At the end of his life, Malcolm’s line could best be understood as “self-determination, self-respect and self-defense.”
Malcolm X was an outstanding revolutionary of the 1960’s in the U.S. A maximum mass leader within the Black Liberation Movement, but also by the end of his life, he was a revolutionary example for the masses of all nationalities.
Malcolm was not a Marxist-Leninist, but he was one of the fiercest anti-imperialist leaders within the national democratic struggle that characterizes the Black Liberation Movement. It was Lenin who pointed out that not only are such democratic struggles objectively revolutionary, to the extent they oppose imperialism, but many times such democratic struggles are objectively more revolutionary than some self-styled “socialists” whose actual practice is far less of a threat to monopoly capitalism than the democratic revolutionaries of the various national liberation movements!
It is also important to look at Malcolm’s life and revolutionary development in a dialectical fashion. In that way we can better understand what Malcolm’s specific contributions were, as well as his errors. We say this because we cannot look at Malcolm nor any other revolutionary leader or movement in a metaphysical, nonscientific way. Covering errors also covers accomplishments, providing no specific or concrete model to learn from.
Nation of Islam
Malcolm X entered the Black Liberation Movement joining the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad. The Nation of Islam is a Black cultural and religious nationalist organization. The Nation of Islam and Marcus Garvey’s UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) were the largest Black mass organizations in U.S. history. Actually these two organizations had a number of similarities, even though the Nation of Islam used the form of Islam as one basic aspect of its appeal.
Elijah Muhammad used Islam as a nationalist organizing tool, condemning Christianity as the religion of the slave masters. The fundamental appeal of the Nation of Islam was in its address to the heightening national consciousness of the Black masses, even though religious symbolism was used with an overall anti-white Black nationalism steeped in mysticism and cant.
Malcolm was a loyal follower of Elijah Muhammad and the foremost purveyor of his line, characterizing whites as “devils” and beasts. Even though such characterizations were obviously reactionary and mystical, what was positive was that even in this terminology the call to Black national liberation was being sounded and the system of Black national oppression condemned! But Malcolm went further than Elijah Muhammad foresaw. It was Malcolm who initiated the influential “Black Muslim” newspaper Muhammad Speaks, producing the first issues in the basement of his home. It was through Malcolm that Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam became widely known. It was Malcolm who travelled across the country, building the Black Muslim temples and recruiting new ministers and followers. It was Malcolm who transformed the Nation of Islam from a minor religious cult with an obscure leader to an internationally known, respected and feared Black organization with an overtly political thrust.
Ironically, Malcolm’s father was a Garvey organizer in Michigan who was murdered horribly by a local variance of the Ku Klux Klan. So it seems probable that the resemblance of the Nation of Islam to the UNIA and Garvey’s teachings of “African redemption” to the kernel of political nationalism which Elijah Muhammad taught his flock, plus Muhammad’s interest and need for personal uplift and high morality, attracted Malcolm who at the time was in prison.
Beyond Elijah Muhammad
But ultimately Malcolm went beyond Elijah Muhammad’s teachings of religious and cultural nationalism and petty Black capitalism which were “the nation’s” hallmark. Malcolm was never a mere sycophant of Muhammad, he was a self-taught intellectual who looked deeper into the problems of Black national oppression than the Nation of Islam’s metaphysical solutions. Malcolm began to emphasize the political aspects of Elijah’s teachings and to stress more and more the Black nationalism in the nation’s line in a consistent political way. The religious teachings fell more and more into the background and the emphasis on political struggle and self-defense became clearer and clearer. At the end of his life, Malcolm’s line could best be understood as “self-determination, selfrespect and self-defense.” There is no doubt that he will emerge as perhaps the most influential leader of the period.
By the time John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Malcolm’s line had become more openly anti-imperialist. He characterized capitalists as “blood suckers” and resorted less and less to the Nation of Islam scatological metaphysics and more and more to direct antiimperialist agitation. There was also a growing awareness by Elijah Muhammad and among some of his other more” orthodox” ministers that Malcolm had indeed gotten “too political” and “too strong in his own right,” with a growing following among the Black masses and even other nationalities all his own. Malcolm characterized JFK’s assassination as “chickens coming home to roost,” meaning that the U.S. government was ultimately in charge of the anti-Black violence in the U.S. and that it was poetic justice that some of the same violence cut down the U.S. head of state. But Elijah Muhammad used this statement as a pretext to “silence” Malcolm (i.e. forbidding him to speak publicly as a Muslim minister), claiming that too many people loved John Kennedy for Malcolm to make such a “critical” statement about him. It was probably closer to the truth that Elijah Muhammad feared Malcolm’s popularity and influence among the masses and saw him as a powerful rival and so he sought to cut him down.
This attack on Malcolm had the opposite effect. It became clear that the silencing was meant to be permanent, not just 90 days as it had been at first announced. Malcolm moved to organize on a different, more clearly anti-imperialist and nonreligious basis. First he made a trip to Mecca, the hajj, a mandatory religious pilgrimage that all Muslims supposedly are required to make. It was as a result of this trip that Malcolm said that he had seen devout and highly religious people of all nationalities and so he no longer adhered to Elijah Muhammad’s anti-white religious nationalism.
He continued his trip, going into Africa. He met various heads of state, including Kwame Nkrumah. On his return to the U.S., it was clear that his outlook had been sharply internationalized. Very soon after, Malcolm made another trip to the Middle East and Africa, this time talking to President Nasser of Egypt, Nyerere of Tanzania, Azikiwe of Nigeria, Nkrumah once more, President Sekou Toure of Guinea, Kenyatta of Kenya, and Prime Minister Obote of Uganda. He was also given a banquet by Huang Hua, Chinese ambassador to Ghana. Upon returning this time, Malcolm’s views had crystallized into an even more internationalist, sharply anti-imperialist line. It was now that he moved to set up the OAAU, Organization of African American Unity, a united front formation meant to include all ideological groupings of Blacks in a common struggle for self-determination and democracy. He now also put forward the striking concept that not only must Blacks internationalize their struggle, but they must go before the anti-apartheid and human rights commissions of the United Nations and petition for the right of self-determination. He realized that the third world nations could support the Black people’s struggle for self-determination, since the African Americans were a “non self-governing nation” suffering oppression of genocidal proportions.
Not only did Malcolm continue to characterize capitalists as blood suckers, but he now went even further to say that the most progressive whites he had met anywhere in the world were socialists. And in a devastating speech he gave at Oxford University, on the way home after being expelled from France, he said that when the Black masses made their revolution in the United States, the majority of whites would rise with them.
It must have become obvious by now to the murderous forces of white racist monopoly capitalism that Malcolm X had become too dangerous. The increasingly internationalist character of his thinking and political line could mean that Malcolm could lead a Black anti-imperialist movement of terrifying (to the bourgeoisie) proportions and so they murdered him February 21, 1965.
It is important that we understand Malcolm’s true legacy of revolutionary anti-imperialist struggle, that he had moved past the dead-end cultural and religious nationalist teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Malcolm was a revolutionary leader, not a religious cultist and petty Black capitalist. He emphasized the anti-imperialist aspects of the Black national democratic struggle for democracy and self-determination. He was a maximum leader of the African American national liberation movement, and his teaching of self-determination, self-respect and self-defense was the truest legacy he leaves us, as was his attempt to internationalize Black struggle and build a revolutionary Black united front of all classes and ideologies uniting around the common struggle to smash white supremacy and Black national oppression forever.
If we are to be Malcolm’s heirs, then it is critical that we take up his teachings, and move them even further. We must understand that the material base of white supremacy and Black national oppression is white racist monopoly capitalism and that Black self-determination can only come into being if white racist monopoly capitalism and the imperialist class that benefits from it are destroyed by revolution. And ultimately only socialism can bring full democracy and genuine self-determination. Malcolm X’s truest legacy is revolution.