• Malcolm X, Black liberation and the road to workers’ power Jack Barnes, Pathfinder Press 2009, £15
This book, by the leader of the US Socialist Workers Party, is a timely analysis of the contribution by Malcolm X to the black liberation struggle in the United States.
Barnes takes us from Malcolm’s early years, including attacks on the family home and eventually the murder of his father by white racists, through his attempts to make a living in Boston from petty crime, to his conversion in prison to the Nation of Islam. From mid-1953 he was a full-time organiser for the Nation and became its most prominent public face, even more so than its leader Elijah Muhammad, who maintained absolute power within the organisation.
Conflict was inevitable as Malcolm came up against the bourgeois limits of the organisation’s programme. ‘The Nation leadership sought to carve out a place for itself within the US capitalist system. Malcolm, to the contrary, was being politically drawn more and more toward the rising struggles for black freedom in the United States and revolutionary battles by the oppressed and exploited the world over’ (p78). In 1960, when Fidel Castro first came to address the UN General Assembly and discovered that Manhattan hotels were refusing to accommodate the Cuban delegation, it was Malcolm who arranged for them to stay at Hotel Theresa in Harlem (p109). Malcolm noted that Castro had come out against lynchings in the US, and was promoting equality for black Cubans. So important was that alliance to the Cubans that on 19 September this year, 50 years after Castro first came to Harlem, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez participated in a commemoration event just yards from where Hotel Theresa used to stand and told the crowd that support from Malcolm and other black leaders in 1960 had ‘forged a lasting bond between Cuban revolutionaries and the African-American progressive people’.
Over time, Malcolm’s disillusionment with Elijah Muhammad’s leadership grew as he struggled to get the Nation to take an active role in the civil rights struggles. But ‘the organisation wouldn’t do that because the stand it would have to take would have been too militant, uncompromising and activist, and the hierarchy had gotten conservative’ (Young Socialist interview, January 1965; Barnes, p46). To make matters worse, Malcolm learned – from Elijah Muhammad himself – that the Nation’s leader was sexually abusing women members. Finally, in November 1963, Elijah Muhammad publicly silenced Malcolm for remarking, after the assassination of John F Kennedy, that ‘the chickens have come home to roost’.
In March 1964, Malcolm announced his break with The Nation and the formation of the Muslim Mosque Inc, which would take a more active role in the civil rights struggle. But he quickly realised that a strictly religious organisation could not lead the mass actions for which it had been formed, and established another, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).
Over the next few months Malcolm embarked on a tour of recently-independent African countries. He had for years been strongly anti-imperialist; now he was also overtly anti-capitalist and pro-socialist, inspired by the examples set by the Cuban revolution and the Algerian government of Ahmed Ben Bela. Previously, as Malcolm told Jack Barnes and Barry Sheppard in the Young Socialist interview, he had considered himself a black nationalist, this being ‘the idea that the black man should control the economy of his community, the politics of his community and so forth’ (p47). Not any longer. ‘If you notice, I haven’t been using the expression for several months’ (p48). Malcolm’s bottom line was simple: whatever his colour, the Algerian Ahmed Ben Bela, like Castro and Che Guevara, was among the true revolutionaries, dedicated to overturning the system of exploitation ‘by any means necessary’ (p47). When asked his opinion of the worldwide struggle between capitalism and socialism, he replied that capitalism was ‘like a vulture…it’s only a matter of time, in my opinion, before it will collapse completely’ (p56).
There is much to support Barnes’ contention that ‘if Malcolm is to be compared with any international figure, the most striking parallel is with Fidel Castro’ (p41). Barnes believes that Malcolm was converging with communism (definitely), specifically with the SWP. I am less convinced of that, although Malcolm maintained good relations with the SWP over his last year, praising its newspaper, The Militant, as ‘one of the best anywhere you go today’ (p34).
But the theory that there was any convergence between Malcolm X and the leadership of the civil rights movement, especially with Martin Luther King, is demolished here. For example, in June 1964, Malcolm sent King a telegram on behalf of the OAAU saying that if the government wouldn’t defend activists who had been beaten by the Klan and arrested for organising civil rights protests, ‘just say the word and we will immediately dispatch some of our brothers there to organise self-defence units’ (p126) – an offer King rejected as a ‘grave error’ and ‘an immoral approach’.
On 15 February 1965, he revealed for the first time why the Nation of Islam had stopped attacking the Klan. As far back as 1960, the Nation’s leadership had been negotiating with the Klan on Elijah Muhammad’s instructions – talks that Malcolm had taken part in, something he was now ashamed of.
By now, Malcolm was receiving constant death threats and on 21 February 1965, he was gunned down as he stood up to address an OAAU rally in New York in an assassination Barnes concludes could equally have been organised by the cops, elements within the Nation – or both (pp147-50).
I would have appreciated more analysis of the Black Panthers, an avowedly Marxist-Leninist organisation which put into action Malcolm’s slogan of black self-defence. But overall this is an excellent introduction to the place of Malcolm X in the struggle for black liberation as part of the socialist revolution in the key citadel of world imperialism – a struggle that has lost nothing in urgency through the installation of a black front man for the capitalist rulers in the White House.