The FBI, COINTELPRO, and the Marxist Right

The message could not have been any clearer: “Socialism,” the letter read, “can be achieved through education, political activity and through allying ourselves with the major people’s struggles of these times and in this country.” [1]

Sent in 1965 by a body identifying itself as the Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America (CESTA), the screed was the first in a series of attacks on the doctrinaire beliefs of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). It was unusual for a number of reasons. First, the group was anonymous—CESTA, which claimed to have CPUSA members among its ranks, would later explain this was done out of a fear of reprisal from CPUSA leadership. [2] But second, and contrary to most socialist groups of the period, it rejected international solidarity. To achieve communism in America, CESTA argued, Americans—and only Americans—must come together in a “massive coalition encompassing an enlightened Communist Party united with socialists of all kinds.” [3] Put another way: patriotic socialism.

Over the next two years, CESTA sent out a newsletter, called “Socialist Dialogue”, skewering CPUSA and other groups on the left. The mailings mocked American communists as ineffective; rebuked Maoists as blood-thirsty; and dismissed existing Marxist-Leninist theory as outdated. Moreover, the group sought to build “a Party with an American base, a Party tailored to fit the needs of the American people and a Party acceptable to the American people.” [4] What would such a movement look like?

America will never know. CESTA disappeared just as quickly as it had come onto the scene, sending its last issue of “Socialist Dialogue” sometime in 1967. Who was behind CESTA?


By 1965, the year of the CESTA recruitment letter, the Communist Party of the United States of America would have been an odd target, not in the least because the organization was in a state of disrepair after decades of mismanagement. In an effort to create a popular front against the growing international forces of fascism during the thirties and forties, CPUSA, under general secretary Earl Browder, had done exactly what CESTA was calling for by embracing alliances with groups to their right and rebranding as a uniquely American form of socialism. While this led to a surge in membership in the years before World War II, it created a ceiling on how far the organization could grow; as the war neared its end and the United States pivoted from antifascism to anticommunism, CPUSA’s patriotic image collapsed under the weight of propaganda designed to undermine communist groups.

CPUSA also faced growing competition externally. The sixties brought with it new ideas, new leaders, and new groups. Where in the past CPUSA could reliably pull from a base of trade unionists to guide the direction of the American left, the sixties saw an explosion in interest in left-wing political ideas and socialist thought among groups previously written off as too bourgeoisie. Organizations like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and countercultural groups like the Youth International Party came together in a loose coalition known as the New Left to fight many of the same battles CPUSA had pursued—against class and militarism—but they distinguished themselves from the Old Left by engaging in areas they felt had been ignored, such as in the feminist movement, gay liberation, and university protests. This meant that not only was CPUSA facing continued internal pressures for change, but they were now in a constant battle with the left itself—against younger and more militant activists who were out-recruiting them for new comrades.

At its peak, CPUSA had a member base of 75,000 Americans that could be mobilized for direct action. [5] This progress could not be sustained and by the time of the CESTA letter it counted fewer than 5,000 people among its ranks. [6] The SDS, on the other hand, was estimated to already be drawing between 15,000 to 25,000 to its protests by 1965 alone. [7] Clearly, CPUSA faced serious problems in recruitment and retention.

There was another more pressing matter facing the party as well, one even more directly responsible for its worsening fortune.


The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been in the business of harassing socialists almost from the moment it was created. Beginning in 1919, J. Edgar Hoover, the newly appointed head of the then-Bureau of Justice’s General Intelligence Division, coordinated with United States Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to illegally detain and deport communists and anarchists, in what would become known as the Palmer Raids. Under Hoover, the FBI would continue to pursue socialism as its foremost enemy, even as graver threats like organized crime and right-wing terrorism became transparent.

The FBI’s issue with socialism, historically, has had little to do with crime. According to former FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen in FBI Secrets: An Agent’s Expose, the Bureau has been more concerned with protecting the Constitution from “alien traditions.” [8] Then as now, FBI harassment of political dissidents is ideological in nature and any subsequent programs extensions of those concerns. States Swearingen of one such example: “COINTELPRO, taken from the words counterintelligence program, is the FBI’s program to thwart the efforts of any organization or person they think is unacceptable … The FBI made no distinction between the threats posed by the Soviet Union, by the communists within the United States, or by political and environmental activists.” [9]

At the time of COINTELPRO’s existence, between the fifties and early seventies, American communists and members of the New Left suspected that the FBI might be infiltrating their groups, but no hard evidence existed linking the Bureau to such actions. Not until 1971. In March of that year, activists calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into a Bureau field office in Media, Pennsylvania, and stole hundreds of files outlining counterintelligence programs across the country. The story was picked up by mainstream media and a flood of Freedom of Information Act requests unleashed countless more instances of FBI deceptions.

It was all there, in writing—every alleged paranoid delusion. There was the FBI’s campaign to get college professors like Morris Starsky fired, [10] and another to smear actress Jean Seberg that drove her to suicide. [11] Counterintelligence actions were wide-ranging and targeted the New Left, the Black Panther Party, the Puerto Rican independence movement, and even more directly organizations like the Socialist Workers Party and CPUSA. On the extreme end, the FBI launched a program in 1966 known as HOODWINK which sought to instigate a war between members of La Cosa Nostra and labor organizers working for CPUSA. [12]

Among the most common counterintelligence actions, as suspected by activists, were attempts by the FBI to pose as socialists. This took on many forms, from fake underground newspapers to poison pen letter campaigns and front groups. That latter category, fronts, was explored during the Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations, also known as the Church Committee, but never pursued in any depth. The Church Committee’s final report, published in 1976, outlined only a handful of groups used by the Bureau to initiate or further schisms within targeted organizations, all information coming from the Bureau directly. [13] This program, downplayed at the time as mostly unsuccessful or irrelevant, appears to have been more complex than previously understood.


Under COINTELPRO, the Bureau created what it called notionals, or fictitious groups that used real post office boxes or physical addresses for intelligence-gathering. It is unclear how many such groups were created and what they achieved. Less than 10 were identified in Church Committee documents and of those named most were left-leaning and some apparently never enacted. [14] One unrealized proposal called for the creation of a chapter or chapters of CPUSA’s youth organization, the W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs of America, with the express goal of being expelled so it could respond by accusing CPUSA of engaging in a “Stalinist type purge.”  [15] But even where the Bureau did create functioning groups, there is evidence to suggest it may have lied about the purpose and scope of the program.

Some notionals appear to have been created with ulterior motives in mind. One group, the Red Star Cadre (RSC), espoused pro-Chinese beliefs, ostensibly as part of a plan to infiltrate American Maoist organizations. But its founder, Joseph Burton, stated to The New York Times that one his first assignments, at an FBI agent’s direction, was to instigate violence at the 1972 Republican National Convention. [16] In Burton’s words, he incited “people to turn over one of the buses and then told them that if they really wanted to blow the bus up, to stick a rag in the gas tank and light it.” [17] The Bureau initially denied involvement with Burton beyond April 1971, when it claimed it discontinued all counterintelligence programs, [18] but Church Committee investigators determined that the RSC operated under the Bureau’s aegis from 1972 through 1974. [19] They made no claims with regard to Burton’s statement about being an agent provocateur.

The number of notionals is also in question. Not mentioned by the FBI in its admissions to the Church Committee are two other groups created to target the left. The first, the Ad Hoc Committee for Scientific Socialist Line (later the Ad Hoc Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party), was uncovered by researchers Aaron Leonard and Conor Gallagher in the course of work on their books Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War on American Maoists and A Threat of the First Magnitude. The FBI again posed as Maoists to mail anonymous attacks on CPUSA, this time from the Chicago area between the years of 1963 and 1980. [20] Another group—composed entirely of undercover FBI agents—was identified by former agent Crillon Payne in his memoir Deep Cover. Known as the November Committee, the group infiltrated the Southern California antiwar movement in the run-up to the 1972 Republican National Convention, for reasons Payne himself never seemed to fully understand. [21]

Fake communist and socialist organizations were not the only functioning notionals. At the time of the Church Committee hearings, the FBI stated it had not established any significant examples on the right, explicitly with regard to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), [22] but the Reverend George Dorsett, an FBI informant, split from the United Klans of America and ran the Confederate Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (CKKK) between 1967 and 1970 (the name would later be adopted by another Klan chapter in the eighties). [23; 24] Bureau documents released by the National Archives in 2017 revealed that it approved payment of personal expenses to Dorsett to cover at least some of the following: printing of Klorans (the KKK handbook), CKKK literature, and a P.O. box. [25] The Bureau itself created the National Committee for Domestic Tranquility, a Klan-adjacent notional that functioned as a “vehicle for attacking Klan policy and disputes from a low-key, common sense, and patriotic position.” [26] It mailed out anonymous newsletters attempting to link the KKK to the “communist conspiracy” sometime between 1966 and 1967. [27] The strangest of these groups, however, tried to strike a third position, in an attempt to fuse socialism to right-wing rhetoric.


Little is known about the Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America beyond references to the group in the Church Committee’s final report and since-released supplemental materials. As of 2022, the FBI claims it no longer has any information on CESTA. Were it not for CPUSA member and activist Emil Freed, who collected thousands of documents on communist and socialist groups between the fifties and the eighties, its existence might have been lost to time. Freed’s collection, housed at the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, provides our only insight into CESTA and the FBI’s possible motives.

The first CESTA newsletter, sent at some point in 1965 or early 1966, built off of the group’s earlier recruitment letter by directly addressing CPUSA’s failings, specifically its inability to field candidates in local elections. Its FBI authors write off the recent successes of communists such as William L. Taylor, who launched an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1964. Where they concede ground (Taylor lost but pulled more votes than expected), they argue these gains were a result of identity, not politics (Taylor was African-American). [28] This analysis was in stark contrast to public reporting on Taylor’s campaign. A May 1964 article in the New York Times identified the campaign as a “source of pride and interest among Communists across the country.” [29]

The use of race as a wedge would become a common tactic for the FBI in the CESTA newsletters. The first begins with a poem to the people of Selma, Alabama, a portion of which reads: “We counted the trees of Marxism / While the forest of oppression / Flourished in our own land.” [30] Subsequent correspondence would address race in even more confrontational ways. The sixth edition, captioned “Open Forum”, reprints excerpts of what are likely fabricated letters from California comrades, with one example identified as being from a “Negro reader.” The letter states, in part: “The Party continues to blindly profess to be our champion and then in the Draft bluntly discriminates against us by making such statements as ‘Labor and the Negro problem.’ Are we not part of the labor movement … If socialism is to be the answer it must first shed its inner lining of hypocrisy.” [31]

To be clear, American communist and socialist groups have had issues addressing race. As writer Richard Wright observed in a 1944 essay for The Atlantic, there existed a perception that the Communist Party “could not possibly have a sincere interest in Negroes,” [32] and this sometimes became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Wright’s essay ends in a story about two white CPUSA members assaulting him at a rally. [33] But more than the mainstream political parties of the period, CPUSA sought to rectify these problems. It created pressure groups like the American Negro Labor Congress and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights to advocate on behalf of African-Americans, in addition to joining or collaborating with later civil rights groups like the National Negro Congress and the Civil Rights Congress. It would also, at various times, provide platforms to Black activists like Paul Robeson and Angela Davis.

The attempts at addressing racial disparities in the United States were not unusual, such concerns being consistent across other notional groups. According to Leonard and Gallagher in A Threat of the First Magnitude, the Bureau maintained a similar line, at least initially, in communications sent from the Ad Hoc Committee; there, the notional supported self-determination for Black Nationalist groups, at one point arguing such movements could “lead to the greatest harmony and unity among all peoples.” [34] Where the groups diverged was on the issue of American nationalism. The Ad Hoc Committee attacked patriotic forms of socialism, noting that “Browderism was creeping into the upper echelons of the Party,” [35] while CESTA ridiculed anti-Americanism. In addressing the CPUSA’s then-recent Draft Program, the third issue of “Socialist Dialogue” implores communists to consider the needs of the “average American working man” so that they might achieve “a realistic, American approach to Socialism.” [36] It then directs a question at CPUSA: “What do they fear? Charges of Browderism?” [37]

CESTA was distinct in that the FBI sought to establish a uniquely American communist identity. The newsletters demand an “American Way of Socialism,” [38] striking an intentional balance between concern for oppressed Americans, as in the many calls for racial solidarity with Black workers, and overt displays of racism for anythone deemed foreign—specifically those living in the two largest communist countries of the era, China and the Soviet Union. They also dismiss Marxist terminology like “imperialism” and “exploitation” because it evokes the imagery of “wild Bolsheviks, bomb in hand” and the “war-mongering followers of Mao Tse-Tung” who “are driving a fatal wedge between the socialist world and those countries struggling to achieve their own roads to Socialism.” [39] In this skewed worldview, the only unity that matters is American unity.

These calls for solidarity, much as with Red Star Cadre’s Maoist excursion, served another purpose. While the newsletters heralded the successes of the New Left and its broad coalition of like-minded groups, the FBI pushed for a much larger alliance across political lines. Issue one of “Socialist Dialogue” offers muted praise to the Prohibition and Constitution Parties, right-wing political groups, for their ability to field candidates. [40] And issue four advertises a forum for criticisms of CPUSA’s Draft Program, “be they from the right or left,” [41] despite repeated references to fascism. Unusually, the only distinct strain of fascism named in the CESTA newsletters comes when they cite Barry Goldwater by name, but the solution, rather than marshaling socialist groups together against those forces, is to “reject extremism on the left as well as the right.” [42] Church Committee investigators later noted that this was done, per internal FBI memoranda, to establish a line of attack from the “Marxist right.” [43]


Judging the successes and failures of COINTELPRO can be difficult. Some actions, as in the Seberg case, resulted in immediate tragedy, while others (like HOODWINK) remain a mystery to this day. The FBI’s notional program was no different. The Red Star Cadre and November Committee participated in unprovoked agitation or unwarranted surveillance of left-wing groups before and during the 1972 Republican National Convention, likely escalating tensions and violence during that period. What of the FBI’s other fronts?

According a Bureau memorandum sent on December 8, 1975, “[a]lthough it is impossible to completely assess the results of [CESTA] – suspicions and dissension was generated within the local Party district, and in later months widespread defections in the Party were noted.” [44] This could be a case like the Ad Hoc Committee, where the FBI was able to generate sufficient distrust between American communists. CPUSA membership plummeted for most of the sixties, especially by late 1967, the alleged end-date of the FBI’s CESTA operation. The existence of CESTA’s newsletters in an archive, one devoted socialist movements, also indicates that physical copies of the documents were in fact distributed in the Southern California area. Their effectiveness will no doubt remain open for debate.

And then there is the possibility that further notionals existed on the left during the sixties and early seventies. Just how many? Maybe a better question to ponder is one framed by CESTA in its first issue of “Socialist Dialogue”. In a section labeled “THE FBI WHO???”, CESTA dismisses the notion that it could be a front for the FBI, asking, “Since when do Hoover and his Storm Troopers advocate Socialism?” [43]




[1] “The Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America,” Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America, 1965, MSS 077, Box 12, Folder 18, 2, 20th Century Organizational Files, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, Los Angeles, CA.

[2] “Socialist Dialogue Vol. 1 No. 1,” Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America, 2.

[3] “The Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America,” Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America, 3.

[4] “Socialist Dialogue Vol. 1 No. 6,” Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America, 7.

[5] James Gregory, “Communist Party Membership by Districts 1922-1950 – Mapping American Social Movements Project,” last modified 2015,

[6] Ronald Kessler, The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2002), 106.

[7] Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS: The Rise and Development of the Students for a Democratic Society, (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1973), 186.

[8] M. Wesley Swearingen, FBI Secrets: An Agent’s Expose (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1995), 24.

[9] Ibid, 106.

[10] John D’Anna, “The firing of Morris Starsky 50 years ago as ASU reverberates in the unrest of today,” Arizona Republic, Jun. 11, 2020,

[11] Wendell Rawls Jr., “F.B.I. Admits Planting a Rumor to Discredit Jean Seberg in 1970,” New York Times, Sep. 15, 1979,

[12] “Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts Subject: (COINTELPRO) HOODWINK 100-446533,” Federal Bureau of Investigation,

[13]  The Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, Apr. 23, 1976, 45-46,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] John M. Crewdson, “Ex‐Operative Says He Worked for F.B.I. to Disrupt Political Activities Up to ’74,” New York Times, Feb. 24, 1975,

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] W. R. Wannall to F. J. Cassidy, SENSTUDY 75, December 8, 1975, National Archives and Records Administration, 130-135,

[20] Aaron J. Leonard and Conor M. Gallgher, A Threat of the First Magnitude (London, UK: Repeater Books, 2017), 48-61.

[21] Crillon Payne, Deep Cover: An FBI Agent Infiltrates the Radical Underground (New York, NY: Newsweek Books, 1979), 39-41.

[22] W. R. Wannall to F. J. Cassidy, 132.

[23] Jon Elliston, “The FBI’s Main Klan Man: How Infamous N.C. White Supremacist George Dorsett Made a Mint Off the Feds,“ Jan. 14, 2020, Indy Week,

[24] “PERSON V. CAROLINA KNIGHTS OF THE KU KLUX KLAN,” Southern Poverty Law Center,

[25] SAC, Charlotte to Director FBI, “COUNTERINTELLIGENCE PROGRAM DISRUPTION OF HATE GROUPS RM (KLAN),” September 12, 1967, National Archives and Records Administration, 12-13,; “Director FBI to SAC Charlotte , COUNTERINTELLIGENCE PROGRAM DISRUPTION OF HATE GROUPS RM (KLAN)”, September 12, 1967, National Archives and Records Administration, 16,


[27] Harmon Blennerhasset (pseudonym), “The National Committee for Domestic Tranquility,” The National Committee for Domestic Tranquility, 1966, 83-84,

[28] “Socialist Dialogue Vol. 1 No. 1,” Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America, 3.

[29] “COMMUNIST TO BE ON COAST BALLOT; But Candidate Has No Hope of Los Angeles Victory,” New York Times, May 17, 1964,

[30] “Socialist Dialogue Vol. 1 No. 1,” Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America, 1.

[31] “Socialist Dialogue Vol. 1 No. 6,” Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America, 3.

[32] Richard Wright, “I Tried to Be a Communist,” Atlantic, Aug. 1944,

[33] Ibid.

[34] Leonard and Gallgher, 54.

[35] Ibid.

[36] “Socialist Dialogue Vol. 1 No. 3,” Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America, 2.

[37] Ibid.

[38] “Socialist Dialogue Vol. 1 No. 1,” Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America, 2.

[39] “Socialist Dialogue Vol. 1 No. 3,” Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America, 2.

[40] “Socialist Dialogue Vol. 1 No. 1,” Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America, 3.

[41] “Socialist Dialogue Vol. 1 No. 4,” Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America, 4.

[42] “The Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America,” Committee for Expansion of Socialist Thought in America, 3.

[43] Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, 46.

[44] W. R. Wannall to F. J. Cassidy, 133.

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