Monday, October 24, 2016

Thinking about Malcolm X and society

by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired*

I remember reading Malcom X's speeches and how as he developed his political thinking he was influenced by the colonial revolutions in Africa and meeting with Nyere, Kenyatta, Nkrumah and others.  He had been sent by Elijah Muhammad to meet with the Klan in December of 1960 as the Nation of Islam was in the process of making deals with the KKK for land in the South. It disgusted him and Malcolm X was never sent back there by the NOI.  "I have never gone along with no Ku Klux Klan" he said.

As a young kid growing up in England I have to say I was not drawn to Malcolm X in any way. Why would I be?  In his his early years he would never have considered working class unity, workers of all colors, nationality, races etc, joining together in struggle against capitalism and the filth that goes with it. Plus, my thinking was tarred by the conditions I found myself in and my mind was not fully open to such politics either; I recall being influenced to a certain degree by the racist politics of Enoch Powell for a brief moment in time. He was a very clever racist intellectual. But as I always tell young workers getting involved in politics today, Malcolm X is an example of how people can change and how objective conditions and world events can transform us. 

Over a short period of time since his early childhood and experiencing the horror and brutality of racism, including the murder of his own father, he became a pimp, got involved in drug dealing and other unsavory activity. He then found in a religious cult a theoretical explanation that at the time made some sense of what was happening to him and all black people. 

Later on, his travels and the colonial revolutions in Africa had a huge influence on his thinking, broadened his horizons and he became one of the 20th centuries greatest and most influential revolutionary leaders.  The black revolt in the US, the colonial revolutions in Africa as nation after nation drove out the direct rule of European colonialism, these were the events that were taking place around him.

Malcom X's influence has been so powerful that the white racist capitalist class cannot ignore him. But, as they do with Martin Luther King, they create a carnival like atmosphere around these figures as a means of obscuring their ideas, it's just about blackness. How they thought, their differences and how they saw society and what could be done to change the world around them is shoved to the background. This is particularly the case with Malcolm X how his thinking was rapidly shifting and that toward the end of his life was clearly moving towards a socialist view of the world. When asked by Pierre Breton in January 1965:

 "But you no longer believe in a black state?", he replied, "No, I believe in a society in which people can live like human beings on the basis of equality."

Five weeks before his assassination he gave an interview to the Young Socialist Newspaper and was asked to define Black Nationalism. His answer was:

I used to define black nationalism as the idea that the black man should control the economy of his community, the politics of his community, and so forth.

But when I was in Africa in May, in Ghana, I was speaking with the Algerian ambassador who is extremely militant and is a revolutionary in the true sense of the word (and has his credentials as such for having carried on a successful revolution against oppression in his country). When I told him that my political, social and economic philosophy was black nationalism, he asked me very frankly, well, where did that leave him? Because he was white. He was an African, but he was Algerian, and to all appearances he was a white man. And he said if I define my objective as the victory of black nationalism, where does that leave him? Where does that leave revolutionaries in Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, Mauritania? So he showed me where I was alienating people who were true revolutionaries, dedicated to overthrowing the system of exploitation that exists on this earth by any means necessary.*

So, I had to do a lot of thinking and reappraising of my definition of black nationalism. Can we sum up the solution to the problems confronting our people as black nationalism? And if you noticed, I haven't been using the expression for several months. But I still would be hard pressed to give a specific definition of the over-all philosophy which I think is necessary for the liberation of the black people in this country.

Malcolm X was also speaking to the organized working class. He spoke to members of 1199 supporting their 59 day strike in 1962.  He was clearly moving more towards a position of working class unity, of the unity of all oppressed people against the oppressor.  Malcolm X was not serving the interests of the US ruling class, albeit unintentionally as in the past, when his separatist views and lumping of all white people in one basket were useful to them as a means of weakening and dividing the working class as a whole. Portraying all black leaders as having the same views was also useful. Clearly, Minister Louis Farrahkhan, the present leader of the Nation of Islam does not have the same world view as Malcolm X. Farrakhan, apart form being a cultish religious figure, is an extremely wealthy man and supports black capitalism. His struggle is for the freedom of black capitalism to exploit workers like their more powerful white counterparts, he knows he cannot be part of the white racists ruling class. It is useful to the white capitalist class to put these two figures with opposing political views in the same basket where their actual ideas can be obscured.

There is a tendency for the black petty bourgeois today, those who claim black capitalism as the solution to racism, to do the same. They will often quote Malcolm X but they rarely if ever quote his statement that, "You can't have capitalism without racism." The reason this class avoids this statement is that the conclusion one must draw from it is that we have to overthrow capitalism and we cannot overthrow capitalism without working class unity.  Working class unity threatens the very existence of capitalism and the white racist bourgeois know it, so do the white petty bourgeois layers and so do the black petty bourgeois. It means class suicide for these layers in society but particularly so for the black capitalist class. Hundreds of years of isolation and exclusion from "normal" society which also meant an inability to accumulate and have access to capital, suppressed the growth of such a class and it is socially weaker than its white counterparts who have much closer connections to the rulers of society.

The heroic struggle of the black workers and youth during the 50's and 60's forced the white racist bosses' to open some doors, to help strengthen the black middle class as a buffer between them and the revolutionary potential of the black working class and as a counter to working class unity as in times of increased opposition to racism and oppression in all its forms they can be dragged out to warn that "you can make it, look at us, but you have to work within the system."

I wanted to share a couple of personal thoughts. It is so obvious that racism, like gender oppression, or religious sectarianism is a tactic that the ruling class uses to deter class unity. In Northern Ireland, the Protestant working class received privileges that Catholics were denied in order to break worker unity. In the US, the white or European worker was, as "white" became a race. Imagine, the poorest of white men in the South could rape a black woman and get away with, or kill a black man and do so because a black person couldn't testify against a white man. The reason there are so many lighter skinned people of African descent in the US is due to mass legalized rape.  The crisis in the black communities today is a product of this racist history so it's absurd to tell a black person to "get over slavery" because they can't as things stand.

The other sad thing is that because communities are so segregated, poor and middle/working class with the poorest urban communities being mainly black and other people of color, white workers miss out. Look at the public school system. I drive by the elementary school and it's mostly youth of color. Many whites form the suburbs wouldn't dream of hanging out in East Oakland and wouldn't know how to function if they did. This isolation from each other is by conscious design.

I say the white working class misses out because society denies them the pleasure of experiencing the pleasure, the humor, kindness, generosity and compassion of the black working class. One doesn't know a people if one doesn't socialize with them. Given their experience, the black working has more compassion. They are very familiar with violence and isolation due to their historical and personal experience living in a society that has institutional racism ingrained in it. There is a reason oppressed minorities produce such powerful influences culturally, music, art, literature etc. expression cannot be suppressed as long as people breathe. I found that my experience back home when I worked on the roads with Irish laborers and the Irish suffered a lot of racism in England, was very similar here with black folks, two seemingly different peoples but with very similar cultural attitudes.

We are all oppressed/exploited as workers, but women, racial and religious minorities and others who are teaching us that gender is a more complicated thing than we are led to believe, have an additional cross to bear. It is refreshing to read that more and more young whites are in support of the BLM movement and others struggles, the Standing Rock Sioux have also received substantial suppot although not enough from powerful institutions like the labor movement whose leaders are a shameful bunch.

We will see in the period ahead, more and more workers forced in to struggle by the crisis of global capitalism. While the movement will not move forward in a straight line as we say, there is a powerful tendency for workers to unite along class lines as we struggle together to defend our material well being and we are in a period where it is not as easy to pacify the white worker with a few extra crumbs from the bosses' table. White workers have seen their living standards savaged over the last 25 years. In the course of struggle, racist and sexist ideas are challenged, they are seen more and more as a threat to victory, they are seen as divisive and consciousness changes much as the recent outburst of support for Trump's female victims is making men rethink their views as the last post pointed out.

Finally, how can anyone not look and listen to Malcolm X in this video and not be moved by this person, drawn to him?  He is human you can see it. His home had been bombed, he knew his life was in danger from the state and from the Nation of Islam. That is another thing, how may white workers have read about him, read that autobiography by Haley,  read his speeches? Of course he says things that are not pleasant, I don't agree with them, never did but you will notice his evolution. But I suggest that if you can't understand his history  (the terror of the Klan and the apathy of millions to that terror) and look at him and people like him with that in mind, the problem is yours to solve. But most of all, he is an example of how a person can learn and change if they are willing. He admits his failings, he admits he simply aped what he was told by a cult figure. 

And imagine, people explain away why certain poor and disenfranchised whites may fall for Trump's message and I agree that they need not all be lost, but they can't seem to grasp, or are unwilling to grasp why Malcolm X went through the periods he did?

“I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation.”  

Malcom X, Speech to Barnard College and Columbia University  February 18th 1965

* I realize I may not please some people with these views and I hope that people will comment on the blog if they have an opinion one way or another. We will publish anything that helps us move forward, helps debate and that is constructive. Abusive stuff sorry.

Note: updated 10-27-16

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