The great Black radical broadcaster and polemicist Glen Ford has left us and the airwaves will be sadder for it. Much will be said by his comrades, friends, and other Black radicals more versed in the tradition. But I think one item that might be missed otherwise was his unfailing Leninism.
The first public reaction to the idea of reactualizing Lenin is, of course, an outburst of sarcastic laughter: Marx is OK, even on Wall Street, there are people who love him today — Marx the poet of commodities, who provided perfect descriptions of the capitalist dynamics, Marx of the Cultural Studies, who portrayed the alienation and reification of our daily lives -, but Lenin, no, you can’t be serious! The working class movement, revolutionary Party, and similar zombie-concepts? Doesn’t Lenin stand precisely for the FAILURE to put Marxism into practice, for the big catastrophe which left its mark on the entire XXth century world politics, for the Real Socialist experiment which culminated in an economically inefficient dictatorship? -Slavoj Zizek.
In the two decades since those words were first published, though a great deal has changed both domestically and internationally for the Left (the implosion of American imperial unipolarity in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pink Tide in Latin America, the economic ascendancy of China, acceleration of climate catastrophe, the evisceration of privacy by the surveillance state and Silicon Valley, the social democratic upsurge around Bernie Sanders and DSA, the full-throated embrace of white nationalism by the GOP leadership, et. al.), absolutely nothing in Zizek’s statement is changed. Whilst his progeny have taken on afterlives of their own, Lenin is still the ultimate persona non grata in radical politics.
American anarchists and social democrats shun him as the authoritarian nightmare’s author, failing to recognize how American liberals have built a monstrosity that would make the Stasi envious. Anglophone Trots, Maoists, “anti-revisionist” Stalin nostalgics, and Che/Fidel aficionados wandered off a long time ago into their own strange ghettos of religious worship, populating never-ending blogs and paper periodicals with polemics catered to a demographic that would comfortably fit their sum toto membership into a telephone booth, valorizing an idol as opposed to what Lenin actually believed at the close of his life. In the former Socialist Motherland, Putin has revitalized Stalin as the modernizing Tsar of All Russias, the slayer of the Hitlerite dragon who, despite his carceral failings, salvaged the nation and dragged it into the new century. Simultaneously, the Russian president demonizes Lenin, saying he “planted an atom bomb under the building called Russia” by supporting national self-determination to the point of granting the right of Soviet republican secession.
Good, bad, or indifferent about the current Kremlin leader (a topic sure to set off a firestorm of controversy when pursued in either direction), these comments disclose something of monumental import. In the 75 years since the Second World War, Western capitalism has found a way to make peace with Communists that are willing to follow a certain authoritarian liberal politics. Tito, Gorbachev, the post-Deng Chinese Communist Party, the united front of the CP and African National Congress in post-apartheid South Africa, and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland all found ways to comfortably integrate into globalized capitalism.
Lenin, by contrast, is still taboo because he vigorously rejected “great nation chauvinism” (the 19th century phrase for racism and imperialism) and championed national liberation/self-determination. In 1920, Lenin issued a personal directive to the newborn formations that eventually congealed as the Communist Party USA and explicitly directed them to take on Black national liberation. This extraordinary intervention via the Comintern, as well as his steadfast opposition to the misery of the colonial system, has earned him the hatred of all mankind for the rest of eternity. It is the dirty little secret of capitalist anti-Leninism, even if many do not realize the animus that was subtly hidden from view over the past century (excepting of course those to the Left of Lenin, such as Noam Chomsky).
This Leninist ethic was what Glen championed until his dying day. He told me in private correspondence that he considered himself a Marxist and he never abandoned that while simultaneously also having a healthy skepticism about various cults and sects. He saw his efforts as part of the mighty Black Radical Tradition but also, unlike so many conservative Black nationalists and postmodernists, argued the validity of revolutionary Marxist socialism.
Consider some of his grand accomplishments:
-He created an independent Black Left radio show and website that never once felt inclined to tarry with the whole “lesser evil voting” strategy, even though that would have dumped tons of advertising revenue in the BAR account and brought them traffic like you see with Black liberal sites like The Root.
-Despite the very long history of contrary currents in the Black Left, he never gave airtime to anybody with homo/trans-phobic or sexist opinions. As recently as last month, BAR ran Ahjamu Umi’s review of a biography on Eldridge Cleaver that hammered on the failures of Cleaver’s politics in relation to the Black Power movement. This is even more extraordinary to me because Glen was a red diaper baby who worked for one of the CPUSA newspapers before its 1991 implosion. (For those who are not aware, Cleaver was astonishingly bad about these topics and CPUS Chair Gus Hall was an utter nightmare, something Bettina Aptheker and Angela Davis have written about rather publicly and without apology for in the past 35 years.) We can have a lot of emotions about BAR’s international politics but here’s the thing: There actually is something to be said for the much more immediate and dangerous impacts of endorsing rampant chauvinism in any domestic polity as opposed to the arguments in geopolitics that the Left undeniably has very little impact upon. Even at its best position in the past 20 years, during the Nader campaigns, the Battle of Seattle, and the antiwar demonstrations leading up to the Iraq invasion, the Left has been pretty ineffectual due to its own internal contradictions and the way it committed suicide on cue from Barack Obama.
-I spoke with both Bruce Dixon and Glen on various occasions. They both were very brave about their failure regarding their “bright line test” of Obama in the early 2000s. I honestly believe that was very courageous. Indeed, so many more New Leftists have never been able or willing to admit that they made a colossal failure in judgment about Obama and have devoted reams to demonizing people like Glen and Bruce for their adamant refusal to hold back. The only other major Black intellectual who comes to mind that did something similar was Cornel West and he had his career destroyed because of it. (Incidentally, Glen was an absolutely hilarious gossip when it came to various personalities on the prominent personages on the Left.)
-Glen put up with a tremendous amount of liberal racism and red baiting for holding true to his political opinions and deserves a lot of respect for that. The White House revoked his press pass and made him put up with the indignity of daily searches to get into the Press Briefing room. In a 2018 column, he wrote:
I was denied standard White House accreditation while assigned to that beat in the mid-Seventies as correspondent for the Mutual Black Network, one of two Black-oriented radio news networks in the nation. (April Ryan’s American Urban Radio Networks is the result of a merger of the Mutual Black Network and its former competition, the National Black Network.) Unlike the other denizens of the White House press briefing room who casually waved their press passes at the gate, I had to present myself for search each morning by uniformed Secret Service agents—a professionally humiliating process. After enduring nearly a year of being singled out for pat-downs, I demanded that the White House explain the hold-up in issuing my press pass. After all, correspondents for the Soviet news agency Tass and the newspapers Izvestia and Pravda, as well as the Cuban press, were all accredited. What was the problem with me?
After a few weeks, I was summoned to a White House office where one of the few Black Secret Service agents informed me that I was considered “a danger to the president.” How so, I asked? As owner and host of the first nationally syndicated Black news interview program on commercial television, “America’s Black Forum,” whose Washington broadcasts routinely beat the network Sunday morning shows in the ratings, I had interviewed most of the President Jimmy Carter’s cabinet and all of the then 16-member Congressional Black Caucus. I’d already traveled with Carter and hobnobbed at White House functions, and was also the network’s State Department reporter, roaming its Foggy Bottom headquarters in the afternoon and occasionally interviewing the Secretary of State. How was I a threat to the president? Could it have something to do with my activities in the Black Panther Party, seven years before?
“Yeah, that’s the reason,” said the Secret Service agent, clearly agitated. “It’s the Black Panther history.” I protested that denial of the press pass was a violation of my First Amendment rights and my right to fully pursue my profession as a journalist. “You can say whatever you like, but our job is to protect the president and we consider you to be a danger,” the agent shot back. “Go ahead and sue, if you like.”
He never once made that into a major boast or justification in any argument, a rather common rhetorical tactic utilized by ’60s veterans in order to nullify criticism of their contemporary politics.
-Even when he vehemently disagreed with comrades, he never aired dirty laundry except for instances pertaining to endorsing a Democrat or their policies.
All these and more moments in his biography testify to a praxis in action, the effort to rebuild the American Left after its historical defeats since the end of the Second World War and the implosion of the USSR.
Every successful revolution that has overthrown capitalism since 1917 wed the revolutionary Marxist tradition to the preexisting indigenous radical currents, what could be called the Leninist praxis. Lenin struggled to comprehend how to develop a proletarian revolution in a landmass where the proles were a minuscule existence in a massive expanse of quasi-medieval peasants, trying to fuse the calcified Western European Marxist tradition with the earlier Narodnik and anarchist currents. Mao belligerently turned a colonial peasantry into the vanguard of revolution that was deeply rooted in the earlier traditions of Sun Yat Sen, much to the ire of his Soviet benefactors. Castro bonded Leninism to the older tradition of Jose Marti. Soviet-aligned parties who could not find a similar synthesis, as in Eastern Europe and North America, collapsed with the Soviet experiment. (Incidentally, this is why various “Leninist” cults will never succeed at what Lenin attempted.)
W.E.B. Du Bois and his heirs represented the revolutionary tradition in America. His polemic with Booker T. Washington is Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution in US contexts. Black Reconstruction in America sought to wed Marxism to the revolutionary abolitionist movement. This was a movement that was otherwise was subject to condescension from Moscow-friendly hacks like James S. Allen, whose description of the Reconstruction Revolution was laced with a paternalism indebted to the Progressive Era historians that collaborated in Jim Crow apartheid’s genesis.
Glen’s journalism sought pursued this synthesis to his final days on this earth. His desire was to build the understanding that the Black Left will be at the vanguard of dismantling capitalism and imperialism in the United States.
This is what Leninism truly means.
The greatness of Lenin is that he WASN’T AFRAID TO SUCCEED… In 1917, instead of waiting for the right moment of maturity, Lenin organized a preemptive strike; in 1920, finding himself in a position of the leader of the party of the working class with no working class (most of it being killed in the civil war), he went on organizing a state, i.e. he fully accepted the paradox of the party organizing-creating its base, its working class…[,] Lenin thrown into an OPEN situation. Are we, within our late capitalist closure of the “end of history,” still able to experience the shattering impact of such an authentic historical openness? -Zizek