“The third world notion [in the US context] points to a basic distinction between immigration and colonization as the two major processes through which new population groups are incorporated into a nation. Immigrant groups enter a new territory or society voluntarily, though they may be pushed out of their old country by dire economic or political oppression. Colonized groups become part of a new society through force or violence; they are conquered, enslaved, or pressured into movement.”
~ Robert Blauner, Racial Oppression in America, 52.
White leftists, we have reached the next station of your cross.
Here you will learn that Black and other colonized comrades in the US have had enough of you misappropriating Fred Hampton and the legacy of the Panthers to silence revolutionary nationalists. We don’t have to name names; you know exactly who you are. With your “we’re not gonna fight racism with racism” memes and your rosy articles about the Rainbow Coalition, all neatly tucked away in your “Black nationalist” trick bag.
We also thoroughly peep that you really don’t give a damn about the Panthers, or about Black revolution in general.
If you did, you would understand that Panther theory and practice was not a non-contradictory whole, but a dialectical unity – one with cracks on its surface, hiding deep ideological tensions in their organization.
If you did, you would be more considerate of the Black Power tradition that nursed the Panther. You would be more thoughtful about distinguishing the cultural nationalist from the revolutionary nationalist wings of that movement, when poring over Fred Hampton’s (cherry-picked) quotations on race and class.
If you did, you would go directly to Chairman Fred’s theoretical sources within the Party, to see whether the analysis matches your glib “class not race” generalizations.
We know you don’t care; so we’re gonna change the terms of discussion about that legacy. We need to figure out what’s going on behind all this leader fetishism that tries to spellbind our independent thought. 'Have a seat, though, we’ll get to all that in a minute.'
Everybody else – relax! Roll something up; let your locs down; grab a cup of coffee (we already got the tea). There’s a whole lot to break down tonight.
“They used guns while we angrily shot arrows/
you better keep ya eye on the sparrow…”
~ Ghostface Killah, “Investigative Reports”
Amilcar Cabral, the theoretical guiding light in the PAIGC’s righteous struggle against NATO-sponsored Portuguese colonialism, liked to quote the Nazis on the question of cultural oppression.
His classic essay, “National Liberation and Culture,” is both a watershed work for Pan-Africanist anthropology, and a fusillade aimed at simplistic accounts of imperial domination. It pierces right through the classical Marxist assumption that the culture of an oppressed people is a secondary and inessential aspect of their liberation. For Cabral, national culture reflects the historical relationship of a people to the means of production and reproduction of their material life. In the colonial context, it reflects the disruption of that relationship by foreign conquest. It also counsels an undying resistance, rooted in the historical memory of a time when our people were truly at home in their natural and social worlds, recalling our past efforts to defend our home against the Western onslaught.
Because the colonizing powers recognize the threat of distinct national histories, Cabral argues, they try by all available means to obliterate the distinct culture and history of colonized peoples, to make us believe that our history began with our “tutelage” (enslavement) under the mother country; to believe that we share a common destiny with our oppressors.
But a quotient of alienation from the oppressor culture is with us always; we wear our false identity like a brand, seared into our memory by the violence of conquest; and the struggle against this cultural alienation, this 'double-consciousness' (Du Bois), affects the various oppressed classes in distinct ways, forming an irresistible dialectic both without and within the oppressed nation (Return to the Source, 40-44; 48).
Culture is never independent of class – or more precisely, of material relations. Nor is it a wholly subordinate, or epiphenomenal, feature of life that is only ever affected by changes in the economic base and never capable of affecting them in its turn. For Cabral, whose movement waged successful revolution on the basis of one of the most underdeveloped economies in the Third World, national culture carries the seed that can always flower into revolt and conscious revolution – despite the absolute level of the productive forces (Unity and Struggle, 126).
In short, national culture is a weapon in the hands of the oppressed, as threatening to the parasitic nation as any assegai or Kalashnikov. It is in this connection that Cabral adapts Joseph Goebbels’ infamous phrase, that when he “heard culture being discussed, he brought out his revolver” (Source, 39).
Today, revolutionary nationalists in the US strive to articulate our differences from a white left that eagerly buys into American-nationalist narratives. Like their historical counterparts in the Communist Party of France, faced with the ‘controversial’ view that Algeria constituted a distinct nation, white leftists and their colonized mouthpieces seem unable – or opportunistically unwilling – to acknowledge that New Afrikans/Afro-Americans, Chicanos, First Nations, Puerto Ricans, and other domestically-colonized peoples, have, on this stolen land, a distinct and overwhelmingly antagonistic relationship to the white-settler majority.
In light of this fact, I would like to modify Goebbels’ cruel formula. When settler-leftists today hear the words “Black nation,” they reach instead for their Fred Hampton Spray. They use Panther tactics of interracial cooperation to dissolve and scrub away the distinct national history of Afro-America/New Afrika.
Is the analogy too extreme? Read on and let’s see.
“As far as our party is concerned, the Black Panther Party is an all black party, because we feel as Malcolm X felt that there can be no black-white unity until there is first black unity. We have a problem in the black colony that is particular to the colony, but we’re willing to accept aid from the [white] mother country as long as the mother country radicals realize that we have, as Eldridge Cleaver says in SOUL ON ICE, a mind of our own. We’ve regained our mind that was taken away from us and we will decide the political as well as the practical stand that we’ll take. We’ll make the theory and we’ll carry out the practice. It’s the duty of the white revolutionary to aid us in this.”
~ Huey Newton, in The Black Panthers Speak, 55.
To avoid idealist errors about the meaning of the Panthers’ role in the Black revolution, we have to first grasp the material and cultural relations between Black and White America in the post-WWII configuration of world powers.
And here it’s obvious that this role should be understood against a backdrop of Black uprisings with a distinct Black Power orientation (Watts, Detroit, Newark), of armed self-defense (via Robert Williams), revolutionary nationalism (Malcolm X, the Soul Students Advisory Council), community control of police (the Community Alert Patrol), and anti-imperialist solidarity with the Third World (SNCC during Vietnam), that first placed the Panthers on the world stage (Black Against Empire, 21-32; 84-90; 130).
Black people in Northern and Southern cities were hemmed-in by residential segregation, forced into the lowest-paying jobs within burgeoning post-war industries, and were special victims of predation by landlords, merchants, and other capitalists, who were virtually all white. High unemployment, then as now, was endemic. To contain our rational discontent with all this, to keep Black people 'in our place', and to engage in our further systematic robbery, police departments acted like military garrisons in Black neighborhoods from the Bronx to Birmingham.
The harder we worked, the more fabulously wealthy became the white neighborhoods and suburbs around us, and the poorer did our own communities become. The more powerfully we resisted our exploitation, the more systematically we sought extra-legal means of dealing with our poverty, the more vicious became the Fort Apaches of Any Ghetto, U.S.A.
It was not hard in this environment, and indeed it's not hard today, to see how the anti-colonial striving of the Third World struck a resonant chord in communities seeking Black Power. Malcolm X, in popularly-circulated speeches like "The Ballot or the Bullet," freely drew the colonial 'analogy' with the Third World, and even pointed Afro-America to the examples of Algeria, Vietnam, Kenya, and other successful nationalist movements, for ideas on how to get free.
However, Malcolm was not the only early influence within the Black tradition on the Panthers' theory. Especially important here is the more direct ideological influence of Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), a Black Maoist formation that advocated for the national liberation of the Black colony, and also represented itself as the organizational instrument of that goal. According to Bloom and Martin:
“RAM insisted that blacks were not full citizens in the United States. RAM viewed Black America as an independent nation that had been colonized at home. Because black Americans were colonial subjects rather than citizens, RAM argued, they owed no allegiance to the US government and thus should not fight in the Vietnam War.” (32)
Along with these other developments, the early role played by RAM in the evolving Black movement is inseparable from the Panthers’ political analysis, their activism, and their wide appeal to working-class Black people. The Panther program did not fall adventitiously into the laps of the Panther leadership, but took gradual shape in the cauldron of Black struggle, before rising up in challenge of previous strategies and tactics for liberation. It was the result of a determinate, or dialectical, negation of previous ideas – not of their one-sided, Aristotelian rejection, but of their preservation at a higher level.
Huey Newton’s own account of his ideological development reads like a journey down the Hegelian road of error. In Revolutionary Suicide he traces a trajectory, from the Afro-American Association through the Soul Students Advisory Council – a front organization for RAM – on which he takes up universal ideas for the Black liberation struggle from each moment, while noting their limitations for the particular subject of history that he hoped to reach: the lumpen, the “brother on the block”. This can be seen in the fact that he had initially brought the characteristic self-defense strategies of the Panthers directly to RAM, was rejected, and decided instead to work with Bobby Seale to start a Black revolutionary vanguard of their own (109-110).
His own thinking, particularly during the “Long Hot Summer” of ‘67, was captured in the essays collected as “The Genius of Huey P. Newton”. One of these essays, “The Correct Handling of a Revolution,” reads like an indirect polemic of RAM, but can also be read as a dialectical negation that nonetheless preserves certain truths from that organization. Newton’s engagement with the vanguard concept in that text is an obvious critique of the limitations of RAM's own vanguard, which, according to Newton, wants to direct the masses while veiled in secrecy, out of fear of the very revolutionary violence that they are asking the masses to perpetrate.
On their shared presuppositions, the universal truth of vanguardism for the liberation of colonized people, finds a particular content with the lumpen that is the negation of its inadequate outer shell; and in that way preserves the basic truth described by RAM at a higher level. Black people are an “activist” people, according to Newton, one that learns more quickly from the application of ideas than from their endless re-description in essays and study groups. This can be seen in the collective learning process between the actual uprisings in Watts and East Oakland (Black Panthers Speak, 41). In order for them to consciously expedite their revolt into revolution, the vanguard must join them above-ground and demonstrate the truth of their ideas; and the best way to do this is through the fearless physical resistance to the racist power structure in which the masses already, spontaneously engage (41-43).
Huey’s antithesis to RAM's thesis:
Yes, we are a colony, and must win our freedom through violent struggle with the power structure. But you are dealing with an activist people, not a college seminar; and action that will respond to their concrete needs at the moment is the best consciousness-raising method for the forces that will wage life-and-death struggle with the mother country. Engaging the lumpen, the most oppressed and most fearless class in the Black nation, will make our national liberation project more concrete.
This is the platform from which the Panthers sprang forth into the action of 1967.
This point about the determinate negation of prior approaches has a few implications, but here we will only list two, closely related ones:
- Despite its internationalist aims, the Panther ideology is rooted in the theory of Black domestic colonialism, developed by revolutionary nationalists like Cruse and Muhammad Ahmad of RAM – a theory that not only reflected the real political, cultural, and psychological needs of Black America in revolt, but that also found a receptive audience with revolutionary governments and peoples in the Third World. This was the basis for Panther theory and practice during the period of its most rapid and extensive growth, while cries of Black Power echoed through the occupied streets of revolting cities across the US; and
- If the Panthers’ self-consciously dialectical approach is correct, then it’s not enough simply to lift their ideas, or their vaguely understood campaigns, from the past. We have to modify them not only with a view to their own truth and error – but also with a great sensitivity to the needs of the masses of Black people today, as indeed the Panthers dared to do themselves with their inheritance of revolutionary ideas.
This last point is crucial, because one of the most dangerous legacies of the Western-colonial world is the belief that great personalities – and not the masses – are the real makers of history. The Black Power movement was a congeries of spontaneous and organized elements, with the great masses of Black people choosing among the best instruments available to them in the sudden heat of revolt. It had its own momentum, one that selects and discards Black leadership accordingly as they fulfill, or betray, their historic mission.
It is only in the above context that the Panthers’ world outlook and program can be said to truly reflect Black reality, rather than having leapt unaccountably from the heads of great individuals into the real world, meeting there with surprising success. Black liberation, when and to the extent that it comes, is always the result of the Black masses freely choosing strategies, organizations, and symbols of freedom that best correspond to their collective needs. It’s a process that is coupled with our people's strategic placement for disruptive mass violence in the imperial core, such that reform tends to trail revolt, in order to keep the domestic peace needed for wars abroad. The correct handling of this dialectic can't come down simply to individual leaders, no matter how brilliant or brave, because these strengths ultimately come from the leaders' sensitivity to the bravery and brilliance of their own people.
So now we come to the finale. Now we can talk about Chairman Fred. Or rather, we can talk with his work in mind; I’m not terribly interested in putting words in fallen soldiers’ mouths.
Let’s begin by noting that Fred Hampton’s organization, the Illinois state chapter of the Black Panther Party, was not an interracial organization, admitting whites. Their willingness to work with revolutionary whites, like the Young Patriots or the more radical wing of Students for a Democratic Society, should be seen as a local attempt to work left-wing interracial coalitions within the parameters of Panther theory and practice. It is not an indication that the Panthers believed, as a whole, that the question of national liberation for Black people was becoming irrelevant, or that Black people should step away from that question toward “true” internationalism, i.e., interracialism in the mold of mainstream civil rights.
In fact, during the height of the Free Huey campaign, BPP Central Committee member George Murray could say the following while in Cuba, addressing the Organization of Solidarity for the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America (OPSAAAL):
"The Black Panther Party recognizes the critical position of black people in the United States. We recognize that we are a colony within the imperialist domains of North America and that it is the historic duty of black people in the United States to bring about the complete, absolute and unconditional end of racism and neocolonialism by smashing, shattering and destroying the imperialist domains of North America."
In that same address, Murray makes clear his belief in the revolutionary potential of progressive whites, showing that a domestic-colonial analysis is wholly consistent with the Panthers’ cooperation with mother-country radicals. Their revolutionary nationalism and their conditional cooperation with mother-country radicals were not openly in contradiction at this point.
However, the key developments in a qualitative change don’t usually take place in the open.
The shift in the Party’s theoretical and practical direction from the years 1969-1971 deserves its own, separate treatment. So too does its entelechy, Newton’s intercommunalist theory. This much, however, is clear: that in the summer-fall of 1969, Huey Newton’s thinking on the meaning of colonialism underwent a gradual change. By September, he was making the argument that because the military-industrial complex exploits the entire American public to subsidize its imperialist adventures, this means that the entire American people is colonized (Black Panthers Speak, 69). It is instructive that here he was addressing the Peace Movement, that is, the (by now) interracial coalition that hoped to sabotage the US war machine in its very nerve center. This is the background for his emerging intercommunalist theory, according to which national boundaries are increasingly irrelevant before the demands of American empire upon us all.
In other words, Newton was gradually moving away from the revolutionary-nationalist paradigm that had arisen in solution to the problems of the Black colony, and toward an analysis that depended less on any stable meaning for the concept of “colony” and colonization. Among the many external and internal factors contributing to the Party’s attrition, one can also raise the entire question of the Central Committee’s gradual departure from its early nationalism – which, again, coincided with the Party’s most fecund period of growth and the emergence of most of its representative strategies and slogans.
In light of all this, one should ask the following questions:
- In what sense did Newton’s new ideological direction reflect not only practical changes, inspired by a much larger base in the imperialist country – but also, the changing material realities of the Party? That is, might this theoretical question not have added to the political rift that led to the expulsion of prominent nationalists like Dhoruba Bin Wahad, Geronimo Pratt, and others (Bloom, 359-361)? And, was the financial and moral support of newly “colonized” affluent whites at all related to this new theoretical departure? If so, this would seem to raise uncomfortable questions for our own time about the role of white radicals in Black liberation struggles – questions that the white-leftist strategy of invoking Fred Hampton are designed precisely to expel;
- Might the BPP’s abandonment of the domestic-colonial analysis have had to do with inherent limitations of the classical “Black colony” thesis?
This last question raises a couple of further considerations. The first is that the theory of internal colonialism is to this day woefully underdeveloped (forgive the pun). Apart from classic works by authors like Robert Allen, Harold Cruse, Mario Barrera, and Robert Blauner, there has been little serious attention paid to the theory in the American mainstream, for the fairly obvious reason of its revolutionary implications. New Afrikan revolutionary writers like Butch Lee and James Yaki Sayles have done the most to update the thesis for our neocolonial moment; and the sociologist Charles Pinderhughes is only the most prominent academic who is looking at the thesis with the fresh eyes of a new generation.
But an updated “Black colony” thesis also needs more careful definition of the concept of colonization than simply exploitation and political disenfranchisement – even should these apply to the white people of the United States. (A contentious claim, I’ll have to leave it at that for now.) Additionally, it needs to understand the cultural and psycho-affective aspects of colonialism, that distinguish purely economic exploitation from national oppression, marking the zone of non-being even between the middle-class Black and the working-class white.
The Black revolution has to understand these things, if it would make sense of the internal contradictions of the Black freedom struggle, in an age that sees reflexive support from many Black folks for Barack Obama and Jay-Z in the same moment as urban uprisings make their reappearance, in Baltimore, Ferguson and St. Louis, and most recently in Memphis.
It has to know that while racial oppression cuts right through the abstract dialectic between capital and labor, forming a strategic common cause across the class lines of an oppressed people, it does not eliminate the role that class interests can and do play in undermining the hopes of Black liberation (see both the Wretched of the Earth chapter on “Trials and Tribulations,” and Du Bois’s 1933 essay, “Marxism and the Negro Problem,” for more on this).
It is in that spirit that Chairman Fred’s admonitions against “Papa Doc”-style cultural nationalism should be invoked. The spirit of Fanon, warning against enemies within; not that of assuaging fairweather “friends” from without.
All of this to say, simply, the contested legacy of Panther theory and practice on the question of race; its relationship to the spontaneous politics of the Black masses; and to the “categories of the understanding” that the Black radical tradition passed down to Panther leadership – all that conceptual richness, all that deep anxiety of practice is covered up in the casual white-leftist appeals to “what Fred Hampton did.”
More than what he did, we are interested today in why he did them, whether and to what extent those reasons corresponded to the objective reality, and what living resources there are within the Panther tradition in the changed historical conditions of Trumpism, Black neoliberalism, and Sanders’ Debsian sellout of the Black nation.
Meanwhile, if white leftists wanna imitate Fred Hampton, then maybe they should try merging their organizations with the Black mobs in Chicago – but we’ll wait til the ice caps melt completely before that happens. Apart from that, we need to have discussions among ourselves about what aspects of the Panther legacy to preserve, discard, and update. That conversation will be had among us; they will not be at the table.
So if they don’t wanna wait to learn from us what is the meaning of the lives of Black martyrs; if they can’t appreciate the serious ideological and political controversies around the meaning of the Panther legacy, then they shouldn’t even mention Chairman Fred. Let our warrior sleep, and go to y'all's community and lecture them on their national heroes instead. But if you continue trying to weaponize him against colonized people, just know that we have learned well from Algeria and Vietnam what to do with the enemy’s weapons.