By surrendering my life to the revolution, I found eternal life. Revolutionary Suicide.1
Revolutionary Suicide, the autobiography of Huey P Newton, is a fitting testament to the Black Panther Party for Self Defence, the revolutionary black nationalist organisation founded by Newton and Bobby Seale, which rocked America in the late 1960s. The title refers to the burning commitment with which the Black Panthers fought back against the police harassment and the oppression which dominated the lives of black people in America's ghettos. Newton developed the concept of revolutionary suicide after studying French sociologist Emile Durkheim's text Suicide which argues that social rather than personal factors are the principal cause of suicidal behaviour. This struck a chord with a young black man living at a time when suicides among his contemporaries had doubled. In addition Newton observed amongst blacks a hopelessness, demoralisation and apparent acceptance of their oppression which he termed 'reactionary suicide'.
By contrast, the Black Panthers were determined to resist, whilst remaining acutely aware of the consequences of challenging the police, racism and the American state. Hence, their strategy was both revolutionary and suicidal. However, as Newton eloquently points out:
The concept of revolutionary suicide is not defeatist or fatalistic. On the contrary, it conveys an awareness of reality in combination with the possibility of hope - reality because the revolutionary must always be prepared to face death, and hope because it symbolises a resolute determination to bring about change.2
Newton's revolutionary commitment was forged by a childhood and youth during which the pervasiveness of racism was burned into his consciousness. Born the youngest of seven children in Monroe, Louisiana, in 1942, he records that one of his earliest childhood memories was of black families so poor that they could not afford store bought toys for the children. Instead, the playthings for Newton and his friends were symbolic of their poverty: dirt, rats and stray cats.
Newton, like other black children, went to school believing that it would provide the passport to fulfilment of the American dream. Instead, what they found was that the few references to black people were in books such as Little Black Sambo, which reinforced feelings of humiliation and inferiority. Consequently, Newton could summon little enthusiasm for formal education and soon found himself having countless confrontations with teachers. He was suspended from school on numerous occasions and found himself out on the streets where he drifted into petty crime, burglary and pimping. Extraordinary though this may seem, Newton's formative years were by no means exceptional. The biographies of other activists - Malcolm X, Bobby Seale and George Jackson - bear witness to the fact that institutionalised racism made this the common experience for generations of blacks.
However, two interlinked factors did make this particular group stand out. Firstly, theirs was an experience rooted in the northern US cities where, in contrast to the southern states, blacks supposedly enjoyed the same equality before the law as whites. The everyday reality of racism, therefore, taught them that overcoming their oppression would require much more than the passage of civil rights laws. Newton remarks that:
There were enough laws on the books to permit black people to deal with all their problems, but the laws were not enforced. Therefore, trying to get more laws was only a meaningless diversion from the real issues.3
This clearly set them apart from the leaders of the civil rights movement, such as Martin Luther King, who pursued that particular goal in the hope that new legislation would put an end to discrimination and provide a springboard for black advancement.
The second significant point about these northern activists was that they acted upon their conclusions. They took inspiration from the civil rights movement, but recognised its shortcomings and began to develop a more militant strategy to carry the struggle into the north.
By the mid-1960s Malcolm X was beginning to seriously challenge King as the leading black anti-racist activist. He split from the conservative Nation of Islam, which denounced racism but did nothing to build the real struggles that were occurring in the streets. Instead, Malcolm predicted that those struggles would soon hit the north and he encouraged blacks to fight racism 'by any means necessary'.
Malcolm never lived to see the outcome of those struggles and the organisations he established were in their infancy when he was assassinated in March 1965. However, within months of his death, the very explosions he had foreseen shook many northern cities. Watts, in Los Angeles, witnessed the first of those rebellions, and over the next few years similar uprisings rocked Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Washington. It was out of these uprisings that the Black Panther Party was formed by Newton and Bobby Seale, a fellow student at Oakland City College in the bay of California in October 1966. Newton acknowledged that the party was born and existed 'out of the spirit Malcolm X' and that it was 'a living testament to his life work'.4
The party's name reflected the principal activity of the organisation. A panther is a defensive animal, but one which fights ferociously when it is attacked. Newton and Seale were inspired to set up the party to defend the black community from police harassment and brutality. This the Panthers did in the most spectacular manner, by asserting the constitutional right of blacks to bear arms and to monitor police activities. Hence, the party's full name was the Black Panther Party for Self Defence.
Melvin and Mario Van Peebles' 1995 film Panther brilliantly portrays how the party 'patrolled the pigs' as they termed it, driving the police at gunpoint out of the ghettos. Newton also records how the Panthers marched, guns at hand, into San Francisco airport to escort Malcolm X's widow Betty Shabazz and how, in similar fashion, they stormed into the state legislative building in Sacramento to protest against legislation aimed at banning their use of guns. It was this courage and combativity in the face of the authorities that was the central appeal of the Panthers for millions of black people.
The Panthers experienced spectacular growth in the first couple of years after their formation. By the summer of 1968 the party had recruited thousands of members, could claim to sell 100,000 copies of its newspaper and to have the support of 25 percent of the black population. Among the under-25s this figure rose to 43 percent. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) chief J Edgar Hoover certainly believed this, confessing as much to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Indeed, so frightened was the FBI, that they declared the Panthers 'Public Enemy Number One'.
It is not difficult to see why the Panthers proved so attractive to blacks. Slavery may have long since been abolished, but millions still shared the experience of police harassment, the petty racism, the contemptuous treatment they received in shops, schools, workplaces and on public transport. They were supposed to turn the other cheek, carefully ensuring that their eyes did not meet their oppressors.
However, Newton's book clearly shows that there was far more to the leaders of the Panthers than their extraordinary bravery. Newton and Bobby Seale were proud to call themselves socialists. Although Newton confessed that he was 'never convinced that destroying capitalism would automatically destroy racism...', he goes on to say that 'I felt, however, that we could not destroy racism without wiping out its economic foundation.'5 Indeed, it was their analysis of the need to confront and challenge the system which made the Panthers so critical of cultural nationalists who believed that oppression could be overcome by establishing a lifestyle based upon 'libations' and traditional African dress and behaviour.
In addition, the Panthers set out a ten point programme which was intended as a manifesto of the party's immediate objectives for the black community. They established a programme of practical activities in the ghettos. These included a free food programme for poor blacks, a sickle cell testing scheme and education for black children. Newton described these measures as a 'raft' which kept black people afloat whilst the ground was being prepared for the final struggle against racism and capitalism.
Consequently, the Panthers enjoyed a meteoric rise and influenced the consciousness of millions of people. Yet their history and success was short lived. The weakest point of the Van Peebles' otherwise excellent film is the notion that the FBI sponsored flood of drugs released into the ghettos was responsible for the sudden and rapid decline of the Panthers in the early 1970s. This is not to dismiss the debilitating effect that drugs have had upon the inner cities. Nor is it to deny the sheer ruthlessness with which the state hunted down, imprisoned and killed leading members of the organisation. However, the demise of the Panthers also flowed from weaknesses in their own strategy and politics. For example, their main thrust, the armed self defence of the ghettos, whilst courageous, could not ultimately contend with a much larger, more highly trained and more powerfully armed enemy, the US authorities. Patrolling the pigs could not possibly be anything other than defensive.
The leaders of the Panthers spent enormous amounts of time in prison, on trumped up charges, and vast amounts of time, energy and resources were ploughed into securing their release. Inevitably, this detracted from their ability to operate and to pursue community projects, not least because Newton and Seale were not able to meet and discuss things. Newton concedes that when he came out of prison in August 1970 'the party was in a shambles [because] Bobby and I had been off the streets and in jail for a long time, and it had been difficult to direct the party on a day-to-day basis from prison cells'.6
This might not have been such an obstacle to the Panthers had they seriously set out to develop a cadre that could encourage, recruit and educate the young blacks who looked to them for inspiration and leadership. Newton admits that the Panthers were slow to recognise the importance of educating their members and says that 'some of our leading comrades lacked the comprehensive ideology needed to analyse events and phenomena in a creative and dynamic way'.7 By the time they established an Ideological Institute to develop cadres, the Panthers' popularity was already on the wane.
More fundamentally, although they called themselves socialists, there was a basic flaw in the Panthers' analysis of racism and capitalism. The Panthers owed their greatest political debts to Franz Fanon, Che Guevara and Mao Zedong. It was the anti-colonial struggles in Algeria, Cuba and China with which these figures were respectively associated, that provided the main inspiration for the Panthers. Newton clearly drew very heavily from Fanon, Guevara and Mao's commitment to revolutionary violence:
Mao, Fanon and Guevara all saw clearly that the people had been stripped of their birthright and their dignity, not by any philosophy or mere words, but at gunpoint. They had suffered a hold up by gangsters, and rape; for them the only way to win freedom was to meet force with force. At bottom this was a form of self-defence. Although that defence might at times take on the characteristics of aggression, in the final analysis the people do not initiate; they simply respond to what has been inflicted upon them. People respect the expression of strength and dignity displayed by men who refuse to bow to the weapons of oppression. Though it may mean death, these men will fight, because death with dignity is preferable to ignominy.8
Newton's illusions in post-revolutionary China were immense. He dedicates one of the final chapters of Revolutionary Suicide to describing his feelings about the visit he made at the invitation of the Chinese government in 1971. He claimed to have achieved a 'psychological liberation' which made him feel 'at home in China'. He believed that the Chinese police and military were there to protect and serve rather than oppress people. At the end of his trip, he concluded:
Everything I saw in China demonstrated that the People's Republic is a free and liberated territory with a socialist government. The way is open for the people to gain their freedom and to determine their own destiny. It was an amazing experience to see a revolution that is going forward at such a rapid rate. To see a classless society in operation is unforgettable. Here, Marx's dictum - from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs - is in operation.9
The Panthers knew that they could not directly replicate the experiences of Algeria, Cuba and China. Nevertheless, they sought to adapt the ideas, principles and strategies of those struggles to their own situation. A key concept, clearly influenced by those struggles, was the Panthers' belief that blacks made up an oppressed internal colony within the United States. Consequently, the tenth and final point of their programme stated, 'We want...as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony in which only black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate for the purpose of determining the will of the black people as to their national identity.'10 The key fighting force that would be mobilised to challenge the authorities and push the UN into holding this plebiscite was to be the 'brothers on the block', the lumpen proletariat of young unemployed men from the ghettos.
There are a number of problems with this analysis and the strategies that flowed from it. In reality, the 'brothers on the block' lacked the necessary discipline and real power frequently found among organised workers. The leadership experienced severe difficulties in organising young men who, precisely because of racism, were often forced into petty crime in order to scrape a living. Ultimately, the Panthers were forced to expel hundreds of so called 'jackanapes' from the organisation.
The Panthers were also profoundly mistaken in their assessment of the United Nations. Any serious examination of the UN would reveal that the organisation was, at best, impotent in the face of the aggressive self serving foreign policies of the world's major powers. More often than not its dominant members - Britain, France, China, the USSR and the United States - simply ignored the UN or used it as a figleaf to cover their imperialist aims. One particular example from 1960 might have served as a warning to the Panthers. The American CIA was determined to discipline the government of the newly independent Congo, which they feared was under threat of Communist domination. The CIA therefore ensured that the nationalist leader, Patrice Lumumba was kidnapped and killed. This action was carried out by United Nations forces. It may be open to question how much of this was public knowledge at the time. However, given the centrality of the tenth point within the Panthers' programme, it is reasonable to suggest that they should have monitored the UN very carefully and that, had they done so, they would have soon discovered the deep hostility that they could expect to receive.11
Furthermore, the Panthers' characterisation of blacks as an internal colony within the United States was fundamentally wrong. It was certainly the case that there existed enormous segregation in respect of jobs and neighbourhoods. Nevertheless, blacks still made up a significant proportion of the United States working class. Most blacks held down a job for the majority of their working lives. With that came the interaction with other workers, both black and white, and the possibility of collective struggle at the point of production. Indeed, in the late 1960s, when the Panthers were at their zenith there were some 2.5 million black workers organised in trade unions across the United States.
The Panthers did give formal recognition to the need for collective working class action. They openly stated:
The Black Panther Party stands for revolutionary solidarity with all the people fighting against the forces of imperialism, capitalism, racism and fascism. Our solidarity is extended to those people who are fighting those evils at home and abroad ...we will not fight capitalism with black capitalism; we will not fight imperialism with black imperialism; we will not fight racism with black racism. Rather we take a stand against these evils with a solidarity derived from a proletarian internationalism born of socialist realism.12
They were also prepared to work with white organisations. For example, an alliance was formed with the anti-Vietnam War Progressive Freedom Party and they sought a united front with Communists against fascism, declaring: 'We want unity of action by the working class, so that the proletariat may grow strong in its struggle against the bourgeoisie, in order that while defending today its current interests against attacking capital, against fascism, the proletariat may be in a position tomorrow to create the preliminary conditions for its final emancipation.'13
However, the Panthers never fully grasped that the key division in society was that of social class and not race. Consequently, they never sought to build a permanent unity of the most powerful section of society, organised black and white workers. The potential to build such unity was certainly there. The campaigns to free Huey Newton and Bobby Seale from prison terms, and the funeral procession for George Jackson, an honorary Panther field marshal murdered in prison, showed that they enjoyed significant support amongst layers of the white population. More significantly, there were strikes in mixed workplaces such as the car plants of Detroit in 1968. These were precisely the kind of struggles in which socialists should intervene. Unfortunately, the Panthers never had an orientation towards the workplaces. Far from being encouraged to agitate on the shop floor, members were often pressed into giving up their jobs in order to become full time members and community activists.
There were black socialists in the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) that did attempt to build these struggles. DRUM spawned a number of groups which came together to form the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Based in the car plants, they were inspired by the Panthers, but went much further. They campaigned both against general grievances such as speed-ups and specific discrimination against blacks in terms of the allocation of skilled jobs and promotion. However, the League concentrated its efforts on organising only the black workers, often taking an extremely hostile position towards whites. They therefore repeated the Panthers' failure to tap the potential for black and white unity. Again, lack of political clarity was the major handicap. Nevertheless, the League with its focus on organised workers came closer than the Panthers to the classical Marxist tradition's stress on the centrality of working class struggle to the achievement of socialism.
The reprinting of Revolutionary Suicide and the release of the film Panther should help to stimulate a much needed debate about the Black Panther Party and its legacy. Nearly a quarter of a century after the demise of the Black Power movement, the social conditions that it fought against are still very much with us. Most vividly, the savage beating of black motorist Rodney Glen King, the initial acquittal of the police officers who administered that beating, and the murder trial of former football star O J Simpson in 1995 have exposed the depths of racism that still exist amongst the police. Further, there is enormous frustration and anger at the redistribution of wealth from poor to rich and the attacks on welfare and affirmative action that have dominated government policy over the last 15 years.
This anger has been met with repression which has led to a situation in which one third of all black men are caught within the criminal justice system. These men are either in prison, on parole or awaiting trial. It is a fact of life for black men that they can more readily expect to go to prison than to university. For those blacks who are able to escape prison, the unemployment rate at 14.1 percent is more than twice the 6.5 percent figure for whites, and the average annual income is 56 percent of that of white households. This grim picture raises the obvious question as to how so great a struggle in the 1960s led to so few positive gains.
It should first be acknowledged that the militancy of the Black Power movement did force major political and economic concessions out of the American ruling class. It was precisely these struggles which led to the introduction of affirmative action in employment, the opening up of colleges to black students and the introduction of black studies courses. It was the movement of the 1960s which created opportunities for blacks to enter the political arena and to establish new businesses. A sizeable number of blacks rode to positions of influence on the back of the Black Power movement. Notable among them was Clarence Thomas, the man George Bush appointed as an associate justice in the Supreme Court. Manning Marable observes:
A quarter of a century ago, as a college student in the late 1960s, Thomas proclaimed himself a devoted disciple of Malcolm X. Thomas wore the black beret of the Black Panther Party and signed his letters 'Power to the People'. He secured his position at Yale Law School due to its aggressive affirmative action program, which had set aside roughly 10 percent of all places in each class to racial minorities.14
Subsequently, Thomas's success has been based upon a complete rejection of the measures from which he benefited. Previously as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and now as a Supreme Court judge, he has consistently denounced and attacked affirmative action, welfare provision and the entire civil rights programme he once not only embraced, but believed was too conservative.
The case of Clarence Thomas is the most striking betrayal, but he is not alone. More broadly, Marable records that some 15 percent of black households have annual incomes in excess of $50,000 and that the black middle class has increased by 400 percent since the late 1960s. Further, there are now over 8,000 black elected officials as against 103 in 1964. Despite this, the predicament of the majority of blacks has worsened over the past generation. Having climbed the social ladder, those blacks who have prospered have been quick to snatch that ladder away to prevent others from joining them.15
There is an understandable anger at the social conditions in the ghettos coupled with an alienation from the 'role models' and political leaders who have betrayed working class blacks. It was that anger that erupted in the Los Angeles riot of 1992. But the alienation has created a vacuum in the leadership of the black liberation movement. One of the great ironies of the 1990s is that it is Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan who has been most successful in trying to fill this space. Farrakhan had denounced Malcolm X and his followers as 'worthy of death' after the latter's assassination. In sharp contrast to the Panthers, his sexist, anti-Semitic, pro-capitalist agenda is deeply reactionary. The great tragedy of the Black Power movement is that it was the courage and combativity of its followers who smashed down the barriers through which the renegades of today have stampeded. Overcoming these weaknesses of the Panthers is crucial if we are to prevent another generation in revolt from merely achieving the 'liberation' of a middle class elite.
The urgency of a renewed debate about the struggles of the 1960s is not restricted to the United States, and the lessons apply equally elsewhere. As 1995 drew to a close Brixton in south London, the capital of black Britain, was the scene of a small riot. The immediate catalyst for the protest was the death of a young black man in police custody, the second such death in the area in seven months. Underlying the discontent were a number of factors. Amongst black men aged under 24 the unemployment rate in London was some 62 percent.16 Huge cutbacks in council services meant there were few amenities for these youngsters. Most of the much touted money that was promised to these areas after previous disturbances never arrived. The little money that was spent was allocated to prestigious projects which looked impressive but created a mere handful of jobs and when completed provided facilities that few of the poor could afford to enjoy. Thus excluded, many youngsters are faced with the choice either to stay at home or roam the streets, where the Metropolitan Police's introduction of Operation Eagle Eye means they encounter constant harassment. Such conditions make further deaths in police custody an inevitability.
With repression, however, there also comes resistance. Within that resistance lies the potential to overthrow the oppression and exploitation that blights people's lives. A striking feature of the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and the Brixton protests in 1995 was that they were mixed rebellions of black and white people. This phenomenon was no accident: blacks have been the worst affected, but the working classes as a whole have suffered as a consequence of the cuts in jobs and attacks upon welfare and social provisions of the last 20 years. The most pressing requirement is an organisation that can take the energy and anger of those protests into every workplace and channel it into a united fight by black and white workers against the bosses who have divided and ruled us for so long. Such a movement will draw inspiration from groups such as the Black Panthers. Crucially, however, it will have the real power that, once and for all, can bury racism and the society that breeds it.
Thanks to Teresa Brennan and Liz Wheatley for their advice and assistance.
1 H P Newton, Revolutionary Suicide (New York, 1995), pix.
2 Ibid, p7.
3 Ibid, p106.
4 Ibid, p113.
5 Ibid, p70.
6 Ibid, p328.
7 Ibid, p298.
8 Ibid, p111-112.
9 Ibid, p326.
10 Ibid, p118.
11 For a fuller analysis of the history of the United Nations, see D Blackie, 'The United Nations and the Politics of Imperialism', International Socialism 63 (Summer, 1994).
12 Statement especially written by the national office of the Black Panther Party for The Guardian, February 1970, quoted in PS Foner (ed), The Black Panthers Speak (New York, 1995), p220.
13 From The Black Panther, 17 July 1969 quoted in PS Foner (ed), The Black Panthers Speak (New York, 1995),. p223. This declaration prefaced a conference sponsored by the Black Panther Party to establish a united front against fascism. The conference was attended by over 4,000 people from a number of different organisations. The Panthers tended to refer to the police and the entire US political system as 'fascist', a mistake which also retarded the possibility of building a united black and white party rather than temporary alliances.
14 M Marable, Beyond Black and White (London, 1995), p93.
15 Ibid. Chapter 17 contains a detailed analysis of the sharp social division that has occurred in black America.
16 This figure is taken from a three part study entitled, 'Black in Britain', printed by The Guardian newspaper (March 20-22, 1995) which drew attention to the continued pervasive effects of institutionalised racism in British society.