Seeking reds hiding under the bed


Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War on America’s Maoists-The Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party 1968-1980 by Aaron J. Leonard and Conor A. Gallagher, Zero Books (John Hunt Publishing), US $29.95 /UK £17.99, Pp 342,  February  2015, ISBN 978-1782795346

Heavy Radicals is the history of small Communist groups which played important roles in the 1960s and 1970s. With the help of primary FBI sources, it also shows how the FBI targeted these groups in an effort to break them down. In 1968, revolutionary communism seemed to be dead as an organized force in the United States. However, there were still some communist groups such as the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) which had long abandoned the pretense of being a revolutionary group. There were some Trotskyist groups such as the Socialist Workers Party and the International Socialists. The presence of these groups did not mean that there were no revolutionary communists or people moving to replace old party members. In fact, a new generation of Maoist revolutionaries was emerging from the student movement. They were more radical than the old communists. Although writers of current history have largely ignored these revolutionaries, the state authorities (such as the FBI) did not.

Most important among these new groups was the Revolutionary Union (RU) under Leibel Bergman. He was a member of the Communist Party USA but left it when he found differences within the leadership regarding Josef Stalin. Bergman turned to Maoism and went to China in 1965, returning two years later to bring about a revolution in America. The RU was then founded in 1968. Although many Communist groups played important political roles, RU remained the most important Communist group.

Revolutionary Union traced its origins to the Students for Democratic Society (SDS) which emerged on the political scene in the early 1960. The early 1960s provided an ideal atmosphere for a revolutionary group to thrive. The revolution in Cuba, the US intervention in Vietnam, and war with Vietnam radicalized the American youth. By 1969, SDS had some 100,000 members and was active on some 300 campuses. SDS traced its roots to the turn-of-the century American Student League for Industrial Democracy, the student arm of the League for Industrial Democracy. It was mainly focused on socialist and progressive education. It was founded by Norman Thomas, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London. American Student League for Industrial Democracy changed its name to SDS in 1960 in order to broaden its popular base.

There were several other revolutionary groups such as the Progressive Labor Party, the principal Maoist party. Soon after the formation of the RU in 1968, it started moving closer to the SDS. The invasion of Cambodia in 1970 made the year violent. There were demonstrations across the United States. Against this backdrop, Bruce Franklin came up with the idea of initiating and sustaining guerrilla warfare. He argued that there were favorable conditions in cities like New York and Chicago for a guerrilla movement. The authors write, “Urban guerrilla warfare in the early seventies was a popular concept, intimately bound up with movements and struggles of black and other oppressed nationalities domestically and internationally. This was especially concentrated in what was happening within the Black Panther Party.” The Panthers were divided between those who supported armed action and those who championed electoral politics. The two groups were led by Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton. As the internal struggle intensified, Franklin had to leave.

The death of Mao in 1976 led to confusion among Maoist groups worldwide. As the new Chinese leaders left Communist ideals, the Maoist groups also started disintegrating all over the world. The RU was not an exception. It is interesting that the FBI had informants among these revolutionaries who sat in their secret top level meetings. The FBI was completely aware of their plans and activities and readily countered them. The authors of Heavy Radicals show that FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover particularly targeted these groups.

Heavy Radicals is an excellent addition to the literature on the history of revolutionary groups which played important roles in the 1960s and 1970s. It is the first comprehensive and complete history of these revolutionary groups, particularly the Revolutionary Union. It is a well-researched book which fills the gap created by the absence of historical literature on an important period in the history of the United States. It will make it easier to understand the politics of 1960s and 1970s. Reviewed by Sarah Kahn