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Heavy Radicals: the FBI's Secret War on America's Maoists
The Revolutionary Union / Revolutionary Communist Party 1968-1980
By Aaron J. Leonard, Conor A. Gallagher
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Aaron J. Leonard & Conor A. Gallagher
All rights reserved.
I do everything I can to merit the respect of my children and I don't think I could get that kind of respect by cooperating in any way with [the] history, purposes, and many of the crimes committed by this committee.
Leibel Bergman testifying to the House Un-American Activities Committee, San Francisco, 1960.
There were several people at the University of California interested in forming an organization to aid victims of United States aggression [in] Vietnam. We felt that this was the least we could do in terms of making protest against what our Government was doing to the people of Vietnam and in order to show the American people and people across the world that all Americans do not, that the American people do not back this Government's vicious, criminal war in Vietnam.
Steve Hamilton, testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, August 1966.
In 1968, revolutionary communism appeared to be dead as an organized force in the US. Of course, there were an assortment of communist organizations in existence; there was the old Communist Party USA (CPUSA), which had long ago abandoned even the pretense of a revolutionary strategy. There were also an array of splinter groups, fragments of fragments of quasi-religious sects broken off from larger organizations — in the manner of Joan Didion's essay, Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.). There were a number of Trotskyist groups, such as the Socialist Workers Party and the International Socialists, but for all their ambitions, they were constrained by the fact that their politics had never achieved practical political power. And there was the anomaly of the Progressive Labor Party, a grouping with roots in the CPUSA, that seemed to embrace revolutionary Maoism but by 1968, was heading in another direction.
Much of the writing about the sixties seizes on this state of affairs to then dismiss or ignore any role of revolutionary communists in that transformative era. Just as the popular mythology of the McCarthy era is today one of government authorities, "seeking reds hiding under the bed," i.e., jumping at shadows, so too the dominant sixties narrative is one of a delusional J. Edgar Hoover, chasing a largely non-existent communist subversion. That the state of the communist movement in the US was fractured and in disarray in 1968, however, did not mean there were no revolutionary communists, or that new ones were not emerging, quickly. Given the historic role such communists played in many important struggles of twentieth-century America — regardless of what one thinks of that ideology — this was no small matter. It was the communists who usually first arrived at the point of controversy and militant opposition, if not outright resistance. In this they stood out for their catalyzing effect of moving the goal posts of protest and dissent in more radical directions.
Though they had no corresponding party the most radical elements of the old Communist Party did exist, and indeed had been set free from the constraints of their former organization. At the same time the student movement was engendering — often in concert with these older leftists — a new generation of Marxist-Leninists, more radical than the generation that had preceded them. Many of these militant radicals who were turning to Maoism, saw armed revolution as their immediate objective in the not far-off future; the threshold to cross before attempting socialism in the US. It can be debated how realistic this was, but these young Maoists were serious about forging a doctrine for revolution, with all that involved — the exaggerated posturing that pervaded certain quarters in this period does not erase this basic fact.
While this phenomenon has been overlooked and ignored by too many writers and historians, this was not so on the part of the state authorities who gave a great deal of attention to such forces, even in their incubating incarnations. From their standpoint they had a legal predicate and an official obligation to 'pay some attention,' and attention they paid. But they did more than that, they responded proactively in order to undermine, fragmentize, and neutralize such forces — systematically breaking laws they were ostensibly sworn to uphold in the process, all in a feverish rush to get ahead of such organization. For them, this was not an abstraction or the product of delusional thinking, but at least in potential, an existential threat.
To understand where this came from; including how the anticommunist consensus in US society seems to have lost much of its power in the late sixties, and in turn brought forward a new wave of communists, chief among them the Revolutionary Union, it will help to start with a look at the key individuals at the heart of the formation of the RU — individuals who embraced this ideology either as renaissance or revelation, all swimming in the roiling waters of 1960s America.
Any story of the RU/RCP must necessarily start with its organizational and political architect, Leibel Bergman. Bergman was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota in 1915, of pious roots — descended down from "an unbroken line of Hebrew high priests and rabbinical scholars." By any measure he was highly intelligent. He attended the University of North Dakota, where he earned a degree in mathematics at the age of 19, then went on to work as a Chief Statistician of the North Dakota State Planning Board. Along the way he joined the Communist Party, though it is unclear precisely when, though the FBI says it was in 1937.
During the late 1930s, Bergman traveled throughout the midwest and east Coast as a Party member, organizing packing house and other workers, and advocating for communism. When the Second World War broke out he joined the US military, consistent with the Party's position of defending the Soviet Union and defeating Hitler's Germany. His actual military service was directed at the chief focus of the United States, Japan. He served five years in the US Army, primarily as an Army-Air Force navigator."
After the war Bergman settled in San Francisco where he worked for many years in a drop forge factory, was a Party union organizer, and published a militant newsletter called The Scriber. In the 1950s he and other comrades were put on trial by the national leadership of the Communist Party, reprimanded for pushing forward too fast, and several were expelled. Although Bergman was not expelled, the incident was a foretaste of a larger break.
Bergman's relationship with the Party would ultimately end over the matter of how to view Josef Stalin — the precipitating event being Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 speech criticizing Stalin. Khrushchev — who had been a loyal party functionary throughout Stalin's rule — denounced Stalin for the purges in the late 1930s and the "Cult of Personality" built around him. He went on to advocate a more conciliatory and anti-revolutionary view of realizing a communist future. For those who had stuck with the Communist Party, through the famines that ensued during collectivization, the show trials and the Great Purge of 1937-38, the alliance with Hitler's Germany in the wake of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, this was too much to bear. Attacking Stalin pushed the limits of the rationalizations that had kept people loyal to this communism. How they fell out in this was untidy, some continuing despite the Party's latest line shift, others decisively breaking with it, but not with its overall legacy. Others would become staunch anticommunists.
The changes in Soviet policy and doctrine would also lead, by the early 1960s, to a major schism between the Soviet and Chinese Communists. The reason for the split is a matter still being excavated by historians. On the surface the Chinese accused the Soviets of revisionism, and accommodation with imperialism. However the nationalism and ambitions of both countries, to say nothing of larger geopolitical concerns, were huge consequential factors. Regardless, the split was earth shifting. These two countries had borne the brunt of human casualties in World War II — the Soviets beating back the bloodiest foreign invasion in human history, while the Chinese Communists played a critical role in the defeat of the Japanese, before defeating their former wartime ally the US-backed Guomindang. The alliance between the two socialist countries after the War was a huge fly in the ointment of plans to, "organize the economic resources of the world so as to make possible a return to the system of free enterprise in every country," that was envisioned by the United States. As a result the US resorted to a policy of 'containing' communism, a euphemistic expression for brandishing their superior nuclear power and the implicit threat of its use, as a Damocles sword over any who challenged their interests. In this respect, China under the leadership of Mao Zedong, in many ways, offered a more formidable challenge to the US, than the Soviet Union. The following from 1956 gives a sense of why:
Now U.S. imperialism is quite powerful, but in reality it isn't. It is very weak politically because it is divorced from the masses of the people and is disliked by everybody and by the American people too. In appearance it is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of, it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain. I believe the United States is nothing but a paper tiger.
Leaving aside Mao's elements of hyperbole, the audacious tone was in marked contrast to that of the more accommodating and bureaucratic Soviets. For a time in the 1960s and early 1970s, Communist China would be seen by many in search of such things, as a potential alternative to the capitalism of which the US was now the chief representative.
The changing definitions of Marxism-Leninism by the Soviets and Chinese in the period after Stalin's death would also lead to a split of communists internationally — including the exit of a good number of the more radically inclined who were still in the US Communist Party. Among them was Leibel Bergman, who would write a long paper critical of the 20th Congress speech by Khrushchev, and who himself was inclining more toward the Chinese position.
It was against this backdrop that Bergman, in 1960, was summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (known as HUAC). The Committee was collecting information on the Communist Party's Northern California District. Bergman's testimony was noncooperative and defiant:
Mr. Willis. I order and direct you to answer the question. (The witness conferred with his counsel.)
Mr. Bergman. After that explanation, I still fail to see pertinency. I want to remind the committee that I am here against my will. I do not sympathize with this committee.
Mr. Willis. You said that before.
Bergman's testimony came at a point when a certain section of the left and progressive movement was pushing back against the Red Scares and the witch-hunting of HUAC. Organized defiance was the order of the day for these hearings, with union leaders, Communist Party members, and students — infused with the activist sensibility of the civil rights movement — mobilized to oppose the hearings. Bergman's testimony occurred on May 13, 1960, the day of the now famous "HUAC riot" —'riot' more precisely being the police measures against the crowd of largely student protestors. Many of those students, who came from UC Berkeley, were violently ejected from the hearing by police using water hoses and billy-clubs. That event, in turn would become a foretaste of the political activism that would soon convulse California, especially its campuses.
While HUAC was poking around into the old Communist Party's influence, Bergman himself was moving on. On leaving the Party, he had become a founding member of the Maoist-inclined Progressive Labor Party, (which had started out as the Progressive Labor Movement in 1963). However he quickly became disenchanted. "He found its leadership style flamboyant and publicity seeking, rather than concentrating on the quiet class analysis and careful, long-term working class organizing in key locales that he and others advocated."
In this period, his wife Anne — herself a communist who he had married while in the military — contracted multiple myelomas, a form of bone cancer. In 1963, she died at the age of 47. It was also in this period, unbeknownst to Bergman, that he was being considered for prosecution under the Smith Act, a law that made it illegal to advocate the overthrow of the US Government. As the FBI's, David Ryan, would later explain:
Q. And to your knowledge was any prosecution under the Smith Act ever brought against Mr. Bergman as a result of that consideration?
A. I don't believe the indictment was filed. Part of the reason being that Bergman wasn't around.
Unfortunately for the government, he had left the country in July 1965, having made a fateful trip with his two sons to live in China. He went ostensibly to teach English, as what the Chinese called a "foreign expert," but he also went to learn about the Chinese revolutionary experience. It was in China that he met the African-American activist Victoria "Vicki" Garvin. Garvin, herself a former Communist Party member, was an important figure in the African-American community of the day, among other things she had helped coordinate the historic 1964 tour of Africa, made by Malcolm X. Bergman and Garvin fell in love and were married in China in a Red Guard ceremony in 1966. In 1967 he returned to the US — Garvin would follow a few years later. With him he brought not only decades of experience in organizing, and in sparring with the forces of domestic repression, but also first hand experience in the dizzying events underway in China.
The San Francisco he returned to, however, was not the one he left. In Berkeley, the respectful and peaceful protest in support of civil rights had transformed into such things as the confrontational Free Speech Movement. In Oakland, which bordered the UC California college enclave, a new organization called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense had been created. It was quickly having an electrifying effect among Black people who had hit the limits of non-violent protest. Finally the movement against the Vietnam War was fully underway, embraced by students and liberal intelligentsia throughout northern California, including at the prestigious Stanford University.
With this, the FBI, which had been watching Bergman for decades, was continuing to keep a close eye. Writing some years later they would accurately point out that, "[t]he history of the RU in many ways has paralleled the movements of Leibel Bergman." They then however, proceeded to map out a conspiratorial scheme that seems a mix of fact and fantasy — with the exact lines blurred:
In July 1965, Bergman traveled to Peking, China and did not return to the United States from Communist China until August 1967. Upon his return to the United States, Bergman told select individuals that his reason for returning to the U.S. was that he had promised his friends (Chinese) that he would do a job for them. He stated the struggle between the U.S. imperialists and China would continue for many years and because of the struggle it must be recognized it is necessary for us to make plans for the future 20 to 30 years from now. Because of this, Bergman stated a youth cadre must be selected, trained and held in reserve for utilization by China in 20 to 30 years.
According to the FBI, Bergman felt "this cadre must be selected from the most promising youth in the U.S." It then offered, without corresponding evidence, "[t]he selected youth would be trained in China and would not necessarily be those who are best known in the left wing world." In this estimation the Chinese and Bergman, would be the puppet master behind the emerging radical generation. It makes for an intriguing narrative, one containing elements of both truth and absurdity. In the end, it missed the more overarching reality. What was taking place in the sixties was shaping individuals and transforming them in ways that no one had any control over. The young radicals Bergman would meet and begin working with are a case in point.
Steve Hamilton, unlike Leibel Bergman, did not have a particularly religious pedigree, yet his initial life-inclination was to follow a spiritual path. As things developed, that did not work out so well.
Hamilton was born in 1944 in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. His father had worked on an assembly line at General Motors, a job that lead to his contracting lead poisoning, the fallout of which lead to his spending ten years in Camarillo State Mental Hospital in Ventura County, where he endured among other things, shock treatments. The younger Hamilton's mother supported the family by working at a Firestone tire factory.
Excerpted from Heavy Radicals: the FBI's Secret War on America's Maoists by Aaron J. Leonard, Conor A. Gallagher. Copyright © 2014 Aaron J. Leonard & Conor A. Gallagher. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Note on Chinese Names xiii
Introduction: The Way From San Jose 5
1 Foundation 10
2 SDS, the RU, and the FBI 34
3 Beyond the Student Movement 58
4 Protracted War or Protracted Struggle 86
5 Peoples China 110
6 Coalitions, Infiltrators, and Schisms 132
7 Sinking Roots and Making the Papers 160
8 The Short Leap from RU to RCP 183
9 The Final Split 205
10 After the Fall 224
11 Conclusion 245
Glossary of Organizational Acronyms 253
About the Authors 337
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Poorly written, badly edited, but an interesting (if frustrating) read if you're fascinated by this stuff. The authors see RU/RCP as politically important in the 1960s and 70s and collapsing thereafter. Is either part of that true? There's some deference to Party secrecy. No mention of The World Can't Wait.