Reflections on Malcolm X’s Legacy
February 21, 2016 marks the 51st anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, who later took the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz after his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964. As a revolutionary internationalist and a leader of the Black liberation struggle, Malcolm X shaped and influenced a generation of Black activists, artists, revolutionaries and intellectuals. His impact has been profound and lasting. The anniversary of his assassination is, therefore, a time for serious contemplation on his legacy.
While alive, Malcolm X faced an unrelenting vilification from the ruling circles; in death, the same forces that denounced him attempt to transform him into a benign symbol palatable to imperialist and neo-liberal palates; he is now praised by those same powers that once condemned him. As V.I. Lenin poignantly noted in his seminal The State and Revolution:
“During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes have invariably meted out to them relentless persecution, and received their teaching with the most savage hostility, most furious hatred, and a ruthless campaign of lies and slanders. After their death, however, attempts are usually made to turn them into harmless saints, canonising them, as it were, and investing their name with a certain halo by way of ‘consolation’ to the oppressed classes, and with the object of duping them, while at the same time emasculating and vulgarising the real essence of their revolutionary theories and blunting their revolutionary edge.”
So it is with Malcolm X. The pervasive and dominant narrative freezes in place Malcolm’s politics and philosophy, transfixing his thinking to the 12-years he served in the Nation of Islam, when he was under the authority of its leader Elijah Muhammad. While, acknowledging his rupture with the most race essentialist and absurd theological/ideological tenets of the Nation of Islam (especially the white devil thesis), Malcolm X is crafted as a crude and unsophisticated ultra-Black nationalist. Moreover, the significance of his legacy is often reduced to a personal odyssey, an individualistic ethos illustrating what someone can do by sheer force of will to transform their life. In this mangling of historical memory, the further development of his political and intellectual thinking from 1964 to 1965 disappears. His unremitting efforts to build an organization to reflect and realize those new political goals are disregarded. In short, the subsequent development of his thinking on capitalism and imperialism are ignored, if not erased.
Malcolm X: The Anti-Imperialist and Anti-Capitalist
Malcolm X was part and parcel of the wave of anti-colonial, national liberation and anti- imperialist struggles that swept Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s. He challenged U.S. exceptionalism by clearly placing the African American liberation movement within the global anti-colonial struggle. By locating the Black liberation struggle within an internationalist context, he saw the internationalist perspective as indispensable to advancing the fight for justice in the United States. On February 4, 1965 in his address to youth in Selma, Alabama he stated: “I pray that you will grow intellectually, so that you can understand the problems of the world and where you fit into, in that world picture.” On February 18, 1965, he went further stating that the Black liberation struggle was “part of the rebellion against the oppression and colonialism that has characterized this era…” He further argued: “It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of black against white, or as purely American problem. Rather, today we are seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.”
Malcolm’s repudiation of a race-only analysis was captured in a January 1965 television interview, where he declared:
“I believe there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who 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. I believe that it will be that kind of clash, but I don’t think it will be based on the colour of the skin, as Elijah Muhammad has taught it.”
Malcolm assumed an uncompromising anti-imperialism, embodied by trenchant criticism of the West. The West’s interests, he declared are inextricably tied to “imperialism, colonialism, exploitation, racism…” He went further extending his burgeoning anti-imperialism to a searing critique of capitalism, the system undergirding Western imperialism. Malcolm argued: “You can’t have capitalism without racism… 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…” He viewed racist oppression and exploitation of African-Americans as deeply entangled with U.S. aggression abroad, and this oppression and exploitation and warmongering were (are) the products of the capitalist system.
The False Dichotomy
In examining the development of Malcolm’s thinking also, it bears reflecting on the supposed unbridgeable divide between him and Martin Luther King, Jr. Each is portrayed as the other’s antithesis. This distortion deliberately ignores and erases that King’s views increasingly embodied many of the political positions that Malcolm had advocated in the last years of his life.
King’s understanding of the nature of U.S. society moved along the same lines as Malcolm X. In the years following the March On Washington, King augmented his eloquent and poignant “I Have a Dream” vision with a deepening opposition to Washington’s foreign policy and to the economic system that produced aggression abroad and inequality and poverty at home.
King firmly opposed the war in Vietnam. His opposition was not simply a powerful moral stance, but one that tied Washington’s aggression to a system that produced, maintained and required great disparities of wealth and power between a privileged few and the disenfranchised vast majority. He observed: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.”
King understood that while the Civil Rights Movement had won important victories, these victories could not be permanent as long as the underlying structural roots of inequality, poverty and racism were not fundamentally altered. In short, capitalism had to be radically transformed. In a 1967 speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King unequivocally articulated this analysis:
“One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice, which produces beggars, needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?’ These are questions that must be asked.”
King’s political practice and strategy reflected his new analytical appreciation of the interconnection of racism, oppression, inequality and capitalism. In the last year of his life, he was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, which sought to achieve a fairer and more equitable society through a united movement of Black and white workers, of all the exploited and oppressed in the United States. While the Poor People’s Campaign aimed for peaceful reform of the capitalist system, it was a potent challenge to the ideological and ideational hegemony of capitalism, which was reflected by the wholesale condemnation of King by U.S. ruling circles.
At the end of their lives (King was assassinated on April 4, 1968), Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had become trenchant opponents of capitalism and imperialism. When they were killed, each was in the midst of organizing the people to challenge the system. The goal — the Promised Land — was the creation of a better world, one fit for human beings. While the Promised Land has yet to be reached — and, for some, envisioned — the struggle for a better world endures.