Friday, March 23, 2012

From The Pages Of "Workers Vanguard"-Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Liberal’s “Reinvention”-A Review-Honor Malcolm X, Militant Voice of Black Struggle

Click on the headline to link to the International Communist League website.

Markin comment:

This two-part article reviewing the late Manning Marable’s political biography of Malcolm X couldn’t be timelier. There has been a real revisionist historical, but mainly political, trend over the past several years to merge Malcolm’s and Martin Luther King’s political perspectives together. As noted in the review this represents the author’s (and others)“wish” more than any reality. Historical accuracy is once again a casualty of the class wars.

Two quick points on this amalgamation of Malcolm and Martin. First, back in the 1990s when young blacks wanted to show their defiance of the racist system they are forced to live under here in America they, and were very heavily under the sway of hip-hop as it emerged, their natural symbol of rebellion and alienation was Malcolm (just as internationally Che performed that same service). Doctor King was for the old fogies and white liberals.

Secondly, a personal anecdote. When I was coming of political age in the early 1960s I would listen to Malcolm speak on a late night talk show here in Boston. I was very heavily under the sway of Doctor King and his message then and while almost everything that Malcolm said I disagreed with, especially on integration, I grudgingly “knew” that he spoke a truth that I did not want to acknowledge. I had no trouble then seeing that these two men represented two very different concepts of struggle. Nor did I now. I just wish, as wrong as I thought he was then, I had listened a little closer to Malcolm. Honor Malcolm X –Black Liberation Fighter.
Workers Vanguard No. 997
2 March 2012

Honor Malcolm X, Militant Voice of Black Struggle

Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Liberal’s “Reinvention”

A Review by J.L. Gormoff

Part One

Malcolm X was one of the most courageous political voices of the second half of the 20th century. At the time of his assassination in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom in 1965, when he was not yet 40 years old, he was the most admired and respected, the most hated and feared, black man of his generation. He spoke truths that other black leaders refused to say. Rejecting the pacifism of the liberal civil rights establishment, he was the voice of self-defense for black people. While Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph and others looked to Democratic politicians like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to grant black rights, Malcolm forthrightly denounced the Democratic Party, North and South, as racist to the core.

On the 20th anniversary of Malcolm’s assassination, Young Spartacus, newspaper of the Spartacist League’s youth organization at the time, wrote:

“At a critical moment in contemporary American history Malcolm X was the voice of black militancy. His importance and appeal lay, in particular, in his intransigent opposition to the ‘white man’s puppet Negro “leaders”,’ as he called them. Martin Luther King told the world that black people loved the white oppressor and would answer the racists’ bombings and beatings with Christian forgiveness.... The idea that blacks had to prove to the ‘good white massa’ that they were peaceable folk and god-fearing Christians enraged Malcolm to the depths of his being. It was degrading. Like the sheep reminding the wolf when it’s time for dinner. Malcolm X cut through the sanctimonious claptrap and foot-shuffling hypocrisy of the ‘respectable’ black leaders like a sharp knife going through a tub of butter.”

— “Malcolm X: Courageous Fighter for Black Liberation,” reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 2 (1985)

In the decades since his assassination, Malcolm X has been claimed by people espousing almost every sort of politics. As early as November 1965, Rustin, a social democrat who for decades embodied the “moderate” black leadership that Malcolm X castigated as doing the bidding of the white rulers, asserted: “Malcolm was moving toward the mainstream of the civil rights movement when his life was cut short,” although he “still had quite a way to go” (Down the Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin [1971]). Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable is the latest in this genre.

For more than a decade, Marable, a professor at Columbia University and a leading liberal black intellectual, had been working on this biography; he died just before Viking published it last spring. The book is now out in paperback. Marable promised that his book would shatter everybody’s view of Malcolm X. While his research has yielded some interesting details that fill in Malcolm’s life, the book mainly covers ground dealt with more convincingly in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published shortly after his assassination.

What Marable’s book does offer is truly a “reinvention” of the political views of Malcolm X, a contradictory figure. Marable does his best to recast Malcolm as moving toward conventional liberal protest politics. As he puts it, at the time of his death Malcolm was approaching “the idea that perhaps blacks could someday become empowered within the existing system.” Marable casts Malcolm X in today’s terms as “a multicultural American icon” and “a man who emphasized grassroots and participatory politics.” As Marable would have it, he cultivated “alliances with Third World nations” so that “black Americans could gain leverage to achieve racial empowerment.” Beneath the trendy terminology, there is politics: Marable’s book packages Malcolm X for the era of Barack Obama.

As is well known, after Malcolm broke with Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam (NOI), he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. There he was welcomed by Muslims of all races, leading to his renunciation of all racism. This was an important step. But for Professor Marable and many others before him, it was important because it presaged Malcolm’s supposedly being reborn as a liberal integrationist. In other words, since Malcolm had supposedly broken from the NOI’s black nationalism, then he must have been moving closer to the black liberal establishment. In fact, Malcolm X admitted that he did not yet know what his overall political philosophy was at that point. Marable’s purpose is the same one that liberals and social democrats have always pursued: to counsel against militant struggle by black people and youth and to imbue them with faith in the lie that they can achieve social equality within the confines of the American capitalist system.

In our obituary in Spartacist No. 4, May-June 1965 (reprinted on page 7), we termed Malcolm X a “heroic and tragic figure” and summarized:

“Malcolm could move men deeply. He was the stuff of which mass leaders are made. Commencing his public life in the context of the apolitical, irrational religiosity and racial mysticism of the Muslim movement, his break toward politicalness and rationality was slow, painful and terribly incomplete. It is useless to speculate on how far it would have gone had he lived.... At the time of his death he had not yet developed a clear, explicit, and rational social program. Nor had he led his followers in the kind of transitional struggle necessary to the creation of a successful mass movement.”

Never breaking from black nationalism, Malcolm X was far removed from our revolutionary Marxist worldview. For us, his significance was his ability to cut through the self-serving hypocrisy of bourgeois political discourse and expose the racism and oppression at the heart of this society. At his most effective, he mercilessly attacked the idea that black people seeking freedom should link their cause to the Democratic Party. He identified with the black masses who were being held in check by “preachers and the educated Negroes laden with degrees” (Autobiography) and exposed these leaders’ subordination to the Democrats. This lesson remains no less crucial today and is for us the enduring legacy of Malcolm X.

“Reinvention” and Reconciliation

In the epilogue to his book, Marable criticizes “a tendency of historical revisionism,” namely, attempts “to interpret Malcolm X through the powerful lens of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: that Malcolm was ultimately evolving into an integrationist, liberal reformer.” He calls this “not only wrong, but unfair to both Malcolm and Martin.” Yet in the very next paragraph, Marable claims of Malcolm that “at the end of his life he realized that blacks indeed could achieve representation and even power under America’s constitutional system.”

Marable’s evidence is, first, what he terms “black encouragement.” He draws a line from the “Black Power” movement that began in the mid 1960s to black politicians from Chicago mayor Harold Washington in the 1980s and Jesse Jackson up to Obama himself. (Marable references Obama no less than four times in the epilogue.) Second, Marable approvingly looks upon the 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism. This was a ludicrous appeal to the UN—that den of imperialist thieves, their accomplices and their victims—to turn itself into a force against racial oppression. Though Marable doesn’t quite sign on to Obama’s view that American society is “post-racial,” he speculates that if Malcolm X were alive today he would “have to radically redefine self-determination and the meaning of black power.” Whatever Malcolm X might have thought had he lived to see it, it’s clear that for Professor Marable, Obama’s empowerment signified black power.

Manning Marable was a social democrat—in other words, a reformist “socialist”—of some distinction. He had been a founding vice chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. Later he was an initiator of the Committees of Correspondence, a lash-up of various social democrats and former members of the Communist Party. In the late 1990s, he was a founder of the Black Radical Congress. Whatever their differences, the perspective of all these groups has been to try to pressure the Democratic Party—currently the ruling party of American capitalism—to the left in order to serve the interests of workers, minorities and the poor.

Of course, Marable voted for Obama in 2008, calling this Wall Street Democrat “a progressive liberal” who “has read left literature, including my works, and he understands what socialism is” (Socialist Review, December 2008). Barack Obama is a servant of the capitalist system of exploitation and oppression and thus a committed enemy of socialism, which means the revolutionary working-class overthrow of the class he represents. He campaigned to become the first black Commander-in-Chief by explicitly praising the anti-Soviet Cold War and the presidential record of Ronald Reagan in carrying that out.

The main way that millions of youth, black and white, have learned about Malcolm X is through his Autobiography, a product of collaboration between Malcolm and black writer Alex Haley (who would go on to write the best-selling Roots). The Autobiography was recently named by Time magazine as the 13th most influential nonfiction book written in English since 1923. Marable was particularly disdainful toward Haley and the Autobiography. In a 2009 interview, he denounced Haley as “deeply hostile to Malcolm X’s politics” because he “was a Republican, he was opposed to Black nationalism, and he was an integrationist” (International Socialist Review, January-February 2009).

Marable promised to present the real Malcolm, the one Haley had supposedly hidden. But on the whole, his book rehashes material that is already known. Much of the controversy about Marable’s book among black commentators has centered on its “exposé” that Malcolm, when he was a young hustler and petty criminal, supposedly engaged in “homosexual encounters” for money, or that later on Malcolm and his wife, Betty Shabazz, had marital problems. The furor about these “revelations” (which have been around since at least the early 1990s) only underscores how distant these talking heads are from even the memory of black struggle.

Black Oppression in Capitalist America

What does come through strongly in Marable’s book is a picture of how deeply torn Malcolm X was between the Nation of Islam, with its rejection of political and social struggle, and his passion to join the battles taking place to finally free black people and complete the unfinished promise of the Civil War.

Black oppression has always been central to the American capitalist system. The Civil War (1861-65) destroyed the slave system in the South. But the Northern bourgeoisie, acting on its class interests, went on to make peace with the Southern planters, and blacks were forced into backbreaking labor on the land as sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Following the end of Union Army occupation of the South during Reconstruction, naked white-supremacist rule was restored. By the late 19th century, the white propertied classes had imposed and legally enshrined Jim Crow segregation, enforced by what was virtually a racist police state, and further backed by night-riding Klan terror and lynching. Black people were consolidated anew as a specially oppressed race-color caste, forcibly segregated at the bottom of the social and economic structure of American capitalism.

In the “Great Migration” that started during World War I, millions of black people moved to the North in search of greater freedom and to escape dire poverty. In the Northern cities, they became increasingly integrated into the industrial economy while facing segregation in housing and throughout social life. In World War II black servicemen served in separate units. But many came home vowing to get some of the “democracy” they supposedly had fought for.

By the 1950s, when the civil rights movement arose, the mechanization of agriculture had undermined the viability of Southern subsistence farming by sharecroppers. A significant black proletariat existed in Southern cities like Birmingham, Alabama, in industries like steel. Furthermore, in its pursuit of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the U.S. government was finding the overt, official discrimination against black citizens and the images of brutal sheriffs and racist mobs an acute embarrassment internationally. In 1954, the Supreme Court issued its famous Brown decision that overturned school segregation, without creating any way to actually integrate schools (or anything else in American society). More and more working people and students were becoming involved in protests against segregation in the South, which were ruthlessly suppressed.

From the outset, the civil rights movement was dominated by a black middle-class leadership allied to Democratic Party liberalism. Its aim was to pressure the federal government to grant formal legal equality to the Southern black population. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., with his Christian religious appeals to the conscience of those in power, became the exemplar of this wing of the movement. Riding on their coattails, along with the reformist Communist Party, were the leaders of the very right-wing social democracy in the U.S., such as A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. These were Manning Marable’s ideological forebears. By pledging nonviolence, King and the other “mainstream” civil rights leaders were pledging the movement’s allegiance to the white power structure, promising that it would not go beyond the bounds set for it by the liberal wing of the ruling class. Advocacy of nonviolence dovetailed with the belief that black people could achieve equality and justice by relying on the government and “working within the system.”

Malcolm X denounced these misleaders from the perspective of black nationalism. Strongly influenced by the struggles in colonial and neocolonial countries for emancipation from imperialist subjugation, Malcolm viewed the American black struggle as one of the liberation of an oppressed nation inside an imperialist metropolis. In one of his most influential speeches, “Message to the Grass Roots” (November 1963), he espoused “revolution” and defined it in these terms: “Revolution…is based on land. A revolutionary wants land so he can set up his own nation, an independent nation.” For Malcolm, nationalism was the key dividing line between his ideology and that of the liberal leaders marching for integration: “These Negroes aren’t asking for any nation—they’re trying to crawl back on the plantation.”

Black nationalism is premised on the false idea that the doubly oppressed black population in the U.S. constitutes a separate nation. As a doctrine, nationalism can sometimes attract militants who are deeply alienated from this racist society and have no illusions that it can be reformed. Historically, it has meant for many of its proponents that black Americans should be given their own country, with some saying it should be situated in the so-called Southern “black belt,” where black people were the majority. To others, it meant a homeland “back” in Africa.

However, in the 1960s the term “black nationalism” became a synonym for various forms of racial separatism within the existing American capitalist state. (For Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, this had taken the form of a religious sect.) Under the rubric of “community control,” the main body of young self-styled black “nationalists” sought to become government-funded overseers of the ghettos. Such types were denounced as “pork-chop nationalists” and “dashiki Democrats” by the militants of the Black Panther Party, which was founded in 1966 in Oakland, California. Considering themselves “Marxist-Leninists” along the lines of the Stalinist Mao Zedong, the Panthers advocated the right to armed self-defense and raised calls such as “black power.” The Panthers sought to establish a paramilitary organization in the ghettos coexisting with and restraining the racist police. This effort, while heroic, resulted in their murderous repression given the existing balance of political forces.

Overwhelmingly, the thrust of black people’s struggles has been for social equality in this society, not separation. At bottom, black nationalism is an expression of hopelessness stemming from defeat, reflecting despair and the belief that the labor movement will never take up a fight for black rights. Black nationalism rejects the basic truth that the fundamental division in capitalist society is that between the bourgeois ruling class, which owns the means of production, and the working class, whose labor is exploited by the capitalists for profit. Moreover, the idea that the U.S. ruling class can be shamed or coerced into ceding a black homeland inside these borders is fantastical. Just as unrealistic is the notion that the bulk of the U.S. black population should renounce their claims to this country, which along with the working class as a whole they helped to build, and emigrate to Africa.

The Marxist program for black liberation is that of revolutionary integrationism: the struggle against all forms of racist discrimination and violence and for the integration of black people into an egalitarian, socialist society. As a race-color caste whose special oppression is integral to the workings of the American capitalist economy and every social institution, the black population cannot win equality except through socialist revolution. Black oppression and its legitimization through racist ideology are priceless tools for the exploiters in keeping working people divided, blinded and unable to organize to overthrow our common enemy. There can be no revolutionary workers party built in this country that does not grasp the strategic character of the fight for black emancipation. In building such a party, black workers are determined by history to play a vanguard role. This view stands flatly counterposed to both liberal integrationism and black nationalism.

Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam

The contours of Malcolm’s life are well known. As “Detroit Red,” Malcolm was a street hustler and petty criminal during the 1940s in Boston and Harlem. He converted to the Nation of Islam while in prison in Massachusetts, changing his name from Malcolm Little to Malcolm X.

The Nation was a small sect under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad that combined religious superstition and black nationalism. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Malcolm became its most visible and effective spokesman. He made the group known by his denunciations of the “respectable” civil rights leaders. He organized several mosques, including in Harlem, the primary center of black politics and culture in the U.S. As activists were beaten and murdered, Malcolm was the only prominent black leader who asserted that black people should not beg to be integrated into American society. His denunciations of the liberal sellouts struck a chord among the ghetto poor and working-class blacks. But the Nation accepted the idea that America was a white man’s country and opposed integration.

Marable describes the political roots of the Nation of Islam in the movement founded by Marcus Garvey in Jamaica in 1914. Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association grew rapidly in the U.S. during the 1920s, when it seemed to many that no black struggle for social integration and equality could succeed. This was a heyday of the KKK, exemplified by the 40,000 robed and hooded Klansmen who paraded openly in Washington, D.C., in 1925. Jim Crow segregation was the law of the South and was enforced by terror, legal and extralegal, as black men and women were lynched for not “knowing their place.” Anti-Communist red scares were viciously waged in response to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The period was marked by aggressive union-busting, with notorious frame-ups of labor militants and prosecutions of unions under “criminal syndicalism” laws. Labor radicals and other immigrant workers were rounded up and deported.

Garvey’s political philosophy was for complete black separation from whites, including the demand for an independent black state in Africa. He emphasized the development of black-owned businesses—i.e., a black middle class that would profit from its monopoly of the patronage of black consumers. Marable notes Garvey’s continuity with the conservative, business-oriented philosophy of Booker T. Washington, pointing out that both Garvey and Washington were “accommodationists” who accepted segregation and did not challenge black disenfranchisement or separate schools for blacks and whites.

While other factors contributed to the destruction of Marcus Garvey’s organization, its appeal was decisively undercut when working-class struggle exploded in the 1930s. Black workers played a vanguard role in heroic strikes which organized industrial unions in the CIO—inclusive unions that sought to organize all workers in a given industry, breaking down craft categories and organizing skilled and unskilled workers across ethnic and racial divisions. As the working class emerged fighting out of the doldrums of the Great Depression, the illusory solace offered by Garvey’s brand of black nationalism tended to lose its appeal.

The Nation of Islam, which sprang up later, was primarily a religious organization. But its ideology was similar to Garvey’s. Explicitly disavowing organized political activism, the Nation espoused separate “development” of blacks in “white” America. Dedicated cadres of Garvey’s movement, Malcolm’s parents relocated repeatedly, from Philadelphia to Omaha, Nebraska, and elsewhere before settling in Lansing, Michigan, where Malcolm Little was raised.

By the early 1960s the Nation had begun to grow rapidly, attracting converts from diverse backgrounds. Malcolm X was personally responsible for a huge number of recruits, not only to Temple (later Mosque) No. 7 in Harlem, which he headed for years, but in many other cities, traveling the country as the NOI’s National Minister.

Despite its opposition to participating in organized protest, its religiosity and its advocacy of black capitalism, the NOI was viewed as some kind of radical organization. In this racist country, black radicals or those perceived as such will always be a target for the political police (who especially fear the intersection of blacks and communism). The FBI and the New York police red squad were all over the NOI, employing constant surveillance and infiltration as well as provocations seeking to fan the flames of jealousy and distrust among its leaders. The sect was denied legal protections afforded other religions, and salesmen of its newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, were harassed by the cops. One of the strengths of Marable’s book is its use of police records to demonstrate the extent of state surveillance, harassment and provocation of black militants, including Malcolm X.

The Crucible of the Civil Rights Struggles

The civil rights movement helped to undermine the reactionary Cold War consensus of the 1950s. Seen as a struggle against entrenched racial oppression and for equality, it drew many thousands of workers and youth into the streets of cities and towns in the South and inspired solidarity worldwide. As the struggle sharpened and racist atrocities against blacks multiplied, NAACP organizer Robert F. Williams in North Carolina undertook armed self-defense. Williams was suspended from the NAACP, and in 1961 government repression drove him to flee the country to Cuba, where the revolution had just expropriated the capitalists in the face of U.S. imperialist hostility. In Louisiana, the Deacons for Defense, many of whom were Korean War veterans, organized to protect civil rights demonstrators.

In response to an emerging mass movement that showed increasing willingness to openly defy the Jim Crow police state, dominant sections of the Northern bourgeoisie saw that it was time for the South to adopt the same formal democratic norms as the rest of the country. It is to this wing of the bourgeoisie that the leaders of the civil rights movement handcuffed the fight for black freedom. The civil rights struggles won partial gains for black people in the South, such as access to public facilities, voting rights and a degree of school integration. But these gains did not challenge capitalist class rule. And when the movement came North and tried to take on the conditions of the segregated inner cities—widespread poverty and unemployment, racist cop brutality, inferior housing and schools, etc.—it foundered. These conditions of oppression and capitalist immiseration could not be ameliorated by more speeches or new laws. Beginning with Harlem in 1964, the Northern ghettos exploded, registering the depth of anger and disappointed hopes.

It was in the period of the civil rights movement that Malcolm X came of age politically, and this would throw him into an irreconcilable conflict with the NOI. The Nation’s philosophy of black business helped enrich Muhammad (supposedly God’s messenger) and his family, but offered no solution to black oppression. The NOI was a religious movement in a political time; for all its inflammatory rhetoric, it stood aside from the struggle for civil rights, preaching individual religious enlightenment and renunciation of “sinful” conduct.

For Malcolm X, this religious ideology, which he deeply believed, became a wrenching contradiction with his passionate commitment to fight white supremacy, injustice and hypocrisy. He felt the pressure from young people who thought he ought to join them in militant action, stating in the Autobiography: “I felt that, wherever black people committed themselves in the Little Rocks and Birminghams and other places, militantly disciplined Muslims should also be there.” But for the NOI to have participated in struggles for integration would have violated their precepts and their very reason for existence.

Malcolm X gave voice to young activists’ increasing dissatisfaction with the housebroken civil rights leaders. Where liberals swooned as Reverend King intoned “I have a dream” at the 1963 March on Washington, Malcolm X termed the event “a circus, a performance that beat anything Hollywood could ever do.” This was more than irreverence, it was an attack on the pro-Democratic Party politics of the organizers. He named the individual black leaders, closely tied to the Kennedy administration, who worked overtime to keep any militancy out of the march.

For Marable, the March on Washington was a marvelous mass movement that nobody in his right mind could have resisted: “The supposedly ‘Uncle Tom’ leaders like Rustin, Randolph, and King had mobilized a quarter of a million people,” he writes. Marable goes on to say: “Malcolm argued that the Kennedy administration decided to ‘co-opt’ the demonstration…. Malcolm’s thesis was that the civil rights leaders were so craven and bankrupt that they were duped by whites in power. This version of events was a gross distortion of the facts—yet it contained enough truth to capture an audience of unhappy black militants.” The facts are that what could have been an angry outpouring was turned into an appeal for conscience and reconciliation. John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had begun to reject the preachers’ allegiance to nonviolence, was prevented from delivering even a mild criticism of the Democrats. (Lewis later became a Democratic Congressman.)

Malcolm Breaks with Elijah Muhammad

Malcolm had by this time become increasingly alienated from Elijah Muhammad. He was shocked by the stories that could not be suppressed of the NOI leader’s sexual relations with young women who were his secretaries. But fundamentally the sources of friction were political: Malcolm chafed at the Nation’s aloofness from political activity, while Elijah Muhammad increasingly resented and feared Malcolm’s popularity.

The conflict came to a head after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. Muhammad, not wanting to attract attention, ordered his supporters to say nothing whatsoever about the assassination. But Malcolm famously declared that Kennedy’s assassination was a case of the “chickens coming home to roost,” adding that “chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.” This disobedience infuriated Elijah Muhammad, but won Malcolm increased authority among the more militant black activists.

At that time, the most militant and politically conscious activists sympathized with the Cuban Revolution and solidarized with other struggles for national and social liberation. Few of them shed any tears for U.S. imperialism’s slain Commander-in-Chief, the man who had ordered the CIA-organized Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 and had sent the Green Berets into South Vietnam. So when Malcolm made his “coming home to roost” comment, many black militants applauded, even if they were not themselves ready to go that far.

Marable’s tactic of falsification by omission is especially clear in his treatment of the 1960-61 Cuban Revolution, which had created a workers state, although one that was bureaucratically deformed from its inception. Marable recounts Malcolm’s strong sympathy and support for the revolution and the government of Fidel Castro, who had won plenty of support among American blacks when he decided to stay in Harlem’s Hotel Theresa on a trip to address the United Nations. But nowhere in Marable’s book is there any mention of the Democrat Kennedy’s relentless efforts to overthrow the Cuban government, including engaging the Mafia in an attempt to assassinate Castro.

Elijah Muhammad purged Malcolm from the Nation and NOI leaders relentlessly denounced him, including Malcolm’s former protégé, Louis X (today the reactionary demagogue Louis Farrakhan), who proclaimed him “worthy of death.” Marable’s book describes the NOI’s vendetta against Malcolm, relying heavily on an interview with Farrakhan and presenting the latter’s version of the events leading to the 1965 assassination.

That Malcolm felt liberated by his split from Elijah Muhammad was underlined by his telegram to American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell, which Malcolm read out to a rally in Harlem on 24 January 1965. The NOI’s racial separatism had led it to recognize “common ground” with fascists and other segregationists, as Marable documents. Malcolm’s message read:

“This is to warn you that I am no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad’s separatist Black Muslim movement, and that if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other black Americans who are only attempting to enjoy their rights as free human beings, that you and your Ku Klux Klan friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation from those of us who are not hand-cuffed by the disarming philosophy of nonviolence, and who believe in asserting our right of self-defense—by any means necessary.”

Between his split from the Nation and his murder, Malcolm lived barely a year. Much of this was spent abroad, including his pilgrimage to Mecca. Although he founded two organizations in rapid succession—the Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity—they had no real program beyond the eclectic views expressed in his speeches. While eventually millions would become aware of his impact, the organizations he founded probably never included more than a few hundred. Yet his impact on black activists and the nascent New Left radicalism was undeniable.

Malcolm X’s speeches and his Autobiography were hugely influential for thousands of militants who would never have dreamed of attending a meeting of the Nation of Islam. His appeal lay precisely in his debunking of liberal hypocrisy on the part of the Democratic politicians and especially his exposure of the mainstream civil rights leaders as servants of the system.


Workers Vanguard No. 998
16 March 2012

Honor Malcolm X, Militant Voice of Black Struggle

Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Liberal’s “Reinvention”

A Review by J.L. Gormoff

Part Two

Part One of this article appeared in WV No. 997 (2 March).

Malcolm X was greatly influenced by the colonial revolutions that followed World War II, particularly in Africa and Asia. He and other militants were also deeply affected by the Cuban Revolution, which expropriated the capitalists in the face of American imperialist hostility in 1960 and opened the road to massive social advances benefiting working people and the poor. It was not lost on people like Malcolm X that the Cuban regime uprooted the island’s own version of Jim Crow segregation.

Malcolm and many other black activists and leftists grasped that the fight against black oppression in the U.S. was linked to the struggle against U.S. violence and warfare abroad. Malcolm denounced the U.S. as “the chief imperialist nation of the world” and “the leader of a pack of white imperialist nations” (quoted in Carlos Moore, Pichón: A Memoir: Race and Revolution in Castro’s Cuba [2008]). He was astute in his denunciation of the assassination of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba in a plot organized by the CIA, which later installed the murdering despot Moise Tshombe as prime minister.

Malcolm believed that the dark-skinned colonial peoples of the world had liberated themselves or were about to liberate themselves from Western imperialism. He felt that the states of Asia and Africa were becoming powerful enemies of Washington and naively expected them to use what power they had on behalf of the American black population. This view was consistent with seeing the U.S. black struggle as a colonial liberation struggle within the imperialist metropolis.

Social revolutions had occurred in China, North Korea, North Vietnam and Cuba, expropriating the local bourgeois ruling classes and liberating these countries from imperialist bondage. Based on peasant insurgencies, with the working class removed as a factor, those revolutions resulted in bureaucratically deformed workers states under the rule of nationalist Stalinist regimes. But in a far larger number of former colonial countries, independence struggles resulted in the rule of indigenous bourgeois classes.

As Marxists, we champion struggles for national liberation against direct imperialist rule. But we recognize that under the rule of bourgeois nationalist regimes, those societies remain dependent on the handful of capitalist-imperialist states of North America, Europe and Japan. As clients of the Soviet degenerated workers state, nationalist regimes such as Colonel Nasser’s in Egypt were able to act with a certain independence from the imperialists while remaining subordinated to the capitalist world market. With the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92, the main impediment to untrammeled imperialist plunder was removed, reinforcing the intense poverty and dependence of neocolonial Third World societies.

In a speech in Cairo to the Organization of African Unity, Malcolm naively implored this collection of bloodthirsty militarists, venal nationalist demagogues and tribal chiefs to step up, lamenting: “What makes our African brothers hesitate to bring the United States government before the United Nations?” An interesting chapter in Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention makes clear, based on letters by Malcolm to family members during his 1964 trip to Africa, that the cordial relations he experienced with representatives of the ruling elites were wide-ranging. Marable documents Malcolm’s mutually appreciative encounters with Prince Faisal of the reactionary Saudi monarchy, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a Nigerian cabinet minister, the Muslim Brotherhood in Lebanon, and the parliament of Ghana, among others.

The strength of Malcolm X was that he saw and spoke the truth about American social reality. He saw through liberal politicians (white and black) and indicted U.S. government hypocrisy as no one else did, although he was also not above engaging in occasional anti-Semitism. But when he looked at Africa through the prism of race, not class, he did not see the same hypocrisy of their ruling elites when they professed concern for the welfare of the people.

There are powerful concentrations of the proletariat in many parts of the neocolonial world. It is those working classes that, under the leadership of Leninist vanguard parties, can unite all the impoverished toilers in a fight to sweep away the local bourgeois rulers and liberate their countries from imperialist subordination as part of the struggle for world socialist revolution.

Marable Falsifies Malcolm X: The Democratic Party

At bottom, Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention does indeed reinvent Malcolm X, falsely portraying him as moving toward mainstream liberalism during the tumultuous civil rights struggles of the 1960s. This serves to justify Marable’s conviction that there were no options other than pro-Democratic Party pressure politics on the one side and passivity or sectarian abstentionism on the other. In Marable’s eyes, once Malcolm X broke from the do-nothing policy of the Nation of Islam (NOI), allegiance to “working within the system” was sure to follow. He forecloses any possibility of revolutionary struggle against the racist capitalist order, both during the civil rights movement and now.

Let’s look at two concrete examples of how Marable’s politics distort Malcolm’s record. One is Marable’s presentation of the presidential election of 1964. The other is his comparison of two of Malcolm’s most famous speeches, “Message to the Grass Roots” and “The Ballot or the Bullet.”

According to Marable, Malcolm supported Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater in his race against Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson. Goldwater was an extremely right-wing, anti-Communist libertarian who had voted against the Civil Rights Act. He devised what was known as the Republican’s “Southern Strategy,” appealing to white Democratic voters in the South on the basis of opposition to the civil rights movement. Goldwater lost in a landslide, but Republicans went on to use this strategy with great success starting with Richard Nixon in the next presidential election.

The civil rights leadership pushed blacks to vote for Johnson. Martin Luther King Jr. called Goldwater “the most dangerous man in America” (Playboy, January 1965), and Bayard Rustin wrote that Mississippi Senator James Eastland, a notorious racist, and Goldwater were “the main enemies” (Commentary, February 1965). A record 94 percent of black voters cast their ballots for the Democrat Johnson.

As for Malcolm X, Marable asserts: “Nearly alone among prominent black leaders, he continued to support Barry Goldwater as the better candidate to address blacks’ interests.” Marable’s only evidence is the claim that Alex Haley, who coauthored The Autobiography of Malcolm X, “cited an article by Malcolm, ‘Why I Am for Goldwater’.” While there is no class difference between a Republican and a Democrat, it would still be surprising if Malcolm X had supported an arch-reactionary for president—except that it is not true.

When one goes to the source of the supposed article in support of Goldwater—in Malcolm’s papers at the Schomburg Center in Harlem—one finds no article by Malcolm. In fact, Haley was pitching to his literary agent something he imagined that Malcolm might write (Alex Haley to Paul Reynolds, 21 June 1964, Malcolm X Collection, reel 3). What Malcolm did write was an article in the Saturday Evening Post (12 September 1964) in which he made clear his opposition to both candidates:

“I feel that as far as the American black man is concerned, [Johnson and Goldwater] are both just about the same. It’s just a question of Johnson, the fox, or Goldwater, the wolf.... Since these are the choices, the black man in America, I think, only needs to pick which one he chooses to be eaten by, because they both will eat him.”

He added:

“I wouldn’t put myself in the position of voting for either one, or of recommending to any black man to do so. I’m just talking about if America’s white voters do install Goldwater, the black people will at least know what they are dealing with.”

With his slander of Malcolm’s position on the elections, Marable echoes the New York Times (8 September 1964), which ran a piece titled “Malcolm X Article Favors Goldwater.” What upset both the liberals at the Times and Marable was that Malcolm dared to point out the real nature of the Democrats. Malcolm X did not oppose Johnson in class terms, in other words, as a representative of the capitalist ruling class. But he understood that Johnson and the Democrats were enemies of black rights. And for Marable, if you don’t vote Democrat, you support the Republicans.

Marable Falsifies Malcolm X: Electoralism

Central to Marable’s book is the case he tries to make that Malcolm in his last years was moving toward garden-variety liberal politics and electoralism. This he does by, for example, contrasting “Message to the Grass Roots” (10 November 1963), which Malcolm delivered right before breaking from the Nation of Islam, and “The Ballot or the Bullet,” a speech he gave six months later. The way Marable tells it, “Message” was a militant call for revolution, and “Ballot” a call for black people to vote. Marable states that “Ballot” starts off with “an appeal for black unity despite ideological quarrels” and claims that “this sentiment directly contradicted the ‘Message to the Grassroots,’ which had ridiculed King and other civil rights activists.” In fact, rhetorical appeals to black unity combined with attacks on liberal leaders were integral to both speeches.

Marable deplores exactly what made Malcolm X such an important figure. He’s right to focus on “Grass Roots,” which nailed the role of King, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer and others by name in co-opting the August 1963 March on Washington:

“This is what they did with the march on Washington. They joined it. They didn’t integrate it, they infiltrated it. They joined it, became a part of it, took it over. And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. It ceased to be angry…why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all…. They controlled it so tight, they told those Negroes what time to hit town, how to come, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn’t make; and then told them to get out of town by sundown. And every one of those Toms was out of town by sundown.”

“Grass Roots” is also where Malcolm cogently pointed out that it was when the black population of Birmingham, Alabama, began to fight back against racist terror just three months before the D.C. march that President Kennedy sent in federal troops to restore order.

It is false to see a big political difference between “Grass Roots” and “Ballot.” According to Marable, in the second speech Malcolm made a turn, urging that “Black people must forget their differences and discuss the points on which they can agree.” But why is this so different from the position put forward in “Grass Roots”: “Instead of airing our differences in public, we have to realize we’re all the same family.... We need to stop airing our differences in front of the white man.” Malcolm X was, from our standpoint, a contradictory figure. But in this case the contradiction is Marable’s: Malcolm could urge a black “united front” at the same time as he made clear his opposition to the politics of the liberal black leaders—they were the ones betraying the black masses. After all, it was in “Ballot” that Malcolm declared: “I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”

For Marable, by the time of “Ballot,” supposedly “Malcolm had come to see the vote as a necessary tool if black Americans were to take control of the institutions in their communities.” Marable criticizes Malcolm for “glaring inconsistency in his logic,” because “Malcolm was encouraging African Americans to vote, even to throw their weight behind either major party; yet simultaneously he accused both major parties of racism, incapable of delivering fairness to blacks.”

In “Ballot,” Malcolm does highlight the importance of blacks’ votes in the North, but in terms counterposed to Marable’s liberal interpretation: “Your vote, your dumb vote, your ignorant vote, your wasted vote put in an administration in Washington, D.C., that has seen fit to pass every kind of legislation imaginable, saving you until the last, then filibustering on top of that.” Filibustering was how Dixiecrats like Senator Eastland tried to kill civil rights bills. Malcolm X grasped how the Democrats’ division of labor worked. Addressing the role of liberal Democrats, he said: “They blame the Dixiecrats. What is a Dixiecrat? A Democrat. A Dixiecrat is nothing but a Democrat in disguise.... When you keep the Democrats in power, you’re keeping the Dixiecrats in power.”

As Malcolm put it in a subsequent speech: “The Northern Dixiecrat puts all the blame on the Southern Dixiecrat. It’s a con game, a giant political con game” (“The Black Revolution,” 8 April 1964). This con game continues to be played out today, as the craven trade-union officialdom and black liberal politicians promote the “lesser evil” capitalist Democrats against the Republicans. While the Republicans make no pretense of being “friends” of labor, black people and immigrants, the Democrats lie about it and do the same things.

The Struggle for Revolutionary Leadership

There have been few historical conjunctures when a small Marxist propaganda group could, in a few years’ time, transform itself into a party leading a significant section of the proletariat and the oppressed. The South in the early 1960s offered such an opportunity. The mass movement of proletarians and students for black rights was seething and activists were learning painful lessons about the nature of the capitalist state, leading to impassioned debates over strategy and tactics and the politics underlying them. By 1964, the main body of young black militants, concentrated in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had broken with liberalism as they understood it but had not yet latched on to the political dead end of black separatism. At the same time, these young fighters on the front lines of the struggle against white supremacy had acquired enormous moral and political authority among the black masses in the South, including members of the industrial proletariat.

The reformist Communist Party (CP) had no appeal for radicalizing elements in this period. In the time of V.I. Lenin, the central leader of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist International had pressed American Communists to pay special attention to the fight against black oppression. The CP won some impressive recruits from among black intellectuals and went on to build a base in the South in the late 1920s and ’30s. Despite its developing Stalinist degeneration, the CP was at that time still capable of some quite heroic struggles. To take one example, it organized Southern sharecroppers’ unions that sought to include poor whites as well as blacks. In Atlanta in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, the CP led a large, racially integrated march of unemployed workers that braved fierce repression and Klan terror in order to demand relief.

Such struggles were impossible without opposing the whole Southern power structure, including the Democratic Party. These efforts, and the black working people who had been mobilized by them, were abandoned when in the mid 1930s the CP became open supporters of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the name of the “people’s front.” The CP could not even bring itself to support the mild-mannered 1941 March on Washington movement led by A. Philip Randolph because nothing was to be allowed to mute its chauvinist support for U.S. imperialism’s war effort in World War II. For the same reason, the CP actively broke strikes and even suspended its Japanese American members during the wartime internment.

In sharp contrast, the American Trotskyist movement stood for working-class politics independent of the Democratic Party as well as the Republicans. Led by James P. Cannon, a founder of American Communism who was won to Trotskyism at the 1928 Sixth World Congress of the Communist International, the Trotskyists were expelled from the CP in 1928, forming the Communist League of America and, in 1938, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). As part of its revolutionary program, the SWP stood for racial integration and equal rights for the black population.

However, by the early 1960s, the SWP, weakened by the anti-Communist repression and intense conservatism of the post-WWII period, had begun to move rapidly to the right in response to perceived opportunities. This found grotesque expression when the SWP sent condolences to John F. Kennedy’s widow after his assassination. Our political tendency, now called the International Communist League, arose out of a factional struggle inside the SWP that was triggered partly over the question of black liberation. Our founding cadres, organized in the Revolutionary Tendency (RT), fought equally against the SWP’s opportunism over the Cuban Revolution, as the party uncritically supported the petty-bourgeois Fidel Castro leadership. Our comrades were expelled from the SWP in 1963-64 and went on to found the Spartacist League in 1966. By the fall of 1965, the SWP had crossed the class line into reformism with its overt class collaborationism in the burgeoning protests against the Vietnam War, building platforms for liberal Democrats who were beginning to see the war as a losing proposition for U.S. imperialism.

Instead of fighting to win black militants such as those in SNCC to a revolutionary program, the SWP argued that black people needed their own party. This served as the rationale to tail, successively and sometimes simultaneously, pro-Democratic Party civil rights leaders as well as sundry black nationalists. In opposition to the SWP’s abstentionism, the RT argued in July 1963 that the party should send members to the South to participate in the struggle. In a document submitted as part of internal party discussion, the RT argued in opposition to a draft resolution of the SWP’s Political Committee (PC):

“Negroes who are activists in the movement, such as, for example, the full-time militants around SNCC, are every day formulating concepts of struggle for the movement. The meaning of the line of the PC draft is that we are not interested in recruiting these people to our white party because we have the revolutionary socialist program for the section of the working class of which we are the vanguard, and they (Negro militants) must lead their own struggle, although we would like to have fraternal relations with them. This is the meaning of the PC draft.

“To the concept of the white party must be counterposed the concept of the revolutionary party. For if we are only the former, then black workers are misplaced in the SWP.”

— “For Black Trotskyism” (reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 [Revised], “What Strategy for Black Liberation? Trotskyism vs. Black Nationalism” [September 1978])

This document laid out our political orientation:

“Our point of departure comes in turn as the conclusion that the Negro question is so deeply built into the American capitalist class-structure—regionally and nationally—that only the destruction of existing class relations and the change in class dominance—the passing of power into the hands of the working class—will suffice to strike at the heart of racism and bring about a solution both real and durable.”

Our strategic perspective was to recruit the left wing of the civil rights movement into a revolutionary party capable of leading vanguard layers of the black working class and petty-bourgeois youth in the South. The RT put forward a series of demands linking the struggles of workers and the black masses and addressing immediate needs such as organized self-defense and union organizing drives throughout the South. As volunteers were risking their lives to register black voters, we called for independent political organization so that voting could mean something other than supporting Democrats.

The RT and the early Spartacist League raised such transitional demands as the call for a Freedom Labor Party. These demands were aimed at uniting the ranks of the trade unions—the workers’ basic organizations of self-defense against the exploiting class—with the militant masses in the civil rights movement behind a perspective of socialist revolution. This fusion could not come about through preachments of unity, but only by the union movement actively taking up the fight for the rights of the specially oppressed black population. The obstacle to uniting the working people in revolutionary struggle against the capitalist system was not only the liberal preachers. It was, principally, the sellout labor bureaucrats, who matched King & Co. in fidelity to the Democratic Party.

When Malcolm X came to political awareness, the main body of the union bureaucracy consisted of the open Cold War crusaders at the head of the AFL-CIO, who had been installed by the anti-red purges in the late 1940s and ’50s. Another section of the labor tops, epitomized by the United Auto Workers’ Walter Reuther, tried to strike a slicker pose with vague social-democratic rhetoric. As Malcolm X noted, Reuther & Co. were closely tied to the pro-Democratic Party civil rights leaders and served as a prop of the Kennedy administration.

Both wings of the labor bureaucracy were explicitly hostile to labor militancy and to the militant wing of civil rights activism. Both wings were outspoken enemies of Communism and acted as agencies of U.S. imperialism abroad, supporting reactionary pro-American regimes and spearheading efforts to smash leftist-led unions. Their despicable political profile contributed hugely to the view of black and other New Left radicals that the unions themselves were a part of “the system” and enemies of liberation. Identifying the working class as a whole with the sellout leaders at the top is a fallacy that to this day contributes to anti-union prejudices, undermining any perspective of fighting inside the unions for a class-struggle leadership.

Unlike many others on the left, who patronizingly enthused over whatever was popular, the Spartacist League was forthright in advancing our Marxist views and criticisms. When the slogan of “black power” was put forward, we wrote that it “represents the repudiation of tokenism, liberal tutelage, reliance on the federal government, and the nonviolent philosophy of moral suasion. In this sense, therefore, black power is class power, and should be supported by all socialist forces” (“Black Power—Class Power,” Spartacist West No. 8, September 1966; reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 [Revised]). But we also warned that the slogan “can be used by petty bourgeois black nationalist elements who want to slice the social cake along color rather than class lines and to promote reactionary color mysticism. More seriously, it can be degraded to mean mere support for black politicians operating within the system.”

Indeed, within a few years, the larger wing of the Black Panthers’ leadership had begun to openly look to the Democratic Party. In 1973 Panther leader Bobby Seale ran as a Democrat for mayor of Oakland, California. “Black Power” increasingly came to be defined as “black control of the black community,” which meant more black businesses, the election of black mayors to preside over the misery of the big cities, and more black cops to participate in shooting down blacks.

Marable and “Trotskyism”

Marable takes as good coin the revisionist SWP’s portrayal of “Trotskyism,” promoting the party’s opportunist tailism of whatever leaders black people seemed to want. Marable writes:

“For decades, the SWP had promoted revolutionary black nationalism. Leon Trotsky himself had believed that Negro Americans would be the vanguard for the inevitable socialist revolution in the United States. Malcolm’s separation from the Nation of Islam and his endorsement of voter registration and mass protest by African Americans seemed to Trotskyists a move toward socialism.”

Marable goes on to wrongly state in a footnote that Trotskyism “meant that the vanguard of the socialist revolution would not come from the industrial proletariat, but from the most oppressed sectors of the working class and peasantry,” which in the U.S. meant black people.

Shortly after Malcolm died, longtime SWP cadre George Breitman wrote The Last Year of Malcolm X (1967), which argued: “Malcolm was pro-socialist in the last year of his life, but not yet a Marxist.” Breitman would go on to proclaim Malcolm an increasingly pro-socialist “revolutionary.” For the SWP to call Malcolm X a socialist was in keeping with renouncing its former revolutionary socialist program and adapting to many non-proletarian forces that falsely appropriated the term “socialist,” such as the Algerian Ben Bella government and Egypt under Nasser, both of which were bourgeois-nationalist regimes.

The SWP’s use of Trotsky’s authority in regard to the black struggle was also fraudulent. Trotsky’s rare comments concerning American blacks were consistent with the mistaken understanding that they might constitute a nation and hence with raising a slogan of self-determination. But it is a travesty to suggest that Trotsky would ever have entertained the notion of organizing separate “revolutionary” parties by race. In discussions with the SWP leadership in 1939, Trotsky reminded the comrades that the roots of opportunism in the trade unions in the U.S. lay in their being based on the “aristocracy of labor”—privileged layers who sided with the bourgeois class “to hold the Negroes and the unskilled workers down to a very low scale.” Correctly identifying black workers as “the most dynamic milieu of the working class,” he insisted: “We must say to the conscious elements of the Negroes that they are convoked by the historic development to become a vanguard of the working class…. If it happens that we in the SWP are not able to find the road to this stratum, then we are not worthy at all. The permanent revolution and all the rest would be only a lie.”

The Spartacist League’s political program, representing a revolutionary alternative to both the liberal-integrationist and black nationalist dead ends, powerfully spoke to felt needs, but our very small organization was not able to pose it forcefully before the mass of radicalizing black activists. The early SL made promising beginnings in exemplary mass work, illustrating our program through such actions as organizing defense of Bill Epton, a black Progressive Labor supporter who was prosecuted in the wake of the 1964 Harlem “riot”—in reality, a police riot against the people of Harlem. With the ghetto in police lockdown, we initiated the Harlem Solidarity Committee, which organized a 1,000-strong rally in NYC’s garment district to mobilize working-class support for the besieged black people.

Ultimately, we were frozen out by black nationalist currents that claimed to reject liberal gradualism and tokenism. The opportunism of organizations such as the SWP let pass a promising opportunity to recruit substantial numbers of black radicals to a perspective of socialist revolution and to develop them as cadres and leaders of a Leninist vanguard party.

The black freedom struggle—and in fact the whole working class—paid heavily for black radicals’ inability to find the levers to polarize capitalist society along class lines, as the nationalists rejected any revolutionary potential for white workers. The isolation of the Black Panthers and others from the working class and the trade unions increased their vulnerability to the racist capitalist state as it extracted murderous vengeance. Through cop repression and the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO operation, dozens of leaders and militants were shot down and many others framed up and thrown in jail. These attacks broke the back of the Panthers, whose fragmentation—assisted by agents provocateurs, forged documents and other police “dirty tricks”—led to most of their leading members moving sharply to the right.

Malcolm X and the Left Today

In a suitably scathing review of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, black columnist Glen Ford takes on Marable’s assertion that Malcolm’s later activities “marked an early, tentative concession to the idea that perhaps blacks could someday become empowered within the existing system” (“Dragging Malcolm X to Obamaland,” Black Agenda Report, 27 April 2011). Ford comments that “Marable and his circle” are “the left Black Obamaites, purported radicals who have a perpetual love affair with Power.” However, behind Ford’s bons mots is a bankrupt black nationalist outlook, which obliterates a class understanding of Obama’s role as chief executive of the racist U.S. capitalist order. In 2008, Ford himself supported the candidacy of Cynthia McKinney, a black former Democratic Congresswoman from Georgia who was running on the ticket of the Green Party, a small-fry capitalist party.

The reactions to Marable’s book by the ostensibly socialist left show how much they accept his basic framework of either liberal integration or black nationalism, in opposition to a revolutionary alternative. In Liberation News (11 June 2011), the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) points out Marable’s distortion of Malcolm’s comments about electoralism. But for the PSL, the bottom line is that “there is nothing inconsistent about condemning the two major parties while suggesting that Black people vote strategically. A revolutionary makes use of all tactics that advance the struggle at a particular moment, provided that this does not foster illusions in the current system.”

This is the pretext that the PSL’s forebears in the Workers World Party (WWP) have used to backhandedly support black capitalist politicians in the name of “fighting the right.” In the 1980s, it was the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson; today, the WWP hails New York City Councilman Charles Barron. Marxists fight for the class independence of the working class, for a workers party that fights against all oppression and for black liberation through socialist revolution!

For 20 or 30 years it has been common on the reformist left to reconcile Malcolm X to the politics of Martin Luther King. The reformists all share the perspective of pressuring the Democrats to do good things, either overtly or backhandedly. Virtually all of them cheered Obama’s election and will do their best to find ways to get back on the bandwagon in this election year. In the end, the reformists are reduced to quibbling over this or that in Marable’s book, which distorts Malcolm X’s political trajectory to serve a very contemporary purpose, including by absurdly depicting Malcolm X as becoming “race neutral.” Marable’s book takes for granted that the civil rights movement succeeded. In terms of the limited objectives of its pro-government leaders, it did. But it benefited mainly a thin layer of middle-class blacks, the traditional “talented tenth” in the professions augmented by a layer of government bureaucrats and a few elected officials.

What we see in America today is not the “post-racial” society invoked by Barack Obama but the failure of the liberal civil rights movement to fundamentally better the lives of this oppressed layer of American capitalist society. In the U.S. today, the prison system is one of the few growth industries, accompanying the deindustrialization of recent decades. Starting with Jesse Jackson himself, the black politicos who Marable sees as proof of “empowerment” early on enrolled themselves as champions of the “war on drugs,” which has resulted in mass incarceration of black people as well as a growing number of Latinos and others. The current economic crisis has underlined the vulnerability of the black population, measured by such indices as the enormous gap in household net wealth between white and black families, as the Great Depression of the 1930s did in its day. It must be obvious to all that capitalism is not bringing prosperity to white working people either.

The simple truth is that there will be no end to black oppression, exploitation and imperialist war until the multiracial working class seizes power from the tiny handful that constitutes the capitalist class and reorganizes society on a socialist basis. As in the days when Malcolm X gave voice to the oppressed black masses, what needs to be done is to forge a revolutionary party that can provide the necessary leadership for the working class and the oppressed. In our obituary on Malcolm X in Spartacist No. 4, May-June 1965 (reprinted last issue), we noted the “agonizing gap in black leadership today,” a condition that has grown even more acute since that time. Our obituary concluded:

“But such leadership will eventually be forthcoming. This is a statistical as well as a social certainty. This leadership, building on the experience of others such as Malcolm, and emancipated from his religiosity, will build a movement in which the black masses and their allies can lead the third great American revolution. Then Malcolm X will be remembered by black and white alike as a heroic and tragic figure in a dark period of our common history.”

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