About a year ago I reviewed Aaron Leonard and Conor Gallagher’s book, A Threat of the First Magnitude for Kersplebedeb. In my opinion the book’s detailed examination of two largely successful state repressive projects in the sixties and seventies, SOLO and FIRST MAGNITUDE, deserves serious attention.
SOLO was a penetration of the highest levels of the CPUSA and the Soviet-aligned sector of the international Communist movement that was effective for decades. FIRST MAGNITUDE, beginning from the Sino-Soviet split in the early-sixties, was a successful disruption of an emerging Maoist movement in the U.S. and Canada.
Following the deaths of its principle figures and the collapse of the USSR, the U.S. government and the FBI officially acknowledged the ‘SOLO’ project and endorsed a book that presented their version of it. While there has been no comparable official acknowledgment of the ‘FIRST MAGNITUDE’ anti-Maoist operation, Leonard and Gallagher’s detailed examination of both projects provides sufficient factual evidence to support some important political lessons. I’d emphasize two that I think have current relevance – and not only for issues of repression.
First; in the course of implementing these projects, organized elements of the state and ruling class developed important new methods and tools – notably the use of constructed and encapsulated groups.
These tools provided significant leverage over the tactical and strategic trajectory of potentially insurgent movements for these sectors of the power structure. Not only was it possible to manipulate the internal life of various groups, a much broader manipulation of entire sector of radical movement was enabled.
Utilization of these tools involved some important changes in repressive policies and structures. Exposures, arrests, and jailings were not primary objectives – either immediately or ultimately. A covert command center, apparently functioning for both SOLO and FIRST MAGNITUDE developed specific counter-insurgent approaches to targeted constituencies that were outside of the formal public structures of the political police and were not subject to normal ‘law and order’ considerations. (E.g.; Check the references to the role of Joe Burton in both the book and my Kersplebedeb review).
Second: Leonard and Gallagher show that sectors of the ruling class can sustain repressive projects that diverge from ‘official’ narratives and policies for extended periods of time. Both projects successfully maintained clandestinity for decades at the expense of subordinating some major ruling class political themes of the periods when they were operational. For SOLO this involved hiding compelling evidence of “Moscow-direction” of the CPUSA and its periphery. For FIRST MAGNITUDE it involved a complete rejection of the public ruling class narratives in which the Pike and Church investigations and the cointelpro revelations had largely evicted the repressive agencies, FBI/CIA/DIA /etc., from their previous major intrusions into First Amendment-related domestic politics.
I don’t mean to minimize the extent to which left incompetence and seemingly willful blindness might have contributed to the successful maintenance of the cover for both operations. Nevertheless, Leonard and Gallagher show the possibilities that clandestine repressive projects of segments of the ruling class can develop sufficient autonomy and momentum to survive and function even when they run counter to dominant trends in the public ruling class ideology and politics. I think that these observations about our collective history raise possibilities that ruling class sub-projects – operating outside of public ruling class considerations of legitimacy – could be important features of current politics. This was (and still is) the type of conclusion that is resisted by a left that is inclined to simplistic reasoning and easy answers.
These aspects of SOLO and FIRST MAGNITUDE provided key sectors of the ruling class with a substantial reservoir of experience and expertise with which to defend and extend their power – a reservoir that we should assume has been substantially augmented by technologies and methodologies that were not available half a century ago. In my opinion, these resources have the potential to impact many different aspects of current politics, extending well beyond questions of repression.
The gaps and inadequacies of the understanding of these features of past state repression can have major costs for the left. They obscure the implementation of ruling class initiatives that combine sophisticated and selective measures of repression with comparably sophisticated measures to co-opt and confuse potential oppositions. This combination has far greater potential to contain and control the radical left than any generalized ruling class option for either repression or reform – and in my opinion, it is what we will be increasingly dealing with in future political struggle. The remainder of this article will consider some ways that the lessons the ruling class learned in the 60s and 70s provide it with a wider range and better focused options for maintaining social control and economic equilibrium. Hopefully, if the U.S. left understands how the capacities and capabilities for political control that were developed in the counter insurgencies of the -70s fit into current politics, the damages can be minimized.
To the extent the governing fractions of modern capitalism are class conscious, and underestimates on this question are unwise, they recognize a range of potential challenges from both the political right and the political left and will be preparing a range of organized responses. Until revolutionaries treat these strategic initiatives of capital as seriously as capital treats its potential challenges and challengers, efforts to develop and implement a viable radical strategy are likely to fall well short of success. I’d like to spend some time on one possible ramification of this argument.
In the wake of the 2008 recession there was a massive upsurge of popular resistance movements and left/progressive organizational formations. Recently these formations have been imploding organizationally and ideologically at an alarming rate. Issues of gender and internal democracy are usually central points of contention and they are accelerated and metastasized by a largely unaccountable and easily manipulated social media. The political fallout from the implosions typically involves a shift towards reformism and social democracy
After we take account of the ways this organizational disintegration exposes serious and pervasive policy errors, organizational manipulations, and general bad behavior – some questions remain. Isn’t it possible that the identity politics and parliamentary reformism that are the fault lines of the contemporary U.S. left are being manipulated by organized sectors of the ruling class parallel to the earlier projects that manipulating fault lines around Black Nationalism and organizational sectarianism to disrupt left projects of the past? Raising these possibilities for state interference and a revitalized ‘cointelpro’ in these circumstances is commonly seen as an attempted evasion of political mistakes and exoneration of corrupt organizational practices – and sometimes this is what they are. However, I don’t think that “bad politics” adequately explains what may be happening.
There are serious limitations with the extended narratives that emphasize idiosyncratic moralistic and partisan interpretations of individual cases. What explains the profusion of these cases at this moment, or the way they cut across very different organizational forms and ideological frameworks? What accounts for the rightward political trajectories that are the common outcome of these disintegrations?
We should take account of what happened in the earlier period and how long it has taken to begin to appreciate its significance. I know from my own political experience that very few radicals of the 60s and 70s thought their political options and debates were directly and systematically influenced by capital and the state, even when they were completely aware of the reality of police penetration through informers and provocateurs, expanded technological surveillance, and a range of similar repressive tactics. This gap in the left’s understanding of its own repression, helped hide the fact that many of the anti-repression counter measures that we thought were somewhat effective were decidedly not.
I think that similar outcomes are likely now. However, the left failures to deal with these issues is far less understandable and even less excusable than it was in the earlier period. Collectively we have a much better vantage point to understand these counter-insurgent techniques and their distinctions from the traditional policing methods that they supplement and replace.
It might be reasonable to argue that the threat to capitalism from Maoist communism in the -70s was more significant than any challenges from left and right populisms in the present. However, the left’s current weaknesses and disarray should provide no comfort. We should never assume that capital only responds proportionally to challenges. To the contrary, the overriding goal of state repression is the maintenance of a generalized demoralization and fragmentation of potential oppositions. Important sectors of the ruling class frequently support efforts to suppress weak, or even fabricated challenges, not as meaningless exercises and a waste of resources, but as part of a general project to cripple or even pre-empt potential insurgencies before they reach a critical mass.
If estimates of our current situation that minimize the possibilities of strategically organized state repression are foolhardy, unfortunately they are also quite common. Mike McNair’s (British C.P.) treatment of the current collapse of the ISO provides an example:
“We should not accept the version which was offered in 2013-14 by the ISO leadership, and is now repeated by the Socialist Equality Party: that there is a real risk that this individual case and this collapse is due to a provocation in the style of the FBI’s 1960-70s infiltration and provocation operations against the left.10 The ISO is, in the present political context, too trivial to attract the attention of such an operation.”“Moreover, the ISO’s continuing belief in the ‘Syrian revolution’ in part effectively supported US Middle East policy, while its continuing enthusiasm for Black Lives Matter indirectly supported the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party’s use of this to race-bait the Sanders movement. So it would be politically surprising for the FBI to target the ISO for such an operation.”
This illustrates a common left position where some imploded left formation (usually a rival) is pictured as too “trivial” a threat to capital, or too politically useful for capital, to be serious target for organized state repression. To the contrary, the disintegration of the ISO will contribute to the demoralization of other radical sectors of the left – including those that have little sympathy for ISO politics. The same is true of the collapse of the other movements, groupings, and grouplets that have recently fragmented or are facing the imminent prospects of it – many of them far less established and arguably more ‘trivial, and more compromised than the ISO. These also will have cumulative demoralizing impacts.
Some current ruling class tactics may incorporate elements of McNair’s crudely instrumental calculations to determine which left politics are most “useful” to capitalist power. However, neither the magnitude nor the character of past organized state repression was significantly determined by such approaches and there is no reason to think that they might be determined by them now.
While the outlines of the current organizational disintegration on the left are broadly known, and specific examples and substantial details are readily available, I’m not going further with the topic. There is no doubt of the need for a serious examination of the known and suspected repression currently aimed at the U.S left; an examination that is plausibly representative, genuinely collective, and technically capable of considering both potential repressive techniques and possible counter measures. Such a project raises major political and security considerations and will have difficulty avoiding the promotion of irresponsible self-defeating public discussions. However there is no doubt that such an effort is necessary to counter the widespread and well-founded impression that the left lacks the capacity to confront its own flaws and, ultimately, to show that it has the potential to construct the rudiments of an alternative to capitalist civilization. I’m cynical about such issues, but not completely so … yet.
I would like to end this article by re-emphasizing that a successful left strategy will pay close attention to the actual policy initiatives from diverse elements of the ruling class and its institutional structures – initiatives that are sometimes implemented fairly openly and sometimes quite covertly. Although ruling class initiatives are not the only elements of the rule of capital, much of which occurs “behind the backs” of the contending classes, they are vital aspects to the development of a counter-hegemonic strategy. This is certainly important in the arena of repression where Leonard and Gallagher focus their attention. I think it will prove to be equally, if not more important in other arenas where capital will attempt to shape potential systemic challenges into tame ineffectual oppositions. In that context, it is particularly important to be alert to the possibilities of covert initiatives of ruling class segments that aim to disrupt radical trajectories of struggle and channel mass protests into areas that can be more readily incorporated and cultural and ideological practices in which boundaries between oppressed and oppressors, exploited and exploiters are confused, blurred and ultimately erased. I’m aware that this is ending on a somewhat cryptic note, but I’m still writing and there will be more.
 The authors may not agree with my estimate of the relative importance of these two projects to their book. They do raise a number of additional topics: an historical discussion of the Malinovski penetration of the Bolsheviks during the pre-revolutionary period in Russia; a fairly detailed summary of the still-controversial Aoki case in California; and some extended treatment of FBI penetrations of the early California formations of the Maoist Bay Area Revolutionary Union (later the RCP).
This is all useful, but it doesn’t break a lot of new ground. The Malinovski chapter shows that previous generations of revolutionaries, notably including Lenin, were vulnerable to the same mistakes and comfortable illusions as we are still. The California case studies provide some useful information on regional cointelpro operations, but not much of diverges from my own experiences, and those of many other radicals of the period – including the comparable handfuls of exposed and suspected informants, provocateurs, hidden microphones and dirty tricks.
 The concept of “encapsulated groups” refers to the substantial political terrain between left organizations that were penetrated and influenced covertly by the state and the relatively smaller number that were actually state-constructs – the “pseudo-gangs” that have become familiar through Kitson’s writings on counter- insurgency which also played some role in the events considered in this book. J. Sakai, described encapsulated groups as organizations that were so heavily surveilled and so vulnerable to manipulation by external forces that their decision-making capacity was basically compromised.
 I would point out that by the mid- eighties virtually all North American Maoist groups – including many that also were quite small and ineffectual – had undergone some parallel experiences, although with a different political content. While that process was heavily affected by the international collapse of Maoism, the rapid degeneration of Maoist groupings – into reformist irrelevance or bizarre cultism, it was certainly exaggerated and accelerated by the pervasiveness of the penetration and manipulation by elements of the state.