Reviewed by Liam Mac Uaid
Manning Marable was probably the influential historian of the black experience in the United States. He died in April this year aged sixty almost immediately before this indispensable and accessible exploration of Malcolm X’s life and intellectual journey was published.
Although the book is almost 600 pages long predictably enough it’s the marital indiscretions, the probable gay relationship and CV tampering that have excited most comment in the mainstream reviews. But his life story does throw up many more interesting questions about his political evolution in a time of anti-colonial revolutions, workers’ struggles and the fight of African Americans for civil rights. There is also his intriguing relationship with the far left. Marable is unflinching in his description of just how reactionary and bizarre some of the ideas held by the former Malcolm Little were. Yet his account of Malcolm X’s move towards a more orthodox understanding of Islam and his dealings with Marxists is engaging and put in the context of the big events that were happening around him.
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.
Malcolm X joined the Nation of Islam (NOI) 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. Its members were taught that white people are the result of a genetic experiment conducted 6000 years ago by an evil scientist. As one of its most prominent figures he made public statements that inter-racial marriage is “evil”.
He rose quickly to become number two to the cult’s leader Elijah Muhammad, a man who declared himself to be appointed by his god, a heresy in Islam. From 1952 until his expulsion in 1964, Malcolm X worked as a full time organiser and speaker for the group.
Malcolm was suspended and then expelled from the NOI 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.
After splitting with the NOI he had gone to Africa where he met several participants in the colonial revolutions. 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”.
Malcolm was murdered by a hit team from the NOI in 1965, aged 39. Marable’s fine writing builds up an atmosphere of almost Shakespearian tragedy as he recounts his protagonist’s last months of insecurity and isolation. This is only compounded by the reader’s knowledge that, had he lived, Malcolm would have been a major figure in the revolutionary surge that was opening up only three years later.