Cadre Or Cult?
Gino Perente, NATLFED & the Provisional PartyBy Jeff Whitnack
Public Eye, 1984
Part One | Part Two
The InvestigationAfter discussing NATLFED over the phone with Public Eye editor Chip Berlet, he asked me if I would be willing to write an article for publication. Upon agreeing to do so, I launched an investigation into NATLFED, its claims, and its leader, Gino Perente.
At first, my research centered around their tales of historic "genesis" and claimed international ties. Not really knowing about, or feeling secure with, the cult issue, I wanted to pin down some purely "political" issues.
If one stands back and looks at their whole "genesis" story, it does begin to make sense from one angle. If you wanted to make something up which would be almost impossible to disprove totally (groups such as Progressive Labor Movement, BARU, and Venceremos have since disbanded and former members are somewhat reluctant to discuss past activities), would impress new recruits with a picture of a wise, and an experienced leadership and, perhaps most importantly, would instill fear into new recruits of ever crossing or leaving the organization, then the NATLFED/Provisional Party's tale is perfect--except research proves it to be a fabrication.
As one ex-member who helped to found CHA in Sacramento in 1973 remarked to me, "I heard people claim that they were in Venceremos when I knew they weren't. I don't doubt they would lie if they thought they could use it to their advantage."
In researching their claims, I talked with several people who went to Cuba in the early 60's with the Progressive Labor tour at the same time as Phillip Abbott Luce. None knew of any such political tendency or OSPAAL signatures, as claimed by the Provisional Party.
I spoke with an ex-BARU and Venceremos members who felt that the Provisional Party's genesis tale was unfounded in fact. One of these people was H. Bruce Franklin, former Central Committee member of Venceremos Organization. Franklin explained to me that he doesn't claim to know everyone who was or wasn't in Venceremos, nor does he usually like to talk about other people's involvement in that organization. But, Franklin did know the Gino Perente who ran the Little Red Bookstore in San Francisco in 1971. Franklin emphatically denied to me that Gino was ever a member, or involved with, Venceremos Organization. I believe him.
Then I contacted George Vickers, the author of The Nation article which gave credence to NATLFED Provisional Party's claim of having descended from Venceremos. It seems that Vickers made an honest mistake and merely took on faith what Gino Perente told him. He had no other source of information. Vickers now disbelieves the tale of the Provisional Party springing from Venceremos.
Claimed International TiesAs part of the introduction to the Provisional Party, Nicaragua's revolutionary history was twisted around to parallel the present efforts and projected organizing drives of the Provisional Party. After researching Nicaragua's road to revolution it became patently obvious that the Provisional Party's rendition of history was a fairy tale. The prestige of the recent Nicaraguan revolution was used to impress potential recruits and lead them into the Provisional Party.
I also had come to learn that the two-hour "first person rap" I had heard detailing the Provisional Party's ties to the Nicaraguan revolution had first been prepared and taped by someone else, then later memorized by various NATLFED cadre, including Dr. Shirnbaum. A few months after joining the Provisional Party I witnessed another NATLFED cadre, this one having never been to Nicaragua, giving the same canned rap to several other targeted recruits, It was all a cheap, yet sophisticated trick.
As for the claims of a headquarters in Cuba, the claim that The Provisional Party is given special status through the OSPAAL accords, and all the other claims regarding a so-called "special relationship with the government and Party in Cuba--they are all false. When the Public Eye contacted the Cuban government regarding this investigation, the proper agency for coordinating international friendship and support work (ICAP-not OSPAAL) supplied an official document outlining their policies which include the stated decision not to recognize any political formation or group in the United States as having a "special" or superior status. . . .
Leaders in several groups who regularly send support and friendship delegations to Cuba called the Provisional Party's claims not only false but also dangerous to Cuban-American Friendship work.
Deception as PracticeOne former NATLFED organizer admits the organizing and distribution of benefits was not primarily aimed at those people who needed assistance, but was aimed at providing as context from which discipline and commitment would be instilled in the cadre. He insists this was a conscious organization-building policy and justifies those occasions when cadre used donations for their own food, travel and lodging needs.
The theory seems to be that since a successful Marxist revolution will in the long run greatly benefit the working class and disadvantaged, it's OK to rip off a few poor people and workers along the way in order to build the "true" revolutionary party. In short: The ends justify the means--any means.
Most Marxists and Leninists interviewed for this article found such rationalizations obnoxious and a distortion of the writings of Marx and Lenin. Several pointed out that this type of distortion was popularized by anti-communist and right-wing groups who pull quotes out of context and ignore the large number of statements which contradict this inference in the voluminous writings of Marx and Lenin.
As far as I'm concerned, calling NATLFED a Marxist organization is like calling the "Moonies" a Christian organization. Just because they claim to be Marxists and revolutionaries doesn't make it so.
Are other distortions and deceptions commonplace within NATLFED? This is how one former Volunteer with NATLFED's Oakland branch phrased it:
At first sight the work here seems ideal--Low income people have an organization which is working in their interest. . . . You read about this positive impression in my previous reports. After three months of experience with this project [however, I must report that] reality is very different.
Members are told that this is their organization. To the contrary, most members [outside New York] do not even know about the National Labor Federation. The structure is ambiguously organized from top to bottom. Members are at the [bottom] of the hierarchy. . . . No decisions are made collectively, members do not have any power of decision. . . . It is a lie if they are told that they themselves are deciding about the organization. . . . I have been told that volunteers are not supposed to be thinking about what they are doing.The above excerpt not only discusses the conscious deception that is integral to the NATLFED organizing style, but makes several references concerning enforced allegiance techniques which some critics charge make NATLFED a cult group.
Is NATLFED a Cult?Now that I look back at my experience in NATLFED, it sure seems to fit all the criteria for being a dangerous cult:
•a schedule designed to produce chronic exhaustion, • long droning lectures while followers are already exhausted, • wild ideas and beliefs which attain the force of psychotic delusion, • predictions of change or doom around the corner, • the POW camp-type atmosphere, • followers quitting their jobs and severing outside personal and economic ties, • the historic sense of mission, • the operating under tight discipline and secrecy, • the extolment of qualities of ruthlessness and fanatical determination, • a "Triumph of Will" approach, eventually pushing cult members to adopt a "beyond good and evil" mentality, • the kneejerk calling of any critics "government agents."
This is Gino Perente's National Labor Federation.Being a political cult, the Provisional Party distorts Marxist classics much the same way the Moonies distort Biblical passages. Religious cults prey upon the guilt feelings of recruits who are systematically made to be ashamed of not living up to Christian or other religious ideals. In the Provisional Party, recruits who sincerely want to be involved in social change are psychologically manipulated into believing that they would be traitors to the "Cause" if they rejected the discipline of the only "true" revolutionary party in America.
To ensure that recruits never successfully challenge the carefully orchestrated apocalyptic reality within NATLFED, emotionally disruptive and fatigue-producing techniques are used. Writing in the religious magazine Christian Century, associate editor Jean Caffrey Lyles put it this way:
Some former recruits describe NATLFED as both militaristic and cult-like ("like the Moonies," said one), an organization that works recruits up to 18 hours a day, keeping them in a state of chronic fatigue, subjects them to droning sessions of indoctrination, and discourages critical thinking. New arrivals at the local units are given books by Marx, Lenin and Stalin as assigned reading.
Volunteers have no permanent base but are moved from place to place, sleeping in a different location each night. Two volunteers are rarely left alone together, and are told only as much as they need to know to carry out an assignment. One former volunteer recalled: "A lot of the time you wanted to go up to somebody and ask them, 'What are we doing?' but there was no one to go up to.
Another former member described being shuttled from house to house, sometimes sleeping on the floor of the local NATLFED office, or even a garage. Food was plentiful when visitors and potential recruits were around, but other times cadre would go whole days without food depending on the success of local solicitations and organizing drives. Ideological discussion was not available since the cadre were simply lectured to and were ordered to work from pre-written instructions given political questions and situations. Copies of some of these instruction sheets obtained by the Public Eye show attempts to control behavior in virtually any situation cadre would encounter.
Who's In Charge Here?The innermost onion core behind the Provisional Party is controlled by Gino Perente and a handful of his very trusted followers. Several of these followers joined with Perente as adolescents over ten years ago, and have subsequently spent their entire adult lives with him and his cause. Headquarters for the Provisional Party is a Brooklyn brownstone house referred to as "the Cave." Maps are on the wall, desks are crowded with members busily filing and doing correspondence and research, walkie-talkies are used for communication between the floors of the "Cave." A former member of NATLFED on the East Coast: "You asked me why I left the organization. The reason was Gino. Before you ever met him there is a big buildup that you're going to meet 'The Old,' as they refer to him. You're taken to a room where he sits alone with you and reads from a book." She assumed that she was expected to be in awe of Gino. She was not sufficiently impressed to remain in the organization. Many members are.
As for what Gino gets out of all this--another former member who knew Gino well remarked, "Look, he gets a following, he's comfortable, and the culture and intrigue are exciting to him." Yet Gino Perente is a far more complex person than that description implies.
Perente as DoedenGerald William Doeden was born in 1937, reportedly in Twin Falls, Idaho. Gerald's father was an old Wobblie (member of the activist International Workers of the World, IWW) who died when Gerald was a young boy.
By 1957, Gerald and his mother, Irene, moved to Marysville, California--a Northern California agricultural town situated near the juncture of the Feather and Yuba Rivers.
This author interviewed over a dozen Marysville residents who remember Doeden well, and confirm each other's accounts. One interviewee asked, "Is he still calling himself Gino Perente?" He is remembered as somewhat of a town character. From all these interviews, one common picture emerges of Doeden--that of an extremely brilliant, well-read con artist with a reputation among friends for heavy drinking and a difficulty handling recreational drug use. He is said to have lived by a cynical twist of the Biblical saying, "A stranger came along and I 'took him' (in)."
When Gerald Doeden was offered a scholarship to Yuba College, he refused it, telling his friends, "If I can't steal it, then I don't want it."
Several of Doeden's old friends related a tale of how when they all once went out drinking together with Doeden, he actually paid for drinks with a check he'd signed, "Jesus H. Christ." Doeden was never prosecuted, apparently because the merchant did not wish to appear in court and publicly admit he'd actually accepted such a check.
Hearing this story reminded me of a taped lecture by Perente that I had heard while a member of NATLFED, when Perente exclaimed, "Joe Hill was guilty as hell. After he died, every socialist cocksucker wrote a book about him. What about the guy who helped him rob the market? That's our hero--he robbed a capitalist and got away with it." Perente seems to consider such activities to be salutary and romantic.
Doeden's physical impairment is a result of his tendency to drive like a maniac, according to several old friends. Once he was involved in a serious car accident and fractured his leg in several places as well as sustaining other major injuries to his legs. The doctors wanted to amputate, but Doeden refused and had his leg in a cast for several years, developing osteomyelitis.
"He refused to wear crutches. I remember him always hopping around with that bad leg," said Milt Carland of the Marysville Appeal Democrat. Doeden carries that limp to this day and some reports say his leg continues to deteriorate.
One woman who was very close to Doeden in the late sixties described him as an "extraordinarily sensitive, sad, crippled genius, with an enormous amount of anger."
Once, while out drinking coffee at an all-night Marysville restaurant, a fellow customer called Doeden "uncouth."
"What do you mean, uncouth?" replied Doeden, who then proceeded to recite, from memory, entire sections from Shakespeare's play As You Like It.
Doeden worked in Marysville as a disc jockey and newscaster for local radio station KAGR, as well as doing some freelance advertising sales for the station. He also moonlighted as a local Shakespearean actor. Toward the late sixties, Doeden sought help for his drinking and drug problems. Friends say he went first to Alcoholics Anonymous and later to Synanon.
I raise this issue not to smear Doeden by mentioning his personal problems, which he apparently successfully overcame, but because there are some troubling and important similarities between the style and practice of Perente's Provisional Party cult and the picture of Synanon portrayed in David Gerstel's account of his experience in Synanon: Paradise, Inc.
Paradise, Inc. -- Paradise LostIn Gerstel's account, Synanon leader Charles Dederich is referred to as "The Old Man" by Synanon followers. In the Provisional Party, Gino is referred to as "The Old." In both Synanon and the Provisional Party, members are exhorted to "walk the walk, not just talk the talk."
Doeden's exact activities from 1969 to early 1970 are still a mystery. But, by late 1970, Gerald Doeden, recently rehabilitated Shakespeare enthusiast, with the blood of his Wobblie father coursing through his veins, apparently discovered his political self when he created LARGO. Amidst the sub-culture and intrigue of militant politics, Doeden found he could gather a following, thereby encapsulating himself from reality. He got the first real taste of the potential power of his charismatic leadership.
So, by 1971, Doeden had opened the Little Red Bookstore in San Francisco. Going by the name Gino Savo, he proceeded to organize local activists throughout Northern California into his LARGO group. They proceeded with plans of launching military war against the government beginning March 15, 1970.
The plans collapsed. Gerry Doeden faded away.
In 1972, Doeden turns up on Long Island to organize the Long Island Association, now the Eastern Farmworkers' Association (EFWA).
According to two ex-NATLFED members I talked with, Perente started the EFWA after being fired by the United Farm Workers from his job as co-coordinator of the UFW New York boycott office. The United Farm Workers have denied to me that Perente (or Doeden) was ever on the staff of the UFW. There is agreement that there never have been any formal working ties between the UFW and any part of NATLFED.
Whatever the technical truth may be about Perente's claimed relationship in the past to the UFW, several things of interest do stand out regarding Synanon and UFW. Synanon did have a relationship with UFW. Charles Dederich and Cesar Chavez apparently were personal friends. For awhile, Chavez incorporated a Synanon group activity called "The Game" into the UFW's internal structure. It is perhaps in this milieu of relationships that Doeden further consolidated his development and style.
Tactics used by NATLFED, such as housemeetings and canvassing, as well as the name "Eastern Farm Workers" and other organizational paraphernalia, certainly point to the possibility that Perente was exposed enough to the UFW in order to copy and later project some of its appealing organizational style. Unlike the UFW, however, Perente's group seldom achieves anything of lasting significance for the membership base they maintain in their "mass based association." Those people only serve as a fly-paper used to attract new cult members. Any long-term successful struggle for real gains would focus attention on NATLFED's activities, and public scrutiny is not something Perente values.
While Perente's exposure to the UFW may have provided him with an appealing model, it seems that his dealings with other groups in addition to Synanon have provided him with models of more concrete internal cult-like structures. I am now speaking of Fred Newman's International Worker's Party (IWP) and Lyndon LaRouche's National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC), both based in New York City.
Newman is now best known for his work with the New Alliance Party and the New York Institute for Social Therapy, both labeled cultic by some critics. LaRouche is currently once again seeking the Presidency of the United States, this time as the Democratic Party nominee, but using the organization front: The National Democratic Policy Committee.
NATLFED's preposterous claim of having placed one of their members on the Teamster's Union Executive Council does actually parallel a real achievement of LaRouche's NCLC who did see one of their close Teamster allies reach that office. This Teamster/NCLC relationship was detailed in Dennis King's December 1981 article in High Times magazine: "Hippocrites -- Anti-Drug Cult Linked to Mob Cronies."
According to King, NATLFED's relationship with LaRouche was shorted-lived. "Much more significant was NATLFED's relationship with the Newmanites [IWP]. That relationship went on at least through 1977, and still to this day there is some communication between them. In 1976 fusion talks were held between NATLFED and IWP."
Says King, "Although Gino worked with Fred Newman, he had a certain contempt for him--referring to him as 'Fat Freddy' and regarding Newman's group as not altogether reliable." [Ed. Note: Fat Freddy is a disheveled underground comic character].
Specific similarities can still be seen between the style of NATLFED and the IWP, which now uses the name New Alliance Party; the use of bucket drives to solicit funds and pitch for volunteers; the vast amount of mindless paperwork that followers must devote themselves to; and, according to King, "the surfacing of selected cult members to participate in the normal life of the community while keeping their real agenda hidden."
For both the old IWP and NATLFED, says King, the use of what they call "strata organizing" exists "merely to give a sense of mission to the cult, feed the vanity of the cult leaders, and provide a cover for various fund-raising and recruitment rip-offs."
While the possibility of an ongoing relationship between NATLFED and NCLC has long been a matter of speculation and concern, this relationship seems doubtful. Unfortunately, most concern about NATLFED has revolved around this point to the exclusion of other concerns. No matter their past or resent ties to LaRouche-- Perente's group is a potentially dangerous cult in its own right. There are some critics of NATLFED who strongly feel that the whole organization is part of an FBI COINTELPRO-type operation designed to gather information on, and disrupt, the American left. While not dismissing this as a possibility, I have found no direct evidence to support this view. But NATLFED is so far over the edge that it really may not matter whether or not they are part of any pre-planned plot or conspiracy in terms of the potential for disaster. They are dangerous to themselves, the progressive movement and the real interests of poor and working people.
Perente appears to be extending his political influence. Using the name Eugenio Vincente Perente-Ramos, Perente is listed as the business agent of the Texas Farm Workers Union, and his cadre are involved in producing literature for that group. Already this relationship has further isolated the Texas Farm Workers from broad- based support from labor unions and the progressive community.
The Texas Farm Worker connection provides NATLFED with yet another cover to rope in more recruits and connections. NATLFED is currently organizing TFWU Support Committees on the East Coast.
Further, it would be callous to disregard the plight of those sincere individuals who have been snared by NATLFED and the Provisional Party through the use of psychologically-manipulative techniques--and more potential cult members continue to be fed into Perente's operation through the reputation it gained while publishing the Commission on Voluntary Service and Action's guide Invest Yourself, which NATLFED continues to publish unilaterally. . . . Another group which appears to be a source of volunteers is the legitimate Hispanic law student organization, La Raza Legal Alliance.
Perente also seems to be moving in the direction of penetrating organized labor in the role of a consultant and through the provision of legal and support services.
Where Perente is heading is difficult to predict. It is ludicrous to expect that the timetable for "revolution" in early 1984 will be adhered to; but Perente shows no signs of fading away; rather he shows signs of extending his influence.
As one sociologist whom Gino tried to recruit said, "I think that Gino sees himself as some kind of modern-day American version of Lenin, who plans to rise to power by playing off one group against the other--a kind of double, double agent."
Cleaning Our Own Dirty LinenSo, how can we, the progressives of this country, allow this group to operate in our midst unchallenged? Part of the reason Perente's group may appear to be part of the left political spectrum is that we allow them to do so. Any group may label itself a communist party, or have a progressive exterior front, and seek to operate clandestinely. But, this group is not really hiding from the government, but rather from the public in general and the left in particular.
Look at the history of any past revolutionary movement forced to struggle through a clandestine organization. What was clandestine has usually been only the identity of local members, the location of leadership, and very specific strategy or tactics. But the long-term goals of the organizations, and the group's ideology are usually public knowledge, so that there can be discussion, feedback, and trust from all sectors of the people seeking the revolutionary transformation of society. And real revolutionaries are often willing to risk paying a heavy price for making such information available to the working class because they know it is an indispensable part of the process.
Nor should we hesitate to challenge NATLFED on the basis of its claims to be a labor organization. NATLFED itself has denied being a labor organization to the Department of Labor and there is no evidence to suggest that NATLFED represents workers before management anywhere in the United States. The only labor NATLFED is truly organizing is the hard labor of its exploited cadre and volunteers.
The organizations described in the church-related volunteer guide Invest Yourself are neither labor organizations nor "mutual benefit" associations. They are in fact local service organizations where free legal and medical help is traded for the recipients' signed pledge of "membership" in the organization. These one-time benefits recipients are the source of NATLFED's claims of vast numbers of members and supporters.
Although it is admittedly somewhat embarrassing, it has not been really too hard for me to face up to the fact that I was stupid enough to be conned by this cult group. I've been conned before and will probably be conned again. There are far more intelligent people than I, with fine motivations, still trapped in the NATLFED cult.
What profoundly disturbs me is this group has been out canvassing in poor neighborhoods across the country and drawing in young (and some old) people with idealistic, progressive ideas for over ten years now. And, for the most part, they have gone unchallenged, unexposed, and in some cased, even aided by the progressive movement.
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