The Secret History of the Radical ’70s: The ’60s Didn’t Just ‘End,’ and the FBI Was Watching

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There are two common stories about how the radical movement of the ’60s ended: The FBI’s secret Cointelpro program violently undermined groups like the Black Panther Party. And Students for a Democratic Society, the main student-radical organization, splintered in 1969 in a factional fight between the puritanical Maoists of the Progressive Labor Party and the bomb-setters of the Weather Underground. That’s not the whole story, Aaron Leonard and Conor Gallagher write in their new book, Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War on America’s Maoists (Zero Books). The little-known third main faction in SDS, the Maoist Revolutionary Union, would become a major group in the “new communist” movement of the ’70s, eventually evolving into the Revolutionary Communist Party under the one-man leadership of Bob Avakian. In 1976, the FBI called it “a threat to the internal security of the United States of the first magnitude.” The bureau had infiltrated Revolutionary Union at high levels virtually from its inception, with an informant reporting on its third meeting. The FBI’s spying and disruption, Leonard and Gallagher say, was not the omnipotent but cartoonish sabotage often ascribed to Cointelpro. It was far more politically sophisticated, and benefited from the organizations’ flaws, particularly their authoritarian “democratic centralist” structure. Dissent NewsWire spoke with Aaron Leonard earlier this month in New York.  

Dissent NewsWire: What got you into writing this book?

Aaron Leonard: I had a long relationship with the Revolutionary Communist Party. I became radicalized as a teenager in upstate New York. As I came into young adulthood, I went looking for serious people who could continue the radical and revolutionary legacy of the ‘60s. I ended up having a very long relationship with the group, from being part of its unemployed group and its youth group, and I wrote for its paper, the Revolutionary Worker, for many years. Ending the relationship, I had a lot of questions about how this group began and came to be the way it was.

Everybody who’s in the left assumes there is some kind of secret police or Red squad that’s monitoring them, but I suspect with few exceptions, most people don’t have a discrete sense of what that actually means. As a result, Conor Gallagher, who was associated with the group’s youth group—he’s a good deal younger than I am—and I decided to take on this project.

So the Revolutionary Union was the little-known third major faction in the SDS breakup in 1969?

When you start pulling on the Revolutionary Union thread, you discover things about SDS that no one knew. For example, we discovered a paper from the FBI which was basically analyzing how they did in the June 1969 Chicago SDS convention, the famous convention at which SDS split three ways. The FBI actually supported the “National Office” faction against the Progressive Labor Party faction. The National Office faction was the group that went on to be the Weathermen.

The FBI was very concerned that the Progressive Labor Party not take control of SDS. They attempted to, among other things, pit the Progressive Labor Party against this brand-new group, the Revolutionary Union—both of them Maoist, the RU minuscule in 1969, maybe 20-24 people. They planted a story in the Chicago Tribune saying that this Revolutionary Union was vying for control of SDS, as a way of making people uneasy and inflaming tensions. But unless you look for the Revolutionary Union, you don’t find this. You don’t find what the FBI did to try to wreck SDS.

SDS was probably going to break apart. I don’t think the FBI can take credit for that. It was very fractured, it was pulling in different directions. But the FBI was fishing in these troubled waters, and they exacerbated a very tense situation.

So the RU from early on was infiltrated in several cities, and at fairly high levels, including one member of the national committee.

I sought out a lot of old-timers who were around the founding of RU, and most of them have heard of Larry and Betty Sue Goff, who came back to the United States after some time in Central America evangelizing, and offered their services to the FBI. They infiltrated the Revolutionary Union in San Jose and worked their way up to a modest mid-level leadership, to the point where they were invited to central-committee meetings in the Bay Area.

At this point, the RU was just a Bay Area organization. It spread quickly, I think, because the Progressive Labor Party had lost the sympathy and support of the People’s Republic of China. PL was denouncing Mao Zedong as “revisionist” by the end of the ’60s. Meanwhile, the RU was upholding Mao and China as socialist, so they had that kind of prestige behind them. There was an actual model they could point to and say, ‘this is a different world.’ It allowed them to cohere a fairly large amount of people rather quickly across the United States, and the FBI was keenly aware of and concerned about this.

They were watching [RU cofounder] Leibel Bergman, who had lived in China between ’65 and ’67. He was married to Victoria Garvin, an African-American activist, the woman who had helped sponsor Malcolm X’s trip to Africa when he left the Nation of Islam.

The U.S. government security apparatus was keenly aware of that. When Leibel came back to San Francisco, from what we can tell from court documents, they tapped his phone, they had a microphone in his house. They were physically watching him, and there was discussion about planting closed-circuit TV to monitor him. Closed-circuit TV circa 1969-70 was rather advanced technology.

One of the people who was seeing this was Mark Felt, Watergate’s “Deep Throat.” So this reached up to the highest levels of the FBI. The FBI sent us some documents, single-spaced, typed documents about five or six pages long, a series of ten or twelve that were informant reports from the third meeting of the Revolutionary Union. We get J. Edgar Hoover responding to the first informant reports, saying, ‘we haven’t verified this person, but this looks pretty good, let’s put a number of people on our Security Index,’ which was a list he had developed to monitor people closely and round them up in an instance of a national emergency.

So from the third meeting, in April 1968, there was an informant on the regional executive committee of the Bay Area Revolutionary Union, which is higher than Larry and Betty Sue Goff.

It’s a startling fact that the people who knew the most about the RU, particularly in its first several years of existence, were the small circle of leaders at the top of the organization and the FBI. Cadre—dedicated cadre, high-placed cadre—knew less about this group than the FBI. It’s chilling.

It seems that you could divide infiltrators into three categories. One would be informational, and those would be more discreet, because their job is to collect information without blowing their cover. The other two would be disruptive, faction-fight provokers and provocateurs. What kind of roles did the RU infiltrators play?

My assumption always was that informants are out there to make trouble. There’s probably an inclination among political activists to look for that kind of informant. They don’t look for people who are just there listening. They’re looking for government agents, and reality is, if the government has something on you, if you’ve been caught in some kind of criminal activity, it has a lot of leverage to turn you into an informant. Then there are people who for whatever moral or philosophical reason are willing to do this. It seems like there are informants who only want to go in there and listen.

The National Liaison Committee was an effort to merge the Revolutionary Union, the Black Workers Congress, and the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization. [It] seems to have signed a statement to merge these three groups, and within a week or two, it all fell apart. There’s evidence we need to have, but it seems like the FBI was clearly going at the very top level of the group.

There was a very sketchy character in the midst of it named Donald H. Wright. He had a relationship with this group called the Ad Hoc Committee for Scientific Socialism, which was an entity that sprung up in the Communist Party. We pulled on that thread, and we put it with the name of Special Agent Herbert K. Stallings. As luck would have it, we found a personnel document, I think it was in a document dump on the Kennedy assassination. They’re giving [Stallings] a glowing review for creating “out of his own imagination” the Ad Hoc Committee for Scientific Socialism. [It] was essentially a Maoist current within the pro-Soviet, anti-Chinese, Communist Party. The whole point was to create dissension in the CPUSA, to try to splinter it.

We found a document on Leibel Bergman unknowingly talking to an informant. [He] was very suspicious of Donald Wright toward the end. He actually asks this informant—the name is redacted, so we don’t know to a certainty he’s talking about Wright—but Bergman asks the informant, “Do you think so-and-so is an agent?” And the agent says, “Oh, no no no no. Agents would try to cause trouble.”

How did you get your information? Was it mostly Freedom of Information Act requests? A combination of that and interviews with old-timers?

We started with the House Internal Security Committee [the former House Un-American Activities Committee] report, which was published in ’72. It was a major investigation of the Revolutionary Union, which had just split in two, with a faction that was more inclined toward protracted guerrilla warfare. They did a 225-255-page report, which before our book was the only actual history of this group. The RU/RCP has done political histories, but there’s not much actual detail beyond broad-strokes politics.

Then we went to the Tamiment Library [at New York University], and we looked at some former cadres’ files, which have a lot of internal documents, and in the case of [the late RU member] David Sullivan, some FBI documents he’d requested. Then we started visiting archives around the country that had related files. The House Internal Security Committee had some files in Missouri from somebody who’d served on the committee.

Yes, we filed a lot of Freedom of Information Act requests, on as many people and organizations as we could. A lot of them are still pending.

Professor Art Eckstein in Maryland helped point me to the Felt-Miller trial transcripts. [FBI officials] Mark Felt and Edward Miller were put on trial in 1980 for a lot of the work they did against the Weathermen, break-ins and such. The two were convicted, but Ronald Reagan pardoned them as soon as he came into office. But that trial has a lot about Leibel Bergman. The Bergman investigation was a very big deal, and they had the agent who oversaw it testify at length, so we got a much fuller picture of things from the start.

Then we had to put that together with people’s stories. It’s like the blind people touching the elephant. As I said, the FBI always knew more about this group than most cadre.

There’s still more to learn. Our documents are coming in. The FBI ultimately was unsuccessful, but they were not ineffectual. Understanding what they did and what they were able to do is of great importance for people today.

Why do you think the government put so much effort into infiltrating and disrupting such a relatively small group?

The Revolutionary Union, organizationally, wasn’t insignificant. By our calculations, they probably had between 1,200 and 1,500 cadre at their peak. They had thousands of supporters.

Cadre were deeply committed. These were not people who just showed up for a meeting once a month. These were people who had left school, left their education, and gone into factories or gone to different parts of the country to propagate the line of the Revolutionary Union and the Revolutionary Communist Party.

The national leadership of Vietnam Veterans Against the War had largely put in with the Revolutionary Union. The FBI was keenly concerned about Vietnam vets who were joining a revolutionary communist organization. VVAW had a lot of prestige, they had a lot of credibility.

The Revolutionary Student Brigade was trying to resurrect SDS. They were on every major campus in the U.S. And then the U.S.-China People’s Friendship Association, which was more of a group geared toward the middle class and intelligentsia, by 1978 had just under 10,000 people. The RU essentially created that group in the United States.

So you put all this together, this is influential, and this is not the Communist Party USA working within the left wing of the Democratic Party. This is a group talking about revolution, and talking about socialism in the United States. From the standpoint of the ruling authorities, this is not something to be dismissed. Now, it can be argued how realistic their aims were, especially given the shifts that were going on in the world, but they were serious, and the people who ran the country were serious about responding to them.

How much of the factional infighting in these groups was instigated by infiltrators? People say about Cointelpro broke up the ’60s radical movement by pushing it towards violence, which discredited it. I think that’s simplistic. They pushed people in a direction they were leaning so they fell over.

The FBI [at the 1969 SDS convention] told their informants to vote with the National Office. They felt that the militance of the national office was going to lead them into doing things that were going to isolate them from the larger U.S. population and the ‘libertarian community’—I think they meant the wider left.

A group like the RU/RCP was not engaging in these things. They were obeying the law. They were legal. Which is also why the FBI broke the law in going against them. There’s a higher political bar to get over to repress people who are obeying the law.

I think Cointelpro is mysticized and fetishized. It was extreme, and it did do some awful things. If you look at the murder of Fred Hampton, [it] led to an important leader being murdered by the Chicago police.

Cointelpro was serious, but it’s only part of the picture. It seems that what worked best for the FBI was the tried-and-true methods. It was a matter of putting informants in, getting information, infiltrating early on to get informants at the peak of the organization’s leadership pyramid. Trying to split people from each other, spreading rumors in the press.

These are things that still happen today, albeit in different forms and probably by different agencies. Hopefully, our book is showing people the broadness of that and the importance of having a sense that the folks who would stop you from doing political activism have some tried-and-true things in their toolkits.

How can you distinguish between people’s political differences escalating to the point where they couldn’t work with each other and factional splits being exacerbated by the infiltrators? I can’t answer. I hate to kind of punt on this, but it’s a matter for further research. However, if there’s a lesson here, it’s that people have to learn how to disagree. I’m not putting forward some kind of hippie-dippie halcyon view of things, but people who are engaged in an effort to bring about a much better world have sharp differences about how to do this. That’s going to be the reality. They need to learn how to have some respect for one another while they have these sharp differences.

How do you navigate this? I’m sorry, I don’t know. But having gone through this book, it’s clear that just severing ties, splitting, walking away, writing sharp polemics, doesn’t seem to be the best way. Largely, I’m saying I can’t answer the question, but I’m trying to answer the question.

What lessons do you think this history holds for today?

First, it matters what happened. How did we get here? People don’t know that there was a major Maoist current alive in the United States. And it was dealt with as a very substantial threat. Particularly by the FBI, but also by the local Red squads, which most major cities had. Too much of the history of the ’60s is written as if there were no organized left groups involved.

One needs to look at the actual historical actors and understand them specifically. Tried-and-true methods, if they worked then, they still work. Lenin had a traitor in the Central Committee who was in the Duma. If you read the guy’s profile, it’s very similar to the high-placed informants that one comes across in contemporary times.

Not just looking for the provocateurs, the guy on the street who will get you into a fight with the police, but the person who’s sitting there in a meeting, just listening. We discovered that the FBI guy Herbert Stallings could probably talk Maoism with a guy like me or Bob Avakian with some sophistication.

We found an FBI document that talked about, ‘Let’s try to alter the political line of this group and put out a publication to create dissension.’ That’s very sophisticated. I think people tend to dismiss the FBI in this period as just being easy to spot, rigid, in sync with J. Edgar Hoover’s organizational culture. We discovered there was that, but there was also a high degree of sophistication at the top levels.

They didn’t get infiltrated because the FBI was napping. And they didn’t get infiltrated because they were stupid. I do make a point that this “democratic centralism” and this hierarchy didn’t help them against infiltration. All it did was keep people underneath constrained. [We have documents] that explicitly say who was saying what in a Central Committee meeting in ’71 or ’72. If you have an infiltrator that high up, the democratic centralism is not solving the problem of keeping information from the FBI. It’s just keeping your membership ignorant.

Do you have a sense of what personality types became infiltrators and how they were able to get away with it? I can only speculate. We didn’t find a smoking gun on some of the folks. We know the Goffs were evangelicals. Obviously, if you’re going to infiltrate the top of an organization, you need to have some kind of political sophistication. Or you need to project a “heaviness” of your radical commitment.

The title “Heavy Radicals” isn’t [about] a propensity for being violent. Back in the day, a heavy radical was someone who was considered very serious. They were serious in terms of their commitment, their theoretical sophistication, and their dedication to the cause. Some of these heavy radicals were people who did more violent things, but most didn’t go to graduate school, didn’t finish their undergraduate degree. They went to work in the smelters. Or the meat-cutting plants, or the coal mines, and tried to work among the working class to propagate Marxism-Leninism and in most cases Maoism.

This is a different picture of the ’60s than ‘everybody just went back and lived comfortable middle-class lives.’ They dedicated themselves for a decade or more to trying to create the basis for a revolution.

That’s a common but false stereotype. If you look at people who were even mildly active back then, you’ll find a lot more who became teachers and social workers than stockbrokers. They went into ways they could make a living but still do something in line with their principles.

I think that’s true. Some of the veterans I ran into who have since left… I haven’t found any Republicans. People seem to be in their way trying to effect some kind of positive social change.

Anything else you think is important?

I tried to write a readable book. I hope I’ve succeeded, but there’s a lot here. There’s revelation after revelation. For everything we don’t know, there are two or three things we did discover.

I’m hoping this sparks not only research on this particular group, but for people to look with a bit more sophistication at the secret police.

Somewhere between ‘They’re monitoring my every move’ and “They couldn’t be, I’m not doing anything, I’m not that important.’

The reality is a lot more nuanced. It’s a lot more complicated. But it’s worth understanding. If you want to move things ahead in the world, people like the secret-police agencies—and the Snowden revelations bear this out—are working overtime to keep the world order as it is.

Power concedes nothing without a struggle, but if you go off half-cocked, it’s going to cause a lot of problems.

It’s like a tightrope. People need to be mindful of how stuff works.

The FBI had a lot more license to go after a group like the Weathermen than they did to go after the Revolutionary Union. Once you break laws, it gives them the ability to unleash the full fury of law enforcement. Including in the realm of public opinion, which is not inconsequential. That doesn’t mean that everyone who steps outside legal boundaries is somehow inviting law enforcement in. I don’t know what the formula is.

It’s also not particularly healthy to just point fingers when somebody does something you don’t like, and suggest they’re working for the secret police. You need evidence, or else you shouldn’t be saying these things.