The politics of Malcolm X

January 18, 2013

Lee Sustar tells the story of one of the greatest revolutionaries in U.S. history.

MALCOLM X shattered the conservative rules of American politics in the early 1960s.

His ruthless criticism of the racist white liberals who tried to manipulate the civil rights movement into falling into line behind the Democratic Party inspired young militants to establish radical organizations such as the Black Panthers. His advocacy of armed self-defense against racist police attacks anticipated the Black urban rebellions of the late 1960s.

Malcolm's life story is well-known. Born in 1925, he saw his father lynched in a small town outside Detroit. Moving first to Boston and then to New York City in the 1940s, he became known as "Detroit Red," a hustler and petty criminal. While imprisoned for burglary, he made contact with the Nation of Islam, whose message of Black resistance in the face of oppression by "white devils" inspired him to begin a program of self-education.

Released from prison in the 1950s, Malcolm quickly became the Muslim's best-known leader. While he always attributed any success to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, it was Malcolm who transformed the Nation from a collection of scattered branches into a national movement that was viewed with some fear by the ruling establishment.

The History of Black America

MALCOLM'S DENUNCIATIONS of whites as "devils" alarmed both Black and white liberals alike. Many of the 100,000 Nation of Islam members of the late 1950s took Malcolm's "white devil" arguments literally. But Blacks didn't need to agree on this point or to join the Nation to appreciate Malcolm's articulation of the ravages of racism, his refusal to cooperate with the "white power structure," and his demand for monetary reparations for Black America.

Most important to Malcolm's appeal was his attack not just on Southern racism, but on the conditions that faced Black workers in the supposedly liberal North. As he said in his autobiography:

They front-paged what I felt about Northern white and Black Freedom Riders going South to "demonstrate." I called it ridiculous. Their own Northern ghettos, right at home, had enough rats and roaches to kill to keep all of the Freedom Riders busy. The Northern Freedom Riders could light some fires under Northern city halls, unions and major industries to give more jobs to Negroes...

Yes, I will pull off that liberal's halo that he spends such efforts cultivating. The North's liberals have been for so long pointing accusing fingers at the South and getting away with it that they have fits when they are exposed as the world's worst hypocrites.

When asked his opinion of Southern efforts to desegregate public facilities, Malcolm's favorite reply was to ask what good the right to have an integrated cup of coffee was if you didn't have the money to pay for it.

Malcolm challenged the political economy that forced Black workers to endure unemployment rates twice that of whites and to work for wages that averaged less than two-thirds those of their white counterparts. In doing so, he began to fill a political void left by the legal-oriented groups like the NAACP and a trade union bureaucracy that, while formally committed to civil rights, did not actively oppose craft union "color bars."

Elijah Muhammad knew that Malcolm's growing political appeal would not necessarily benefit the Muslims. He suspended Malcolm for his comment about the assassination of John F. Kennedy: "The chickens have come home to roost."

Malcolm, learning of Elijah's corrupt behavior, left the Nation in March 1964 and travelled to Mecca and Africa, where he converted to the orthodox Sunni Muslim faith and met with Black African leaders.

Upon his return to New York, he announced the formation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a Black nationalist organization patterned on the Organization of African Unity. The aim of the OAAU was to build community organizations and independent Black enterprises, and to register Blacks to vote as independents in order to "control" Black politicians.

Most of the far left, decimated by the Cold War witch hunts of the 1950s, was suspicious of, if not hostile to, Black nationalism. Yet the increased radicalism of Malcolm X helped create a political climate favorable for revolutionaries of various sorts. His opposition to the two major political parties, his stress on the independent self-activity of Blacks, and his internationalism attracted militants in civil rights groups, such as the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality. For this, he was savagely attacked in the media.

SOME SOCIALISTS believe that Malcolm had become, or was about to become, a socialist in the year before he was assassinated in February 1965. While there is certainly evidence that Malcolm was moving to the left before he was murdered, this does not explain how he established a mass following as the chief spokesman of the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim religious organization with many conservative characteristics.

Moreover, the preoccupation with what Malcolm might have become obscures the fact that his post-Nation politics, while a major step forward for the Black movement, still had some limitations.

Having rejected the Muslims' narrow outlook, Malcolm nevertheless remained committed to political positions--attempting to achieve Black unity regardless of social class, an uncritical stance towards the newly independent nationalist regimes of Africa and a focus on electoral politics--which were still some distance from socialism, and indeed, from where the Black Power movement would end up five or so years later.

For every socialist insight or anti-capitalist remark that can be found in Malcolm X's speeches in the year between his break with the Muslims and his murder, an equal number can be cited to show that he never fully defined his ideas of independent Black politics. In 1964, for example, he acknowledged the political "independence" of Adam Clayton Powell, the Black congressman from Harlem, and didn't rule out OAAU support for him.

In the end, the OAAU had barely drawn up its program when Malcolm was assassinated. His many enemies were determined that he would not live long enough to test his independent politics in practice.

Because of this, we don't know what Malcolm's calls for "community control" or his admiration for certain African governments would have led him toward in later years.

But Malcolm's ambivalence or ambiguity on certain questions shouldn't overshadow the revolutionary.

Malcolm X gave a voice to the rage of millions of militant Black workers at a time when they had no means of political expression or political organization. One does not have to assert that Malcolm X's "revolutionary nationalism" was converging with socialism to appreciate and defend his contribution to the struggle for Black liberation.

As for those today who would wrap themselves in Malcolm's mantle while pursuing much more conservative policies, it is worth remembering that he did fight to change society "by any means necessary." Because his politics remain relevant today, the memory of Malcolm X is one our rulers would have us forget--and one which the left must keep alive.

This article first appeared in the July 1987 issue of Socialist Worker.

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