Christopher Owens with his thoughts on a book detailing the FBI infiltration of the US Communist Party.
For all the various innovations in modern surveillance technology, seemingly nothing can replace the role of a well placed informer.
And for obvious reasons: destroying the organisation from within is often much easier and less costly than weapons and ammunition.
We all know how dirty the war was in this country, and how the Metropolitan Police infiltrated left wing groups (leading to some fathering children), but how did the Americans get in on the act?
A Threat of the First Magnitude explores the FBI's role in the war against the American Communist Party and the Revolutionary Union (later to become the US Revolutionary Communist Party). It's a tale that stretches from the Second World War, up until 1976 (when the Levi Congressional Hearings supposedly put limits on the FBI's counterintelligence operations).
While it may be easy to sit back and have a good chuckle at the thought of the Communist Party of the USA being considered a major threat (highest level of membership: 55,000. US population at the time of highest membership: 152.3 million), it's clear that the FBI were prepared to whatever tactics were necessary in order to subvert and disrupt.
Such an example offered up by the authors is the notorious Ad Hoc Committee. Leonard and Gallagher write:
Among the Maoist organizations to arise out of the political tumult of the 1960s was a group known as the Ad Hoc Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party (initially called the Ad Hoc Committee for a Scientific Socialist Line). The entity, begun in 1962, was said to be a secret faction within the US Communist Party working against the “revisionism” of Nikita Khrushchev and US party leader Gus Hall. That the entire operation was an FBI construct was a mystery to all but a handful of FBI agents and informants.
The group began with an ambiguously named publication known as the “Ad Hoc Bulletin.” The inaugural issue was titled, “Whither the Party of Lenin,” a denunciation of Nikita Khrushchev for his “shameful retreat” during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Its second bulletin, picking up on the theme of the first, charged the US party with revisionism (revising Marxism in a non-revolutionary direction), “parroting Moscow’s soft line approach to imperialism.” It also called out the Kennedy Administration as a “fascist type administration,” which the CP was accommodating. A later issue, appearing in August 1963, insisted that, “All who share the revolutionary spirit of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin have watched with disgust the deterioration of our Party since the days of the militant leadership of comrade [William Z.] Foster.” The message was clear: There was a radical faction operating within the CP standing in opposition to the current leadership.
Reading the bulletins, the language is recognisable to anyone familiar with Communist groups. That the FBI were able, according to the authors, to produce such an authentic forgery is not only a testament to their efforts at sowing seeds of discontent, but is also strong evidence that they had informers writing the bulletins for them for added credibility.
One aspect that is interesting is just how these groups are able to tear themselves apart without any interference from the authorities. This is often the case whenever other groups try to bandy together but often find that ideologies, personality clashes and ambition rise all too often and can be exploited. Hence why a lot of the mergers only lasted a short time.
But, of course, informers can also exploit such divisions.
One such example is Don Wright, described as a black nationalist with contempt for white radicals. While this should have been, at least, a giveaway that the pairing of Wright and the RU was not going to work, it seems that concerns about appealing to black workers overrode any misgivings.
Quickly, Wright proved himself to be a formidable personality. As an example, take this exchange between Wright and the eventual head of the RU/RCP Bob Avakian:
'Well no white person can tell me that they know more than I do about the Black experience and what it means to be Black in the US - or even that they know as much about it as I do...' Well if you're talking about perceptual knowledge then I agree; if you're talking about conceptual knowledge, I don't agree...'
With a seemingly absolutist position on the matter, Wright would continue to butt heads with people in the RU throughout the years, and even help argue (successfully) for the organisation to move their headquarters from San Francisco to Chicago. Although presented as an attempt to rid the organisation of parochialism (in the sense that the Mid West of America represented the working class better than the West Coast), it would prove to be a disaster as it disrupted the progress of the RU (which had been an expanding organisation in San Francisco). As well as this, Chicago was the epicentre for the FBI's anti-Communist probes (most notoriously COINTELPRO) so it was akin to a bear circling a claw trap.
Is it any wonder he is named by Leonard and Gallagher as an informer, or that his name is insinuated in redacted FBI field reports?
As you can guess by now, this is first rate reading, with a gripping narrative, well presented evidence, convincing arguments and leaves the reader with a deep sense of unease.
Aaron J Leonard, Conor A Gallagher, 2018. A Threat of the First Magnitude: FBI Counterintelligence & Infiltration From the Communist Party to the Revolutionary Union - 1962-1974. Repeater Books ISBN-13: 978-1910924709
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.