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The Fire This Time?

Eldridge Cleaver: Post-Prison Speeches and Writings

edited by Robert Scheer
Random House, 211 pp., $5.95

Reviewing Eldridge Cleaver’s second book, Post-Prison Speeches and Writings, demands a critical license like that of reviewing the aspects of a man’s life which consigned him to purgatory. Moreover, the review itself can offer little promise of comfort and less in the way of advice to the man in question, whose likely response would be: “If I could live life all over again, I’d do the same thing.” There is, then, but one legitimate line of investigation, since we already know why the man lived the way he did. This approach would ask two questions: “Why must he do it again in that way, if he could?” and “Is there really no other way?”

But even this tack is not very promising, because it offers no easy answers to these questions which would even begin to satisfy those who adhere to any of today’s “revolutionary” trends in America. For if there is anyone among them who has demonstrated the full measure of his devotion to “putting one’s head on the line,” it is Eldridge Cleaver. What more can one demand after that? What is there more to be said about Eldridge Cleaver, the writer-activist-revolutionary, that is legitimate critically and politically apt?

In the first place, this second book presents a peculiar problem because of the nature of its content and style. As Robert Scheer, the editor of this collection of speeches and short pieces, advises us: “This collection, then, is not a sequel to Soul on Ice, which was written during the leisure of Cleaver’s forced confinement. In this book one finds the art of the journalist, and in that sense it is a first book. Comparisons with Soul on Ice will inevitably be made by reviewers, but Cleaver was not in a position to work on assembling this book…. It was rushed through production in order to answer the need of people to come to grips with Cleaver’s political ideas….” Very well, then we must deal here not with Cleaver, the literary essayist, but with Cleaver, the activist, the revolutionary, the political ideologist. Also with Cleaver, the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Information and associate editor of Ramparts Magazine. One must deal in part with all of these facets of Eldridge Cleaver because the man defies facile classification. He did not emerge from what was considered, during periods like the 1930s, the proper path to conventional revolutionary politics. His political personality is as unprecedented as the situation of racial confrontation in which he and his ideas became famous.

These ideas are politically interesting, although most of them were not original with Cleaver. For example, Robert Scheer thinks that Cleaver’s “assumption that black people in America form an oppressed colony…” was original with Cleaver, when, in fact, the idea was first expressed in the United States at least as far back as 1962 as the Afro-American’s condition of “domestic colonialism.”1 All new political ideas, however, evolve slowly, and it takes time for their full implications to be generally grasped. Cleaver did not pursue the full meaning of this black condition in the United States, but prefers to find its political elucidation in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Cleaver writes in his chapter, “Psychology: The Black Bible”:

In the aftermath of Watts, and all the other uprisings that have set the ghettos of America ablaze, it is obvious that there is very little difference in the way oppressed people feel and react, whether they are oppressed in Algeria by the French, in Kenya by the British, in Angola by the Portuguese, or in Los Angeles by Yankee Doodle.

Fanon, however, qualifies this conclusion by stating: “The Negroes who live in the United States and in Central or Latin America in fact experience the need to attach themselves to a cultural matrix. Their problem is not fundamentally different from that of the Africans.” But when American Negroes and Africans first discussed this problem during the 1956 congress of the African Cultural Society, Fanon wrote of their conversations:

But little by little the American Negroes realized that the essential problems confronting them were not the same as those that confronted the African Negroes…. The test cases of civil liberty whereby both whites and blacks in America try to drive back racial discrimination have very little in common in their principles and objectives with the heroic fight of the Angolan people against the detestable Portuguese colonialism.2

To judge from Cleaver’s own articles and speeches (and Scheer’s interpretation of them) it would seem that Cleaver and Fanon were not in total agreement on certain aspects of this relationship. On “political revolution,” Cleaver sees in America similarities with the colonial situation; Fanon did not. On “cultural nationalism,” Cleaver is more explicit. Whereas, according to Fanon, both Africans and Afro-Americans have a deep need for the creation of a “cultural matrix,” Cleaver impatiently objects to any emphasis in America on the need for “cultural” programs, or what is better known today as “cultural nationalism” in the black movements. Scheer (rightly or wrongly) interprets Cleaver’s views on this:

In these first months outside [prison], Cleaver found that the black community was suffering from a surfeit of militant talk without any commensurate program of action, and was attempting to camouflage this failure by emphasizing “cultural nationalism” rather than “political revolution.” He soon felt that the cultural nationalists’ excessive emphasis on the roots and virtues of black culture obscured the essential fact that blacks formed an oppressed colony in the midst of white America. He frequently cited Frantz Fanon’s point that black culture bore the marks of oppression and that the black man could wrest his manhood from white society only through revolutionary political struggle—not through posturing, dress, or reviving African cultural roots.

If this is a faithful interpretation of Cleaver’s views on “politics” and “culture,” then we have the essential key to Cleaver’s problem as a “political revolutionary.” Out of prison, Cleaver faced a very complex world, in a tense and agitated human mosaic in black and white tones. For Cleaver, as he said in prison, real history, black history, “began with Malcolm X.” But Malcolm X’s organization, the OAAU, had died with him, and Cleaver hoped and tried to revive it. His search for an organization reminiscent of Malcolm X’s movement ended when he encountered the Black Panther Party. As the Panther’s Minister of Information, he started a new political career. “Without the Panthers,” Scheer says, “Cleaver would undoubtedly have developed a much more personal career-oriented, literary way of life. With the Panthers, he became a disciplined political revolutionary as well as a literary polemicist, although there was hardly any time for writing.”

But Cleaver never sought a “literary way of life”; in fact he deliberately did otherwise: he searched for political involvement because he held a “belief in the necessity of black political revolution…” In this self-assumed role, Cleaver experienced in his unique way what several other black writers discovered before him: revolutionary political activity and literary creation simply do not mix. This is why “there was hardly any time for writing.”

Perhaps it is safe to assume that this was the way Cleaver wanted it. For a serious writer in prison, particularly a philosophical one, there is hardly a better place to pursue the writer’s lonely commitment to literature than in isolation, free from external infringements such as the need to “earn a living.” The outside world is hard on the would-be writer, especially if he is black. After enduring the arduous course of literary commitment and exile, the black writer then runs the hazards of literary success: he is then induced, if not commanded, to become a black spokesman. Then he is asked: what are his political commitments? If he is willing, he succumbs and becomes, like Cleaver, a “literary polemicist,” and, ultimately, a political revolutionary. Scheer applauds this metamorphosis. He also rushed this new book into print “because the media which have made so much of his name have largely ignored his ideas.”

But if Scheer is moved by the essence of Cleaver’s ideas which the media ignored, he can’t dismiss the media so cavalierly. For Cleaver, like many others, was first legitimized by the very mass media whose social role most of us attack as the corrupting propaganda agency of the “power structure.” In this fashion are writers, revolutionary or otherwise, trapped by the system in ways many of us do not like to admit. But in viewing Cleaver’s essential ideas, one is led to ask, What did the Black Panthers and the Peace and Freedom Party really think about Cleaver’s political ideas which the mass media ignored?

This question may not appear legitimate on first sight, but it is. It is ironic that in our society the propagandist of unpopular political ideas cannot depend on his allies to propagate his views. Neither the Old Left nor the New Left could or would publish Eldridge Cleaver widely—they have neither the resources nor the disseminating range to equal the visibility given Cleaver by the mass media. It was one sector of the “power structure” that jailed him, controlled him, negated him, and finally hounded him into exile. But it was another sector of the “power structure” that facilitated and sustained his literary and political celebrity.

We must admit that Frantz Fanon was right, for the United States is structurally unlike those societies in the Third World that spawn revolutionary anti-colonialist movements in Algeria, Kenya, Angola, and heroes like Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevara. The wish to emulate these Third World movements in the United States is understandable, but the revolutionary leaders in the Third World would find Cleaver’s access to publishing houses and television studios incomprehensible. It is with the social and political reality of the United States in mind, as well as the nature of his alliances, that we must consider Cleaver’s views.

We know fairly well the ideas of the Black Panther Party’s self-defense program before the arrival of Cleaver: land, bread, housing, education, justice, peace, the end of police brutality, freedom for black prisoners, peer jury trials, exemption of blacks from military service, to name the most important. But the appearance of Cleaver in the Black Panther ranks as a major spokesman and ideologist brought to the fore again that touchy question of the possibility and the necessity of a black nationalist–white leftist political alliance. For one thing, the jailing of one Panther leader, Huey Newton, made such an alliance a necessity if Newton was to be saved. Funds and legal aid were needed. Cleaver, however, recurrently voices the theme of black and white unity as a fundamental political necessity for the Panther movement which, as he explained to Nat Hentoff in the Playboy Interview appended to this volume, was intended by him to become “the black national movement” of America:

  1. 1

    Studies on the Left, Vol. II, No. 3, 1962, p. 13.

  2. 2

    The Wretched of the Earth, p. 216.

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