[sixties-l] Re: The Black Panthers

From: Art McGee (amcgee@igc.org)
Date: Sun Jun 11 2000 - 05:56:01 CUT

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    >Apropos the note about the Black Panther Collective, does
    >anyone know the book The Shadow of the Panther (obviously
    >not about the Collective but about the Oakland-based
    >Panthers) and how it is considered?

    Date: Wed, 29 Mar 2000 01:24:52 -0500
    From: Art McGee <amcgee@igc.org>
    Reply-To: errolhen@polisci.ufl.edu
    To: brc-news@lists.tao.ca
    Subject: [BRC-NEWS] BOOK REVIEW: The Shadow of the Panther


    The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price
    of Black Power in America (1994), by Hugh Pearson.


    The Lumpenproletariat As Vanguard?
    The Black Panther Party, Social Transformation,
    and Pearson's Analysis of Huey Newton.


    Errol A. Henderson <errolhen@polisci.ufl.edu>,
    University of Florida




    Pearson is correct that the BPP's downfall cannot simply be
    attributed to COINTELPRO, though it was a principal agent
    of its destruction. For the most part, however, COINTELPRO
    was an external manipulation that capitalized on internal
    weaknesses and contradictions. We are reminded of one of the
    major lessons of Cabral: "That in the general framework of
    the daily struggle this battle against ourselves--no matter
    what difficulties the enemy may create--remains the most
    difficult of all.. I am convinced that any national or
    social revolution which is not based on the knowledge of
    this reality runs great risk of failure" (cited in Davidson,
    1971, p. 74). This is a more eloquent statement of the maxim
    that the personal is political. Cabral insisted that culture
    played a key role in the resolution of these contradictions.

    The BPP did not fully appreciate the necessity for cultural
    transformation in the movement. Instead, they promoted a
    "revolutionary culture" that was amorphous and self-serving.
    It was rooted in a Machiavellian rationalization of
    Malcolm's "by any means necessary" dicta whereby members
    simply legitimized their lumpen activities by asserting that
    these were somehow "revolutionary." This approach was used
    especially to sexually exploit women, to character
    assassinate rivals, to rationalize the misuse of BPP funds
    by the national leadership, to justify internecine violence,
    or to excoriate rival organizations (such as with the NOI,
    SNCC, RNA [Republic of New Afrika], and Us organization)
    within the Black Power movement. This glorified lumpenism
    was so expansive that Hilliard (1993, pp. 339-339) reports
    that Huey even came to require that BPP members watch The
    Godfather, as he began to argue for a "progressive capitalism"
    (Newton, 1971). Allegedly, the Panther nightclub, The Lamp
    Post, even became, among other things, a front for
    prostitution and funding source for Huey's and the Central
    Committee's personal indulgences.

    Clearly, there is no such thing as a revolutionary culture,
    per se. Cultures are only revolutionary in opposition
    to some other culture. The fact that people are engaged
    in revolution does not suggest that they possess a
    revolutionary culture--at least not in any developmental
    sense. For example, Pol Pot led a revolution in Kampuchea
    and the product was killing fields and millions of deaths
    but not the creation of a revolutionary culture. The BPP's
    condemnation of cultural nationalism actually reflected
    their antipathy toward Us organization (exacerbated by
    COINTELPRO and the gang conflict of Los Angeles). But
    Pearson did not explore the roots of the Us-Panther
    conflict, so issues such as these are not raised. This
    is as much a problem of Pearson's failed analysis as of
    the popular press forum of Pearson's book that does not
    countenance more developed and scholarly exegesis.

    The BPP, owning to disjointed Marxist borrowings, the
    influence of White leftists, and the personal battles
    with Karenga and Us, ignored the challenge of cultural
    transformation in the movement. This owed, in part, to its
    conflating of popular culture with national culture and
    their consideration of the latter in a very superficial
    way. Though the BPP maintained a Minister of Culture (Emory
    Douglas), leaders attacked cultural nationalism as an
    ideology and an approach to revolutionary struggle. The
    negation of the transformative power of cultural practice,
    especially in the area of ethics and social conduct, allowed
    for the BPP's vulnerability to outside manipulation and
    control as warned by Cabral. Ironically, they did not
    appreciate that the transformation they were intending from
    their survival programs was a cultural transformation rooted
    less in Marx and more in Malcolm. This misunderstanding
    allowed Newton to evoke Papa Doc Duvalier as a prime example
    of the vacuity and inappropriateness of cultural or "pork
    shop" nationalism (cited in Foner, 1970, p. 50). The Oakland
    BPP, unlike the New York chapters--who Hilliard (1993, p.
    168) labeled cultural nationalists--also misunderstood the
    basic pan-African (and American) nature of Black culture
    (Henderson, 1995) and were ultimately unable to successfully
    channel it for the party's own ends. This lack of cultural
    grounding, especially on the West Coast, led the BPP to
    become distant from their own Black communities. This was
    particularly destabilizing to the larger BPP program.
    Without the support of the larger Black community, they
    came to rely more on White leftist support that became
    increasingly ambivalent as the Vietnam war wound down.

    Moreover, none of the successful revolutions that the BPP
    evoked were explicable unless one appreciated the role by
    which leaders utilized their indigenous culture as a means
    of mobilization and transformation. Such revolutionaries did
    not await a "revolutionary" culture, instead they grounded
    themselves in their national heritage and evoked the best of
    it, and the best of it was in opposition to the status quo
    of their (neo)colonial oppressors--especially in the areas
    of values, views, ethics, the latticework for the struggle
    that Cabral argues. The wars of national liberation that
    the BPP celebrated (i.e., Vietnam, China, Algeria, Cuba)
    maintained a nationalistic base from which even Marxist-
    Leninist revolutionaries directed their efforts and
    derived their commitment. In these cases, revolutionary
    leaders seemed to appreciate that insofar as an important
    aspect of struggle is to capture the hearts and minds of
    their people, then a revolution that attacked the cultural
    hegemony of their oppressors formed the basis of the larger
    political-military struggle for national self-determination.
    Without it, the masses, suffering under the cultural hegemony
    of their colonizers would be unconvinced of their own capacity
    to realize the objective of liberation.

    In its wholesale rejection of the revolutionary role of
    cultural transformation, the BPP was not only distancing
    itself from revolutionary practice, but it was distancing
    itself from the core of the Black nationalist movement
    itself. In fact, once we focus clearly, we find that though
    "pigeonholed as one of the more esoteric, even aberrant
    expressions of the Black liberation ethic, cultural
    nationalism actually provided much of its thrust and
    dynamic" (Van DeBurg, 1992, p. 176). It was notable
    in the writings of the father of what became known as
    "revolutionary Black nationalism," Malcolm X (1964/1971,
    pp. 419-420). In his 1964 "Statement of the Basic Aims and
    Objectives of the Organization of Afro-American Unity,"
    he stated that "We must launch a cultural revolution to
    unbrainwash an entire people." Further, Malcolm insists
    that "Armed with the knowledge of the past, we can with
    confidence charter a course for our future. Culture is an
    indispensable weapon in the freedom struggle. We must take
    hold of it and forge the future with the past." Although
    seemingly aware of these precepts, too often the BPP
    operated as if they were oblivious to them. Nonetheless, the
    heavy rhetoric of the times made a meaningful discussion of
    these issues problematic at best and "counterrevolutionary"
    at worst. A misreading of Maoism and the influence of the
    White Left (many of whom would later become some of the most
    trenchant critics of the BPP) led the formerly nationalist
    BPP to embrace a "cultureless leftism" that even lead them
    to reject the teaching of Black Studies (Foner, 1970).

    The transformative power of the BPP was not in taking up
    the gun--Blacks had a long history of armed resistance up
    to that time. The transformative power, on the individual
    level, was to be found in the provision of the community
    with patrols and development (survival) programs in a
    context of political education and activism. It was the
    Oakland leadership, the security elements, exiles, and many
    members of the underground, largely out of touch with the
    day-to-day grounding and operation of these programs, who
    lacked the opportunity to be transformed by this reorienting
    of values in the community. It was the service to the
    community that transform folk. In fact, they further
    legitimized the unprincipled lumpen activities of the
    BPP and reduced its capacity to substantively transform
    themselves and their community.

    The survival programs taught through practice the ethics of
    love, caring, diligence, reciprocity, community, creativity,
    responsibility, and struggle--all of these representative of
    the best aspects of a truly African American culture. These
    "poor people's programs" provided a cultural reorientation
    for participants allowing for the political transformation
    envisioned by the BPP. The cultural reorientation was
    toward the best in African American culture. Because
    of the opposition between this national culture and the
    dominant White supremacist culture, the result was a very
    revolutionary process, as opposed to the revolutionary act
    of organizationally picking up the gun for a political
    objective. This cultural (largely ethical) transformation
    provided the resin for subsequent political activity.

    One is reminded that the BPP's attempt to organize
    the most disorganized group in the United States, the
    lumpenproletatiat, on a program that drew from Mao, Fanon,
    and Guevera is impressive, although it was sure to flounder
    as it grew from a myriad of sources from outside the United
    States when the people required an example consistent with
    their experiences within America. Huey seemed to understand
    this as early as his "The Correct Handling of a Revolution"
    (May 18, 1967) and attempted to expand his analysis based
    of Panther experiences in his "intercommunalism." But most
    Panthers, and academics, did not understand Huey's later
    formulations and dismissed them. This was due in part to
    Newton's not being a good public speaker but also to the
    rejection of his thesis by the White Left who could accept,
    and even glamorize, Huey's thuggery but not his theory.
    Hilliard (1993, p. 319) points out that the Left "like us
    picking up guns and shooting it out with the pigs. But they
    don't want us as theoretical leaders." They did not want
    theorizing but only thuggery. In similar fashion, Pearson
    (pp. 234-235) reduces Huey's paradigm, ultimately a Ph.D.
    dissertation, to a paragraph.

    The foreign nature of the neo-Marxist models and their
    inapplicability to the condition of African Americans was
    exacerbated by party members' lack of familiarity with Black
    history and political science. Former Panther, BLA member,
    and revolutionary exile Assata Shakur (1987) concurs that:

    "The basic problem stemmed from the fact that the BPP had
    no systematic approach to political education. They were
    reading the Red Book but didn't know who Harriet Tubman,
    Marcus Garvey, and Nat Turner were. They talked about
    intercommunalism but still really believed that the Civil
    War was fought to free the slaves. A whole lot of them
    barely understood any kind of history, Black, African or
    otherwise.. That was the main reason many Party members,
    in by opinion, underestimated the need to unite with other
    Black organizations and to struggle around various community
    issues." (p. 221)

    This failure to unite with progressive elements in the
    Black community was underscored by the BPP's alliances with
    groups outside of the Black community--primary the antiwar
    movement. However, the antiwar movement had no coherent
    ideology or much stomach for revolution. The White Left
    seemed less intent on revolt and more on keeping its
    followers out of Vietnam. Not surprisingly, BPP alliances
    with these leftist dried up as the war wound down.

    Further, the antagonistic language of Marxism-Leninism,
    vanguardism, and the cult of personality allowed for purges
    and the excommunication of peoples and families in a manner
    unforeseen in the Black community. The Panther use of the
    bullwhip for punishment, and the introduction of some of
    the most esoteric and confusing precepts--including the
    wholesale attack on spirituality--was so foreign and far
    removed from Black culture that it was sure to engender
    disenchantment with the Panthers in the community. These
    were holdovers from the White Left and their moribund
    ideology. Pearson does not examine these influences fully,
    and without such an undertaking, the BPP story hovers
    outside of history.


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