Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 12, 2010

Malcolm X and American Trotskyism

Filed under: african-american,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:32 pm

When I was a student at Bard College, I was generally apolitical. If pressed to define my views, I would have described them as liberal anti-Communist strongly influenced by Albert Camus. But for some reason, I began to develop a real sympathy for Black Nationalism by my senior year in 1965.

When I found myself in the city over the weekend of March 18th, 1965 I decided to check out a panel discussion at the Village Gate that featured LeRoi Jones, Nat Hentoff and the Village Gate owner Art D’Lugoff. Jack Newfield covered the event in the Village Voice, back when the paper was still worth reading:

Gig at Gate: Return of the White Liberal Stompers
By Jack Newfield

Goateed, immaculately dressed Negroes looking for a pogrom, carefully coifed Hadassah ladies looking for a lynching and impassive hipsters looking for a “happening” jammed the Village Gate last Wednesday night. The marquee proclaimed blues singer Paul Butterfield, but the magnet was LeRoi Jones and his White Liberal Stompers.

The Stompers had made a spectacular debut at the Village Vanguard two weeks ago when they refused to play a dirge for the slain civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner and for the six million Jews incinerated by Hitler.

“Those boys were just artifacts, man,” poet-playwright-polemicist Jones had said of the dead integrationists. “They weren’t real. If they went (to Mississippi) to assuage their leaking consciences that’s their business. I won’t mourn for them. I have my own dead to mourn for.”

Despite my liberal politics, I did not feel under attack. Perhaps, I was favorably disposed to Jones after having heard him do a reading from The System of Dante’s Hell in 1961 up at Bard. He was brought up by Robert Kelly, a “new poet” like LeRoi Jones, who had just begun teaching at Bard. I was pretty close to Kelly at the time and tended to pay close attention to any writer he brought up for a reading, including Robert Duncan at another event. The System of Dante’s Hell was Jones’s only novel. It is an amazing work, using Newark as a stand-in for Dante’s inferno, written with the same kind of surrealist intensity as Naked Lunch.

But my first exposure to Black militancy was Malcolm X speaking at a Militant Labor Forum on January 7th 1965 held at the Palm Gardens in New York. I went there with my girlfriend Dian, who was curious about Malcolm herself but probably not as much as me. I have vivid memories of seeing a bunch of leaflets on the chairs just before we sat down. They were probably about some other forum the SWP was organizing that month, the same kind of events I would be organizing in Houston, Texas about seven years later.

The audience was mostly Black. I really loved it when they yelled out during his talk: “Preach, brother” or “Tell it like it is.” This was the speech when he expressed a very friendly attitude toward the SWP as this excerpt would indicate:

The Militant newspaper is one of the best in New York City. In fact, it is one of the best anywhere you go today. I saw it even in Paris about a month ago; they were reading it over there. And I saw it in some parts of Africa where I was during the summer. I don’t know how it gets there. But if you put the right things in it, what you put in it will see that it gets around.

Of course, that newspaper can hardly be seen nowadays, thereby providing negative confirmation of Malcolm’s observation, namely that if you put shit in a newspaper, nobody will read it.

I browse through the Militant nowadays, mostly out of morbid curiosity. In the 1970s, when I was sub drive director in Boston, the national goal was something like 25,000 new readers. Now, the paper sets goals like 2000 but that includes subs sold by the party’s satellite groups in places like New Zealand. I can’t imagine anything more daunting that trying to sell a newspaper filled with bizarre analyses of U.S. politics to a Christchurch dweller. It would be hard enough if the paper was within 7 leagues of sanity.

I generally don’t comment on the SWP nowadays since the group is so marginal to American politics. In fact, the mailing list I launched on Yahoo to discuss the demise of the SWP has twice as many subscribers as the party has members.

But some recent reactions to the Militant’s analysis of Black Nationalism in conjunction with cult leader Jack Barnes’s new book Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power provoked my interest. This sectarian pile of crap has provided sufficient irritant to some on the left to spur them to write very good replies. The process might be likened to a speck of dirt producing an oyster’s pearl.

Socialist Action, a small group that was launched by expellees from the SWP in the early 80s hoping—perhaps futilely—to restore American Trotskyism to its once hallowed status, published an article by Clay Wadena and Joe Auciello titled New Book Distorts the Legacy of Malcolm X & Black Nationalism that is really quite good. They write:

“Black nationalism,” Barnes declares, “has no political trajectory that advances the interests of working people whatever their skin color… To the degree Black nationalism has a class character… it can only be bourgeois” (p. 318).

But how can Barnes attack Black nationalism—retreating from the historic SWP position—when so much of the book is spent praising the most famous Black nationalist that ever lived, Malcolm X? Barnes solves this problem by reevaluating the SWP’s position on how far Malcolm X had evolved politically after his split with the NOI. In that effort, he tries to put as much distance between Malcolm X and Black nationalism as possible.

The position long held by the SWP—laid out in the excellent book, “Last Year Of Malcolm X:  Evolution of a Revolutionary,” by George Breitman—was that Malcolm was quickly evolving away from a basic or “pure-and-simple” Black nationalism to an anti-capitalist and revolutionary point of view, but that he was still a Black nationalist in many significant ways. That is not meant to discredit or devalue Malcolm X’s tremendous legacy in any way, only to reiterate that Malcolm X’s primary concern up until his assassination was the condition of Black people—not necessarily the working class as a whole.

Without knowing that Barnes had been instrumental in having George Breitman expelled from the SWP in 1984, the reader might be surprised at the confrontational and dishonest way in which Barnes treats Breitman in this book. According to Barnes, Breitman concluded that “right up until his assassination, Malcolm considered the revolutionary transformation of society in the United States (and the world) to be the ‘white man’s problem’” (p. 333). But any reader who checks Breitman’s book will clearly see that Breitman was referring to the “pure-and-simple” variety of Black nationalists who Malcolm had moved beyond in the last year of his life.

Barnes later writes mockingly, “Did Breitman think proletarian revolutionaries who were Black made an error in joining the SWP?” None of Breitman’s work over his entire life suggests that he held such a belief, but Barnes is apparently very comfortable bashing Breitman to his heart’s content.

On a more substantial level, Barnes lays heavy criticism on Breitman’s contention that Malcolm X was “on the way to a synthesis of Black nationalism and socialism that would be fitting for the American scene and acceptable to the masses in the Black ghetto,” and that Malcolm X was “Black nationalist plus revolutionary.” Barnes claims instead that Malcolm was on the way to “something more dialectical, inclusive, internationalist, and socialist” (p. 336). For Barnes, the new classification for Malcolm X is “revolutionary leader of the working class” (p. 59).

Meanwhile the November 8th edition of The Militant has an exchange between Sobukwe Shukura, cochair of the National Network on Cuba, and a leader of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, and Steve Clark, Jack Barnes’s long-time henchman. The fact that Shukura is cochair of the National Network on Cuba would be prima facie evidence that Shukura might have been a natural ally of the SWP before it went insane.

Shukura writes:

Page 344 of Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and The Road to Workers Power, written by Jack Barnes and edited by Steve Clark, in the first full sentence says, “Malcolm was on the road to becoming a communist.” He goes on to say on page 345, “Recognizing and embracing the world-class political leadership of revolutionists who are Black—whether an African American such as Malcolm X, or leaders such as Maurice Bishop and Thomas Sankara—doesn’t lead militant workers and youth in the political direction of nationalism or Pan-Africanism.”

These statements say volumes about first, Jack’s arrogant dismissal of revolutionary Pan-Africanism, and second, his attempts to rewrite and appropriate the history of El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X). We will deal with El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz first. Let’s make it clear, he built two organizations when he left the Nation of Islam: The Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) and the Muslim Mosque, Inc. The OAAU was the political organization he formed, but Jack Barnes tells us on the bottom of page 357 that we should ignore the “Statement of Basic Aims and Objectives” from 1964 and the ‘’Basic Unity Program” of 1965.

Both documents call for unity between Africans in the West, and Africans in Africa. Even if we were to ignore Malcolm’s own organizational documents, we have to listen to his speeches that call for not only unity among Africans in the U.S., but for Unity for Africans (Afro-Americans) in the Western Hemisphere. He states that what will advance African peoples’ struggles in the U.S. “is the independence of Africa.”

Clark’s reply to Shukura is a study in sectarian bombast. Here’s a particularly fetid helping from the pile of ordure:

What is remarkable about Sobukwe Shukura’s article on Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power by Jack Barnes is that it contains not a single word about the responsibility—and ultimate test!—of revolutionists living, working, and practicing politics in the United States.

There’s not a word, not one, about building a revolutionary organization capable of leading the working class—of all skin colors, sexes, and national origins—to conquer state power from the exploiters and oppressors in the United States.

In contrast, Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, in his introduction to Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, points out that the book is “about the last century and a half of class struggle in the United State … and the unimpeachable evidence it offers that workers who are Black will comprise a disproportionately weighty part of the ranks and leadership of the mass social movement that will make a proletarian revolution.”

It is a book, Barnes says, about why that new state power “provides working people the mightiest weapon possible to wage the ongoing battle to end Black oppression and every form of exploitation and human degradation” brought over from the imperialist epoch.

Although certainly in evidence during my time in the SWP, this kind of verbal radicalism has become dominant in the pages of The Militant over the past 20 years or so. In place of strategy and tactics for the mass movement in the here and now (what James P. Cannon once referred to as “the art of politics is knowing what to do next”), the SWP specializes in empty declarations about their resolute dedication to the cause of communism. It is really not that different from Daniel DeLeon’s Socialist Labor Party. You can’t find anything in the SWP or SLP newspapers about how to win a struggle against “fracking” or how to beat back attacks on social security (a measure that Barnes dismisses as “welfare” in the latest issue.) Or any other reform, for that matter. Everything is reduced to proletarian revolution, ostensibly led by a group of about 125 elderly spaced out dogmatists.

Back on January 4 1999, I wrote a defense of Black Nationalism that I still stand by. It is the kind of politics that I was moving toward supporting long before I ever heard of the SWP. I am convinced that nothing will ever shake me from these views:

CLR James and Malcolm X

In 1943 CLR James submitted a resolution titled “The Historical Development of the Negroes in American Society” to the Workers Party for discussion and adoption. It was a conscious attempt to apply Lenin’s support for the self-determination of oppressed nationalities in general to the specific problem of self-determination for black America, an internal quasi-colony.

His was a minority position. Within the Workers Party, James had been derided as an ultraleftist and an eccentric. Max Schachtman, the party leader, called James a “literary man” as a put-down. The fact that James had led study circles on Hegel and Capital was another sign that James was not a real Bolshevik. The party member most hostile to James, however, was Ernest Rice McKinney. He gave James the nickname “Sportin’ Life”, after the villainous pimp in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. (Again, I tip my hat to Scott McLemee who provides this background data in his excellent introduction to “CLR James and the Negro Question”.)

Writing for the party majority, McKinney put forward the classic “black-white unity” position of American socialism directly opposed to James’s embrace of Black Nationalism:

The white worker must take the lead and offensive in the struggle for the Negro’s democratic rights…The white workers are strongly organized, they have had ages of experience and they are powerful. On the other hand, no matter how great their courage and determination, the Negroes are organizationally, financially and numerically weak in comparison with the white workers, and woefully and pitifully weak in the face of present-day capitalism…

This position has come in a variety of packages, from major formations like Eugene V. Debs’s Socialist Party or the post-Black Belt CPUSA, to the puny, impotent Trotskyist sects of today such as the Spartacist League [and now, sadly, the SWP]. It was a position that John Reed defended in the Second Congress of the Communist International. This Congress was completely absorbed with the question of the self-determination of oppressed nationalities and the American delegation which included Reed and Louis Fraina simply didn’t understand the relevance of black nationalism to the American class struggle. (One shortcoming of Warren Beatty’s excellent “Reds”, which features him as John Reed and Paul Sorvino as rival CP leader Louis Fraina, is that there is absolutely no recognition of the black struggle, nor any leading black characters.)

During the discussion on the national question, Reed made the following comments:

For American Communists the only correct policy toward the Negroes should be to see them primarily as workers. Despite the Negroes’ backwardness, the tasks posed for agricultural workers and tenant farmers in the South are the same as those we must solve with respect to the white agricutural proletariat. Communist propaganda work can be carried on among Negroes working in industry in the North. In both sections of the country every effort must be made to organize Negroes into common labor unions with the whites. That is the best and fastest way to break down prejudice and foster class solidarity.

While the Comintern did not arrive at a fully thought-out position on the black struggle in the United States, there is a rejection of Reed’s economism in Thesis 9 of the “The Theses on the National and Colonial Questions”: “…all Communist parties must directly support the revolutionary struggle among the nations that are dependent and do not have equal rights (for example, Ireland, the Negroes in America, and so forth), and in the colonies.”

CLR James developed his position on black nationalism in 1943 against a backdrop of deepening racial polarization and violence. In his article “The Race Pogroms and the Negro” written that year, he denounces the white riots aimed at southern black migrants in search of well-paying defense industry jobs in northern cities. In Detroit, 25 out of 28 dead in a major riot were black. One hundred percent of the arrested rioters were black even though the riots were started by white racists. In all cases, the police colluded with the white mobs.

The racial pogroms spurred some black newspapers to call for self-defense that year. The Baltimore Afro-American declared that “Colored communities must be prepared to protect themselves. Frederick Douglass said that the slave who resisted vigorously was almost never whipped. If mobsters attacking colored homes get a hot reception once, they will not repeat that visit.” James was attuned to the anger of the black community and concluded his article with the following call:

If only the workers see that the Negroes mean business, they are certain to respond. But the Negroes must rid themselves of the misleaders who are always looking to Roosevelt, or to Pearl Buck, or to Wendell Wilkie, for help–and also, incidentally, for the publicity which it brings. If the Negroes do not defend themselves, it is certain nobody else will…

The idea that black people should not wait for the white working-class to come to their aid, but that they should take initiatives on their own behalf, is at the core of black nationalism. What James did is take the defiant mood of black America reflected in these sentences and transform it into a coherent theoretical framework when he composed his 1943 position paper in support of black nationalism.

In the section of the article subheaded “The Negro Question as a National Question”, James displays a complex and dialectical understanding of the relationship between race, nationality and class:

The 14 million Negroes in the United States are subjected to every conceivable variety of economic oppression and social and political discrimination. These tortures are to a degree sanctified by law and practiced without shame by all the organs of government. The Negroes, however, are and have been for many centuries in every sense of the word, Americans. They are not separated from their oppressors by differences of culture, differences of religion, differences of language, as the inhabitants of India or Africa. They are not even regionally separated from the rest of the community as national groups in Russia, Spain, or Yugoslavia.

The Negroes are for the most part proletarian or semi-proletarian and therefore the struggle of the Negroes is fundamentally a class question.

The Negroes do not constitute a nation, but, owing to their special situation, their segregation; economic, social, and political oppression; the difference in color which separates them out so easily from the rest of the community; their problems become the problem of a national minority. The Negro question is a part of the national and not of the ‘national’ question. This national minority is most easily distinguished from the rest of the community by its racial characteristics. Thus the Negro question is a question of race and not of ‘race’.

The contrasts between their situation and the privileges enjoyed by those around them have always made the Negroes that section of American society most receptive to revolutionary ideas and the radical solution of social problems. The white working class struggles against the objective rule of capital and for some subjective goal, which even on the very eve of revolution, is impossible to visualize fully in concrete and positive terms. The Negroes, on the other hand, struggle and will continue to struggle objectively against capital, but in contrast to the white workers, for the very concrete objective democratic rights they see around them.

But the whole history of the United States and the role of the Negroes in American economy and society are a constant proof and reminder of the fact that it is absolutely impossible for the Negroes to gain equality under American capitalism.

Such is the development of American capitalist society and the role of Negroes in it that the Negroes’ struggle for democratic rights brings the Negroes almost immediately face to face with capital and the state. The Marxist support of the Negro struggle for democratic rights is not a concession that Marxists make to the Negroes. In the United States today this struggle is a direct part of the struggle for socialism.

James’s resolution on Black Nationalism was rejected by the Workers Party. Both the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers Party, the two most important Trotskyist groups in the United States, continued to regard the black struggle as something to be subsumed within the working-class struggle as a whole. The events that followed the publication of James’s resolution would tend to give credence to the class-only approach since the immediate postwar period was witness to the most powerful trade union battles since the 1930s. After the defeat of Germany and Japan, the American working class decided that there was no excuse for wartime austerity any longer and they organized one powerful and militant strike after another.

The Socialist Workers Party in particular viewed this labor upsurge as proof of a deepening radicalization. With a few exceptions, Felix Morrow in particular, the party leadership expected the 1950s to be a period of rapid growth and deepening influence. One thing that gave party leaders some inspiration was the large number of black workers who recently joined the party. I suspect that most of these workers joined on the same basis as white workers. They were products of the CIO radicalization which placed no particular emphasis on black demands per se. They saw the Socialist Workers Party as a party that fought for trade union rights, civil rights and democracy. The party proclaimed, as did every other left party, that these rights could only be achieved when workers ran society. When the cold war and McCarthyism sank in, most of these workers–black and white–drifted away. There was considerable incentive for them to get out of politics since auto workers, truck drivers, etc. were beginning to enjoy the fruits of post-WWII prosperity. Membership in a “subversive” organization could only be an impediment.

In the early 1950s, the first seeds of the civil rights movement were being planted. WWII had led to powerful anticolonial uprisings as the former major powers were weakened by 5 years of war. India, Indonesia, Indochina, Algeria, Egypt, Kenya, etc. were all swept by nationalist uprisings against colonial rule. In the United States, the ruling class began to feel compromised by the presence of Jim Crow laws in the south. Such de jure segregation could only tarnish the reputation of US imperialism as a leader of the postcolonial world. With this in mind, hesitant steps were taken to break down segregation. The Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools in 1954 was one such step.

This led to more assertive efforts by traditional civil rights organizations to rapidly break down Jim Crow in the south. This led to clashes between some of the more militant civil rights activists and the Democratic Party over the pace of desegregation. By the mid 1960s, young activists start to grow impatient with gradualism and they called for Freedom Now. They were organized in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). This current begins to sympathize with the ideas of Malcolm X, who is at this time is a leader of the Nation of Islam.

So it is out of the struggle of oppressed nationalities in Asia, Africa and Latin America that our modern civil rights movement gets its initial inspiration. As this civil rights movement begins to pick up momentum, it becomes transformed into a black power movement. This movement even begins to take on the dynamics of nationalist struggles in places like Algeria, Kenya, etc. Franz Fanon, the Algerian revolutionary, becomes widely accepted as the ideologist of a new type of American black nationalism.

It is Malcolm X, however, who becomes the patron saint of this new movement. The reason that he was killed is that the ruling class recognized that it had a revolutionary in its midst who was fully capable of leading 13 to 14 million black Americans in a militant struggle against white supremacy. In the last year of his life, Malcolm X started to understand the relationship between this struggle and the struggle for socialism. He was evolving toward a synthesis of the socialist and nationalist programs in a manner consistent with the views of Lenin, Trotsky and CLR James.

I heard Malcolm X gave his famous “Bullet or the Ballot” speech at a meeting sponsored by the Militant newspaper on January 7, 1965 19 days before my twentieth birthday. I was a senior in college at the time and was curious about what Malcolm had to say. (As a long time jazz fan, I had become interested in black issues as well. Many jazz musicians of the period were starting to articulate nationalist concerns.) In this speech he started off by tipping his hat to the Militant, the house organ of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. He said, “I always feel that it is an honor and every time that they open the door for me to do so, I will be right here. The Militant newspaper is one of the best in New York City. In fact, it is one of the best anywhere you go today.”

Two and a half years later I was in the Socialist Workers Party myself and selling the newspaper door to door in college dormitories, housing projects, and at demonstrations. I was proud to be circulating a newspaper that Malcolm X thought so highly of. Although the Socialist Workers Party went into a sharp decline in the 1980s and the Militant newspaper is now unreadable, I still have a strong affinity with Malcolm X and a few fond memories of the party I joined 30 years ago.

These affinities made re-reading George Breitman’s “Last Year of Malcolm X” a real pleasure. The book recounts Malcolm’s political evolution toward socialism after he broke with the Nation of Islam. Breitman was one of the early champions of Malcolm X even when he was still a Black Muslim. He was also sensitive to new developments in the class struggle that did not arrive in the trade union forms that most party veterans expected. Nobody had more impeccable working class credentials than George. He was from a working class family in Newark, New Jersey and never attended college. He learned his Marxism in the street battles of the 1930s and not in the sociology department of an Ivy League university. He was the major party theorist of the new radicalization of the 1960s and urged the party to open its doors wide open to the student antiwar, black and feminist movements.

Throughout most of the 1970s, he was the head of Pathfinder Press in NY and oversaw the publication of the Collected Writings of Leon Trotsky. He came to work each day even though he was hobbled by an extreme case of rheumatoid arthritis that made it nearly impossible to hold a pen in his hands. When the SWP dumped Trotskyism in 1983, they dumped Breitman and a number of other veteran party members as well. It saddened me to see them kicked out the door, even though I had no confidence in their project to start a new Trotskyist party free of the mistakes of the past. They simply didn’t understand that the decline of the SWP was a function of the underlying methodology and not because of a faulty application.

As Alan Wald said at the recent Socialist Scholars Conference, the best way to understand the SWP is as one of the expressions of an attempt to build the revolutionary party in the USA. It should neither be rejected in its totality, nor accepted uncritically. There are positive things to learn from its history, just as there are positive things to be learned from the Debs Socialist Party or the CPUSA’s grass-roots struggles for industrial unions or civil rights. George’s widow, Dotty Breitman, was in the audience at the reception for Alan’s new book (co-authored with Paul LeBlanc) on American Trotskyism and berated Alan for being “just an intellectual” and not understanding the need for a “Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist” party. Old faiths die hard.

One of the positive aspects of the SWP certainly is its correct understanding of the black nationalism of Malcolm X. Black nationalism is more or less a permanent feature of American politics and it is important for Marxists to try to theorize clearly about it. George Breitman will be remembered as somebody who went further than anybody, except CLR James, to come to terms with Black Nationalism.

In the first chapter of “The Last Year of Malcolm X”, Breitman presents an even-handed assessment of the Nation of Islam. At the very least what this obscurantist sect did was rescue Malcolm X from the dregs of the gangster world. In his autobiography, Malcolm X said that without the NOI, he would have ended up as an “old fading Detroit Red, hustling, stealing enough for food and narcotics, and myself being stalked as prey by cruelly ambitious younger hustlers such as Detroit Red had been.”

Breitman points out that Malcolm was always stretching the boundaries of the NOI. He was an innovator who tried as hard as he could to turn the religious, self-help sect into a black activist formation. James X, the successor to Malcolm in the NY Mosque, complained that “it was Malcolm who injected the political concept of ‘black nationalism’ into the Black Muslim movement, which they said was essentially religious in nature when Malcolm became a member.”

There were constant tensions between Malcolm and the NOI chiefs. Finally they came out in the open when Malcolm described the assassination of John F. Kennedy as a case of the “chickens coming home to roost”. The white press went on a crusade against him for this bluntly truthful observation and the NOI suspended him. They were tired of his clashes with the ruling-class. They also made conditions for his readmission so onerous that he decided to split once and for all.

On March 8, 1964 he made a public statement that the Black Muslim movement “had ‘gone as far as it can’ because it was too narrowly sectarian and too inhibited.” He elaborated on what kind of movement was necessary: “I am prepared,” Malcolm said, “to cooperate in local civil rights actions in the South and elsewhere and shall do so because every campaign for specific objectives can only heighten the political consciousness of the Negroes and intensify their identification against white society.”

After Malcolm left the NOI, he began to make statements that showed a new understanding of the relationship of Black Nationalism to the larger struggle. One of the influences on his thinking was the type of internationalism and political radicalism that he witnessed firsthand in his travels through Africa and the Middle East in 1964. This period is not accurately reflected in Spike Lee’s abysmal movie based on Malcolm’s autobiography. It turns into a spiritual quest climaxed with a trip to Mecca. Malcolm’s real growth in this period is political rather than spiritual, as reflected to his remarks to a Militant Labor Forum on May 29, 1964:

They say travel broadens your scope, and recently I’ve had an opportunity to do a lot of it in the Middle East and Africa. While I was traveling I noticed that most of the countries that have recently emerged into independence have turned away from the so-called capitalist system in the direction of socialism. So out of curiosity, I can’t resist the temptation to do a little investigating wherever that particular philosophy happens to in existence or an attempt is being made to bring it into existence.

After Malcolm split from the NOI, he began to address the question of alliances. The narrow black nationalism of the religious sect did not even begin to consider the question of how 10 or 11 million black Americans can be part of a larger struggle for liberation. Mostly it preached for a return to Africa, or concentrated on small business enterprises like selling bean pies. Malcolm’s interest in politics rather than small scale self-help projects first of all led him to the idea of linking the black struggle in the United States to the struggles of colored peoples around the world. He declared that Africans, Arabs, Asians and Latin Americans all had a common enemy: the “international power structure.” His internationalism was of the sort that is expressed most frequently by the Zapatista movement today. Malcolm considered having the United States indicted for racism before the United Nations. He believed that this measure would have had tremendous propaganda value.

The question of alliances with American whites was much more problematic. At the March 12, 1964 press conference to announce his new organization, the Organization for Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X said:

Whites can help us, but they can’t join us. There can be no black-white unity until there is first some black unity. There can be no workers’ solidarity until there is first some racial solidarity. We cannot think of uniting with others, until we have first united with ourselves.

Malcolm was open to socialist ideas in the last year of his life, but not really a Marxist. He lacked a class understanding of American society that would allow him to see on at least a theoretical level how white workers could become allies in a fight against capitalist rule. He was much more articulate about the need to establish ties with “white militants”. These people, who had broken with liberalism, would be trusted allies in the fight against racism such as the students who participated courageously in the civil rights movement. Malcolm did not live long enough to see a mobilized working class, such as the French working class of 1968 or the Italian working class of 1969-1970. It is entirely possible that his political evolution would have made him more and more open to a Marxist perspective.


  1. Two quotes that say a lot to me about the evolution of his thought:


    Young Socialist: How do you define Black nationalism, with which you have been identified?
    Malcolm X: 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 overturning 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 notice, I haven’t been using the expression for several months. But I still would be hard pressed to give a specific definition of the overall philosophy which I think is necessary for the liberation of the Black people in this country….


    [L]istening to leaders like Nasser, Ben Bella, and Nkrumah awakened me to the dangers of racism. I realized racism isn’t just a black and white problem. It’s brought bloodbaths to about every nation on earth at one time or another.

    Brother, remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant—the one who wanted to help the [Black] Muslims and the whites get together—and I told her there wasn’t a ghost of a chance and she went away crying? Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then—like all [Black] Muslims—I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me 12 years.

    That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days—I’m glad to be free of them.
    — El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X)

    Comment by Will Shetterly — November 12, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

  2. Louis that’s pretty awesome that you got to hear him speak.

    Was it Breitman who reached out to Malcolm X on behalf of the SWP in the first place?

    Comment by ish — November 12, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

  3. “It is entirely possible that his political evolution would have made him more and more open to a Marxist perspective.”

    while i agree, i’d stress the ‘possible.’ it’s too easy to claim the dead as our allies – from jesus to malcolm to mlk.

    for example, while i like to think that obama was right in saying mlk would not have supported him, looking at who did support him makes me not-so-sure.

    Comment by jp — November 12, 2010 @ 10:24 pm

  4. In the article above, you imply that the National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party trivializes the fight to defend Social Security, by dismissively referring to it as “welfare.”

    I could not find such a statement in the current issue of the Militant.

    I did find this, however, an excerpt from a speech Barnes gave to a Los Angeles conference over the 1994/1995 New Year’s weekend. Is this what you were refering to?

    “Class-conscious workers must never fall for the bourgeois propaganda that the government ever gives us anything. They do not give us what they call welfare benefits, or Social Security pensions, or workers compensation, or unemployment benefits, or public schools, or Medicare, or anything else. Whatever workers win in expanding the social wage is simply taking back from the exploiting class a portion of the wealth our class has produced with our social labor.

    The labor movement has to fight to replace the stingy, means-tested, tax-your-paycheck programs that the bosses call welfare, that they call Social Security, with real welfare, real social security. Labor must fight for compensation at union wages for all those who cannot work, have been laid off, or cannot find a job. Labor must fight for retirement pensions, disability benefits, and lifetime public education.

    This is not “the dole,” “handouts,” or “giveaways.” These are universal social rights for a class, participating in the culture the wealth they produce makes possible. These entitlements are distributed out of a part of what that class—and only that class and its toiling allies—produces. The working class is taking back a portion of those resources so our class as a whole can be stronger, can make it between jobs, has some protection from the ravages of inflation, and has some precious time to do the things the bosses’ system prevents us from doing. This is an essential part of fighting for the unity, the morale, and the combativity that the labor movement needs to wage a successful revolutionary struggle. These are part of what the working class fights to establish as human rights.”

    Comment by dave — November 12, 2010 @ 10:45 pm

  5. I am fairly sure that Breitman was the SWP’er who made initial contact.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 12, 2010 @ 11:34 pm

  6. It really doesn’t fucking matter what The Militant writes. Politics involves organizing people. Even if the SWP tried to reverse 25 years of abstention, it simply lacks the human material to carry anything out. That’s the result of a deliberate policy to turn a once thriving socialist group (albeit with sectarian tendencies) into a minuscule cult.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 12, 2010 @ 11:37 pm

  7. [It really doesn’t fucking matter what The Militant writes. Politics involves organizing people.]

    Lou’s right. And although he’s highly critical of the WWP on a number of issues I deem debatable, Black Nationalism shouldn’t be one of them, that is, figures ranging from Mumia to Castro support the WWP’s weekly paper and that politics winds up organizing more people around support of both Cuba and politically incarcerated Black Men like Jamal than anything going today, period.

    Curious, isn’t it, how a socialist party that’s accused of such profound “sectarianism” manages not only organize such large antiwar demos but also has such roots in the Black Community, yet puts out a weekly paper uninterrupted since the 50’s that’s only mentioned in all those years the names Lenin, Trotsky & Stalin but a handful of times?

    The WWP may still be relatively tiny but still thrives in NYC and beyond, being hardly a “cult around Sam Marcy” (Lou’s claim) whose been dead over a decade, precisely because they’re hardly the moribund group Proyect imagines in the likeness of the SWP, but on the contrary, the paper that people like Jamal, Castro, Ramsey Clark, and even Spike Lee claim as their own Weekly Reader.

    All I’m saying is these professsional revolutionaries deserve credit rather than scorn for trying to put something together in this age of reaction.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 13, 2010 @ 2:30 am

  8. It was my good fortune to hear Malcolm X speak at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1962, and at the Audobon Ballroom in New York City in 1964. Unlike most on the political left, we who were trained in by the SWP were taught to appreciate the positive and revolutionary possibilities of Black nationalism by the SWP. Breitman was one of those who educated us about that. I’ve also written an essay about his ideas:


    George Breitman never met Malcolm X personally. He wrote about him many times, but never met the man. Breitman did famously once write an article criticizing, in a friendly and comradely way, some implications of Malcolm’s proposal to bring the US before the United Nations. Malcolm thanked Breitman for it.

    by George Breitman


    One of the ways in which Malcolm sought to internationalize the struggle was by bringing an indictment of racism against the United States government before the United Nations, the so-called world court. He raised this proposal immediately after he left the Black Muslims in the spring of 1964, and he worked hard trying to get African leaders to bring the indictment into the United Nations, and to get American civil rights leaders to join in promoting this project. He did not succeed, for various reasons, but he still had it on his agenda at his death.

    When he first publicly raised this project in the spring of 1964, he tended to overstate its possibilities — that is, he gave too rosy a picture of what the probable results would be. The Militant printed an article by me in May, 1964, supporting Malcolm’s proposal to take Washington to the United Nations and expose its racism and hypocrisy, but noting that the US government and its allies control the United Nations, and that the UN cannot be expected to do anything seriously against the interests of American imperialism. I didn’t say it as pungently as Rev. Cleage did three weeks ago, when he said you can’t expect any more justice from the so-called world court than you can from the Supreme Court or Detroit’s Recorder’s Court, because all of them are run by crackers, but I said essentially the same thing almost three years ago. Even though my article was critical, Malcolm sent me a message of thanks for writing it.


    Comment by Walter Lippmann — November 13, 2010 @ 4:16 am

  9. I enjoy when Barnes refers to the working class as his own. “We” is it? It’s quite entertaining, seeing as he’s never had a real job in his life.

    Comment by The Idiot — November 13, 2010 @ 4:36 am

  10. I admire, even if I don’t always agree, the cadre of the WWP, Karl. I have more than a few friends active in the WWP that I have known since I was 19 years old (I am in my fifties today), and who are welcome in my home, and I in their’s, any day of the week. I also admire the young Socialist Action comrade who ran a very good campaign for Congress, just concluded, in Conneticuit. I also admire the campaign Roger Calero ran for President and the fact that Pathfinder Press is selling more titles than at anytime in many, many years, which says a lot about how people today are looking for answears to the endless wars and the economic ruination.

    I just think Louis’s characterization of Jack Barnes’ view of the importance of defending Social Security was not accurate and quoted an excerpt from one of JB’s talks to show why I thought that to be so. I also think JB’s conclusions on the evolution of Malcolm X, where he was politically at the close of his life, which is at the heart of the polemicical differences, are essentially correct and that his views concerning the weight African-American workers will play in the coming fight are also correct, based on the trachectory of the class struggle today. I don’t believe it is a sectarian viewpoint, but rather the opposite.

    Comment by dave — November 13, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

  11. Right Dave. As a white kid growing up around Cabrini Green and spending a lot of time in places like “Deb’s Hall” on Wacker Dr. in Chicago (the name & place of the SWP branch) I was keenly interested in figuring out what exactly Black Nationalism meant. My parents explained it in a way consistent with Breitman in general and CLR James in particular, which they saw as the least sectarian approach. So for all the SWP’s sectarianism they got Black Nationalism essentially right, at least until they dumped Trotskyism for good just after the Iranian Revolution.

    As far as the WWP on Black Nationalism their orientation in practice has always been the CLR James view which, among other issues of the day, was a factor in their break from the SWP in 1956.

    The SA however ridicules the WWP position on Black Nationalism as petty bourgeois identity politics, citing their vociferous support for Mumia Jamal as but an example, showing exactly how far the SA has drifted away from Breitman.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 13, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

  12. Correction. The SA does support Jamal. I got them mixed up with wsws.org, aka IFCI aka International Committee of the Fourth International, which ridicules Black Nationalism as “identity politics” and absurdly claims that the WWP told workers to vote for Gore in 2000.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 13, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

  13. I read the Barnes book, took it to work, and it made the rounds of quite a few of my co-workers. These co-workers are all young and Black, mostly female; call center fodder. They found it provocative, several borrowed it, read it at work and home, and said it excited them. The book is a concrete example of what the SWP does best: promoting and defending the continuity of communist politics in the US against the quitters, faint-hearts, and tortured souls who mistake their own aches and pains for the great acts and movements of humanity.

    I have two copies of the book, both on loan at this time. This is a book that covers 1877 to the present, not just 1964-65.

    1. LP says his Yahoo SWP list has more subscribers than the SWP has members. Yes, that is true: all paid-up and humorless and crapulent sour-grapes artists who quit the SWP and cannot reconcile themselves to the experience or its aftermath for reasons of personal eccentricity, if I can be kind.
    I was a member of the SWP, loved the experience, had to quit, and my political life goes on. I do not spend my time on a Yahoo list spreading gossip and rumors and hear-say gossip, rehearsing my crotchets and wallowing in half-objectified self-pity. The working class retreat reveals the strengths and weaknesses of every one of us. The LP Yahoo SWP list members on a daily basis do no credit to themselves, or to the integrity of their younger selves.
    LP created the SWP Yahoo list to ghettoize discussions of the SWP and keep them off Marxmail. He had the right idea. Now he should cancel the Yahoo SWP Victim Support Group and move on. He is an excellent writer and commentator when he can keep away from the topic of the SWP; every time he discusses it, he does himself no favors.

    2. The SWP is in the same demographic and organization retreat as every other communist organization. Had it not embraced the trajectory of Malcolm X, and if it did not still give it the attention it deserves today, the party would be in worse shape. What other communist party in the US today can produce analysis of the caliber of this? http://www.themilitant.com/2009/7324/732450.html

    I encourage all commentators to support the Scott Sisters:

    Jay Rothermel

    Comment by Jay Rothermel — November 14, 2010 @ 5:20 am

  14. 2. The SWP is in the same demographic and organization retreat as every other communist organization.

    I am not sure other “communist” groups started out with an objective, as described in Les Evans’s memoir, to reduce its membership. Ken Shilman told Les in the early 80s that the party had to become smaller. The SWP wildly exceeded its greatest expectations.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 14, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

  15. […] This post was Twitted by DerekJohnBryant […]

    Pingback by Twitted by DerekJohnBryant — November 14, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

  16. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Derek Bryant, Libertarian Trot. Libertarian Trot said: Malcolm X and American Trotskyism: When I was a student at Bard College, I was generally apolitic… http://bit.ly/a4ZPDm #p2 #rebelleft […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Malcolm X and American Trotskyism « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist -- Topsy.com — November 14, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

  17. Ken S. is no longer alive, so I can’t really call him up and ask him, but I think what he was probably getting at with his reported conversation with Les E. is that the party would necessarily shed some of the membership that came into the party during the upsurge of the 1960’s; those who were having a particularly hard time adapting to the fact that the upsurge in general, and the anti-war movement in particular, were over. And this is exactely what happenned. People who came into the SWP in the late 1970’s, and who were generally too young to have participated in the anti-war movement, were far less attracted to SA and FIT than those who were ten years older. I’m realatively certain that Ken S. wasn’t wishing for a smaller party, per se, and I am sure he was all about the continued recruitment of fresh faces.

    Comment by dave — November 14, 2010 @ 9:06 pm

  18. Rowlands, you really are pathetic. They set up “membership review committees” in 1978 to force people like me to make a choice between programming computers and “making the turn”. When I told everybody that if I couldn’t “make the turn”, I would quit, nobody cared. This is *exactly* what Barnes wanted, a purge of “Marieltos” like me. Meanwhile, that piece of shit goes out and buys himself a 3000 foot loft in the West Village.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 14, 2010 @ 9:27 pm

  19. I don’t remember any “membership review committees”. Does anyone else? I certainly would have been called before one if they existed in my neck of the woods, because I refrained from taking an industrial job for a year and a half, well into 1979. But anyway, it’s not really important. It was a long, long time ago. What’s important is what is happening today, and what people are doing today. By the way, do you have any idea how crude and vulgar you sound when you call other people “a piece of shit.” Really, really disgusting, and I’m no prud.

    Comment by dave — November 14, 2010 @ 10:01 pm

  20. Since Barnes is the Trotskyist version of Jim Bakker, piece of shit is perfectly descriptive. And who knows if the membership review committees were set up in every branch. They were in NYC, which is all that matters to me.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 14, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

  21. In one form or another such committees were used to carry out most all of the dismemberment, which ultimately were a product not of political retreat in the face of reaction but rather a certain pychosis in leadership, beginning with the kind of psychosis that purged a dozen long time valuable comrades in 1975 for suggesting the need for a “proletarian orientation” at the conclusion of the Vietnam war and then adopting the identical (but far more draconian) platform a few years later re-named “the turn”, the kind of psychosis that envisioned enormous socialist potential in the Iranian Revolution, in the ANC, and in East Germany after the Czar’s flag was re-hung over the Kremlin.

    Whereas even Stalin couldn’t mangage to eradicate all of the progressive significance of the Russian Revolution, Jack Barnes did manage to wipe out all of the progressive significance of the Socialist Workers Party in America, and while Stalin couldn’t manage to amass a personal fortune to pass on to his heirs, Jack Barnes has.

    Now if during all these years Barnes managed to get the condition of Black people in America right that in no way absolves him of his crimes.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 15, 2010 @ 12:15 am

  22. The SWP maintains Pathfinder Press, which keeps in print the words and work of many pro-working-class authors, including… well… you know who they include. One of their more recent reprints was a thing called “Lenin’s Last Fight”, which had something or another to do with a fellow named Joseph Stalin. I hear they’ve been selling many hundreds of titles per month these past two years, and I would humbly suggest that this reflects some remaining “progessive significance” of the SWP.

    JB is not a wealthy man, and I don’t think he has any heirs.

    But this isn’t the place for these kind of back and forths, being that we are now off topic, so I’ll leave it at that.

    In any event, it’s just a tiny political party; it’s no big deal.

    Comment by dave — November 15, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

  23. Dave. I’ll give you that Pathfinder still possesses many excellent titles, however, judging from the reviews I’ve read over the years, the worst titles in the collection were authored by Barnes. Moreover, this discussion is in no way off the topic of “Malcolm X and American Trotskyism”.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 15, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

  24. “”When I was a student at Bard College””…

    LOL… OK, I get it now. (“it” being your whole website)

    You haven’t read Koba the Dread yet, have you? Let us know how that works out for you.

    Comment by Gilmore — November 15, 2010 @ 10:26 pm

  25. Brilliant review. This could come in handy for something I’m doing. I said on my blog that I had come across only one serious review of the Barnes book — that on SocialistAction. I guess I’ll have to revise that upward now. Cheers

    Comment by JL Samboma — December 17, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

  26. Some of his speeches brought tears to my eyes. I can’t imagine how I would’ve reacted if I was sitting in the audience. His attitude of nonsectarianism and prioritizing the struggle over and above everything else is sorely needed today.

    Comment by Binh — July 20, 2011 @ 3:53 pm

  27. The analysis of NOI’s practice mirrors that of “Leninist” groups in this talk: http://wearemany.org/v/2011/07/malcolm-x


    Comment by Binh — July 20, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

  28. Great piece Louis – tho the link to Socialist Action piece is no longer working.

    I just read Marable’s “new” bio which I thought was great (at least from this distance) in giving an idea of the complexity. There seems to have been some negative reaction to the book by Black nationalists but so far as I could tell that was about specific incidents rather than the politics but perhaps I am wrong. I ordered the Barne’s book assuming it was an old one – but some good references here to follow up.

    Many thanks.

    Comment by Shane H — February 22, 2015 @ 1:34 am

  29. May 29th 1964 ******* he was dead by May 29th 1965…

    Comment by nick hunter — February 23, 2020 @ 9:08 pm

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