Romanticising Foreign Movements, Ignoring Their Lessons

The sell-out event at last year’s Marxism conference, organised by Britain’s Socialist Workers’ Party, was a talk by David Hilliard, former chief of staff of the Black Panthers. By all accounts the event was standing room only and Hilliard was accorded a standing ovation at the beginning and end of the meeting.

This would be unremarkable, except that almost his entire lecture was spent urging those activists present to reformulate their strategies in light of the Black Panthers’ experience. If you watch the meeting in full, it almost seems that two different languages are being spoken, with Hilliard’s message – restated over and over – unacknowledged by almost every speaker from the audience. Hilliard stresses the relevance today of the Panthers’ ten-point programme (08:09 = time into video), argues that the most important aspect of the group’s activity was its “survival programmes” (10:24), suggests one of the most pressing issues for left-wing activists in London is knife crime and gang violence (13:27), and proposes practical solutions to black people being harassed via police stop-and-search powers (48:34). Here are a few selections from his speech:

As we grew we saw the need to really begin to address the very basic desires and needs of people in the community because if we were not doing that we were going to be isolated. (05:53)

You should look at our Black Panther Party as a model for how you meet today’s challenges. (10:24)

I think that if there is any lesson that you can draw from the history of our Black Panther Party that is that it is possible for you to usher in change as we did. You just have to be willing to get involved in issues in your community. (15:33)

Apart from the ovations, the largest rounds of applause are when Hilliard condemns the Iraq war. What is surprising is that the central elements of his message are picked up by virtually none of the speakers from the audience, despite him listing the key elements of the Panthers’ “survival programme” (05:53) which he says are the most important lessons to be learned from the party’s work. The achievements of the group included:

  • Running the free breakfasts for children programme
  • A bus programme for senior citizens “because they were being mugged and were afraid to come of their house”
  • Giving free prescriptions and medical care to the elderly
  • Testing 500,000 African-Americans for sickle cell anaemia over the course of five years
  • Clothing and shoe programmes
  • Buses to prison programme

These aspects of the Panthers’ activity were at the heart of their political orientation. They recognised this was both a moral necessity – to directly intervene to improve the quality of life of members of their community – and a strategic imperative. It was this belief in addressing the immediate interests of working class black Americans, in fact their “mastery of mass organizing techniques” ((Harris, Jessica Christina. ‘Revolutionary Black Nationalism: The Black Panther Party’. In The Journal of Negro History, 85, 3 (Summer, 2000), pp. 170-171.)) that built them a support base in cities across America. As an author in The Journal of Negro History notes:

One thing that was fundamental in the attraction of members to the Black Panther Party and their numerous supporters was its policy of ‘serving the people.’ This was a policy of going to the masses, living among them, sharing their burdens, and organising them to implement their own solutions to the day to day problems that were of great concern to them. The BPP organised and implemented community programmes ranging from, as previously mentioned; free breakfast for children programs, and free health clinics to free clothing drives. They also led rent strikes resulting in tenant ownership of their buildings, and led campaigns for the community control of schools, and the police, and to stoppage of drugs, crime, and police murder and brutality. ((Harris, Jessica Christina. ‘Revolutionary Black Nationalism: The Black Panther Party’. In The Journal of Negro History, 85, 3 (Summer, 2000), pp. 170-171.))

So what can the Left today learn from the Panthers? Well, Hilliard makes the point clear in his talk, suggesting activists begin engaging in community work and addressing the core concerns of working-class people. The practical examples he cites are knife crime and gang violence, along with more community control of police. This makes sense given that crime consistently ranks as one of the major concerns of ordinary people, as it clearly did in the context in which the Panthers were operating. It also makes sense, if we’re serious about building movements that in the long-term can bring about fundamental social change, to address a community’s core economic and social concerns, and establish institutions independent of the state that build a political culture and improve people’s lives.

However, Hilliard doesn’t mention the central point, at least for the audience he is addressing. That is, the Left is consistently failing to heed any of the lessons to which he draws our attention. As Left Luggage has previously highlighted, crime is not taken seriously as an issue to be addressed in the here and now, but is deferred until capitalism’s overthrow. Likewise, very little energy is expended on community organising around the immediate needs of the working class. Instead, the Left tends to focus its activity on international issues and movements, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, anti-capitalist mobilisations, the war on terror, and US imperialism more generally.

Paradoxically, the very enthusiasm demonstrated for the Black Panthers at Hilliard’s talk is a manifestation of the Left’s unbalanced political focus. That’s not to say Hilliard and the Panthers don’t deserve a couple of standing ovations. Of course they do, for the reasons already outlined. However, the fact that Hilliard demonstrably failed to impress his message upon the audience is a symptom of a peculiar approach to foreign political movements, especially those that achieve a degree of success. That is, we romanticise their struggle while ignoring its lessons.

This can be seen in numerous cases. For instance, many left-wing activists are involved in Palestine solidarity work and identify closely with the Palestinian cause; the example of the 1987-1993 Intifada – of a people rising up to attempt to shake off their oppressors – remains an inspiration to many.

However, the Intifada did not emerge from nowhere. As well as being a product of political, social and economic change throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it was crucially the product of organising that took place among the population over the previous two decades. Central to this development were a range of popular organisations that aimed “to provide basic services to a population living under military occupation as an alternative to the occupation.” ((Hilterman, Joost R. ‘Mass Mobilization and the Uprising: the Labor Movement’. In Michael C. Hudson, ed. The Palestinians: New Directions. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. 1990. p. 47.)) These organisations, in other words,

“served economic and social as well as political functions. They filled a void in the provision of services not available to resident Palestinians under the occupation […] they also provided a training ground for collective action and the development of leadership and organisational skills among Palestinians, and incorporated a political agenda aimed at raising national consciousness.” ((Alin, Erika G. ‘Dynamics of the Palestinian Uprising’. In Comparative Politics, 26, 4 (July 1994), p. 485.))

Once the Intifada got underway, “popular committees” were established to “coordinate the provision of education, health care, agricultural production, security and defence, and other services” ((Alin, Erika G. ‘Dynamics of the Palestinian Uprising’. In Comparative Politics, 26, 4 (July 1994), p. 485.)) to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They also performed “underground social work” to offer support to families with members arrested, injured or killed by the Israelis. ((Muslih, Mohammad. ‘Palestinian Civil Society’. In Middle East Journal, 47, 2 (Spring 1993), p. 267.))

The methods of these organisations, during and especially after the end of the first Intifada, were taken up enthusiastically by Hamas, which similarly set up schools, charities, clinics, and teaching circles to mobilise popular support behind the Islamist movement. It is not an exaggeration to say this is the modus operandi of the majority of political Islamist groups in the Middle East and while clearly we don’t want to borrow from their ideology, we can still learn from the strategy of these mass political organisations.

Another case is the Zapatista movement, which first came to prominence in 1994 when it established an autonomous zone in Chiapas, Mexico, and attracted much interest from the Left internationally, particularly from libertarian socialists and anarchists due to its use of participatory democratic forms of organisation. Solidarity groups were established by left-wing activists around the world to support the movement.

The Zapatistas consisted of a guerrilla movement without a civilian arm but symbiotically linked to the peasant communities of the region through ten years of clandestine organisation.

“The movement was built by political education and direct action which resolved the immediate problems of the communities […] the small victories built the larger movement – infusing the members of the community with the idea that they were capable of winning in struggle and changing society.” ((Petras, James, and Steve Vieux. ‘Myths and Realities of the Chiapas Uprising’. In Economic and Political Weekly, 31, 47 (November 23, 1996), p. 3055. ))

A significant problem for the peasant communities of Chiapas was access to cultivable land, so the Zapatistas set about reclaiming land from large owners through occupation. They also had a range of other social programmes in their “communities in resistance,” including providing health clinics, schools, supplying electricity, and establishing a communal culture. They also tackled directly the problems of alcohol and drug addiction such that “there is a total absence of consumption or sale of drugs, which are also not permitted in the autonomous communities.” ((‘Zapatistas Eradicate Alcoholism and Drug Addiction’ by Hermann Bellinghausen, in La Jornada (Mexican daily newspaper), March 6, 2009.))

These varied movements – from the south of Chicago, through the Gaza Strip, and the Chiapas mountains – are linked together in their basic strategic approach. In each case, they were effective because they aimed to meet the immediate needs of their populations while building networks of solidarity and establishing a political culture. Of course, the situation in contemporary Britain seems quite different, but as David Hilliard says, working class people here are facing similar structural problems as those addressed by the Black Panthers.

How many activists who have read about the Zapatistas, attended meetings on Chiapas, or engaged in solidarity actions, have thoughtfully considered the implications of their strategy? Likewise, how many of us have seriously set about building the kind of “survival programmes” Hilliard talks about? Or the “popular organisations” that were able to meet the everyday needs of Palestinians while also building a culture of resistance?

It is not enough simply to engage in activism around foreign struggles without considering how those movements were built and attempting to apply the lessons here; to do that is simply a form of romanticism, a radicalism by proxy. We should support international progressive movements where we can, but our primary and pressing goal must be to establish “communities in resistance” at home.

Left Luggage is an independent network of community organisers and trade union shop-stewards based in the UK. Its primary goal is to develop working class self-organisation and to reorientate the Left towards this aim. It also aims to encourage a culture of robust self-criticism and internal democracy. Read other articles by Left Luggage, or visit Left Luggage's website.

16 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. ron said on May 23rd, 2009 at 10:40am #

    good piece….

  2. Deadbeat said on May 23rd, 2009 at 8:21pm #

    As we grew we saw the need to really begin to address the very basic desires and needs of people in the community because if we were not doing that we were going to be isolated. (05:53)


    I think that if there is any lesson that you can draw from the history of our Black Panther Party that is that it is possible for you to usher in change as we did. You just have to be willing to get involved in issues in your community. (15:33)

    Once again reinforcing the critique of the Left and especially “Chomskyism” which placed activist’s onus on “imperialism” and while ceding domestic issues to the Right-wing and especially religious group. The Left finds it more dire and pressing what’s happening miles of their shores than what’s happening in the cities and barrios in its own country where they can have the greatest impact.

    And even when the Left does take up a domestic issue like National Health Care the extent of its demand tend to be narrow and weak rather than expansive, bold, and militant — for example demanding universal welfare and not settling for less.

    Anyway yet another great article and analysis from Left Luggage.

  3. Garrett said on May 23rd, 2009 at 8:40pm #

    What’s happening miles off the shores has a great (negative) impact on those cities and barrios. Imperialism (sometimes referred to as foreign policy) and domestic policy are linked.

  4. Deadbeat said on May 24th, 2009 at 3:06am #

    Garrett writes …

    What’s happening miles off the shores has a great (negative) impact on those cities and barrios. Imperialism (sometimes referred to as foreign policy) and domestic policy are linked.

    Actually it is the other way around. The American people need to be convinced that what is happening at HOME influence what happens around the world. For example there will be no way the war on Palestine and Iraq and against the whole Muslim world is going to come to an end until Americans confront Zionism of which the Left isolates only to Israel and not to the homegrown variety that needs to be dealt with. Confront the Zionists in Washington and New York City and you’ll see a whole different policy towards Palestine.

  5. Deadbeat said on May 24th, 2009 at 3:14am #

    Another example that Garrett misses is the whole global financial crisis which has its roots in the United States. Had the Left not abandon Marxism it would have had the theoretical basis to explain the ruination of f[r]ee market capitalism. Had the American people remained vigilant they would not have allowed the banks to obtain so much power as to bring the entire global economy to its knees. Apparently the Left missed the condition and its effect on the working class (especially the blue collar workers) that was emanating right in its own backyard.

  6. Garrett said on May 24th, 2009 at 8:45am #

    It’s not an either-or situation. Massive amounts of money are spent on overseas imperialism…money that could be spent more wisely and more humanely here at home. The “Left” shouldn’t be ignoring domestic policy or foreign policy.

  7. Max Shields said on May 24th, 2009 at 9:07am #

    The problem with socialism (and it’s brother (evil?) capitalism) is that they are part of what could be called a modernist world view. Both had very similiar views of man (human) species as having the world by the tail, that life is all about human needs and wants.

    In a “post-modern” world there is an emergence of uniting (re-uniting?) the human species to the forces of life. This not so much “new” but it is emerging as a compelling alternative, and hopefully one that becomes much more widely embraced as central to our organizing principles.

    This does not mean that elements of “socialism/Marxism” or “Smith-styled capitalism” will disappear, but that the underlying thrust of their world view vis a vis the dominance and centrality of human existence supreme to that of all other life and life giving forces, will need to dissipate.

    It may feel good to look fondly at a “socialism” of the 19th/20th Century as a real alternative to the corporate/global capitalism, but the truth is that socialism is as unsustainable, given what I’ve said above, as is the now collapsing American Empire’s version.

    Re-branding (eco-capitalism or eco-socialism) will just simply not do.

  8. bozh said on May 24th, 2009 at 9:53am #

    system of life depends on how much econo-military-political power is in the hands of the ruling minority.
    we will, i deduce, always have/need rulers; or as i say, managers of our affairs.
    and, of course, whether the ruling or managing minority behaves like gangs.
    In US and most or perhaps all lands the ruling classes have for millennia behaved like a block or street gangs. Near absolute allegiance to the gang and its leadership had been and is now a must.

    and gangs always first look after their interests. Presumably, in a land where one wld obtain healthcare, higher education, etc., degree of minority rule lessens.
    and if news/views wld be controled also by the people and not solely by a gang of people, gang’s rule diminishes further.
    talk about capitalism or any other ism leads only to rancour. Guaranteed!
    and for the reason that isms are definable; a process that never ends; meaning of any ism being different for each individual.
    even in canada, only a few of the bravest or most foolish wld mention socialism to another person or a crowd.
    to many, the very word, it’s an evil word. And in US? Need is say?
    but if one wld say, From each according to what he can do and to each according her needs, what wld most amers say?
    i am told that amers say that it sounds good.
    i say the hell with all dead ‘saviors’ such as jesus, marx, lenin, trotsky, roosevelt, ghandi, king, et al.
    just give me health care and return to me my right to be informed/educated! bozhidar balkas tnx

  9. Don Hawkins said on May 24th, 2009 at 10:35am #

    The present system known as capitalism poses a signifying risk to the human race. The odds of the human race ending as we know it because of capitalism is about 99 to 1. The one being nuclear winter not much fun either. Only a few of the bravest or most foolish wld mention these facts to another person or a crowd. I don’t conceder myself foolish.

  10. Theophilus said on May 24th, 2009 at 1:32pm #

    I think that the Black Panther example of community welfare activism is a very powerful one.

    I believe, however, that it needs to be decoupled from any emphasis on security and policing. For all the good they have done, the Black Panthers have been a militant, racist organisation, and not a model that I would be keen to see emulated in British communities when it comes to fighting crime (rather than the causes of crime). For all the problems that plague the British police force, it is, at least in principle, democratically accountable in a way that an organisation like the Black Panthers has never been. It is a fine line between “community policing” and vigilantism.

  11. Max Shields said on May 24th, 2009 at 3:55pm #

    I think there was a time and a place for the kind of activism represented by the Black Panther Party. Anything vaguely resembling their impact is more coopt than anything else.

    Lessons are always available but some lessons are not meant to be emulated. And when it is an attempt to “stand up” to the power structure, be assured the power structure is well of aware of that history and has adapted to those “lessons”.

    I never thought of the Panthers as racist. They acknowledged systemic racism and saw that system as the primary problem, not simply white faces. Nevertheless, the racial legacy in the US is just too complex, ideosyncratic and therefore daunting to begin to deal it as a lesson.

  12. Eric said on May 26th, 2009 at 11:20am #


    Excellent article. I could not have said it better myself.

    In my view one reason that the Left does not grow in this country is because the Left does not show enough concern for problems here in the US; and because the Left does not address the desire of people to be protected.

    The Left cannot leave crime, national defense and immigration as issues that only the right wing addresses. The Left simply cannot say no defense spending, no police and open borders with amnesty for all. To critique amnesty; be in favor of a defense posture that makes sense, or the desire for safe streets does not make one a racist or a conseravtive.

    One observation I have about the success of the Black Panther Party is that it did not tie itself to any of the major political parties.

    I think it is a huge mistake for labor,civil rights groups, the Left and the peace movement to be tied to any political party. By remaining indepentent the above groups can focus on serving the needs of their core constituancies.


  13. Left Luggage said on May 26th, 2009 at 3:23pm #

    Thanks for the many insightful comments on this article. I thought just a few responses might be appropriate.

    1) Regarding the question of imperialism raised by Garrett, I would not deny that questions of foreign and domestic policy are intimately linked. And, yes, a strong progressive movement that is deeply entrenched in society should be addressing both aspects. In this scenario, such a movement might even be able to achieve substantial amounts. However, we are not in such a situation, unfortunately. Both in the UK and the US, the Left and left-wing ideas are marginalized and we are very much on the defensive; we need urgently to begin to rebuild. Focussing our energies on questions of imperialism (as the Left overwhelmingly does) in such circumstances does not seem a sensible strategy for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it does not address the immediate needs of ordinary people who we seek to reach and influence and work with, and so perpetuates the distance between the small numbers of dedicated activists and the rest of the population. This gulf needs to be bridged if the Left is to regain any influence. Our current strategies have gotten us nowehere (witness the combined economic and political crisis in the UK at present, and no significant of challenge from the Left whatsoever). The international movements feted by much of the Left – when in a defensive posture – have pursued strategies focussed on community organising and it is through such strategies that they have achieved levels of success.

    2) Philosophically speaking, it’s correct to identify socialism as arising out of modernist thinking. But I can see scant evidence for the idea that we are in a “post-modern” world, as suggested Max Shields, unless we believe the inpenetrable ramblings of obscure French philosophes. His kind of human-centred approach that emphasises psychological change (if I read him correctly) is appealing to a degree but seems not to realise that if human psychology is shaped by our social setting, we are unable simply to change the former in the abstract. On the contrary, with changing our social setting – even through small acts such as taking industrial action, or engaging in cooperative community work – our psychology, the way we perceive what is commonsense, what is possible, and our approach to others, changes. I agree on the necessity of this, but it is through action not abstraction, that it can be achieved. And in my experience it does so remarkably quickly.

    3) The odds for human survival may indeed be bleak, as Don Hawkins says. But I would argue it is sometimes foolish to put this at the top of our list of issues. To the extent that we believe we can create a better world, we need to reach people and to increase support for progressive ideas. I feel we need to articulate this in a positive way. If someone is holding down a couple of jobs, is in a community plagued by crime and does not have healthcare (only applicable in the US), or good community facilities for their children to use, is telling them “we’re all doomed” the best way to encourage them to become active in Left politics? Far better, I would suggest, to get them involved in campaigns around their low wages, or for healthcare or community facilities. If this was replicated by all Left activists, we could one day have a movement that is in a position to enact the kind of deep social change necessary to tackle climate change.

    4) Regarding the Black Panthers, I would not endorse every aspect of their strategy and certainly it is not applicable in London today (or the US, probably). But some fundamentals are worth taking note of. The level of success the BPP achieved was largely due to its community organising, not its symbolism or black nationalism, something that can be readily replicated today shod of the less helpful parts of the Panthers’ programme and message.

  14. Max Shields said on May 26th, 2009 at 6:18pm #

    Left Luggage

    Thanks for your responses to the various “responses”.

    As far as post-modern (one way to put it) I don’t think we are in a post-modernist world. Real change, not simply the material change that emerges through technology, generally, doesn’t happen with a clean switch. What’s happening right this second is change we’ll only reflect on later.

    The dominant narrative is clearly modernist/industrialist. Our schools and our culture as a whole is very much a continuation of post-WWII. But even what came out of WWII had its seeds in preceeding eras. As a metaphor: The interstate highway system did not happen before automobiles. But once that infrastructure was in place it took the auto to places and in ways never before considered.

    If you want to catch a glimpse of change don’t look directly at what’s in front of you, but check it out peripherally. It’s happening, but it’s the wave behind what’s in front of your eyes.

    So, yea, what’s clear is what has been there, more or less, over the past 60+ years, but there is a certain kind of change just over the horizon; and it is made possible through action, you are correct, but it doesn’t happen just by pounding away at what is and demanding it to change. Not all action is qualitatively equal.

  15. Deadbeat said on May 27th, 2009 at 3:36am #

    Max Sheilds distorts socialism as he tries to obtusely construct a “third way” that even he himself has not concretely presented. I refer Max Shields to John Bellamy Foster and his book Marx’s Ecology.

    The propaganda promoted by Max Shields is that Marxism is rigid or *gasp* ossified. Clearly there are and have been great thinkers in the Marxist tradition that has added to Marxist ideas.

    Here is a some of the remarks about Marx’s Ecology…

    “In Marx’s Ecology, John Bellamy Foster brilliantly expands our understanding of Marx’s thought, proving that Marx understood alienation to encompass human estrangement from the natural world. Foster criticizes the current version of environmentalism that equates Marxism and modernity with the degradation of nature and points towards a sophisticated and less nostalgic environmentalism which sees capitalism, not modernity, as the essential problem to be addressed.” — BARBARA EPSTEIN, University of California, Santa Cruz

    More about the book…

    Progress requires the conquest of nature. Or does it? This new account overturns conventional interpretations of Marx and in the process outlines a more rational approach to the current environmental crisis.

    Marx, it is often assumed, cared only about industrial growth and the development of economic forces. John Bellamy Foster examines Marx’s neglected writings on capitalist agriculture and soil ecology, philosophical naturalism, and evolutionary theory. He shows that Marx, known as a powerful critic of capitalist society, was also deeply concerned with the changing human relationship to nature.

    Marx’s Ecology covers many other thinkers, including Epicurus, Charles Darwin, Thomas Malthus, Ludwig Feuerbach, P. J. Proudhon, and William Paley.

    By reconstructing a materialist conception of nature and society, Marx’s Ecology challenges the spiritualism prevalent in the modern Green movement, pointing toward a method that offers more lasting and sustainable solutions to the ecological crisis.

    It is a real shame that Max Shields “AGENDA” is to obscure the real
    power that Socialism by disparaging the ideology as merely a flipside of Capitalism. There is a lot more to Socialism and Marxism in particular than portrayed by Max Shields. A good place to start is Monthly Review. Recall that in the very first issue of Monthly Review ALBERT EINSTEIN’S article “Why Socialism” was published.

    Yes that right Albert Einstein was proudly part of the Socialist tradition and there are many others who clearly understand its importance.

  16. Max Shields said on May 27th, 2009 at 6:22am #

    Deadbeat, you keep trying to spin my positions as if they are anti-socialism. They’re not nor have they ever been.

    You can disagree with what I’m saying, but I think it gets us no where to keep harping on what Marx said – most of which was dense and frequently contradictory. He hit on some brilliant points in his critique of capitalism.

    The idea of an egalitarian, communal society is one I think is worthy of working for. But Marx has no patent on that and frankly his works have been so frequently used to justify some of the worst examples of human invention that they’ve outlived their usefullness.

    That Einstein saw merit in such an existence of egalitarianism is great. Einstein was of a time and place and such a position with regard to framing it as Marxist/Socialism made sense as an alternative to Capitalism. However the juice from that blueprint is dried up.

    We can forge a sustainable existence without referencing Marx other than as a historical curiosity. That there are convergences, great…give him his due…but let’s move on.