Workers Vanguard No. 1063
6 March 2015
From the Archives of Young Spartacus
Malcolm X: Courageous Fighter for Black Liberation
February 21 marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. We honor Malcolm for his intransigent fight for black freedom, which inspired young militants for years to come. Imprisoned as a petty street hustler in 1946, Malcolm converted to the Nation of Islam (NOI) behind bars and after his release in 1952 became its most visible and effective spokesman. The NOI under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad had been a small sect combining religious superstition and black separatism. It was Malcolm’s eloquence in giving voice to the suffering black masses and his denunciations of the sellout liberal civil rights leaders that propelled the NOI into national prominence. He was also an anti-colonialist as he understood it, drawing inspiration from struggles against Western rule in Africa and Asia.
Despite its verbal militancy, the NOI stood aside from the struggle for civil rights. For Malcolm, who deeply believed its religious ideology, the NOI’s abstention increasingly collided with his passionate commitment to fighting white supremacy, racial injustice and hypocrisy. Malcolm was suspended from speaking in public and then purged from the NOI after famously declaring that the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy was a case of the “chickens coming home to roost.” Malcolm was relentlessly denounced by NOI leaders, including his former protégé, Louis X (today the reactionary demagogue Louis Farrakhan), who proclaimed Malcolm “worthy of death.”
Following his break with the NOI, Malcolm lived barely a year before his murder. Much of this time was spent abroad, including a pilgrimage to Mecca. Although he founded two organizations in rapid succession—Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity—they had no real program beyond the eclectic views expressed in his speeches. Our obituary of Malcolm, written by a founding member of the Spartacist tendency, noted:
“When you heard Malcolm speak, even when you heard him say things that were wrong and confusing, you wanted to believe. Malcolm could move men deeply. He was the stuff of which mass leaders are made. Commencing his public life in the context of the apolitical, irrational religiosity and racial mysticism of the Muslim movement, his break toward politicalness and rationality was slow, painful, and terribly incomplete.”
We reprint below excerpts of our article “Malcolm X: Courageous Fighter for Black Liberation,” which first appeared in Young Spartacus Nos. 115 and 116 (February and March 1984) and was reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 2.
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“Malcolm was our manhood, our living black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves....”
—Ossie Davis, 27 February 1965
Nineteen years ago the most admired and respected, the most hated and feared black man of his generation was assassinated while speaking at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. Lenin once observed that while a revolutionist is alive and fighting, the oppressor class persecutes him, hounds him, vilifies him, circulates the most vile slanders about him. But after he’s dead sometimes an effort is made to co-opt his memory, to portray him as a well-meaning, if misguided, do-gooder. The same people who savagely attacked him when alive now mourn him as a “great loss to the movement.” Something like this has happened to Malcolm X.
The white rulers of this country hated Malcolm X and responded with undisguised malicious glee to his violent death. The director of the official United States Information Agency, Carl Rowan (who is black) dismissed Malcolm X contemptuously as “an ex-convict, ex-dope peddler who became a racial fanatic.” The obituary editorial in the liberal New York Times (22 February 1965) vilified him as “an extraordinary and twisted man, turning many true gifts to evil purpose”:
“...his ruthless and fanatical belief in violence not only set him apart from the responsible leaders of the civil rights movement and the overwhelming majority of Negroes. It also marked him for notoriety, and for a violent end.”
In other words, they think he got what he deserved.
The “responsible” civil rights leaders, needless to say, fed into the ruling class hysteria against Malcolm and the Black Muslims. Martin Luther King declared their views “bordered on a new kind of race hatred and an unconscious advocacy of violence.” Malcolm returned the compliment, denouncing King as a “twentieth-century Uncle Tom” whose “primary concern is defending the white man.”
Now and for some time past, however, an effort has been made to identify Malcolm with the “respectable” black leaders whom he despised. One of the most despicable of the whole lot is Bayard Rustin, the kind of “socialist” who’s apt to be funded by the CIA. In 1963 Rustin was chief organizer for the March on Washington, which Malcolm dubbed “the farce on Washington.” Yet not long after Malcolm was killed Rustin claimed, “Malcolm was moving toward the mainstream of the civil rights movement when his life was cut short” (Down the Line ). Corpses can’t protest. Rustin’s line has been taken up by other reformist fakers. At the rally last August 27 (actually a pray-in for the Democratic Party) to commemorate the 1963 March on Washington, Sam Marcy’s Workers World Party carried a banner depicting King and Malcolm together. And Jack Barnes’ Socialist Workers Party ran speeches by Malcolm and MLK in the Militant, but not Malcolm’s scathing attack on the ’63 March and King’s rose-colored “dreams.” Today the name of Malcolm X is being prostituted in the service of Democratic Party liberalism, which the real Malcolm X fought to the end with all the force of his extraordinary personality.
At a critical moment in contemporary American history Malcolm X was the voice of black militancy. His importance and appeal lay, in particular, in his intransigent opposition to the “white man’s puppet Negro ‘leaders’,” as he called them. Martin Luther King told the world that black people loved the white oppressor and would answer the racists’ bombings and beatings with Christian forgiveness. He hoped in this way to shame the Northern white liberal establishment into moving against Southern Jim Crow by demonstrating the moral superiority of black people to the KKK killers and their confederates like George Wallace and Bull Connor. The idea that blacks had to prove to the “good white massa” that they were peaceable folk and god-fearing Christians enraged Malcolm to the depths of his being. It was degrading. Like the sheep reminding the wolf when it’s time for dinner. Malcolm X cut through the sanctimonious claptrap and foot-shuffling hypocrisy of the “respectable” black leaders like a sharp knife going through a tub of butter:
“Just as Uncle Tom, back during slavery, used to keep Negroes from resisting the bloodhound or resisting the Ku Klux Klan by teaching them to love their enemies or pray for those who use them spitefully, today Martin Luther King is just a twentieth-century or modern Uncle Tom, or religious Uncle Tom, who is doing the same thing today to keep Negroes defenseless....
“...but the masses of black people today don’t go for what Martin Luther King is putting down.”
—Interview in Louis E. Lomax, When the Word Is Given... (1963)
Within months after Malcolm spoke these words, Harlem erupted in the first of a series of ghetto explosions which shook white racist America.
Malcolm X was the voice of that angry black ghetto. He spoke for the desperate and angry ghetto masses because he had been one of them. When he spoke of the hell the white oppressor had made for black people in America, of the torments-psychological as well as material—they suffered every day, he had been there....
American Workers Revolution Needs Black Leadership
Here we come to the heart of Malcolm X’s political weakness, after as well as before he split from the Muslims: his failure to recognize class struggle as the progressive motor force of history. Malcolm is often spoken of as a genuine representative of the black masses. This is only partially true. The social world of the unionized black auto worker, steel worker or docker, who recognized common interests and had engaged in common struggles with their white class brothers, was alien to Malcolm’s experience and knowledge. He had been a ghetto hustler, then a convict, and then the minister of a separatist religious sect. For Malcolm, the fundamental and overriding division in American society was black and white, not workers and capitalists. He consistently emphasized that blacks in America were outnumbered ten to one. That’s why he sought his main allies outside of American society.
True, in the last period of his life he came to recognize there were genuinely anti-racist whites and he welcomed their efforts. But such whites that he encountered were predominantly liberal or radical student-youth, often motivated by guilt over their privileged social position. Clearly reflecting his experiences with these white students (almost all of his speeches to white audiences were on campuses), he viewed overcoming racism among whites primarily in terms of individual enlightenment, not social struggle. Thus, in one of his last interviews (18 January 1965) he stated:
“If the entire American population were properly educated—by properly educated, I mean given a true picture of the history and contributions of the black man—I think many whites would be less racist in their feelings.”
—By Any Means Necessary
The struggle against racism in this society is not basically one of proper education but of class conflict. Or rather the proper education comes through class conflict. The labor movement stands as the one racially integrated and powerful force in this society. It is the strategic weight of black workers in the labor movement which gives them the potential leverage to topple the entire racist, capitalist system. Black workers, armed with a revolutionary socialist program and organized by a communist vanguard party, can lead backward, even racist white workers in battles against the ruling class.
No one expressed the anger and the anguish of the oppressed black masses better than Malcolm X. As revolutionary socialists committed to the fight for black freedom, to finishing the Civil War once and for all through a third American revolution, we solidarize with Malcolm’s stand against the sick racism and racists permeating this society. He was the man who told it like it is: that this system is maintained by and enforces the brutal oppression of 20 million black people, that its so-called democracy is a lie, that the politicians of both parties are con men and enemies of black freedom. His refusal to play the liberals’ game, to beg for a little, hat-in-hand and his demand for freedom now inspired a generation of black militants. His call upon black America to stand up to the racist powers-that-be and his scathing denunciation of the strategy of nonviolence earned him the enmity of the rulers and their kept “respectable” black leaders. But for us who see the fight for black liberation as strategic to a workers revolution against the whole hideous and irrational profit system, it is precisely his intransigent penchant for the truth and his uncompromising opposition to racist America that makes Malcolm X a hero. But he did not understand the potential power of American blacks as workers to liberate not only themselves but oppressed peoples throughout the world. What is needed to release and direct that power is the construction of a racially integrated communist vanguard. Shortly after Malcolm was killed we wrote:
“...such a leadership will eventually be forthcoming. This is a statistical as well as a social certainty. This leadership, building on the experience of others such as Malcolm, and emancipated from his religiosity, will build a movement in which the black masses and their allies can lead the third great American revolution. Then Malcolm X will be remembered by black and white alike as a heroic and tragic figure in a dark period of our common history.”
—Spartacist No. 4, May-June 1965