Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 7, 2012

Final thoughts on Richard Aoki

Filed under: Richard Aoki — louisproyect @ 9:55 pm

So it turns out that Richard Aoki was an FBI informant after all. Seth Rosenfeld got his hands on over 200 pages of FBI files that make claims of “snitch jacketing” impossible unless you are willing to believe that the files seen here are fabricated.

Part of the problem we have been dealing with is Rosenfeld’s unfortunate blurring of the distinction between informant and provocateur. He explicitly names Aoki as an informant but implicitly as a provocateur as well. The business about giving guns to the Panthers and proposing that Berkeley students rob armories to get weapons to use against the National Guard lends itself to the interpretation that Aoki was entrapping people in the same fashion used against Muslims in the U.S.

As an informant, there was not much harm that Aoki could have done to groups like the SWP. Our members were not involved in illegal activity and had the reputation of avoiding adventures of the sort that some Maoist groups embraced.

But as a provocateur, Aoki could have wreaked havoc with inexperienced and impatient student youth. Yet Rosenfeld really makes little effort to connect the dots to the FBI even if political veterans like myself will inevitably make such a connection. This blurring of lines is of course a function of Rosenfeld trying to make a political point at the expense of clarity.

A deep mystery lingers over who Richard Aoki was and what made him tick. After reading his words in Diane Fujino’s “Samurai among Panthers”, I found it impossible to consider him an FBI informant except for a brief period when he was in high school. He struck me as an exemplary radical leader, even if his ultraleftism was counterproductive some of the time.

I wonder if there was an element of gamesmanship involved in his deception. Apparently he was a fan of Frederick Nietzsche long before he read Marx. Was there an element of the Superman and Beyond Good and Evil going on? I also am reminded of some of the classic Hong Kong policiers like Andrew Lau’s “Infernal Affairs” that was remade as “The Departed” by Martin Scorsese. In such films, cops are always penetrating triad gangs, although it would be difficult to imagine anybody in their right mind confusing the Panther’s Breakfast program with drug smuggling.

My guess is that there is a certain personality who is both drawn to infiltrating left groups as an informant and good at it to boot. In Peter Camejo’s memoir there is a chapter on the SWP’s suit against the FBI. At one point Judge Griesa orders the FBI to reveal the name of all the informants, including Ed Heisler who was Peter’s campaign manager.

Heisler was a national committee member of the SWP for a number of years, largely on the strength of his leadership in the UTU (United Transportation Union), a railway union. He wrote a book titled “A Struggle for Union Democracy: The Story of the Right to Vote Committee in the United Transportation Union” that is still for sale as a used book on Amazon.com for only $54.60. I imagine that anybody reading the book without foreknowledge of Heisler’s ties to the FBI would have the same reaction I had to Aoki’s “told to” narrative in Fujino’s book—what a great comrade. I have no idea what made Ed Heisler tick, except that it was well known that he used to patronize prostitutes when he was in the SWP and lived in rundown rooming houses. The first offense would have gotten him expelled if the party leadership had been on its toes. The second wasn’t really an offense but simply an indication that he was not socially integrated into our movement.

Of course, the most skilled informant of all time was Roman Malinovsky who represented the Bolsheviks in the Duma. In 1914 Malinovsky resigned his post, a violation of discipline that led to his expulsion.  When Lenin’s “liquidationist” comrades, with whom he split in 1912, made a big stink about Malinovsky’s resignation, he reminded them of what they said about him only two years earlier—words that Lenin most certainly concurred with:

The deputy elected by the workers of the Moscow Gubernia is Roman Malinovsky, former secretary of the St. Petersburg Metalworkers’ Union. In his person the Social-Democratic group in the Duma acquires for the first time a prominent practical worker in the trade union movement, who in the grim years of reaction played an active part in the legal working-class organisations…

The years of Malinovsky’s secretaryship was a period in the life of the Union in which it had to contend, not only with severe external conditions, but also with the apathy of the workers themselves. Malinovsky’s personal example served as an effective weapon against this “internal enemy”.

His energy seemed inexhaustible. He undertook the responsible task of leading a strike with the same ardour as he carried out the painstaking work of organisation.

The Wikipedia entry on Malinovsky states:

By now he was an alcoholic, drinking vodka from teapots. His real identity was unveiled by his ex-mistress Elena Troyanovskaya, and he went into exile in Germany. When World War I broke out, he was interned into a POW camp by the Germans. Lenin, still standing by him, sent him clothes. He said: “If he is a provocateur, the police gained less from it than our Party did.” This refers to his strong anti-Menshevism. Eventually, Lenin changed his mind: “What a swine: shooting’s too good for him!”[6]

I for one would have made a terrible informant for the simple reason that I hate to lie. For long stretches in my life (except for the past 10 years of a blissful marriage) I have been single because I was incapable of lying to a woman in a relationship. If I was ever asked the question, “Do you love me?”, I could only tell the truth even if a no caused the woman to walk out on me. (Sometimes saying yes worked against me as well.)

I did lie on occasion using Bolshevik guile, bending the truth in order to advance the class struggle. After I started a job at Texas Commerce Bank in 1973, I was elected a delegate to the SWP convention months before I was eligible to get a vacation. So I went into my boss—the good Billy Penrod—and told him a lie straight out of a Seinfeld episode: my mother had died in an automobile accident. A few weeks after I got back to work I found out that Billy had made a donation to some charity in honor of my mother’s passing. I felt awful for months afterwards.


  1. My mom died quite a few times while I was a member of the SWP. Never in an auto accident, however. Good essay, Louis. I had all but forgotten about Heisler, not to mention Malinovsky. In both cases, the reason they were not successful in their attempts to disrupt was because — in both the SWP and the RSDLP — when a decision had been reached, the organization came together as one. A provocative, free-lancer would have stuck out like a sore thumb. Still, one cannot but feel a certain sadness about the Aoki saga, although it is now clear his involvement with the secret police was not a misunderstanding on his part.

    Comment by Dave R. — September 7, 2012 @ 11:38 pm

  2. Well that changes things pretty quick. Just two days ago I’d become fairly convinced there was nothing to it. Now it seems clear that he likely was an informer. I’ll still keep my ears open to hear if his biographer has anything to say on this.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — September 7, 2012 @ 11:53 pm

  3. Aoki & Heisler aren’t such mysteries when you consider the fairly modern phenom of the Sociopathic Narcissistic Disorder.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 8, 2012 @ 1:06 am

  4. The guy informed on the left and on young students for sixteen years (1961-1977).

    Comment by Plain fact — September 8, 2012 @ 4:03 pm

  5. Not so fast, Proyect! We still haven’t settled the issue of whether or not Richard Aoki was the one who ate Captain Queeg’s strawberries.

    There are years of FOIA requests left in that. Or are you trying to hide something?

    Comment by Joe Vaughan — September 9, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

  6. Very little remains known of what information Aoki actually provided. Was it harmful to the groups targeted? Was it accurate and helpful to the FBI? Pretty much all of these pertinent details/aspects are unclear due to redactions.

    And if Karl is now a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist, I would like to see him explain his diagnosis and where such diagnosis can be gleaned from Fujino’s account.

    Comment by X Y — September 11, 2012 @ 4:49 am

  7. Food for thought. From the 10-24-12 issue of the Militant (U.S).


    Comment by Dave R. — September 14, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

  8. Diane Fujino, Aoki’s biographer, gave a 20 minute interview, 11 September, with Brian Edwards-Tiekert on ‘Up Front’ (www.kpfa.org/archive/id/84175; starting @ 33’12). (DF & BET in the below transcriptions.)

    She had been sceptical of Rosenfeld’s initial evidence and argument, but the FBI files published 7 September have caused her to be less resistant to the evidence, but in so doing she contradicted herself:

    @ 40’33”, re his joining of the YSA & SWP:
    BET: “The FBI record then indicate he was an informant before he joined those groups?”
    DF: “If those papers are accurate it does look that way, yes.”

    @ 49’00”:
    DF: “. . . first of all we don’t even know if Richard was an informant, which I think that the evidence is still open [on], their [sic] conclusion is not closed on that, and the FBI reports are redacted so that it’s not clear, you know, [that] even if he was an informant what he was informing on.”

    @ 49’42”: re him being an informant:
    BET: “. . . why do you think it’s still inconclusive?”
    DF: “For one, the [sic] all the evidence comes from the FBI. [Reason 2:] Not one of the people – people have been emailing me a lot since this happened, strangers, people I don’t know, giving me advice, telling me all sorts of things, not once has one person said, who was close to Richard in that period, ‘I thought so’, and so it’s just – I mean this came out on Friday, there’s not been a lot of time to digest it, to really figure it out, to think it through.”

    Perhaps other readers know whether Diane Fujino has written a more considered response than a radio interview. I conjecture she is in denial.

    Comment by Calum — September 17, 2012 @ 10:18 pm

  9. Calum’s insight above is invaluable when seriously analyzing XY’s comment # 6.

    Arguably the 3 biggest socially influential minds in the last century & a half are Marx, Darwin & Freud.

    But does one need to be a psychiatrist to figure out Aoki?

    No. You don’t need more than those Big 3’s sense of a materialist conception of history to ultimately garner a sense of the role Aoki played in history — for he acted upon not eternal morals but rather a morality based on class conditions in a particular epoch.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 18, 2012 @ 3:06 am

  10. ah yes, the materialist conception of penis envy. a cigar is just a cigar – except when it’s a phallus.

    Comment by X Y — September 18, 2012 @ 5:53 am

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