On the 50th anniversary of the launching of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) by Mao Zedong, a commemorative concert was held in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. It featured music, art and slogans from the GPCR. A propaganda poster with the slogan, "People of the world unite to defeat American invaders and their running dogs!" was displayed on a giant screen. A large choir sang the Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman as a poster of Mao as the sun was projected on the screen. Thousands clapped. The lyrics are:
"Sailing seas depends on the helmsman,
Life and growth depends on the sun.
Rain and dew nourish the crops,
Making revolution depends on Mao Zedong Thought.
Fish can’t leave the water,
Nor melons leave the vines.
The revolutionary masses can’t do without the Communist party.
Mao Zedong Thought is the sun that forever shines."
We are under no illusions about the current state capitalist government in China: they will only hold up Maoism when it serves their political purposes, which are definitely not serving the people. But this celebration serves to remind us that the GPCR plays a much more complex and subtle role in modern Chinese society, compared to the West where it is merely a symbol of communist extremism that is almost universally condemned. In China there are also those who condemn "extreme leftist ideology making waves again," but there are many who still recognize the rise of Deng Xiaoping as the end of a great time in China when the interests of the people guided the government of the largest country on Earth.
In the United $tates, reverence for the GPCR and support for the battle against the revisionism that had taken over the Soviet Union after Stalin's death was not relegated to a tiny minority of people in the late 1960s, as it is today. In January 1969, The Black Panther newspaper reprinted an article from India condemning the revisionism of the Soviet Union, and it's invasion of Czechoslovakia. In March 1969, The Black Panther featured a longer article on the collaboration between "U.S. imperialism and Soviet revisionism, the two most ferocious enemies of the revolutionary people of the world..." In April 1969 the newspaper said, "China stands as a beacon to all revolutionaries around the world: the guiding light showing the path to freedom to all of our brothers in Africa and Asia." Fifty years later, the GPCR still serves as that beacon of what is possible when the masses of an oppressed country are unleashed to guide their destiny and self-determination.
It is no coincidence that the Black Panther Party emerged the same year as the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China. 1966-1969 was a high tide of revolutionary fervor across the globe. It may take that kind of tide to raise the revolutionary spirit in the United $tates again. MIM(Prisons) believes that New Afrikans will once again play an important role the next time it does, and that it is the duty of communists today to prepare for that time by continuing the fight against revisionism, and developming the most correct line among communist cadre in the internal semi-colonies.
A criticism often made of the Black Panther Party (BPP) lies in errors it made around addressing the patriarchy. Most of these criticisms are attempts at subreformism, which is the approach of resolving conflict on an individual or interpersynal level in an attempt to resolve social problems. But the patriarchy is a system of oppression. It manifests in interpersynal interactions, but can't be stopped without addressing the system of oppression itself. Just by the very fact that the BPP was organizing for national liberation under a Maoist banner, it was making more advances toward a world without gender oppression than all of their pseudo-feminist critics combined.
George Jackson did have some bad gender line in Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, which covers the years 1964-1970. To wimmin searching for their place in an anti-imperialist prison struggle, the most alienating examples are where Jackson says wimmin should just "sit, listen to us, and attempt to understand. It is for them to obey and aid us, not to attempt to think."(p. 101) Later in the book after Jackson encounters some revolutionary Black wimmin, ey can't help but to sexualize their politics. Much like in our everyday society, Soledad Brother tells wimmin their role in this struggle is to shut up or be sexualized. These were not consciously worked out analyses of gender but instead Jackson's subjective responses to frustration and excitement.
A challenge to all revolutionaries is to take an objective approach to our scientific analysis. This is very difficult. To wimmin struggling within the national liberation movements, looking at the social and historical context of these remarks is imperative to overcoming this alienation from sexist brothers in struggle. Jackson was reared in the United $tates in the 1940s and 50s, with time spent in youth detention facilities. Ey entered the hyper-masculine prison environment at the age of 20. Jackson's social context was our fucked up patriarchal society, and is similar to many of our contributors whose scope of perspective is limited by the conditions of their confinement. Where our sisters need to not split over subreformism, our brothers also need to work to overcome their empiricism and subjectivism in how they approach uniting with wimmin against imperialism and patriarchy.
It was after the publishing of Soledad Brother that Jackson advanced to be a general and field marshal of the People's Revolutionary Army of the Black Panther Party. While Soledad Brother gives more of a look into the prison experience, in eir later work, Blood In My Eye (which was published by the BPP posthumously), Jackson lays out eir most advanced political analysis shortly before ey was murdered by the state on 21 August 1971. More than an author, Jackson was a great organizer. Panther and life-long revolutionary Kiilu Nyasha is a testimony to Jackson's abilities, indicating that subjectivity around gender did not prevent him from organizing seriously with wimmin.(1) Of course, Jackson’s biggest legacy was organizing men in prison. Eir ability to organize strikes with 100% participation in eir unit serves as an counterexample to those in California today who say we cannot unite across "racial" lines. It's impressive all that Jackson accomplished in developing eir politics and internationalism, and organizing prisoners, considering all the barriers Amerikkka put in the way.
Jackson was a good representative of the BPP's mass base, and the BPP was correct in organizing with Jackson and others with backward gender lines. If the Party hadn't been dissolved by COINTELPRO we can only guess at what advances it could have made toward resolving gender oppression by now. One thing is certain, it would have done a lot more to combat the patriarchy for the majority of the world's inhabitants than First World pseudo-feminism ever has or ever will.
From this end of the bend the only subject relevant to prisoners in regards to the early Black Panther Party (BPP) is the party as a Maoist organization and how prisoners should apply the teachings of the early Panthers to free themselves - resisting the foolishness of the late personality cliques capitalizing off of the party’s reputation. What is most important is getting to the truth between the legacy of the BPP and what it was that the founders were really getting at. What role, if any, do later groups play in keeping the vision alive? And how is it that prisoners should use these lessons in these later years of anti-imperialist prison organizing efforts?
Many New Afrikan lumpen organizations inside prison take their plays directly from the playbook of early BPP members while never truly crediting the party for its works. This in turn creates further confusions between the Lumpen Organization's (LO's) followers and former members of the authentic movement. Others within U.$. prisons are charismatic individuals working hand over hand with the bourgeois nationalist organizations, spreading misinformation about the BPP.
Recently PBS ran a piece on a program called Independent Lens that documented the history of the Black Panther Party. As expected it was as watered down as the bourgeois press and media felt it could get away with.(1) Several of the prisoners housed on this facility burst at their seems with inspiration of the works of the Black Panther Party. It was information that they felt they should have known, being they are Afrikans.
Other BPP images being portrayed on this 50th anniversary year include one specific article written by a charismatic imprisoned individual that went on and on about Huey P. Newton, a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, and not on how prisoners should learn from the early lessons of Newton, applying their lessons of political education in the struggles of today.(2) And probably the most noticed recent portrayal of the Panthers came in the form of sexual media, with Beyonce and eir Super Bowl 50 performance. Capitalizing off of the history of the Black power era, Beyonce adorned eirself and eir backup dancers with black leathers, black boots and black berets. Prisoners should question the significance of Black Panther costume jewelry and make-up versus scientific relevance inside U.$. prisons.(3)
Very few prisoners appreciate the political significance of the difference between the early BPP and the late BPP. This is the reason so many prisoners crowd towards movements that appear authentic and genuinely interested in liberation struggles. The masses are presented with ideas of Black, Brown, red, yellow and white power by superstar groups like #BlackLivesMatter, but prisoners have very few tools of independence to combat the misinformation spewed by these bourgeois nationalist organizations and their personalities. Movements built on single issue organizing, swabbing the support of the populations using identity politics, do a disservice to the oppressed, depriving them of the truth.
The Black Panther Party held the correct line in its early stages, and because of this it was rewarded with the support of the internal semi-colonies of the United $tates, the majority being lumpen youth. In its early years the BPP was truly independent, concentrating on its services to Blacks, at a time when the term Black was just as independent as the party. So the organization was able to operate in a loose way within the First World. The early party took its science from a variety of teachings, from the Pan-Afrikan movement to the Chinese communist movement, Lenin’s Russia, Stalin’s theory of nation, and Mao’s People’s War. Mao influenced much of the Black Panther Party’s position as a structured organization. The early members had a very real practice of materialist solutions provided to those in the same environment suffering under conditions of class indifferences, national isolation and gender extinction. They did not believe in struggling against a system while at the same time becoming liberated by the very same system they struggled against.
The prison personality contest conflicts become prominent, with prison identity politics valued above the peace that independence-building projects bring to a self-reliant and self-determined people's anti-imperialist prison movement. Too many prisoners and prison LOs see the end of their individual suffering at the expense of exploiting entire prison populations. MIM(Prisons) and United Struggle from Within (USW) see it differently as we define in the United Front for Peace in Prisons (UFPP) principle of independence. Independence is building our own institutions and programs independent of the united states government and all its branches, right down to the local police, because this system does not serve us. By developing independent power through these institutions we do not need to compromise our goals.
The Black Panther Party prioritized the momentum of the people in its early years because of the line and position it had on Maoism. The BPP transitioned for some time to a level above many of the revisionist and liberal bourgeois nationalist organizations of the late sixties and was able to attract some of the most progressive members of the lower class, that many now refer to as the First World lumpen. The Panthers at this time studied history from the perspective of dialectical materialism, in contrast to the methods of metaphysics and idealism, and had a clear program that was being adopted by various sectors of the masses across the United $tates. They applied practices that included designing programs that required members to perform services for the community at large, from education to self defense. The services of the Black Panther Party reflected its line in such a way that it was mandatory that members knew the rules of the BPP, the 8 points of attention and the 3 main rules of discipline, off the top of their head. The early Panthers were really on point.
It is in the later stages of the party’s existence that things began to take a turn as a result of the organization shifting from its earlier positions on independence, self-determination and liberation in the interest of the oppressed. This shift occurred in 1970-71, and was marked by the development of the theory of “intercommunalism” by Huey P. Newton. With the added pressures of government-launched campaigns to destroy the Black Panther Party, the party became split on every level one possibly could imagine.
Walking in the Panther Legacy Today
Since the demise of the BPP, though the movement never actually died, a wide gap has grown between the generation of Huey, George, Bunchy, Fred, Kathleen and Geronimo and the generation of Freddie Gray, Mike Brown and Sandra Bland. Since the Panthers, many organizations became infected with a type of Pantherism/inter-communalism fervor. These organizations hold that they themselves keep the work of the Black Panther Party alive, all the while erasing the Maoist politics of the BPP. See our article on the Black Riders Liberation Party for a discussion of another group confusing this legacy today.(4)
United Struggle from Within (USW) is a mass organization led by the Maoist Internationalist Ministry of Prisons for prisoners and former prisoners in the United $tates. USW is made up of various political prison activists struggling against their oppressive conditions. We are part of an ongoing struggle against the imperialist state to liberate ALL peoples, not only the select few who have made themselves popular at the expense of the people. While USW seeks immediate goals to improve prison conditions, it does not lose sight of the ultimate goal of national liberation and ending imperialism.
"There are two kinds of nationalism, revolutionary nationalism and reactionary nationalism. Revolutionary nationalism is first dependent upon a peoples revolution with the end goal being the people in power. Therefore to be revolutionary nationalist you would by necessity have to be a socialist. If you are a reactionary nationalist you are not a socialist and your end goal is the oppression of the people."(5)
Like their parent organization, many comrades of USW see the Black Panther Party developed by Huey P. Newton as the Maoist vanguard of the United States in the late 1960s. The Black Panther Party grew so rapidly at that time that many of the new recruits and larger memberships had very little opportunity to establish a deep understanding of the political objectives of the party. A lack of political education allows political movements to be co-opted, infiltrated, and run into the ground by enemy line.(6)
USW learns from the Black Panther Party, its good, bad and ugly. Parallel to the method practiced by our parent organization MIM(Prisons), USW comrades apply righteous actions by righteous studies of logic and these are some lessons we take:
No investigation, no right to speak. USW will not misrepresent or misinform the masses.
Correctness of ideas assessed independent of who says them. USW does not engage in the persynality contest so popular in the United $tates and its prisons.
We do not give out information that the pigs could use to assess or destroy our movement. Fishing is a favored method amongst the agent provocateurs and their drones inside the belly of the beast. USW comrades have a clear definition of what a snitch, a rat and a pig is. We don’t use the terms loosely and never false jacket individuals, as our pledge to the United Front for Peace in Prison principle of unity requires.
Anonymity isn’t just about security, it’s also about teaching prisoners to think scientifically rather than follow the person with specific skin tone or hair style. USW must struggle against identity politics and the way it shall go about confronting it as its membership crosses paths with the prison lumpen organization leaders, with their cult-like followings, is in the most peaceful way possible, Under Lock & Key. This issue of ULK is a further advancement into serious dialogues between politically conscious prisoners and the masses. Prisoners as a whole must take from this history, from a Maoist point of view and decide what side they are on. The side of half truths,or the always evolving side of deep study and materialist dialectics.
As Sukant Chandan of Sons of Malcom put it, identity politics is doing the imperialist divide and rule for the enemy, by "focusing purely on individualistic frameworks and issues of oppression which overshadow or totally obliterate understanding, learning and support for Resistance of peoples against imperialism."(7) So just as the Panthers were not about costume jewelry and black berets, they were not about petty beefing and slights towards small groups of people.
So why are there so many groups inside prisons who claim to identify with the Black Panther Party but do not uphold Maoism? Their class loyalty is to the bourgeoisie and they refuse to accept the most scientifically designed methods of discovering concrete practices that elevate the peoples. Study Maoism, study proletarian internationalism, study the actual words of the Black Panther Party from the late 1960s.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
by Stanley Nelson
This film screened in major U.$. cities in the fall of 2015. I was planning to use my notes in an article for our 50th issue on the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. However, in February 2016 the film was shown on PBS with much publicity. Knowing that our readers have now seen the film we wanted to put some commentary out sooner rather than later. But do make sure to check out Under Lock & Key Issue 50 for a more in-depth counter-narrative to this pop culture film.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is an eclectic collection of video and photography, along with contemporary commentary from some who played important roles in the Party. The producer clearly had no deep ideological understanding of the Black Panther Party, as critics on the left and the right have already noted. What ey was good at was picking out some good sound bites and emotionally moving clips. Yet, even still, as someone with extensive knowledge of Panther history, i often found the film boring. Most of the audience seemed to enjoy it based on the loud cheering at the end.
I have not watched Stanley Nelson's other films, but it seems that a film on the Panthers is within the realm of previous documentaries ey has produced (Jonestown, The Black Press, Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer). It is curious that ey takes on these topics, and then does such a shallow portrayal of the Panthers. Nelson says ey was 15 when the Panthers formed and was always fascinated with them, but was not a participant in the movement emself.(1)
In line with the lack of ideological understanding, the treatment of Panther leaders was dismissive. The most in-depth discussion of Huey P. Newton was related to eir downward spiral into drugs and crime after the Panthers had been well on their way to dissolving. Nelson features sound bites from interviews calling Newton a "maniac" and Eldridge Cleaver "insane." Eldridge Cleaver was cast as a misleader from the beginning in this film. While both story lines are based in reality, the story that is missed is the great leadership role that Huey played, both ideologically and in practice, in building the greatest anti-imperialist organization this country has seen. At that time Eldridge too played an important role ideologically and organizationally, even if he was less consistent than Huey. Fred Hampton was given a more favorable portrayal by the film, but he died a martyr just as he was getting started. (And despite the attention given to Hampton's assassination there is no mention of him being drugged beforehand, presumably by an FBI spy.) There is a pattern of character assassination in the film that does nothing to deepen our understanding of what the Panthers were, why they succeeded, and why they failed. It will turn some people off to the Panthers and push people towards an individualist or anarchist approach to struggle.
To get an accurate portrayal of the Panthers one is better off watching archival footage, as today you can find ex-Panthers of all stripes, and very very few who uphold the Maoist ideology of the Panthers at their height. Former chairman, Bobby Seale, who long ago stopped putting politics in command, was barely mentioned in the film, perhaps because he refused to be interviewed.(1) Elaine Brown, who took over the chairpersyn position after the party had already moved away from a Maoist political line, does appear but has written a scathing denunciation of the film and asked to be removed from it.(2)
As other critics have pointed out there is a lack of mention of national liberation, socialism, communism, and the international situation overall at the time. It is ironic for a film titled "Vanguard of the Revolution" to ignore the key ideological foundations of the vanguard. This reflects a clear effort to build a certain image of what the Panthers were that ignores the basis of their very existence. As such, this film contributes to the long effort to revise the history of the BPP, similar to the efforts to revise the history of other influential revolutionary communist movements in history. This only stresses the importance of building independent institutions of the oppressed to counter the institutions of the bourgeoisie in all aspects of life and culture.