All posts by Christopher Gunderson

Thoughts on Black Against Empire

blackagainstempireThe 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.

Notes on the Poverty of Social Movement Theory

The theoretical apparatus supporting the majority of social scientific research on social movements and other forms of contentious politics is impoverished.

While social movement studies appears by many measures to be thriving as a field, the dominant theoretical frameworks within the field are widely regarded as unsatisfactory by many social movement scholars as well as by activists who look to social movement scholarship to illuminate their own work.

While activists often find value in the historical narratives that social movement scholars assemble, they are much less likely to make use of the theoretical concepts, categories and arguments that scholars develop.

The lack of interest in social movement theory on the part of activists is not primarily an expression of anti-intellectualism on their part, as the same activists often make liberal use of theoretical frameworks appropriated from other fields as well as often robust theoretical traditions associated with their activism. The problem is primarily with social movement theory itself.

Social movement theory in general shares with sociology a distrust of what Merton called “grand theory.” The dominant approach within social movement studies emphasizes the development of “theories of the middle range” and the most influential attempts to develop an overarching theoretical approach to social movements have consisted primarily of assemblages of such theories of the middle range as have been developed.

The result of this approach has been theoretical frameworks that are very fragmentary and seem better at naming and describing isolated “mechanisms” than explaining how they work together, much less presenting a compelling synthesis that explains not just the genesis and development of social movements but more importantly their historically developing role in larger processes of social change.

Contrary to Merton, the preference for theories of the middle range is fundamentally ideological. It does not flow from the needs of a young and developing science of society, but rather from the ideological needs of capitalism which are especially acute with respect to the study of various insurgent challenges to the capitalist order.

Merton’s call for theories of the middle range occurred within the context of a crisis within Parsonian structural functionalism precipitated in large part by the social struggles of the 1950s and 60s. Its objective target, however, was not Parsons, but rather the energetic revival of Marxism. The development of post-structuralism and new social movement theory in Europe answered to similar needs in a context in which Marxism enjoyed considerably greater academic prestige than it ever achieved in the U.S..

The 1960s and even more the 1970s saw a flowering of the study of social movements, revolutions and other forms of contentious politics. This was fueled both by the political commitments of young scholars entering the social sciences who often had either histories with, commitments to, or at least sympathies for the movements that they chose to study and by the needs of the state for serious research on a phenomena that was perceived as a source of serious threats to the stability of the system as a whole.

The value of social movement studies to the development of methods of counter-insurgency was reflected in the experience of Project Camelot, and the cooperation of leading scholars with congressional and other state-sponsored investigations of the sources of both colonial revolts and domestic civil unrest.

Such naked entanglements with the repressive operations of the capitalist state were repugnant not only to the partisan allegiances of young radicals entering the social sciences at the time, but also to troubled liberals who regarded them as a violation of the principles of academic objectivity.

The contradictions between the radical political commitments of many young scholars and the ideological demands of social scientific disciplines embedded in and ultimately subordinate to the capitalist state would be resolved largely in favor of the latter not by the explicit weaponization of the social sciences represented by Operation Camelot, but rather by the normal operation of the disciplinary functions of graduate training, employment, publication, and tenure which, as the heady days of 1968 receded into memory, unsurprisingly favored methodologically empiricist and politically liberal research programs.

The consolidation, first of RMT, then of PPT, and most recently of DOC as the reigning paradigm within social movement studies in the U.S. occurred within the context of a long-term retreat on the part of progressive popular movements in the face of what is now recognized as a global neo-liberal counter-offensive that begin in the 1970s.

While there was some dabbling with Marxism as a theoretical reference point in the early 1970s, by the end of the decade the common assumptions of the field of social movement studies were largely reconciled with the ideological needs of the capitalist state.

This was accomplished in several ways.

First, the subdisciplinary separation of the study of social movements in advanced capitalist countries from the study of revolutionary insurgencies in the global south, which was much less pronounced in the earlier collective behavior literature, served to frame the social movements within a narrative of the continuing perfection of liberal democracy and to thereby analytically marginalize the often considerable role of more radical forces that did not conform with that narrative.

By discouraging, for example, comparative studies of the civil rights/black liberation movement in the United States and anti-colonial and national liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America, this separation reinforced the perception of socialists, communists and revolutionary nationalists as marginal to what was treated as an essentially domestic struggle for political inclusion rather than as important points of contact with what was in fact a global wave of liberation movements that at their high-water mark led millions of Americans to identify as revolutionaries.

Second, the uncritical embrace of prevailing standards of academic objectivity in which normative statements within the bounds of liberal democratic discourse are generally allowed, while those that indicate support for more radical or revolutionary objectives are deemed impermissibly partisan, discouraged the incorporation of the most critical insights coming out of the movements themselves into the theory that informed the study of those movements.

Third, the single-minded emphasis on the development of theories of the middle range and the acceptance of Mertonian pessimism on the possibility of grand theory effectively obstructed the integration of social movement theory into any larger systemic critique of contemporary capitalism.

Taken together, the main effect of all this has been the development of a body of social movement theory that is generally distrusted by social movement actors themselves and rightly so.