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It is difficult to believe today, even for someone like me who was there, that a substantial Marxist movement existed in the United States forty years ago. It is even harder to believe that this movement was seriously engaged in the process of fomenting revolution—building a vanguard party and writing programs for that party. For today’s left-leaning activist, perhaps the most difficult aspect of this history to believe is that it was the precursors to today’s Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) that was the largest such group engaged in this movement. This organization was infiltrated by the FBI and local red squads, subjected to dirty tricks and occasional brutality, and considered not only to be a serious threat to US security, but also (by some) an agent of the Maoist government in the People’s Republic of China.
Aaron Leonard was affiliated with the youth wing of the RCP, known as the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade (RCYB) in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. Together with Conor Galagher, they wrote the recently published book Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War on America’s Maoists: The Revolutionary Union / Revolutionary Communist Party 1968-1980. As the title implies, this book is a history of the FBI’s aforementioned infiltration of the organization. It is also considerably more. Indeed, it is the most comprehensive history of this particular element of the post-1968 New Left currently in existence. The authors trace the development of the organization from its first meetings as the Bay Area Revolutionary Union in the San Francisco Bay Area circa 1968 to the aftermath of a series of arrests that followed the RCP’s spectacular protests against the visit of Chinese Premier Den XiaoPing to Washington, DC.
In between these two events is a tale that could only occur in the United States. Why? Primarily because no other nation where communism has gained even the smallest foothold has the distinction of also being the major imperialist and capitalist nation on earth. Furthermore, it would be hard to find another nation whose fear and hatred of communism in all its forms is as inbred and rabid as it is in the US. This latter reality is partially what makes the entire phenomenon known as the US New Left so remarkable. In that regard, it makes the New Left’s successor—the New Communist Movement of the 1970s and early 1980s—even more so. Max Elbaum’s 2002 book Revolution in the Air is a topnotch history of the broader new communist movement; Leonard and Galagher’s Heavy Radicals is a topnotch history of the Revolutionary Union (RU)/RCP.
As the title suggests, this history brings to light the FBI’s “secret war” on the groups discussed and the individuals within the group. The authors’ investigation of various FBI files and the report of a Congressional subcommittee that also investigated the RU reveals just how concerned the Bureau was with the group’s potential. From San Francisco to Washington, DC; from Boston to Los Angeles, it becomes clear that the government was determined to destroy the organization’s potential. What also becomes clear in the reading is that the factions within the group unwittingly provided the FBI and its agents with fodder that provoked splits and wrong turns in politics and practice.
A little sidebar here. In 1973 I attended a couple meetings of the student wing of the Revolutionary Union in the Bronx. They were then called the Attica Brigades. I moved to Maryland in March 1974. The following autumn I joined the University of Maryland chapter of the group, who were calling themselves the Revolutionary Student Brigades. The primary reason I was drawn to the group was their militant politics and their fondness for direct action. The other reason was that there were only a couple requirements to join. The main requirement was that a member be left anti-imperialist. By the summer of 1975, I was no longer in the group, mostly because I was not interested in joining the newly formed Revolutionary Communist Party. However, I worked with the group in Maryland and, after I moved there in 1977, in the Bay Area. I continued to maintain contact with RCP chapters in every place I lived until the late 1990s. Anyhow, back to that College Park group and Heavy Radicals. Leonard and Galagher relate the story of two undercover agents intimately engaged in the DC chapter of the RU/RCP in the mid-1970s. As I read their description of these agents’ work and lives during this period, I remembered friends who remained in the group voicing their suspicions to me about these two informants. I also wondered what information about my friends they passed on to their handlers. Besides that, it just plain pissed me off.
The story of the RU-RCP in the period covered by Leonard and Galagher is one of dedication to revolutionary principles and social justice. It is a commitment based on an understanding of the fundamental injustice of monopoly capitalism and imperialism, and evolved from years of political organizing trying to change that dynamic. It is set in the context of a period that saw the murderous war in Vietnam result in a victory for the Vietnamese; an antiwar and antiracist movement made of US students and working people of all races rise to victorious heights and then retreat; and a government in Washington determined to maintain and expand its power over the planet. It is a story of committed political radicals willing to give up their previous lives for revolution. Furthermore, it describes the dangers of factionalism and the pitfalls of dogmatism. The years portrayed in the text were also years of intensified police repression countered with growing cultural and personal freedom. Heavy Radicals does an exceptional job in layering these and other aspects specific to the times into a history well worth the read, even if you aren’t a historian (or a Marxist).
Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series. All the Sinners, Saints, is the third novel in the series. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground . Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.