Origins – An interview with Prairie Fire (Brennen Ryan)
Recently, we received questions about the origin of Leading Light Communist Organization (LLCO). Usually, we have been secretive about our origins, but we decided to open up a bit on these questions. So, I gave an interview. What is reveled here is a very abbreviated version of our history in North America. This history is not complete out of respect for certain individuals. We would love to write a more inclusive history. This is the history of our North American movement as I remember it:
1. Some people connect Leading Light in North America to the Maoist Internationalist Movement (MIM). MIM was a shadowy and secretive organization that is still a mystery to many. When did you first encounter the MIM?
It was probably the early 1990s, long before my experiences in Latin America or my It’s Right To Rebel (IRTR) experience. Although I do not consider myself a Maoist now, in the early 1990s I was consolidating my identity as a Maoist. I first picked up MIM’s paper, MIM Notes, at a local info shop. I began reading both Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM) and MIM literature. What I read interested me. So I wrote to MIM. They began sending me free bundles of MIM Notes. I would place them around town. Eventually, MIM requested I prove that I was actually distributing the papers. I wasn’t sure what they meant, perhaps I was suppose to take pictures of where I was placing the papers. I did not own a camera. I protested. They were not very friendly. That was that. The paper bundles stopped coming. This was probably my first rocky experience with MIM, something that would be repeated over the years. I continued to read all kinds of revolutionary literature over the years, including MIM’s. I never identified as a MIM cadre or as upholding MIM Thought.
2. You have a lot of experience with MIM, more than most. You described your experience as “rocky.” What are some of your criticisms of MIM?
Most people who have been around know my view on MIM. I have numerous criticisms, which I don’t have time to get into all of them. These criticisms evolved over a long period of time. Here are a few.
First Worldism. MIM’s tailing of nationalism, identity politics, their residual First Worldism and First Worldist practice, are the biggest problems.
MIM’s security cult. MIM used to mock the Revolutionary Communist Party’s (RCP USA) personality cult around Bob Avakian, but MIM had its own “security cult.” Security was used by MIM to stifle discussion the same way that RCP did with its personality cult. MIM created a sense that it was always under attack. If a group is under attack, then it is not the time to nitpick or question the leadership. Well, MIM was always under attack. Dealing with MIM always felt like walking on eggshells. This internal culture did not seem very positive to me.
MIM’s dogma. MIM’s history work is a good example. MIM even praises RCP’s hackish book Mao Makes Five. MIM and RCP shared the same method of the Stalinists regarding history. The method is not to look at history objectively and then create a narrative. Rather, their method is to create a historical narrative to defend nearly everything Stalin and Mao ever did by cherry-picking data. It was actually my work investigating the Lin Biao affair (we were the first to rehabilitate him, in the IRTR period) that led to my disgust at MIM’s shoddy work. I also saw that MIM’s defense of dialectics was nothing but dogma. Their political economy was based dogmatically and almost solely on the labor theory of value and the distinction between productive and unproductive labor. When MIM did really get creative, like with their gender work, aspects of their creative developments were very wrong in various obvious and off-putting ways.
MIM’s ground game and their rejection of party building. MIM hated RCP so much that they went on and on about how party building was “cult building” when there was no real social base for a strong party. This had all kinds of weird implications. Like MIM seemed to put little effort into recruiting. MIM used to say the principal task was agitation, not party building. I later criticized the traditional MIM line during the early Leading Light days. I would write that “you can agitate more with 100 people than 10 people.” I would later claim that even if one thought the principal task was agitation, organization building will lead to the ability to produce more agitation. Plus, people drop out if you are not constantly recruiting. MIM’s anti-party building and anti-recruiting orientation seemed to inevitably lead to it being just Henry Park (MIM3, MC3) by himself and a couple mostly independent projects like the Prison Ministry. Plus, there is another issue. MIM was so eager to strike a blow against RCP, and the cult critique was an easy target, that they failed to see what RCP was doing right. RCP is very good at creating organization in a way MIM never was. If there isn’t a social base in the First World, why not build a cult, a gang? If there is no social base, then you need a glue to hold together anything beyond a dozen intellectuals or so. You need to mitigate the reactionary social forces through heavy discipline and loyalty. I pushed the line: “why not build a cult? a business? a gang? a mafia? anything effective to aid the Global People’s War?” The MIM and post-MIM folk were still too stuck in intellectualism and First Worldist conceptions of activism to support the implications of such a bold idea. From my perspective, it seemed like they were more into polemical blogging, a little agitation, and very small forays into traditional First Worldist activism. I wanted to develop something more real. This is why I don’t really care when the MIM or post-MIM people attack Leading Light as “cultism” or “gangsterism.” The implications of what I was saying was too much for many to handle even if they agreed me. It takes a certain kind of daring to follow through on what I was implying. I am not sure, but I think some agreed with me but could not hack it.
Also, there seemed to be a huge lack of “common sense” with MIM. They weren’t good at relating to people, lacked charisma. And they did not understand that presentation matters, image matters. They did not understand the importance of leadership in a concrete way, one of the fundamental lessons of Marxist thought,
There is so much to say here. It would take me awhile to develop something like a paper on this stuff. I am also mixing together MIM itself with the post-MIM folk a bit on some of this. In any case, these are the main things that come to mind at the moment. I don’t really care to publish some kind of big formal critique of MIM. Why? I don’t care. Not really trying to recruit out of their circles. I don’t think they attract the kind of people we need as recruits, soldiers. Someone mocked me as “general PF” elsewhere. Exactly. There is a lot of truth there. Plus, I am not out to wreck whatever the MIM Thought school has going on at this point. I don’t see a polemical back and forth as useful because we are not looking to recruit them. Plus, those who need to know already know the differences. Honestly, those remnants of MIM need to abandon their dogma and individualism. They need to drop their ego to dedicate themselves to real revolution. They need to follow the Leading Light, pure and simple.
3. You mentioned another group called “It’s Right to Rebel” (IRTR)? Again, this is a history that few people know. It is important to hear the truth about these movements since they did play a role in the past.
IRTR was a think thank, mostly in North America, that was loosely tied to MIM, although there was no organizational link or centralism. I was its founder and chairman, Serve The People its vice-chairman and co-founder. Myself and Serve The People met in a discussion. I proposed we found a new Maoist think tank to hash out ideological issues. I can’t speak for the other original leaders, but there was myself, MIM folk, and someone who worked with the Indian Maoists in the original group. Interestingly, the person from India is the one who made the monetary contribution resulting in many of the Beijing Review PDFs floating around the internet. Kind of funny, resources moving from the Third World to the First World in that case. In any case, over time, the leadership became mostly myself, who came from a different trend, but had always read both RIM and MIM stuff, and people who were more exclusively partisans of MIM. The Indian comrade was split off by a police plot, or what we thought was one at the time. Over time, IRTR would come into various strange conflicts with the MIM’s chair because of various things, sometimes they were based on political line, or security, or just reflected MIM’s “degeneration,” increased paranoia. I was at one point accused of being part of some kind of assassination plot. The level of paranoia just got out of hand. I began pushing for distance from MIM. Some agreed, some didn’t. Eventually IRTR split, but most of the people formed a secret committee, which was really just the IRTR leadership minus the two biggest MIM partisans. A bunch of new projects were set up and coordinated by this committee. These new projects includes what was at that time the web journal Monkey Smashes Heaven, Proletarian Productions/Shubel Morgan videos, bringing together some offline efforts, etc. I believe this was the first time the term “Maoist-Third Worldist” was used to refer to the new line we were creating. In terms of articles, it was 90% my work. However, the old IRTR posts were a collective project, myself and Serve the People were the two biggest contributors. I could mention many other comrades who participated a lot in the forums and leadership, but I will let them come forward on their own if they want to. Also, Shubel Morgan did outstanding video work. At this point there was a leadership committee that led several projects. Nick Brown was an independent personality who was a one-man show called Revolutionary Anti-Imperialist Information Network (RAIIN). At that point, RAIIN met us offline in Denver, which is my home town. Certain conditions had to be hashed out before we would work with Nick, who was at that point working with someone we believed to be a police agent who was wrecking efforts to support the Indian Maoists. After Nick agreed to sever his relation with this suspicious individual, Nick was brought into our circles as a leader of the Revolutionary Anti-Imperialist Movement – Denver. The secret committee was still the leadership of the movement as a whole. Then people from my Denver circle and people elsewhere officially formed the first group calling itself “Leading Light Communist Organization” (LLCO). Some in the group wanted to call it “Maoist-Third Worldist Organization,” which I very much opposed. I had also opposed the original term, “Maoism-Third Worldism,” but went along with the majority of the leadership on it since we did not have an alternative at the time. The term “Leading Light Communism” would later be coined by myself, but actually went back to a phrase used by Serve The People who had referred to the great past communist leaders as “Leading Lights.” Serve The People was probably the first in our circles to use the term “Leading Lights,” but the term actually goes back at least to old Soviet literature that referred to Lenin in such terms. I was named chairman of the first LLCO. Think of this as LLCO version 1.0. RAIM was to be its front group, but Nick wasn’t operating under discipline. We were really nice about it though. Gave him a month or so to decide to leave or make a self-criticism and stay, we said we would allow him to retain the name and webpage. It was the most gentle, friendly split in history, considering what we received in return. LLCO 1.0 would retain other RAIM chapters at that point, but eventually RAIM would be phased out and replaced by other fronts. Almost all the original MIM folk and newer leaders were kicked out or left LLCO 1 over the next year or so. Eventually, LLCO bent more and more to my ideas and “the Great Strategic Plan.” Some people left. Some stayed. Many more joined up. This is really the period of LLCO 2.0, which is really more of a second version of what I had going on in the late-1990s as part of a fully clandestine organization in the southwestern United States and north Mexico that was smashed by the state. The way I see it, which is not the only way, is that Leading Light Communism is more the culmination of my mid-1990s to 2000s work than a growth out of MIM Thought. Although it is undeniable that the dialogue with MIM Thought in the IRTR period very much sharpened and refined Leading Light Communism. Internally, the shift from LLCO 1.0 to LLCO 2.0 was referred to as “the New Turn,” which meant a reevaluation and development of the political line, reevaluation of the tone and style, and reevaluation of tactics and strategy. I could go on and on. For example, there was one split from a Denver IRTR spinoff called RedSol that went focoist and is doing 13 years in prison. The MIM people weren’t even aware of the RedSol incident until much later, but that was a split from the remnants of a politicized “mafia” or “gang,” a tendency within IRTR.
The original IRTR had 2 or 3 main tendencies in the very early days depending on how you look at it. There were the remnants of the leadership of a politicized “gang” that was fully clandestine as a political organization, but not on the streets of Albuquerque, El Paso and Juarez, Santa Fe, and to a lesser and briefer period, Denver. It was not a literal “street gang.” The literal “street gangs” were more like the crews at the lower levels. Certain rackets within certain territory were controlled and defended, until the state stepped in. The state smashed this group, the top leadership got away. On a side note, one of the crew leaders ended up getting a life sentence, but that was for related activities after the organization was smashed. The origin of this organization goes back very loosely to a dissident Senderista group in Mexico, and an attempt to aid them that failed. Then there was a tendency of MIM partisans who were mostly intellectuals, less action oriented. There was a more orthodox Maoist who, if I recall, worked with the main Indian Naxal group but accepted the Third Worldist political economy. She was split off, drifted away. We concluded she was split off by a police plot involving another Indian who was sabotaging solidarity work and slandering the CP India (Maoist). As time went on, the trends never really meshed exactly together. My sense is that although I was the official chair and pushed things forward, the MIM folk always were dragging their heals. To me, they did not have enough vision or boldness. On the whole, they did not put in much work. They also had not built any infrastructure or recruited anyone offline yet nonetheless they were very represented in the leadership. Ever ask yourselves why Denver has so many of us? Well, we built infrastructure, recruited on the streets. It is my home town. Eventually the official leadership committee of LLCO 1.0 simply became a nominal leadership group since the organization was so lopsidedly based in Denver. More and more the official leadership committee became merely a council of advisers. The real leadership was shifted onto the Denver organization, which was doing most of the heavy lifting. My sense is that the old leadership was not satisfied in this new role and drifted away for the most part. As the MIM folk left, nothing was really effected. On the whole, they did not put in a lot of work. A couple of them wrote a few things here and there. But, I produced 90 percent of the articles, in addition to organizing the ground game with the help of the rest of the Denver leadership. There were exceptions, of course, like Shubel Morgan who was the Minister of Art. A few new outstanding Leading Light leaders emerged, let’s call them M, K, and E. If any of these or other people want to be credited in this history, I will add their contributions in. Newer people entered who had little previous connection with either trend. Some went in a MIM Thought direction over time. Others gravitated more toward Leading Light Communism. LLCO 1.0 was a transitional form that still had both tendencies. As time went on, LLCO moved more and more in my direction toward Leading Light Communism. LLCO 2 was born. There is a long history here. This is just a broad outline. And remember, this is just the story of North America, not our international movement.
4. That is a lot of information. There is a lot of ground to cover. Can you give us a time line?
I am terrible with dates, but I consulted with another one of the top leaders from that period. The “gang” period was probably from 1997 to 2002, although there was a short revival of this work in the IRTR period, probably around 2007, but it was in no way sanctioned by IRTR. An effort was made to reconnect with Latin American comrades by traveling to Mexico. It was local IRTR participants who sought to go another direction. Later, there was the focoist deviation that resulted in 13 years of prison for one comrade. IRTR was probably from 2005 to 2008. The secret committee, post-IRTR period was probably from 2008 to 2010. Anticipating the vote to dissolve IRTR, our journal, Monkey Smashes Heaven’s webpage was already up a week before IRTR officially dissolved. Comrade Shubel Morgan set up his web page shortly after IRTR dissolved. We encountered Nick, who was going by “RAIIN,” sometime in this period. RAIM-D was set up somewhere around this period, later changing its name to “RAIM.” LLCO 1.0 was founded in 2010, basically taking the role of the secret committee of the remaining IRTR comrades that led the movement as a whole plus some new Denver comrades and a few others. It was agreed that all of the organizations and projects fell under LLCO 1.0′s authority at that point. RAIM-D eventually left and was phased out, but LLCO 1.0 retained RAIM as a whole, which was mostly Seattle and Toronto chapters, maybe one other effort. LLCO 1.0 phased out all of RAIM to avoid confusion with RAIM-D, but also because we thought other fronts would serve us better. In addition, Nick, who had be kicked out, was creating confusion, hurting our reputation. Somewhere in the next year or two, “the New Turn” occurred and there was a leadership shift. LLCO 2.0 emerged. This was maybe between 2011 and 2012.
At this point, we are kind of in a LLCO 3.0 period where most of our work is directed internationally. Eventually, the story of our international work will be told, as will the story of the mid-1990s to early 2000s period.
5. What do you think of the IRTR experience?
I now consider the bending of IRTR to MIM’s ideas and whims to have been a big mistake. In the beginning, I was as guilty as the MIM partisans as far as this was concerned. However, I always had serious doubts about the direction. Over time, I was the first of the leadership group to begin pushing for distance from MIM. I consider the experience as a whole valuable in some ways, but the politics of that period were very dogmatic and destructive. At the time, I had a lot to learn though. I had the basic idea of what would become Leading Light Communism as early as the mid-1990s, but this idea was very rough. The IRTR experience and encounter with MIM folk really caused me to sharpen up and deepen my thinking. But I began seeing the very deep flaws in their thinking. And eventually I was able to articulate those flaws from the standpoint of a more advanced science, the emerging Leading Light Communism. Leading Light Communism can perhaps be seen as the result of a kind of Socratic dialogue between what I was doing in the mid-1990s to early 2000s and MIM Thought, but with the former being the main thing.
6. Lots of this is secret or hidden history because these are clandestine movements. The real revolutionary movement is clandestine. What do you think of flying the red flag openly?
If your conception of activism is First World bound, I don’t even see why you need an openly communist party. You might need a cult to organize people effectively, but why a *communist* cult? Just build any old cult and direct people into anti-war, anti-militarism, and other progressive activism. It seems like if your conception of activism remains in the First World, flying a communist flag will only hurt your efforts to be effective at aiding Third World struggles in an objective way. I just don’t see the point of the red flag where there is no social base if your conception of activism is traditional stuff. All it will do is undermine your effectiveness. This is why LLCO hid the red flag when we set up various fronts in the First World. MIM expressed this truth sometimes, but they just couldn’t follow through because, in the end, it seemed like they were intellectuals who had invested too much in their identity as Maoists. LLCO is openly communist, but that is because we are trying to build stuff in the Third World.
7. What do you think of “better fewer, but better,” quality over quantity?
Sure, quality over quantity. We are in agreement there. But what is quality? If you are trying to create a circle of intellectuals to push back against bourgeois ideology, then you will recruit intellectuals, probably from the First World mostly. Quality will mean academic and cultural intelligence, ability to write, uphold the line, etc. If you are into selling papers on college campuses, doing traditional FWist activism, protests, then willingness to do day-in-day-out stuff matters more. Charisma and people skills matter more in the latter than the former, for example. If you have LLCO’s “deep politics,” then other qualities matter: discipline, loyalty, never snitching, willingness to fight and sacrifice. Having a coward’s heart doesn’t really matter if all you do is sling papers or blog. We developed different versions of Leading Light Communism, we call it “high science” and “low science.” There are lots of people who have the lion’s heart, sense of duty, and daringness to think big, but they might not be intellectuals, they don’t care a rat’s ass about the labor theory of value but are willing to die to bring about a better world. Not everyone in Mao’s People’s Liberation Army could read Marx. That doesn’t mean they can’t be organized around a lower version of the science. Think of Plato’s “noble lie” here. Sendero used to say “we carry our lives on our finger tips.” This means, they are willing to sacrifice their lives, money, everything at anytime when called to do so. Well, that is more the kind of quality we are looking for. We’re the real thing.
8. What do you think about inter-imperialist rivalry?
Vladimir Lenin, the great Soviet leader, was correct in his day, inter-imperialist contradictions were growing and this led to a cycle of world wars. Karl Kautsky was wrong then. However, today, the overall trend has been toward globalization and a lessening of these rivalries, even with the very tiny blips on the radar between Russia and the West. There was a time when these contradictions were so great that the world lived on the brink of nuclear annihilation, proxy wars were fought all over the Third World. This was in my lifetime. These small, recent flareups between Russia and the West do not signal some big return to the past, the overall trend has clearly been toward a kind of global system of imperialism. It is kind of like how Lin Biao wrote of how imperialism and social-imperialism still contended, but overall had reached reconciliation in their joint exploitation of the global countryside as a whole. Another person had mentioned Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s work in this discussion. What is good in Hardt and Negri is not unique to them. There are some things they get right, even if their work is First Worldist and also marred in silly, post-modernist jargon. For example, their comments about the expansion and globalization of the non-profit industrial complex as an expanding means of control at the grassroots level, taking some of the role of the old welfare state, is worth mentioning. What is wrong about the Hardt-Negri line is that they see an evening out between the First World and Third World. They are right about globalization, but wrong on this. The Bourgeois World and Proletarian World are still preserved as transnational spheres.
This is one of the reasons LLCO is more internationalist, or, although i hate this term, “pan-Third Worldist.” Others with similar views, MIM Thought (and this includes what is called “Maoism-Third Worldism” now), are more into national liberation, tailing nationalism, pan-nationalism, identity politics, third positionism. This is an important distinction that is not always seen by those looking that these lines. This is one of the big differences between MIM Thought and Leading Light Communism, although there are many others. It also explains our different strategic orientation. MIM Thought, Pantherism 2.0, left Third Positionism still focus on the oppressed nations of the First World, whereas LLCO is about creating organizations in the Third World, initiating Global People’s War. LLCO does not write off resistance in the First World entirely, but the main emphasis has to be on Global People’s War. When First Worldist practice (even with Third Worldist pretenses) begins diverting resources from the main struggle, then it becomes a big problem. Also, globalization is why we see more movements that are not merely nationalist, but trans-nationalist: Islamism (when it does confront imperialism), Bolivarianism, Pan-Africanism. We see less and less localism in anti-imperialist movements because just as imperialism is globalizing, so is resistance to it, albeit at a slower pace. Leading Light is ahead of the curve, which is what a vanguard does.
9. You’ve had an amazing life as a revolutionary. Few really dedicate themselves as you have. You have seen so much. What do you consider the high points of the work over the years?
I consider the high points of the political work to be the mid-1990s to early 2000s period and what is going on right now. I think that we are better positioned than we have been in a long time. Things are golden. The future is bright. The sun is rising. Our day is coming.
10. Do you have anything more to add?
There is so much to say. Really this is just a small portion of a long history. Huge parts were left out, especially the story of our international movement. I have no bitterness toward those who have fallen away. They were all good people for the most part. I just hope they are still fighting the good fight. Do Nothingism is not an option given the horrors of this world. Surrender is never an option. Better to die on one’s feet than live on one’s knees. My door is always open to those who willing to really make revolution, those who are really willing to sacrifice, those who “carry their lives on their finger tips.”