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Lessons From the Black Panthers

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Forty years ago, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded. It represented the highest point of the vast rebellion against racism and poverty that swept the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. At the height of their influence, J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, described the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”

Forty years on, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger still considers them a threat. He refused to commute the death sentence for Stanley “’Tookie’” Williams because he did not believe Tookie had “’reformed’.” Tookie was a founder of the notorious Crips gang who had since changed his outlook and dedicated his life to discouraging young people from joining gangs. Schwarzenegger’’s main justification for refusing to believe Tookie had changed was that he had dedicated his book to the heroic George Jackson, the Panther and revolutionary who was gunned down and killed by prison guards in 1971. But while the ruling class remembers the Panthers with fear, they will be seen as heroes by a new generation of young people entering struggle.

The racism and poverty faced by African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s is not fundamentally different today. It is true that there is now a far larger and more affluent black middle class than was the case then. A thin layer has even entered the elite of U.S. society – summed up by Condoleezza Rice’’s position as Secretary of State in the Bush administration. The ruling class responded to the revolt in the 1950s and 1960s with a conscious decision to develop a black middle class to act as a brake on future movements, to create a version of the “’American Dream’” for black people.

However, the American Dream remains a myth for black workers and youth, to an even greater degree than it is for working-class whites. For large sections of African Americans, low pay and poverty remain the norm.

According to official statistics, in 2004 24.7% of blacks were classified as poor, compared to 8.6% of whites. Blacks are twice as likely as whites to die from disease, accident, or murder at every stage of their lives. Hurricane Katrina laid bare the reality of life in the U.S.A. in the 21st century – it was the poor who were left behind as the levees flooded, and a majority of the poor were black.

In the 1960s, as George Jackson put it, “black men born in the U.S. and fortunate enough to live past the age of eighteen [were] conditioned to accept the inevitability of prison.”” Jackson himself was sentenced ‘“from one year to life’” for robbing a gas station. Today, the situation is little changed for young black men.

In the 1960s, as today, the prison system brutalized millions of young African Americans. However, in that period of radicalization, for many prison also acted as a university of revolutionary ideas. Jackson explained: “I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels, and Mao when I entered prison and they redeemed me.”” The Panthers, many of whom were imprisoned for their activities, gained enormous support in U.S. prisons.

Ferment in the Civil Rights Movement

It was not a coincidence that the civil rights movement erupted in the 1950s. The Second World War had an effect. Not only had thousands of black soldiers fought and died, they were struck by the glaring hypocrisy of the war propaganda. Here was a capitalist class claiming they had to go to war against the racism of the Nazis, while in their own country vicious racism was the norm.

In addition, U.S. capitalism was entering a prolonged period of economic prosperity. This meant many more African Americans were moving from the rural south to cities, mainly in the north. In 1940, half the black population lived in the cities. By 1970, it was three-quarters. Becoming part of the working class – moving from isolated rural communities to massive urban centers – increased their confidence and capacity to struggle.

In addition, the increased wealth and higher living standards of the white middle class made the poverty and degradation of the vast majority of African Americans seem even starker than before. Finally, the liberation struggles of the masses in Africa and Asia, who were succeeding in overthrowing colonial rule, provided inspiration.

As the struggle developed, it changed the outlook of those who took part. While the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1965, was a legal concession, it did not alter the reality of poverty and police brutality. Even Martin Luther King Jr., who initially saw the role of the movement as using pacifist methods to pressure the Democrats to grant civil rights, changed his outlook in the period before he was assassinated.

When King was viciously beaten by the police in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, riots burst out nationwide. Amidst the rubble, King accurately declared the riots “”a class revolt of the underprivileged against the privileged”.” In 1967, he was forced to conclude: “We have moved into an era which must be an era of revolution… what good does it do to a man to have integrated lunch counters if he can’’t buy a hamburger?” In particular, he began to raise the need to appeal to white workers and to organize a class-based struggle. He was supporting a strike when he was assassinated. (See: “The Legacy of Martin Luther King”, Socialism Today No.27)

At the base of the movement, there was a ferment of discussion as activists tried to work out the most effective means of struggle. Out of the turmoil of these events, the ideas of Black Power were developed. In many senses, the Black Power movement was a step forward. It was a break from pacifism and from an orientation to the Democrats, a big business party. At the same time, it had limitations, particularly its separatist overtones and lack of a clear program.

Malcolm X had been moving away from the black nationalism of the Black Power movement, and had drawn anti-capitalist conclusions to a greater degree than other leaders, stating clearly “”you can’’t have capitalism without racism”.” Malcolm X was assassinated in February 1965, and the Black Panthers were founded in late 1966. They saw themselves as starting where Malcolm X had left off.

Formation of the Panthers

The two founding members, Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale, had become involved in the struggle at a time when it was felt there was no clear way forward. Newton and Seale began their search, like most of that generation, with the “’cultural nationalists’,” but rapidly found them wanting. Their disagreements centered on class from the very beginning.

Seale explains in his autobiography, Seize the Time, how Newton began to argue against the idea of buying from black businesses: “”He would explain many times that if a black businessman is charging you the same prices or higher, even higher prices than exploiting white businessmen, then he himself ain’’t nothing but an exploiter.””

The Panthers rejected the separatism of the cultural nationalists and were founded with the magnificent concept: “”We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism. And we do not fight imperialism with more imperialism. We fight imperialism with proletarian internationalism.””

Bobby Seale explained: “Those who want to obscure the struggle with ethnic differences are the ones who are aiding and maintaining the exploitation of the masses. We need unity to defeat the boss class – every strike shows that. Every workers’ organization’s banner declares: ‘’Unity is strength’.’””

Within two years, the Panthers had spread like wildfire, from a handful in Oakland, California to having chapters in 45 cities across the country. At their peak, they sold 250,000 copies per week of their paper, The Black Panther. Having gained phenomenal support in their first years, the Panthers went into decline just as quickly, riven by splits.

They faced enormous police repression. The ruling class was terrified of the Panthers and set out to crush them. It is estimated that the “’cadre’,” or core, of the Panther’s’ organization never numbered more than 1,000, yet at one stage 300 of those were facing trial. Thirty-nine Panthers were shot on the streets or in their homes by the police. In addition, the police carried out widespread infiltration of the Panthers. However, it was not only brutal state repression that was responsible for the demise of the Black Panther Party, but also its failure to adopt a rounded-out Marxist approach.

The leaders of the Panthers were on a higher level than the organizations that had gone before, describing themselves as “’Marxist-Leninists’.” The Panthers strove heroically to find the best road to win liberation for African Americans, and came to understand that this was linked to the struggle for socialism.

They faced all the problems, however, arising from the fact that their movement developed before a generalized, mass struggle of the U.S. working class. They were not able, in the short period of their mass influence, to fully work out how their goals could be achieved.

The Panthers’’ Program

The Panthers were founded around a ten-point program: “What We Want; What We Believe”. The first demand read: “”We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black community. We believe that black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.””

The second was for full employment or a guaranteed income from the government. They argued in a transitional fashion that if the businessmen “will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.”

Other demands included decent housing, an end to police brutality, and for black men to be exempt from military service.

At their inception, they combined campaigning around the ten-point program with organizing the defense of their local community against police brutality. During this period, the Panthers’ chief activity was to monitor police activity to try to ensure the civil rights of African Americans were respected.

When Panther members saw police pull over a black driver, they stopped and observed the incident, usually with weapons in hand. At that time, it was legal in California to carry guns within certain limitations and the Panthers asserted their right to do so. The third strand of the Panthers’ work was the establishment of free food, clothing, and healthcare programs in poor black communities.

They emphasized that the black community had to have its own organizations, and membership in the Panthers was only open to black people. However, they argued that they should work together with organizations based in other communities. In fact, a number of other organizations were founded in inner-city communities that modeled themselves on the Panthers. These included a Puerto Rican organization based in New York called the Young Lords, and a white organization in Chicago called the Young Patriots. However, it was the mass movements against the Vietnam war that most clearly showed to the Panthers that sections of whites were prepared to struggle.

Their attitude on Vietnam was clear. In an appeal to black soldiers, they declared: ““It is correct that the Vietnamese should defend themselves and defend their land and fight for self-determination, because they have NEVER oppressed us. They have NEVER called us ‘’n*****’.’””

The revolt against the Vietnam war had a major effect on the African American community. Panthers who were drafted set up groups in the army. They were working on fertile ground. One survey found 45% of African American soldiers in Vietnam would be prepared to take up arms to serve justice at home.

The uprising over Vietnam petrified the U.S. ruling class. Today, despite their desperate need for more troops to continue the occupation of Iraq, they dare not reintroduce a draft, such are the memories among the ruling class.

But while the Panthers welcomed the radicalization of white youth in the antiwar movement, finding concrete allies to work with proved more difficult. The Panthers stood in elections with the Peace and Freedom Party, which was campaigning primarily against the Vietnam war and racism. However, neither the PFP nor any of the organizations the Panthers worked with had a significant base among the white working class. Newton recognized this, explaining in 1971: “”Our hook-up with the white radicals did not give us access to the white community, because they do not guide the white community.””

Few Links with Workers

Nor was the Panthers’’ main orientation towards the organized black working class. They did organize ‘caucuses’ within the trade unions, as Bobby Seale recounted, “”to help educate the rest of the members of the union to the fact that they can have a better life, too. We want the workers to understand that they must control the means of production, and that they should begin to use their power to control the means of production to serve all of the people.””

This was a correct conception, but in reality union work was a very small part of what the Panthers did. They consciously orientated primarily towards the most downtrodden, unemployed sections of the African American community – which they described, using Marx’’s phrase, as the lumpenproletariat. It is correct that these most desperate sections of society are capable of incredible sacrifice for the struggle and, as the Panthers argued, that it is important to win these most oppressed sections to a revolutionary party.

This was particularly the case given the horrendous social conditions most African Americans were forced to live in. In many ghettoes, a majority of blacks were unemployed. Nonetheless, black workers formed a significant part of the workforce and, because of its role in production, the working class has a decisive role to play in the socialist transformation of society.

Black workers had been to the fore of the best traditions of the U.S. working class. Many blacks had been influenced by the major trade union struggles of the 1930s. Mass organizing campaigns among factory and unskilled workers gave rise to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), formed in 1935. The new industrial unions immediately attracted over 500,000 black members, unlike the old craft unions of the American Federation of Labor.

This experience was used to good effect during the war, for example, in the 1941 strike by the black railway porters’’ union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which forced the government to end open racial discrimination in federal war production factories.

With a correct orientation, the potential undoubtedly existed for the Panthers to win the support of significant sections of the working class, including a layer of white workers. Of course, all kinds of racist prejudices existed and had to be combated among sections of white workers, including those in the trade unions. However, the end of the post-war upswing was leading to increased unemployment and the greater intensification of labor for all sections of workers. While the black working class was the most combative, having faced far worse conditions, the white working class was also beginning to be radicalized.

The lack of a base among the organized working class was one element that increased the tendency towards an authoritarian regime in the Panthers. It also added to the tendency, which always existed to some extent, to try to take shortcuts by substituting themselves for the masses with courageous acts.

Political Confusion

It was the influence of Stalinism that in large part was responsible for the failure of the Panthers to have a consistent orientation towards the working class. The leadership of the Panthers was particularly inspired by the Chinese and Cuban revolutions, both of which were led by petit-bourgeois guerrilla leaders based on the peasantry, with the working class playing a passive role.

In addition, the Panthers, again following the Stalinists and based on their own experience of the U.S. government’s brutality, falsely concluded that fascism was around the corner. This, combined with the desperate conditions facing African Americans, created an overwhelming impatience for an immediate solution and added to the lack of a consistent strategy to patiently win over broader sections of the working class.

It remains a tragedy that no rounded-out Marxist party existed that could have offered the Panthers, and the hundreds of thousands who were touched by them, a way forward. Lacking a fully worked-out Marxist program or strategy despite their best efforts, the Panthers went into rapid decline.

The difficulties of the Panthers led some, particularly those around Eldridge Cleaver, to turn to the dead-end road of terrorism. Even as Cleaver and others headed down that road, Newton and others attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to reorientate the Panthers.

Later, Newton reflected on their mistakes: “”We soon discovered that weapons and uniforms set us apart from the community. We were looked upon as an ad hoc military group, acting outside the community fabric and too radical to be a part of it. Perhaps some of our tactics at the time were extreme; perhaps we placed too much emphasis on military action. We saw ourselves as the revolutionary ‘vanguard’ and did not fully understand then that only the people can create the revolution.””

The existence of the Black Panthers, despite their limitations, showed in practice how consciousness develops as a result of struggle against the brutal realities of capitalism. Just as Newton and Seale stood on the shoulders of Malcolm X, future generations of black workers and youth will take all the great strengths of the Panthers and build on them to create a party capable of carrying through the socialist transformation of society.

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