Revolutionary Socialism and the Black Panther Party

Below is a slightly modified speech that I gave at the 50th Anniversary Tribute to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense on February 27th at the Solidarity Center in Manhattan, NY. Organizers requested insight on how the Black Panther Party applied revolutionary socialist theory. This is my response.

In January of 1971, Black Panther Party co-founder, Huey P. Newton declared, “The Black Panther Party grew out of the Black Power Movement, but the party transformed the ideology of Black Power, into a socialist ideology, a Marxist-Leninist ideology.”

indexBlack Panther Party for New York Talk

This statement reflects the core of what the Black Panther Party subscribed to be, and by this time, how the Black Panther Party subscribed to think – through a Marxist-Leninist class analysis, an analysis with a unique emphasis on the Black community.  Of course the Black Panthers addressed race, and they should have.  Not only were they called the “Black” Panther Party, they formed as a means of Black survival, as a means of self-defense for Black lives against police terror.

They formed because Black women, Black men and Black children were getting killed, brutalized and terrorized by the Oakland police, and quite frankly, because no one was doing anything about it. They formed because the Black community was in need of “land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace,” because they clearly realized that capitalism was an archenemy to Black Liberation.

My point, sisters and brothers, is that the Black Panthers weren’t just some reactionary collective full of misguided anger (as often portrayed).  There was a science to their rage, specific ideologies from which they drew.  Were the Panthers perfect?  No!  Were they young, serious, militant and well read?  You damn right they were!  And in addition to Black Power and self-defense, revolutionary class struggle was at the forefront of what they stood for.

As Fred Hampton of the esteemed Chicago chapter stated, “You don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. You don’t fight capitalism with Black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.”

Armed and well-aware, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense considered themselves the vanguard.  Not only were they razor-sharp on the issues of racism, colonialism and state violence, they were quite conscious of the fact that within impoverished communities, social, political and economic conditions are constantly in a state of flux.  Changing.

Black Panthers adopted the notion of ‘dialectical materialism’ through a distinct lens of the Black experience.  What was so brilliant about them is that they were the first Black Liberation organization that very actively lived these notions, not only in theory, but in a very practical everyday manner – in their own communities, on the streets.

I wanted to read a brief excerpt from an excellent book on the Panthers, co-edited by former Black Panther Party member and Communications Secretary, Kathleen Cleaver .  It’s called . Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party. I’ve learned that it’s always good to carry a few primary resources around with me. That way others can fact-check my facts, in case they don’t like what I’m saying [laughing].  This excerpt is from Chapter Two, entitled “Global Solidarity: The Black Panther Party in the International Arena.”  It reads:

As Marxist-Leninists, the Black Panther Party advocated revolutionary struggle to establish a socialist society.  Panthers turned to Marxist-Leninism for guidance in the Black Panther Party’s opposition to racism, sexism, and capitalism.  For example, scientific socialist principles dictated gender equality among Party members as well as interracial and international solidarity.  Bobby Seale explained, “The fight against male chauvinism  is a class struggle—that’s hard for people to understand.” These principles also directed the Black Panther Party to [Vladimir] Lenin’s vanguard party notion. Black Panther Party members obviously viewed themselves as disciplined, full-time revolutionaries committed to mobilizing support for a socialist revolution (pg 29).

So we can see and read for ourselves, revolutionary socialism was at their core, also reflected in many of their required readings.  Along with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and cultural cornerstones like Blues People by Amiri Baraka, many  of the Black Panther required readings for their (PE) or Political Education classes were very much so focused on the intersection of the national question class consciousness and revolutionary socialism.

Their reading list included: The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism and Class Struggle in Africa by Kwame Nkrumah, Che Guevara’s Guerilla Warfare, Vladimir Lenin’s What is to be Done, E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie, and Mao Tse Tung’s Little Red Book.

In Mumia Abu-Jamal’s essay entitled, “A Life in the Party,” (extracted from Mumia’s 1999 master’s thesis) he describes the Black Panther newspaper as quote, “It attracted the class antipathy of the bourgeois and the petit-bourgeois, elements who traditionally constituted Black leadership.”  As Mumia further states, “this voice called not for integration, but for liberation through revolution…a new voice that devalued bougie behavior and valued political activism against the U.S. Empire.”

The notion of international class struggle was a constant theme throughout their reading materials, and so was the the study of dialectical materialism.  How could such principles NOT be?  The Black Panther Party was founded in the working class black ghettos of Oakland, California, then on to Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Kansas City and Harlem.

And anyone who lives, or has lived, in the ghetto knows damn well that you must be able to adapt to changing conditions. Because those who fail to do so, may very well not survive. Sometimes it’s unexpected layoffs.  Sometimes it’s the pigs, or the rent might be late. Sometimes, your car breaks down, or it’s long lines at the Social Services office. Sometimes your children need new shoes, but the power bill is due.  Past due!  Y’all know what I’m talking about.

It was these very same conditions, sisters and brothers, that Black Panther survival programs were creating solutions for. It was these very same conditions that Huey P. Newton was speaking on when he declared, “The Black Panther Party is a Marxist-Leninist party because we follow the dialectical method and we also integrate theory with practice.  If we’re using the method of dialectical materialism, we don’t expect to find anything the same even one minute later, because one minute later is history.”

These young sisters and brothers were very sharp, comrades, much sharper than what the mainstream media wants us to realize.  Most of them were well-disciplined and fully committed.  Of course, they wanted some Black Power.  And so do I!  They were Black people, living in small Black nations, confined to Black ghetto colonies where they were terrorized by white supremacy, exploited and disenfranchised through structural racism and systematic genocide.

At the same time, these were the same revolutionaries whose party motto was: All power to the people! Black power to Black people! Brown power to Brown people!  White power to white people! Panther power to the Black Panther Party!

In hindsight, the Black Panther Party drew from an array of revolutionary socialist tendencies, transcending their resplendent blend of radical thought into radical action, worldwide.  In doing so, the Black Panthers grew way beyond the imagination of the party’s founders, attracting all kinds of people, from all walks of life.  As Black Panther Party co-founder, Bobby Seale carefully notes, “The Black Panther Party drew thousands of members into forty-five chapters across the country, in less than four years.”

From co-founder Huey P. Newton’s perspective, such growth must have seemed faster than the speed of light, almost unimaginable.  In the essay entitled, “The Genius of Huey P. Newton,” author, Mumia Abu-Jamal writes, “When Huey went to prison, he knew every Panther in California, for he or Bobby had recruited him (or her). When he was freed on appeal in 1970, he emerged to a group that he neither knew nor built.”

With that said, of course, things became difficult.  Each chapter was slightly different, in different cities, in different regions of the country, reflected through an array of cultural tendencies.  And let’s not forget the role of COINTELPRO, which very actively exacerbated the party’s decline.  Quite frankly, it was COINTELPRO that was the primary cause of the party’s demise – the frame ups, the trials, the repression, the assassinations.

But I think what’s most important, particularly for this generation, particularly for this time and current movement  is that we focus our time and attention on the revolutionary roots of the Black Panther Party, because it’s the roots that keep us grounded, roots of thought that help us to grow and fully develop.  It’s the roots that keep us alive.

Keep pushing, sisters and brothers.  Keep moving, keep learning, keep teaching, and let’s keep organizing.  All power to the people! Right on!

Lamont Lilly is a contributing editor with the Triangle Free Press and Human Rights Delegate with Witness for Peace and organizer with Workers World Socialist Party. He has recently served as field staff in Baltimore, Ferguson, Oakland, Boston and Philadelphia. In February 2015, he traveled to both Syria and Lebanon with Ramsey Clark and Cynthia McKinney. Follow him on Twitter @LamontLilly. Read other articles by Lamont.