Malcolm X: An unyielding revolutionary
By Esteban Morales
July 16, 2007
Cubanow.- In September 1960, Malcolm X became one of those world personalities linked to the Cuban Revolution, not only for his revolutionary position, and his unyielding solidarity with Cuba, but also by being linked very early with the top leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, at the Theresa Hotel, in Harlem, New York.
Forty-two years has passed since February 21st, 1965, when one of the brightest and most rational leaders of the 20th century was murdered.
He was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 25th, 1925 and christened as Malcolm Little. His father was a Baptist pastor; follower of Marcus Garvey’s ideals, and his mother was born on the Caribbean island of Grenada.
He adopted his Muslim name, Hajj Malik El Shabazz, after his pilgrimage to Mecca but was known worldwide as Malcolm X.
His social struggle was extremely intense and hard; by different and unconventional ways for his times, he reached a theoretical conception and a strategy for the struggle of Black North Americans, thus emerging as a leader in the world struggle against imperialism.
Malcolm X lived in Boston and New York, where he was arrested after having participated in larceny, drugs, gambling, and other misdemeanors. He was imprisoned in a Massachusetts jail until 1952.
During his prison stay he joined the Muslim organization, Nation of Islam, and it was then he took the name by which he became universally known: Malcolm X.
Prison had a positive influence on his youthful personality, a process in which his activist Muslim comrades helped him. Released, still only 27, he decided to change the erratic course of his previous life.
One year after being released he was appointed a Minister of the Nation of Islam organization.
By that time, the clearest idea of the meaning of religion for Malcolm X, in the context of his political ideas, was eloquently expressed in the following: “If I must accept a religion which doesn’t let me fight for my people, to hell with it” (See: Malcolm X Speaks: speeches, interviews and statements. Pathfinder Press, United States, 2002, p. 114, source of quotations used in this essay which are, however, retranslated from the Spanish.)
In 1963, Malcolm X lived through a very hard period in his political life, when he had to make the decision to leave the Nation of Islam, the organization to which he owed so much and that had so heavily influenced his initial training.
He made such a decision when he realized, from a private conversation, that its head and spiritual father, Elijah Muhammad, whom he had faithfully followed, exhibited morally inadequate personal behaviour. For his part, he reached the deep conviction that inside the organization the role of leaders was only to look after the interests, frequently spurious, of its top leader and besides, he had experienced its total lack of interest for political activity among North American Black people.
In fact, the Nation of Islam was not consistent with the principles it preached, in the midst of its top leader’s abuse of power and authority. This continually involved the organization’s hierarchy in covering up shameful actions to its economic benefit, coordinated through the KKK and other racist and fascist-like organizations.
From the moment Malcolm X left the organization, over such compromising reasons, he became a danger, both for the organization’s leadership as well as for the organization itself.
In fact, the Nation of Islam, with its bourgeois nationalist tendency and a leadership continually engaged in and committed to attaining space within the economy of the US capitalist system, was quite the opposite of what Malcolm X expected from any organization seeking to struggle for Black liberation.
Malcolm X intended to overcome such mentioned faults when he founded his two organizations: the Afro-American Unity Organization (AAUO), initiated in New York, in 1964, and what was called the Muslim Mosque, shortly afterwards. His intention was to cover both the religious and political concerns of black communities.
Malcolm X has frequently been labelled racist and violent. Many of those who don’t know him, or those who know him very well, especially these last, try to slander him, by comparing him with Martin Luther King; considering Malcolm the “red” demon, and King the “black” angel. A Manichean position widely used to introduce much confusion in understanding the real role of both personalities and their place within the Black struggle.
Malcolm X did not judge anyone by the color of their skin. Even when he spoke about Blacks, many times he was referring to non-white people (saying: “Blacks”, “Browns”, “Yellows” “Reds”, etc) to give a comprehensive view of the problem of white colonization of these peoples, in some ways slaves in their own land; like the North American Black, he never got tired of repeating, they didn’t arrive on the Mayflower. These concepts allowed him to expose the common enemy and forge the alliance and solidarity which has to exist between all the exploited of the world, Afro-Americans, Chinese, Indians, Latin Americans, etc.
This concept set him apart from either from the black or white racism affecting so many organizations at that time, and brought him closer to a true concept of what the struggle against any sort of racism and discrimination should be, including discrimination against women, an aspect to which he also paid attention.
Although Malcolm X did not worship violence, he was always against Blacks being called upon to be peaceful, when the most ruthless violence was used openly and continually against them. So he said about this: “ I myself would accept non-violence if it were consistent, if it were intelligent, if everyone were non-violent, if we were always non-violent. But I’m never going to accept… any sort of non-violence, unless the whole world is non-violent”. (op cit. p. 142). Undoubtedly, one would be a fool to agree to be non-violent within a society overwhelmed by all sorts of violence against its Black and non-white populations, as North American society is even today, to try to inculcate an ethic which neither the police, nor the courts, and not even the government itself, put into practice in the United States of America.
He did not support violence, but he deeply understood that it was unavoidable, to the extent that its origin came from the marked intention of keeping Black people exploited at any cost, permanently condemning them to being second and third rate citizens in their own land. All the mechanisms, authorities and instruments of the North American political system collaborated towards this aim.
So Malcolm X was neither racist nor violent. It’s North American society that day after day is more and more racist and violent. Despite that, it can’t be said that the Civil Rights struggle made no progress at all.
From the beginning, Malcolm X was linked not only to the personal consequences of the Black struggle in the United States, but he also paid careful attention to the struggle of other oppressed peoples inside the U.S. and at world level. With his travels basically through Asia and Africa, he kept on enriching this perspective.
That’s to say, Malcolm X, from his origins as a revolutionary leader, also put forward in his training the strong internationalist component which always characterized him. So within his thought as well as his political action, the Black struggle in the United States was only part of the whole revolutionary endeavour of the liberation struggle at world level.
Even more, Malcolm X did not consider himself North American, but a victim of North Americanism. In 1964, he said in Cleveland, Ohio, “I speak as victim of this North American system and I see the United Sates through the victim’s eyes. I don’t see an American dream. I see an American nightmare”.
For Malcolm X, the North American system was a rotten, corrupt, exploiting one, which enlisted Blacks in the economic and political mechanisms of exploitation, discrimination and moral degradation.
He never used the expression “Our Government” nor spoke about “Our Armed Forces”, rather expressed himself “Don’t deal with Uncle Sam as if he were your friend... if he were your friend you wouldn’t be a second-rate citizen... we have no friends in Washington”.
Such starting points to qualify North American society make it very clear that North American Black people are really a people exploited and discriminated against within their own country, because the white people have appropriated it, leaving the immense majority of North American Blacks in a situation similar to Third World exploited peoples. Such terms also served to make him an extremely “dangerous” person, continually persecuted by the North American Special Services, until his assassination on February 21st, 1965.
With the introduction of “Black Capitalism” during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, and the demands achieved, as a result of the Civil Rights struggle, the situation would change; improvements in recognition of economic, social and political rights for Blacks arrived. The Civil Rights struggle hadn’t been in vain but the changes that took place were limited, within a capitalist and essentially racist society.
With Blacks enlisting in capitalist dynamics and using “Affirmative Action”, a new context emerged, inside of which a Black upper middle class, subordinate to the white oligarchy, became a paradigm for the huge majority of Black people. And the huge majority of Black people would follow that “carrot on the stick”, and the final result is that currently from 5% to 7 % (no more) of Black people enjoy a subordinate class position, exploiting Blacks themselves and also enjoying privileges of the system. Meanwhile, more than 90% of that population remain under the same conditions of exploitation and discrimination that haven’t substantially changed today.
In Malcolm X’s speeches, interviews and statements, it’s quite clear that he didn’t share the strategy of the Civil Rights struggle. He considered this kind of struggle was not the correct one. But, did this mean that Martin Luther King wasn’t right? In reality, it’s a very hard question to answer. So we prefer to focus on the drawbacks that both forms of struggle presented and the problems stemming from the national and international context in which such battles had to be fought.
Undoubtedly, Malcolm X was a more radical leader with a broader vision than King; but based only on this is it possible to affirm that the former was right? Not always in politics does radicalism equal the triumph of the strategy for struggle based on it. Neither, if a strategy for struggle failed, does it mean it was wrong. There are too many circumstances converging in a process of political struggle to be able to arrive at conclusions so easily.
Notwithstanding, the truth is that both strategies of struggle had their drawbacks.
What were those strategies? We’ll look briefly.
• For Martin Luther King, the Black struggle should have concentrated on claiming from North American society the civil rights corresponding to being part of the North American nation. Among these rights, as the fundamental one: to be treated as equals. This struggle was understood as strictly within U.S. territory, although not excluding the possibility of receiving international solidarity even though the form of struggle didn’t facilitate it. The method of struggle should be completely peaceful.
• For Malcolm X, the Black struggle didn’t exclude claiming their civil rights, but it should basically be concentrated on strengthening their communities, their political and religious organizations, in order to demand the rightful place of Blacks within North American society. This struggle was focused on the basis of what Malcolm called “Black Nationalism”; that is, considering Black people as a subjugated nation within its own country and the existing capitalist system as its enemy. Because of this, his struggle was part of the struggle of all the exploited of the world. The struggle should be peaceful, but not exclude the use of violence, if imposed by the exploiters.
Malcolm X considered that the United States, as well as Black people, had a very serious problem: Blacks were undesirable and the tendency was to treat them as second and third class citizens.
For Malcolm X, neither the Democratic or Republican parties represented an alternative in the search for support for the struggle within North American society.
The foregoing was expressed as: “...Every time you see yourself in the mirror, whether you’re black, brown, red or yellow, you’re seeing a person who’s a serious problem for the United States, because they do not want you here”.
So for him all these people should unite. But not only within the United States, rather with all their kind all over the world, and raise a great movement of vindication that he called “Black Revolution”.
This revolution had a common enemy. This enemy was the white colonizer, always European: Spaniards in America, British in Africa, French, Belgians, Portuguese, Germans; all whites, who had moved all over the world with their colonial enterprises, exploiting all the American, Asian and African peoples. These were the imperialist colonizers who did the same to everybody, including North American Blacks, those who didn’t arrive on the Mayflower, but on slave ships.
Conceiving of the North American Black population as it really was: a mass that hadn’t overcome its condition of slavery, unequally exploited in relation to the rest of the population, white workers, and discriminated against in the context of social life, Malcolm X was able to reach another very important conclusion: in reality it was a people suffering under a situation that didn’t differ at all from that of the exploited in the Third World, in Asia, Africa and Latin America, only that for North American Blacks this was happening shamefully inside the richest society of the world capitalist system, and of the whole known social universe.
At the same time, Malcolm X takes on pointing out the strong link existing between Blacks in the U.S. and Blacks in Africa, the continent from which the slaves were brought to North America. This underlined a close relationship between the ways the Blacks in Africa and in the United States were treated.
Because of this, according to Malcolm X, civil rights weren’t an adequate or real platform for the struggle of U.S. Blacks to win their demands, since they were limited to the national plane. This implied that the natural allies of North American Blacks stayed on the margins; something very convenient for the North American white exploiting elites.
Because of this, Malcolm X considered that the struggle of North American Blacks should be focused on the basis of human rights, because these had a more universal character, as well as the advantage of connecting the United States Black struggle with that of all the exploited at the world level. Thus it also offered a platform that permitted projecting internal battles into the debates on international stages like the United Nations Organization. While Civil Rights confined the struggle to the national plane, that is, inside the framework of North American sovereignty, reducing everything to an internal scenario where the North American oligarchy could get out of an international debate on exploitation and discrimination, besides controlling and limiting it to a purely domestic question. Like the Democratic Party always tried to do.
Such political clarity in Malcolm X’s approach concerning the framework in which to develop the Black struggle raised it to the stage of the anti-imperialist struggle, because it was solidly linked to the struggle of all the world’s exploited peoples, as well as to the complex aspect of understanding the existence of a common enemy, only differentiated by the different national masks it wears..
This was also to take the struggle to the level of necessary international solidarity between those directly exploited by their native oligarchies, which are nothing but subordinate classes of the international-trans-national oligarchy, inside of which the U.S. bourgeois monopoly class is the most powerful, best articulated and connected at world level. From this perspective, the exploitation and discrimination suffered by Blacks in the United States comes as an indirect result of U.S. imperialist action.
As well, such an approach offered the objective, practical and theoretical basis that allowed responding to the essence of a struggle that, all in all, must be global, although it takes place at a national level.
These ideas convert Malcolm X into a world leader of the anti-imperialist struggle. So he can’t be labelled only a leader of North American Black people. The truth is Malcolm perceived very early that keeping the Black struggle within the Civil Rights framework could only benefit North American white exploiting elites, who had early devised and put into practice a model of assimilation of the Black struggle into the dynamics of U.S. capitalism. Just as they’re doing now, faced with the reality that Hispanics are becoming the largest minority in North America.
These reasons allow us to affirm as well that the demands achieved by Blacks, as a result of their struggle for civil rights - neither few, nor unimportant – can’t be deeply understood if they’re not also seen as the high price the white elite was forced to pay in order to “calm down” Blacks and succeed in involving them in the economic and political machinery of capitalism in the United States.
When analyzing the matter of current poverty within that society we see clear evidence that the Civil Rights struggle did not mean a significant, essential change in the situation of Blacks in the U.S.
The United States is the richest society in the world, although the one having the most concentration of wealth and, as a consequence, the worst distribution.
Thus, the wealthiest 10% of the North American population owns 81.8% of real estate wealth, 81.2% of stock shares, and 88.0% of bonds. (Legt Business Observer, No. 72,,USA, April 1996, p.5 ).
But the situation becomes even worse when we know that only 1% of the U.S. population owns 60% of the shares and 40% of the total wealth. (The Ecology of Commerce, New York, Harper Business, 1993 ).
Then let’s look at some considerations, more particularly and closely related to the topic of “race”.
More than in any other developed capitalist society, poverty in the United States is clearly identified with a power structure, supported by various pillars of social, cultural and racial stratification formed from colonial times up to the definitive establishment of capitalism within North American society, and that have not been able to be overcome. In North American society there is a social structure in which, in general terms, “race”, class, social status and level of poverty are structurally linked:
Theoretically, it is possible for everyone to rise up the social scale, but, in practice, belonging to an ethnic group tends to equal social class.
We don’t want to expand on this, but there are statistics showing that beyond the problems of employment, health and education, other indicators going from levels of access to education, health, home ownership and justice enforcement, just to mention a few, work completely against the great mass of North American Blacks.
More recently, George Bush’s (son) administration has given eloquent examples of the measure in which the black population might be among its priorities. Just to mention three aspects:
• The total oblivion for the racial program, “Only One America for the 21st Century”, launched by William Clinton:
• Hurricane Katrina, that mainly devastated New Orleans, has left an insurmountable mark amid the lack of attention paid by the Bush administration.
• The Katrina tragedy, the most dramatic event lived by North American society in the latest 60 years, is not even mentioned in the 2006 State of the Nation Report.
The fact that Malcolm X’s strategy was crushed by his assassination has had disastrous consequences for Blacks in the U.S. The opportunity was lost, and today there are not Black leaders able to change the situation. The Black population has been definitely absorbed by the dynamics of capitalism, and there exists very little or almost nothing allowing a return to Malcolm X’s clear idea that the North American Black population could strengthen itself as an integrated community, to struggle for its place within North American society, achieving something more than being absorbed and becoming an instrument for “Black capitalism”, fragmented by the crumbs of social participation that Blacks have achieved through “Affirmative Action”, itself strongly questioned in recent years under attack as “reverse racism”.
Blacks have lost their strength as community; they have been used as one more sector dancing to the rhythm of music played and directed by the white trans-national oligarchy. Their only chance now would be to join a context of struggle, where many are unaware of the specific aspects of the structural inferiority Blacks are kept in within U.S. capitalist society.
Inside a society with a political system hegemonically ruled by two parties, fragmented trade unions, and left parties without real possibilities of taking part in the electoral game, Blacks, as a social sector, in the huge majority, have no chance to increase their place within the North American social structure.
Malcolm X’s assassination was the result of a group of situations acting as a system, to eliminate a person who had become a real danger for the ruling white oligarchy’s interests from public life in North American society. The specific reasons justifying his physical liquidation are linked to the following aspects:
• Only 42 when he was murdered, he had become an unquestionable Black leader, both in the United States as well as at world level.
• His “black nationalism” strategy constituted a platform which independently mobilized the North American Black community, relying on their own forces, and not letting themselves be towed by capitalism dynamics.
• The international approach and solidarity with the revolutionary movement in Asia, Africa and Latin America, which stamped the strategy, made North American Black people a working unit in the anti-imperialist struggle at world level.
• He had broken with the Nation of Islam - not only over political, but ethical disagreements, which seriously affected the action and leadership of that organization. Then he founded organizations that turned out to be very efficient in the objectives they pursued: the Muslim Mosque and the OAAU, which represented a competition weighing heavily against the Nation of Islam.
• He advocated that the United States should be understood as a corrupt, exploiting, immoral society, which maintained an economic and political system that always ranked Black people as second and third rate citizens.
The truth is that Malcolm X was a much more dangerous leader than Martin Luther King. The latter, despite his honesty, his true dedication to the Civil Rights cause and his desire to benefit Blacks, had remained enrolled in the mechanics of the system, and in the end became exploited by purposes that weren’t those that had originally inspired him, although this didn’t save his life. Martin Luther King was a person too honest to betray his ideals, he was a honest and unyielding fighter for his people’s rights, but he wasn’t a revolutionary leader as such.
The 1954 Bandung Conference and the founding of the OAU (Organization of African Unity), the latter without doubt the most prestigious international organization of the African continent, strongly inspired Malcolm X.
But, as Malcolm X expressed, the most important thing is “…the motto of Afro-American Unity is by any means necessary. We don’t believe in fighting a battle in which... our oppressors are going to make the rules. We don’t believe we can win a battle where those who exploit us dictate the rules. We don’t believe we can keep on struggling trying to win the affection of those who have been oppressing and exploiting us for so long.” (p. 200).
From being almost non citizens, because Blacks had no right to vote, were not admitted to universities, they couldn’t join the Army, they were scarcely hired in industry, they moved forward to second rate citizens.
As a result of all this, the truth is today there is not a Black movement in the United States even similar to that of the 1960’s. Neither does there exist a Black political leadership able to attract Blacks nationwide to a broad struggle for their demands. Almost all the current black leaders are cogs in the North American political system.
Notwithstanding, other considerations aside, the plain true is that Malcolm X, both by his political clarity and his theoretical consistence, as well as for the justice of his actions and aspirations, more than as a leader of the Black struggle in the United States, has been acknowledged as one of the strategists of the revolutionary struggle against imperialism at the world level. So his ideas and the battles he fought are still a considerable source of experience for the Black struggle in the United States, and for all the world’s exploited peoples.
Esteban Morales Domínguez, Dr. of Sciences
Centro de Estudios sobre los Estados Unidos (CESEU) Centre of Studies of the United States of America (CESEU)
University of Havana. July 16, 2007