On the Black Panther Party

Speech at the Second National Conference
of the Marxist-Leninist Party, USA -- Fall 1984
Part one is reprinted from the Workers' Advocate Supplement (1),
vol. 1, #5, June 15, 1985.


--Part One--
* Lenin on Revolution
* The Struggles of the 1960's Brought Millions Into Motion
* With the Rising to their Feet of Millions, the Politics Took on a Militant Tone
* The Reign of Petty-Bourgeois Nationalist Politics
* The State of the General Working Class Movement in the 1960's
* A Left Wing Moving Towards Revolutionary Positions
* The Spread of the Idea of Armed Self-Defense
* In the South
* In the North
* Following the Rebellions
* On the Tactic of Armed Defense
* The Complicated Role that the Issue of Armed Defense Played in the Struggle Between Trends in the 1960's
* The Panthers and Armed Defense
* The Panthers' Early Days in Oakland
* The BPP Becomes a Country-wide Organization
* The Black Revolution
* The Panthers Declared Themselves To Be Marxist-Leninists
* Bloody Repression Against the Panthers
* The BPP's Decline into Narrow Reformism
* The Constitutional Conventions The Mass Membership Purges

--Part Two-- (2)
* The BPP and the Left
* ACWM(M-L)'s Attitude Towards the Panthers
* The Black Revolutionary Party
* In Summation

Part One


. Comrades, one of the more important phenomena of the black people's struggle of the 1960s was the Black Panther Party. In preparation for the conference, a group of comrades has done extensive work researching the history of the Black Panther Party, its rise and its fall. In this speech we will begin to address some of this history and, together with it, some questions of the conditions in which the Black Panther Party arose, and also, very importantly, how the American Communist Workers Movement (ML) in its first years viewed the Black Panther Party and attempted to deal with it.

. Before going into the speech, I want to offer a quotation from Lenin which has some relevance to certain of the issues at stake when we talk about this period of history -- issues which arose regarding our discussion of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers [see the speech reproduced in the Jan. 15 issue of The Supplement] and are relevant again to the Black Panther Party, and generally, to this stage of the movement.

. In 1916, in the middle of the imperialist world war, the Easter Rebellion for Irish independence took place. Karl Radek, in the organ of the Zimmerwald group, published an article which held that the Easter Rebellion in Ireland was not a genuine revolutionary attempt, but rather a putsch. It was so not only because it was made by a relatively small band of armed men, but because it arose from the national movement, which according to Radek was simply a movement of the urban petty bourgeoisie without a firm social basis. This was connected to the thinking of an entire section of the Left Zimmerwaldists, which Radek was part of, the section who believed that the national question had become irrelevant with the rise of imperialism and the coming of the world imperialist war, and that therefore the national movements had lost all substance.

. [The Zimmerwald movement was an international grouping of opponents of World War I. Its majority were centrists who only postured against the war and refused to break with the would-be "socialists" who defended the imperialist slaughter and the aggression of "their own" local bourgeoisie. There was also a Zimmerwald left, led by the Bolsheviks, and among whom only the Bolsheviks took a consistently revolutionary stand.]

Lenin on Revolution

. The following is from Lenin's reply:

. "To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc. -- to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, "We are for socialism," and another, somewhere else and says, "We are for imperialism," and that will be a social revolution! . . .
. "Whoever expects a 'pure' social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.
"The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a bourgeois-democratic revolution. It consisted of a series of battles in which all the discontented classes, groups and elements of the population participated. Among these there were masses imbued with the crudest prejudices, with the vaguest and most fantastic aims of struggle; there were small groups which accepted Japanese money, speculators and adventurers, etc. But objectively, the mass movement was breaking the back of tsarism, and paving the way for democracy; for this reason the class conscious workers led it.
. "The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it -- without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible -- and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses, and errors. But objectively they will attack capital, and the class conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle, will be able to unite and direct it, capture power, seize the banks, expropriate the trusts which all hate (though for different reasons!), and introduce other dictatorial measures which in their totality will amount to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the victory of socialism, which, however, will by no means immediately 'purge' itself of petty-bourgeois slag." ("Discussion of Self-Determination Summed Up", Collected Works, vol. 22, Section 10 "The Irish Rebellion of 1916", pp. 355-6 [emphasis as in the original])

. Thus Lenin in a very profound way grasps the objectivity of the class struggle, sees all the forces which enter into it and which lie beneath it. At the same time comrade Lenin is also well known for not reconciling himself to the prejudices, to the reactionary fantasies, to anything backward, to anything opportunist. And comrade Lenin fought bitterly for the greatest possible clarity among the advanced section of the proletariat and for the greatest possible degree of organization in the struggle. These two basic themes -- the objective character of the struggle, and all that it throws into motion, and the need to reckon with this in order to fight to build up the advanced detachments of the class -- are very close to the questions which we have been dealing with in the course of this conference regarding the period of upsurge in the latter 1960's.

The Struggles of the 1960's Brought Millions Into Motion

. With this we'll turn to the study of the Black Panther Party. This study concerns an important political phenomenon of the 1960s, and in particular the problem of how to assess and deal with such a phenomenon. We are speaking here of a political animal which is wildly erratic and which has highly contradictory features. It has revolutionary features, and it wavers from side to side week by week. It wins thousands of adherents, and also engages in wild purges of them. It taunts the left; but in fact it not only aligns with it, but wins the allegiance of a large part of it. It turns its back on mass struggle, and yet holds the sympathy and respect of some 25% of the black masses. The animal in question of course is a panther; this is the Black Panther Party which we're speaking of.

. In the mid 1960s, the mass upsurge, the struggles of the black people, brought millions into motion, releasing tremendous force and energy. From a movement of hundreds of thousands it grew rapidly into a movement of millions. It swept past the existing organizations, and there was a spawning of diverse struggles, diverse new organizations and activities. There was also a surge in national sentiment, a strong surge, as millions came into motion for the first time, bringing with them the tremendous resentments against generations of oppression, bringing with them all the national distrust which this had sown, bringing with them both their revolutionary sentiments and various aspects of backwardness. This basic phenomenon shaped the politics of the times.

With the Rising to their Feet of Millions, the Politics Took on a Militant Tone

. With the arousal of millions the politics took on a militant tone. With the unleashing of strong national sentiments they took on as well a marked nationalist tone. The black people taking destiny into their own hands became the spirit of the times. The idea of the black people taking their destiny into their own hands marked a rupture with the conservative reformism of the past, a sign that the oppressed masses were no longer willing to politely appeal to their oppressors for salvation and were determined to liberate themselves through their own efforts.

. At the same time, within the powerful social movement unleashed under this idea, the different class forces within the movement continued to pull in different directions in their own class interests. To forget the militant spirit of the times would be to blind ourselves to the real-life stirring and deep-felt sentiments of the masses; but to blind ourselves to the class distinctions within the mass currents and the real-life limitations of these currents would be to forget Marxism-Leninism.

. The powerful and stirring idea of the black people taking their destiny into their own hands overshadowed the simple call for freedom under which years of struggle had taken place, years of struggle which had now brought about the new day. Freedom is a beautiful call, and important struggles took place under its banner; yet the struggles which took place under this banner from 1956 to 1965 were nonetheless dominated by a relatively conservative coalition of bourgeois interests, and were amenable to those class interests. With the passage of the 1964, 1965, and 1967 Civil Rights Acts, and the passing of millions of dollars in anti-poverty funds into the hands of black bourgeois strata, this already conservative trend began a slow passage to the right. For a time it was partly swept aside by a raging movement which was then still ascending to greater heights.

The Reign of Petty-Bourgeois Nationalist Politics

. Now petty-bourgeois politics gained strength. Beneath the politics of the day, beneath the amorphous slogan of "Black Power", the battles for community control, etc. , to a certain extent lay the aspirations of the rising petty bourgeoisie. The petty-bourgeois politics came to the fore and was able to dominate the massive upsurge of the black working masses; this was due not to the brilliance of the political representatives of the petty bourgeoisie, but rather to the fact that these politics corresponded to the development of the movement. Millions had been thrown into motion, awakening the militant spirit and also deeply-felt national sentiments. These national sentiments of the day cut very strongly against the white slumlord, against the white businessmen, against the corporations, against the government; but they also strongly tended to recognize no differentiation among blacks, and thus tended to be essentially petty bourgeois nationalist in character.

. In these conditions the slogans of the radical section of the petty bourgeoisie found tremendous mass appeal. For example, with the slogan of community control certain democratic concepts and the militant spirit of the times were meshed with nationalist sentiments.

. It should be noted that the ideological and political influence of the militant-sounding political organizations led by the radical section of the petty bourgeoisie went far beyond their organizational strength. The movement had a much broader scope than just these political groups. As well, these political groups frequently were marked by a tendency towards acting like sects, and they tended to be highly unstable and to consume themselves.

The State of the General Working Class Movement in the 1960's

. Another side of this picture, which helps to further understand why the movement took the course that it did, was the relative weakness of the revolutionary working class movement. Inevitably, a democratic mass movement against national oppression of this massive scope will bring to life among wide sections of the masses all types of non-proletarian and nationalist trends. But depending on the conditions, it is not inevitable that non-proletarian nationalist trends have predominance. When the working class is aroused and fighting the bourgeoisie in a revolutionary way this will have a profound impact on such national movements, attracting the working masses of the oppressed nationality towards the proletarian trend, turning their eyes towards the strength of the united working class as the guarantor of their national liberation.

. But in the 1960's the general working class movement remained quite weak and suffered under the heel of the arch-racist liberal-labor coalition of the Democratic Party and the union bureaucracies. Moreover, the old CPUSA, which had won a number of successes for a proletarian trend within the black people's struggle earlier when it was still revolutionary and communist in deed and not just in name, had already been reduced for years to a discredited tail of the bourgeoisie and had already betrayed the black people's struggle to the tender mercies of the capitalist liberals. And the struggle to build a new, genuinely communist party to replace the now-corrupt CPUSA was still disorganized. Under such conditions there was little possibility of proletarian hegemony in the 1960s tidal wave of the black people's struggle.

A Left Wing Moving Towards Revolutionary Positions

. The surge of the movement in 1967-1968 strengthened the left wing of the national movement and pushed it toward revolutionary positions. Mass trends emerged which advocated revolution, in some cases linking this to more militant forms of struggle, and in other cases specifically to the emergence of the black workers movement. In this situation left trends came to the fore.

. qAfter the 1967-1968 storm of rebellions the political differentiation within the national movement continued to develop. From this time until the first years of the 1970's, the workers' movement rose (with the black workers playing a vital role), the student movement remained at a high level (including among the black students), and the organizations of the black movement spread wider across the country.

. In this climate a section of the black activists were turning in the direction of proletarian politics. This gave rise to such phenomena as the League in Detroit becoming something of a pole of attraction, and later to black activists forming a number of groups that declared themselves Marxist-Leninist.

. At the same time, the black reformists were aggressively re-grouping and refurbishing their image in order to steal the fruits of the movement. The government also saw the importance of building up the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois social base of reformism among the black people in order to keep a lid on the situation, as reflected in the Kerner Commission Report produced in the wake of the '68 rebellions.

. This differentiation didn't take place in a straight line and only went so far. Unfortunately the left-wing of the national movement never fully understood the significance of clearly distinguishing between the black masses and the politics of the petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie, and therefore it repeatedly lapsed back into accommodation with the reformists.

. An example of such a reconciliation was the National Black Economic Development Conference in 1969, a conference dominated by reformist politics but which also had a prominent left wing. This reconciliation went even further in 1972 with the Black Political Alternatives Conference, which at that moment became the umbrella for the movement, and which was co-chaired by Hatcher (reformist mayor of Gary, Ind.) and Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones, the notorious cultural nationalist and opportunist and present-day "three worldist" liquidator).

. When the movement subsided in the early 1970's, the left trends mainly fell apart or succumbed to the reformist bourgeois politicians.

The Spread of the Idea of Armed Self-Defense

. But with the big surge in the movement in 1967-1968, the left wing -- a left wing which was moving into revolutionary positions -- captured the attention of millions. One sign of this leftward development was the spread of the idea of armed self-defense in the movement and among the masses, and its emergence as an important issue in the late 1960s. In fact, examples of armed defense can be found at times of upsurge and strong clashes throughout more than a century of black people's struggle. Armed defense was being advocated throughout the late 50s and early 60s; it appeared in the program of Malcolm's Organization of Afro-American Unity; and it was actually carried out in the late 1950s by a local chapter of the NAACP in North Carolina led by Robert F. Williams.

. But these were small and scattered groups that advocated armed defense at that point. It was at the height of the movement that the idea gained particular strength. In the 1960s the spread of the idea of armed defense signified a turning away from the attempts of Martin Luther King Jr. and company to limit the movement to less militant forms of struggle. This was also bound up to a greater or lesser degree with the breakdown of illusions about the courts and the federal government as the guardian angels of civil rights. For a decade the struggle in the South had pitted tactics of passive resistance against the dogs, clubs, waterhoses, and guns of the police and the Klan. The activists in particular and the community in general were prey to the terror of nightriding in reprisal for their struggles. By 1965-1966 the development of struggle gave rise to the taking up of arms against nightriding, etc. , despite the vociferous objections of the leaders of SCLC.

In the South

. At about this time, in a number of different areas of the black belt where its work was concentrated, SNCC organizers began to arm themselves. In a number of areas, demonstrations took place around 1966 accompanied with arms. At this same time, in Louisiana, was founded the Deacons for Defense and Justice, which was an organization that engaged in armed patrols of the communities against nightriders, and which also provided armed escorts for civil rights workers. At its height the Deacons for Defense and Justice claimed some 50 to 60 chapters throughout a large part of the South. We have no way of verifying this claim; we can verify, however, that it did exist in Louisiana and that CORE in its work in Louisiana was regularly protected by the Deacons. In point of fact, a polemic against the Deacons was published by one Martin Luther King Junior, indicating that this phenomenon was taken seriously by the SCLC.

In the North

. In the North the idea of armed defense became strong during the period of 1967-68 when rebellions broke out in cities across the country. While these rebellions had other targets as well, fighting back against the violence of the police and other racist authorities was one of the main objectives of these mass outbursts. Among the masses this was often expressed with slogans along the line of chasing the police out of the community. Many of the fighters in these rebellions were inspired by such things as Malcolm X's call to meet the violence of the racist oppressors with the violence of the oppressed. At the same time these powerful mass struggles had the great weakness of being highly unorganized and spontaneous.

Following the Rebellions

. Following the rebellions, police harassment and racist attacks in the communities continued and were often redoubled with special squads acting increasingly like occupying armies. Every police department in the country launched special tactical squads, which would go flying in on a Friday night and occupy a whole section of the black community. In these conditions, the idea of armed self-defense gripped wide sections of the masses.

. In May 1967, thirty young blacks staged an armed demonstration at the California state house in protest of a gun control bill which was pending. This, needless to say, excited a certain amount of attention from the media, and it brought a national reputation to the Black Panther Party which had been founded in Oakland only half a year earlier. By the end of 1968, two years after the founding of the Black Panther Party, it had grown up from some half a dozen youth in Oakland into a national organization claiming some 10,000 members. We again cannot verify the figure of 10,000, but you can bet on at least 5,000.

On the Tactic of Armed Defense

. Armed defense, and its association with some general notion of revolution, was an idea whose time had come. So I'd like to spend a minute on the tactic of armed defense. Armed defense is a legitimate tactic of the masses in the face of racist attacks; it has repeatedly been turned to by the black masses in the face of nightriding, lynchings, and pogroms. We have seen this repeatedly in the course of the past hundred years. It is a militant form of struggle against those attacks, and it can lend itself to organization.

. It also has limitations, as does any single form of struggle taken in itself. Armed defense is a tactic which addresses a particular aspect of the anti-racist struggle. It is a tactic which can generally be sustained only at times of strong mass upsurge when there is a relatively high level of mass arousal. Even then it is a tactic which frequently embraces only a minority of the active section of the masses, and must therefore be combined with other forms of struggles as well, even on the front of fighting racist attacks. And while the question of fighting violent racist attacks at times does come to the fore, it is not the only front of the anti-racist struggle.

. Taken by itself, in exclusion of other political work, armed defense does not provide the necessary basis for the mobilization and political training even of the most active section of the masses. Taken as a substitute for the other tasks of organization, agitation and struggle, it reveals a certain tendency towards political narrowness, towards negating the political issues that the movement must face up to. Indeed, in the hands of various organizations the slogan became a sectarian principle counterposed to the struggles of the masses and cutting against the masses' mobilization, training, and organization.

. (These points also shed light on the limitations of the slogan "Self-defense is the only way" when taken by itself as certain forces do [such as the CP of Canada (M-L) did]. While self-defense is applicable in much broader situations than armed defense, taken in isolation from other political work, it has a number of similar limitations.)

The Complicated Role that the Issue of Armed Defense Played
in the Struggle Between Trends in the 1960's

, In the movement which gripped the masses in the 1960s, the question of armed defense played a complicated role. It was fought over as an issue in the tactics. It served as well as a symbolic issue representing a militant path of struggle in general, in opposition to the narrow reformist tactics of the SCLC. At times it served as a vague symbol for the ideas of revolution, but at times also it was used as a substitute for issues of substance, as well as a substitute for mobilizing the masses.

. Armed defense is a tactic which comes up in connection with one or another political trend. During the 1960s it was in fact linked with various trends. There was a marked tendency for it to be linked with the more revolutionary trends of that time, but this tendency could not be substituted for the need to sort out the differences among the trends.

. While it is not quite the same thing as armed defense, it is well worth keeping in mind that the utterly reformist and revisionist CP refloated itself on the basis that a shotgun had been bought with Angela Davis' credit card. This is not as detached from the general agitation on armed defense as it seems. The slogan of armed defense, given when the conditions for it don't exist, will inevitably degenerate into empty boasting and playacting, or into the isolated acts of a handful. In the 1968 CP convention, there was a floor fight; a resolution was introduced from the floor in defense of the right to armed self-defense by the black community. The resolution was introduced by the Che Lumumba Club, which happened to be Angela Davis's club in the CP. And it was brought up by Bettina Aptheker, revisionist theoretician Herbert Aptheker's daughter, and a whole section of the younger people at the CP convention. It didn't pass. But that this resolution was introduced, and that there was a fight on it in the CP, shows, firstly, how widespread this idea was at the time and how gripping it was at the time and, secondly, the fact that this tactic can be linked with a variety of political trends.

. I am here stressing the limitations of the question of armed defense. This is to guard against the limitations which were not generally recognized in the movement of the 1960s. Armed defense is a legitimate tactic under the appropriate conditions. It is a tactic which the Bolsheviks used; the Bolsheviks organized armed workers' detachments to combat the pogroms of the Black Hundreds. There are reasons why it is a tactic which tends to be associated particularly with revolutionary trends -- it is a very militant tactic. One can envision circumstances where mass militias and other armed groups are set up in preparation for revolution, or mass militias need to be organized on the basis of forming armed detachments to combat the reactionary gangs. The point here is not to throw out the idea of armed defense, but to indicate its limitations. The fact that it can come up in connection with the launching of a mass militia in preparation for an insurrection indicates that it's something which tends to be associated with a very high level of struggle; it indicates that it's something which requires a high level of struggle with the masses having come to highly militant positions, and also being able to sustain that sort of organization.

The Panthers and Armed Defense

. The meteoric rise of the Black Panther Party was in large part due to the fact that the idea of armed defense was gaining extensive popularity among the masses at that time. It was also due in some measure to the vague association of this tactic with some idea of revolution. In fact, however, actually organizing armed defense was a task which the Black Panther Party largely proved incapable of. Only in Oakland, where the Panthers were the strongest, were armed patrols sustained for a period of time. And even these were quietly demobilized in 1968. Thereafter, "pick up the gun" increasingly came to signify waiting for the great day. This became a sectarian principle.

. Throughout their history, the Panthers tended to counterpose their slogan of "pick up the gun" to mass struggles. In fact, at one time, even while counterposing them in theory, they tended to combine them in practice. Then, when they got very strong, they tended to look down very strongly on the mass struggles. They were actually able to get away with this for a brief period of time because of the strength of the upsurge and the strength of the idea of armed defense. But they could not sustain themselves on this basis.

. In fact they were able to carry out their conception of how to organize armed defense, the idea of organizing armed patrols in the communities, only by way of exception, only in Oakland where they were strongest. And even there they stopped after a certain period of time, in part because they experienced tremendous difficulties -- the cops went nuts -- and they had to be able to deal with that. At the same time they were a public organization, distributing their newspaper in tens of thousands of copies, with a definite view of carrying on extensive public work. It was very difficult for them to combine this with maintaining the armed patrols.

The Panthers' Early Days in Oakland

. Now I would like to go on to some basic points of the history of the Black Panther Party.

. The BPP was founded with its living idea being that of armed defense, an idea which within a short time gripped the masses very strongly. This was combined with nationalism and, initially, with militant-sounding but confused politics which generally did not go beyond the bounds of a militant reformism. Its original name was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and it built its reputation by launching armed community patrols. When they had six guys, the six of them would get in the car and go patrol. And they had a view from the beginning that they actually had to carry this out to get it launched. Its program included the organizing of armed self-defense as an answer to the police harassment and terror; and this was the centerpiece of its program.

. The program also included demands such as the exemption of blacks from military service, the freeing of black prisoners, and the trying of blacks by all black juries -- demands which were in fact expressions of certain essentially democratic concerns from a nationalist standpoint. As well the BPP put forward demands for full employment and decent housing, combined with the proposal that if these were not granted, "the means of production be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community," and the housing and the land "be made into cooperatives." These are expressions of the concerns of the working masses, but the solutions put forward were marked by the petty-bourgeois utopian concepts of control of production through the separate communities or neighborhoods.

. The BPP also put forward the demand for reparations, which became a favorite of the left-wing of the petty-bourgeoisie in the years to come. And finally, it put forward the demand for a U.N.-supervised plebiscite through which blacks would be able to determine their national destiny, which is a very straightforward manifestation of nationalism. They never indicated what this plebiscite would be about. The implication, in fact, was that somehow there would be a separate black nation-state with no geographical center. In fact, the Panthers never pushed the question of reparations, nor the question of the plebiscite.

. Thus their politics at the initial stage combined the organizing of armed defense with nationalism and with what was essentially petty-bourgeois socialism. In this period, in its early days, the BPP combined its armed patrols and so forth with demonstrations against police brutality and with participation in some community struggles. The organization of armed patrols was thus combined with other forms of struggle, even if, to their way of thinking, these other forms of struggle were really no more than recruiting grounds for the armed patrols. This was in Oakland. The subsequent period is when the BPP went national.

The BPP Becomes a Country-wide Organization

. At this point, on the one hand, the BPP developed more revolutionary features and, on the other hand, it had greater difficulty in maintaining its connections with mass struggles. The more than 200 rebellions in the week following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. , in April 1968, were a high tide in the black struggle. This tidal wave of rebellions, together with the anti-war movement, the resurgence of the workers' movement, the emergence of the GI movement, and the resulting crisis in the bourgeois politics, shook the society. It impelled a section of the political movement, and also a large section of the black masses, to revolutionary conclusions. And, at this time, thousands of black youth, highly militant but politically inexperienced, poured into the ranks of the BPP, attracted by the idea of armed self-defense and by general notions of a black revolution.

. Throughout the preceding decade there had always been some group of half a dozen around advocating armed defense. The BPP was the one which grew into a national organization, attracting thousands of militant youth. One of the most basic reasons for this is that the BPP came up on the eve of the highest point, the zenith, the greatest surge in the struggles. Another reason is that the BPP was identified with the left-wing of the national movement.

. The objective situation pushing everything leftward, and the influx of thousands of revolutionary-minded youth resulting from this, tended to carry the BPP into revolutionary positions. This is not in its earliest days in Oakland. But once it is captured and sort of grabbed up by the movement and blown up into an important national phenomenon, it develops a number of revolutionary positions.

The Black Revolution

. The BPP advocated a black revolution which would liberate black people and bring down U.S. imperialism. They were clearly speaking at this time of revolution, of seizing state power, something on which they had hedged at an earlier stage. The Panther conception of a black revolution sometimes had socialist aims and was sometimes associated with something else beside the black struggle. Thus they intentionally combined the slogans "All power to the people!--Black power to the black people!" It is notable that the Panthers actually put forward the slogan "All power to the people!" as a principal slogan--they were not opposed to the slogan of black power, but were opposed to that being the main slogan. They wanted to emphasize the people.

. While the Panthers wanted to emphasize the people, and showed a certain looking toward the masses, the Panthers were generally narrower, generally more nationalist in its outlook, and generally less oriented toward the toilers, than, for example, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. The Panthers in fact put forward the slogan that the lumpen proletariat was the vanguard; this did not so much signify that they were basing themselves on the lumpen proletariat, but rather that they were strongly inclined to look away from dealing with the black workers on a class basis.

The Panthers Declared Themselves To Be Marxist-Leninists

. The BPP declared itself to be Marxist-Leninist in this period. In fact it was not. But this did reflect the gravitation of a section of the movement towards Marxism-Leninism at this time.

. While engaging in repeated tirades about the "white, mother country radicals", the BPP in fact aligned itself with the left and was generally known as being associated with it. This was sharply distinct from the policy of the cultural nationalists at this time, which was to wage war against the left and, in particular, against Marxism-Leninism.

. Internationally the BPP aligned itself with the Peoples' Republic of China, while at the same time promoting Cuba, Vietnam, Korea, and also Algeria (they had started as admirers of Frantz Fanon).

. The BPP thus found itself carried into revolutionary positions. These positions however were not stable, consistent, or Marxist-Leninist. One can argue about the sincerity of Huey Newton in claiming that he was planning revolution. But when in U.S. politics you have five to ten thousand black youth organized under slogans for revolution, you are in fact dealing with a revolutionary phenomenon, no matter how confused and no matter what backward features it has.

. The politics of the BPP in this period smack of petty-bourgeois revolutionism. There's no political training of the membership. Indeed there are almost no objective politics in the press. There is a tendency toward abstaining from mass struggles and counterposing them to building the BPP and "picking up the gun" in the abstract, that is, waiting for the great day -- because in fact by this time the Panthers are not actually organizing armed defense in the communities.

Bloody Repression Against the Panthers

. However, its militant appeals were quite enough for the state, which was determined in this period to smash the BPP. A federally-coordinated drive brought a murderous wave of repression with the killing of a number of Panthers and the imprisonment of the entire leadership. This repression created tremendous difficulties for the BPP and aggravated all its problems. Caught between the severe repression and the instability of its own politics, the BPP subsequently collapsed into reformism.

The BPP's Decline into Narrow Reformism

. In 1969 the BPP moved to reassert its mass ties, not through objective politics and participation in mass struggle, but through "serve the people" programs: breakfast for children, health clinics, etc. , programs which, when placed at the center of its work, oriented the BPP away from struggle. There is not necessarily anything wrong, in itself, with breakfast programs. However to make such programs the center point of the activity of a political organization is bound to incline it away from struggle. And this did become the centerpiece of the BPP program.

. At the same time the Panthers concluded an alliance with the CPUSA, and launched what it called "the United Front Against Fascism" to consummate it. Legal defense against repression tended to be put at the center of the program of work, along with the "serve the people" programs. The slogan of a fight against fascism was the justification used to backpeddle on the question of revolution with demagogy about "well, the immediate fight is against fascism." During the following year, during the year after consummating this alliance with the CP, the BPP began to drop its claim to be Marxist-Leninist.

The Constitutional Conventions

. In 1970 the Revolutionary Peoples' Constitutional Conventions, held in the summer in Philadelphia and in the fall in Washington D.C. , were the last twitchings of the corpse. The Philadelphia Revolutionary Peoples' Constitutional Convention was organized by the BPP. This was a nationwide conference which they called in order to draw up a new constitution.

. Now, what you were going to do with a new constitution was a mystery. They said, well, things are pretty terrible so we need a new constitution, a constitution which is not the constitution of the slaveholders. As far as the content of it, it was flagrant reformism.

. It was the Philadelphia constitutional convention which begins the process of the conventions. This process was completed with the Washington Constitutional Convention. The Washington constitutional Convention consists of between five and ten thousand people, about 80% black, spending two days wandering the streets of Washington D.C. because there is no convention. The Panthers had managed to organize about one meeting in the course of two days.

The Mass Membership Purges

. During this time, beginning in 1969 and continuing through 1970, the BPP was also consumed by mass expulsions of the membership. By the end of 1970 it was a very small shadow of its former self. It had lost some membership due to the repression, but the mass purges inside the BPP, and the consequent disorganization and disorientation, also played a significant role. During the latter part of this process, their press would be full of announcements that such and such a number of members had been expelled that week.

. The question of the mass expulsions -- why they were taking place and what they signified -- is a question which we are actually going to have to look into more deeply. It is true that petty-bourgeois sects commit suicide quite regularly. And it is true that this is bound up with the fact that as they go off the rails all kinds of strange things can take place. From this standpoint it is not unusual. However, it is also important that this was associated with a turn to the right.

. We can say, for example, that in New Jersey it was the kids they kicked out. The handful of honchos that hung around the office--none of them got purged; they kept on hanging around the office. And the honchos kept another handful hanging around with them. They would go up in the office, and they would stack up all the furniture against the doors, and sit there and play what the Panther Party called at the time "revolutionary suicide", waiting for the man to come down, and then they were going to commit revolutionary suicide, taking the man with them. Meanwhile, 150 youth, very militant youth, had been expelled.

. These expulsions actually contributed in a large way to the Panthers losing their mass character, and then losing their militancy as they lost their militants so to speak.

. The Black Panther Party had risen meteorically because a militant nationalist mood had gripped a large section of the masses, because the idea of armed defense had captured the imagination of a section of militant youth, and because of it's vague association with some idea of revolution. At its height, it took on revolutionary features, but its politics were unstable and at no time did it orient itself toward the working masses. The BPP rapidly declined from that height into the most narrow and moribund reformism, revealing the limitations and instability of its petty-bourgeois nationalist politics even at their revolutionary height. <>

Part Two

The BPP and the Left

. I would like to go on to the question of the relationship of the left to the Black Panther Party. I will summarize the two tendencies in SDS, which is not the whole story but it is what is most essential.

. The majority of SDS, which was led by the RYM (Revolutionary Youth Movement) faction, idolized the Black Panther Party; and at this time in SDS and in those circles the Panthers gripped the imagination of the activists. Resolutions were passed declaring the Black Panther Party to be the vanguard of the revolution, and anybody who didn't like it was a counterrevolutionary. This was in part because the ideas, certain of the ideas which the Panthers reflected, had influence in the whole movement at that point -- such as the idea, more or less, of two revolutions side-by-side. There was also a marked tendency in SDS toward petty-bourgeois revolutionism, and this feature of the Panthers tended to appeal to it. In fact, in those circles at that time, there were elements who inclined more toward support for the Black Panther Party and elements who inclined more toward support for the League. On the whole, the Black Panther Party was preferred. Of course the Black Panther Party was a widespread organization on a national scale and had several other things going for it. But another thing going for it was that it didn't organize the workers as workers and that probably had a certain appeal also.

. PL, on the other hand, opposed the Black Panther Party. It opposed the idea of two separate revolutions. It opposed the idea that the vanguard of the revolution could be all black, and it opposed a number of other things. Unfortunately, the stand of the PL was linked to the fact that at this time, PL was turning from tailing after the fashion of black nationalism to taking a stand against the mass movement of the black people. They put to the fore the slogan "All nationalism is reactionary"; and they used this slogan to belittle or ridicule the black liberation struggle. Stemming from the basic fact that they were not interested in black liberation, PL was highly insensitive to the question of issues in the movement.

. PL's attitude towards the Panthers, by the way, was somewhat more complex than PL's opponents made it out to be at the time. Back in 1968, the theoretical journal of PL twice published the program of the Black Panther Party. They had a certain interest in it. In 1969, PL published a criticism of the Black Panther Party -- it was fairly carefully done for PL. It went along the lines: "The Black Panther Party is one of the most important political phenomena of the times and must be strengthened and it is from this standpoint that we offer these few words of criticism. Moreover, we will always defend the Black Panther Party against repression. . . You assholes are doing everything wrong. " The document actually begins as a fairly careful tactical statement and then it just goes off -- just starts developing this shrill PL tone; they just can't hold the reasonable tone for the length of the article.

. Moreover, cursory investigation of PL's weekly, which had mass circulation, indicates that they did not in fact defend the Panthers against repression. At the time, this was one of the foremost questions being addressed by the left and it is notably underplayed by PL. This is a somewhat complicated question but it is tied to the fact that PL, though it sometimes posed the criticism of petty-bourgeois nationalism carefully, is tending to turn from tailing after the fashion of black nationalism to negating the black liberation struggle altogether which, of course, is done with mounds and mounds of words in favor of black liberation in the abstract. By this time PL begins to put forward positions such as that the anti-racist struggles are diversions from the united struggles of the working class, and so on and so forth.

ACWM(M-L)'S Attitude Towards the Panthers

. The Black Panther Party was already decaying by the time the ACWM(ML) was founded in May 1969. Nonetheless it was still an important issue. It was an issue because of its widespread influence among the masses and in the movement and because the issue of defense of the Black Panther Party against repression was an important point of struggle. Mass demonstrations were taking place in defense of the Black Panther Party.

. The ACWM(ML) dealt with the Panthers in a way that contrasted with the approaches of both the RYM faction of SDS and that of PL. The ACWM(ML) had a certain respect for the Black Panther Party as a revolutionary force because of its advocacy of armed self-defense and certain other positions and for the composition and the spirit of its ranks. At the same time, it had a different view on everything. ACWM(ML)'s perspective was for the socialist revolution of the working class. It put forward the task of building the Marxist-Leninist Party. It oriented itself towards the working class and toward organizing the masses -- the masses of workers of all nationalities. The ACWM(ML) recognized that it had differences with the Black Panther Party, and it did not regard the Black Panther Party as the vanguard of the revolution. The ACWM(ML) was also unhappy with some of the errors and excesses of the Black Panther Party.

. The ACWM(ML) developed its own work and propagated its own line. In the course of this, it defended the Black Panther Party against repression, and it developed ties with the local chapters and members and with expellees and others who had left the Panthers but continued to be influenced by its line. The ACWM(ML) refrained from public criticism of the Black Panther Party; at the same time it used its ties to the ranks of the Black Panther Party to disseminate The Workers' Advocate and to explain the ACWM(ML)'s views on all questions, including on the questions which in fact it disagreed with the BPP on, which was most of them. When movement activists asked our views of the Black Panther Party, they were told the views of the ACWM(ML) on a series of basic questions -- these were, by in large, not framed as a criticism of the Black Panther Party, but anyone would go away knowing what our positions were. The stand of the ACWM(ML) began to reach elements in the Black Panther Party, ex-Panthers, and some leftists working with the Panthers. Given the impact of the BPP in the movement, it was also important for the ACWM(ML)'s work with a broad range of activists.

. By early 1971, the ACWM(ML) had in and around its ranks a number of former Panthers and activists formerly associated with the Panthers including the entire former local chapter of the BPP in Des Moines, Iowa. One week they went to Greyhound to pick up that week's Panther, a thousand copies -- instead it was a tape recording from Bobby Seale telling them they were all expelled. This was the beginning of what should have become a larger wave of people coming forward to us.

. I want to make it clear that the ACWM(ML) was conscious only to a certain extent of what tactics it was following. It was doing this largely by following its nose and by trying to deal very calmly and objectively with what the politics were. It did not have a full assessment of the extent of the degeneration of the Panthers. It did not have highly worked-out views as to why it refrained from overt criticism of the Panthers, but in effect used all of the means at its disposal to propagate its line and get that across. It worked on a remarkably even keel, remarkable for those early days of the organization, and it did this simply by trying to deal with things in an objective way and keeping the politics to the fore.

. Those who came forward from the BPP at this time were in the process of moving forward from Pantherism to Marxism-Leninism. On a number of questions they had taken up Marxism-Leninism as opposed to Panther positions. But they were not consolidated on these positions as some influence of Pantherism remained. It was necessary that they be integrated into the basic work of the ACWM(ML) and, on this basis, consolidated in the Marxist-Leninist positions. This was not carried through. Instead a major reversal took place.

The Black Revolutionary Party

. In May 1971 the Black Revolutionary Party was formed with the black cadre of the ACWM(ML) as its forces. The ACWM(ML) was then going through a difficult period in developing its work, and the formation of the BRP was one of several schemes rammed down our throats by our false friends, the leadership of the CP of Canada (ML), in the name of advancing the work. The BRP was put forward as a means of developing the work among black people and of attracting revolutionary elements cast adrift by the shipwreck of the BPP. In fact, it proved to be an instrument for splitting and paralyzing the ACWM(ML). The formation of the BRP in fact cut against the orientation of the ACWM(ML) which had hitherto emphasized winning the circles to the ideas of unitary struggle and unitary organization; it actually cut against us. The ACWM(ML) nonetheless acceded to the proposal. It didn't initiate the idea but it did agree to it, and this shows that the ACWM(ML) not only had difficulties in defending its integrity but also had some ideological weaknesses.

. It looks like the BRP was an attempt to make use of the widespread appeal of the Panthers by reproducing the national revolutionary features of the Panthers at their height, while placing even greater emphasis on eclectically combining this with the appeal for the class struggle for the overthrow of the imperialist system. The central line of the BRP was expressed this way:

. "The struggle of black people against racial discrimination and violent repression is a national-class struggle and takes the form of armed self-defense at various levels. Complete emancipation of black people can only be won with the defeat of the evil system of imperialism. That is why the struggle of black people is part and parcel of the struggle of the American working class and people and indeed of the world's peoples' struggle against U.S. imperialism."

. This in fact falls short in linking the question of black liberation to the socialist revolution. The connection is solely external. The black workers do not exist in the workers' movement, the proletariat does not exist in the black liberation movement. In fact, the phrase "national-class struggle" avoids taking a class standpoint by instead painting the national struggle as a class struggle, thus neatly resolving the problem. This serves to obscure both the class differentiation among blacks and the role of black workers in the class struggle at large. The BRP was thus stamped with a petty-bourgeois nationalist character and, in fact, gave an orientation not toward but away from the class struggle.

. The BRP seconded this by reproducing in a concentrated way the propensity of the Panthers to make armed defense the central point of its program and reproduced as well the limitations of this propensity. Just as with the Panthers it tended to produce an apolitical orientation -- one that is placed at the center of the program -- which leads away from organizing the masses on the basis of revolutionary politics. This tendency was brought out in sharp relief by the fact that the high point of 1967 and 1968 was passed and the movement was now in decline, creating extremely unfavorable conditions for organizing armed defense. The consequence was to reproduce the Panther's eclectic combination of talk about armed defense with activity of the most narrow reformist character; we fed the kids breakfast in the morning.

. Meanwhile the masses had been all but abandoned by the organized movement; the organized movement now fell into the hands of the cultural nationalists and the politicians who were busy developing their schemes and ignoring the situation of the masses. The BRP is not able to speak to this. The movement is coming more and more into the hands of its right wing but the BRP is unable to speak to this. The BRP is unable to speak to anything. The BRP feeds kids breakfast every morning, puts out two issues of a newspaper with a lot of pictures of submachine guns, and then vanishes from the face of the earth.

. The role of the BRP was not to facilitate but rather to deflect, paralyze and reverse the motion from Pantherism toward ACWM(ML). This is the most fundamental criticism of the BRP.

. The BRP is founded at a time when a section of the militants are beginning to move away from Pantherism toward ACWM(ML), and the BRP says go back to where you came from. This had immediate repercussions. The existing cadre were not consolidated on a Marxist-Leninist basis. Instead there was a retrogression into petty-bourgeois nationalism. Meanwhile, new elements showed their appreciation by staying away in droves. The difficulties in the work of ACWM(ML) grew even worse. By this time the basis had been laid for the anarchist factionalism of 1971 in ACWM(ML), which rapidly carried the cadre organizing the BRP off into oblivion. The formation of the BRP thus led to fiasco. It led to fiasco most fundamentally because its role in that time and place was to act as a conveyor belt away from the class struggle, away from Marxism-Leninism, and away from the party.

In Summation

. In summary, the Black Panther Party went through a rapid arch of ascent and decline at the height of the black struggles in the 1960's. In the course of this, it captured a section of militant black youth as it took on revolutionary features. Then and subsequently, there was a gravitation toward Marxism-Leninism among the more conscious elements, albeit infused with considerable influence of Pantherism. For all its problems, the BPP had the sympathy and respect of a broad section of the black masses. It was a central target of the wrath of the state and it influenced and held allegiance of a large part of the left. The BPP was a focal point of the politics of the time.

. The ACWM(ML) found ways to form ties among the Panthers, ex-Panthers, and among other sections influenced by the Panthers while maintaining its Marxist-Leninist positions and not falling into tailing the Panthers. It sought ways to hold the ears of such elements and to be able to work for its positions among them. A necessary condition for this was maintaining a principled stand on the objective politics of defending the Panthers against repression. Just at the point that the BPP was falling apart and when also this work was beginning to bear fruit, the ACWM(ML) fell prey to the leadership of CPC(ML)'s scheme to conciliate left Pantherism. The consequence was a setback for the entire work of the ACWM(ML).

. The BPP was a political phenomenon deeply rooted in the immediate conditions in which it arose. Future upsurges of the movement will not necessarily give rise to trends with features identical to that of the BPP. They can and will, however, give rise to other non-party trends, unstable and often unformed, reflecting or even celebrating the fads, fashions, confusions and weaknesses of the day but nonetheless progressive phenomena requiring objective consideration and a thoughtful tactical approach.

. Moreover, certain specific features of the BPP are very likely to reappear, though undoubtedly in other forms. One of these is the question on the tactic of armed defense against racist attacks, which has reappeared repeatedly at various points in history, especially at times of sharp clashes. Another is the question of the grip of petty-bourgeois nationalism, especially of left petty-bourgeois nationalist trends at times when the movement bursts forward like a thunderclap, awakening large numbers to motion.

. The responsibility of the Marxist-Leninists, given such phenomena, will be to understand the mood which grips the masses in order not to conciliate to its backward aspects but rather to link up with the revolutionary sentiment of the masses and to find concrete ways of advancing a consistent revolutionary program of struggle which advances the cause of black liberation and of the socialist revolution.

. This is the talk. I think we can go directly to the discussion. <>

Notes -- September 2008

(WAS) The Workers' Advocate, and Workers' Advocate Supplement, which carried additional materials including many of the longer theoretical articles, were publications of the Marxist-Leninist Party of the US. The MLP, which was founded on Jan. 1, 1980 and dissolved in November 1993, stemmed from the anti-revisionist movement of activists who wanted to push forward the mass struggles and root them in the working class, saw Marxism as an essential guide for the revolutionary struggle, and rejected the sell-out reformism of the official pro-Soviet communist parties. It was opposed to both Soviet revisionism and Trotskyism. Its roots went back in the mass movements of the 1960s, such as the anti-racist, anti-war, women's, and workers' movements, and the student movement, and the WA itself was published from 1969 to 1993. The cause of anti-revisionist communism is upheld today by the Communist Voice Organization, and the Communist Voice is a theoretical journal which is a successor to the Workers' Advocate. (Return to text)

(Part two) The issue of the Workers' Advocate Supplement that contained part one of the speech on the Black Panther party announced that "The discussion of the relationship of the left to the Black Panther Party, including an overview of the tactics of the ACWM(ML), a predecessor of the MLP, towards the Panthers, is in the second part of the speech that will appear in a future issue of The Supplement." Part two was to be accompanied by further material about the role of the CPC(ML) with respect to the Black Revolutionary Party, material which had been discussed at the First National Conference of the MLP. However, given the press of other work, the final editing of this material never occurred, and part two didn't appear in the Supplement.

. Thus the second part of the speech appears for the first time publicly here, on the CVO website, but without the planned supplementary material. (Text)

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Posted September 22, 2008.
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