What It Means to Have a Mass Base: A Lesson from Elder Aaron Dixon of the Black Panther Party

I’ve been reading Aaron Dixon’s autobiography, My People Are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain. Dixon was active in the formation of the Seattle branch of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense and I highly recommend it. I was also recommended Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power and I will begin this after I finish Dixon’s book. It is essential for those who actually seek to develop and advance the Maoist movement in the United States away from the white/uncle tom/tio tomás posturing and stupidity that I constantly criticize mercilessly to engage in serious theoretical and historical study and engage in principled debate and discussion, seeking truth from facts, in conjunction with and complementary to our mass work in our communities, our formation of coalitions, and our engagement in struggle on various levels. Without doing this, we will repeat the nefarious errors of our predecessors in the 1960s and 1970s and no Party worthy of the name will be founded in this country. The Black Panther Party is a point of pride for all Black revolutionaries because no matter how white opportunists attempt to steal its legacy and pervert it for their own opportunistic ends, it will never belong to them and they will never be worth one fingernail of a Fred Hampton, an Assata Shakur, an Aaron Dixon, or a Huey Newton. They have produced no revolutionary theoreticians worthy of the name, no mass struggles that have galvanized the masses of the oppressed, and no Party. Nor will they. They will simply tail behind our masses and throw dirt on actual revolutionaries. Let them. The PLP did the same to the BPP. To this end, it is our task, our meaning the revolutionary Black nation, principled white comrades who are not scared shitless and recognize our vanguard role, and other oppressed nationalities to learn from the experiences, mistakes, and strong points of this formation.

The most striking moment in Dixon’s story is when he is evading the police after getting into a scrape with the police, courtesy of one of the many agents that had been sent to infiltrate and wreck the Party. Dixon tells it best:

The backyard was completely enclosed by ten foot high, thick, green bushes. There was no escape, and I could hear the voices getting louder, quickly coming my way. I pulled out my 9mm and braced for the worst. Just then, the back door of the house opened, and out stepped Mr. Melinson. He silently motioned me inside. I ran in with my piece in my hand just as the cops were entering the yard with guns drawn. Mr. Melinson drew me into the living room, where we sat in the darkness with his family, watching the action out the windows. We could see the cops frantically searching for me, under cars, behind buildings, yet I was nowhere to be found…I had observed Mr. Melinson for many years. He was a very light complexioned, conservative Texan who seldom smiled and was known for his strictness. He worked hard and sent all his kids to Catholic school. He was the last person I thought would risk his position and family to save a crazy young revolutionary, but he did, and he will forever remain in my heart.

This is profound. Here is a middle aged, conservative, “middle class” (presumably, Melinson’s occupation is never specified) Black man from Texas who is sheltering someone who had just been seen evading the police. This is the epitome of “the guerrilla swimming among the people like a fish in water” that Mao talked about. What would make someone like Melinson shelter someone like Dixon, or any other black revolutionary? For one, we are both members of the New Afrikan oppressed nation, and even if he opposed the methods which we as proletarian revolutionaries recognize as being essential to our liberation (Communist Parties, People’s Armies, etc.), he realizes that the formation that Dixon belongs to is one dedicated to the community and committed to protecting it. Dixon’s Seattle chapter had successfully backed down the police before in the streets of the neighborhood where it worked. The Black Panthers may have been “crazy young revolutionaries”, but they were black, disciplined, and were better than the pigs. Note, that this doesn’t imply “did stupid shit to bring the cops to the neighborhood and then run off” like white adventurists did. Weatherman did this in Chicago in 1969 during their idiotic “Days of Rage” activities and Comrade Fred Hampton rightfully put them down as “Custeristic”. There are far too many Custerites among us today, white opportunists who see death and dying as some sort of cleansing cureall to feel useful. I’m not about leading my people to a light as a feather death through stupid shootouts. Eldridge Cleaver did this, led an ambush against the cops after MLK was killed, got Lil’ Bobby Hutton killed, and then fled the country and wound up in Algeria with his adventurist faction until he was expelled, rightfully so, from the Black Panther Party. That’s what white opportunists will also do. The goal of a revolutionary is to preserve themselves and destroy the enemy. We do not fear death, but we do not seek it lightly, discuss it lightly, and we damn sure don’t expose the masses to it irresponsibly. The Amilcar Cabral Collective laid out sharply a critique of the white Custerite style that seems to be so in vogue among today’s left in a critique of the left opportunism of the Workers’ Viewpoint Organization (WVO) in Greensboro, North Carolina that culminated in the infamous Greensboro Massacre of 1979.

By 1979, the WVO was well as ultra-left “communists” generally in this country, were under pressure. Having grown out of the upsurge in the anti-war and Black Liberation struggles of the late 60’s and early 70’s, these people have been out here as communists for almost 10 years now and have built no significant base among any sector of the masses. It was getting increasingly difficult for the leaders to hold their organizations together and particularly to get their members to continue to do distasteful (for them) things like working in factories when so little results could be seen. After all, patience is not one of the petty bourgeoisie’s main virtues. In a more and more frantic search for a gimmick many of them decided that the problem was that they had not been forcefully enough telling the masses how great the “communists” were and how they were born to lead them. So they began all sorts of prancing and posturing. They also began to desperately search for some daring acts to demonstrate to the masses their “heroism” and other “leadership qualities.” Basically, it’s a question of putting on a show in order to impress the “feeble-minded masses.” This was the reason for both the RCP and WVO’s anti-Klan activities. Not that they thought that the Klan was a real danger to the masses but because the situation offered such wonderful opportunities for street theater. The RCP’s leadership ordered several of its members to smash the Klan exhibit in Winston-Salem. Just afterwards they told us that in their view the Klan was not a real danger in the south. “Then why did you send us in there to risk our lives?” “Because it was a good opportunity to get out our line.”

Just before China Grove WVO told some of us that they saw Populism and not the Right, as the main danger in the country. Then why did they begin to put their main energies into smashing the Klan? The same reason.

The WVO’s violent rhetoric leading up to November 3rd wasn’t directed tat the Klan, it was directed at the Black masses. Revolutionaries have a responsibility to lead in tactics and strategy to help to direct the masses ongoing fight more sharply at their real enemy. What the WVO was doing was tailing what they assume to be the spontaneous militant sentiments of Black people. Since the Klan was getting some serious publicity, they assumed Black people must see the Klan as an immediate danger, even if they didn’t. So WVO raised “Death to the Klan” to gain points with the masses.

To them, “Death” was just a word. They came from almost exclusively academic backgrounds where they were taught to talk, theorize, polemicize, etc. but not to grasp the concrete connection between words and deeds, the actual effect of rhetoric on material reality. Thus they misjudged the effect of their rhetoric on both the masses and the Klan.

Black people generally see the Klan not in terms of how much publicity they get but what measure of actual threat they pose to the Black community and more importantly to the ongoing struggle of Black people. Therefore, while being somewhat concerned by the increase in Klan activity, few Black saw the need to make fighting the Klan a major activity as long as they confined themselves to holding exhibits or showing movies. Moreover most Black people saw fighting the Klan in the context of building the Black Liberation Movement generally or for some, simply defending the Black community. “What we need to do is get our people organized.” Therefore, Black people generally found the anti-Klan activities lightly amusing and entertaining. As the violence of the rhetoric intensified, people began to see it as needlessly provocative even before November 3rd. By the time VWO’s open letter came out, you began to hear a lot of “these people are crazy.”

WVO thought the Klan were idealist like themselves. They expected to engage in a little harmless rhetorical exchange as is customary between leftist groups. Maybe a little symbolic pushing and shoving and ineffective stick swinging to add just a hint of realism. They did not realize that Klansmen, bullets, shotguns and death are real material forces.

The Klan, like most people from their background (workers, farmers, small businessmen) proved to be much more practical. Perhaps they grasped the extent of WVO’s isolation from the masses. Almost certainly they grasped WVO’s utter lack of preparedness to back up their words with deeds. By launching the attack they did on November 3rd, they were able to deal a real blow not only to their immediate targets but to the Black masses and their struggle. By invading the Black community and openly killing people the Klan raised the threat of open terror against the Black struggle in a sharper way than had been done in years. At the same time by launching the attack against an isolated band of predominantly white leftists, they created conditions that would make it particularly difficult to build the kind of militant mass response that would give the Black community confidence that the terrorist threat could be effectively countered. They also greatly inspired their basic racist constituency; and by combining racism with anti-communism, they created conditions for building the broadest possible base of support among white people for their action. These conditions would make it quite likely that they would eventually get away “scott free” which would inspire similar attacks, attacks both here and around the country. And it is clear that the increased attacks would be mainly directed, as they always have been, at the struggle of the Black masses.

The BPP won for itself a mass base because it was able to highlight contradictions and take concrete steps to resolve them. The police were in the Black community every day, killing Black people, beating them, and harassing them. The resolution, or the beginning of the resolution, was to demonstrate that here existed a group of black people who would not attack first or without provocation, at least not yet, but who would not allow themselves or their people to be murdered with impunity. Furthermore, the Panthers did more than just parade with guns. In Seattle, the Party helped resolve landlord disputes, intervened in cases of white harassment of black students in high schools, and eventually stepped up to firebombing and sniping exploiting, non-black owned businesses that sold drugs and abused black customers. The Madrona Hill neighborhood was transformed into an area where the police refused to come except in groups of 3 squad cars (which they didn’t leave), where the Panthers could march in daylight with weapons, and where they were seen as replacing/serving the functions of the police. The Panthers were oftentimes called to resolve domestic disputes. Pruitt-Igoe, in Saint Louis, was similar. The police were afraid to enter the complex because shots would be fired from the roof, and when pipes froze over and burst in the early 1970s, distribution of relief materials fell to the Zulu 1200s and Black Liberators, black nationalist organizations that filled the role that the BPP played in other cities. East Saint Louis had a BPP chapter but one never developed in Saint Louis. The gist is that where there is a failure to adequately provide services and protect a community on the part of a government, revolutionary organizations that correctly address the issues and demonstrate the failings of the government and its institutions will find much mass support, but the key is to meet actually existing material needs of the masses. Discussing politics aimlessly or discussing violence without actually providing proof of one’s commitment and competence through demonstrable ability to provide concrete gains is setting oneself up to simply be a revolutionary cult group, to use Huey Newton’s phrase.

This type of power can only be developed through taking advantage of contradictions, correctly analyzing them, uniting the broadest possible masses, constantly and concretely backing up your militant rhetoric with concrete actions, demonstrating your true care and love for the masses by protecting their rights, property, and lives, educating and learning from them, and working for unity among the masses, not for unprincipled and stupid splits. The Communist seeks to heal fragmented communities, promote revolutionary consciousness through providing material support and assistance along with political education to first and foremost demonstrate that solidarity, not charity is what builds revolution, and maintaining principled revolutionary positions despite the torrent of NGO, opportunist, and adventurist elements that always pour into a community in the aftermath of a police shooting or murder. Nobody is going to let a lunatic, especially a white one, into their house that they’ve never seen before, waving a weapon around talking about they want to kill. Nor is anybody going to let some clown in who wants to give a screed about the benefits of adhering to Stalin’s correct line on blasé blasé. If anything, they’re apt to call the cops on you, and it’s your own fault for not being trustworthy and not establishing your reputation in a community through demonstrating your uselessness. In essence, to get Melinson on our side, to get let in when we’re running from the cops (and not bust in like bandits, like many people would end up doing), we must be regular people with firm principles and firm love for the people and this love must radiate from every pore in our bodies. This is to swim among the people like a fish, and not to plop oneself among them like a dead buzzard.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store