Martin Thomas looks at George Breitman’s book, The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary (Pathfinder, £7.95)
THIS BOOK, written over the year after Malcolm X was murdered in February 1965, sets out to prove that from June 1964 until his death “Malcolm was a revolutionary — increasingly anti-capitalist and pro-socialist as well as anti-imperialist”.
On one level, it is solid and convincing. Shortly before his death Malcolm said plainly that his struggle was not “a racial conflict of black against white, or... a purely American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter”.
“I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing... but I don’t think it will be based upon the colour of the skin, as Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad had taught it.”
Anyone who uses Malcolm X as authority for narrow black nationalist politics is being disloyal.
In his last year Malcolm became willing to work with the (liberal-led) mass civil rights movement.
He called for a struggle of both black and white people, not black people alone. “When the day comes when the whites who are really fed-up — I don’t mean these jive whites who pose as liberals... — learn how to establish the proper type of communication with those uptown [in Harlem] who are fed-up, and they get some co-ordinated action going, you’ll get some changes... And it will take both.”
He dumped the Black Muslims’ vague talk of a “black state”: “No. I believe in a society in which people can live like human beings on the basis of equality.” Immediately after quitting the Black Muslims, he summed up his philosophy as “black nationalism” — but by January 1965 he had rejected that: “I haven’t been using the expression for several months.”
He dropped the Black Muslims’ line of promoting black capitalism, in a way which Breitman shows must have been deliberate and considered — though he never openly argued against it, and never came out clearly with an alternative.
He denounced capitalism: “You can’t have capitalism without racism... You can’t operate a capitalistic system unless you are vulturistic; you have to have someone else’s blood to suck to be a capitalist...” He told Breitman’s comrade Harry Ring that he “felt it necessary for his people to consider socialist solutions to their problem. But as the leader of the movement, he said, it was necessary to present this concept in a way that would be understandable to his people and would not isolate him from them”.
The basic statement of his Organisation of Afro-American Unity, in June 1964, had cited “the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Constitution of the USA and the Bill of Rights” as “the principles in which we believe”; but in December 1964 he urged the OAAU to look wider: “The man doesn’t want you and me to look beyond Harlem or beyond the shores of America”.
He told the OAAU to consider socialism because, he said, that was the system that the new independent countries in Africa and Asia (and Scandinavia, too, he said in passing) were using to get rid of poverty and provide a decent life and decent education for everyone.
That those countries were not as he thought them to be does not undo the importance of Malcolm’s preaching of social provision for need in place of “vulturistic” profit. Unfortunately, however, Breitman’s own illusions here blur the argument of the book.
He weaves his presentation into a general notion of “the tendency of revolutionary nationalism to grow over into and become merged with socialism”, and thus blurs over both Malcolm’s sharp change of direction in 1964-5 and the deep differences Malcolm still had with working-class socialists.
Breitman was a Trotskyist, a long-standing member of American Socialist Workers’ Party (no relation to the SWP-Britain). When the SWP went Castro-Stalinist in the early 1980s, he fought against the turn and, nearly 70 years old, was expelled. He knew that the new states in Africa were not socialist at all.
All that, however, was blurred in his mind by a concept which he shared with all the “mainstream” Trotskyists of the time: that a great process of “colonial revolution” was sweeping the world which somehow had an inbuilt and semi-automatic tendency to “grow over” into socialism, and within which class issues were secondary details.
Malcolm’s identification with Third World states was thus, for Breitman, an identification with the “colonial revolution” and ipso facto an identification with a movement or process tending towards socialism. Moreover, for Breitman, Malcolm was also himself an example of that movement or process.
Breitman’s general summings-up, as opposed to his detailed documentation, therefore blur Malcolm’s change of direction. And Breitman gives a very blurred picture of the socialist view which he says Malcolm was moving towards.
THE SOCIALIST answer to racism is black and white workers’ unity on a programme of eliminating disadvantage by levelling up at the expense of the capitalists and capitalism. The principle of unity should not stop socialists supporting black people who start struggles against racism before any large number of white workers are ready to back those struggles; revolutionary unity can be established only by building on struggles, using them as a lever to change consciousness, not by dampening them down to get “unity” in silence and stillness. Nevertheless, class unity remains the basic principle.
Breitman mentions this issue quite clearly. “It is important to note that Malcolm... was talking about [an alliance with] ‘militant whites’, not white workers... He did not share the belief of the Marxists that the working class, including a decisive section of the white workers... will play a leading role”.
But Breitman’s blurred vision stops him developing this, or another important point he makes: “class questions are often expressed in racial terms”, that is, “racial” issues often have to be demystified by exposing class issues inside them.
Breitman concludes: “Malcolm was not yet a Marxist.” Not yet! But it was not only a matter of time!
Malcolm was not a Marxist. Whether he would have become one if he had lived longer depends on whether he would have become convinced on the key issues separating the sort of socialism at which he had arrived (with various state-capitalist and bureaucratic regimes as models, and without any special connection to the working class) from Marxist working-class socialism. It was not just a matter of trundling a little further along an automatic conveyor-belt.
On another level Breitman misses the point.
Malcolm was beginning to think and read about socialism. He was not, and could not have been, anywhere near producing a new socialist strategy against racism.
For a dozen years before that, he had had a strategy against racism — the “Black Muslim” strategy of building black self-respect and pride, encouraging racial separation, and using black resources to build up black (capitalist) businesses in black communities. Malcolm had rejected that strategy.
Malcolm was and is a great political figure not because he offered strategic guidance. His most famous slogan was “Freedom — by any means necessary”. The phrase “by any means necessary” shattered all the liberal taboos about non-violence and not demanding “too much”, and the black-separatist taboos too. In place of all talk of gradually scaling down racism, bit by bit, it put the basic human demand: we will not tolerate any racism any longer!
It was a revolutionary principle. But it said nothing about which means were suitable and effective! It offered no strategy.
All it did was to open the way for clear thinking about strategy — and that was a great thing to do, especially at that time and in that place. Malcolm opened the way for others (and for himself, in his last year) to think for themselves.
And to string together “Malcolm X’s strategy” from whatever selection of Malcolm’s statements suits your prejudices — black-nationalist, Muslim, or socialist — is not the best way to think for yourself. It is not the best way to learn from Malcolm X.