“Misguided Muddleheads”

Black Panther Fred Hampton rejects anarchism.

Black Panther Fred Hampton rejects anarchism.

“The Weatherman SDS has been trying to give the impression that the Black Panthers are on their side, but the Panthers deny this,” says a television reporter in the above news clip from the time, excerpted from the 2002 documentary The Weather Underground.

In October 1969, Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, denounced the Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society, showing the kind of overt annoyance with anarchist antics that’s been absent from today’s left.

“We believe that the Weathermen actually is anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic, it’s chauvinistic, it’s Custeristic, and that’s the bad part about it,” says Hampton in the clip, referring to Colonel Custer’s final battle at Little Bighorn. “It’s Custeristic in that its leaders take the people into situations where they can be massacred. And they call that revolution.” Hampton said anarchists were “misguided muddleheads.”

“Bring the war home!” the Weathermen had gleefully chanted during Chicago’s Days of Rage. The point of their actions, they said, was “not to make specific demands, but to totally destroy this imperialist and racist society,” an absolutist rejection of the state that they felt warranted chaotic insurrectionary action.

To prove their disdain for the whole system and everything in it, they engaged in profane provocation such as smashing cemetery tombstones and eating a cat to advertise their insurrectionary irrationality. It was well-born anarchists who coined the term “baby killers” to welcome home to returning Vietnam soldiers, a class-dividing term that took the left decades to recover from.

The Panthers were militant in a way anarchists are not, simply by virtue of being a political party. The Panthers were ready to identify leaders and had a hierarchy, and told followers not to let race overshadow class issues. If Panther rhetoric could sometimes be as bombastic as that of the anarchists, they had demands such as police review boards. They sponsored voter registration drives and, in 1973, ran Bobby Seale as a candidate for mayor in Oakland. The Weather Underground, meanwhile, proved they were the more absolutist of the two groups, later becoming infatuated with bombs.


Rudd and Hampton

Hampton did not like the political climate the Weathermen were fostering. As Todd Gitlin wrote in his book, The Sixties, Hampton worried that Weathermen actions “would bring the wrath of the police down on the ghetto.” On one occasion when meeting Mark Rudd, a leading Weatherman, Hampton called him “a motherfucking masochist” and knocked him to the ground.

Two months after the Days of Rage, Hampton would be killed by Chicago police while in bed in his apartment.

Today’s anarchists often highlight old Panther-related films on their websites, with no hint of the doctrinal disparities. Anarchists at Occupy Oakland have also promoted themselves as inheritors of the Panther legacy. While Panthers were prone to some bombastic rhetoric too, they were also trying to build a loyal political base when they distributed groceries to black communities.

By contrast, the anarchist Diggers across the bay in San Francisco fed transient homeless and hippies flocking to the Haight-Ashbury District, practicing mutual aid but with no political purpose beyond a general support of hippie culture. It’s true that a few former Panthers now flirt with anarchist doctrine, but during their height the public Panther line, taken from Mao’s Little Red Book, rejected anarchism as “childish.”

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, a former Maoist herself, is more in tune with the Panther legacy than the Oakland Commune when she condemns “outsiders” for using the city as their “playground.” Not that you need to be a former Panther or Maoist to see it, of course. The fantasy Panther connection, along with the appropriation of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, began at Occupy and has to some extent spread into Oakland’s black community, particularly among the young and elderly, just as it has among white lumpenliberals.

Mother Jones magazine proved credulous when reporting on Occupy Oakland’s weekly “Fuck the Police” marches in February 2012, linking anarchist tactics to those of the Panthers based on the words of just one young occupier. “You can see the Black Panther mindset becoming more and more present in the Occupy movement by the actions that are being taken during the marches,” Mother Jones quoted the occupier, a young Oakland local, as saying.

“When the police came out with shields and gas masks, there were protesters out there that had shields and gas masks. They were ready as well. You can see that the militant stance of the Black Panther Party is being emulated. It may actually, at some point, graduate to the carrying of firearms.” This was all the Mother Jones writer needed to title the article, “Occupy Oakland’s Black Panther Roots.” (Mother Jones writers have frequently been naive about anarchism, from Occupy to Pussy Riot, but the magazine also has shown some backbone in countering Occupy paranoia about contemporary FBI activity.)

Unless you’re seduced by anarchist cant or interpretations borne of ghetto despair, there’s no comparing the urban police departments of 1969 and the OPD of 2013. The only thing that remains static is the anarchist’s absolutist view of the state and their love of portraying counterproductive actions as revolutionary. It’s important to note that Hampton in the above video points to spontaneous direct action as “the bad part” of Weatherman actions. Anarchists in Oakland continue to draw people into actions where they will be, if not massacred, put at risk from riot police.


  1. radical democrat says:

    “On one occasion when meeting Mark Rudd, a leading Weatherman, Hampton called him ‘a motherfucking masochist’ and knocked him to the ground.”

    Sounds like an appropriate description of this kind of movement anarchist. You might also say they have a bit of a martyrdom fetish. Like the religious zealot (from any of the monotheistic traditions really) many anarchists see themselves as one of the chosen few who has “seen the light” and must deliver us mere mortals (“statists”) from evil by any means–stupid stunts and agitprop generally–necessary. Those who call them on their BS are assailed as members of the elite (“liberals”) or as people who are ignorant and haven’t seen the way and the truth of anarchism yet (sinners?).

    But people like Hampton–and apparently more and more people from Oakland’s black community today–take exception to this thinly veiled elitism. As you infer, the Left needs to educate themselves about the problems and inconsistencies of anarchism. Awkward denouncements like those of Chris Hedges (calling anarchists “a cancer” with little real understanding of the movement) will not do.

    But pointing out that the people anarchists try to appropriate were not pro-anarchist is much more effective. It also shows how desperate anarchists are to gain attention and membership. Thanks for your contribution to the debate.

    • You infer my points better than I stated them. Thanks. Many have a hard time realizing that you can reject anarchism and still be a leftist, and the legacies anarchists try to appropriate are often ridiculous.

      They are sensitive about adhering to a 19th century antique of a doctrine, and so trace their roots to ANY opposition, going back to the Stoics and Taoists. It’s one of the more Romantic aspects of their mindset.

      Of course, the Stoics, Taoists, and Thomas Jefferson aren’t around to refute allegiance to anarchism, as the Panthers were.

      • radical democrat says:

        I have studied Taoism more than Stoicism, though I plan to read “Meditations” soon. I thoroughly enjoyed Tao te Ching. Lao Tzu does make statements that urge minimal government interference with citizens. He also mentions the negative results of too many state restrictions (ie. crime, poverty from excessive taxation, etc).

        While Lao Tzu is clearly skeptical of too much state intervention, many passages of Tao te Ching are intended as advice–not outright condemnation–for people in government positions. Anarchists will have to look elsewhere for explicit “smash the state” sloganeering. Or perhaps they’ll just cherry pick and stick a circle A on the whole philosophy. Seems to be their M.O.

        • Yes, anarchism advocates social revolt and promises the rise of an anarchist social order. Which is different from a general distrust of government, which can also found throughout classical liberal thought.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: