Lessons from the Black Panthers: “We’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism – we’re going to fight capitalism with socialism”
The Black Lives Matter protests which have swept the US and the globe have raised important questions about what strategy, programme and organisation are necessary to end racism in society. There has been particular interest in the history of the anti-racist struggle in the US. As a contribution to this discussion we reprint extracts from an article written by Hannah Sell which first appeared in the Socialist Party’s magazine, Socialism Today, in October 2006, to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. The full article can be read at socialismtoday.org
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded in Oakland, California in 1966 and represented the highest point of the vast rebellion against racism and poverty which swept the US in the 1950s and 1960s.
It was not a coincidence that the civil rights movement erupted in the 1950s. World War Two had an effect. Not only had thousands of black soldiers fought and died for US imperialism, they were struck by the glaring hypocrisy of the war propaganda. Here was a capitalist class claiming they had to go to war against the racism of the Nazis, while in their own country vicious racism was the norm.
In addition, US capitalism was entering a prolonged period of economic prosperity. This meant that many more blacks were moving from the rural south to the cities, mainly in the north. In 1940, half the black population lived in the cities. By 1970, it was three-quarters. Becoming part of the working class – moving from isolated rural communities to massive urban centres – increased confidence and capacity to struggle.
At the same time, the increased wealth and higher living standards of the white middle class made the poverty and degradation of the vast majority of blacks seem even starker than before.
Finally, the liberation struggles of the masses in Africa and Asia, who were succeeding to overthrow colonial rule, provided inspiration.
As the struggle developed it changed the outlook of those who took part. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1965. But, while this was a legal concession, it did not alter the reality of poverty and police brutality. Even Martin Luther King, who initially saw the role of the movement as using pacifist methods to pressure the Democrats to grant civil rights, changed his outlook in the period before he was assassinated.
When King was viciously beaten by the police in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, riots burst out nationwide. Amidst the rubble, King accurately declared the riots “a class revolt of the underprivileged against the privileged”. In 1967, he was forced to conclude: “We have moved into an era which must be an era of revolution… what good does it do to a man to have integrated lunch counters if he can’t buy a hamburger?”
In particular, he began to raise the need to appeal to white workers and to organise a class-based struggle. He was supporting a strike when he was assassinated. (See: The Legacy of Martin Luther King, issue No.27 at socialismtoday.org)
At the base of the movement there was a ferment of discussion as activists tried to work out the most effective means of struggle. Pacifist ideas were increasingly rejected, particularly by the younger generation. Out of the turmoil of these events, the ideas of Black Power were developed.
In many senses, the Black Power movement was a step forward. It was a break from pacifism, and from an orientation to the Democrats, a big-business party. At the same time, it had limitations, particularly its separatist overtones and lack of a clear programme.
The Black Panthers saw themselves as starting where Malcolm X had left off. Malcolm X, who was killed in February 1965, had been moving away from the black nationalism of the Black Power movement, and had drawn anti-capitalist conclusions to a greater degree than other leaders, stating clearly that “you can’t have capitalism without racism…”
The two founder members of the Black Panthers, Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale, had become involved in the struggle at a time when it was felt that there was no clear way forward. A searching for ideas was underway among a new generation of activists.
Newton and Seale began their search, like most of that generation, with the ‘cultural nationalists’, but rapidly found them wanting. Their disagreements centred on class from the very beginning.
Seale explains in his autobiography, Seize the Time, how Newton began to argue against the idea of buying from black businesses: “He would explain many times that if a black businessman is charging you the same prices or higher, even higher prices than exploiting white businessmen, then he himself ain’t nothing but an exploiter”.
The Panthers rejected the separatism of the cultural nationalists, and were founded with the magnificent concept: “We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism. And we do not fight imperialism with more imperialism. We fight imperialism with proletarian internationalism”.
Within two years, the Panthers had spread like wildfire, from a handful in Oakland, California, to having chapters (branches) in every major US city, selling 125,000 copies a week of their paper, The Black Panther. But having gained phenomenal support in their first years, the Panthers went into decline just as quickly, riven by splits. Why did this happen?
The greatest strength of the Panthers was that they strove for a class-based, rather than race-based, solution to the problems of American blacks. Bobby Seale declared: “Those who want to obscure the struggle with ethnic differences are the ones who are aiding and maintaining the exploitation of the masses. We need unity to defeat the boss class – every strike shows that. Every workers’ organisation’s banner declares: ‘Unity is strength’. “
The Panthers were founded around a ten-point programme: What We Want and What We Believe. The first demand read: “We want freedom. We want the power to determine the destiny of the black community. We believe that black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny”.
The second was for full employment, the third for an end to the robbery by the white man of the black community, the fourth for decent housing and an education system “that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society”.
Other demands included an end to police brutality, for black men to be exempt from military service, and for “all black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from black communities”.
At their inception, they combined campaigning around the ten-point programme with organising the defence of their local community against police brutality.
During this period, the Panthers’ chief activity was to ‘patrol the pigs’, that is, to monitor police activity to try and ensure that the civil rights of black people were respected, usually with weapons in hand. At that time, it was legal in California to carry guns within certain limitations, and the Panthers asserted their right to do so, quoting the relevant sections of the law.
The third strand of the Panthers’ work was the establishment of free food, clothing and medicare programmes in poor black, working-class communities. The Panthers also took a clear and positive position on the rights of women, and the leadership struggled to ensure women were able to play a full role in the party.
They emphasised that the black community had to have its own organisations, and membership of the Panthers was only open to black people. However, they argued that they should work together with organisations based in other communities. In fact, a number of other organisations were founded (often initially based around ex-gang members) in inner-city working-class communities, which modelled themselves on the Panthers. These included a Puerto Rican organisation based in New York, the Young Lords, and a white organisation, the Young Patriots, in Chicago.
However, it was the mass movements against the Vietnam war which most clearly showed to the Panthers that sections of whites were prepared to struggle.
The Panthers faced enormous police repression. At the height of their influence, J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, described the Panthers as “the number one threat to security in the USA”. The ruling class was terrified of the Panthers and set out to crush them. It is estimated that the ‘cadre’ or core of the Panthers’ organisation never numbered more than 1,000 yet, at one stage, 300 of those were facing trial.
Thirty-nine Panthers were shot on the streets or in their homes by the police. In addition, the police carried out widespread infiltration of the Panthers.
However, it was not only brutal state repression that was responsible for the demise of the Black Panther Party. The best of the Panthers strove heroically to find the best road to win liberation for American blacks, and came to understand that this was linked to the struggle for socialism.
But they faced all the problems arising from the fact that their movement developed before a generalised, mass struggle of the US working class. They were not able, in the short period of their mass influence, to fully work out how their goals could be achieved.
The urbanisation that had accompanied the post-war boom led to a mass migration of black workers to the northern industrial cities. They arrived to find themselves living in ghettoes, in direst poverty.
In many areas, a majority were unemployed. Nonetheless, black workers formed a significant part of the workforce and, because of its role in production, the industrial working class in particular has a key role to play in transforming society.
Black workers had been to the fore of the best traditions of the US working class. Prior to the war, many blacks had been influenced by the major trade union struggles of the 1920s and 1930s, especially the massive wave of strikes that broke out in 1934, including sit-down action and city-wide general strikes.
With a correct orientation, the potential undoubtedly existed for the Panthers to win the support of significant sections of the working class, including a layer of white workers.
Of course, all kinds of racist prejudices existed, and had to be combated, among sections of white workers, including those in the trade unions. However, the end of the post-war upswing was leading to increased unemployment and the greater intensification of labour for all sections of workers.
While the black working class was the most combative, having faced far worse conditions, the white working class was also beginning to be radicalised.
The Panthers’ main orientation, however, was not towards the organised black working class. They did organise ‘caucuses’ within the trade unions. This was a correct conception but, in reality, union work was a very small part of what the Panthers did. They consciously orientated primarily towards the most downtrodden, unemployed sections of the black community.
It is correct that these most desperate sections of society are capable of incredible sacrifice for the struggle and, as the Panthers argued, that it is important to win these most oppressed sections to a revolutionary party. This was particularly the case given the horrendous social conditions most black Americans were forced to live in.
But the lack of a base among the organised working class was one element that increased the tendency towards an authoritarian regime in the Panthers.
It also added to the tendency, which always existed to some extent, to try and take short cuts by substituting themselves for the mass with courageous acts, such as the armed demonstration at the California state parliament.
The difficulties of the Panthers led some, particularly those around Eldridge Cleaver, to turn to the dead-end road of terrorism, although Newton and others attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to reorientate the Panthers.
Later, Newton reflected on their mistakes: “We were looked upon as an ad-hoc military group, operating outside the community fabric and too radical to be part of it. We saw ourselves as the revolutionary vanguard and did not fully understand that only the people can create the revolution. And hence the people ‘did not follow our lead in picking up the gun’.”
The existence of the Black Panthers, despite their limitations, showed in practice how consciousness develops as a result of struggle against the brutal realities of capitalism.
It remains a tragedy that no rounded-out Marxist party existed which could have offered the Panthers, and the hundreds of thousands who were touched by them, a way forward.
Notwithstanding the limitations of the Panthers, they show the determination of the advanced layer of thinking workers, once they are engaged in struggle, to find a route to genuine socialism.
Just as Newton and Seale stood on the shoulders of Malcolm X, the new generation of black workers and youth can take all the great strengths of the Panthers and build on them to create a party capable of ending capitalism and racism through the socialist transformation of society.