Black Panther Emory Douglas & the Art of Revolution, Urbis, Manchester

‘The “dangerous class”, lumpenproletariat, the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.’
Karl Marx & Fredrick Engels

Images of lynching – white men, women and children celebrating in their thousands as if at a fun fair; all come to see the ‘dead nigger’ – make the visitor to Emory Douglas & the Art of Revolution wonder why the Black Panther Party for Self Defence didn’t come along sooner… and makes it easy to understand why white America would be so fearful of black people exercising their second amendment rights and standing up to police brutality.

The Black Panthers were about much more than guns and shooting back at police who tried to enter homes without a warrant. Key to their being were innovative social programmes, including breakfast for 10,000 children each day, free medical clinics and even emergency ambulances.

Speaking in Manchester last week Emory Douglas, the party’s former minister of culture, explained that some who came after them, notably founders of the Crips, looked to emulate the Black Panthers’ success in this arena. But a lack of political education, Douglas argued, meant they were always doomed to be overwhelmed by violent criminality. They were all about action and had no interest in political theory.

What made the Black Panther Party so interesting was its Marxist ideology and, in particular, the recognition that the black community was not working class, but had drifted into a culture of worklessness: they had become lumpenproletariat. Marx described the lumpenproletariat as scum and Trotsky accused them of supporting fascism, yet the Black Panther Party’s revolutionary singing group were called ‘The Lumpen’.

Marx should have minded his language, because by making ‘lumpen’ an insult from the start he ensured many people miss one of his key insights into the class system. In his totally uninsightful documentary on class, John Prescott met a young woman expelled from school for beating up her teacher. This young woman has never worked and seems to spend her days hurling abuse at passers-by from street corners: ‘I’m not working class ’cos I don’t work,’ she said. Prescott insisted she was working class, but no, she was lumpen as was the guy living on benefits with nine kids who had never had a job because, he claimed, he was too choosy.

Denying cultures of worklessness, pretending that the lumpen are working class, makes it impossible to achieve real social change.

As Dr Huey P Newton surveyed the plight of ghettoised blacks, he didn’t recoil at the idea that they had become lumpen, but instead set about preparing them to be swept along by proletarian revolution. At its best the Black Panther Party provided an ideological framework for America’s oppressed blacks and helped them gain education and achieve social mobility.

As minister for culture, Emory Douglas oversaw the creation of a genre of revolutionary imagery that not only explained the black American experience and charted the progress of the civil rights movement, but provided hope, motivation and a clear vision of a better future for all. The most important exhibition to hit Manchester in a long time, it also shows Urbis at its best.

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