Revolution is a Process
Huey Newton on Revolutionary Strategy and Consciousness
By James Markin
Founded in 1966, the Black Panther Party (BPP) remains a shining light in the history of the US left. Deeply based in the black nationalist tradition of Malcolm X, the BPP also took inspiration from the ideas of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong and Christian radicalism. While assertive in their views, the Panthers remained open to collaboration with those of different ideologies and racial backgrounds. Famously declared “the greatest threat to the internal security of this country” by the FBI’s commander J. Edgar Hoover, they were relentlessly persecuted by both federal and local agents of the state. Under the weight of this brutal attack, the Party eventually disbanded in 1982, but their example of organizing black resistance to the racist US capitalist order remains inspirational to generation after generation of militants.
Sometimes, however, it seems like many people are much more familiar with the iconography of the Panthers than their writings or experiences. This is a shame, because while Newton and the BPP openly eschewed the label of “Marxist,” Marxists can learn a lot from the political tradition and achievements of the Black Panther Party. In particular, the period of the Panthers between Huey Newton’s release from jail in late 1970 and his flight to Cuba in 1973 is neglected by both historians and radicals. Early on in this time period, Newton waged a struggle within the party against ultra-leftism and in favor of developing the BPP as an organization actually of the communities that it wanted to represent.
His writing during that time addressed issues that Marxists have faced both then and since. Huey condemned shallow, propagandistic acts and focused on organizing to achieve the real needs of the masses. In trying to develop a “bridge” between these current needs and his ultimate goal of revolution, his conclusions parallel those of Marxist thinkers like Leon Trotsky. Especially today, when the US revolutionary left has become so isolated from the working class and oppressed masses, these ideas have never been more important.
Historical Context & The Intercommunal Turn
For most of its first four years, the Black Panther Party had to do without Huey Newton, one of its principal founders. Due to his prominence within the party, he was a frequent target of Oakland Police Department (OPD) harassment and traffic stops. In 1966, one of these stops turned into a lethal altercation which left one police officer dead, and another seriously wounded. Newton was arrested afterwards on trumped-up charges. In jail, he was largely disconnected from the day-to-day operation of the Party he had helped found. However, the police’s effort to pin false charges on him ultimately failed, and after four years of battling in court, Newton was finally released in August of 1970. Free again, he began to give speeches (such as this one) across the United States, which explained that the BPP had moved on from being a black nationalist party, and was now based on Newton’s own new ideology of “Revolutionary Intercommunalism”
Intercommunalism, as defined by Huey, was simply the theory of the “relatedness of all people.” Newton argued that the world was composed of not merely nations, but more importantly, individual communities, such as the Black community of Oakland California. In his eyes, all communities merely wanted their own autonomy. Despite this desire, most communities were controlled from afar by other communities, which he called “reactionary intercommunalism.” Newton used this concept to describe both outright imperialism, such as Portuguese control over Angola, as well as the racist police state of the United States. As a revolutionary intercommunalist party, the BPP sought to replace this international system with revolutionary intercommunalism, an international system where all communities in the world would become semi-autonomous, and would work together on the basis of solidarity for their mutual benefit. Huey believed this would create the conditions necessary for the development of communism.
In order to achieve this goal of international revolution against racism, capitalism, and reactionary intercommunalism, Huey proposed major reforms to the existing strategy and tactics of the BPP. Consequently, the BPP carried out a complete organizational turn towards intercommunalism from late 1970 to 1973. During this intercommunal turn, the Party focused heavily on what they called survival programs, such as the famous free breakfast program, and de-emphasized the militarism and self-defense tactics that had previously made it famous. Newton did not renounce these ideas, but rather argued that they were not appropriate for the current moment and had alienated the Panthers from their base, the Black people of Oakland, San Francisco’s BayView and other similar communities.
However, this new direction was not well received by everyone in the party. Soon after Newton made his ideological goals clear, tension began to build between Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. Cleaver had joined the BPP in 1966, the same year that the party was founded and that Huey was arrested. Brash and charismatic, he had quickly emerged as one of its leaders. While he refused to take on a formal leadership role or editorship of the newspaper, Cleaver was a firebrand speaker, dedicated to the ideals of Black nationalism. In his mind the BPP should serve as an urban guerilla which would battle the police in the streets en route to revolution. Unfortunately, his stature within the party made Cleaver a target of the OPD’s campaign to eliminate Panther leadership. In 1968 Cleaver was the target of a very similar “traffic stop” shootout to the one which had left Huey in jail for four years. Arrested on the trumped-up charge of attempted murder, he skipped out on bail and fled for first Cuba, and then Algeria. In 1971 from his Panther “field office” in exile, Cleaver made it clear he was not happy with Newton’s new direction for the party, seeing it as an abandonment of guerilla warfare and revolutionary struggle.
Under the heavy pressure of increased government repression and FBI infiltration, this dispute led to a short-lived faction fight between Newton and the followers of Eldridge Cleaver (known as “Cleavers” by their critics) which resulted in their expulsion from the Party by March of 1971. A month after this expulsion, the party newspaper, the Black Panther Intercommunal News Service (BPINS) printed a critique of Cleaver, written by Newton, entitled “On the Defection of Eldridge Cleaver from the Black Panther Party and the Defection of the Black Panther Party from the Black Community” This article contains a lot of important insight from Huey about the Panther’s politics and the scourge of ultra-leftism.
The BPP’s “Defection from the Community”
In the article (starting on page 11) Huey ruthlessly skewered the behavior and politics of Eldridge and the “Cleavers”. He openly stated that during his time in jail, while Cleaver was the de facto party leader, “The Black Panther Party lost its vision and defected from the community.” Newton goes on to accuse Cleaver of having joined the BPP, not to fight for its program, or the needs of the Black community, but instead to engage in short-sighted conflict with the police. According to Newton, Cleaver’s entry to the BPP came only after he observed the party clashing with the police in order to defend the activist Betty Shabazz. As Newton described it:
When Eldridge joined the party, it was after the police confrontation, which left him fixated with the “either-or” attitude. This was that either the community picked up the gun with the party or else they were cowards and there was no place for them. He did not realize that if the people did not relate to the party, then there was no way that the Black Panther Party could make any revolution, because the record shows that the people are the makers of the revolution and of world history.
This was the main difference between Huey and Cleaver. For Huey, the party’s central task was not to fight the police and brandish guns. Instead, he believed that the BPP should only fight the police when they needed to defend themselves or their allies. This is why during the intercommunal turn the Panthers “discouraged actions [such as] police observations because we recognized that these were not the things to do in every situation or on every occasion… The only time an action is revolutionary is when the people relate to it in a revolutionary way.” Cleaver disagreed, believing that the only political actions that were truly revolutionary involved taking up arms.
Newton explains that by following this political line “the Party gave the community no alternative for dealing with us, except by picking up the gun.” Since the only activities that Cleaver saw as worthwhile involved taking up arms, only those who were interested in that kind of activity wanted to join. The thing that Newton understood, but Cleaver didn’t was that armed struggle didn’t actually help solve any of the problems that were facing the working-class majority of the Black community at that time in Oakland. Since there was no connection between Panther activity and the actual struggles and needs of the community, the BPP became isolated from the very people who were meant to be their base.
This mistake by Cleaver is very typical of what as Marxists we would call “ultra-leftism”. Instead of having a program and policies that reflect the present needs and consciousness of the working class, ultra-leftists like Cleaver choose tactics and slogans based on what they believe are the future needs and consciousness of the class. As Huey points out, while seeming more revolutionary, this position is actually “reactionary simply because the community [is] not at that point.” This means that working class and oppressed people will never come over to ultra-leftist organizations in any significant numbers. Therefore, as Newton described in the case of Cleaver and the BPP, ultra-leftism tends to lead groups to become isolated from the masses and ultimately become what he called “a revolutionary cult group” (which Marxists usually refer to as a sect).
The Transitional Program
This raises an important question for all revolutionaries; if carrying out actions that are “ahead” of the consciousness and needs of the masses is ultra-left, doesn’t that mean that revolutionaries must retreat and only offer reformist demands or stick to merely fighting for the redress of small workplace issues?
Newton answered the question with a definitive no. Instead, he proposed that the BPP “lead the people to a higher level of consciousness.” In his mind the BPP’s main task was to fight for the needs of the Black community and raise its consciousness until it was capable of carrying out a revolution. Only actions that advanced this process could even be considered revolutionary, as he put it:
Any action which does not mobilize the community toward the goal is not a revolutionary action, the action might be a marvelous statement of courage, but if it does not mobilize the people toward the goal of a higher manifestation of freedom, it is not making a political statement and could even be counter revolutionary
This is the real problem that Huey had with Cleaver’s seemingly more revolutionary politics: they did not actually help develop the consciousness of the community, and therefore they were not revolutionary.
The Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky, came to very similar conclusions as Huey in the late 1930s. Trotsky saw that the working class around the world faced problems such as homelessness, unemployment, low pay, poor working conditions, racist persecution and sexual violence. As a Marxist, he believed that capitalist exploitation created the conditions where these issues could flourish and that this system could only be defeated by a revolution of workers and the oppressed. However, he understood that most workers didn’t agree that there was a need for such a step. Similarly to Newton, he realized that he could not just go to the workers and simply tell them that the only way to solve their problems was to immediately stage a revolution. Instead, as he put it in The Transitional Program:
It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demand and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.
For Trotsky this wasn’t about merely explaining to people what they should be for, but showing it in practice by joining in with the everyday struggle of the working class. For example, he proposed that Marxists should raise the demand that capitalists hire the unemployed and divide the labor equally between them and their existing employees. Businesses would then be required to pay both their new and old employees the same fair wage. While this is a perfectly rational system by which to eliminate unemployment, Trotsky understood that “property owners and their lawyers will prove the ‘unrealizability’ of these demands.” However, in the struggle against these employers, both employed and unemployed workers would see clearly how full employment can only be realized under a worker’s government. In this way, the program of transitional demands provided a strategy for action. Only by engaging and fighting like mad in the pressing daily struggles of the working class and the oppressed, and linking them directly to revolutionary questions could Marxists convince their coworkers and community members of the need for revolution and a worker’s government.
In the theories of Huey Newton, the program of the BPP served a similar function. Indeed, the only reason that the party had even been able to survive through the “twilight zone” of Cleaver’s leadership, according to Huey, was due to the strength of its ten-point program. Huey wrote that he and the Panthers did not offer the program to the masses “as a conclusion; we offered it as a vehicle to move them to a higher level.” This program for Newton, was one of the key strengths of the BPP. In fact, he wrote that he founded the party primarily in order to fill the need for a party with a practical program based on the needs of ordinary Black people.
The Panthers were true to this program, and organized consistently in the interests of Black and working people, whether it was around workplace issues like lack of pay, or social issues like racist police. In all of these struggles the Panthers consistently argued that only through revolution could the underlying conditions they were struggling against be solved.
However, while their approaches to the program were similar, Huey’s approach was not identical to that of Trotsky. This is because for Newton:
The correct handling of a revolution is not to offer the people an “either-or” ultimatum. We must instead gain the support of the people through serving their needs. Then when the police or any other agency of repression tries to destroy the program, the people will move to a higher level of consciousness and action.”
For Trotsky the bridge to higher consciousness was the transitional program and the experience of struggle. Here however Huey adds a third element, survival programs. These would “serve the needs of the people” directly, such as free food or shoe programs. When the racist white capitalist state moved to attack these programs or the BPP, this would push Black people to a higher level of consciousness as they rallied to defend them. During the intercommunal turn, these survival programs became the core of Panther activity. While their legacy was profoundly positive, in practice the survival programs did not actually help motivate the local community and move them towards higher levels of consciousness.
Survival Pending Revolution
Instead of organizing the community and building its strength so that working people could take what they needed themselves, the programs in many cases encouraged passivity. One of the key slogans of the intercommunal turn in the BPP was “survival pending revolution” which meant the party’s role was to “serve the people until they are ready to fight.” This idea made the programs less of a bridge to higher consciousness and more of a waiting game. Panthers began to regard the programs as merely a temporary measure, necessary until people eventually “woke up.”
The programs also led the BPP to rely more and more on the petty bourgeoisie, especially churches and shop owners. Because the survival programs cost so much money to run, the Panthers needed the help of donations to keep them going. As the intercommunal turn continued, these donations began to come more and more from middle-class Black business owners in the local community. Despite this, Newton continued to believe that the revolutionary movement which was necessary for liberation would need to be composed of the exploited majority of the Black community. There has always been debate within the Black Nationalist movement in the US between those who wanted to improve conditions for Black people by developing a Black capitalist class and those who wanted to improve conditions by seizing control of the property of the dominant white American capitalists. Huey fell into the second of these two camps, believing that the only way for Black people to truly take control of their own communities was to organize a movement based primarily among the most exploited, which would seize control of property denied to them by the racist system of capitalism. In his criticism of Cleaver, Huey explicitly addresses this issue saying:
When I was in Donald Warden’s Afro-American Association, I watched him try to make a reality of community control through Black Capitalism… his attempts to initiate his program continually frustrated him and the community too. They did not know why capitalism would not work for them even though it had worked for other ethnic groups.
Indeed, one BPINS article (Page 5) called Black capitalism a “joke”, and proclaimed that “real liberation lies in seizing… political power through establishing bases in our communities.” Newton never dropped this core Panther focus on the poor majority, but came to argue that middle-class shop owners and churchmen could be compelled to act in the interests of the community. This was laid out in official BPP policy (outlined in the June 5th, 1971 article Black Capitalism, Re-Analyzed) which led the Panthers to organize the community in essentially extorting money from local businesses for the survival programs. However, in practice the Panthers did not always maintain this hostile posture. Many local business leaders became very close with the Panther leadership, and soon almost all the funds that supported the programs came from them. This was justified on the basis that these businessmen received their money from the community’s patronage and were merely paying it back. Yet programs paid for by wealthier members of the community did not help develop the self-organization of the supposed base of the party among the poor and working-class majority.
Furthermore, Huey’s prediction that these programs would come under attack by the ruling class was incorrect. In fact, it was very easy for non-revolutionary forces to co-opt the idea of a survival program. While it absolutely was the case that the survival programs were part of why the community did often rally to defend the Panthers, this did not actually push people to a higher level of consciousness in a clear and consistent way. Instead, local bourgeois political leaders tended to praise the programs and exhort the panthers to do more handing out soup and shoes, and less talking about politics.
None of this is to say that the impact of the programs was negative. Indeed, it was absolutely the case that the survival programs did help the Panthers relate to their “base of operations” in Oakland. They were not useless, but they were simply not enough to bridge the gap between consciousness and objective conditions and mobilize the community into a revolution for freedom.
“The Democrats will become Panthers before the Panthers become Democrats”
The biggest difference between the Panthers and Marxists like Leon Trotsky was not the survival programs, but the way that Panthers understood class. In his article criticizing Cleaver, Huey stakes out a position that is an anathema to Marxists. The Panthers, including Newton failed to fully oppose collaboration with the organizations of the American capitalist class, specifically the Democratic Party.
In “On the Defection of Eldridge Cleaver…” Newton writes,
Because the Black Panther Party grows out of the conditions and needs of oppressed people, we are interested in everything the people are interested in, even though we may not see these particular concerns as the final answers to our problems. We will never run for political office, but we will endorse and support those candidates who are acting in the true interests of the people. We may even provide campaign workers for them and do voter registration and basic precinct work… We lead the people by following their interests, with a view toward raising their consciousness to see beyond particular goals.
The idea behind this is unproblematic at first glance. It flows from Huey’s earlier argument that revolutionaries should join in the fight for even small concessions while forming a bridge to a higher level of consciousness. Indeed, Marxists have run for elections many times. However, the Panthers used this idea to justify supporting left-wing Democratic Party candidates such as Ron Dellums, and eventually running as Democrats themselves.
Marxists long ago surmised that all political parties are tools of one class or another. The Democratic Party is wholly a party of the capitalist class and therefore will not in any way advance the agenda or revolutionaries like the BPP. If the revolutionaries show interest in helping elect Democrats of any stripe, of course the party will welcome the help, but as Malcom X said “you put the Democrats first and the Democrats put you last.”
It is clear in his article that Huey, who was intimately familiar with the speeches and ideas of Malcom X, knew that electing Democratic Party officials would not achieve any real advances for his community. He only supported it because many oppressed people supported Democrats and he wished the BPP to be involved in that world so as to help raise their level of consciousness. However, as the Trotskyist James Cannon once put it, while joining in with the experiences of the oppressed and exploited is generally a good idea, when it comes to class collaboration this experience will not help anyone, “If another man takes poison, you do not have to join him in the experiment. Just tell him it is no good. But don’t offer to prove it by your personal example”
While a full balance of the electoral experience of the BPP would require its own article, it is enough to say here that the BPP’s involvement with the Democrats was indeed akin to drinking poison. The Black Panthers slowly grew more and more involved with the Democratic Party which partially transformed the Panthers into an apparatus of the DPs left wing, hastening its decline. While in 1971 Huey declared the Panthers would never run candidates for office, by 1973 the BPP put forward Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown as Democratic Party candidates for city offices in Oakland. To justify this move in stump speeches Brown would recite the pat phrase “The Democrats will become Panthers before the Panthers become Democrats,” arguing that the Panthers were merely using the Democratic ballot line tactically, without becoming Democrats themselves. However, the campaign itself quickly was dissolved into the “New Oakland Democratic Organizing Committee” which brought the effort firmly within the local Democratic Party. When candidates of a Trotskyist organization, the Socialist Worker’s Party criticized Elaine and Bobby for their support of the Democratic Party, while making clear their support for the BPP itself, the Brown and Seale Campaign began to openly defend the Democrats. They even printed Pamphlets calling themselves “effective Democrats.” By 1977 Elaine Brown was Chairwoman of the BPP and directly involved in the presidential campaign of the California Democratic Party Governor Jerry Brown. The leader of the Panthers was supporting a man who would go on to defend and strengthen the very same police forces who harassed Black people in Oakland! Elaine Brown was even elected as a DNC delegate on behalf of his campaign. In its final years, the BPP spent more and more resources on registering people in their community to be Democrats and running fundraisers and campaign events for the Democratic Party. Thus, in the end, the Panthers did become Democrats before the Democrats became Panthers.
In the waning years of the BPP as well as those following its collapse, many Panthers reached the conclusion themselves that supporting the Democratic party was akin to drinking poison. The celebrated Panther artist Emory Douglas recently wrote that “Both the Democratic Party and Republican Party are corrupt to the core and neither is going to ever change for the better.” Elaine Brown herself has also expressed similar sentiments, no doubt a lesson learned from the long years of work she put into Democratic Party campaigns. This is not to in any way belittle these revolutionaries, as oftentimes the most difficult lessons can only be learned in the course of struggle. At the same time, it is important to not make the same mistake twice, we can learn from the experience of the Panthers just where operating within the Democratic Party leads.
It is important to remember that the ultimate failure of the Black Panther Party to survive as a vibrant political current among the Black community in the United States was the result of over a decade of intense police sabotage at both the local and national level. The US state engaged in a systematic conspiracy to destroy the Panthers and jail or murder as many of their leaders as possible. However, during the time when the Panthers were strong and active, and especially during the intercommunal turn of the early 70s, the Party achieved a great deal for the Black communities it fought to represent.
Huey Newton’s analysis of issues facing the revolutionary movement of his day, such as the ultra-leftism of Cleaver, and the need for a revolutionary program, remain useful elucidations of these ideas in a modern US context. Indeed, these writings remain valuable for radicals today, even those from a different political tradition. Like every human endeavor, the BPP was riddled with all sorts of errors and mistakes, but none of these outweigh the immense value of their political project. We should take each of these mistakes as an opportunity to learn so that we ourselves do not repeat them. The Panthers themselves were enamored with the idea of self-criticism; a practice essential for all socialist militants. As many on the modern left put forward tactically using the Democratic Ballot line as a cutting-edge short-cut to growth, the history of the BPP’s use of the exact same tactic is instructive of its flaws. With the legacy of the Panthers looming large in the current moment, studying its history may be the antidote to repeating these mistakes so that we can build a fighting movement of the future.