What Black Lives Matter Can Learn From the Black Panthers

Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, founders of the Black Panther Party.

The Black Panther Party was perhaps the closest thing the U.S. has ever had to a revolutionary communist movement. Black college students, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers in 1966 in Oakland, California. The group — which combined black power self-determination with Marxism — was active until the early 1980s and played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement.

Even today, much of the Black Panthers’ history has been downplayed or erased from history. The average American likely holds an image in his head of the Black Panther Party as a “militant,” or even “terrorist,” gun-wielding, white-hating organization. This deceiving propaganda is, indeed, no accident.

The Black Panthers instituted free community breakfast programs for poor and underserved children in their neighborhoods. They routinely “policed the police,” by informing black citizens of their rights while the police were arresting them. They published and distributed their own party newspaper, The Black Panther, knowing full-well that the capitalist media would never tell their story. And the Panthers urged black and working-class people to take up arms and, in doing so, temporarily scared the NRA and the right into supporting gun-control.

And, in defiance of the “stay-in-your-own-lane,” narrow identity-politics that dominate the left today, the Black Panthers actively sought alliances with working-class whites. One of the left-wing organizations the Panthers joined forces with, the southern-influenced, Young Patriots, frequently wielded confederate flags. The Panthers’ only stipulation was that the Young Patriots denounce racism.

“We believe,” wrote Eldridge Cleaver, the Panthers’ Minister of Information, in 1969, “in the need for a unified revolutionary movement … informed by the revolutionary principles of scientific socialism.”

Fred Hampton, the famous Black Panther from Chicago, further expanded on the Panthers’ desire for international solidarity with all oppressed people, in a speech in 1969.

“We got to face some facts,” said Hampton.

That the masses are poor. That the masses belong to what you call the lower class. And when I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, I’m talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too…. Some people say you fight fire best with fire. But we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with … black capitalism. You fight capitalism with socialism.

The Black Panther Party was ultimately destroyed by the state — specifically by the FBI’s secretive, COINTELPRO surveillance program. Today every single one of the Black Panthers is either dead or in prison. (Keep this in mind the next time someone tries to lecture you about how “authoritarian” socialism is.) The FBI murdered Hampton in his own home. This is the kind of lethal resistance a genuine radical movement inevitably faces from the ruling-class.

J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, claimed the Black Panther Party represented the “greatest threat” to the “internal security of the country.”

There is Nothing Radical About “Woke” Liberalism

Compare the Black Panthers’ commitment to solidarity and anti-capitalism with the racialist liberalism of Black Lives Matter. While some on the left have drawn parallels between Black Lives Matter and the Panthers, claiming both movements are part of the struggle for black liberation, any comparisons between the two is only surface level, at best.

In place of the Panthers’ efforts at unified class struggle with all oppressed people, Black Lives Matter activists and leaders would rather lecture working-class white people about how “privileged” they are. The organization is fully oriented around bourgeois identity-politics. The role of white activists at any given BLM demonstration can never transcend beyond that of “white ally.”

While it makes sense that people of color should be at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement, its blanket rejection of any kind of solidarity with all oppressed people — many of whom are eager and willing to contribute to a cause which they, personally, may not directly benefit from — is a fundamental mistake.

Capitalism oppresses all working-class people in different ways. Racism, sexism, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry are merely byproducts of capitalist oppression. Racial, sexual, and gender bigotry are cynically employed by the ruling class to divide and conquer working-class people of all races. Racism, in particular, is used to justify the oppression of black people, popularizing racist stereotypes that blacks are “criminals,” that they are “naturally lazy,” and are intellectually inferior to whites.

As Karl Marx observed in Volume One of his three-part economic treatise, Capital, “In the United States of America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a self-identified socialist, expanded his program of racial justice to include demands for economic justice for both black and white people.

“The black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes,” King wrote in 1968.

It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws — racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.

Yet, I doubt anyone today would label King a “class reductionist” — a laughably baseless epithet — as they refer to so many Marxist-Leninists.

The Big Money Behind BLM

But there is another crucial difference between the Black Panther Party and BLM. The latter group is a multi-million dollar “nonprofit” organization. This is no right-wing conspiracy theory about how the left is funded by George Soros. The Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation — the parent group of Black Lives Matter — receives lavish donations from the bourgeois Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation maintains close ties with Wall Street and the ruling class.

BLM’s three founders — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi — all have ties to academia, the professional managerial class, and the “nonprofit industrial-complex.”

During the 2020 protests in response to the police murder of George Floyd, BLM raised $90 million. It has $42 million in assets. As if to further reinforce its commitment to “black capitalism,” the BLM Global Network introduced the official Black Lives Matter Visa debit card in 2017. And Black Lives Matter activists have routinely urged “white allies” to support black-owned businesses during the holidays.

All the while, BLM maintains that it is a “grassroots,” “decentralized” movement. It should go without saying that the Black Panthers did not receive a penny in corporate funding.

BLM’s Troubling Pattern of Anticommunism

BLM’s corporate funding structure may explain why, in 2015, Black Lives Matter protesters shut down a Bernie Sanders rally (due to Sanders’ ostensibly “weak record” on civil rights issues), while BLM activists opted for a comparatively cordial backstage talk with Hillary “Super predators” Clinton. In other words, BLM is to the right of Bernie Sanders’ (admittedly tepid) brand of social democracy.

This is a troubling pattern of anti-socialism/anticommunism throughout BLM and the broader identitarian liberal-left. In their efforts to summarily dismiss anyone who dares draw links between racial injustice and economic injustice as a “class reductionist,” liberal identitarians effectively avoid any discussion of class struggle, whatsoever. Such discussions might alienate BLM’s corporate donors which, again, are ultimately accountable to Wall Street and capital.

This anticommunist trend runs through the BLM-influenced identity-politics of Maine blogger and activist, Shay Stewart-Bouley. Stewart-Bouley, an executive director at a Boston-based “nonprofit,” seems to have a pronounced disdain for Sanders, ’cause, like … white “Bernie Bros,” or … something… Consider this Oct. 3, 2020 blog post from Stewart-Bouley’s “Black Girl in Maine” site, in which she, in typical anticommunist fashion, casually lumps Stalin together with Hitler as if the two are — wait for it! — “two sides of the same coin.”

The remarkable 2020 uprisings against police brutality — some of the largest anti-racist demonstrations since the civil rights movement — were ultimately funneled back into the “proper channels” of Joe Biden’s election. BLM has been conspicuously silent in the two years since.

Not Trying to be an Ultra-Leftist…

This is not to suggest that the Black Lives Matter movement has been completely ineffective. The movement did, for a brief moment at least, push the concept of “defunding the police” into the national political “discourse.” And, despite BLM’s racialist orientation, the 2020 protests were some of the most racially diverse in decades. Black Lives Matter has, no doubt, helped radicalize many young people in the last decade or so.

But, if the Black Panthers taught us anything, it is that the revolution will not be televised — or funded by corporations or “nonprofits.” Only working-class people can bring about their own emancipation. In summary, the left today needs less performative “wokeness,” and “allyship,” and more international solidarity. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

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Adam Marletta

Writer, socialist, and coffee-fiend. I have written for the West End News, Socialist Worker, a bunch of decidedly less interesting publications.