Bruce entered history as the most distinguished critic of the Black political class during the Age of Obama.
“Bruce had the courage to tell the truth.”
Bruce Dixon’s life and struggles might be the subject of a novel whose story patiently unfolds in surprising ways to reveal lessons about the battle for survival and the pursuit of defiant joy. Of course, observers of concise history and politics do not have that much time. Most memorials and reminiscence about Bruce remind that he was a giant, and a great warrior. Perhaps we hesitate to say, like most of us, Bruce, the toiling working class father and husband, was always outnumbered, and always outgunned. This must be placed in conversation with a far more remarkably obscure notion. Rarely has Barack Obama’s name been mentioned in the many recollections of what made Bruce great. It is if some wish to subtly apologize in the Age of Trump for how many times Bruce thrashed the previous emperor of the world. But, what type of memorial to a hero leaves out the dragon or nemesis that was bravely confronted?
It should be simpler than it has been. Why not make it plain? Bruce Dixon should enter history, with Margaret Kimberly and Glen Ford, as the most distinguished critic of the Black political class in the Age of Obama. If Black History, US History, or World History is written fairly, even if necessarily concisely, this should be his sentence if not a paragraph. Who could overlook or minimize that Bruce Dixon was the enemy of everything President Obama stood for, and that Obama was the enemy of everything Bruce stood for? Surely, countless of Bruce’s articles testify to this. Here are just a few fragments of Bruce Dixon’s views of President Obama.
Say His Name: Remember the name of Bruce Dixon’s Nemesis?
President Obama, with dastardly civility, deported way more immigrants than Trump. He target-assassinated from the sky many without trial in foreign lands. Obama overthrew Libya and was an unwavering supporter of Israel, even when its leader pissed on his leg. Obama was not an advocate of healthcare for all, but used a discourse of “access” to obscure collaboration with Big Business. He bailed out Wall Street and left working people to fend for themselves as they lost homes and faced consumer debts. Obama used his own image to defame struggling Black men through respectability politics. Obama was an apologist for mass incarceration and police murder under white and black mayors and police chiefs. He repressed real investigative journalism and whistle blowers who exposed his state surveillance and war crimes.
From the very beginning of President Obama’s administration, Bruce wrote that “all we want is a Black royal family.” The independent quality of Black community politics, its tendency to oppose war and point toward socialism, appeared to meet its demise. The society of the spectacle was complete, including fawning over the silhouette of Michele Obama, who told us that childhood obesity was a civil rights issue while the police and military conquered people of color at home and abroad.
Bernie to Black Lives Matter, Jackson to Intersectionality
Bruce stirred debate that Black Lives Matter did not challenge the Black political class, the Cooperation Jackson experiment around Mayor Lumumba in Mississippi discarded the sovereignty of popular assemblies, that Intersectionality’s critique of hierarchy was a fraud as it supported multitudes of women of color who seek coveted positions to manage our lives. Bernie Sanders was a sheepdog for the Democratic Party leading a false revolution. From Andrew Young to John Lewis to Angela Davis, Bruce exposed that Civil Rights officialdom function as anti-oppression consultants to Big Business, advocated non-violence while they found it an honor to have named after them a Navy battleship, and tell us in “Marxist” analysis that Obama was a threat to the white power structure while he was sponsored by Wall Street and presided over empire.
Bruce reminded that the history of the Black Panther Party, of which he was a rank and file member of the assassinated Fred Hampton’s Chicago chapter, which perhaps articulated the most audacious interpretation of “all power to the people,” cannot be subordinated finally to electoral politics, a t-shirt, a thin documentary or academic book, or race-first mysticism that disavows international socialism.
Bruce’s challenge to ADOS’s search for reparations by capitulating to American Exceptionalism, their learning from Zionism how to be an opportunist in the name of being historically oppressed, as ADOS attached “self-determination” to the ethnic patronage politics of empire, in exchange for supporting nativism and attacks on Third World solidarity, was bold.
Bruce’s debates with comrades Glen Ford on “the Black mis-leadership class” and Akinyele Umoja on what it may mean to be “ultra-left” might be revisited for insight and what was made obscure.
If Bruce’s critique of the Black Panther movie about the fictional African country of Wakanda was excessive, Bruce was insightful that Black folks seems thirsty for affirmation from a comic book world, where the significance of the Ferguson and Baltimore rebellions as an achievement in self-government was sufficiently repressed.
Rethinking Public Sector Alliances and Popular Self-Management
I was not fond of Bruce’s uncritical defense of public schools, though I too reject privatization. This needs to be addressed separately but in a related fashion to supporting teachers organizing their labor. I am sorry that he did not amplify one of his most cherished experiences. He organized popular committees of parents in the Cabrini Green housing projects of Chicago to give direction to what their children’s schools should be. We should research and reconstruct that contribution.
Popular self-management was never central to his analysis of public schools in his BAR journalism. It could also have informed better his advancement of universal healthcare, public transportation, and other aspects of his search for a public sector alliance. What is a public sector alliance but a coalition with some bourgeois policy makers? Such alliances should make sure that the unemployed, toilers like nurses and transit workers, single mothers, and caregivers hold the reins. Otherwise these coalitions function too closely to “Moral Mondays” subordinated to immoral politicians and preachers who are bodyguards of capital (as found in the public budget).
Most importantly, Bruce demanded that politics happens in public, it is not conducted by activist-whisperers behind the scenes. One’s documents and statements are not to be cavalierly written or discarded. Black unity or self-determination did not mean people could stand for anything, at any time, revising radical commitments toward careerism. Public statements and commitments were meant to stir discussion and debate. Friendship and comradeship were for collaborating and finetuning before we tend to shout and project, not for avoiding pulling the coat of those who wish to be all things to all people and who desire courtesy to get their excuses together.
Though in decline for decades, the Black radical tradition fractured wide open with the two elections of Obama. Many sincere and instinctively radical folks were surprised to find many of the pillars of past struggles apologizing for Obama, and even attacking those with reasonable criticism. Others tried to offer critiques while sustaining that Obama was all Black folks’ “brother.” This was a grand mistake. Bruce Dixon tried to tell us from the very beginning that no Black radicalism could be sustained without opposing Obama and the Black political class who built a wall around his pretensions to embody “change.” Bruce maintained continuity with those radicals who came before, often wielding strategies learned from prodigious study but also collective memory.
Discarding Myths About Bruce Dixon and Barack Obama
Nevertheless, some have been audacious enough to take some partial facts and sustain a bewildering myth: both Bruce Dixon and Barack Obama equally saw the importance of getting out the vote and that Dixon taught Barack Obama how to be a community organizer. Obama was never a community organizer by any standard that disturbed authority. In fact, he became president because he was always careful to never disturb anyone, at every juncture, in a manner that might impede his career. A community organizer, in the radical sense, is not a ward-healer or social worker. Though we strive to care and mobilize, our principles cannot be recalibrated during election cycles, making a cultural decoration out of anti-imperialism, and shaving off principles of our opposition to the police state to help new overseers, like women and people of color, rise to the top.
We tend to forget the basic fraud of President Obama when faced with the more obvious fact that many white racists resented his presence -- though many more voted for him. Some of us have worked all our lives not to be Obama and find the idea that he embodies anything substantive to be insulting. Obama can only be elevated within the confines of American Exceptionalism that finds opportunity in seeing evil in the world but not in one’s own nation, that sees the US as a benevolent empire or no empire at all. American Exceptionalism, the latest brand, talks about institutional racism but thinks individual bureaucrats and their policies can be transformative. It even repeats a bald-faced stupidity: that racism and terror is un-American and that racial disparities can be mended, and that institutional racism is a type of oversight that properly collected data and administration can fix.
The Trouble-Maker and the Nurturer
In contrast, Bruce Dixon, at his best, saw himself proudly as a troublemaker (not a friend) to those with power and a comforter and caregiver to those who were getting a raw deal. He juggled this concern (many counterpose the two) while watching over his own children and grandchildren and helping them navigate obstacles with unconditional loving patience.
Bruce was a nurturer with sensitivity to those that made tragic mistakes. He attended Catholic school (and a little college) while having many discontents with the experience. Still he took seriously the dignity of all – so long as people didn’t repeatedly conquer, exploit, and molest.
Bruce once explained to me that we must campaign against mass incarceration for a reason that is rarely made transparent. The mass arrest of Black working people, even without convictions for legitimate transgressions, falsely justifies starvation wages for the unemployed and marginally employed as a rehabilitative gift by a capitalist society that wishes to maintain arguments for austerity. Bruce understood that people in pursuit of creative self-reliance cut corners, navigate difficult relationships, take dangerous risks, and try to make ends meet in the battle for survival and in search of love. We try, by some measure, to make things right. The radical agitator could forgive the flawed, but not those who constantly carried out murder and apologized for the exploitation of working people, because he had the wisdom to forgive himself.
The Difficulties and Responsibilities of Writing Bruce Into History
Anybody who has ever done the work of a historian, got into the dusty archives, knows questionable letters and manuscripts can be found that complicate matters and make it difficult to sum up and hold on to our cherished ideals about heroic people and radical freedom movements. Glen Ford alluded to this challenge in his lucid memorial to Bruce at the Left Forum.
There is an autobiographical essay written for the Green Party, Bruce’s chosen vehicle for independent politics which he nevertheless criticized in public for its disarray as he worked to make it better. This statement about his life and struggles by Bruce was not meant to be his last will and testament. And to have this essay function that way is a terrible disservice. For it seems to have been written with no self-awareness, the need to preserve a legacy, or the great record of struggle in his Black Agenda Report years. As he labored to contribute to BAR through his last years suffering through cancer, one of his unfinished projects was to publish edited volumes of his writings during the Age of Obama.Still, this autobiographical essay reminds us of some things that, if we were lucky to benefit from Bruce’s friendship, he already shared with us. But they need to be approached with care.
Bruce was the most distinguished critic of the Black political class during the Age of Obama and a dynamic agitator in undermining the fraud of progressives, because for twenty-five years he worked, under various guises, for the cultural front around the Democratic Party in Chicago. The ins and outs of those who professionally mobilize the vote, non-profit foundations who create poor people’s campaigns sponsored by the rich, trade union staffers who never really held jobs as peers among ordinary people, communists who advise capitalists, he knew better than anyone. Bruce knew all the lies these people perennially tell. For many years, as Bruce told anyone who would listen, he told and believed most of them.
Bruce was an outstandingly humble and self-critical teacher of politics. And humble need not mean a dastardly civility that avoids calling names while bombing, deporting, and covering for killers, but someone who articulates politics in a manner that brings one no personal advantage. That is difficult for a working-class husband and father to sustain. With love from family and friends, admirable discipline, and good fortune, he found a way to get more radical as he became older.
Bruce was masterful at telling stories about getting out the vote. And for someone, such as myself, with a disposition to view the vote as a tool of oppression, these stories were surprisingly captivating. While he was proud that he worked in various ways against the Richard Daley machine in Chicago (and later in Atlanta) to make the vote more accessible to working people, and even did civil disobedience to do so, Bruce would tell you of how the Black political class inside the Democratic Party, who constantly speak of repression of the vote by Republicans, also represses the vote. These stories go far beyond the Electoral College and the fact that in a republic we vote for a minority to rule above society and where it is conventional wisdom that “democracy” means the majority doesn’t directly govern.
Bruce Was Born-Again (It’s Not What You Think)
It was in the years leading up to President Obama’s first election that Bruce Dixon, though an atheist who sometimes attended church with his wife Carole and who enjoyed some gospel music on occasion, could be said to have been politically born-again.
As Bruce’s autobiographical statement for the Green Party explains, incidentally, Barack Obama was once placed over his head as an administrator and fundraiser for getting out the vote. As circumstances had it, Bruce danced at the Obama’s wedding. Just as Bruce labored within the cultural apparatus of the Democratic Party for twenty-five years after his activism with the Black Panther Party, to his credit, unlike many of his generation, he recognized he had fallen but he could get up.
Bruce’s rising distinguished more than the last decade of his life. While some age not just physically but mentally, losing their way politically but very much alert to their retreats, satisfied with the resume of their life journey and carefully embellishing it, Bruce’s autobiographical statement was not polished up, ready for his untimely demise. This might throw a wrench in the works of those who might help preserve his radical legacy. But it need not.
Dancing at Weddings, Ghouls, and Non-Sectarians
So what that Bruce Dixon danced at Barack and Michele Obama’s wedding? The archive of his great contributions can survive that and makes his rupture with the Black political class in the Age of Obama more epic. He also danced at two “anarchist weddings” in Atlanta. One memorably was on Halloween and those who attended were asked to wear costumes. Bruce came wearing a clerical collar with a cross around his neck and carrying a bible. His accoutrements were purposely raggedy and distinguished by a large pillow in his belt that made what appeared to be his stomach protrude outward both below and above his beltline. I said: “Who are you supposed to be?” He said: Andrew Young. Of course, that corporate ghoul of Civil Rights officialdom, who the conclusion to Ava Duvernay’s Selmatells us is a national treasure, has outlived Bruce. He asked me about my get-up; what phantasm was I supposed to be? Wearing a chalk stripe suit with absurd buttons and stickers on my lapels, I replied “a progressive who gets out the vote.”
A symposium on “Blacks and the Left” at Emory University in Atlanta the month before Bruce died of cancer blocked a proposed forum that was meant to reflect on Bruce Dixon’s legacy at Black Agenda Report. Discussions were had “toward a non-sectarian left in the 21stcentury” around the ideas of Walter Rodney, Grace Lee Boggs, and Angela Davis, the heritage of whom were all bent to accommodate the Age of Obama, the Democratic Party, and the left bloc of capital in the name of “social justice.” Bruce Dixon’s voice and example did not compromise and were excluded.
Non-sectarian can mean approaching the downfall of civilization only to justify that clarifying the terms of social revolution as distinct from progressivism is irresponsible. A certain type of “communist” argues this in the name of scientific method, and sustaining coveted professional status in capitalist society. Yet we shouldn’t play with revolution. A major trope of this mistake, in the name of political education, is not having the courage to tell the truth.
Conversations with a Radical Journalist and Managing Editor
In Bruce’s last days as a semi-healthy managing editor of BAR, when he was sporadically still producing his own journalistic contributions, we talked about the difficulty of publishing the political truth about Dr. Martin Luther King and Venezuela. This was before the recent revisiting of stories about King’s sex life, a good reminder that a transparent conversation about King and COINTELPRO or King and radicalism is not easy, so long as King is simply elevated as an icon and martyr. Now the increased embargo on Venezuela by American empire reminds us of the difficulties and ethical debates about critiquing the political class in a national liberation struggle that claims to be socialist.
The conversations Bruce had as a managing editor of BAR should begin to be recorded. For that too is part of the urgent tasks of radical journalism. We don’t intend to just write and publish anything. Sometimes we hold back things that are penetrating and advance things that we might in hindsight second-guess. Political editing is an art and can also be frustrating to those who don’t understand it.
It also matters if one is editing a journal that is a record of the Black movement (mass movements can have zig zags as they unfold), or a conversation about radical political philosophy and strategy guided by pragmatism and our highest ideals. These can overlap but also more strategic discussions can be the subject of internal memos with a larger historical context that is subsequently partially popularized in short form. Bruce’s political thought and practice will not be understood by history without ultimately talking about some of this.
Getting to the Root and Speaking Truth to Power
Some speak of radical as getting to “the root” (they mean in an academic and diagnostic way). Some talk of “speaking truth to power” by which they don’t mean denouncing authorities but calling up the mayor and president, going over for tea, and exchanging gifts. Still the facts of our existence are more complicated than that.
We have to balance the real attacks the state and capitalism makes on people’s lives with the matter that we are trying to advance together (not divide the two) everyday people’s economic and ecological standard of living andtheir creative self-government and direct sovereignty. For reasons historical and philosophical (even if activists think they are beyond ideological dogma) these can become divided.
The critique of political classes and mis-leadership classes, for various reasons, are not as thorough and consistent as they might be. Even among dear comrades sometimes we agree to disagree, and sometimes necessarily we must have the courage to walk alone or in smaller circles, as we try to contribute to refashioning the future.
Rethinking COINTELPRO After the Age of Obama
Bruce and I once chatted about the need for historians to revisit how we understand COINTELPRO following the Age of Obama. It is not best understood as primarily carried out by the obscure but protean personality who attaches themselves to the margins of movements as provocateurs. Most often the chief actors are hiding in plain sight.
The Age of Trump is not the first time “progressives” have befriended transparently the intelligence services, cheered on the Justice Department, and called for “law and order.” To maintain all this while claiming to be part of a radical tradition that seeks to challenge or abolish the police state, carceral state, warfare state, surveillance state, and then to get out the vote again for the left bodyguards of capital, should compel sincere and alert folks toward rethinking.
Certainly, it was not plausible to most, to name so many prominent people with a historical record of radical activism “agents” of the state and rulers in the Obama years, though many functioned that way. Bruce said another way to look at things is most are not paid agents or spies but with little reflection are happy to work for and report to the state for free.
One major turning point in Bruce’s becoming politically born-again was recognizing that Barack Obama, the candidate for senator in Illinois, was capturing a popular audience, by saying he opposed George W Bush’s Iraq War by denouncing it as “a stupid war,” paving the way for conquering in other global locations. By the time Obama and Dr. King were placed on posters together (even with Malcolm X, where people will do anything to make a few bucks out of mystified heritage), Bruce was positioning himself to enter history as the most distinguished critic of the Black political class during the Age of Obama.
The Courage to Tell the Truth, the Difficulties of Writing and Publishing the Truth
In his last months, there were things discussed and not published that may be untimely, may be too soon, or too late.But this is the work of radical political organization and editing a movement journal (it is not simply a matter of spelling and grammar, maintaining a website, fundraising, keeping a mailing list, or creative personal self-expression).
Bruce asked me to read Bertolt Brecht’s Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties.This was his way of starting a conversation (or finishing one) that the courage and keenness to write the truth is valuable but is not the same as wielding the truth successfully as a weapon of struggle. All who do radical political education, agitation, and propaganda work make strategic choices. One must be crafty in how we wield truth with an eye to spreading it among the many, so it is useful for radical ruptures with domination, but also alert to how many people (if at all) are ready to receive it constructively.
We should wish to minimize anxiety and insecurity in an already mangled world that makes us dread. But our goal is to build a liberation struggle distinguished by an education to govern that expands everyday people’s capacities to make difficult decisions under adversity, and to build the counter-institutions that prefigure the new society.
Bruce was subjected to criticism that building independent radical politics might be irresponsible because ordinary people were too damaged or unconscious in this epoch to understand properly. He retorted: What type of social revolution fears the capacities of commoners to take matters in to their own hands, and justifies keeping political decision-making far removed, while supporting the two-party duopoly and the Black political class?
Bruce had the courage to tell the truth. His acumen and wisdom, exactly because it was so rich and nuanced, will help us have future conversations about where and when we alsoenter history.
Dr. Matthew Quest is a scholar of the legacies of C.L.R. James. See his most recent publication, “New Beginning Movement: Coordinating Council of Revolutionary Alternatives for Trinidad and the Caribbean,” In Ideology, Regionalism, and Society in Caribbean History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)
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