Personality Cults, the Black Panther Party, and Principled Unity
Maoism and the Black Panther Party
There is one thing in particular I'd like to write about in regards to what interests are and what I've learned from the above subject matter. MIM refers to as "the cult of individual personality", when it comes to the leadership of the 3 highest ranking Panthers of the late 1960s - early 1970s. Particularly Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. I understand what MIM is getting at when suggesting that the dominant personalities of these two men is basically what led to the BPPs downfall. Mostly due to the fact that the majority of its membership chose to follow in the leadership of either Newton or Cleaver, which ultimately led to the split and the FBI's ability to infiltrate and corrupt the BPP from the inside out.
However, without Newton's leadership and personality to begin with, the BPP would never have made the revolutionary impact on the movement that it did. In my opinion, it takes great leadership to support change. Many of the BPP's successes and accomplishments would not have been achieved without the strength of character provided by Newton.
Of course, there were mistakes, flaws that allowed the party to be exploited and manipulated by its enrollees. Which we can see in hindsight. But the reality is, at that time, it took great individual courage and audacity in the face of a very powerful and dangerous adversary to be able to inspire and to get so many to come together and to present a strong coordinated force willing to fight and to challenge, not only the police themselves, but an entire system.
Nothing inspires people more than the willingness to stand up and to die for what you believe in and Huey Newton was the epitome of courage. It's easy to claim "I would die for you." However, it's a whole different story when you're actually put under the gun. Although many people want to be brave and courageous, the majority of people are overcome by their fears.
It was Huey's courage that inspired Eldridge Cleaver to join the party. Individual practices and personal agendas created a division amongst them. Nevertheless, it does not take away from the unique quality of what drove people to come together and to follow the BPP in the first place.
So yes, I agree leadership needs to be established on all levels from top to bottom. Teaching and training our brothers to understand the importance of both individual and collective leadership. So that everyone has the ability to lead and to take charge when it is called upon. While at the same time recognizing and acknowledging that it requires a certain amount of knowledge and experience to be ready and prepared to accept a position or role of leadership. Especially one that places the lives of our people under your care.
When looking back at the BPP a lot of people, including MIM, seem to place the bulk of the responsibility on Newton and Cleaver. Therefore, laying blame on these two individuals above everyone else. Which is reasonable to a point. They chose to insist on placing themselves in the position of authority. Hence, accountability falls directly on their shoulders. However, the BPP produced many great leaders including but not limited to: George Jackson, Geronimo Pratt, Fred Hampton, Sekou Odinga, Mutolu Shakur, etc. Each of whom established a following of their own. They all also suffered at the hands of their enemies. But the point I want to make is, when the opportunity presented itself, even though they were part of the BPP, they each created their own agendas, based not solely on what Newton and Cleaver directed, but on the practices and objectives they felt best served the movement.
I don't believe it is right to throw Huey under the bus for what happened. He did his best and unfortunately in the end succumbed to the circumstances that stopped him.
I think to succeed, we have to all come together and to unite under a common force. Our leaders need to put aside their egos and humble themselves to the fact that we all have a place. It is up to us as individuals to understand that place. Those who are best fit to lead us should lead us. Those who have proven over time, through correct practice and sacrifice, who have the leadership skills, abilities and qualities, as well as the knowledge, training and experience.
Just as the representatives of the Pelican Bay short Corridor Collective came together in solidarity to build a movement that was at one time unimaginable. So should those who claim to be the vanguards of the revolutionary movement on the outside. There are always going to be differences in ideologies, philosophies, and perspectives. Our goal should be to put our differences to the side and to find our common ground. Our common goals and interests. Focusing and directing our efforts and energies towards striving for what we all have in common.
I have noticed the lines that have been drawn between groups such as MIM, RCP, SWP, etc. Imagine how much can be done if only each of these groups came together to build around and upon a common goal? Creating a courageous leadership with representatives from each group. Agreeing to prioritize those things that are important to everyone. While at the same time each group respectively accepting their own individual purposes.
MIM(Prisons) responds: This commentary is on the pamphlet produced by the Maoist Internationalist Movement (MIM) called Maoism and the Black Panther Party. There are two main points here we want to address: the personality cult and the call for unity between various organizations.
There is a contradiction around the question of the cult of personality. As this comrade points out, figures like Huey Newton and Fred Hampton were responsible for some of the quick gains in membership of the Panthers. There is a contradiction between the leaders and the masses based on the law of uneven development, which leaves the masses needing leaders in the first place. Communist practice has answered this problem with democratic centralism, including the use of the mass line. We've criticized the Panther organizing strategy for its failure to distinguish between the Party and mass organizations. By not recognizing the different roles of the two, the Party suffered and charismatic individuals had too much power, which broke down democratic centralism.
This comrade is correct that Huey's actions, based in his correct understanding, played a significant role in the Panthers early rise to success. Yet, we must temper this with a disciplined organizational structure that recognizes the important roles of the everyone in the Party. Once the Party reached a certain size, democratic centralism would have decreased the ability of the pigs to influence individuals to split the Party. And this was a major failure of the Panthers.
Notwithstanding this criticism, the pamphlet does not throw Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver under the bus. Rather, the principal message is to hold up the BPP, and its leaders, as the best example we have of Maoist organizing within U.$. borders. In fact, MIM later published an article in 1999 "Huey Newton: North Amerikan of the Century?" advocating this position. But in analyzing historical movements that failed to achieve their goals, we have a responsibility to figure out what errors were made so that we can improve on that practice.
The second question raised by this writer is that of whether all organizations such as MIM, RCP and SWP should "put our differences to the side and find our common ground." We ask the author whether s/he would also call on the Black Panther Party to unite with the US organization, a group that killed one of the great leaders, Bunchy Carter, and proved to be a tool of the imperialist government. We do not take this question lightly. It is very important for us to identify who are our friends and who are our enemies. And we have a duty to unite all who can be united in the fight against imperialism. However, we should not attempt to build unity with those who mislead the masses and actually serve the imperialists, whether consciously or unconsciously. Organizations like the RCP and SWP, who work to rally the white nation within U.$. borders for greater benefits to themselves, are objectively working against the interests of the international proletariat. If we were to "put our differences to the side" with these groups, we would be putting our anti-imperialism to the side. That is not a compromise we are willing to make. We do seek to unite all in the anti-imperialist battle, through a principled United Front against imperialism. But this United Front will never include pro-imperialist forces.
Correction May 2015
The author responded to our response to argue that the assassination of Bunchy was instigated by those who were trying to split the Black liberation movement, and even those close to Bunchy do not blame those who pulled the trigger as they were just following orders.
Perhaps that was a poor example we used with the BPP and US as it could easily be interpreted to mean that you should not try to unite with any group that has used violence against your group. We strongly support the end to hostilities in California and the United Front for Peace in Prisons and are aware that one of the major barriers to that is the history of bloodshed. But the difference is the reasons for the bloodshed. With L.O.s it is generally "petty differences" as the author describes in h letter. But with political organizations it is often about core political differences. The implication above was that the US murder of Bunchy was due to such deep political differences. Perhaps a good argument could be made that that was not the case. But either way, the reason we would not ally with SWP or RCP is because of where their politics lead. At the group level it is against the interests of the oppressed. For example, the RCP line on Iran leads to the suffering and death of Iranians as a group at the hands of U.$. imperialism. So this is a bigger picture question. And the reason we are so adamant about not working with RCP is that most people cannot see the difference between us. So to do so would be to confuse the masses, potentially leading to more people following the RCP and working against the interests of the oppressed.
A lot of these differences are deep, historical debates that were settled in the communist movement a long time ago, but confused people, or people who chauvinistically support the interests of Amerikans, keep bringing these issues up and taking the wrong side. You can check out our RCP study pack for discussion of many of these issues. And we thank the author for pointing out this correction.