On the Program of the Black Panther Party: Which Way Forward for Black Workers and Youth? - Part one

Nearly twice a week in the USA, a black person is killed by a white cop. In Ferguson, Missouri, the death of yet another young black man at the hands of the police was one too many. Necessity expressed itself through accident, and the murder of Mike Brown unleashed a wave of pent-up outrage and indignation across the country. The daily protests and nightly confrontations with the police, state troopers, and National Guard flooded the media with scenes reminiscent of modern day Gaza, Iraq—or the US in the 1950s and 1960s.

- Part Two -

These historic events have rekindled the debate over race and class in this country. Outrage at the institutionalized racism and arrogant police brutality is understandable. However, emotion, impulsivity, and nostalgia for a romanticized version of past struggles are no substitute for sober Marxist analysis and foresight.

[Read also: Lessons from the History and Struggle of the Black Panther Party]

In the summer of 2008, the US Marxists produced a lengthy document on Black Struggle and the Socialist Revolution, in which we explained the genesis of racism and its material basis, which is organically rooted in the structures and dynamics of capitalism, a society divided into exploiting and exploited classes. Just a few months later, after Barack Obama’s election as the country’s first black president that November, filmmaker Spike Lee declared that America had moved “beyond” racism. Unfortunately, this wishful thinking was far from true, as we explained at the time.

As anyone who doesn’t put on blinders knows, the nauseating poison of racism is far from being eliminated. However, this is not a question of abstract morality. Racism is an integral and component part of capitalism, one of the tools it uses to “divide and rule” the working class—something Malcolm X knew full well.

The media has bent over backwards to paint what happened in the working class St. Louis suburb of Ferguson as an exclusively policing/racial issue. But a deeper understanding can only result from an examination of the class issues involved. Only working class solidarity can strike real, material blows against the status quo, and even basketball legend-turned-social-commentator Kareem Abdul Jabbar recognized the importance of class in a recent and very interesting article.

“Divided We Stand”

black-panthers-1Racism is an extraordinarily complex question. It is not only about “blacks versus whites,” but involves a whirlpool of contradictions and crosscurrents that also affects Latinos, Asians, Arabs, Sikhs, and every other racial or ethnic group on the planet. However, to paraphrase Lenin, in the final analysis, racism is a “a question of bread.” If there is not enough to go around, people will divide along secondary lines to fight over the scraps from the capitalists’ table. History shows that when living conditions improve for everyone across the board, racial, ethnic, and religious tensions begin to subside (for example, for a certain period in the former USSR and Yugoslavia). However, as long as we live in a world in which the majority suffers from artificial, capitalist-imposed scarcity, the scourge of racism will continue.

The struggle for survival under capitalism therefore provides fertile ground for rising tensions and outbreaks of racially motivated violence. But people can and do change, even within the narrow limits of capitalism. An unprecedented wave of immigration, common working and living conditions, a common oppressor, the internet, social media, and an increased blending of cultures has pushed many workers, both young and old, towards instinctive unity. Especially among the youth, things have come a long way in this regard. In much the same way, attitudes toward gay marriage have changed dramatically over the last twenty years, with a majority of young people asking, “what’s the big deal?” The unity of young people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds in their confrontations with the authorities in Ferguson is the most recent example.

However, let there be no doubt that the United States remains riven by racial divisions, divisions that are consciously perpetuated and deepened by the ruling class. The fact remains that on average, white Americans have a better quality of life than blacks or Latinos, and this has an undeniable effect on consciousness. The capitalist crisis has only intensified this situation and borne down particularly hard on young people and the poor. Just a few facts and figures suffice to illustrate this clearly.

Median income for black households is less than 60% that of white ones, and on average they have accumulated less than one-tenth the wealth of a typical white household. Over the past 25 years, the wealth gap between whites and blacks has nearly tripled. Unemployment among black Americans is nearly double the rate for whites and Asians. The rate for black youth is even worse. More than one in four blacks live in poverty, while fewer than one-in-10 whites do. According to the Pew Research Center, “Black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated in federal and state prisons, and local jails in 2010, the last year complete data are available. That is an increase from 1960, when black men were five times as likely as whites to be incarcerated.”

Betrayed again and again by the so-called leaders of the “black community,” their supposed friends in the Democratic Party, and above all, by the labor leadership, which refuses to give a militant, class-independent lead, it is little wonder that so many young black people are looking for a viable alternative. American society is a tinderbox and any spark can set off an explosion. However, without becoming a truly mass, organized force, guided by clear perspectives for where society needs to go and how we can get there, even the most radicalized uprising of the youth will eventually fizzle and fade. The rise and fall of Occupy is a clear example. The question, therefore, is not only how can we fight back, but how can we fight back and win.

In this context it is important to revisit one of the highlights of the rising tide of class struggle of the 1960s and 70s: The Black Panther Party. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, and until its final destruction and dissolution in 1982, some of the most inspiring, militant, and iconic actions and images from the Black Power movement—of armed black men and women in leather jackets, berets, and sunglasses, defying the police and calling for revolution; of community social and literacy programs in the poorest of poor neighborhoods; of defiant speeches against the Vietnam War and in support of the colonial revolution—are associated with this organization.

The Black Panther Party

After decades of Jim Crow exploitation, racism, and betrayal, black Americans had had enough. Throughout the 20th Century, mass organizations of struggle rose and fell, and many political alternatives and leaders were tried and tested. On the back of the mass labor upsurge of the 1930s, the Civil Rights movement gathered steam in the years after World War II, simmering at first in the Southern states and eventually shaking the entire country.

black-panthers-5Huey Newton and Bobby SealeThe roots of the Black Panthers can be traced to the friendship between Huey Newton, born in Monroe, Louisiana, and Bobby Seale, born in Dallas, Texas, who met at Merritt College in Oakland, California in 1961. Their families were part of the second “Great Migration” of blacks out of the South to the Midwest and West in the years during and after World War II. As students, Newton and Seale were inspired by Louisiana’s Deacons for Defense and the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, founded by Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as an independent political party in rural Alabama. The LCFO’s symbol was a black panther.

Having tested the revolutionary socialist activist waters in Oakland, they were frustrated at the lack of direct confrontation with the rampant racism and police brutality that was very much alive and kicking in “liberal” California. Determined to take concrete action to fight back, they decided to launch the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. With the drafting of the famous “What We Want Now!” 10-Point Program, the Black Panthers were born in Oakland, California, on October 15, 1966. Over time, the program was further elaborated and expanded.

The party expanded rapidly and brought in members from many different backgrounds. Its ideology was an eclectic mix including elements of Black Power and Black Nationalism, anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, revolutionary democracy, third-worldism, anti-Zionism, and even Kim il-Sung’s Juche. There were many different trends within it, from adventurist ultraleftism, to reformism, and everything in between. This was all exacerbated deliberately by the state, which was quick to infiltrate and sabotage the Black Panthers through programs such as COINTELPRO. black-panthers-2FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover considered the Black Panther Party to be "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country," and would stop at nothing to destroy it. In addition to police provocateurs, violence, frame ups, fomenting interpersonal conflicts, and facilitating access to drugs and weapons, their strategy was to introduce maximum ideological confusion in order to increase dissension within the party’s ranks.

As we explained in Black Struggle and the Socialist Revolution:

“In the face of such a massive and courageous [Civil Rights] movement the ruling class made some concessions on voting and civil liberties in the South, moved to integrate public schools and universities, and made efforts to combat discrimination. But above all, they sought to keep the movement within limits that did not threaten the capitalist system. To do so, they worked to channel the movement into the pro-capitalist Democratic Party, while orchestrating the murders of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and a number of leaders of the Black Panthers, who sought to go beyond capitalism and the Democrats.

“Along with the broader Civil Rights movement, there was a revival of black nationalism among some sectors of the population. The explosion of the ghettos in the 1960s led to the rise of the Black Muslims, the Black Panthers, the League for Revolutionary Black Workers, and other organizations that fought not only for political equality, but for ‘Black Power.’ These movements were also inspired by the unfolding colonial revolution in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Their determination to find a solution to the problems confronting black people showed the revolutionary potential amongst the most oppressed layers of American society. Stokely Carmichael, one of the Black Panther leaders, first raised the slogan of ‘Black Power’ as a rallying cry for blacks to unite and challenge white domination of society. The demand for greater control over the black community, for racial dignity, and for solidarity with the anti-colonial struggles represented a step forward insofar as they represented a radicalization of political consciousness and a break from the white liberals of both the Democratic and Republican parties.

“The Black Panthers were open to the ideas of Marxism and were in favor of the creation of a new workers' party. In a short space of time they evolved from a largely black nationalist perspective to the perspective of socialist revolution. According to Bobby Seale: ‘We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black nationalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism. And we do not fight imperialism with more imperialism. We fight imperialism with proletarian internationalism.’ Unfortunately, the Panthers' lack of a fully worked out working class program and perspective served to derail the movement. Subject to vicious state repression, the Panthers went into crisis and suffered a whole series of splits.”

The Black Panthers emerged in a very particular context at a very particular time in US history. The Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War, and the strength and influence of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China all had an effect. The role of the state in suppressing all forms of dissent at that time, with especial viciousness reserved for black activists, cannot be denied. However, in the final analysis, the basis for the Black Panthers’ explosive development—growing to several thousand members in several major cities across the country—as well as the roots of their degeneration, can be traced to their founding program and its various iterations.

The need for a revolutionary party and program

The workers’ movement has always been divided into two main poles: reformism and revolution. Marxists fight for and defend any and all reforms that strengthen the unity and struggle of the workers. Basic democratic rights such as the right to form a union, vote, freedom of the press, of expression, and assembly can help us raise our ideas and build strong mass organizations for the working class. However, there is no lasting solution within the narrow confines of the system. Even the most advanced reforms are perpetually in danger of being rolled back as long as the capitalists continue to hold political and economic power. This is why revolutionaries combine the struggle for reforms within the system—the experience of which serves to toughen and educate the workers in the realities of the class struggle—with the need for abolishing capitalism altogether and replacing it with socialism.

At present, the reformists—those who think the system can be made “kinder and gentler” by collaborating with the capitalists—have the upper hand. But in a revolutionary situation, the masses learn quickly, and if a revolutionary party, rooted in the working class, is in the right place at the right time in sufficient numbers, then the tide can rapidly turn in favor of the revolutionary overthrow of the system. Our task is to “make our own luck” and ensure that we are in place when such revolutionary opportunities arise. An enormous part of building that presence begins with presenting the workers with a clear revolutionary program.

For Marxists, the revolutionary party is first and foremost its ideas, methods, perspectives, banner, and traditions, all summed up in the party program. The program is the distilled essence of the party, its guide to action, its public calling card, the basis for rallying support and for recruitment, and an essential tool for orienting the membership in the organization’s concrete goals and political perspectives. Ideological clarity is key, and the program, developed on the basis of the guiding theory of the party, can be compared to its DNA. Without such clarity, without strong and resilient DNA, which takes into account the needs of the organization through various stages of its development and the constantly changing objective conditions, even a program that leads to initial successes can prepare the ground for failure in the future. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and good intentions, audacity and electrifying language are not enough.

black-panthers-3The all-too-tragic history of the 20th and early 21st centuries demonstrate that what the working class requires above all is a revolutionary party, armed with a program based on a scientific Marxist understanding of the class dynamics of society. Such a program must go beyond the limits of capitalism, beyond mere reforms within the system, and fight for the establishment of a new system altogether. In short, it requires a revolutionary, not a reformist program.

The starting point is the recognition that while there are many pernicious forms of oppression, the fundamental contradiction of our age is the division of humanity into exploiters and exploited. A tiny majority owns and controls the key levers of the economy, which gives them untold wealth and power, while the vast majority must sell their ability to work for a wage. It is the numbers and unity of the working class that gives us our strength. Our outlook must be based on the labor adage “an injury to one is an injury to all!”

The program must therefore serve to raise working class unity, consciousness, confidence, and must present its demands in a transitional way. It must serve as a bridge between today’s conditions, consciousness, and immediate tasks, and the need for the socialist transformation of society. It must also serve to connect the numerically small forces of Marxism with the advanced layers of the working class, which can in turn win ever-wider layers of workers to a revolutionary outlook. This is quite a lot to demand from just a few lines!

With all of this in mind we are revisiting the Black Panther Party’s 10-Point Program as it was expanded and developed. We consider the Black Panther Party as comrades in the struggle against American capitalism, and see those who look back to its legacy for inspiration as comrades in our continuing efforts to end this system. Our aim is not to be excessively nitpicky, but to constructively analyze this important document, which is rich in ideas and covers a wide range of subjects. By examining it with “warts and all,” many lessons can be learned and conclusions drawn, which can be applied in today’s struggle against capitalist exploitation and oppression.

[To be continued...]