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Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party.

Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. $34.9.5 cloth. 539 pages.

Coming of age in scholarship--the Black Power movement in the United States, formerly maligned or ignored by scholars, may now be so described. Beginning in the 1990s, and accelerating since the turn of the century, the study of Black Power has become one of the more dynamic subfields in African-American and US history. Black Against Empire, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., is among the latest additions to the literature on the Black Power phenomenon. Bloom and Martin focus on the Black Panther Party (BPP), the most conspicuous Black Power formation in and out of the United States.

Presented more or less as the definitive text on the BPP, this is a hefty book, both in size and ambition. (It runs to 401 pages of text, backed up by eighty-odd pages of footnotes, plus some gorgeous images.) No previous account, the authors write, offers "a rigorous overarching analysis of the Party's evolution and impact" (p. 4). They attribute the lacuna to state repression and internal disputes, which have conspired to render the BPP's past "nearly impenetrable" (p. 9). Consequently, "no one has presented an adequate or comprehensive history" of the party (p. 5). Nor has anyone offered "a complete picture of the Black Panther Party, or an adequate analysis of its politics" (p. 9). Black Against Empire is said to be such an account, penetrating and complete--in short, a "forbidden history" (p. 2). This is a hefty claim indeed.

As a movement with national and international resonance, the BPP was short-lived. Founded in Oakland, California, in late 1966, it remained, the authors of Black Against Empire assert, "a small local organization" as late as February 1968 (p. 2). By the end of 1968, that fateful year of antinomian insurgencies worldwide, everything had changed. The BPP, Bloom and Martin continue, had become "the center of a revolutionary movement in the United States" (p. 2). But things quickly fell apart, the BPP's precipitous fall rivaling its sphinxlike rise. In less than two years, the BPP "rapidly declined" (p. 3). By 1972 it had come full circle, becoming "a local Oakland community organization once again," before formally closing its doors in 1982 (p. 3).

The main lines of the story, as told in Black Against Empire, are familiar enough to students of the Panthers. With the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, respectively, the principal civil rights organizations either "imploded" or "declined" (p. 11). Meanwhile, many young blacks considered the new anti-discrimination laws "limited, even illusory" victories (pp. 11-12). "Into this vacuum" entered Panther founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, advancing a "black anti-imperialist politics that powerfully challenged the status quo yet was difficult to repress" (p. 12). Presumably it is this black anti-imperialism, described by Bloom and Martin as the BPP's "unchanging core," that provides the inspiration for the title of their book (p. 312).

Black Against Empire contributes to Panther studies from the standpoints of both documentation and interpretation. Consider the collapse of the BPP, accounts of which generally privilege two factors: state repression and internal dissension. In common with other Panther scholars, Bloom and Martin document the sordid history of vicious and deadly attacks on the Panthers by governmental entities at all levels, including the notorious COINTELPRO program. Bloom and Martin are also attuned to the destructive internecine conflicts within the BPP, some of which were conceived or abetted by state disinformation and dirty-trick campaigns, or else by government informers and agents provocateurs. That there was a relationship between the external and internal factors, state repression and internal dissension, Bloom and Martin also acknowledge. Ultimately, though, it is the external argument that concerns them the most. They reject the view that ultimately the BPP was routed by state repression. If anything, Bloom and Martin argue, the Panthers thrived under persecution: "The year of greatest repression, 1969, was also the year of the Party's greatest growth" (p. 4). The BPP, they insist, fell victim not to state repression, but rather to state neutralization of its program. In fine, the Nixon regime, in alliance with the wider political establishment and the ruling class, defeated the Panthers by stealing their thunder.

This argument, which will be called here the state cooptation thesis, is not new. Others have made it in respect to the Black Power movement more generally. Some iterations of the state cooptation thesis include as a key component Nixon's promotion of black capitalism, offered as an antidote to militant Black Power. Bloom and Martin have little to say about Nixon's black capitalism. Their innovation, rather, is to elevate the state cooptation thesis, making it the primary factor, not just a contributory one, in the demise of the BPP. Central to this argument, in turn, is the relationship between the Panthers and the New Left, by which Bloom and Martin mean mainly the white left.

The single most important point of connection between the BPP and the New Left was the Vietnam War, as the Americans call it, or the American War, as the Vietnamese call it. This connection, like the BPP's putative vanguardism, was short-lived. By the beginning of the 1970s, Bloom and Martin note, radical and revolutionary forces no longer monopolized the antiwar opposition, which now included important segments of the US Congress. In response, Nixon reduced the military draft and increasingly turned over the fight to the puppet regime in South Vietnam--in a word, Vietnamization. Meanwhile, Bloom and Martin go on, the number of black elected officials had increased, thanks to the Voting Rights Act. Affirmative action opened up greater access to employment and education for black folk. On campus, black studies had become an accepted fact. As it successfully diminished the BPP's appeal at home, the US government worked to do the same abroad. Cuba, Algeria, and China, all of which had supported the BPP in multiple ways, including offering asylum to Panthers fleeing the wrath of US lawmen, became the focus of new US diplomatic overtures. Such efforts undermined the BPP's international network of support, with negative consequences for Panthers in search of asylum. White liberals also fell in line. With their scions no longer in much danger of dying on some Vietnamese battlefield, and the Negroes finally getting a fair shake, leading white liberals turned on the misbehaving Panthers with a vengeance. It was this combination of forces, Bloom and Martin contend, not state repression, that led to the collapse of the BPP.

Black Against Empire, then, has brought an old idea--the state cooptation thesis--to the center of Panther studies. But while offering future Panther scholars food for thought, the argument advanced by Bloom and Martin is based more on assumptions than evidence. Relationships between symmetrical historical events cannot be assumed; cause and effect must be demonstrated, for example, by showing that a particular action by, say, the Algerian government, was a direct outcome of requests, demands, or threats by the US government. Further, the fact that the BPP initially thrived under repression is no evidence that, cumulatively and over time, the repression did not have the desired effect. In the absence of further research, this book's version of the state cooptation thesis lacks the explanatory power of the much better documented arguments in favor of state repression and internal dissension.

Argumentation, in the form of the state cooptation thesis, is one of two notable features of Black Against Empire. The other is documentation. The primary source for their book, the authors proudly note, is the Black Panther. This, too, is not new. The Black Panther, the BPP's official organ, has long been a staple of Panther scholarship. Still, Bloom and Martin's claim of unprecedented mining of the Black Panther must be credited. Theirs is truly commendable work, assembling and digitizing 520 of the reported 537 issues of the paper published between 1967 and 1971. Moreover, this entire collection has been put online. It is no poor reflection on the authors to say that so generous an act--digitizing and making publicly available almost the entire run of the Black Panther--will have a greater impact on the field than their book. As if one good deed was not enough, Bloom and Martin have made a second noteworthy contribution to Panther historical documentation. Their research resulted in the discovery of a trove of documents on Bay Area movements, including the BPP. Named the H. K. Yuen collection, after its collector, this discovery is now housed at the University of California, Berkeley.

All the more uncomprehending, therefore, that Bloom and Martin would make a documentary blunder as serious as the one in Black Against Empire. Initially, the authors say, they intended to write their book using mainly interviews with former Panthers and others. But they soon noticed a disturbing pattern: "The more interviews we conducted, the clearer the limits of that medium became. Retrospective accounts decades after the fact--with memories shaped by intervening events, interests, and hearsay-are highly contradictory" (pp. 9-10). Consequently the oral evidence, although not totally discarded, was largely put aside in favor of "documentary or recorded evidence that was temporally proximate to the events" (p. 10).

This is a grave matter, with profound methodological and conceptual implications, not least for the study of the black experience. Since when did scholars, least of all historians, begin to reject, virtually in toto, an entire stream of evidence because it is "contradictory"? What body of evidence is not contradictory, in some form or fashion? Certainly not the main one on which Black Against Empire is based, namely the Black Panther, which is chock-full of contradictions, biases, even outright defamation, a good deal of which is directed against dissenting or disfavored Panthers. The New York Times, another important stream of evidence for Black Against Empire, shares many of those pitfalls. This is all well and good, since historical scholarship thrives on contradiction. The investigator's task is not to seek out documentary consistency, which is neither attainable nor desirable, but rather to critically interrogate all sources, oral and written alike. Besides, oral evidence sometimes has the extra benefit of adding a spicy helping of levity and joy to labored and uninspiring prose of the kind often encountered in Black Against Empire.

Significantly, Bloom and Martin do not discredit just the particular interviews they did, but the very "medium" of oral methodology. Of course, informants will always make errors of fact or interpretation. However, they cannot be blamed for the shortcomings of researchers, who have a responsibility to engage informants on any known or perceived contradiction or error; and also to cross-check all sources, oral and literary. The conceit that contemporary written evidence is inherently more accurate or reliable than oral source material gathered after the fact is sheer fallacy. A rejection of oral sources is a rejection of African historiography, which pioneered the use of such sources in modern world historical studies. It is not just African historiography, however, that is at issue. Panther scholarship is also deeply indebted to oral sources. To cast aspersions on that entire medium, therefore, would seem to unjustly invite questions about the documentary integrity of much of the existing, and fine, scholarship on the BPP. With the digitization of the Black Panther and the H. K. Yuen collection, Bloom and Martin have already contributed much to the documentation of the Panther story. They could augment that contribution by also making their interviews available to other scholars, who may yet find use for the detritus of Black Against Empire.

The a priori rejection of oral evidence on grounds of inconsistency speaks to a wider problem with Black Against Empire-namely, a pursuit of consistency and coherency where there is little to be found. Here, the book's greatest strengths also become a weakness. Using the Black Panther, their prized source, Bloom and Martin carefully document various twists and turns in the BPP. The resulting study, although not unmindful of BPP chapters and leading Panthers across the United States, largely focuses on the Oakland headquarters and on the thoughts and actions of the Oakland-based leaders, who edited the Black Panther and determined its contents. Constantly, the Oakland leadership sought to impose its writ and its ever-changing political line on the branches. As Bloom and Martin write: "The survival of the Party depended on its political coherence and organizational discipline" nationally (p. 344). This, however, remained an aspiration, never to be realized. Oakland had neither the personnel, nor the organization, nor the money to work its will on the far-flung and often headstrong branches.

Accordingly, an Oakland-centric teleology beholden to notions of ideological coherence and organizational discipline emanating from above is necessarily limited and limiting. Bloom and Martin wax enthusiastic about the vanguard role of the BPP, which throughout the book they call the "Party," with an uppercase "P." Intended or not, the impression of a Leninist-style vanguard party is created. If so, nothing could be further from the reality. Bloom and Martin's is an internal history, one that presents the Oakland-based headquarters as the institutional linchpin of a national movement. In truth, the BPP was at least as much inspiration as institution. It was not so much a party, Leninist or not, as a model of organization and agitation that could be readily replicated at the local level, not just in the United States but beyond. In this sense, the BPP has something in common with Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, which in a previous era also served as a prototype for disparate organizational initiatives throughout the African diaspora and the African continent. Bloom and Martin acknowledge the connection, noting that without Garveyism "it is hard to imagine the emergence" of the BPP, although they do not elaborate (p. 391).

Far more perplexing is the failure to develop a seemingly key Chinese angle to the Panther story. The book calls attention to Panther founder Huey Newton's well-known fascination with the writings of Mao Zedong. Mao also appears to have been an archetype for Newton, the helmsman presiding over the vanguardist BPP, with the attendant Mao-like cult of personality. Yet Bloom and Martin are inexplicably silent on the evident parallels, and possible source of inspiration for Newton's approach to leadership, the destructive consequences of which are documented in Black Against Empire. It is perhaps symptomatic of their inattention to things Chinese that the authors should write about "the Red Guard, Mao's army in China" (p. 290). Actually, the Red Guards were largely students without military training whom Mao used to smash his enemies in the state-party apparatus. Their work complete, Mao then used the army to smash the Red Guards. In a work on the Panthers, the misidentification of the Red Guards is a minor point, although there are other similar errors in the book, including in the discussion of other events outside the United States. Small problems are sometimes indicative of larger ones.

Whatever the problems with the book, they do not extend to the authors' knowledge of the secondary literature on the Panthers, which is very firm. The problem, rather, is Bloom and Martin's approach to that literature. The introduction to Black Against Empire lists the names of some of the noted Panther scholars, and provides a footnote to some of their productions. Bloom and Martin then offer the following assessment: "These previous treatments are invaluable, and the depth of our analysis is much richer for them" (p. 9). Alas, Bloom and Martin did not see fit to substantively engage this rich body of scholarship in the text of their book, treating it instead as so much documentary backdrop, useful for enhancing the "depth" of Black Against Empire. This dismissive attitude, which smacks of an unwarranted haughtiness and a concomitant devaluation of the work of other scholars, is both regrettable and wrongheaded. Amazing indeed that scholars as generous as Bloom and Martin--witness their making publicly available the digitized Black Panther and the Yuen collection--could also be so ungenerously and unjustifiably withholding. Some of the secondary literature Bloom and Martin withhold from consideration in the text of their book differs significantly from Black Against Empire on various points of interpretation. Many of those works also show a greater appreciation of oral evidence than do Bloom and Martin, who opted to circumvent a potentially productive historiographical and methodological debate. The book would have been the richer for such a debate, enabling readers of Black Against Empire to see exactly where and why it differs from other works on the Panthers. Instead, Bloom and Martin offer ex-cathedra puffery about having written a forbidden history.

The accomplishments of Black Against Empire are more modest--which, however, is not to say inconsiderable. From the empirical standpoint, for one, the book has few if any significant new revelations. Readers familiar with the broad outlines of the Panther story will find little that is really path-breaking here. Rather, what the book does, and does well, is to widen and deepen the known Panther narrative, making particularly skillful use of the Black Panther. Black Against Empire also adds usefully to the debate on the decline of the BPP, as noted. Altogether, Bloom and Martin provide a rounded picture of the BPP, if not exactly the "complete" one they claim. Theirs is a tightly focused portrait, one that accords pride of place to the Oakland-based headquarters. Such a focus has merit. Without Oakland, there would have been no BPP. But as a national, even international, sensation, the Panther phenomenon was far beyond the commanding capacity of the Oakland-based leadership. Operationally, most of those assuming the Panther label were quite independent of Oakland, in part or in whole. Black Against Empire presents the BPP as a "Party," an institution. Mostly, though, the BPP was experienced as an inspiration, a model of political possibilities. In the nexus of the two, institution and inspiration, may be found an outline of the fuller portrait Bloom and Martin were seeking to sketch. Indeed, that nexus is already evident in some of the existing literature they unhappily declined to engage.

Michael O. West teaches at Binghamton University. He has written widely on Africa, the African diaspora, and the interlocutions between them. He is working on Black Power in global perspective.
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Author:West, Michael O.
Publication:The Black Scholar
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2013
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