by BAR contributor Danny Haiphong
Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party were about much more than guns.
On the Importance of Class Analysis: Lessons from Huey Newton
by BAR contributor Danny Haiphong
“Theory and organization guided by a class analysis is the difference between becoming the vanguard of history or simply a victim of it.”
Black August has come and gone, but the conditions that originally inspired the annual celebration persist into the present. Dozens of Black revolutionaries continue to live their lives locked away in the steel cages of the mass Black incarceration state, including Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, and Herman Bell. The majority of political prisoners were thrown behind the walls because of their political participation in the Black liberation movement of a generation ago. Such activity was motivated in part by the ideas of Black revolutionary, Huey P. Newton. As the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Newton imbued a generation of activists with the weapon of class analysis. It is in the interest of anyone who claims to carry on the tradition of Huey P. Newton to raise the question of class to the forefront of the contemporary struggle for liberation.
Huey P. Newton was a member of the "brothers from the block." When he co-founded the Black Panther Party in 1966, he was just 24 years-old. By this time Newton had already passed through a range of experiences that influenced his political development. As a working class Black American, Newton experienced school as nothing but a center for the reproduction of the disparate class position of Black youth. Newton was illiterate until well after high school. He battled, often times with his fists, with teachers and students who ridiculed him at every possible moment.
“Newton imbued a generation of activists with the weapon of class analysis.”
Newton would go on to form the Black Panther Party amid a number of developments that created ripe conditions for class struggle. Black Americans had pressured the state to grant the Black polity concessions in the form of "civil rights." Yet despite newfound access to the voting booth and public accommodation, cities such as Watts, Harlem, and Detroit went up in the flames of Black rebellion. The reasons for this were many. Most Black Americans lived in poverty. Access to quality healthcare, housing, employment, and education was virtually non-existent. De facto discrimination continued in all institutions. And to make matters worse, the US government was engaged in a war in Vietnam that could not be justified to a community that experienced rampant police violence every day within US borders.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense arose from the need to defend Black Americans from police brutality and murder. Newton's aim was to empower Black Americans with the knowledge of their right to armed self-defense. This attracted a number of "brothers from the block," a euphemism for the Black poor. When the organization faced state repression, Newton shifted the attention of party members to the material needs of the Black community. Black Panther Party "survival programs" included food programs, health clinics, and buses for families who needed transportation to visit loved ones in prison. These programs served thousands of Black Americans across the country and propelled the organization into the vanguard of a burgeoning revolutionary movement. Indeed, the Black Panther Party dedicated its activities to the survival of the Black community “pending revolution.”
“Black Panther Party "survival programs" included food programs, health clinics, and buses for families who needed transportation to visit loved ones in prison.”
Huey Newton was pivotal in rooting the Black Panther Party's political activities in the science of Marxism and class struggle. Newton spoke often of class. In his essay critiquing the white anarchist movement (1968), Newton clearly highlights the importance of class in the US:
This is a class society; it always has been. This reactionary class society places its limitations on individuals, not just in terms of occupation, but also regarding self expression, being mobile, and being free to be creative and do anything they want to do . . . In America, we have not only a class society, we also have a caste system, and Black people are fitted into the lowest caste. They have no mobility to move up the class ladder.
The Black Panther Party called itself a Marxist-Leninist Party in large part due to Newton's leadership. Party classes required the readings of Frantz Fanon, Mao Tse-tung, and Karl Marx. Newton initially described the Black community as a colony within an imperialist country. The conditions of poverty and state repression that characterized Black life in the US mirrored the experience of the colonial peoples in Vietnam, China, and Algeria who were embattled in national liberation struggles against the colonial powers. Newton applied the works of Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon to the particular conditions of Black America, leading the Black Panther Party to set up solidarity offices in Algeria and the DPRK. The organization also offered Black Panther members to fight alongside the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam against US military forces. He justified the action simply:
A small ruling circle of seventy-six major companies controls the American economy. This elite not only exploits and oppresses Black people within the United States; they are exploiting and oppressing everyone in the world because of the overdeveloped nature of capitalism. Having expanded industry within the United States until it can grow no more, and depleting the raw materials of this nation, they have run amuck abroad in their attempts to extend their economic domination. To end this oppression we must liberate the developing nation -- the countryside of the world -- and then our final act will be the strike against the "city." As one nation is liberated elsewhere it gives us a better chance to be free here.
“The theory of revolutionary intercommunalism called for a worldwide planned economy to rid of the ills of the US empire.”
Huey Newton's understanding of the relationship between class and international solidarity would further develop as the Black Panther Party faced steeper repression and the US military became more entangled in Vietnam. This would culminate in Newton's theory of revolutionary intercommunalism. Newton defined revolutionary intercommunalism as "the time when the people seize of the means of production and distribute the wealth and the technology in an egalitarian way to the many communities of the world." Nations no longer existed because the US empire didn't allow them to exist. The US empire had taken either direct or indirect control of many of the world's countries, disallowing them from practicing independence in any manner that could be considered "nationhood."
Revolutionary intercommunalism advanced the Marxist theory of class struggle in significant ways. First, the theory concluded that advances in technology were changing the character of class contradictions in US society. Unemployed workers would replace the proletariat as the antagonistic class to the capitalist exploiters. Furthermore, global expansion and war were deemed to render national borders and boundaries superfluous. US imperialism's endless war on the planet's people united them as communities and made revolutionary cooperation a requirement for the people’s liberation. The theory of revolutionary intercommunalism called for a worldwide planned economy to rid of the ills of the US empire.
“As one nation is liberated elsewhere it gives us a better chance to be free here.”
Few who discuss Huey Newton or the Black Panther Party today have given proper attention to the theoretical contributions that they made to the science of class struggle. Even supposedly sympathetic accounts such as Stanley Nelson's documentary ignore the ideological underpinnings of one of the most influential organizations in US history. To highlight the Black Panther Party and Huey Newton's class politics would be to reject the very system of domination that represses them. The question of class analysis is the line drawn in the sand by the US ruling circle. Step over that line, and one risks subjecting themselves to political isolation, repression, and even death.
This doesn't change the fact that the political movement in the US is desperately in need of a class analysis. Recent developments have intensified the contradictions of class in the US, especially with the ascendancy of Donald Trump and all that transpired during the tumultuous 2016 Presidential elections. The ruling class has conducted an assault on the consciousness of poor and working people by linking Trump's victory to white backlash and the rise of fascist bigotry. This has negated the class element of the state, whereby Trump took advantage of the crisis of legitimacy that currently plagues the state apparatus in Washington. It also keeps the struggle against oppression within the realm of fighting racist ideas, when in reality it took decades of endless war, austerity, and racism to create the conditions for the Trump era.
“The question of class analysis is the line drawn in the sand by the US ruling circle.”
Without a class analysis, the ruling class is left off the hook for the conditions that afflict the oppressed. Problems such as police brutality, mass incarceration, and poverty are viewed as amenable from within the current structure of society. Mobilizations and demonstrations like the ones that occurred in Charlottesville and Boston are at risk of becoming nothing more than "clean up" efforts for Uncle Sam. Bipartisan efforts to connect Trump with Russia as a means to intensify war on the planet are tolerated and even embraced by a large section of the population. Right wing ideas become more attractive in the midst of the total absence of an alternative to imperialism. And the struggle to win real material victories around any number of issues becomes lost in the Democratic Party graveyard or the political dead-end of giving the US empire a "progressive" face lift.
Huey Newton has thus paved an important road for current and future movements for liberation to follow. By forging a class analysis of the period, Newton's theoretical contribution gave the Black Panther Party a clear vision that informed practical activity. The study of class, history, and economic development allowed the Black Panther Party to change course when conditions changed, which helped keep the organization strong in the face of intense state repression. Theory and organization guided by a class analysis is the difference between becoming the vanguard of history or simply a victim of it. Organizations and activists should take heed to the lessons of the Black Panther Party and study Huey P. Newton as part of the struggle to revive the ideas that produced Black August.
Danny Haiphong is a Vietnamese-American activist and political analyst in the Boston area. [email protected]