As convention would have it, the Black Panther Party (BPP) – founded in October 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale – ceased to exist in 1982.1 Not so.
Although the last of its major community service programs and newspaper, The Black Panther, closed down in 1982, the Party’s politics, goals, and identity have lived on in the hearts and work of many.
The BPP was a mass-based Party, whose membership and work was rooted within the downtrodden, poor, and oppressed New Afrikan / Black communities. It also developed prison chapters across Amerika, with the first one founded in California by George Jackson.
Although it maintained a highly visible leadership from 1966-1982 in the personages of Huey, Bobby, Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver, Fred Hampton, Sr., Elaine Brown, David Hilliard and others, its body was composed of a broad base of lesser-recognized everyday urban people. And that body never died. Nor have its struggles to serve the people in our ongoing collective need for a revolutionary leadership and movement for fundamental change.
Even as I’ve been bounced around the country between prison systems and from prison to prison from 2012 to 2014, I’ve met numerous comrades who identify as BPP members, who still know and adhere to the BPP’s original Ten Point Program and Platform, and who apparently never got the memo that the BPP is supposed to be dead – obviously because it isn’t. Rather the Party has lived on in them and in the various programs and initiatives they have continued to carry on as Panthers within the prisons, including teaching prisoners literacy and their legal rights, instructing them in self defense and physical fitness, defending them against racist violence, passing on Panther history, helping them obtain basic necessities, and so on.
In the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), where I was confined from February 2012 through June 2013, I met several elder comrades who identified as BPP members, and who passed on their teachings to younger comrades.
In the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), where I’ve remained since June 2013, I’ve encountered comrades at each TDCJ prison I’ve been to who identify as BPP Prison Chapter members. As I’ve politicked with this body of comrades, I’ve found there are members all over the TDCJ, and there exists a rich history of ongoing political struggle and work by these cadre within TDCJ, continuing from and dating back to the early 1970s.
There is also a TDCJ prison organization known as the Mandingo Warriors (MW) formed in the early 1980s that have a formal alliance with the BPP comrades. MW formed to defend New Afrikan / Black prisoners against a surge of violent attacks and stabbings by white supremacist groups at the behest of TDCJ officials in the wake of Texas federal courts banning the TDCJ’s use of violent inmate guards in the early 1980s (known as Building Tenders [BT]), to run the prisons for officials.
BT’s were inmates armed by TDCJ officials with street knives, bats, pipes, etc. and allowed through violence, extortion, and rape to terrorize and thereby ‘control’ the prisoner population for officials.2 In some cases BTs had more power than rank and file guards. TDCJ officials resisted the federal orders to eliminate BTs, and in efforts to bolster their arguments that the BTs were ‘needed’ to control the prisons, officials incited and manipulated outbreaks of prisoner-on-prisoner violence including racial violence against Blacks, this prompting the founding of MW as a Black self-defence group.
In the mid-1980s MW merged with another group that had been influenced by Panther comrades.
A number of the Oregon and Texas BPP Prison Chapter comrades have merged with the New Afrikan Black Panther Party-Prison Chapter, as have various others who’ve identified as BPP cadre in other prisons across the Empire since we were founded in 2005. Indeed several of these comrades preside on our leading bodies, including Comrade Bobby Dixon, our Minister of Justice.
Although the BPP didn’t die, it did go into decline as a result of intense government repression (under its secret war code-named COINTELPRO), unresolved internal contradictions, its lack of a consistently revolutionary ideological and political line and decision-making process, and decline in the 1960s-1970s mass upsurge.
Actually, many parallels exist between the BPP’s decline and that of the Russian Bolsheviks which occurred as a result of intense repression by the Czarist government and secret police, line struggle and internal contradictions within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), and the attendant ebb in mass upsurge in pre-revolutionary Russia.
Additionally, a key factor that engendered the decline of both Parties was a decisive split between internal factions that represented different class tendencies within these respective Parties. But whereas V.I. Lenin was able to wage a struggle to maintain a correct line upon which to lead the Russian revolution to success under the leadership of his Bolshevik faction, the BPP failed to provide such a leader of Lenin’s caliber to wage this internal line struggle. Consequently the decline of the BPP and official containment of the potentially insurgent oppressed masses in Amerika has lasted several decades – far longer than the Russian experience.
An examination of this history and its parallels is illuminating and instructive to our work today. In addition to the fact that we’ve consistently found active BPP prison cadre, this comparative examination has led us to change our previous acceptance of conventional claims that the BPP has not existed since 1982.
The Bolsheviks: Birth, Decline, Revival
In Russia Lenin was the first to meet the previously unresolved challenge of developing an organizational structure, line, and program that could successfully unite, organize, and lead the working class (proletariat) and other exploited and oppressed sectors in struggle to overthrow an oppressive political-economic system, and seize and exercise power themselves. This he did in the thick of bitter struggle against various opponents including the Czarist government.
He began his work within the RSDLP (founded in 1898) wherein he developed his revolutionary program and flexible organizational concepts and tactics. Within the RSDLP Lenin and his comrades ended up splitting with his opponents into Bolshevik (majority) and Menshevik (minority) factions. Leading the Bolsheviks, Lenin struggled to organize the RSDLP around a consistently working class based revolutionary line as against the reformist and opportunist liberal bourgeois lines of the Mensheviks.
During this period (1900-1904) the membership of the RSDLP consisted primarily of petty bourgeois (middle class) intellectuals. Only a small number of its members were from the working class and poor. The Party also had very weak ties to the working class masses whom it proposed to give leadership to.
As Lenin struggled to deepen the Party’s working class roots, in 1905 the Russian masses rose up in a mass upsurge against the Czarist regime, which caught both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks off guard. But, caught up in the high tide of revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses, the factions moved toward reconciliation and together deepened their roots within the working masses.
It wasn’t long, however, before the Czar’s repressive forces moved in to crush the revolt and violently suppress the political and workers organizations found to be endorsing and leading it. These organizations including the RSDLP were outlawed and driven underground.
This backlash brought the internal contradictions within the RSDLP to a head again, as the factions disagreed on responses to the repression. The Mensheviks sought to pursue lines consistent with the interests of the capitalists to compromise with the Czar, and even to liquidate the Party altogether. The Bolsheviks, however, pursued the interests of the workers in alliance with other oppressed sectors as against the capitalists and Czar, and maintained the essential need of a revolutionary Party to carry the struggle forward to success.
Under the Czar’s backlash the RSDLP’s membership dissolved and all but disappeared. The Party was claimed to be dead. Lenin, however, held fast to the revolutionary line, rejected claims that the Party was dead, and bitterly criticized those who’d abandoned the Party and retreated into ‘personal’ lives, or the academy as writers or educators, or other careers, etc. As one of Lenin’s contemporaries recalled of him:
“It pained him to see how in the post-1905 era the ranks of the professional revolutionaries began to thin rapidly, especially among the Mensheviks. Everyone was preoccupied with his own affairs, he recalled; revolutionaries were talking about such things as planning marriage and a family, about getting out of the revolutionary movement – temporarily, they claimed – in order to finish school or find a job. Even among the more educated and intelligent workers, precisely those who were the most needed in the movement, there was a tendency to desert the ranks of the proletariat, to take up teaching or some other white-collar job in order to achieve a more promising personal career and life. The intellectuals within the party, too, often turned to more lucrative types of writing and other intellectual pursuits not directly related to the revolutionary movement.”3
“The flight of some people from the underground could have been the result of their fatigue and dispiritedness. Such individuals may only be pitied: they should be helped because their dispiritedness will pass and there will again appear an urge to get away from philistinism, away from the liberals and the liberal-labor policy, to the working-class underground. But when the fatigued and dispirited use journalism as their platform and announce that their flight is not a manifestation of fatigue or weakness, or intellectual wooliness, but that it is to their credit and then put the blame on the “ineffective”, “worthless”, “moribund”, etc. underground, these runaways then become disgusting renegades, apostates. These runaways then become the worst advisors for the working-class movement and therefore its dangerous enemies.”4
Lenin struggled against this tendency to ‘liquidate’ the Party and for a flexible application of both above-ground and under-ground tactics as circumstances required and allowed.
“Our immediate task is to preserve and consolidate the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. The very fulfillment of this great task involves one extremely important element: the combating of both varieties of liquidationism – liquidationism on the right and liquidationism on the left. The liquidators on the right saw that no illegal RSDLP is needed, that the Social-Democratic activities should be centered exclusively on legal opportunities. The liquidators on the left go to the other extreme: legal avenues of Party work do not exist for them, illegality at any price is their “be all and end all.” Both in approximately equal degree are liquidators of the of the RSDLP, for without methodical judicious combination of legal and illegal work in the present situation that history has imposed on us, the “preservation and consolidation of the RSDLP” is inconceivable… The Bolshevik section as a definite ideological trend in the Party must exist as before. But one thing must be borne firmly in mind: the responsibility of ‘preserving and consolidating’ the RSDLP… now rests primarily, if not entirely, on the Bolshevik section.”5
In this vein Lenin and his comrades completely split from the Mensheviks and established the Bolsheviks as an independent Party in 1912 and rooted themselves within the workers’ movement. This followed his refusal to embrace the Menshevik “liquidationist” position which denounced the Party – because repressed and outlawed by the Czarist state – and declared it dead.
“It was precisely after the Plenum Meeting of 1910 that the… chief publications of the liquidators, Nasha Zarya and Dyelo Zhizni, definitively turned to liquidationism all along the line, not only ‘belittling the importance of the illegal Party’, but openly renouncing it, declaring that the Party was ‘extinct’, and that the Party was already liquidated, that the idea of reviving the illegal Party was a ‘reactionary utopia’, using the columns of legally published magazines to heap slander and abuse on the illegal Party, calling upon the workers to regard the nuclei of the Party and its hierarchy as ‘dead’, etc.”6
Under Lenin’s leadership the revolutionary Party was revived with a broad working-class leadership and base. It went on to lead a successful overthrow of the Czar, to defeat the liberal capitalists’ subversive schemes, and to seize power for Russia’s workers and peasants, establishing the world’s first socialist state.
BPP: Birth and Decline
Similarly the BPP was founded in the thick of a rising popular struggle of urban New Afrikan / Blacks against their oppressed and colonized conditions. Huey, sensitive to the interests and unmet needs of the New Afrikan masses, initially proved a capable organizational and tactical leader. His political line and practice were initially influenced by Marxist-Leninist-Maoist (MLM) theory.
Through Serve the People (STP) community service programs and its newspaper, the BPP was able to inspire the imagination of poor and working class urban people, teaching them that they could and how to collectively defend their communities against police terror, meet their own basic needs, and become organized into a united force that could break free of their oppressed condition at the bottom of society and beneath the bootheel of imperialism
But the Establishment quickly recognized and responded with repression against the mass upsurge, and the revolutionary challenge and danger of the Party’s leadership. In fact the FBI declared that, “ the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”7 They especially feared that the Panthers’ infectious leadership example was being followed by groups also developing among poor whites, Asians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Natives, and other oppressed sectors (and even in other countries), and these groups were moving toward uniting their people into a common struggle under BPP leadership against the overall US-based imperialist system.
However, just as had occurred with the RSDLP, the government’s backlash brought internal contradictions within the BPP to head, and the Party split into factions – one led by Huey Newton and the other by Eldridge Cleaver.
What the Panthers lacked, however, was a theoretical leader like Lenin who was rooted in and able to wage the decisive struggle to keep a genuinely revolutionary proletarian line in command of its ideology and work. Therefore, this split saw both factions follow the same flawed “liquidationist” lines that Lenin had struggled against – namely one of rightist reformism and legalism (Huey’s faction) and the other of ultraleft militarism (Cleaver’s faction).
Despite losing its revolutionary edge, the BPP’s work as a community service mass organization continued, because its rank and file membership consisted largely of the working class and poor people who lived in the oppressed communities where its programs were based and sorely needed.
When finally its last community-based STP program and newspaper went under in 1982, many declared the Party dead, rejecting efforts to revive it as wasted energy and mere nostalgia for a movement and organization whose time had passed. Many under the influence of this modern liquidationist line that met with no decisive ideological resistance, rejected the role and need of a revolutionary Party altogether.
The NABPP-PC now rises to the occasion of combating this trend, contending that the BPP is not dead nor is its needed role as a genuinely revolutionary mass based vanguard. And we firmly root our political and ideological lines in the revolutionary science of MLM, which is Dialectical and Historical Materialism as applied to the struggle against 21st century capitalist-imperialism. While conditions have changed, fundamental principles have not.
And just as occurred in Lenin’s day, official repression has led to many fleeing the struggle, retreating into ‘family’ life, the academy, careers in journalism, integrating into the system, and so on. Others still have turned to peddling their past BPP memberships and Party history for personal profit and to achieve celebrity statuses; exposing themselves as capitalist renegades, opportunists, and traitors of the revolutionary cause to which many of our best committed and gave up their lives. But pockets of Panther cadre and those still “ready for revolution” have kept up good work.
Still, the Party went into decline and has remained so for several decades.
But as former Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal observed, the BPP made a deep and lasting impact on the consciousness of the people, and – despite its decline – many have emulated the Party, even if only in name, so that many Panther formations have since emerged.8 Meanwhile, as already noted, a rank and file BPP membership within the Empire’s prisons has continued in the Party’s work and ideals despite standard claims that the Party, and by extension they, are no more.
Reviving the Party
At present NABPP-PC comrades and allies are leading a United Panther Study Group (UPSG) which aims to bring together today’s various Panther formations, allies, and BPP alumni and members to impart the history and lessons of the BPP, and correct ideological and political lines with which to revive the revolutionary Panther vanguard and carry forward our ongoing struggle to success. We aim to rebuild the Panther movement and vanguard from the grassroots.
As Comrade Tom Big Warrior posted to the study group,
Rebuilding the Panther Movement from the grassroots up requires comrades in every oppressed community to take up the initiative to form collectives and imitate “Serve the People” (STP) survival programs, to create community newsletters and organize campaigns against police murder and oppression in the communities. Before we can come together nationally and internationally, we must build our movement locally and sink roots among the people in the oppressed communities of every ethnic composition. Pantherism is applied revolutionary science to the concrete conditions of declining capitalist-imperialism in the 21st century.
We must think in threes, not just ones and twos. Not just the alliance of workers and peasants, but of the great surplus army of the unemployed proletarians, the marginalized poor, the street people and shantytown people, the people in the projects and living in abandoned buildings and houses, the prison slaves and brothers and sisters on the block. It is a reality that declining capitalism cannot profitably exploit a majority of the people needing to work to survive and that the majority of this excluded and oppressed section of the people are people of color., though the number of poor whites in this underclass is growing as the downward spiral of capitalism-imperialism continues.
We must think in threes in terms of Black Panthers, Brown Panthers, and White Panthers in organizing all poor and oppressed people in our communities and building revolutionary class consciousness and a worldwide United Front Against Capitalist-Imperialism, Racism, and Repression!”
In this post-industrial era the Panther exists as a servant and organization of the vast numbers of urban and marginalized poor and imprisoned, who number in the billions. The vast majority of New Afrikans / Blacks in the US live in urban areas. The vast body of oppressed peoples exist largely outside the system of production and contain large numbers of lumpen proletarians or are influenced by lumpen culture and infused with lumpen values.
This is a new world social dynamic and one that must be turned to the favor of winning proletarian power the world over. Because if we don’t win these elements over to the cause of world revolution, they will, as Lenin, Mao Tse-Tung, Frantz Fanon and others recognized, be used by the imperialists against the revolution. This is the necessity of building the Panther movement.
We must create a broad-based United Panther Movement (in alliance with revolutionary proletarian Parties (the RCP’s)), which includes forces in the communities based upon programmatic unity (“The Elephant”9 ), while at the same time pulling together a hard core of vanguard (“the Panther”) consisting of the most advanced elements that come forward.
When we have many consolidated collectives in various communities and regions, it will be possible to call together a founding Party congress on the outside, and based upon the principles of Democratic Centralism create a Party center and function as a genuine Vanguard Party.
We will find the cadre to build this Party from within the masses engaged in mass struggle. Among examples today are the Black Riders Liberation Party, Panther Liberation Organization and others. There are also Panther formations in other countries such as Sweden.
As Fred Hampton once said, the struggle continues so long as the people’s beat goes on; a beat that won’t stop until we’ve buried this imperialist system once and for all and ended all oppression. Until then, even though mortally wounded time and again, the people will breathe new life into their Panther, which itself symbolizes the many lives of their struggle to be free until victory is won!
Dare to struggle, Dare to Win!
All Power to the People!
- Various writers on BPP history put forward the position that the closing down of the last of the Panthers’ community service programs and its newspaper in 1982 marked the end of the Party. See, e.g., Joshua Bloom, et al., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2013), p.3; Charles E. Jones, ed., The Black Panther Party: Reconsidered (Baltimore, Md.: Black Classic Press, 1998), p.10.; Mumia Abu-Jamal, We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party (Boston, Ma.:) South End Press, 2004), pp. 232-33); etc. [↩]
- For the lengthy federal decision discussing the TDCJ’s use of BT’s see Ruiz v. Estelle, 503 F. Supp. 1265 (S.D. Tex. 1980) . [↩]
- K.D. Kristof Ladis, “B.I. Nicolaevky: The Formative Years,” in Alexander and Janet Rabinowitch, et al., eds. Revolution and Politics in Russia: Essays in Memory of B.I. Nicolaevky (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1971), pp.125, 126. [↩]
- V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 19. (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1960-1970), p.398. [↩]
- V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 15., pp.432-33. [↩]
- Tony Cliff, Lenin. Volume 1: Building the Party (London: Pluto Press, 1975). [↩]
- Newsweek, February 1969. [↩]
- Mumia Abu Jamal, We Want Freedom, pp.229-245. [↩]
- For an elaboration on “the Elephant” as our mass form of organization, see Kevin ‘Rashid’ Johnson, “The Panther and the Elephant” (2005), http://rashidmod.com/?p=457. [↩]