Eldridge Cleaver, author of the memoir Soul on Ice (1968), cemented his reputation as one of the most notorious revolutionaries in 1960s America while serving as the Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party. But after seven years abroad in Cuba, Algeria, and elsewhere, he returned to the United States chastened—and spent the rest of his career focused on Christian and conservative causes.
Lynn Scarlett and Bill Kauffman interviewed Cleaver for reason in February 1986. He spoke candidly about his mistakes. The introduction to his interview quoted his own account of his mistaken beliefs about America’s enemies before his time abroad: “Pig power in America was infuriating…But pig power in the communist framework was awesome and unaccountable.”
On the run from the police in the ’60s and ’70s, Cleaver visited or lived in a gamut of nations eager to poke Uncle Sam in the eye by taking in a supposed political refugee from American racial injustice. But the experience was the opposite of what he expected.
“I stood up in America to fight against what I saw as the evils of our system,” he told reason. “Then to go to a country like Cuba or Algeria or the Soviet Union and see the nature of control that those state apparatuses had over the people—it was shocking to me. I didn’t want to believe it, because it meant that the politics that I was espousing was wrong.”
The recent death of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez brought some of the sentiments abandoned by Cleaver in the 1970s back into fashion. American Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) praised Chavez for believing “that the government of the country should be used to empower the masses, not the few.” Actor Sean Penn mourned that “the people of the United States lost a friend it never knew it had.” New York University professor Greg Grandin, in the pages of The Nation, admitted Chavez was authoritarian—then said the problem was he “wasn’t authoritarian enough.”
Cleaver admitted that “when I had a chance to go and live in communist countries [my] individualism came into conflict with the state apparatus, and that’s when I recoiled against it.” Unlike Cleaver, those Americans now praising Chavez have had the good fortune not to live within the repressive regimes they champion.