A new world in the making

March 2, 2015

In the six and final part of a SocialistWorker.org feature on the revolutionary politics and enduring relevance of Malcolm X, Lee Sustar looks at the debate over Malcolm X's legacy and its relevance for today's struggles. Click here to see all the stories in the series.

AS THE 50th anniversary of his assassination passed February 21, people with a wide range of political views weighed in on Malcolm X's enduring significance for African Americans and the struggle for social justice today.

Perhaps the most surprising comment came from outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, about what book he would recommend to a young African American coming to work in Washington.

"I would hope that I say this not to every African American of his age, but for every American--that you read The Autobiography of Malcolm X to see the transition that that man went through, from petty criminal to a person who was severely and negatively afflicted by race, to somebody who ultimately saw the humanity in all of us," Holder said. "That would be a book I would recommend to everybody."

It's hard to disagree with Holder, the first African American to serve as attorney general, on his choice of books. But it's a rather shocking comment from someone who, as the nation's chief law enforcement official for the past six years, has presided over the mass incarceration of Black men in America's prisons and the epidemic of police shootings of African Americans. A reader of the Autobiography might well conclude that Holder is the very personification of the Black bourgeoisie that Malcolm denounced for its failure to advance the interests of the vast majority of African Americans.

Malcolm X speaking to an audience of young civil rights activists in Selma, Ala.
Malcolm X speaking to an audience of young civil rights activists in Selma, Ala.

A far more meaningful discussion took place among others who make the case for Malcolm's relevance today.

Muslims, pointing to Malcolm's embrace of Sunni Islam in the last year of his life, can argue that Malcolm's sincere efforts to spread that religion should be seen as the culmination of his life's work. Black nationalists, too, can reasonably claim that although Malcolm stopped using that term to describe himself, his political views at the time of his death remained within the that tradition.

Socialists, for their part, can highlight the fact that in the last months of his life, Malcolm denounced imperialism, advocated revolution, praised socialism and appeared on socialist platforms--and perhaps, some contend, was about to become a socialist himself. Meanwhile Malcolm's biographer Manning Marable argues, without much evidence, that Malcolm was actually moderating his views, embracing a turn towards electoral politics and the Democratic Party.

But half a century later, the debate on Malcolm's "real" views at the end of his life is no closer to being settled. Malcolm was murdered in an atmosphere in which many forces--ranging from the U.S. state, to the Nation of Islam that he once belonged to--had an interest in ensuring he would not get the opportunity to further develop his politics or build his organization.

A much more productive way to approach Malcolm's political legacy is to survey the impact he had on his contemporaries as the civil right struggle morphed into the militant Black Power movement.

From the Southern voting rights struggle to the prisons to the streets of urban America, uncounted thousands of working class African American activists moved towards revolutionary political conclusions under the impetus of Malcolm's ideas. And it wasn't just Black people who were shaped politically by Malcolm. Young whites involved in the student movement were electrified by Malcolm's speeches. Revolutionary Puerto Rican and Chicanos organizations took shape in at atmosphere in which Malcolm, more than any other individual, injected revolution into the political debate in the U.S. for the first time in decades.

"Malcolm was the voice of 400 years of the Black struggle in America," recalled Joel Geier, an International Socialist Organization member who was active in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. "Malcolm pulled us all--pulled everything--to the left."

MALCOLM'S PROFOUND impact on the Black freedom movement of the 1960s provided a vital new context for the revolutionary Marxist theory of the struggle for Black liberation in the U.S developed in C.L.R. James' 1948 document, "The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Question":

We say, number one, that the Negro struggle, the independent Negro struggle, has a vitality and a validity of its own; that it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles; it has an organic political perspective, along which it is traveling, to one degree or another, and everything shows that at the present time it is traveling with great speed and vigor.

We say, number two, that this independent Negro movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation, despite the fact that it is waged under the banner of democratic rights, and is not led necessarily either by the organized labor movement or the Marxist party.

We say, number three, and this is the most important, that it is able to exercise a powerful influence upon the revolutionary proletariat, that it has got a great contribution to make to the development of the proletariat in the United States, and that it is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.

In this way, we challenge directly any attempt to subordinate or to push to the rear the social and political significance of the independent Negro struggle for democratic rights.

It is this dynamic of the African American struggle that explains Malcolm's mass appeal. He was the latest in an African American revolutionary tradition that began with slave revolt leaders like Nat Turner to turn-of-the-century Black militants and socialists of the "New Negro" movement of the 1920s who were inspired by the Russian Revolution.

Malcolm, like others of his generation, was shaped by the experiences of the Black proletariat that had taken shape in Northern cities during the Great Migration of the early 20th century. He stood out not only because of his unstinting denunciation of racism, but because he had read and assimilated the history of the Black struggle and could articulate its aspirations for liberation like no other. The fact that Malcolm was shot down before his views could be fully developed or categorized does not in any way diminish that significance.

At a time when the socialist and anti-racist left had been marginalized and purged from the unions, Malcolm became a voice of the Black masses. For a decade, his development was constrained by the Nation of Islam's strict policy of abstention from politics. But as the mass movement developed, it pulled him with it--and Malcolm, in turn, spurred the left wing of the movement towards revolutionary conclusions, a process that continued after his death.

EVENTS VINDICATED Malcolm's radical views in the months following his death in 1965. His assassination came in the midst of the bloody struggle for voting rights in Selma, Ala., where Malcolm had gone briefly in an effort to join forces with the Southern movement.

A few weeks after his death, the Democratic administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson dramatically escalated the U.S. war in Vietnam. Then came the great Black rebellion in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, when working people, faced with racist police repression, defended themselves--exactly like Malcolm had said they should.

The Watts revolt and Malcolm's legacy influenced Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton when they formed the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in Oakland, Calif. a few years later.

The Panthers were defending their community against the police--and they took advantage of California's then-liberal gun laws to carry weapons while the "patrolled" the police to monitor the harassment of African Americans. The Panther's 10-point program linked demands for basic democratic rights to reparations. Malcolm's influence on this document is clear:

We believe that this racist government has robbed us, and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered 6 million Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over 50 million Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.

Newton told an interviewer in 1989 that the Panther program "was structured after--patterned after--the Black Muslim program...minus the religion. I became disillusioned with the Muslims after Malcolm X was assassinated. I think that I was following not Elijah Muhammad or the Muslims, but Malcolm X himself."

The Panthers' subsequent attempt to synthesize Black nationalism and socialism would be was partly inspired by Malcolm and partly by their interpretation of China under Mao. And just as Malcolm had broken from the NOI's conservative, pro-capitalist version of Black nationalism, the Panthers disdained cultural nationalists, who they called "pork-chop nationalists."

MALCOLM'S INFLUENCE in the years after his death went far beyond explicitly revolutionary socialist organizations such as the Panthers. Both the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were directly influenced by Malcolm, who met with young activists in both organizations in the last year of his life. Both organizations came to embrace Black nationalism.

Malcolm's critique of nonviolence as a principle won over SNCC militants, whose organizing daily put them at risk of suffering the fate of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964. Historian Clayborne Carson, in his history of SNCC, notes that one long debate on whether or not activists should arm themselves was finally settled when everyone involved admitted that they were carrying a gun for self-protection.

The continued racist resistance to desegregation and voting rights in the South pushed SNCC to the left. During one march in 1966, Stokely Carmichael, who would later take the name Kwame Ture, raised the chant "Black Power"--which almost immediately became the name for the new phase of the movement after the achievement of federal civil rights and voting rights legislation.

But the precise political content of the slogan "Black Power" was contested from the beginning. For Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, co-authors of the book Black Power, the focus was on the need for the movement to break with white liberals and forge an independent Black politics and Black community control--ideas that Malcolm had articulated since his last years in the Nation of Islam.

Carmichael and Hamilton were advocating a turn to greater militancy. But the ambiguity in their--and Malcolm's--concepts of class and community opened the door for others to give the Black Power slogan a different content, as Robert Allen demonstrated in his classic book Black Awakening in Capitalist America.

For the African American middle class, Black Power could be taken to mean new economic opportunities that had long been limited by segregation in the South and racial discrimination in employment, housing, obtaining loans for business and more everywhere else.

The Democratic Party establishment sought to harness the "Black Power" demand to its own ends. In 1967, Louis Martin, an African American deputy chair of the Democratic Party, recommended that the Johnson administration try to "achieve 'Black Power' in a constitutional, orderly manner."

Martin wanted African American Democrats to "take a more active role in community leadership and not leave the kind of vacuum which is usually filled by civil rights kooks," he said. He hoped that Black elected officials would provide the Democratic Johnson administration with a "link to the Negro community and...effectively bypass the Rap Browns and Stokely Carmichaels and even the Martin Luther Kings (none of whom have been elected to anything)."

WOULD MALCOLM have gone along with trying to achieve Black Power "in a constitutional, orderly manner?" Certainly the young African American autoworkers in Detroit whom Malcolm influenced drew the opposite conclusion.

The wildcat strike of Black workers at Chrysler's Dodge Main plant in the spring of 1968 rattled employers across the U.S., who feared--correctly--that the Black Power revolt was coming to the workplace. United Auto Workers officials estimated in 1968 that nearly half of the auto-plant workers in the Detroit metropolitan area were Black--an increase of 30 percent from 1963. The modern "field Negroes," as Malcolm put it, were demonstrating not just Black power, but working class power--hitting capital at the point of production.

The organization that led the action at Dodge Main, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), inspired other similar formations at other plants, linked organizationally through the creation of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. An indexing of the publications by the League and its newspaper, Inner City Voice, shows several articles about Malcolm X. Where the Panthers had drawn the conclusion that the logic of Malcolm's development pointed towards socialist politics, the League took a step further, arguing that the African American working class would be the driving force for Black liberation.

Black workers' militancy peaked in the illegal national postal strike of 1970, which was centered in heavily African American workplaces in the Northeast and Midwest. The impact of these labor struggles drove the Black movement to the left. Thus, it was possible to hear echoes of Malcolm X in the preamble to the National Black Political Agenda written for the 1972 National Black Political Convention. The agenda read in part:

The profound crises of Black people and the disaster of America are not simply caused by men, nor will they be solved by men alone. These crises are the crises of basically flawed economics and politics, and of cultural degradation. None of the Democratic candidates and none of the Republican candidates--regardless of their vague promises to us or to their white constituencies--can solve our problems or the problems of this country without radically changing the systems by which it operates.

At the convention, Rev. Jesse Jackson, director of People United to Save Humanity (PUSH), went on record in support of a future break with the Democratic Party. But he insisted the "Black political movement was too young" for such a move right away. Instead, he said, African Americans should seek "delegate power" at the Democratic National Convention that summer.

Over the next few years, the revolutionary left wing of the Black liberation movement went into steep decline, hammered by mass unemployment caused by economic recession and an anti-union employers' offensive that continues to this day. Meanwhile, a substantial number of influential civil rights leaders did attempt to achieve their version of Black Power in a "constitutional, orderly manner" by becoming active in Democratic Party politics. African Americans were elected to Congress and state legislatures, and became mayors of many of the biggest and most important cities in the U.S.

It was in this period that Malcolm X began to be assimilated into mainstream Black history, making his way from revolutionary firebrand to just another historical figure acknowledged on street signs, school buildings and postage stamps.

The process did not go unchallenged, however: The massive Los Angeles rebellion of 1992, which roughly coincided with Spike Lee's film Malcolm X, introduced Malcolm to young people who had come of age in the decades following the civil rights movement era. But in the main, Malcolm's legacy was maintained by various Black nationalist, leftist and socialist political currents.

THEN, ONCE again, on the 50th anniversary of his death, Malcolm X was back in the mix of political discussion in the Black Lives Matter movement. Malcolm's close friend and political collaborator, the actor Ossie Davis, had predicted as much. In an interview published in 2000, Davis said that Malcolm would emerge "as a central figure in any effort to unite, to regroup our forces and prepare ourselves for the onslaught that is sure to be visited upon us in this new century."

That onslaught has come, as anyone knows from the endless stories of police murders of unarmed African Americans, to take but one measure.

But so has the resistance. A new generation is asking how is it possible that in the 21st century, Black people are being killed by police in greater numbers than in the lynching frenzy a century ago. Why, half a century after Jim Crow segregation was defeated, are African American incarcerated at six times the rate of whites? What is the political alternative when African American suffer disproportionate rates of poverty and food security, while the first Black president sits in the White House?

The search for answers to those questions leads us straight to Malcolm X. As he said in perhaps the most compelling version of his famous "Ballot or the Bullet" speech in 1964:

Well, I am one who doesn't believe in deluding myself. I'm not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn't make you a diner unless you eat some of what's on that plate. Being here in America doesn't make you an American...

No, I'm not an American. I'm one of the 22 million Black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million Black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I'm not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver--no, not I. I'm speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.

Malcolm was murdered before he could fully articulate an alternative to that nightmare. The speculation about where his political development might have led is of secondary importance. What matters most about Malcom's legacy is his implacable opposition to racism and imperialism and his uncompromising commitment to Black liberation--"by any means necessary," as he famously put it.

That is why Malcolm X will always remain an inspiration to everyone involved in the fight against racism and the struggle to achieve the revolutionary transformation of society and put an end to oppression and exploitation in all its forms.

Malcolm, as always, put it best. "A new world order is in the making," he said. "And it is up to us to prepare ourselves that we may take our rightful place in it."

Further Reading

From the archives