Huey Newton - as Philosopher Gunman

by Stew Albert

Some remember Huey Newton as a noble folk hero and some as a gangster and thug. But who recollects the co-founder of the Black Panther Party as a political philosopher prophet of the postmodern world? Newton and his partner Bobby Seale became dramatically famous in the mid-1960's in Oakland, California for following policemen around and monitoring their racist behavior. What made it really interesting was that Newton, Seale and their associates were armed to the teeth. They were taking advantage of California's then very permissive wild west gun laws. A giant personality poster of Newton seated in a wicker toting both spear and shotgun was only mildly successful as a fashionable decoration among Berkeley's white revolutionaries.

In 1967, the inevitable happened. Huey Newton was in a shoot out with two Oakland policemen. One was dead, one was wounded. Newton, healing from a bullet wound was facing murder-one charges and California's gas chamber. The Newton family hired a white old-left San Francisco attorney and the Free Huey movement was launched. Newton became a movement icon and his poster now was a best seller. Three trials took place. In the first, Huey was convicted of manslaughter. The verdict was reversed on appeal, and the next two trials resulted in hung juries. Finally, the prosecution just gave up. Newton was free on bail after his original conviction was reversed. It was the early 70's and the Black Panther Party had grown into a national organization with chapters in most major cities and many small ones. Newton believed the party needed its own guiding philosophy. Up to then, it had been mostly reactive: "oppose police brutality"; "defend the constitutional rights of Black people"; and during the trial "Free Huey or the sky's the limit." As the party grew, so did the expectations of its supporters. They were no longer just the leaders of ghetto Blacks. Now the Panthers were the vanguard of the revolution -- role models for the whole kit n' caboodle rebellion of alienated young America. And they didn't have a philosophy. They had demands without a vision. When Huey was behind bars, and mostly concerned with getting out, Marxists of various stripes and traditions attempted to influence and seduce the organization. They succeeded, to a degree. But old-fashioned Marxism wouldn't do for the newly free Huey.

The New Left generation felt it needed to reinvent itself and the world, and Newton was no exception. He developed a set of ideas and imperatives that were indeed unique. In fact, they were so unusual that some of the furthest-out rebels had a mountain of trouble just figuring out "what the man was saying." Newton's laws lived in three concepts. Intercommunalism, Survival Programs and Revolutionary Suicide. They embraced an entire social and inner spiritual universe and they aimed at providing revolutionaries with a guide for prospering in a political universe that was expanding and collapsing at the same time. Intercommunalism: The centerpiece of Huey's philosophy was the demise of nations as significant economic and political forces. Huey saw that the world had become completely interpenetrated through technology, media and commerce, and that those emerging links were the new basis for power and domination. Huey Newton even refused to use that great old revolutionary slogan, internationalism. "The nation is dead, so how could you have an internation?" The Panther leader preferred to talk of intercommunalism because all that remained of effective and humane social life in the brave new world were communities -- from small ones like neighborhoods -- to former nations or portions of nations. Newton insisted that no political program could function independently of an all-embracing intercommunity He asserted that Panthers must condition their actions and goals by this new and ineluctable phenomena. Truth to tell, a lot of radicals thought Newton was nuts. "What do you mean the nation no longer exists?" "Doesn't he see the difference between Korea and Coney Island? Ah, but this was still awhile before the World Wide Web and global corporate capitalism.

Today, the death of the nation and global linkage and all that it implies for culture and politics is practically cliché and the only characters who still take "nation" seriously are Sharon and Arafat. But in Huey's day, only the odd and quirky white college professor would be taken seriously as he opined on "the global village." For a down -home ghetto black revolutionary off the block and junior college to talk this way was just too abstractly uppity and futuristically out-of-character. The rebels felt more comfortable with obscenities and folk wisdom from their Black leaders. Survival Programs: Survival programs were the way to organize and revolutionize in this new world of communities. With antiquated national wealth and power on a one-way ticket to Palookaville, how could revolutionaries rely on government programs or try to fight for them? The governments were collapsing and revolutionaries had to create direct social programs that would replace the failing and cynical efforts of the doomed nation state. The Panther's sponsored a variety of "Survival Programs Pending Revolution." They included "Free Breakfasts for Children," and programs involving free schools, free chickens, free shoes and much more. The Panthers built widespread grass roots support with these activities. A vision arose that saw within these programs, and their culture and style, the potential for taking hegemony over the ruling greed culture of exploitation. But how were the finances raised? There were straight forward contributions, but when governments raise money it's called taxation, when ghetto-based revolutionaries try to get money out of the more successful members of their community, it will inevitably be described by the police and politicians as a "protection racket."

And again, these were the days when corporate social liberalism was still riding high and many scorned Newton's turn away from the state. "He's letting the government off the hook and replacing concessions from government won in great struggle with hand outs and charity." These days, after Reaganomics and Bush the First's "thousand points of light," the death of social liberalism is acknowledged by liberals on the path towards embracing laissez-faire19th century economics and the war of all against all. Revolutionary Suicide: Finally, there was the ominous sounding "Revolutionary Suicide." Huey was observing the narcissistic consumerism that dominated American culture, and all the deadly escapes that ghetto life offered to the alienated and agonized. All around him, people died young or lived on to devote their lives to acquiring objects instead of authentic human experience. Life was getting suicidal, no less for a revolutionary than for a dope, or shopping mall, junkie. In a changing world of rising new exploitive power, the elites would be getting much less tolerant of its rebels and troublemakers.

And so the choice was coming down to reactionary vs. revolutionary suicide. And which side were you on? At that time, Huey was studying Zen and Samurai traditions and trying to experience liberation as non-attachment - a non-attachment to fear and the shiny trinkets of multitudinous new addictions. He urged the Panthers to live pure lives dedicated to revolutionary action, without fear of the quite possibly deadly outcome. He was sure that all the alternatives being offered on the block were much worse. Many denounced "revolutionary suicide" as morbid posturing. But as we look back over the decades of social break down, crack and television, RICO laws, and a vastly enlarged prison population, who will deny that spiritual suicide has become as American as apple pie, or claim that the more heroic course of action advocated by Newton was without its charms? Huey was never taken seriously as a thinker. Perhaps, in some crucial way, this played a part in his ultimately committing his own version of reactionary suicide. He suffered from unrequited philosophy. By the late 70's criminality replaced politics. His path became booze, cocaine, and finally being murdered in the streets over a drug situation. Today he is remembered, by those who still have memories, as either a very brave guy with a gun confronting racist cops, or as a thug pedaling drugs and human beings. But he might best be remembered for that period in between, when he was a prophet of the terrible world we actually live in - a prophet who described that world and gave the best part of himself to its transformation.

~ Stew

This article will appear in the summer issue of 'The Thresher', available at good book stores and magazine stands everywhere.

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