Sunday, July 5, 2015

What is the "revolutionary legacy" of the Black Panther Party?


This post has been rescued from the depths of my facebook account where I originally posted it in April 2013. 

What are the lessons of the Black Panther Party?

I just attended a great presentation by former Panther member, Billy X Jennings, who was brought to Australia by Socialist Alternative for their annual Marxism conference.

Billy explained a lot of things about the Panthers that match the impression I've got from reading a half dozen or more books by other former members. Not everyone though.

One audience member suggested that “I think I speak for most people here when I say it wasn't your community programs but your revolutionary legacy that inspires us”.

Billy responded that the “survival programs,” as the Panthers called their social programs, were their key legacy.

The naivety of the question, which totally missed so much of the talk (and the introduction by aboriginal Australian activist Gary Foley), astounded me (see below for a video of the talk).

Yet it is probably a common enough misconception. The idea that the Panthers started as a militant, gun-toting, bad-ass group of revolutionaries that degenerated into a community self-help group serving breakfast to schoolkids.

That is so far from the truth, however, that it is ludicrous.


The first community program the Panthers undertook was, in a way, their armed patrolling of the Oakland police. With a loaded gun in one hand, and a lawbook in the other, they observed the police on the streets and acted to stop abuse of police authority.

Almost every word I have read by former Panthers – many books of history and autobiography – places the community programs at the very centre of the Panthers' activity. So if they have any “revolutionary legacy”, the Programs would have to be a central part of it.

To deny this would be to support the legacy of Eldridge Cleaver. Cleaver was certainly a charismatic leader who gave a lot to the Panthers; he also built up the tendency to ultraleft rhetoric, and ultimately split the party – and then was himself expelled from the East Coast Panthers who he had supposedly been leading in the split.

Cleaver subsequently drifted to the Republican right in the 1980s. So much for that “revolutionary legacy”.

There were other ultraleft groups that split from the Panthers – like the Black Liberation Army. Whether anything in their legacy could be called revolutionary, and what lessons we can learn from their experience may be up for debate. But it's really separated from the Panthers' history by at least one split.

So what was the content of the Black Panther Party's “revolutionary legacy”?

Was it the fact that members were required to read Marx, Lenin, Mao, Fanon, Malcolm X? Then many university courses would be “revolutionary”.

Was it the fact they published and distributed a newspaper? Then the Jehovah's witnesses would be “revolutionary”.

Was it the fascinating, but eclectic (if not eccentric) revolutionary theorising of Party leaders like Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver? Was it the fiery rhetoric about revolution, socialism and black power? Any lone blogger with a big mouth could qualify as “revolutionary” on those criteria.

You can't separate out such specific components of the Panthers' legacy and claim them in isolation as the “revolutionary legacy” that you wish to honour.

Which begs the question as to what is the “revolutionary legacy” that is of relevance to a modern socialist group, far away in Australia, 45 years later?

To extrapolate from the Panthers' legacy, to abstract it to the point where it makes sense to us today, even here in Australia on the other side of the world, is not easy. You have to screen out the specific conjunctural factors that drove the Panthers, a dangerous task if you do not want to end up with bland generalisations, mere motherhood statements.

The Panthers arose at the peak of the Civil Rights movement against the brutal Jim Crow segregation and discrimination suffered by African Americans in the US. They arose not in the Jim Crow states of the south, but in urban California. They arose out of a community that was one of the poorest, living in third-world conditions of sanitation, health, education, and precarious employment. That was on top of the de-facto racial discrimination, the vilification, harassment and denial of basic legal rights that was routinely imposed on these black communities.

That's something that has few direct parallels in modern Australia. Much of it certainly applies to aboriginal communities – but they have many specific differences, such as being indigenous, the rightful owners of the land. That's a difference in their specific, legal oppression that changes their struggle in a number of ways. Modern Australian public housing precincts have many similarities, but without the unifying aspect of all being on the same end of the colour divide that African Americans faced.

In the modern day, many community programs such as those the Panthers undertook are now – rightly, if poorly – implemented by government. Just going out and organising a school breakfast program isn't necessarily going to replicate the Panthers' legacy. I should mention, though, that in recent years the CFMEU construction union in Victoria have done just that in poor communities.

What we can extrapolate from the Panthers' legacy, that we might consider a “revolutionary” lesson, is that they fought for these basic reforms, food and health and democratic rights, and they organised their community to fight for them.

The astounding success of the Panthers – coming out of nowhere to become the largest far-left group in the US in a matter of a couple of years – is in large part because of this.

We shouldn't deny the role that their audacity played in this. Walking into the state legislature with loaded weapons, to protest against the bill that was to disarm them, was a propaganda coup, even if it led to most of their leaders being gaoled, and escalated the State's attacks on them.

But the chapters of the Panthers that sprung up across the US threw themselves into the community programs.

They showed that fighting for basic civil liberties and democratic rights is a powerful weapon for those who would call themselves revolutionary. They showed that involving the people you purport to be working for to “serve the people,” is a powerful tool.

They took their working-class black communities as they were, not in abstract ideoogical form. The urban black communities they organised so well were not the stereotypical working-class community with breadwinners and homemakers and trade unions and mortgages. They were precariously employed, often unemployed, often engaged in the black economy or small business to get by, often imprisoned by the law.

These communities were what the doctrinaire (and usually white) left would call “lumpen-proletarian”, that charming 19th century term that literally means “workers in rags”.

I think there's a further lesson here, for today, that I'm going to argue for. After 30 years of neoliberal policy in Australia, the working class is not a homogenous, Labor-voting, union-member mass who all live in working class suburbs and barrack for the same football team.

Large workplaces have been broken up and contracted out, work has been casualised, communities are fragmented, individualism and consumerism have won out. Yet shining through all the crap, the chaos, the de-classing of individualism, there are many issues that represent real grievances and serious threats to people's livelihoods, their safety, to what is left of their community.

But these threats are not simply workplace issues. I have come across some – mostly "revolutionary syndicalists" – who hold to a dogmatic insistence that all politics be seen through the prism of the workplace, what happens “at the point of production”.

Other leftists show echoes of this dogmatism when they insist on privileging trade union issues over "community", or environmental, or women's liberation struggles outside of workplace politics.

But the Panthers took the working class as it was, in all facets of its life, and sought to involve people, to serve them, to lead them and lift them up. Even in the most basic measures like having a bus to visit a family member in gaol, or for kids to have breakfast before school.

So I think the Survival Programs are indeed the core of the Panthers' revolutionary legacy. To try to separate them out and downplay them is not only to misunderstand the history, it is to fail to understand what it is to be a “revolutionary,” if that word is to have any meaning at all.

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