Confidential

The Black Panther Party and their Foreign Affairs

Black Panthers at a demonstration (credit: CIR Online)

Key Judgements

KJ-1. – BPP likely contributed more to US foreign policy interests than advancing ideological or political concerns. Cleaver and the international branch positioned the US on an inherent advantage against states which provided support and protection to the BPP. Avoiding a diplomatic stance likely gave the US added capabilities to tackle the organisation.

KJ-2. – The isolation of the BPP wing outside of the US highly likely decreased its degree of politicization. Likely everyone perceived providing assistance to the international wing as support towards non-state actors. Likely no one thought about interference in domestic affairs.

KJ-3. International support for the BPP was highly likely for promoting a communist message in the US. The relationship between the BPP and foreign nations, such as did not result in gaining any noticeable strength domestically. Cuba, Algeria, China, and North Korea are the main examples.

The Beginnings

Revolution. On college campuses in the West, revolution is the flavour of the decade. Systems, institutions, political parties… The claimed fault lines and fractures within them have stirred up social movements and symptomatic chaos. Even the most idealistic of Western citizenry may have a hard time seeing a distant end to the madness.

“Unprecedented” is a word ad nauseam in the zeitgeist. Indeed, these times are strange. There is a public cry for the breakdown and restructuring of the failed systems, but these cries are not unique.

The 1960s and 1970s are rife with parallels to the civil rights and social justice movements of today. The Cold War was in full force. The war between the West and communism being fought in distant lands and US inner cities.

Within the American interior, the war was against the spread of ideology. The US is a near-impossible nation to attack from the outside in. The best way to spread the ideas of communism to the proletariat class is from the outside in. This was the same way as US adversaries during the Cold War desired. College campuses became incubators for anti-west and anti-imperial ideas. Groups like the Black Panther Party (BPP) formed, using such ideas as a basis for their goals.

The Black Panther Party, started in 1966 by students/comrades Huey Newton. The group was a black nationalist political party in the US. They had a deeply rooted Marxism at the nucleus of their ideological driven activism.

Foreign Affairs

The BPP is known for its domestic exploits in the US. Nonetheless, they also conducted foreign affairs to meet their ambitions of joining the communist revolution. This would lead to interesting relationships with international governments, all of whom were enemies of the US. Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, two of the main BPP leaders, had similar views on international outreach. Nonetheless, they had different ideas on how to carry it out.

Newton

Newton’s goals were centred on black communities within the inner cities in the US. These included the establishment of social programs for the poo and arming the population. It also included training blacks in the law, and working alongside other social organizations to spread the ideas of liberation.

Cleaver

Cleaver was more of a Che Guevara figure to Newtons Fidel Castro. Branching out into the global communist movement was a tangible goal in his eyes. His priorities to do so shifted away from the BPP’s original mission. The violent uprising required for a true proletariat revolution was a motivation for Cleaver’s emphasis on foreign support. In his eyes, the plight of the working class was not unique to the American blacks, but a global effort.  

What you had at the end of it all was a fractured BPP. Both Newton and Cleaver parted ways because of their differences in goals.

The Role of Cuba

Exportation of Black Nationalism

Cuba likely served as the preferred foreign source of support for the BPP and civil rights activists. 6 years before the foundation of the BPP, Robert F. Williams self-exiled to Cuba following kidnapping charges. Soft power activism gained weight with the establishment of The Crusader and Radio Free Dixie. These were a newspaper and radio program operated from Cuba by Williams. There was an increase in the momentum of violent protests during the 1960s in the US. Until late 1967 there would be no armed association between Cuba and the BPP.

The Castro regime almost certainly exploited the ‘domestic armed actor’ condition of the BPP in the US. In 1967, BPP Prime Minister and SNCC founder Stokely Carmichael were invited to Cuba. Carmichael, along with 2 DGI officers, travelled to meet Amilcar Cabral and offered increased fighting capabilities along the PAIGC. The role of Cuba in the Zanzibar revolution provided Carmichael with an opportunity to train 20 militants in Guerrilla Warfare. He then would join the PAIGC. Carmichael ultimately did not take part in combat and settled down in Guinea. The rest of the militants sought exile in Algeria. Despite Carmichael’s split with the BPP, Castro likely elevated the awareness of the Black Panther Party’s foreign affairs and the civil rights current outside of the US.

Black Panther Elbert Howard speaking in Amsterdam (credit: Wikicommons)

The Black Panther Embassy in Algeria

Cleaver, Minister of information of the BPP, was exiled in Cuba to, later on, establish the international branch of BPP in Algiers. Arriving in 1969, the Pan-African Cultural Conference provided legal status to establish a BPP delegation in the Casbah. From 1969, the international tangent of the BPP shifted ideologically towards an anti-imperialist and anti-colonial body. In September 1970, the BPP established its first official headquarters in Algiers until 1973. Cleaver returned to the US following geopolitical pressure, divisions within the party and lack of progress. The Black Panther Party’s foreign affairs in Algeria provided opportunities to establish relations with revolutionary actors. Namely, actors that were with racial inequalities in the US. Simultaneously, the Algiers branch showed inherent issues in the success of Cleaver’s faction.

Division Within the Black Panther Party

Known as the Newton-Cleaver split, the BPP divided. In 1970 there was a split between a domestic-community based faction and an international network of guerrilla-attracted activists. While violence as an instrument was maintained in both divisions, Cleaver became exposed to revolutionary actors. He disconnected with the brand majority of domestic BPP support led by Newton. Being insulated from domestic support and connections, highly likely the BPP’s foreign affairs lost significant capabilities to pursue international cooperation. A disconnection with ideological narratives likely moved the perception of Cleaver’s faction to be a non-state actor rather than a political party’s headquarters.

Expansion of Sympathisers

Cleaver’s new ideology made the BPP Algiers faction increasingly capable of gathering international support outside of oppressed black communities. Newton and the BPP in Oakland recognised ideological currents within revolutionary states. He linked the party to Marxism-Leninism, although roots remained within local communities in Oakland. Cleaver’s change in discourse placed capitalism along with white supremacy and imperialism. This broadened the potential clients to be included in a transnational guerrilla organisation. ´

Lack of Activity

Despite creating a transnational body, capabilities and resources ultimately made propagandistic support and isolated action the primary activities of the faction in Algiers. The Revolutionary People’s Communications Network (RPCN) became the evolution of the Black Panther Party foreign affairs. Providing a platform to all revolutionary movements to communicate led to the circulation of Babylon as a replacement of The Black Panther, as well as West German Black Activist newspaper Voice of the Lumpen. Established by Kathleen Cleaver, the head of communications of the Algiers faction, digital communications became a staple of the primary activity of the network, gaining support in countries like Israel, India or New Zealand with only superficial advocacy.

In West Germany and Algiers, Cleaver and the international faction established minimal contact with armed actors of which they produced little benefits. The Red Army Faction (RAF), an anarchist underground movement in Germany that received training from the PLO, travelled to Algiers to seek cooperation with members of the BPP. The Black September Organisation responsible for the Munich kidnappings and attacks also attracted Cleaver, showing an almost certain appeal of the use of violence against states rather than particular causes or motivations. Ultimately, alliances with the RAF or the Black September Organisation likely emerged more as idealistic cooperation than realistic objectives. The likelihood of a unified attack on US soil almost certainly remained very low and improbable.

Limited Alliances and Internal Divisions

The Black Panther Party’s foreign affairs ultimately depended on the external support of state-like actors to maintain pressure on the transnational anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist revolution. Following Cleaver’s exile in Cuba due to his arrest warrant, Castro refused to acknowledge the presence of the militant. When he did, Cleaver was forced to flee to Algeria, while the intended objective was for Castro to organise and train black guerrillas on Cuban soil. In Algeria, the association with the Black September Organisation and the 1972 hijackings pushed the Boumédiène government to favour economic trade over revolutionary commitments. By 1973, Eldridge and Kathleen cleaver fled to France, while the rest of the organisation scattered to Tanzania, Egypt or back to the US.

The Black Panther Party Rides the Orient Express

As aforementioned, the Cold War era that the Black Panthers lived through was rife with revolutionary governments and movements forming across the world.

Huey Newton’s intellectual framework for the BPP’s nationalistic and Marxist thought developed from ideas and literature he encountered during his time in college in the 1960s. In his memoir Revolutionary Suicide, Newton writes: “It was my studying and reading in college that led me to become a socialist. The transformation from a nationalist to a socialist was a slow one, although I was around a lot of Marxists.”

Newton had an especially romantic view of Chairman Mao Tse-tung. He writes (after describing his lack of clarification on what socialism really was): “So I read more of the works of the socialists and began to see a strong similarity between my beliefs and theirs. My conversion was complete when I read the four volumes of Mao Tse-tung to learn more about the Chinese Revolution. It was my life plus independent reading that made me a socialist – nothing else.” This appreciation even led the BPP to even produce and distribute copies of Mao’s “Little Red Book” in order to fundraise for party weapon purchases.

Pan-African nationalism and the liberation and empowerment of black communities in the US was surely the primary domestic goal of the BPP. It did not receive its honorary title of being an American “Vanguard of the Revolutionary” without reason. Newton and the BPP saw themselves as a political party destined to awaken the proletariats’ collective consciousness, and Mao’s success in the Chinese Revolution was worth emulating or at least desiring to.

Mao Zedong

Chairman Mao Zedong (credit: Wikicommons)

Mao was a fan of the civil rights movement taking place in the US, as noted in an August of 1963 speech. “The American Negros are awakening, and their resistance is growing stronger and stronger. Recent years have witnessed a continuous expansion of their mass struggle against racial discrimination and for freedom and equal rights.” Mao’s exhortation predated the BPP’s formation, but its relevance is undeniable. For communism to work, there must be a collective global uprising, and the best way for the revolutionary to reach the US was from the inside out.

In September 1971, Newton and a small entourage of BPP royalty embarked on a “diplomatic mission” to China, where representatives from Chairman Mao’s government met and embraced them. According to Eveline Chao from ChinaFile:

“The Panthers were, of course, presented a highly curated vision of China. The country was in the throes of the disastrous Cultural Revolution. Paramilitary students, known as Red Guards, had over the last five years denounced, tortured, and killed millions of people. China was a failed state ‘all is chaos under heaven,’ as Mao boasted. The Panthers saw none of this. “It was an amazing experience to see in practice a revolution that is going forward at such a rapid rate. To see a classless society in operation is unforgettable,’ Newton recounted in his memoir.”

Black Panther Party foreign affairs and Chinese relations did not extend far past this, at least significantly. As with other Communist leaders and revolutionaries, it was likely more opportunistic and propagandistic. It was likely about viewing the BPP as a valuable or effective group to further ideological goals. In contrast to Mao’s revolution and others, the human resources and organization were nonexistent. BPP numbers were nothing compared to foreign forces. Indeed, the US lacked any conditions capable of being exploited in such a dramatic way.

BPP and Juche: Ideological Marriage

The Juche Tower in Pyongyang, North Korea (credit: Nicor)

Branching away from China, North Korea and its Juche ideology was an ideal partner. Both were in marriage for the Black Panther Party, their foreign affairs, and their revolutionary aspirations.

Juche is a complex ideology developed by the DPRK at its early foundations. According to the first leader of the DPRK, Kim Il Sung, “Establishing Juche means, in a nutshell, being the master of revolution and reconstruction in one’s own country. This means holding fast to an independent position. It means rejecting dependence on others, using one’s own brain. It means believing in one’s own strength, displaying the revolutionary spirit of self-reliance, and thus solving one’s own problems for oneself on one’s own responsibility under all circumstances.”

According to Benjamin Young in The Asia-Pacific Journal: “In 1969, the Black Panther Party (BPP) established a relationship with the North Korean leadership that was based upon the principle of self-reliance (under the rubric of the Juche ideology), the transnational goal of Third World revolution, and a mutual antagonism towards American intervention around the world.”

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was an ideal case study in the practical application of a “successful” revolution. Black Panthers saw the Juche ideology as compatible with the domestic goals of independence in the black community. The Third World was a global body, and its unification and empowerment were a communist goal. Military support and training were one way in which the DPRK could support the effort. According to Young, the “government went a step further by training two thousand fighters from twenty-five countries. This happened between the 60s and the 80s. Most notably, members of the JRA, PLO and the IRA received training in North Korea. However, the BPP was not part of the mix. The group did not take part in any such training during their visits.

BPP representatives visited the DPRK twice: 1969 and 1970. As with China, the visit was nothing more than the exchange of pleasantries and exhortation. They exported Juche ideas back to the BPP members in the US, but there was nothing of substance given back.

Conclusions

The Black Panther Party’s foreign affairs are fascinating from a PR standpoint. They added virtually nothing of substance to the movement. The foreign governments the BPP tried to cultivate relationships were top tier professionals in the revolution game. Although the BPP wanted to reach their level of play. They lacked the organization, human resources, and set conditions within the US that gave room for significant change. The Black Panther Party’s foreign affairs attracted attention from the US government. In return, the only thing they received was the diversion of more government resources to eliminating their existence.

Author

Michael Ellmer

Michael served as an infantryman in the United States Marine Corps with tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. After leaving the Corps, he completed his undergraduate studies at Seattle Pacific University, majoring in communications. He is currently a graduate candidate at Brunel University, where he is pursing a master’s degree in Strategic Intelligence Analysis.

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