SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 156 - March 2012

Where was Malcolm X going?

Malcolm X stood for uncompromising struggle against racial oppression in the US of the 1950s and 60s. His political journey covered a lot of ground – in under 20 years – from his days in the Nation of Islam to discussions on socialism. A recent biography gives a detailed account of Malcolm X’s remarkable life, reviewed here by HUGO PIERRE.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

By Manning Marable

Published by Allen Lane, 2011, £30

THIS BOOK BY Manning Marable is a detailed exploration of Malcolm X’s political life and the conclusions he had drawn before his assassination in February 1965. Marable explains that this exploration was a labour of love, borne out of a need to understand "what actually occurred in Malcolm’s life", and "to go beyond the legend". This labour lasted over 20 years.

Marable was an academic. Until his death in April 2011, shortly after the publication of this book, he was the director of the Research Institute in African-American Studies at the University of Columbia. This enabled him to draw on the resources of his department, as well as research students, to plough through the documentary evidence and recently released FBI files. There is still more undisclosed information that Marable was not allowed to see.

This book has proved controversial in the US. Malcolm X’s ‘reinvention’ in the mid-1980s, largely through the rediscovery of Malcolm by black youth and the new hip-hop generation, was almost as a saint who turned from a life of crime into a fighter for black liberation without equal.

Increasingly during this period, the so-called gains of the civil rights period – the outlawing of segregation, lynchings (although there were still cases of this horrific crime, for instance, by local white supremacists against a black man in 1998), and the ‘positive action’ programmes – were failing black youth. Now concentrated in urban ghettos of high poverty, high unemployment and low wages, Malcolm’s message from the 1960s seemed increasingly relevant. The message took hold, in particular among black youth, as young black men were more likely to find themselves in jail than occupying a college place. Both "by any means necessary" and "fight the power" became rallying cries popularised to music.

This generation took to Malcolm X uncritically. A role model was born who, because of his revolutionary stance, had no equal. This approach was typified in the film X, by Spike Lee. The only authority Lee used for the film was Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published shortly after Malcolm’s death.

Unfortunately, the controversy which greeted the publication of Marable’s book has centred around two issues: Malcolm’s sexual conduct and the circumstances surrounding his murder. The sexual allegations are probably the least interesting aspect of the book. Had these appeared during his lifetime they would have been hyped up by the right-wing US press and used against him! However, 46 years later, they help to complete a picture of the man and should not be used as a judgment against him and his political views and aspirations.

On the other hand, the full facts about Malcolm’s assassination on 21 February 1965 have not been clarified. The murderers were acting on the orders of the Nation of Islam’s leaders, but it is still not clear which of the suspects actually carried out the shooting, despite the fact that it took place in a public meeting. The exact involvement of FBI stooges is still obscure.

A radical upbringing

WHAT MARABLE DOES very well is trace the development of Malcolm’s life in the context of the struggle of African-Americans. He starts in the time of Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, to describe how he not only joined Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) but, with Malcolm’s mother, became an organiser in various parts of the country. Earl was also active in the International Industrial Club, a black working-class organisation which supported workers’ industrial struggles. These activities brought Earl Little into conflict with local white supremacists leading, in 1929, to his house in Lansing, Michigan, being burnt down and, later, to his death. Marable speculates that this was a racist murder that was never investigated by the police.

Marable explores Malcolm’s schooling as one of a very intelligent child with many friends in an integrated school in Michigan. His mother was eventually defeated in her struggle to keep the family together and to provide the resources to stop the children being brought up without the stigma of living on welfare. This would lead to Malcolm’s ‘Detroit Red’ years of petty criminality. Ironically, during these years, Malcolm became a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, founded by A Philip Randolph on broadly socialist aims. Malcolm would later seek out Randolph to work with him in New York.

His family’s influence on him was still strong but, more importantly, being brought up under his parents’ UNIA beliefs would have a profound effect on Malcolm and the whole family’s future. The UNIA was a mass force in the years after the first world war among African-Americans. (See: Pan-African Pioneer, by Hugo Pierre, Socialism Today No.124, Dec/Jan 2008/09) It was an early Pan-Africanist organisation with branches throughout the US and the Caribbean.

The UNIA believed that black people would find liberation in unity with other blacks in Africa. It also believed this could be achieved through self-improvement through education and industry, particularly the development of black capitalism. Ultimately, the movement ended in corruption and bankruptcy. But its legacy remained until the 1930s. Marable details how both Wallace Fard (later, Fard Muhammad) and Elijah Poole (Elijah Muhammad), the founder and leader of the Nation of Islam, had been influenced by the UNIA.

Marable is careful to show that, far from the way it was portrayed in The Autobiography (written by Haley on the basis of interviews with Malcolm X), Malcolm’s conversion to the Nation of Islam was not overnight or through divine mystique. It was part of a complicated and fortuitous process based on his upbringing in the house of UNIA activists, his deep loathing of prison and his desire to be freed, and his family’s conversion to Islam. In describing the process, Marable roots Malcolm’s conversion in the concrete surroundings and situation he found himself in.

Support from the inner-city poor

THIS APPROACH HELPS with probably the most important section of the book which describes the processes of Malcolm’s break with the Nation of Islam and his political development. Marable describes the political processes within the Nation and Malcolm’s relationship with the black working-class and the struggles of the civil rights movement. He shows Malcolm torn between the strict policies of the Nation, especially its apolitical black nationalism, and what he could see developing in front of him: a mass movement of blacks and the influence it would have on America.

Malcolm was ‘taught’ to deride the civil rights movement. But he also understood the reformist character and programme of many of the leaders – ‘the Big Six’ as he called them. Marable’s book explains how Malcolm built the Nation of Islam from among working-class blacks in the big cities during the 1950s. Many of the civil rights leaders however (though not all) were from black middle-class families in the South. Their desegregation policies were aimed at the most glaring and repressive forms of racism but did not fundamentally challenge the power of capitalism during much of this period.

Malcolm, on the other hand, built the Nation on the oppression of blacks in the cities. In particular, he recruited from the poorest strata who experienced the brute force of the US justice system and repression by the police. One of his earliest actions, in 1957, was the march on New York’s 28th precinct police station following the violent attack and severe beating of Nation member, Johnson Hinton. Malcolm and Nation officers organised a militant but disciplined demonstration that secured hospital treatment that probably saved Hinton’s life. Over 4,000 Harlemites took part in a show of strength that directly challenged the police’s authority. Referring to Malcolm X’s leadership on the street, one policeman remarked: "No one man should have so much power".

Marable correctly identifies this action as the one that gave both Malcolm and the Nation of Islam its national place in the civil rights movement. It led to the ten-fold increase in Nation membership. But Marable also shows the restraining influence of Elijah Muhammad. Marable remarks that "the incident had also set in motion the forces culminating in Malcolm’s inevitable rupture with the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad could maintain his personal authority only by forcing his followers away from the outside world; Malcolm knew the Nation’s future growth depended on its being immersed in the black community’s struggles of daily existence".

A less publicised incident, not mentioned in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was the murder of Nation officers in Los Angeles by the police in April 1962. Malcolm describes his change of direction through 1962-63 in his speeches as talking "less and less of religion. I taught on social doctrine". He ascribes this to his discovery that "Muslims had been betrayed by Elijah Muhammad", by his infidelities with young secretaries at the Nation’s headquarters. However, the murders resulted in Malcolm’s efforts to organise further militant action against the LAPD being rejected by Muhammad: "Brother you don’t go to war over a provocation, they could kill a few of my followers but I’m not going to do anything silly".

Malcolm explained in The Autobiography that the Nation of Islam was perceived to "talk tough but do little". The truth, felt increasingly by Malcolm, was that Muhammad was holding back the political development of a potent black force. Marable uncovers evidence for this, none more so than Malcolm X’s activities during the ‘march on Washington’ in August 1963. Again, the Nation was banned from taking part. Malcolm did everything, including holding side meetings during the march.

In the run-up to the march, Malcolm spoke about ‘no sell out’ by the black civil rights leaders. While he warned against the reformist programme of the leaders, their closeness to the Kennedy administration and their non-violent activities in the face of the bombings of churches and the homes of blacks in the South, Malcolm recognised that the participation of 250,000 on the demonstration was way beyond the number the Nation could mobilise. As Marable states, "the gains of… Birmingham and Montgomery had a galvanising effect". He speculates that several hundred Nation members defied the ban on participating on the march.

Suspension from the Nation of Islam

DURING EARLY NOVEMBER 1963, Malcolm delivered his ‘Message to the Grassroots’ address. In the speech he made a call for revolutionary action against segregation, for black nationalism and not only opposed non-violence but branded those civil rights leaders supporting it as ‘Uncle Toms’. He also, however, called for unity and no airing of differences in public! This was not a religious speech. In fact, he aimed it at all of the religious communities and singled out the fact that there was no religious intolerance for being black. This speech had an echo among the youth in particular who wanted to see further militant action by the movement, including pickets and strikes launched from the march on Washington.

Marable shows that the break between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam was an inevitable consequence of Malcolm’s recognition that the civil rights movement was a mass struggle involving blacks throughout the country but mainly aimed at naked segregation. Malcolm was also supporting, while not actively participating in, anti-racist movements in the big city ghettos, particularly New York, where the life of blacks was just as limited though less nakedly so.

The assassination of president John F Kennedy in late November 1963 is perceived to be the moment Malcolm caused that rift by his comment that the Dallas killing was an instance of the "chickens coming home to roost". Then, he added another widely-reported comment: "Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad". These ill-considered remarks and the media furore they provoked handed Elijah Muhammad a weapon to use against him. Malcolm was suspended from his powerful position as minister of Harlem’s Temple No.7 (which also deprived him of his income). Malcolm’s suspension from office was the culmination of a long process, and there was a hardening of his attitude to the Nation of Islam’s leadership after his suspension.

However, Malcolm X’s inevitable split from the Nation revealed the weakness of his ideology, both religious and political. He was forced to concede that the ‘teachings of the Honourable Elijah Muhammad’ had been false, in particular that Islam had no racial theology. Malcolm had been challenged on these issues in the past by both non-Nation Muslims and also two of Elijah Muhammad’s sons who had made the Hajj pilgrimage.

In Africa and the Middle East

MARABLE REVEALS HOW Malcolm spent a considerable period of time on his two trips to Africa and the Middle East, including the Hajj pilgrimage after he left the Nation. He met with many emerging nationalist leaders in Africa and ex-patriot African-Americans, such as the writer Maya Angelou.

Malcolm’s travels and the impact on him of the unfolding colonial revolution, especially in Cuba and Algeria, undoubtedly led him to widen his political perspectives. Asked what kind of political system he wanted, Malcolm replied: "I don’t know. But I’m flexible… all of the countries that are emerging today from the shackles of colonialism are turning towards socialism". This view reflected the impact of the colonial revolution on African-Americans at that time, in spite of the fact that its leaders increasingly based themselves on the bureaucratic and dictatorial Stalinist model.

Malcolm’s tours also reinforced his movement towards the idea of black-white unity – far removed from the Nation of Islam’s theology that whites are a race of wicked devils. "Whites can help us, but they can’t join us. There can be no black and white unity until there is first some black unity. There can be no workers’ solidarity until there is first some racial solidarity. We cannot think of uniting with others until we have first united among ourselves". Malcolm had not reached the conclusion that both black unity and black-white unity depends on common involvement in class struggle.

Marable relates that Malcolm had devoured the ideas of Hegel while in prison: that ideas are the main force for social change in society. He started to develop his ideas for two separate organisations: one spiritual, Muslim Mosque Incorporated, and the other a new, more radical movement for fighting racism, the Organisation for African American Unity (OAAU). Malcolm was looking for ways to work with other civil rights organisations and radical black leaders. On his journeys to Africa and the Middle East he both promoted these ideas and sought support.

Racism and self-determination

MARXISM HAD A long history of black followers in the US. However, they had made little political impact as a result of the mistakes of the Communist Party, which followed the twists and turns of the line of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. At stages throughout the 1920s to the 1960s, the Communist Party had support among urban blacks. However, as Leon Trotsky pointed out, its failure to work out an effective position on the national question contributed to its inability to develop into a powerful force, although it did retain some influence even in the civil rights movement.

Trotsky argued in the 1930s that his followers in the US had to have the correct attitude to the national question, supporting immediate demands of blacks while defending their right to self-determination, to decide their own future. Trotsky also made it clear that the key to the success of the socialist revolution in the US would require the winning of blacks to the cause of socialism and achieving class unity between black and white workers. He discussed strategy and a plan of action to win black people to class action as well as those in the interests of liberating blacks from segregation.

Between his break with the Nation of Islam and his murder, Malcolm X struggled to find answers based on anti-capitalism and socialism. "You can’t have capitalism without racism", he concluded. But it is not clear whether he would have drawn full Marxist conclusions.

One of his main demands on forming the OAAU was to bring "the negro question in front of the United Nations". He also attempted to work with a variety of African leaders some of whom had, in words at least, adopted socialist ideas. One of his key speeches, ‘The Ballot or the Bullet’, in 1964 calls for black people to vote out the Southern Dixiecrats (Southern Democrats who opposed or wanted the civil rights bill watered down). The leaders of the Black Panthers, both Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, both subscribed to the OAAU.

However, Malcolm was also faced with having to build and finance a new movement. He attempted to appease the rich Islamic rulers, for example, the right-wing Wahabbi Saudis while, behind the scenes, favouring the Egyptian Brotherhood. Marable describes how Malcolm witnessed the reach of US influence and foreign policy when he took a motion to the Organisation of African Unity. The cold war divisions of the world prevented African states from passing a motion condemning US segregationist policies in the South.

Searching for a definition

ALTHOUGH MALCOLM participated in pickets and strikes, he had not drawn the conclusions about the potential power of the working class. He also had no experience of the workings of a democratic organisation, particularly one that, while having tight principles, allowed for the full discussion of ideas and tactics based on the experience of the working class. The failure of the OAAU to develop and grow is a testimony to the lack of any development among his followers who left the Nation with him and the new individuals he attracted.

In the intense period of political activity before his assassination, however, Malcolm had discussions with leaders of the American SWP and spoke at meetings of the SWP-sponsored Militant Labor Forum. This, as Marable relates, was possible because of Malcolm’s break with the Nation of Islam. Malcolm was arguing for mass political action, declared that he was "not anti-white", and increasingly referred to the need for socialism. His ideas were fluid and often inconsistent, but he seemed to be feeling his way towards a revolutionary socialist position.

While continuing to argue for autonomous black organisations, Malcolm had abandoned black separatism and began to distance himself from the idea of ‘black nationalism’. "If you notice", he said, "I haven’t been using the expression [black nationalism] for several months. But I would still be hard pressed to give a specific definition of the overall philosophy which I think is necessary for the liberation of the black people in this country". (Malcolm X Speaks)

Ironically, while Malcolm was moving towards the idea of class unity, the leaders of the SWP were arguing (and continue to argue) that Malcolm was correct to remain a black nationalist, though he had (in their view) begun to become a "black nationalist plus revolutionist". (The Assassination of Malcolm X, George Breitman) Marable’s own conclusions do not point a way forward but attempt to reframe the contradictions in Malcolm’s development as a searching for a closer working relationship with the mainstream civil rights movement.

Inspiring a new generation

TODAY, THE QUESTIONS are posed more starkly for black people, both in Britain and the US. The abject failure of capitalism to present any solution to the segregation and discrimination faced by black workers and their families requires an answer. Capitalism in the mightiest economy in the world, even under the leadership of a ‘black president’ – something unthinkable for Malcolm – continues to fail them.

Undoubtedly, there will be new moves of black workers and poor. At a certain phase, the ideas of black nationalism and pan-Africanism may resurface because of the divisive nature of capitalist society. Malcolm’s revolutionary approach will be looked on by many as a solution. But his experiences over the years forced him to abandon a ‘blacks only’ approach. He would most likely also have reconsidered his Pan-Africanist model, and the struggles of the US working class in the late 1960s and 1970s may have steered him towards socialist conclusions.

The concrete conditions of the struggle against racism forced him to reconsider his beliefs and strategies. Malcolm’s attitude to white students following their participation in the ‘freedom rides’ and many other campaigns of the 1960s changed his attitude to those who dedicated themselves to fighting racism. His followers such as Bobby Seal and Huey Newton developed the Black Panthers as a black organisation that collaborated and had alliances with ‘white’ political organisations.

However, only a socialist solution, while recognising the super-exploitation of black people under capitalism, can offer a true end to racism and segregation. Today’s young blacks, while drawing strength from Malcolm’s uncompromising stance, should use this book and the lessons of the 40-plus years since his death to draw this conclusion. Malcolm X did not reinvent himself, but was forced by the concrete conditions of the 1950s and 60s to adopt new ideas developed during the struggle from which young people can draw inspiration.


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