This is the fifth 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 white supremacist capitalist society. In the previous article we discussed the revolutionary organizing of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party and the assassination of Fred Hampton. In this article we will analyze the issues and conflicts in the Black Panther Party that created the basis for the eventual split in the Party. These issues include problems with communication and coordination between national leadership and local chapters, theoretical differences over revolutionary strategy, and repression from the FBI and U.S. Government.
As the Black Panther Party (BPP) grew and developed it faced a series of different obstacles and contradictions. The Party’s transformation from a small revolutionary organization in the Bay Area to a national organization with dozens of chapters in different cities brought a whole series of new questions and challenges. When the BPP was a relatively small organization in the Bay, it was easy enough to work together and to resolve issues and political differences. However, in coordinating revolutionary organizing across the country, a whole bunch of new challenges arose, not the least of which was state repression from the police, politicians, and FBI.
Unfortunately, as the Panthers grew they made a series of major mistakes that increasingly limited their ability to function as a revolutionary organization. These mistakes included operating too openly in the face of violent state repression, being too quick to accept people as members, creating opportunist alliances with unprincipled political organizations, and functioning in an undemocratic fashion which left the Central Committee unwilling and unable to effectively respond to feedback and criticism from rank-and-file members and local leaders. As these mistakes began to add up, they resulted in deep rifts in the leadership of the party. In particular, Huey P. Newton and other leaders in Oakland came into increasing conflict with branches throughout the country as well as with Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver who was then living in exile in Algeria.
Through their Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO)1 the FBI was able to exploit these rifts and foment animosity in the Party leadership which ultimately lead to a split.
A 1969 FBI memo instructing agents on how to forge letters to make it look like they were written by the Party. These techniques were used to sow division within the BPP.
While there were significant political differences in the Central Committee, as well as between the Central Committee and local leadership, it was not inevitable that the split would occur. If the Party had handled things differently it could have been avoided and the mistakes, though significant, could have been rectified. Instead, the Party split, with one section, under the leadership of Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, adopting a reformist electoral strategy that gave up on revolution, and another section, loosely organized under the leadership of Eldridge Cleaver, adopting the adventurist tactics of isolated incidents of urban guerilla warfare. The former continued to operate under the name of the Black Panther Party, while the latter called itself the Black Liberation Army. In addition to this, there were a number of branches which disagreed with Huey P. Newton and the Oakland leadership, but did not join the Black Liberation Army.
The split itself occurred because of a complex mix of internal issues and external pressures. The major catalyst for the split was Huey P. Newton’s decision to expel the Panther 21—members of the NYC party branch who were on trial for their lives as the state tried to frame them—after he received fake letters (written by the FBI) which convinced him the NYC Panthers were planning to assassinate him. Eldridge Cleaver responded to the expulsion of the Panther 21 by publicly criticizing Huey on national television. Eldridge’s criticisms of Huey were fueled by letters sent to him by the FBI, in which they posed as Panthers and smeared Huey, claiming that he was living a luxurious life off of the backs of the rank-and-file members.
This deep mistrust and paranoia in the BPP was fueled by COINTELPRO and the FBI’s forged letters, but it was only possible because there were deeper issues in the Party. For example, neither Huey nor Eldridge double-checked with the supposed authors of the letters they received to confirm their validity. They were both too quick to accept the lies that they read, and the FBI had written the letters to appeal to both Huey and Eldridge’s egos. Likewise, being publicly open about the membership of their Central Committee made leaders easy targets for state-sponsored violence and repression, which only fueled mistrust and paranoia.
The Panthers were eventually cripled and defeated by the mistakes that led to the split. Unfortunately both sides of the split had made serious errors and were unable to rectify these issues after going their separate ways. Instead, the Panthers under Huey’s leadership shifted towards reformism and electoral politics, eventually recalling all the branches to Oakland so they could be under the more direct control of the Central Committee and to funnel people into a campaign to get Bobby Seale elected as Mayor of Oakland. The Black Liberation Army members either were killed, were arrested, went into exile, or dropped out of revolutionary politics altogether, and the loosely organized cells fell apart.
Although the expulsion of the Panther 21 would play a big role in the split, this was never inevitable. After their arrest, huge mass protests broke out against the pigs efforts to frame the Panthers yet again.
The split and the eventual defeat of the Panthers were huge setbacks for the revolutionary movement in this country. Therefore, revolutionaries today must learn from these mistakes and develop effective strategies to link open and underground work in a manner that defends against state repression and allows for effective coordination between branches of a revolutionary party in different cities.
Basis for the Split
While government repression and the FBI’s COINTELPRO played a huge role in the split, it’s important to see that it was actually primarily internal issues in the Panthers that led to the divisions in the Party. The FBI was able to take advantage of these issues, and deepen the animosity between leaders in the BPP, but if the internal issues in the Party had not existed in the first place—or if the BPP had handled these issues better—the FBI would not have been able to take advantage of them.
One of the main issues that the Panthers faced was how to handle the rapid growth of the Party. In 1968 they had around 800 members in a number of cities around the country. This was already a big increase from the several dozen members they had when they protested at the California State Capitol in May of 1967. This growth allowed the Panthers to take on a huge number of tasks. They ran community programs including a news service, a petition drive for community control of the cops, liberation schools, free breakfast programs for children, free medical clinics, free clothing drives, free busing to prisons, senior programs, and more.
The possibilities only increased after the Party membership ballooned from 800 to around 4,000 in the 18 months following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The killing of MLK left many Black folks feeling that it was not possible to change the system from within, and the Panthers were the best organized and most significant revolutionary Black organization in the country. Naturally many people flocked to the Panthers. And even when people did not join the Party outright, they started reading the Panthers’ newspaper, which grew to a peak of over 200,000 copies sold each week.
Despite the incredible growth of the Party, new issues also arose, and they actually arose in part because of the growth of the Party. For one thing, the BPP did not have a systematic approach for dealing with the new members and branches springing up. The Panthers only required recruits to study the Panthers’ 10 Point Program and a few other documents to become full members. This generally consisted in a few weeks of political education before someone officially joined the Party.
Mumia Abu-Jamal talking on the phone in the Philadelphia office of the BPP, 1969.
However, the U.S. is a very oppressive, racist, and patriarchal country, and these ideas—which are primarily promoted by the ruling class—are internalized by the people in many ways. Even when someone calls themselves a revolutionary and wants to join an organization like the Black Panther Party, they still will have internalized many aspects of the oppressive ideology of the capitalists pigs who run this country. Therefore, transforming into a dedicated revolutionary is a long-term process, which cannot be accomplished by a few weeks of political education alone.
This is something that the Chicago chapter of the BPP dealt with pretty well. They initially had a big influx of members, and even though everyone in the chapter knew the 10 Point Program and had completed the introductory political education, Fred Hampton and other local leaders recognized that many members still had a ways to go before they became fully-dedicated revolutionaries. So, they stopped accepting new members to the Chicago chapter for a time, and instead focused their efforts on consolidating existing members and struggling against negative tendencies like individualism.
However these efforts were largely confined to the Chicago chapter, and other branches did not adopt a similar strategy. This led to many people joining the Party who would later drop out due to hardships. Many people who were not truly revolutionary also joined the Party during this time. This could have been a good thing if there had been a systematic plan to help these people become revolutionaries. However, this didn’t generally happen, so some of these new recruits pushed the local chapters in different negative directions, from reformism to unprincipled alliances with unreliable groups. Perhaps even more negative was that the FBI was able to take advantage of the Panthers’ hasty approach to new recruits, and seed local chapters with snitches and provocateurs.
The Panthers as a national organization also made some mistakes as new potential chapters sprang up. For example, in the Spring of 1969 a group of people in Philadelphia wanted to organize themselves into a branch of the Black Panther Party. When they called the National Office, they spoke to then-BPP Chief of Staff David Hilliard who simply told them “You don’t have to be a Panther to make revolution,” and left it at that. He proposed no steps to work with them as they tried to get a Philadelphia branch of the Party off the ground. Mumia Abu-Jamal, a member of the group who was trying to found the BPP chapter, described how this response from the National Office confused him and others in Philadelphia:
“[Hilliard’s] statement, while objectively true, did not discourage those of us who were determined to join the organization that seemed closest to our dreams. The meetings [in Philadelphia] continued, as we pondered National’s seeming indifference. Did they get calls like that all the time? Were they being cautious of folks they didn’t know? Were they seriously trying to limit expansion? Was this a test, to see if we were serious about opening a branch? These questions were never sufficiently answered.”2
After a determined effort by Mumia and others, the National Office eventually did recognize the Philadelphia chapter. However, the unsystematic manner in which the Party dealt with the founding of new chapters led to a lot of issues. At times the Panthers were too quick to welcome new chapters into the Party without first ensuring that they understood and agreed with the Party’s politics and program. At other times, they were too dismissive and failed to even investigate the potential chapters. This discouraged a lot of people who were looking to get involved in the BPP and the larger struggle for Black Liberation and revolution.
Big Bob Bey (front left), Elbert (Big Man) Howard (front center), and Audrey Jones (front left) at a press conferencein front of the BPP’s Washington D.C. headquarters. Through his connection to Huey, Bey was able to negatively influence events across the country.
This rapid and disorganized growth of the Party also meant that even when branches did get going in new cities and even when they were full of dedicated revolutionaries, difficulties in communication arose between these branches and the Party leadership. This fed into mistrust between national and local leaders, which Huey and the Central Committee increasingly handled by adopting a commandist approach. Instead of listening to local input and respecting the views of local leaders and their knowledge of the local situation, Huey and the others became increasingly dismissive and began to view all dissent as a problem rather than part of the normal functioning of democracy within a revolutionary organization.
In order to function as an effective revolutionary organization at the national level it is essential to have good coordination between the national and local leaders, to encourage democratic discussion and debate, and to develop a culture of comradely support and trust in branches and between them. Unfortunately the Panthers made a series of mistakes on this front that they were never able to properly assess, understand, and address.
As disagreements with the leadership of Huey P. Newton grew, the Central Committee responded by sending Oakland Panthers to other branches to run things in the place of local leaders. Needless to say, this led to a lot of animosity. For example, Huey sent his personal body guard Robert “Big Bob” Bey to be an emissary to the New York branch in the Bronx in 1970. Bey was one of Huey’s oldest friends, but he was not cut out to lead the New York Panthers, who were already a well organized force despite facing heightened police repression. In her autobiography, Assata, Assata Shakur describes these issues: “We had a bit of a leadership problem with Robert Bey and Jolly, who were both from the West Coast. Bey’s problem was that he was none too bright and that he had an aggressive, even belligerent, way of talking and dealing with people. Jolly’s problem was that he was Robert Bey’s shadow.”3
On her first day working in the Harlem office, Bey berated Assata for leaving her Panther newspapers on a desk instead of in their proper place on a rack. No one had ever explained this procedure to her. Assata responded by criticizing Bey for his bureaucratic tendencies and his abrasive demeanor. After she left the office, he expelled her from Party. The next day after she told him off, he apologized and reinstated her.
People in the community frequently gathered around the BPP’s Harlem office. In this way the BPP’s offices served as places for the people to gather and discuss issues in the community and around the country.
While this incident may seem relatively minor, it actually reveals deep issues in the Party at the time. Assata was able to win her reinstatement and continued to be involved in the Panthers’ work, despite her concerns about Bey’s leadership; however, many others were expelled or driven away by the abrasive and bureaucratic attitude of Bey and other leaders sent by Huey to run other Party branches.
Mumia Abu-Jamal emphasizes that it was Bey’s personal loyalty to Huey—instead of his political clarity, leadership abilities, or skills as an organizer—that led him to be appointed to leadership of the New York Branch:
“The term ‘Huey’s Party’ arose when Big Bob Bey, one of Huey’s personal bodyguards and a former Captain from West Oakland, became a personal emissary from Newton to the New York branch in the Bronx[…]As one of Huey’s oldest friends, and a dyed in-the-wool Panther, Big Bob regarded any deviation from proper Party ideology or form as more a personal than a political affront.
“He became well-known among New York Panthers and dreaded for his fits of temper. He reflected an unbending allegiance to the Minister of Defense, and his countrified Californi-ese could be heard bellowing in offices throughout the five boroughs: ‘Nigga, I ain’t lettin’ you do nuthin’ that’ll fuck up this Party! Uh-Uhn! Not this Party, not Huey P. Newton ’s Party!’
“Big Bob’s reference was more than rhetorical, for, in fact, in essence, in people’s heads, it was Huey’s Party. He was the first Panther in the hearts and minds of his comrades.”4
Mumia’s analysis is important not only because it shows the limitations of Bey as a leader, but also because it helps to explain why Bey was accepted as a leader despite his obvious shortcomings. It was not simply that Huey and the Central Committee imposed their will on the other branches. In the minds of many Panthers Huey was the leader and the Party was Huey’s. This reflected deeper issues of individual leadership in the Panthers, and these issues are a symptom of the broader individualism in U.S. society. This is important to see, because the Panthers, while a strong revolutionary organization, were also a product of the society in which they existed. They did amazing work to struggle against oppressive attitudes in the U.S. and within their organization, but they were blind to some, and unable to fully overcome others.
This appointment of Bey to run the NYC branch of the Panthers came at a time of increased tensions between the East and West Coast Panthers. Huey had just been released from jail and during his time behind bars the New York Panthers had risen to national prominence. The FBI and NYPD had tried to frame the “Panther 21” in New York on ridiculous phony charges, and this outrageous campaign of political suppression had catapulted the New York Panthers into the national spotlight. Afeni Shakur, Dhoruba bin Wahad, Lumumba Shakur, Michael “Cetawayo” Tabor, Beth Mitchell, and Zayd Malik Shakur in particular were well spoken and charismatic organizers. Before being framed in the Panther 21 trial they all had tremendous success in organizing in New York and growing the Party chapter there. After bail was set at $100,000 each (approximately $670,000 in today’s money), a national effort to free them got underway and people from all over the country rallied to support them.
The infamous 1969 police raid of the LA Panthers office. During this raid over 300 heavily armed police surrounded the office and arrested all the Panthers with the aid of the snitch Melvin “Cotton” Smith who planted illegal firearms in the office.
The successes in NYC and the rise to national prominence of the Panther 21—as well as other leaders like Fred Hampton and Bobby Rush in Chicago, Ericka Huggins in New Haven, and Elmer “Geronimo Ji-Jaga” Pratt in Los Angeles—were good things for the Party. New political leaders were coming forward across the country and people were rallying to support them. This was particularly important because with the rapid growth of the Party there was an objective need for new leadership at multiple levels. With a bunch of committed revolutionaries developing in the Party, it was definitely possible for Panthers to work through the variety of internal issues that they faced. They could have ironed out the details of coordinating on a national level and had numerous local leaders join the national-level leadership of the Central Committee.
The Panthers began this process when Fred Hampton was added to the Central Committee shortly before he was assassinated. However this process was scattered disorganized. The Panthers were not systematic in promoting local leaders to the Central Committee and reorganizing the national structure of the BPP. Their efforts were repeatedly cut short and eventually abandoned altogether. One of the final efforts to do so took place right after Huey was released from jail in 1970. He went on a tour around the country, and made plans to move the Panthers’ national headquarters to New York City.
However, even this effort was marked by the growing East-West divide in the Party. Melvin “Cotton” Smith was sent by the Central Committee to prepare the new Party headquarters that was to be set up in Harlem on 127th Street. He claimed to have expert knowledge of weapons and security, but was in fact an informant on the payroll of the FBI. When he had previously worked in LA he had planted illegal weapons in the Panthers’ office right before a police raid that helped the pigs frame people on phony charges. Cotton was also a drunk and, unsurprisingly, failed to follow through on the basic tasks of preparing the new Headquarters. Assata described how Cotton operated:
“I visited the house of 127th Street many times over the next few months. Hard as I tried, I could not find one shred of progress. I came to the conclusion that Cotton was a big mouth and a drunk. But everybody kept telling me how hard he was working, so I figured he was working on something secret they had obviously decided not to tell me about.”5
The reality was that Cotton was not doing any secret work for the Party. He was just drinking, snitching to the pigs, and spreading rumors to sow distrust between the Central Committee and the New York Panthers.
BPP Chief of Staff David Hilliard speaking at the Lincoln Memorial in 1970. Hilliard’s role as leader of the Party was questionable at best, given his fundamental confusion about revolutionary politics.
However, he used his connection to Huey to deflect any criticism of his work in New York. This led to big setbacks. For one, the new Headquarters were never completed, and so Huey and the rest of the Central Committee (who were mainly based in Oakland) never moved to New York. This move would not have resolved all of the issues in the Party, but it could have gone a long way to overcoming the suspicion with which East and West coast Panthers had begun to view each other.
Cotton’s rumor mongering also contributed to the growing paranoia and distrust in the Party. At this time the FBI’s COINTELPRO was in high gear and rumors were flying around. The most destructive were the stories—spread by the FBI and their snitches—that Panthers were being secretly killed by other Panthers. This fed into an air of extreme distrust, and left many comrades doubting each other. Despite this air of mistrust, Cotton was able to use his personal connection to Huey to deflect any and all criticisms of his suspicious and drunken behavior. Cotton’s ability to shield himself from criticism represented a deep issue in the Party that went beyond just snitches. It wasn’t just local leaders and emissaries who got their positions in the party due to their personal connection with Huey. Some people in high positions in the BPP were also there in large part due to their personal friendship with Huey P. Newton.
For example, David Hilliard, the Panthers’ Chief of Staff, was childhood friends with Huey. The fact that one of Huey’s childhood friends was a high-ranking member of the Party was not a problem by itself. However, Hilliard was actually pretty incompetent, and did not understand very basic aspects of what the Panthers were about. In Hilliard’s autobiography, This Side of Glory, he described how one night, drunk and frustrated with some setbacks that the Panthers were facing, he walked out of his home and took a “potshot” at a passing cop car. He called this venting “the madness.” Mumia explained the larger significance of Hilliard’s drunken actions:
“While this behavior perhaps reflects the actions of a drunkard, therefore somewhat mitigating the charge, it raises justifiable questions about his ability to effectively manage the affairs of the nation’s largest Black revolutionary organization. It suggests that Hilliard was in over his head. Shortly thereafter, Hilliard is counseled by Seale, who explains to him the rudimentary notion of the revolutionary process as an extended one, and not an emotional or instantaneous response to external stimuli. David listens as if it’s the first time he has heard such ideas. Clearly, then, while Hilliard may have held Huey’s trust and his affection, it is doubtful that he possessed the managerial or interpersonal skills necessary for a group composed of young, angry Black people who wanted to fight to bring freedom to their people. That didn’t mean, of course, that David was somehow stupid or didn’t learn the lessons needed to do the task. It means only that Hilliard’s prerequisite for the job was his deep, personal loyalty to Huey, and while that served Huey’s interests, it did not necessarily serve the interests of a growing, changing Black revolutionary political party.”6
Hilliard, despite his shortcomings and limitations, was not a snitch or a provocateur. However, he was certainly not a capable leader. His loyalty to Huey was his main qualification, and this was a serious problem. This problem is even more evident in the case of people like Cotton, who professed loyalty to Huey as a way to deflect criticism of their actions. Had Cotton and others like him been subject to an honest evaluation and serious criticism it would have at least become clear that they were not following through on important political tasks, such as preparing the new organizational Headquarters. This sort of criticism could have eventually even revealed their underlying dishonesty and the fact that they were snitches.
Huey P. Newton during a 1968 interview while he was on trial. The time that Huey spent in jail changed him because he was subjected to solitary confinement and other forms of torture.
It’s important to see that these problems with individuals like Cotton, Bey, and Hilliard went beyond the individuals themselves. They were symptoms of deeper problems in the Black Panther Party as a whole. What’s more, Huey’s decisions to send people like Cotton and Bey to “watch over” local branches were often fueled by misinformation from the FBI. These fake letters often claimed to come from members of BPP branches and spread lies about how the local leadership were undermining Huey, deviating from the Party’s line, using drugs, and so on. Had local leaders been promoted to the Central Committee, the poisonous lies the FBI was spreading to the Central Committee would not have been nearly as effective, because the national leadership would have had a better understanding of the local situations.
There was also a broad need for increased democracy between the local branches and the national leadership. However, there was a broad perception among the Panthers’ that Huey was their unquestionable leader, and this was reinforced by people like Bey and Hilliard. Huey played a really positive role in founding the Panthers and developing the basic aspects of their ideology. However, like anyone, he also had his shortcomings. Some of these got worse after his time in jail, where he faced solitary confinement and other forms of torture.
It’s important to understand how much being in prison impacted Huey. When he came out he was not only paranoid, but also struggled to communicate with people in ways that had come naturally to him before. Being in jail in general, and being tortured in particular really can mess with people. Some people can come right out of jail after being tortured and jump right back into revolutionary organizing, but this is generally not the case. Torture messes with people’s minds, and some people even break when being tortured and become informants. Others have difficulties jumping back into full time organizing and leadership roles. That’s why many revolutionary organizations around the world today generally don’t let comrades fresh out of jail take up positions of leadership right away. It’s important to have them transition gradually back into political work, both to make sure that they haven’t turned into snitches and also to ensure they can handle the stresses of leadership after the grueling experiences of prison.
In particular, Huey had become paranoid after being in jail. The Party had also grown and the vast majority of members were strangers to him. When Huey was arrested in the Fall of 1967, he knew every single member of the BPP; when he was finally released from jail in the Spring of 1970, the Party had grown exponentially. Bobby Seale was also in prison at this time and Eldridge Cleaver was in exile. The FBI’s rumors and the fake letters that they sent to Huey fed into his paranoia.
Big Bob Bey (left) and Huey (right) at Huey’s retrial in 1971. After getting out of jail, Huey increasingly relied on unreliable people like Bey, simply because he had known them for a long time.
He responded by sending Panthers that he knew—like Bey and Cotton—to “fix” the issues with other branches. There were a number of different problems in BPP branches across the country. Some had failed to develop community programs, others had issues with drug use and drinking among the membership, some had issues with patriarchy, and other things as well. However, these issues could not be solved by Huey sending those loyal to him to other chapters. Instead, these emissaries—selected more for their professed loyalty to Huey than for their political clarity—created far more problems than they solved. Mumia describes how this played out:
“Huey tended to make leaders of those people that he knew from his pre-Party street life, his homies and friends. While these were undoubtedly people that he trusted, they often were people who were, quite frankly, ill equipped to handle the pressures and stresses of directing and managing an international organization.
“What appears to have happened is that guys whom Huey trusted tended to carry Huey’s water, rather than question his decisions on matters involving Party discipline. They became, not his comrades, but his emissaries, instruments of his will. It was to men such as these that the term ‘Huey’s Party’ had meaning and verity.”7
Mumia’s analysis shows how the individual leadership of Huey P. Newton, which was so crucial in forming the Party, eventually became a problem and hurt the Panthers. This doesn’t mean that Huey should have been kicked out of the Party at this point, or that he shouldn’t have been a leader. Rather, what was needed was a form of collective leadership by the Central Committee and the local leaders. This way, individual shortcomings could have been overcome, and mistakes—like Huey’s tendency to value comrades’ personal loyalty over their leadership skills—could have been avoided. A good collective approach, where others had the ability to openly disagree with Huey without being seen as treasonous, would have gone a long way to combat the paranoia and distrust that was growing in the Party at the time.
However, distrust and growing paranoia was not the only issue that Huey faced after leaving prison. After getting out of jail Huey’s new theoretical formulations became increasingly eclectic and academic. Many common people and even Party members struggled to understand what he was saying, and after spending a lot of time in prison, Huey had difficulty speaking to people in a clear and straightforward fashion. He had lost touch with the people and because of the lack of a culture of comradely criticism in the Party it became increasingly difficult for people to voice these concerns without them being dismissed out of hand.
Reggie Schell speaking in Chicago in 1969 after the police murdered Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.
Huey was the founder of the Party and every Panther had mobilized to free him. They looked up to him, and many got involved in the Party because of him. With Bobby in jail and Eldridge in Algeria, the Panthers hoped that Huey, fresh out of jail, would be able to lead them forward and help to resolve the issues that existed at the time. It was disorienting for many when Huey, who they knew only as a picture on the wall of the Party office, came out of jail and was so distant and academic.
Reggie Schell, the leader of the Philadelphia branch of the BPP, described the changes that came over Huey after he got out of jail and how these made it difficult for Huey to solve the problems that existed in the Party at the time:
“I was out in California that summer when Huey P. Newton got out of jail, and I watched it when people from the community came up and talked with him, congratulated him for coming home and told him how much they missed him and supported him. And I saw that he couldn’t talk to them. His conversation was gone, he was a million miles away from them[…]You know, everyone was talking about turning the Party around. Internally there were certain things happening that left a lot of people across the country dissatisfied.
“There was drug use, there were problems at the top; and Bobby Seale was in jail in New Haven, Connecticut, and Eldridge Cleaver was outside the country [in Algiers] and couldn’t return. We were hoping that Huey could turn it around, but when he came home we found that he wouldn’t or couldn’t do it, and the Party just started falling, people just started leaving it. The desire was gone.
“It’s not a question of individuals, really. But the people at the top, the Central Committee of the Party, they were the ones that we looked up to, the ones that inspired us to do more, and when we couldn’t get that inspiration any more, then chapters and branches across the country just started to fall apart.”8
Schell’s comments help to clarify how deep the issues in the Party were. There was a crisis of national leadership, and on the local level many branches were disorganized, lacked revolutionary discipline, and had issues with some members drinking or using drugs. However, there was also an incredible amount of positive work that the Party was doing. There was a need for the Party to sum up the lessons from their successes and mistakes, and to develop a plan to address their shortcomings.
If this approach had been taken, it would have been possible to rectify the mistakes they were making, and popularize the successes that the Party had. Branches that were struggling more could have learned from those which had overcome similar difficulties. Local leaders could have been promoted to the national leadership of the Central Committee. Better and more secure channels of communication could have been established between branches of the Party.
Differences on Revolutionary Strategy in the BPP
Unfortunately this did not happen. Instead, the FBI’s fake letters and COINTELPRO efforts continued to take their toll and exacerbate existing issues in the Panthers. The divide between the local and national leaders deepened and Huey and Eldridge grew increasingly suspicious of each other. This suspicion was fueled by the FBI’s meddling. For example, Eldridge, who was in exile in Algeria, received a series of letters forged by the FBI which claimed that Huey was disparaging Eldridge and living off the backs of the hard working rank-and-file Panthers.
Despite his shortcomings Eldridge Cleaver saw that Huey and others were pushing the Party in a reformist direction.
These letters also stroked Eldridge’s ego, claiming that he, and not Huey, should be the leader of the Party. In an internal memo in December 1970 the FBI instructed its agents to, “write numerous letters to Cleaver criticizing Newton for his lack of leadership. It is felt that, if Cleaver received a sufficient number of complaints regarding Newton it might…create dissension that later could be more fully exploited.” The FBI knew that if it could stoke divisions between these two, this could lead to a split in the Party. However, it’s important to see that the FBI was only able to drive this wedge between Huey and Eldridge because of preexisting disagreements between the two of them.
Huey and Eldridge had long standing disagreements on politics and revolutionary strategy. While both agreed that there was a need for revolution in the U.S., the two differed on how to best achieve it. Eldridge drew on Che Guevara’s idea of the foco or “focus of the revolution.” This concept is basically that a small number of armed revolutionaries need to work totally underground and engage in a series of guerrilla actions against the oppressors. The idea was that these actions would inspire the masses to spontaneously rise up and topple their oppressors.
However, history has shown that this is not a realistic strategy. First and foremost, a powerful state like the U.S. has a whole series of repressive forces, from the police, to the army, the FBI, and more. A few guerilla actions and a spontaneous uprising are not sufficient to topple such a powerful foe. Time and time again, the U.S. government has shown a willingness to deploy a large number of troops against the people, as they did in Detroit in 1967, in LA in 1992, and Baltimore in 2015, to name just a few incidents. In each of these cases unorganized rebellions, although incredibly positive, were unable to overcome the repressive force of the U.S. government.
What’s more, small guerilla actions against individual oppressors, as carried out by the Weathermen and the Black Liberation Army, did not generally inspire the masses of people to rise up. Instead, these actions tend to either scare people off, or politically disarm them because the masses falsely believe that the guerrillas can take care of all of their oppressors. Also, when these sort of organizations carry out actions like assassinating police officers, or kidnapping politicians, it tends to bring the state down hard on them, and also open the door for the government to pass a whole new series of repressive laws and protocols.
Historically Marxists have called these sort of guerilla actions by a small group of people “left”-adventurism. The tactics, while they may seem very radical and “left,” are actually based on the fantasy that a small group of guerillas can defeat the state in single combat. This doesn’t mean that there is no basis for guerilla warfare in revolutionary politics, but the specifics of where and how it is carried out matter a great deal. A small band of revolutionaries in isolation from the masses of people will have very little impact. In countries like the United States waging guerrilla warfare against the government is a suicidal prospect, unless the country is in a real state of crisis and disarray with mass uprisings already going on. The U.S. army can be deployed anywhere in the country in a matter of hours, and will easily crush a small band of guerillas.
Despite moving in a reformist direction, Huey and the West Coast leadership understood that Cleaver’s strategy would not lead to revolution, only crackdowns and arrests.
There are many places around the world today where it is possible to take up guerilla warfare. This is possible in countries where the majority of the people live in the countryside and where there is not highly developed transportation infrastructure. These are places like India and the Philippines, where revolutionaries have been waging successful guerrilla wars against the government for decades. However, even there their strategy is not one of focoism, where a small band operates at a distance from the masses. Instead, revolutionaries must “swim among the masses like fish in water,” and work closely with them to win their support and participation in the revolution.
While Huey was initially somewhat sympathetic to focoism, and to Che Guevara as a political figure, he emphasized that the Party’s primary role was to educate and organize people. This way, it would be possible to overcome the inherent weakness of a spontaneous uprising in one city, and instead coordinate a nation-wide revolution. Huey had seen how the rebellion in Watts in 1965 had been crushed, and how the police had used it as an excuse to arrest over 4,000 black people. He knew very well that spontaneous uprisings were incapable of toppling the U.S. government by themselves.
This is why, in his July 1967 article The Correct Handling of a Revolution, Huey wrote “The main function of the party is to awaken the people and teach them the strategic method of resisting a power structure which is prepared not only to combat with massive brutality the people’s resistance but to annihilate totally the Black population.” Huey also emphasized that, “The main purpose of the vanguard group should be to raise the consciousness of the masses through educational programs and other activities. The sleeping masses must be bombarded with the correct approach to struggle and the party must use all means available to get this information across to the masses.”
In the same article, he also criticized the idea that the Party should start off as a completely underground organization (as would be needed to engage in focoism), and highlighted the difficulties that arise if the masses of people do not know of the Party. How else, except through serious and patient work among the oppressed, is it possible to win their confidence? Implicit in this article was a criticism of Eldridge Cleaver’s push for the Panthers to immediately adopt a policy of urban guerrilla warfare. Huey had no pacifist illusions that it would be possible to overcome the oppressors just by non-violent means, but he also understood that the Panthers would be quickly isolated from the masses and destroyed if they adopted the tactics of guerilla warfare at the time. Huey did remain somewhat theoretically sympathetic to the idea of focoism for a time, but he consistently opposed Eldridge’s efforts to start urban guerilla warfare.
However, after getting out of jail Huey announced new theoretical formulations which on the one hand more clearly rejected the strategy of focoism, but on the other hand were increasingly eclectic and academic. It was not a coincidence that around this same time, Huey also began to advocate more openly reformist politics. All of this was wrapped up in a theory Huey called Revolutionary Intercommunalism. His basic argument was that the U.S. government controlled the whole world, that nations and even states had ceased to exist, and that there were only communities. From this incorrect conclusion, Huey argues that it was possible for communities to “delink” from capitalism and become independent revolutionary societies. While Huey claimed this was an extension and application of Marxist-Leninist theory, it clearly violated some basic lessons of this theory.
It was not a coincidence that as the BPP began to promote the theory of intercommunalism, it also increasingly adopted a cult of personality around Huey.
For example, the Marxist theory of the state holds that the state exists because of class contradictions, and that while it may present itself as a neutral entity serving the whole society, the state in fact serves the interests of a particular class. As Lenin put it, “The state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms.”9 Under capitalism, the state serves the capitalists and oppresses the workers and other poor people. The irreconcilability of this contradiction means that the only way to resolve the contradiction between the capitalists and the working class is through revolution. To carry out the oppression of the working class, and prevent a revolution, the state needs a whole series of institutions, including courts, police, the army, a legal system, and so on. Friedrich Engels—Marx’s close friend and collaborator—argued that the state’s power “consists not merely of armed men but also of material adjuncts, prisons, and institutions of coercion of all kinds.”10
So, given that capitalism still existed in the United States (and still does today), and the various repressive and coercive institutions also had not been abolished, it is not clear why Huey concluded that “the non-state has already been accomplished” in the U.S. and around the globe. It seems strange that, after spending three years navigating the courts and the prisons (two major institutions of the U.S. state), Huey would conclude that the state no longer existed. This conclusion not only contradicted the basic aspects of Marxist-Leninist theory, but also Huey’s own direct experiences!
What’s more the experiences of Watts, Detroit, and a whole series of other uprisings in the 1960s, showed that the U.S. government was not willing to let poor communities determine their own destiny. Instead, when people rose up against their oppressors, huge amounts of military force was deployed the crush these uprisings. Given this, it should have been clear to Huey that “delinking” would not be feasible, simply because the communities in question were kept as part of the U.S. not only by economic ties (i.e. cities needing food from the countryside), but also through repressive force. In short, without overthrowing the government, it’s not possible for people to establish a revolutionary society. Any individual communities, or even whole cities which try to do this, will be crushed by the police and military.
Huey’s argument for Revolutionary Intercommunalism seemed to be based on his idea that because the U.S. had developed into an empire, nations had ceased to exist. In this formulation he also conflates nations and states. As he put it,
“The United States, or what I like to call North America, was transformed at the hands of the ruling circle from a nation to an empire. This caused a total change in the world, because no part of an interrelated thing can change and leave everything else the same. So when the United States, or North America, became an empire it changed the whole composition of the world. There were other nations in the world. But ‘empire’ means that the ruling circle who lives in the empire (the imperialists) control other nations. Now some time ago there existed a phenomenon we called—well, I call—primitive empire. An example of that would be the Roman Empire because the Romans controlled all of what was thought to be the known world. In fact they did not know all of the world therefore some nations still existed independent of it.”11
Huey’s argument is that once a nation is subsumed by an empire, it ceases to be a nation. This raises the question of what constitutes a nation. Generally a nation is understood by Marxists as a group of people who live in a given territory, and share a common language, culture, and economic life. This means that even if a people are conquered or occupied, they do not necessarily cease to be a nation. For example, although the Palestinian people were conquered and colonized by Israel, the Palestinian people are still a nation, and still fighting for the creation of a Palestinian state. Likewise, the people in Vietnam were still a nation, although colonized by the French, then the Japanese fascists, then the French again, and then the U.S. Even through all of these imperialist occupations, they never lost their shared culture, language, territory, and economic life. And eventually they were able to win liberation from U.S. occupation.
Despite more than 70 years of Zionist occupation and settler-colonialism, the Palestinian people are still a nation and are still fighting for self-determination.
In contrast to this understanding of nations, Huey argued that “if a nation cannot protect its boundaries and prevent the entry of an aggressor, if a nation cannot control its political structure and its cultural institutions, then it is no longer a nation, it is something else.” This confuses the nation (the group of people) with the state (the institutions like the police, courts, Congress, tax system, etc.). When a foreign power invades another country, they generally destroy or heavily modify the state system to suit their imperialists interests. For example, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq the Bush administration toppled Saddam Hussein, disarmed his army, and set up a military dictatorship called the “Coalition Provisional Authority” to rule the country. However, invasions do not always destroy the nation. For example, Iraqis still lived in Iraq even after the U.S. invasion. Only when the invasion corresponds to a systematic extermination and mass displacement of nearly all the people in question, does the destruction of a nation take place.
However, Huey’s eclectic theory ignored these basic facts and negates the possibility of a nation existing as soon as a people are occupied or invaded. Today many of the governments around the world are neocolonial, and they therefore serve the interests of foreign capitalists and imperialists far and above the interests of their own people. These countries, while nominally independent and run by domestic leaders instead of foreign colonial governments, still primarily serve the interests of foreign countries and multinational corporations. Under Huey’s theory this would mean that the people in these countries no longer are a nation. And even in imperialist countries today, or the feudal kingdoms of old, the people were never in control of the political institutions, which only serve the interests of the elite. So here too, according to Huey’s theory, nations would not exist. Obviously this makes little sense.
Given these confusing articulations, it was hard to see a way forward for revolutionary politics in the country. The Panthers had previously called themselves Revolutionary Internationalists, meaning that they supported the international working class movement and the struggle for a global classless and communist society.
A BPP newspaper from September, 1969. For a time the Panthers practiced a Revolutionary Internationalist politics and supported revolutions around the world.
This entailed building up the revolutionary movement in the United States, fighting for socialism, and working closely with groups from a variety of other ethnic backgrounds as part of this effort. It also meant lending all sorts of support to revolutionary movements around the world, as the Panthers did by linking up with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, supporting the Chinese Revolution, and actively encouraging Black soldiers in the U.S. army to defect and fight for the Vietnamese. However, with the development of the new theory of Revolutionary Intercommunalism, Huey explicitly argued that it was impossible to have Socialism in the United States, and didn’t really explain why. This left many Panthers confused about the direction of the Party.
Eldridge in particular was concerned that the shift to Intercommunalism would lead to reformist politics. These concerns had merit. A few years after the split, Huey recalled all the Party’s branches to Oakland to support Bobby Seale’s unsuccessful campaign to become Mayor. In part due to his isolation in Algeria, and due to his predisposition to focoism, Eldridge grew increasingly concerned about the overall direction of the Party. Many of these concerns were valid, but the way Eldridge proposed to resolve them—namely through immediately initiating Urban Guerrilla Warfare—was mistaken. When the BLA did eventually try to pursue this strategy it led to a massive crackdown and the death of numerous members.
It may seem strange that there was such an intense political struggle in the Panthers over these questions. One might be tempted to think that this conflict was primarily about personality and that Huey and Eldridge were just being short-sighted and egotistical. Of course both of their personalities and shortcomings played a role in the split. However, it’s important to see that this struggle was not simply a matter of conflicting personalities.
The reality is that the Panthers were at a major political crossroads. They could not simply keep organizing in the way in which they had. A number of issues had arisen within the Party that needed to be resolved, and the U.S. government was targeting them with a massive campaign of violent suppression and espionage. There was an objective need for the Panthers to make some changes, the question was just how things had to change. Unfortunately, the strategies proposed by Huey and Eldridge both had major issues.
Huey’s shift to the theory of Intercommunalism meant an abandonment of revolutionary politics in practice and a shift towards academic reformism. In effect, this was an attempt to avoid repression by adopting an opportunist and reformist politics which the U.S. state would view as less threatening. This strategy also called for Huey and the Central Committee to have greater authority over all local chapters, and ultimately led to the recall of all Panthers to Oakland to support Bobby Seale’s mayoral campaign.
A flier for a 1967 rally organized by the Panthers that brought together anti-war activists, radical students, white revolutionaries, Black Liberation organizations, and more. These sorts of events show what was possible if the Panthers had not fallen apart.
Eldridge’s strategy was no better. To avoid suppression he advocated for the Panthers to go totally underground and take up guerilla warfare. He also pushed for a more decentralized leadership with the Party operating as a series of loosely affiliated cells. In practice this led to the adventurist politics of the Black Liberation Army. They launched a few sporadic and poorly planned attacks on the police, and only brought further suppression down on the Black Liberation struggle before the BLA ceased to exist entirely.
Neither Huey nor Eldridge’s strategies were a real way forward for the Black Panther Party. The former represented a shift to right-opportunism and the latter to “left”-adventurism, both of which ultimately liquidated the revolutionary potential of the BPP. This liquidation was not inevitable, but there was a real objective need for the Panthers to adjust their strategy and rectify their mistakes and shortcomings. Unfortunately, they were unable to do so, and this theoretical conflict over political strategy ultimately exploded into open public conflict and led to the split.
In 1970 the Black Panther Party was at a crossroads. They had grown into a massive nation-wide revolutionary organization with chapters in dozens of cities across the country. The Party was the most advanced and militant organization in the Black Liberation Struggle, and they had won the confidence of the masses. However, they also faced serious internal issues including problems with local chapters, lack of discipline and commitment among sections of the membership, problems with coordination and relations between national leadership in the central committee and local leaders, increased state repression, and more. In order to go forward as a revolutionary organization they had to sum up their successes and failures and resolve many of these issues. Unfortunately, the BPP was unable to do so, and growing conflict internal to the Central Committee and between the Central Committee and local leaders ultimately led to a split in the Party. In the next issue of the Red Star we will discuss the events of the split itself.
COINTELPRO was an FBI “counter-intelligence” program designed to destroy revolutionary groups like the Panthers. ↩︎
Mumia Abu-Jamal, We Want Freedom, p. 47 ↩︎
Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography, p. 222 ↩︎
Mumia Abu-Jamal, We Want Freedom, p. 47 ↩︎
Assata, Assata: An Autobiography, p. 222 ↩︎
Mumia, We Want Freedom, p. 221-222 ↩︎
Mumia, We Want Freedom, p. 221 ↩︎
Reggie Schell, “A Way to Fight Back”, in They Should Have Served That Cup of Coffee, p. 61-62 ↩︎
Vladimir Lenin, State and Revolution, Chapter 1. Online here https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/ch01.htm ↩︎
Friedrich Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Chapter 9. Also quoted in Lenin, State and Revolution, Chapter 1. Online here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/ ↩︎
Huey P. Newton, “The Correct Handling of a Revolution,” July, 20 1967, in To Die for the People, p.15-16 ↩︎