Saturday, May 15, 2021

Review: Black Against Empire by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin

Black Against Empire is well researched and approachable as an introduction to the Black Panthers. As implied by the full title (Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party), it is very much a detailed history of the organization - there is little examination of the philosophy of the organization. The prose is a little functional - unlike, for example, Race, Women and Class, there are no particularly memorable or inspiring or emotionally wrenching passages. The authors aim to inform, not to incite. I think for these reasons, it serves as a good introduction or supplement. But as far as a call to action, or even really understanding what the Panthers were fighting for, it works best in the context of other readings particularly those that form the philosophical basis of the Panther party, like those by Malcolm X or Mao or Marx.

Still, the authors make a compelling case that the unprecedented political power of the Panthers relied on both their revolutionary tactics of armed self-defense against state oppression and the receptive political context of anti-war activism. They also clearly present how social movements gain power and build community, how the State targets social movements, and how social movements splinter.

The authors conclude:

No revolutionary movement of political significance will gain a foothold in the United States again until a group of revolutionaries develops insurgent practices that seize the political imagination of a large segment of the people and successively draw support from other constituencies, creating a broad insurgent alliance that is difficult to repress or appease. This has not happened in the United States since the heyday of the Black Panther Party and may not happen again for a very long time.

At times during the summer of 2020, in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter protests after the police killing of George Floyd it seemed like perhaps the frustrated, pandemic-stricken public's imagination was seized to create this broad alliance. But now, nearly a year out, change seems incremental particularly relative to the change effected during the ~2 year period described in Black Against Empire. I feel like perhaps the recipe for success is therefore even more complicated than that presented by the authors, a daunting prospect.

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