Could socialists have a relationship with members of a cult who believe that white people are an inferior version of Black people, the result of a genetic experiment conducted 6000 years ago? Or have a constructive dialogue with someone who made public statements six months ago that inter-racial marriage is “evil”? Or invite prominent, recently expelled, members of such a cult to speak at their meetings and give interviews in their papers?
The anti-war movement in Britain has, for the first time, allowed the far left to establish working relationships with a range of Muslim organisations and clergy. Michael Lavallette’s election victory in Preston for the Socialist Alliance was made possible by his record of anti-war activity and the endorsement of local Muslim clerics. In this instance the clerics moved towards the socialists. Subsequently there has been a lot of debate with one side focussing on the irrefutably reactionary positions of aspects of Islam.
Socialists leave theological disputes to others. We do, though, try to understand what organisations represent and how they evolve when the real world imposes itself on them. From this point of view we have much to learn how revolutionary socialists in the United States developed their relationship with Malcolm X in the months before his murder in 1965. This too was at a time of imperialist war and a global radicalisation with a strong internationalist content.
Malcolm X joined the Nation of Islam while serving a sentence for burglary. He was a drug dealer and career criminal. It was a sect, isolated from mainstream Black politics and not recognised by the American Islamic community. It enforced a rigid discipline and sexual abstinence on its followers. It preached Black unity and Black separatism. Its attraction for Malcolm X in his cell was the message that he had sunk so low because of racist oppression. The Nation of Islam promised to restore his personal dignity and allow him to fight against racist American society.
He rose quickly to become number two to the cult’s leader Elijah Muhammad, a man who declared himself to be appointed by god. From 1952 until his expulsion from the Nation of Islam in 1964, Malcolm X worked as a full time organiser and speaker for the group.
Malcolm was suspended and then expelled from the Nation of Islam on the pretext of remarks that he had made about the assassination of President Kennedy. The real reason was that Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm were developing very different ways of relating to the civil rights demonstrations, marches and pickets that were starting all over the United States as Black Americans started fighting for their rights. Muhammad’s version of Black unity was that the other Black organisations would follow his instructions. Malcolm was prepared to work with other organisations in united fronts. So when Los Angeles police shot seven Black Muslims in April 1962, Malcolm went there and organised mass protest meetings, got TV coverage and was creating a mass defence campaign. Muhammad put a stop to this and Malcolm acquiesced.
But by March 1964 Malcolm was saying “I am prepared to co-operate in local civil rights actions in the South and elsewhere because every campaign can only heighten the political consciousness of the Negroes.” He was in touch with the communities that were organising and the youth who were fighting. He was by now following developments in the colonial revolutions and was quickly transcending the political and philosophical limitations of his Nation of Islam background.
The majority of the American left at the time was hostile. The Communist Party, for example, denounced Black Nationalism, siding with the more conservative civil rights figures against the more radical. Its paper wrote “The Muslim organization in general and Malcolm X in particular, are ultra-reactionary forces operating in the orbit of the Negro people’s movement with the strategic assignment to sow ideological confusion.”
Writing about these events Barry Sheppard who was a leading member of the US SWP (then the organisation of supporters of the Fourth International) says: “One of the things we came to understand was that the prejudice of some Blacks toward whites and the racism of most whites towards Blacks were not the same. The Nation of Islam, whom the media dubbed the Black Muslims, for example, had a theory about the origin of the white race, which they considered the spawn of Satan. Was this the same thing as white racist theories about the nature of Blacks? No, we said. Prejudice is wrong, whoever espouses it. But the prejudice of some Blacks toward whites is a distorted form of opposition to the oppression of Blacks by white society. White racism towards Blacks, however, is a false justification for the oppression of Blacks.”
This was a different way of approaching movements and politics. These socialists were interpreting what Malcolm X was saying and doing and appreciated that he was evolving because he was responding to the radicalisations that where taking place. They reported his speeches in their paper because they understood that the rise of Black Nationalism was an expression of opposition to racist oppression. They also understood that the religious language that people like Malcolm used was the vocabulary they had borrowed to explain the real world. Most importantly they knew that people’s ideas and language can change very quickly when big events like wars and rebellions are taking place.
This was made clear when Malcolm agreed to speak at a meeting organised by the SWP in New York. A few weeks later he again spoke at one of their meetings. His politics were becoming very different from the views he had held for a number of years. After splitting with the Nation of Islam he had gone to Africa where he met several participants in the colonial revolution. By the time he returned he had reached the view that a secular political organisation was needed. He was also passionately opposed to the Vietnam War and the assaults on Congo by the United States and Belgium.
It was evident that he was moving dramatically to the left. In a speech in December 1964 he said: “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. You show me a capitalist, I’ll show you a bloodsucker”
Speaking to a meeting organised by the revolutionary socialists in April 1964 Malcolm had predicted, “1964.will be a year of much racial violence and bloodshed.” In July it took the police three days to put down a rebellion by Harlem residents following the police murder of a 15-year-old boy. Malcolm had seen what was coming. The years that followed saw similar rebellions in several cities. At the same time new militant Black organisations were formed and Malcolm X was seen as the prophet and the symbol of this upsurge.
Not every Muslim cleric in Britain who supported the anti-war movement is a potential Malcolm X. However those on the left who have opposed collaboration with Muslim organisations in the anti-war movement would have run a mile from Malcolm. We don’t know what his views on women’s or gay rights were in his Nation of Islam days but we can be sure they weren’t pretty. But what his example shows is that it is possible, if we are willing to look at ideas as things that can be changed, to have an influence on how people interpret the world and how they act politically. Barry Sheppard makes the point well when he writes: “our relationship to Malcolm X has almost nothing to do with his being a Muslim, but to him as a revolutionary Black fighter.” Our starting point with Muslim organisations should be their opposition to imperialist wars.