On February 21st, 1965, Malcolm X stood up at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem (New York) to speak. He was going to speak against the racial segregation all over the US. He was going to appeal to his brothers and sisters to resist and fight back against the “oppression of the white man” when he was gunned down. More than one or two breathed a sigh of relief at the top of the US establishment. One of the loudest voices against injustice had been lost.
“The future belongs to those who prepare for it today” (Malcolm X)
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. At that time there were around 13 million blacks in America – the majority of them in the Southern States. They were mainly farmers and sharecroppers. In the North the blacks were concentrated in the industrial communities as industrial workers. In the South the Jim Crow laws had established a regime of apartheid, dividing Afro-Americans from the rest of society. The practical consequences of this law meant that black housing was separated from white housing, black kids had to study apart from white kids, and even public toilets were divided.
However, the situation in the North was not much better. The blacks lived apart from the whites in overcrowded ghettos like Harlem in New York or the South Side in Chicago. Racism was also present there. However, the First World War forced the bosses to draw blacks into the industrial workforce. This led many African-Americans to believe that their conditions would improve. But this hope was far from reality. In 1919 the end of the war brought a massive wave of industrial action that shook the United States. The answer of the bosses was to stir up racism and divided the working class by blaming the blacks for the rise in unemployment and by bringing blacks from the South, who were desperate for jobs, to break strikes by white workers in the North.One of the most pernicious laws was the one that barred black workers from joining many important trade unions. This was especially favourable for the American bosses, who spread racist poison amongst white workers. These divide and rule tactics led to the defeat of many workers’ struggles, and prevented the US working class from unifying.
The refusal of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to organise the Afro-American workforce and the pernicious role the bureaucracy played in various strikes helped the bosses to smash the movement of the American proletariat. Revolution and counterrevolution always go alongside one another. In the summer of the same year more than 25 pogroms took place. Racism has always been one of the most useful tools used by the bosses in their divisive tactics, and Malcolm’s family, like most of the black population, was not free from racist violence.
Malcolm’s father was a preacher who followed Marcus Garvey’s ideas on black liberation. At that time many blacks joined organisations that pushed racial pride as a way to resist racist oppression. Marcus Garvey was a champion of the “back to Africa” movement. These ideas had a profound impact on African-Americans. Later, while the national liberation struggles were taking place in Africa during the 1960s, this mystical idea regained popularity.
When Malcolm was four years old his family’s home was set on fire by a racist gang. At the age of six his father was assassinated by the Ku Klux Klan. In this social context it is not difficult to understand why he ran into trouble during his childhood and youth. He spent his teenage years in Boston, Lansing, New Haven, Flint and in New York. There he became involved in petty crime such as illegal gambling, burglary and small scale drug trafficking. Like many blacks he went to the East Coast in the hope of finding a job. Although drawn into the industrial working class the blacks always ended up with the worst jobs, if they were able to find one. In order to survive, many were pushed into petty crime to seek an income. In 1946 Malcolm was arrested on charges of breaking and entering, possession of a firearm, and larceny. He was sentenced to eight to ten years in prison, where he ended up serving six years.
Malcolm Little becomes Malcolm X
In prison he joined the Nation of Islam, also known as the Black Muslim Movement, and adopted the name of Malcolm X. He would end up spending 14 years in this religious group. Within a short space of time he became one of the most prominent figures in the group and became the main spokesperson for its obscure leader, Elijah Muhammad.
The Nation of Islam was a religious sect with the view that in order to achieve salvation the blacks that truly followed Allah had to segregate themselves from white society and create the “Nation of Islam”. The doctrine of the group was one of the most sectarian versions of Black Nationalism. They saw black racism as the best way to tackle the white racism of the establishment. On the economic front they used the same tactics. They counterposed “black capitalism” to “white capitalism”. They asked blacks to “buy black”. As Marx explained, social being determines social consciousness, and the call to “buy black” expressed the frustrations of the tiny layer of the black middle class who owned small shops in the inner cities and ghettos.
The Black Muslims were seeking to create an African-American bourgeoisie to confront the white bourgeoisie. They were never able to see beyond the skin colour of the supremacists and never saw the role played by the white bourgeoisie in society and in production. The bankruptcy of these ideas is today more evident than ever. The establishment of a rather small black elite in the US, represented by Jesse Jackson and co., has not lifted the majority of the Afro-Americans, who still live in the inner cities and ghettos, out of poverty, violence and drugs. This tiny black elite has been used by the US ruling class to undercut the struggle of the black masses and to promote the “Uncle Toms” (the name used by Malcolm X to define the moderate black leaders) who have tied the movement to the liberal wing of the US bourgeoisie – the Democrats.One of the main obstacles to the progress of the black middle class was institutional racism. The limitations of this position are quite obvious. Above all, the ideology and outlook of the black middle class never attacked the foundations of capitalism – the real root of the racial oppression of the Afro-Americans. The group limited their attacks to the limits imposed on black businesses by the white supremacists – limits which impeded their ability to compete in the market and favoured white businesses. In spite of the superficial radicalism of this theory, the reactionary ideas behind it are quite evident. It is not possible for an entire racial group to become businesspeople. This idea of “black businesses” simply favoured a small layer of blacks – the middle class.
The Nation of Islam, like Marcus Garvey, took up the idea of “going back to Africa”. Like in the early 1920s with Marcus Garvey’s UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) this idea attracted a wide layer of Afro-Americans in the US. Leon Trotsky analysed this idea in the 1930s:
“The American Negroes gathered under the banner of the ‘Back to Africa’ movement because it seemed a possible fulfilment of their wish for their own home. They did not want actually to go to Africa. It was the expression of a mystic desire for a home in which they would be free of the domination of the whites, in which they themselves could control their own fate” (On Black Nationalism, Leon Trotsky, International Socialism 43, April/May 1970)
During the years that Malcolm spent in the Nation of Islam the membership figures of this organisation rose dramatically. The Communist Party of the United States of America at that time had been seriously undermined by the McCarthy purges. At the beginning of the 1950s most of the trade unions led by the Communist Party had been expelled from the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organisations). During the 1930s the Communist Party organised a wide range of black workers. However, in the 1950s they actually used the same argument the Democratic Party used. The CP reduced the racial problem in the US to the South and to the Jim Crow laws. The CP utterly failed to provide an alternative to the black masses in the North.
There was no viable vehicle through which the struggle of the blacks could express itself. Friedrich Engels explained that nature abhors a vacuum. This vacuum was filled by different religious sects who used radical speeches against racist oppression. Many black youth, including Malcolm, were attracted to the Black Muslims because it was a movement that denounced white oppression. This had an enormous appeal to Malcolm, who was looking for an explanation for the sufferings of his youth. Despite the fact that he embraced Islam in prison, and stuck with it until his death, his main concern was always the struggle against the oppression of his people. When he split away from the Nation of Islam he gradually placed his religion in a secondary position in relation to his politics. Even when he was with the Nation of Islam he was considered the most political of the Elijah Muhammad ministers. He was also the minister who spent the most time travelling around the country and the world, mixing with other people not related to the movement.
During the 14 years he spent with the Black Muslims he was considered the most brilliant speaker of the group. He went all over the United States as well as Africa and the Middle East speaking against racial oppression in brutal and honest terms. Not in vain did he earn the name of “the angriest man in America”. He rejected the hypocrisy of the moderate black leaders. He did not ask for concessions; he simply demanded what he thought the establishment owed him. He was the most uncompromising figure of the black liberation movement.
“…Good, what the man did is good. But the day is out when you’ll find black people who are going to stand up and applaud the contributions of whites at this late date… Don’t you ever think I would use my energies applauding the sacrifice of an individual white man. No, that sacrifice is too late.”However, his sectarianism (one of the main features of the Nation of Islam) acted as a barrier to reaching more people. In a sequence of Malcolm X (the biographical film directed by Spike Lee) a white female student approaches Malcolm and dares to ask him what she could do for the movement. Malcolm looks down his nose at her and replies, “Nothing!” in a show of contempt. Even when he broke away from the Black Muslims there were remnants of sectarianism in his thought. When he was requested shortly after the split to pay tribute to a white civil rights activist killed by a bulldozer in Cleveland he stated:
“…Good, what the man did is good. But the day is out when you’ll find black people who are going to stand up and applaud the contributions of whites at this late date… Don’t you ever think I would use my energies applauding the sacrifice of an individual white man. No, that sacrifice is too late.”
This sectarianism made it even more difficult for him to set up a genuine and uncompromising but broad movement against racial oppression. During the last months of his life he did try to correct his initial sectarianism but it was too late. The statements he made while a member of the Nation of Islam alienated a large layer of civil rights activists. The bourgeois media later used this to help this process along, further alienating many civil rights activists from Malcolm X.
The split and Malcolm’s ideological evolution
Elijah Muhammad’s group was far from being a political organisation. Nonetheless the Black Muslims filled the vacuum left by the traditional political organisations of the working class. These organisations were not able to provide any alternative to the black masses, especially to the youth. The Nation of Islam had a policy of absolute abstention from politics. On the one hand they never endorsed the Democrats or the Republicans and they criticised the soft leaders of the Civil Rights movement, but on the other hand they were unable to lead the black masses or become a vehicle for the expression of their anger due to their policy of abstention.
At the beginning of the 1960s the Nation of Islam earned fame for “talking tough and doing nothing”. This absurd policy eventually became a straightjacket for Malcolm. In 1962 the Los Angeles police shot seven unarmed Muslims and arrested sixteen others. Malcolm went to Los Angeles to organise the response. When he tried to organise a movement that involved other faith groups he was pulled back by Elijah Muhammad. His attempts to go beyond the group would be one of the elements that helped to produce the split.
The further degeneration of the leadership of the group would also influence Malcolm’s decision to leave the organisation. It was no secret that Elijah Muhammad had had contact with George Lincoln Rockwell – the head of the Nazi Party in the US. In 1963 Elijah Muhammad called on Malcolm to come to his lavish residence in Phoenix where he cynically confirmed to Malcolm the rumours and gossip about his sexual relationships with various teenagers in the Nation of Islam. When he saw that the top leaders of the organisation were not practising what they preached he was profoundly disappointed.
On December 1, 1963, nine days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in a meeting in New York Malcolm X attributed JFK’s death to the climate of hate and violence that the white man had created. He also stated:
“Chickens come home to roost. Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.”
Some authors have pointed to the former statement as the catalyst for Malcolm’s fall out with the Nation of Islam. What is true is that Elijah Muhammad used this particular statement to ban Malcolm from speaking and to keep him silent. This is what triggered the break between Malcolm and the Black Muslims. Dialectical materialism explains that necessity is expressed through accident. Malcolm X was seeking a revolutionary alternative in the Nation of Islam, and when he found no such alternative there, he walked away.
On March 12, 1964 he announced his separation from the Nation of Islam and the foundation of Muslim Mosque Inc. Shortly after he went to Mecca and converted to orthodox Islam. His experience there helped him to broaden his ideas and he started to place religion in a secondary position. With regards to this question he stated:
“No religion will ever make me forget the conditions of our people in this country, (…) No God, no religion, no nothing will make me forget it until it stops, until it’s finished, until it’s eliminated. I want to make that point clear.”
He also realised that Muslim Mosque Inc. would not be enough to gather a mass movement of blacks against racial oppression. With this in mind he launched the Organisation of Afro-American Unity. This new organisation had nothing to do with religion. On the contrary they appealed to Afro-Americans to join regardless of their religious background and called for the creation of a broad-based movement. The founding programme was deeply influenced by the liberation struggles that were taking place in Africa at that time. It took some interesting positions like the adoption of self-defence against racist attacks. This was far more progressive than the non-violent approach sponsored by some moderated black leaders who actually left the movement unprotected in the face of ongoing racist attacks. However, the OAAU was far from being a socialist organisation and their economic policy was reduced to the petty bourgeois ideas of Black Nationalism. The movement also rejected the participation of white people in it. This idea was initially sponsored by Malcolm who said that before achieving unity between whites and blacks the latter had to unite amongst themselves. This idea reduced the fight against racial oppression simply to the victims of racial oppression. At that time the most advanced layer of workers and students sympathised with the struggle against racial oppression but this policy stopped them from joining in the struggle.
It is true that Black Nationalism is a direct consequence of the racist oppression that capitalism implements. Nonetheless, it can be a massive brake on the unity of the oppressed black working class and their white counterparts. The history of the United States is full of examples that show how the influence of these petit bourgeois movements goes down when black workers see the opportunity to fight together with white workers in order to gain something concrete. One such example is the wave of strikes in 1919 when white and black meatpackers paraded together through the black quarter of Chicago.
Malcolm eventually saw the limitations of Black Nationalism as a solution to the racist oppression that capitalism imposed upon the black masses. A month before he was assassinated he recalled in an interview his meeting with the Algerian ambassador in Ghana:
“(…) when I was in Africa in May, in Ghana, I was speaking with the Algerian ambassador who is extremely militant and is a revolutionary in the truest sense of the word (…) when I told him my political, social and economic philosophy was black nationalism, he asked me where did that leave him? Because he was white. He was an African, but he was Algerian, and to all appearances a white man. And I said I define my objective as the victory of black nationalism, where did that leave him? Where does that leave revolutionaries in Morocco, Egypt, Iraq and Mauritania? So he showed me where I was alienating people who were true revolutionaries, dedicated to overthrowing the system of exploitation that exists on this earth by any means necessary.”
He also understood that the rotten nature of capitalism was the cause of racist oppression: “You can’t have capitalism without racism”, he said once in a rally in Harlem. On another occasion, when he was talking about the liberation struggles in Africa, he stated the following:
“You can’t operate a capitalistic system unless you are vulturistic (…) You show me a capitalist, I’ll show you a bloodsucker.”
He went even further than this. The following quote shows that he was moving towards a class position:
“We are living in an era of revolution, and the revolt of the American Negro is part of the rebellion against oppression and colonialism which has characterized this era….It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of Black against white, or as a purely American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.”
These sentences represent some of the most significant changes in his thought. Nevertheless, the evolution in his ideology did not stop there. In a matter of months, if not weeks, he openly rejected all the remnants of sectarianism without watering down his speech whatsoever. He dropped his prejudices on mixed marriages and he recognized the role of women in the black liberation struggle. Malcolm also stated that the OAAU had to work with other organisations regardless of the skin colour of their members because he realised that the important issue was the politics of the fighters against the white supremacists. His position on the two bourgeois parties in the US also evolved. While the Black Muslims simply rejected both the Democrats and Republicans for non-political reasons, Malcolm pointed out that both parties represented the interests of the mainly white ruling class. He fought against the black leaders who tried to tie the civil rights movement to the Democrats. He exposed the “most progressive” wing of the American bourgeoisie as the worst and most treacherous enemies of the oppressed minorities in the US. He pointed out that the Democrats had their origins in the slave owners coming from the Southern states of the US.
He did not reduce his harsh criticisms of the Black Muslims, who were continually trying to jeopardise his efforts to build what he could not do within the framework of the Nation of Islam – a genuine organisation to fight back against the oppression of blacks.
He was also becoming a very dangerous person in the eyes of the US establishment. Had Malcolm X lived longer and been able to refine his ideas, he could have started an uncompromising movement against racial oppression along genuine anti-capitalist lines. That was something that the US capitalist class, who were already witnessing the radicalisation of the black liberation movement, feared above all. Malcolm X became a serious problem not only for the US ruling class but also for the black middle class leaders – amongst them the Nation of Islam – who were always bitterly criticised by him. His confused, though uncompromising ideas, earned him a lot of enemies. This is why he was gunned down at the beginning of a rally in Harlem on February 21, 1965.
Despite the opinion of some so-called Marxist groups in the US and abroad, Malcolm X was not a socialist, and he never claimed to be. As the above quote shows, it is true that he was moving towards an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist position and his initially hostile attitude towards socialist ideas changed. It is also true that he never grasped the role of the working class as the only revolutionary class that could lead the movement to victory. In spite of this he was a revolutionary, although he did not manage to build a genuine revolutionary organisation. As he was tragically assassinated, no one can really say how he would have finally evolved.
What we do know is that he spent a lot of his political activity exposing the treacherous role of the “Uncle Toms” who always sought solutions for the black middle class and who always sold out the movement in exchange for some crumbs. Malcolm understood that the black middle class leaders were there to act as a brake on the movement.
Malcolm X was a man who never hesitated to speak out against the injustice and oppression of the capitalist system. In spite of his limitations, he was one of the most honest and uncompromising fighters of the 20th century.
Originally published, 22nd February 2005 on In Defence of Marxism