George Breitman: An Incisive View of Malcolm X & Revolutionary Politics

by Joe Auciello / June 2006 issue Socialist Action

“Malcolm X and the Third American Revolution: The Writings of George Breitman,” ed. Anthony Marcus, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005), 412 pp., $32

At the Socialist Activists and Educational Conference held in Oberlin, Ohio, in August 1970, George Breitman gave an important presentation, “The Current Radicalization Compared with Those of the Past.” The opening paragraph of his speech introduced a phrase that would influence the orientation of the Trotskyist movement for the next 10 years.

As Breitman explained, “The present radicalization in the United States, which has not yet reached its peak, is as genuine and authentic a radicalization as any this country has experienced in the 20th century; in addition, it is the biggest, the deepest, the broadest” (“Towards An American Socialist Revolution: A Strategy for the 1970s,” ed. Jack Barnes, Pathfinder Press, p. 83).

The themes that Breitman announced in his talk were struck by other speakers at the conference, though sometimes more simplistically and schematically. What was unique, and typical, of Breitman was the warning he delivered in his very next paragraph: “You should be critical in your consideration of this proposition, because it corresponds to what you would like and because wishful thinking, although it sometimes has beneficial side effects, is generally damaging to the revolutionary movement. I think that this proposition will stand up under the most critical examination” (ibid).

This approach, which included an injunction to the audience to regard sceptically the very speech they were about to hear, is quintessentially Breitman. He spoke from a deep conviction in the power of reason and in the ability of his listeners to, in the words of Malcolm X, “see for yourself and listen for yourself and think for yourself.”

Linking the names of Malcolm X and George Breitman is not at all arbitrary. Many readers know Breitman as the editor of several volumes of Malcolm X’s speeches, including the first and perhaps most influential, “Malcolm X Speaks” (1965). He also wrote the first book-length analysis of Malcolm, “The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary” (1967).

A central idea of Breitman’s work is that African Americans will play a central role in the coming American revolution, and that the nationalist sentiments of the Black population are not an obstacle or diversion from the class struggle but an essential part of it. Within the U.S. left, this was a distinctly minority theory, but one solidly based on a study of history, especially the experience of the Russian Bolsheviks, who had developed and successfully applied Marxist theory on the national question to the revolutionary struggle in their own country.

In “The National Question and the Black Liberation Struggle in the United States” (1968), Breitman wrote, “The black liberation struggle in the United States has a two-sided character. … As the drive of an oppressed racial minority bent on self-determination, freedom, and human rights, it is first of all a popular movement with a nationalist and democratic mainspring.

“But it is much more than that. … It is the upheaval of superexploited workers crowded into city slums who are victims of intolerable conditions of life and labor in the richest and most advanced capitalism. They constitute the backbone of the industrial reserve army of U.S. monopoly capitalism.

“This combined character of their struggle, which is both national-democratic in its demands and proletarian-socialist in tendency, endows it with doubly explosive force. … The black rebels are so many time bombs planted in the vital centers of the capitalist colossus” (“Malcolm X and The Third American Revolution,” p. 138. All future citations will be to this edition).

This orientation helped Marxists understand and, in some modest ways, advance the cause of Black liberation. Breitman’s key ideas retained their validity even after his death in 1986.
For instance, when the Million Man March was held in 1995, many confused progressive and even socialist critics denounced it, and some even spoke of its leaders (from the Nation of Islam) as “fascists.” Those Marxists who were schooled in the tradition of Breitman and the old Socialist Workers Party were far better equipped to understand the nature of this distorted expression of revolutionary Black nationalism.

When the first Gulf War exploded, revolutionary socialists were able to make common cause with the Nation of Islam in opposing Bush I’s imperialist war. This initiative had its roots in Breitman’s, and the SWP’s, appreciation of Black nationalism.

Breitman had been reporting on the African American struggle for freedom and equality since the 1940s. As a socialist writer and activist, his literary work also included coverage of the labor movement and more specialized studies of socialist, especially Trotskyist, history.
Accordingly, “Malcolm X and the Third American Revolution: The Writings of George Breitman” is actually divided into three sections: “Black Liberation,” “Socialism,” and “Life and Legacy.” The first two sections include introductory essays by Malik Miah and Steve Bloom, writers who knew and worked with Breitman; the last is a lengthy biographical account and appreciation by Paul LeBlanc, a socialist scholar greatly influenced personally and politically by Breitman.

Several of Breitman’s more significant pieces, first published in the 1950s and 1960s, are included in this book. Though dated in some respects, they still repay careful study.
For instance, “Is It Wrong for Revolutionaries to Fight for Reforms?” was originally published in the heady days of 1969 when many young radicals fervently believed revolution was imminent. Based on this misguided hope, as well as the more accurate conviction that the political establishment was too rotten to reform itself into a government “of, by, and for the people,” youthful revolutionaries mistook any struggle for reform as a “sell-out,” so that only the most far-reaching radical slogans were considered suitable to galvanize the masses.

This kind of thinking hardly describes the political climate of the present day. Currently, labor’s fight is joined, not over utopian slogans or even new reforms, as desirable as those would be, but over the struggle to maintain the reforms won in the past. Yet, on closer examination, even this article, seemingly out of date, has much to recommend it. What remains fresh is the method of thinking Breitman employed and the lessons he drew.
First, he based his thinking not on hopes but on facts. Even in 1969, when nationally coordinated antiwar protests drew hundreds of thousands into the streets, Breitman said, “The United States is not now in a revolutionary situation. This is unfortunate, but true; and it is from this truth that revolutionaries must proceed in the development of strategy and tactics” (pp. 230-231). He began with factual honesty, with truthfulness.

That sense of integrity also was evident in the more polemical speeches included in this book, where Breitman was careful to summarize accurately the position of his antagonist, particularly in the debate with Harold Cruse (“Marxism and the Negro Struggle”). Giving a fair and honest account of another’s position is more the attribute of a scholar than a politician, even a revolutionary one, but Breitman held himself to high standards of objectivity, a sign of deep respect for his audience.

Second, he resolved the false dichotomy that caught and confused many radicals of the 1960s generation. The choice then was neither dead-end reform nor make-believe revolution. “The essence of Marxist strategy,” Breitman wrote, “of any revolutionary strategy in our time, is to combine the struggle for reforms with the struggle for revolution. This is the only way in which to build a revolutionary party” (p. 230).

Finally, Breitman outlined the how: “Revolutionaries fight for reforms, but they never stop teaching the masses the truth about the inadequacies of reforms so long as the ruling class is not displaced from power” (p. 232). Furthermore, Breitman explained, “revolutionaries encourage independent mass action and independent mass organization as the only way to win and keep reforms, to deepen consciousness and extend the conditions for continuing social change” (ibid).

The underlying reason for this strategy is also meaningful and timely: “Struggle is the school of the masses. All demands that move the masses into struggle and raise the level of their consciousness are worth raising, fighting for and incorporating into the over-all revolutionary strategy” (p. 237).

Breitman’s conclusions, if absorbed by this generation of activists, would provide an orientation that would strengthen the movement against the U.S.-led war in Iraq and would bring the force of mass discontent to bear against this government.

As a revolutionary socialist, Breitman also had to confront the dilemma of the Democratic Party, a capitalist party supported by unions, workers, and racial minorities. Yet, despite the time and money they give, Breitman points out, “they aren’t the ones who decide the real aims of the party” (p. 211). Instead, he explains, the Democratic Party “is dominated, as the Republican Party is dominated, by a minority of its members—by a small group of monopoly capitalists who also control the economy, the government, the means of communication, and the educational system” (ibid).

But even if Breitman is accurate in claiming that the Democrats are run by a section of the capitalist class, couldn’t the party be influenced and ultimately led by the progressive activists who constitute the majority of its members? Couldn’t the Democratic Party then become the voice of the people, a beacon of hope and struggle?

These familiar questions will be raised anew in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. Most of the left will be urging support for the Democrats in order to “take back the White House.” Breitman’s rejection of that perspective is still essential and timely: “supporting the Democratic Party is at best an exercise in futility for radicals, and one of the causes contributing to their decline” (p. 216).

The reason for this position is simple enough. As Breitman explained, supporting the Democrats means “you have to lie, you have to cover up for the fact that the Democratic Party stands for the cold war, more armaments, little or no help to the unemployed, racial oppression, restrictions on the Bill of Rights, retention of the Taft-Hartley Act, maintenance of the status quo generally” (ibid).

Change “cold war” to “Iraq War” and everything else in Breitman’s analysis—originally delivered as a speech in 1959—remains accurate even now. Because so many of the fundamental elements of class struggle are essentially similar to the time when Breitman wrote and spoke, his ideas maintain their relevance and worth to this day.

George Breitman’s writings deserve a wide audience. His method of thinking, clarity of presentation—and, most importantly, his ideas—are qualities that will not soon go out of date.

“Malcolm X and the Third American Revolution” can be purchased by ordering directly from the Amazon.com website.