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:
We recognize that there are a lot of white people in this country who want to see virtually a new world dawn here in America….
They are turning into a revolutionary force, and that’s why we believe the Black Panthers can enter into a coalition with them as equal partners.
Cleaver is really bidding here for the radical white youth: “These young white people aren’t hung up battling to maintain the status quo like some of the older people…. They’re adventurous: they’re willing to experiment with new forms; they’re willing to confront life.” This is the way Cleaver more than anyone else personifies the Malcolm X legacy. Malcolm came to disavow “black racism,” as it is called. So Cleaver found a way to reconcile “political nationalism” to a black and white coalition. When the white allies arrived, Cleaver tells us, “O.K. We had asked for it, and here it was: The Peace and Freedom Party. Politics. How do we relate to it?” 1968 was not so far removed in time from the day of Malcolm X’s assassination, but the young black nationalist wave had come a long way since that time on the question of coalition.
Yet we should not overlook the fact that, conveniently for all concerned in the coalition, it was an election year. Moreover, the white Left has a long, honorable, and expert record in the politics of freeing people. During the 1930s it was “Free Angelo Herndon,” “Free Earl Browder,” etc. (Who among the young knows about Angelo Herndon today? Everything is so new, and yet so old!) The martyrs and the victims of political persecution come and go, yet this was a black and white coalition which, for Cleaver, had possibilities that were new, but which, in reality, could not shake off old convictions concerning strategy, tactics, and methods.
The white Left has an abiding belief in political power and political campaigns as a means of throwing its weight around and building strength for the near future. For the Panthers and for Cleaver, a political campaign was, no doubt, something like a giant organizational step along the road to revolution. But there was once a time in this century’s history of American radicalism when no hard-line revolutionary (black or white) would have been caught dead in a political campaign for federal and state office. This was considered unadulterated cooptation. The old trade union direct-actionists, the I.W.W.’s, the anarcho-syndicalists, and the revolutionary anarchists used to look down on the old Socialist Party for indulging in such lukewarm reformist activity.
But in the search for the proper vehicle for political nationalism in 1968, Cleaver and the Panthers made a kind of historic political breakthrough: they were probably not aware that it had taken the white Left about fifty years to recognize the legitimacy of black nationalism. Said Cleaver in his Playboy Interview (a piece which suggests, among other things, that Cleaver and the magazine see eye to eye on the centrality of Eros Denied):
We want black people to be represented by leaders of their choice who, with the power of the masses behind them, will be able to go into the political arena, set forth the desires and needs of black people and have those desires and needs acted upon.
Whereupon Nat Hentoff replied: “But we repeat—isn’t that already happening—at least on a small scale? There’s a black mayor of Cleveland, Carl Stokes, and a black mayor of Gary, Richard Hatcher.” In 1968, Cleaver could scoff at such mild reformism in the way the old anti-political revolutionaries scoffed at the Socialist Party’s 897,011 votes in 1912, or 919,000 votes in 1920. Cleaver said:
You’re talking about black personalities, not about basic changes in the system… We are demanding structural changes in society, and that means a real distribution of power, so that we have control over our own lives. Having a black mayor in the present situation doesn’t begin to accomplish that.
Despite the fact that some sectors of the “power structure” and the mass media have now conceded that “black is in,” Cleaver does not want us to be too impressed by “personalities” who just happen to be black. So convinced is he of the need for the proper separation of black issues from black personalities that he says of Adam Clayton Powell: “That’s why we oppose Adam Clayton Powell. He’s not militant enough and he represents the black middle class, not the masses.”
Something is wrong here because Cleaver cannot deny that the black masses who vote have supported Powell at home and abroad lo these many Harlem years! And these supporters include some of the most fiery black nationalists who ever frightened white storeowners in Harlem. What is reflected here is more than just a certain political callowness, but the ambivalence of the black movement toward its black middle class, a black version of the “generation gap,” as well as the agony of finding the proper vehicle for political nationalism, to which is added the present agony of the new white Left. This anti-Powellism, which Cleaver has expressed on other occasions, is not predicated on any profound concern with the requirements of long-range strategy, or on a grasp of the political realities of either Harlem or the United States. Cleaver concedes this when he says: “I’m not saying that we, the Panthers, have the answer either, but we’re trying to find the way.” His problem, he says, is “how to find a revolutionary mode of moving in this most complicated of all situations.”
It is legitimate to say now that if Cleaver recognizes the complexity of “this most complicated of all situations,” it is hoped that he sees how complicated are his own responses to this same situation. His perceptions cover a wide range of social observation, often brilliantly. But, essentially, Cleaver differs not at all from other committed American militants, for, like them, he is basically American, with the same radical hang-ups and contradictions. It is the quality of his rhetoric that is unique but, as Nat Hentoff pointed out in his interview, Cleaver is just as much a prisoner of the reformist bind and the agony of its unfulfilled promises as anyone else who, under inexorable and excruciating pressures, must resort to revolutionary slogans and threats:
What happens, as I’ve said, will depend on the continuing dynamics of the situation. What we’re doing is telling the government that if it does not do its duty, then we will see to it ourselves that justice is done…. That will depend on what is done against us and on whether real change can be accomplished nonviolently within the system.
Which is to say that Cleaver will accept government sponsored “reforms” if they prove positive and efficacious, otherwise it’s “revolution.” This is the age-old American radical dilemma which admits the possibility of different rates of “social change,” but which says, simultaneously, that neither method ought to be seen as contradictory or in opposition to the other. Robert Scheer states that Cleaver “thrives in chaos” and is “very much the impulsive, lusty, bohemian writer.” The variety of his perceptions reveal this—they roll out of his mind and on to paper or tapes chaotically, in an avalanche which he is hard put to constrain or keep within a political frame. Inevitably, then, after giving full play to his political imagination, wherein everything, including sex, is given a political configuration, Cleaver falls back on Karl Marx:
Let’s pay our respects to Brother Karl Marx’s gigantic brain, using the fruits of his wisdom, applying them to this crumbling system, and have some socialism, moving on to the classless society.
So it all comes down to that, which is where many of us came in. Before Cleaver mentions Marx, he points out that “The basic problem in this country is political confusion.” True, but does the injection of Marxian ideas into this situation help to clear up this confusion? If Cleaver thinks so, then we are entitled to ask, what does he think the American Marxists have been about all the years before Cleaver appeared? Have they been adding clarity to confusion? The answer is: not much. In addition to attaching himself to the agony of his (and our) legacy of present-day political confusion, Cleaver innocently and in desperation has attached himself to the agony of the American white Left. We know that misery loves company, this was always so; but our experience in the American morass tells us that the will to make a revolution is not the same thing as having the means to make it.
It is a good thing that some black nationalists have arrived at that level of political maturity which allows them to dispense with enough “black racism” to understand that “Whitey,” too, is caught in a tight bind in America, right along with his “black colonial subjects.” But history has at last handed the black brother a torch to light up the path out of this darkness. Although certain young diehards are using the torch for incendiary purposes, the more sophisticated are called upon to understand their own condition in the interests of a heightened black social awareness. Questions arise: Shall the black nationalist militants accept poverty grants in the ghettos, before or after applying the torch, or shall they opt for the revolutionary millennium, during which time someone else will take advantage of the government’s grants anyway! Here is one economic source of political confusion, or vice versa. It is very, very real, and what answer can Marx or Mao give to this black political and economic dilemma?
The Marxists in the coalition will not tell Cleaver this, but wherever he is he should read Eduard Bernstein’s Evolutionary Socialism as a brief and sober respite from the work of Fanon. This demonstration of the obsolescence of much of Marx’s analysis of capitalism seems more pointed today than when it was written. In fact, even Fanon himself voiced certain reservations: “…Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem. Everything up to and including the very nature of pre-capitalist society, so well explained by Marx, must here be thought out again.” Well now, Cleaver, shall we argue with Fanon, or shall we try to “think it all out again”?
If so, it means a further elaboration, or stretching, of the original Marxian “theory of knowledge” which says, in part,
The reflection of reality in people’s consciousness of class society is affected by the nature of the society. For the ultimate origin of social ideas, theories, and views, it is necessary to investigate the conditions of the material life of society, social practice in its broadest sense, which these ideas and theories, in various ways reflect.
In America those who call themselves Marxists need to investigate anew what they call “social practice in its broadest sense,” which is very different from the social practice Marx was familiar with in nineteenth-century Europe. For one thing, he did not live with the American race question; this question did not complicate the realities of the class struggle in Europe. In his mind, he settled the race question for Americans when he observed that “labor in a white skin can never be free while labor in a black is branded.”
This was an advanced idea in the nineteenth century and had real revolutionary connotations. But today it has become one of the more banal slogans of liberal radicalism, and has no more practical use as a political slogan than Lincoln’s old adage that “this nation cannot endure half slave and half free.” In the nineteenth century the capitalist North waged punitive war on the South because slavery was uneconomical and detrimental to capitalist expansion; and American white labor has long since decided that “labor in a white skin can never be secure as long as labor in a black skin is threatening white jobs.”
There are Marxist friends in Cleaver’s coalition who are waiting for labor to change its mind about its class role, but the late M. L. King wrote a book, Why We Can’t Wait, and some Marxists agreed with him. Moreover, nowhere in his book does Cleaver speak directly to white labor, but to the generality of white people. He is speaking to a condition, the national human condition which is a result of generalized racism.
It is this very objective American bi-racial social condition which is reflected in people’s consciousness and which is, in its turn, translated into their peculiarly American “social practice.” Thus radical “ideas and theories” must be both a reflection of “social practice in its broadest sense” and a theoretical interpretation of what is actually happening, including working-class racism, not what some of us would wish were happening, such as an upsurge of labor radicalism. This very objective American reality, in fact, supersedes the advent of any nascent labor consciousness; and it may lie at the bottom of the ideological and political confusion of which Cleaver speaks.
For behind the “political confusion” which Cleaver sees as the American malaise lies a vast, ignoble legacy, a grossly distorted interpretation of the political, economic, cultural, racial, and ethnic ingredients that comprise the national development. In short, the American “political confusion” is a reflection of the confusion over “national purpose.” Americans generally have no agreement on who they are, what they are, or how they got to be what they are. They do not respond to their situation out of any real sense of historical determination, because their “history,” when they are aware of it, gives them no guidelines to the resolution of present difficulties.
Thus the black search for “identity” (or Fanon’s “cultural matrix”) only underscores the fact that all Americans are involved in an identity crisis. Since whites and blacks do not identify with each other, it only means that neither blacks nor whites are really identifying with the realities of the American experience which bound them together so fatefully in what is supposed to be the “cultural matrix” of a nation. Thus the implied threat of the division of the nation into “two nations black and white” is another way of saying that the American experiment in nation-hood has been a historical failure of the first magnitude.
Simplistically and biologically, the black and white confrontation is called a “racial” conflict, a carry-over from black slavery. But deep down, historically and psychologically, it is a cultural conflict over the seeming incompatibility of “group values” and aspirations which manifest themselves in our political, economic, and cultural institutions. The implied premises of these institutions are, ultimately, the perpetuation of Anglo-Saxon Protestant supremacy, which is the white-skinned side of cultural nationalism.
For this important reason Cleaver’s attack on what he perceives as black “cultural nationalism,” its meaning and social role, is not only superficial, but also reveals a narrow-minded and anti-historical point of view. There are some black nationalists for whom, as Cleaver charges, “posturing, dress, or reviving African cultural roots” is the be-all and end-all of “cultural nationalism.” It becomes their form of psychological “liberation” from the values of white culture especially when it culminates in dropping “slave names.” Call it romanticism, but every movement has its share of romantics. People have called Garvey’s “Back to Africa” nationalism “Political Nationalism,” but it was also scoffed at as being “highly romantic” and “utopian.”
Cleaver posits the necessity for political revolution in opposition to the search for identity implicit in black “cultural nationalism,” as if to say that in America blacks and whites can collaborate in making revolution without a program that will deal with the problem of black cultural identity or cultural nationalism. The Marxists have long maintained this position, but this reviewer, while understanding the logic of this position, will continue to maintain that it is erroneous.
One can claim, as Cleaver’s Marxist allies claim, that the American political, economic, and cultural institutions are the instruments of capitalist class rule, and that a class-struggle revolution will “democratize” these institutions in the interests of “all the people” under “working class rule.” But on what kind of Western societies did Marx and Engels predicate this class analysis? On feudal and capitalist societies, in which the capitalist class, the feudal classes, the peasant classes, the serfs, the proletariat, etc., all shared in the historical evolution of the ingredients that comprised their “culture.” Very often, bourgeois-capitalist unification had to contend with regional, language, or religious differences, but not with racial differences, since members of all divergent classes were whites who could lay claim to one general cultural communality—the Greco-Christian heritage.
In France, for example, the Paris cab-driver, the factory worker, the farmers in the provinces, the bourgeoisie, General de Gaulle, the Communist Party, and the students, all have the same loyalty to the glory of France, the French Revolution, Joan of Arc, and the memory of Charles Martel, who drove out the hated Arabs. In this kind of “cultural matrix,” the divergent classes are bound together by the “nation” concept, and French “cultural nationalism” transcends class lines when American Cocacola intrudes into the culinary habits of wine-drinkers.
Thus, in the politics of “class struggle,” the issues of politics and economics are clearly etched in a nation like France since all the cultural factors peculiar to the evolution of French society—its literature, art, music, poetry, historiography, sociology, aesthetics, linguistics, philosophy, law, etc.—may be seen as aspects of the French tradition. What is French is a settled question in France, since every Frenchman knows his place in it, and knows how he and his country came to be what they are in modern times. Roger Garaudy wrote: “It was in Paris that young Marx became a Marxist.” Marx’s collaborator Engels explained why:
France alone contains Paris, the city where civilization has attained its highest expression, where all the strands of European history converge, and from which, from time to time, electrical discharges emanate that shake the world. This city whose population combines in itself, as no other people, a passion for enjoyment and for historical initiatives; this city whose inhabitants know how to live like the most refined Epicureans of Athens, and to die like the most intrepid Spartans.3
As a result Marx became a Francophile, claiming that for one to act and live in a revolutionary manner one had to speak French, and adding: “When all the inner requisites are fulfilled, the day of German resurrection will be proclaimed by the crowing of the cock of Gaul.” From this Garaudy concluded that it was in Paris that Marx “perceived clearly the historical law of the class struggle and the necessity of the proletarian revolution in order to achieve communism.”
But after more than one hundred years, the “crowing cock of Gaul” has failed to announce the doom of French bourgeois capitalism. The Paris uprising of the summer of 1968 wasted away amid the dying murmurs of reformism. If this had to be the twentieth-century fate of Marx’s beloved France, on which he placed so much historical faith as the guiding light of the world proletariat, what can one say of the United States, the colossus of monopoly capitalism, which, in order to look as far back into the Western tradition as Athens and Sparta, has to pretend not to see something much more close to home—its pilgrims, slaves, Indians, refugees, as well as a Revolutionary War and a Civil War which are still embarrassing the historians whose function it is to explain them. Moreover, there are other historians who maintain that both wars were unwise, if not unnecessary. What kind of a tradition is this that induces its inheritors to attempt either to deny, or to minimize, explain away, or else to distort its historical heroism?
The non-white, non-European, non-Western racial elements are bound up with that tradition, and the keepers of the archives of the traditions, the molders of historical opinion, are both ashamed of and embarrassed by all of this. Hence decades of guilt, ambivalence, hatred, racial arrogance, and cultural particularism accumulate and are legitimized in all the American intellectual mythologies concerning our collective backgrounds. Among diverse American groups, especially between black and white, there does not exist the communality of cultural interests and heritage that exist in other countries. It is this lack of national cultural cohesion and sense of community that obviates class struggle on the political and economic fronts. The great Spanish scholar and Socialist, Enrique Tierno Galvan, said, at an International Seminar held last December at Princeton University:
In a romantic sense, the United States has never been a nation—and will never be one. Today we are witnessing a fragmentation of nations, and by nation we mean a community that is held together by common beliefs and principles that survive historical changes.
The romantic idea of “nation” is being supplanted by the more pragmatic term of “the people,” that is, a society that fuses a number of different elements, even heterogeneous, in the crucible of common interests. It is precisely these common interests—not common ideals—that have provided the American people with social cohesion. These interests have crystallized into ideologies, and these ideologies have become mythicized into ideals which, however, remain within the framework of interests that are regarded as essential.
By “common ideals” Galvan really meant a common culture. The United States is not held together by “common ideals” but by common interests rooted in capitalist enterprise. In America, said Galvan, “Politics has also been conceived as a ‘capitalistic enterprise’ in the sense of competition among different interests of profit-sharing and of desire for success.” Hence:
The American political framework offers a unique example of the interaction of economic forces and political institutions. This is seen, for example, in lobbyism, electoral campaigns and above all, in the prestige that wealth carries implicitly—in a political-institutional character—and which is presumed in Supreme Court Rulings.
Few American historians, economists, or political scientists could or would view the United States in these harshly realistic terms; thus the American people are the spiritual recipients, not of the unblemished truth of their national existence, but of what Galvan called “ideologies which have been mythicized into ideals.” They become helplessly manipulated by these mythicized ideals and are, therefore, unable to face political and economic realities.
Eldridge Cleaver clearly sees the chaos of generalized “political confusion,” the black and white conflict, the Vietnam war, etc., etc. He calls for “political revolution” to be carried out by manipulated people, led by militant blacks and “revolutionary” whites. But there are very few blacks and whites who are ready and committed to this leap into a revolutionary position. Americans are a pragmatic people when it comes to “political action.” They have been, as Galvan said, “Very naïve, and very frank, about [the] special link between politics and economics. The different waves of immigrants have fully identified themselves with this pattern of social behavior.”
Left out of the mainstream of this political and economic process in America are black people, including Eldridge Cleaver, who, in the absence of American “common ideals” with which they can identify, begin to seek common ideals of their own. In doing so, they project what is, in effect, a cultural challenge to the rest of the American people. Either we as a nation create and cultivate, out of our collective past in this hemisphere, common cultural ideals which are expressed in our institutions, or our present crisis deepens and we face ultimate social disaster.
Thus in the midst of our racial and social crisis does a “cultural revolution” begin to gather momentum. The crisis in education is a cultural crisis with the students’ unrest as its natural corollary. Decentralization of ghetto schools and the drive for “black studies” in the colleges and universities become the main expressions of black “cultural nationalism,” but, in his dismissal of cultural nationalism, Eldridge Cleaver completely misses the real meaning of all of this. The black and white encounter on cultural ground demonstrates the irrelevance of much of what passes for “social science” in our academic disciplines, and the inability of most of our social scientists and planners to relate creatively to the urban crises.
In the midst of this racial crisis, this deep conflict in cultural values, whites of all ages and classes sing the black people’s music and dance to the black people’s bodily rhythms, and there is no cultural history written and taught in the educational systems that explains why this is so, and is so American. History books by the score are turned out yearly in America, and yet they cannot truthfully reveal how the black people’s presence, hovering in the background of white men’s thinking and plans, shaped white men’s political and economic decisions, influenced white men’s military strategies, delayed or advanced westward expansion, arrested or encouraged industries, created wealth by being wealth that laid the basis for banking systems, and influenced the national character.
We are witnessing at this moment visible efforts to correct our accumulated intellectual deformations in these historical and cultural concerns, and it must be recorded that these efforts came about in response to demands of black cultural nationalism, in varying degrees of insistence. The Marxist analysis of the nineteenth century could not relate to this American social pattern by using a French model. Hence, today, the “theory of knowledge” on “social practice” must create new sociological and psychological concepts to deal with the American racial and cultural patterns of behavior. This is the crucial task of the black and white radical youth. If American complacencies are not challenged and seriously analyzed in schools and colleges, the racial crisis will not explode on the crest of “political revolution” as Cleaver sees it, but into nationwide and uncontrollable social chaos of race war and revolutionary anarchy.
“In the near future,” said Galvan, “The United States of America may offer to the world two different models—outlooks—of life”:
One, by solving the internal problems now dogging the American people…. These problems are, to my way of thinking, the following:
a) The intellectual rebellion.
b) The racial disorders.
c) The latent problem of a generalized class-struggle.
d) The problem of harmonizing United States foreign policy with internal moral crisis.
How will the “American people” solve these outstanding problems? This is the question the old European “nations” are asking themselves. Perhaps the future role of the United States of America will consist—from the standpoint of “people”—in the providing of new answers and cultural challenges that are the common heritage of the old European nations. [Italics added.]
At the Princeton congress where Señor Galvan delivered his remarks on the internal problems of the United States, Eldridge Cleaver’s name was mentioned a number of times. From one of the students’ representatives, Sam Brown, now of Harvard, came the criticism that the congress of intellectuals did not include representative spokesmen of the young American revolutionary wing, such as Cleaver. But whether Cleaver would have attended even if invited is doubtful. Had he attended, his presence would have been electrifying, but, as his book reveals, it is doubtful that he would have added much to the analysis of other speakers. His second book powerfully documents the thoughts of a man fully engaged in the tactics of “political revolution” as he is able to define them.
Much more could be said here, especially on the content of his “Stanford Speech” and his “Farewell Address,” where he is at his best as a platform orator. The truth is, however, as Cleaver himself admits, his insights into “political confusion” do not go deep enough. “I’m not saying that we, the Black Panthers, have the answers…,” he says, and we know that this is true.
The problem with Eldridge Cleaver and those of his generation who opt for “political revolution” is that a new set of social and philosophical concepts are needed to substantiate political activism toward more and specified goals. To say that America is a racist society is not enough—there is more to it than that. If American racism created the institutions, it is now the institutions themselves which legitimize the racist behavior of those who are the products of the institutions. The problem, then, is how to deal structurally with these institutions—how to alter them, eradicate them, or build new and better ones? What is the method of social change to follow the demonstrations, the oratory and polemics, the jailings, the agony, and the exiles?
May 8, 1969