The following remarks by Omari Musa were presented at the eighth Nicolás Guillén International Colloquium and Festival of Music and Poetry, held in Havana, April 2-6. (See article on conference in May 7 issue.) The meeting discussed the place of struggles by blacks in Cuba from the fight for independence from Spain to the revolutionary movement that overthrew the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship in 1959 and the need to raise consciousness in the ongoing battle to overcome the legacy of racist discrimination.
The conference also celebrated the 110th anniversary of the birth of Nicolás Guillén, known as Cuba’s national poet. Guillén, who was of African descent, died in 1989.
The panel on “Racism and Antiracism,” one of many during the event, included a presentation on Martin Luther King Jr., by Raúl Suárez, director of the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, and on Malcolm X by Musa, representing Pathfinder Press. Copyright © 2012 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
BY OMARI MUSA
First, I want to thank the organizers of this international conference for inviting Pathfinder Press, the main publisher of Malcolm X’s speeches and writings, to participate in the discussion we’re having here. It is an honor and a pleasure to do so. And special thanks to Nicolás Hernández Guillén [president of the Nicolás Guillén Foundation] for encouraging us to come.
Today we are living through the opening stages of the deepest economic and social crisis of production and employment the world capitalist system has experienced in almost a century. None of us in this room has ever known anything like the years that lie ahead. There will be decades of economic and financial convulsions, spreading wars, and—most important for us—deepening revolutionary resistance by the exploited and oppressed producers worldwide, including in the United States.
This is the world in which Malcolm’s revolutionary example is of greater importance than ever before.
Rulers have no solutionThe propertied ruling classes have no solution to their crisis of capital accumulation. But the course they are taking—and will accelerate—is dictated by the laws of capitalism. They must drive down our wages and living standards, the value of our labor power, in an effort to gain an edge in the intensifying competition of capitals. They must divide us and pit us against each other—along lines of race, national origin, sex, skills and in other ways.
That is what is going on worldwide, including in Washington’s decades-long economic war against the Cuban people.
In the United States the bosses are carrying out a sustained assault on living conditions, on job safety, on our protections against abuses by the capitalist state. Since the current stage of the capitalist crisis exploded in 2008, wages in industry after industry have been slashed. Millions of families have lost their homes. Contrary to the publicized monthly unemployment rate, when you include those who’ve given up finding a job or are involuntarily working part time, joblessness today hovers near 17 percent. Unemployment among African-American youth, even the official figure, stands at 40 percent—and the true rate is much higher.
As a necessary component of this assault on our class, the United States has the highest per capita rate of incarceration of any country on earth. More than 2.3 million, 40 percent of them African-American, are behind bars, with Gerardo, Ramón, Antonio, and Fernando among them. Another 4.8 million, like René, are under supervised release or on parole or probation.1 And many millions more are stigmatized for life as convicted felons, barred from many jobs, denied driver’s licenses, access to credit, housing, stricken from voter rolls, and much more.
Pauperization of growing layers of workers, the majority Afro-American, is enforced by the criminalization of millions, who are denied the right to trial by a jury of their peers. Blackmailed into pleading guilty to “lesser” charges or “no contest” by threats of increasingly draconian sentences if they go to trial, the result is that 90 percent of those arrested and indicted in the U.S. today are convicted and locked away.
The lynching of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida once again underlines that stepped-up police use of the “war on drugs” and “stop and frisk” laws—known in the U.S. as “walking while Black”—is also spawning new varieties of “semilegal” vigilantes. Immigrant workers have been among the first targets, but as a century and a half of U.S. history confirms, Afro-Americans remain in the crosshairs, first and foremost. Trayvon’s killing is one more bitter confirmation that for descendants of African slaves, equal protection under the law, written into the U.S. Constitution during Reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War, is still to be won.
Unresolved national questionThere is an unresolved national question in the United States. This is not a question of theory primarily, nor was it inevitable. In the wake of the powerful working-class mobilizations for Black rights in the 1950s and 1960s, no one could say for sure how much progress could be made toward erasing the legacy of slavery and the crushing of Reconstruction. No one could rule out that national oppression would give way to residual prejudice and inequality that, even if still significant, would narrow over time as part of labor’s broader fight for improved living and job conditions.
That remained for history to settle. And it has been settled—by decades of class struggle. The battle to eradicate the distinct national oppression of African-Americans remains central to the revolutionary strategy of the working class in the U.S. The coming Third American Revolution will be victorious only if that fact of history is understood by working people and embraced in all its revolutionary implications.
This capitalist world in crisis, and what it means for the working class in the United States especially, has to be our starting point.
Leader of working classThe road Malcolm traveled from street-hustler to clear-sighted and increasingly class-conscious voice of the most revolutionary layers of the toilers will be trod by other vanguard fighters seeking a way forward, whatever the color of our skin.
In the book Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, author Jack Barnes—who interviewed Malcolm in January 1965 for the Young Socialist magazine, and who is now national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party—makes the case that Malcolm was not only a leader of the oppressed Black nationality in the United States, he “was a revolutionary leader of the working class.”
This is not the common view of Malcolm, but I believe it is the accurate one, and I want to concentrate on why. What did Malcolm have to say on three of the most fundamental questions of revolutionary working-class strategy that distinguished him from all other leaders of the struggle for Black rights?
First, Malcolm’s political ideas went through not so much an evolution as multiple “revolutions” during the last year of his life, after he broke from the Nation of Islam in March 1964. As this occurred, he explained and acted with ever greater clarity on the conviction that the capitalist system itself was the fundamental problem African-Americans face. It could never provide equality and freedom. It could not be reformed.
“The system in this country cannot produce freedom for an Afro American,” Malcolm told a meeting organized by readers of the Militant newspaper in May of 1964. “It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, this social system, this system, period.”
Second, Malcolm saw the fight to end racism as an international struggle. We are heading toward “a showdown between the economic systems that exist on this earth,” he said in a TV interview the month before his assassination. “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.”
This course led Malcolm to begin rethinking his identification of himself as a Black nationalist. In the 1965 Young Socialist interview, he described a discussion during his second trip to Africa with the Algerian ambassador to Ghana, whom he described as “a revolutionary in the true sense of the word.” The leaders of Algeria’s revolutionary government had fought and won a bloody independence war from France and were organizing workers and peasants to make inroads into capitalist property relations.
When Malcolm said his philosophy was Black nationalism, the Algerian ambassador “asked me very frankly, well, where did that leave him? He was an African, but he was Algerian, and to all appearances he was a white man. … 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 Malcolm said he had to do a lot of “thinking and reappraising” about Black nationalism. “And if you notice, I haven’t been using the expression for several months.” But he said he was still working to define the “overall philosophy I think is necessary for the liberation of the Black people in this country.”
Malcolm also changed his views on many other questions such as interracial marriage, the fight for women’s emancipation, and the separation of politics from organized religious adherence. Keep “your religion at home, in the closet,” he told a Black leadership conference in April 1964. “Keep it between you and your God.”
You’re living in “a time of revolution,” Malcolm told a young audience at Oxford University in Britain in December 1964. “The young generation of whites, Blacks, browns, whatever else there is. … I for one will join in with anyone, I don’t care what color you are, as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.”
Malcolm supported the war of liberation being waged by the people of Vietnam against U.S. imperialism. He denounced the role of the U.S. government in the Congo as “criminal.”2 He championed solidarity with the Chinese and Cuban revolutions.
In December 1964, when Che [Guevara] came to New York to address the United Nations, Malcolm invited Che to address a meeting in Harlem of the Organization of Afro-American Unity.3 Che accepted the invitation but in the end was not able to make it due to security conditions in New York.
Introducing Che’s message to the meeting, Malcolm told the audience, “I love a revolutionary. And one of the most revolutionary men in this country right now was going to come out here” tonight. Noting the enthusiastic applause for Che’s solidarity message, Malcolm remarked, “It lets the man know that he’s just not in a position today to tell us who we should applaud for and who we shouldn’t applaud for.” We choose our own friends!
No to Democrats and RepublicansThird, Malcolm’s support for political independence from both capitalist parties, Democrat and Republican, distinguished him from all other leaders of the struggle for Black rights.
During the 1964 U.S. presidential campaign, when Republican Barry Goldwater ran against the Democratic president Lyndon Johnson, virtually every political current claiming to speak on behalf of workers and the oppressed—with the exception of Malcolm X and the Socialist Workers Party—campaigned for Johnson on grounds he was the “peace candidate,” or at least the “lesser evil” to the supposedly “fascist” Goldwater.
While in Africa in July 1964, Malcolm heard that a “summit” meeting of civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., had called for an end to demonstrations until after the elections. Malcolm called a news conference to say they had “sold themselves out and become campaign managers in the Negro community for Lyndon B. Johnson.” These misleaders were subordinating the struggle of the Black masses for equal protection under the law in order not to “embarrass” Johnson with protests.
Commenting on Johnson’s reelection in November 1964, Malcolm told a Paris meeting that the U.S. rulers “knew that the only way people would run toward the fox would be if you showed them a wolf. … [They] had the whole world—including people who call themselves Marxists [he was referring to the Communist Party USA, among others]—hoping that Johnson would beat Goldwater. … Those who claim to be enemies of the system were on their hands and knees waiting for Johnson to get elected—because he is supposed to be a man of peace. And at that moment he had troops invading the Congo and South Vietnam!”
Shortly afterward it was rumored Johnson would appoint a Black person to his cabinet, which he eventually did, the first ever. Rejecting the fraud, Malcolm told a meeting in New York organized by supporters of the Militant newspaper, “Yes, they have a new gimmick every year. They’re going to take one of their boys, black boys, and put him in the cabinet, so he can walk around Washington with a cigar—fire on one end and fool on the other.”
There has been considerable discussion in recent years on whether there was a political convergence between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in the last months of Malcolm’s life.
In truth, there was a divergence on the fundamental question for working-class revolutionists. King was convinced capitalism could be reformed. He saw the election of one set of capitalist politicians over another as a step forward. Malcolm rejected that course unconditionally. He knew the oppressed and exploited had to make a revolution. He and King were on opposite class trajectories.
The Jim Crow system of legal segregation in the U.S. was brought down by the revolutionary action of a mass Black-led proletarian movement in the streets. Workers who were Black, many of them veterans of World War II and the Korean War, played an indispensable if largely unacknowledged part in those battles.
The changes made possible by that momentous victory engendered new confidence and combativity among African-Americans. This powerful mass movement led the U.S. rulers to “see” it was in their interests to incorporate a substantial layer of Americans who were Black into the well-remunerated ranks of those who administer their system of oppression and exploitation. That’s what Barack Obama’s election as U.S. president registers.
There is now a significant layer of Blacks in the professional and middle classes who have no contact with productive labor. Like their white-skinned counterparts, they stand in fear of the working class, especially young African-American workers, who are deemed “dangerous people.” While not themselves part of the capitalist class, these privileged layers are used by the rulers to help mask the deepening class divisions in U.S. society, including among African-Americans. The breakdown of the criminal justice system in the U.S. and deliberate creation of a sizeable pariah layer of the working class are as essential to the capitalist system as are the Barack and Michelle Obamas.
Growing workers resistanceWhat is changing in the U.S. today is the growing resistance among small but important sections of workers to the consequences of the rulers’ deepening economic crisis. That is what underlies the outpouring of tens of thousands to condemn the lynching of Trayvon Martin. It is what workers battling employer lockouts at factory after factory across the country represent.
Workers who are African-American will be in the forefront of these battles, as they have been in every significant struggle in the interests of working people since the Civil War and eradication of slavery on U.S. soil. Out of these battles forced upon us by the rulers’ crisis, the revolutionary leadership and organization necessary to put an end to the dictatorship of capital can be forged. This is the only road along which exploitation and oppression in all its forms will be eradicated.
This is the road Malcolm fought for: a clear understanding that the capitalist system can’t be reformed, it must be overturned; that the oppressed and exploited must chart our own political course independent of and against the capitalists’ parties, courts, cops, and government; that our struggle is international; that in the struggle to end this system, by any means necessary, we will realize our own self-worth and potential as human beings.
This is the road that lies before us.
2. Washington, together with the Belgian imperialists, organized a coup in September 1960 that overthrew Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of the newly independent Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lumumba was assassinated in January 1961 with U.S. and Belgian complicity. By early 1964 a guerrilla movement that took up the banner of Lumumba was making headway. Washington sent commando troops and B-26 bombers to support the counterrevolutionary regime.
3. The Organization of Afro-American Unity was set up by Malcolm X in June 1964 and was open to all Blacks committed to Malcolm’s social and political goals.
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