The Legacy of Malcolm X
Part II of Socialist Action’s 1992 resolution, “Black Self-Determination and Socialist Revolution.”
Malcolm X’s evolution was a precursor of the coming generalized working-class radicalization. He was clearly influenced by the revolutionary events on a world scale that involved genuine revolutionaries of all colors in a united working-class struggle for emancipation from wage slavery. Symptomatically, in his last year, Malcolm X relentlessly attacked the two capitalist parties—both the “Democratic foxes and the Republican wolves.” And in his last months, he more explicitly focused his attack, explaining that capitalism is the fountainhead from which springs racism, super-exploitation, and national oppression.
Malcolm X showed in his most mature writings and speeches that he had begun to see the outlines of the coming combined revolution. He showed in his polemics against the capitalist “vulture” that he had begun to sense that the national liberation of his people might only be won in the course of the coming workers’ socialist revolution. If for no other reason, this marked him as a candidate for assassination by U.S. capitalism.
The Nation of Islam
Black nationalism remains a powerful current in Black America. The Nation of Islam continues to be the largest Black nationalist force in this country. It remains capable, despite contradictory cross-currents, of making a major contribution to the struggle for Black liberation and to the coming American revolution.
The Nation of Islam, in the pages of their newspaper, The Final Call, sharply opposed the U.S. attack on Iraq [in 1991]. And since then they have continued to defend those GIs who are still being victimized for their refusal to take part in the criminal military enterprise. But with a few notable exceptions, they took little part in mobilizing Blacks for mass action against the war—mostly limiting themselves to propaganda against the U.S. imperialist assault on Iraq.
The Nation’s policy today on many important political questions is not qualitatively different from what it was before Malcolm X was suspended for making his “chickens coming home to roost” comment to reporters in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. But much water has flowed under the bridge since. Malcolm X began to revise the Nation’s backward positions—especially its abstentionist stance toward the integrationist-oriented civil right movement. It is important to note that his evolution began long before his break with Elijah Muhammad.
While he was one of the chief spokespersons of the Nation, well before he was suspended from his position as a major Nation spokesman, Malcolm sought to identify the Muslims with the actual struggle of the Black masses in the South. He began to treat his organization’s differences with Martin Luther King and other leaders of the civil rights movement as subordinate to their common struggle against racism in the United States. This was entirely positive and constituted a major political contribution toward establishing a united Black front against the racist ruling class, which was cut short by his and King’s assassinations.
Most importantly, both before and after the split with Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm didn’t stand still. He continued to evolve toward a higher conception of the struggle for Black liberation; not the least of which was his ongoing polemic against both capitalist parties and ultimately against capitalism itself. But it would be wrong to say that he ever abandoned his progressive Black nationalist views, or that he was moving in that direction. Malcolm’s thinking in his last year confirmed our view that there is no contradiction between Black nationalism and proletarian internationalism.
Even to this day most of the Black “leaders” who have embraced him—not in life, but only after his death—pretend not to have heard his repeated characterizations of the Republicans as undisguised “wolves” and Democrats as sly “foxes,” both in the business of raiding the chicken house. Nor do these Johnnie-come-latelies acknowledge his ultimate evolution in the direction of class and socialist consciousness.
This is not to say that the Nation has stood still on the positions they held before Malcolm made his major contributions transforming it form an essentially isolated religious sect into a significant political force. But their evolution has been quite mixed. In contradiction to progressive stands like the one they took in the Gulf War, they also oppose abortion as Black genocide, they have taken strong positions in favor of such things as the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and they display a collateral male chauvinism and opposition to affirmative action. The Nation’s opposition to women’s rights is sharply counterposed to Black unity.
Similarly, the Nation’s continued reactionary anti-Semitic message is sharply counterposed to true internationalism. While they solidarize in the pages of The Final Call with the struggle of Palestinians, the reactionary smell of anti-Semitism is mixed in with their anti-Zionism. And while they denounce white Democrats and Republicans, they are more than a little supportive of both liberal and conservative Black Democrats and Black Republicans.
However, we cannot rule out decisively progressive evolution by this current under the impact of the developing crisis of American and world capitalism. The overwhelming majority of African Americans are working class, and most important, there is no Black component of the American capitalist class. There are no Black Rockefellers, Morgans, or Fords. There are no Black corporate raiders or Chief Executive Officers of major corporations.
Furthermore, the Black nationality in the United States is unique among oppressed nationalities everyone in the world—they have no indigenous capitalist class or separate Black territory or separate economy to power the tendency of a privileged elite to hold back its revolutionary anti-capitalist dynamic.
The Black section of the American working class has been the last to benefit from the long period of relative prosperity, and are now the first to feel the economic lash of the recession. The simple facts of life for Black Americans guarantee that they will be among the first wave of radicalizing class-struggle fighters in the USA.
We can expect that the logic of capitalist economic life will put the Nation of Islam to a severe test. This formation will not be immune to the impact of the economic crisis on its constituency. That means that despite the current conservative drift of the Nation of Islam we need to position ourselves for reaching out with a friendly response to any move by it, or by a current within it, in the direction of a consistent struggle for Black liberation.
Only coming events can answer the question of the future role of the Nation of Islam. In the meantime, we are optimistic and remain ready to reach out in friendship and solidarity to this important component of the Black movement for freedom, justice and equality.
“Integrationist” wing of Black movement
The “integrationist” sector of the movement of African Americans for social, economic, and political justice has been in decline since the victory over Jim Crow. The assassination of Martin Luther King removed from the scene the most dynamic exponent of that current. Significantly, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., where he had gone to help striking Black sanitation workers win their battle. The dynamic of the Black struggle in the North had led him to embrace the cause of wage slaves in an objective struggle against capitalist exploitation.
Although his pacifist convictions limited King’s effectiveness, he had become a confirmed advocate of mass civil disobedience, which unlike individual acts of civil disobedience alters the basic relations of forces bringing the masses into direct action in the streets. Furthermore, such mass actions pose the question of effective self-defense; they set in motion a logic that must ultimately lead to organized self-defense.
It could be expected, too, that had Martin Luther King lived, he also would have continued his own evolution toward a higher level of political consciousness. But even King’s pacifism was two-sided. Unlike many of history’s avowed pacifists who have hypocritically condemned with impartial vigor both the violence of slave master and slave, he took a bold stand in opposition to the Vietnam War policy of American imperialism.
Leaders like King and Malcolm X don’t arise every day. Both these men came out of the struggle against the system of legally segregated and second-class citizenship prevailing in the Southern states and the de facto segregation in the North. They both led and learned from the struggled of the masses.
The momentum of the victory over Jim Crow in the early 1960s carried the struggle with ineluctable force to the Northern states, where unofficial forms of second-class citizenship for Blacks is the norm to this day. Segregation, albeit not overtly supported by any special laws, prevails and worsens in housing, schools, and jobs. Moreover, separate but (un)equal is also a fact of life in all other spheres of civic life for Blacks.
Martin Luther King was one of the first, and certainly the most effective of the civil rights leaders that led the struggle into the North. Black super-exploitation and oppression in the Northern cities is openly economic in form and has no juridical framework supporting it other than the framework of the sanctity of capitalist property, and the capitalist law and order upholding it. King didn’t hesitate to respond to the obvious by focusing the struggle “up-South” on the economic forms of racial injustice in the “free” states.
At that moment, in the 1960s, the course of the two major Black leaders began to intersect. Black nationalists like Malcolm X had appeared to be indifferent, even scornful of the fight against Jim Crow. But this was primarily a consequence of their polemics against the hypocrisy of white “liberals” who downplayed the hell caught by Blacks in the North. Black nationalist polemical emphasis was focused on the other side of the truth and thereby illuminated more completely the economic foundation of Black oppression.
Black nationalism, at that time, was also in rebellion against those civil rights fighters who, in their zeal to defeat the abomination of Jim Crow, soft-pedaled racial injustice in the North. Black nationalism was not in the least counterposed to the goals of the civil rights struggle. It was its ideological complement; it constituted another vital component of the generalized struggle, North and South, for Black social, economic, and political justice.
It was no accident that when Jim Crow began to show signs of imminent collapse, and the attention of African Americans began to shift to the North, that Malcolm X, sensing this change, also sensed that people in the army of civil rights fighters were potential enlistees in the ongoing war for freedom everywhere in the United States, North as well as South. It was at that historical moment that Malcolm began to reach out to his erstwhile ideological opponents for collaboration in the struggle.
After Malcolm X’s assassination, the needs of capitalism also required Martin Luther King’s assassination. The two murders removed from the scene the two most capable leaders produced by the historic upsurge that brought down Jim Crow and who had begun to follow an intersecting logic. Their death, along with the Vietnam War-fueled economic boom and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War Against Poverty”—which succeeded in co-opting, compromising, and corrupting potential Black leadership—contributed to a downturn in the pace of struggle for Black liberation that has essentially prevailed to this day.
But now, the steadily rising interest in Malcolm X, combined with the developing economic crisis, augurs a new and higher stage in this struggle.
Most importantly, this new stage, which promises to bring the working class into the struggle for fundamental change, will begin where the two previous upsurges left off. The labor radicalization of the 1930s and 40s, and the Black radicalization of the late 1950s and ’60s will tend to merge in a new synthesis. A new alliance between the coming generations of labor militants and Black nationalists is objectively necessary and, therefore, is guaranteed to be given an impulse by the force of historical experience.
It cannot now be determined which strategic road to freedom Blacks will ultimately take: Whether it will be one that begins on the road to a separate nation or on the road to a united, combined struggle for Black liberation and a socialist America.
Revolutionary Marxists remain neutral on this question—until Blacks have made clear which road is their choice. In our view both roads lead to socialist revolution. But Socialist Action’s strategic orientation is toward the goal of a united revolutionary party of Black and white workers organized for the purpose of the overthrow of capitalism and for the establishment of a world socialist order. And in the final analysis—whether or not the common struggle of Black and white workers must first pass through a stage of formal separation, Socialist Action is committed to a united revolutionary struggle of the Black liberation movement and the working class for their mutual needs and aspirations.