The Black Panthers are the most representative example of revolutionary black nationalism. Dan Katz looks at two books, written by participants. Bobby Seale's Seize The Time (Vintage, 1970) and Elaine Brown's A Taste of Power (Pantheon, 1992)
“Huey [Newton — the central Panther leader] said ‘I’ve got my gun. What are you going to do with yours?’… And Huey’s calling the pigs swine, dogs, sharecroppers, bastards, motherfuckers, with his M1 in his hand. And daring them, just daring them!" These are the words of Bobby Seale, Chairman of the Black Panthers.
“I’ve got my gun" was a beautiful, defiant thing for a black man to say in racist 1960s America, where gun-happy white racists were armed to the teeth. And the Panthers grew rapidly because they proved as good as their words. They policed the police. Following two high-profile stunts with guns — as a security team for Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow, at San Francisco Airport, and then at the California State legislature in Sacramento, in May 1967, in a protest against restrictions on the use of firearms — their daring and bravery became widely known.
Panther leader David Hilliard explained that “there were only seven real Panthers... After Sacramento thousands of Brothers signed up".
The Panthers were not just a black-only party, they set out to base themselves on the “lumpen" black youth — young people of the inner city slums — rather than black workers. The Party was built on a minority of a minority, around men like Bunchy Carter, former leader of the 5,000-strong Slauson gang.
The political background was the US’s war in Vietnam and, centrally, the growth of a mass civil rights movement and the radicalisation of black youth in the American inner-cities. Year after year in the mid-1960s the black ghettos rose up against poverty and the police, and the Panthers were part of that movement, an expression of the times.
The response of the US state was repression on a vast scale. FBI boss J Edgar Hoover declared that “the Black Panther Party is the single greatest threat to the internal security of the US". Hundreds were arrested and scores killed as the Black Panther Party was infiltrated by the state and set up by their provocateurs.
Solidarity with the struggle against racism and in opposition to the government-sponsored harassment of the Black Panther Party is basic for socialists.
But how should the Panthers' ideas, policies and strategy be assessed? Had the Panthers got a viable policy to defeat the racist state? Could they end racism?
If a reader cares to be critical some answers already exist in Seize The Time. Beyond the immediate questions of guns and the police and the Panthers’ community programmes, there is not a lot of politics. The Panthers never precisely state what is wrong with government policy, or how the Panther’s Ten Point political programme could be carried out, or by whom.
Take this scene from Seize The Time: Huey and Bobby decided to get cash to buy guns. They found a man who will sell them cheap copies of Mao’s Little Red Book. They took the books to the University campus and made a big profit. What about the politics of the Little Red Book? Huey decided that not all of it was applicable to America, and crosses some of it out with a pen! Nevertheless, this is what they had been selling!
What this passage shows is that the gun came first and the politics further back. In essence the Panthers were a proud, dramatic, armed, semi-suicidal defiance of the brutal power which crushed black people. They sacrificed themselves on behalf of America’s brutalised black poor, whom they tried to inspire with the will to resist and fightback. Politically, they were little more than that. Certainly they were not politically coherent.
On these central, political matters, Elaine Brown’s book takes us no further forward. She has nothing but uncritical, a-political, glowing praise for Huey Newton.
And on the Panthers' Stalinism — their praise for the Chinese and North Korean police states — Brown's book is terrible. Written in 1992, after the 1989-91 revolutions in Eastern Europe, she is still uncritical of Panther illusions in Stalinism.
Nevertheless, it is not that the Panthers were even real Stalinists — rather that they simply lined-up with those who opposed their own enemy, the US government.
What A Taste of Power does do is provide a much more complete — honest — picture of the Black Panthers, warts and all.
Elaine Brown is a good witness. She was in the building when Ron Karanga’s cultural nationalists killed leading Panthers, Bunchy Carter and John Huggins. She was there when Huey Newton confronted Farrakhan (seemingly they came close to killing each other after Farrakhan’s Black Muslim organisation bad-mouthed the Panthers). She was forced across the world — essentially kidnapped — by Eldridge Cleaver. She ran for office with Bobby Seale. For years Elaine Brown was at the centre of it all.
Brown shows that there was clearly a cult of the gun, and a cult of their leader, Huey P Newton. Brown describes the Central Committee as “a body of men with titles but no power. They had begged Huey to lead them, guide them, take charge of the party and their lives, the way men always do with their gods".
The Panthers’ disputes — political and other — were regularly solved by violence. In a confrontation over the production of the Panthers’ paper Brown ran up against Bobby Seale. Seale had her taken down to the basement and whipped. And Brown accepted it: “Punishment was always an act of violence… if we had been in Bolivia with Ché we would be shot for violations of rules." True, but somewhat besides the point.
Later, Brown was a witness as Huey Newton drove Bobby Seale out of the Party. Newton had Seale whipped with a bullwhip in his Penthouse apartment. Huey says “you have violated the trust of the party" — Huey Newton identified the Black Panther Party with himself. “You are no longer chairman… In fact, I no longer want you in this party." Huey tells Seale he is now homeless: “Be out of your house — my house — by morning."
The Panther regime Brown describes owes more to the structure of a gang than that of a political party.
When Brown takes over the Panthers in 1974, there is no vote. Huey Newton just hands over power to her in the same way he put her onto the Central Committee. Brown assembles several hundred leading Panthers and tells them: “I have control over all the guns and all the money. There will be no internal opposition I will not resist and put down. If you don’t like what we’re going to do here this is your chance to leave. You’d better leave because you won’t be tolerated."
By the early 70s the Panthers had become big business. They looked for money to fund their community-based Survival programmes, taking “donations” from legal and not-so-legal businesses. The programmes gave a lot of children some schooling they would not have received elsewhere. A lot of people got fed when they would have gone hungry. But the money went elsewhere, too. When Brown visited Huey Newton in Cuba, she says she took him $10,000.
She adds that she spent $10,000 in a clothes-binge.
At the end of Brown's book the Panthers are collapsing into the capitalist Democratic Party, the destination of so many of the US’s radical movements. Brown attends high powered business lunches and gets wrapped up in the wheeling and dealing of bourgeois politics.
Here the problem of nationalist — black rather than class — politics unwinds itself. How to move beyond black community-based politics — resting on one in eight of the US’s population — to politics capable of answering broad social and governmental-level questions? For, of course, a minority of one in eight — as African Americans are — can not alone take decisions for the overall society in which they are immersed.
The Panthers rose and fought at a time when American socialists were utterly marginal and the white workers were quiet, hostile, or full of hatred for black people and their movement. That was the tragedy of the Black Panther Party.
The Panther Programme (1966)
1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
2. We want full employment for our people.
3. We want an end to the robbery by the white man of our Black Community.
4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.
6. We want all black men to be exempt from military service.
7. We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of black people.
8. We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state and city prisons and jails.
9. We want all black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their black communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace. And as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony in which only black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny.