Recovering the Revolutionary Legacy of Malcolm X

February 21 marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, one of the greatest leaders of the Black liberation movement of the 1960s.

Lenin once wrote, “During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to covert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the consolation of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.”

While Lenin was talking about how many of the “socialists” of his day were attempting to turn Marx into a harmless icon, Lenin’s observation can also be applied to how the ruling class has attempted to turn figures like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X into harmless icons after their deaths.

The ruling class certainly heaped on Malcolm “the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander” while he was alive, and even at the moment of his death. This can be seen in how the New York Times editorialized about Malcolm X the day after the assassination: “He was a case history, as well as an extraordinary and twisted man, turning many true gifts to evil purpose.” "Twisted" was their way of saying he was mentally unbalanced, insane and evil to boot. The Times editors went on to say “his ruthless and fanatical belief in violence… marked him for fame, and for a violent end.” He was responsible for his own death.

That the reputable Times could spout such vile slander was indicative. The gutter press was even worse. But in the decades since, the Times and other ruling class voices have sought to “canonize” Malcolm. Roads and schools and other institutions have been named after him. The government even issued a postage stamp in his honor. All the while seeking to blunt and vulgarize his revolutionary message. Liberals, both Black and white, have sought to portray him as a mere pro-capitalist liberal like themselves.

Since Ferguson, a new generation of young Black leaders has emerged. They are seeking to recapture the real legacy of figures like Dr. King and Malcolm X. This was seen in this year’s celebrations of King’s birthday, where this new generation transformed them into militant actions, a far cry from the staid pro-establishment events of recent years.

Malcolm first rose to prominence as a leader of the Nation of Islam. This was originally a relatively small religious cult, which Malcolm helped transform into a powerful organization. But it was more than a religious cult. It was a movement that inspired a new generation in the 1950s and 1960s with its message of militant Black nationalism, which struck a chord especially in the ghettos of the North, while the civil rights movement was centered in the apartheid (legal segregation) South.

While Malcolm would break with the Nation at the end of 1963 and early 1964, and chart a new course going way beyond his earlier teachings, key aspects of what he espoused while a leader of the Nation he continued to hold until his death. These can be briefly partially summarized:

  • Black people cannot get their freedom except by fighting for it;
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  • The U.S. government is a racist government and is not going to grant freedom;
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  • Gradualism, the program of the liberals, white and Black, is not the road to equality;
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  • Black misleaders must be exposed and opposed;
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  • Black people must rely on themselves and control their own struggle;
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  • Black people must determine their own strategy and tactics;
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  • Black people must select their own leaders;
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  • Black people have the right to armed self-defense against racist violence.
It was this last position that led the Times and liberals to make the misleading claim that Malcolm was an advocate of violence. He stood for the exact opposite, to defeat the violence of the racists with self-defense.

In 1963, the center of the Black struggle began to shift to Northern cities, where the message of Black nationalism found a ready audience, and where Black people were taking to the streets. Shortly before the historic 1963 March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, one of the high points of the Southern struggle, there was a march as big or bigger in Detroit, a center of Black nationalism.

It was in this context that tensions arose in the Nation of Islam. By their militant stance, the Nation helped push other black organizations to the left. This was their positive contribution. But they were on the sidelines of the struggle, not participants. Among the younger members of the Nation, there were signs of a desire to get into the battle, to pass from propaganda to action. This is what led to Malcolm’s split with the Nation. The basic factor behind the split was the growth of militancy and mass action in the Black community, and the different ways in which the two main tendencies in the Nation wanted to respond to the masses knocking on the doors of their mosques.

Malcolm X broke with the Nation’s spiritual leader, Elijah Muhammad, and turned his attention to the broader Black struggle. Malcolm would later say, “I feel like a man who has been asleep somewhat and under someone else’s control. I feel that what I am thinking and saying now is for myself. Before it was for and by the guidance of Elijah Muhammad. Now I think with my own mind.”

So began a new stage in Malcolm’s life, his all-too-brief last year, that saw him grow mentally by leaps and bounds. He traveled widely internationally this last year, and met revolutionaries from many countries and races. He also discovered that true Islam views all races alike. As a consequence, he threw overboard the whole mythology about superior and inferior races and its doctrine about inherent evil and degeneracy in a white skin. Repudiating racism in all its forms, he resolved to judge people and movements on the basis of their deeds, not skin color. Deeds, not words.

Malcolm set about to build a new Black radical organization, on an entirely different basis than religion, though he himself remained a Muslim. It would welcome all Black people who wanted to struggle, regardless of religion, philosophy, or other differences. This new organization, which he was working to build when he was cut down, was called the Organization of African American Unity (OAAU). The name was taken from the Organization of African Unity, reflecting his identification with the colonial revolution then in full swing not only in Africa, but in Asia and Latin America, too.

While retaining his Black nationalism, he moved beyond it to an internationalist stance. This identification with the struggle of all the oppressed was in his speeches while he was in the Nation, but became sharper in his last year, influenced by his international travels. The government was alarmed by his campaign to win support internationally to bring the U.S. to trial in the United Nations for its racist oppression. At the same time, his denunciation of U.S. imperialism, which also began while he was in the Nation of Islam, became stronger. He was especially eloquent in his denunciation of the U.S. record in the murder of Lumumba in Congo, the war in Vietnam, the attacks against the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, and so forth. He sought to position the struggle of U.S. Blacks in the worldwide upsurge of the peoples of color.

Finally, there was Malcolm’s development throughout his last year towards anti-capitalism and socialism. One thread of his thought was a result of his international travels. He began to emphasize that in the countries he visited which were recently freed from colonialism, it seemed they were turning against capitalism and toward socialism. Another was his deepening relation to the Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialist Alliance.

The SWP, under the influence of the positions taken by the Communist International in Lenin’s time, recognized that Black people in the U.S. suffered under a form of national oppression. This was reinforced in discussions with the Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky during his final exile in Mexico. The result was that the SWP, at its founding convention in 1938, adopted a resolution largely drafted by the West Indian Marxist C.L.R. James, that recognized this national oppression and the progressive nature of Black nationalism as a reaction to it.

When there was the new upsurge of Black nationalism in the early 1960s, the SWP embraced it. In its 1963 convention, the SWP noted that Black Nationalism and socialism “are not only compatible but complimentary forces, that should be welded closely in thought and action.” We took note of the militant speeches by Malcolm X when he was still in the Nation. The SWP newspaper, The Militant, covered these speeches, often reprinting Malcolm’s own words, in a positive manner. This was in sharp contrast to the Communist and Socialist parties, who denounced Malcolm X and Black nationalism. Malcolm took note of this and of the fact that The Militant defended the democratic rights of the Nation of Islam when they were under government attack. He would buy the paper when it was sold outside his meetings.

We saw the importance of Malcolm’s break with the Nation, and his new course. Shortly after, in April 1964, Malcolm agreed to speak at a large meeting organized by the Militant Labor Forum, associated with the SWP, on the topic “The Black Revolution.” One aspect of this speech was his strong opposition to Blacks supporting the Democratic Party, a theme he developed throughout his last year. He repeatedly cautioned against falling for the ploy of supporting the “fox” (the Democrats) out of revulsion for the “wolf” (the Republicans).

He spoke again at the Forum in May, 1964, at a meeting we organized to counter a scare about a “Harlem Hate Gang”--a thinly veiled attack on the OAAU organized by the capitalist press. In this meeting he said of U.S. capitalism, “it’s impossible for a chicken to produce a duck egg…it can only produce according to…what it was constructed to produce. The system in this country cannot produce freedom for an Afro-American. It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, this social system, this system period….And if ever a chicken did produce a duck egg, I’m quite sure you would say it was certainly a revolutionary chicken!”

In January 1965 Malcolm again spoke at the Militant Labor Forum. He said it “was always an honor” to speak at the Forum, and that “the Militant newspaper is one of the best in New York City. In fact it is one of the best anywhere you go today because everywhere I go I see it. I saw it even in Paris about a month ago … If you put the right things in it, what you put in it will see it gets around.”

After that meeting, I asked Malcolm if he would be interviewed for the Young Socialist newspaper, of which I was the editor. He agreed, and Jack Barnes, who was a leader of the YSA, and I conducted the interview shortly before his assassination. One quote from that interview in answer to the question, What is your view of the worldwide struggle between capitalism and socialism?: “It is impossible for capitalism to survive… it is only a matter of time in my opinion before it will collapse completely.” A Marxist might object that capitalism will not collapse by itself, but must be overthrown, but this is certainly not a pro-capitalist statement.

A few years later, Martin Luther King began to come to the same anti-capitalist conclusions. From different starting points, these two giants began to converge.

Barry Sheppard is a member of Solidarity and a former member of the American Socialist Workers Party. This article is adapted from a column Barry writes for an Australian left-wing newspaper.

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