As if the current clashes in Ferguson, Mo., needed any additional stimuli, a group of habitual revolutionaries has tried to insert itself into the drama. It hasn’t gone well, and they’ve clashed with protesters as well as police, as a short video posted by a St. Louis alderman shows.
The group, which calls itself the Revolutionary Communist Party, emerged from the movement period of the late 1960s and early 1970s but is now a “parasitic” organization, in the words of one sociologist who has studied it, that tends to pop up opportunistically when and where civil unrest develops.
But just who is the Revolutionary Communist Party and what is it doing in Ferguson?
“Because of the defiance and rebellion, the whole world knows the story. Now everybody has to deal with this,” the group wrote Monday on its website in a call to action in Ferguson. “And people all over the country and all over the world support this fight. You, the defiant ones, are changing the thinking of millions and millions of people.”
“You are making history — in the way it badly needs to be made,” it concluded. The Revolutionary Communist’s Party’s self-described members have been quoted by news outlets on the ground, and people wearing its T-shirts (above) have been photographed being arrested in Ferguson.
The Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) was founded in 1975 by Bob Avakian, described as a Maoist and a Stalinist by others, who continues to head it at least in name to this day. Avakian was active in the Bay Area in the 1960s, Todd Gitlin, a sociologist at Columbia University who has studied movements on the left, told TPM.
After Students for a Democratic Society splintered around that time, Avakian was one of many who tried to form a successor group, Gitlin said. He envisioned RCP as something akin to the Weathermen. “They came out of the same chaos,” Gitlin said.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Revolutionary Communist Party is that it still exists, Gitlin said. All of the other groups formed around the same time have vanished. But the RCP operates bookstores and continues to appear in places like Ferguson. They gained particular notoriety for helping to stage a protest at the United Nations in the run-up to the war in Iraq, Giltin said. They were also present during protests over the Trayvon Martin killing.
“On the face of it, it’s remarkable,” Gitlin said. “What can they point to as a conquest over the last 45 years? Beats me, yet here they are.”
The group’s self-described goal is “the building of a new society, a socialist society, aiming for the final goal of a communist world, where human beings everywhere would be free of relations of exploitation and oppression and destructive antagonistic conflicts, and could be fit caretakers of the earth.”
The RCP has expressed some solidarity in the past with violent groups like the Shining Path guerillas in Peru, Gitlin said, but have never been known to behave violently themselves. Instead, they are always waiting for a revolution that is on the cusp of happening.
“They believe in the revolution. They can always be found on the periphery of crowds, passing out their papers,” he said of the RCP mentality. “The revolution is always on the verge of breaking out.”
RCP member Joey Johnson, center, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Building on March 21, 1989. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)
Avakian is the center of it and might be the best explanation for why the Revolutionary Communist Party has persisted. Gitlin said he met Avakian decades ago and he was “really quite ordinary.” But the RCP website says that his work “creates new possibility at an excruciating time for humanity — nothing less than an opening for a visionary and viable future.” It then asks for donations for a campaign “to make Avakian’s work and leadership known in every corner of society.”
“He’s not a bright light,” Gitlin said. “How it has come to pass that there is some continuous organization that would seem to be fused around a rapturous worship of him is amazing to me.”
Other leftists have also accused Avakian of building a cult of personality around himself that is detrimental to the movement.
“There has been a devastating contrast between Avakian’s talk of critical scientific thinking and the crudely un-critical thinking that surrounds this party’s escalating cult of personality,” Mike Ely of the communist Kasama Project and long-time supporter of the RCP wrote in 2007.
Avakian is thought to have lived overseas for some time, if he’s still living at all. “Who knows if he’s alive, frankly,” Gitlin said.
But his followers have still managed to earn attention. In 1984, Greg “Joey” Johnson, a member of the RCP’s youth organization, burned an American flag outside the Republican National Convention in Dallas. He was convicted for the act, which the state said was prohibited by a Texas law.
The case, Texas v. Johnson, eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. The Court held in a tight 5-4 decision that Johnson’s flag burning was protected under the First Amendment. “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable,” the Court said.
Now a Greg “Joey” Johnson, 58 and hailing from Oakland, has been quoted on the scene in Ferguson by the Wall Street Journal this week.
It’s all helped put the RCP back at the center of a national controversy in Ferguson. Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson pointed to “criminal elements … not from this area.” St. Louis alderman Antonio French, who has been on the scene since the beginning, tweeted that outsiders had been “trying to incite a riot” on Monday with an apparent picture of a RCP member.
That’s what they do, Gitlin said. RCP members show up at the site of social outrage, trying to spread their message and recruit followers. That is almost the entirety of their operation, so far as he knows.
“They have an MO, which is of parasitism. They glom onto a cause, and then they roll with it,” he said. “They read the papers, and they made a bee-line for Ferguson is what I would guess. They’re always looking for signs of the coming revolution.”