File spoon-archives/marxism-international.archive/marxism-international_1997/97-04-21.135, message 57

Date: Sun, 20 Apr 1997 17:56:18 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: M-I: Malcolm X's evolution toward socialism

I heard Malcolm X gave his famous "Bullet or the Ballot" speech at a
meeting sponsored by the Militant newspaper on January 7, 1965 19 days
before my twentieth birthday. I was a senior in college at the time and
was curious about what Malcolm had to say. (As a long time jazz fan, I had
become interested in black issues as well. Many jazz musicians of the
period were starting to articulate nationalist concerns.) In this speech
he started off by tipping his hat to the Militant, the house organ of the
Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. He said, "I always feel that it is an
honor and every time that they open the door for me to do so, I will be
right here. The Militant newspaper is one of the best in New York City. In
fact, it is one of the best anywhere you go today."

Two and a half years later I was in the Socialist Workers Party myself and
selling the newspaper door to door in college dormitories, housing
projects, and at demonstrations. I was proud to be circulating a newspaper
that Malcolm X thought so highly of. Although the Socialist Workers Party
went into a sharp decline in the 1980s and the Militant newspaper is now
unreadable, I still have a strong affinity with Malcolm X and a few fond
memories of the party I joined 30 years ago.

These affinities made re-reading George Breitman's "Last Year of Malcolm
X" a real pleasure. The book recounts Malcolm's political evolution toward
socialism after he broke with the Nation of Islam. SWP leader Breitman was
one of the early champions of Malcolm X even when he was still a Black
Muslim. Breitman had a keen sensitivity to new developments in the class
struggle that did not arrive in the trade union trappings that most party
veterans expected. Nobody had more impeccable working class credentials
than George. He was from a working class family in Newark, New Jersey and
never attended college. He learned his Marxism in the street battles of
the 1930s and not in the sociology department of an Ivy League university.
He was the major party theorist of the new radicalization of the 1960s and
urged the party to open its doors wide open to the student, antiwar, black
and feminist movements. 

Throughout most of the 1970s, he was the head of Pathfinder Press in NY
and oversaw the publication of the Collected Writings of Leon Trotsky. He
came to work each day even though he was hobbled by an extreme case of
rheumatoid arthritis that made it nearly impossible to hold a pen in his
hands. When the SWP dumped Trotskyism in 1983, they dumped Breitman and a
number of other veteran party members as well. It saddened me to see them
kicked out the door, even though I had no confidence in their project to
start a new Trotskyist party free of the mistakes of the past. They simply
didn't understand that the decline of the SWP was a function of the
underlying methodology and not a faulty application.

As Alan Wald said at the recent Socialist Scholars Conference, the best
way to understand the SWP is as one of the expressions of an attempt to
build the revolutionary party in the USA. It should neither be rejected in
its totality, nor accepted uncritically. There are positive things to
learn from its history, just as there are positive things to be learned
>from the Debs Socialist Party or the CPUSA's grass-roots struggles for
industrial unions or civil rights. George's widow, Dotty Breitman, was in
the audience at the reception for Alan's new book (co-authored with Paul
LeBlanc) on American Trotskyism and berated Alan for being "just an
intellectual" and not understanding the need for a
"Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist" party. Old faiths die hard.

One of the positive aspects of the SWP certainly is its correct
understanding of the black nationalism of Malcolm X. Black nationalism is
more or less a permanent feature of American politics and it is important
for Marxists to try to theorize clearly about it. George Breitman will be
remembered as somebody who went further than anybody, except CLR James, to
come to terms with black nationalism.

In the first chapter of "The Last Year of Malcolm X", Breitman presents an
even-handed assessment of the Nation of Islam. At the very least what this
obscurantist sect did was rescue Malcolm X from the dregs of the gangster
world. In his autobiography, Malcolm X said that without the NOI, he would
have ended up as an "old fading Detroit Red, hustling, stealing enough for
food and narcotics, and myself being stalked as prey by cruelly ambitious
younger hustlers such as Detroit Red had been."

Breitman points out that Malcolm was always stretching the boundaries of
the NOI. He was an innovator who tried as hard as he could to turn the
religious, self-help sect into a black activist formation. James X, the
successor to Malcolm in the NY Mosque, complained that "it was Malcolm who
injected the political concept of 'black nationalism' into the Black
Muslim movement, which they said was essentially religious in nature when
Malcolm became a member."

There were constant tensions between Malcolm and the NOI chiefs. Finally
they came out in the open when Malcolm described the assassination of John
F. Kennedy as a case of the "chickens coming home to roost". The white
press went on a crusade against him for this bluntly truthful observation
and the NOI suspended him. They were tired of his clashes with the
ruling-class. They also made conditions for his readmission so onerous
that he decided to split once and for all.

On March 8, 1964 he made a public statement that the Black Muslim movement
"had 'gone as far as it can' because it was too narrowly sectarian and too
inhibited." He elaborated on what kind of movement was necessary: "I am
prepared," Malcolm said, "to cooperate in local civil rights actions in
the South and elsewhere and shall do so because every campaign for
specific objectives can only heighten the political consciousness of the
Negroes and intensify their identification against white society."

After Malcolm left the NOI, he began to make statements that showed a new
understanding of the relationship of black nationalism to the larger
struggle. One of the influences on his thinking was the type of
internationalism and political radicalism that he witnessed firsthand in
his travels through Africa and the Middle East in 1964. This period is not
accurately reflected in Spike Lee's abysmal movie based on Malcolm's
autobiography, which turns it into a spiritual quest climaxed with a trip
to Mecca. Malcolm's real growth in this period is political rather than
spiritual, as reflected to his remarks to a Militant Labor Forum on May
29, 1965: 

"They say travel broadens your scope, and recently I've had an opportunity
to do a lot of it in the Middle East and Africa. While I was traveling I
noticed that most of the countries that have recently emerged into
independence have turned away from the so-called capitalist system in the
direction of socialism. So out of curiosity, I can't resist the temptation
to do a little investigating wherever that particular philosophy happens
to in existence or an attempt is being made to bring it into existence."

After Malcolm split from the NOI, he began to address the question of
alliances. The narrow black nationalism of the religious sect did not even
begin to consider the question of how 10 or 11 million black Americans can
be part of a larger struggle for liberation. Mostly it preached for a
return to Africa, or concentrated on small business enterprises like
selling bean pies. Malcolm's interest in politics rather than small scale
self-help projects first of all led him to the idea of linking the black
struggle in the United States to the struggles of colored peoples around
the world. He declared that Africans, Arabs, Asians and Latin Americans
all had a common enemy: the "international power structure." His
internationalism was of the sort that is expressed most frequently by the
Zapatista movement today. Malcolm considered having the United States
indicted for racism before the United Nations. He believed that this
measure would have had tremendous propaganda value.

The question of alliances with American whites was much more problematic.
At the March 12, 1964 press conference to announce his new organization,
the Organization for Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X said:

"Whites can help us, but they can't join us. There can be no black-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 with ourselves."

Malcolm was pro-socialist in the last year of his life, but not really a
Marxist. He lacked a class understanding of American society that would
allow him to see on at least a theoretical level how white workers could
become allies in a fight against capitalist rule. He was much more
articulate about the need to establish ties with "white militants". These
people, who had broken with liberalism, would be trusted allies in the
fight against racism, such as the students who participated courageously
in the civil rights movement. Malcolm did not live long enough to see a
mobilized working class, such as the French working class of 1968 or the
Italian working class of 1969-1970. It is entirely possible that his
political evolution would have made him more and more open to a Marxist

There were various efforts to make the logical transition from Malcolm's
turn toward socialism to a full-blown Marxist position on the question. 
Foremost among these were the black leaders of the Socialist Workers Party
such as Derrick Morrison and Tony Thomas who wrote extensively about these
questions. Both Morrison and Thomas left the SWP during the "workerist" 
binge of the 1980s. From all appearances, the SWP's interest in the black
struggle and all other popular struggles has been replaced by a
preoccupation with the trade union movement which they pronounced would
subsume all other struggles in its glorious march toward a final showdown
with the capitalist class. The showdown was supposed to occur in the late
1980s, then got postponed to the early 1990s. Somebody must have thrown a
glass of cold water in the face of the party chief since nowadays he
speaks of nothing but "propagandistic interventions." Translated into
ordinary English, this means selling Pathfinder literature to factory

It was left to other people to try to apply a Marxist understanding of the
black struggle of the 1980s and 1990s. One of them is Manning Marable, a
co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence, a group I was involved with
briefly, and a faculty member at Columbia University. Others with ideas
worth considering are Angela Davis, also of the CofC, and Gerald Horne, a
heterodox member of the Communist Party.

In my final post, I will try to come up with some answers about what has
happened to black nationalism and to the black struggle in general. There
are a number of trends that are worth considering, from the Rainbow
Coalition to the rise of Louis Farrakhan. Affirmative action, Ebonics,
genes and IQ, gangster rap, etc. seem to be the stuff of black politics
nowadays. What do issues like these have to do with the rather lofty views
of Lenin, Trotsky and CLR James? Perhaps everything. We have a tendency to
put a halo around struggles of the past, including struggles for
self-determination. More balance is always needed, especially in the
period we find ourselves in which can make pessimists out of the best of

Louis Proyect

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