Lessons from the Black Panthers

A shortened version of “Lessons from the Black Panthers” in Socialism Today, Issue 104, October 2006

Forty years ago the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded in Oakland, California. It represented the highest point of the vast rebellion against racism and poverty which 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 number one threat to security in the USA.” Forty years on, Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, still considers them a threat. He refused to commute the death penalty for Stanley “Tookie” Williams because he did not believe he 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 black 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 US society – summed up by Condoleezza Rice’s position as secretary of state in the Bush administration. The ruling class in the U.S. 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 working-class black Americans, to an even greater degree than it is for working-class whites. For large sections of the black population 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 non-Hispanic whites. Unemployment is twice as high among blacks as whites; and they are twice as likely to die from disease, accident or murder at every stage of their lives. Hurricane Katrina laid bare the reality of life in the USA 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 working-class young black men. At any one time, 11% of them are in prison. In most states, spending time in prison means being permanently refused the right to vote. In effect, universal suffrage does not exist for black men. In the 1960s, as today, the prison system brutalized millions of young blacks. 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.

U.S. capitalism in the 21st century has failed working-class American blacks. The story of the Black Panthers is therefore not just of historical interest, but has important lessons for a new generation entering struggle, particularly in the U.S., but to some degree internationally.

It was not a coincidence that the Civil Rights movement erupted in the 1950s. World War II had an effect. Not only had thousands of black soldiers fought and died for U.S. imperialism, 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 that many more blacks were moving from the rural south to the 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 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 blacks 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. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1965. But, while this was a legal concession, it did not alter the reality of poverty and police brutality. Even Martin Luther King, 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 under-privileged 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.

Ferment and Formation

At the base of the movement there was a ferment of discussion as activists tried to work out the most effective means of struggle. Pacifist ideas were increasingly rejected, particularly by the younger generation. 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 black nationalism at the end of his life and had drawn anti-capitalist conclusions to a greater degree than other leaders, stating clearly that “you can’t have capitalism without racism.” Malcolm X was killed in February 1965. The Black Panthers were founded in late 1966 and saw themselves as starting where Malcolm X had left off. The two founding members, Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale, had become involved in the struggle at a time when it was felt that there was no clear way forward. A searching for ideas was underway among the new generation of activists. 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.”

Within two years, the Panthers had spread like wildfire, from a handful in Oakland, California, to having chapters in every major U.S. city, selling 125,000 copies a 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 Panthers’ 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 best of the Panthers strove heroically to find the best road to win liberation for blacks, 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 influence of Stalinism had an enormously confusing effect on the movement. And more than a little responsibility lies with those organizations, particularly the Socialist Workers Party, which described themselves as Trotskyist but tail-ended the Black Power movement, doing nothing to raise the genuine ideas of Marxism with radical black activists.

The greatest strength of the Panthers was that they strove for a class-based, rather than race-based, solution to the problems of African Americans. Contrast the attitude of the American SWP with that of Bobby Seale: “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.’”

The Panthers were founded around a ten-point program: What We Want and What We Believe. The first demand read: “We want freedom. We want the power to determine the destiny of the 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, the third for an end to the robbery by the white man of the black community, the fourth for decent housing and an education system “that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society.” Other demands included an end to police brutality, for black men to be exempt from military service, and for “all black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from black communities.”

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 “patrol the pigs,” that is, to monitor police activity to try and ensure that the civil rights of black people 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, quoting the relevant sections of the law. The third strand of the Panthers’ work was the establishment of free food, clothing and health programs in poor black, working-class communities. The Panthers also took a clear and positive position on the rights of women, and the leadership struggled to ensure women were able to play a full role in the party.

They emphasized that the black community had to have its own organizations, and membership of 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 (often initially based around ex-gang members) in inner-city working-class communities, which modeled themselves on the Panthers. These included a Puerto Rican organization based in New York, the Young Lords, and a white organization, the Young Patriots, in Chicago.

However, it was the mass movements against the Vietnam War which most clearly showed to the Panthers that sections of whites were prepared to struggle. As Huey P Newton put it: “The young white revolutionaries raised the cry for the troops to withdraw from Vietnam, hands off Latin America, withdraw from the Dominican Republic and also to withdraw from the black community or the black colony. So you have a situation in which the young white revolutionaries are attempting to identify with the people of the colonies and against the exploiter.”

The Panthers were, in general, inspired by the struggles against colonial rule taking place worldwide. 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 ‘nigger.’”

The revolt against the Vietnam War had a major effect on the black community. In general, it was the working class who suffered most from conscription. Panthers who were conscripted set up groups in the army. They were working on fertile ground. One survey suggested that 45% of black 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 conscription, such are the memories among the ruling class and ordinary Americans of Vietnam and its consequences.

But, while the Panthers welcomed the radicalization of white youth in the anti-war movement, finding concrete allies to work with proved more difficult. The Panthers stood in elections with the Peace and Freedom Party (PFP), which was campaigning primarily against the Vietnam War and the oppression of black communities. In 1967, when Huey was in prison, the Panthers worked with the PFP to “Free Huey.”

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 the 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 black 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 black Americans were forced to live in.

The urbanization that had accompanied the post-war boom led to a mass migration of black workers to the northern industrial cities. They arrived to find themselves living in ghettoes, in direst poverty. In many areas, a majority was unemployed. Nonetheless, black workers formed a significant part of the workforce and, because of its role in production, the industrial working class in particular has a key 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. Prior to the war, many blacks had been influenced by the major trade union struggles of the 1920s and 1930s, especially the massive wave of strikes that broke out in the 1930s. Mass organizing campaigns among factory workers and unskilled workers gave rise to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), formed in 1936. The new industrial unions (United Automobile Workers, United Mine Workers, United Steel Workers, etc) 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 work 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 and take short cuts by substituting themselves for the mass with courageous acts, such as the armed demonstration at the California state capitol in Sacramento.
It was the influence of Stalinism which 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 petty 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 brutality of the U.S. state, falsely concluded that fascism was around the corner in the U.S. This, combined with the desperate conditions facing blacks, 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.

However, the American SWP also bears responsibility for failing to put forward a program that could win the most advanced sections of the U.S. working class. Despite the lack of genuine workers’ democracy, it was entirely uncritical of Cuba. In the U.S., it took part in the anti-war and Black Power movements but made absolutely no attempt to take those movements beyond their existing level of development. 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. It remains a tragedy that no rounded-out Marxist party existed which could have offered the Panthers, and the hundreds of thousands who were touched by them, a way forward.

A Separate Black State?

Part of the explanation for the woeful role played by the American SWP lay in its misunderstanding of Leon Trotsky’s 1930s writings on black nationalism. Trotsky based himself on the approach developed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks regarding the national question and the right of nations to self-determination. Lenin, in particular, fully understood that to successfully carry through a revolution in Russia it was vital to stand for the right to self-determination, up to and including the right to secede, for the many nationalities that suffered the brutal oppression of tsarist Russia. Only on this basis would it be possible to successfully strive for the maximum unity of the working class across national and religious divides. To argue for the right to secede, however, did not necessarily mean to argue for secession. In fact, it was Lenin’s extremely skilled and sensitive approach which meant that, in the period immediately after the revolution, the Russian Socialist Federative Republic included many of the nationalities that had been oppressed by tsarism, but on a free and voluntary basis.

Trotsky had raised points on these issues in discussions with his U.S. supporters in the 1930s after the Stalinist Communist Party had suggested the idea of a separate black state in the U.S. Trotsky’s followers had initially reacted by completely dismissing this demand and counterposing to it the need for class unity. Trotsky pointed out that, at a certain stage in the face of brutal repression, the demand for a separate state – that is, the development of a national consciousness – might arise amongst broad layers and, if it did, Marxists would have to support the right of U.S. blacks to a state.

Trotsky’s method of analysis was correct. But changed circumstances meant that the demand for a separate state within the territory of the USA did not come to the fore. When Trotsky was writing there was a majority of blacks in two U.S. southern states, Mississippi and Alabama, and most black people lived in the south. By 1970, three-quarters lived in the major cities, and a majority in the north. While black consciousness was, and still is, extremely strong, it was therefore less likely to develop into a demand for a separate nation.

However, even if that had been the consciousness of black people, it would not have excused the approach of the SWP. Trotsky emphasized the role of the working class as the only force capable of winning national liberation as part of the struggle for socialism. He explained the importance of the working class taking an independent position, and that it was a profound mistake to rely on the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois leaders of nationalist movements. To their credit, the Black Panthers got far closer to an understanding of these points than the self-professed Trotskyists of the SWP, who followed uncritically behind the petit-bourgeois ideas of the nationalists.

The tragedy of the Panthers was that, having failed to develop a rounded-out Marxist approach, despite their best efforts, they 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 the road of terrorism, Newton and others attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to re-orientate the Panthers.

Later, Newton reflected on their mistakes: “We were looked upon as an ad-hoc military group, operating 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.’”
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.