“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 comrades are tired of you appropriating Fred Hampton and the legacy of the Panthers in order 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 tucked away in your “Black chauvinist” trick bag.
We also clearly see 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 was a dialectical unity – one with cracks on its surface, that hid deep ideological tensions in that 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 cherry-picking Fred Hampton’s 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 changing the terms of discussion around 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 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 against 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 undying resistance, rooted in the historical memory of the time when our people were at home in their natural and social worlds; recalling past efforts to defend our homeland 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 always with us. 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 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 – 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, but never capable of affecting them in its turn. For Cabral, whose movement waged revolution on the basis of one of the least developed economies of the Third World, national culture carries the seed that can always flower into revolt and revolution – despite the current 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 an assegai or a Kalashnikov.
It is in this connection that Cabral adapts Joseph Goebbels’ infamous phrase, that whenever he “heard culture being discussed, he brought out his revolver” (Source, 39).
Today as yesterday, Black revolutionaries in the US strive to articulate our difference from a white left that embraces American nationalist narratives about 'our' shared culture. 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 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, I would like to modify Goebbels’ cruel formula. When settler-leftists today hear the words “Black nation,” they reach for their Fred Hampton Spray. They use Panther tactics of interracial cooperation as a disinfectant, to scrub away the distinct national history of Afro-America.
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 Panthers’ role in the Black revolution, we have to first grasp the material and cultural relations between Black and White America in the Cold War configuration of world powers.
And here it’s obvious that their role should be viewed against a backdrop of Black uprisings (Watts, Detroit, Newark) with a distinct Black Power orientation. A backdrop of armed self-defense (via Robert Williams), revolutionary nationalism (Malcolm X, the Soul Students Advisory Council), calls for community control of police (the Community Alert Patrol), and anti-imperialist solidarity with the Third World (SNCC during Vietnam), that set the world stage for the Panthers' arrival as a political force (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 the parasitism of landlords, merchants, and other petty 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 further in our 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 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 cry of the Third World struck a resonant chord in communities seeking Black Power. Malcolm X, in widely 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 armed independence movements, for ideas on how to get free.
However, Malcolm was not the only early influence in the Black tradition on the Panthers' theory. Especially important here is the more direct ideological influence of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), a Black Maoist formation that advocated for the national liberation of the Black colony, and that 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)
Alongside the objective crisis in US cities, the role played by RAM's analysis for the evolving Black movement is inseparable from the Panthers’ own theory, their activism, and their wide appeal for working-class and lumpen Black people.
The Panther program did not fall adventitiously in the laps of the leadership, but took gradual shape in the cauldron of Black struggle, before rising up to challenge previous strategies and tactics of 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 a Hegelian road of error, where each moment is a way-station that's relevant for the end result (the theory and practice of the Panther).
In Revolutionary Suicide he traces his itinerary, from the Afro-American Association through the Soul Students Advisory Council – a front organization for RAM – along which he takes up universal ideas for the Black freedom struggle at each moment, while also noting their limitations for the revolutionary subject 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 against RAM. But it can also be read as a dialectical negation that still preserves certain truths from RAM's experience. Newton’s engagement with the vanguard concept in that essay is an obvious critique of the limitations of RAM's own vanguard, which, according to Newton, wants to direct the masses while remaining veiled in secrecy, out of fear of the very violence that they are asking the masses to perpetrate against the pigs.
On his shared presuppositions with RAM, the universal truth of vanguardism for the liberation of colonized people, finds its particular content in the lumpen, who negate the inadequate outer shell of the vanguard idea. In that way, they preserve the basic, but still abstract, idea described by RAM at a higher level. Black people are an “activist” people, according to Newton, who learn quicker 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 to expedite revolt into revolution, the vanguard must join the masses above-ground and demonstrate the truth of their ideas; and the best way to do this is through displaying the same fearless physical resistance to the racist power structure that is already, spontaneously shown in mass revolts (41-43).
Here then is Huey’s antithesis to RAM's thesis:
Yes, we are a colony, and we must win our freedom through violent struggle with the power structure. But we are dealing with an activist people, not a college seminar; and action that will respond to their concrete needs at this moment is the best consciousness-raising method for the forces that will wage life-and-death struggle. 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.
My point about Huey's 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 Harold 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!" resounded through the occupied streets of 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 themselves had dared to do with their own revolutionary inheritance.
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, in which the great masses chose among the best available instruments 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 truly be said to reflect Black reality, rather than having leapt unaccountably from the heads of great individuals into the real world, and 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 finds our people ideally placed 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 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 reach the finale. Now we can talk about Chairman Fred. Or rather, we can talk with his work in mind. I’m not really 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 achieve 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 was becoming irrelevant, or that Black people should step away from that question toward 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 entirely consistent with the Panthers’ multi-racial strategy. 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 intercommunalism, its entelechy.
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 since 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's 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 nerve center. That is the background for his emerging intercommunalist theory, according to which national boundaries were increasingly irrelevant before American empire's demands upon us all.
In other words, Newton was gradually moving away from the revolutionary-nationalist paradigm that arose to solve the Black colony's problem, and toward an analysis that depended less on any stable meaning for the concepts of “colony” and colonization.
Among the many external and internal factors lending to the Party’s attrition, one might also raise the whole 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 saw 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, that would raise uncomfortable questions for our own time about the role of white radicals in Black liberation struggles – questions that the white-leftist invocation of Fred Hampton is precisely designed precisely to expel.
- Might the BPP’s abandonment of the domestic-colonial analysis have had to do with real limitations of the classical “Black colony” thesis, and how might a millennial revolutionary nationalism address these?
This last question raises a few further considerations. The first is that the theory of internal colonialism remains to this day woefully underdeveloped (forgive the pun). Apart from classic works by authors like Robert Allen, Harold Cruse, Mario Barrera, and Robert Blauner, little serious attention has been paid to the theory in the American mainstream, for the obvious reason of its revolutionary character.
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.)
In addition, it needs to understand the cultural and psycho-affective aspects of colonialism, that distinguish purely economic exploitation from national oppression, and mark the zone of non-being that divides even 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 a situation that sees many Black folks reflexively supporting Obama and Jay-Z in the same moment that urban uprisings make their reappearance, in Baltimore, Ferguson and St. Louis, most recently in Memphis.
It has to know that while racial oppression cuts right through the abstract dialectic between capital and labor, forming strategic common cause across the class lines of an oppressed nation, it does not eliminate the role that class interests can and do play in steering Black movements down a neo-colonial path (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 the contradictions of our national bourgeoisie).
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 is to say, simply, that the contested legacy of Panther theory and practice on the question of race and nation; 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 appeal to “what Fred Hampton did.”
More than what he did, we are interested today in why he did it, 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 Black folk.
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, to discard and update. That conversation will be had among us. White leftists will not be at the table, but they are welcome to listen from the next room, if they are sincere.
Either way, stop using Chairman Fred as a fetish and a flog. 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.