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(en) Northeastern Anarchist #7: A Synthesis of Race and Class - A Look at the Black Panther Party

From Northeastern Anarchist <northeastern_anarchist@yahoo.com>
Date Fri, 29 Aug 2003 20:44:32 +0200 (CEST)


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> A Look at the Black Panther Party and its Goal of Black
Liberation by Jorge and JT (NEFAC-Boston)
In bringing about radical social change wherein lies
the revolutionary potential of a people? Is the
racial/national condition of primary importance? Or is
class and the relation to the means of production the
guiding principle of a people in revolt? Are race and
class mutually exclusive? Is nationalism always
reactionary and bourgeois, or can revolutionary
nationalism exist?

These and similar questions come about when discussing
the legacy of the Black Panther Party, its political
platform, ideology and its positions on race and
class. Many critics, especially of Marxist tendencies,
have questioned the revolutionary character and
potential of the BPP given its nationalist and
race-specific beliefs.

The International Workingman's Association (or First
International) declared: "the emancipation of the
working class must be the work of the workers
themselves." The logic is implicit: the liberation of
a given group must occur from within. A prisoner in
order to be free must first and foremost understand
that they are a prisoner; they must show a willingness
to free themselves. That the warden will free the
prisoner is as ridiculous and unlikely as the prospect
of the bourgeoisie emancipating the working class.

Thus, in October 1966 the Black Panther Party formed
following the same logic. This time however, the
targeted audience was not the orthodox Marxist
revolutionary subject: the industrial proletariat, but
instead the Black population of the United States. The
first point of the party's ten-point program states:
"We believe that black people will not be free until
we are able to determine our destiny." It was obvious
to Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the party's
co-founders, that Black liberation would not only
occur from within the Black population but also and
more importantly that Black liberation would be
defined in Black terms, and not exclusively, or even
necessarily, in Marxist and other non-Black idioms. In
this spirit, Revolutionary Black Nationalism became
the BPP's guiding principle and founding ideology.

THEORETICAL BACKGROUND

According to the Party, nationalism in the vein of the
BPP was indeed revolutionary because its political end
was not the Black nation-state itself. Instead Black
Nationalism served to counterbalance the bourgeois
nation-state. Similar to Marx's dialectical evolution
of the class struggle,

Black Nationalism emerged as the antithetical response
to white bourgeois nationalism. The greater goal of
the BPP in its earlier stage was to undermine the
inequalities inherent in white nationalism, as well as
provide a necessary step for the evolution of the
Black liberation struggle. Similarly, it could be
argued that the Black population of America acted as
the proletariat of the white bourgeoisie. Black
Nationalism, as opposed to traditional bourgeois/white
nationalism, therefore is dialectically proven to be
revolutionary.

It would be unfair to observe the Black Panther
Party's ideology and political platform solely through
a Marxist scope, however. After all, the party itself
drew from other schools of thought, specifically the
anti-colonialist views of Fanon.

Drawing from Fanon, Huey Newton thus explains the
circumstance of Blacks in the United States to
colonies in his Revolutionary Suicide: "Cut off,
ignored, and forgotten, the people are kept in a state
of subjugation, especially by the police, who treat
the communities like colonies."

The revolutionary program in Fanonist terms, although
comparable to Marx's call for a workers' revolution,
further justifies nationalism and other forms of
political and cultural identification as
revolutionary. However, the BPP certainly did not use
anarchist theory in its development (with the
exception of Eldrige Cleaver's fixation with Bakunin
and Sergei Nechaev's infamous Revolutionary
Catechism). The BPP is notorious for having a highly
authoritarian structure, and depending on which city
or chapter is examined, the Party often used
militarist ranking systems when referring to one
another, and digression from this structure was met
with disdain.

As the party evolved, and its theoretical analysis
developed, BPP ideology attained a more
internationalist outlook. The anti-imperialist
rhetoric of the BPP, and the authoritarian structure,
are prime examples of the Maoist influence on the
party's ideology. The United States was the mightiest
imperialist government in the world, exerting its
influence well beyond its own borders, but more
importantly for the African-American population, the
US was seen by the BPP as an imperialist power
oppressing the Black nation within America. In turn,
and following Maoist thought, the BPP engaged in their
struggle for Black liberation within an
anti-imperialist context.

The party also borrowed from Mao a strong sense of
organizational discipline and emphasized criticism and
self-criticism. The little red book was read by all
party members and served as, not a guide for
revolutionary praxis, but also as a sort of personal
rulebook. Furthermore, the respect to the
self-determination of all people and the belief that
revolutionary potential is found in all victims of
imperialism, and not just the industrial proletariat,
is perfectly mirrored in the party's many "survival
programs" such as the Free Breakfast for Children
which served to alleviate the immediate needs of the
black community but also hoped to educate and raise
the revolutionary consciousness of the Black masses.
Newton explains:

"Every ethnic group has particular needs that they
know and understand better than anybody else; each
group is the best judge of how its institutions ought
to affect the lives of its members."

Finally, the idea that "political power grows out of
the barrel of a gun" is perhaps most obviously
represented in the party's tactics on self-defense and
their insistence on appearing in public fully armed.

RACISM, CAPITALISM, AND REVOLUTIONARY VIOLENCE

Which then was the greater evil to be fought? Were
capital and the alienation of the Black worker the
source of inspiration for the BPP when determining its
revolutionary program? Or did the party reduce its
analysis to a simple and two-dimensional, black and
white racist "Amerikkka"? Clearly the party ideologues
were interested in drawing from different schools of
thought. Subsequently, their struggle developed with
respect to the complex and multifaceted material,
social, political and cultural condition of Blacks in
the United States. It is safe to say then that their
struggle against racism was as important as their
struggle against capital. More importantly however,
the Black Panther Party appreciated the connection
between capital and racism. In this sense, their
struggles against both evils were not mutually
exclusive, but instead complementary. As was
previously noted, Newton explains: "Never convinced
that destroying capitalism would automatically destroy
racism, I felt, however, that we could not destroy
racism without wiping out its economic foundations."

The Black Panther Party acknowledged the importance of
adopting a revolutionary attitude towards its racial
and class struggles and consequently adopted a praxis
of armed self-defense. The party's perspective on
violence developed from their own violent oppression.
Therefore, their decision to approach Black liberation
from a self-defense standpoint was in fact a response
towards their condition rather than an unapologetic
justification of violence.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF PRAXIS: ARMED SELF-DEFENSE vs.
COMMUNITY PROGRAMS

Tracing the ideological history and development of the
BPP is a complex and at times counterintuitive
exercise. Perhaps harder to determine however, is the
lifespan of the party itself. Nevertheless, for all
intents and purposes, the Black Panther Party was
founded in 1966 and was dissolved in 1971 as a result
of the Newton-Cleaver split. The reasons for the
split, in true Panther spirit, are quite complicated.
Huey Newton and Bobby Seale drafted the Panther
ten-point program in October 1966. At the moment of
its founding the BPP consisted of Seale and Newton
alone. By 1970 however, the party had more than 45
chapters nation-wide, a membership of 5000+ and an
international section. While external factors
attributed considerably to the party's tragic demise,
most notably J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO program,
internal divisions played an important role in
dividing and eventually destroying the BPP. As the
party grew, and because the founding members found
themselves in prison shortly after 1966 (Huey Newton
was accused of the murder of a police officer in late
1967 while Bobby Seale was convicted as one of the
"Chicago Eight" during the Democratic National
Convention) different factionalisms emerged across the
different chapters. Most of these divisions were
sparked by ideological and tactical disputes between
Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. Mumia Abu Jamal explains:
"...there was no single BPP; there were many, unified
in one national organization, to be sure, but separated
by the various regional and cultural influences
that form and inform consciousness."

Point number seven of the ten-point program advocated
for armed self-defense of black people in America.
Huey Newton and Bobby Seale believed that the
situation in Oakland, California (as in many other
cities in America) was intolerable - considerable
numbers of African-Americans were constant victims of
police brutality and murders - and therefore began
their program of patrolling the police. Newton
explains the reasoning behind point seven: "The
emphasis on weapons was a necessary phase in our
evolution, based on Frantz Fanon's contention that the
people have to be shown that colonizers and their
agents - the police - are not bullet-proof. We saw
this action as a bold step in making our program known
and raising the consciousness of the people."

Other points of the program were stressed as well
however, and the Black Panther Party did not limit its
tactical struggles to what ultimately was a symbolic
show of force. Perhaps the best of these programs was
the Free Breakfast for Children started in 1969. Ward
Churchill, a historian and Native American activist,
states that such a program was "meeting the daily
nutritional requirements of an estimated 50,000
grade-schoolers in forty-five inner cities across the
country" and it accounted "for the Party's
extraordinary popularity among urban blacks during the
late 1960's."

As time passed however, questions began to emerge
within the party (as well as without) about the
revolutionary nature of such remedial "survival
programs." Was feeding children part of the agenda of
an alleged revolutionary organization? Instead of
devoting its energies in alleviating the conditions
under the American capitalist and racist system, why
didn't the party engage in more militant and
armed-struggle-oriented activities? Such were the
opinions of Eldridge Cleaver, who deemed the
community-oriented programs "reformist" and instead
preferred the party's original emphasis on
self-defense and police patrolling. If Black people
were going to be given aid within the system while not
directly confronting the institutions of capital and
racism, didn't the BPP run the risk of losing its
radicalness? Surely providing lower class
African-Americans with free health service alleviated
their immediate needs, but how effective was it in
ending racism and capitalism?

Newton argues that in fact such forms of community
organizing and activism became more effective and
appropriate than their earlier activities centered
around self-defense: "We soon discovered that weapons
and uniforms set us apart from the
community… perhaps our military strategy
was too much of "a great leap forward." Indeed such
genuine commitment served to encourage ideas of mutual
aid and solidarity among low and middle class blacks.
Furthermore, by limiting the struggle of the BPP to
just one of the ten points of its founding program
would be in contradiction to party ideology. Important
to note is that party faced a militarily stronger
enemy, hell-bent on disrupting and eventually
destroying every and all efforts of the Black
liberation movement. In fact, J. Edgar Hoover declared
in June 1969: "the Black Panther Party, without
question, represents the greatest threat to internal
security of the country."

Tactically, as well as politically, the decision to
de-emphasize the armed persona of the Panthers was a
conscious attempt on the part of Huey Newton and the
National Headquarters at Oakland to better engage in
the struggle of black liberation. Guns had served to
jumpstart the BPP's popularity and demonstrate its
resolve, but community organizing gave the party an
opportunity to become more acquainted with the social
realities of those it aimed to liberate.

Inasmuch as race and class were not mutually
exclusive, but rather complementary to each other,
community organizing and armed struggle could have
been simultaneously engaged and supported. Both, after
all, had the equal potential to advance the interests
of Blacks and help in developing revolutionary
consciousness. Nevertheless, inasmuch as exclusive
attention to the armed struggle might have led to the
party's early demise at the hands of the State,
exclusive attention to solely remedial programs such
as the free clinics and free breakfasts might have led
to a more liberal and reformist BPP.

Perhaps the party would have benefited and maximized
its potential as a Revolutionary Black Nationalist
organization by broadening its struggles to both
remedial and immediate programs as well as more
militant activities so long as they were both aimed at
a common and revolutionary goal: the necessity for
Black people to gain control of the institutions in
their own communities, eventually transforming them
into cooperatives, and of one day working with other
ethnic groups to change the system.

More importantly however, and for the fate of the
Black liberation movement, the party would have
benefited from adopting less authoritarian practices
and structures. Regrettably, and given the
hierarchical nature of its organization, the BPP's
demise was ultimately sparked by a simple feud between
two party leaders.

OBSERVATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS

It is safe to say that the Black Panther Party was the
most important revolutionary organization in America
during the late 20th century. Its successes were not
coincidental. The Panther theoretical analysis and
development outlined the oppression of African
Americans within the institutions of racism and
capitalism. Its struggles and ideology made the
necessary connections between the two forms of
oppression. Partly drawing from previous movements and
ideologies (more importantly Marxism, Fanonism and
Maoism) and partly because of their own active
involvement in the day-to-day struggles of Black
America, the BPP was able to develop a truly
revolutionary political platform that presented a more
just and viable alternative.

Nevertheless, mistakes were made and shortcomings led
to the early demise of the party. While the BPP's
racial and class analysis might be commended (indeed
it produced one of the most complete and revolutionary
theories resulting of the 1960's) it must be observed
that some of its practices and beliefs ultimately had
negative effects on the Black population as members of
a given class and racial group.

The party's emphasis on vanguardist organizational
structures replicated some of the very oppressive
structures that it aimed to combat. Race and class are
not abstract concepts; racism, classism and capitalism
therefore exist and manifest themselves at every level
of social interaction. To claim that a revolutionary
organization is immune from reactionary elements is
therefore flawed. It would be ridiculous to claim that
the party practiced "reverse racism" - as some have
claimed over the years in hopes of discrediting its
legacy - nevertheless, social oppressions found
outside of the party were present inside of the party
as well. Authoritarian structures, such as those
advocated by the majority of the leftist organizations
of the 60's, failed to address the issue of social
oppressions in their entirety. Additionally the
Party's failed to address issues of
Patriarchy as an explicit point in their 10-point
Program. This, coupled with notorious examples of male
dominance, sexual harassment and abuse towards women
within the ranks of the Party, shows an inherent
conflict within the Party's platform, and is another
example of the leadership of the Party failing to
recognize how they were in fact maintaining oppressive
institutions.

By developing hierarchical social and political
systems within the BPP, Huey Newton and other party
leaders were effectively replicating oppressive forces
found within the system they were combating. The
question of "human emancipation" is simultaneously a
question of social as well as individual liberation.
If the power of the individual is compromised over the
good of the collective, the revolutionary potential of
the said collective is compromised as well. What if
the party had developed more participatory and
horizontal structures? Surely, the leadership would
have seen its power and authority compromised.
Nevertheless such compromise could have ultimately
benefited the party structure. For if the authority
had been decentralized and delegated through the many
chapters and members of the party, it would have taken
more than a couple blows to effectively end the BPP in
1971.

The Black Panther Party was genuinely committed to the
people it aimed to liberate. Its theory was clearly
revolutionary and, in true Marxist and Fanonist
spirit, it emanated from the material, as well as
social, cultural and racial conditions of the African
American population of the US.

Nevertheless, where the BPP excelled in revolutionary
theory and commitment it lacked in revolutionary
structure. Regrettably, it failed to recognize the
oppressive nature of its leadership and party
organization that ultimately led to its very demise.

******************

REFERENCES

Cleaver, Kathleen & Katsiaficas, George. 2001.
Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party

Newton, Huey P. 1973. Revolutionary Suicide

******************

Jorge is a member of Barricada Collective; JT is a
member of the Sabate Collective, is a part of the NEA
Editorial Brigade, and a member of the Boston Angry
Tenants Union.

******************

The Northeastern Anarchist is the English-language
theoretical magazine of the Northeastern Federation of
Anarcho-Communists (NEFAC), covering class struggle
anarchist theory, history, strategy, debate and
analysis in an effort to further develop
anarcho-communist ideas and practice.

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USA email: northeastern_anarchist@yahoo.com


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