In the final part of his article, John Peterson analyzes the program of the Panthers, highlighting its strong points as well as its weaknesses.
The Program of the Black Panther Party
1. WE WANT FREEDOM. WE WANT POWER TO DETERMINE THE DESTINY OF OUR BLACK AND OPPRESSED COMMUNITIES.
We believe that Black and oppressed people will not be free until we are able to determine our destinies in our own communities ourselves, by fully controlling all the institutions which exist in our communities.
The sentiment expressed in this opening passage is evident: enough is enough of having our lives controlled by people and institutions who do not have our best interests in mind! It is a bold and inspiring clarion call for freedom, dignity, and respect. It is a healthy rejection of the status quo, and reflects a burning desire to end the brutalization, dehumanization, and discrimination that is a part of daily life for the oppressed under capitalism. However, on closer reflection, from the very beginning, there are already many contradictions that result from its being framed in this form.
To begin, the concept of “black and oppressed communities,” lacks the necessary precision that one should strive for in a programmatic document of this sort. While it is evidently intended to refer to the workers and the poor, the term “community” by definition includes all members of a particular layer of the population—the workers and business owners, the petty bourgeois, and the declassed lumpenproletariat. In other words, it blurs the lines between the different classes and class interests in society, above all the irreconcilable differences between the workers and the capitalists and their local agents.
In any “community” in a society divided into classes, it is always the wealthiest individuals who control the key economic, social, and political levers of the “community.” So when it states, “we want freedom,” who does we refer to? Is it the black workers or the black businessmen? If the black population in, say, Oakland, California, somehow succeeded in breaking away from the surrounding city and state, who would dominate the local black population? On what basis would goods and services be produced, distributed, and exchanged? Who would draft and enforce the laws? Who would control the water supply and electricity? On what basis would it relate to the outside world? As long as classes remain, so too do exploitation and oppression, whether it is being done by blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, or anyone else. After all, the slaves won their freedom from the plantation owners in the South, but it was a very limited kind of freedom. The only way to achieve genuine freedom and equality and to end the cycle of exploitation and oppression is to end class society.
Furthermore, capitalism is an intimately interconnected world system. No region or country can escape its pressures and dynamics, no matter how rich in resources and population—let alone a particular neighborhood or section of a particular city or state. Not even the USSR and China could avoid the inexorable pull of the world market. The idea that a local “community,” and particularly an urban one, could somehow be self-sufficient and truly determine its own destiny flies in the face of economic reality.
Perhaps more importantly, by not clearly recognizing and stating the common interests of all workers, regardless of their race or ethnicity, the demand’s formulation automatically erects a barrier towards building that indispensable unity. All workers are exploited under capitalism, and every worker is oppressed in some way or another, often in multiple ways. The particular oppression experienced by an individual or group may therefore be more or less intense—there is no doubt, for example, that a single undocumented Latina mother working in fast food experiences more layers of oppression than a relatively well-paid white male factory worker—but it is our class relationship as workers that brings us all into opposition to the exploiting capitalists.
Blacks in the US make up roughly 13% of the population. This relatively small proportion of the total cannot possibly confront the power of the capitalist state alone. We need maximum working class unity to fight and defeat the ruling class and its state. A strike in a diverse workplace could not succeed if only the female or only the Asian workers walked out. By limiting the demand to “black and oppressed communities” (and in the very first version it said only “black community”), the implication is that whites, Asians, Latinos, and others need not apply. This may not have been the intention, and the emphasis on the plight of black Americans is entirely understandable given the context in which the BPP was created. Later on, many of the Panther’s leaders moved away from this more limited conception, but the tone set in such a foundational document inevitably had an impact on the party’s future development. Compare this to Marx’s crystal clear “workers of all countries unite!”
Some may say that the program “is clear enough.” However, the utmost clarity is of paramount importance in a party’s program. It is not a simple agitational slogan or minor propagandistic piece, but the political blueprint for explaining and building the organization. The devil is in the details, and even tiny distortions or blurred lines can lead to big problems in the future. These limitations are understandable, given that the authors were not yet fully developed Marxists. They relied more on fiery and poetic language than the razor’s edge of theory as a guide. But by placing the emphasis on racial, rather than class unity, it immediately hampered the party’s potential to develop into a mass political expression for all the exploited and oppressed.
2. WE WANT FULL EMPLOYMENT FOR OUR PEOPLE.
We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every person employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the American businessmen will not give full employment, then the technology and means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
A job, a guaranteed income, and a high standard of living should absolutely be a basic right, especially in the richest country on earth. By eliminating the profit motive and dividing up all the useful work that society needs done, we can shorten the workweek, increase pay, and allow everyone the chance to reach their full potential. As Marxists we are in favor of this and more for all workers—not just “our people.” By highlighting the common interests of all workers, they can be brought together in collective struggle against the bosses.
In order to achieve full employment, the main levers of the economy, starting with the 500 largest corporations, must be brought under democratic workers’ control and integrated into a rational plan. This means expropriating the wealth of the capitalists—which was created by the labor of the working class—and using it democratically in the interests of the majority. The BPP Program points in this direction. However, by calling for these to be “placed in the community,” the implication is that different “communities” will have their own atomized mini means of production. As explained above, no community exists in isolation from the rest of the world. What is needed is to pool our resources as efficiently as possible to maximize economies of scale and reduce waste, and this requires a nationwide and ultimately, a global planned economy.
Furthermore, we should be clear that the US federal government is a government of, by, and for the ruling class. It is not obligated to do anything other than defend the interests of the capitalists. The Program could certainly highlight the enormous wealth that exists and the potential to use it for the common good. It could point out the contradiction that a government allegedly existing to defend the common interests of all, in reality allows some to live in squalor while others live high on the hog. But by no means should we foment any illusions that the current federal government is somehow responsible for providing this for us. As the Program correctly implies, if the workers want a new society, we will have to take things into our own hands.
3. WE WANT AN END TO THE ROBBERY BY THE CAPITALISTS OF OUR BLACK AND OPPRESSED COMMUNITIES.
We believe that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of our fifty million Black people. Therefore, we feel this is a modest demand that we make.
Racism is a tool used by the ruling class to divide and weaken the working class in the interest of maximizing profits. The current US government represents the interests of that ruling class minority against the propertyless majority. In that sense, the government is racist. However, capitalist exploitation is not “robbery,” as such. Exploitation under capitalism takes place at the point of production. The worker “freely” enters into a relationship with the capitalist, and agrees to work for X number of hours in exchange for Y amount of pay. However, the worker creates more wealth during the working hours than he or she is paid in wages; this unpaid labor, known as surplus value in Marxist economics, is the source of the capitalists’ profit, interest, and rent. The compulsion to sell your labor power to a capitalist is not force or the threat of force, but economic necessity. Under capitalism, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat.” Or put another way, those who cannot live off stocks, bonds, inherited wealth, or other property must work for someone else if they want to eat and have a place to live.
The fundamental historic purpose of the US Civil War was to establish the predominance of capitalism throughout the American continent. In order to achieve this, the Northern capitalists had to smash the economic and political power of the Southern slavocracy, and the 4 million chattel slaves had to be transformed into free wage laborers (which, incidentally, was one of the largest expropriations of private property in world history). While we may all have more or less equal rights on paper, freedom under capitalism means above all that you are “free” to sell your labor power to any number of potential exploiters, instead of being owned and exploited by one in particular. As you are also “free” from owning any significant property, you must therefore sell your labor power for a wage in order to survive.
The promise of “40 acres and a mule” can be traced to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15, issued during his “march to the sea” across Georgia. As he burned and expropriated his way across the Confederacy, he forcibly uprooted the old property relations and imposed the new ones. It was never official government policy, nor was it intended as restitution for slavery. Rather, it was intended to help some of the former slaves in the South “get on their feet” and become “productive members of society”—i.e., wage slaves for capitalism. The essential aims of the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves is unambiguously stated in the famous “Juneteenth” declaration, issued by Union General Gordon Granger on June 18, 1865, after he and 2,000 federal troops landed in Galveston, Texas:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
This no-nonsense appraisal of the new social relationships being implemented by the Union army is sufficiently clear.
Although Marx was a fervent opponent of slavery, and urged Abraham Lincoln to more vigorously fight the Civil War with the cry “death to slavery!” he understood the historic role this institution had played in the rise of US capitalism. Building on Hegel’s writings, Marx explained that it was not merely from slavery that the initial accumulation of capital in the Americas took place, but through it. In other words, the entire US ruling class, and not only the Southern slave owners, is responsible for the legacy of American chattel slavery: “Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance.”
So when the BPP Program demands cash payment as restitution for slavery, to be “distributed to our many communities,” many concrete questions must be addressed. Even if a monetary value for the horrors suffered by the slaves could be agreed upon, what would happen when the cash influx to individuals and communities runs out? How could you prevent that wealth from eventually accumulating in a few hands—the hands of those who already have the most wealth and power—thereby leaving most recipients back at square one? Who would decide who qualifies and how much they each get? And perhaps most importantly, who would be made to pay for this?
On the basis of the current economic and political set up, such restitution could only come out of tax revenues, which are generated primarily by the workers, or through borrowing, which would need to be paid back with interest, again by squeezing the workers. Assuming that the scale of these payments would be quite vast, this would necessitate armies of lawyers, bureaucrats, and cuts in other parts of the budget. As the military and corporate handouts are not about to get trimmed, this could only mean further cuts to social programs, health care, education, infrastructure, environmental protections, the wages and pensions of public sector workers, and so on. Workers who had nothing to do with slavery would be made to pay for this historic crime of the capitalists and former slave owners. Far from building class unity, this would lead to resentment and infighting, as the ruling class deflected responsibility for its own crimes.
There is therefore only one truly just way of approximating restitution for slavery and settling accounts with the ruling class for centuries of exploitation and oppression. That is to make the rich pay—as explained in relation to point #2 above—by collectively expropriating their wealth, ending capitalism, and replacing it with socialism.
4. WE WANT DECENT HOUSING, FIT FOR THE SHELTER OF HUMAN BEINGS.
We believe that if the landlords will not give decent housing to our Black and oppressed communities, then housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that the people in our communities, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for the people.
The urgent need and capacity for society to provide quality housing for all is clear. Homelessness is not due to a lack of available housing units, but to the inability of individuals to pay the extortionate market rates. It has never been the policy of the landlords (the largest of which are the banks) to “give” decent housing to anyone.
The basic inclination of this demand is absolutely correct: high-quality housing should be universally accessible and is a social responsibility, requiring collective action and the involvement of the government. But there is again a lack of precision around the question of “communities” and the character of the current government. This can only introduce confusion into any discussion of how this basic demand can actually be realized. The call for cooperatives may sound more “communal” on the surface, but cooperatives generally involve many individual shareholders. This is qualitatively different from social ownership. As an example of how this demand can be made far more precise, here is what the Program of the Workers International League calls for, as part of its overall call for a nationalized, planned economy and a massive program of public works, starting with those areas in most need:
“Safe, affordable housing for all. End homelessness. For an immediate moratorium on evictions. For the nationalization of foreclosed and vacant homes, to be allocated to those in need under democratic workers’ and community control, with residents of foreclosed properties allowed to stay in their homes. No compensation to the foreclosing owners, except in cases of proven need. Rent for all housing, including Section 8 and government-owned housing, to be fixed at not more than 10 percent of wages, as part of a voluntary, national plan for housing.”
5. WE WANT DECENT EDUCATION FOR OUR PEOPLE THAT EXPOSES THE TRUE NATURE OF THIS DECADENT AMERICAN SOCIETY. WE WANT EDUCATION THAT TEACHES US OUR TRUE HISTORY AND OUR ROLE IN THE PRESENT-DAY SOCIETY.
We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of the self. If you do not have knowledge of yourself and your position in the society and in the world, then you will have little chance to know anything else.
Access to a high-quality education is clearly another basic right. However, we must understand that “history is written by the victors,” and that the dominant ideas of any society are the ideas of the ruling class. The ruling class uses the education system to justify and prettify its domination, to transform millions of children into “good little workers,” and to prepare a tiny elite to rule over them. It is therefore no surprise that the true history of the American working class and labor movement, of black struggle, of the genocide of the Native Americans, of the wars against Mexico and Spain, and much more is taught in an eviscerated form—if these things are even mentioned at all. To change the dominant ideas we must change the ruling class. Again, the WIL’s Program is an example of how a demand such as this can be made much more concrete:
“Quality education for all. Fully fund and expand our public schools, colleges and universities. End corporate encroachment into the classroom. No to means testing, vouchers, charter schools, and privatization. No to “Race to the Top” and “No Child Left Behind.” Abolish tuition fees and forgive student loans. Provide living grants and paid internships to all students. Nationalize the private universities and colleges and merge them into one united public system of higher education. For lifelong learning for all from the cradle to the grave.”
6. WE WANT COMPLETELY FREE HEALTH CARE FOR All BLACK AND OPPRESSED PEOPLE.
We believe that the government must provide, free of charge, for the people, health facilities which will not only treat our illnesses, most of which have come about as a result of our oppression, but which will also develop preventive medical programs to guarantee our future survival. We believe that mass health education and research programs must be developed to give all Black and oppressed people access to advanced scientific and medical information, so we may provide community ourselves with proper medical attention and care.
Here again, the instinct motivating this is entirely correct, but the demand itself is unfortunately not formulated in the clearest possible manner. Here is how the WIL Program takes up the demand for universal, quality health care: “For a socialized, national health care system. Free scientific research from the profit motive. Full access for all to the latest medical technology, treatments, and discoveries. Massively fund research for cures and treatment of AIDS, cancer, and other diseases. Nationalize the health insurance companies, the medical equipment and pharmaceutical industries, the mega-hospital systems and related clinics, and integrate them into a single state-owned and democratically managed and administered health provider.”
7. WE WANT AN IMMEDIATE END TO POLICE BRUTALITY AND MURDER OF BLACK PEOPLE, OTHER PEOPLE OF COLOR, ALL OPPRESSED PEOPLE INSIDE THE UNITED STATES.
We believe that the racist and fascist government of the United States uses its domestic enforcement agencies to carry out its program of oppression against black people, other people of color and poor people inside the united States. We believe it is our right, therefore, to defend ourselves against such armed forces and that all Black and oppressed people should be armed for self defense of our homes and communities against these fascist police forces.
As explained above, the current US government defends the interests of the rich. In the class war between rich and poor, the state is one of the main tools used by the capitalist minority to keep down the majority. The only way to change this is to end capitalism, a system that has been based on brutality and murder since its inception. With his biting sense of irony, here is how Marx described the early days of capitalism:
“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation . . . If money, according to Augier, ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,’ capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
A leopard cannot change its spots. Capitalism may attempt to present a “kinder, gentler” face on television, from the church pulpit, in flashy magazines, and on billboards, but the reality for millions of Americans and the majority of the planet is quite different.
As the working majority has become ever more concentrated and potentially powerful, even more tools and concentrated repression are needed by the minority to keep us down. Hence, for example, the increased militarization of the police. But this is in fact a reflection of weakness, not of strength. If they were able to maintain confidence in their rule through minor reforms and concessions alone, they could dispense with these expenses and rule with kid gloves. But in this epoch of crisis, austerity, counterreforms, and givebacks by the workers, the gloves are off and the bourgeois are preparing for an open showdown with the working class.
Along with intimidation, brute force, and laws that favor the rich and tie the workers’ hands behind their backs, the “divide and rule” tactic is another vital tool in the arsenal of the ruling class. They use racism, misogyny, homo and transphobia, xenophobia, language, religion, and anything else they can come up with to set one layer of the working class against another. The workers’ struggle against all of these forms of oppression and division are interconnected and form part of the wider class struggle against the capitalists. It should therefore come as no surprise that the police are an integral part of implementing this tactic on behalf of the bosses. Does this mean every individual cop is a racist? Not at all. Many police are black or Latino or Asian, etc. Many come from working class or even union families and live in working class conditions. Many are even members of police unions themselves.
But as a force, the police are on the front lines of the class struggle between the workers and the capitalists. As part of the repressive apparatus of the state they are given special training and powers and stand “above” the rest of society. Their true social role is to “serve and protect” the interests of private property.
When Marxists speak of “private property,” what we mean is private property of the means of production—the key levers of the economy. Those who own and control the means of production are the real masters of society. They ultimately decide who has a job, who has a home, who has health care, who gets an education—and who doesn’t. Most private property, including commercial and industrial property, is owned by the banks and big corporations. The Fortune 500 companies alone account for 75% of US GDP. An enormous amount of economic, and by extension, political power is concentrated in their hands. The vast majority of the population owns no private property; at best we have some personal property.
In a society based on scarcity for some and superabundance for the few, many kinds of “breadlines” emerge. A special force is required to police those breadlines. But who polices the police? That the police regularly take advantage of their power and position cannot be denied. The countless documented and undocumented incidents of police brutality, use of excessive force, corruption, framing of suspects, and terrorizing of poor neighborhoods is proof enough of this. But what can be done about this?
In the aftermath of the Michael Brown killing, there have been renewed calls for “community control” and for greater minority representation on the police force. The sentiment behind these demands is clear. It is an acknowledgement that the police do not represent the interests of the majority, and the desire of ordinary citizens to check their abuse of power. The problem with these demands is that it leaves the existing state in place. Once again, we find that the only solution is to end capitalism, which is the root of the organic and increasing inequality that requires a special force standing above the rest of us in the first place.
Merely shifting around individuals or bringing more blacks or Latinos onto this special repressive force will not change its fundamental character or the class interests it defends. Although many people want to “do something now,” there is no simple or quick solution to this or any other fundamental problem under capitalism. The task of the socialist revolution is to change the character of the state altogether. From the state being an expression of the rule of the minority over the majority, we seek to build a new kind of state that represents the interests of the overwhelming majority—a workers’ state. Such a state would defend the interests of the majority and would not require the kinds of laws and repressive apparatus required by the state of the capitalist minority.
Over time, as the “breadlines” of class society disappear on the basis of rising superabundance for all under socialism, the need for the state would wither away. Whatever “peacekeeping” functions that were formerly fulfilled by the police would be the responsibility of the workers themselves, in a kind of expanded neighborhood watch, with all officials being directly elected, accountable, and recallable by those they represent. If everyone is a cop, then no one is a cop. Eventually, even the workers’ state would dissolve into society itself, which would no longer be divided into classes.
The real power of the working class lies in the fact that we have our hands on the means of production. It is we who run the transportation systems, power stations, pick up the garbage, build the roads, teach the children and maintain the schools, build the infrastructure, operate the hospitals, maintain the communication networks, and on and on. If the workers in our millions withheld our labor, shut down production, and occupied the factories, streets, and strategic points throughout the country, society would grind to a halt. The capitalists would be absolutely incapable of running the workplaces themselves. No number of armed police or soldiers could force us back to work and the military would be split along class lines. Such a revolutionary general strike would clearly pose the question: who has the real power in society and who should run it?
So while the Marxists agree 100% with the right of workers to arm and defend themselves against the attacks of the bourgeois state, our perspective for exercising workers’ power involves far more than publicly bearing arms and provocatively marching through the streets. The images of the Black Panthers, clad in leather and boldly wielding rifles and shotguns in the streets of Sacramento, were certainly iconic, and they had every right to do so. But we must ask ourselves: was this the best tactic to win support from wider layers of workers?
First of all, we must be clear that small armed groups cannot substitute themselves for the organized power of millions of workers. Small groups cannot defeat the combined, centralized power of the bourgeois state and its tools of repression. Furthermore, while these actions certainly brought the BPP plenty of attention, they were also used by the media, the police, and the FBI as a way of marginalizing and isolating the Panthers from the broader working class. Far from building class unity, that tactic at that time had the opposite effect. We recognize the courage and self-sacrifice of the Black Panther Party activists, who were willing to put everything on the line for a cause they believed in. However, our task is not to organize sensational stunts, no matter how correct in principle. Rather, we must patiently build solid and lasting ties between different layers of the working class. This again underlines the importance of class unity, and of advocating consistently and openly for such unity, without which the working class cannot hope to defeat our class enemy.
As for the use of the word “fascism” in later versions of the Program: We should not play fast and loose with terminology for the sake of agitation; we must be very careful how we use certain terms. Society is a complex phenomenon. Therefore, Marxism is not an absolutely precise science. But it is not called “scientific socialism” for nothing. For Marxists, fascism has a very precise meaning. Fascism is a very specific social phenomenon in which a military dictatorship has a mass social base of support in the form of the “enraged petty bourgeoisie,” which is used as a battering ram to destroy the workers’ organizations, trade unions, and political parties. In Italy, Germany, and Spain, the ruined middle class shopkeepers, rich peasants, professionals, children of the rich, and the upper layers of military officers and the clergy provided Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco with the shock troops of the counterrevolution. This was only possible after the defeat of one revolutionary movement after another in these countries, in which the workers were betrayed by their traditional leaders and parties.
In the 1920s and 30s, there was still a large, rural, backwards, and conservative peasantry and true “middle class” in these countries. This is simply not the situation today in the US, nor was it the case in the 1960s. The overwhelming majority of the population is part of the working class. The so-called American “middle class” is largely made up of better-paid wage workers and professionals. They may have a better quality of life than a fast food worker, but they are wage laborers all the same. Over 80% of Americans today live in urban areas. The alleged social weight of the typically more conservative rural population is artificially inflated both politically and socially. The ruling class leans on these often confused and backwards elements as a counterbalance to the concentrated power of the workers in the cities. But even the rural population in modern-day America is overwhelmingly proletarian in its basic conditions of life.
That there are criminal, reactionary individuals and even organized groups with fascist sympathies and aspirations, both within and outside the state apparatus, is beyond doubt. But the reality is that the social base for fascism no longer exists in the US (or in any other country on the planet). If the workers are defeated time and again, and no revolutionary leadership is present to help ensure the completion of the socialist revolution, then open reaction may well come to power. In such a scenario, military dictatorships, suspension of basic rights, martial law, right-wing terror, and rampaging pogroms by the hired thugs and mercenaries of the capitalists would be possible. But without a mass social base among the petty bourgeoisie, it would not be fascism as such. Theoretical and terminological clarity must therefore not be sacrificed in the interests of emotional impact. There are no shortcuts to training ourselves politically and educating others in the ideas of Marxism, and our program must strive to be the pinnacle of clarity.
8. WE WANT AN IMMEDIATE END TO ALL WARS OF AGGRESSION.
We believe that the various conflicts which exist around the world stem directly from the aggressive desire of the United States ruling circle and government to force its domination upon the oppressed people of the world. We believe that if the United States government or its lackeys do not cease these aggressive wars it is the right of the people to defend themselves by any means necessary against their aggressors.
The Marxists agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment expressed in this point of the Program. We understand that foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy. As Clausewitz explained, “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means.” As the home policy of the bourgeois is to make a profit “by any means necessary,” that is also its aim abroad. Therefore, the struggle against imperialist war is intimately connected with the struggle to end the predatory rule of the capitalists here at home. To change the nature of the state’s foreign policy we must change the nature of the state that carries out that policy.
It should be noted that this point in the Program originally included the following: “We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.” While the sentiment is again understandable, the way it was presented could only lead to confusion. For example, it is likely that many at that time might have interpreted this to mean that only poor white and Latino working class kids should be drafted and sent to Vietnam. This would obviously work against building working class solidarity in the struggle to replace the pro-war government of the capitalists with a workers’ government. Fortunately, having recognized this error, this Point was removed in later versions of the Program.
9. WE WANT FREEDOM FOR ALL BLACK AND OPPRESSED PEOPLE NOW HELD IN U. S. FEDERAL, STATE, COUNTY, CITY AND MILITARY PRISONS AND JAILS. WE WANT TRIALS BY A JURY OF PEERS FOR All PERSONS CHARGED WITH SO-CALLED CRIMES UNDER THE LAWS OF THIS COUNTRY.
We believe that the many Black and poor oppressed people now held in United States prisons and jails have not received fair and impartial trials under a racist and fascist judicial system and should be free from incarceration. We believe in the ultimate elimination of all wretched, inhuman penal institutions, because the masses of men and women imprisoned inside the United States or by the United States military are the victims of oppressive conditions which are the real cause of their imprisonment. We believe that when persons are brought to trial they must be guaranteed, by the United States, juries of their peers, attorneys of their choice and freedom from imprisonment while awaiting trial.
The criminal “justice” system in the US provides justice only for the rich. Its adherence to the “rule of law” is based on the rule and laws of the capitalists. The penal system is a component part of the state, along with the police, the courts, the judges, and so on. Although Marxists fight for and defend the maximum democratic rights that we can achieve under the present system, we should have no illusions in these laws or institutions. Calling for trials by juries of peers, with attorneys of choice, to be guaranteed by the United States, misses the key point, which is the need to do away with the capitalist state altogether. There can be no real justice for the exploited and the oppressed within the constraints of an inherently anti-worker and anti-poor legal framework.
10. WE WANT LAND, BREAD, HOUSING, EDUCATION, CLOTHING, JUSTICE, PEACE AND PEOPLE'S COMMUNITY CONTROL OF MODERN TECHNOLOGY.
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are most disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpation, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
This final catch-all clause raises many important additional demands, such as housing and education (although these are already mentioned earlier in separate points). Unfortunately, there is again no indication of how all of these things are to be achieved. At a minimum, a party’s program should give at least some concrete ideas as to how it proposes to achieve its aims, particularly in the culminating final point.
It then ends with extensive quotes from the Declaration of Independence. Written in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson (who incidentally, was a slave owner), the Declaration was one of the key programmatic documents of the American bourgeois revolution. Using the lofty language of liberty and the enlightenment, it boldly declared the colonies’ right to overthrow British rule and to strike their own course. The masses rallied around the call for freedom and eventually defeated the world’s mightiest empire. But the political and economic result was that a new minority of property owners took control. Instead of the British monarchy and its colonial governors, the thirteen colonies that would become the United States were now dominated by an oligarchy of rich merchants, bankers, lawyers, and slave plantation owners.
Perhaps the aim of including these passages was to underline the right of a people to change its government if it no longer represents the majority’s interests—a sentiment with which Marxists wholeheartedly agree. Or maybe it was to illustrate the betrayed ideals of the American Revolution, using the language on which this country was founded to point to its revolutionary origins and promise. Whatever the intent, these points could surely have been made or developed in new and original language, linked organically to the needs of the new revolutionary epoch and tasks of the working class revolution. Economic and social conditions are constantly changing, and our forms of expression and social organization must change as well. The US economy and society have changed dramatically since the lines of the Declaration were written. Society has grown beyond the narrow limits of capitalism, which constrain our further development. The market economy and nation-state are the two great fetters on the development of society; only the socialist transformation of society can sweep these aside and lay the foundations for genuine freedom.
There is no question that the Declaration is a masterpiece of eloquence. However, this is the voice of the rising bourgeois class, a vision and historical justification for its rule. In a programmatic document for 1966, what was needed was the vision and historical justification for the rule of the working class and socialism. This observation is really just a detail, but the unattributed inclusion of the American capitalists’ founding document does show a bit of the naïvety of the drafters of the Black Panther Party Program, despite their instinctive revolutionary intuition.
Learning the lessons
The Program of the Black Panther Party was certainly audacious and brought attention to the many problems confronting American blacks and other oppressed minorities. Its radical language and vision was an important starting point to open a dialogue on the way forward for black workers and youth. In the end, however, the Program was limited and not sufficient to meet the tasks it set for itself: the liberation of the oppressed from the shackles of exploitation and oppression.
A revolutionary socialist transitional program must be comprehensive as well as concise. Despite the many important points raised in the BPP Program, there are many important elements missing. Given the limited experience and focus of the authors, this is understandable. But it nonetheless proved to be a fatal flaw.
For example, there is no mention of the trade unions, which are an indispensable tool in the workers’ struggle against the bosses. To be sure, many trade unions, especially in the 1960s, were far to the right and included many racists. But this does not absolve revolutionaries of the duty to fight for our ideas within these elemental organizations of the working class, and to extend them to every sector of the workers.
And although the BPP considered itself a party, it had a very limited scope. There is no mention in the Program of the need for broader political representation for the working class—a labor party. Even if the BPP had grown to 1 million members, it would still be a relative drop in the bucket in a country as large as the US. The masses of workers do not understand small organizations. The vast majority will not abandon their previous political prejudices on a whim to join a small group with no real prospect of victory.
To this day, the US working class lacks a political party of its own. We are left to “choose” between the big business Democrats and the big business Republicans—or to abstain from electoral politics altogether. A labor party, based on the numbers and resources of the labor unions, would transform American politics. It would provide an extensive field for revolutionary Marxists to raise their ideas in the broader working class, to fight for a socialist program, and to fight shoulder to shoulder in the daily struggles of our class. Such a demand is a crucial lever for driving a wedge into the pro-Democratic Party trade unions, and to give the workers a broad perspective for participation in politics on the basis of class independence.
There is also nothing in the program about working class solidarity and internationalism. While it mentions the right of people in the colonial world to fight back against imperialism, it does not take as its starting point the international nature of the class struggle. A truly revolutionary program must be socialist in content, and socialism must be truly international or it is not socialism. The democratic plan of production must ultimately encompass the entire planet. This is not out of sentimentality, but for very concrete economic and political reasons. In his masterpiece In Defense of Marxism, written in 1939–40, Leon Trotsky explained it concisely in the following way:
“Even bourgeois economists have calculated that with a planned economy it would be possible to raise the national income of the United States rapidly to 200 billion dollars a year and thus assure the entire population not only the satisfaction of its primary needs but real comforts. On the other hand, the world revolution would do away with the danger from without as the supplementary cause of bureaucratization. The elimination of the need to expend an enormous share of the national income on armaments would raise even higher the living and cultural level of the masses. In these conditions the need for a policeman distributor would fall away by itself. Administration as a gigantic cooperative would very quickly supplant state power. There would be no room for a new ruling class or for a new exploiting regime”
This would only be possible on the basis of a Socialist Federation of the Americas, as part of a World Socialist Federation.
The BPP also gained a lot of attention for its community activism, programs for basic education, and food programs for children. These are all laudable aims, and it was important to point out the vacuum that existed (and still exists!) in providing these essential services. However, the task of the revolutionary party is not to fill this void on a piecemeal basis, but to fight for the political and economic power to end these disparities and shortfalls once and for all. What is needed are jobs for all at union wages, with union control over hiring and firing and union hiring halls in every neighborhood, more and better schools, housing, and public transportation, parks, gardens, youth recreation and fitness centers, theaters, and cinemas. A small organization cannot possibly fill these needs. Only the coming to power of a workers’ government could lay the basis for seriously addressing these problems.
Role of the Marxists
Some may think we are being too hard on the comrades of the BPP. They may say, “At least it was a start! At least they did something!” Without question, the founders and activists of the BPP deserve our admiration for throwing down the gauntlet to capitalist society. But a beginning is not a finished product. We must learn from the experience of our class and improve upon our past efforts. Malcolm X and the BPP called for struggle “by any means necessary.” However, for Marxists, the ultimate criteria is which methods actually work to build class unity, consciousness, and confidence?
The task for Marxists at the time the BPP emerged was to work in solidarity with them to provide ideas and perspectives for transforming the BPP and its program into tools for the broader working class to fight and win against capitalism. What was needed was a friendly, constructive, and comradely critique, working shoulder-to-shoulder to win the confidence of the BPP membership.
Unfortunately, the Socialist Workers Party, the largest Trotskyist organization in the US at the time of the rise of the BPP, did not approach things in this manner. After Trotsky’s assassination in 1940, they had lost their theoretical compass, and were drifting in one direction after another like a rudderless ship on a stormy sea. While they did introduce some basic Marxist ideas to the Black Power movement, they did not stand firmly on a clear class position. Instead of patiently explaining, raising the political level, and winning the most self-sacrificing participants in the movement to revolutionary Marxism, they looked for shortcuts to build their organization, and ended up by pandering to and tail-ending Black Nationalism.
In the coming period, similar movements may arise. Some socialist activists are even calling for a “New Black Freedom Movement”—but is this really what black workers and youth need? The Workers International League stands in complete solidarity with all exploited and oppressed workers. We do not “reduce everything to class.” We are fully aware of the complex intertwining of race, gender, sexuality, and class, and how oppression is experienced by different individuals and layers of the population. But we firmly believe that the experience of the BPP shows that what is required is working class unity, independence, organization, and a socialist program.
Without a clear revolutionary program guided by Marxist theory, an organization or movement can end up in opportunism and reformism on the one hand, and ultraleftism and adventurism, including individual terrorism and criminality, on the other—and sometimes both. We must combat these tendencies to derail the workers’ movement and keep our eye on the prize: building a revolutionary Marxist party. There are no shortcuts to this historic and difficult task.
Many members of the Black Panthers did eventually go beyond the limits of the initial program, edging toward a more clear class conception of the problem of racism. For example, in 1972, Huey Newton wanted to add the demand for free health care for all, which led to tensions within the party. And by 1970, Bobby Seale had drawn the following conclusion: “Racism and ethnic differences allow the power structure to exploit the masses of workers in this country, because that's the key by which they maintain their control. To divide the people and conquer them is the objective of the power structure . . . it's really the small, minority ruling class that is dominating, exploiting, and oppressing the working and laboring people . . . So in essence it is not at all a race struggle . . . In our view it is a class struggle between the massive proletarian working class and the small, minority ruling class. Working-class people of all colors must unite against the exploitative, oppressive ruling class. So let me emphasize again—we believe our fight is a class struggle and not a race struggle.”
However, it was too late. These new conceptions of broader class unity were not systematically developed and accepted. The framework laid out in the earliest versions of the program were the basis on which most of the BPP comrades had been trained. Many insisted that this was a “blacks only” movement and did not want to work with whites or Latinos or anyone else. In addition, many of the socialist ideas that entered the party came in the distorted form of the New Left, Stalinism, and Maoism, which included elements of nationalism and a bureaucratic approach to revolutionary politics. Nonetheless, they were able to win some white workers. The danger of successfully uniting the struggles of black and white workers was indeed a mortal danger to the capitalists, and they redoubled their efforts to crush and divide the Panthers.
However, despite COINTELPRO and other efforts to smash the BPP, we must understand that repression alone cannot destroy an idea or a movement whose time has come. Take the example of the Bolshevik Party in Russia. They suffered even worse repression and harassment, with tens of thousands of activists arrested, imprisoned, deported, tortured, and killed. But the program of the Bolsheviks summed up the needs of the workers and peasants of the Russian Empire and succeeded in uniting them in a mass struggle against tsarism and capitalism. By “patiently explaining,” and through a crystal clear presentation of the perspectives and tasks of the revolution, the Bolsheviks were able to win the majority to their program and successfully overthrow the capitalists—in spite of the vicious repression. Once their ideas captured the imagination of the masses and became a material force, it was lights out for the supporters of the old system.
We can draw many lessons from the experience of the Black Panthers. It is said that “history wastes nothing.” The magnificent struggle of the comrades of the BPP to challenge the white supremacist status quo was not for nothing. But the fundamental problems facing a majority of black Americans remain. Along with their class sisters and brothers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, young black Americans are still searching for a way out of the blind alley of poverty, unemployment, and lack of opportunity. There is a thirst for ideas and organization, and an unconscious searching for a program that can effectively guide their action. The task of the Marxists is to give concrete form to those unconscious strivings.
Genuine black liberation is only possible on the basis of the socialist revolution. As we explained in Black Struggle and the Socialist Revolution:
“The problems faced by black workers are the problems of the working class as a whole, only in a far more acute form. They form an especially oppressed substratum of the working class. But it is not a matter of asking the super-oppressed layers of the class to simply wait until the broader working class is good and ready to struggle. As Marxists we are at the forefront of the daily struggle against racism and discrimination. The burning desire to fight against oppression must be harnessed into raising class consciousness and unity, to break all workers from the Democratic Party, to build a mass party of labor that can represent the interests all working people. The struggle against the double oppression of blacks and other minorities must be linked to the struggle of the working class as a whole. In the final analysis, the only way blacks and other minorities in the US can achieve their emancipation is through the socialist transformation of society.”
September 19, 2014