From International Socialism (1st series), No.48, June/July 1971, pp.6-9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Black Panther Party has openly split into two warring factions. A precise statement of the political differences between them is impossible, such is the atmosphere of vituperation and counter-accusation. The group round Eldridge Cleaver and the New York Chapter (branch) charge the Oakland, California leadership of Huey Newton with ‘revisionism’, while the Newton group characterise the opposition as ‘adventurists’.
The fratricidal struggle is so intense that recent murders of two party members has been attributed by the Panther leaders to factional warfare rather than to the police. Such tragic circumstances make it doubtful if any section of the Panthers can survive as a significant force. Furthermore, the split is bound to have severe effects on the whole Black Liberation Movement.
The Black Panther Party heroically withstood a massive police campaign of terror and assassination. The reasons for the present disintegration are to be found in the unresolved contradictions of the party’s political outlook and in objective changes in the American scene.
The contradictions of the Party, as well as its contribution to the developing movement in the us can only be understood when placed in historical context.
In the late 1950s the Civil Rights Movement developed in America, under the leadership of elements within the professional and student strata of the black community. It was the response of black, educated youth who aspired to upward social mobility and participation in the affluence of American society, but who found the number of professional and business jobs open to them absurdly small. However, one of its big accomplishments was to build up the expectations of virtually every other layer of black society. The initial breakthroughs on segregation, the changes in the civil rights laws and the victories in obtaining electoral rights held out the prospect of even deeper changes.
But the movement was unable to make further headway: in fact some of its victories proved illusory. The over-riding problems of the mass of the black community remained: huge unemployment, disproportionate wages, no access to skilled trades, lack of job security. And the daily life of the blacks was still slum housing, poor education, police brutality and social ostracism. The stripping away of archaic legal barriers to racial equality revealed the depth of racism and its linkage to the economic basis of capitalism.
When the dust cleared and the movement began to ebb, a new pattern of American racial life became clear. In the South an unequal coalition – undeclared but still operative – of urban white bourgeois elements and the black leadership maintained a token integration. In the North, black politicians received greater weight within the Democratic Party; there were more openings for blacks in the business world, the universities and the professions; a little anti-poverty money was channelled through the upper sections of the black community (with some trickling downward).
Alongside the Civil Rights Movement had also existed the Black Nationalist Movement, led by the Black Muslims. Although putting forward a far different programme from the Civil Rights movement, the Nation of Islam was motivated by the same demand for upward mobility. The Muslims, eschewing political and social action, proclaimed the need for a separate Black Nation, built upon black business run co-operatively by their group.
However, by the mid-sixties it was clear that both roads to improvement were doomed. The white power structure was slightly more dappled with black spots than before, but in a bourgeois context no real road forward was possible for blacks through either an integrationist or a separatist strategy. Sections of both wings of the black movement began to look in other directions.
The term ‘black power’ was coined to indicate the new aim. It maintained the social and political combativeness of the civil rights movement and continued the black consciousness of the nationalist tendency. It rejected the social quietism of the latter and the integrationist aim of the former. In juxtaposition to both, it openly proclaimed itself as revolutionary and dedicated to the abolition of capitalism. However, it provided no class analysis or means of organisation.
One such black power current was Stokeley Carmichael and SNCC. For this group capitalism was basically the ‘white system’, and they steadfastly refused to work with any section of the white community, unable to distinguish between potential allies and enemies. This view was mirrored by their refusal to acknowledge the class divisions within the black community.
In the mid-sixties insurrections broke out in the black ghettos of virtually every large urban community in the United States. They could properly be viewed as the first mass involvement of black people under their own initiative. The uprisings were a mixture of frustration and anger, sparked by the contradiction between awakened ambitions and the failure of the Civil Rights Movement to produce. The fuel for the flames was the growing consciousness of ‘Black Power’, the growing cohesiveness of black identity and assertion of self-respect. However, spontaneous uprisings, isolated from other sectors of society and without any ability to capture the levers of social control, were bound to have only very limited accomplishments. Underneath the surface it also became clear that an intact American power structure could ‘outgun’ the black community in any decisive test of armed might, although it could not maintain total ‘pacification’ of the ghettoes.
During the insurrections the Black Power organisations and leaders were able to vocalise the anguish of blacks but were unable to provide leadership, programme or organisation. The black community consisted of various class elements but SNCC and other black power groups were unable to give direction to the aspirations of any of them.
In this vacuum of leadership the Black Panther Party emerged. The Party became the organisational expression for embryonic ideas of Black Power. The Panthers pointed out that the spontaneous uprisings must give way to organisation with a programme of concrete goals and a strategy for achieving these goals. Only organisation in the black community could exercise anything but momentary power. The advocacy of armed self-defence must be understood as part of a comprehensive programme for black control of black communities and the protection of those communities from the occupying armies of the state.
The Panthers also placed the question of ‘class’ on the agenda, thus differentiating themselves from both the Civil Rights leadership and the earlier ‘Black Power’ advocates. They put forward the view that the bourgeois blacks could never lead the struggle to win freedom for the black community. They held in common with SNCC that capitalism was the enemy but differed with SNCC as to what capitalism was. For the Panthers capitalism was not in essence a ‘white system’ to be combatted by blacks, but a class system to be fought by the majority of oppressed blacks and by oppressed whites.
Because the Black Panther Party held that the black community could only achieve liberation through an anti-capitalist strategy, it launched a bitter attack against the ‘cultural nationalist’ organisations. The Panthers distinguished within the Black Power Movement between themselves and those who saw the problem solely in race terms and thus accepted the capitalist class structure. Wearing a dashiki, an Afro hairdo and screaming against ‘whitey’ did not necessarily mean a break with capitalist society. Rather, the emphasis by the ‘cultural nationalists’ on cultural questions as opposed to political and social revolution meant accommodation to the status quo. Further, the Panthers trenchantly pointed out that the problem for black people was in coping with modern technology rather than in identification with tribal antecedents.
Finally, the Panthers counterposed themselves to the civil rights organisations and attacked the failure to see that for racism to be destroyed, capitalism must be destroyed. The civil rights organisations had over-emphasised a legalistic approach and become dependent on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, even to the point of subordination of the Civil Rights Movement. The Panthers correctly characterised the Democratic Party as a bourgeois and racist institution, and refused to give support to any politician, black or white, who ran as a Democratic Party candidate.
The Black Panther Party rapidly developed into a national organisation with chapters in almost every urban centre with large concentrations of black people. Its base was largely the ‘brothers off the block’, young males who were unemployed or worked sporadically – the same group who had led the uprisings shortly before. They constitute a significant section of the black community. The Panthers, in their initial stages, also had at least the covert support and respect of broad layers of the stable, older working class sectors. (At the same time, it is important to note the extreme mixture of consciousness. Pictures of Martin Luther King and John Kennedy were still the ones to adorn the mantlepieces of black homes.)
The Panthers were able to fashion a programme which, unlike the earlier movements, could speak to the needs and awakened aspirations in the black community. However there were certain contradictions in their approach. These can put into perspective their subsequent disintegration – a process which has been going on for some time and which the open faction fight only highlights.
Although the first significant organisation to see the struggle for liberation in terms of class cleavage in capitalist society, the Panthers did not have a socialist conception of the central role of the working class: an understanding of its capacity for self-organisation and its potential vanguard role. Instead, the conception of class conflict tended to stress the division between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’. This led the Panthers to concentrate upon the ‘lumpen proletariat’ within the community as the basic driving force.
The Panthers never made any systematic attempt to build black caucuses within the factories or unions but rather concentrated their thrust on ‘community-based’ programmes. The one Black Panther caucus which did exist – at the General Motors auto factory in Fremont, California – grew up independently of any real direction from the national leadership and was never accorded any priority. In Panther Chairman Bobby Seale’s book Seize the Time, the short discussion on the need for black workers to organise into caucuses is not accorded any more importance than the ‘Breakfast for Children’ programme. Black workers are seen at best, as another group it would be desirable to organise. The failure to recognise the critical role of the working class led to a number of concrete problems for the Panthers.
First, the Party’s orientation towards ‘street youth’ resulted in a very unstable base and as a result Panther membership was frequently like a revolving door. Furthermore, the Panther’s orientation towards this sector of the black community resulted in a rank and file which was difficult to control and would not act in a disciplined fashion. The leadership did not intend the emphasis on armed self-defence and the exaggerated significance of guns to mean immediate armed conflict with the police. But the membership did not always accept such an interpretation, and there was continual tension between the leadership and the rank and file over questions of adventurism. This conflict produced pressures pushing the organisation in an increasingly authoritarian direction. Although the leadership had initially. passed a whole series of rules relating to guns, drugs and liquor, it was unable to effectively discipline the rank and file. Instead it had to purge whole sections of the membership (and purges for purely political questions were also increasingly common). What resulted was centralism which was increasingly authoritarian, but which did not produce real cohesion in the organisation.
Marx pointed out many years ago (in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) that the ‘lumpen proletariat’ cannot be organised democratically except as adjuncts of a larger proletarian movement. The leader who organises a lumpen proletariat base may succeed if he allows it to act in as volatile fashion as it wishes to; but should he try to check its actions, then his base will vanish. This was the dilemma continually confronting the Black Panther Party.
Reliance upon such elements was coupled with the ‘community control’ strategy of the Panthers, which looked to black people taking control of the geographical areas they live in. Institutions of control at present in the hands of the national bourgeois power – police, education, stores – were to be taken over by the inhabitants of the ghetto themselves.
This programme expressed the aspiration of blacks for a sense of power, for self-respect, for control over their own lives. It expressed the desire to alter the abysmal conditions of ghetto life and counterposed a grass roots control approach. It was in complete contrast to the programmes of ‘community control’ sometimes advanced by the government and by more conservative blacks, who were merely trying to place more black faces on local power bodies, to create a more substantive bourgeois structure within the ghetto and to provide a local black colouration for the national state power.
Unfortunately, however, the problems stemming from the Panthers’ own approach were overwhelming. The reality of the black ghettoes in the United States is that they are extremely atomised. Capitalism is forced to design its factories so as to bind workers together, establish cooperation among them, provide a clear enemy and situate them in a relationship to the productive core of social power. Contrarily, the ghetto is designed to fragment. Different classes with different social aims inhabit a geographical locale. No natural co-operation exists and enemies are everywhere. Ghettos are not ‘communities’ in the sense the term originally meant. Most importantly, the forces that actually control the ghetto are exterior. The means of production and the state organs are based outside the ghetto and unseizable by community based action alone.
A strategy based on the disorganised community could only lead to frustration and manoeuvring between the various class elements. Consequently, the Panthers gyrated between the two poles of reformist and adventurist action. Their emphasis vacillated between providing social services for the community such as ‘Breakfast for Children’ and ‘People’s Hospitals’, and a military solution for the problem of liberation in which the gun became the central point of politics.
The Panthers, of course, were given little leeway to work out their strategy in peace. Tragically, given their political approach, they could not protect their own cadres from the vicious onslaught of the attack by the state through the police and the courts. Virtually the entire Panther leadership has either been assassinated by the police (Fred Hampton and Bobby Hutton), put on trial or in jail for blatantly ludicrous charges (David Hillard, Panther Chief of Staff, was arrested for allegedly threatening Nixon’s life in a speech), or forced into exile.
Not only are Panthers subjected to such violence but the entire black community is itself constantly under attack. The Panthers have been unable to carry out their mammoth programme for arming the entire community to protect itself from the overwhelming military strength of the surrounding social structure. Furthermore, the Panthers, no more than any other group can wage sustained urban guerilla warfare in the context of American society. Even though sniping attacks (unrelated to the Panthers) against police have dramatically increased in the last few years, they do not constitute a threat to police domination and provide no way out of the impasse.
The failure of the original community control approach and the subsequent gyrations have enormously weakened the Panthers’ support in the black community. At the same time inability to defend themselves from massive police repression and from legal action has opened them up to influences from white sources of influence and money. By providing these, the Communist party and circles around it have increased their political influence on the Panthers.
From its inception the Black Panther Party, in contrast to other black nationalist groups, had been clear of the need to relate to elements in the white community. But there had never been any clear conception of which section of the white community to ally with. Initial contact was with the Peace and Freedom Party – an organisation of left liberals and white radicals opposing the Vietnam war and favouring black liberation from a variety of views. Within the Peace and Freedom Party the Panthers ultimately aligned themselves with the fringe ‘Yippy’ elements around Jerry Rubin, whom they saw as the counterpart to the lumpens of the black community. Later the Panthers worked with certain sections of the white student movement, SDS. Here they vacillated between support for various Maoists, who saw reliance on the Third World revolutions as the key to social change, and the ‘Weatherman’ group, who additionally advocated the organisation of direct, here-and-now, terror as the solution to capitalism’s ills. Both tendencies shared a common hostility to the white working class because of its racism.
The sharpness of the state attack forced the Panthers to do a 180 degree turn in the summer of 1969 in a desperate search for support. They initiated a ‘National Conference for a United Front Against Fascism’ and called upon all anti-fascist forces to coalesce – Republicans, Democrats and radicals. The demand for independent politics in opposition to the established parties, once an important part of the Panthers’ programme, fell by the wayside. Willy Brown, a black Democratic Party politician, was a featured speaker at the conference, while Herbert Apetheker, a CP theoretician, gave the keynote address.
Since the 1969 conference relations between the CP and the Black Panther Party have blown hot and cold and have been recently inflamed by different political positions on the Angela Davis Case. The present open factional schism in the Black Panthers reveals the extent to which the CP influence is a subject of intense internal conflict. Cleaver’s faction has charged that the ‘revolutionist’ politics of the Communist Party have come to dominate the Black Panther approach.
Black Power was an assertion by black people of their need for self-identification, self-power and self-respect. One of the most appalling consequences of the black subjugation was partial acceptance by blacks themselves of the general mythology that black people are inferior and incapable of self-leadership. When black workers thought of their alleged incapacity to control their environment, they often attributed this condition to their race, rather than to their position as workers. The struggle for black liberation has stripped away many of these illusions. Accompanying this has been the growing awareness that the upper layers of the black population do not represent the interests of the black working class.
The Panthers played an important role in this whole process. They developed into the major force inside the black liberation movement because they were able to offer a partial solution to problems previous currents had been unable to deal with. In a context in which the upper layers of the black community had moved away from real struggle, the Panthers opted for a society controlled by ‘the people’. However, their programme, by retaining the geographical notions of the old nationalist current, rather than espousing a working class alternative, came to an impasse. The present disintegration is a reflection of this.
Yet black consciousness at a certain point now meshes with working class consciousness. Black workers have begun to move towards the centre of the struggle by forming caucuses and organising committees in industry.
Lower rates of pay for black labour, the higher incidence of unemployment and the barriers to getting skilled jobs, all ensure the need for such caucuses. Moreover, such discrimination is practised not only by the employers, but also through the connivance of trade union bureaucrats, and racism is still pervasive in the white working class. However, while the caucuses concentrate on the special needs of black workers, they have increasingly participated in, and in some cases led, general working class struggles. White workers are forced to recognise the new self-confidence and collective power of the blacks. If white workers want to fignt tne bosses successfully, they have to come to terms with the newly organised and no longer docile black section of the class – and support the struggle for their particular demands.
Even where separate caucuses do not need to exist – where blacks are a clear majority of the work force and whites already accept their leadership – the notions of black power still have an impact in terms of heightened militancy. Such was the meaning of the experience of the 1970 New York postal strike.
The Black Panther Party was an important step forward, and it is perhaps understandable that it did not have a working class orientation at the outset; the American workers were not in rapid social motion. In the last period, however, the situation has begun to change. Not that the working class is on the brink of social power. It does not yet even recognise the need for political independence from the bourgeois parties. But its economic struggles have intensified dramatically. The permanent landscape of America now is one of escalating inflation, which threatens wage levels, and growing unemployment. Wild-cats, official strikes and demonstrations are now a daily part of the dramatically accelerating rhythm of class struggle. As the working class begins to move, organisations and programmes that do not recognise the centrality of proletarian struggle are increasingly rendered impotent or retrogressive.
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