A new TV drama — Guerilla — tells the story of the British Black Panthers. Long-time black and left activist Darcus Howe, who recently died, was a founder member of the group and consultant for the show. In this interview from 1995 Howe discussed the politics of “black power” with Dan Katz.
DH: The Panthers have been grossly misrepresented in political circles. They were an intensely revolutionary organisation, the largest non-establishment political party ever to exist in America — larger than the Communist Party or any left-wing group.
There were thousands of them all over the United States. They staked their lives in order to get change in the United States. For me the three great figures of the twentieth century are Lenin, Mao and Malcolm X. With each of these leaders a new class moved forward: Lenin led the workers, Mao led the peasants, and the modern unemployed came on to the historical stage led by Malcolm X.
The first time we saw it was when Malcolm X surrounded the police station in Harlem. Then we could see the unemployed: who are these people? what do they want? Lenin was not a worker and Mao was not a peasant. But one of the most important things about Malcolm, Huey P Newton and George Jackson was that they were from the urban unemployed. For the first time in history the class produced its own leaders. That to me is another strength.
The Panthers were deeply rooted in the black, urban unemployed. People learned to read and write in jail. Stokely Carmichael and James Forman were perhaps some of the few who were educated people. A lot were just street guys and the only discipline came from the Little Red Book. They were Maoists.
DK: I can’t be expected to like Mao given that he killed and jailed people like me. But Mao did have the big political picture. The Panthers didn’t.
DH: Oh, but they did! They had a great conception of international revolution. They had no power other than that of the gun. They could not go out on strike. Their moral code and behaviour cut them off from the bible-toting mass of black workers. In some places there were wonderful alliances.
In Detroit, where the black working class was strong in the factories, they had links with the workers. In California they aligned with hippy students. The state came down on all of them. They did some remarkable things. They challenged the Democratic Party at their Chicago convention. They terrified the establishment.
DK: Lenin developed a sophisticated world view. Huey Newton did not. The Panthers were tremendously brave and heroic but I’m not going to pretend they were very political. They had a 10 Point Programme, but how would it be carried out?
DH: No, that’s not right at all. Huey quoted Lenin a great deal. Their problem was this: they thought that the unemployed youth were the class to lead the revolution. And that was an enormous mistake. They substituted a section of the class for the whole class. The unemployed are not only just a part of the working class but are also a very vulnerable section of the class. They are not disciplined by production, and live from day-to-day making a living in any way they can.
Ten guys would be hustling in a syndicate. The police hold one, give him thousands of dollars, and the rest go to jail. Or he sets them up to get killed. That’s how they live. And the Panthers could never transcend that.
DK: When Lenin was alive there was no cult of Lenin. But when Huey Newton was the Panthers leader, there was a cult of Huey. There was also a cult of the gun and the cult of violence.
DH: The cult of the gun is easily explainable. If you were shot at every day, what would you do? The Panthers had no other alternative.
DK: For Lenin the use of violence was subordinate to political ends: human liberation. The Panthers glorified violence. It was part of their political character.
DH: Lenin as an individual did not face the police shooting at him every day. Police brutality was part of the Panthers’ cultural life. I can easily understand how they felt. You have to understand that! They were faced with a military struggle.
DK: But such a struggle could not win.
DH: It didn’t win. That’s a fact. Hoover and the FBI destroyed them with the Cointelpro programme.
DK: The Bolsheviks settled their disputes by argument. The Panthers regularly solved arguments amongst themselves with violence.
DH: I’m not picking an argument with you. I just think it is ahistorical and facile to look back with hindsight and say that. That’s just how they were! The Panthers were central to the period following the break up of feudalism in the Southern States of America. And for me it remains one of the most important historical landmarks in American politics.
DK: You have used criticisms that Huey Newton used against cultural nationalists: that if black people are good and white people are bad then that lets Papa Doc and African dictators off the hook. Is Newton where you got this view from?
DH: I was part of forming that conception. I was one of the most listened to leaders amongst black people in Britain at the time — especially young blacks. I was an overseas member of the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC), which I joined in the late 1960s.
The Panthers were set up in London in the early 70s. We took their name. We took their dress. We had a 10 Point programme. But we were not Maoists. We expelled and suspended people for being Maoists. We thought they were divisive. We did not have cultural nationalists. And we were not with the Labour Party either! We had some relations with the [Trotskyist] IMG.
In the Panthers there were various currents. But there was a very powerful leadership. Members could not just go around doing what they wanted — unless you were George Jackson, perhaps the brightest of them all. I spoke on platforms alongside Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver as the UK representative. So I knew the organisation pretty well.
I’ve a great place in my heart for Huey. The failure of a great organisation like the Panthers left its mark. The pressure he was under as a result of the defeat broke him. He was such a nice young fellow. The drugs he took — that was a long time after the Panthers had collapsed.
DK: What were the London Panthers like?
DH: We had about 250 members. But there was no question about seizing power — as they put it in the US. The slogan was: come what may we’re here to stay! That was the battle as we defined it.
We wanted an end to the police harassing us: very specific demands. It was not a national struggle. We wanted a bit more space and more democratic rights within the country. This was not just an organisation of Africans and people from the Caribbean. Farrukh Dhondy was on the central committee. We had quite a number of Asians and strong relations with the Indian Workers Association.
DK: What about the limitations of this type of organisation? The Panthers were based on a minority — the lumpen youth — of a minority community.
DH: Using the term minority is very dangerous. Until 1959 the South existed on serfdom and the cotton economy. Then they discovered synthetic fibres. The cotton plantation owners had to intensify pressure on the serfs. And when I say “serf’ I mean it accurately. The serfs worked for the landowner. And the landowner was helped by the local power structure.
We could not vote. We were not allowed to, because in many areas we were in the majority: during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War we had had our own representatives elected to Congress. That is how millions lived in the South. Then black people simply started walking off the land, helped by black and white students from the North.
Everyone says it was just Martin Luther-King. Not so! There were mass revolts from below.
DK: The Black Power slogan only came in ‘66… and what did it mean? I understand the demand for the right to vote. But Stokley Carmichael meant more by Black Power than that. But the demand was so unclear that anyone could be for Black Power — Nixon was for Black Power in 1968 — he meant black capitalism.
DH: There have been many slogans in world history. Of them all I think Black Power is one of the best. You had to be there to experience Black Power. It was not simply a nationalist struggle — the same as the struggle in Ghana or in India — it was just a demand for control over your own life.
DK: The French were a privileged minority in Algeria — someone else’s country —and the British were the same in India. But the Black Americans were firstly — basically — Americans and secondly a minority.
DH: The French ruled in Algeria, the blacks did not rule anywhere.
DK: The struggles were not the same. The question in Algeria was self-government for the Algerians. The matter was not self-government for Black Americans.
DH: Oh yes it was! Alabama, Mississippi and Atlanta are now ruled by Blacks. Now the whole situation is exposed: black people are divided into classes.
DK: So your argument is that this nationalist struggle was necessary in order to clear the way for class politics.
DH: Absolutely correct! The Panthers, Martin Luther-King and Malcolm X transformed America in a way that Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan never did. Martin Luther-King, under pressure of the mass, moved to the left. At the end of his life he was supporting workers’ struggles — and that is when they killed him.
A lot of people living in the United States are not American in the way that blacks are. There are three real sets of Americans: the Native Americans, the blacks and the white descendants of the people who came over in the Mayflower. Black people built the US and they have a sense that they did.
DK: The good thing about Martin Luther-King is that ... he wanted people to be treated as human beings — as distinct to some of the more radical nationalist currents who wanted to stress and cultivate existing black-white divisions. In between Martin Luther-King and the other end of the spectrum of black politics — the cultural nationalists — you have the Panthers and Malcolm X after ‘64.
DH: And Darcus Howe. I am irredeemably black. I do not exploit it for political ends. But I am aware of black struggle. If I was not aware of it I would die.
In America blacks are always being given trouble. Have you lived there? You talk about the States with a British sensibility, which is a serious problem. There are millions of blacks in the United States who do not meet whites at all, except the police. They have no relations with whites, they have no white friends, they do not live in the same areas.
When you say “black community” in the US, you mean exactly that. If you walk down the street in Manhattan, at night, and a white woman sees you walking towards you, she bolts! In Harlem you may see one or two whites, because there is a cultural space there — but not after 5 o’clock. There are myths on both sides. But when one side has the power, the myths can be established for real.
DK: It’s a mess.
DH: Yes, an enormous mess. And the result is that America has lost out. A lot of the enormous creative power of black people has been lost to America.