Excellent and thorough overview of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense’s politics and its complicated relationship with competing/overlapping ideologies! It’s a difficult topic to do justice to but you nailed it IMO.
One minor quibble about an important point though:
“There was, as Rashid mentioned, a lack of real democratic centralism, which is a requirement for all Communist Parties. Democratic centralism is, essentially, summed up by the principle ‘unity of action, freedom of discussion within the Party’. What this means is that a Party’s line is determined through struggle inside the Party, open and free debate among all Party chapters and branches. There is then a vote, and the decision of the majority is upheld as the Party’s line. Those who disagree are not allowed to do so in public, organize factions, or agitate against the line, at risk of discipline up to expulsion.”
This interpretation of democratic centralism would surprise Lenin and the Bolsheviks given the history of the RSDLP:
- Throughout 1905, Menshevik and Bolshevik rank-and-file activists united in defiance of the Bolshevik-only RSDLP congress decision that year stating that Mensheviks could remain party members only if they recognized Bolshevik leadership of the party.
- When World War One broke out, the Bolshevik leadership rejected Lenin’s theses on defeatism yet he persisted, agitating for that position for years up until 1917.
- Bukharin contested the RSDLP’s position in support of the right of nations to self-determination from 1915 onward. Lenin didn’t threaten to expel him or try to silence him but offered to create a special journal in which to conduct the debate publicly.
The distinction that’s important here is between “line” (or formal position) and “action” (something that happens in real-world organizing, like a strike, a demonstration, or voting for a specific candidate in a specific election). Also worth noting that expulsions from the RSDLP were pretty rare even in cases where people really did disrupt or undermine party decisions around actions. Organizational cohesion has more to do with a group’s habits and culture than any specific set of rules; the feds have infiltrated and disrupted plenty of groups that espouse democratic centralism (and the Tsarist Okhrana did the same to both factions of the RSDLP [the Mensheviks were the ones who invented the term “democratic centralism”]).
What made COINTELPRO disruption so effective against the BPPSD was that the organization was very new which meant there was no or little trust between different members and leaders (and as you’ve noted, different leaders [to say nothing of the rank and file] were espousing/wrestling with different ideologies which contributed to the chaotic internal life of the organization). Trust is something that can only be built up over time, through struggle, and so when fake letters and rumors circulated people ended up assuming the worst and enforcers empowered to handle potential/suspected ‘shit-stirrers’ engaged in torture and other frankly indefensible acts.
Nobody’s version of democratic centralism (to say nothing of line discipline) could have created the high levels of trust, goodwill, and strong bonds of camaraderie necessary to sufficiently immunize the Panthers from COINTELPRO’s psychological warfare tactics.