This article was written soon after Spike Lee’s 1992 movie Malcolm X inspired renewed interest in him. But this piece could have been written yesterday, as African Americans and their supporters protest the wanton murder of Black and other youth of color by cops around the country, along with persistent legal and economic injustice. As in the ’60s and the ’90s, today’s young militants ask what is the road to liberation? Rejecting the go-slow reformism of many older leaders, they still ask, is it cultural separatism, or revolutionary anti-capitalism? Malcolm’s ideas, and FSP’s complementary theory of Revolutionary Integration, have much to offer.
Spike Lee should win an academy award for Malcolm X, if only because his film exposes the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) responsibility for Malcolm’s assassination.
The NOI still enjoys considerable influence, attracting some of the most rebellious-minded Black youth with its militant race message. And it does so today for the same reason it did so in Malcolm’s time: the vacuum of other radical leadership willing to do battle against increasingly violent racism.
After spending 12 years building the NOI, however, Malcolm X rejected its program of separatism and Black capitalism. When he exposed its reactionary dealings with the Ku Klux Klan and offered an alternative revolutionary internationalist agenda, the Black Muslims and the FBI murdered him.
But in the year before his death on February 21, 1965, this talented and courageous spokesman for the oppressed embarked on a series of amazing journeys. Physically, he traveled to Africa and the Middle East; politically, he arrived at an anti-capitalist perspective that predicted the integration of U.S. Black revolt with worldwide class warfare.
NOI: hypocritical talk shop. It’s no accident that Lee’s film is released now.
In his day, Malcolm exposed the liberal hypocrisy of the Democrats, who, he noted, could wage a merciless war for “democracy” in Vietnam, but couldn’t find their pens to sign a civil rights bill.
Little has changed. Today Uncle Sam bombs Iraq while addressing urban misery at home by hiring more cops. Lee’s movie has faults, like the short shrift and overly spiritual interpretation given to Malcolm’s last years. But Lee’s popularization of Malcolm’s life is inspiring many to explore Malcolm’s positions.
As “X” shows, several things forced Malcolm’s split from the NOI: his discovery that top “prophet” Elijah Muhammad was sexually exploiting young NOI women; his being silenced after stating that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was “a case of the chickens coming home to roost”; and his chafing at the boundaries imposed by NOI’s all-talk, little-action militancy. The movie doesn’t show it, but Malcolm’s exit was also provoked by the NOI’s negotiations with the Ku Klux Klan for land in the South, which Malcolm revealed at a February 15, 1965 meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
NOI ministers liked to rail against “white devils,” but they didn’t want to actually challenge the power elite; Malcolm’s independent thinking was threatening NOI’s comfortable niche.
Crashing separatist limits. NOI’s refusal to organize for concrete changes flowed from its program, which preached moral reform, rebuilding the family, and establishment of a capitalist Black homeland. Furthermore, NOI’s backward cultural nationalist policy (“pork-chop nationalism,” the Black Panthers called it) recycled the class oppression and sexism of profit-based ideology. Thus NOI treated women like domestic slaves, and its projected future included a Black bourgeoisie that would still exploit Black workers.
Cultural nationalism is an understandable reaction to a thoroughly racist society, especially when the mass movement is at an ebb or Black leadership with a more class-conscious program is missing. But by identifying the enemy as whites rather than as the profit system that manufactures white prejudice for its own survival, cultural nationalism deflects rage away from that very system.
Malcolm rejected NOI’s separatism after sojourning abroad. The film portrays this as a spiritual conversion. In fact, Malcolm met revolutionaries in Africa who won him to a broader, internationalist political prospectus.
Malcolm explained, “When I was in Ghana, I was speaking with the Algerian ambassador, who is a revolutionary in the true sense of the word … When I told him that my political, social, and economic philosophy was Black nationalism, he asked me very frankly, where did that leave him? Because he was white … So he showed me where I was alienating people who were true revolutionaries dedicated to overturning the system of exploitation that exists on this earth.”
Once freed from the NOI, Malcolm developed an anti-capitalist position: “All of the countries that are emerging today from under the shackles of colonialism,” he observed, “are turning toward socialism. I don’t think it’s an accident … You can’t have capitalism without racism.”
In his last year, Malcolm formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity, whose motto was “by any means necessary.” He offered OAAU’s support to civil rights militants who were wearying of the reformist-pacifist approach of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In so doing, Malcolm showed how the struggle for integration could acquire a revolutionary character.
Black liberation, class revolt intertwined. Just before Malcolm X turned toward a revolutionary integrationist outlook, a multi-racial group within the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) led by Richard and Clara Fraser was preparing a document that provides the theoretical and historical underpinnings for this position.
They asserted that if Blacks constituted a nation (like Native Americans), they would share a common economy, territory, language, history, and culture distinct from those shared by other groups in the U.S. They concluded that African Americans are not victimized on the basis of national characteristics but as a race — a biologically unscientific category resting solely on skin color. But racial oppression is no less important than national oppression.
In “Revolutionary Integration: The Dialectics of Black Liberation,” the SWP group wrote, “For an oppressed nation to become integrated is a reactionary concession to the status quo, a defeat; integration for Negroes is revolutionary, because American capitalism incorporates segregation in its fundamental structure and cannot survive without it.”
The slogan of nationhood denies the vanguard role that Black women and men play as leaders of the entire U.S. working class.
Revolutionary integration further links the U.S. Black struggle with the global upsurge against imperialism, as did Malcolm. Noted Malcolm: “You can’t separate the African revolution from the mood of the Black man in America. Since Africa has gotten its independence, you’ll notice the stepped-up cry against discrimination in the Black community.”
In 1966, Seattle members of the revolutionary integration tendency left the SWP and formed the Freedom Socialist Party. Their departure was largely due to the SWP’s opportunistic support for cultural nationalism — a reactionary rejection by Marxists of class solidarity in favor of a race solidarity that would subordinate Black workers to a Black bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie.
Hasta la victoria siempre. Malcolm didn’t live to see the explosive mass movements of students, women, all people of color, and lesbians and gays. He missed witnessing the tremendous entry of women, immigrants, and people of color into the work force that has produced a generation of preeminent labor militants, with Black women in the forefront.
But Malcolm’s ideas have never been more alive. His advice to dump the Democrats is finding practical expression in the growing demand for an anti-capitalist rainbow labor party. His slogan “by any means necessary” echoes in rap songs and on ghetto streets. His criticisms of reformist and separatist misleaders who offer dead-end solutions are catching up with politicians such as Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson.
Increasingly, cultural-nationalist politics are being replaced with the drive for equality within a fundamentally transformed society. On African American terms, without racism or forced assimilation, integration is a revolutionary demand, and that is why Blacks are destined to lead us all forward!
To listen to this and other articles from this issue, click here.