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Romanticising foreign movements, ignoring their lessons

Left Luggage | 26.04.2009 10:40 | Analysis | Social Struggles | Zapatista

The Left spends a lot of time organising around and publicising international issues, but neglects their most important lessons. To see this article with active links and video clips go to

The sell-out event at last year’s Marxism conference, organised by the Socialist Workers’ Party, was a talk by David Hilliard, former chief of staff of the Black Panthers. By all accounts the event was standing room only and Hilliard was accorded a standing ovation at the beginning and end of the meeting.

This would be unremarkable, except that almost his entire lecture was spent urging those activists present to reformulate their strategies in light of the Black Panthers’ experience. If you watch the meeting in full, it almost seems that two different languages are being spoken, with Hilliard’s message – restated over and over – unacknowledged by almost every speaker from the audience. Hilliard stresses the relevance today of the Panthers’ ten-point programme (08:09 = time into video), argues that the most important aspect of the group’s activity was its “survival programmes” (10:24), suggests one of the most pressing issues for left-wing activists in London is knife crime and gang violence (13:27), and proposes practical solutions to black people being harassed via police stop-and-search powers (48:34). Here are a few selections from his speech:

"As we grew we saw the need to really begin to address the very basic desires and needs of people in the community because if we were not doing that we were going to be isolated." (05:53)

"You should look at our Black Panther Party as a model for how you meet today’s challenges." (10:24)

"I think that if there is any lesson that you can draw from the history of our Black Panther Party that is that it is possible for you to usher in change as we did. You just have to be willing to get involved in issues in your community." (15:33)

Apart from the ovations, the largest rounds of applause are when Hilliard condemns the Iraq war. What is surprising is that the central elements of his message are picked up by virtually none of the speakers from the audience, despite him listing the key elements of the Panthers’ “survival programme” (05:53) which he says are the most important lessons to be learned from the party’s work. The achievements of the group included:

- Running the free breakfasts for children programme
- A bus programme for senior citizens “because they were being mugged and were afraid to come of their house”
- Giving free prescriptions and medical care to the elderly
- Testing 500,000 African-Americans for sickle cell anaemia over the course of five years
- Clothing and shoe programmes
- Buses to prison programme

These aspects of the Panthers’ activity were at the heart of their political orientation. They recognised this was both a moral necessity – to directly intervene to improve the quality of life of members of their community – and a strategic imperative. It was this belief in addressing the immediate interests of working class black Americans, in fact their “mastery of mass organizing techniques”[1] that built them a support base in cities across America. As an author in The Journal of Negro History notes:

“One thing that was fundamental in the attraction of members to the Black Panther Party and their numerous supporters was its policy of ‘serving the people.’ This was a policy of going to the masses, living among them, sharing their burdens, and organising them to implement their own solutions to the day to day problems that were of great concern to them. The BPP organised and implemented community programmes ranging from, as previously mentioned; free breakfast for children programs, and free health clinics to free clothing drives. They also led rent strikes resulting in tenant ownership of their buildings, and led campaigns for the community control of schools, and the police, and to stoppage of drugs, crime, and police murder and brutality.”[1]

So what can the Left today learn from the Panthers? Well, Hilliard makes the point clear in his talk, suggesting activists begin engaging in community work and addressing the core concerns of working-class people. The practical examples he cites are knife crime and gang violence, along with more community control of police. This makes sense given that crime consistently ranks as one of the major concerns of ordinary people, as it clearly did in the context in which the Panthers were operating. It also makes sense, if we’re serious about building movements that in the long-term can bring about fundamental social change, to address a community’s core economic and social concerns, and establish institutions independent of the state that build a political culture and improve people’s lives.

However, Hilliard doesn’t mention the central point, at least for the audience he is addressing. That is, the Left is consistently failing to heed any of the lessons to which he draws our attention. As Left Luggage has previously highlighted, crime is not taken seriously as an issue to be addressed in the here and now, but is deferred until capitalism’s overthrow. Likewise, very little energy is expended on community organising around the immediate needs of the working class. Instead, the Left tends to focus its activity on international issues and movements, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, anti-capitalist mobilisations, the war on terror, and US imperialism more generally.

Paradoxically, the very enthusiasm demonstrated for the Black Panthers at Hilliard’s talk is a manifestation of the Left’s unbalanced political focus. That’s not to say Hilliard and the Panthers don’t deserve a couple of standing ovations. Of course they do, for the reasons already outlined. However, the fact that Hilliard demonstrably failed to impress his message upon the audience is a symptom of a peculiar approach to foreign political movements, especially those that achieve a degree of success. That is, we romanticise their struggle while ignoring its lessons.

This can be seen in numerous cases. For instance, many left-wing activists are involved in Palestine solidarity work and identify closely with the Palestinian cause; the example of the 1987-1993 Intifada – of a people rising up to attempt to shake off their oppressors – remains an inspiration to many.

However, the Intifada did not emerge from nowhere. As well as being a product of political, social and economic change throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it was crucially the product of organising that took place among the population over the previous two decades. Central to this development were a range of popular organisations that aimed “to provide basic services to a population living under military occupation as an alternative to the occupation”.[2] These organisations, in other words,

“served economic and social as well as political functions. They filled a void in the provision of services not available to resident Palestinians under the occupation […] they also provided a training ground for collective action and the development of leadership and organisational skills among Palestinians, and incorporated a political agenda aimed at raising national consciousness.”[3]

Once the Intifada got underway, “popular committees” were established to “coordinate the provision of education, health care, agricultural production, security and defence, and other services”[3] to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They also performed “underground social work” to offer support to families with members arrested, injured or killed by the Israelis.[4]

The methods of these organisations, during and especially after the end of the first Intifada, were taken up enthusiastically by Hamas, which similarly set up schools, charities, clinics, and teaching circles to mobilise popular support behind the Islamist movement. It is not an exaggeration to say this is the modus operandi of the majority of political Islamist groups in the Middle East and while clearly we don’t want to borrow from their ideology, we can still learn from the strategy of these mass political organisations.

Another case is the Zapatista movement, which first came to prominence in 1994 when it established an autonomous zone in Chiapas, Mexico, and attracted much interest from the Left internationally, particularly from libertarian socialists and anarchists due to its use of participatory democratic forms of organisation. Solidarity groups were established by left-wing activists around the world to support the movement.

The Zapatistas consisted of a guerrilla movement without a civilian arm but symbiotically linked to the peasant communities of the region through ten years of clandestine organisation.

“The movement was built by political education and direct action which resolved the immediate problems of the communities […] the small victories built the larger movement – infusing the members of the community with the idea that they were capable of winning in struggle and changing society.”[5]

A significant problem for the peasant communities of Chiapas was access to cultivable land, so the Zapatistas set about reclaiming land from large owners through occupation. They also had a range of other social programmes in their “communities in resistance”, including providing health clinics, schools, supplying electricity, and establishing a communal culture. They also tackled directly the problems of alcohol and drug addiction such that “there is a total absence of consumption or sale of drugs, which are also not permitted in the autonomous communities.”[6]

These varied movements - from the south of Chicago, through the Gaza Strip, and the Chiapas mountains - are linked together in their basic strategic approach. In each case, they were effective because they aimed to meet the immediate needs of their populations while building networks of solidarity and establishing a political culture. Of course, the situation in contemporary Britain seems quite different, but as David Hilliard says, working class people here are facing similar structural problems as those addressed by the Black Panthers.

How many activists who have read about the Zapatistas, attended meetings on Chiapas, or engaged in solidarity actions, have thoughtfully considered the implications of their strategy? Likewise, how many of us have seriously set about building the kind of “survival programmes” Hilliard talks about? Or the “popular organisations” that were able to meet the everyday needs of Palestinians while also building a culture of resistance?

It is not enough simply to engage in activism around foreign struggles without considering how those movements were built and attempting to apply the lessons here; to do that is simply a form of romanticism, a radicalism by proxy. We should support international progressive movements where we can, but our primary and pressing goal must be to establish “communities in resistance” at home.

[1] Harris, Jessica Christina. ‘Revolutionary Black Nationalism: The Black Panther Party’. In The Journal of Negro History, 85, 3 (Summer, 2000), pp. 170-171.
[2] Hilterman, Joost R. ‘Mass Mobilization and the Uprising: the Labor Movement’. In Michael C. Hudson, ed. The Palestinians: New Directions. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. 1990. p. 47.
[3] Alin, Erika G. ‘Dynamics of the Palestinian Uprising’. In Comparative Politics, 26, 4 (July 1994), p. 485.
[4] Muslih, Mohammad. ‘Palestinian Civil Society’. In Middle East Journal, 47, 2 (Spring 1993), p. 267.
[5] Petras, James, and Steve Vieux. ‘Myths and Realities of the Chiapas Uprising’. In Economic and Political Weekly, 31, 47 (November 23, 1996), p. 3055.
[6] ‘Zapatistas Eradicate Alcoholism and Drug Addiction’ by Hermann Bellinghausen, in La Jornada (Mexican daily newspaper), March 6, 2009. See:

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  1. Yes! — Peat