The Black Panthers Reconsidered

Against the Current, No. 64, September/October 1996

Samuel Farber

THE WIDELY REVIEWED autobiographies of two key leaders of the Black Panther Party, a major study of that political organization, a movie by Melvin and Mario Van Peebles, and most recently the publication of the autobiography of William Lee Brent, an important Panther activist exiled in Cuba, have renewed interest in the Black Panthers, more than two decades after this political group played an important role in American society.

More movies and books by former Panther leaders Bobby Seale and Kathleen Cleaver, and a reader edited by Charles E. Jones for Black Classic Press are expected in the future.

The revival of interest in the Panthers comes at a time when Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam have been moving towards the center stage of African American life. The growing importance of this political force was amply demonstrated with its leadership of the October 1995 Million Man March.

Farrakhan’s right-wing response (self-help “bootstrap” capitalism, male supremacy, defense of the authoritarian family, antisemitism, support for brutal dictatorships in such countries as Nigeria and the Sudan) to the social crisis affecting Black America poses a sharp challenge to progressive forces in American politics and particularly to the African-American Left.(1)

Viewed in this context, the evolution of the Black Panther Party, perhaps the most important left-wing group in African American history, raises critical matters bearing on the political possibilities and obstacles facing a left-wing response to the issues addressed by Louis Farrakhan.

To understand the Black Panther Party, we must place it in the context of the exhaustion of the Civil Rights movement by the mid-to-late sixties. The Civil Rights movement achieved the most important democratic victories in twentieth century America and the most important gains that African Americans have attained through their own political efforts. Because those victories were primarily in the areas of political and legal equality, African Americans in the South (where official segregation had been most entrenched) benefitted the most in relative terms.

Yet among African Americans throughout the whole of the United States this movement had also developed great socio-economic expectations, which were for the most part disappointed. The demands for social and economic equality made by African Americans, particularly in the big cities of the North and West, required very radical changes in the socio-economic structure of this country. But no significant movement for progressive change had developed among the working class as a whole since the 1930s.

Without the support of a radicalized workers’ movement in opposing the status-quo, no truly radical changes in the socio-economic structure of the country were possible. Out of the blockage of African-American hopes grew phenomena such as urban insurrections and a resurgence of Black nationalism not seen in this country since the growth of the Garvey movement after World War I.

The Panthers were a fresh breath of political air because of the courage and combativeness with which they confronted the racist and capitalist power structure. As opposed to those in the African American community who supported Black capitalist schemes, they came out for a radical restructuring of society. The Panthers also disagreed with the growing separatist tendency among African Americans and denounced one of its most important expressions, conservative cultural nationalism.

Furthermore, they were willing to work with the growing numbers of white Americans who were becoming radicalized. The Panthers argued for such a perspective without in the slightest giving up on the notions of Black pride and power. In sum, the entry of the Panthers into the political scene was one of the best things that happened in the sixties.

Most unfortunately, within a few years of those promising beginnings, the Black Panther Party degenerated into an organization that mixed its political actions with a great deal of victimizing criminal activity, at least at the level of the national leadership.

The problematic nature of the Panthers has been dramatically illustrated by autobiographies written by some of their more important leaders. Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power, published in 1992,(2) besides possessing considerable literary merit, is a strange combination of keen and sometimes brilliant personal insights with a noticeable lack of political reflection.

In this account, Brown vividly describes the personal growth and self-discovery that she was able to retrospectively extract from her hard life as an African-American woman, growing up poor in a Philadelphia ghetto, who later becomes a revolutionary militant. At the same time, Brown describes a Black Panther Party that deteriorated into an organization with a high quotient of bullying and outright gangster behavior.

Brown shows a depth of Panther decay greater than many people may have realized. In fact, it is difficult to imagine any leftist reading this book (and the others reviewed in this essay) without being compelled to reexamine her or his views of the Panthers. Having been an active member of the Panther-allied Los Angeles Peace and Freedom Party in the late 1960s, I was shocked and depressed by Brown’s account.

For example, while the authoritarian internal structure of the Panthers and their dubious relationship to the criminal underworld was known to me and many others before the publication of Brown’s book, she included new information about the subjection of party members to physical punishment such as flogging for real or imagined “deviations” from the leadership’s party line, and even the use of murder to settle factional disputes.(3) While Brown does not endorse such brutality, she relates it with a striking lack of political thought and reflection.

The Panthers initially forbade drug peddling and similar activities among their members. But it is doubtful to what extent and for how long these rules were actually enforced. William Lee Brent’s account points to the widespread lack of party discipline and the open violation of party rules dealing with drug consumption and other matters, often with the encouragement of party leaders, even in the early years of the party.(4)

There was also, in those early days, a degree of ambiguity in the Panther ideological orientation to the lumpen: Did it mean orienting to them as they were, or did it mean transforming them? Given this, and absent a relatively stable class base, the Panthers did not do what countless other movements, including the Nation of Islam, have done under similar social circumstances: attempt to transform the life style and world view of its declassed recruits.

But the flaws in Brown’s book go beyond her lack of analysis of the party’s degeneration. An equally remarkable feature of her account is how she describes in one breath an armed, militant, revolutionary Black Panther Party patrolling the streets and confronting the brutal Oakland Police Department–and then, without skipping a beat, the same group engaging in a peculiar mixture of reform politics with a crass form of horse trading and electoral politicking with mainstream public figures like the African-American Mayor of Oakland, Lionel Wilson, California Governor Jerry Brown and even big Oakland businessmen (401-436).

As the party evolved, the politics of the national leadership located in California (what went on in many local chapters had often little or nothing to do with the activities of the central leadership) often became ultra-leftist and sometimes quite unserious–as when Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther leader who became the Peace and Freedom Party’s candidate for President, selected Yippie leader Jerry Rubin as his running mate.

Later, the Panthers’ ultraleftism would turn into the worst kind of politicking with a strong flavor of political hustling. Moreover, whether in their ultraleftist or politicking stages, the Panther national leadership came to be characterized by a lack of political responsibility to the African-American community. As we shall see, this was at least in part implicit in their self-styled lumpen approach, which prevented them from developing organic ties to their potential community base.

Alice Walker, the novelist, welcomed Brown’s book,(5) seeing it as a sort of feminist indictment of the abuse Brown and other Panther women suffered at the hands of the male Panther leadership. She publicly took Panther leader David Hilliard (whose book is discussed below) to task for the Panther’s “machismo” that, according to Walker, made them less afraid of the police or the FBI than of being called a “punk” or coward.

Horrified by the machismo and self-destructiveness of the Black Panther leadership, Walker suggested that the “revolution must occur within.” In response, irritated by Alice Walker’s apparent convergence with Gloria Steinem’s self-help individualism, Elaine Brown angrily rejected what she perceived as Walker’s implied suggestion “that black people hold our revolutionized breath through the next century while the chiefs of capitalism and their brother racists raze our natural selves until they magically make their self-revolution disarm and embrace our breathless corpus.”(6)

While Walker’s individualistic stance is hardly adequate, Brown’s response, with her lack of political reflection about the Panthers, is equally disappointing. It might be more fruitful to look at these matters in social and class terms, as I will attempt to do below, rather than at Walker’s individualism.

The key question is when, and why, the party degenerated. If we are to believe the journalist Hugh Pearson’s recent one-sided, unbalanced and fashionably anti-radical account, the Panthers were a hopeless outfit from the very beginning and nothing good could have ever been expected from them.(7)

A more balanced assessment would have to take into consideration a number of factors that Pearson either ignores or gives little weight. The revolutionary political stance of the Panthers and their willingness to confront police brutality from a position of armed strength brought upon them the wrath of the FBI and other repressive agencies of the federal, state and local governments. The FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program was designed to penetrate and create discord among the Panthers, thereby facilitating governmental repression.

In city after city, the FBI conspired with local police departments to “get” the Panthers. Numerous frameups, arrests and outright killings–such as that of Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton–resulted. Geronimo Pratt, a former Panther leader, is one of the victims of those police frameups who is still languishing in an American prison.

During the initial successes in the first two or three years well depicted in the Van Peebles movie, the Panthers oriented themselves toward the broader African-American community and the white radical Left. However, as the party captured the imagination of African-Americans and particularly the youth, and consequently expanded rapidly throughout the nation, it became the target of heavy police persecution.

There can be little doubt that relentless FBI and police pressure was an important factor in the decline of the Panther’s politics. The Panthers’ original self-defense strategy, which assumed a great deal of political self-restraint and organizational discipline, deteriorated into a quasi-guerrilla warfare orientation as well as drugs and racketeering activities.(8)

In turn, party recruitment of members who had not entirely abandoned the criminal world facilitated the work of the police and the FBI by providing them with a steady supply of people easily pressured into becoming informers and provocateurs.

The advocacy and practice of armed self-defense by the Panthers had implications and consequences different from the most important earlier applications of the same tactic by Robert Williams’ NAACP branch in Monroe, N.C. and the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Louisiana.

First, the Panthers’ project to confront the police, the arm of the state in Oakland, had much more serious implications than other self-defense activities, such as those directed against the KKK or other paramilitary white racist groups in the South. Second, the Panthers’ class orientation was quite different from that of the other groups.

The Monroe group had a broad working-class and small farmer base (in Union county of which Monroe was the county seat), while the Deacons were centered around a segregated African-American local of the Pulp and Sulphite Workers Union at a Crown Zellerbach plant in Bogalusa, Louisiana. The Black movements in Monroe and Bogalusa were also distinguishable by the absence of a dominant ministerial and middle class leadership. Black working-class war veterans played the key roles in these two cities.(9)

Although police repression was crucial, the Panthers themselves bore part of the responsibility for their decline, given the social and political perspectives they chose. The rapid growth and recruitment of new party members not only facilitated the Party’s penetration by police agents,(10) but accelerated the party’s theoretical orientation toward what Panther leaders called the “lumpen.”

As the Panthers interpreted it, this was a somewhat amorphous category which nevertheless had at its core a key component of Marx’s definition of that social group: the declassed criminal element.(11) True, the social and economic processes that led to the formation of lumpen groups in Marx’s Europe are not necessarily the same as those prevailing in twentieth century North American racial ghettos. My present concern, however, is not with the issue of why the lumpen may grow and develop in different social and historical settings.

My interest is rather with the political behavior of lumpen strata once they exist, and particularly with political leaderships that are lumpen in composition and/or orientation. At least as far as this issue is involved, Karl Marx’s analysis and concerns are quite relevant to the U.S. political scene.

The lumpen are victims of capitalism, certainly not to be blamed for the workings of the capitalist labor market, and in the case of those belonging to racially oppressed groups, marginalized even beyond the reserve labor army of the unemployed. When we consider this, we cannot but conclude that the lumpen are even more victims of capitalism than the working class.

It also goes without saying that any self-respecting Left must oppose the currently fashionable “solution” of more police and prisons for both principled and practical reasons, particularly given the racist elements that are usually included in such proposals.

The problem for a lumpen political orientation is that the members of the core group of this stratum are victimizers as well as victims, and that their frequently violent victimizing activities are predominantly carried out against the working class and the poor, particularly of their own racial group.

Let’s be clear that we are not concerned here with illegal behavior in itself, since there are massive numbers of “perpetrators” of victimless “crimes” who are unjustly sitting in prison–most notably in the case of drug users. It is estimated that over one hundred thousand non-violent drug offenders are currently sitting in U.S. prisons. We should also keep in mind that beating up a scab is, after all, also illegal!

For these reasons, I have used the perhaps inelegant term “victimizing criminal activities” in order to underline my present concerns.

The point of the Marxist analysis of the lumpen is not to suggest that all working class and poor people are, unlike the lumpen, “good” people. The question is rather about the potential for politicization and collective self-transformation.

Whatever flaws workers as a class may have in the here and now, the historical evidence allows us to conceive of a transformed politically active and conscious working class, which (short of the final disappearance of class society altogether) would still be a working class. A transformed lumpen, on the other hand, would by virtue of that very transformation, no longer be a lumpen class or stratum.

There is nothing to be gained by either demonizing or glorifying the lumpen, as sections of the U.S. Left have tended to do. The Left should indict the capitalist and racist social structure that causes lumpenization and should also demand humanistic and rehabilitative policies in place of punishment as vengeance.

In any case, however, the present topic of discussion is whether a people sharing many of the behavioral and ideological traits prevailing in the world of the lumpen can become an effective political leadership–i.e. a politically conscious minority–without simultaneously undergoing a profound personal transformation.

The purpose of such transformation is not to satisfy middle-class or white opinion. The point is rather that the world view and habits fostered by a lumpen milieu are incompatible with such type of leadership. The lifestyle of the lumpen tends toward a caricature of the prevailing capitalist ethos, with cutthroat competition among rivals being a far more valued norm than cooperation among comrades.

In an autobiography that Huey Newton, the principal leader and founder of the party, published more than twenty years ago under the title Revolutionary Suicide,(12) one is struck by the almost purely declassed world view that Newton adopted rather early in life. When Newton and other Panther leaders rejected Marx’s criticism of the lumpen proletariat, they were making an ideological choice deeply consistent with their life orientation and experience.

In this autobiography, published in 1973 (i.e. some five years after the Panthers became an important political force), Newton showed no sign of his having abandoned that perspective. Newton opens chapter 12 on “Scoring” (i.e. stealing) with Proudhon’s 1840 quotation “What is property? Property is theft,” and with an 1870 citation from Bakunin stating that “The brigand…is the true and only revolutionary.”

Elsewhere in the book, in an implicit criticism of Marx, Newton refers to Bakunin as leading the most militant wing of the First International.(13)

In the case of Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, one can trace the pre-Panther roots of some features of the party in its declining years. Cleaver once identified with the notoriously unscrupulous Nechayev, who served as the model for Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. Cleaver, writing about his pre-Panther history, told us that he

“fell in love with Bakunin and Nechayev’s Catechism of the Revolutionist…I took the Catechism for my bible and, standing as a one-man platform that had nothing to do with the reconstruction of society, I began consciously incorporating these principles into my daily life, to employ tactics of ruthlessness in my dealings with everyone with whom I came into contact.”(14)

The Panthers also strongly embraced the theories of Franz Fanon, who saw violence as an intrinsic good rather than a necessary means and rejected the working class in favor of the lumpenproletariat as the agent of revolutionary social change. Thus, the Panthers explicitly spurned a working-class centered Marxism in favor of a Third Worldist ideology, common in the sixties Left, focused primarily around the ideas of Fanon and, to a lesser extent, Mao Zedong.(15)

But the Panthers’ world view was not confined to these explicitly political positions. They included, fundamentally, certain social and moral attitudes that were taken as premises, not particularly self-consciously, deriving from their own life experiences. A deeper understanding of these issues can be gained from David Hilliard and Lewis Cole’s This Side of Glory.(16)

David Hilliard was also an important leader of the Panthers, and it must be stressed that his autobiographical account confirms the bleak picture of the Black Panther Party drawn in Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power. Hilliard mentions that he had held a number of jobs, such as being a San Francisco Bay Area longshoreman, before and even during his Panther days.

The West Coast Longshoremen were then one of the most left-wing unions in the USA, with a very substantial proportion of African American and other minority workers. Hilliard also mentions that he was a “B Man,” a second-class category of worker established by the union leadership and the employers, after the two sides began to implement automation agreements in the early sixties. The creation of this classification was the source of internal union conflict.

In later years, after his days as a top Panther leader were over and at least until the publication of his book, Hilliard worked as a union representative. It is remarkable that Hilliard, still writing as a socially and politically conscious person broadly on the Left, finds nothing to say in a 439-page autobiography concerning his life as a longshoreman or as a union representative–except to complain that he disliked the union job because he was no longer the top man in the hierarchy as he had been in the party.

But perhaps there is a connection between these glaring omissions and Hilliard’s reactions to the disappointing job opportunities that he encountered in his early adult years. Confronted with fragmented, repetitive, and unchallenging jobs, Hilliard reacted by classifying them as “dumb” and telling himself that “I’m better than this, I don’t deserve to be here.”

A related sentiment was expressed by former Panther activist William Lee Brent when he tells us that his experience on the streets of Oakland and Louisville had taught him “to admire hustlers and look upon working people as chumps.”(17)

Of course, there is nothing particularly remarkable when sentiments such as these are expressed by any one of the millions of people, of all races and ethnicities, at the bottom of America’s social structure. The difference is that Hilliard’s and Brent’s reactions to these working-class occupations created an implicit backdrop to a political and life style orientation to the L\lumpen. Thus, a political perspective based on an at least implicit disdain for the majority of African Americans earning a living through such occupations can only lead to elitist and/or parasitic conclusions.

After all, doesn’t African-American history offer far superior alternative responses to fragmented, repetitive and mind-numbing work than pro-lumpen politics? I have in mind the organized struggle for workplace power and the dignity of labor that was in the past carried by the Sleeping Car Porters’ Union, and in more recent times has been carried on in such diverse places and circumstances as those of the sanitation workers in Memphis, the hospital workers in New York, and the poultry workers in North Carolina. The fact remains that African-American workers are significantly more likely to join unions and to be more militant than white workers.

The lumpen, the unemployed poor and the idle rich have in common that none of these groups work on a regular basis. Yet while the unemployed poor would join the full-time labor force if given a decent opportunity (as suggested by a number of ethnographies such as Elliot Liebow’s Tally’s Corner), the lumpen may become relatively more attached to their way of life, and to develop attitudes of contempt for those who are “dumb” enough to tolerate regular employment.

The factory and the office are places where one goes to work because there is no other way to make a living. But these places are much more than that: They are principal ways in which this society trains and imposes on people the positive traits of cooperation in carrying out tasks, and related habits such as self-discipline.

This is one major reason why the factory and the office help to create the potential for organization, concerted action and solidarity among workers. Of course, it would be much preferable if these virtues were taught outside the framework of acquisitiveness and exploitation. But that is precisely the point: Whatever good capitalism may have brought about, it always did so in a highly exploitative, class-based and distorted manner.

But an obvious difficulty presents itself here. Hilliard was, after all, a worker. How did he then adopt the value system of the lumpen? The distinction between class membership and class orientation could be helpful here. In Hilliard’s case, we must look at the classes or strata that set the cultural tone and assumptions, and most important, established the informal social controls, over “street life” in the Oakland ghetto.

In other words, the issue is which class or stratum has hegemony over “the streets.” In this context, it is worth noting the significant difference between the South and urban America outside of the South, where the influence of institutions such as the African-American church have been weakened.

In Oakland and elsewhere, the streets have been a contested terrain for the behavior and ideologies of more than one class and stratum. Thus, in his study of the habitues of a bar and liquor store in a northern ghetto, the sociologist Elijah Anderson found significant tensions between the predominant group of working-class “regulars” and two other groups that Anderson referred to as the “hoodlums” and the “wineheads.”(18)

In this light, it is easier to understand how exposure to a variety of outlooks and behaviors may have caused certain persons to think and behave in ways that did not “correspond” to the classes or strata to which they belong. In this context, the experience of Huey P. Newton, the Panthers’ founder and principal leader, can again be illuminating.

Newton was a childhood friend of Hilliard. Both were the children of families that migrated from the South to the West during the 1940s. Both grew up “hanging out” on the streets of Oakland in which they practically lived for many years, often engaging in petty crime involving victims.

When it came to work, we find that Newton seems to have been cut of the same cloth as Hilliard. In Revolutionary Suicide he comments that he

“was in conflict, wanting to do the things that are expected of a man in our society, even trying a couple of times, without success. I worked on a construction job once and at a cannery for a couple of seasons, but I could not deal with work on a permanent basis.”(19)

It is perhaps an odd feature of Hilliard’s and Newton’s autobiographies that once their families left the South for the West, racism, insofar as it is expressed openly, seem to disappear from their life histories. This is not true of William Lee Brent’s account, probably because while also a Southern immigrant to California, he was older than the two Panther leaders and thus experienced a more blatantly racist era in American society.

The main exception in Hilliard and Newton’s autobiographies was, of course, the police and correctional authorities and their brutality towards African Americans. In his book, Hilliard tells how his teachers at McClymonds High School treated him with indifference if not contempt. But the Principal, Mr. Ellsworth, encouraged Hilliard to mend his ways, telling him that unlike his buddies, he had what it took to be a good student. Hilliard rejected the Principal’s encouragement as inconsistent with loyalty to his friends.(20)

Yet racism at work and at the hands of public and private bureaucracies, be it in the areas of housing, schools, public utilities or social services, is not visible in the pages of Hilliard’s and Newton’s books. This suggests that, as many accounts of ghetto life have indicated, dropping out of the class structure may be at least in part a choice to avoid facing the daily grind and frequent humiliations produced by racist social institutions.

As both Newton and Hilliard describe their life of victimizing criminal activity, one must note the absence of the ambiguities and ambivalence with which workers and the African American poor–who while often excluded from the labor force should, again, not be confused with the lumpen–defend and justify their intermittent illegal activities.

These ambiguities and ambivalence do not constitute “moral deficiencies.” Instead, they reveal an effort to express, like their counterparts all over the world, the implicit principles of a moral economy that strives to reconcile the imperatives of material survival in a hostile society with a rejection of victimizing criminal activity as a permanent way of life.

For example, the anthropologist Bettylou Valentine gives the following account, based on her field work, of a conversation among four very poor dwellers of a northern urban ghetto:

“It was Hank who pointed out that stealing from the railroad wasn’t like stealing from an individual in that the materials were probably already counted as an expected loss and/or completely covered by insurance. His wife Bernice agreed strongly. Gloria expressed the view that she could not possibly feed all her family each week and provide everything else that was needed on Oscar’s paycheck, so she needed bargains like this [purchase of stolen goods] to make ends meet…Bea was left arguing in a heartfelt and morally indignant way against the buying of stolen goods while her kin and friends defended it as fair in the circumstances and the only way to get a reasonable deal in the ghetto.”(21)

Newton and Hilliard also give the impression that while crime had the value of providing material benefits to youngsters growing up poor in an very affluent society, there was another equally important element–an orientation that saw the life of the conqueror as the only proud life truly worth living.

Elaine Brown in A Taste of Power relates an incident that convey the flavor of this conqueror mentality. She tells of an encounter between Louis Farrakhan and Huey Newton in the latter’s penthouse apartment in Oakland. They were accompanied by their respective male bodyguard entourages and by two Panther women, Newton’s wife and Brown herself, who played their “appropriate” subordinate roles at the meeting.

Newton and Farrakhan proceeded to engage in a very stylized, almost ceremonial verbal duel the hostility of which is only thinly disguised, although unlike the African-American game of “the dozens,” no insults are uttered by either side. In this duel, style and manner seem to be much more important than the substantive viewpoints expressed by the principals. Newton, according to Brown, eventually emerges as the winner, besting his opponent who graciously concedes his defeat.(22)

The post-sixties Left tended either to rather naively expect oppositional leaders and organizations to be prefigurative of the future good society or, going to the opposite extreme, to overlook or approve thuggish behavior on the part of oppositional figures and organizations. This latter attitude is often characterized by a condescending cultural relativism.

I propose a third alternative. In any given period of every society or “sub-culture” there is body of norms indicating what is generally regarded as acceptable moral behavior. A political group and its leadership must, in order to maintain legitimacy in its community, at least adhere to these norms and preferably to a somewhat higher standard than what is regarded as the norm.

Thus, for example, by the late 1960s proprietary male attitudes toward women were coming under increasingly powerful attack. But at a time when relationships between men and women were being radically redefined, Panther leaders often expressed notably retrograde attitudes, even while they saw and defined themselves as revolutionaries rising above prevailing social and cultural norms.

In that respect, Panther leaders often seemed to revel in the macho posturing that went along with their conqueror mentality. For example, Elaine Brown relates a visit she made to George Jackson while he was a prisoner at San Quentin in northern California and two days before he was killed by guards on August 21, 1971.

Jackson asks why Huey had denied his request. “Your request?” responds Brown. “To have you for my woman” answers George Jackson. Huey Newton’s apparent expectation that he was in a position to approve requests for “his woman” Elaine Brown to have sexual relations with other men definitely fell even below the pre-women’s liberation’s norms then prevailing, both in the African-American community and the larger American society.(23)

As the party declined, it could not produce leaders equivalent to the Algerian revolutionary Ali-La-Pointe, who not only transformed himself by abandoning the life of a small time hustler but, as accurately depicted in the film The Battle of Algiers, led the struggle to clean the Casbah of crime and drugs as a necessary element of the revolutionary struggle against French colonialism.(24)

Continuing along these comparative lines it is useful to contrast Elaine Brown and David Hilliard, who underwent personal transformations through psychotherapy and alcoholism rehabilitation respectively after their experiences as Panther leaders, with the case of Malcolm X.

Malcolm had lived in a world very similar to those of Hilliard and Newton. While in prison, he was converted to the Nation of Islam, from which he obtained not only a new religious and political ideology but also a detailed although extremely puritanical code of living, which provided an antidote to his previous lifestyle.

No fornication, eating of pork, use of alcohol, tobacco or narcotics were allowed, Nor dancing, gambling, dating, attending movies or sports, or long vacations from work. No sleeping more than health requires or lying or stealing, or insubordination to civil authority, except on the grounds of religious obligation.(25)

As Malcolm described the Muslims’ daily activities,

“each weeknight a different Muslim class or event is scheduled. Monday night, every temple’s Fruit of Islam trains. People think this is just military drill, judo, karate, things like that–which is part of the F.O.I. training, but only one part. The F.O.I. spends a lot more time in lectures and discussions on men learning to be men. They deal with the responsibilities of a husband and father; what to expect of women; the rights of women which are not to be abrogated by the husband; the importance of the father-male image in the strong household; current events; why honesty, and chastity, are vital in a person, a home, a community, a nation, and a civilization; why one should bathe at least once each twenty-four hours; business principles; and things of that nature.”(26)

This “code of living” was designed for a constituency of “upwardly mobile lower class Negroes,”(27) who found in the Nation a place to attain dignity and respectability. As has often happened, these goals led to a certain ambiguity. The Nation of Islam was on one hand conservative and accommodationist to some of the worst social prejudices of American society, while on the other hand standing for Black pride and independence and sometimes even challenging white society on specific issues (for example, police brutality).

Part of the attraction of Malcolm X’s personal odyssey lies in his Pilgrim’s Progress toward a life of dignity and his quest for the world of enlightenment and knowledge (no postmodernism here!), reading in dim light through the long prison nights. Malcolm saw the world of hustlers, so dear to the Panther leaders, as a danger to ghetto youth, and was proud of the Muslims’ ability to rescue African Americans from the world of drug addiction.

The evolution of Malcolm’s politics after he broke with the Nation of Islam leadership and founded the Organization of African-American Unity presented an even more interesting politico-intellectual picture. A recent study by William W. Sales, Jr. has provided evidence indicating that the OAAU’s membership was working class rather than lumpen.(28)

By then Malcolm had generalized and politicized his message beyond the narrow and sometimes paranoiac vision of the Nation of Islam, yet without relinquishing the moral stance that he had acquired when he became a Muslim. Again, this vision was a mixed bag that included a backward view of the subordinate role of women. No one knows whether Malcolm would have continued the reexamination of his attitude towards women that his trips abroad had encouraged. When Malcolm was assassinated, the OAAU collapsed and its political potential was never realized.

Did Malcolm’s conversion represent the “revolution from within” that Alice Walker recommended? Could Malcolm’s conversion be seen not only in religious and moral terms but also in class terms?

Malcolm certainly transformed his own life. But he was also a political leader. This political consciousness deepened with his break with Elijah Muhammad, his trip to Mecca and the establishment of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, by which time he was quite clearly also trying to bring about “a revolution from without.”

Insofar as the class question is concerned, the answer is an unqualified yes. Malcolm X was clearly leaving behind him the world view and life style of the lumpen, and then adopting the world view and life style of the working class/petty bourgeois section of the African-American community, albeit a conservative version of that outlook.

Here I am using the term “petty bourgeois” not as a political characterization but in the sense utilized by Hal Draper in Volume II of his Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution.(29) Draper distinguishes between petty bourgeoisie and small capitalists. By the former, he means those who make their living primarily through the exercise of their own labor with their self-owned means of production (tools) or other property (like a shop); that is, largely self-employed artisans and shopkeepers.

Draper then uses the term small capitalists to describe those people who live primarily through the extraction of surplus labor from wage-workers. This is a critical distinction with a number of important consequences. The petty bourgeoisie, as described by Draper, has rather easily coexisted with working class people (belonging to the same ethnic and racial groups) in the daily life of movements and communities.

Artisans have frequently played leadership roles in workers’ movements. Self-employed professionals played important roles in working-class groups fighting for civil rights in the USA. Thus, Robert Williams’ principal co-leader in Monroe was Albert E. Perry, an African-American medical doctor. Finally, it should be noted that the Deacons were supported by African-American small business people in Bogalusa.(30)

Clearly, neither the leaders nor the members of the Nation of Islam were, at least initially, in any way similar to the “Black bourgeoisie” of professionals catering to the African American community described by E. Franklin Frazier in the 1950s.(31) If anything, they were more similar to what Cayton and Drake described in the 1940s as a “small, more stable group [of the lower class] made up of “church folks” and those families (church and non-church) who are trying to “advance themselves.”(32)

Cayton and Drake distinguished this grouping from two other groups in the African-American lower class: what they called the denizens of the underworld, and a large group of disorganized and broken families who are by no means “criminal” except so far as the children swell the ranks of the delinquents, or the elders occasionally run afoul of the law for minor misdemeanors.(33)

The Black Muslims’ interest in and orientation to “small business” was suggestive of the class membership and orientation of the Nation of Islam’s intended constituency. This was to be expected from an apolitical working class group whose search for dignity and self-respect could not be separated from upward mobility.

Implications and Conclusions

I referred earlier to the recent successes of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan’s appeal cuts across class lines in the African-American community, ranging from Harlem street vendors, unionized workers and the unemployed to entertainers and professionals.

Some of Farrakhan’s success can be explained in the negative terms of his filling an African American leadership vacuum, as witness the major organizational disarray in the NAACP. However, a central element of Farrakhan’s appeal is his strong emphasis on social and moral decay in the United States and how this affects the African-American community.

It is very obvious that some of what Farrakhan considers moral decay is sheer reactionary nonsense (e.g. homosexuality), but the same cannot be said about his condemnation of drug trafficking and the so-called “Black on Black” crime often associated with it and with the government’s miserable “war on drugs.”

While drug trafficking is big business often carried out in complicity with white police, politicians and businessmen, it thrives on the hopelessness and despair felt by the most oppressed and exploited section of the population: the African-American poor. It would indeed be surprising if it were otherwise.

To the extent that Farrakhan has spoken of “bootstrap” economic self-help and of “atonement” for what African Americans may have done to each other, to that extent he is, consciously or not, engaging in the “blaming the victim” political style. This approach has become increasingly popular among liberals and conservatives alike ever since Daniel Patrick Moynihan developed one of the most influential red-herrings in contemporary American politics; namely, the notion that the increasing percentage of female-headed African-American families has been an important cause of ghetto ills at least since the 1960s.

In this context, I believe it is important to make certain crucial distinctions when discussing the question of social and moral decay from an anti-capitalist point of view and within the context of current debates concerning the African-American community.

First is the question of whether social and moral decay exists, what it consists of (for example, drug trafficking and addiction, violent crime committed against random innocent victims) and what it does not consist of (for example, homosexuality, sex and children outside of marriage, “cheating” of the welfare system). Second is the question of the causes of that decay. Third is the solution to the decay.

I submit that what is politically reactionary is the widely held racist notion that social and moral decay is caused by the mass of poor African Americans and other exploited and oppressed people having the wrong set of values and morals. Consequently, the logical reverse side of the same reactionary and racist coin is to suggest that the solution to the problem lies in the poor members of those communities acquiring the “right” set of values and morals.

Against this fashionable cultural racism, we must reassert that the causes of decay are still, even if it may sound “old fashioned” to some ears, racism and capitalist inequality. The solution lies in the political organization of the African American and other minority communities, the working class and the poor eventually leading to a radical and massive reconstruction of this society.

Yet a Left that denies the real existence of a society-wide social and moral decay, which expresses itself in different ways among various strata of the population but not surprisingly has the most devastating impact on the most exploited and oppressed, is in serious trouble.(34) If nothing else, denying the existence of the problem opens the door to those, such as Farrakhan, who do address the problem but with right-wing answers.

These issues of social and moral decay are full of paradoxes and ironies. Here is the U.S. Right Wing, fully devoted to the worship of the capitalist market place (traditional anti-market corporatism is politically marginal among U.S. conservatives), decrying and making a great deal of political capital out of social and moral decay in all of its real and imagined forms.

This, even though the capitalist market, through its creation of growing economic inequality and callous indifference to the resulting growth in luxury for the few and unemployment, poverty and homelessness for the many, especially among African Americans and other racial minorities, is grossly immoral and by far the single major culprit for this social and moral disintegration.

At the same time, however, we also have a U.S. leftism far more often than not silent, denying or afraid of addressing the issues of social and moral disintegration that bear witness to the failure of the very system it attempts to reform and/or overthrow.

This essay, then, addresses some of the difficulties that have and will continue to be encountered in the road of the above-mentioned political organization of the oppressed and exploited. Social decay, of which the Lumpen and their politics is but one example, has consequences that have continued to create problems and obstacles for political organization.

Nothing is to be gained by not confronting these problems openly and honestly. In this essay I focused on the Black Panther Party, which as it declined not only failed to provide a left-wing answer to the concerns addressed in a right-wing fashion by the NOI then as well as now, but actually became part of the very problem itself.

Still, the fact remains that today, as the beating of Rodney King and countless other incidents have demonstrated, police brutality still plagues African Americans in communities throughout America. Because of this, the Black Panther Party’s effort to even out the playing field through police monitoring and armed self defense is as relevant now as it was in the late sixties and early seventies.

Moreover, racism and changes in the U.S. capitalist economy have produced greater unemployment, poverty, homelessness and the massive and grossly disproportionate imprisonment of young African Americans (there are over a million people in U.S. jails and prisons) thus contributing to a process of social disintegration in those communities.

Radicals and socialists have long argued that since violent crime and other forms of antisocial behavior are the result of socioeconomic systemic causes, then it is the causes that must be removed or at least modified. While this argument continues to be as valid today as it has ever been, it is not sufficient.

It might be argued that once we have created or resurrected movements against oppression and exploitation, these movements will then address these issues of social and moral decay. But what about in the meantime? What do we propose to the elderly African-American woman who is trapped in a 20th story apartment in the “projects,” afraid to go out into the elevator or the surrounding courtyards and streets? Must she wait until a mass movement exists at some indeterminate time in the future?

A deteriorating social reality compels us to organize around questions of safety and protection from the effects of social disintegration at the same time that we organize around other socio-economic issues. Society, like nature, abhors a vacuum and if the Left ignores these issues, others will step in and propose retrograde solutions.

Take the case of Los Angeles. As Mike Davis describes it in City of Quartz,(35) the ever growing human costs of gang warfare at a certain point led the mainstream African-American individuals and organizations to support more police and other repressive solutions (see Davis’ chapter five, “The Hammer and the Rock”). Here it is also relevant to mention the popularity of the movie Boyz-n-the-Hood, which quite aside from its indisputable artistic merits and moving descriptions of the depth of the social crisis in the Los Angeles African-American community, conveys the fundamentally conservative message that absent fathers are the problem and strong male role models at home the solution to gang warfare.

It is precisely because the consistent Left correctly opposes police and prisons as false and reactionary solutions to the problems of social decay that it runs the risk of being perceived as callous and/or irrelevant unless it also offers some immediate practical alternatives to state repression. One of these is civilian selfpolicing and the difficulties it presents.

There are thousands of citizen community patrols throughout urban America responding to real and imagined criminal activities. Many of these are formed by whites trying to keep members of other racial groups out of their neighborhoods. But even the community patrols formed by African Americans and other minority groups are more common in relatively better-off urban neighborhoods.

This has led Wesley G. Skogan, a student of these patrols, to conclude that these organizations are least common where they appear to be the most needed–i.e. in lowest income, high-crime areas, in part because fear has paralyzed collective as distinct from individual self-protection activities.(36)

In addition, community patrols in minority communities are usually local in nature and seldom political, although groups of African American and Latino activists have on many occasions considered and acted on many of the ideas discussed here.

Some of the activities of the New York-based Guardian Angels are instructive in this connection. Since the very beginning the Angels, although led by a white couple, Curtis and Lisa Sliwa, have been heavily Latino and African American in composition. The subway patrols of the Angels have for the most part been warmly received by the working-class and minority populations, who are after all the principal users of mass transit.

Initially, the politics of the Guardians showed a progressive orientation on such issues as support of the rights of the homeless and opposition to racism. It was some time later that they began to hire themselves out to merchant groups, while the Guardian leadership has supported conservative politicians such as Rudolph Giuliani and has become increasingly right wing.

A popular movement could combine street and subway patrolling with police monitoring and, for example, the occupation of the offices of slum landlords. This would help to restore, in an exemplary manner, the culture of solidarity that has declined so much in our society, demonstrating in a practical fashion that there is no gap or contradiction between caring for each other in immediate, physical terms and in caring for each other in terms of struggles to improve living standards for the working class and the poor, as well as the struggle against racism.

Groups with such political orientations, while neither demonizing nor glorifying the lumpen, could well succeed, as has been done in many times and places in the past, in transforming these victims of our racial and class system. They could do so, by showing them, as did Malcolm X, the real sources and roots of their oppression as well as by providing them with a new political mission, movement and way of life.


  1. For the widely differing views on the Million Man March among African American leftists see the Fall 1995 (v. 25, No. 4) issue of Black Scholar, entitled “Million Man March” and the additional contributions in the subsequent Winter/Spring 1996 (V. 26, No. 1) issue. See also Against the Current 60, January/February 1996, 15-21 and New Politics, Vol. VI, No. 1 (New Series), Summer 1996, 8-21.
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  2. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power. A Black Woman’s Story, New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1992.
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  3. See Elaine Brown, ibid., pp. 266267, and Hugh Pearson, The Shadow of the Panther. Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America, Reading, Ma.: AddisonWesley Publishing Company, 1994, 231-232, 278-279 on the issue of murder. See Hugh Pearson, ibid., 163, 250, 259-260, and Elaine Brown, ibid., 333 on Panther gangsterism. See Elaine Brown, ibid., 275, David Hilliard and Lewis Cole, This Side of Glory, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993, 234235, and William Lee Brent, Long Time Gone, New York: Times Books, Random House, 1996, 100101, on flogging and other forms of physical punishment as instruments of party discipline.
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  4. William Lee Brent, ibid., 99, 104-105, 119. For a discussion of the Panthers’ rules of conduct see Gene Marine, The Panthers, New York: New American Library, 1969, 180-181. For a list of the rules see Bobby Seale, Seize The Time, New York: Random House, 1970, 391-393.
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  5. Alice Walker, “They Ran on Empty,” The New York Times Op-Ed Section, May 5, 1993, A23.
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  6. Elaine Brown, “Attack Racism, Not Black Men,” The New York Times Op-Ed section, May 5, 1993, A23.
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  7. Hugh Pearson, The Shadow of the Panther. Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America, op. cit.
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  8. Drug and racketeering activity became more noticeable among the leadership circles close to Huey Newton while the quasi-guerrilla warfare orientation was more prominent among those close to Eldridge Cleaver. This should be understood as a relative statement. Thus, for example, David Hilliard, a top Panther leader close to Huey Newton, told us how his group and white student radical leaders had discussed plans to shoot down police helicopters that had dropped tear gas on the Berkeley campus (Hilliard, op. cit., 257). For the quasi-guerrilla activities of William Lee Brent, who was close to the Newton-Hilliard group, see William Lee Brent, op. cit., 106-107.
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  9. August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, CORE. A Study in the Civil Rights Movement 1942-1968, New York: Oxford University Press,1973, 347. Adam Fairclough, Race and Democracy. The Civil Rights Movement in Louisiana 1915-1972, Athens, Ga.: The University of Georgia Press, 347-359. Robert Carl Cohen, Black Crusader. A Biography of Robert Franklin Williams, Secaucus, N.J.: Lyle Stuart Inc., 1972, 91-92; and Timothy B. Tyson, “Radio Free Dixie”: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power, Ph.D. dissertation Duke University, 1994, 80-81,177.
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  10. For the ease and simplicity with which one could join the Black Panther Party see William Lee Brent, op. cit., 94-95.
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  11. For a thorough discussion of Karl Marx’s view of the lumpenproletariat see Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution. Vol. II. The Politics of Social Classes, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978, 453-478.
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  12. Huey Newton, Revolutionary Suicide, New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich Inc., 1973. It is worth noting that the autobiography of Panther leader Bobby Seale markedly departs from those of Hilliard and Newton, since Seale’s life points to a much stronger working class outlook and experience. Bobby Seale, A Lonely Rage. The Autobiography of Bobby Seale, New York: New York Times Books, 1978.
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  13. Huey Newton, op. cit., 5. In contrast, the Marxist Hal Draper cites Bakunin’s conduct in the First International as the first example on record of an organized internal wrecking operation inside a socialist organization. See chapters on Bakunin in Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution. Vol.IV. Critique of Other Socialisms, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990.
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  14. Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice, New York: McGraw Hill Book Co., 1968, 12. For the full text of Nechayev’s “Catechism of the Revolutionary” see Max Nomad, Apostles of Revolution, New York: Collier Books, 1961, 230235. For Nechayev’s political conduct see Hal Draper, KMTR Vol. IV, op. cit., 300-303.
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  15. For an analysis of the implications of Fanon’s theories and political ideas see Samuel Farber, “Violence and Material Class Interests: Fanon and Gandhi,” Journal Of Asian and African Studies, V. XVI, 3-4 (1981), 196211.
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  16. David Hilliard and Lewis Cole, This Side of Glory. The Autobiography of David Hilliard and the Story of the Black Panther Party, op. cit.
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  17. Hilliard and Cole, ibid., 101. William Lee Brent, op. cit., 49.
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  18. Elijah Anderson, A Place on the Corner, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
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  19. Newton, op. cit., 95. The content and tone of Newton’s autobiography seems to suggest that, as in the case of Hilliard, it is routine “dumb” work itself that is at stake here.
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  20. Hilliard and Cole, op. cit., 79-80.
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  21. Bettylou Valentine, Hustling and Other Hard Work. Life Styles in the Ghetto, New York: Free Press, 1978, 77.
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  22. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power, op. cit., 286-290.
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  23. Ibid., 290. Of course, this writer has no proof that Elaine Brown and/or George Jackson were telling the truth about this incident. However, given the possible motives and context in which Elaine Brown was telling this anecdote, I find no reason to doubt that both Elaine Brown and George Jackson were being truthful.
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  24. Amar Ouzegane, Le Meilleur Combat, Paris: Rene Juilliard, 1962, 251-254.
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  25. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, New York: Grove Press, 1966, 221.
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  26. Ibid., 227.
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  27. E.U. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism, New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1964, 120.
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  28. William W. Sales, Jr., From Civil Rights to Black Liberation.Malcolm X and the Organization of African-American Unity, Boston, Ma.: South End Press, 1994, 121, 151-2.
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  29. Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s theory of Revolution. Vol.II, op.cit., 288-89.
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  30. Tyson, Timothy B., op. cit., 61, and George Lipsitz, A Life in the Struggle. Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition, Revised Edition, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995, 99.
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  31. E. Franklin Frazier, Black Bourgeoisie, New York: Free Press, 1957.
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  32. St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis. Vol. 2, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1970, 600.
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  33. Ibid., 600.
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  34. For a powerful left-wing account of this society-wide crisis see Charles Derber, The Wilding of America. How Greed and Violence Are Eroding Our Nation’s Character, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
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  35. Mike Davis, City of Quartz, New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
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  36. Wesley G. Skogan, “Community Organizations and Crime,” in Michael Tonry and Norval Morris (eds.), Crime and Justice. A Review of Research. Vol. 10, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988, 44-45.
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ATC 64, September-October 1996