“Working class people of all colors must unite against the exploitative, oppressive ruling class. Let me emphasize again — we believe our fight is a class struggle, not a race struggle.” — Bobby Seale, co-founder Black Panther Party
The assassination of Malcolm X spawned a new section of black youth determined to fight back. Having tried and tested the strategy of peaceful, non-violence they had found it wanting. They were now prepared for a different kind of action.
The Black Panther Party, formed in 1966, drew much inspiration from the ideas of Malcolm X. They rejected pacifism and reformism in favor of militant action and self-defense against racists. They represented the logical development of the struggle onto a higher level.
As soon as the Black Panthers were formed in Oakland, California, their support grew rapidly. Their uncompromising ten-point program called for full employment, decent housing and education for blacks. They demanded that blacks be exempted from military service because they did not want to defend the U.S. racist government. Most popular of all was their demand for an end to police brutality. Many young blacks, sick of daily harassment from the police, were attracted to the Panthers – not only because of their program but also their ability to organize a fight on these issues. Yet the Black Panthers went further; they recognized that to effectively change things they had to fight for an end to capitalism and for the establishment of a socialist society.
The Panthers are most famous for exercising their legal right to carry guns. This they used to patrol their communities and monitor the actions of the police.
The Panthers also established free food, clothing and healthcare programs for the poor. Much of this was financed by money they demanded from local companies. They campaigned for democratic control of the police, for blacks to register as voters, and called for a 30-hour work-week without loss of pay to create more jobs for the unemployed.
All over the country Panther chapters were formed. Panthers drafted into the army during the Vietnam War formed groups there. Panther caucuses were also set up within trade unions.
The state was terrified of the potential of the Panthers to gain mass support. White youth were in rebellion against the Vietnam War. Forty-five percent of blacks fighting in Vietnam said they would be prepared to take up arms to secure justice at home.
The government replied to the movement, on the one hand, with concessions to the mass of blacks, but they also meted out vicious repression to the most militant black leaders. At one stage, out of a leadership of 1000, three hundred of these were awaiting trial. Thirty-nine Panthers were gunned down in the street by various police actions.
Prisons became a fertile place where Panther members recruited and educated other blacks. George Jackson, a young black man, was won over to the Panthers in this way. When he was eighteen he was convicted of robbery. After poor legal advice, he had pleaded guilty expecting a sentence of one year or less. He was sentenced to one-year-to-life imprisonment. Technically the parole board should determine when a prisoner on this sentence could be released. Racist violence was commonplace in the prisons. Any black that fought back would lose their parole. This happened to Jackson year after year.
As revolutionary socialists, the leaders of the Black Panthers looked to other revolutionary leaders for guidance. They looked to Mao-Tse-Tung in China and Fidel Castro in Cuba. Although both had successfully carried through revolutions, the vital missing ingredient in both cases was a working-class movement and workers’ democratic control over society. The main mistake of the Panthers was their failure to clearly recognize the crucial role of the organized working class, both black and white, in the struggle for socialism. The Panthers needed to organize black workers and appeal to white workers to form a united struggle to change society. Genuine Marxism would have advised the Panthers to win over the workers not by them robbing the rich to feed and defend the poor but by agitating for working people to take action to defend and feed themselves – by strikes and mass protests which would have given them the confidence of their own strength. This would prepare the movement for the greater confrontations with the ruling class that would inevitably be necessary to change society. In Revolutionary Suicide, Huey Newton, one of the founders of the Party said, “we were looked upon as an ad-hoc military group, acting outside the community fabric and too radical to be part of it. We saw ourselves as the revolutionary vanguard and did not fully understand that only the people can create the revolution. And hence the people did not follow our lead in picking up the gun.”
We believe nevertheless that the Black Panthers represented a great step forward in the movement against racial oppression.
Some try to claim that the Panthers stood for black separatism. This is completely incorrect. In Seize the Time, Bobby Seale, the other founder of the Black Panthers stressed, “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. We fight imperialism with proletarian internationalism.”
The Black Panthers recognized that the working class could not afford to let racial or national prejudices divide them. Speaking about black separatists within the movement, Bobby Seale said: “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. All of us are laboring class people…in our view it is a class struggle between the massive proletarian working class and the small minority ruling class. Working-class people of all colors must unite against the exploitative ruling class.”
There is no doubt that the potential of the Panthers organizing terrified the American state. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, declared them the number one threat to the internal security of the U.S. The state tried to stamp them out in any way they could. Yet, even now, the message of the Black panthers can be heard. Internationally from the Middle East to the Caribbean to Britain, groups carrying their name have been formed. From Malcolm X to the Black Panthers to the present day, the ideas of struggle and of socialist revolution live on.