Newton vs. Cleaver: An Analysis of Two Lines in the Black Panther Party

Panthers and community members at the Black Panther Party’s Free Food Program.

Eldridge Cleaver: “The fact is, there’s a split in the party. The right wing has seized the reins of leadership and put a muzzle on the Panther. The vanguard party has become a breakfast-for-children club.”

Was he serious? Was he constructing another of his well­ known grand metaphors, a bizarre one? Like me, the others were stilled by incredulity, their pens frozen over the note pads they held.

“But I represent the left wing of the party,” he proclaimed, “the International Section, headquartered in Algiers. We’re saying it’s time to clip the right wing operating out of national head­quarters, dominated by the reformist David Hilliard and his nepotistic hierarchy, which includes his reactionary brother, June, and his silly wife, Pat.”

I could hardly think, much less respond. It was impossible to believe what I was hearing.

“Babylon is quiet. Pigs are comfortable. Why? Because the vanguard is cooking fucking breakfasts instead of drawing guns!” he boomed. — “Elaine Brown on the Black Panthers, Joan Seberg, Eldridge Cleaver and COINTELPRO”

There’s a consistent and constant habit of failing to thoroughly study the good and bad sides of the Black Panther Party. This Party was, of course, the most revolutionary party in the history of the United States and the theoretical work done by Party members continues to influence practice today. The theory of intercommunalism has its merits and demerits, much of which can be described as idealist. The most compelling analysis from Huey P. Newton in the era of neoliberalism and automation is that the traditional “working class” is being lumpenized and that the lumpenproletariat or semi-proletariat will become the revolutionary class, or at the very least the class that will provide the main force for revolution in the first world, much like the peasantry was the main force of the Chinese Revolution. A glance at the current order of things in the United States shows the soundness of this analysis — the elements that have the least or nothing to lose are New Afrikan semi-proletarians and lumpen/proletarians. In “A Word for the Lumpen” I wrote:

Lumpen/proletarians have a dual character. They are more often than not the first to take the streets, because they do not have the ability to struggle at the workplace, temp workers can’t unionize, or appeal to the government who doesn’t listen and who oppresses them. Black lumpen/proletarians don’t vote or pay attention to the natterings of paid politicians. So, like Cleaver (who I despise, but we’re talking theory here) said in Ideology of the Black Panther Party, the lumpen make the revolution in the streets. The BPP called the “working class” the “right wing of the proletariat” and the lumpen the “left wing” because the “working class” of that time (and of this time), as we generally understand it, is generally the most likely among the proletariat to support legal leftism, trade union struggles (economism), and reactionary religious figures/”respectability”, and also the most likely to denounce the lumpen uprisings. This is not to attack the working class that maintains an entirely legal existence, but this shows that that class, as a class, is generally to the right of the lumpen in regards to struggle. A “working class” black person is generally older, unionized (SEIU is a big one here), churchgoing and conservative socially. Of course, we love them because they are our family, they are the masses, and they should be organized. The lumpen are their grandchildren and children, deprived from opportunities to even perform the types of jobs that they performed to enable them to have some semblance of stability. They may go to protests, but they will not engage in militant struggles against the police or smash windows, and will often try to stop people from doing these things and tell them to go home.

Organizing, fetishizing and lionizing the lumpen-proletariat has its theoretical and practical pitfalls, however. This is displayed perfectly in the case of Eldridge Cleaver and his introduction/solidification of an ultra-left line within the BPP that was lumpen to the bone. Of course, a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist communist party nowadays wouldn’t have admitted an unrepentant and proud rapist who routinely referred to women as simple sex objects and vessels for the production of children, but this was the late 1960s and the goal of the BPP was to reach out to, discipline and organize what Huey called “the brothers on the block”. Cleaver’s hyper-machismo was perfectly representative of the political line of male dominated, patriarchal New Afrikan street culture during this era. He was admitted to the party based on his prestige as a writer and his links to the radical colonizer New Left strata that the Panthers knew that they would need for propaganda and fundraising purposes. Cleaver can be compared to Lin Piao — he saw himself as a “heavenly horse, flying high” and his ultra-leftism led to ultra-rightism later in his life. In Cleaver’s case, he spent a large amount of time jetting across the country building his own personal clique and connections. Most of the New Afrikan individuals and groups that would go the furthest towards developing armed struggle in the United States in the 1970s can trace their history back to the Cleaver wing of the BPP. Cleaver criticized the Survival Pending Revolution programs spearheaded and launched by the Oakland headquarters as being economistic and soft. His position was that these proto-base building activities were wastes of time and the time was now to grab guns and start laying out cops and other elements of the state. His faction saw the party leadership which was in the hands of the Hilliard Brothers, Elaine Brown, Bobby Seale and others as being rightist and sought to purge them and forcibly impose his “armed-struggle now” line on the Party.

Except, the party had already been engaged in armed struggle. Remember, the Party gained its initial prestige by armed patrols of the police in Oakland and an armed demonstration at the California State Capitol in Sacramento. There were routine shootouts between Panthers and police, most notoriously in Los Angeles which was the first display of a new tactic devised especially for the BPP and its cadre — SWAT. In every BPP branch of note, whether it was New York, Oakland, LA or New Orleans, cadre were fortifying their Panther Pads, amassing arsenals and ammunition stockpiles, and engaging in military training. Decorated Vietnam Veteran Geronimo Pratt took the leadership on this work. Many Panthers were drafted into the Party straight out of Vietnam. The Party’s entire existence revolved around the gun, its display, and its use. Party literature featured firearms and armed Party members on every page. Fred Hampton, Bobby Hutton, John Huggins, Bunchy Carter, and countless other members were murdered by the police or rival organizations who ended up having connections to the police. In essence, Cleaver’s ultra-violent, armed struggle line was gasoline thrown on a roaring fire. Huey Newton correctly realized that the repressive apparatus and power of the State had targeted the Panthers, and the masses who saw them as representatives of their interests would suffer because the Party was not in the position to initiate armed struggle on a massive scale like Cleaver wanted. He wrote in 1971:

“The correct handling of a revolution is not to offer the people an ‘either-or’ ultimatum. Instead we must gain the support of the people through serving their needs. Then, when the police or any other agency of repression tries to destroy the program, the people will move to a higher level of consciousness and action. Then the organized structure can guide the people to the point where they are prepared to deal in many ways. This was the strategy we used in 1966 when the people related to us in a positive way. So the Black Panther Party has reached a contradiction with Eldridge Cleaver, and he has defected from the Party because we would not order everyone into the streets tomorrow to make a revolution…The people are not at that point now. This contradiction and conflict may seem unfortunate to some, but it is a part of the dialectical process. The resolution of this contradiction has freed us from incorrect analyses and emphases. We are now free to move toward the building of a community structure which will become a true voice of the people, promoting their interests in many ways.” — “On the Defection of Eldridge Cleaver from the Black Panther Party and the Defection of the Black Panther Party from the Black Community, April 17, 1971

In essence, Huey, upon his release from prison, sought to stop more Party members from being killed or sent to prison for decades by intervening and correcting the ultra-left turn rigged up by Eldridge Cleaver and his clique, and reasserting the leadership of the Party which was based in Oakland. Eldridge Cleaver’s, egomaniac that he was, split the party. He later swung hard right and became a Republican and a Mormon and renounced everything he claimed to uphold in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Who was correct? Huey Newton was correct in that the New Afrikan community was not ready to wage immediate armed struggle. What Cleaver proposed was, of course, a recipe for reactionary suicide. He wanted a secret organization whose only role was to fight, to hell with the day to day material needs of the people. The role of the vanguard, Huey said, is to “raise the consciousness of the masses through educational programs and other activities…a vanguard party is never underground in the beginning of its existence, that would limit its effectiveness and educational goals. How can you teach people if the people do not know and respect you…Many would be revolutionaries work under the fallacious notion that the vanguard party should be a secret organization that the power structure knows nothing about except for occasional letters that come to their homes by night. Underground parties cannot distribute leaflets announcing an underground meeting.” This is a good admonition for revolutionaries today who spend most of their time trying to rig up ultra-super-secret vanguards and other such things while being known only to the handful of leftists in their city and on the internet, mostly for various stupid and adventurist actions that they’ve done that have served only to get themselves arrested. Individuals such as this are defectors from the day to day lives of the lowest and deepest masses and serve only as spectacles and overtime for the police. There of course must be legal and illegal work. To focus on one is to neglect the other and to half-bake an attempt at building a mass base. The result is isolation from the masses, solidarity allies, and the broader struggle.

Huey Newton and the Oakland wing of the party were correct in choosing to launch the Breakfast for Children, Free Shoe and Clothing, and various other programs. These things weren’t done for their own sake, or out of some sense of revolutionary noblesse oblige/condescension. Revolutionaries must heed Mao’s teaching that we must be concerned with the well being of the masses and pay attention to methods of work.

Mao wrote: I earnestly suggest to this congress that we pay close attention to the well-being of the masses, from the problems of land and labour to those of fuel, rice, cooking oil and salt. The women want to learn ploughing and harrowing. Whom can we get to teach them? The children want to go to school. Have we set up primary schools? The wooden bridge over there is too narrow and people may fall off. Should we not repair it? Many people suffer from boils and other ailments. What are we going to do about it? All such problems concerning the well-being of the masses should be placed on our agenda. We should discuss them, adopt and carry out decisions and check up on the results. We should convince the masses that we represent their interests, that our lives are intimately bound up with theirs. We should help them to proceed from these things to an understanding of the higher tasks which we have put forward, the tasks of the revolutionary war, so that they will support the revolution and spread it throughout the country, respond to our political appeals and fight to the end for victory in the revolution. The masses in Changkang say, “The Communist Party is really good! It has thought of everything on our behalf.” If you and your organization can’t meet the day-to-day needs of the people, provide guidance in struggling against landlords and employers and other exploiters, and generally show that you give a damn, they are not going to pick up arms and randomly start shooting. This is an idealist appraisal of what it takes to build trust and a revolutionary community. Huey realized this, and the wing of the party under his leadership corrected and self-criticized for adventurist lines that objectively alienated them from the community under the influence of the Cleaver line.

However, there were errors. The Oakland wing ended up becoming, essentially, an appendage to the California Democratic Party, mainly under the leadership of Elaine Brown after Huey fled to Cuba after being accused of murdering a sex worker. Brown imposed what we can accurately call a rightist line on the BPP in Oakland — forcing it to campaign for Democratic candidates and delving deeply into economism. By economism I mean portraying wage increases and “gains” doled out by bourgeois politicians as the sum of revolutionary struggle. Gains should be extracted by militant organization of the people, not wheeled and dealed in back rooms in exchange for votes or the use of the Party’s clout to influence the masses to take positions that are antithetical to the purpose of the vanguard — to seize political power and suppress the bourgeoisie. Brown’s line was a swing to the right because while it got some basic gains for the masses in the Bay Area, these gains were gotten in exchange for involvement in bourgeois elections. Revolutionaries don’t wheedle concessions out of the bourgeoisie, we take them. It was also under Brown’s leadership that the Oakland chapter dumped its arsenal into the San Francisco Bay — again, a rightist action. Revolutionaries never, ever, disarm. The Black Panther Party that ceased existence in the early 1980s was a shell of itself and would be totally unrecognizable to the masses that united with and joined it in the 1960s, or martyrs like George Jackson and Fred Hampton.

What could have been done differently? We see now that it’s dangerous to fear ultra-leftism so much that we swing to the right and subsume ourselves into bourgeois politics. Rightism remains the main danger in the United States and all other imperialist countries because the fruit of most of the world’s labor is here and it’s all to easy to accept crumbs to be safe and say “we did this”. Serve the people/survival pending revolution programs are good only if they are guided by tried, tested and true Communists and regular political education is done to warn of the dangers of deviationism and opportunism. The Democrats and bourgeois politics should be seen as the vilest poison, and this line needs to be popularized and spread. Tenant organizations must be seen as instruments, weapons of class struggle, and must be consistently sharpened and made ever more militant. Arms should never be thrown into the river, but they also should not be fetishized or worshipped, nor should they be waved around lightly, especially at comrades. Finally, democratic centralism and Party programs must be constantly upheld and the individual must be subordinate to the collective to prevent the rise of “rock stars” that do whatever they want, because what they usually want is splits and personal prestige.