The first person to seriously engage me in a discussion of Marxism was a member of the United States Black Panther Party. It was in the summer I turned fifteen. I was sitting in Gruneberg Park near the American High School in Frankfurt am Main, Bundesrepublik Deutschland listening to music and hoping one of the German hippies in the circle of musicians and hangers-on would pass me a pipe with some hashish in it. Suddenly, out of the bushes three Frankfurt city police appeared. The musicians and most of their audience quickly packed up and scattered. I walked quickly away to another part of the park and sat down. While enjoying the sunshine and watching a couple older men play chess, a young African-American man walked up and sat next to me on the bench I was sitting. He nodded hello and asked me what book I was reading (I had a copy of some Herman Hesse novel in my hand). I showed him and he began to talk. About Marxism. I was curious and I listened.
I wasn’t politically naïve, but I had a lot to learn. In fact, I had read the Communist Manifesto and attempted Das Kapital, but found it too complex. I was also reading some of Emma Goldman’s works and found the more political underground papers to be better reading material than those geared towards drugs and sex, although I read both. My bench partner introduced himself. Then he asked me if I was against the Vietnam War and I answered yes, I was. He followed that question by asking if I knew what imperialism was. I hesitated and he began to explain capitalism and imperialism. Then he opened up his backpack and brought a copy of the Black Panther newspaper and Mao’s Little Red Book. That was when he told me he was a member of the Black Panther Party who had been recently discharged from the US Army. He had decided to stay in Europe and recruit for the party among GIs and military dependents. We talked for another hour or so. Thus began my introduction to Marxist thought. I met him four or five more times that summer, talking communism and occasionally smoking a little hashish. He went back to the States in the fall and I never heard from him again. However, his approach to our conversations was crucial not only to my growing understanding of leftist thought, but also to organizing in general. He never spoke down to me and never belittled my life or my ability to understand. It is this latter practice that I have tried to carry with me in my years of organizing since then.
I tell the above story because the basic program of the Black Panther Party remains unfulfilled fifty years after the Party’s founding. This truth is a tragic acknowledgement of both the failure of US capitalism to resolve its greatest disgrace and an admission that it may not be able to. As Ned and Constance Sublette make clear in their 2015 masterwork The American Slave Coast, the African slave trade and the subsequent breeding and trading of their descendants was fundamental to the development of the US capitalist economy. When the Southern confederacy lost its attempt to secede and begrudgingly remained a part of the Union, it was acknowledging that the emancipation of the slaves had dissolved the bulk of their financial holdings. Equally true, although less discussed, is the fact that the loss of those holdings also affected the northern economy. So, slaves were not only laborers creating surplus labor, they were also legal tender, like money in the bank.
The Black liberation movement and its radical allies shared an understanding similar to that put forth in the Sublette’s text. This is why they knew that achieving economic and political equality while the US capitalist economy and the racist political system remained was impossible. The situation fifty years later proves their understanding was correct. Of course, this does not mean things are as bad for all Black Americans and other working-class residents are as they were then. However, it does seem to prove that the solution to the crisis of inequality and racism does not exist under the existing structure. Indeed, that structure only seems to be making it worse. The unpunished murders of Black men by police are just the most graphic proof of this truth.
I want to share the ten-point program of the Black Panther Party as written down in 1966.
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 men of our Black Community. (later changed to “we want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities.”)
4 We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
5 We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day 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, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.
This is not a radical list of demands. With a couple slight changes in its wording making it less race-specific, it could easily be the political program of a labor-oriented party in almost any nation with a parliamentary system. The fact that it was considered radical, even revolutionary, is more of a testament to the essential backwardness of the United States than it is to the radicalness of its creators. The fact that most of these demands remain unmet for the majority of African-Americans and a growing number of other residents of the United States is a cruel indictment of the system most of its leaders champion and profit from. Furthermore, its fundamental message is one oppressed peoples around the world can identify with and support, if not make it their own with modifications appropriate to their situation.