Workers Vanguard No. 998
16 March 2012
Honor Malcolm X, Militant Voice of Black Struggle
Manning Marables Malcolm X: A Liberals Reinvention
A Review by J.L. Gormoff
Part One of this article appeared in WV No. 997 (2 March).
Malcolm X was greatly influenced by the colonial revolutions that followed World War II, particularly in Africa and Asia. He and other militants were also deeply affected by the Cuban Revolution, which expropriated the capitalists in the face of American imperialist hostility in 1960 and opened the road to massive social advances benefiting working people and the poor. It was not lost on people like Malcolm X that the Cuban regime uprooted the island’s own version of Jim Crow segregation.
Malcolm and many other black activists and leftists grasped that the fight against black oppression in the U.S. was linked to the struggle against U.S. violence and warfare abroad. Malcolm denounced the U.S. as “the chief imperialist nation of the world” and “the leader of a pack of white imperialist nations” (quoted in Carlos Moore, Pichón: A Memoir: Race and Revolution in Castro’s Cuba ). He was astute in his denunciation of the assassination of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba in a plot organized by the CIA, which later installed the murdering despot Moise Tshombe as prime minister.
Malcolm believed that the dark-skinned colonial peoples of the world had liberated themselves or were about to liberate themselves from Western imperialism. He felt that the states of Asia and Africa were becoming powerful enemies of Washington and naively expected them to use what power they had on behalf of the American black population. This view was consistent with seeing the U.S. black struggle as a colonial liberation struggle within the imperialist metropolis.
Social revolutions had occurred in China, North Korea, North Vietnam and Cuba, expropriating the local bourgeois ruling classes and liberating these countries from imperialist bondage. Based on peasant insurgencies, with the working class removed as a factor, those revolutions resulted in bureaucratically deformed workers states under the rule of nationalist Stalinist regimes. But in a far larger number of former colonial countries, independence struggles resulted in the rule of indigenous bourgeois classes.
As Marxists, we champion struggles for national liberation against direct imperialist rule. But we recognize that under the rule of bourgeois nationalist regimes, those societies remain dependent on the handful of capitalist-imperialist states of North America, Europe and Japan. As clients of the Soviet degenerated workers state, nationalist regimes such as Colonel Nasser’s in Egypt were able to act with a certain independence from the imperialists while remaining subordinated to the capitalist world market. With the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92, the main impediment to untrammeled imperialist plunder was removed, reinforcing the intense poverty and dependence of neocolonial Third World societies.
In a speech in Cairo to the Organization of African Unity, Malcolm naively implored this collection of bloodthirsty militarists, venal nationalist demagogues and tribal chiefs to step up, lamenting: “What makes our African brothers hesitate to bring the United States government before the United Nations?” An interesting chapter in Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention makes clear, based on letters by Malcolm to family members during his 1964 trip to Africa, that the cordial relations he experienced with representatives of the ruling elites were wide-ranging. Marable documents Malcolm’s mutually appreciative encounters with Prince Faisal of the reactionary Saudi monarchy, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a Nigerian cabinet minister, the Muslim Brotherhood in Lebanon, and the parliament of Ghana, among others.
The strength of Malcolm X was that he saw and spoke the truth about American social reality. He saw through liberal politicians (white and black) and indicted U.S. government hypocrisy as no one else did, although he was also not above engaging in occasional anti-Semitism. But when he looked at Africa through the prism of race, not class, he did not see the same hypocrisy of their ruling elites when they professed concern for the welfare of the people.
There are powerful concentrations of the proletariat in many parts of the neocolonial world. It is those working classes that, under the leadership of Leninist vanguard parties, can unite all the impoverished toilers in a fight to sweep away the local bourgeois rulers and liberate their countries from imperialist subordination as part of the struggle for world socialist revolution.
Marable Falsifies Malcolm X: The Democratic Party
At bottom, Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention does indeed reinvent Malcolm X, falsely portraying him as moving toward mainstream liberalism during the tumultuous civil rights struggles of the 1960s. This serves to justify Marable’s conviction that there were no options other than pro-Democratic Party pressure politics on the one side and passivity or sectarian abstentionism on the other. In Marable’s eyes, once Malcolm X broke from the do-nothing policy of the Nation of Islam (NOI), allegiance to “working within the system” was sure to follow. He forecloses any possibility of revolutionary struggle against the racist capitalist order, both during the civil rights movement and now.
Let’s look at two concrete examples of how Marable’s politics distort Malcolm’s record. One is Marable’s presentation of the presidential election of 1964. The other is his comparison of two of Malcolm’s most famous speeches, “Message to the Grass Roots” and “The Ballot or the Bullet.”
According to Marable, Malcolm supported Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater in his race against Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson. Goldwater was an extremely right-wing, anti-Communist libertarian who had voted against the Civil Rights Act. He devised what was known as the Republican’s “Southern Strategy,” appealing to white Democratic voters in the South on the basis of opposition to the civil rights movement. Goldwater lost in a landslide, but Republicans went on to use this strategy with great success starting with Richard Nixon in the next presidential election.
The civil rights leadership pushed blacks to vote for Johnson. Martin Luther King Jr. called Goldwater “the most dangerous man in America” (Playboy, January 1965), and Bayard Rustin wrote that Mississippi Senator James Eastland, a notorious racist, and Goldwater were “the main enemies” (Commentary, February 1965). A record 94 percent of black voters cast their ballots for the Democrat Johnson.
As for Malcolm X, Marable asserts: “Nearly alone among prominent black leaders, he continued to support Barry Goldwater as the better candidate to address blacks’ interests.” Marable’s only evidence is the claim that Alex Haley, who coauthored The Autobiography of Malcolm X, “cited an article by Malcolm, ‘Why I Am for Goldwater’.” While there is no class difference between a Republican and a Democrat, it would still be surprising if Malcolm X had supported an arch-reactionary for president—except that it is not true.
When one goes to the source of the supposed article in support of Goldwater—in Malcolm’s papers at the Schomburg Center in Harlem—one finds no article by Malcolm. In fact, Haley was pitching to his literary agent something he imagined that Malcolm might write (Alex Haley to Paul Reynolds, 21 June 1964, Malcolm X Collection, reel 3). What Malcolm did write was an article in the Saturday Evening Post (12 September 1964) in which he made clear his opposition to both candidates:
“I feel that as far as the American black man is concerned, [Johnson and Goldwater] are both just about the same. It’s just a question of Johnson, the fox, or Goldwater, the wolf.... Since these are the choices, the black man in America, I think, only needs to pick which one he chooses to be eaten by, because they both will eat him.”
“I wouldn’t put myself in the position of voting for either one, or of recommending to any black man to do so. I’m just talking about if America’s white voters do install Goldwater, the black people will at least know what they are dealing with.”
With his slander of Malcolm’s position on the elections, Marable echoes the New York Times (8 September 1964), which ran a piece titled “Malcolm X Article Favors Goldwater.” What upset both the liberals at the Times and Marable was that Malcolm dared to point out the real nature of the Democrats. Malcolm X did not oppose Johnson in class terms, in other words, as a representative of the capitalist ruling class. But he understood that Johnson and the Democrats were enemies of black rights. And for Marable, if you don’t vote Democrat, you support the Republicans.
Marable Falsifies Malcolm X: Electoralism
Central to Marable’s book is the case he tries to make that Malcolm in his last years was moving toward garden-variety liberal politics and electoralism. This he does by, for example, contrasting “Message to the Grass Roots” (10 November 1963), which Malcolm delivered right before breaking from the Nation of Islam, and “The Ballot or the Bullet,” a speech he gave six months later. The way Marable tells it, “Message” was a militant call for revolution, and “Ballot” a call for black people to vote. Marable states that “Ballot” starts off with “an appeal for black unity despite ideological quarrels” and claims that “this sentiment directly contradicted the ‘Message to the Grassroots,’ which had ridiculed King and other civil rights activists.” In fact, rhetorical appeals to black unity combined with attacks on liberal leaders were integral to both speeches.
Marable deplores exactly what made Malcolm X such an important figure. He’s right to focus on “Grass Roots,” which nailed the role of King, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer and others by name in co-opting the August 1963 March on Washington:
“This is what they did with the march on Washington. They joined it. They didn’t integrate it, they infiltrated it. They joined it, became a part of it, took it over. And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. It ceased to be angry…why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all…. They controlled it so tight, they told those Negroes what time to hit town, how to come, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn’t make; and then told them to get out of town by sundown. And every one of those Toms was out of town by sundown.”
“Grass Roots” is also where Malcolm cogently pointed out that it was when the black population of Birmingham, Alabama, began to fight back against racist terror just three months before the D.C. march that President Kennedy sent in federal troops to restore order.
It is false to see a big political difference between “Grass Roots” and “Ballot.” According to Marable, in the second speech Malcolm made a turn, urging that “Black people must forget their differences and discuss the points on which they can agree.” But why is this so different from the position put forward in “Grass Roots”: “Instead of airing our differences in public, we have to realize we’re all the same family.... We need to stop airing our differences in front of the white man.” Malcolm X was, from our standpoint, a contradictory figure. But in this case the contradiction is Marable’s: Malcolm could urge a black “united front” at the same time as he made clear his opposition to the politics of the liberal black leaders—they were the ones betraying the black masses. After all, it was in “Ballot” that Malcolm declared: “I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
For Marable, by the time of “Ballot,” supposedly “Malcolm had come to see the vote as a necessary tool if black Americans were to take control of the institutions in their communities.” Marable criticizes Malcolm for “glaring inconsistency in his logic,” because “Malcolm was encouraging African Americans to vote, even to throw their weight behind either major party; yet simultaneously he accused both major parties of racism, incapable of delivering fairness to blacks.”
In “Ballot,” Malcolm does highlight the importance of blacks’ votes in the North, but in terms counterposed to Marable’s liberal interpretation: “Your vote, your dumb vote, your ignorant vote, your wasted vote put in an administration in Washington, D.C., that has seen fit to pass every kind of legislation imaginable, saving you until the last, then filibustering on top of that.” Filibustering was how Dixiecrats like Senator Eastland tried to kill civil rights bills. Malcolm X grasped how the Democrats’ division of labor worked. Addressing the role of liberal Democrats, he said: “They blame the Dixiecrats. What is a Dixiecrat? A Democrat. A Dixiecrat is nothing but a Democrat in disguise.... When you keep the Democrats in power, you’re keeping the Dixiecrats in power.”
As Malcolm put it in a subsequent speech: “The Northern Dixiecrat puts all the blame on the Southern Dixiecrat. It’s a con game, a giant political con game” (“The Black Revolution,” 8 April 1964). This con game continues to be played out today, as the craven trade-union officialdom and black liberal politicians promote the “lesser evil” capitalist Democrats against the Republicans. While the Republicans make no pretense of being “friends” of labor, black people and immigrants, the Democrats lie about it and do the same things.
The Struggle for
There have been few historical conjunctures when a small Marxist propaganda group could, in a few years’ time, transform itself into a party leading a significant section of the proletariat and the oppressed. The South in the early 1960s offered such an opportunity. The mass movement of proletarians and students for black rights was seething and activists were learning painful lessons about the nature of the capitalist state, leading to impassioned debates over strategy and tactics and the politics underlying them. By 1964, the main body of young black militants, concentrated in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had broken with liberalism as they understood it but had not yet latched on to the political dead end of black separatism. At the same time, these young fighters on the front lines of the struggle against white supremacy had acquired enormous moral and political authority among the black masses in the South, including members of the industrial proletariat.
The reformist Communist Party (CP) had no appeal for radicalizing elements in this period. In the time of V.I. Lenin, the central leader of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist International had pressed American Communists to pay special attention to the fight against black oppression. The CP won some impressive recruits from among black intellectuals and went on to build a base in the South in the late 1920s and ’30s. Despite its developing Stalinist degeneration, the CP was at that time still capable of some quite heroic struggles. To take one example, it organized Southern sharecroppers’ unions that sought to include poor whites as well as blacks. In Atlanta in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, the CP led a large, racially integrated march of unemployed workers that braved fierce repression and Klan terror in order to demand relief.
Such struggles were impossible without opposing the whole Southern power structure, including the Democratic Party. These efforts, and the black working people who had been mobilized by them, were abandoned when in the mid 1930s the CP became open supporters of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the name of the “people’s front.” The CP could not even bring itself to support the mild-mannered 1941 March on Washington movement led by A. Philip Randolph because nothing was to be allowed to mute its chauvinist support for U.S. imperialism’s war effort in World War II. For the same reason, the CP actively broke strikes and even suspended its Japanese American members during the wartime internment.
In sharp contrast, the American Trotskyist movement stood for working-class politics independent of the Democratic Party as well as the Republicans. Led by James P. Cannon, a founder of American Communism who was won to Trotskyism at the 1928 Sixth World Congress of the Communist International, the Trotskyists were expelled from the CP in 1928, forming the Communist League of America and, in 1938, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). As part of its revolutionary program, the SWP stood for racial integration and equal rights for the black population.
However, by the early 1960s, the SWP, weakened by the anti-Communist repression and intense conservatism of the post-WWII period, had begun to move rapidly to the right in response to perceived opportunities. This found grotesque expression when the SWP sent condolences to John F. Kennedy’s widow after his assassination. Our political tendency, now called the International Communist League, arose out of a factional struggle inside the SWP that was triggered partly over the question of black liberation. Our founding cadres, organized in the Revolutionary Tendency (RT), fought equally against the SWP’s opportunism over the Cuban Revolution, as the party uncritically supported the petty-bourgeois Fidel Castro leadership. Our comrades were expelled from the SWP in 1963-64 and went on to found the Spartacist League in 1966. By the fall of 1965, the SWP had crossed the class line into reformism with its overt class collaborationism in the burgeoning protests against the Vietnam War, building platforms for liberal Democrats who were beginning to see the war as a losing proposition for U.S. imperialism.
Instead of fighting to win black militants such as those in SNCC to a revolutionary program, the SWP argued that black people needed their own party. This served as the rationale to tail, successively and sometimes simultaneously, pro-Democratic Party civil rights leaders as well as sundry black nationalists. In opposition to the SWP’s abstentionism, the RT argued in July 1963 that the party should send members to the South to participate in the struggle. In a document submitted as part of internal party discussion, the RT argued in opposition to a draft resolution of the SWP’s Political Committee (PC):
“Negroes who are activists in the movement, such as, for example, the full-time militants around SNCC, are every day formulating concepts of struggle for the movement. The meaning of the line of the PC draft is that we are not interested in recruiting these people to our white party because we have the revolutionary socialist program for the section of the working class of which we are the vanguard, and they (Negro militants) must lead their own struggle, although we would like to have fraternal relations with them. This is the meaning of the PC draft.
“To the concept of the white party must be counterposed the concept of the revolutionary party. For if we are only the former, then black workers are misplaced in the SWP.”
—“For Black Trotskyism”
(reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 [Revised], “What Strategy for Black Liberation? Trotskyism vs. Black Nationalism” [September 1978])
This document laid out our political orientation:
“Our point of departure comes in turn as the conclusion that the Negro question is so deeply built into the American capitalist class-structure—regionally and nationally—that only the destruction of existing class relations and the change in class dominance—the passing of power into the hands of the working class—will suffice to strike at the heart of racism and bring about a solution both real and durable.”
Our strategic perspective was to recruit the left wing of the civil rights movement into a revolutionary party capable of leading vanguard layers of the black working class and petty-bourgeois youth in the South. The RT put forward a series of demands linking the struggles of workers and the black masses and addressing immediate needs such as organized self-defense and union organizing drives throughout the South. As volunteers were risking their lives to register black voters, we called for independent political organization so that voting could mean something other than supporting Democrats.
The RT and the early Spartacist League raised such transitional demands as the call for a Freedom Labor Party. These demands were aimed at uniting the ranks of the trade unions—the workers’ basic organizations of self-defense against the exploiting class—with the militant masses in the civil rights movement behind a perspective of socialist revolution. This fusion could not come about through preachments of unity, but only by the union movement actively taking up the fight for the rights of the specially oppressed black population. The obstacle to uniting the working people in revolutionary struggle against the capitalist system was not only the liberal preachers. It was, principally, the sellout labor bureaucrats, who matched King & Co. in fidelity to the Democratic Party.
When Malcolm X came to political awareness, the main body of the union bureaucracy consisted of the open Cold War crusaders at the head of the AFL-CIO, who had been installed by the anti-red purges in the late 1940s and ’50s. Another section of the labor tops, epitomized by the United Auto Workers’ Walter Reuther, tried to strike a slicker pose with vague social-democratic rhetoric. As Malcolm X noted, Reuther & Co. were closely tied to the pro-Democratic Party civil rights leaders and served as a prop of the Kennedy administration.
Both wings of the labor bureaucracy were explicitly hostile to labor militancy and to the militant wing of civil rights activism. Both wings were outspoken enemies of Communism and acted as agencies of U.S. imperialism abroad, supporting reactionary pro-American regimes and spearheading efforts to smash leftist-led unions. Their despicable political profile contributed hugely to the view of black and other New Left radicals that the unions themselves were a part of “the system” and enemies of liberation. Identifying the working class as a whole with the sellout leaders at the top is a fallacy that to this day contributes to anti-union prejudices, undermining any perspective of fighting inside the unions for a class-struggle leadership.
Unlike many others on the left, who patronizingly enthused over whatever was popular, the Spartacist League was forthright in advancing our Marxist views and criticisms. When the slogan of “black power” was put forward, we wrote that it “represents the repudiation of tokenism, liberal tutelage, reliance on the federal government, and the nonviolent philosophy of moral suasion. In this sense, therefore, black power is class power, and should be supported by all socialist forces” (“Black Power—Class Power,” Spartacist West No. 8, September 1966; reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 [Revised]). But we also warned that the slogan “can be used by petty bourgeois black nationalist elements who want to slice the social cake along color rather than class lines and to promote reactionary color mysticism. More seriously, it can be degraded to mean mere support for black politicians operating within the system.”
Indeed, within a few years, the larger wing of the Black Panthers’ leadership had begun to openly look to the Democratic Party. In 1973 Panther leader Bobby Seale ran as a Democrat for mayor of Oakland, California. “Black Power” increasingly came to be defined as “black control of the black community,” which meant more black businesses, the election of black mayors to preside over the misery of the big cities, and more black cops to participate in shooting down blacks.
Marable and “Trotskyism”
Marable takes as good coin the revisionist SWP’s portrayal of “Trotskyism,” promoting the party’s opportunist tailism of whatever leaders black people seemed to want. Marable writes:
“For decades, the SWP had promoted revolutionary black nationalism. Leon Trotsky himself had believed that Negro Americans would be the vanguard for the inevitable socialist revolution in the United States. Malcolm’s separation from the Nation of Islam and his endorsement of voter registration and mass protest by African Americans seemed to Trotskyists a move toward socialism.”
Marable goes on to wrongly state in a footnote that Trotskyism “meant that the vanguard of the socialist revolution would not come from the industrial proletariat, but from the most oppressed sectors of the working class and peasantry,” which in the U.S. meant black people.
Shortly after Malcolm died, longtime SWP cadre George Breitman wrote The Last Year of Malcolm X (1967), which argued: “Malcolm was pro-socialist in the last year of his life, but not yet a Marxist.” Breitman would go on to proclaim Malcolm an increasingly pro-socialist “revolutionary.” For the SWP to call Malcolm X a socialist was in keeping with renouncing its former revolutionary socialist program and adapting to many non-proletarian forces that falsely appropriated the term “socialist,” such as the Algerian Ben Bella government and Egypt under Nasser, both of which were bourgeois-nationalist regimes.
The SWP’s use of Trotsky’s authority in regard to the black struggle was also fraudulent. Trotsky’s rare comments concerning American blacks were consistent with the mistaken understanding that they might constitute a nation and hence with raising a slogan of self-determination. But it is a travesty to suggest that Trotsky would ever have entertained the notion of organizing separate “revolutionary” parties by race. In discussions with the SWP leadership in 1939, Trotsky reminded the comrades that the roots of opportunism in the trade unions in the U.S. lay in their being based on the “aristocracy of labor”—privileged layers who sided with the bourgeois class “to hold the Negroes and the unskilled workers down to a very low scale.” Correctly identifying black workers as “the most dynamic milieu of the working class,” he insisted: “We must say to the conscious elements of the Negroes that they are convoked by the historic development to become a vanguard of the working class…. If it happens that we in the SWP are not able to find the road to this stratum, then we are not worthy at all. The permanent revolution and all the rest would be only a lie.”
The Spartacist League’s political program, representing a revolutionary alternative to both the liberal-integrationist and black nationalist dead ends, powerfully spoke to felt needs, but our very small organization was not able to pose it forcefully before the mass of radicalizing black activists. The early SL made promising beginnings in exemplary mass work, illustrating our program through such actions as organizing defense of Bill Epton, a black Progressive Labor supporter who was prosecuted in the wake of the 1964 Harlem “riot”—in reality, a police riot against the people of Harlem. With the ghetto in police lockdown, we initiated the Harlem Solidarity Committee, which organized a 1,000-strong rally in NYC’s garment district to mobilize working-class support for the besieged black people.
Ultimately, we were frozen out by black nationalist currents that claimed to reject liberal gradualism and tokenism. The opportunism of organizations such as the SWP let pass a promising opportunity to recruit substantial numbers of black radicals to a perspective of socialist revolution and to develop them as cadres and leaders of a Leninist vanguard party.
The black freedom struggle—and in fact the whole working class—paid heavily for black radicals’ inability to find the levers to polarize capitalist society along class lines, as the nationalists rejected any revolutionary potential for white workers. The isolation of the Black Panthers and others from the working class and the trade unions increased their vulnerability to the racist capitalist state as it extracted murderous vengeance. Through cop repression and the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO operation, dozens of leaders and militants were shot down and many others framed up and thrown in jail. These attacks broke the back of the Panthers, whose fragmentation—assisted by agents provocateurs, forged documents and other police “dirty tricks”—led to most of their leading members moving sharply to the right.
Malcolm X and the Left Today
In a suitably scathing review of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, black columnist Glen Ford takes on Marable’s assertion that Malcolm’s later activities “marked an early, tentative concession to the idea that perhaps blacks could someday become empowered within the existing system” (“Dragging Malcolm X to Obamaland,” Black Agenda Report, 27 April 2011). Ford comments that “Marable and his circle” are “the left Black Obamaites, purported radicals who have a perpetual love affair with Power.” However, behind Ford’s bons mots is a bankrupt black nationalist outlook, which obliterates a class understanding of Obama’s role as chief executive of the racist U.S. capitalist order. In 2008, Ford himself supported the candidacy of Cynthia McKinney, a black former Democratic Congresswoman from Georgia who was running on the ticket of the Green Party, a small-fry capitalist party.
The reactions to Marable’s book by the ostensibly socialist left show how much they accept his basic framework of either liberal integration or black nationalism, in opposition to a revolutionary alternative. In Liberation News (11 June 2011), the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) points out Marable’s distortion of Malcolm’s comments about electoralism. But for the PSL, the bottom line is that “there is nothing inconsistent about condemning the two major parties while suggesting that Black people vote strategically. A revolutionary makes use of all tactics that advance the struggle at a particular moment, provided that this does not foster illusions in the current system.”
This is the pretext that the PSL’s forebears in the Workers World Party (WWP) have used to backhandedly support black capitalist politicians in the name of “fighting the right.” In the 1980s, it was the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson; today, the WWP hails New York City Councilman Charles Barron. Marxists fight for the class independence of the working class, for a workers party that fights against all oppression and for black liberation through socialist revolution!
For 20 or 30 years it has been common on the reformist left to reconcile Malcolm X to the politics of Martin Luther King. The reformists all share the perspective of pressuring the Democrats to do good things, either overtly or backhandedly. Virtually all of them cheered Obama’s election and will do their best to find ways to get back on the bandwagon in this election year. In the end, the reformists are reduced to quibbling over this or that in Marable’s book, which distorts Malcolm X’s political trajectory to serve a very contemporary purpose, including by absurdly depicting Malcolm X as becoming “race neutral.” Marable’s book takes for granted that the civil rights movement succeeded. In terms of the limited objectives of its pro-government leaders, it did. But it benefited mainly a thin layer of middle-class blacks, the traditional “talented tenth” in the professions augmented by a layer of government bureaucrats and a few elected officials.
What we see in America today is not the “post-racial” society invoked by Barack Obama but the failure of the liberal civil rights movement to fundamentally better the lives of this oppressed layer of American capitalist society. In the U.S. today, the prison system is one of the few growth industries, accompanying the deindustrialization of recent decades. Starting with Jesse Jackson himself, the black politicos who Marable sees as proof of “empowerment” early on enrolled themselves as champions of the “war on drugs,” which has resulted in mass incarceration of black people as well as a growing number of Latinos and others. The current economic crisis has underlined the vulnerability of the black population, measured by such indices as the enormous gap in household net wealth between white and black families, as the Great Depression of the 1930s did in its day. It must be obvious to all that capitalism is not bringing prosperity to white working people either.
The simple truth is that there will be no end to black oppression, exploitation and imperialist war until the multiracial working class seizes power from the tiny handful that constitutes the capitalist class and reorganizes society on a socialist basis. As in the days when Malcolm X gave voice to the oppressed black masses, what needs to be done is to forge a revolutionary party that can provide the necessary leadership for the working class and the oppressed. In our obituary on Malcolm X in Spartacist No. 4, May-June 1965 (reprinted last issue), we noted the “agonizing gap in black leadership today,” a condition that has grown even more acute since that time. Our obituary concluded:
“But such 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.”