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The Black Panther Party and the Glorification of the Lumpenproletariat

August 25, 2018

 

It is no coincidence that the glorification of the lumpenproletariat among leftist groups has been accompanied by nationalism and all forms of class deviation.

 

The "Black Panther" Party, presented by the leftist groups as an example of anti-racist and anti-capitalist militancy, shows us clearly how the exaltation of the lumpenproletariat is indelibly connected to the abandonment of the proletariat in general.

 

As is well known, the Black Panthers were born in a context where the civil rights movement in the United States had achieved the legal abolition of racial segregation, but had failed to put an end to state violence and insidious racial discrimination.

 

Some black workers moved to the Watts [Los Angeles, California] neighborhood in the 1920s during a time when black workers were excluded from obtaining mortgages in mostly white neighborhoods. Significantly, in 1945, 80% of the residents of Watts were black.[1] During World War II many black workers had migrated to cities in the north and west of the United States to find work in the war industry. After the war, they lost their jobs and their neighborhoods and cities, including Watts, suffered from impoverishment and lumpenization.[2]

 

The repressive forces of Los Angeles were closely patrolling neighborhoods like Watts in the 1960s. Between 1962 and 1965, sixty-five people were murdered. Twenty-seven of the victims were shot in the back, twenty-five of them were unarmed, twenty-three were suspected of non-violent crimes, and four were not suspected of any crime.[3] The residents of Watts were constantly being terrorized by the state. As a result, riots broke out in 1965.

 

The immediate cause was an altercation between the police and the family of Marquette Frye, who had been arrested for drunk driving. The trigger was the spread of rumors that the police had beaten a pregnant woman. But the most profound cause of the mass riots in Watts was the persistent tension between the police and the residents.

 

Similarly, the cause of the riots in Ferguson was not an isolated incident. Michael Brown's murder was the trigger for the riots, but they were ultimately the result of ongoing state violence against the residents of Ferguson.

 

Both the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat were and continue to be victims of state repression.

 

But unlike the lumpenproletariat, the historical task of the proletariat is to seize political power, overthrow capital, and create a truly humane society. The proletariat is the only class in history that has that capacity and mission. This means that the working class is the class that holds the future of the whole world in its hands.

 

Capital is a parasite, a vampire, living and growing through the exploitation of its host, the proletariat. The proletariat, the class that has nothing to lose and nothing that would unite it with capital because it has been stripped of everything but its capacity to work, looks to the future. But the lumpenproletariat, like the bourgeoisie, lives a parasitic life that is nourished by the degeneration of society. Drug traffickers, pimps, thieves, and gangs, etc., are not looking to the future but to destruction. They do not share the same class interest as the proletariat and for that reason, the lumpen cannot be the proletariat's ally in its mission to bring down the capitalist world. 

 

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels defined the lumpenproletariat in the "Communist Manifesto" as, "That passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution, its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.”

 

In his preface to the "Peasant War in Germany," Engels said of the lumpen: "The lumpenproletariat, this scum of the decaying elements of all classes, which establishes headquarters in all the big cities, is the worst of all possible allies. It is an absolutely venal, an absolutely brazen crew. If the French workers, in the course of the Revolution, inscribed on the houses: Mort aux voleurs!(Death to the thieves!) and even shot down many, they did it, not out of enthusiasm for property, but because they rightly considered it necessary to hold that band at arm’s length. Every leader of the workers who utilizes these gutter-proletarians as guards or supports, proves himself by this action alone a traitor to the movement.”

 

Although Marx, Engels, and even the Marxists who led the workers' movement at the beginning of the 20th century, such as Rosa Luxemburg or Lenin, have defined the lumpen in these terms, there are leftists who think that the lumpen and its activity deserve the support of communists and even defend the idea that they have the capacity to play a revolutionary role.

 

It is no coincidence that the same leftists who renounced internationalism idolize the lumpenproletariat, its way of being, and its activities. In the same sense that nationalism replaces the proletariat as the revolutionary subject and its interests for the nation, that false community which actually represents the interests of the national bourgeoisie, the exaltation of the lumpenproletariat also brings with it the abandonment of the class. Because, even though many workers have been turned into lumpenproletarians by "a capitalism that no longer even has the capacity to exploit us all"[4] the lumpenproletarians do not have the capacity to acquire a class consciousness.

 

Therefore, although the lumpenproletarians may rebel against the police during the riots, they are not interested in the proletariat taking control of the neighborhoods. What really matters to lumpenproletarians is their ability to continue their illegal businesses. Gangs, that terrible threat to the daily life of the workers and their activity, may adopt the slogan "black lives matter" and reach temporary truces with one another[5], but they will never support the working class in the seizure of political power. The gangs, furthermore, played an important role in the Watts riots. The gangs in Watts have operated together and coordinated their activities during the riots. It is no coincidence that black nationalist groups such as the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party recruited gang members around that point in time.[6]

 

The seizure of political power is the first step and the only way to root out the state violence that threatens the daily lives of workers. It is the only way to end the violence of a decadent capitalism that continues to worsen living conditions and even threatens to wipe out the planet.

 

The Black Panther Party was a party that began its history as a self-defense organization and, as we said, was created in a context of state violence and racial discrimination.

 

In its short existence as an organization, it had evolved to adapt to the changes that came with it. It is true that their interpretations of nationalism, socialism, etc., had evolved over the years. At first it was a black nationalist party, then a "revolutionary nationalist" party, then a supposedly internationalist party, and finally an "intercommunalist" party.

 

Inspired by Marcus Garvey and Franz Fanon, it began by defining itself as black nationalist. At the same time, it was a supposedly socialist party and opposed to "black capitalism".

 

But nationalism is completely opposed to socialism. Nationalism obscures the relations between the antagonistic classes in capitalism by uniting them under the banner of the "nation".

 

According to Rosa Luxemburg in "The National Question",

 

“In a class society, 'the nation' as a homogenous socio-political entity does not exist. Rather, there exist within each nation, classes with antagonistic interests and 'rights.' There literally is not one social area, from the coarsest material relationships to the most subtle moral ones, in which the possessing class and the class-conscious proletariat hold the same attitude, and in which they appear as a consolidated 'national' entity.”

 

Moreover, the nation could not exist in a society without classes, without the state, without the need to increase capital. The nation, that slaughterhouse that takes the working class as its victim, could not exist in socialism, in a truly human world in which the alienation of Humanity and Nature has been abolished. It is not possible therefore to reconcile socialism, the world without oppression, with the nation when, "Behind the national flag, only death and misery follow.”[7]

 

We quote the short version of the original text of the Black Panther's "10 Point Program".

 

  1. We Want Freedom. We Want Power to Determine The Destiny Of Our Black Community

  2. We Want Full Employment For Our People

  3. We Want An End to the Robbery By The White Man Of Our Black Community

  4. We Want Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings

  5. We Want Education For Our People That Exposes The True Nature Of This Decadent American Society.

  6. We Want All Black Men To Be Exempt From Military Service

  7. We Want An Immediate End To Police Brutality And Murder of Black People

  8. We Want Freedom For All Black Men Held In Federal, State, County And City Prisons And Jails

  9. We Want All Black People When Brought to Trial To Be Tried In Court By A Jury Of Their Peer Group Or People From Their Black Communities, As Defined By The Constitution Of The United States

  10. We Want Land, Breads, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice And Peace.”

 

The first point, "We want the power to determine the fate of our Black community" is based on the concept of the "right of nations to self-determination". The idea behind the "black community" is that there is a community, based on race, that unites the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and shares the same interests. For the Black Panthers, there would be a "black community," which would include the lumpenproletariat alongside the proletariat and would share the same political interests. In this version of their program, the third point said that "the white man" steals from the "black community.” The reality of capitalist exploitation had been buried by the Panthers under the rug of race. The working class, the workers of any color, have no real interest in a false community like the nation. According to Rosa Luxemburg,

 

“When we speak of the 'right of nations to self-determination,' we are using the concept of the 'nation' as a homogeneous social and political entity. But actually, such a concept of the 'nation' is one of those categories of bourgeois ideology which Marxist theory submitted to a radical revision, showing how that misty veil, like the concepts of the 'freedom of citizens,' 'equality before the law,' etc., conceals in every case a definite historical content.”

 

In the following version of the "Program Points," the third point was changed to "We want an end to the robbery by the capitalist of our black community". This change from the "white man" to the "capitalist" could not correct the fundamental error. The Black Panthers have never recognized during their existence that there is no "black community" that shares the same political interests [above and beyond the social classes].

 

It is true that their nationalism came into conflict with the nationalism of other Black nationalist groups. It is true that at some point in its history, the "revolutionary nationalism" of the Black Panther Party was in conflict with the cultural nationalism of other groups, as Bobby Seale says in Seize the Time:

 

“Cultural nationalists and Black Panthers are in conflict in many areas. Basically, cultural nationalism sees the white man as the oppressor and makes no distinction between racist whites and non-racist whites, as the Panthers do. The cultural nationalists say that a black man cannot be an enemy of the black people, while the Panthers believe that black capitalists are exploiters and oppressors. Although the Black Panther Party believes in black nationalism and black culture, it does not believe that either will lead to black liberation or the overthrow of the capitalist system, and therefore ineffective.”

 

And yet, the Black Panthers still believed that there was a Black community, which included not only Black workers, but also the lumpenproletariat who supposedly shared an interest in overthrowing the capitalist system.

 

According to Eldridge Cleaver, he himself a "Black Panther" who raped white women because he believed it was "revolutionary" (for which he had "practiced" raping black women) and later became a Mormon and joined the Republican Party (the "Great Old Party" or "GOP"),

 

“The Lumpenproletariat are all those who have no secure relationship or vested interest in the means of production and the institutions of capitalist society. That part of the ‘Industrial reserve Army’ held perpetually in reserve; who have never worked and never will; who can’t find a job; who are unskilled and unfit; who have been displaced by machines, automation and cybernation, and were never ‘retained or invested with new skills’; all those on Welfare or receiving State Aid.

Also, the so-called ‘Criminal Element,’ those who live by their wits, existing off that which they rip off, who stick guns in the faces of businessmen and say ‘stick’em up’, or ‘give it up’! Those who don’t even want a job, who hate to work and can’t relate to punching some pig’s time clock, who would rather punch a pig in the mouth and rob him than punch that same pig’s time clock and work for him, those whom Huey P. Newton calls ‘the illegitimate capitalists.’ In short, all those who simply have been locked out of the economy and robbed of their rightful social heritage.”

 

It is very clear that Cleaver was glorifying the activity of the lumpenproletariat. Its selfish and individualistic activity signified to him a rebellion against the state. But in reality, it is quite the contrary.

 

The rebellion of the lumpenproletariat against state authority has its limits due to the nature of its position in capitalism. As the lumpen are unable to have a true class consciousness, and will be even less interested in the seizure of political power by the proletariat, their activity will always be restricted to looting and rioting.

 

But the Black Panthers, in addition to extolling the activity of the lumpenproletariat, also expanded its definition. Its definition includes people who receive social or state aid, even though receiving social assistance does not really qualify anyone as a lumpen.

 

The concept of the "black community" always existed in the Black Panthers, even during their supposedly internationalist phase. Not surprisingly, the party that believed that the lumpenproletariat was "the vanguard of the proletariat"[8] and its left wing was the same party that believed that internationalism consisted of supporting capitalist states that claimed to be socialist like Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, or Algeria. This "internationalism" was, in reality, a betrayal of true working-class internationalism.

 

On the other hand, the Rainbow Coalition, created by Fred Hampton, is not an example of true internationalism either. The Rainbow Coalition was an alliance of several leftist groups with roots in the lumpenproletariat. The Young Lords, whose members were mostly Puerto Rican, was one of them and began as a street gang in West Lincoln Park and Humboldt Park in 1959. The Young Patriots also started out as a gang but, unlike the Young Lords, most of their members were white people from Appalachia.[9]

 

Many leftists love to quote Fred Hampton and his comments on the coalition and proletarian revolution.

 

“We don’t think you fight fire with fire; we think you fight fire with water. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight it with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism. We’re still here to say we’re not going to fight reactionary pigs and reactionary state’s attorneys like this and reactionary state’s attorneys like Hanrahan with any other reactions on our part. We’re going to fight their reactions with all of us people getting together and having an international proletarian revolution.”

 

While all this sounds good, this coalition was not an example of anything truly internationalist. The Young Lords were an openly nationalist organization. They believed in Puerto Rican nationalism, in other words, they wanted Puerto Rican independence from the United States. Appropriately, its symbol was the flag of Puerto Rico. The "Young Patriots" adopted a certain kind of nationalism as well. Although they did not embrace white nationalism, they utilized their symbols: they wore Confederate flag patches on their clothing and they called themselves "hillbilly nationalists.”

 

The activity of the different organizations consisted of each defending their "own community" through the activism of their social services such as the free breakfast program, something they copied from the Black Panther Party. Each organization also had its own ten-point program that differed from organization to organization.

 

The slogans of “power”, “black power”, “brown power”, and even “white power” do not transcend the divisions of the working class but turn them into to a fetish.

 

Not surprisingly, the same logic that gave rise to black and Puerto Rican nationalism gave rise to white and “hillbilly” identititarianism. "We say all Power to the People - Black Power to the Black People and Brown Power to the Brown People, Red Power to the Red People and Yellow Power to the Yellow People. We say White Power to White People"[10]

 

Nor is it surprising that the "worker", from this point of view, becomes one of the millions of identities. The "Rising Up Angry" organization, inspired by and modeled after the Black Panthers, is an example of this trend, where the so-called "culture" of the working class was celebrated and fetishized.

 

The Rainbow Coalition functioned more as a coalition compatible with "intersectionality" than as a truly internationalist and proletarian organization.

 

 

In the final phase of the Black Panthers, Huey Newton created the theory of "intercommunalism," which he presented at Boston College. In this confusing theory, Huey has stated that the United States had become an empire and that the rest of the world was made up of "communities". Newton concluded that for this reason the nation category had become useless and that the Black Panther Party had converted from an internationalist party into an "inter-communalist" one. It is not hard to see that this theory worsened his already poor understanding of capitalism. It converts states, each with its own bourgeoisie and proletariat, including supposedly socialist states like Cuba or North Korea, into homogeneous communities with the same material interests. In this analysis, imperialism turned into "reactionary intercommunalism" and internationalism turned into "revolutionary intercommunalism".

 

It is the height of ridiculousness, but not surprising, that there are leftists that praise this theory which could only impart confusion and opportunism to the working class.

 

According to the same theory, the proletariat, when the time came, would become lumpen.

 

“In this country the Black Panther Party, taking careful note of the dialectical method, taking careful note of the social trends and the ever‐changing nature of things, sees that while the lumpen proletarians are the minority and the proletarians are the majority, technology is developing at such a rapid rate that automation will progress to cybernation, and cybernation probably to technocracy. As I came into town I saw MIT over the way. If the ruling circle remains in power it seems to me that capitalists will continue to develop their technological machinery because they are not interested in the people. Therefore, I expect from them the logic that they have always followed: to make as much money as possible, and pay the people as little as possible ‐ until the people demand more, and finally demand their heads. If revolution does not occur almost immediately, and I say almost immediately because technology is making leaps (it made a leap all the way to the moon), and if the ruling circle remains in power the proletarian working class will definitely be on the decline because they will be unemployables and therefore swell the ranks of the lumpens, who are the present unemployables. Every worker is in jeopardy because of the ruling circle, which is why we say that the lumpen proletarians have the potential for revolution, will probably carry out the revolution, and in the near future will be the popular majority. Of course, I would not like to see more of my people unemployed or become unemployables, but being objective, because we’re dialectical materialists, we must acknowledge the facts.

Marx outlined a rough process of the development of society. He said that society goes from a slave class to a feudalistic class structure to a capitalistic class structure to a socialistic class structure and finally to communism. Or in other words, from capitalist state to socialist state to nonstate: communism. I think we can all agree that the slave class in the world has virtually been transformed into the wage slave. In other words, the slave class in the world no longer exists as a significant force, and if we agree to that we can agree that classes can be transformed literally out of existence. If this is so, if the slave class can disappear and become something else ‐ or not disappear but just be transformed ‐ and take on other characteristics, then it is also true that the proletarians or the industrial working class can possibly be transformed out of existence. Of course the people themselves would not disappear; they would only take on other attributes. The attribute that I am interested in is the fact that soon the ruling circle will not need the workers, and if the ruling circle is in control of the means of production the working class will become unemployables or lumpens. That is logical; that is dialectical. I think it would be wrong to say that only the slave class could disappear.”

 

This analysis misunderstands how capitalism works in reality. Neither the bourgeoisie nor capitalism could exist if the whole working class became lumpen. Why? Because capital is a parasite, a vampire, that lives and reproduces through the exploitation of its host: the proletariat. The lifeblood of capital is the living labor of the proletariat. Capital appropriates the surplus value extracted from the proletariat and uses this surplus value not only to enrich itself, but also to invest the capital back in the production process and to maintain the life cycle of capital. This functioning of capital is essential and it does not matter whether lumpenization exists or is increasing. Capital can never live without the working class, and that is precisely where the power of the working class lies.

 

Leftists praise the lumpenproletariat because they themselves have undermined the capacity of the proletariat and denied its historical role. The exaltation of the lumpenproletariat, if it were to occur in the class party, would reveal a lack, an absence of connection between the party, composed of militants who are part of the class, and the rest of the working class. In the end, this glorification could only be the result of the abandonment and betrayal of the revolutionary class. It is not surprising therefore that the glorification of the lumpen is often accompanied by nationalism.

The lumpenproletariat, like nationalism, is the enemy of the working class. The class could not mark out its independence as a class and seize political power if it depended on the support of the lumpenproletariat.

 

 

 

 

-KJ 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2013) 55-58

 

[2] Ibid, 56

 

[3] Ibid, 59

 

[4] “Proletariado, Xenofobia, y Lumpenización.” Nuevo Curso (blog), 15 de agosto, 2018

 

[5] Brianna Provenzano, “Bloods and Crips Stand Together in Solidarity During Atlanta Black Lives Matter Protests” Mic Network Inc, July 8, 2016, https://mic.com/articles/148277/bloods-and-crips-stand-together-in-solidarity-during-atlanta-black-lives-matter-protests

 

[6] Gerald Horne, Fire this Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 195-196

 

[7] “Crisis en Nicaragua”. Nuevo Curso (blog), 19 de julio, 2018

 

[8] Chris Booker, “Lumpenization: A Critical Error of the Black Panther Party,” in The Black Panther Party (reconsidered), ed. by Charles Earl Jones (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1998), 345

 

[9] Gordon K. Mantler, Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice (1960- 1974) (North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 231

 

[10] Charles E. Jones and Judson L. Jeffries “Don’t Believe the Hype: Debunking the Panther Mythology,” in The Black Panther Party (reconsidered), ed. by Charles Earl Jones (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1998), 39

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