History of The BPP Part 3: National Growth and The Lumpen Line
This is the third of a seven part series on the history, legacy, and continuing relevance of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Founded in 1966 in the spirit of the politics of the late Malcolm X, and highly influenced by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, the Black Panther Party was a Black revolutionary organization. For a time they played the leading role in the Black Liberation struggle in the U.S. and inspired people across the country to take up revolutionary politics. This stood in sharp contrast to many prominent voices in the civil rights movement who pushed for making peace with the white supremacist capitalist society. In the previous article in this series we analyzed the Panthers’ rise to national prominence, and in this issue we will continue to examine their expansion beyond the Bay Area, including some obstacles that they faced in this process. We also assess how these obstacles related to the Panther’s line that the lumpen-proletariat should be the leading force in the revolution.
After the Panther’s protest at the California Capitol1, they quickly gained national prominence. Black people around the country wanted to join the Panthers, and get involved in the Black Liberation Struggle. The Panthers saw that Black Liberation was tied up in the overall struggle for revolution in this country, and that the two could not be separated. The Panther’s militancy appealed to many who had become disillusioned with the dominance of mainstream politics within the Civil Rights movement, which advocated for integration into white communities and making peace with white supremacist society. This integrationist strategy was criticized by Malcolm X as naive and impossible. After his death, the Panthers took up a radical political approach inspired by his legacy. As a result of the clarity of the Party on this question, Blacks folks from all over were eager to get involved in the revolutionary struggle based on overcoming the actual oppression Blacks faced in housing, employment, police brutality, and beyond. The Panthers would quickly open chapters in major cities across the country.
However, this rise to prominence and the protest at the California State Capitol also led to increased surveillance and repression of the Party by the U.S. government. Prior to this point the Panthers had faced harassment at the hands of the local police and some degree of surveillance by the FBI. In fact, after the protest at the State Capitol, a number of key leaders would be arrested. This marked the beginning of a series of arrests and assassinations aimed at crippling the movement and dividing it internally. As the Panthers rose to national prominence, the state took up more serious and sophisticated efforts to infiltrate and destroy the group. In 1968 then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover declared that the Panthers were the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and massively expanded the state’s repressive campaign against them.
Thousands of Black people across the country were inspired by the militant and revolutionary approach of the Black Panther Party.
Despite this repression, the Panthers began to open chapters across the country and grew for a number of years. There was incredible mass enthusiasm for the group because it put the need for militant struggle for Black Liberation front and center in a clear and straightforward manner. However, during the process of growing the Party also made a series of mistakes that ultimately led to its downfall. This period was defined in large part by this contradictory development: On the one hand, the Party grew by leaps and bounds across the country while their newspaper circulation surpassed 200,000 copies weekly. On the other hand, the Party made a series of mistakes that caused them to begin to crumble from within. These mistakes contributed to and greatly exacerbated problems caused by state repression. These included the FBI’s arrest and assassination of key leaders as well as the state’s ability to seed the Party with informants. All of this undermined trust and comradeship in the Party.
It is important to understand how the Party was simultaneously growing quickly while also making key mistakes that would eventually lead to its downfall. Otherwise it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking “the Panthers were all good until they were bad,” or simply blaming their defeat on the state repression that they faced. The reality is that while the state repression hurt the Panthers, they could have handled things differently and been better prepared to deal with the brutal crackdown they faced at the hands of the FBI and the U.S. government. It is important to understand that the defeat of the Panthers was not inevitable; otherwise it is easy to fall into nihilistic defeatism and believe that it is impossible for the people to stand up to their oppressors and win. By studying the Party’s history, it becomes clear that they made a number of mistakes while growing, and these mistakes eventually began to add up and crippled their organization. Seeing things in this way is crucial for revolutionaries and activists alike. In order to advance the struggle today, it is necessary to sum up the successes and failures of past movements. That way successes can be emulated while also avoiding the repetition of past mistakes.
The Lumpen Line
The Panthers made a series of mistakes that left them vulnerable to infiltration. These included underestimating the degree to which the state would try to infiltrate and destroy their work, operating openly in a way that exposed their members to attacks and killings from the police, and a willingness to let people join the party who had not yet proven their commitment to the struggle and their grasp of the Party’s political principles. These errors all related to the Party’s line that lumpen-proletariat was the most revolutionary class.
The lumpen is the social class which lives through scamming and cheating others. This class includes everyone from organized criminals engaged in large-scale theft, to low-level drug-dealers, pimps, and scam artists who make a living ripping off poor folks.
The Panthers' funk band was called “The Lumpen”
The Panthers were confused about the nature and composition of the lumpen, particularly from reading the work of Franz Fanon. Because of this confusion many members from lumpen backgrounds exercised leadership within the Party that reflected the ideas they developed from their lives as scam-artists, pimps, and dealers.
While there is a basis for people from the lumpen-proletariat to get involved in revolutionary politics and serve the people, lumpen ideas and politics cannot play the leading role in any revolutionary movement, because the lumpen’s daily existence necessitates predatory practices at the expense of poor and working people. Whether it be running scams, oppressing women who are forced to work as prostitutes, or selling addictive drugs to the people, the lumpen exists as a parasitic social class that enriches itself at the expense of others. When members of this class can and do get involved in a revolutionary movement, there is a need to struggle against the various predatory ideas and outlooks they have internalized as part of their lives as con-artists.
Unfortunately, the Panther’s did not fully grasp the need to wage this struggle, in part because they were confused about the nature and composition of the lumpen-proletariat. One aspect of this confusion was their belief that the lumpen was composed not only of various scam-artists but also the unemployed and underemployed. This confusion is expressed in Bobby Seale’s book Seize the Time, in which he stated that the lumpen-proletariat includes “the brother who’s pimping, the brother who’s hustling, the unemployed, the downtrodden, the brother who’s robbing banks, who’s not politically conscious.”2 Bobby’s understanding of the class conflated objective factors—such as what one does for a living—with subjective factors like political consciousness. What’s more, based on this definition, the lumpen-proletariat would include nearly every poor person in the country who is not a revolutionary.
Because of this confusion, Bobby and others in the Panthers were concerned with Marx and Engels’ dismissal of the lumpen as “the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society,” which allow it to easily become “a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue”3 against the revolutionary movement. The Panthers believed that the vast majority of Black folks belonged to the lumpen-proletariat, and that Marxist analysis was effectively dismissing the possibility of them getting involved in the revolutionary movement. In 1968 Bobby even went so far as to say that “Marx and Lenin would probably turn over in their graves if they could see lumpen proletariat Afro-Americans putting together the ideology of the Black Panther Party.”4
However, what Bobby and the Panthers did not understand was that their analysis actually bunched together members of the lumpen-proletariat and the working class. The unemployed, underemployed, and those dependent on various meager social welfare programs are part of the working class. Workers are regularly laid off, especially during times of crisis and seasonal shifts, and are forced to go without employment for months or even years at a time. According to Marx, the lumpen only includes those who make a parasitic living praying off the poor and oppressed through things like pimping, drug-dealing, and running various cons. In Capital: Volume 1, Marx describes the lumpen-proletariat as “vagabonds, criminals, [and] prostitutes,”5 and he is careful to differentiate them from those who are unemployed and underemployed.
In contrast to the lumpen line, Marxists argue that the working class is the most revolutionary class because its emancipation is only possible through the collective emancipation of all the oppressed and exploited people. Therefore as a class, it has an objective interest in struggling against every form of oppression and breaking all chains. Ajith, a member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), summed this up well:
“Though other classes and social sections will be important partners in the historical movement to destroy capitalism (its highest stage of imperialism) they cannot provide leadership. In each instance the issue of liberation is specific[…]Being specific they are also partial, in the context of the whole revolutionary project. But this is not the situation of the proletariat. Capitalist bondage is different from earlier exploiting systems like caste-feudalism. It imposes no other compulsion on the workers other than the pangs of hunger. And since, in principle, [workers] are free, there can be no specific liberation suiting them. Every form of exploitation and oppression must be ended. Thus the emancipation of the whole of humanity becomes a precondition for the liberation of this class. The leading role of the proletariat derives from this objective social position. It obliges the proletariat to continue the revolution all the way up till realizing a world rid of exploitation.”6
Of course, this does not mean that working class people are automatically going to be revolutionaries. In class society everyone is bombarded by the ideology and propaganda of the ruling elite. As a result, many internalize the competitive and brutal logic of our oppressive society. There is a need for a revolutionary organization to struggle against these tendencies among the people, and help them overcome the ideological domination by the ruling class. In order to succeed in this effort on a mass level, it is important for revolutionary organizations in capitalist countries—where working-class people are the vast majority of the population—to base themselves among the working class and organize in line with their objective interest in revolution.
In contrast to this, the Panther’s line led them to welcome a large number of lumpen and semi-lumpen people into leadership roles within the Party. They were also unclear about the need to struggle against lumpen ideology. This in turn led to the growth of predatory, adventurist, and capitalist ideas in the Party.
Much of this confusion over the lumpen-proletariat probably came from Frantz Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth, which was very influential for Huey and Bobby. They read it before writing the Party’s Ten-Point Program. In fact Bobby’s definition of the lumpen-proletariat was likely heavily influenced by Fanon’s own definition in The Wretched of the Earth which included “the pimps, the hooligans, the unemployed, and the petty criminals.”7
In Fanon’s view these people “would throw themselves into the struggle for liberation like stout working men” and play the leading role in urban revolutionary struggles. However, the experiences of the Algerian Revolution, from which Fanon drew this conclusion, point in a different direction. Given the anti-people ideas of con-artists and organized criminals who sold addictive drugs to the poor, the lumpen was generally very willing to cut deals with the French Colonial government and often worked to sabotage the revolutionary struggle.
In a similar fashion, many of those who became snitches, informants, and agent-provocateurs for the FBI were members of the lumpen-proletariat. For example, Louis Tackwood, an informant in LA, was a petty criminal before becoming an informant and agent provocateur for the LAPD. Although he never was a Party member, he affiliated with the Panthers, and used his experiences on the street to get close to the Party and to deflect criticism of his lack of discipline and wrecklessness. He played a very destructive role, as did William O’Neil, who was also a member of the lumpen-proletariat; he was busted for stealing a car and impersonating a federal officer, at which point he was offered a deal by the pigs to become an informant on the BPP. William went on to join the Chicago Panthers and was instrumental in helping the police and FBI kill Fred Hampton, who was the leader of the Chicago branch of the Party.
The Panthers’ lumpen line left them open to such informants infiltrating their organization. To an extent, this line was present in the Party from the beginning. In his autobiography Huey stated that prior to the founding of the Party he “ran with the brothers on the block,” and that “any money [he] had came from petty crime, an old pattern.”8 While studying at Merritt College in Oakland, Huey said he was “was an angry young man at this time, drinking wine and fighting on the block, burglarizing homes in the Berkeley Hills.” Even after founding the Party he still held onto these ideas to some extent. They were integral to the idea that the Party needed to relate to and win over “the brothers on the block,” by which he meant the pimps, petty criminals, and drug dealers. While Huey himself only stole from the rich in the Berkley Hills, some of those from a lumpen background who joined the Party had a history of preying on the Black community.
Revolutionary organizations must base themselves among the most oppressed and exploited sections of the masses, and in doing so they will also win over some lumpen and anti-people groups that primarily make their living by preying on the people and committing crimes against their own community. These individuals and groups will in turn transform their actions and outlook as part of the revolutionary struggle. However, it is impossible for a revolutionary organization to base itself primarily amongst the lumpen-proletariat. This class, insofar as it ekes out its existence by social predation, cannot be the leading class in a revolutionary movement. At best some members can be wavering allies, but this class has fundamentally capitalist aspirations based off competition instead of cooperation. Historically they have betrayed the revolutionary movement time and time again. They are generally willing to compromise with and be bought off by the ruling class.
The Panther’s confusion over the political nature of the lumpen-proletariat was not just a theoretical question, it was also a question of immediate practical and political importance. The Party’s lumpen line led them to allow a series of members who harbored deep anti-people ideas to exert a big influence on the development of the Party’s line itself. This negative impact extended far beyond snitches; it limited the Party’s ability to unite with positive forces, to self-critically assess their shortcomings, and to develop an organization of professional revolutionaries who make it their lives’ work to destroy the old world and create a new society free from oppression and exploitation.
Growth and Setbacks
After the protest at the California Capitol, the Panthers grew quickly. The demonstration had inspired folks around the country and raised the Party to prominence on a national level. This provided an impetus for the growth of a whole series of party branches in major cities across the country. Within a year of the protest, new branches would be founded in Richmond, San Fransisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York City. Mumia Abu-Jamal, who joined the Panthers in Philadelphia when he was fifteen years old, described this rapid growth of the party:
“The Party, not yet a year old, was growing at a rapid pace. Over the next three years, the Party expanded almost exponentially. It first spread to Richmond [California], then over the bay to San Francisco, and then southward to Los Angeles. It sprang out from California to every possible region where a Black community welcomed its youth and energy; north to Seattle; east to Kansas City; to the Black Mecca of Chicago; to Boston; New York’s Harlem, Bronx, and Brooklyn boroughs; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Baltimore; Nashville, Tennessee; and New Orleans.”
Mumia takings calls at the Philadelphia Panther office in 1969.
By 1969, over forty chapters would exist nationwide, and the party’s membership grew to over 4,000. In these cities, the Panthers ran a series of political programs aimed at organizing the Black community and providing much needed revolutionary political education. At same time, they also worked with many members of the lumpen-proletariat who brought with them various ideas they had developed from their predatory existence.
The Panthers also began to link up with the anti-war movement which was growing in strength and prominence. The Party’s leaders were invited to speak all over the country at various universities and political events. This provided them with the means to spread their message far and wide and win support for the revolution among a broad section of the population. The readership of The Black Panther newspaper grew exponentially during this period as well.
However, this growth did not go unnoticed by repressive forces. In August of 1967 then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ordered the agency to focus their Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to “neutralize” the Panthers who he referred to as a “black nationalist hate group.” COINTELPRO was originally developed as a McCarthy-era program aimed at destroying the Communist Party USA and crushing the labor movement. However, the FBI maintained and expanded the program as the Civil Rights movement grew, using it in an attempt to hold back the growing mass movement in opposition to Jim Crow segregation in the South and ghetto segregation in the North. When the Black Liberation and New Communist movements emerged in the late 1960s, the FBI was quick to shift COINTELPRO’s focus to undermining new revolutionary groups like the Panthers and the Revolutionary Union.
In the case of the Panthers this began by the FBI coercing a member to become an informant. Earl Anthony was an early member of the Party who had attended college and was studying law. After joining the Party he was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. To avoid being conscripted he went to his draft board hearing dressed in “full BPP uniform and regalia.” He warned the draft board that he was a Communist, a member of the Panthers, and stated that, “If they do send me to Vietnam, I will shoot my lieutenant and sergeant in the head once we get into the field, and escape over to the North Vietnamese. So I am telling the draft board . . . Hell, no, I won’t go.”
After leaving the Panthers Earl Anthony went on to publish a book (with the help of the U.S. government) that spread lies and rumors aimed at discrediting the Panthers.
A few days after this incident friends he had made in law school after joining the Party showed up at his apartment. Except, they weren’t really friends and they weren’t really in law school. They were FBI agents who had pretended to be law students so they could monitor Earl and the Party. Anthony described how they coerced him into becoming an informant that day:
“They came right to the point: I was under investigation for the bombing of the Van Nuys draft board. I was stunned. Not only did I know nothing about the bombing, I hadn’t even been told or heard on the news that the place had been bombed.
“Of course they said they didn’t believe me, but would offer me a deal. They would not charge me if I would become an informant for the FBI inside the Black Panther Party. I started laughing, and instantly O’Connor threw a right fist upside my jaw, knocking me against the wall. Kizenski grabbed me, and O’Connor threw a series of rights and lefts, knocking me unconscious.
“When I regained consciousness, they were still there, sitting down with guns drawn on me. Kizenski said something about them being Vietnam vets and that they didn’t like my ‘smartass’ attitude. They proposed their deal to me again. They would get the charges of bombing my draft board dropped, because no one was killed, if I became an FBI informant-agent-provocateur inside the Black Panther Party.
“I agreed and as far as I know, became the first of dozens of Black Panthers who were to accept the same type of deal from the COINTELPRO division. Still others became local police informants. There were soon so many of us that we were informing on each other.”
Anthony, like many other snitches, would go on to play a destructive role in the Party’s history. Before it became clear that he had become an informant, the Party sent him to Los Angeles to help found a branch there. Over the next two years he would be at the center of a series of controversies and incidents that seriously impeded the Party’s growth in LA, nationally, and internationally. Right off the bat, he started making trouble in Los Angeles. The Party needed to develop a branch in this city, especially given the oppression that people faced and the mass outrage at this oppression which had erupted in the Watts Rebellion a few years prior.
Out of this rebellion an organization had formed known as the “US Organization.” US was an eclectic organization which had a whole series of strange practices. Some of what they did was progressive, like advocating for a Black Studies department at UCLA, while others were stranger, such as the Fu Manchu style mustaches that members grew to imitate their leader, Maulana “Ron” Karenga. Relatedly, all US members had to learn some KiSwahili and adopt KiSwahili names, even if their ancestors were from a part of Africa that did not speak this language. Overall, US was a Black cultural nationalist organization that saw the taking up of separate language, clothing, and rituals as a way to liberate people rather than revolutionary struggle.
After the founding of the LA chapter of the BPP, Earl Anthony pushed the Party into greater and greater conflict with the US Organization. This would eventually lead to the death of two Black Panther Party members, Deputy Minister of Defense Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and Deputy Minister of Information Jon Huggins. Although the US Organization was eclectic and cultural nationalist and it would have been hard for the Panthers to work with this group, a violent and deadly confrontation between the organizations was not inevitable and could have been avoided if not for the role of informants in sowing the seeds of conflict.
According to Anthony, the FBI specifically instructed him to sow discord between the two groups. The FBI also used other methods to create conflict such as sending forged death threats to the Panthers from US and vice versa. They also sent mocking and derogatory cartoons to both organizations, making it appear to both the Panthers and the US organization that the other was aiming for an armed conflict.
This conflict was exacerbated by the presence of a large number of former gang-members in the Panthers. Bunchy was a former member Saulson Street Gang, and he had done time for armed robbery. In prison he joined the Nation of Islam, and met Eldridge Cleaver. Later, through conversations with Eldridge Cleaver, the Panther’s Minister of Information, he decided to leave the Nation and join the Panthers. Bunchy helped found the LA Chapter of the Panthers, and played very positive role in getting the Panthers going in LA. However, he also maintained ties to the Saulson Street Gang, and even recruited a number of their members into the Party. While some were sharp and revolutionary, many still retained various lumpen ideologies, and were quick to escalate feud between the Panthers and the US Organization; they did not realize that the FBI was stoking the flames behind the scenes.
Anthony was not the only informant involved in sparking the conflict, there were informants in the US Organization as well. There was also another member of the LA Panthers who was working for the FBI, Elaine Brown,9 who would go to be instrumental in the split in the Party as well as its eventual destruction. Prior to joining the Party, Elaine Brown was living with and having an affair with a former OSS (the precursor to the CIA) officer Jay Richard Kennedy who was at that point an FBI and CIA informant. While they were together he wrote a novel about a CIA agent tasked with assassinating Mao Zedong. In her book, A Taste of Power, Elaine Brown describes how Kennedy taught her to “be a woman” and how he got her interested in joining “the movement.”
Brown first got involved in the Party by making sexual advances on Eldridge Cleaver. She and John Huggins then started sleeping together while John’s wife Erika was pregnant. At this point tensions between the Panthers and the US Organization were high. Two groups had been struggling on a number of fronts. One issue was the appointment of the director of UCLA’s newly founded Black Studies department. The Panthers realized that whoever was appointed would have a large influence on the Black community in the area, and hoped that someone revolutionary minded would get the position. Bunchy Carter and John Huggins were both students at UCLA and had a good sense of the lay of the land. The US Organization aimed to have a more cultural nationalist director appointed.
Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown ran for political office together in 1973. She was instrumental in pushing the Party away from revolutionary politics and towards electoral reformism.
In large part due to the work of Elaine Brown and Earl Anthony, the conflict between the Panthers and the US Organization had grown acute and the struggle threatened to boil over into violence. Given this climate, the Panthers arranged a meeting to deescalate the situation. Geronimo Ji-Jaga was the Deputy Minister of Defense of the LA chapter at the time. He was a Vietnam Veteran and his military experience and dedication to the revolutionary struggle played a key role in the LA Chapter’s growth and success, especially when the police began serious raids and attacks on the Panthers. He was later targeted by COINTELPRO and locked up for 27 years on false charges for murder, until the conviction was overturned. He described the 1969 conflict with the US Organization that led to the deaths of Jon Huggins and Bunchy Carter:
“On the campus of UCLA at a carefully pre-arranged meeting between the US group and the Panthers[…]Elaine Brown would incite a ruckus by slapping one of the US members whom she also had sexual relations with, then ran to John Huggins screaming that she’d been assaulted by this US member! John Huggins immediately pulled a 357 magnum from his waist and shot at the US member who returned fire resulting in Huggins and Bunchy’s deaths.”10
Elaine would go on to voluntarily testify in a court case on the matter, spinning a web of lies and breaking the Party’s rules against testifying in court on this sort of matter. After this disastrous incident, open conflict continued with the US Organization, often devolving into fights.
Even before the deaths of John and Bunchy other members of the LA chapter had already been critical of both Elaine Brown and Earl Anthony. However, despite these criticisms Earl was appointed by Huey to make a trip to Japan in 1968 with Kathleen Cleaver. The Party had been invited to Japan by revolutionary students who were inspired by Panthers’ work as well as the Cultural Revolution in China. However, the U.S. government prevented Kathleen from making the trip by holding up her visa.
When Earl arrived in Japan alone he proceeded to spew all sorts of nonsense aimed at discrediting the Party. In his autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide, Huey P. Newton described how this played out:
“When Anthony got to Japan, everything went wrong. Instead of stating the Party’s position, he presented a personal platform, a strictly white and Black line—about how the Black world would fight the white world, and that would be the end of it. His whole talk was just that simple, the same line Stokely Carmichael was following. He showed no awareness of class issues and did not even try to describe them in terms of this country. To him the whole problem was a matter of racism, which cried out for separatism.
“I heard a tape recording of some of the Japanese sessions—a friend brought it to me—and I was angered. The Japanese students put Anthony down left and right. They asked good questions—questions that dealt with contradictions in a dialectical way—whereas Anthony was dealing in absolutes. For him, all meaning lay in the white world’s oppression of Blacks. Certainly, this is much of the problem, but it fits into a larger context. Ironically, it was the Japanese students who stated the Party’s actual position by pointing out other reasons and circumstances that complicate the Black-white situation. Anthony betrayed the purpose of his visit by going on a solo trip and narrowing the possibilities of international solidarity. No wonder the Japanese students were disillusioned with the Party[…]
“Anyway, when we heard the tapes, we were disgusted. The Central Committee censured Anthony and relieved him of all duties dealing with sensitive issues. He went back to Los Angeles and worked with the Party for a while, but eventually dropped out and wrote a shallow and opportunistic book about the Party.”
What Huey didn’t know at the time was the Earl dropped out of the Party shortly after the death of Jon and Bunchy because he came under criticism and suspicion of being a snitch. It was only years later that Earl Anthony would publicly admit that he was an FBI informant. To this day, Elaine Brown continues to deny that she was an informant and has gone on to a lucrative government-funded career in the non-profit sector.
Even after all the destruction wrought by these informants in the clashes with the US Organization, the branch in LA continued to grow in numbers and organizational capacity for a time, largely due to the dedicated and principled work of members like Geronimo. However, these mistakes with informants did hurt the Party. After Anthony’s disastrous trip to Japan he probably should have been expelled from the Party. Even though the Party didn’t know he was a snitch, it was clear from his comments on the trip that at the very least he did not understand or agree with the Panthers program.
Likewise, greater cautions should have been taken to prevent Elaine Brown from playing such a destructive role. Geronimo tried, but as a local leader in LA he did not have the ability to prevent her from reeking havoc in other locations. Additionally, Geronimo was framed and locked away shortly after the killings of John and Bunchy. Elaine would eventually go on to date Huey and convince him to call all BPP members to dissolve their local chapters and come to Oakland.
Additionally, the influxes of lumpen and semi-lumpen people to the branch hurt their ability to deescalate the conflict with the US Organization, and left them open to infiltration by snitches including Julio Butler, who was a former marine and police officer and would go on to be the key State’s witness in framing Geronimo. Another snitch in the LA Chapter was the third in command, Melvin “Cotton” Smith. He had used his knowledge of and access to weapons to build his credentials with the Panthers. From the beginning he was an informant, and provided the FBI and LAPD with floor-plans of the LA Panther’s headquarters to help the police in their raids. He also planted illegal firearms in the building before raids which gave the LAPD justification for raiding the headquarters based on “tips” of the presence of illegal weapons.
Given the destructive role of these and other informants, it is important to understand what mistakes the Panthers made that led to their infiltration by so many informants. This way similar mistakes can be avoided and related obstacles can be overcome. Developing a clear understanding of these mistakes also breaks through the illusion that the defeat of the Panthers was inevitable and the related pessimism that incorrectly concludes that the state will automatically destroy any resistance and that victory for the people is impossible.
Because the Panthers considered unemployed and underemployed workers to be part of the lumpen-proletariat they also developed a strong social base among members of the Black working class and for a time this counteracted the development of lumpen ideas within the organization. However, this confusion and other related mistakes prevented the Party from self-critically assessing their short-comings and eventually mistakes began to add up.
By 1973 these ideas were increasingly dominant within the Party, on both sides of the split. In his autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide, Huey quoted Mikhail Bakunin, claiming that “The brigand [bandit]…is the true and only revolutionary,”11 and argued that Bakunin “spoke for the most militant wing of the First International.” In short, the Party had gone from advocating for the working people of this country to overthrow the ruling class in a revolution, to arguing that the most and only revolutionary thing one can do is to rob the rich. While no revolutionary will shed tears when capitalists are robbed, there is a big difference between thievery—even if a portion of the loot is shared with the poor—and revolutionary struggle. While the former steals part of the wealth of an individual capitalist, the latter aims to overthrow the entire capitalist class. Thievery can be carried out by a small groups of individuals, but revolution requires uniting a huge portion of the population in the struggle. It is no coincidence that Huey began to promote this idea of robin-hood politics around the same time the Party turned away from revolutionary struggle and began electoral campaigns.
Despite these serious issues that developed in the Party, the Panthers remained a revolutionary force at the front of the Black Liberation Struggle for a number of years. While the growth of the Party was marked by a series of errors and setbacks, there were also big victories and steps forward. Making mistakes and facing setbacks are inevitable part of revolutionary struggles. If revolutionary organizations are able to self-critically assess their mistakes and rectify various errors, then even huge setbacks can be overcome. For a time the Panthers were able to do this, but eventually serious mistakes compounded and they split and eventually collapsed. The next article will cover the history of the BPP in Chicago where Fred Hampton and others were able to make big strides in uniting Black, Latino, and white people in revolutionary struggle.
For more on this protest see the previous article in the series: BPP Part Two: Growth in the Bay ↩︎
Bobby Seale, Seize the Time, p. 21-22. ↩︎
Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, p. 20. <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/index.htm< ↩︎
Seize the Time, p. ix. ↩︎
Karl Marx, Capital: Volume I, p. 797. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ In various activist circles there is a tendency to refer to prostitutes as “sex-workers” and to argue that “sex work is just like any other form of work.” However, in addition to the work being brutally oppressive, prostitutes are forced to sell sexual intimacy and present themselves in a degrading and sexualized fashion in order to survive. While prostitutes will join the revolutionary movement, they are not going to be a leading force in the struggle. Additionally, unlike other forms of labor, prostitution has no place in a pro-people society. ↩︎
Comrade Ajith, On the Maoist Party, https://thenaxalbari.blogspot.com/2013/05/on-maoist-party.html. ↩︎
Franz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, p. 130. ↩︎
Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide, p. 83. ↩︎
Revolutionary Suicide, p. 101 ↩︎