From International Socialism (1st series), No.73, December 1974, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Death and Life of Malcolm X
IN all too many ways, the fate of the world hangs on the fate of the United States. And in all too many ways, the future of the US hangs on that of the Negro American movement.
Of all the people that the American black movement has produced Malcolm X was one of the most fascinating and significant. His career and his character personify many of the contradictory developments and elements in that black movement.
A teenager whose ambitions at school were rudely shattered by the stark presentation of the reality facing him as a black, Malcolm turned to petty crime, His career as a small-time fixer and hoodlum ended, inevitably, in prison. Here he was converted to the Black Muslim faith, and fell under the spell of Elijah Muhammed, Allah’s prophet in Chicago. The Muslims, whatever their protestations to the contrary, are an all-American phenomenon, a product of the rage of black people in racist America. Their doctrine, which holds that all white people are devils, on whom Allah will one day bring his vengeance everywhere to bear, has elements in common with many other religious movements that have emerged amongst the oppressed of the world – from the followers of Joanna Southcott amongst the early 19th century working class in Britain, to the devotees of the Pacific cargo cults.
What matters about the Muslims is that they spoke – if in allegory and myth – truthfully about the situation of the black people of the United States. Malcolm X, in the years that he was a minister in the Muslim church, spoke to black Americans of the society they experienced daily: a society in which whites were ‘devils’, who kept them out of jobs and decent housing, who had held their entire people in slavery, who had denied their very humanity, who exploited and demeaned them, who let them and their children suffer and starve, and who justified their racist oppression with the language of the Christian Bible and of democracy.
The Muslims – and Malcolm X, minister of their church in New York’s Harlem ghetto above all – spoke to that condition, declared aloud what no black person could deny feeling. And, crucially important, they declared the truth about American society in a way that promoted the dignity and pride of black Americans. Malcolm X was the prophet of black power and black pride before those terms ever gained prominence in US politics, before Stokeley Carmichael and SNCC, before the Black Panthers.
However, the Muslims were more than the prophets of black America. They were also a movement that exalted moral behaviour of an individual character, and that eschewed political activity. Crudely, those who wait on the vengeance of Allah have no need to enter directly into the disputes and struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, of the black movement generally.
In ways that other American negro writers have suggested, the Muslims – however unwittingly – were in some senses a prop to racism in America. Their very emphasis on the separateness of black America, their refusal to confront the problems arising in the possibilities of dividing white America against itself over the black question, and the prosperity that came (as so often) from high-toned moral behaviour, established them as a new (and admittedly more radical) version of the ‘Black Bourgeoisie’.
Malcolm X was a man who won through beyond the Muslim position. The leading minister of the Muslim church, he came finally to a parting of the ways with them. Where he might have ended we cannot know. Many sects (including the Socialist Workers’ Party) have more or less claimed him as their own, but all the claims seem dubious. It is difficult to see a man who had still enormous illusions in the governments of black Africa, and who pinned many of his political hopes on a motion in the United Nations critical of the USA’s treatment of its black population, as anything near a revolutionary socialist. Of Malcolm X more than many other men, it must be said that he was a man evolving.
His evolution was cut tragically short by three black gunmen who murdered him at one of his Harlem meetings. Despite rumours of CIA and FBI plots, the evidence points to the Muslims as the murderers. Whoever organised it, they took away from the black movement one of its most powerful and important spokesmen. Since Malcolm X, no man or woman seems to have emerged with an equal ability to express the potential challenge to American imperialism that black America continues to offer. And it is, he remains as a symbol to that black revolutionary movement of magnificent resistance to oppression.
This biographical study by Peter Goldman, a white journalist, is a moving and an honest job of work. Its chief fault is an over-long discussion of the ‘whodunit’ aspect of Malcolm’s murder. A paperback edition, putting it within the reach of more socialist pockets, would be very welcome. In the meantime, there are public libraries – and the paperback edition of Malcolm’s ‘autobiography’.
Last updated: 2.7.2008