Today I just finished reading the first definitive historical account of the Black Panther Party, Black Against Empire.
A few quick thoughts. Firstly, its clear that the Black Panther Party’s formation was a revolutionary and liberating process of trial-and-error. Blacks, African-Americans, were finally standing up against the oppressive police, advocating community control over local police departments. The Panthers brandished guns, weapons, legally in front of the police as a sort-of power play with the state’s forces. The Party mushroomed in growth after the events at Sacramento’s State Capitol building, expanding from the west coast to the east coast. Overtime, as the Party sought to extend its influence, it started to form a multiracial, multinational, and multiethnic alliance consisting of whites, Puerto Ricans, Hispanics, and many others nationwide. As if to further broaden the already existing alliance between blacks and whites, the Party attempted to form a united front against fascism. The Party’s free breakfast for children programs and its healthcare and educational forays served to garner mass support from moderates and radicals alike, putting weight to the Party’s Ten Point program. Women joined the Party for the revolution, for equality, challenging the machismo methods of the initially male-dominated Party. Eventually, The Black Panther, the official Party newspaper, was filled with pictures of armed women to supplement the pictures of men bearing guns.
The Party forged crucial international ties, garnering an embassy in Algeria and sending members of the Party to North Korea and Cuba. Wherever the Party went, it carried its international message of revolution by any means necessary to the far corners of the world. Mao’s China, whose ideology of Marxism-Leninism most influenced the Black Panthers, wholly supported the Panthers in their revolutionary endeavors. Algeria sponsored the Party as the legitimate ruler of the United States, refusing to recognize the authority of the U.S. government through its principled support of the Party. The Party was truly international in seeking to link the struggle of African-Americans with the Vietnamese and Algerian liberation movements.
Unfortunately, the Party was a victim of its own success. It would crumble, first through a split in the leadership and then through the destruction of the Party’s national headquarters. As the Party drifted into obscurity, it receded back to Oakland where it had begun in a vain effort to turn Oakland into a revolutionary base for repetition elsewhere. According to the authors of Black Against Empire, national organizers throughout the country simply abandoned the Party and effectively rid themselves of local Party branches after the Party’s inward retreat to Oakland. The Party later took a reformist turn, what the authors call social-democratic politics which were devoid of the Party’s early insurrectionist language and appeal. A few diehards scattered around the U.S. tried to foment an urban guerrilla war, but these last few desperate attempts to bring about a revolution in the U.S. simply petered out as such individuals fell victim to their own ultra-left ideology which even the Party abhorred. By 1982, the Black Panther movement was long-since dead. In that year, the Party was dissolved.
I can’t stress it enough that modern Marxists here in the United States should and must read this book. It opened my eyes to the possibility of a socialist revolution in the belly of the imperialist beast (to borrow a popular leftist phrase), and showcased the successes and failures of heroic past attempts at revolution. But there proved to be limits to heroism; the authors are correct in asserting that the Party’s message of insurrection and revolutionary violence could only go so far. They also point out the dangers of reformist politics, which took over the Party in the mid-1970′s and which jettisoned the Party’s fiery Marxist rhetoric in favor of the Democratic Party and its stale language. The Party’s shift into social-democratic politics served as a disservice to the people.
The authors end with a bold challenge:
No revolutionary movement of political significance will gain a foothold in the United States again until a group of revolutionaries develops insurgent practices that seize the political imagination of a large segment of the people and successively draw support from other constituencies, creating a broad insurgent alliance that is difficult to repress or appease. -Taken from the Conclusion
Let’s dare to dream dangerously, to seize the political imagination!