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Anyone who has been involved in activities opposed to the desires of their nation’s government and those it serves has probably joked about being surveilled. Those who have joined organizations and helped organize protests and other actions against those in power have probably been observed by agents of the government, even if the group whose meeting they attended was completely above board and legal. Sometimes, as the book A Threat of the First Magnitude: FBI Counterintelligence & Infiltration From the Communist Party to the Revolutionary Union – 1962-1974 discusses, those agents actually help determine a group’s actions and politics.
A Threat of the First Magnitude begins with the precautionary tale of Roman Malinovsky, a police informant in the Bolshevik Party whose role in the party ironically included the ferreting out of police informants. Indeed, write the authors, if it hadn’t been for the February revolution and the seizure of the Tsar’s secret police files by the revolutionaries, his undercover role may have never been discovered. Malinovsky’s story is important to this book in part because the story these two men uncover includes the infiltration of the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party by informants who would make their way to the organization’s central committee.
Drawing from FBI documents, personal recollections and various news sources, the authors Aaron Leonard and Conor Gallagher unearth a government plot that reads like the inspiration for an espionage novel. It is a story that includes agents and double agents infiltrating the Central Committee of one of the largest communist organizations in the United States of the 1970s, influencing both the strategy and theoretical understandings of the group.
Simultaneously, they tell of another supposedly communist organization that turns out to be nothing more than the contrivance of a small group of federal agents hoping to lure potential radicals into their lair. According to the text, the latter effort was slightly successful. Although it was usually little more than a post office box and a couple agents working the scam, it did attract potential radicals into its trap.
The book, titled Threat of the First Magnitude, begins its tale of infiltration and deceit in the Communist Party USA. Two informants from the Party’s earlier years are discussed. Their training and their manner of spying are presented and the damage they did to the party is assessed. Naturally, the national party was subject to decisions made by the international, which was subject to the dictates of the party in the Soviet Union. When the Chinese and Soviet Communist parties broke apart from one another, the national Communist parties around the world began to divide amongst themselves, as well. It was around this time that the FBI created the aforementioned faction and gave it the name Ad Hoc Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party. This committee portrayed itself as more Maoist than anything else. It would remain in existence for several years, misleading and subverting the growing number of Marxist political organizations in the United States. It was during the period of the Ad Hoc Committee’s existence that other genuine Maoist political organizations would also develop in the US. The most notable such groups were the October League, the Progressive Labor Party and the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party (RU/RCP).
Author Aaron Leonard was once a member of the latter organization. Indeed, one assumes it was his membership in the group that furthered his interest in the subject of this book and his previous one (Heavy Radicals). One of the personalities both of these texts discuss is the communist organizer Leibel Bergman. Bergman was a longtime communist and one of the founders of the Revolutionary Union. His connections to the Chinese Communists and other international organizations are but one of the reasons his FBI file is one of the largest the authors of Threat of the First Magnitude requested. Unfortunately, most of his file was not released and consequently little is publicly known about his activities prior to his work with the Bay Area Revolutionary Unions–predecessors to the RU/RCP.
The book’s use of FBI files does bring up an important question. While it seems safe to assume that much of what was written in these files is true—especially the direct reports of physical movements and direct quotes from meetings—my research using said materials has always left me with the nagging question of whether or not I was being manipulated. I asked myself this for a couple reasons: the interpretation of the words and events by FBI agents is suspect if only because their politics are so alien to the politics of the people they are informing on. Also, informants often have their own agenda which are often based on personal jealousies and prejudices. Lastly, after one has the FBI materials, there is much that is not included or redacted, leaving me to wonder about the intentions implied in those omissions. A recent discussion that ripped through the US Left regarding the Black Panther/FBI informant Richard Aoki brought many of these issues back into the open. As for me, I have found that it is useful to consider the political intent of the person(s) writing the article or book utilizing the FBI’s information.
That being said, the approach taken by Leonard and Gallagher comes across as analytically astute, fair-minded and quite clear about the misdeeds and skullduggery of the FBI and its cohorts in law enforcement. An understanding of how the revolutionary left actually functioned is present throughout the book. This is no doubt in part due to Leonard’s participation in such groups in the 1970s and 1980s. Furthermore, the authors’ contention that the groups discussed in the book failed was in part due to a “mistaken view that a correct political line, the supremacy of their ideals, was sufficient to withstand the attacks….” is an honest, albeit painful acknowledgement of the US revolutionary Left’s own role in its irrelevance by the end of the 1970s. Then again, given the often prominent role played by FBI informants in various leftist groups, one can only wonder how much of that irrelevance was due to the promulgation of incorrect political lines by those agents; political lines virtually guaranteed to alienate the radicals from the very people they were hoping to organize.
Threat of the First Magnitude is a first-rate history lesson in what the US power structure will do to those who threatened left wing revolution. At the same time, it is a warning to those who do so in the future.