LaRouche's pretensions to the mantle of Lenin and Trotsky were by no means odd in the America of the mid-1960s. As the movement against the Vietnam War began to stir, new activist organizations sprouted like mushrooms. Antiwar students battled the police in New York in 1964 and gathered by the tens of thousands in Washington the following year. Many burned their draft cards at public rallies. "Free universities" were founded as an alternative to an official academia believed to be corrupted by defense contracts and CIA recruiters. Anticommunism rapidly fell out of fashion. When the House Un-American Activities Committee tried to probe Communist influence in the fledgling antiwar movement, students who were subpoenaed treated the committee with contempt, turning the hearings into forums to denounce the war. Meanwhile, the Harlem riots of 1964 became the prototype for ghetto rebellions across the country. Malcolm X and then the Black Panthers gave a political voice to this rage. For the first time in decades, the Establishment appeared to be on the defensive. Young radicals pored over the writings of Che Guevara and Mao Zedong, embibing the belief that sheer revolutionary will can move mountains.
It was within this heady New Left atmosphere that LaRouche, a product of the Old Left but attuned to the new possibilities, made his first bid for leadership beyond the orbit of the SWP. He initially focused on the American Committee for the Fourth International (ACFI), a Trotskyist splinter group with about twenty members.
He vowed to transform it into a proper "cadre organization," then expand into the larger world beyond Trotskyism. Tim Wohlforth, former leader of the ACFI, recalls that for six months during 1965-66 he and LaRouche met almost every day to plot factional intrigues.
The ACFI was under the influence of Britain's Socialist Labour League (SLL), a bitter rival of the SWP. In October 1965, Wohlforth, LaRouche, and other schismatics traveled to Montreal to meet with Gerald Healy, the SLL chairman, to discuss a plan for a new revolutionary party in the United States. The first stage would be to merge the ACFI with a somewhat larger SWP spin-off, the Spartacist League. The second stage would be to reach out to radical students. A tentative unity plan was agreed on, which LaRouche later called the "Montreal Concordat," as if the persons involved had been Great Power diplomats. He hoped to become the chairman of the fused organizations. However, Healy repudiated the scheme and forced LaRouche to resign from the ACFI. The "franchise" for Healyism in America went to the more pliable Wolhforth.
It is ironic that LaRouche should have chosen a satellite of Healy's SLL for his first foray outside the SWP. The SLL later became famous under a new name, the Workers Revolutionary Party, as the vehicle for actress Vanessa Redgrave's anti-Zionism. As early as the mid-1960s it displayed some of the features of a political cult. Over the next two decades Chairman Healy developed, as did LaRouche, a full-blown political megalomania. The WRP split in 1985, and the anti-Healy faction went public with charges about subsidies from the Libyans and Healy's affairs with young women comrades. The British tabloid press had a field day with this "Reds in the Bed" scandal.
LaRouche learned important lessons from Healy. He later wrote about the SLL leader's use of goon squads and psychological intimidation to control his followers. While LaRouche had naively tried to win support through ideological persuasion, Healy had gone for the jugular. The basic method, LaRouche wrote, was an old one: First, you "isolate and publicly degrade dangerous individuals." Once they are psychologically "broken," you "assimilate" them into your machine as "useful party hacks." LaRouche claimed that "any experienced leader in the socialist movement knows exactly how [such] 'brainwashing' is accomplished." But he boasted that he had personally resisted the process: "Healy was dealing with a person who knew all about that game; it didn't work out as he planned."
LaRouche concluded that he could easily have won "hegemony" over the ACFI but for Healy's interference. "My commitments, temperament and creative abilities," he said, "seem to generate a certain amount of 'charisma.' " But he would need an organization of his own, with no rival gurus allowed. As for Trotskyism, it was basically dead. A viable revolutionary movement could only be launched "from scratch." LaRouche observed, "Once you have struggled free of the sewer, you do not jump back into it."
He began to offer Marxist classes under the sponsorship of the Free School of New York. Its summer 1967 catalogue described his course on dialectical materialism as supposedly fulfilling "training requirements of revolutionary leadership cadres." LaRouche did not bother with the trendy theories of Herbert Marcuse or the simplistic essays of Chairman Mao. His students read the three volumes of Marx's Das Kapital. In preparation they studied Hegel, Kant, and Leibnitz. This was to winnow out all those lacking in a "passion for more profound scientific accomplishments." The ones who persisted were invited to daylong LaRouche seminars and were encouraged to do political organizing under his direction—"laboratory work," he called it. One of the first projects was a campaign against real estate speculators featuring the slogan "Tax Landlords, Not People." LaRouche meanwhile wrote The Third Stage of Imperialism, a pamphlet that warned about "cancerous speculative growth" in the U.S. economy.
LaRouche targeted the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which had become the activist organization on campuses from coast to coast. A lesser tactician would have charged in with his tiny band of disciples and challenged the existing tendencies head-on. Instead, LaRouche concentrated on enticing to his banner key members of SDS's most ideological element—the campus cadre of the Progressive Labor Party.
The PLP was a Maoist group led by former members of the Communist Party USA. Its campus members and supporters had joined SDS in 1965 with the aim of taking control. Most SDS members were political novices, but those in the PLP had a coherent ideology, clarity of program, and the guidance of adults who understood how to manipulate loosely organized mass movements. By 1967 a few hundred PLP student enthusiasts across the country exerted much influence, in spite of the hostility of the SDS national office.
The PLP had an Achilles' heel, however. This was its doctrine of the student-worker alliance—that campus radicals should take the antiwar movement and PLP ideology to the blue-collar working class. Although this strategy made sense from a Marxist point of view, it resulted in pressure on students to do things they didn't really want to do: get jobs in campus cafeterias, work in garment factories during the summer, and sell Challenge (the PLP newspaper) at factory gates. LaRouche offered a face-saving way out. Linking up with the working class is fine, he said, but it should be delayed until student cadres have mastered Das Kapital and Hegel's Science of Logic. In the meantime the student movement can best serve the masses by leafleting against landlords in neighborhoods around the campus.
Initial contact with the PLP was established through a LaRouche disciple at Columbia who had several chums in the PLP—he had attended Great Neck South High School on Long Island with them. He persuaded them to attend one of LaRouche's classes. LaRouche was careful not to frighten them away with any frontal assaults on the PLP's doctrines. Instead he urged a united front around shared goals. Steve Fraser, who was one of the Great Neck PLPers, recalls how LaRouche's cerebral form of charisma gradually won them over. He said that LaRouche would lecture for hours, extemporaneously and almost nonstop. "He ranged over the widest imaginable intellectual landscape," Fraser said. "He would show how the tool-making capacity of monkeys was supposedly connected to the falling rate of profit. It was mind-boggling and thrilling. It also demanded a higher intellectual effort than I had ever faced, and a certain moral rigor . . . LaRouche challenged you existentially."
In November 1967, LaRouche's disciples and several New York PLP members launched the "SDS Transit Project.” The initial aim was to protest subway fare increases, but the group soon took on other issues. As the months passed, more PLP supporters were brought to LaRouche's classes and strategy sessions. When they began to raise his ideas at PLP meetings, they angered some of the more dogmatic members. But the PLP leadership hesitated to expel them.
In the spring of 1968, demonstrations erupted at Columbia against the university's role in Pentagon research and its plan to build a gymnasium in Harlem's Morningside Park. Activists occupied several buildings, presented "nonnegotiable demands," and shut the university down. The event electrified students across the nation as they watched the spectacle of chanting protesters on TV against a colorful backdrop of red banners. It seemed to give symbolic form to their rage and romanticism. Thousands of students who knew nothing about Marxism began calling themselves SDS members and Marxists. SDS was transformed not only into a household name but also, briefly, into a formidable political force.
Members of the PLP and the SDS Transit Committee were in the forefront of the Columbia strike. Tony Papert, chairman of Columbia PLP but heavily influenced by LaRouche, led the occupation of Low Library in support of black students barricaded in Hamilton Hall. When the police arrived he held out with a handful of associates, gradually attracting more and more students. Other buildings were seized, and the campus was effectively shut down. A strike steering committee was established, on which Papert and his friends wielded great influence. It seemed to the PLP's national leaders that the strike would become a PLP triumph, strengthening its hand within SDS nationally. But when the PLP leadership tried to give further instructions to their Columbia club, they discovered that LaRouche had most of the leverage.
LaRouche himself kept a relatively low profile on campus as the strike approached its inevitable denouement, the famous charge by the NYPD's Tactical Police Force that routed the forces of Revolution. That summer, with the campus still sizzling, he taught Marxism at a fraternity house turned "liberation school." Gaunt, bushy-bearded, and attired in rumpled old clothes, he seemed the quintessential off-campus guru basking in the admiration of student rebels.
Meanwhile, the PLP, having expelled Papert for "revisionism," found itself isolated within Columbia SDS. Control passed almost entirely into the hands of SDS chapter chairman Mark Rudd, who was close to the SDS national leadership. Rudd had cooperated at first with the Papert group, but had little sympathy for them. He built his own influence through flamboyant speeches and press interviews. A strong PLP organization could have handled him by emphasizing tactics and program, and did in fact prevent honcho-type leadership from emerging during several later campus rebellions. But the Papert group, which began calling itself the SDS Labor Committee, was unable to outmaneuver Rudd on its own. It thus began to operate independently of the Columbia SDS chapter, under LaRouche's direct command.
The real significance of LaRouche's recruitment of Papert and his handful of friends only became apparent during the following year. The student movement had entered its most volatile period during which—as the Columbia strike had shown—aggressive organizers could ignite campus-wide protests attracting thousands of previously moderate students. Often two or three such organizers on a campus could rapidly set up a strong new SDS chapter or gain dominance within an already existing one. Meanwhile, SDS's membership had grown to more than 50,000 nationwide while influencing hundreds of thousands of students indirectly. Yet it remained an amorphous organization in many ways. The conditions were thus favorable for the scattered but centrally directed organizers of the PLP to realize their goal of capturing SDS and becoming a pivotal force in the antiwar movement as a whole.
During the 1968-69 school year, the PLP and the SDS national office waged a nationwide power struggle, preparing for the 1969 convention. The PLP's influence grew more rapidly than the national office's but not quite rapidly enough. LaRouche's raid had prevented the PLP from gaining national prestige from the Columbia strike and also had deprived it of several of its best campus organizers. For instance, Steve Fraser, whom the PLP sent to Philadelphia to take command of SDS, ended up joining LaRouche. When a major strike erupted at the University of Pennsylvania in early 1969, it was the Labor Committee, not the PLP, which ran the show.
The result was that the PLP went into the 1969 Chicago convention without a solid majority. The mutual hostilities passed the point of no return and the PLP was forced to take over prematurely. It could not prevent the deposed leadership and a large minority from setting up a parallel organization—the "real" SDS. Although the latter soon fell apart, the PLP majority faction was unable to recover momentum. Isolated from the off-campus peace movement, SDS dwindled in size over the next two years.
The main cause of the split was the sectarianism and ideological extremism of the two major factions, not the actions of LaRouche's followers, who were reviled as elitists by both camps. But LaRouche's 1967-68 raid on the PLP had definitely helped to tip the balance. It was his first lesson in how a small but adroitly led group, through the right tactics at the right time and place, can help to produce a "manifold shift" in the larger political arena. The lesson would hold him in good stead in his later forays into mainstream politics.
LaRouche could never have influenced SDS without encouraging bold tactics, especially during the Columbia and University of Pennsylvania strikes. But when he and his followers were wooing the New Right in the early 1980s, they apparently felt an acute need to rewrite the history of their SDS involvement. A 1983 LaRouchian pamphlet claimed that they had "agreed to penetrate" SDS in 1967-68 in order to "discredit and neutralize the leftism emerging at that time.” The pamphlet did not say who the other party to this agreement was, but strongly implied it was some government agency.
The LaRouche organization did begin to cooperate with local police and the FBI in the mid-1970s. But former leading Labor Committee members say the idea of a "penetration operation," circa 1968, is preposterous. LaRouche's disciples entered SDS filled with revolutionary fervor. Their political strategy to develop "class-wide organizing" and "mass strikes" was second to none in its radical implications. While advocating militancy, they scrupulously avoided the provocateurish rhetoric and deeds that were the hallmark of police infiltrators.
In fact, the LaRouchians were themselves the target of government surveillance and harassment. The FBI's COINTELPRO operatives produced a leaflet entitled "The Mouse Crap Revolution" aimed at discrediting Tony Papert among Columbia students and driving a wedge between the Labor Committee and other factions. In Philadelphia the FBI and the local police Red Squad engaged in a classic frame-up of Steve Fraser. Explosives were planted in his refrigerator, and he was charged with plotting to blow up the Liberty Bell. (The indictment, which drew heavy fire from civil libertarians, was eventually dismissed.)
The most telling refutation of the penetration-agent myth comes in a complaint the LaRouchians themselves filed in 1982 in a federal court lawsuit against the FBI. It describes "constant and intrusive" visits by federal agents to NCLC members' employers and landlords, hundreds of arrests on petty matters such as street-corner soliciting, the use of police informers to infiltrate the organization, and the compiling of over 25,000 pages of surveillance files. All of this was supposed to have taken place between 1968 and 1976. If LaRouche was a government agent, he was being provided with as much cover as the Howard Hughes-CIA Glomar expedition!
In the wake of the SDS split, LaRouche picked up recruits sick of faction fights and mindless slogans. Already his followers were organizing independently of SDS under a new name, the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC). By 1973 the NCLC had over six hundred hard-core members in twenty-five cities and the most literate paper on the far left, New Solidarity. LaRouche also had attracted a small following in Europe, chiefly in West Berlin and Stockholm.
He centralized the organization and began purging those of independent mind. First to get the ax, in 1971, were the "Bavarians," a dissident circle whose chief spokesman was Steve Fraser. LaRouche then surrounded himself with individuals willing to carry out his every whim. Most important were Konstandinos (Gus) Kalimtgis ("Gus Axios" or "Costas Axios") and Criton Zoakos ("Nick Syvriotis"), former members of a left-wing Greek exile sect. Together with a third crony, Andy Typaldos ("Andreas Reniotis"), they became known as LaRouche's "Greek mafia" and served as his key lieutenants for almost a decade.
NCLC members developed their own cultish jargon—e.g., "creative mentation," "class-for-itself," "left hegemony," "Promethean hubris." Many dropped out of school or quit their jobs to organize full-time. Often they cut themselves off from family and friends, reordering their lives totally around the NCLC. They came to believe that the Revolution was just around the corner: The NCLC would seize control of most major American trade unions within six months, overthrow the government within the decade, and rule the world by the year 2000. To hasten the process they began disrupting meetings of other groups, seizing the microphone to give vehement speeches to the effect that everyone except themselves was working for the CIA.
Other SDS offshoots were behaving even more strangely as the exhilarating days of campus rebellion receded. The Weathermen worked themselves into a frenzy via ultra-fanatical indoctrination sessions, then dove underground to make bombs. The Revolutionary Union built a personality cult around Chairman Bob Avakian, who later fled to Paris claiming the ruling class was about to kill him. The PLP marched through Boston's streets with sticks and Communist T-shirts to combat the supposedly imminent threat of fascism.
Most of the ultraleft sects of the early 1970s adhered to standard variations of Marxist-Leninist doctrine. But LaRouche injected into the NCLC a conspiracy theory of politics quite different from anything in the Marxist tradition. In its early stages, before he latched on to hardcore anti-Semitism, this theory held that the Rockefeller family, through its alleged control of the CIA and a vast network of agents on every level of society, was responsible for most of the world's ills. The Rockefellers, LaRouche taught, were plotting a nuclear holocaust. Time was running out. The world's fate rested on the shoulders of the tiny NCLC. Anyone who couldn't see this was part of the plot. Soon the NCLC's enemies list, like that of Richard Nixon, was burgeoning. It included not only most of the Establishment but also NCLC defectors, leaders of rival sects, and distinguished scholars whose only apparent sin was their refusal to recognize LaRouche's genius.
Such fanaticism, however, was sharply at variance with the flashes of Machiavellian cynicism that began to appear in LaRouche's own writings. In a 1970 essay on the dog-eat-dog world of left-wing factionalism, he observed that ideology is mostly "designed for the purpose of deceiving—usually to deceive the authors above all others." He added that most leftist honchos operate on the hope that their "credulous followers and opponents" can be suckered into accepting a given factional position at face value. In reality, LaRouche argued, the typical leftist leader "says in print and public debate that with which he wishes to conceal his actual practice."
LaRouche put this theory of deception and manipulation to the test. In the spring of 1973, he launched his followers on the most extraordinary odyssey in the history of American extremism: a journey to the farthest limits of the left and from thence, by circuitous paths, to the outermost reaches of the right.
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