The release last week of the film “Judas and the Black Messiah” has sparked a renewed interest in the politics, theory, and ideology of the Black Panther Party. It’s essential that we have a firm grasp of the politics that defined this formation which, we can comfortably say, was the product of 400 years of Black liberation struggle in the United States and the vanguard, the most advanced grouping, of said struggle between the years 1967 and 1971.
As a Maoist in 2021 who’s spent a substantial amount of time studying the Panthers and reads all Panther material I can get my hands on, no, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was never what we can call a Maoist formation. First and foremost, Maoism as a new stage of revolutionary science had not yet been developed in full. The Black Panther Party was formed in 1966. The Cultural Revolution, which demonstrated to us the necessity of continuing the class struggle under socialism, combating the bourgeois line within the Party and society as a whole, and imposing the proletarian line in all aspects of things, was initiated in May of that year. The people’s wars in India and the Philippines were not initiated until 1967 and 1968, respectively. The Communist Party of Peru, which would initiate armed struggle in that country in 1980, had not been reconstituted, and within the United States there was a nascent anti-revisionist movement that was comprised mainly of a series of warring sects and former CPUSA cadre who left, disgusted by the galloping revisionism in that Party. So in the 1960s, “Maoism” meant a different thing than it does today. Essentially it meant a firm adherent to Mao Zedong Thought, which was essentially a stand-in for anti-revisionist Marxism-Leninism. If they were around today, with the same politics they had in the 1960s, they could not be correctly labeled “Maoists”. Maoism is the product of not just the Chinese experience (which was still ongoing) but also the preceding lessons learned from the 1917 revolution, the Paris Commune of 1871, and people’s wars currently ongoing/defeated. Maoism applied to the American experience is essentially this, plus the summation of the lessons learned from 500 years of armed and unarmed New Afrikan and Indigenous struggles against settler colonialism, slavery, and genocide, the failure of the CPUSA to meet revolutionary tasks of the 1920s and 1930s, the eventual capitulation of said party due to revisionism and chauvinism, the lessons learned by the attempts and failures to “unite the proletariat” throughout history, the New Communist/Anti-Revisionist Movement, and the struggles that are continuing to go on in which Maoists (‘principally’ or otherwise’) are involved. The Black Panther Party is part of this treasury of revolutionary struggle, but it’s unfair to call them, as a formation, “Maoists”, as they were more than that.
Secondly, the Black Panther Party was not the product of the multinational Communist movement of the time as it existed in the US. It started as an explicitly Black revolutionary nationalist formation, and remained all Black for the entirety of its existence. Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton were the children of Malcolm X, RAM, and Frantz Fanon, first and foremost. Huey’s engagement with the multinational Communist movement before forming the BPP amounted to attending a meeting of the Progressive Labor Party (an anti-revisionist formation that came out of a split in the CPUSA), which he derided as a bunch of dogmatic intellectual masturbation. So, they both got to studying. Huey and Bobby were the product of RAM (Revolutionary Action Movement, a Black nationalist formation which was heavily influenced by the thoughts of Marx, Lenin, and Mao), which he criticized for inaction. That being said, my personal opinion of RAM is that they were far more advanced than the sclerotic and newborn “anti-revisionist” movement at the time because they did mass work, including survival programs rooted in the needs of the community that the Panthers later became renowned for, formed groups called the Black Guards for self defense, engaged with Malcolm and Fanon, and linked up with the lowest and deepest Black masses unlike many “multinational Communist” formations to this very day. Huey and Bobby read Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Malcolm X’s autobiography, various revolutionary nationalist/socialist works such as SoulBook, and anything else which had to do with revolution. They also went out among the people and did Social Investigation and Class Analysis (SICA) which resulted in the formation of the 10 Point Program, which was the guiding document which all Panther cadre and branches were expected to uphold.
During the existence of the BPP, there were a variety of lines that came into play in the Party. There was, as Rashid mentioned, a lack of real democratic centralism, which is a requirement for all Communist Parties. Democratic centralism is, essentially, summed up by the principle “unity of action, freedom of discussion within the Party”. What this means is that a Party’s line is determined through struggle inside the Party, open and free debate among all Party chapters and branches. There is then a vote, and the decision of the majority is upheld as the Party’s line. Those who disagree are not allowed to do so in public, organize factions, or agitate against the line, at risk of discipline up to expulsion. Of course, many formations in the US have made a monstrous and cultist hash of DC, only invoking it when they’re criticized internally, but that’s essentially a rough description of the process. The BPP had no real solid Communist internal life or DC. This internal weakness helped lead to the FBI/COINTELPRO promoted inter-Panther violence and squabbling in the 1970s. If somebody sends somebody else a letter denouncing you, supposedly from within the Party, the correct path would be to turn this correspondence over to the Party’s chairperson or committee empowered to handle such things so that this person can be disciplined for stirring up shit. What instead happened is that there were physical retaliations and a variety of other unprincipled things which eventually worked their way into a split. A Maoist party, on the other hand, practices democratic centralism and maintains its unity through this process.
What of the ideology? It was an eclectic one. Party cadres studied Mao’s work (usually the Little Red Book, which is comprised of excerpts), but also studied a variety of other things, some of which would be anathema to modern day Maoism and even MZT. For example, the BPP studied Cuba in depth (many cadre would flee there), despite their alignment with the Soviets during the Sino-Soviet struggle. The armed formations that came from this party, most notably the BLA, didn’t apply a People’s War model but instead sought to recreate the focoísmo/urban guerilla model which is in contradiction with the express call by Mao to conquer and develop base areas from which the People’s War can be waged. The armed actions of the ’70s were hit and run attacks on cop cars (and cops themselves) and expropriations from banks to fund the survival needs of the formation, similar to the RAF in Europe. In terms of how many Black people supported these actions, it depends on class. We also have to consider how substantial chunks of the movement were demobilized by the end of the Vietnam War and how many Black revolutionaries/progressives were co-opted during this decade, went to prison, got killed, or changed their politics completely. In the Ideology of the Black Panther Party, Eldridge Cleaver (again, a thoroughly disgusting individual but he was one of the Party’s main theoreticians during his time there) makes a number of assertions that were anathema to the multinational Marxist left, then and now — calling the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat the “right and left wings” of the working class, for example. The Party as a whole was highly critical of dogmatism, or what they’d call “ideological flunkyism” and took inspiration from a variety of sources.
The Party also placed primary stress on organizing the lumpen/proletariat, which Sakai correctly points out means “broken/proletariat” in the dangerous class/mao z’s revolutionary laboratory— essentially the castoffs and broken, the unemployables, the hustlers, the people who hung around in poolrooms. The Party was always, first and foremost, a lumpen/proletarian party. This was influenced directly by Fanon, who said that the lumpen must be organized around revolutionary work and not through words, because the lumpen (and Black people in general) are a people of action. Eldridge Cleaver points out below how the Party considered the lumpen the vanguard of the proletariat and also rejects those who criticize this line as racists and arrogantly stupid. There is also a call to rectify the American Marxist habit of refusing to look at our concrete conditions and struggle in this country, instead preferring to serve as cheerleaders for foreign revolutions while doing nothing to bring revolution to American shores. He also mentions that, historically, Marxism-Leninism has historically been only applied to the concrete conditions and problems of the European proletariat, with the colonies and lumpen being ignored/treated as expendable at best (directly contradicting the demands placed on Communists by Lenin in reference to colonial organizing, I might add).
So, they called themselves Marxist-Leninists because they accepted the scientific principles of Marxism-Leninism as worked out by Marx, Engels, and Lenin, much like we accept what is correct from Newton’s theories and research, but also rejected the ossification and fetishization of these theorists by the settler-chauvinist Left. Of particular interest is Cleaver’s highlighting of the fact that while workers could form unions and collectively bargain for higher wages and other concessions, wielding power due to their integral place in production, lumpen do not have this power and thus must struggle in the streets, not on the shop floor. This meshes with Huey’s assertion in Intercommunalism:
In this country the Black Panther Party, taking careful note of the dialectical method, taking careful note of the social trends and the ever‐changing nature of things, sees that while the lumpen proletarians are the minority and the proletarians are the majority, technology is developing at such a rapid rate that automation will progress to cybernation, and cybernation probably to technocracy. As I came into town I saw MIT over the way. If the ruling circle remains in power it seems to me that capitalists will continue to develop their technological machinery because they are not interested in the people. Therefore, I expect from them the logic that they have always followed: to make as much money as possible, and pay the people as little as possible ‐ until the people demand more, and finally demand their heads. If revolution does not occur almost immediately, and I say almost immediately because technology is making leaps (it made a leap all the way to the moon), and if the ruling circle remains in power the proletarian working class will definitely be on the decline because they will be unemployables and therefore swell the ranks of the lumpens, who are the present unemployables. Every worker is in jeopardy because of the ruling circle, which is why we say that the lumpen proletarians have the potential for revolution, will probably carry out the revolution, and in the near future will be the popular majority. Of course, I would not like to see more of my people unemployed or become unemployables, but being objective, because we’re dialectical materialists, we must acknowledge the facts.
Huey’s assertion that the lumpen will eventually replace the proletariat as the class which contributes the main force of the revolution (similar to the peasants in China) seems to be coming to pass. The great factories of yesteryear are shuttered and rotting, and the grandchildren of the workers who surged North in their millions now work at McDonalds and slang shit on the side. There are entire strata of people in my city who make their living by going through the alleys picking up refrigerators, washers and dryers, and other things of that nature to take to the scrapyard. That’s not even getting into the growing number of OnlyFans sex workers, or sex workers in general (sugar babies, etc.) who have to engage in these things to feed themselves.
Huey’s intercommunalism also argued against the continued existence of nations, which would give flag twitter an aneurysm if they actually read anything besides…well, Twitter. He says:
Now, I will give you roughly some characteristics that any people who call themselves a nation should have. These are economic independence, cultural determination, control of the political institutions, territorial integrity, and safety. In 1966 we called our Party a Black Nationalist Party. We called ourselves Black Nationalists because we thought that nationhood was the answer. Shortly after that we decided that what was really needed was revolutionary nationalism, that is, nationalism plus socialism. After analyzing conditions a little more, we found that it was impractical and even contradictory. Therefore, we went to a higher level of consciousness. We saw that in order to be free we had to crush the ruling circle and therefore we had to unite with the peoples of the world. So we called ourselves Internationalists.
We sought solidarity with the peoples of the world. We sought solidarity with what we thought were the nations of the world. But then what happened? We found that because everything is in a constant state of transformation, because of the development of technology, because of the development of the mass media, because of the fire power of the imperialist, and because of the fact that the United States is no longer a nation but an empire, nations could not exist, for they did not have the criteria for nationhood. Their self‐ determination, economic determination, and cultural determination has been transformed by the imperialists and the ruling circle. They were no longer nations. We found that in order to be Internationalists we had to be also Nationalists, or at least acknowledge nationhood. Internationalism, if I understand the word, means the interrelationship among a group of nations. But since no nation exists, and since the United States is in fact an empire, it is impossible for us to be Internationalists.
These transformations and phenomena require us to call ourselves “intercommunalists” because nations have been transformed into communities of the world. The Black Panther Party now disclaims internationalism and supports intercommunalism.
So, again, another stick in the eye of those who’d try to claim the Panthers for their milieu. All of these things are anathema to the sclerotic and pale so-called Communist milieu, who traffic in the image of the Panthers without delving into or studying their ideology. If the Panthers were around today, they’d be getting lambasted as opportunists and revisionists while the white Left watched them get killed. They like the aesthetic of Black people with guns ready to die for Communism, but fail to realize that we are first and foremost ready to die for ourselves. As Aime Cesaire, mentor and colleague of Frantz Fanon said in his letter to Maurice Thorez, Secretary-General of the revisionist and rotten PCF (Communist Party of France)
I believe I have said enough to make it clear that it is neither Marxism nor communism that I am renouncing, and that it is the usage some have made of Marxism and communism that I condemn. That what I want is that Marxism and communism be placed in the service of black peoples, and not black peoples in the service of Marxism and communism. That the doctrine and the movement would be made to fit men, not men to fit the doctrine or the movement.
And, to be clear, this is valid not only for communists. If I were Christian or Muslim, I would say the same thing. I would say that no doctrine is worthwhile unless rethought by us, rethought for us, converted to us. This would seem to go without saying. And yet, as the facts are, it does not go without saying. There is a veritable Copernican revolution to be imposed here, so ingrained in Europe (from the extreme right to the extreme left) is the habit of doing for us, arranging for us, thinking for us — in short, the habit of challenging our possession of this right to initiative of which I have just spoken, which is, at the end of the day, the right to personality.
So — to sum up, no, the BPP was not a traditional Maoist formation, nor was it a traditional ML formation. Their ideology and theory was an eclectic one, influenced by the revolutionary worldwide conditions at the time, their experiences, their travels (they had a Juche phase!) and their struggle. We should uphold the historical, positive, legacy of the BPP while also criticizing their errors in line and practice which led to their collapse.