Workers Vanguard No. 1069

29 May 2015


From the Archives of Black History and the Class Struggle

An Activist Remembers the Civil Rights Movement

Malcolm X: The Man, the Myth, the Struggle

We reprint below comments by Spartacist League Central Committee member Joseph Seymour at a December 1992 forum in Oakland, California, originally published in the Spartacist pamphlet Black History and the Class Struggle No. 10. That forum featured presentations by three comrades who had participated in the turbulent civil rights struggles of the 1960s, at the time that Malcolm X rose to prominence.

*   *   *

When I was 19 years old, I was involved with a left-wing socialist group at City College, which is located on the fringes of Harlem. We organized for Malcolm X to come and address the student body. Now, he didn’t come with a big entourage, and since I was chairing the meeting, just before he spoke I found myself standing next to him in the auditorium. I felt terribly intimidated and sheepish—I mean, here I am with Malcolm X. Just to make conversation, I noted that the previous summer I had gone to Cuba where I had met some people from the Nation of Islam. Malcolm expressed real interest and sympathy for the Cuban Revolution. He said he didn’t know very much about it and asked what my impressions were. He wasn’t just being polite. He really wanted to know what a 19-year-old college kid thought of the Cuban Revolution.

A few minutes later he spoke to several hundred students, most of them white and generally liberal, and the main point he made was to attack support for and illusions in the Democratic Party. At that particular time, Lyndon Johnson was pushing the Civil Rights Bill and a lot of people thought that the President of the United States had finally taken a hard line against white supremacy. Malcolm said, “Don’t be fooled! Johnson’s best friend in Washington is Georgia Senator Richard Russell who is an arch segregationist.” He said, “When somebody says they are against racism but their best friend is Richard Russell, it’s like somebody saying they are against train robbing and their best friend is Jesse James.”

This incident reveals what’s missing from Spike Lee’s [1992] film Malcolm X—the momentous political struggle in this country and abroad which formed the background of Malcolm’s rise to prominence. The debate that was raging among the activists. Did you support the Cuban Revolution and the Vietnamese Revolution against U.S. imperialism? Or did you support the U.S. government in trying to overthrow Castro and in trying to destroy the Viet Cong in blood in the name of anti-communism? Did you attack John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as war criminals who oppressed and savaged the dark-skinned peoples of the world? Or did you look to them to bring democracy and civil rights and racial equality to black people in this country? Did you believe that civil rights militants had the right to defend themselves against the cracker sheriffs and the Klan and the White Citizens Councils? Or did you maintain that in fighting for their democratic rights black people could do no more than engage in nonviolent protest?

These were the issues which polarized American society. These were the issues that defined Malcolm’s politics and determined his appeal. Because what he was in the minds of everybody—black, white, left, right, center—he was the best known, the most powerful, the most incisive enemy of what we at the time called the “white power structure.” Spike Lee doesn’t understand that because he doesn’t understand how convulsive and explosive American society was in the early 1960s. The civil rights movement, in the sweep of its mass support, in the aspirations for freedom and equality which it generated among black people, and in bringing into existence a whole generation of young radical activists, had a revolutionary potential.

In the South, the entire black community was mobilized—hundreds of thousands of people were confronting a totalitarian racist police state which they had lived under for three-quarters of a century, since Radical Reconstruction was abandoned and defeated in the aftermath of the Civil War. In the North it was different, because blacks had, legally, the formal democratic rights which the Southern civil rights movement was fighting for. They could vote, they could go into restaurants and ride buses with white people. But blacks in the North as well as in the South did not consider the civil rights movement in this narrow a way. They saw it as a movement for general social equality, even though there was no coherent or agreed-upon program for how to achieve that.

In Spike Lee’s movie, you don’t realize that at one point there were probably more civil rights militants in the town of Albany, Georgia than there were in the entire Nation of Islam nationally. A whole generation had been standing up to the cops in the South and in the North. Like Malcolm X, they came to understand the link between racism in the United States and the oppression by the American government and the big corporations of dark-skinned people throughout the world.

Preachers’ Pacifism vs. Militant Self-Defense for the Movement

That’s why the question of nonviolence at that moment was so decisive and so important. It wasn’t about the right of individuals to defend themselves or their families. In the movie they show Malcolm X’s father (who was a black-nationalist minister) warding off an attack by local Klansmen by threatening them with his pistol. But that wasn’t what the debate was. We were talking about armed self-defense for a mass movementa movement which embraced millions and which was confronting the capitalist state.

The question of nonviolence was basically a question of your attitude toward the system. To say that the civil rights movement had the right to defend itself against racist terror was really to say that you had the right of revolution; that you didn’t accept the rules of the game. And when King pledged nonviolence, what he was really saying is he was pledging allegiance to the white power structure. He was saying that the black movement cannot go beyond the bounds set for it by the liberal wing of the ruling class represented by the Democratic Party. That’s what it meant. And that’s why Malcolm X called King a “20th century Uncle Tom” whose primary concern is to defend the white man.

When Malcolm said that, a lot of people in the civil rights movement, even people who were critical of King, thought that this was exaggerated and unfair. Yet a few months after Malcolm was assassinated, the black ghetto in Watts in Los Angeles rose up. Black youth ran through the streets demonstrating defiance of the ruling class. The police and the National Guard were sent in and killed more than 30 black kids—most of them unarmed, most of them in cold blood. What did King do? Did he call upon the LAPD and the FBI and the National Guard to “turn the other cheek,” to throw away their guns and resort to “nonviolent resistance”? No! He said it was necessary that “as powerful a police force as possible be brought in to check them.” Malcolm X was known above all at the time as a person who said that the oppressed black masses had the right and the duty to overthrow the system which oppressed and degraded them, although he did not have a coherent program to do that.

The Myth of “Black Capitalism”

While Malcolm X was alive, he was slandered as some kind of crazed fanatic and advocate of black violence against white America. But today there is a different kind of falsification, which in its way is no less pernicious. He is now presented as a pioneer advocate of black-owned business, as a man who believed in the economic development of the segregated ghetto within the framework and under the rules set by white-dominated American capitalism. This line and lie is perpetrated not only by nationalist hustlers like Farrakhan, who when Malcolm split from the Nation of Islam said that he deserved death for defying Elijah Muhammad, but it’s also perpetrated by the house organ of international financiers. A recent issue of the London Economist says that Malcolm’s message was “black capitalism.”

It is true that Malcolm sought, both as a Muslim and somewhat later, to break poor blacks from the degrading pathology of ghetto life: alcoholism, drug addiction, wife-beating, prostitution. He told black people that they should stand on their own two feet and not depend on the white man. But by that he did not mean that they should take over grocery stores and dry-cleaning stores and open sweatshops in the ghetto to rip off and exploit their own people! This I will tell you, that while he was alive, no one, absolutely no one believed that Malcolm X was an advocate of “black capitalism” or any other kind of capitalism. Quite the contrary.

If Malcolm X did not advocate liberal integrationism like King, and he did not advocate separatist capitalism like Farrakhan, what did he stand for in a positive sense? The movie shows that it was his pilgrimage to Mecca which broke Malcolm from a narrow, racially defined black nationalism. That is true. But the movie does not show that Malcolm undertook a second trip to North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa which had a profound effect on his political outlook. After that trip Malcolm talked not only about opposing racial or national oppression, but “overthrowing the system of exploitation.”

Does that mean that Malcolm had become a Marxist or was moving toward Marxism? This is the position that was argued by the late George Breitman, for example, a professed Trotskyist who edited a number of Malcolm’s speeches and writings. But that too is a falsification. In the last period of his life, Malcolm X came under the influence of the new bourgeois-nationalist regimes in the Arab East and black Africa; people like Egypt’s Nasser and [Kenya’s] Jomo Kenyatta. These people denounced Western imperialism, Western racism. They talked about “African socialism” or some other kind of “socialism.” Malcolm bought this.

Malcolm X understood American society in his own way. He saw through the lies and hypocrisy of American capitalist politicians, including black Democrats like the slick Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. But he actually knew very little about the Egyptian or Algerian or Kenyan societies at the base. He took at face value the pretense of these new ruling elites that they were opposed to racism the world over; that they were believers in and champions of social equality. Much of Malcolm’s energy in the last period of his life was directed at getting what he called the Afro-Asian bloc to pass a resolution in the United Nations condemning racism in America. To begin with, there was no way that was going to happen, because all of these regimes depended on money from Washington and London and Paris, even though they denounced Western imperialism at every opportunity. They denounced Western imperialism, they flirted with Moscow, they said they were nonaligned in the Cold War—as a ploy to get more money from Washington and London and Paris. But even if they had passed a resolution in the UN condemning racism in the United States, the American ruling class would have ignored it.

While Malcolm’s campaign to enlist the United Nations in the service of anti-racism was misdirected, he nonetheless understood that simply by its own resources and its own efforts, the American black community could not achieve equality, could not overcome and break the power of the American government and its ruling class. That’s why he was so desirous of finding powerful allies outside the U.S. But Malcolm X did not see that there existed a powerful force within the United States, potentially hostile to the white power structure, namely the racially integrated working class.

He saw American society as racially divided, but not as class-divided. His view was shaped by his own personal experience. He had been a ghetto hustler, then a prisoner for several years, and then the minister of a black-nationalist religious sect. Unlike millions of other American black men and women, he had never worked with whites or Hispanics. He knew nothing of the trade-union movement. He had never been involved in a strike or defending a picket line against the cops and the scabs. He did not understand that it is the strategic role of blacks in the working class which gives them the potential leverage to overturn the racist capitalist system.

Black workers, armed with a revolutionary socialist program, and organized by a multiracial communist party, can lead backward white workers even though they have racist attitudes and prejudices, in struggle against the ruling class. Malcolm X believed and stated very forcefully that black people must fight for equality and freedom “by any means necessary.” The necessary means is working-class revolution. And that revolution when it comes will rightly honor Malcolm X as a courageous fighter and a martyr for the cause of the liberation of humanity.