The Black Panther Party was arguably the most significant revolutionary organization in U.S. history. From its initial emergence in Oakland, CA in late 1966 to its effective collapse as a nation-wide revolutionary organization in 1971, the Black Panther Party was the most important organizational expression of the revolutionary upsurge of the late 1960s. Although it never achieved the size or organizational cohesion of the Communist Party at its high point in the 1930s, the Panthers’ success in attracting a large fraction of young African Americans to revolutionary politics on the basis of a program of armed community self-defense, and their ability to assemble a broad multi-racial alliance of supporters and sympathizers posed an unparalleled threat to the political order of the United States.
The historical experience of the Panthers is of renewed interest in the wake of the nation-wide wave of protests sparked by the police murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and too many others to name here under the banner of Black Lives Matter. That wave of protests is both a reminder of the structural, indeed systemic, antagonism between the black community and the police in the United States and of the consequent potential of that antagonism to radicalize those who struggle to address it.
The Panthers’ rapid emergence in the late 1960s as the leading force in both the black liberation movement and the larger multi-national radical left derived primarily from their ability to model a replicable practice of black community resistance to police terror in the form of armed self-defense and their articulation of a politics that understood that resistance as part of a worldwide revolutionary struggle against U.S. imperialism allied with the revolutionary processes then occurring across much of what was then called the Third World.
The political outlook of the Panthers was a shifting mix of Maoism, anti-imperialism, and revolutionary black nationalism that the party’s founder and leader, Huey Newton, attempted to synthesize into a coherent ideology that he dubbed “intercommunalism.” While the Panther’s have a reputation in the popular imagination as an “anti-white” organization, they were in actual practice distinguished from many other contemporaneous “black power” organizations by their conscious rejection of anti-white rhetoric and their deliberate cultivation of alliances with both progressive white organizations and organizations based in other communities of color. If they asserted the nationalist insistence on the black community’s right to self-determination, including independence, they did so from within an unambiguously internationalist framework that saw the black liberation struggle as a component part of a larger, indeed worldwide, revolutionary alliance aiming to bring down U.S. imperialism and initiate a process of socialist revolution leading to communism.
Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr.’s new book, Black Against Empire, The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party(University of California Press, 2014) is a very important contribution to our understanding of the Panthers. It accomplishes two important tasks. First, it offers for the first time a comprehensive historical account of the whole history of the Black Panther Party that brings together the results of many previous studies that focused on particular pieces of that history. Second, it seriously engages the Panther’s revolutionary anti-imperialist politics and grapples with both the conditions that facilitated the initial articulation of those politics as well as the challenges that emerged as those conditions changed.
Black Against Empire is both provocative and informative from start to finish. It is a serious history that neither hides its basic sympathy with its subject nor shies away from the serious weakness of the organization. It understands clearly its task of truthfully illuminating an important historical experience so that we might learn from it.
A great strength of this book is its skillful treatment of the relationship between the subjective disposition of groups and individuals and the objective conditions that informed what they could and could not accomplish. By the mid-1960s the civil rights movement had achieved its main objectives with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts which dismantled de jure segregation and political exclusion in the Southern United States. The civil rights movement encouraged a political awakening among African Americans in the rest of the country, but the organizational forms, tactical repertoires, and political frameworks of the civil rights movement proved unable to effectively address the political needs of poor Northern urban black communities. This failure expressed itself in the widespread embrace of the slogan “Black Power,” but Bloom and Martin argue that it was only with the emergence of the Panthers and their program of armed self-defense, justified not in the language of American liberalism preferred by the civil rights movement, but rather that of the revolutionary anti-imperialism then sweeping the Third World, that this slogan was transformed into a coherent political practice able to attract the participation of large numbers of African Americans and to win the sympathy of a broader alliance of other oppressed communities of color and opponents of the war in Vietnam of all colors.
Just as interesting as Bloom and Martin’s detailed account of the Black Panther Party’s development into a militant country-wide organization is their analysis of its precipitous decline and fragmentation. While giving due credit to the very active efforts of the FBI and local police departments to disrupt and destroy the Panthers, Bloom and Martin emphasize how concessions made to the Panther’s allies, both in the United States and internationally, significantly transformed the conditions that had initially facilitated their meteoric ascent. Specifically, the end of conscription and the winding down of the war on Vietnam, and the expansion of educational, employment and electoral opportunities for African Americans, altered the calculus of the Panthers’ various domestic allies. Similarly the normalization of U.S. relations with China, Algeria and other centers of Third World revolution led those countries to step back from their open embrace of the Panthers. These concessions, obviously, were not simply directed at the Panthers. They were made in response to an overall political crisis of which the Panthers were but one emblematic expression. Nonetheless they produced a shift in the balance of forces that made it difficult for the Panthers to continue along the lines that they had followed up to that point.
The politics of armed self-defense allowed the Panthers to walk a thin, and dangerous, line between legality and illegality. As Bloom and Martin argue, their willingness to stand up to the police was critical to their appeal, but the intense, often murderous, repression that this stance provoked in the police was impossible to sustain without the support of more moderate allies. When that support began to retreat in the early 1970s, the Panthers were in effect forced to choose between legality and illegality, and it was precisely along those lines that the party finally fractured in 1971 when one wing went underground and constituted itself as the short-lived clandestine Black Liberation Army, while the remainder of the party retreated, first into its various service programs under the slogan of “survival pending revolution,” and finally into the local electoral politics of Oakland becoming effectively politically indistinguishable from similar attempts to build local black political machines in the 1970s.
If a third path was available that avoided both the suicidal turn towards urban guerrilla warfare and the abandonment of the Panthers’ essential revolutionary commitments in the name of electoral expediency, Bloom and Martin do not speculate. What they do do, however, is illuminate the very real difficulties in finding such a path in the face of the shifting conditions that the Panthers had to deal with. Anybody who still shares the original Black Panther Party’s commitment to genuinely systemic change will appreciate the hard questions that this book poses.