Turbulent 1970s Revisited

Against the Current, No. 183, July-August 2016

Brad Duncan

Amiri Baraka and the Congress of African People: History and Memory
By Michael Simanga
Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, 160 pages, $30 paperback.

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, 2015, 356 pages, $29.95 paperback.

THESE NEW BOOKS investigate two of the important revolutionary groups to emerge in the United States during the 1970s. Both books are written by veteran former members of their respective organizations, adding richness and authenticity to both works.

While the Congress of African People and the Revolutionary Union had different roots in the late 1960s, both organizations embraced a version of Marxist politics influenced by the Chinese revolution and anti-colonial movements in the Third World.

Simanga’s book looks at poet-activist Amiri Baraka’s dynamic journey from Black nationalism to the New Communist Movement, while Leonard and Gallagher, using new archival research, provide startling insight into how the U.S. government worked clandestinely to repress and destroy that movement.

Amiri Baraka and the Congress of African People documents the ideology and activism of Amiri Baraka and the organization he led from 1970 through the end of the decade, detailing both Baraka’s evolution and his remarkable behind-the-scenes organizing role in the Black Power and Black Nationalist movements more broadly.

Baraka (born Leroi Jones) was already a well-known political poet and playwright when he embraced a vision of Pan-African Black Nationalism called Kawaida, articulated by Los Angeles activist Ron Karenga, in 1966.

Kawaida stressed the role of cultural transformation in Black liberation, which deeply resonated with poet Baraka, although the ideology’s many reactionary and chauvinistic aspects (generally touted as traditional African social norms) would push Baraka away from Kawaida and towards a leftist conception of Black Nationalism in the early ’70s.

Simanga examines the national Black Power conferences of the second half of the ‘60s, leading to the 1970 event in Atlanta organized by Baraka that created CAP as a coalition of Black activists. Perhaps only Baraka, whose savvy bridge-building efforts to elect Newark, New Jersey’s first Black mayor had made him a respected strategist, could have brought together the disparate forces that made the Atlanta conference a huge success.

From the beginning, and by definition, CAP  was a fairly broad united front helmed by Baraka. Baraka’s trademark ability to bring together Black activists from different traditions served CAP  well for its frantic first four years.

As Simanga demonstrates, CAP quickly developed a reputation in the Black Power movement as the organization that could get things done, from playing a role in African Liberation Day and the subsequent African Liberation Support Committee — a hugely influential effort to build solidarity with revolutionary movements in Africa — and the massive 1972 Black Power conference in Gary, Indiana, to organizing the U.S. delegation to the 6th Pan-African Congress in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. But the broad united front model of organizing could not survive the increasingly ideologically polarized Black Power movement.

Simanga was a highly active member of CAP  and his first-hand experiences are invaluable. He was in the room when the crucial debates took place, and took sides in the inevitable split, but he is also a scholarly historian whose concise writing can maintain a critical distance from his topic.

Moving Leftward

The rupture in CAP came primarily from Baraka’s rapid evolution towards communism and the radical left. Simanga explains the main factors that pushed Baraka away from Karenga’s Kawaida towards a socialist Black Nationalism, and ultimately to Third World Marxism or Maoism.

First, Baraka was increasingly frustrated with Black elected officials’ ability to effect change within the system, a situation that seemed to mirror the “neocolonial” African regimes with Black leaders but still dominated by capitalism and white supremacy. Baraka was also strongly influenced by African revolutionaries like Guinea-Bissau’s Amilcar Cabral, most of whom were explicitly leftist and encouraged militants in the diaspora to study socialist theory.

Simanga shows that Baraka and CAP were not the only forces in the Black Liberation Movement quickly moving to the radical left, as groups like North Carolina’s Youth Organization for Black Unity and Detroit’s Black Workers Congress were already embracing Maoism.

Baraka’s (and consequently CAP’s) evolution came to a head in the summer of 1974, when he officially announced the organization’s change of ideology, leading conservative “cultural nationalists” like Chicago’s Haki Madhubuti to walk out of CAP in disgust.

The lacerating polemics that followed demonstrated how deep the political divide truly was. This split was the highest profile example of an escalating political conflict that engulfed the Black Liberation Movement for most of the mid-1970s, with Maoist-influenced Black leftists on one side and conservative cultural nationalists on the other.

Even for CAP insiders the switch seemed sudden and sweeping. In a humorous anecdote Simanga describes walking into a large CAP event in his hometown of Detroit shortly after the declaration of their embrace of Marxism and seeing two large painted portraits on the auditorium wall. He assumes they are likely amateurish renderings of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, but they turn out to be of Marx and Lenin.

While CAP’s switch to Maoism did not stop their myriad organizing efforts across the country, the organization never really recovered from the members they shed in the controversial year of 1974. But as the organization was getting smaller and less influential, it was also building new bridges that would serve as the basis for its next big move.

CAP was renamed the Revolutionary Communist League, and in 1979 the organization would dissolve and merge into the League of Revolutionary Struggle (Marxist-Leninist), an organization that was founded by members of Chicano and Asian American communist collectives.

LRS (M-L) was a people of color majority Marxist-Leninist organization that remained highly active throughout the 1980s, a period when groups from the Black Liberation Movement and the New Communist Movement alike were in marked retreat or collapse.

Simanga helps readers see why Black nationalists of the late 1960s (and indeed other people of color struggling against white supremacy) would soon come to embrace a version of Marxism, specifically the politics of Mao, the Chinese revolution, and African anti-colonial movements. He also demonstrates the political skills that made Baraka so politically influential.

Baraka’s ability to change direction politically when his ideology didn’t fit with reality, perhaps best exemplified by CAP’s thorough change around women’s liberation, is particularly admirable when compared with other 1970s U.S. revolutionaries who prided themselves on their unflinching adherence to pristine positions.

Simanga’s writing is succinct and elegant, telling the story of the Congress of African People in the confines of a slim volume. His book is absolutely perfect for university classes on U.S. Black politics as well as for political activists who are learning about struggles against white supremacy and capitalism in the 1970s.

The War on American Maoism

Heavy Radicals is centered on groundbreaking research into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s efforts to sabotage the Revolutionary Union, one of the large New Communist Movement groups to emerge from the U.S. New Left.

Aaron Leonard and Conor Gallagher went deep into the archives and looked at previously classified documents to map the government’s activities. What readers come away with is a chilling and detailed picture of the U.S. government using illegal means to track and disrupt the RU, which was renamed the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1975.

Their research uncovers for the first time the vast network of spies, moles, thugs and double agents who were used to penetrate the RU and specifically to haut efforts towards movement unity and growth. This coordinated federal effort to derail the New Communist Movement begins earlier and goes much deeper than many historians of social movements had previously thought.

Heavy Radicals tells the whole back story of the Revolutionary Union, which is essential for understanding why the group was growing rapidly in the early 1970s and why the FBI was so keenly interested in stopping its development. By the tail end of the 1960s many of the best and brightest activists in the Black Power, women’s liberation, and antiwar movements were gravitating towards communist politics, believing in part that the struggles that exploded during the 1960s could be merged with a revived workers’ movement to create socialist revolution in the United States.

The Revolutionary Union was formed by mostly young communists in the Bay Area in 1968, one of dozens of similar small collectives nationally that hoped to congeal into a new communist party. Revolutionary Union experienced early successes in recruiting both serious young militants from the antiwar and student movements, as well as a handful of experienced former Communist Party members with connections to the Old Left such as Leibel Bergman.

Part of the organization’s early growth is attributed to the ability to publish theoretical publications (such as the Red Papers series) when other young Marxist-Leninist collectives were too inexperienced to do so, giving the RU an aura of political seriousness in a milieu known for amateurishness.

Leonard and Gallagher show in meticulous detail how the FBI created fictional collectives and comrades in order to penetrate the RU, collected information at the highest levels of the organization, and used violence and disinformation to stymie any attempts at unity among the fledgling communist organizations.

The FBI also strongly believed that the Chinese Communist Party itself was involved in efforts to encourage the RU, with “anti-revisionist” Old Left veterans who had spent time in China like Bergman seen as likely CCP agents.

Agents Everywhere

One particularly strange case detailed in Heavy Radicals is that of D.H. Wright and the “Ad-Hoc Committee.” The FBI set up the Ad-Hoc Committee as a phony secret pro-China faction within the Communist Party USA in the early 1960s, ostensibly to foster turmoil in the CPUSA. But the Committee’s real value was providing cover for a FBI agent using the name D.H. Wright to enter the RU milieu.

Wright eventually earned a place on the RU’s Central Committee, and even married Gloria Fontanez of the Young Lords Party as part of unity efforts. Needless to say, Wright’s effective sabotage ended any chance at unity between the two groups.

Leonard and Gallagher even uncovered the FBI memo suggesting agent “D.H. Wright” get a raise for his creative and successful efforts to create a climate of fear and suspicion in the RU. Eventually he carried out a series of physical attacks on members and contacts and was expelled, but the damage was done.

Then there was the case of Harry and Jill Schafer, two FBI agents who created the “Red Collective” to gather information on the RU, which they did very successfully and then moved on to spying on the American Indian Movement.

Another agent, James Burton, created yet another fake Maoist collective called “Red Star Cadre” with the specific intention of stopping efforts to unify organizations, in this case the RU and the October League, the second largest Maoist organization to emerge from the student left.

Although a major downturn in the movement lurked behind the corner, the mid-‘70s looked pretty good for the RU. They had recruited many members and leaders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, initiated the growing U.S.-China People’s Friendship Association, had a vibrant student wing in the Attica Brigade, attracted major Maoist intellectuals like William Hinton, and in 1975 declared themselves the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). But behind every success was a FBI agent working to undo it.

The Miners Right to Strike Committee was a part of the newly christened RCP’s efforts among coalminers in West Virginia, one of many similar efforts to organize workers in basic industry undertaken by Marxist groups in the 1970s. While the FBI was surely concerned with armed groups like the Weather Underground, the Bureau was at least as concerned with Marxist groups that were attempting to sink roots into community and workplace struggles.

The FBI called on a longtime agent and nationally syndicated labor journalist Victor Riesel to run a series of red-baiting articles on the RCP and their labor activities. The FBI could likewise call on San Francisco Examiner journalist Ed Montgomery to run hostile articles about the RCP whenever they wished.

As the RCP was facing stealth counterinsurgency tactic from the FBI, they were also burning bridges to the rest of the left with their sectarianism and increasingly ultraleft and macho posturing. By the end of the decade the RCP had isolated itself from every New Communist Movement group and was increasingly a cult around its leader, Bob Avakian. Once the anti-Avakian forces were thrown out in 1978, the Party hurled towards cult territory even more rapidly.

Clearly the most troubling part of Heavy Radicals for activists is the extent to which the U.S. government correctly anticipated which radical tendencies to penetrate, effectively collected detailed information on the movement, and very successfully disrupted efforts at unity.

The FBI was able to create and constantly heighten the ambient sense of distrust and suspicion, which wore at the bonds that connected radical groups.

While the FBI did not plan or try to assassinate leaders of the RU/RCP or the New Communist Movement, as indeed they did with the contemporaneous Black Liberation Movement, they did use violence and other illegal means to an extent and effect not previously known to even hardened movement veterans.

Leonard and Gallagher do a tremendous service for activists today who are active in the Black Lives Matter movement, the fast food worker movement, and other social movements by showing in tremendous and rigorous detail what exactly the FBI did to destroy the radical left of the 1970s.

July-August 2016, ATC 183