The ‘X’ That Won’t Go Away
[First printed in 1917 West #3 December 1992 http://www.bolshevik.org/1917/West/1917%20West%20%233.html
A phenomenon has swept large parts of the United States. There has been a proliferation of people wearing the letter X, the symbol of Malcolm X, on pants, shoes, shirts, caps, etc. Many celebrities, including Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and even Arsenio Hall have appeared on national television with the X on their baseball caps. Something is definitely going on when Hall, who once shamelessly bragged about having told a friend to “put his Malcolm X tapes away,” now proclaims in an interview with Denzel Washington that people should read the Autobiography of Malcolm X! Many People are wondering if this is just a fad.
While it is true that many people are walking around with the X on their clothing but little of Malcolm’s story or ideas inside their heads, there is evidence that this is more than a fad. Fads generally do not enjoy four or five years of rising popular interest; the increased sales of Malcolm X books and speeches reveal the interest in Malcolm is beyond the visible fashion image. On a recent tour with Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter, Yolanda King, Martin Luther King’s daughter said on national television she was more in agreement with Malcolm X’s philosophy than that of her father.
Why has there been such a resurgence of interest in a man who has been dead for almost twenty-eight years and who was vilified by the bourgeois media during his lifetime? Perhaps the most important reason is the realization by black people that the struggle for liberation in the U.S., which began the slave rebellions of the last century, is not finished. Malcolm, a key figure in the 1960s, made many important statements, observations, and predictions that are still relevant today. For instance his prediction that the mainstream civil rights organizations’ strategy of seeking to integrate black Americans into the existing social order would fail has been powerfully vindicated, and even many of Malcolm’s detractors, like Louis Lomax, have had to concede this.
Although the bourgeois media ignored or slandered Malcolm X during his lifetime, and was much more favorably disposed toward Dr. King because of his preaching of nonviolence and belief in the system, large numbers of black people, for good reason, looked upon Malcolm as an honestly committed man to be respected and revered for his fiery drive for black liberation. Black people know that these qualities are necessary for a successful liberation struggle and, as long as the need to struggle exists, Malcolm X will not fade away.
By being sincere and dedicated to the ordinary black people who comprised his audience, Malcolm X built up a trust with his followers that neither the U.S. government nor his detractors were able to take away. He was a brilliant, eloquent and charismatic man who could break down and communicate his ideas on important issues to his audience. He harnessed these abilities and worked to enhance them. For instance, he learned to speed read, which enabled him to expand his knowledge more quickly. His prison transformation from “Detroit Red,” hustler, to Malcolm X, fiery orator, should be an inspiration to all.
With a burning desire, fearless spirit, and tireless energy he played a major role in building the Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam (NOI—or “Black Muslims”) from about 5,000 members nationwide to 100,000 between 1954 and 1960. Although the Muslims played no significant role in the political and social struggles against racial oppression that were building during this period, their appeal—as a black-separatist self-help organization—lay not in their apolitical religious cultism but rather in their strident denunciation of the racist reality of American society.
Differences With Elijah Muhammad
For most of his time in the NOI Malcolm was a loyal and uncomplaining follower of Elijah Muhammad. After Malcolm had gained considerable notoriety for the NOI through his columns in Harlem’s Amsterdam News and the Los Angeles Herald-Dispatch, he did not object when these columns were appropriated by Elijah Muhammad. Nor did he complain when Muhammad Speaks, which he had started from his own basement in New York, containing mostly his own copy, was taken from him and placed under the administration of John Ali in Chicago.
As the NOI grew, a layer of members centered in Chicago around Elijah Muhammad’s family developed a vested interest in the considerable real estate holdings and commercial enterprises which had been financed by the contributions of the membership. Although the enterprises were owned by the NOI, which was tax-exempt because of its status as a religious organization, it was common knowledge that most of them benefitted Elijah Muhammad’s immediate family and their business partners. At the time of his death Elijah Muhammad had amassed a fortune of $25 million (Emerge, April 1992). Elijah Muhammad and his inner circle felt threatened by Malcolm X and his attempts to politicize their organization.
There was an uproar in the black community of Los Angeles when the cops shot down several unarmed Muslims, killing one and paralyzing another, on 27 April 1962. Malcolm saw this as the moment to “go out there now and do what I’ve been preaching all this time,” which was to organize the NOI with all black people against this barbaric attack. He also had strong support from local churches, community activists, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in what was to be mass protest action. Elijah Muhammad stopped all the protest campaigns. According to Louis Lomax, “Malcolm began to smart under charges from militant blacks that he and his group were all talk and no action” (To Kill a Black Man). The fact that no legal assistance was provided by the NOI to the four Black Muslims that went to prison as a result of this incident made matters worse.
Louis Lomax pointed out that:
“Malcolm was consistently pressing Elijah Muhammad for permission to become involved in demonstrations. Each time Malcolm received a flat and unequivocal ‘No!’ It finally came to the point that Elijah ordered Malcolm not to raise the matter again. Malcolm obeyed.”
Black Nationalism Makes Strange Bedfellows
There was a perverted logic in the NOI’s self-satisfied desire to maintain the status quo. Malcolm X explained that in December 1960:
“I was in the home of Jeremiah, the [NOI] minister in Atlanta, Georgia. I’m ashamed to say it, but I’m going to tell you the truth. I sat at the table myself with the heads of the Ku Klux Klan, who at that time were trying to negotiate with Elijah Muhammad so that they could make available to him a large area of land in Georgia or I think it was South Carolina. They had some very responsible persons in the government who were involved in it and who were willing to go along with it. They wanted to make this land available to him so that his program of separation would sound more feasible to Negroes and therefore lessen the pressure that the integrationists were putting upon the white man. I sat there I negotiated it. I listened to their offer. And I was the one who went back to Chicago and told Elijah Muhammad what they had offered.”
—Malcolm X: The Last Speeches
Malcolm X concluded: “From that day onward the Klan never interfered with the Black Muslim movement in the South.”
This was not the first time that black nationalists, who claimed they were acting on behalf of the persecuted black masses, have made common cause with the most deadly enemies of black people. Marcus Garvey created an uproar in his Universal Negro Improvement Association, when he visited the Ku Klux Klan in June of 1922. In 1985 Louis Farrakhan, Elijah Muhammad’s successor, personally invited Tom Metzger, former grand dragon of the California KKK, to a rally in Los Angeles at which Metzger donated $100 as “a gesture of understanding;” and today in South Africa we witness the grotesque alliance between Gatsha Buthelezi’s Inkatha and the fascist Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB).
How can these black nationalist misleaders justify fraternizing with the avowed enemies of black people? If they really believe all white people are devils, or some equivalent, that means there are no significant political differences between whites, at least as regards blacks. The logic of this is that a marriage of convenience with white fascists is no worse than an alliance with any other whites. White racism, which justifies and advocates systematic oppression, should not be equated with black nationalism, which is a response to that oppression. There is nevertheless a strange symmetry between the objectives of black nationalists, who want a separate black “nation” and white supremacists pushing segregation.
The FBI and Malcolm X
As chief spokesperson for the NOI, Malcolm had attracted the attention of the FBI. He and many others were aware of the FBI’s surveillance of him and the NOI, but few people are aware of the extent of that surveillance (over 3,600 pages)! Clayborne Carson has contributed a useful and informative service to the public by gathering and compressing a selection of documents from Malcolm X’s enormous FBI file.
In a report dated January 10, 1955 the FBI interviewed Malcolm X and asked him if he would defend the U.S. in the event of a foreign attack. Malcolm X declined to answer. He also declined to answer whether of not he considered himself a citizen of the U.S. (Malcolm X—The FBI File). In contrast to the belly-crawling, flag-waving official leadership of the civil rights movement, Malcolm X was no flag-waving patriot of U.S. imperialism.
In a July 2, 1958 account the FBI, which recognized Malcolm X’s desire to play a leading role in the black movement, designated him a key figure in the NOI (Ibid, p 149). Later that year it had noticed that older members of the NOI were fearful of Malcolm’s radicalism. They even went so far to claim in a statement dated November 17, 1960 that Malcolm X was forming a nucleus within the NOI to take it over.
Elijah had declared that any NOI member that participated in the 1963 civil rights march on Washington would be suspended for 90 days. Malcolm went further: he denounced the march as the “farce on Washington,” taking King and other liberal civil rights leaders to task for making sure that the march was a tame event, in no way hostile to the Kennedy administration. When Malcolm responded to the assassination of John F. Kennedy by noting that it was a case of “chickens coming home to roost,” Elijah Muhammad suspended him from the NOI.
Exit From the Nation of Islam
During his time in the NOI Malcolm tried to close his eyes to the contradiction between the need to struggle against racist injustice and the passive acceptance of the status quo preached by Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X, to his credit, finally recognized that if he was going to play a leading role in the black liberation struggle it would have to be outside the NOI.
Initially his break with the Muslims was cloudy. At the March 1964 press conference he called to announce his departure from Elijah Muhammad’s organization he said: “I still believe that Mr. Muhammad’s analysis of the [race] problem is the most realistic, and that his solution is the best one.” He did not go into the reasons that compelled him to leave the NOI, and expressed reluctance at having to make the move. In an interview with Les Crane on December 12, 1964 he said that he didn’t think he would “contribute anything constructive to go into what caused the split.” Far from encouraging other members to follow his example, he explicitly stated: “my advice to all Muslims is that they stay in the Nation of Islam under the spiritual guidance of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. It is not my desire to encourage any of them to follow me,” (Malcolm—The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America, Bruce Perry).
Such statements could only confuse and disorient people who may have looked to Malcolm X for leadership. The rebellious black urban youth who knew of and respected Malcolm X were not about to join any religious sect. They wanted a fighting organization.
But Malcolm X at this time had not developed an understanding of the importance of a clear revolutionary program to attract and organize the most conscious layers of the black liberation movement. This was clearly revealed in his assertion that:
“I for one believe that if you give people a thorough understanding of what confronts them and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own program, and when the people create a program, you get action.”
—Malcolm X: A Man and His Time
Build a Workers Party!
After leaving the Muslims, Malcolm made a pilgrimage to Mecca and toured various newly independent African states. While he was in Africa he commented that:
“The U.S. Peace Corps members are all espionage agents and have a special assignment to perform. They are spies of the American government, missionaries of colonialism and neo-colonialism.”
—Malcolm X: The FBI File
It was statements like this, along with his attempts to enlist the support of African heads of state to denounce the U.S. government in the United Nations for its mistreatment of American blacks, that led to the FBI’s push for the use of the Logan Act to put Malcolm X behind bars—again. Unfortunately, while Malcolm was correct in situating the black struggle in the U.S. in an international context, he also displayed a certain amount of disorientation on this issue. His faith in the UN, which at the time was seeing an influx of black African states, was totally unjustified. It should have been obvious that the UN was dominated by world imperialism and could take no decisive action against the interests of the U.S. ruling class. Likewise he overestimated the ability of the petty-bourgeois leaders of the new African states to influence or oppose U.S. policy. Despite their claims to independence and even “socialism,” these regimes were never really able to escape the control of the imperialist powers.
Probably the most significant result of Malcolm’s trip to Mecca was the recognition that he had been mistaken to assume that all whites were necessarily and automatically evil and racist. This discovery opened the door to redefining the struggle against racist oppression and, potentially, connecting it to struggle against the capitalist system which produces it. In the last year of his life Malcolm paid tribute to the great abolitionist fighter, John Brown, and stated his willingness to ally with whites like him.
Malcolm’s attempts to build a new organization after his break with the Muslims led Louis Farrakhan to threaten that, “Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death.” But it was not just Elijah Muhammad’s followers who wanted Malcolm out of the picture. Once Malcolm was independent of the Muslims and their religious dogma, he was perceived as a much greater potential danger to the status quo.
For all his talents as a thinker and an inspirational orator, Malcolm X left very little in terms of a tangible political legacy. Because he was in political motion at the time of his death, the legacy of Malcolm X has been claimed by everyone from the ex-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party to black conservatives such as Clarence Thomas.
Liberation for black people cannot come about within capitalist society, which needs and breeds racism as a mechanism of exploitation and control. Black capitalism, advocated by the likes of Farrakhan, is no alternative. Religion is a distraction from the struggle for equality. The creation of a society without racism and exploitation requires a force with the social weight to bring it about. No individual, no matter how serious or talented, can act effectively alone. Black nationalism, which can have a certain appeal in times of social reaction, offers no solutions for the oppressed black masses. Blacks in the United States are not a nation, but rather a color caste forcibly segregated at the bottom of this society. Only the working class which, because of its position in capitalist society as the creator of wealth, has both the social weight to overthrow capitalist rule and an objective interest in doing so.
The working class must have its own revolutionary party to accomplish its historic task through linking workers’ struggles to those of other people oppressed by capitalism, including blacks. Such a party must in turn be armed with the correct program, a road map pointing the way forward. As great an individual as V.I. Lenin was, he would not have led the overthrow of capitalism in czarist Russia if he were not part of a mass-based workers party, the Bolshevik Party, with a collective leadership and a program that answered the needs of the masses.
The Bolshevik Tendency, is committed to the task of building such a party, the American section of a reborn Fourth International, the party of world-wide socialist revolution. Our program for black liberation includes calls for a struggle against all manifestations of racism and all racial discrimination; for workers’ defense guards to stop racist violence and to smash the Nazis and Klan; for an end to unemployment through a fight for decent jobs for all; for special worker-run programs to upgrade the positions of women, blacks and other specially oppressed minorities; for open admissions to colleges and universities along with well-funded teacher-student-run programs to guarantee an education to everyone who wants one. As revolutionary socialists we call for a complete break with the Democratic and Republican Parties, the twin parties of capitalism; the expropriation without compensation of basic industry under workers control, and the establishment of a workers state with a democratically planned economy.
We urge all workers, blacks, women, youth and other oppressed peoples inspired by Malcolm X’s heroic fight for black liberation to consider seriously the political program and ideas put forward by the Bolshevik Tendency. Capitalism is in an international depression, and the U.S. economy, which is in a fairly advanced state of decay, is being hit particularly hard. The election of Bill Clinton, the governor of a “right-to-work” state, who interrupted his campaign for the Democratic nomination to preside over the execution of a brain-damaged black man, will not improve the lot of ordinary people in this country, regardless of color. Capitalism has long outlived its usefulness and can only offer oppression, environmental deterioration, racism, sexism, poverty, hunger and, eventually, world war. We are in complete solidarity with Karl Marx who said at the end of the Communist Manifesto, “Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains!”
Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!