Putting it all on Red - The Michael Laski Story

A tale of gambling, violence and betrayal in 60s America. Starring a romantic rebel hounded by his inner demons.

Submitted by Reddebrek on July 14, 2018

A few years ago a forum thread on libcom set out to settle the question of the most unhinged US Left Sect of all time. It lasted about three pages and each suggestion was topped almost immediately by another candidate. Its worth a look, sadly it merely scratched the surface. My contribution was a story I'd heard about a Maoist group whose leader had gone to Nevada on a fund raising trip but ended up losing the party funds at the casino, and when challenged over this got into a gun fight.

The real story is a bit different, but amazingly not that different. The party in question was the Communist Party of the U.S.A. (Marxist-Leninist)* I'm going to use CPML for short, because even the full acronym is to long. The gambling losses was also true, and the hapless gambler was one comrade Michael Laski (usually written as M.I. Laski) the party General secretary. The gun fight is completely unfounded either nor does it appear to be a one off occurrence.

The CPML was one of the small parties born out of the New Left phase in the 1960s and 70s. The Marxist Internet Archive has a very detailed short biography of the group.

"The C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.) was born in Los Angeles during the 1965 Watts riots out of a split in the local POC. It published a newspaper, the People's Voice and a theoretical journal, Red Flag from 1965 to 1968. In 1968, the Party underwent a split, with both successor organization's keeping the C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.) name. One, under Arnold Hoffman, continued to publish the People’s Voice. The other, headed by Michael Laski, began publishing a new newspaper, The New Worker in 1969. That same year, the Laski group merged with the Proletarian Revolutionary Party in New York, led by Jonathan Leake, a former anarchist turned Maoist, who had been active in the Resurgence Youth Movement, which was founded in September 1964 as the youth section of the Anarchist Federation to which Murray Bookchin and Noam Chomsky belonged. Both C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)s appear to have disappeared by 1971. After the demise of the Laski C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.), the former members of the Proletarian Revolutionary Party and others reconstituted themselves as the Marxist-Leninist Party. These C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)s should not be confused with the C.P.U.S.A. (M-L) founded by the Marxist-Leninist Organizing Committee (M.L.O.C.) in 1978 nor with the C.P. (Marxist-Leninist) created by the October League in 1977."

As well as an archive of its publications.

Despite its small size, the CPML at its height seems to have had two party branches, one on the West coast (the Workers International Bookstore) and one on the East coast, it did get some publicity, or rather M.I.Laski did. The journalist Joan Didion wrote a series of essays about the United States in the late 60's called Slouching Toward Bethlehem, one of those essays is about the time she met Laski in the Workers International Bookstore in Watts California in 1967. Its worth reading in full, but here's some revealing extracts.

"Not long ago I spent some time with Michael Laski, down at the Workers’ International Bookstore in Watts, the West Coast headquarters of the C. P. U. S. A. (M. -L.). We sat at a kitchen table beneath the hammer-and-sickle flag and the portraits of Marx, Engels, Mao Tse-tung, Lenin, and Stalin (Mao in the favored center position), and we discussed the revolution necessary to bring about the dictatorship of the proletariat."

"He had with him a small red book of Mao’s poems, and as he talked he squared it on the table, aligned it with the table edge first vertically and then horizontally. To understand who Michael Laski is you must have a feeling for that kind of compulsion. One does not think of him eating, or in bed. He has nothing in common with the passionate personalities who tend to turn up on the New Left. "

"His place in the geography of the American Left is, in short, an almost impossibly lonely and quixotic one, unpopular, unpragmatic. He believes that there are “workers” in the United States, and that, when the time comes, they will “arise,” not in anarchy but in conscious concert, and he also believes that “the ruling class” is self-conscious, and possessed of demonic powers. He is in all ways an idealist. "

It continues in that style for quite a while, Laski comes across as very paranoid and touchy, he complains that Didion's interview is no different than what will happen if and when the FBI ever interrogate him; he cuts off any talk about the size of the CPML or the attendance at its rallies. And he admits that the bookshop has a Cadre dedicated to its security complete with a small arsenal "a couple of shotguns and other items". Its also full of Laski comparing the party to a form of martyrdom,

“Not having any ideology yourself, you might wonder what the Party offers. It offers nothing. It offers thirty or forty years of putting the Party above everything. It offers beatings. Jail. On the high levels, assassination.”

And it ends with what can only be described as a ritual, the counting of the days newspaper sales.

Mr. —Comrade—Simmons—what was the total income?” Michael Laski asked.
“Nine dollars and ninety-one cents.”
“Over what period of time?”
“Four hours.”
“What was the total number of papers sold?”
“And the average per hour?”
“The average contribution?”
“Thirteen and a half cents.”
“The largest contribution?”
“Sixty cents.”
“The smallest?”
“Four cents.”
“It was not a very good day, Comrade Simmons. Can you explain?”
“It’s always bad the day before welfare and unemployment checks arrive.”
“Very good, Comrade Simmons.”

I wonder what Laski and his fellow Cadre made of the essay when it was published in 1968. It doesn't paint them in a very good light but there are some clear warning signs. If Laski was incredibly defensive about light questioning by a journalist curious about him its not so surprising to see how he reacted later on when his fellow party members decided to criticise him.

Shortly after the essay, in the spring on 1968 Comrade Laski was publicly expelled from the CPML. They also published a list of charges against the former General Secretary. And yes the losing party funds at Vegas Casinos is on that list. But bizarrely the way the CPML frames the issue with that little adventure as "subjectivism"

A further example of Mr. Laski’s subjectivism was his taking of almost all of the Party’s funds and gambling with them while traveling through Nevada – avowedly for the purpose of raising funds for the Party – losing, every penny in the effort. To compound this crime, he never admitted his actions until a year after the event, and even then he mentioned only one instance of gambling, and the Party had evidence of his gambling in Nevada on at least two other occasions.

So presumably the error here isn't that he lost all their money at blackjack, but that he didn't get permission first?

That's in section four " SUBJECTIVE APPROACH TO POLITICAL QUESTIONS" the final section in the list of reasons Laski was shown the door. Also in that section is probably the origin of the gun fight story I'd heard. It list several times when Laski threatened other party members with loaded fire arms and fired into the air at meetings that weren't going his way.

When Mr. Laski did not get his way in political discussions, he did such uncomradely acts as throwing objects at comrades, wrecking pieces of equipment owned by the Party (smashing a typewriter and a telephone, on different occasions, and throwing gasoline on an offset press), threatening a member of the Central Committee with a loaded shotgun on one occasion, and with a loaded pistol on another occasion, firing pistols into the air at Secretariat meetings, and acting on a small scale like a putchist, although, more pathetically, he was like a frustrated child.

And that isn't quite the end of the story though both Laski and the CPML would fade away a few years later. Laski didn't take this very well and set up a split also called Communist Party of the U.S.A. (Marxist-Leninist) and at least some members followed him.

If you're curious why this group put up with Laski's antics for three years and some even followed him during the split, well its not really that unusual. To be clear what makes the CPML and Laski's story so strange, funny and weird is how egregious it was, stories of domination and abuse of all kinds by the leaders of small Vanguardist groups of their fellow members are incredibly common.

Before the discussing sexual assault revelations about the Socialist Workers Party leadership the SWP was infamous for all the accounts of members being harassed and emotionally blackmailed into working full time for the party for free, to show their commitments to "socialism". And they aren't the only ones.

In the day to day work, Mr. Laski equated his whims with the needs of the Party, when in reality he should have subordinated his personal interests to those of the Party and the class.

As Laksi's comments in the essay and the expulsion of Laski statement make clear if you join such a group you're expected to subordinate yourself to the needs and will of the party. Since in many of these groups the aims and practices of the party is decided by the leadership with little to no effective accountability or discussion from the lower ranks, that means trusting and obeying those leaders.

Laski was a man whom repeatedly threatened other members with fire arms, and threatened to burn down the bookstore/party HQ, and yet it took a long time for momentum to build enough that the over senior members could get rid of him. That's also the main issue here, often when a leading figure of such an organisation does get expelled its usually because they lost the support of the rest of the leadership, usually the Central Committee, as happened with Laski. This means that no matter what is written up to justify the expulsion its real motivation is always factional to some degree.

That's why so many high level expulsions just lead to the creation of another nearly identical splinter party. The underlying issues were more about personality clashes then anything fundamentally structural.

*Well one of them, that name has been used by at least five other parties, some of whom overlapped with this one