February 2024

Over the last year, I led a reading group on Black Against Empire, a history of the Black Panther Party written by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin. It’s an excellent text which details the strategy and tactics of the Panthers, in tandem with the larger conjuncture featuring the saturation of the Civil Rights movement, the rise of the Black Power movement (with the Panthers at the forefront), the resistance to the Vietnam War, and third world struggles across the globe. A few things stood out to me in my reading: 1) There was a remarkable range of political mobilization in the Sixties with the liberation movements, the Cultural Revolution in China, student movements, May ‘68, the Italian Hot Autumn, and so on. 2) The Black Panthers were an integral part of a global movement, as they had connections all over the world, including with governments in Vietnam, Algeria, and China. 3) Lastly, the Panthers emerged as a vanguard in the US because their analysis and practice of organizing had a universal content: it connected Black oppression to the war in Vietnam, which allowed their message to resonate with vast sections of society. I will expand on all of these statements later in the article.

The parallels between our conjuncture and the Sixties are difficult to ignore. Mainly, I have been thinking of the Panthers’ organizing strategy and tactics in relation to the ongoing genocide in Gaza. The catalyst for recent events was the October 7 attack led by Hamas on Israel, and the latter has responded with unprecedented brutality, killing thousands of Palestinians in a continuation of their genocidal project of settler-colonialism. As an organizer living in the US, my focus has been on actions happening here, and how to connect support for Palestinian resistance to ongoing organizing projects. The genocide is, of course, devastating and painful to observe, but the resistance, both in Palestine and here, has been inspiring to see. My basic hypothesis is that, in the same way that the Vietnam War offered the pathway for a political universality, the ongoing struggle in Palestine offers the same in our conjuncture. The Palestinian genocide is a universal issue, as it connects to virtually every other existing contradiction in contemporary capitalism. It is thus paramount to organize around Palestine both ethically and strategically. 

For the past 10 or so years, the strategy of base-building has been popular amongst the US Left. To my understanding, the goal of base-building has been to rebuild working class organization through the formation of tenants unions, and through organizing rank-and-file workers within labor unions.[1] By recomposing and uniting the unorganized working class, communists will develop the infrastructure to intervene in political and social crises. The Summer of 2020 and the ongoing Palestinian crisis are what base-building is all about—they are crises that provide opportunities for mass politicization and struggle. Additionally, crises produce the opportunity for a rupture within a society and mode of production. Lenin identifies three symptoms of a ‘revolutionary situation’: 

(1) When it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes”, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time”, but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.

I believe the Summer of 2020 displayed all three symptoms to varying degrees: there has been a protracted crisis in the American ruling class for years (embodied by Trump), a global pandemic that massively altered everyday life and killed millions, and a considerable increase in the activity of the masses unfolded in the protests that summer—the peak being the torching of a Minneapolis police station. While the Palestinian crisis doesn’t necessarily display the same symptoms, it still presents an opportunity for struggle and politicization. The problem both in the Summer of 2020 and now is that there aren’t really organizations ready to seize the moment.[3] Base building is about creating organizations capable of intervention while also developing the organizing capacity of the working masses.

For the past few years, I have been studying May ‘68 in France, the Cultural Revolution in China, the development of Workerism in Italy, and the Black Power movement in the United States. The range of political experimentation across all these movements is remarkable.[4] As Alessandro Russo says: “The sixties were a worldwide political mass laboratory composed of an unprecedented range of themes and experimental grounds: experimental politics had never previously involved so many disparate fields of collective life.”[5] He even cites an experiment involving an anti-authoritarian psychoanalytic kindergarten in Milan, which is both amusing and fascinating.[6] 

The total pluralization of the Sixties is best understood as a reaction to the dominance of the party-form in communist organization for much of the 20th century. In many countries, there was a dominant communist party that was the primary site for communist politics. Even in countries with multiple dominant communist organizations, the party-form remained dominant. The dominance of the party-form was especially pronounced in the USSR and China, where communist parties were the ruling powers, and in Europe, where communist parties were partially successful in entering parliamentary politics. While the Communist Party in the US never reached the heights of their counterparts across the globe, it was still at the forefront of the struggles during the 1930s, one of the most intense periods of class struggle in American history. Thus, the party-form became the rule of communist organizing in the 20th century. If you were to be an organized communist, you had to join the Party.  

In every place mentioned, the experiments of the Sixties developed against or in spite of the Communist Party. In China, the Cultural Revolution, while supported by some sections of the Party (Mao and his allies), was driven by the independent worker and student organizations. In France, the students in May ‘68 organized outside of the Party and clashed with it during the crisis. Even the younger workers that were pivotal to some of the more radical experiments in the factories often did so in spite of their unions. In the United States, the Communist Party was a marginal force at best within the Sixties, and the bulk of organization occurred outside the sphere of the Party. Vivian Gornick, in The Romance of American Communism, interviewed former Party members who were unable to wrap their heads around the Sixties, precisely because new movements were experimenting outside of the party. This all highlights the politically active and experimental nature of the Sixties, while still barely scratching the surface of the many liberation movements simultaneously unfolding throughout the world. 

The Panthers were at the political forefront in the United States during this period, alongside other new, independent left-wing political organizations. In Black Against Empire, Bloom and Martin detail the role of the New Left and its relationship with the Panthers. One of the main organizations of the New Left was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), whose main tactic in the early-mid 60s was draft evasion, which exploded in the period of ‘66-’68. The SDS organized a conference in Berkeley in 1966, Black Power and Its Challenges, which radicalized the organization. Bloom and Martin say: 

The new approach to draft resistance was compelling because of its universality. The black anti-imperialism championed by SNCC compared the plight of blacks in the United States with the plight of the Vietnamese and others throughout the world who were waging struggles against colonialism and imperialism. At SNCC’s invitation, student antiwar activists came to see themselves as fighting for their own liberation from the American empire. The imperial machinery of war that was inflicting havoc abroad was forcing America’s young to kill and die for a cause many did not believe in. Young activists came to see the draft as an imposition of empire on themselves just as the war was an imposition of empire on the Vietnamese.

Just like in France, imperialist wars radicalized students and young people. SDS leader Greg Calvert gave a speech[8] in which he argued that students were revolutionary subjects because of their revolutionary consciousness, and this became extremely influential amongst the New Left. The student movement saw itself as part of the global struggle against imperialism.  In 1967, there was the largest anti-war protest in American history as 250,000 people protested jointly in San Francisco and New York. Shortly after, Muhammad Ali began his campaign against the war by refusing to be drafted, and the anti-war movement became mainstream. Following clashes between draft evaders and military police at the Pentagon, where said evaders were burning draft cards, Bloom and Martin say: “No longer were the students and antiwar activists simply Americans expressing their view within established channels. Now, inspired by Black Power and emboldened by the ghetto rebellions, many anti-war activists declared themselves revolutionaries, seeking self-determination through resistance.”[9] Up to this point, the Panthers had no relationship with the SDS or the New Left, but that changed following the assassinations of King and Black Panther member Bobby Hutton in April 1968. The SDS looked to the Panthers for leadership and began supporting them. 

Bloom and Martin also detail the Panthers’s relationship with other new organizations of the time, like the Young Lords in Chicago, the Red Guards (a Chinese-American group in SF), and Los Siete (a group of seven Latino activists falsely arrested for their involvement in the student strike at San Fran State in 1968).[10] All of these new groups modeled their program after the Panthers. Bloom and Martin also detail the Rainbow Coalition formed in Chicago between the Panthers under Hampton, the Lords, and the Young Patriots, who all shared a commitment to class struggle across races. With all of these groups, including the SDS, looking to the Panthers for leadership, the Party sought to seize the initiative as the vanguard of the New Left. Bloom and Martin say:

In their move to take greater leadership in organizing a revolutionary movement across race, the Black Panthers sought to make their class and cross-race anti-imperialist politics more explicit. They began featuring nonblack liberation movements on the cover of their news- paper, starting with Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese. They began widely using the word fascism to describe the policies of the U.S. government.

Out of a large conference organized by the Panthers in Oakland, where all of these groups attended, came the formation of a new type of organization under the Panthers’ leadership: National Committees to Combat Fascism (NCCF). These committees operated around the country and allowed non-Black membership. The two projects they highlighted were local campaigns for local control of police and developing legal teams to defend political prisoners. After the conference, the Panthers received an outpouring of support from young leftist organizations around the world, including orgs in Sweden, Mexico, and Japan. By April 1970, NCCFs were operating in eighteen cities across the country. 

The Panthers also developed international clout. There was an international conference in Montreal, The Hemispheric Conference to End the War in Vietnam, in November 1968, where the focus was advocating for peace, and there were representatives from all over the world, including Salvador Allende, a delegation from Vietnam, and the Black Panthers. The latter set the tone for the conference when Bobby Seale advocated for shifting the focus from advocating for peace, to reaffirming a commitment to third world liberation struggles against American imperialism, and he received a standing ovation. Bloom and Martin say:

At the end of the conference, American delegates handed their draft cards to the Vietnamese representatives. Taking to the stage, the Vietnamese delegation built a small fire and burned the draft cards as the audience cheered. In solidarity with the Panthers, delegates in the audience raised their fists in the Black Panther salute and joined in the chant, “Panther Power to the Vanguard!” Their voices resonated throughout the church. Then, in front of the fifteen hundred delegates, the Minister M. Hoang Minh Giam turned toward David Hilliard and proclaimed, “You are Black Panthers, We are Yellow Panthers!”

Bloom and Martin detail Marxism’s influence on the Panthers, and say that the Party’s interpretation was not dogmatic, nor did it stand in the way of building alliances. While the Party’s interpretation of Marxism evolved over time, “the unchanging core of the Black Panther Party’s political ideology was black anti-imperialism… [they] saw itself as the revolutionary vanguard advancing the interests of the black community for self-determination within a larger global struggle against imperialism.”[13] 

Bloom and Martin detail the connections the Panthers built with the governments of China, Algeria, North Korea and Vietnam, and they had dialogues with the latter about the release of American POWs in exchange for the release of Newton and Seale. It’s remarkable how they had those connections—such a thing seems impossible today.[14] They also note that all of these movements started out as non-violent, before realizing such a strategy’s limits—Cleaver said the assassination of MLK was the catalyst in the US. They conclude the section saying: “As the U.S. government sought to repress the Black Panthers, international political support continued to widen the revolutionary movement. Only concessions could break the insurgent cycle.”[15] Or as Howard Zinn repeats throughout A People’s History of the United States, the American ruling class survives crises through repression of radicals, and concessions to the reformers.[16] 

The Panthers were able to become the vanguard of political organization in the US during this period partly because of the universality of their politics. A Party statement from early 1966 says:

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense calls upon the American people in general and the Black people in particular to take careful note of the racist California Legislature which is now considering legislation aimed at keeping the Black people disarmed and powerless at the very same time that racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror, brutality, murder, and repression of Black people. . . . The enslavement of Black people from the very beginning of this country, the genocide practiced on the American Indians and the confining of the survivors on reservations, the savage lynching of thousands of Black men and women, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and now the cowardly massacre in Vietnam, all testify to the fact that toward people of color the racist power structure of America has but one policy: repression, genocide, terror, and the big stick. . . . The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense believes that the time has come for Black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late. The pending Mulford Act brings the hour of doom one step nearer. A people who have suffered so much for so long at the hands of a racist society, must draw the line somewhere. We believe that the Black communities of America must rise up as one man to halt the progression of a trend that leads inevitably to their total destruction.

Their statement effectively connects their politics to the history of the United States, the exploitation and oppression of Black people, the genocide of the Indigenous peoples, and imperialist brutality. Of course, having the correct statements and politics alone are not enough to emerge at the forefront of a movement. If so, then any small sect over the years that’s released “correct” statements could have been leading a revolution in the United States. The political analysis and rhetoric of the Panthers wasn’t that much different from some of their antecedents in the Black Power movement, like the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), or even Malcolm X, who also connected Black oppression in the US to imperialist practices abroad. The Panthers were so influential because they walked the walk. Their organizational exceptionalism during this period, albeit short-lived, was a result of both the universality of their politics, and their ability to develop strategies and tactics that attracted outsiders and met people’s needs, like policing the police and their community programs. 

A crisis is the necessary condition for an emancipatory politics. The French Revolution emerged in the crisis that engulfed the Bourbon Monarchy, the Bolsheviks were triumphant in the chaos produced by the Great War, and the Panthers emerged in the crisis of liberalism prompted by the saturation of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Yet there’s no guarantee that a crisis will produce an emancipatory politics, or else revolutions would be much more frequent. There needs to be both a combination of a crisis and an organized political movement. We have seen a few political and economic crises in the US already this century: the Great Recession of 2008, the political crisis of 2016 leading to the Trump presidency, the ongoing Pandemic, and the George Floyd Rebellions during the Summer of 2020. What we haven’t seen is an organized political movement ready to seize the moment. 

The ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine is not necessarily a crisis for American politics, at least yet, even if it is an international crisis. Yet like the Vietnam War, or even the Algerian War of Independence of 1962, it is an opportunity for the Left to articulate a universal politics. The Palestinian Genocide is a universal issue, both ethically and politically. It is absolutely abhorrent to do nothing in the context of a genocide, especially when that genocide is sustained and enabled by our political and economic system. In Boston, where I live, organizers have taken action. Students at universities, especially Harvard and MIT, have been relentless in leading protests and actions, and have even faced institutional repression. I’ve observed the same nationally, including the hundreds of thousands of protestors converging in Washington DC. The most effective protests are those that disrupt material links between Israel and the United States. In Cambridge (MA), there have been constant protests at Elbit Systems, an Israeli company which directly contributes to Palestinian genocide. A statement from Shut Elbit Down Boston after one protests states: 

The weapons Israel is deploying to surveil, maim, and mass murder Palestinians are supplied by a company that operates right here in our city. Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest weapons dealer, operates an “innovation center” at 130 Bishop Allen Drive, in the heart of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Elbit supplies 85% of Israel’s military drone fleet, along with land-based equipment, bullets, tear gas and internationally banned weapons. Elbit weapons are being used to murder Palestinians right now. We will not let Elbit continue business as usual! Weapons companies don’t belong in our neighborhoods!

In order to disrupt the larger networks that enable Palestinian genocide, there must be knowledge and research.

About a year ago, a group of organizers in Massachusetts released the Mapping Project, which, “illustrates some ways in which institutional support for the colonization of Palestine is structurally tied to policing and systemic white supremacy here where we live, and to US imperialist projects in other countries.” The Map details 497 entities, including corporations, politicians, universities, police departments, and NGOs which contribute to American imperialism and genocide in Palestine. For this very reason, the Mapping Project faced a ton of backlash in both local and national media following its release. Organizers, whether in tenants unions, university unions (both graduate or staff), community organizations, or political groups, can use this knowledge to disrupt, and ideally halt, the network that enables genocide. 

Yet we can go even further with articulating the universality of the Palestinian genocide, as DSA Communist Caucus member Zhirabor does in an article connecting the genocide to American tenant struggles. He says the tactics of state repression and violence used in Palestine are not that much different from the US. He says:

With the widespread use of military hardware, US police departments are essentially foreign armies invading our communities, outfitted for war. US police forces have received training by the IDF for decades in “anti-terrorism” tactics. We witnessed the application of these teachings during the 2020 summer uprisings against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, including unlawful detainment, excessive use of often deadly force, and targeting of the press. When the police rioted and indiscriminately attacked protestors, the state response was to deploy tens of thousands of National Guard troops onto city streets across the country complete with unconstitutional curfews. Just as the police assaulted journalists covering the protests in a concerted project of intimidation, so too did Israel recently when the IDF bombed the building which housed the Associated Press and Al Jazeera news media offices under the dubious pretense that Hamas had a headquarters there.

Of course, the US has a long history of using state violence and terror against Black folks and revolutionaries, as the same tactics deployed during the George Floyd Protests are common to periods of social unrest in American history. We could even add that the logic of Israeli settler-colonialism echoes that of the United States, where an oppressed religious minority exits Europe, colonizes another land through violence, and establishes a mythology to justify their actions—in the US, manifest destiny, and in Israel, Zionism. Zhirabor also connects the Palestinian genocide to the practices of red-lining and displacement in the US. 

Communism is premised on universality: that capitalism has stretched to encompass the entire globe, subjecting people everywhere to its brutal logic, and therefore liberation from capitalism must be total. This is best summarized by the slogan: we aren’t free until we’re all free. The struggle of sustaining revolutionary movements throughout the globe over the 20th century within the shackles of global imperialism illustrates the necessity of an internationalist communism. In the context of Vietnam and Palestine, a universal politics is the product of a shared enemy: imperialism, with the United States as the leading nation. The Panthers were able to link with governments and movements abroad, and a wide strata of organizations domestically for this reason. Individuals in the States are obviously in a massively different situation than those in Gaza—we are not in a state of war, many of us are not experiencing an active genocide, and many individuals happily shield themselves from the conflict entirely by not paying attention. While Americans should already be invested in the Palestinian struggle for ethical reasons, organizers have multiple ways in which to articulate the universality of this struggle. Our government is funding and supporting the genocide, our government will use the same tactics on us when we resist, and our landlords are even funding the genocide. Sometimes, you need personal consequence to mobilize individuals into a struggle. Students in the Sixties mobilized in the anti-war movement not just because they thought the War was morally wrong, but also because they were the ones being sent over to do the fighting on behalf of the US Government. The global struggles of the Sixties were driven by a common enemy, the United States imperial machine and its allies, and we face the same enemy today. We must follow the Panthers and articulate a politics that articulates this universality, and which would mobilize broad sections of the population. And like the Panthers, we must not only produce a correct analysis, but we must also walk the walk. 


  1. One can find a more detailed introduction to the concept here
  2. Vladimir Lenin, “The Collapse of the Second International,” May-June 1915, accessed from https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/csi/ii.htm#v21pp74h-212.
  3. While there are organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, Palestine Youth Movement, PalAction, and even the PSL which are leading actions and mobilizing people, this doesn’t really compare in scale to a communist party comprising millions of people, which was the case in many movements throughout the Sixties.
  4. While I am aware this period contained organizational experimentation throughout the world, my focus on these movements is simply a product of my own studies, and not a deliberate omission. Furthermore, I focus on America and France because in both countries, imperialist wars were catalysts for struggle in the core, mobilizing groups that were previously seen as non-political or petty-bourgeois (like white students).
  5. Alessandro Russo, “The Sixties and Us”, in The Idea of Communism 3, (London: Verso, 2016), 142. 
  6. Russo, “The Sixties and Us”, 144. 
  7. Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin, Black Against Empire, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 130.
  8. Greg Calvert, “In White America,” speech, reprinted in Guardian, March 25, 1967. 
  9. Bloom and Martin, Black Against Empire, 133. 
  10. It’s also important to note that the Panthers merged with the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), which was one of the primary organizations of the Civil Rights Movement. The SNCC at the time was led by Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), and this merger legitimized the Panthers. By 1968, the SNCC started to collapse since they couldn’t develop a strategy to implement Black Power, and the Panthers filled that void. The alliance quickly fell apart because the SNCC saw themselves as the senior partner in the relationship, and were critical of the Panthers’ organization. The SNCC collapsed about a year later. 
  11. Bloom and Martin, 300.
  12. Ibid, 310.
  13. Ibid, 312.
  14. While the organized left today has connections with governments in Venezuela and Cuba, these are qualitatively different from those in the Sixties. Left-wing governments today are more like democratic socialist states, which is good, but it’s not really the same as China during the Cultural Revolution, or the liberation movements of the 20th century which possessed an emancipatory content. 
  15. Bloom and Martin, 322. 
  16. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2003), 349. 
  17. Executive Mandate No. 1 as quoted in Philip S. Foner, ed., The Black
    Panthers Speak (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970; repr. New York: Da Capo, 1995), 40.
  18. Zhirabor, “Connecting American Tenancy With Palestinian Struggle”, Partisan Magazine, July 14, 2021.