Socialist View, No. 14, Spring 2005
MALCOLM X - By any means necessary
IT IS AT a time when millions of black people in the US live in poverty in deprived ghettos, languish in prison or are exploited low paid workers, that we remember one of the most vocal opponents of the capitalist system.
By Olivia O'Neil
Malcolm X was shot dead on 21 February 1965, while preparing to address a rally in Harlem, New York. Sighs of relief swept through the US establishment, as one of the most threatening and dangerous opponents of US capitalism had been silenced. Forty years later, Malcolm X remains an inspiration for both black and white youth around the world to get involved in the struggle against institutionalised racism and capitalism.
Massive polarisation exists in US society. This polarisation has been created by the conscious policy of US capitalism to divide the working class on racial grounds in order to weaken the ability of the working class to fight back against its neo-liberal and international imperialist agenda such as the occupation of Iraq.
Record numbers of black and Latino youth are in the over-flowing American prisons. When 40% of black children live in poverty and the only escape from poverty and unemployment that many young blacks can see is the army and the urban battlefields of Iraq, it is vital that lessons from historical struggles like the civil rights movement are re-learnt.
Malcolm X became a victim of racist mobs when he was just a child. Born Malcolm Little, in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19, 1925, his family was forced to flee their home when it was set alight by a local white supremacist group that had been delivering threats to his father. When Malcolm was only six years old, his father was assassinated by the Ku Klux Klan. This horrific event fundamentally shaped Malcolm's life, leading to his unceasing struggle to fight against racism and to tear down the system that fostered it. The liberation of black people in America was his goal. Malcolm spent the end of his teenage years in prison after moving to the East Coast, like many young black people at the time to search for a job and a better standard of living. Many were pushed into petty crime as a way of trying to survive. At that stage, there were approximately 13 million black people living in America, the majority in the Southern states trapped in a regime of apartheid under the Jim Crow laws. Those living in the North were concentrated in urban ghettoes and huge numbers were unemployed. Malcolm got involved in illegal gambling, burglary and small-scale drug trafficking and was imprisoned for six years.
In prison Malcolm came into contact with political and religious ideas that would dramatically change his life.
The ideas of black nationalism had a strong base of support amongst prisoners and seemed to offer a solution to the problems and poverty that had landed them in jail. During the first 20 years of Malcolm's life the racism and poverty that he experienced alienated him from the US political establishment and he blamed all whites for the problems that the black community endured.
Nation of Islam
The Nation of Islam led by Elijah Muhammed stood for the complete separation of the black and white races, and for the idea of blacks going back to Africa, but did not stand for the overthrow of the capitalist system which Malcolm would later come to realise was the cause of racism.
It was on joining the Nation of Islam and becoming a Muslim that Malcolm Little abandoned his slave name and adopted the name Malcolm X, the X symbolising the lost name of his ancestor who had been stolen as a slave from Africa.
Malcolm became the public face and recognised leader of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X began to see through the shortcomings of the ideas of the "prophet" Elijah Muhammed. He saw the shortcomings of a leadership which did little to support or build the growing civil rights movement that contrasted sharply with the militant fighters from the black community who took direct action to defend blacks.
Malcolm also had his eyes opened to the financial and "moral" corruption of the other leaders of the Nation of Islam who lived lives of opulence compared to their members. Revelations that Elijah Muhammed had fathered children to young female disciples (who were then shunned) despite his preaching on monogamy devastated Malcolm.
The millions of young people participated in the civil rights movement and in the neo-colonial world revolutions swept away colonial rule. These events had a radicalising effect on Malcolm's political consciousness. Malcolm began also to politically clash with the leaders of the Nation of Islam, who conspired to have him removed from power. These moves were stepped up after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. Elijah Muhammed had ordered all Nation ministers to refuse to speak to the press. However, Malcolm spoke out: "it was, as I saw it, a case of the 'chickens coming home eto roost'. I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenceless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, finally had struck down this country's Chief of State."
The press published his every word. Accounts of Malcolm X leading "battalions" of well disciplined black men to confront armed police, protesting against police brutality and repression helped transform him into an iconic hero of the black masses. Malcolm X spoke in public to thousands as he toured the country building huge support.
It was on these tours that he witnessed the struggles by civil rights activists. Sit-ins and protests escalated in almost every state, many of them involving the unity of black people and layers of white activists, including students and workers. At a time when militant blacks were involved in unified mass action, the earlier tactics of the Nation such as meeting with a Nazi group to discuss black separatism shed a light on the cynical and bankrupt ideology of Elijah Muhammed's leadership and ideas. They would attack the strategy of the mainstream civil rights movement and yet offered no alternative to struggle except that people would find salvation within the ranks of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X was also opposed to the civil rights leaders who preached passive resistance and lobbied Democrat politicians. He correctly attacked this approach: "Who ever heard of angry revolutionists swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lilypad park pools, with gospels and guitars and 'I have a dream' speeches? And the black masses in America were - and still are - having a nightmare."
The Nation of Islam's demands for non-integration, strict religious codes and an independent black state in America were wrong and a dead end strategy. It was based on blaming all whites irrespective of their class for black oppression and racism. When in fact, as Malcolm X later recognised, racism and the oppression of blacks are caused by the capitalist system - "You can't have capitalism without racism." As Marxists we argue that racism and the oppression of all minorities, whether on the basis of race, religion or ethnic origin can only be ended by a united struggle by all workers to overthrow the capitalist system.
After splitting from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm's political ideas began to quickly and dramatically change. International travel opened his eyes to the oppression of white Muslims at the hands of white rulers, and his experience of making the pilgrimage to Mecca with white, and Asian Muslims had enormous affect on him and thus began his journey away from the ideas of black nationalism. After a trip to Africa he spoke on platforms about the importance "of having a working unity among all people" and "not alienating people who are true revolutionaries."
Malcolm immersed himself in a campaign against police brutality when local police gunned down seven black Muslims on the streets of Los Angeles. The campaign resulted in mass meetings and protests across the country, which actively sought to overcome racial and religious divisions.
Malcolm increasingly saw the need to build a new movement that was prepared to engage in a militant struggle to fundamentally change society. It was on this basis that Malcolm X founded the Organisation of African American Unity. Rejecting all religions, its founding programme was deeply influenced by the liberation struggles that were taking place in Africa at the time. The organisation principally advocated the armed defence of the black community against police attacks and state oppression. While not a socialist organisation, it was nevertheless a significant political step forward from the ideas of passive black nationalism because it recognised the need for pro-active militant tactics.
In the year before his death he preached unity amongst the oppressed, irrespective of race and began to see that the root cause of racism, poverty and oppression was capitalism. Malcolm X stated: "I will join in with anyone, I don't care what colour you are, as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth."
Malcolm X was assassinated by the US state with the help of the Nation of Islam. His murder was a tragedy for African-Americans, in fact for all working class people around the world as it stole from us one of our most significant and uncompromising fighters of the 20th century at a time when he was moving towards the ideas of working class unity and socialism.
The following quote shows how Malcolm X was moving towards the ideas of socialism. "We are living in an era of revolution, and the revolt of the American Negro is part of the rebellion against oppression and colonialism which has characterised this era...It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of Black against white, or as a purely American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter".
Malcolm's murder enraged a generation to rise up and fight. His ideas and example inspired the Black Panthers, whose leader Bobby Seale summed up what we need to do: "We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism. We fight imperialism with proletarian internationalism."