Applying Lessons from the Black Panthers to our Current Struggle
As we reflect on the legacy of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP), we are reminded that the struggle for national liberation continues. Fifty years ago, the Panthers emerged from similar conditions of national oppression to what we face today. Armed with Maoism and the gun, Panther leaders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale set out to organize their Oakland community against police brutality and other social inequalities. And what they accomplished distinguished the BPP as the greatest revolutionary organization in the hystory of the New Afrikan/Black liberation struggle.
During its height, the BPP established itself as the vanguard of the revolutionary movement in the United $tates. Revisionists try to paint the Panthers as simple nationalists who only wanted to improve their community. But hystory proves otherwise, because the Panthers’ revolutionary work went beyond the Serve the People programs they implemented. The BPP was a Maoist party which criticized the bankrupt ideas of cultural nationalism and Black capitalist reforms. They attacked revisionism in the Soviet Union, while offering troops to support the Vietnamese in their struggle to push out the Amerikan invaders, and upholding the progress of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China. It understood that the relationship between the Euro-Amerikan settler nation and the many oppressed nations internal to the United $tates was (as it still is today) defined by semi-colonialism, and that national liberation was the only path forward. To this end, the Panthers formed strategic alliances and coalitions that broadened their mass base of support and unity. Eventually they succeeded in forming Panther chapters in virtually every major city, precipitating a revolutionary movement of North American oppressed nations vying for national liberation.
Despite this progress the BPP made serious mistakes, mistakes that arguably set the movement for national liberation back tremendously. Even though the Panther leadership adhered to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM), they failed to assess the changing landscape of social and political conditions, which inevitably led them to take up focoist positions. This error in analysis resulted in security issues as repression from the U.$. reactionary forces intensified. With J. Edgar Hoover's plan to destabilize and neutralize the revolutionary movement underway, the Panther leadership continued to promote a "cult of persynality" around Newton instead of democratic centralism. Consequently, these mistakes placed such intense pressure on the party that it was unable to overcome the tide of repression.
Ultimately, the point of this article is to honor the revolutionary legacy of the BPP by demonstrating how the Panther practice is relevant to our current struggle. For our national liberation struggles to gain traction we must learn from the successes and failures of the most advanced revolutionary organization in U.$. hystory.
Fuck the Police!
"The Party was born in a particular time and place. It came into being with a call for self-defense against the police who patrolled our communities and brutalized us with impunity."(1) — Huey P. Newton
There is no greater tragedy for the oppressed nation community than the unjust murder of one of its own at the hands of the pigs. The impact is two-fold. On one hand, police brutality demonstrates to members of the oppressed nation community that there are two sets of rules governing society, one for the oppressor and one for the oppressed. On the other hand, it removes all doubt from the minds of oppressed nationals that their lives are virtually worthless in the eyes of the white power structure.
This point was just as much a sobering reality during the Panther era as it is for us today. In The Black Panthers Speak, Phillip S. Foner cites a 1969 report that captured a snapshot of the police relations with the Oakland community. It read in part:
"...for the black citizens, the policeman has long since ceased to be — if indeed he ever was — a neutral symbol of law and order...in the ghetto disorders of the past few years, blacks have often been exposed to indiscriminate police assaults and, not infrequently, to gratuitous brutality...Many ghetto blacks see the police as an occupying army..."(2)
Under these circumstances, the BPP was formed and began to transform the Oakland community in a revolutionary manner.(3) Newton and Seale understood that the terrorist actions by the pigs undermined the oppressed nation community’s ability to improve its conditions. So they organized armed patrols to observe and discourage improper police behavior. These unprecedented actions by the Panthers gave them credibility within the community, particularly as community members experienced the positive effects brought about by the patrols. Therefore, when the Panthers engaged in mass activities, such as the Free Breakfast for Children program, they did so with the full support of the community.
Naturally, the BPP met resistance from the local and state reactionary forces. Challenging the Gestapo tactics of the pigs and building institutions that served the needs of the oppressed was seen as too much of a threat by and to the white power structure. But the revolutionary movement had already picked up steam, and, given the momentous energy and support from the anti-war movement, it was not about to be derailed. It was upon this platform that the BPP spoke to the oppressed nations across the United $tates and saw its message resonate and take root within the consciousness of all oppressed peoples.
Today, we face the same challenge. Whether it’s the pig murder of Denzil Dowell that mobilized the Panthers into action fifty years ago, or the more recent pig murder of Jamar Clark this past November, there has been no significant change in the conditions of national oppression that U.$. internal semi-colonies are subjected to.
Police brutality continues to keep the oppressed nations from addressing a system of national oppression and semi-colonialism. But there is an even more sinister dynamic involved today. Mass incarceration, and the "War on Drugs” and "War on Crime” rhetoric and policies that fuel it, further divides the oppressed nation community against itself. With the lumpen section of these oppressed nation communities criminalized and incarcerated so too is the revolutionary potential for national liberation neutralized and restrained. Here, the Panther practice provides a blueprint for our current struggle in respect to revolutionary organizing.
Recently, we have seen the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement come into being in response to the unbridled pig terrorism that occurs across U.$. oppressed nation communities. So the basis for revolutionary organizing against the current system exists. Nonetheless, BLM is a reformist organization that advocates for integration and not liberation. What we need are Maoist revolutionary organizations — organizations that seek to build the political consciousness of oppressed nationals through mass activities and proletarian leadership similar to the Panther practice.
Maoism, not Focoism
Maoism demands that in determining correct revolutionary practice we must first proceed from an analysis of contradictions. This means that we must identify the contradiction that is principal to our situation, and then assess its internal aspects as well as its external relationships. In contrast, focoism "places great emphasis on armed struggle and the immediacy this brings to class warfare!"(4) Where Maoism takes account of the national question in its entirety and pushes the struggle for national liberation forward according to the prevailing conditions, focoism seeks to bring about favorable conditions for national liberation (or revolution) through the actions of a small band of armed individuals. To date Maoism has informed many successful people’s wars; focoism, on the other hand, has mostly made the prospect for revolution much less likely.
In this regard, Newton, in developing the Panther practice, saw the international situation of the time as favorable to revolutionary organizing within the United $tates. Given the hystoric Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China representing the furthest advancement toward communism to this day, the national liberation wars of Afrika and Asia dealing blows to imperialism, and the Vietnam War stoking the fire of discontent and rebellion among sections of the white oppressor nation, Newton was correct in organizing and politicizing U.$. oppressed nation communities for liberation.
Bloom and Martin explain in their book, Black Against Empire, that these conditions, in particular the anti-war movement, assisted the Panthers' organizing efforts greatly.(5) This coalition between the Panthers and the Peace movement was so dynamic that U.$. veterans returning from Vietnam joined the BPP and other revolutionary organizations. The link between Vietnamese liberation and New Afrikan liberation (and other U.$. oppressed nation liberation struggles) became a central point in building political consciousness.
Nonetheless, Newton took eir analysis too far. It is clear that ey believed the armed struggles abroad were inextricably tied to the U.$. national liberation struggles. Newton maintained, "As the aggression of the racist American government escalates in Vietnam, the police agencies of America escalates the repression of Black people throughout the ghettos of America."(6) From this standpoint, Newton assumed that the police brutality in U.$. oppressed communities created a military situation, to which a military response from the U.$. revolutionary movement was appropriate.
Newton’s error was mistaking the weakness of imperialism abroad as indicative of a weak U.$. imperialist state. Instead of assessing the changing landscape of social and political conditions, created by a period of concessions by U.$. imperialists, the Panthers continued to organize as if the stage of struggle was an armed one.(7) Even when Newton recognized the dramatic changes and began to adapt, a split occurred within the Party, as a faction held that revolution was imminent.(8)
With respect to our current struggle, we are in the stage of building public opinion and independent institutions of the oppressed. In this work we must establish a united front of all those who can be united against imperialism.
Therefore, when we see the Ferguson or Baltimore protests against pig terrorism descend into scenes of mayhem and senseless violence we must criticize these methods of resistance. Many of the individuals who engage in these spontaneous uprisings mistakenly believe that this will bring about some change or vindicate the wrongs done to them and their community. The only thing these focoist actions change, however, is the focus from pig terrorism to people terrorizing their own community. This basically undermines our ability to organize and build public opinion in this stage of struggle.
Part of this problem lies in the fact that there is no revolutionary organization at this time representing these oppressed nation communities. There is no BPP or Young Lords Party going into these communities and doing agitation and organizing work. As a result, a lack of political consciousness prevails among these communities, underscoring the need for a revolutionary organization.
A Maoist party would guide the U.$. oppressed nations with a concrete revolutionary practice and strategy. This revolutionary organization would use MLM study and analysis to determine the correct actions and methods to take in order to liberate those oppressed nations and avoid the pitfalls of focoism.
Ultimately, this lesson can be summed up in one sentence: "Maoism warns that taking up the gun too soon, without the proper support of the masses, will result in fighting losing battles.”(9)
On the Necessity of Security Culture
Furthermore, the Panthers’ incorrect analysis of conditions that led to focoist positions eventually compromised the security of the Party as well. Once the period of concessions began to sap support for the BPP’s militant posture, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover was able to ratchet up repression against the Panthers. This was seen most clearly when agent provocateurs were able to infiltrate and exploit the focoist tendencies held by some Panthers. Undercover FBI agents would literally join the BPP and begin to incite other members to engage in criminal activities or "make revolution." These repressive measures, their ever-increasing frequency and intensity, began to take a detrimental toll on the Panthers.
Make no mistake, since day one of the BPP’s organizing efforts it faced repression. Armed New Afrikan men and wimmin organizing their community toward revolutionary ends was intolerable for the white power structure. However, the anti-war movement created such a favorable climate for revolutionary organizing that the more reactionary forces attacked the BPP, the more support the Panthers received, the more its membership grew and its chapters spread throughout the country.
But when those favorable conditions shifted, the BPP’s strategy didn’t. The Panthers continued to operate above ground, maintaining the same militant posture that initially placed them in the crosshairs of Hoover’s COINTELPRO. Ironically, Newton was well versed in the role of the Leninist vanguard party. Ey explained that "All real revolutionary movements are driven underground."(10) Though, by the time Newton put this principle into action and attempted to adapt to the changing situation the Party as a whole was thoroughly divided and beaten down by wave after wave of relentless repression.
For us, the important point to draw from this lesson is the assessment of conditions for revolutionary organizing. Because we live in a point in time where we consume our daily social lives openly through various social media, it is easy to forget that the reactionaries are observing. We must therefore place a high priority on security culture as it pertains to our organizing efforts going forward. In addition, we must strongly emphasize the importance of avoiding death and prison. A robust security culture will protect our organizing efforts and dull the blows of repression that are certain to come.
Currently, we face a strong imperialist state that is more than capable of disrupting a potential revolutionary movement. This point is evidenced by the fact that Hoover’s repressive practices are "mirrored in the far-reaching high-tech surveillance of the US National Security Agency."(11) Maintaining a strong revolutionary organization thus requires us to maintain strong security practices informed by MLM theory and practice.
Party Discipline over Party Disciple
Hystory is a testament that some revolutionary organizations and movements have fallen victim to the "cult of persynality." This is more true in an imperialist society as bourgeois individualism nurtures a response in people to associate or reduce organizations and movements to the characteristics of one persyn. And the BPP was no exception in this regard.
Newton was very intelligent, charismatic, and embodied qualities of a true leader. In truth, ey was a symbol of black power and strength that had been missing from the New Afrikan nation for centuries. The militant image that Newton projected was undeniably magnetic and a source of inspiration for U.$. oppressed nations.
Yet, the BPP relied too heavily on Newton as an individual leader and not enough on the party as a whole. Eir ideological insights and theoretical contributions were unmatched within the party. And to a certain extent this was a weakness of the party. Newton was the primary source of oxygen to the party whereas other members of leadership didn’t meet the demands that the revolutionary movement required of the party.
Bloom and Martin hint at this cult of persynality around Newton, arguing "In late 1971... Hilliard recalls that Newton was surrounded by loyalists who applauded Newton’s every action, challenged nothing, and would do anything to win his approval."(12) For example, when Newton was imprisoned on the bogus pig murder charges, the BPP adapted its struggle and practice toward the "Free Huey” movement. Even Eldridge Cleaver, who was one of those members of leadership that reneged on eir revolutionary principles, criticized this move that ultimately confused mass work with party work. The oppressed masses began to associate the party and the Panthers with freeing Newton and not liberating themselves. The BPP had let its practice become dictated by Newton who was for the most part disconnected from the people and community because of eir imprisonment.
The Panthers should have developed a strong party discipline, one based on democratic centralism. Democratic centralism means that any decisions that the party makes is debated and discussed through a democratic process. Even if party members do not agree with the decisions, they must support them in public. This ensures that the party maintains unity in the face of reactionary forces. Those party members who are still in disagreement with the decision have the opportunity to utilize the democratic process of the party and make their case. Overall, this strengthens the theoretical basis of the party and does not allow one persyn to hijack it or undermine it.
The thrust of this lesson is not to discourage party members from developing leadership. The revolutionary movement will certainly need all the leaders, in whatever role or capacity, which the struggle for national liberation demands. But the point is the importance of party discipline. Because as we see with the Panther practice many of the major mistakes stemmed from not maintaining party discipline. Democratic centralism would have promoted the space and opportunity for members to challenge and question decisions by Newton. And as members engaged in this process they would have developed their theoretical practice, shouldering some of the load that Newton, even while imprisoned, had to bear.
This is not to say that the Panthers would not have made mistakes. But with the same party discipline that saw the Bolsheviks lead the successful Russian Revolution of 1917 or the Chinese Communist Party execute at a high level throughout the many stages of its liberation struggle, surely the Panthers could have avoided the divisions that were largely fomented by FBI interference. In addition, proper application of democratic centralism should have led to the distinction between party cadre and mass organizations to take on campaigns like "Free Huey" and doing the support work to run Panther programs. Such a distinction would have helped prevent the decline of the Oakland-based party into reformism as conditions changed.
What our current struggle does not need is a party disciple or some demagogue who is proclaimed our savior. What will liberate the U.$. oppressed nation is a Maoist revolutionary organization connected and related to the masses. Consolidating the mass line is a necessary part of applying democratic centralism within the Party.
We are at a critical point in the hystory of U.$. national liberation struggles. No longer can we continue to allow the police to murder us with impunity or for our communities to exist merely as pathways to imprisonment. Revolutionary nationalism is needed. And that begins with relating the thought and struggle of the most advanced revolutionary organization in U.$. hystory to our current struggle.
This article has highlighted a few mistakes of the BPP. But in no way does this discard the Panther practice overall. On the contrary, our path to national liberation has been illumined by the lessons drawn from the revolutionary legacy of the BPP. It is in this spirit that this article honors the Black Panther Party, and represents a theoretical step on that path to liberation.Power to the people!