up to support the strike, seriously bolstered the effort, nearly shutting the giant refinery down and “introduced an aspect of uncertainty, which continually keeps the company off balance fearing for it refinery.” It also questioned some of the deeply held assumptions about Black people and their confrontations with police. As one worker noted, “[l]ast time there was a riot in North Richmond I was afraid to come to work; next time I’ll be right there in the riot.”
For their part, the RU was popularizing the experience and drawing out their own lessons.
“A strike, when it is not a token tactical ploy in ‘labour-management relations’, is in many ways like a miniature revolution. Struggle, instead of collaboration, is the order of the day. The old individualistic ways of solving, blunting, or avoiding contradictions and confrontations give way to collective ways of facing them and fighting.”
In this way they saw themselves shaping a model of how to build a base among the working class; one that went beyond the constrained parameters of trade unionism, envisioning such work crossing a bridge toward a revolutionary movement.
In turn, the authorities watched this closely. The FBI’s chief journalistic conduit in the Bay Area, Ed Montgomery, reported on a May 1969 SDS event held at New York University where Bob Avakian spoke about the RU role in the strike. According to Montgomery. “Avakian said they brought in 300 to 400 students who joined the picket lines,” and “were able to politicize the strike.”
RU conducts anti-war work on campus, with some results:
While working to shift its base toward the working class, the RU continued to be immersed in the upsurges roiling the campuses. In that respect their work at Stanford University stands out. Depending on which side of the divide you were on, Stanford between 1969 and 1971 was either a place of exhilarating protest or, in the words of its former President Richard Lyman, “[p]retty much a descent into hell.” Unlike its Berkeley neighbor to the north, Stanford was not convulsed by political turmoil until later in the sixties, however, its privileged and relatively isolated position would also be shattered. This was concentrated in the struggle against the military research being carried on by the Stanford Research Institute (SRI).
In the wake of that meeting [meeting with school administrators in which they admitted working on military science/tech], on April 3, there was a mass meeting involving some 700 people that drew up demands that Stanford abandon classified research for the US government. This would be the beginning of what became known as the April 3rd Movement. Six days later there was a sit-in/occupation at Stanford’s Applied Electronics Laboratory (AEL), where, “[h]undreds of students [were] involved in small working committees. Up to 1000 attend[ed] general meetings, broadcast live over KZSU. Bobby Seale, Chairman of the Black Panther Party, [spoke] at AEL. After the Judicial Council [threatened] discipline, 1400 students sign[ed] a Solidarity Statement that they, too, are part of the occupation!”
The occupation ended after the faculty promised, “to end classified research.” Things, however, did not improve for university officials. The following year, in the spring of 1970:
“Police were summoned repeatedly to Stanford, and there were running battles between police and rock-throwing demonstrators. Substantial damage was done to university buildings. For a time, many buildings were blockaded and classes canceled, even when the students enrolled in them wanted to meet. The school year ended in chaos.”
Leonard again shifts focus back to the FBI side, and an early attempt at snitch-jacketing a key member of the RU:
The FBI was also targeting specific individuals with dirty tricks. This can be seen in an effort aimed at RU member, Chris Milton. On April 17, 1969, Milton went to the Oakland Induction Center, after being ordered to appear for induction. At his appearance, he was joined by the, “Chris Milton Defense Committee,” which included Bob Avakian and Barry Greenberg and other RU members and supporters. The FBI, in a memo relating to Milton’s appointment assessed that it was, “An excellent opportunity to discredit REDACTED within the RU”—the redaction most likely being Milton. What they proposed was to imply that Milton had been “blowing off his mouth to Army officials.” The memo, from J. Edgar Hoover, suggested a note be drafted on “appropriate stationery” and sent to the RU’s public address. It stipulated that this should be unsigned, but worded “to indicate it is written by a disgruntled serviceman at the Induction Center.” The text of the anonymous letter reads:
If you’re wondering why REDACTED has dodged induction, its [sic] because he has a big mouth. He is blabbing to the intelligence guys about a “dictatorship” in Peking, your Rev Union and guns and even the Panthers.
I can’t wait to get out but he wants on the payroll without uniform.”
This was a popular FBI method that was termed, ‘snitch-jacketing,’ wherein the Bureau or their operatives would circulate rumors that a dedicated member of an organization was in some way working for the other side. In this way the FBI was trying to cast suspicions and create an atmosphere of apprehension and mistrust, and were also trying to alienate certain members, drive them out of the organization, and/or provoke harm toward them.
How the RU thought about military organizing is interesting, in seeing how ambitious and confident the group was:
In other words the RU was not only opposing the US’s war in Vietnam, they were keen to work among the military to undermine that effort. Goff recounts the decision making process after a collective leader had been drafted:
”[A]nd the collective agreed 100 percent that he should go into the Armed Forces because of his usefulness, because he is an expert at causing—he was an expert in riots and demonstrations. I personally witnessed that he could control whole crowds of people to go over and trash a building or I mean break windows. They thought he would be good because he could be so effective in the Armed Forces.”
The Goff testimony was also a window into the seriousness and commitment of the RU, albeit in a refracted and unintentionally humorous way. At one point Lawrence Goff spoke to the discipline of the group compared to his Navy boot camp training, which he felt was, “mild [compared] to the type of discipline I received in the Revolutionary Union.”
Leonard points to the result of an early conflict over Stalin’s legacy as a bad omen, saying it impeded the group - but this seems to be more his personal feelings than an accurate analysis - as we will see later, the main factors leading the the groups decline were schisms and unpopular stances on strategy in the present day, as well as external factors like developments in China. It is left unclear how the defense of Stalin or Mao actually impinged the future development of the group:
Of course the group did ultimately settle this, upholding Stalin—which along with Mao was their raison d’être. This embrace of Stalin, albeit critical (as discussed in the previous chapter), would be a millstone around the group’s neck, impinging their future development, always having to reconcile its politics within the greater communist narrative in which people like Stalin sat.
Another example of successful early recruitment, this time Leonard discusses a national organizing tour in which RU leaders met with independent cadre collectives in various cities, many of which ended up joining RU wholesale. The corresponding FBI response:
In this the FBI was actively trying to limit the gains the RU could make. Word was sent out to fourteen different field offices to conduct interviews of people who had met with the RU representatives. The purpose, “to make possible affiliates of the RU believe that the organization is infiltrated by informants on a high level;” this tactic, portraying the RU and its leaders as government agents, being a recurring theme and tactic of the Bureau.
The extent of RU spread and reach before the first split:
All that taken into account, whatever the FBI was doing, was largely not working. As the FBI’s David Ryan, who was assigned to the Leibel Bergman “investigation”, would later testify to, “[w]e found the Revolutionary Union rapidly spreading in terms of organization and contacts.” By February 1972, by the government’s own account, there were RU collectives in existence in Chicago, RU representatives in Detroit, Reading, Pennsylvania and Trenton. On the campuses, the RU had a presence at Eugene, Antioch, and Fresno State College. There was also RU organizing going on in Los Angeles, New York City, and at Pennsylvania State University, and in Philadelphia. As positive as all this was, any further expansion was predicated on navigating an extremely important internal debate; one that would end in the Revolutionary Union’s first major schism.
Chapter 4: Protracted War or Protracted Struggle
A debate over strategy gets heated and provokes the first major conflict among RU leadership.
FBI plans on splitting leadership with more snitch-jacketing:
In the late 1960s the FBI saw Leibel Bergman as the key leader of the RU. Alternately they saw Bruce Franklin as the RU’s most high profile member, one in their estimation who “represents one of the most militant radical extremists on American campuses.” It is no surprise then given a certain doctrine of trying to rend organizations that they attempted to set the two against each other. This was infused with a certain urgency; the RU appeared to be growing and there was a need to “take appropriate action to slow down the extent of its operations.” To this end they “felt [it] appropriate at this time to attempt to cause more of a rift between REDACTED and BRUCE FRANKLIN.” As other documents relating to FBI schemes make clear, the redacted person they wanted to involve in the rift was Leibel Bergman. One of the plans they devised was to try and make Franklin think Bergman was some type of agent:
“San Francisco proposal calls for alleged Chicom [Chinese Communist] agent to telephone Franklin in California from Canada to arrange for a later personal clandestine meeting in Vancouver. At Vancouver meeting the alleged Chicom agent would express distrust of RU leader Leibel Bergman, ask Franklin to investigate Bergman and furnish results to [REDACTED] and imply future funding of RU.”
Another plan had the FBI draft a letter, to be secretly sent to Franklin, again suggesting Bergman was working with the government. In the memo it suggests writing a letter from what is claimed to be an anonymous member of the Progressive Labor Party. That person would in turn raise suspicions about Bergman.
Discussion of an early related org, Venceremos, which would disintegrate later due to a botched illegal operation that lead to significant prison time for some members:
In his testimony, Larry Goff told Congress that the discipline in Venceremos was “more lax and the organization itself much more disorganized,” His feeling was that “many who went with Venceremos were those who had difficulty in accepting the strict discipline of the RU.” The two informants overall assessment was prescient:
“The Goffs offered the opinion that, of the two groups, the RU is the much more dangerous because of its long-range plans for revolution, the secrecy and subterfuge of its operations, and its concentration on building a “mass line” among the working classes. The Goffs feel that the Venceremos group is composed of individuals ready to engage in unorthodox and unwise activities and is more immediately dangerous in terms of terrorism and violence, but that Venceremos will divulge its planned activity and, as a result, its member’s will be arrested or killed before Venceremos can present a long-range threat.”
While the Goffs were later ridiculed by some as unsophisticated and obvious agents, their assessment here was largely on the mark.
A paper by Bruce Franklin ignites internal debate over underground action:
In hindsight the notion of initiating revolutionary military action within the US, ought to stand as misguided in the extreme. Yet at the time there was not only confusion, but a romantic allure. Leaving aside the moral element, to argue, as the paper Protracted War did, that things were entering the phase of armed struggle, was a serious misreading of the actual situation. This confusion, in turn, had consequences. Such nascent “military” actions taken by radicals against the authorities and their institutions in such a context ultimately would be confronted as a law enforcement matter, and would by and large stand isolated from broad support. They would largely be seen (and were largely seen) as illegitimate in the Weberian sense, of the state having a “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force”—and here we need to put aside the particularity of the urban insurrections among Black people in the US in the mid to late sixties, and the relative legitimacy of that violence, among large quarters of the affected populations. That is not to say a large number of people, especially youth, did not champion such things, but that does not negate the overarching reality. In that regard, the RU struggle with Bruce Franklin et al, is instructive. It likely saved them from going over a political cliff. It nonetheless left its marks, impelling the RU in its own problematic direction.
Larger ideological criticism crystallizes here, of course “voluntarist” critique of Maoism is not new but this still has some kind of explanatory power for RCP’s later devolution (faced with extremely adverse global circumstances, group membership still saw making the revolution as something that could happen, if only the group had the correct line):
The concept of line the RU was adopting was taken from Mao and the Chinese Communists. Mao’s canon is replete with invocations on the need for practice to gain knowledge, i.e.,
“If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality. If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself.”
There was also, however, in Mao’s outlook, a strong current of voluntarism, (in the philosophical sense of the primacy of will). A concentrated exposition can be seen in the following:
“The correctness or otherwise of the ideological and political line decides everything. When the Party’s line is correct, then everything will come its way. If it has no followers, then it can have followers; if it has no guns, then it can have guns; if it has no political power, then it can have political power.”
Allowing for Mao’s use of overstatement for emphasis, this nonetheless reads as highly problematic. It transforms the concept of having principles, strategic vision, and a core belief system, into a dogmatic construct. And it was this concept of ‘line’ that the RU and later the RCP would increasingly embrace.
Chapter 5: Peoples’ China
This chapter deals of top RU members’ visits to China and a general summary of the political situation in China / what inspiration they took from the Chinese Revolution.
On how the FBI used Bergman’s connections with China to justify increased surveillance (useful pretext but certainly not necessary):
According to Huston, Bergman had a threefold mission; to form a national union of pro-Maoists radicals, to forward information to the Chinese Communists, and to recruit agents to be trained in China, “after which they would return to this country and operate on behalf of Communist China in a nonpublic or submerged fashion.” The information in the Huston report corresponds closely to the FBI’s assessment that Bergman “had promised his friends (Chinese) that he would do a job for them.” The similarity in tone of both reports suggests that Huston and Nixon were getting their information from the FBI. In their view, “Bergman is an identified Chicom Intelligence Agent.” This was a highly dangerous label to be put on a US citizen, but it was a large part of the basis for justifying the FBI’s campaign not only against Bergman but the larger RU.
As a result of the secret allegations, however, the government—at the highest levels—undertook an intensive campaign of watching Bergman’s activity; not only by monitoring publicly available information and through informant reports, but also by establishing telephone taps, breaking into his apartment and placing microphones into his living quarters, and contemplating—and quite possibly acting on—deploying close circuit television cameras in or outside his residence.
Chapter 6: Coalitions, Infiltrators, and Schisms
More about the RU’s industrial concentration strategy (certainly not unique among NCM groups), and successful strike support:
From its strongest base in the Bay Area the group continued deploying cadre into industry. Former students at UC Berkeley, Stanford and other schools in the Bay Area now found themselves working in places such as the San Francisco Municipal Railway, the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, and the US Postal Service. This would be a scene replicated nationwide in all the places where collectives and individuals joined the RU, these mainly former students, would be directly entering the working class by getting manufacturing and other working class jobs.
The RU also sent cadre to El Paso Texas in October 1972, to investigate a strike by 4000 Chicano workers, mainly women, against the Farah textile company—the then largest manufacturer of men and boys pants in the US. What followed was an effective strike-support effort on the part of the RU that included establishing committees in 19 cities nationwide. These committees sponsored support programs, distributed leaflets, and spread the word of what the Farah workers were engaged in. There was also, at times, a more militant edge where people also went into department stores and removed slacks from the racks, or even spilled paint on them. The RU’s effort in this case coincided with a successful outcome. The strike, which ended in early 1974, concluded with union recognition. The activity around the Farah strike—much like the earlier Standard Oil Strike—would serve as a type of model for the new communist movement.
On the promising early efforts at uniting the NCM (one big conference in NYC counted 1200 attendees) and the break that put those efforts to rest (again, driven largely by RU chauvinism):
These forums, along with an organizational entity, the National Liaison Committee, were part of a process of integrating several organizations into a single new communist party, all of which seems to have been proceeding well. Then—behind the scenes—things took a bad turn. When the new political terms emerged, the results were a sharp political shift. As informant Sheila O’Connor would report,
“[t]he RU now views the national question (blacks, Chicanos, Indians), as no longer being primary. The changes in the U.S. are now being made by the working class black and white. This change in position cost the RU two allies. The Black Workers Congress and Puerto Rican Socialist Party. [Sic – Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization]”
O’Connor’s version—or who ever transcribed her reports—of the struggle is at once an oversimplification and a capsulation. The two allies O’Connor refers to had been part of the National Liaison Committee (NLC). Begun in 1972, the NLC initially consisted of four groups: I-Work-Kuen (an Asian organization), the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization (formerly the Young Lords), the Black Workers Congress, and the Revolutionary Union.
Some more detailed explanation of this conflict follows, but it’s not that interesting.
FBI created whole organizations!
In the early 1970s, “at the direction of the bureau,” Burton founded something called the “Red Star Cadre,” a fake new communist organization set up to further the FBI’s efforts. Red Star Cadre benefited from the dynamic in the new communist movement in the mid-seventies wherein anyone who claimed the mantle of ‘anti-revisionism’ was on a mission to create a new communist party. The result was a frenzy of activity by organizations both sizable and minuscule. This was ample raw material for the Bureau to deploy its notional collectives concept, with subsequent jargon—buffeted by the insights of people like SA Herb Stallings.
Among Burton’s efforts was joining together with several other NCM groups for a conference in Canada with the aim of creating a new party. Of the seven groups participating, five were from the US: American Communist Workers Movement (M-L), Association of Communist Workers, the Red Collective, the Communist League and Red Star Cadre. Two of those groups, Burton’s Red Star Cadre and the Red Collective, were FBI manifestations.
A sense of the disruptive ability in such constructions comes through in Burton’s sworn statement. In December 1973, while visiting Chicago with the leader of the Communist League, Nelson Peery, he said, “Under the FBI’s direction, I discouraged this group from working with the Revolutionary Union by characterizing the RU as being populated by old line members of the Communist Party who were working for the FBI.”
According to Burton, the Bureau supplied him and his group with everything from operating funds to T-shirts, with a large red star and the legend “Fight Back.” In addition to Burton, the Tampa “cadre” included “several former intelligence officers from the military and area students being paid by the FBI.” It also had ties with police agents who had infiltrated Vietnam Veterans Against the War, “who broke up the local chapter and promoted a split with the national organization.”
While Burton and his group trolled around various new communist entities between 1972 and 1974, his key objective was to prevent, “the merger of the Revolutionary Union (RU) and the October League (OL).”
The chapter ends with another, more damning example of RU white chauvinism: the position they took on busing. When tied back to the earlier related fact that they were a self-selecting nearly all white group, one can see how a position like this, that should have generated immediate pushback and criticism within the group, instead was allowed to see the light of day:
Meantime, the fallout from the political terms set by the National Liaison Committee controversy had direct consequences. This was best exemplified in Boston in the fall of 1974. At the end of the 1973-74 school year, a Federal judge in Massachusetts, Wendell Arthur Garrity, issued a ruling that Boston school authorities had “knowingly carried out a systematic program of segregation.” The remedy, the court said, was to implement a busing program to integrate the schools. What came about as a result was a plan to transfer students between primarily Black and white neighborhoods including the old Irish-American neighborhood of South Boston, notorious for its racial intolerance. In this way the RU attempted to implement its newly found position of putting the unity of the working class, front and center. What they came up with was a scheme where working class unity could trump the brutal contradictions of race. Taking things to an extreme, a headline in Revolution in October 1974 proclaimed, “People Must Unite to Smash the Boston Busing Plan.” For the RU this was a matter of the ruling class dividing “the workers and [attempting] to drive a wedge between the struggles of the working class and the struggles of oppressed nationalities.” A follow-up article elaborated the RU’s view:
“Those who think that the only way to stand with Black people and other oppressed nationalities is to attack white workers as simply a bunch of racists, who think that the ruling class is the friend of the oppressed, can at best only drag at the tail of the struggle, and, if they continue in this path, can only end up falling over backwards completely into the camp of the ruling class.”
This astonished quite a few people, including the Boston Globe who noted, “[u]nlike most radical leftists groups such as the Progressive Labor Party, the group [RU] opposes busing.” This in the context of ugly demonstrations—with white mobs, bombarding buses carrying Black students, with rocks, bottles, and eggs. The RU’s position was ridiculed widely on the left, and inside its own ranks it created serious dissension. Regardless, they held firm. Years later—after the group had repudiated this position—Bob Avakian would reflect on the episode saying, “We missed the essence of what was going on,” and that he was personally “horrified at the initial [Revolution] headline.” The damage, however, was done. The political fallout would have lasting consequences for the RU in terms of loss of prestige if not legitimacy in certain quarters.
Chapter 7: Sinking Roots and Making the Papers
Despite losing the prospect of any broader leadership within the NCM, RU continues to intensify focus on working class industrial organizing:
The RU’s trouble in the Boston Busing crisis and the National Liaison Committee aside, they continued to expand their organizational reach, both among students and veterans, but perhaps most significantly within the working class. As they did so they confronted not just the limits of doing radical political work among a population largely non-receptive to radical politics, but also the consistent attention of the FBI and its proxy agents, particularly the Bureau’s friendly media.****
Good work but happened at the wrong time?
The RU’s work in industry was always an uphill climb, albeit one with shimmering moments. Here perhaps the quintessential experience was their initiative to create a communist political presence in the West Virginia coalfields. They had in mind to go ‘among the masses’ and build a base, and dig in for the long haul of struggle. From their standpoint here was the working class in concentrated form. Yet it was the working class in the context of the volatile situation in the mid-seventies: the energy crisis, neoliberal economic shifts, an attempt to re-cohere the US homeland on a much more conservative basis than that of the previous decade.
The first problem confronting RU cadre was to be able to erect a screen between their former political selves and where they were going, in order to gain a foothold in this sharply different section of the population. To that end, “What we did was move off the grid for a while,” —not only not being politically active but being extremely circumspect in establishing themselves in West Virginia. This was not for no reason, as he later learned authorities had, “contacted people in at least three states trying to uncover where we [his partner Gina Fall and he] had gone.”
This early “culture-war” battle over school textbooks will sound familiar:
One of the earliest matters confronting these newly settled cadre was a controversy around a social conservative issue. In the fall of 1974 rightwing forces, lead by some clergy in the area, but with the hand of the John Birch Society lurking in the background, sought to ban textbooks quoting such figures as George Jackson, Eldridge Cleaver and Alan Ginsberg, from school shelves. Beyond their verbal protests, the forces behind these moves sparked wildcat strikes in support of their efforts. As Ely recalled, “it was a paradox that one of our first serious tasks was to use those connections to help suppress and constrain a reactionary rightwing strike—and convince the militants not to take it up.” They did this by working with some militant antiracist Black Vietnam veterans based in Beckley, West Virginia—producing literature in opposition to the protesters. In this way some of the steam was taken out of these reactionary efforts. The volatility in the textbook strike was, however, two-fold; on the one hand this was an attempt to incite people around highly conservative issues—where there existed no small basis for it—on the other it utilized the historic solidarity to enlist people in this unjust cause.
Leonard understates it here, but “receptivity toward bread and butter issues, but less attraction by most, to their communist politics” is key - as in past strategies of industrial concentration that ended up being more successful (ie CPUSA in 30s), even radical trade-unionism did not point the way to a broader anti-racist, socialist consciousness, especially in the conditions of the 70s. It is clear here that they still lacked the analysis of imperialism that would allow them to see any political limitations in core country working-class organizing:
The RU’s work in the coalfields was at once exceptional and typical of what the group’s cadre were confronting as they moved into steel, meatpacking, auto, and other major industries—a certain receptivity toward bread and butter issues, but less attraction by most, to their communist politics. One could argue that the limits they met were similar as those argued for by such groups as the Weathermen who railed against, “white workers who just want more privilege from imperialism.” However, this was always a moving target, and the space between 1968 and 1977 was considerable. Put another way, the coalfields in the mid seventies were not Standard Oil in the late sixties. The US was no longer locked in a losing war in Vietnam, nor did it have the twin challenge of the Soviet Union and China internationally. It was also not confronted with unrelenting turmoil within its cities and on its college campuses. Instead it was in the midst of a neoliberal transformation that was reshaping industry within the US itself. The RU’s communist work in industry was always going to be difficult, but as the decade went on, it became more so.****
RU continues activity on campuses:
Despite its focus on getting cadre into strategic industries the RU had not abandoned efforts to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of SDS. In a pamphlet issued in 1972 they laid out their aim to build a student movement based on the politics of anti-imperialism, this in the face of claims that, “the student movement was dead and buried.” The RU’s experience would bear out this assessment to a degree—while things had markedly declined from the peak years of 1968-70, it still had a considerable vitality—albeit one quickly waning.
Short discussion of RU influence within Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Of course it is natural here that US academics and historians would disparage the RU involvement: given how taboo it would be to directly criticize a veterans group, it is politically advantageous to blame the RU “fifth column” for radicalizing these otherwise basically patriotic veterans!
Unlike the RU/RCP, VVAW has been written about extensively both in academic works and in popular publications, and the RU/RCP’s presence is spoken to, to a degree, in that context. There is in this, however a standard narrative, one in which Maoists and hard-core radicals wrecked the organization. For example Andrew Hunt in, The Turning, describes the RCP’s “ruinous influence over the national office.” Similarly, Gerald Nicosia in Home to War, writes, “[t]he danger was that every member of the RU was pledged to carry out the will of its monomaniacal chairman, former Berkeley activist Bob Avakian.” The latter statement would seem more an insight into that author’s assessment rather than the actual situation, given Avakian did not wholly dominate the RCP until the bulk of VVAW parted company from the Party in 1977. That aside, there was something more fundamental in play, which Nicosia himself acknowledges:
“Existing VVAW leaders had simply been recruited into the RU because their enormous anger was pitched to a similar frequency as the RU’s raging frenzy against the capitalist system.”
This would seem more the nub of the issue, i.e., the national leadership of VVAW came under RU influence because a hard core of its membership at that moment, had no interest in coming back into the American fold. In short, the RU convinced a large section of VVAW’s leadership that Maoism, and the RU, was the path forward for tearing down the US empire. Understood in this way, it is not so much that the RU took over VVAW in the mid seventies— though there was an element of that—it was more the case that VVAW took itself into the RU.****
Chapter 8: The Short Leap from RU to RCP
RU finally “builds the party” it has wanted to - although instead of this happening through an agglomeration of other NCM groups, it is at this point merely a name change and further formalization of the organization.
On the RCP’s social conservatism (again, not unique in NCM groups):
In the RU/RCP’s view homosexuality was akin to religion; it was a belief system and a conscious choice. As for how it fit into the struggle, they were firm that the larger movement toward gay liberation “is counter-revolutionary and anti-working class,” because it sought to find a place for gay people in the established society. The same document did allow that individual, “gay people can be anti-imperialist,” but was clear they could not be communists.
Stripping off the Marxist pretensions, for what was supposed to be a forward looking and visionary Party, their position was striking in its conservative, even puritanical, sensibility. It was further problematized by the fact that an upsurge of gay men and women in the United States was already underway and was about to hit critical mass—something this newly proclaimed vanguard would deliberately stand apart from. This was all made worse by its intransigence; once adopted as ‘line’ it was set in stone, and would not be abandoned until decades after the RCP’s peak strength and influence had come and gone.
The irony here is that the Party and the RU before it, like the rest of society, included gay men and women—though only in a closeted capacity. Perhaps most notably in this regard, but hardly singularly, was Steve Hamilton, who was privately gay before coming out in 1980. This only after leaving the group.
A peak of activity, a march organized in Philadelphia and connected events, shows promise and an ability to organize larger, more complex actions:
In the end there were two major counter-bicentennial marches in Philadelphia. The larger July 4th coalition drew in the range of 30,000 people. By comparison, the RCP event was considerably smaller, with press-reports ranging between 3,500 and 4,000. The numbers, however, do not convey the qualitative element in play. The Rich Off Our Backs action, with its guiding slogan, did carry a certain revolutionary charge. Further, more than just a single demonstration, the Party’s campaign was spread over several days, beginning with a demonstration by its Unemployed Workers Organizing Committee in Washington, DC on June 30. It then moved up to Philadelphia for roving demonstrations with various focuses: support of striking rubber workers, Philadelphia city workers, and a VVAW-lead march at the USS John Dewey docked in Philadelphia. The demonstrators, traveling via open-air flat bed trucks, worked to engage and connect with the people of Philadelphia, especially in the largely Black neighborhoods where they were generally warmly welcomed.
Some other impressive high-water marks, for the RCP’s trade union work and also student organizing:
In the wake of the Bicentennial demonstration, the advances in work in the coalfields, the strength of the Party’s work in auto, steel, meatpacking and other industries, the group pushed for a leap in its organizing in the working class, through the formation of a National United Workers Organization.
On Labor Day weekend 1977, 1,500 people, mainly RCP cadre and supporters, based in industry came together in Chicago’s Pick Congress hotel to form the National United Workers Organization. In the parlance of the RCP this was an “intermediate workers” organization. A place for the Party to work with rank and file around day to day issues, but to also expose them to the broader radical program of the Party, up to and including recruiting them into the organization.
Along with the higher profile steelworker and miners, the array of those in attendance provided a window into the inroads the Party had made in industry. There were pineapple and hotel workers from Hawaii, agricultural workers from the Salinas Valley, electronics workers from San Jose, garment, hospital, and auto workers from the east coast, textile, electrical, petrochemical workers from the South. While showcasing the RU, and later the Party’s work in the previous eight years to establish a base in industry, it also attempted a continuity with the communist labor movement of the past. The speaker for the RCP was Vern Bown, a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, an old comrade of Leibel Bergman’s from their days in the Northern California CP (he was also called before HUAC in 1960), and an early member of the RU. Bown, emphasizing the role of communist in struggle, told the audience, “All my life I have been a worker and most of my working life I have been a communist. And I have never seen these two as being in any way separate, or contradictory.”
The Convention consisted of key plenaries and workshops hammering out the positions of the new organization. This in turn culminated in a proclamation: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common!” The statement emphasized the stand of the working class against discrimination, for unity of different nationalities, against unemployment, against war for empire—all in the face of “growing crisis and increased” attacks on the working class. Such high sounding rhetoric was seen as a first step in what would be a highly influential organization advancing the overall work of the Party. As things turned out this would be the last such convention.
In like fashion, on November 19 and 20, 1977 on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana, students across the country gathered in a convention; in all some six hundred came together to proclaim the formation of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade. Along with the students was a smaller number of Party cadres assigned to work with working class youth, and some of the youth they had attracted. This was the Party’s realization of a long sought effort toward establishing a “young communist league,” i.e., a student-working class youth organization.
A speaker at the close of the convention strove to end things on a high note: “We are determined to be the generation that grows up to establish socialism in this country. The future is ours, because we have shown this weekend that we do dare to take it.” Events just over the horizon would prove the statement, and the prospects for the newly formed organization, as illusory.
Chapter 9: The Final Split
And then what happened?
By November 1977 the RCP had grown from less than two dozen Bay Area activists with members concentrated on several campuses and in a handful of factories, into a nationwide organization, with well over a thousand cadre, thousands more supporters, and pride of place near the top of the charts in the FBI’s threat analysis. While the bulk of organizations and individuals who had attained notoriety in the sixties had largely come and gone, taking with them a certain brand of radicalism, the RCP by contrast, had traversed that terrain and expanded, and seemed poised to continue—and if not grow dramatically, continue as a sizable and significant radical force. Then Mao Zedong died, and it all started coming apart.
Mao’s death in September 1976 sparked a crisis worldwide for a certain kind of revolutionary force. Maoist organizations and groupings had proliferated and thrived during the previous twenty years. Mao’s death would set loose a flood of confusion and disorientation, leading once vibrant organizations to disappear, implode, or disband.
Describing the results of a split after the arrest of the Gang of Four, and an inconvenient truth that is surprisingly common in movement histories - for organizations that care a lot about line, many splits end up simply playing out along interpersonal lines:
The results were immediate. Bergman and Jarvis left the organization, taking a third of the membership with them, mainly cadre in the New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee areas, while splitting cadre in the Chicago and Boston area. Here a point needs to be made, that for all the essentializing of ‘line’ in this struggle, and this was also true in the Franklin schism, people tended (though this was not absolute) to break along familiar lines, i.e. they went with people and leaders they knew.
Again we see the overdetermination of global events and circumstances in relation to whatever local/national repression the RU faced:
While the specifics of what the authorities were doing in this time—including operating in the troubled waters of this acrimonious split—remains largely hidden, it is the case that the turn in China away from revolutionary Maoism, solved a formidable problem. If the FBI played no role in the airing of the dirty laundry, internal secrets, and the war of words between the RCP and RWHq—an unlikely prospect given everything they had been able to do before that point—then it must have taken pleasure in the fact that the two factions were essentially undertaking mutually destructive work, in a better way than they ever could.
Regardless, events in the world had a far more decisive effect than anything they attempted in all the years and effort they had expended on the RU and the RCP. One can reasonably liken it to the climactic battle scene in Gangs of New York where the two sides square off—chains, clubs, and fists at the ready for the final show down, only to look up in baffled amazement as canon-balls fired from US military gunboats in the harbor, hurtle toward them. The FBI and the RCP may have been locked in battle, but in the end larger forces decided the war.
Interesting problems raised here about how a generation of young activists matures and this changes the organizational culture. Compounded with the sheer numbers lost during the split, which transformed RCP into a rump organization:
Under Avakian’s leadership, a rectification campaign was launched inside the remaining organization. There had already been weeks of concentrated study and meetings for cadre to get steeped in Avakian’s position. This would soon give way to a dramatic transformation of how the group went about its work.
Throughout the seventies the organization had taken on many of the trappings of US society, including no small amount of listlessness, malaise, and even decadence. This was compounded by the fact that it had gone into the heart of the American mainstream, the stable US working class. For the previous five to seven years most cadre were in monogamous relationships, many with young children, living in working class neighborhoods, drawing union salaries, and attempting to assimilate into the lifestyle of those they were organizing. They took out mortgages, listened to country music, and drank on weekends. Along the way, not a few developed drinking problems, didn’t have much time for reading, and were dragged down by the politics of the shop floor. This was to be no more, as a singular focus on “revolution” was reintroduced and emphasized—albeit without the social upheaval of the previous decade. Meantime, the Party organization in key parts of the country had been decimated. In New York only a handful of members remained loyal to the Party—and they were mainly cadre living in New Jersey. A few Asian cadre, who had moved East from the Bay Area a few years earlier, remained loyal, but by-in-large the RCP had lost its footprint in the largest city in the country. The organization’s presence in Philadelphia too, given the stature garnered during the Bicentennial struggle, was entirely gone (though there were still Party cadre in northeast Pennsylvania; in Allentown, Pottstown and Reading), likewise Milwaukee had been decimated and Chicago—the Party’s center—was bifurcated. There were other losses in smaller cities and towns, which aggregated up to a significantly diminished organization. This was a situation the RCP would never completely recover from. The upsurge of the ’60s and ’70s was now in the past, with no similar historic confluence forthcoming. The lost cadre would not be replaced.
Chapter 10: After the Fall
A tragi-comic, ill-considered demonstration when Deng visits Washington leads to serious charges against key RCP members, further weakening the organization. RCP starts to move away from deep organizing (for which it no longer has sufficient numbers, commitment, or momentum) into irrelevant “newspaper politics”:
Under Avakian’s leadership the RCP was redefining itself. It began to reject the whole strategy of having cadre working among the industrial proletariat in favor of the more amorphous strategy of “Create Public Opinion/Seize Power,” taken from a saying by Mao, “Before you make a revolution, you must first create public opinion.” This also flowed from a reading of Lenin’s pamphlet What Is To Be Done, that the communist, “ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people [emphasis original], who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects.” As a result the Party began extricating itself from building a base among the more stable unionized working class in favor of what increasingly was being defined as the “real proletariat”—a term Avakian would popularize to describe, the “strategic orientation that Lenin stressed, of going down lower and deeper to the basic sections of the proletariat, whose interests more conform to and give rise to an inclination or gravitation toward proletarian revolution.” Here the work of creating “revolutionary public opinion” through a weekly newspaper distributed in the housing projects as well as among immigrant workers and lower paid industrial workers, along with key demographics like youth and other social groups was the primary focus. From this point on the Party no longer would attempt to base cadre—in any meaningful way—among what it identified as strategic sections of the working class. Rather they would attempt to “build a base” through a network of connections made via their newspaper.
Here the FBI and local police also start coming down harder at the remnants of the party, seeing their opportunity to seal the fate of the organization for good.
More on the slow decline and loss of morale:
Bob Avakian’s exit also signaled a retrenchment on the part of the Party and a stepping away from sharper confrontational tactics. This in turn led to an easing to a degree, of its ability to function. At the same time, cadre continued to exit. It was not just the toll of the repression, or the schisms, or the political infighting, but the gradual realization on the part of a good number of formerly dedicated members that, ‘things had changed.’ Unlike earlier episodes of mass exit, this loss of membership was not focused around a particular political fault line or organizational split, but rather individual decisions. This was accelerated by the disconnect between the assessment coming from the top of the Party which insisted on the more or less standing possibility of a revolutionary situation arising. As Avakian argued, the group needed to be ready to seize on events, “whenever a revolutionary situation does develop—which, as we’ve seen from experience, can develop suddenly and without much warning.”
Which parts of this decline could have been staunched by a more clearheaded assessment of the global picture? Obviously it was hard for them to see the future, but one thinks that if they had entered with more general skepticism about the radicalism of the US working class, or a different understanding of what revolutionaries in the U.S. could affect, the dimming prospects of revolution would not have had such disastrous effects on morale.
Chapter 11: Conclusion
Leonard’s overall view on why the group came to the end it did is not so convincing, at least until the second paragraph here. Especially frustrating is Leonard again blaming the roots of sectarianism and dogmatism on the RU’s “tying itself so uncritically to the communist legacy” - because the RU’s most costly errors and misteps, at least the ones Leonard focuses on in this book (white chauvinism, position on busing, etc), were largely failures to correctly analyze the concrete situation they faced, not “misreadings” or undue adulation of Stalin or Mao:
In the end, however, one needs to look at the piece as a whole. The controversies that made up the nodal points and their resolution are definitive here: the struggle against urban guerrilla warfare that lead to a heightened organizational authoritarianism, the inherent reactive response in opposition to the complex debate around nationalism, the dogmatic methodology used to analyze the intricate, complex, and shifting events in China. Such things, among not a few others, serve as points of transformation, largely in the wrong direction. While nothing here was ever so simple as “all bad” or “all good,” there was a clear trajectory. The sectarianism, dogmatism, and voluntarism, eventually came to characterize the group; diminishing and overwhelming much of the critical grounding, liberatory vision, and communal spirit—that had made it attractive in its beginnings. The reasons for this are many, but the overriding one being its willingness from inception to tie itself so uncritically to the communist legacy dating back to the Russian Revolution. Here is the paradox, had they not taken inspiration from the socialism of China, which in its time was the most formidable model available, they likely would have withered on the vine. But the Maoism of mid-to-late sixties China, for all its lofty goals and some of the real good it did for its people, was, on the terms it was constituted, unsustainable—to say nothing of the universe of controversies and very bad things that happened in the same period. By the seventies, however, it was in transition toward something else. Thus the RU/RCP’s future was tethered to the rise and fall of a model that was about to hit its limits.
Of course the rise and fall of this group is not wholly a story of China. It is also one of the US war and its eventual defeat in Vietnam, the upsurge of struggles for national liberation worldwide, and the revolutionary Black freedom movement within the US. Such things were the raw fuel impelling the creation of this organization, but such things were a moving target. By the mid-seventies the resurgent conservatism that would accompany the US as it entered onto a neoliberal path, was limiting what a revolutionary communist group could do “in the working class,” and the wider society. As we have noted, what was possible in Richmond, California in 1968, was not possible in West Virginia in 1977.
A final note on taking a more measured view of FBI. Last sentence invites the question - can you tell the story of any revolutionary movement / party without the story of its repression? The need arises here to compare how RU fared versus other orgs in how it withstood repression - and what specific factors of RU organizational culture helped or hurt it. For after all, there have been countless movements and organizations which faced much fiercer repression and infiltration and survived - so here repression absolutely cannot be seen as the determining factor (or even a particularly key factor) in the group’s eventual decline.
And here it is our view that the FBI needs to be understood differently than it has been up to now. In this two popular tendencies stand out. One dismisses the Bureau as paranoid, over-reactive, and largely ineffective. The other too often mystifies the Bureau’s power, ascribing too much agency to “COINTELPRO” and other covert undertakings—suggesting its hand in all outrages and unexplained events. In what we have written it ought to be clear the actual situation is not so cut and dried—all real FBI absurdities, and nefarious (and outlandish) undertakings aside. The Bureau we met in relation to the RU/RCP was a largely sophisticated entity, albeit one arguably most effective when employing tried and true methods. They had the foresight to see the RU as an emerging ‘threat’ even before it became a publicly known organization. Not only did they penetrate the group’s executive committee by early 1968, they appear to have gotten an informant to the level of the national central committee by 1971. That is beyond the not inconsequential lesser informants and casual snitches who came and went throughout this period. While they were largely unable to staunch the emergence of the group, and its expansion into a national organization—such successes were no small matter. Yes, the FBI often came across as ‘unhip,’ and absurd, as befit J. Edgar Hoover’s organizational culture, but that did not mean they could not recruit people who were unrecognizable as FBI operatives, and keep them in place for significant blocks of time. All that taken into account that was not, in the end what lead to the RU/RCP’s ultimate decline; bigger forces, as we have shown, were responsible for that. We do, however, give more credit to the initiative exhibited by the Bureau in shaping this group and affecting how it interacted with the larger world. To put it more directly, it is not possible to understand this grouping—and this is likely a point applicable to quite a number of organizations in that time—without understanding the role of the Bureau in relationship to it.