CLR James and the Black Panther Party

Somewhat out of character, Lou is being a stubborn sectarian on this issue. Will he next cast aspersions on SNCC's Freedom Schools? I am not debating the proposition, "Was the BPP Marxist?", which would require many, often contradictory answers. The BPP merited the enthusiastic support and solidarity of every Marxist, as comrades in revolutionary struggle, and as a leading force in struggle.

The BPP certainly did mobilize against the state, and did participate in national mobilizations. Has Lou forgotten the Chicago 8 (before they became the Chicago 7 in consequence of Judge Hoffman's racism)? To take an outreach program out of context and assert it as the party's central activity is a serious mistake. Except for sectarians, every Marxist party provides services to its intended constituents (as do all the various movements that merit Marxists' support -- Irish republicans, Basque nationalists, etc.), which often are the vehicles for moving those constituents along to more radical involvement.

Remember that Fred Hampton's crime (his "holdup" of an ice cream vendor) was liberating ice cream and distributing it to the neighborhood children who could not afford to buy it.

But the most essential missing ingredient in Lou's analysis is the links among all the revolutionary Black organizations and movements -- BPP, RAM, SNCC, BLA, LRBW, APP, AAPRP, BWC, APSP, RNA, and their far-flung affiliates -- often mediated by Jim Forman. That's the reason that the main speakers at the BPP's national confab in 1967 were Brown, Carmichael, and Forman.

In every Black insurgency of national importance, such as the Memphis garbage strike and the armed defense of Cairo's Black community, the Panthers were involved.

When C.L.R. James came to Chicago, the activities that most impressed him were the community based organizing by BPP and RAM (through the Umoja Center), and the solid links between revolutionary Black intellectuals and street people, seriously challenging the Blackstone Rangers for mass allegiance, which is why billionaire Clement Stone gave a million dollars to the Rangers, by then called the Black P. Stone Nation.

When C.L.R. returned to London, he urged the Race Today collective, chaired by his nephew and comrade Darcus Howe, to emulate BPP and RAM outreach activities he had witnessed in the U.S. Each time one of us visited him in Brixton, he required as many details as possible about those activities.

Certainly had those programs become substitutes for wider struggle they would merit the type of criticism that Lou suggests. But asserting that as their history misses the larger picture.

Ken Lawrence


Although my defense of the Black Panther Party's community organizing outreach programs is not based on an argument that the BPP was or was not a Marxist organization, every Marxist ought to settle accounts with that experience before the next comparable insurgency engulfs us.

Revolutionary Marxism's greatest opportunity of the 1960s, in my opinion, came and passed at the Huey Newton birthday gathering in Oakland. I quoted the polar snippets of Stokely Carmichael's and Rap Brown's oratory, but a more fundamental and permanent shift occurred as a consequence of those speeches and their effects on the New Left currents in which the BPP stood at the forefront.

Several months before that gathering, Stokely had gone to Havana (I don't recall now whether it was an OLAS or Tricontinental congress), where he declared that only socialism could save the world's downtrodden people. After that, Stokely's star was ascendant on the left. But at Oakland he said the opposite [quoting from memory], "Socialism and communism are not relevant to Black people."

You won't find that passage in the book Stokely Speaks, because it was deleted from the speech text, otherwise faithfully reproduced. But the underground papers of the day widely reported it, and Stokely's following plummeted among the centers of New Left activity. Trotskyists were barely paying attention to these events, but the two parties that vaulted from obscurity in the wake of that meeting were Bob Avakian's Bay Area Revolutionary Union and the Progressive Labor Party, setting the stage for the eventual splits along fault lines of Maoist doctrine (PL and RCP), on one side, and itinerant armed struggle on the other (Weather and Venceremos).

In African exile Stokely eventually returned to "scientific socialism," but much too late to influence events in the United States. Those remained the radical currents that shaped U.S. events until most of the insurgent energy was spent. The Old Left reasserted itself in the familiar anti-war coalition, but could never convert that activity into a constituency for socialism.

Traditional Marxism's greatest missed opportunity arose and departed at the National Conference for New Politics in Chicago, which anticipated a presidential ticket of Martin Luther King and Benjamin Spock, but dispersed without closing the deal.

The phase that followed these episodes, the so-called "new communist" party-building movement, was even less able to create an enduring political base. U.S. socialism marks time in the CoC [I have been a member since the Berkeley conference], WWP, CP, Solidarity, SP, DSA, and several smaller groups, but will surely be compelled to regroup when the masses make their move.

Ken Lawrence