Donate to Reason! Because What Other Magazine Was Interviewing Eldridge Cleaver About Nelson Mandela in 1986?


We're finishing up Day Two of Reason's annual webathon, in which we ask our humble, disloyal, and rakishly attractive readers to toss a few dollars or Bitcoins in our cup so that we can bring you even more hard-hitting, intellectually engaging journalism advancing the cause of Free Minds and Free Markets. We're more than halfway to our new goal of $150,000 for the week, so please make your tax-deductible donation right the hell now!

Don't know about you, but I've been spending this death-day of Nelson Mandela–one of Reason's "35 Heroes of Freedom" in our 35th anniversary issue 10 years ago—re-living the anti-apartheid politics and controversies of mid-1980s America, when the protest kids were building pro-divestment shantytowns, William F. Buckley was writing about how Mandela belonged in his jail cell, and Ronald Reagan was trying (and ultimately failing) to find wiggle room between rhetorical anti-racism and practical anti-communism. (As in many things Reagan, checking the original video is always a fascinating trip.)

It's hard to exaggerate just how massive and distorting was the Cold War lens through which we all inevitably judged—and often affected the outcomes of—every faraway controversy. The apartheid struggle was a proxy war of communism vs. capitalism, Soviets vs. Americans, and for many of the most serious proxy warriors, it was more important that Mandela was on the wrong side of the divide, and that the African National Congress mixed some communism and violence with its anti-totalitarianism. Sure, he was a political prisoner of a horridly unjust regime, but the man sometimes talked about nationalizing factories!

I was trying to put into words just how wrong I find that approach, then and now, but then I conducted a "Nelson Mandela" search in the Reason archive, and discovered that former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver said it much better, in a fascinating cover interview he gave to Lynn Scarlett and Bill Kaufmann in 1986. Relevant excerpt:

REASON: A lot of the Panthers seem to be, personally, pretty strong individualists, like you, and yet you espoused revolutionary socialism, collectivism. Did you notice the inconsistencies?

Cleaver: At the time I didn't notice it. It's one thing to study Marxism on paper, living in a capitalistic country where you have individual freedoms and so forth—you don't really see the relationship between the ideology and the form of government that comes out of that ideology. Now, when I had a chance to go and live in communist countries this individualism came into conflict with the state apparatus, and that's when I recoiled against it. But when I was here I was looking at Marxism-Leninism as a weapon, as a tool, to fight against the status quo, and you know, it's just a quality of human beings that when they are trying to tear something down they don't pay enough attention.

Just like in South Africa right now. They went to visit Nelson Mandela, and they asked him, "Would you prefer apartheid to communism?" And his attitude was, Communism is better than apartheid. Because apartheid has him in prison and has had him in prison for 20 years. Well, you get a guy in a communist country who has been in prison there for 20 years, and he will tell you, "I would rather live under apartheid," because he could leave. But the truth is that any form of constraint on our freedoms is not acceptable.

And in fact Mandela cut it out with the nationalization talk once he left jail, and will be remembered for something almost no politicians outside of George Washington are ever noted for: choosing not to exercise the power he had. I think Hugh Hewitt said it most succinctly today:

John Podhoretz tweeted out that Nelson Mandela could have chosen to be–had the power to become–an even greater monster than Mugabe. Instead, Mandela chose to become a saint. A great leader, a great Christian, a great example. The world cannot honor him enough as it should hope that all people offered the complete power he was would act as he did.

Anyway, Reason's long-form Q&As are my single favorite part of the archive. We published an eBook collection a year ago of some of the classics: Ronald Reagan and F.A. Hayek in 1975, Timothy Leary in 1977, and more. Since our last webathon, we've conducted some barn-burners with the likes of George Will, Jeremy Scahill, Judge Alex Kozinski and Rep. Justin Amash. Debating and testing out the philosophies and tactics of public figures is one of our best tools for representing your views in the national discussion. You know what makes that easier to do? MONEY MAKES THAT EASIER TO DO.

So please donate whatever you can, whenever you can (by which I mean THIS WEEK), and in the comments tell us who we should interview in 2014!