Black Against Empire by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E Martin Jr

Issue section: 

Published by University of California Press, £24.95

Given that the Black Panther Party marked the high point of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, it may seem odd that this is the first serious history of the organisation.

Many of the party's leaders have produced fascinating and valuable memoirs, but this excellent history puts them in context.

Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale founded the organisation in Oakland, California in 1966. They were angry that so many people talked about the legacy of Malcolm X, but weren't prepared to pursue the revolutionary logic to the armed overthrow of the state.

They proved they were serious by "Patrolling the Pigs", on the streets of their hometown. They first became known by challenging racist officers in the neighbourhood and fighting back when threatened.

"Newton took the shotgun from Seale, leapt out of the car and jacked a round of ammunition into the chamber. He shouted, 'Now who in hell do you think you are, you big rednecked bastard, you rotten fascist swine, you bigoted racist?... Go for your gun and you're a dead pig'."

This was not just a way of attracting recruits. Newton wrote: "When the people learn that it is no longer advantageous for them to resist by going to the street in large numbers and when they see the advantage in the activities of the guerrilla warfare method, they will quickly follow this example."

Within two years the Panthers moved from being a tiny local to a national organisation that the FBI saw as the biggest revolutionary threat to the US government.

The aims of the FBI's Cointelpro operation were set out in 1968, "1. Prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups. In unity there is strength... An effective coalition of black nationalist groups might be the first step towards a real 'Mau Mau' in America" - a reference to Kenya's guerrilla movement.

The Panthers also became the organising focus for the rest of the left. The anti-Vietnam War movement looked to them, as did many progressive liberals from Leonard Bernstein to Marlon Brando.

The Students for a Democratic Society wrote, "The Black Panther Party is not fighting black people's struggles only but is in fact the vanguard in our common struggles against capitalism and imperialism."

The Panthers bold attack on the US state rapidly made them a mass movement. But it provoked a predictable response from the state - all out war. Before long most of their leaders were in prison or forced into exile. Savage police raids on their offices killed and imprisoned many members.

Black Against Empire describes the debates within the organisation on how to fight back, including demands for women's equality and gay rights. It also explains how the Panthers moved to work with a range of other oppressed groups.

By 1971 the level of repression drove the Panthers into crisis. Eventually it split between those who thought a guerrilla war was possible in the US, and those who thought that they could build through community programmes, such as breakfast for poor children.

One of the book's many strengths is showing the Panthers in their own words.

It extensively quotes their leaflets, internal discussion documents and the Black Panther newspaper.

However it is a history rather than a critique. So it is weakest in suggesting how things could have been different. It is tragic that the US left looked to Maoist guerrilla strategies to organise, rather than the rich tradition of working class struggle.