Civil Liberties

Reds and Feds

What the FBI's war on the Maoist fringe tells us about the surveillance state


Heavy Radicals: The FBI's Secret War on America's Maoists, by Aaron J. Leonard and Conor A. Gallagher, Zero Books, 337 pages, $29.95

By the tail end of the 1960s, Soviet-style socialism held little attraction for the American left, except to those within the shrinking orbit of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). It clearly was a stagnant system. But Chinese socialism seemed like it might be something else. For those who still believed in the communist ideal, Maoism was a life raft to cling to.

The surveillance state clung to it too. From the early '60s onward, the FBI infiltrated, disrupted, and monitored America's Maoist movement, which it considered a tool of the Chinese regime. As early as 1962, an enterprising FBI agent created a self-styled Ad Hoc Committee for Scientific Socialism as a supposedly Maoist rump faction within the CPUSA. The FBI also paid attention to the Progressive Labor Party, a pro-Mao group whose machinations played a big role in the breakup of Students for a Democratic Society. And in the 1970s, as Maoist grouplets proliferated, the bureau kept both an eye on and a hand in the proceedings.

With Heavy Radicals, historians Aaron Leonard and Conor Gallagher illuminate the surveillance state's role in shaping both the left itself and the government's response to it. Their case study is the Maoist group known first as the Revolutionary Union (R.U.), which evolved into the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) over the course of the '70s and soon thereafter devolved into a personality cult centered around its chairman, Bob Avakian.

The Revolutionary Union was founded in 1968 by a set of strong personalities, including Avakian, the Stanford historian H. Bruce Franklin, the longtime activist Leibel Bergman, and Steve Hamilton, one of the Oakland Seven—a group of East Bay radicals arrested for attempting to shut down the transfer of Vietnam draftees out of Oakland. R.U.'s politics were partly inspired by the Chinese Cultural Revolution and in many ways were a throwback to the Stalinism of the 1930s. (Franklin even edited an anthology titled The Essential Stalin, with an introduction that attempted to rehabilitate the dictator's reputation.)

R.U. may have been mostly unknown to the country at large, but it was of great interest to the FBI, which was worried that the group's back-to-basics appeal might attract the scattered but growing ranks of American Maoists. FBI documents, obtained by Leonard and Gallagher under the Freedom of Information Act, indicate that the government successfully planted informers and undercover operatives in R.U. collectives from nearly the very beginning, including at least one member of R.U.'s central committee. With detailed reports coming in of the group's top-level policy and strategy meetings, the FBI was able to manipulate R.U.'s famously disciplined security efforts and heighten members' suspicions of each other.

In the mid-1970s, when R.U. and several other Maoist formations formed an ad hoc National Liaison Committee to try to assemble a new "non-revisionist" Communist Party, one key FBI plant served as the R.U. member tasked with representing the organization on the committee. This single individual helped unravel the project by pitting ethnic nationalist groups on the committee against the R.U. and each other.

Similarly, R.U. and its major rival in "party building," the October League (O.L.), were unable to reach broad agreement, instead denouncing each other for having incorrect ideological "lines" and wasting much energy on polemical attacks. While preventing the merger of R.U. and O.L. was very high on the FBI's wish list, in this case it appears that the two groups' mutual hostility was due less to government manipulation—though there was some of that—than to sectarian posturing and ego conflicts. In short, the groups managed to achieve a lot of the FBI's goals on their own.

In the end, the disintegration of American Maoist efforts to form a classic Marxist-Leninist vanguard party were as much due to shifts in Chinese policy, particularly in the wake of Mao's death in 1976, as they were due to FBI dirty tricks and surveillance. With China's new leaders tilting toward state capitalism—albeit with a patina of Mao's personality cult still intact—China itself was abandoning Maoism and saw little reason to pat American true believers on the head.

Prior to Mao's demise, both R.U. and O.L. in 1975 had declared themselves the new and true Marxist-Leninist vanguard party, becoming the RCP and the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), respectively. Though the latter briefly beat out the RCP for the official Chinese "franchise," that franchise soon became meaningless, and the RCP took the logically inevitable step of declaring themselves the true upholders of Maoism in opposition to China's abandonment of the faith.

Heavy Radicals draws the curtain on the whole debacle during the 1978–1980 period, when the RCP was replacing its former emphasis on workplace organizing with an increasingly hysterical militancy in the streets. Riots and clashes with police during Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping's January 1979 visit to the White House resulted in Chairman Bob Avakian's indictment on multiple felony charges and the arrest of numerous party members.

Further mayhem ensued from RCP efforts to organize mass demonstrations for May Day in 1980. Militant actions in the lead-up to the protests—designed to draw attention to the party's plans—resulted in the arrests of hundreds of the RCP's youthful May Day Brigades. The demonstrations themselves were, not surprisingly, anti-climactic and hardly massive. While some of these failures were exacerbated by government surveillance and infiltration, it seems fair to conclude that the RCP's decline into a cult was bound to marginalize it, with or without repressive measures from the feds.

In December 1980, Bob Avakian applied for political asylum in France. It would be decades before he would quietly slip back into the U.S.; by then, all his Revolutionary Union co-founders had either stomped off angrily or been purged. Chairman Bob was the last one standing—a testimony to his stubborn longevity, if not his sanity.

The surveillance state has survived as well, though it now relies less on the relatively primitive methods described in Heavy Radicals. Why surreptitiously enter apartments to place bugs when the technology exists to eavesdrop from a distance? Why painstakingly target individuals or specific groups when National Security Agency programs, such as those Edward Snowden has exposed, are capable of hauling in and storing data on everyone using a phone or the Internet?

Genuine threats to national security do exist. It would surely have been better if the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington or the more recent massacres in Paris had been nipped in the bud. Yet despite all the advances in the state's surveillance sophistication, it remains unclear that the attendant assault on our privacy and civil liberties actually delivers much in the way of prevention. Omnipresent closed circuit television cameras, for instance, do not advance real-time security so much as create a means to trace what has occurred after the fact. School shootings and similar crimes demonstrate that if someone is determined to wreak havoc, no amount of spying is likely to prevent it.

In the meantime, all that spying does enormous damage to the Bill of Rights. Heavy Radicals' account of "the FBI's secret war on America's Maoists" gives the strong impression that the bureau's efforts were a greater threat to our liberties than anything Bob Avakian's followers could realistically concoct.