by the kites Editorial Committee
For a PDF of this article, click here.
The title of this intervention is doubly ironic. First, because “abolitionism” is so often itself a grift, with the creation of an abolition-industrial complex consisting of Angela Davis speaking gigs, academics writing abolitionist books, activists securing Ford Foundation funding and partnerships with major corporations, nonprofit organizations garnering government and grant money to pay their employees higher salaries, and media appearances by abolitionists used to boost their following, fame, and finances. And second, because kites has been consistently polemicizing against abolitionism for its underlying reformist assumptions that somehow you can dismantle the bourgeoisie’s repressive apparatuses (police, prisons) without overthrowing the bourgeoisie and destroying its state apparatus through revolutionary civil war.1 The only abolitionism we can fully unite with is the call to abolish the sex trade, not because we think it will be possible to do so short of revolution, but because the call to abolish the sex trade draws a firm line of demarcation between revolutionary principle, on the one hand, and postmodernist petty-bourgeois apologies for capitalism-imperialism and its most insidious forms of exploitation, on the other hand.
Now that our position on abolitionism and the irony of this editorial’s title have been made clear, let’s turn to a pernicious problem that has plagued resistance movements and weighed down the emergence of revolutionary politics over the last decade, namely grifterism. Grifters attaching themselves to radical and revolutionary movements for the benefit of themselves, their careers, and their bank accounts is, of course, nothing new, and grifters tend to multiply exactly when radical and revolutionary movements are in the ascendant. As Lenin pointed out:
It is not difficult to be a revolutionary when revolution has already broken out and is in spate, when all people are joining the revolution just because they are carried away, because it is the vogue, and sometimes even from careerist motives. After its victory, the proletariat has to make most strenuous efforts, even the most painful, so as to “liberate” itself from such psuedo-revolutionaries. It is far more difficult—and far more precious—to be a revolutionary when the conditions for direct, open, really mass and really revolutionary struggle do not yet exist, to be able to champion the interests of the revolution (by propaganda, agitation and organization) in non-revolutionary bodies, and quite often in downright reactionary bodies, in a non-revolutionary situation, among masses who are incapable of immediately appreciating the need for the revolutionary methods of action.2
Lenin did indeed lead strenuous efforts to purge the Bolshevik Party of careerists several years after the success of the Russian Revolution. In rhetoric (well…maybe in practice a bit too), Lenin went beyond a mere purge when he wrote of “careerists and charlatans, who deserve only to be shot.”3
Today’s grifter problem is even worse than in Lenin’s time: the number of grifters opportunistically attaching themselves to resistance movements and revolutionary politics is far greater than the number of serious revolutionaries. Grifterism has emerged before—and has held back—the emergence of a revolutionary movement. And not just a few grifters, but a widespread culture of grifterism has seeped its way into resistance movements and discussions of revolutionary politics.
As a consequence, proletarian masses and genuine revolutionary-minded individuals from other classes are left demoralized when they try and lift their heads above the widespread and pervasive individualism of capitalist society only to find that so many of those claiming the mantle of opposition to capitalist rule are, in fact, just cynically seeking to profit from that “opposition” and thereby reproducing more of the same bourgeois individualism. Add to this the fact that many people who should know better have failed to distinguish between grifters and genuine revolutionaries and have often given a bigger platform to the former than the latter and you get massive confusion about and an inability to discuss and debate, with any real sense of principle, revolutionary politics.4
So what are the manifestations of grifterism in resistance movements and revolutionary politics today? What are the material and cultural conditions that provided the basis for such pervasive grifterism? How might we start to combat grifterism? Answering these questions is an important starting point for getting these grifters off of our collective backs and uprooting the culture of careerist individualism they have fostered.
An Anatomy of Grifterism and a Taxonomy of Grifters
At base, grifterism is nothing more than pimping off resistance movements and radical and revolutionary politics for personal benefit. A type of careerism wherein the establishment of radical credentials is parlayed into a high-paying professional position, usually in government, nonprofit-sector activism, academia, or the media, is often the path of grifters, especially the most savvy among them. (For example, look at Van Jones’s move from movement activist dabbling in Maoism to a position in the Obama administration to a CNN commentator to now a recipient of a $100 million donation from Jeff Bezos). Grifterism often includes a financial motive, but can also be purely and pathetically the pursuit of ego inflation through movement celebrity status and social media followers and likes. Indeed, it’s a good thing grifters can do their favored political activity (Tweeting) from home, because their heads must be so swelled from likes and Retweets that they have trouble getting through the door (excuse the dad joke). Finally, while the theories that are popular in prison about reptilians running the world are false (aside from maybe Dick Cheney), the grifters who pimp off resistance movements are a particular species of lizard, namely, chameleons. For grifters are good at changing their politics to fit in with the current trends, and thus can one minute masquerade as Maoists, the next as abolitionists, and the next as democratic socialists, and, of course, master and deploy the latest postmodernist lingo all along the way.
Grifterism manifests in a variety of ways and is supported by a number of institutions, and grifters themselves range from the most blatant profiteers to the more subtle beneficiaries of resistance movements to commentators who become overnight experts on this or that social question with no practical experience or expertise but, nonetheless, wax eloquent on their YouTube channels.
The most familiar type of grifter is the nonprofit-sector activist, who usually went from a postmodernist college education to a career in a nonprofit organization. They might talk about all the organizing they do, but they mostly do charity and have nothing but condescension towards proletarian masses, who are treated as window dressing (quite literally in photos used on nonprofit websites). Every protest, educational event, and organizing effort becomes another line on the nonprofit grifter’s resume, and their activities fundamentally serve to advance them to higher positions within the nonprofit-industrial complex. Since nonprofit organizations must be funded, nonprofit grifters count on the support of bourgeois philanthropies and foundations to increase their own salaries, and this symbiotic relationship is the ultimate bottom line that determines the limits of nonprofit activist politics…nothing too radical that would alienate the funders. It’s not that the use of nonprofit tax status is in itself indicative of selling out—there are certainly instances where united front efforts, mass organizations, community activists, etc., might be justified in using nonprofit status. The problem is the whole careerist culture of the nonprofit-industrial complex, through which grifterism has left its stamp on the entirety of activist movements in North America.
Probably the most notorious example of nonprofit-sector grifters at this point is the leadership of the Black Lives Matter Global Network (BLM). With its tens of millions of dollars in funding from major institutions like the Ford Foundation and partnerships with major corporations (drink Sprite!), #BLM has been perhaps the most successful nonprofit-sector activist grift of the last decade. The beneficiaries have not been the masses who still face police brutality and murder, but the handful of nonprofit activists who constantly boast about having started the “Black Lives Matter” movement while never giving credit to the masses of Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities who rose up in rebellion. Worse yet, they have snubbed, disrespected, and neglected many families of people killed by police while using the names of those killed to advance their careers. One outrageous example is that of Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice and a fierce fighter against police brutality since the Cleveland police killed her 12-year-old son, who was homeless for a time while BLM leader Patrisse Cullors was buying up several houses from money made off of her movement celebrity status.5 This is why we at kites have consistently drawn a distinction between the rebellions against police brutality, in which Black and other proletarian masses were the driving force, and the leadership of BLM that grifted off of them.6
Another type of grifter is the academic advancing their career by mastering postmodernist politics and speaking as an authority about the latest protest movements. It’s no secret that in the humanities and social sciences, professors must prove their woke postmodernist political credentials to land tenure-track jobs and publish in prestigious journals. Aside from pushing any political positions more radical than postmodernism out of academic discourse, the effect is to encourage the most shallow charlatans eager to advance their careers by jumping onto the latest political trends with no real or long-term commitment to the masses and to the struggle. They harbor the same condescending attitudes towards the masses as the nonprofit grifters. Their use of political sloganeering is downright obnoxious; at some point we’re going to have to decolonize decolonization.
The social media commentator is another species of grifter, competing for attention in the hot take economy. Some of these fools are motivated by pure ego—the dopamine rush of internet popularity. Others aim to parlay social media followings into a crowd-funded podcast or Patreon account. Social media commentator grifters often operate by presenting themselves as great experts on a particular political question or an ideology. They usually have no connection to actual class struggle or political traditions, and their expertise is limited to what they’ve discovered online and the rumors they help spread. The result is lots of false information from the eminent YouTube historians of the Left.
One class of grifters that preys on the masses is the unscrupulous lawyer who presents lawsuits as the best avenue to fight for justice. These unscrupulous lawyers often glom onto the families of people killed by police and act as their media spokespeople. It’s, of course, absolutely right for people to sue the government when its police murder their relatives or otherwise commit an injustice against them. However, lawsuits alone will not bring justice or facilitate the struggle against injustice. The unscrupulous lawyer steers the masses towards the lawsuit as their only means for redress, exactly because it will be a major payday for said lawyer. In this pursuit of profit, the unscrupulous lawyer is quick to make compromises with the bourgeois state rather than take the fight for justice all the way, and directs the masses towards political activity that will not disrupt the lawsuit payout. The development of a class-conscious proletariat today must include the ability to sniff out the opportunism of grifter lawyers and, instead of lawsuits, focus on waging class struggle, working with only those lawyers who are committed to real justice (the shining examples of Lynn Stewart and Chokwe Lumumba, Sr. come to mind).
The Commodity Relations Behind Grifterism
While that is by no means any exhaustive taxonomy of grifters, let us turn now to some of the mechanisms that facilitate grifterism, starting with social media. As should be obvious, social media platforms are simply the Silicon-Valley bourgeoisie’s way of profiting from and reproducing, among all age groups and strata of society, the popularity contests characteristic of everyday life at a suburban middle school. In Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, etc. we find an impressive nexus of cold capitalist economics and highly effective, participatory ideological state apparatuses inculcating us in idiocy and individualism. Grifters thrive on social media, “selling” their commodities in the hot take economy and figuring out how to best position themselves within the marketplace (find your edge, niche, etc., or get ahead of the latest trends). While some (emphasis on some) genuine revolutionaries will have to develop social media followings to communicate our politics, and social media is an unavoidable organizing tool, we should be conscious and critical of the fundamentally capitalist form of social media platforms, which will always inherently favor grifterism over the content of genuine revolutionary politics. This is even embedded in how their algorithms work, not necessarily through censorship but through propping up content that’s likely to be trendy in the worst bourgeois sense of the word. Furthermore, social media stardom is ideologically corrosive, and those genuine revolutionaries tasked with using it for revolutionary aims must become impervious to the infection of ego, including by way of collective supervision and revolutionary discipline.
Linked with social media is the practice of branding. With capitalism-imperialism’s “neoliberal” turn, branding has come to permeate social life and culture in general. Everything from artistic expression to family life to what you ate for breakfast this morning to radical politics is now refracted through branding, and capitalism encourages everyone to “develop their brand.” It is a grand triumph of neoliberal capitalism that branding has come to permeate the Left and thoroughly infected it with the grifter mentality.
Grifters need a means to monetize their activity, and for that they have cash apps. The remarkable sea change that these cash apps have facilitated is to make fundraising for political movements and causes centered on the individual rather than the collective: there’s a reason it’s called GoFundMe. Fundraising campaigns among Leftists are often to help an individual pay their rent, bills, college tuition, etc. and rarely about developing collective apparatuses for dealing with these scenarios. Often, identities are leveraged as reasons to donate, and you have to wonder what happens to individuals suffering a financial crisis who do not meet the postmodernist identity markers that currently generate the most sympathy. You also have to wonder what happens to the single mother on the brink of homelessness who doesn’t have access to activist social media networks or the time, savvy, or desire to develop their brand in order to feed and house their children.
It is now standard procedure for activists to put their cash apps in their social media profiles—not for their organizations, but for themselves as individuals. Patreon accounts similarly encourage an individual-centered mode of funding and a commodity relationship between producers and funders. And success with cash apps depends largely on social media stardom and the ability to brand oneself—in other words, on mastering grifterism. It ought to become common practice to relentlessly hound these activist-profiteers with “Why the fuck do you have your personal cash app in your social media profile?”7
After all, resistance movements and revolutionary organizations need funds (although the latter must raise them in ways that cannot be traced) and have no choice but to use the dominant fundraising tools. But we should be fully cognizant of how cash apps come seeped in commodity relations and center individuals. And we will have to ruthlessly critique and displace the current individualist fundraising culture and develop models of collective fundraising centered on organizations and used to facilitate class struggle.
Postmodernist Identity Politics and Grifterism
The largely unchallenged rise of postmodernist identity politics has been a boon to grifterism, in part because those under its sway refuse critical discussion of political line, instead insisting on “following” or “listening to” X person because of their identity. Not surprisingly, those doing the insisting are not the most oppressed and exploited sections of the people, but tend to be from upper sections of the petty-bourgeoisie, white progressives and liberals, and the privileged sections among oppressed nationalities. Postmodernist identity politics allows them to argue for following the leadership of those individuals from oppressed groups who pose the least threat to the status quo, hence (ironically) letting the “follow people of X identity” crowd keep their “privilege.”
Consequently, postmodernist identity politics facilitates grifterism, for grifters excel at using identity as capital (or, in the case of white grifters, successfully navigating through identity-as-capital commodity relations owing to their mastery of opportunism). Without a single exception, postmodernist identity politics has never been used to promote revolutionary leadership or revolutionary politics. The popularity of Assata Shakur and her autobiography in recent years may seem an exception until we consider the fact that this popularity has not led to any application of the lessons of her revolutionary example to today or discussions of the relevance of the strategy and tactics of the Black Liberation Army. Indeed, those claiming the mantle of Assata the most are the most guilty of ignoring her politics, and the popularity of Assata has not led to any renewed efforts to free the many Black revolutionaries who remain imprisoned today.8
Today’s grifters have shown a disgusting capacity for appropriating revolutionaries of past eras to boost their own popularity and profits, all while effectively pissing on the graves of the past revolutionaries they praise. As Lenin once put it,
During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.9
In addition to rewriting history, what further reveals the bankruptcy of postmodernist identity politics is that it has failed to prevent white grifters from grifting off of movements against the oppression of Black people. The most telling example is Robin DiAngelo, a corporate diversity stooge whose book White Fragility quickly rose to the bestseller list in the wake of the summer 2020 protests and rebellions sparked by the police murder of George Floyd. DiAngelo became one of the most prominent anti-racism spokespeople in the bourgeois media, and her book became a panacea (especially among academics, hilariously enough) for white people “working” on their racism. But few of the strongest advocates of postmodernist identity politics had any substantial words of criticism for the fact that a white woman profited from and became the spokesperson of anti-racism, likely because the grifterist methods and the diversity-industrial complex that DiAngelo mastered and benefited from were the very same methods and economies that they rely on.
While DiAngelo is an especially well-known white grifter, many white grifters tend to play less visible roles but still profit from postmodernist identity politics. In stark contrast, however, are the prominent examples of white grifters who claimed to be Black to insert themselves into Black organizations and anti-racist politics, using postmodernist identity politics to claim their right to speak, and were subsequently caught and publicly shamed. Unfortunately, these high-profile examples have not led to any soul-searching about how the culture of postmodernist identity politics and grifterism led to these scenarios to begin with.
Revolutionary Principles and Not Giving Grifterism an Inch
-Jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillispie10
Paul Robeson became “Mr. Incorruptibility.” No one could get to him because that’s the rarest quality in man, incorruptibility. Nothing supersedes that because, man, there are so many ways to corrupt a personality. Paul Robeson stands as a hero of mine and he was truly the father of Malcolm X, another dynamic personality who I talked to a lot. Oh, I loved Malcolm, and you couldn’t corrupt Malcolm nor Paul. We have a lot of leaders that money corrupts, and power. You give them a little money and some power, and they nut. They go nuts with it. Both Malcolm and Paul Robeson, you couldn’t get to them. The people in power tried all means at their disposal to get them. So they killed Malcolm and they destroyed Paul Robeson. But they stood up all the time. Even dying, their heads were up.
Read any account of a revolutionary struggle, and you will likely find that, to the masses, one of the most attractive features of revolutionary leaders is their honesty, dedication, and incorruptibility. Part of the reason today’s Leftists in North America have miserably failed to organize proletarian masses is that the masses can smell the stench of grifterism from a mile away. Making the leap from a Leftist to a genuine revolutionary thus involves an ideological rupture with the grifter mentality and a real commitment to the masses, not to careerist concerns, social media celebrity, or cash app profitability.
Rupturing with grifterism will require relentless struggle, mainly in the ideological domain. But the pervasiveness and negative consequences of grifterism make the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) tactical use of beat-downs for opportunists and robberies of celebrities who professed revolutionary politics but refused to support the revolutionary movement far more understandable and perhaps necessary on the part of future revolutionary organizations. Here, a word of extreme caution is in order: the BPP’s low ideological standards for recruitment, the contending political factions within the BPP, and the FBI’s ability to take advantage of these weaknesses with infiltrators and informers meant that these tactics quickly spiraled out of control, the targets of them broadened to include many honest BPP members, and the resulting chaos and violence was used against the BPP by the bourgeoisie. For example, murder charges were brought against Bobby Seale, Erika Huggins, and other Panthers after a likely FBI-initiated incident of internal torture and killing within the BPP’s New Haven, Connecticut chapter.11 All this reaffirms the importance of democratic centralist organization based on firm revolutionary principle, especially if and when revolutionary organizations use the tactics of intimidation, violence, and expropriations against bad elements, such as grifters, who have attached themselves to revolutionary movements. There is, of course, no moral dilemma as to whether grifters deserve beat-downs and expropriations.
Beyond a check on the improper use of coercive measures, the organizational principles of democratic centralism are also crucial to hindering the development of grifterism among revolutionaries. It’s no coincidence that grifterism has grown astronomically exactly when democratic centralist practice is at an all time low, including among self-professed communists. Part and parcel of democratic centralism is that the individual is subordinate to the collective and acts under a strategic plan to pursue revolutionary aims rather than individual motives. Furthermore, members of a democratic centralist organization operate within a collective organizational structure that they are accountable to. That collective discipline acts as a check on tendencies towards individualism, and the regular criticism and self-criticism within communist organizations is a means by which to rectify assertions of individual self-interests over the interests of the masses.
To give a more concrete example, a public spokesperson of a communist organization based on democratic centralism would speak not for themselves, but for the collective. Their public statements would receive input from their leadership and collectivity, their role as a spokesperson would be collectively summed up, and their practice would be a subordinate part of an overall strategy for revolution. If their popularity among the masses began to swell their head, their comrades would be there to criticize and rectify their growing ego, and if that failed, they could be reassigned or disciplined for their individualism. Think how radically different this is than how Leftists in North America function, where for all the postmodernist talk about “accountability,” grifters have been given free reign.
Some individuals in communist organizations will, of course, develop egos and there is no organizational form that guarantees against petty-bourgeois individualism and careerism. But democratic centralism done right has proven to be the best organizational form for checking petty-bourgeois mentalities and reigning in egos.
Another crucial means by which to cut the ground from under grifters is developing a culture of line struggle. While there is lots of bickering and attempts to prove “what I Tweet is more revolutionary than what you Tweet” among North American Leftists, that should not be confused with principled line struggle. For line struggle requires the clear articulation of political lines and programs and demonstration, through practice, of where those lines and programs lead. It requires that political lines be stated openly and aboveboard and justified with the evidence of history and present-day practice. In the absence of principled line struggle, grifters thrive by offering clever turns of phrase, mastering the right lingo, and making half-baked ideas and faulty historical understandings sound like expertise. Most grifters avoid being pinned down to concrete political lines, giving them the freedom to adapt as the wind blows in different directions and thus maintain their popularity. Denying grifters maneuvering room by creating a political culture in which political lines are clearly articulated and subjected to principled debate is thus a key means by which to combat grifterism.
Ultimately, the scourge of grifterism can only be defeated by setting a clear example of what it means to live by revolutionary principles, to dedicate your life to the masses, and to subordinate yourself to the collectivity of a revolutionary organization. We should not underestimate the profound effect it would have if even a few dozen people started setting that example. Especially within the citadels of imperialism, the masses are weighed down by the grotesque social relations of individualism generated by capitalist production relations and commodity exchange. Probably the most common reason we hear from the masses that they think revolution isn’t possible is because “people are out for themselves.” As the masses come to see not only individuals but a revolutionary movement with solid communist organization at its heart that is not “out for themselves,” but out for the people, ready to sacrifice our lives to overthrow this capitalist system, and refusing to sell out or be swayed by the enticements the bourgeoisie will no doubt offer, the masses will rally around that revolutionary movement and become an unstoppable force. And the grifters will have no choice but to get the fuck out of the way or face their wrath.
A final note: We’ve already seen grifters use the content of kites to promote themselves, and we’ve seen plenty of grifters criticize grifterism. We know that some grifters will promote this article, comment positively on it on social media and podcasts, etc. It’s a testament to just how pervasive grifterism has become that grifters will even grift off of anti-grifterism.
1. See “Defund, Abolish… But What About Overthrow?” in kites #2 (2020) and “Kick ’Em While They’re Down” in kites #3 (2021).
2. Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920).
4. This state of affairs is painfully revealed by looking at the guest lists of even the best Leftist podcasts out there, such as Revolutionary Left Radio. Even when the majority of guests are genuine revolutionaries and radicals, the presence of just a few grifters on the guest list and the failure of podcasters to “hold them accountable,” as the popular postmodernist saying goes, muddies the waters at best and, at worst, presents grifterism as revolutionary politics.
5. See Black Agenda Radio’s interview with Samaria Rice and Lisa Simpson, “Two Black Martyrs’ Mothers Confront Black Lives Matter,” posted 6 April 2021 on BlackAgendaReport.com, for a damning exposure of BLM’s treatment of the families of victims of police murder. RIP Glen Ford, who consistently took principled stands against opportunism no matter how unpopular it might have been to do so.
6. There’s a further distinction to make between the mostly proletarian rebellions and the broader protests that involved activists, Leftists, and the progressive and liberal sections of the petty-bourgeoisie. This distinction is not necessarily an antagonistic one, but the lack of a class-conscious, organized revolutionary proletariat in North America results in an inability to lead these more petty-bourgeois protests in a revolutionary direction in a united front under the leadership of the proletariat.
7. Yes, there are some genuine activists and radical journalists who rely on crowd-sourced funding via cash apps, but they will have a solid answer if asked this question, and they will be far better able to serve the people if we expose the grifterism behind most activists linking cash apps to their social media profiles.
8. The kites Editorial Committee will happily rescind all of its criticisms of abolitionism if abolitionists were to free Mumia like the Black Liberation Army freed Assata.
9. Lenin, The State and Revolution (1917).
10. Dizzy Gillispie with Al Fraser, To Be, or Not…to Bop (University of Minnesota Press, 2009 ) 288.
11. For a detailed and well-researched account of this incident, see Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin, Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (University of California Press, 2014), 247–51.