The “black panther” movement (1971)

1971 article by the International Communist Party, published in il Programma Comunista, author anonymous.

As part of the information on class movements in the USA that we intend providing on a continuous basis, our first, brief account is of the Black Panthers, the movement that currently best expresses the black “community’s” aspiration towards emancipation, in its daily fight against the rabid violence of the police against a sector of society without economic weight and totally left to itself like the lumpenproletariat.

The journal Black Panther is an accurate echo of these fights and of the problems of defence and self organization of the “community” that are involved in them. The photographs are of militants who have been killed or put in jail, the demonstrations and battles against the cops, the devastation they carry out, the battlegrounds and the enemies killed in the clashes – the “pigs” (policemen).

This fight against an enemy that always and exclusively has the face of the “pig” policeman, beyond which they fail to see the determining class and political factor, represents the true soul of the movement and also its gradual bleeding in a battle that cannot be tackled at its roots. The leaders are deliberately and repeatedly hit by the police, who look for any pretext to pick a fight that will allow them to eliminate dangerous elements – something they have succeeded in several times – as in the attack where Bunchy Carter (a member of the “ministry of defence”) and John Higgins (“ministry of information”) were killed and where Eldridge Cleaver (who then fled to Algeria) was wounded; arrests and trials, with a class verdict of course, are the other path they follow: the leader Huey P. Newton, who is the group’s theorist, Bobby Seale and Angela Davis are the best-known names to fall into the net. It appears that at present US prisons “house” at least 400 members of the Black Panthers. The police also attack their party headquarters, as happened during preparations for the plenary session in Philadelphia for the “Revolutionary people’s constitutional convention”, or lead battles sparked off by isolated episodes, such as mistreatment of a child or a drunk, which are soon joined in by the whole neighbourhood. Open warfare is the normal way of life of a community that sees itself as a block opposed to the rest of society.

Beyond all their differences, the members of the “community” do feel united by real solidarity; the Black Panthers put total unity of the racial group in first place and take on the direction of even the most insignificant battles without respite – and this is a point of honour for them – even when faced with moral and legal scruples: they do not hesitate to defend “the criminal element”, seen as the result of a condition of desperate oppression. The Black Panthers effectively stand as the representatives of the black people as opposed to the whites. There is no doubt a theoretical limit here; but which other “Marxist” party today has the courage to defend a common “criminal”, a “hooligan” and to reveal the social connections and the perverse class relations that produce these “anti-social” elements and the individual rebellions that find their sole path to salvation in joining the impetus of organized social rebellion? Their defence of action, even individual action, by members of the community represents both the strong and theoretically weak points of a movement that reaches beyond the limits of class, to arrive at those of the racial community. The Black Panther party does not fight for the black as an oppressed proletarian, struck down, thrown aside or impoverished in all senses, and consequently more sensitive to the propaganda of social revolution, but for the black in general, in order to free him or her from the oppression of white people in general, thus giving far more importance to ethnic than to class differences. Class war is recognized as existing only in individual communities, almost as an internal issue, and although there is open appeal to the black sub-proletariat, laying claim to their fierce fighting spirit, this only happens because the general condition of the black person is seen in terms of theirs and because this becomes the means for the emancipation of the black community outside the emancipation of capital’s working class, the sole condition for the emancipation of all oppressed sectors and for overcoming the “race issue”.

The black community, together with several other racial minorities, certainly is the part of American society that combines its most exploited and worst treated elements, the labourers with no attribute other than that of providing raw labour, the unemployed generated and constantly reproduced by “technological process”, those on occasional work, “the godless with no morals”, the “anti-social”, the “hooligans”, those with the “wrong chromosome”, “criminal tendencies” etc., but it should never be considered a community in itself, an independent group that can be detached from the rest of society - otherwise the result is a utopia on the one hand and a backward-looking design on the other, to say the least of it.

Black proletarians and lumpenproletariat are isolated in a struggle that is only now and again supported by other workers, in a country where white skin means preferential treatment at work and in society. And this is a privilege that at a certain stage (that of the disintegration of class organisms, political and economic) also defends itself against competition from those with the same colour skin: the inhuman law of “the fight of all against all” that rules the world of capitalism. In this situation, it is perfectly understandable for them not to see their white class companions as brothers, particularly since the bourgeois State has realized for a long time that stirring up racial hatred means avoiding any class solidarity that might shake its own foundations. It is also right that, in a situation like this, those who, with the excuse of the political absence of white wage workers, conclude that the black workers must “wait”, meet with extreme disapproval. Militant proletarians, even in a small avant-garde, and independently of the colour of their skins, must take action to drag the undecided sectors along with them, they must demonstrate to them the need to organize in order to oppose the development of capitalism, its devastating pressure on the class that sells its labour, and to end its rule. It must make no difference to the non-racial nature of the organization itself, if that organization, due to circumstances, temporarily includes a majority of black salaried workers.

The American working class, however, has lacked its political guidance for too long to overcome the enormous difficulties encountered in the development of a similar process without having to face a harsh struggle, not only against capital but also to decipher its own class interests and put up with painful sacrifices and attempts destined to failure. A price it will inevitably have to pay is to place itself temporarily behind ideologies that are inappropriate and not adequate for the proletarian class struggle.

The Black Panther movement feels the effects of this tragic isolation; their mistake is to consider it definitive at this stage. Unable to achieve, on their own, an analysis of the present situation, the fruit of a victorious counter-revolution involving a period ranging over several decades and worldwide extension, they sought an agreement with the official US “Communist” party (a party entirely anchored to the Stalinist positions and even worse), and ended up breaking with it, due to their greatly differing attitudes towards the use of violence. Their search for contacts with more militant forces then led the Black Panthers to meeting with the so-called “Marxist-Leninists”, headed on the one hand by China and on the other by the “Third World” in general, which are apparently in the same condition, oppressed by imperialism, and can boast a national war against the United States.

With this hybrid contribution – which confuses the (more or less real) struggle for independence from imperialist bonds with that of class emancipation – the Black Panthers have “added to” their previous position: this is the origin of the theory that places the battle of black sub-proletarians and that of the colonial peoples on the same plane, establishing a link between the cities and the colony on the one hand and the white city and black colony within the same State on the other, concluding that there is a “metropolitan working class and a black colonial working class” with their own, divergent interests, thus affirming the need for distinct and even opposing organization, postulating authentic solidarity between white workers and their ruling bourgeois class on the one hand and between different sectors of black-skinned people on the other. The “coloured community” struggle contrasts with the class struggle. Responsibility for this attitude is actually placed with the white proletarians, “parasites who live at the expense of humanity” and such responsibility does partially exist (seen, nonetheless through mistaken analyses and perspectives); however, it does not seem that the Black Panthers have ever conceived of class solidarity, except as a function of their own community interests, rather than making them coincide with those of the working class in general. In addition, as we have seen, the explicit appeal is not to the working class but to the Lumpenproletariat in general – black in particular: “We are Lumpen,” Cleaver declared proudly, “the Lumpenproletariat consists of all those who have no secure relationship or have invested no capital in the means of production or institutions of capitalist society; who are part of a perpetual reserve in the ‘industrial reserve army’”; who have never worked and never will, etc. etc.

This is an attempt to adjust a theory and tactics to this social category, searching for a new strength, and a new and original path, in the very historical and social reasons for the political impotence of the Lumpenproletariat. So, the Lumpenproletariat, having no possibility of boycotting production by means of a strike and being forced to fight in the streets, is seen as more revolutionary and having “no direct oppressor except perhaps for the police pigs”, with whom they clash daily. And there is no awareness that this also means its inevitable defeat.

The colony-city relationship is very different: even a colony is dependent to some extent on the imperialist country, whilst at the same time producing and supplying some products, generally raw materials, and in some cases is capable of playing the role of the blackmailer, though often being ready and willing to come to agreements with imperialism on exploiting its own proletariat. It therefore does not have the characteristic of the sub-proletariat described by Cleaver as being “cut off from the economy”. Quite the contrary! It complains of being excluded from world trade, which is another thing altogether. It can also be noted briefly that it is equally mistaken to apply guerrilla warfare as a form of armed struggle: for the colony this is because the battle cannot go so far as to destroy bourgeois relations but is merely a way of exerting some pressure to change the direction taken. Instead, we are well aware that the class movement has only its chains to lose and therefore organizes itself for real war which must lead it to the total control of political power (so it does not admit any local autonomy within in).

The Black Panthers’ weak point is definitely their theory; this springs to light when considering the points on their political programme. There is not even a real political programme but points that are supposed to serve for mobilizing the masses. The “platform-programme” dates from October 1966 and is referred to in exactly the same form today, deserving the definition, in the most benevolent of cases, of traditional reformism, supported by a sort of guerrilla warfare. The ten points claimed for the black community are: freedom, full employment, decent accommodation, an education suited to their own history and race (a particularly backward-looking point), exemption from military service, an end to police persecution, freedom for black prisoners, law courts with black juries and plebiscite under the auspices of the United Nations (sic!) to establish the wishes of the black community; lastly they demand an end to capitalist looting and respect for the promise made a hundred years previously, i.e. the payment of 40 acres and 2 mules as compensation for work done under slavery and mass suppression (cash is also accepted!).

What is missing is a minimum of political and economic analysis of the path leading to emancipation (and what is a programme, if not the formulation of theses expressing this analysis?): there is merely a series of demands to the ruling State, conceived of as its duties, which may even lead groups of exploited people to violent action, but is unable to modify the essence of class relations, except on paper.

In this respect, it is indicative that petitions are drawn up to the United Nations which should, “on the simple basis of justice”, carry out “universal action, including political and economic sanctions against the United States”, guilty of genocide, as defined by the General Assembly of the UN itself on 9 December 1948. One might think it a pure and simple, though rather ingenuous manoeuver, to make black peoples’ condition “public” knowledge, but the conclusion of the platform-programme summed up above provides the fitting “theoretical” background: “all men are created equal and provided by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, including life and freedom, the pursuit of happiness”, which involve the usual corrective interventions by the more or less sovereign “people” when, as in classical bourgeois democratic thought, a tyrant emerges or those rights are otherwise downtrodden.

And so the movement that fights the mystified violence of the democratic and racist State of the United States with open violence, intends acting within the confines of this very society and is reduced to claiming some degree of autonomy for its own people. Admirable as its open battle is, it still moves on an ambiguous and substantially ahistorical terrain.

It is this aspect, which is believed to be linked to the experiences of the “heroic” North-Korean and Vietnamese people, that is the backward part of the movement, experiencing crises and intrinsic contradictions as the class war develops and recovers its real content, considering the proletariat its true protagonist (no matter what colour their skin!), i.e. the class that suppresses any claim to autonomy in any field, from education, to “justice”, to “military service”, to the family, to that of political, economic and state organization, because everything is combined in a single, irresistible movement, that of the exploited class as a whole, guided by a single party.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the painful experience of black proletarians and sub-proletarians, confined in a war with a racial background that sees the way to real release from their economic and social conditions barred before them, will be able to contribute its constant sacrifices of generous forces, whilst the murders by the defenders of “law and order”, the scandalously repressive trials and growing racism of the opposite side (all things that can also lead to the slow blood-letting of proletarian energies) will help open the eyes of the white and non-white proletariat and generate a political avant-garde capable of uniting all proletarians in its ranks without distinction of race, the hope and homage that we express for the good of the black people in their courageous battle and that of the whites asleep in their torpid doze!

(from Il Programma Comunista, no.5/1971)