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Lessons from the Black Panthers

Forty years ago the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded in Oakland,
California. It represented the highest point of the vast rebellion against raci
sm and poverty which swept the US in the 1950s and 1960s. HANNAH SELL looks at t
he lessons to be learnt from its rise and fall.
AT THE HEIGHT of their influence, J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, described the
Panthers as "the number one threat to security in the USA". Forty years on, Arn
old Schwarzenegger, governor of California, still considers them a threat. He re
fused to commute the death penalty for Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams because he did not
believe he had ‘reformed’. Tookie was a founder of the notorious Crips gang, who had
since changed his outlook and dedicated his life to discouraging young people f
rom joining gangs. Schwarzenegger’s main justification for refusing to believe Too
kie had changed was that he had dedicated his book to the heroic George Jackson,
the Panther and revolutionary who was gunned down and killed by prison guards i
n 1971. But while the ruling class remembers the Panthers with fear, they will b
e seen as heroes by a new generation of young people entering struggle.
The racism and poverty faced by black Americans in the 1950s and 1960s is not fu
ndamentally different today. It is true that there is now a far larger and more
affluent black middle class than was the case then. A thin layer has even entere
d the elite of US society – summed up by Condoleezza Rice’s position as secretary of
state in the Bush administration. The ruling class in the US responded to the r
evolt in the 1950s and 1960s with a conscious decision to develop a black middle
class to act as a brake on future movements, to create a version of the ‘American
Dream’ for black people.
However, the American Dream remains a myth for working-class black Americans, to
an even greater degree than it is for working-class whites. For large sections
of the black population low pay and poverty remain the norm. According to offici
al statistics, in 2004, 24.7% of blacks were classified as poor, compared to 8.6
% of non-Hispanic whites. Unemployment is twice as high among blacks as whites;
and they are twice as likely to die from disease, accident or murder at every st
age of their lives. Hurricane Katrina laid bare the reality of life in the USA i
n the 21st century – it was the poor who were left behind as the levees flooded, a
nd a majority of the poor were black.
In the 1960s, as George Jackson put it, "black men born in the US and fortunate
enough to live past the age of eighteen [were] conditioned to accept the inevita
bility of prison". Jackson himself was sentenced ‘from one year to life’ for robbing
a gas station. Today, the situation is little changed for working-class young b
lack men. At any one time, 11% of them are in prison. In most states, spending t
ime in prison means being permanently refused the right to vote. In effect, univ
ersal suffrage does not exist for black men. In the 1960s, as today, the prison
system brutalised millions of young blacks. However, in that period of radicalis
ation, for many prison also acted as a university of revolutionary ideas. Jackso
n explained: "I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels, and Mao when I entered prison
and they redeemed me". The Panthers, many of whom were imprisoned for their acti
vities, gained enormous support in US prisons.
US capitalism in the 21st century has failed working-class American blacks. The
story of the Black Panthers is therefore not just of historical interest, but ha
s important lessons for a new generation entering struggle, particularly in the
US, but to some degree internationally.
It was not a coincidence that the ‘civil rights movement’ erupted in the 1950s. The
second world war had an effect. Not only had thousands of black soldiers fought
and died for US imperialism, they were struck by the glaring hypocrisy of the wa
r propaganda. Here was a capitalist class claiming they had to go to war against
the racism of the Nazis, while in their own country vicious racism was the norm
. In addition, US capitalism was entering a prolonged period of economic prosper
ity. This meant that many more blacks were moving from the rural south to the ci
ties, mainly in the north. In 1940, half the black population lived in the citie
s. By 1970, it was three-quarters. Becoming part of the working class – moving fro
m isolated rural communities to massive urban centres – increased confidence and c
apacity to struggle. In addition, the increased wealth and higher living standar
ds of the white middle class made the poverty and degradation of the vast majori
ty of blacks seem even starker than before. Finally, the liberation struggles of
the masses in Africa and Asia, who were succeeding to overthrow colonial rule,
provided inspiration.
As the struggle developed it changed the outlook of those who took part. The Civ
il Rights Act was passed in 1965. But, while this was a legal concession, it did
not alter the reality of poverty and police brutality. Even Martin Luther King,
who initially saw the role of the movement as using pacifist methods to pressur
e the Democrats to grant civil rights, changed his outlook in the period before
he was assassinated. When King was viciously beaten by the police in Birmingham,
Alabama, in 1963, riots burst out nationwide. Amidst the rubble, King accuratel
y declared the riots "a class revolt of the under-privileged against the privile
ged". In 1967, he was forced to conclude: "We have moved into an era which must
be an era of revolution… what good does it do to a man to have integrated lunch co
unters if he can’t buy a hamburger?" In particular, he began to raise the need to
appeal to white workers and to organise a class-based struggle. He was supportin
g a strike when he was assassinated. (See: The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Soc
ialism Today, No.27)
Ferment & formation
AT THE BASE of the movement there was a ferment of discussion as activists tried
to work out the most effective means of struggle. Pacifist ideas were increasin
gly rejected, particularly by the younger generation. Out of the turmoil of thes
e events, the ideas of Black Power were developed. In many senses, the Black Pow
er movement was a step forward. It was a break from pacifism, and from an orient
ation to the Democrats, a big-business party. At the same time, it had limitatio
ns, particularly its separatist overtones and lack of a clear programme.
Malcolm X had been moving away from the black nationalism of the Black Power mov
ement, and had drawn anti-capitalist conclusions to a greater degree than other
leaders, stating clearly that "you can’t have capitalism without racism". Malcolm
X was killed in February 1965. The Black Panthers were founded in late 1966 and
saw themselves as starting where Malcolm X had left off. The two founder members
, Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale, had become involved in the struggle at a time w
hen it was felt that there was no clear way forward. A searching for ideas was u
nderway among the new generation of activists. Newton and Seale began their sear
ch, like most of that generation, with the ‘cultural nationalists’, but rapidly foun
d them wanting. Their disagreements centred on class from the very beginning. Se
ale explains in his autobiography, Seize the Time, how Newton began to argue aga
inst the idea of buying from black businesses: "He would explain many times that
if a black businessman is charging you the same prices or higher, even higher p
rices than exploiting white businessmen, then he himself ain’t nothing but an expl
oiter".
The Panthers rejected the separatism of the cultural nationalists and were found
ed with the magnificent concept: "We do not fight racism with racism. We fight r
acism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black capita
lism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism. And we do not fight imperialism
with more imperialism. We fight imperialism with proletarian internationalism".
Within two years, the Panthers had spread like wildfire, from a handful in Oakla
nd, California, to having chapters (branches) in every major US city, selling 12
5,000 a week of their paper, The Black Panther. Having gained phenomenal support
in their first years, the Panthers went into decline just as quickly, riven by
splits. They faced enormous police repression. The ruling class was terrified of
the Panthers and set out to crush them. It is estimated that the ‘cadre’ or core of
the Panthers’ organisation never numbered more than 1,000 yet, at one stage, 300
of those were facing trial. Thirty-nine Panthers were shot on the streets or in
their homes by the police. In addition, the police carried out widespread infilt
ration of the Panthers. However, it was not only brutal state repression that wa
s responsible for the demise of the Black Panther Party, but also its failure to
adopt a rounded-out Marxist approach.
The leaders of the Panthers were on a higher level than the organisations that h
ad gone before, describing themselves as ‘Marxist-Leninists’. The best of the Panthe
rs strove heroically to find the best road to win liberation for American blacks
, and came to understand that this was linked to the struggle for socialism. The
y faced all the problems, however, arising from the fact that their movement dev
eloped before a generalised, mass struggle of the US working class. They were no
t able, in the short period of their mass influence, to fully work out how their
goals could be achieved.
The Panthers’ programme
THE INFLUENCE OF Stalinism had an enormously confusing effect on the movement. A
nd more than a little responsibility lies with those organisations, particularly
the American SWP, which described itself as Trotskyist but tail-ended the Black
Power movement, doing nothing to raise the genuine ideas of Marxism with radica
l black activists. In fact, far from helping the Panthers develop their methods
and programme, the American SWP even criticised the Panthers for daring to argue
against the racism of the cultural nationalists: "The concept that it is possib
le for black people to be racists is one which the nationalist movement has had
to fight ever since the first awakening of black consciousness".
The greatest strength of The Panthers was that they strove for a class-based, ra
ther than race-based, solution to the problems of American blacks. Contrast the
attitude of the American SWP with that of Bobby Seale: "Those who want to obscur
e the struggle with ethnic differences are the ones who are aiding and maintaini
ng the exploitation of the masses. We need unity to defeat the boss class – every
strike shows that. Every workers’ organisation’s banner declares: ‘Unity is strength’".
The Panthers were founded around a ten-point programme: What We Want and What We
Believe. The first demand read: "We want freedom. We want the power to determin
e the destiny of the black community. We believe that black people will not be f
ree until we are able to determine our destiny". The second was for full employm
ent, the third for an end to the robbery by the white man of the black community
, the fourth for decent housing and an education system "that exposes the true n
ature of this decadent American society". Other demands included an end to polic
e brutality, for black men to be exempt from military service, and for "all blac
k people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer grou
p or people from black communities".
At their inception, they combined campaigning around the ten-point programme wit
h organising the defence of their local community against police brutality. Duri
ng this period, the Panthers’ chief activity was to ‘patrol the pigs’, that is, to mon
itor police activity to try and ensure that the civil rights of black people wer
e respected. When Panther members saw police pull over a black driver, they stop
ped and observed the incident, usually with weapons in hand. At that time, it wa
s legal in California to carry guns within certain limitations and the Panthers
asserted their right to do so, quoting the relevant sections of the law. The thi
rd strand of the Panthers’ work was the establishment of free food, clothing and m
edicare programmes in poor black, working-class communities. The Panthers also t
ook a clear and positive position on the rights of women, and the leadership str
uggled to ensure women were able to play a full role in the party.
They emphasised that the black community had to have its own organisations, and
membership of the Panthers was only open to black people. However, they argued t
hat they should work together with organisations based in other communities. In
fact, a number of other organisations were founded (often initially based around
ex-gang members) in inner-city working-class communities, which modelled themse
lves on the Panthers. These included a Puerto Rican organisation based in New Yo
rk, the Young Lords, and a white organisation, the Young Patriots, in Chicago.
However, it was the mass movements against the Vietnam war which most clearly sh
owed to the Panthers that sections of whites were prepared to struggle. As Huey
P Newton put it: "The young white revolutionaries raised the cry for the troops
to withdraw from Vietnam, hands off Latin America, withdraw from the Dominican R
epublic and also to withdraw from the black community or the black colony. So yo
u have a situation in which the young white revolutionaries are attempting to id
entify with the people of the colonies and against the exploiter".
The Panthers were, in general, inspired by the struggles against colonial rule t
aking place worldwide. Their attitude on Vietnam was clear. In an appeal to blac
k soldiers they declared: "It is correct that the Vietnamese should defend thems
elves and defend their land and fight for self-determination, because they have
NEVER oppressed us. They have NEVER called us ‘nigger’".
The revolt against the Vietnam war had a major effect on the black community. In
general, it was the working class who suffered most from conscription. Panthers
who were conscripted set up groups in the army. They were working on fertile gr
ound. One survey suggested that 45% of black soldiers in Vietnam would be prepar
ed to take up arms to serve justice at home.
The uprising over Vietnam petrified the US ruling class. Today, despite their de
sperate need for more troops to continue the occupation of Iraq, they dare not r
eintroduce conscription, such are the memories, among the ruling class and ordin
ary Americans, of Vietnam and its consequences.
But, while the Panthers welcomed the radicalisation of white youth in the anti-w
ar movement, finding concrete allies to work with proved more difficult. The Pan
thers stood in elections with the Peace and Freedom Party, which was campaigning
primarily against the Vietnam war and the oppression of black communities. In 1
967, when Huey was in prison, the Panthers worked with the PFP to ‘Free Huey’.
However, neither the PFP, nor any of the organisations the Panthers worked with,
had a significant base among the white working class. Newton recognised this, e
xplaining in 1971: "Our hook-up with the white radicals did not give us access t
o the white community, because they do not guide the white community".
Few links with the workers
NOR WAS THE Panthers’ main orientation towards the organised black working class.
They did organise ‘caucuses’ within the trade unions, as Bobby Seale recounted, "to
help educate the rest of the members of the union to the fact that they can have
a better life too. We want the workers to understand that they must control the
means of production, and that they should begin to use their power to control t
he means of production to serve all of the people".
This was a correct conception but, in reality, union work was a very small part
of what the Panthers did. They consciously orientated primarily towards the most
downtrodden, unemployed sections of the black community – which they described, u
sing Marx’s phrase, as the lumpenproletariat. It is correct that these most desper
ate sections of society are capable of incredible sacrifice for the struggle and
, as the Panthers argued, that it is important to win these most oppressed secti
ons to a revolutionary party. This was particularly the case given the horrendou
s social conditions most black Americans were forced to live in.
The urbanisation that had accompanied the post-war boom led to a mass migration
of black workers to the northern industrial cities. They arrived to find themsel
ves living in ghettoes, in direst poverty. In many areas, a majority was unemplo
yed. Nonetheless, black workers formed a significant part of the workforce and,
because of its role in production, the industrial working class in particular ha
s a key role to play in the socialist transformation of society.
Black workers had been to the fore of the best traditions of the US working clas
s. Prior to the war, many blacks had been influenced by the major trade union st
ruggles of the 1920s and 1930s, especially the massive wave of strikes that brok
e out in 1934, including sit-down action and city-wide general strikes (the Team
sters’ rebellion in Minneapolis and the Auto Lite sit-down in Toledo, Ohio). Mass
organising campaigns among factory workers and unskilled workers gave rise to th
e Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO), formed in 1936. The new industrial
unions (United Automobile Workers, United Mine Workers, United Steel Workers, e
tc) immediately attracted over 500,000 black members, unlike the old craft union
s of the American Federation of Labor. This experience was used to good effect d
uring the war, for example, in the 1941 strike by the black railway porters’ union
, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which forced the government to end op
en racial discrimination in federal war production factories.
With a correct orientation, the potential undoubtedly existed for the Panthers t
o win the support of significant sections of the working class, including a laye
r of white workers. Of course, all kinds of racist prejudices existed, and had t
o be combated, among sections of white workers, including those in the trade uni
ons. However, the end of the post-war upswing was leading to increased unemploym
ent and the greater intensification of labour for all sections of workers. While
the black working class was the most combative, having faced far worse conditio
ns, the white working class was also beginning to be radicalised.
The lack of a base among the organised working class was one element that increa
sed the tendency towards an authoritarian regime in the Panthers. It also added
to the tendency, which always existed to some extent, to try and take short cuts
by substituting themselves for the mass with courageous acts, such as the armed
demonstration at the California state parliament.
It was the influence of Stalinism which in large part was responsible for the fa
ilure of the Panthers to have a consistent orientation towards the working class
. The leadership of the Panthers was particularly inspired by the Chinese and Cu
ban revolutions, both of which were led by petit-bourgeois guerrilla leaders bas
ed on the peasantry, with the working class playing a passive role. In addition,
the Panthers, again following the Stalinists, and based on their own experience
of the brutality of the US state, falsely concluded that fascism was around the
corner in the US. This, combined with the desperate conditions facing blacks, c
reated an overwhelming impatience for an immediate solution and added to the lac
k of a consistent strategy to patiently win over broader sections of the working
class.
However, the American SWP also bears responsibility for failing to put forward a
programme that could win the most advanced sections of the US working class. De
spite the lack of genuine workers’ democracy, it was entirely uncritical of Cuba.
In the US, it took part in the anti-war and Black Power movements but made absol
utely no attempt to take those movements beyond their existing level of developm
ent. The existence of the Black Panthers, despite their limitations, showed in p
ractise how consciousness develops as a result of struggle against the brutal re
alities of capitalism. It remains a tragedy that no rounded-out Marxist party ex
isted which could have offered the Panthers, and the hundreds of thousands who w
ere touched by them, a way forward.
A separate black state?
PART OF THE explanation for the woeful role played by the American SWP lay in it
s misunderstanding of Leon Trotsky’s 1930s writings on black nationalism. Trotsky
based himself on the approach developed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks regarding th
e national question and the right of nations to self-determination. Lenin, in pa
rticular, fully understood that to successfully carry through a revolution in Ru
ssia it was vital to stand for the right to self-determination, up to and includ
ing the right to secede, for the many nationalities that suffered the brutal opp
ression of tsarist Russia. Only on this basis would it be possible to successful
ly strive for the maximum unity of the working class across national and religio
us divides. To argue for the right to secede, however, did not necessarily mean
to argue for secession. In fact, it was Lenin’s extremely skilled and sensitive ap
proach which meant that, in the period immediately after the revolution, the Rus
sian Socialist Federative Republic included many of the nationalities that had b
een oppressed by tsarism, but on a free and voluntary basis.
Trotsky had raised points on these issues in discussions with his US supporters
in the 1930s after the Stalinist Communist Party had suggested the idea of a sep
arate black state in the USA. Trotsky’s followers had initially reacted by complet
ely dismissing this demand and counterposing to it the need for class unity. Tro
tsky pointed out that, at a certain stage, in the face of brutal repression, the
demand for a separate state – that is, the development of a national consciousnes
s – might arise amongst broad layers and, if it did, Marxists would have to suppor
t the right of US blacks to a state.
Trotsky’s method of analysis was correct. But changed circumstances meant that the
demand for a separate state within the territory of the USA did not come to the
fore. When Trotsky was writing there was a majority of blacks in two US souther
n states, Mississippi and Alabama, and most black people lived in the south. By
1970, three-quarters lived in the major cities, and a majority in the north. Whi
le black consciousness was, and still is, extremely strong, it was therefore les
s likely to develop into a demand for a separate nation.
However, even if that had been the consciousness of black people, it would not h
ave excused the approach of the American SWP. Trotsky emphasised the role of the
working class as the only force capable of winning national liberation as part
of the struggle for socialism. He explained the importance of the working class
taking an independent position, and that it was a profound mistake to rely on th
e bourgeois and petit-bourgeois leaders of nationalist movements. To their credi
t, the Black Panthers got far closer to an understanding of these points than th
e self-professed Trotskyists of the American SWP, who followed uncritically behi
nd the petit-bourgeois ideas of the cultural nationalists.
Relevance to Britain
TODAY IN BRITAIN, the situation we face is very different to that which existed
in the US in the 1960s. But there are lessons to be learned. The different histo
ry of Britain means that, on the one hand, there has been a greater level of int
egration among working-class communities. Poverty in the US has a more sharply d
efined ‘racial’ element than in Britain. Nonetheless, in general, workers from ethni
c minorities suffer worse unemployment and poverty than the working class as a w
hole. For example, in 1999, 28% of white families lived below the poverty line c
ompared with 41% of Afro-Caribbean families, and 84% of Bangladeshi families. On
the other side, the British ruling class never succeeded in developing a black
elite to the extent that the US ruling class did following the uprising of the 1
950s and 1960s.
While all ethnic minorities suffer racism, in Britain it is Muslims who have bee
n on the sharp end of racism and prejudice in the last period. The history of Mu
slims in Britain has been one of poverty and discrimination. Historically, this
discrimination has been only one of the many facets of the racism of capitalist
society. Over the last decade, however, and particularly since the horror of 11
September 2001, there is no doubt that anti-Muslim prejudice, Islamophobia, has
risen dramatically. While other forms of racism remain, Muslims face the sharpes
t manifestation of discrimination in Britain today. The government’s participation
in brutal wars of subjugation against Afghanistan and Iraq, both majority Musli
m countries, with all the accompanying propaganda denigrating the peoples of tho
se countries, has further increased Islamophobia. The government’s foreign policy
has also enormously angered British Muslims.
While there are many major differences, there is a limited comparison between th
e anger and radicalisation of Muslims in Britain today and the anger of US black
s at the start of the civil rights movement. The general backdrop is different.
Following the collapse of the grotesque Stalinist regimes over a decade ago, whi
ch the capitalists falsely equated with genuine socialism, socialist ideas are n
ot yet seen as a viable alternative by the mass of the working class, including
most Muslims. On an international plane, there are not the same mass struggles f
or national liberation that existed in the 1950s and 1960s and which inspired th
e revolt in the USA. In their absence, the ideas of right-wing political Islam,
including the highly reactionary ideas and methods of terrorist organisations li
ke al-Qa’ida, have been drawn into the vacuum. The vast majority of Muslims in Bri
tain are repelled by al-Qa’ida, but a small minority are so alienated that they ar
e willing to support such ideas.
Nonetheless, many Muslims have been touched by the anti-war movement which, at i
ts height, saw two million people from every ethnic and religious group march on
the streets of London. It should be remembered that socialist ideas were in a v
ery small minority at the start of the US black uprising, but grew dramatically
as a result of its collision with US capitalism. The potential exists today to w
in the most far-thinking Muslim workers and youth to socialist ideas. On the bas
is of events, it will be possible to win the mass in the future. In the medium a
nd long term, the absence of Stalinism will make it easier to gain support for t
he ideas of genuine socialism. In the 1960s, while Stalinism was a certain pole
of attraction, it also had an enormous distorting effect on the socialist ideas
adopted in the US and elsewhere.
Socialist ideas
HOWEVER, IN ORDER to win any section of the working class to genuine socialism,
it is necessary to put forward a genuinely socialist programme. Unfortunately, t
he most prominent socialist organisation in the anti-war movement, the Socialist
Workers’ Party (unconnected to the US SWP), has not taken this approach. For exam
ple, while it is in the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition, the SWP has de
cided not to raise socialist ideas from its platforms, and has prevented other s
ocialists from having the opportunity to do so.
Respect, the party the SWP co-founded with George Galloway MP, has come out of t
he anti-war movement and has had some electoral success, particularly in getting
George Galloway elected as the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow. However, it has co
ncentrated in the main on one section of society, the Muslim community, which it
is important to win, but not at the expense of reaching out to other sections o
f the working class. If it continues to develop in the direction of being seen a
s a ‘Muslim party’, it could push other sections of the working class away and even
inadvertently reinforce racist ideas, while strengthening the incorrect idea tha
t the Muslim community can win liberation by acting as a Muslim bloc.
Could the SWP attempt to draw a comparison with the Black Panthers in order to s
upport its mistaken strategy? Quite aside from the important social and politica
l differences (not least that Muslims make up 2.8 % of the population in Britain
compared to blacks comprising 11% in the USA), there is the crucial question of
which direction the arrow is heading in. The Black Panthers were moving away fr
om black nationalism towards a class-based position. In the future, it is possib
le that organised groups of Muslim workers will move in a similar direction, per
haps wanting to affiliate to, or work together with, a future workers’ party. This
would be a step forward. One of the reasons we argue that new mass workers’ parti
es should have federal structures is precisely to allow different groups of work
ers to keep their own organisations while working together to build a broad part
y. However, the situation in Respect is very different. The majority of activist
s in Respect are long-standing socialists but, far from using the opportunity to
win working-class Muslims to socialist ideas, they have lowered their banner. U
nfortunately, in their lack of a principled approach there is a comparison to be
made with the mistakes of their namesakes, the US SWP.
The tragedy of the Panthers was that, having failed to develop a rounded-out Mar
xist approach, despite their best efforts, they went into rapid decline. The dif
ficulties of the Panthers led some, particularly those around Eldridge Cleaver,
to turn to the dead-end road of terrorism. Today, in Britain, we see a tiny mino
rity of Muslim youth taking this mistaken path. However, on the basis of future
defeats, there will be the danger that larger numbers, from all ethnic backgroun
ds, turn in this direction because they can see no other effective means of stru
ggle. The building of a mass socialist alternative is the only effective way to
cut across this process. Notwithstanding the limitations of the Panthers, they s
how the determination of the advanced layer of thinking workers, once they are e
ngaged in struggle, to find a route to genuine socialism. Even as Cleaver and ot
hers headed down the road of terrorism, Newton and others attempted, albeit unsu
ccessfully, to re-orientate the Panthers.
Later, Newton reflected on their mistakes: "We were looked upon as an ad-hoc mil
itary group, operating outside the community fabric and too radical to be part o
f it. We saw ourselves as the revolutionary vanguard and did not fully understan
d that only the people can create the revolution. And hence the people ‘did not fo
llow our lead in picking up the gun’."
Just as Newton and Seale stood on the shoulders of Malcolm X, future generations
of black workers and youth will take all the great strengths of the Panthers an
d build on them to create a party capable of carrying through the socialist tran
sformation of society.