George Novack

Malcolm X, Black Nationalism and Socialism

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.28 No.4, July-August 1967, pp.43-51.
Transcription/Editing: Daniel Gaido.
HTML Markup: Andrew Pollack.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2005. This work is completely free to copy and distribute.

This review of George Breitman’s The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary was originally presented in a San Francisco symposium with Eldridge Cleaver, May 4, 1967.

When Malcolm X was shot down in February 1965, it was clear that his memory would be cherished by the millions of black men and women who mourned their martyred leader. It was not so certain that the movement he initiated after his departure from the Nation of Islam or the ideas he was elaborating and broadcasting during his last year would survive and gain ground.

The gunmen had silenced a personality in the midst of change who still had a great deal to learn for himself as well as to teach and tell others. Their bullets removed an exceptionally able commander from the battlefield before he was given time to train the officers and assemble the troops for an army of Afro-American emancipation.

When I wrote an obituary article on the meaning of his life and death at that time I thought it likely that Malcolm would become a heroic legend as an unbreakable defier of white supremacy and enter into the folk memory of the oppressed yearning for freedom, like Patrice Lumumba or Joe Hill. The image of “our shining black prince” evoked by Ossie Davis at the funeral service pointed in that direction and tended for a while to veil the more prosaic but potent political views and perspectives that Malcolm had projected in the most creative months of his career.

These were further dimmed when the movement he had just launched and barely begun to build, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, became fragmented and, passing under a different sort of leadership, veered farther and farther from the new course he had charted. This unfortunate development cannot be held against Malcolm himself. He was compelled to start out on his own in the spring of 1964 under extremely heavy handicaps. He had considerable national notoriety and international prominence and a large following. But this following was amorphous and remained to be welded together and reeducated along somewhat different lines, Malcolm lacked the means to create a base of organization that was broad and strong enough to implement the aims he had set for the movement. These were big objectives and demanded extensive resources and mighty forces for their promotion and realization. It would have taken no little time and effort to acquire and assemble these—and that time was taken away from the thirty-nine-year-old revolutionary along with the breath of life.

Arena of Influence

However, if Malcolm’s organization faltered and failed to fulfill its potential as a rallying center for black unity and militancy, his example and ideas have had a happier destiny. In the two years since his death these have penetrated into the hearts and minds of the ghetto population from North to South, from Harlem to Watts. His arguments, his pungent, witty sayings, and his telling points are repeated on many occasions by Afro-American spokesmen and woven into their debates and discussions over radio and TV. They orient the black power movement that won over SNCC and CORE whose members are spreading the gospel to broader circles. The Sunday N. Y. Times Book Review recently reported that Malcolm’s autobiography and collected speeches stand high among the favorite reading in black communities.

The main channels of communication in these communities are not literary but verbal. So the ideas of Malcolm are transmitted through the spoken word he himself mastered by those who have read or heard about them from various sources. Growing boys and girls, afflicted by the brutal realities of poverty and racism, as Malcolm was, absorb his insights as readily as they inhale the dust of big city streets and rural roads. Malcolm’s words are passed on in classrooms and schoolyards, on street corners and tenement stoops, and burgeon like seeds on rich tropical soil because they match the deepest feelings, the inarticulate aspirations, and life experiences of rebellious black youth. His ideas have become a precious, inalienable part of the cultural and political heritage of Afro-America, nourishing the black nationalism which bubbles and boils in the giant cauldrons of the ghettos.

Malcolm’s influence does not stop at America’s shores. He is honored and placed alongside Lumumba by freedom fighters from one tip of Africa to the other. This is not surprising. It is more remarkable that his autobiography and speeches have been published abroad and translated into a number of languages: French, German, Italian and Japanese. A play about his life has just been produced to great acclaim in England.

The main reasons for his renown are to be found in the integrity and courage of the man, the capacities for growth and leadership he exhibited, the rightness and relevance of his positions, and above all the gravity and importance of the cause of Afro-American liberation he represented. But if Malcolm’s message has taken wings and traveled so far and so fast through the printed page as it has, no little credit must go to the devoted industry of George Breitman. He was one of the first, certainly among white radicals, to discern the real stature and significance of Malcolm as the most responsive champion of black nationalism since Marcus Garvey. He undertook to defend him against his detractors and defamers. He explained and propagated his views among white and black militants and then, when Malcolm could no longer speak for himself, collected and edited the materials to be found in Malcolm X Speaks.

Shortly before Malcolm’s death I talked with the very tired leader and his lieutenant James Shabazz at the OAAU headquarters at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem about the publication of his speeches. He was agreeable to the proposal but it was not to be carried through under his direction. His movement was thrown into such disarray following his murder that their appearance would have been indefinitely delayed, and black militants would have been deprived of these treasures for much longer, if George Breitman had not taken the initiative to gather them from different quarters and push them through the press.

Interpretation of Malcolm’s Direction

After that he felt that something more was urgently needed than simply making the text of the speeches available. Malcolm’s statements had to be knit together and accurately interpreted, not only in view of the many distorters of his positions, but also because Malcolm’s outlook had evolved so radically and rapidly after he left the Black Muslims that even many of his followers and admirers could not keep up with the pace of his theoretical and political development and remained unaware of its full import and applications.

The prime purpose of Breitman’s latest book is to show in just what respects Malcolm changed during the last year of his life? Breitman analyzes Malcolm, the agitator, in agitated transition. What did Malcolm move from and what was he heading toward?

In a symposium on this book at the Militant Labor Forum in New York April 14 one of the participants who was, like Malcolm X, a former Muslim minister, stated that in essence he never changed. This view sweeps aside and fails to do justice to the differential features in the successive stages of Malcolm’s growth.

From the moment he was made acutely aware of his own degradation and the entrapment of his people in the cages of white capitalist society Malcolm was imbued with an unfaltering singleness of purpose. That was to oppose, combat and outwit the system that impoverished, crushed and humiliated twenty-two million blacks. That blazing revolutionary fire was never quenched in him.

From Individualism to Organization

His first modes of resistance and rebellion were individualistic. He sought relief and release from the white-dominated hell called America by “making it” in whatever ways, legal or illicit, ghetto life left open to him. The first big turn came when he had time to read and reflect inside prison walls and saw that this reckless course led to a dead end or an end in premature and purposeless death. His conversion to the Nation of Islam was not only a personal redemption and racial reawakening but a tremendous step forward for him and thousands of others who entered the ranks of the Black Muslims in the postwar period.

It represented the passage from individual evasion of a terribly oppressive and cruelly depressive environment into collective organization and action. To be sure, the national and social revolutionary impulses which flowed through the congregation of this religious sect had yet to find their proper channel. Nevertheless, the Nation of Islam provided an elementary, albeit inadequate, expression of racial solidarity and emergent national consciousness, a cohesion born of the burning need to fight the devilish white masters as a united band of brothers and sisters.

Despite the insurmountable defects of the Muslim movement, the twelve years he served in it was an inescapable, indispensable and valuable factor in the making of the revolutionary Malcolm X. He could not have been educated and his special talents of leadership brought out in any other available way. By temperament and training he was a man of action who had to test ideas in practice to see what they were worth. He thirsted for knowledge of all kinds and assimilated it in huge gulps. For him theoretical generalizations did not precede but flowed from his own experiences of struggle. For example, he had to knock his head against the constrictions of the Muslim movement before he could be convinced of their incorrectness and inadequacy.

For a long time he firmly and fervently believed that Muhammad held the keys to the kingdom of salvation and that his wisdom sufficed for the direction of the movement. In religious as well as radical political circles there is nothing unusual in such a deferential master-disciple relationship and the discipline attached to it. Think of the millions who have adopted a comparable attitude of blind faith and obedience toward the declarations of a Stalin or a Mao Tse-tung—and this in movements which are not religious in inspiration but presumably actuated by the critical-minded philosophy of materialism.

Malcolm asserted his full capacities for self-reliant leadership only after he had recovered from the surprise and shock of his rupture with Muhammad and proceeded to review and revise his past thinking. Breitman delineates and documents the successive steps in this second period of transformation in his outlook. That change essentially consisted in going from the wholesale rejection to the deliberated revolutionizing of American society. Such a task required the development of a political program to guide the action of the black masses and the building of an organization capable of leading them out of bondage.

The key ideas he advanced in his own charter of black nationalism include black leadership of black people on all levels summarized in the idea of black power; self-defense; racial pride and solidarity in the face of the enemy; identification with Africa and the colonial liberation struggle; intransigent opposition to the white capitalist power structure and its twin parties; independent black political action; opposition to all imperialist interventions against the colonial peoples; collaboration on a basis of equality between militant blacks and those militant whites who are ready to do more than just talk about fighting racial injustice and social inequality.

These results of Malcolm’s reappraisals have since spread far and wide through the black community. But when his life was cut short he was embarked upon a new and third state of transition which is not so well or widely known. In this book Breitman deals only in passing with this incomplete phase of Malcolm’s thought, although he has written about the subject elsewhere, notably in Marxism and the Negro Struggle.

Malcolm was on the way to becoming something more than a pure and simple black nationalist and a revolutionary advocate of black power; he was beginning to embrace some of the ideas of socialism, especially the conscious conviction that US capitalism and its vulturistic imperialism had to be overthrown and abolished if the Afro-Americans and the exploited and oppressed in the rest of the world were to be freed. These conclusions have an immense bearing on both the problems of black liberation and the prospects for a socialist America.

There are many misunderstandings about the real relations between progressive militant nationalism and revolutionary socialism. It is often contended that nationalism and socialism have nothing whatsoever in common, that they are irreconcilable opposites. This is a one-sided judgment. It is true that the nation-state has been the characteristic product of bourgeois society and capitalist political development; that Marxists are internationalists; and that one of the principal objectives of socialism is to do away with the national frontiers that straitjacket economic activity and the national animosities that divide peoples and enable reactionary forces to hurl them against one another.

Anti-Imperialist National Independence

All this makes up one part of the socialist program. But there is more to its position than that, especially at this point in history.

Marxists recognize that the imperialist conquest, division and exploitation of the globe has resulted in the subjugation and oppression of many peoples. Their strivings to throw off economic, political and cultural domination by the great capitalist powers and win national independence and unity are not only irrepressible but wholly legitimate. These struggles are entitled to support on their own merits from any genuine supporter of democracy.

There are further reasons why revolutionary socialists hail and help the national liberation struggles in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America at all stages. These anti-imperialist movements deliver sledgehammer blows to the capitalist rulers who are the main enemies of the world working class and opponents of socialism and thereby alter the balance of class forces in favor of the anti-capitalist camp. Thus the insurgent nationalities are in objective alliance with the forces of socialism against all forms of imperialist reaction and repression.

This alignment of the two separate social and political movements is not confined to the international arena; it can also be operative within the imperialist strongholds themselves. That is the case in the United States today where the nationalist sentiments expressed in the black power crusade and the revolutionary socialist movement are alike pitted against the capitalist regime.

Uneven Development of Workers

Unfortunately, oppositional movements do not march in unison but are often out of step with one another. That is certainly so nowadays when the Negro masses are far out in front, ready to challenge the power structure as the most rebellious social force in American life while most white workers are conservatized and apathetic. Just as the colonial areas are the scene of the most intense revolutionary activity on a world scale, so the black resistance movement takes precedence in the anti-capitalist struggles in the United States. This irregular development creates many agonizingly difficult problems for revolutionists, both black and white, who are concerned with building a winning opposition to the status quo.

However, the experiences of the colonial revolutions with which black militants feel such close kinship have many lessons to teach those who, like Malcolm, want to think through their problems in order to wage the most effective fight. Among these are the need for unity in struggle, uncompromising hostility to the men of money, and distrust of all their agents, conservative or liberal, open or disguised.

Two such lessons which Malcolm came to learn are of great and even decisive importance. One is the usefulness of having allies when you are beset by a formidable foe. To beat back and defeat the assaults of imperialism, the colonial insurgents need all the help they can get from any quarter, and not least from discontented residents in the homelands of their oppressors. We see a fresh example of this in the boost to the morale of the Vietnamese and the dissension sown in Washington by the antiwar mobilizations which have called forth such frenzied attacks from Johnson, Westmoreland, Lodge and Nixon.

So black freedom fighters here, as Malcolm came to realize, can benefit from alliances with fraternal forces at home, provided these alignments do not obstruct their own unity and independence or discourage and deter their own revolutionary action. What counts in alliances, as Breitman emphasizes, is not the skin color or national affiliation of the participants, but the nature and the goal of their partnership in struggle.

Another truth which has been brought home to many colonial rebels, sometimes to their astonishment and dismay, is that a national struggle which stops halfway cannot fulfill the deepest needs and social aspirations of their peoples. The struggle for emancipation must be carried through to its logical conclusion. It is not enough to win political sovereignty under capitalism. National independence can become fictitious and turn into a snare and a delusion if popular power, yellow, black or white, is not buttressed by public ownership over the means of life and labor. So long as foreign or native propertied interests control the major national resources, the demands of the masses will remain unsatisfied and the country can again easily fall into economic subservience to imperialism. The reinstatement of neo-colonialism under formally independent black regimes is being enforced in many newly liberated African nations today.

From Nationalism to Socialism

This development is not foreordained. It can be averted and the highroad to progress be taken if the national revolution becomes combined with a deeper and broader revolution along socialist lines through which a government of workers and peasants takes over the productive facilities of the country and operates a planned economy in a democratic manner. That is why the anti-imperialist national liberation movements in the undeveloped lands irresistibly tend to pass over from purely nationalist grounds to socialist aims and measures, often in rhetoric but sometimes in reality.

This redirection of a democratic nationalist revolution into socialist channels, which is lodged in the very dynamics of a powerful mass upsurge, took place in Cuba after China and Vietnam. Starting as armed national liberation struggles, these revolutions grew over into consciously socialist movements through conclusions derived from direct confrontations and collisions with the imperialists and their servitors.

What application do these developments of the colonial revolution have to the Afro-American struggle for equality and emancipation? There are three diverse components at work in the black freedom movement: its working class social composition, its black nationalism, and its submerged and latent socialism. The interrelation and interaction of these elements are seldom clearly seen, and are often denied and dismissed, because they do not come forward evenly and mature at the same rate.

It is obvious to almost every black American, whether nationalist or not, that he has to work for a living (if he can get a job), and that the whole existence of his people is disfigured by the color bar. These conditions generate fierce and explosive revolt. But the anti-capitalist, and therewith pro-socialist, dynamics and direction of his struggle are not so evident, especially when he is not yet acquainted with authentic socialist thought, when the labor movement is passive and indifferent to his plight, and when the avowed socialist elements are predominantly white and weak.

Under such circumstances there are dangers in an outlook, which is prejudiced in principle against socialism or Marxism, is politically unclear, and disregards the anti-capitalism implicit in the working class character of the black revolt. It runs the risk of lagging behind the needs and checking the forward march of the movement itself. The millions of ghetto dwellers are not only imprisoned by racial segregation; they are daily confronted with social, economic, political and educational problems which cannot be alleviated, let alone solved, within the framework of the existing economic and political system or without the aid of socialist ideas.

The outstanding significance of Malcolm’s evolution from black nationalism toward socialism on a national and international scale was that, from his observations of the colonial world and his analysis of modern history, he had begun to grasp the necessity for the coalescence of these two movements and seek a synthesis of the revolutionary nationalist and socialist aspects of the freedom struggle. This step in his evolution was neither accidental nor strictly individual; it was a logical political conclusion from his entire experience as a revolutionary. In this respect he anticipated the future of the movement as well as embodying the best of its current stage.

His evolution was incomplete—or rather, incompleted. He was not, or was not yet, as Breitman is careful to point out, a Marxist. However, some of his disciples today, inspired by Malcolm’s vision and his gift for growth, are also beginning to see that black nationalism and revolutionary socialism need not be adversaries or rivals but can and ought to be friends and allies whose adherents can work together for common ends.

Last updated on: 19 June 2009