The FBI’s War On Dissent – Book Review


Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War on America’s Maoists by Aaron J. Leonard and Conor A. Gallagher
Published by Zero Books

By Mike Kuhlenbeck*

Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War on America’s Maoists-The Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party 1968-1980 recovers a “lost” but crucial portion of the history of the New Left of the 1960s and 70s. Co-authors Aaron J. Leonard and Conor A. Gallagher masterfully chronicle the tumultuous history of the leading Maoist group in the United States and the government’s attempt to crush dissent under an iron heel.

Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War on America’s Maoists by Aaron J. Leonard and Conor A. Gallagher (2)

Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War on America’s Maoists by Aaron J. Leonard and Conor A. Gallagher

The 1960s gave birth to a new generation of activists who were galvanized by the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements. Many young militants viewed racism and militarism as byproducts of the capitalist system, specifically the imperialist efforts of the United States during the Cold War. At this time, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest anti-racist and anti-war youth organization in the country with an estimated 100,000 members.

“The program of SDS has evolved from civil rights struggles to an anti-Vietnam war stance to an advocacy of a militant anti-imperialist position,” according to an internal assessment by the FBI. By the end of the decade, however, SDS was nearly fatally split by numerous factions arising from political differences.

James Miller, author of Democracy is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago, recalls that during the fragmentation of SDS, “For the first time in the decade, the born-again Marxist-Leninist sects turned out in full-force—there were Trotskyists, Maoists, Castroites, even some old-fashioned Communists.”

In Heavy Radicals, the authors examine the lives and deeds of the homegrown revolutionaries who looked to the Red Star that rose in the East in the People’s Republic of China under the leadership of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. For this cadre, the future of China would help determine the future of worldwide revolution.

Readers are introduced to Leibel Bergman, a veteran of the Communist Party USA and founder of the Revolutionary Union who had an important role in serving as a bridge from the “Old Left” to the “New Left.” Robert “Bob” Avakian, the charismatic co-founder of the RU and RCP, who continues to lead as party’s chairman. Other nearly forgotten figures who were instrumental in forming one of the most controversial political groups in US history like H. Bruce Franklin and Steve Hamilton are also rescued from obscurity.

Leonard and Gallagher are not attempting a memoir but rather a “first-pass at a history of this organization,” as Leonard states in the book’s preface. In this task, they have succeeded. Their claims are substantiated by original interviews, newly unearthed government documents and scholarly research. This gem will help readers understand the broader context of what was going on with the shift in the American political climate at that time, using one of the most misunderstood factions of the New Left as a starting point.

As with any New Left group, the RU and their ilk were targeted by the FBI’s notorious counter-intelligence program COINTELPRO. It was established in 1956 purportedly to “disrupt the activities of the Communist Party of the United States.”

The program would continue on in the next decade with a specific operation entitled “Disruption of the New Left.” It was designed to “expose, disrupt, and otherwise neutralize the activities of the various New Left organizations, their leadership and their adherents. The Bureau even admits on its own website that “COINTELPRO was later rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging first amendment rights and for other reasons.”

That is putting it mildly. COINTELPRO targeted the Black Panther Party, the Communist Party USA, the Socialist Workers Party, SDS and numerous individuals affiliated with the Anti-War movement. Author Brian Glick summarized the program’s methods, in his book “War At Home,” with the following:

“Harassment, intimidation and violence: Eviction, job loss, break-ins, vandalism, grand jury subpoenas, false arrests, frame- ups, and physical violence were threatened, instigated or directly employed, in an effort to frighten activists and disrupt their movements. Government agents either concealed their involvement or fabricated a legal pretext.”

Studying the enduring tradition of the Palmer Raids (1919-1920) and the Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunts of the 1950s, Leonard and Gallagher painstakingly describe the role the FBI and other intelligence agencies infiltrating and creating rifts between party members in the hope that the RU would dissolve due to infighting and no longer pose a threat to the Establishment.

Avakian’s memoir From Ike to Mao: My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist, describes how he and the RU became targets of the FBI: “…once the RU [Revolutionary Union] was formed, it was increasingly targeted by the political police—the FBI on a national level and the different Red Squads that existed in different parts of the country.”

In 1972, US president Richard Nixon appointed L. Franklin Gray to the role of FBI director following the death of long-reigning bureaucrat J. Edgar Hoover. Gray reportedly told his subordinates that Avakian was the “kind of extremist I want to go after hard and with innovation.”

After a major split amongst RU members, the Revolutionary Communist Party was formed in 1975. The RCP is often dismissed as an ineffective political cult, but the authors recognize the social significance of the group, capturing the highlights of the RCP’s activities, such as the 1979 demonstration against Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in Washington D.C. and the 1984 flag-burning protest in Dallas, Texas (which led to the court case of Texas v. Johnson, which held that flag-burning is protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution).

The main focus of this analysis is not the ideas that drove the RU/RCP’s actions, but the destructive and anti-democratic measures put in place by the government of a nation that calls itself “the Land of the Free.” The deliberate undermining of civil liberties belonging to groups and individuals under COINTELPRO should remind people that such activities are still alive, and endangering the very freedoms of the US Constitution.

The US Government’s crackdown on activists, journalists and whistleblowers is evident with the large-scale assault against the likes of WikiLeaks, the Anonymous collective, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, James Risen, Jeffrey Sterling and martyrs like the late Aaron Swartz.

Heavy Radicals will serve as a warning to those who stand on the side of free humanity to fight against all encroachments of civil liberties at home and abroad.

*Mike Kuhlenbeck is a  journalist and researcher whose work has appeared in The Humanist, Z Magazine and The Des Moines Register. He is a member of the National Writers Union and Investigative Reporters and Editors.”

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