by Paul Rauber
Express (East Bay, CA), 5/18/84
Maybe you missed it, but the Revolution was set to begin on February 18. Not everyone was in the know. Some of those who were include inner circle people in Oakland's California Homemakers Association and Coalition of Concerned Medical Professionals. The Communist Party USA (Provisional) Order of Lenin knew about it: that's the clandestine revolutionary party behind the local groups--an organization which a number of former members say is more like a cult than a political party. They'd been talking it up for years: "the 33-month plan for Revolution," pinpointed down to the day. What saved the group the embarrassment of cultists when the flying saucers don't arrive on schedule was the fact that the FBI also knew about the February 18 deadline for the Revolution. It wasn't too surprising, then, when FBI agents, backed by shotgun-toting New York City police, break down the doors at the Brooklyn offices on February 17. An FBI spokesperson said the group had been under investigation for seven months. No one was arrested, but the FBI carted off loads of documents from the offices of the group's lawyer, housed in the same brownstone building. A grand jury has now been appointed to investigate the organization.
You may have met them outside the Safeway at College and Claremont, asking for donations for the California Homemakers Association (CHA). Maybe they came to your door or approached you at work. If you're a medical or legal professional, you may have been approached by a colleague to join either the Coalition of Concerned Medical Professionals (CCMP) or the Coalition of Concerned Legal Professionals (CCLP). Many people in the Bay Area are dimly aware of these groups, all of which are members of a national organization called the National Labor Federation, or NATLFED. Although many of the groups claim to represent unorganized workers, they have never sought recognition as a bargaining unit. Not much is known about them, even by their own members.
NATLFED is the public umbrella organization that serves as a cover for a clandestine revolutionary group variously known as the Communist Party USA (Provisional) Order of Lenin, the American Bolshevik Party, the Party of Lenin, the Bolshevik Party. The names are interchangeable. To insiders, it's known simply as "the Formation." Front groups like the CHA or CCMP are known as "entities." NATLFED has some 45 such entities throughout the US, with special concentrations of strength in New York, Massachusetts, Texas, San Diego, and the Bay Area.
When people join an entity, they are not told of the clandestine inner organization until a "political commissar" decides they are ready to be recruited. The hundreds of local shops and individuals who donate money and goods to NATLFED entities are not told of the groups' revolutionary purpose. NATLFED has infiltrated a major church voluntary service organization, effectively seizing control of the group in an effort to funnel idealistic young people in NATLFED entities. Insiders boast of secret ties to Cuba, the Sandinistas, labor unions, and mainline political organizations. The Formation has a military wing, though even its own members have a hard time taking it seriously. NATLFED maintains extensive files not only on its own members but on other leftist activists across the country; some of these files are now in the hands of the FBI.
Behind the organization is a shadowy figure variously known as Jerry Doeden, Eugenio Perente, Vic Perente, Vic Elder, "the Old." Although NATLFED portrays itself as a revolutionary organization when it is not portraying itself as a social service organization, it has many features that are most commonly associated with cults, including rigorous indoctrination procedures and stringent group discipline. "They're very sophisticated," one former member told me. "Don't ever underestimate them--that's the worst mistake a person could make."
The California Homemakers Association has an office in West Oakland, right across the street from the Oakland Main Post Office on Seventh Street. It's a classic shabby storefront, with a painting on the front of a black woman rolling up her sleeves above the CHA slogan, "HERE TO WIN, HERE TO STAY." CHA, like other NATLFED entities, calls itself a "mutual benefits association." Membership in CHA supposedly entitles members to free medical and dental care, emergency food, welfare advocacy, and free legal advice. How much in the way of actual services provided is open to question, as is the ultimate disposition of funds collected by the group. Since the CHA is not registered as a non-profit organization, its records are not available to public scrutiny. The CHA turned down repeated requests for interviews in connection with this article, even after I complied with their request for a formal proposal on Express letterhead. I was later to find that NATLFED has a deliberate policy of evading press inquiries.
Former members acknowledge that the group does provide some services. "They're still doing what they've always done," said one former member rather defensively, "organizing the lowest of the low. It's people on welfare helping other people on welfare." CHA distributes some food, and the CCMP on 14th Avenue just down from Highland Hospital claims to conduct a program of "comprehensive medical benefits." When I called them to try to get details on the benefits available, the woman on the phone was evasive, wanting to know why I was calling and whether I could come to a general meeting. According to people who have left the organization, the benefits programs serve primarily as recruiting arms for the secret political Formation. One four-year veteran we'll call Alan Jeffers (he spoke to me on the condition his real name not be used, fearing for the safety of his family) explained how he used to used the food benefits program to lure volunteers into a deeper commitment to the organization.
"People come in, they say, 'Jeez, there wasn't enough food this week.' I'd say, 'That's right, man, because we didn't have the people to do the phoning this week, to go do the pickups. You want to change it?" The benefits programs, Jeffers says, are designed for failure and liberal guilt. "You see these things that need to be changed, and they put it on you."
Alan Jeffers was a cadre coordinator, overseeing the political and practical training of volunteers. He describes how he subjected volunteers, often young kids fresh out of college, to a psychologically sophisticated dialectical process to increase their commitment and move them deeper into the organization. "For instance, if you get a liberal type, they get you working on a benefits case they know you could never solve. They take a person who has a real problem: an old lady who doesn't have enough food or can't heat her house. They have you attempt to the welfare office and attempt to solve the problem. You get really frustrated." Although Jeffers decided to break with the organization, and harbors a considerable amount of bitterness toward it, he still admires the non-rhetorical indoctrination process. "They talk to you after you've made your own conclusions. Bring up anything you disagree with--that's fine. Your contradictions are exactly what enables them to move with you and take you a step further."
There are many levels of membership in NATLFED, an organization often described as onionlike in from. On the periphery are the thousands of people like those at CHA who at one time or another sign a membership card, which is supposed to entitle them to free benefits. In 1981, NATLFED was claiming a membership of 7,000 in the Bay Area, 16,000 throughout the state and 100,000 nationwide. The vast majority of these people are in the dark about the organization's revolutionary agenda. Nevertheless, according to former CHA member Steve Moore (interviewed along with his wife Chris after they left the group in 1981), the Formation believes that "the membership will support them when the revolution comes, even though they will not be actively participating."
The next level of membership is "tab vols": tabular volunteers, those who come into the office on an irregular basis. Tab vols participate in door-to-door canvassing, bucket drives outside supermarkets to collect money, and, above all, constant phoning. "They call for their needs," says Jeffers. "Whether it's for printing, paper, food, they call them all. I can virtually guarantee you that they've called many times all the businesses in Oakland."
In an interior NATLFED document I obtained, the following definition is given a "tab": "A person who has volunteered to accept a certain status, who is functioning within the role of the status but has not yet been made viable to that role . . . in other words, the cadre is not yet a party of organization within the role. Tabular is passive practice."
The next step up from tab vol is to be a "viable volunteer," a volunteer who comes into the office on a regularly scheduled basis. Ex-members describe the relentless pressure put on them to increase their commitment. Chris Moore says she was on a schedule from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. and not sleeping. "I tried to get out once and they came to talk to me for about four hours. I had told them I'm not coming in anymore so forget it. So they came over to the house at nine o'clock in the evening and started screaming at the window for about five minutes. I was annoyed. Then they came and started knocking on my windows. so rather than start a scene I let them in, and they talked to me for about four hours."
The Moores describe a typical day as CHA volunteers:
Chris: "You come in at 9:00 a.m., you get a daily battle plan, they sit everybody down and they tell them what they're going to do. Maybe in the morning you'd do 'pro-phone'--procurement phoning--where you'd try to get car parts or any kind of resources. In the afternoon you'd either do a canvass or a bucket drive. Then you'd come back, eat, maybe do reading. They had this reading list. Then you would phone. Then you had all these forms to fill out."
Steve: "Because all the information you would gather had to be processed. What we're telling you here is not supposed to be told to anyone else in any organization; it's a massive breach of security, and we're supposed to be killed for saying it."
Chris: "By their military cadre."
Another induction arm of the Formation is the Coalition of Concerned Medical Professionals, whose office is at 2205 14th Avenue in Oakland. Jeff Whitnack was volunteer coordinator for the CCMP in early 1981. An unreconstructed rowdy and former garbageman with a back problem, Whitnack joined the group as he was burning out on a new career as a medical technician. He lives in the Oakland flats with a number of friends and a very very large Doberman, appropriately called Rodan.
During his short career with NATLFED, Whitnack worked eighteen-hour days for both CHA and CCMP. For a variety of reasons he left the organization. Since that time he has launched a one-man crusade to expose the group, which he sees as a potentially dangerous cult--collecting documents, consulting with other former members, running up enormous phone bills. His investigation of the Formation prompted them to send out a special "phone answering protocol" entitled "ABACUS LINE PROJECTION VIZ REQUESTS FOR INTERVIEWS FROM WHITNACK AND OTHER ALLEGED REPORTERS." The memo explains some of the difficulty I encountered in trying to get a response from CHA: "The following line applies to Whitnack and any other would-be reporters with an interest in facets of the scope of the organization beyond its local entity, seeking interviews: 'No problem, we'll certainly deal with the making of arrangements for an interview. If an interview is desired, it's arranged for in the standard manner that professional people utilize in the business of giving or doing interviews . . . Place a call on our national message service [give them the number if they agree to use this process]. You'll receive a letter in return, requesting your credentials on your publication's letterhead, stating your interest, type of interview requested, etc.'" Phone volunteers are instructed not to dally on the phone with inquisitive reporters: "There's nothing to gain through the phone calls except to deliver the line. The value of Operation Abacus is in its offense-- time spent on the phone with Whitnack or punks of his ilk is a waste of Formation time. DO NOT BE DETERRED INTO ANY OTHER TOPICS OF CONVERSATION, PERIOD."
Whitnack describes his job with CCMP as "passing the big fish on up the ladder; finding the big fish and the little fish, separating them, but keeping the little fish--people we weren't really going to recruit--keeping them coming in, to keep the appearance up of a community organization." The purpose of the CCMP, he says, was to attract a certain social group: socially concerned medical students, burned-out doctors, alienated technicians. "They'd use that to say, 'Hey, this doesn't work. If we had a hundred of these CCMP's across the country, or even in this county, we couldn't solve the health care problems. What's it going to take?' Well obviously, what's it going to take? A revolution."
Once the volunteer has been maneuvered into suggesting revolution as the only logical solution, it's time for the party pitch. Whitnack was originally recruited through what the Formation calls an "additional arena." He was working with a group collecting medical supplies to send to Nicaragua when he was approached by a doctor in the group, who took him aside and painted a revisionist picture of the Sandinista revolution in which the Sandinistas were described as working through mutual benefit associations very like CHA and CCMP. "Would you have joined the Sandinistas if you had lived in Nicaragua then?" the doctor reportedly asked. "I maintain there's such a group in this country." Whitnack was given the CHA phone number, told to call and say he was "a friend of Carlos." In retrospect, Whitnack sees this as what he calls a "locking mechanism": "If people are scared or think it's hokey, they don't call. It's a one-way screening filter." But, early in 1981, Whitnack did call, and after a tour of the CHA and CCMP offices joined the CCMP, soon quitting respiratory therapy school to work for them full time.
Prospective members are often impressed by the apparent size, formality and organizational sophistication of the secret group. Volunteers already identified as receptive to the party line are taken to a large meeting. This meeting-- called the National Labor College--may be a gathering of up to three hundred people at a local church or university. The rooms are guarded by beefy guys in paramilitary uniforms. Locally, the National Labor College meets every two weeks, with cadre coming from as far away as Oregon and San Diego. Classes are conducted by Western Regional Political Commissar, Mark Levine, a former sociology professor from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Chris Moore recalls that at one class the assembly was told, "You don't have to worry about the Nazis; it's the people that are here that you've got to worry about." And the inference was it's the rest of the left . . . Everybody besides them on the left is referred to as a social democrat, and a social democrat is a fascist. All these people are social fascists. Everybody on the left except for them."
New recruits are given a colorful (and highly confidential) organizational history of the Formation. The party draws a pedigree for itself directly back to Lenin, by way of a breakaway faction from the Communist Party USA called the Progressive Labor Party. They claim a formal link with the government of Cuba, although the Cubans vigorously deny it. Such simple contradictions are easy for the faithful to explain away. "Of course they would [deny it]," says Alan Jeffers, whose departure from the group is recent enough to still color his use of pronouns. "Of course they would: we're a provisional party. They agree that our analysis is the most sophisticated theoretically in the world today. When we take power then they'll deal with it. I don't know--there's no way for me to tell what's true and what isn't."
The official history claims that after visiting Cuba in the early '60s, eighteen Formation members went on to Guatemala and participated in a disastrous Che Guevara style "foco" guerrilla campaign. Back in the U.S., they claim to have joined the Bay Area Revolutionary Union. During the San Francisco State Strike (which they take credit for), another leftist group--most versions say it was the Progressive Labor Party--picketed one of their meetings. In response, the story goes, Formation members went out and shot seven of the picketers, "to impress them with the seriousness of the situation," as Chris Moore was told in a class. In her version of the story, however, it was the Revolutionary Communist Party that was shot up.
From there, the future NATLFED cadre claimed to have formed the backbone of the Venceremos organization, during which time they claimed to have developed a plan to free a bunch of prisoners from all over the state, send them to training camps in the country, and then launch the Revolution. Formation leaders like to talk about the military training in the good old Venceremos days; when you were done, they claim, you'd go out with your instructor and kill an enemy of the people.
The Venceremos line struck Whitnack as odd at the time, as he had actually known some people in that group, and the description given by the Formation didn't jive with his personal knowledge. Besides, he says, "There was no way that all the people in Venceremos went out and killed an enemy of the people; if they had, the Readers Digest would still to this day be writing articles about it."
What is actually known about the organization is not so grandiose, but hardly less colorful. The party's leader is known to be one Jerri Doeden, who is now going by the name Eugenio--or Gino--Perente, or E. Perente Ramos. (Many top Formation people adopt Hispanic names: Diane Runkle, one of Perente's inner circle, is now Diane Ramirez.) According to Whitnack's research, Perente was born Gerald William Doeden in 1937. His place of birth is open to question, but most accounts agree that he is the son of an old Wobbly, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. In the late '50s, Doeden turned up in the Northern California town of Marysville, where he became something of a town character, signing checks "Jesus H. Christ" and quoting large portions of Shakespeare in all-night Marysville diners. It was also at this time that his notoriously bad driving led to a serious accident that severely disabled his legs. Whitnack quotes a close friend of Doeden from the late '60s, who described him as an "extraordinarily sensitive, sad crippled genius, with an enormous amount of anger."
By the early '70s, Doeden had opened the Little Red Bookstore on Mission Street in San Francisco and founded the "National Liberation Front Continental Armed Services Division" of the group LARGO, the "Liberation Army Revolutionary Group Organizations." In early March 1971, LARGO sent out mimeographed communiques warning that a "fully trained, equipped and manned army of revolution will be operating in Northern California" beginning on March 15. It was, in effect, a declaration of war. But nobody took this posturing very seriously. A U.S. Justice Department official dismissed Doeden in a March 10, 1971 San Francisco Examiner article as "small potatoes." "While he boasts of having hundreds of automatic weapons and talks of his legions now undergoing guerrilla training in the hills," said the unnamed official, "the fact is he has scarcely half a dozen dedicated followers, and most of them can be classified as kooks."
Doeden faded away, but turned up the next year on Long Island, where he organized the Long Island Farm Workers Association, which has since become the Eastern Farm Workers Association (EFWA). Doeden/Perente claims to have run the United Farm Workers boycott office in New York City, but the UFW disavows any connection with him. One of the latest NATLFED "entities" is the Texas Farm Workers Union, for whom Vicente E. M. Perente-Ramos is listed as business agent.
The true identity of Gino Perente is a closely guarded Formation secret. An interior memo dated December 26, 1981, gives a rambling repudiation of the "slander" printed in 1977 by Public Eye, an investigative journal based in Chicago that focuses on the cults of both left and right. In the seven-page Formation memo, the taboo name of Jerri Doeden is never mentioned, but there are some rare quotes from Perente himself (NATLFED tries to avoid putting things down on paper; Perente's speeches are distributed on easily erasable cassettes called "line tapes." ". . . But don't blame it on the cops. They do it for a living. I started this in '58--'53 actually, I was born young. Name-calling doesn't do it. Some guy calls him pig, will call you CIA, and some poor bastard will get whacked for it. This is work, dammit."
Perente has now built a nationwide network of "entities," most of them self-described "mutual benefits organizations" like CHA or CCMP. The connection of these entities to the revolutionary Formation is one of Perente's most closely guarded secrets. Ironically, the fullest record of the organization's breadth was betrayed by NATLFED itself, during the course of its attempted takeover of the National Council of Churches-sponsored Commission on Voluntary Service and Action (CVSA).
To understand the CVSA operation, it is important to remember the contention that the raison d'etre of NATLFED entities is the recruitment of volunteers into the revolutionary party. In this light, CVSA was a fat chicken sitting on the fence: a small, poorly organized, volunteer-run organization whose major asset was its yearly directory of opportunities for full-time volunteer service, Invest Yourself. Distributed nationwide, Invest Yourself has provided free listings of church and non-profit organizations for 37 years. A typical user might be a student fresh out of college looking for a socially productive way to spend the summer.
In 1975, a young woman called Diane Ramirez joined CVSA's board, representing the Eastern Farm Workers Association. Due to her hard work and apparent dedication, she soon rose to be co-chair. CVSA was suffering serious financial difficulties at the time, so it was only too glad when Ramirez offered the free services of a group called the National Foundation for Alternative Resources to produce Invest Yourself. NFAR took over the production of the book, and the 1982 edition included, along with groups lie the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Oxfam America, a total of 41 organizations that have since been identified as NATLFED entities, fronts for Perente's Communist Party USA Provisional Wing. The publication reveals the secret family jewels, complete with names, addresses, and self-descriptions.
Among the groups listed in Invest Yourself were the California Homemakers Association, Western Service Workers Association in San Diego, Santa Cruz, Anaheim, Sacramento, Redding, and Oakland. Other local NATLFED entities in the 1982 edition include the Coalition of Concerned Legal Professionals in Sacramento; the CCMP in Oakland, Sacramento, and Marysville; the National Equal Justice Association in San Diego; the Shasta County Food Committee and Community Service Center; and the Workers Community Service Center in Sacramento.
CVSA soon started getting complaints from volunteers who had had unpleasant experiences with the NATLFED entities. According to an article in the Christian Century by associate editor Jean Caffey Lyles, the CVSA treasurer was unable to get satisfactory explanations for several large withdrawals from the Invest Yourself checking account. CVSA also became a conduit for tax deductible donations to the Eastern Farm Workers Association. Although board members had their doubts about the direction their organization was taking, their suspicions did not solidify until CVSA secretary Wilbur Patterson was contacted by Jeff Whitnack, who supplied him with information on NATLFED's aims and techniques. All of a sudden the pieces fit into place, and Patterson and his colleagues realized they had been well and truly infiltrated.Regaining control of the organization has been made more difficult by the fact that Diane Ramirez was co-chair. A series of fractious board battles began, and the issue has not yet been resolved. The major church denominations withdrew their listings when it became clear that the NATLFED faction indented to go ahead and produce its own unauthorized version of Invest Yourself. Last year Ramirez and her group declared themselves to be the official CVSA, and incorporated the organization. They are also bringing a civil suit against Patterson and the mainline board members.
A weary Wilbur Patterson told me from his office in New York that he doesn't know if the Ramirez faction will try to put out a 1984 edition of Invest Yourself or not. They bay be hampered by the grand jury investigation of NATLFED, begun after the FBI break-in at the New York headquarters. "I understand that some of the papers they took included Invest Yourself documents, so that's going to hold up publishing," he said. What lessons can other organization draw from CVSA's experience? "We have to draw some lessons ourselves," he replied, "about groups that don't reveal themselves for what they are. We should have been more cautious with this group which looked good but acted so secretively.
Here in the Bay Area, the California Homemakers Association and other NATLFED entities prey off the same liberal guild that allowed them to infiltrate CVSA. Through constant and often annoying phone solicitation, CHA is able to get regular donations of food, printing, automotive repairs, and other services. I contacted a number of regular donors to CHA, none of whom were aware of the group's secret agenda. "They tell me they're advocates for the rights of poor people," said one auto shop manager. "They say the use the cars to run people around from here to there, bring meals to people, take them to doctors appointments." "I honestly don't know much about them," said another. "If I'm dealing with a bunch of screwballs I'd like to stop it."
A food store manager told me she had donated to the CHA for several years. She was told that the food was to be distributed to poor people, but she later got the distinct impression that the food was going to feed the CHA people themselves. She now donates excess food to a church organization. A print shop that did regular printing for CHA stopped when the group refused to provide receipts. Chris Moore explains that only the lower quality food is distributed to the membership. "The really good food is saved for the people at the entity or sent to regional. The stuff from [a local gourmet bakery] most generally goes to regional."
CHA also collects a substantial amount of money through its "bucket drives," either neighborhood canvasses or people stationed outside supermarkets. My own mother ran into a young man from CHA outside her Food Basket in San Diego a couple of years ago; she liked the rap and agreed to become a "sustainer," donating $20 a month. "He would frequently call on a holiday, when I would feel guilty about being well-fed and with my family," she told me. She stopped her donations after a visit to the local CHA office showed no signs of any food distribution. She was not the only one in the dark about the destination of her money: it seems to be an interior secret as well. "The thing about it is even if you were in the party you didn't know certain things," says Chris Moores. "They get incredible amounts of money, yet they never could pay their rent every month. They have a polity of 'need to know'; if you asked where the money's going, or if you ask anything, they tell you you don't need to know. We never knew where the money was going."
NATLFED's secrecy is detailed in this official party document: "We regard outside inquiry from a position of distrust. Our position on outside inquiry is to relay usable information. Do not burden with useless information. Never ask to know more than you need to know if you agree with the goals and strategy of the group. It's unfair to burden a comrade with unneeded information, and also unprofessional. The standard answer to any question you have not been instructed to answer is 'It's not my department.' Unless you have been instructed to answer, no other answer is in order and no other answer is fair. There is a department to answer questions. Shut your fucking mouth unless you are told to impart the information as a cadre assignment. It is nobody's fucking business, not even yours."
Information, like recruits, is fed into NATLFED through a one-way valve. New recruits are urged to write detailed personal histories. Volunteers are also urged to give details about friends and acquaintances involved in leftist politics. The 1977 Public Eye article described the extensive clerical activity in the NATLFED offices: "For each contact made by a cadre, there is a card made out in triplicate; one for the master file, another for the 'FIIN' (financial input) file, and the third in the 'VOL' file, for example. . . The master file cards are sent to 'POPs' or permanent operations located in Perente's brownstone house in Brooklyn." One ex-member charged: "Collecting names and keeping them on file is doing the work of the police. Look, it's too obvious!" The POPs master files are now in the hands of the FBI, following the February 17 raid, and are presumably available to the grand jury as well.
Alan Jeffers insists the record keeping is for recruitment purposes only, and claims it is so disorganized as to be practically useless. He ruefully suggested that NATLFED volunteers could be kept busy for the next ten years retyping all those 3x5 cards taken away by the FBI.
NATLFED has been linked to another group famous for its intelligence gathering activities, Lyndon LaRouche's United States Labor Party, formerly known as the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC). LaRouche's group has swung from the left to the radical right: their current bugbears are Henry Kissinger and Jane Fonda. In 1973 LaRouche's NCLC was accused of physically assaulting leftist groups as part of its "Operation Mop Up." LaRouche is now running for president in the Democratic primaries.
NATLFED and NCLC worked together in the mid-'70s on a project called the National Unemployed and Welfare Rights Organization (NUWRO). The relationship supposedly ended after NCLC tried to recruit NATLFED cadres, but Chris Moore insists she saw LaRouche at a National Labor College meeting as late as 1981, at which time he was known as "Frank." LaRouche also goes by the name Lyn Marcus, and Chris Moores says that line tapes from National frequently mention a person named 'Lyn' who is not further identified.
Apparently NCLC's current far right line would not unduly dismay the self-proclaimed Bolshevik leadership of NATLFED. When "Frank" spoke to the National Labor College, his subject was on using fascist tactics to achieve communistic goals. Jeff Whitnack says that in one of his line tapes, Gino Perente claimed "We're one step to the right of the fascists."
What IS NATLFED's purpose? Given the history of police intelligence operations like the FBI's COINTELPRO and the CIA's CHAOS, the possibility that NATLFED exists to keep tabs on the left cannot be dismissed out of hand. Nevertheless, the poor organization and haphazard nature of the intelligence operation would seem to argue against this interpretation. Ex- members sometimes describe the paperwork as a device to give volunteers the illusion of productive activity and to occupy their idle hours. The demand for paperwork, like the demands of the poor for food and medical services, are bottomless pits volunteers work frantically to fill up.
Jeff Whitnack left NATLFED for a variety of reasons. He began to suspect that the 18-hour days were designed to create a pressure cooker atmosphere where people would be less likely to question their assignments. He saw people he knew passing themselves off falsely as members of the Nicaraguan FSLN, and heard others go through the same recruitment exercises that had been used on him. When Whitnack went to his Oakland leader and expressed doubts about the 33-month deadline for the revolution, she backtracked and told him the deadline was only an adjustable guideline to keep the ranks from getting complacent. But at a National Labor College meeting shortly afterwards, he heard a national leader confirm it: "The 33-month deadline is real! The leadership of this organization has their theoretical and real necks on the line!" Finally, a timely bout with the flu gave him the rare opportunity of a few days to think over his involvement in the group. He decided to quit. "One day while returning from taking some new volunteers out of a canvass, I asked a woman volunteer to pull her car over, whereupon I opened the door and got out. I walked to a nearby BART station and escaped. I never went back."
Whitnack now sees NATLFED as a potentially dangerous cult. His opinion is shared by many experts with wide experience in dealing with cultic organizations. Priscilla Coates, director of the Citizens Freedom Foundation, a national volunteer organization dedicated to spreading information about dangerous cults, says that despite its political veneer, NATLFED has all the earmarks of a cult. According to Coates, these include gaining recruits through deception and subjecting members to a systematic manipulation she calls "thought reform." The process of deception is common to many cults. "What you see is not what you get," says Coates. This is the "one-way valve" described by ex-members, the gradual weeding out of those not willing to swallow the party line: volunteers are not told the whole story until their credulity has been proven. Take the business about political commissars, for instance. "'Political commissar'! The word itself sounds like something out of Boris and Natasha on the Bullwinkle show," explodes Whitnack. "If they told you straight out, 'We have a political commissar,' you'd bust up. I would have. But once you get in, and there's three hundred people there, all this talk and formality, it makes sense."
The main danger posed by groups like NATLFED, Coates believes, "is the loss of individual freedom, the inability to test reality. You really become a pawn in the leader's hands . . . Once you've been in the group for awhile, the individual personality almost evaporates. The individual relies on the group for all his positions." In NATLFED entities, the leadership takes charge of the most personal details, including sexual problems, which Chris Moore says were supposed to be taken to the political commissar.
NATLFED does not fit the common perception of a cult. Many think of cults as having an exclusively religious orientation, which NATLFED lacks. On the other hand, there are precedents for cult involvement in politics: the work by Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church with right-wing refugee organizations is a prime example. Another disconcerting aspect of the NATLFED organization is that, while it provides a place for the aimless and confused, many of its members are professional people. Doctors donate their services, and the group can also count on free legal help from its member lawyers.
A local psychologist with considerable expertise in dealing with cults (he asked not to be named) says that it is a common misunderstanding that you have to be either muddleheaded or gullible to join a cult. "Cult recruitment is very sophisticated," he told me. "Virtually anyone, under the right circumstances, can join a cult." The recruitment process used by the psychologically astute cult assesses the vulnerabilities and strengths of the potential recruit, utilizes the vulnerabilities and turns the strengths to its own advantage. "If you have a strong desire to serve the needy," he says, "if you have particularly powerful criticism of the economic system of this country and are concerned about how the poor are exploited, that strength of character can also become your weakness."
Alan Jeffers worked as a recruiter for the CCMP. He fixed me with a firm stare across the coffee table. "I've recruited doctors myself, talking to them just like this, eye to eye." Jeffers says he would work on the doctor's sense of medical ethics. "I'd say, 'It must be frustrating for you, working in a county hospital, seeing people drop like flies as they exit the door." Jeffers says that the Bay Area's public hospitals are fertile grounds for recruiting doctors, especially when it's the doctors themselves who do the recruiting.
Our anonymous psychologist agrees that NATLFED has all the marks of a cult. "It has a charismatic leader, a unique and unquestioned body of teaching. It has a social process that exhausts people, weakens their ability to evaluate information negative to the group, and promotes a kind of emotional and mental polarization that images the critical faculties." The danger, he says, is to both the individual and society "assaulted by this kind of fascist, unthinking knee-jerk submission to an unaccountable charismatic authority."
Alan Jeffers quit the group when he decided Gino Perente was a nut, and realized the Formation was not able to carry out its revolutionary program. Now, he says, he wants "to cut them off at the root, to go out into the community and say, 'Look, they're using this food to teach a political lesson to people. you may or may not disagree: that's up to you, but this is what it really is. I just thought you should know because you're donating money, goods, and services to them.'" Jeffers wants to make it clear that his political ideas have not shifted to the right. "If they can't get the support of the community, the organic support, there's no way this organization is going to survive, no way."
After Whitnack left the group, the Oakland political commissar reportedly told him, "Whatever you have, you're going to lose it." Although he says they've never lifted a finger at anybody, he worries about the stored-up energy. "I know there's hundreds of people who put their whole thing in there. They have weapons, they have a military faction, there is a mentality there . . . believing that they are the revolution. They aren't just going to go away."
If the FBI decides to treat NATLFED as a legitimate political organization, on can easily imagine how some of its boasts could be turned against the whole of the American left: all Ronald Reagan needs is the discovery of a pervasive and well-connected internal enemy. The FBI break-in into their lawyer's office (housed in the same building as "POPS") in New York raises some obvious constitutional questions, and the instinct on the left is to close ranks in support of the group under attack. Attorney William Kunstler described the FBI action as being "beyond the bounds of all morality." He says that "taking the files, which are supposed to be subject to the attorney/client privilege, and then removing them to some unspecified location where agents can pore over these files violates every concept of the Constitution that I know. I think this claim of a new terroristic organization is poppycock."
If, on the other hand, NATLFED is labeled as a cult, what does that mean to our perception of other groups of super-dedicated revolutionaries like the Revolutionary Communist Party or the Socialist Workers Party? For Whitnack, the difference is a question of deception. "Take the Communist Party USA for example," he says. "Gus Hall, Angela Davis, their basic motivation for why they're in the group are the same as a lot of people at the lower echelons. While some of the people may work eighteen hours a day, they don't tend to quit their jobs. They have their own life. You can talk to these people outside of their party. Whereas in the National Labor Federation, Gino's cult, the leadership is inherently disrespectful of the membership. The reason why the bulk of the people thing they're in the group has nothing to do with what the leadership is planning." The public is also deceived about the nature of the group. "Their clandestinity is not to hide them from the police," says Whitnack. "It's to hide them from the public."
NATLFED exists and thrives to the extent it does partly because of a vacuum on the left. What other organization offers medical and legal professionals an opportunity to exercise their better social instincts? NATLFED builds on the alienation that comes from discussing class politics in chic Berkeley cafes. Whitnack recalls being impressed by the big National Labor College meetings he attended in Oakland: "I saw these older black women from West Oakland who'd just gotten out from church, and these white kids for Oregon, these firefighter types who looked like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I remember thinking, 'This is what a revolution here would look like.'" Like Alan Jeffers, Whitnack says leaving NATLFED as not changed his political perspective. He is still looking forward to the Revolution. "When I left the group, I said, 'Look, this isn't an honor society. This ruling class is out there, you hate them, they fuck with your life, you fuck with them. It's a long-term thing: don't get frustrated. Sure the left is too bourgeois, the working class has been bought off, but that will undo itself . . . IT'S NO REASON TO GO JOIN A CULT."