Marxist Bulletin No 5 Revised
Rise and Fall of the Panthers: End of the Black Power Era
Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 4, January 1972
The spectacular and violent split in the Black Panther Party can be viewed as the symbolic end to a period in American radical politics. The impact of the Panthers, in vast disproportion to their actual size and strength, indicated the pervasive black nationalist mood of which they were the most militant expression. Following the collapse of the liberal-oriented civil rights movement, virtually all U.S. radicals saw the struggle of black people against racial oppression as the central and overriding contradiction within American capitalism. The Panthers popularity, enhanced by the vicarious black nationalism of white-guilt liberal circles, coincided with the rejection by impatient petty-bourgeois radical students of a perspective based on the revolutionary role of the working class, black and white. The current split, with tragic implications for the defense of jailed Panthers, certainly gladdens the hearts of racists and cops, but has far-reaching implications for the left as well. No longer can the Panther leadership use unquestioned moral authority to claim automatic allegiance from militant black youth and uncritical support from radical whites regardless of their particular experiences and views.
It is important to recognize that the Panthers came into being at the ebb of the mass black civil rights movement, as a selection of the best black militants in the battles waged over the corpse of the movement. The particular character of the Panthers was shaped by two interrelated developments which marked the death of the respectable civil rights movement of King, Farmer and the early SNCC. One was the movements obvious failure to change the living conditions of the black masses--in particular, its inability to do anything about the terrorization of the ghetto population by the cops, the armed force of the bourgeois state. This point was driven home by the anti-cop riots that swept the ghettos from 1964 to 1967, which proved that militant blacks were through with the non-violent reformism of the SCLC and CORE. The other major development was wholesale ruling-class purchase of black leaders--not only moderates like Farmer but also self-styled black power advocates. The sordid fate of the black power movement was personified in individuals like Roy Innis, who drove the whites out of CORE and later hustled tickets for the Frazier-Ali fight in partnership with General Electric. Another example is LeRoi Jones, black power ex-beat poet, who became aide to His Honor Mayor Gibson and prominently assisted in his attempt to destroy the Newark Teachers Union. The Panthers were thus defined negatively, in reaction against the dying civil rights movement on the one hand and the rise of pork chop nationalism on the other.
Ghetto Uprisings and the Myth of Urban Guerrilla Warfare
It was clear to all that the ghetto uprisings, which began in Harlem in 1964 and continued with undiminished intensity until Newark in 1967, marked the end of the old civil rights movement. What was not clear was how the uprisings affected the future of the black movement. Rather than recognizing the ghetto outbursts for what they in fact were--the final spasm of frustration and fury in the wake of a movement that had raised great hopes and activated enormous energy only to accomplish nothing--the left wishful-thinking saw in the ghetto-police battles the beginning of mass revolutionary violence which presumably had merely to be organized in order to be made effective. The notion that the ghetto was a base for urban guerrilla warfare was common not only among black nationalists, but was accepted by most of the left, from serious Maoists like Progressive Labor to the pundits of Monthly Review. The Panthers were outstanding in their willingness to face jail and even death for their theory.
The ghetto uprisings did not give the black masses a sense of their own power. They did just the opposite. During the rioting, it was blacks own homes that were burned down and the cops who went on a killing rampage. The riots proved that police brutality was not an isolated injustice that could be eliminated through militant action. The cops are an essential part of the armed force of the state; if defeated locally, they came back with the National Guard or Army. To drive the cops out of the ghetto and keep them out was equivalent to overthrowing the American state; thus as long as the majority of white workers remained loyal or only passively hostile to the government, black activism could not liberate the ghetto. It was not their lack of formal organization but a sense that they really could not win that gave the ghetto uprisings their spontaneous, consciously self-sacrificing character.
The Panthers chose to make a stand on their ability to purge the ghetto of police brutality when experience had shown the black masses that this could not be done given the existing over-all balance of political forces. The Panthers, realizing that the masses could not be organized to aggressively confront the police, developed a conscious policy of substituting their own militants for the organized power of the masses. In so doing, they developed a self-image of a band of warrior-heroes avenging the historic injustices visited upon the downtrodden black population. Adventurous black youth joining the Panthers did not see themselves as building a successful social revolution, but anticipated leaving the Party in a pine box with a dead cop to their credit, having done their share to avenge the centuries-old oppression of their people.
The Panther leadership knew they were standing up to the cops in isolation from the black masses. In his essay, The Correct Handling of a Revolution, Huey Newton contended that armed Panthers would set an example which the rest of the black people would follow. Written after thousands of blacks had battled the cops and lost in Harlem, Watts and Chicago, Newtons argument had a forced and unreal quality. History was about to give Newton a swift and deadly counter-argument.
The Panthers Pick Up the Gun and Are Defeated
Taking advantage of Californias liberal gun laws, the Panthers applied their theory. At first their tactics appeared successful. Newtons armed patrols in Oakland went unmolested. The Panthers held an armed rally in Richmond commemorating the murder of Denzil Dowell by a deputy sheriff, and faced the cops down. Most spectacularly, Bobby Seale led a group of armed Panthers to the State Capitol during a debate on gun control, and received only a light prison sentence. Taken aback by the Panther flamboyance, and uncertain how much support they had in the ghetto, the authorities at first demurred. But beginning with the wounding and jailing of Newton in October 1967, and gaining steam with the killing of Bobby Hutton and the arrest of Cleaver in April 1968, a coordinated national campaign to wipe out the Panthers was launched by local police and the FBI operating in many cases with the assistance of cultural nationalist groups (the murder of Los Angeles Panthers by members of Ron Karengas US). Over the past few years, the murders of Panthers have continued and virtually the entire leadership has been imprisoned on capital charges.
Contrary to Panther theorizing, the crackdown on them did not provoke mass ghetto rebellions. In fact, the Panthers real weakness can be seen by comparing the response to their persecution with the spontaneous eruptions of ghetto rage at the assassination of Martin Luther King.
The Panthers feeling of desperate isolation as the police rifle sight zeroed in on them is expressed in a moving account by Earl Anthony, a former Deputy Minister of Information who later split from the Party in the direction of mainstream nationalism. Writing after the Battle of Montclaire, where three Panthers were killed by the cops in Los Angeles, Anthony reflects:
I kept thinking to myself. . . about the ease with which the Panthers were being killed, and I couldnt do anything about it, and nobody I knew could do anything about it. And I thought about the thousands upon thousands. . . of black people who have been murdered, and nobody could do anything about it.... What really burned me inside was that I was forced to realize the untenable position the Party and other blacks who dare to put their toe to the line are in. I knew that white people didnt really care that Little Tommy, Captain Steve, and Robert were gone, or that the pigs were scheming the murder of the rest of us.... I had learned to accept that attitude from whites. But the painful reality was that many blacks had it too. When you got down to it, we were pretty much alone. Not many people really cared....
The Panthers Defend Themselves and Move Right
Isolated, with repression bearing down on them, the Panthers shifted the focus of their activities to legal defense work in an effort to gain the broadest possible support. The Panther alliances with white radicals were not motivated by any realization that American society could only be revolutionized by an integrated working-class movement, but by the material needs of their defense campaign. As Seale openly admitted, the Panthers support for the ill-fated Peace and Freedom Party was not based on a desire to establish an integrated radical third party, but by a belief that the PFP was a convenient vehicle in gaining left liberal support for defense of Newton. The other widely divergent groups supporting the PFP, such as Progressive Labor and the Independent Socialist Clubs (now the International Socialists) were no less opportunistic, although in their case the motivation was chiefly a desire for a recruiting vehicle.
The Panthers tendency to move closer to liberalism, implicit in their support of the liberal program of the PFP, was made explicit in the equally abortive United Front Against Fascism, launched in 1969. Guided by the Communist Partys legal apparatus, the UFAF was an attempt to create an alliance of everyone to the left of Nixon-Agnew on an essentially civil libertarian basis. The UFAFs main programmatic demand--community control of the police--combined liberal illusions over the nature of the bourgeois state with black nationalist illusions that the oppression of black people can be ended through control of ghetto institutions.
The Panthers overtures to the liberals were not very successful since the Panthers were too notorious for defense by bourgeois politicians. A few West Coast black Democrats, like Willy Brown and Ronald Dellums, protected their left flank by coming out for the Panthers. Some politicians like Clevelands Carl Stokes, questioned whether the police might not have actually violated the Panthers rights! The Panthers were somewhat more successful in garnering support and money from the cultural wing of the liberal establishment, as indicated by Leonard Bernsteins famous party where the beautiful people met the Panthers and paid handsomely for the titillation of exposing their bourgeois sensibilities to the black revolution in safety, an expensive delight somewhat recalling the Roman arenas. But despite their efforts to present themselves as simple anti-fascists, the heat continued to come down on the Panthers.
Although the Panthers since 1969 have clearly given up street patrols in favor of defense rallies and soirees, they have not officially abandoned their claim to be the vanguard of urban guerrilla warfare. In the current split, the Cleaver wing points to this contradiction and claims with some truth that Newtons Oakland group has deserted the original Panther banner.
Along with their turn toward the liberals, the Panthers launched a series of ghetto social work programs, exemplified in their breakfast for children drive. The new activities were designed to gain support from the black masses who had not rallied to the confrontationist image, as well as give the Panthers a more humanitarian image when facing white middle-class juries. Thus, Panther attorney Lefcourt forced the undercover agent in the New York 21 case to admit that the defendants spent most of their time doing good works in the community and not plotting to blow up buildings.
The breakfast for children program is also a rather ridiculous attempt to apply literally the standard Maoist serve the people strategy. While Maos Red Army could give some real material aid to the Chinese peasants in protecting them from rapacious landlords, helping with the harvest and the like, the notion that the Panthers could compete with the Welfare Department or the Baptist Church in feeding the ghetto poor is simply ludicrous. But the fundamental flaw in the serve the people line is not that it doesnt work, but that it strengthens the paternalistic character the Panthers already present in their self-image as avenging angels of the black masses seen as grateful clients of a revolutionary organization, not as potential conscious revolutionists in their own right.
The Panthers need for activities like the breakfast for children program to improve their image in the ghetto destroys the myth that they are a spontaneous expression of black militancy. Some radical groups--notably the International Socialists, who followed the Panthers right up to the gates of Peking Stalinism--contended that one should support the Panthers regardless of their politics because they were the highest organic expression of ghetto political consciousness. In contrast, the Panthers have always regarded themselves as a highly self-conscious vanguard tendency. On the one hand, they sought to win the loyalty of the ghetto youth from competing groups, mainly the cultural nationalists. On the other, they beat the ghetto life style out of their new recruits (while glorifying it in their press), recognizing that a lumpenized life style is incompatible with serious and sustained revolutionary activity. The contention that lax political standards should be employed in judging the Panthers because they are an authentic cry from the soul of the black masses is not only factually false but reflects a patronizing attitude toward blacks that borders on racism.
Glamor and Terror
The Panthers serious internal difficulties, manifested not only in the present decisive split but also in the endless series of expulsions, reflects the impossibility of building a revolutionary organization with street gang methods. Because the Panthers recruited adventurous youth without a stable axis, they could only prevent the disintegration of their organization into competing warlordisms through the imposition of a kind of military terror. New recruits were assigned fifty push-ups for failing to memorize the Panther program, and pressure was put on them to do two hours of reading a day. It is argued that such coerced internal political life is necessary in any radical organization not composed primarily of middle-class intellectuals. But the history of the proletarian socialist movement in the U.S. and elsewhere yields many examples of organizations in which articulate and politically able industrial workers though often lacking formal education, shaped policy, and did not merely memorize a program by rote, like a prayer. This was possible because the socialist movement recruited workers to a comprehensive program for long-term political goals. The Panthers, on the contrary, recruited on the basis of a radical street gang mentality, with its attendant personal, ethnic and geographical loyalties. The Panther program did not shape their organization and its activities, but was treated as a decoration like icing on a cake.
The Panthers concept of rule through terror, and its application to internal factional struggles as well as relations with other radical groups, can no longer be ignored by the opportunists who tailed after the Panthers and their popularity, hoping it would rub off. In discussing the factional struggle with Cleaver, Newton simply said Well battle it out and I have the guns, to which Cleaver replied, I got some guns too, brother (Right On!, 3 April 1970). In a like manner, the Panthers responded to criticisms of their United Front with the CP and liberals by physically throwing the critics out of the UFAF conference (see Spartacist West, No. 18) and making repeated public threats against all left critics. At no time has the Panther leadership reacted to criticism by seeking to politically discredit their opponents within the radical constituency. At no time have they recognized that building a revolutionary party requires methods in any way different from conducting a street gang rivalry.
Apart from terror, the main element holding a street gang together is a power mystique, manifest in the warrior-hero cult of the Panthers. Seale testified to the importance of glamor to the Panthers in noting that a number of members left the Party when ordered not to wear their uniforms except on Party assignment. The best expression of Panther glamor-mongering is the ascending order of hero worship, culminating in the cult of Huey Newton which appears even more absurd than the Stalin and Mao cults because of its imitative character.
The disastrous effect of building an organization through hero worship is apparent in the split, which has been dominated by personal rivalries and clique politics. The split originated not in clear political differences, but in accusations that Chief of Staff David Hilliard was playing favorites in allocating defense funds and expelling out-of-favor Panthers, like Geronimo Pratt, to avoid the responsibility for their defense. But there are political differences implicit in the split. Each faction occupies one of the two poles around which Panther politics have revolved. The Cleaver group represents the anti-cop confrontationism characteristic of the early Panthers while Newtons group reflects the liberalism and social-work do-goodism of the defense campaigns. In terms of internal dynamics, the Algiers group tends toward reconciliation with mainstream Black Nationalism, while the Oakland group has gravitated toward liberal reformism sometimes more naked than that of the Communist Party. The actual faction fight has touched these differences only marginally, and has been conducted almost entirely in terms of competing heroes, character assassination and counter-retailing of atrocity stories (e.g., the claim that Cleaver is keeping his wife prisoner, the accusation that Hilliard is doping Newton). The main programmatic demand of the Algiers group is a call for collective leadership and an attack on the personality cult, while the Newton group has defended itself by asserting the personality cult, namely Newtons own.
Sections of the left have of course attempted to find a qualitative political superiority of one wing over the other, as a rationale for drawing close to it. Perhaps the crudest attempt to paint one of the wings as Marxist or close to it was that of the assertedly Trotskyist Workers League of Tim Wohlforth. Wohlforth hailed Newtons proclaimed embracing of the dialectic in a fit of organizational appetite early last year. Newton very soon thereafter announced his peace with black capitalism and the church, teaching Wohlforth again that dialectic is a word of four syllables and method of two, and that it takes much more than the mouthing of the two words to make a Marxist, or even a potential Marxist. To make his short-lived praise of Newton more grotesque, Wohlforth printed fulsome praise and carefully selected revolutionary proletarian quotes from Newton in the same article in which he defended, against SWP-YSA criticism, his view of the New York police strike as a reflection of a very general, deep and profound movement of the working class! (15 February Bulletin) Only the Workers League... dares to suck up to the Panthers and defend the job action of their mortal enemies, the cops, in the same issue of the same publication.
Hero worship is one of the ways bourgeois ideology enters the revolutionary movement and destroys it. Its corrupting nature is evident in Huey Newtons $650 a month penthouse, paid for out of Party funds raised in defense campaigns, while rank-and-file Panthers hide from the police in rat-infested hovels. The Panther paper justifies Newton by noting that he had stood up and faced the pigs (from which he was wounded and spent two years in prison) and that he had put his life on the line in the fight to end this racist, exploitative system. The paper went on to state: Huey and his generals of staff should have the best as they plan their partys strategy. (The Black Panther, 27 February 1971) The belief that the pest sufferings of militants entitle them to the good life at rank-and-file expense is an important subjective justification for bureaucracy in the labor and radical movement. Moreover, left-wing leaders can continue to enjoy the good life only with ruling-class cooperation, obtainable by holding back the organizations they are supposed to lead against it. Many present leading AFL-CIO bureaucrats were beaten, shot at and jailed in their youth. Newtons penthouse and the Partys defense of it indicate a deeply anti-socialist attitude. The revolutionary movement is not like a medieval joust where the best knight gets the castle. Its purpose is to destroy the castle.
Lumpens, Hippies and New Left Ideology
An analysis qualitatively superior to the Workers Leagues general pattern of alternating denunciation and grovelling before the Panthers was written by Lil Joe for the 15 March 1971 Bulletin. The author, no longer with the Workers League, well analyzed the tension between the national and class orientation of the Panthers:
To avoid the Marxist contention that the organized working class is the key revolutionary element, the Panthers came up with the theory that black lumpens are the revolutionary vanguard, and that all employed workers, black and white, have been bought off by the ruling class. The Panthers theory of lumpenism is a mixture of self-aggrandizement and impressionism. Its role is similar to the theories of student power and the new working class that were popular in SDS a few years ago: our revolutionary organization consists largely of lumpens (or students); therefore lumpens (or students) must be the vanguard of the revolution. This kind of theorizing unfortunately does not merit serious consideration.
A lumpen life style has very different social roots among ghetto black youth and middle-class whites; but in both cases youth rebel against the prospect of holding down a meaningless job, raising a family and suffering a deadly respectable life. Such rebellious attitudes are not merely justified, but are the subjective raw material out of which revolutionary consciousness is made. No one will be a revolutionist who does not hate a society that makes life for working people boring, trivial, deadening and often heartbreaking. But a political movement which isolates itself in a social milieu hostile to normal work-a-day society must become irresponsible, individualistic and ultimately cynical and contemptuous of the mass of working people. It is precisely that task of revolutionaries to penetrate the mainstream of social and economic life and explode normal work-a-day society on the basis of its terrible oppressiveness--the very oppressiveness which drove individuals to become revolutionaries in the first place.
The Lefts Panther Cult
The Panther split is another nail in the coffin of the New Left. For years, the U.S. left has defined itself in terms of supporting this or that militant action or opposing particular acts of oppression and injustice. Within the issue-oriented movement, support for the Panthers has been one of the few common elements that prevented the left from fragmenting completely through doing ones own thing. The net effect of the Panther influence on the left was negative, not only because the Panthers own politics never transcended black nationalism and crude Stalinism, but because Panther-worship and uncritical concentration on their defense campaigns prevented the political interaction essential to revolutionary program and strategy. It was Cleavers presence at the head of the ticket that enabled the PFP to bring together a collection of left McCarthyites, Yippies, orthodox Maoists (Progressive Labor) and third campers (IS) into an unprincipled, liberal-program unity for a time. In a like manner, uncritical support for and from the Panthers was one of the few concrete issues the diverse anti-labor elements in the old SDS could unite around in expelling the Worker-Student Alliance tendency. The Panther split proved once again that hero worship and tail-ending are no substitute for the struggle for Marxist clarity as a foundation of a revolutionary party.
Since their inception, the Panthers have been a test for the predominantly white American left as a whole--a test of its ability to apply Marxist analysis, and a test of its consistency and courage. The absence of a Leninist vanguard party made the ruin of the Panthers likely if not strictly inevitable. Lacking a link to the revolutionary party of the working class, organizations fighting special oppression stand isolated from the rest of the working class and endangered by the problems and backwardness of their particular, isolated areas of struggle. The extreme result of such a situation is self-determination for everybody with every organization and particular struggle competing for a larger share of the capitalist pie.
It is important to note the significance of how the Panthers were defeated. That the Panthers were defeated physically by the state rather than politically through the intervention of the vanguard party means, in effect, that many of the lessons of their demise will surely be lost. It means that more despair and less consciousness of what went wrong has been created in many of the best subjectively revolutionary elements. On a smaller scale, the difference is not unlike that between the destruction of a bureaucracy like, say, the North Vietnamese by American tanks and bombers instead of by the North Vietnamese workers in political revolution.
But did any of the various left organizations show by their attitude toward the Panthers the fitness, the right (or for that matter even any intention) to construct the vanguard party which was lacking? Nearly all self-proclaimed Marxist organizations failed the test, most of them repeatedly on a variety of issues and occasions. The gutless IS, loudly proclaiming their anti-Stalinism, tailed the Panthers throughout the process leading to their embrace with the Stalinists and their liberal allies in the United Front Against Fascism. The SWP-YSA, the most vociferous Marxist proponent of black nationalism, consistently ignored the Panthers systematic errors and violations of proletarian ethics until, we presume, they became scared. They refused to sign a protest issued by the Spartacist League against the beating and exclusion by the Panthers of radical tendencies selling their literature outside a Panther Birthday Party celebration in Berkeley, California, in February 1970. Their proclaimed reason for refusal was their unwillingness to intervene in Panther internal affairs--as if physical attacks on competing radical tendencies were an internal affair! But they were shortly to repudiate the Panthers as part of their general orthodox shying away from the guerrilla warfare line they had preached--for others--for years. (See Spartacist No. 20, April-May 1970, World Trotskyism Rearms for an analysis of their newly-discovered Leninist opposition to guerrilla warfare strategy when their European co-thinkers proposed that the U.Sec. implement its pro-guerrilla stance.) The SWPs new criticism of the Panthers whom they supported for so long, is fundamentally criticism from the right, expressed CP-fashion in orthodox-sounding rhetoric about the need to rely on the movement of the masses. The SWP criticized the Panthers also for not being nationalist enough; the scattered references in Panther leaders speeches to class struggle (of which the Workers League briefly made so much) were too much for the thoroughly reformist SWP to swallow. In an article Which Way for Black Liberation in the December 1969 Young Socialist, the YSA leadership condemned the Black Panthers for waving the little red book, or calling this the year of the gun instead of reaching out to the broadest masses of the community around the questions of black control of the schools, ending police brutality, better jobs--precisely the issues the liberals can campaign on. The YSAs critique is thus not a critique of the crude Panther brand of Maoism, but an attack on their attempt to popularize their conception of communist consciousness as opposed to the SWPs classless community reform line.
From Black Power to Communism
If the Panther split is disorienting for the white radical movement, it is devastating for the black radical movement. With the demise of the Panthers as a united organization, no national black organization exists which can claim the allegiance of large numbers of radical blacks. The civil rights movement, which attracted young militants through its social activism and a sense that it was engaging in decisive political battles, is long dead and buried. The mainstream black nationalists are openly and unashamedly on the payroll of the man. Localized ad hoc groups like black student unions or tenants unions cannot have serious revolutionary pretensions, whatever their members might think. The Panthers were the only organization which could seriously claim to be both black and subjectively revolutionary. And now the Panthers are no more. Two competing apparatuses exist in disarray, stripped of moral authority. The only black organization now existing which can claim both a degree of militancy and rudiments of national structure is the Black Workers Congress. BWC leader James Forman, assertedly converted to anti-imperialism from his SNCC liberalism, expounds a policy of separate organizations of black workers and a view of Marxism as [a] handbook of how-to-run-an-organization-and-be-serious. The BWC appears at this time to be capable of sowing considerable revisionist confusion especially among unionists, but not likely to acquire the widespread moral authority enjoyed by the old Panthers. There is now no place for a black revolutionist to go ... except the integrated proletarian socialist movement.
The shriveling of the civil rights movement in the fires of Watts and Detroit, the rise of pork-chop nationalism and the external and internal destruction of the Panthers cannot be explained in terms of the problems of particular organizations and the defections of particular leaders. Rather, these developments prove the impossibility of building a black liberation struggle independent of the rest of American society. The civil rights movement failed because the oppression and degradation of black people is deeply rooted in the American economy and society and cannot be eliminated through legalistic reforms. Only a socialist economic system can lift the ghetto masses off the bottom of the economic order. That the black power protests of H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael produced a movement of Uncle Toms in dashikis and professional strike-breakers was not because the movement was always composed of corrupt opportunists. The black power advocates realized the ghetto was not economically viable. If black power meant more black principals, welfare department heads and police chiefs, then only the ruling class could finance a substantial increase in the black bureaucracy. And the ruling class always demands a return on its money. The Panthers could not defeat the cops because the cops are an essential part of the capitalist state and the Panthers could not defeat that state. Given that fact, the Panthers could only alternate between the bitter consequences of heroic adventurism or appealing to the liberal establishment.
The oppression of the black people cannot be ended by black activists alone, but only by the working class as a whole. The breakup of the Panthers organization and authority creates greater opportunity--but only opportunity--for the struggle for an integrated proletarian socialist vanguard party. The process is in no sense inevitable; there will always be plenty of hustlers and romantic rebels to attempt endless repetition of the old mistakes and betrayals. But the intervention of Leninists among radical blacks can stimulate the understanding that the liberation of black people will be both a great driving force of the American proletarian revolution, and a great achievement of the revolution in power. That revolution will be made, not in the name of black power, but of working-class power--communism.
Posted: 26 March 2006