In the 1970s, Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party and a leader of militant black political movement of that era, wrote his memoir: Revolutionary Suicide.

I first read it as a teenager, within a few years of its publication, and over the years I have to admit having had a soft spot for the book. For a teenager, faced with American hostility towards my ethnicity, I certainly could identify with much of the pain and anger. Three decades later, as a psychiatrist, and an Iranian-American still faced with much of the same incomprehension towards my national origin, I returned to the book to see how it would strike me now. The psychiatrist in me was especially interested in the concept of a revolutionary form of suicide, something I had not carefully considered when reading it at age fifteen.

Newton takes the idea, and indeed begins the book, from the work of suicidologist Dr. Herbert Hendin, who Newton interprets as showing that blacks are more prone to committing suicide because of their socio-economic suffering. Newton wonders about this and concludes that if blacks are going to die anyway, even kill themselves, they might as well die for a reason, for a cause, for something that might eventually lead to change in those social and political conditions that are literally killing them.

What happens now is reactionary suicide, Newton concludes, blacks killing themselves out of despair at a world that mistreats them. What is needed is revolutionary suicide, putting your life on the line, knowing that eventually you will be killed, to challenge that world and make it better.

This is a rather novel approach to suicide; I had not read it anywhere stated thus. Intimations occur in the despair of classic revolutionaries, such as the old Russian anarchist Nechayev, who taught that the revolutionist has no hope, no home, that he is a doomed man. Newton cites Che Guevara's attitude that to be a revolutionary means to love all of humankind but to give up any possibility of a loving any other individual human.

One might agree or disagree with their politics - all of them, Nechayev, Guevara, Newton - and see these attitudes as rationalizations for their own violent methods, but psychiatrically there is something interesting here, the notion that we have to come to terms with dying in order to learn how to live. This is a notion which the philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers frequently discussed. I heard it stated best years ago when a former Black Panther (I cannot recall who it was) came to Harvard; I went to hear him and recall most clearly this advice: "You have to have something to die for, if you want to live. The problem with most of you kids is that you have no goals, you don't care about anything, you wouldn't be willing to die for anything. So you really aren't willing to live for anything either. Think about what you would die for, and work your way back from there, and then you'll know what you should do with your life."

Novelist Walker Percy has another way of thinking about it, talking about what makes a great writer. You have to be an ex-suicide, he once said; you have to reach the point that you give up, that you realize that you have no way out; only then do you give up old ways of thinking and doing; only then can you really create. I think this is what Kierkegaard had in mind when he thought about the value of despair.

Huey Newton ended up dying in a quite non-revolutionary way, killed in 1989 by a drug dealer on the same tough Oakland streets on which he had grown up. Some claim that Newton himself had become a user, perhaps a dealer, and died in that web of drugs that he had attacked for so long, and that claims so many lives. The revolution had long ended, with the Black Panthers marginalized and destroyed by the end of the 1970s. For a decade, Newton appeared to drift, unwilling to come to terms with society as it was, and unable any longer to change it. There no longer was an option of revolutionary suicide: he either had to choose to live, to make his peace with an unjust world as it is, at least for now; or, ironically, to choose a reactionary suicide-by-proxy at the hands of one of his brothers. 

About the Author

Nassir Ghaemi

Nassir Ghaemi, M.D., M.P.H.,

is Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, and Director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

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