Click on the title to link to a "YouTube" film clip of Malcolm X speaking at the Audubon Ballroom in 1964. He still speaks to some powerful truths about the black experience in America. Black is back, or it had better be.
Directly below is a review (February 1, 2008) based on Malcolm X’s autobiography as told to writer Alex Haley (originally written in 1964) "The Autobiography Of Malcolm X”, an imaginative literary treatment of his short, checkered life as a leader of the Nation of Islam, at that time a notorious (to white eyes and ears) so-called race-hating outfit led by Elijah Muhammad (with whom Malcolm had broken at the time of this autobiography). I am reposting the original review because in essentials I continue to stand by the main political (and literary) points made there. I have added a few other points below that repost as I have thought about this book more recently.
“The Contradictions Of Malcolm X
MALCOLM POSED THE QUESTION-WHICH WAY FORWARD FOR THE BLACK LIBERATION STRUGGLE? OUR ANSWER- BLACK LIBERATION THROUGH THE FIGHT FOR SOCIALISM
FEBRUARY IS BLACK HISTORY MONTH
The Autobiography Of Malcolm X, Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley, Ballantine Books, New York, 1964
Let us be clear about one thing from the start, whatever contradictions Malcolm X’s brand of black nationalism entailed, whatever shortcomings he had as an emerging political leader, whatever mistakes he made alone the way as he groped for a solution to the seemingly intractable fight for black freedom he stood, and continues to stand, head and shoulders above any black leader thrown up in America in the 20th century. Only Frederick Douglass in the 19th century compares with him in stature. No attempts by latter-day historians or politicians to assimilate Malcolm along with other leaders of the civil rights struggle in this country, notably Dr. Martin Luther King, as part of the same continuum of leadership are false and dishonest to all parties.
Malcolm X, as a minister of the Black Muslims and after his break from that organization, stood in opposition to the official liberal non-violence strategy of that leadership. His term “Uncle Toms” fully applies to their stance. And, in turn, that liberal black misleadership and its various hangers-on in the liberal establishment hated him when he spoke the truth about their role in white-controlled bourgeois Democratic Party politics. The “chickens were coming home to roost”, indeed! The Jesse Jacksons, the Al Sharptons, the Obama the “Charmas” who represent today’s version of that misleadership please step back, step way back.
That said, who was Malcolm X? Or more properly what did he represent in his time. At one level, given the rudiments of his life story which are detailed in the Autobiography of Malcolm X, he represented that part of the black experience (an experience not only limited to blacks in immigrant America) which pulled itself by the bootstraps and turned away from the lumpen milieu of gangs, crimes and prisons into what I call ‘street’ intellectuals. That experience is far removed from the experience of what today passes for the black intelligentsia, who have run away from the turmoil of the streets. In liberation struggles both ‘street’ and academic intellectuals are necessary but the ‘street’ intellectual is perhaps more critical as the transmission belt to the masses. That is how liberation fighters get a hearing and no other way. In any case I have always been partial to the ‘streets’.
But what is the message for the way forward? For Malcolm, until shortly before his death, that message was black separatism-the idea that the only way blacks could get any retribution was to go off on their own (or be left alone), in practical terms to form their own nation. To state the question that way in modern America points to the obvious limitation of such a scheme, even if blacks formed such a nation and wanted to express the right to national self-determination that goes with it. Nevertheless whatever personal changes Malcolm made in his quest for political relevance and understanding whether he was a Black Muslim minister or after he broke for that group he still sought political direction through the fight of what is called today ‘people of color’ against the mainly white oppressor, at first in America and latter after travels throughout the ‘third world’.
However sincere he was in that belief, and he was sincere, that strategy of black separatism or ‘third world’ vanguardism could never lead to the black freedom he so fervently desired. An underestimation of the power of internally unchallenged world, and in the first instance American, imperialism to corrupt liberation struggles or defeat or destroy them militarily never seemed to enter into his calculations.
Malcolm’s whole life story of struggle against the bedrock of white racism in America, as the legitimate and at the time the ONLY voice speaking for the rage of the black ghettos, nevertheless never worked out fully any other strategy that could work in America, and by extension internationally. A close reading of his work demonstrates that as he got more politically aware he saw the then unfolding ‘third world’ liberation struggles as the key to black liberation in America. That, unfortunately for him, was exactly backwards. If the ‘third world’ struggles were ever ultimately to be successful and create more just societies then American imperialism-as the main enemy of the peoples of the world-then, as now had to be brought to bay. And that, my friends, whether you agree or not, requires class struggle here.
That is where the fight for black liberation intersects the fight for socialism. And I will state until my last breathe that the key to the fight for socialism in America will be the cohesion of a central black cadre leading a multi-ethnic organization that will bring that home. And it will not be from the lips of the Kings of today that the struggle will be successful but by new more enlightened Malcolms, learning the lessons of history, who will get what they need-by any means necessary.”
February 1, 2010
In re-reading the above review I feel that although I made the right political points I did not spent nearly enough time on the some of the problems addressed by Malcolm X's autobiography. Not the least of those problems is the one of socialists creating and honing of black revolutionaries like Malcolm out of the lumpen proletarian milieu. Or Malcolm’s perceptive take on the all pervasive nature of the imprint of white racism on the American experiment, for black and white alike then and now. And intimately tied up with that hard fact of political life is the problem of recruiting (and holding on to) cadre in the black milieu for nationalist or, in our case, socialist revolutionaries.
I noted in a review of William Styron’s novel of the great slave general Nat Turner a couple of years ago (See February 2008 Archives) that the historical problem of creating a revolutionary black leadership has always been a daunting one in America whether under slavery or Jim Crow (de facto or de jure, Northern or Southern version). Turner’s own life story, based as it was on creating himself by learning to read and write and thereafter learning a salable skill as a craftsman, violated every norm and expectation of ant-bellum slave existence. Turner was one of the “talented tenth”, as it were, of his time. The question is no less tricky is viewing the highlights of Malcolm’s transformation (in prison, to boot) from a street hustler, dope addict, womanizer and purely existential character seemingly doomed to the fate of many other Northern black youth of the mid-20th century. Those of us working the “black/ freedom/ labor” milieu at the beginning of the 21st century should well note that although Malcolm was an exceptional recruit away from that lumpenproletarian milieu we still have to understand, notwithstanding the Obama life story, that the life stories of our recruits to socialism will look a lot more like young Malcolm than young Obama.
There has been much talk, too much talk of late about this so-called “post-racial” society that has sprung up during the Obamiad. For about the one thousand and first time I will recognize that the election of a black man as President of the United States in race-conscious America is significant. But what of it? I will also concede that during the past fifty years or so, since the time of the hard civil rights movement, that especially among the young racial attitudes have softened. However, I will bet many a dollar that if old Malcolm X were still on the scene he would have more than a few choice words about “racial progress”. All he would have to do is look at the ghettoes, unemployment lines and the prisons. Those views don’t lie. I remember listening to Malcolm on late night radio (“The Jerry Williams Show” a call-in talk show in Boston that Malcolm mentions in his book). I swear I disagreed with virtually everything that Malcolm said in those days, except the pervasive nature of white racism that I was painfully aware of from my own white working class neighborhood in Boston. Malcolm told some home truths then, and I am sure he would tell them now as well.