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Vol. 74/No. 19      May 17, 2010

Malcolm X’s evolution
on Black nationalism
‘Last bulwark of capitalism is America …
You can’t have capitalism without racism’
(feature article)
The following is the 17th in a series of excerpts the Militant is running from Pathfinder Press’s latest book, Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. We encourage our readers to study, discuss, and help sell the book. The following is from a 1987 speech by Barnes printed under the title “Malcolm X: Revolutionary Leader of the Working Class.” Copyright © 2009 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

What about Black nationalism? Malcolm’s evolution here is easier to understand today than it was twenty-two years ago, because of what has been conquered in the U.S. working class since that time. Today we have a working class in this country that is different in significant ways from the one Malcolm knew. It is more reflective of the gains of the Black struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, both in composition and social and political attitudes. It is more international in makeup, bringing in experiences of struggles in other countries, a working class in which broader layers have been affected and inspired by advances of the world revolution.

When Malcolm began his final fifty weeks outside—and then beyond—the Nation, he considered himself a Black nationalist. That’s unambiguous. Speaking of the launching of the Muslim Mosque, Inc., Malcolm said, “Our political philosophy will be black nationalism. Our economic and social philosophy will be black nationalism. Our cultural emphasis will be black nationalism.” …

By the last months of Malcolm’s life, however, he had come to a different conclusion. During the January 19, 1965, Toronto television interview mentioned earlier, Pierre Berton asked Malcolm whether he still advocated a Black state in North America. “No,” Malcolm replied, “I believe in a society in which people can live like human beings on the basis of equality.”

Malcolm had explained the reasons for his changing views on Black nationalism more fully the day before flying up to Toronto, during an interview for the Young Socialist magazine on January 18, 1965. “How do you define Black nationalism, with which you have been identified?” I asked Malcolm… .

Malcolm said that when he had been in Ghana during the first of his trips to Africa in 1964, he had met with the Algerian ambassador there, “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 they started talking about Black nationalism, Malcolm said, the ambassador responded, “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.”

And that was the goal Malcolm now believed had to be fought for and achieved: “overturning the system of exploitation that exists on this earth by any means necessary.” So, he told us, “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.” …

Malcolm made a similar point the very next day in the Toronto TV interview with Pierre Berton that I’ve referred to before. Malcolm said he was convinced the world was heading toward “a political showdown, or even a showdown between the economic systems that exist on this earth.” And due to the colonial powers’ attitude “of superiority toward the darker-skinned people,” he said, the divisions in the world often do “almost boil down along racial lines.” But then Malcolm went on:

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. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t think that it will be based upon the color of the skin, as Elijah Muhammad had taught it.

Malcolm had also started thinking more and talking more about the ways that racism and national oppression are embedded in the very workings of the capitalist system. Speaking at a Militant Labor Forum in May 1964, right after returning from his first trip to Africa and the Middle East that year, Malcolm pointed to the example set by the Chinese and Cuban revolutions, where the capitalists and landlords had been expropriated. In contrast, he said, “The system in this country cannot produce freedom for an Afro-American. It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, this social system, this system, period.”

Malcolm returned to this point in the question period, when he was asked what political and social system he advocated. “I don’t know,” he replied. “But I’m flexible.” And he repeated: “You can’t have capitalism without racism.” …

[I]n his last public talk, on February 18, three days prior to his assassination, Malcolm told an audience of 1,500 at Barnard College in New York City that “it is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of Black against white, or as a purely American problem.” Rather, Malcolm said, “we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.” That’s the revolution that must be won.

This evolution is important, because Malcolm took Black nationalism dead seriously. He recognized that Blacks in the United States—descendants, in their great majority, of Black Africans kidnapped and brought in bondage to be sold into chattel slavery in the New World—had been forged as a nationality over the century following the Civil War, emancipation, and then the rise and defeat of Radical Reconstruction. In struggling against that oppression, Blacks had a right to national self-determination—all the way from their own forms of political organization, to control over schools and other institutions in their own neighborhoods, up to the establishment of an independent state on the soil of this country, if they became convinced conditions had reached the point that separation offered the only way forward—We’ve had enough!

Malcolm, however, had come to understand that there’s a very important difference between recognizing the right to a separate state—anyone who doesn’t can’t help but be an apologist for American imperialism and its racist underpinnings—and advocating that course or acting on it. Because if in order to open the road to ending Black oppression, it is necessary to make a revolution to overturn the most powerful capitalist state on earth—as Malcolm was becoming convinced it was—then first you have to think seriously about the social forces and alliances necessary to accomplish such a historic task.

Malcolm’s decision to stop referring to his political course as Black nationalism had nothing to do with a retreat from encouraging Blacks to take pride in their own heritage and history of struggle—to recognize their own worth as human beings, as the equals of all other human beings. It had nothing to do with denying the historical culpability of the ruling landowners and capitalists in the United States—who were overwhelmingly Caucasian and largely remain so today—for chattel slavery, national oppression, and exploitation… .

[W]hat Malcolm did change—and he did so openly and frankly—was his recognition that to eliminate racism in the United States and worldwide, you must overthrow the international social system that, in order to survive and expand, produces and reproduces that exploitation and oppression every minute of every day of every year. Malcolm came to understand that this task could not be accomplished without a movement reaching well beyond the United States and well beyond peoples of African origin—without a struggle involving all those with nothing to lose but their chains, all those organizing for revolutionary change, whatever their skin color or national origin.  
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