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The legacy of black nationalism

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Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Stokely Carmichael, Black Panthers

The 1990s have seen an upsurge of interest in black leaders of the past. Many American black leaders from previous decades have become symbols of resistance today, none more so than Malcolm X. Yet you only have to attend one political meeting to realise that there are many different interpretations of the ideas and strategies which these leaders represented.

To draw on what was best and most progressive from such thinkers and fighters we need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their strategies for black liberation.

Marcus Garvey: back to Africa?

A persistent strain of thought in black movements argues that racism cannot be defeated in the predominantly white societies of Europe and the USA.

The fundamental problem, they reason, is that the African slaves were long ago separated from their culture, tradition and land. Their descendants will be second class citizens for as long as they remain divided into several disparate communities scattered in foreign lands.

The only answer, according to this trend, is to reverse the world-historic effects of slavery. The Black diaspora must return to Africa. There black people are a majority, apparently unencumbered by the oppression, crisis of identity and lack of status that afflicts blacks in the West.

This ideology of Returnism emerged with great force in the USA through the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), led by Marcus Garvey. The UNIA had begun as a small grouping in Jamaica, organising only a few scores of people, but began to grow rapidly when Garvey moved to Harlem in 1916.

Garvey accepted the capitalist myth that opportunities were there to be taken by enterprising blacks who wanted to get rich, and believed this to be the key to “black improvement”.

He argued that “in the individual himself is that resilient power that can be turned to usefulness”. For Garvey, the tragedy was that unlike more successful peoples, black people had simply not understood this. In one sense he blamed black people themselves, not racism, for their plight. He argued:

“The realisation of this makes one man great, makes the race successful and powerful; while the lack of this reasoning makes a man impotent, helpless, blaming all and sundry for his fate.

It makes a race incompetent, and incapable of successfully competing with others, thus meriting the misfortunes and misery attendant upon such lack of reasoning and healthy thinking . . .”

Garvey’s UNIA placed great emphasis on promoting black businesses, including the Negro Factories Corporation and the Black Star shipping line.

Ironically, some of these businesses were relatively successful precisely because of the legal segregation that reinforced the second-class status of blacks under “Jim Crow”, the name given to apartheid in the USA.

The spread of racial segregation around the turn of century forced new black-owned business to look not for white patrons but for custom within the black community. Between 1904 and 1914, at the height of the Jim Crow restrictions, the number of black businesses actually doubled in the USA.

This explains why separatist ideas-- that it was in the interests of blacks to develop separately and apart from whites--gained support among all classes of the black population in the US at that time.

Garvey gave voice to this. Initially he focused on efforts to persuade Britain--the world’s leading colonial and imperialist power of the day --to grant black people a separate state.

But by the end of the war Garvey was starting to look elsewhere. Stressing self-improvement and relying on no other force but black people themselves, he called for a “return” of US and West Indian blacks to Africa and the establishment there of a black state. The Black Star Line specialised in conveying black people to Africa.

The UNIA attracted tremendous support and mushroomed into a real mass political movement of the US blacks. By the beginning of the 1920s the UNIA had several hundred branches across America and an estimated 350,000 members in New York alone.

The UNIA not only organised rallies and meetings, but a wide range of social and welfare organisations, fusing itself with the daily lives of black people.

The reason for this growth was not just Garvey’s preparedness to make very radical statements and speeches, calling for direct action to give lynch mobs a taste of their own medicine.

The call for self-help and a return to Africa expressed black pride and self-confidence in the face of the degradation of racism.

The black Trotskyist, C. L. R. James, observed in a conversation with the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in April 1939 that despite his Returnist rhetoric, Garvey’s real appeal was that his stress on dignity and self-reliance seemed to offer the prospect of resistance to racism:

“Garvey raised the slogan ‘Back to Africa’, but the Negroes who followed him did not believe for the most part that they were really going back to Africa. We know that those in the West Indies who were following him had not the slightest intention of going back to Africa, but they were glad to follow a militant leadership.

And there is the case of the black woman who was pushed by a white woman in a street car and said to her, ‘You wait until Marcus gets into power and all you people will be treated the way you deserve’. Obviously she was not thinking of Africa.”

The UNIA failed to live up to its promise. Crucially, those few who travelled to Africa from the USA--and the still fewer that departed from the Caribbean--were confronted with circumstances very different from the image propagated by Garvey and the UNIA.

Prospects for economic development and social advancement were extremely limited, not only by direct colonial rule across the continent but by the subordination to the interests of the major imperialist nations of even formally independent African states such as Liberia.

What is more, the crisis of identity experienced by US and West Indian black people was still not overcome by the return to Africa.

Black people in America and the Caribbean had not lived in a vacuum since slavery, but--despite racist barriers to integration--developed their own distinct cultures under widely different national, social and economic conditions.

Black people had grown up with the heavy industry and advanced agricultural techniques of US economic life and had widely different habits and expectations from the working populations of African states. They did not fit in as they had expected they would. Migration to Africa remained low and dwindled still further with the decline of the UNIA.

Nor could Garvey’s ideology provide a coherent rallying point for long. Radical statements and aspirations co-existed uneasily with thoroughly reactionary views.

Garvey could express admiration for both the communist Lenin and the fascist Mussolini at the same time. At one point he even claimed to have invented fascism personally. (see Black Moses, the Story of Marcus Garvey, E David Cronon, Wisconsin, 1969, p190)

Garvey’s illusions in the role of Britain continued into the 1920s; he shared the widespread view, encouraged by the British in his native Jamaica, that Queen Victoria--the Empress of India--was a friend of black people who had abolished slavery. Hence his reference in a speech as late as 1928 to “a woman by the name of Victoria the Good”.

Worst of all, agitation for black people to leave America had a logic of its own, leading directly into the arms of reactionaries and racists.

Blazing a sorry trail that some later proponents of separation would also follow--including the Nation of Islam--he held a joint meeting with the racist white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan. He went so far as to argue that the Klan and other such groupings were “better friends of the race than all other groups of hypocritical whites put together.”

This was no accident, no mere personal aberration on Garvey’s part. Strange as it may at first seem, accommodation to the most virulent forms of racism is a common theme of Returnist currents. The Jewish Zionists sought agreements with Von Plehve, the organiser of the Russian Tsar’s anti-Semitic pogroms.

The Nation of Islam in the 1960s also combined agitation for racial separation and a black state in the USA with joint meetings with white supremacists. Why?

Though it has an entirely different starting point and represents different interests, Returnism shares a central theoretical premise with the most extreme proponents of racism. Both believe that it is impossible for different peoples or “races” to live together, and regard any form of integration and assimilation as inherently wrong--however voluntarily it may occur, for example in the case of mixed marriages.

In order to convince a settled but oppressed community to uproot itself and migrate to another land Returnist ideologies have to stress the hopelessness of genuine resistance to racism. Indeed, they must present racism--as do the racists themselves--as “natural” and unconquerable.

Inhumanity and injustice are described as part of “human nature”, whereas humanity’s natural and historic propensity to&Mac222;ght oppression is downplayed as a futile waste of time.

They must do this in order to “prove” that there is no solution for oppressed nations and peoples other than accepting the very aim that the most violent and uncompromising racists are pursuing--to get black people out of “their” countries.

Returnism has never recaptured the strength it once attained through the UNIA. Although it re-emerged under Ethiopian national colours via the growth of Rastafarianism in the 1970s, this too acted far more as a potent cultural and religious symbol of resistance for young blacks in Jamaica and Britain than as an effective movement for resettlement.

Rasta communities in Ethiopia remain small and far from integrated into the Ethiopian nation as a whole. The Ethiopian workers and peasants have far greater cause to loathe the memory of the despotic and privileged ruler, Haile Selassie, than to revere him as a living god.

And in Britain, the geographical patterns of black post-war settlement and the relative degree of integration when compared with the USA have contributed to the weakness of Returnism as a genuine option for black workers and youth.

Though there have been recent attempts to revive resettlement programmes, these have been half-hearted.

The Black Labour MP Bernie Grant was pilloried by many from within the black community in Britain when he issued a call for resettlement in 1993.

Though he later tried to backtrack, claiming that he had simply called for resettlement grants, he was unable to explain quite why anyone should want to actively encourage black people to leave Britain.

But the agency established by West Indian governments to attract investment and skilled labour from Britain, Caricom International plc, responded to Grant’s statements by issuing promotional material carrying the age old argument of all forms of Returnism.

One leaflet (quoted opposite) was quite clear: black people can either put up with racial violence and wait to be deported, or pack up and leave of their own accord, with their “pride and dignity” apparently intact.

This is just what the far-right and racial attackers are trying to achieve. But passive acceptance of oppression, or fleeing from it, are not the only options, let alone the best ones.

As black people in Britain and the USA have proved time and again, from Notting Hill in 1958, the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the urban rebellions across Britain’s cities in 1981 and 1985, to the Los Angeles Uprising of 1992:

You don’t have to run from racism. You can fight it!

Martin Luther King: A dream deferred

On 4 April 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. died of gunshot wounds in Memphis Tennessee. King had gone to the southern city to lend his support to a strike by Memphis’ predominantly black refuse collection workers who were fighting for union recognition.

The supposed assassin was James Earl Ray, but it is widely believed that the US state, specifically the FBI, was responsible for the killing.

Since the assassination the US establishment has sought to incorporate King as a hero, another “great American” martyred for a noble cause. It has frequently been assisted in this by King’s surviving family members and one-time Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) aides. Despite initial opposition from President Reagan and some state legislatures, King’s birthday became a national holiday in the US in the 1980s.

Unlike that of Malcolm X, King’s life lends itself to incorporation. He gained a PhD in theology from Boston University and came from an upper middle class Atlanta family.

And whereas Malcolm X is remembered for declaring that liberation should be fought for “by any means necessary”, King never broke from his belief in and strategy of non-violence.

Nevertheless, in certain respects King had begun to develop a more radical critique of US society towards the end of his life, and on some issues his views had begun to converge with those of Malcolm X.

King has long been seen by white liberals as the “acceptable” face of black struggle in the US. He is remembered as a great orator for his 1963 “I had a dream” speech. He was the leader who defused militant protest in the apartheid southern states in exchange for the promise of civil rights legislation.

But while this endeared him to white liberals it provoked a revolt amongst black youth. By 1965 a new generation of embittered militants in the northern inner city ghettos saw King as either irrelevant or as an “Uncle Tom”. He was harshly criticised by the rising black power movement.

Separatist and black nationalist ideologies were gaining increasing influence among many of those who had been at the forefront of occupations and lunch counter sit-downs for integration.

After the defeat of the Selma Alabama campaign for voting rights in the spring of 1965, which was marked by two racist murders and savage attacks against blacks by police and state troopers, King and the SCLC appeared to be a spent force.

King’s central error was his resilient maintenance of a pacifist strategy in the face of racist and state violence and his belief, linked to his pacifism, that capitalism could be peacefully reformed. His demonstrations, beaten and tear-gassed before the eyes of a watching world, were intended to shame the US ruling class into reform.

But this strategy was a non-starter for black liberation. While it could, and to a limited extent did, remove the worst aspects of Jim Crow apartheid in the south (at a terrible human cost to the movement in terms of deaths and injury), it could not defeat racism.

Ultimately it could only succeed in creating the conditions for enlarging the black middle class within US capitalism. For the majority the ghetto would remain an escape-proof prison. Over thirty years after King described his “dream” of black equality and social justice, the life expectancy of a black man in Harlem is less than that of a peasant in Bangladeshi--one of the world's poorest countries.

King’s importance as a black leader, however, was his willingness to organise the black masses into a movement, which was in marked contrast to the Nation of Islam’s almost total abstention from the civil rights campaign. And, in the last two years of his life King did seek to re-orient his movement towards the working class.

Many of his erstwhile allies remained comforted by his continued reformism, but disquieted by the left wing edge he began to give it with comments like:

“ . . . we’re treading in very difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with the economic system of our nation . . . It means that something is wrong with capitalism.”

Southern politicians sought to paint King as a “red sympathiser” while the Kennedy administration pressured him into dropping Stanley Levinson, a Communist Party member and King’s personal friend, from the SCLC staff.

In mid-1965 King gave in to pressure and backed down from some tentative criticisms of the US involvement in the Vietnam war when the majority of SCLC leaders told him to shut up for fear that public criticism of the Johnson administration would jeopardise the Voting Rights Act. But in 1967 he admitted he was wrong to retreat and broke with the open pro-imperialists in the civil rights movement:

“I backed up a little when I came out [against the war] in 1965. My name then wouldn’t have been in any book called Profiles of Courage. But now I have decided. I will not be intimidated. I will not be harassed. I will not be silent and I will be heard.”

He went on to denounce the war and branded the US “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”, a move that cost him the support of many black and white allies in the Democratic Party.

Of course, King’s criticisms of the US role in Vietnam flowed from his pacifist stance, but he did lay bare the hypocrisy of the white liberals who had once lavished praise on him:

“They praised us in . . . Birmingham and Selma Alabama. Oh, the press was so noble in its applause and . . . praise when I would say ‘Be non-violent towards Bull Connor’ [Birmingham’s sheriff]. There is something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that would praise you when you say, ‘Be non-violent toward Jim Clark’ [Selma’s police chief] but will curse and damn you when you say, ‘Be non-violent toward little brown Vietnamese children’.”

While this marked a shift by King, it was not a break from his previous strategy. When blacks in the inner cities of the US exploded into riots he blamed the cause of the riots on “nice, gentle, timid white moderates who are more concerned about order than about justice”.

But at the same time he argued that the riots themselves were misguided and counter-productive. The development of organised self-defence, espoused by the Black Panthers, was not part of King’s strategy.

What he turned to was a left reformist strategy that went beyond civil rights and towards social justice. He defied advice from the ultra moderate leaders of the SCLC and sought to turn the movement’s focus towards the appalling housing conditions of black workers in the northern ghettos.

In January 1966 he moved into a slum flat on Chicago’s South Side, launching a campaign to win an open housing law and a massive increase in state funding.

Despite finding that his marches were once again the subject of brutal racist and police attack, and despite a growing pessimism in the ability of the whites to be persuaded of the need for equality for blacks, he held fast to his strategy of peaceful pressure on the establishment.

He remained the most prominent leader of the SCLC until his death, but supplemented it with a national Poor People’s Movement, an organisation that proved unable to survive the death of its founder.

King had undoubtedly moved left, and it is equally likely that this move prompted plots by the US state to kill him.

But it would be wrong to conclude that he had moved towards a fully fledged class analysis of racism or a working class programme for defeating it. He began to criticise capitalism in explicit terms. But his argument remained tinged with a Christian critique of injustice.

Ultimately his Christianity, his reformism and his pacifism sealed the fate of his political evolution. After his death no coherent strategy bequeathed by him, and no militant movement inspired by him, survived.

His contribution was to bring shame on the brutality of racism in the US, but not to eradicate that brutality.

He built the biggest protest movement against racism in the history of the US, but his strategy blocked the ability of that movement to get beyond the fight for concessions towards the fight for liberation.

As with Malcolm X many claim King’s legacy. And like Malcolm X that legacy is riven with contradictions.

Just as it is necessary for anti-racist militants today to transcend the limitations of Malcolm’s nationalism, so it is necessary to transcend the limitations of King’s reformism and pacifism.

Malcom X: “By any means necessary”

The politics of Malcolm X can only be understood against the changing background of the anti-racist struggle in the USA. Malcolm himself underwent a rapid political evolution in the last two years of his life, as the struggle developed.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Malcolm became politically active, the racist system of segregation was already facing active opposition.

By 1946 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had 450,000 members in 1,073 branches. This was the main black political movement in the USA.

In the South, blacks faced apartheid style segregation and deep poverty. Against this background Martin Luther King’s reformist Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had come to the head of the desegregation struggle, initially around the Montgomery County bus boycotts of 1955 and 1956.

King’s movement, dominated by the church and wedded to peaceful and legal means, sought to use non-violence to extract piecemeal reforms from US capitalist society, despite being faced with a reign of terror from white supremacists, including lynch mobs and beatings.

But another strand of black organisation was developing, one which totally rejected white society, believing it could not be reformed. This was Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam, founded in Detroit in 1930.

Muhammed’s strategy was unequivocally nationalist and separatist. He taught that white society and white people in general were inevitably racist, and that black people in the USA should separate and form their own nation. Muhammed called for a return to Africa, and stressed black Americans’ international links with the peoples of the third world. But he also preached the possibility of a separate black territory in North America.

The strength and attraction of the Nation of Islam for many young black people was its emphasis on black pride. It taught that God was black, that whites were an inferior race. It encouraged the establishment of black businesses and celebrated African civilisation.

As long as black people had not attained national independence, Muhammed’s “Muslim Programme” demanded freedom, justice and equality of opportunity. It stated:

“As long as we are not allowed to establish a state or territory of our own, we demand not only equal justice under the laws of the United States, but equal employment opportunities now!” Yet, as the Nation of Islam grew from a sect to a mass organisation in the 1950s, this commitment to the struggle for equality within white society remained a dead letter. In practice the Black Muslims, as they were known, abstained from the actual struggle for desegregation and civil rights. Instead most of their resources were channelled into recruiting and educating the poorest sections of the black working class, especially among the large black prison population.

One of their converts was Malcolm X, who had grown up as Malcolm Little, a petty crook, in Harlem. On his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm became one of Muhammed’s leading followers.

His magnetic personality and popular speaking style allowed the Nation of Islam to reach out to new layers of students and youth. By the late 1950s Malcolm X had become, through lectures, articles and televised debates, an international symbol of revolutionary black nationalism.

But both Muhammed’s black nationalism and King’s reformist integrationism were being put to new tests as the struggle intensified.

By 1963 King was at the head of a powerful coalition of black organisations.

Alongside groups like the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC), the NAACP and King’s SCLC were mobilising hundreds of thousands in direct action to defy segregation in the South, and increasingly the racism and state brutality faced by blacks in the northern cities. A March on Washington that year mobilised 250,000.

The civil rights movement was no longer simply a black protest movement. It had begun to win influence in white liberal circles and amongst organised white workers. At the same time it faced a vicious racist backlash, particularly in the South which, for thousands of youth, increasingly called non-violence into question as a strategy.

Yet the Nation of Islam remained on the sidelines. Muhammed repeatedly vetoed moves to get involved in civil rights activism. He even became embroiled in collusion with white-supremacist US fascists. While hundreds of thousands were heeding the call to mass action by the civil rights movement, the Black Muslims’ radical words remained only words.

In 1964 Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam, amidst much acrimony, and started a process of political rethinking which was to lead him to a much more radical, anti-capitalist formulation of his politics. It is a tribute to Malcolm X’s political courage that he made not one but two political evolutions in his life. From small time hustler to national political leader, then from abstentionist black nationalism to an attempt to combine black separatism and socialism.

It was an evolution cut short when Black Muslim assassins, probably in collusion with the FBI, killed Malcolm, aged 40, on 21 February 1965. His development away from the Nation of Islam had lasted less than two years. In this process Malcolm produced several reformulations of his political programme and philosophy and often made contradictory statements even within a single speech or interview.

This is what has allowed many differing strands within black nationalism and socialism to claim Malcolm X as their own. Even at their most developed point of evolution away from Elijah Muhammed, Malcolm’s politics remain contradictory: not a fusion of the struggle for black liberation with socialism but a confusion, about both ends and means.

Malcolm X’s split with Elijah Muhammed resulted from a combination of organisational, political and personal differences. Malcolm was impatient to enter the mass movement, not in order to tail behind the pacifist leaders but to revolutionise the struggle. Muhammed wanted the Muslims to remain on the sidelines--a primarily religious sect with radical rhetoric.

In Los Angeles in April 1962, police shot seven unarmed Black Muslims, killing one. Sixteen Muslims were charged with criminal assault against the police. Malcolm X set about organising united actions against this outrage with the city’s black integrationist leaders, and even appealed to whites for financial support. Muhammed quickly vetoed this, insisting on a purely legal defence campaign and no joint activity with non-Muslim blacks.

The inevitable split came in March 1964 and Malcolm announced he was setting up a new organisation, the Muslim Mosque Inc. But soon it became clear this was not just an organisational break.

George Breitman, Malcolm’s biographer and a leader of the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP), divides Malcolm's last years after the split into two phases. Firstly the “transition”, from the split until Malcolm’s return from a trip to Mecca in May 1964, and then the “final period” from June 1964 to his assassination.

Whilst there are clear political differences between Malcolm’s statements in these two phases, to call only the first “transitional” is misleading. Right up to his death Malcolm’s politics were changing and remained contradictory.

Breitman wanted to defend Malcolm from critics who simply labelled him a black nationalist. But his analysis also fitted in with the SWP’s belief that Malcolm had become an “unconscious” revolutionary socialist and internationalist.

Today, with black nationalism and separatism gaining popularity, it is important to emphasise that Malcolm, the cultural icon of black nationalism, had consciously broken with it by the time he died.

But equally we should not idealise his later political philosophy, dressing it up as a form of Marxism, or claim it was an adequate guide to action for those who followed him. Immediately after the break with Elijah Muhammed, Malcolm’s project amounted to implementing all the secular and social aspects of the Nation of Islam programme:

“I still believe that Mr Muhammed’s analysis of the problem is the most realistic and that his solution is the best one . . .” he told reporters. “But 22 million of our people who are still here in America need better food, clothing, housing, education and jobs right now. Mr Muhammed’s program does point us back homeward, but it also contains within it what we could and should be doing to help solve many of our own problems while we are still here.”

Like many subsequent black nationalists and separatists, Muhammed’s politics sounded radical when he talked about a return to Africa or a separate state for blacks in America, but he stumbled when it came to changing things within the racist USA.

Malcolm had for years castigated white liberals for their duplicity and the white working class for its racism. He now had to face the problem of how to win black liberation in a society where white liberals ruled and white workers formed the majority.

When he launched the Muslim Mosque Inc. Malcolm declared:

“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 among ourselves.”

This “two stage” theory of black liberation is popular amongst black nationalists and separatists today.

There is a kernel of truth in it: black people do need to organise themselves within the wider working class movement in order to defeat racism and fight for their own specific needs. But the idea that a joint struggle between black and white workers should be put off until after “black unity” is achieved has proved no guide to action.

If “black unity” meant a separate black state, as it did for Muhammed, then black people would have a long time to wait. Uncle Sam had no intention of granting that state, and blacks themselves were dispersed as a minority amongst the northern industrial cities of the USA, even if compacted into ghettos within those cities.

If “black unity” meant a single organisation it could not be achieved either. The black reformists like King and James Farmer recognised that their white liberal allies feared Malcolm X, and therefore distanced themselves from him.

Despite the repression meted out against them (including the later assassination of King), the leadership of the civil rights movement represented an embryonic black middle class, even a nascent black bourgeoisie. It was this layer which would bene&Mac222;t most from President Johnson’s reforms in the late 1960s, while for the masses there remained poverty and oppression.

Prison, legal lynchings and being shot by the cops were the future for Malcolm’s followers. The divergent strategies of reformist integrationism and militant struggle proved fundamentally incompatible.

Grappling with these problems, Malcolm evolved away from nationalism as a political principle. In March 1964 he had announced:

“Our political philosophy will be black nationalism. Our economic and social philosophy will be black nationalism.”

But already he was using the term nationalism not to imply the struggle for a separate state but for black people’s struggles to control their own lives and communities:

“The political philosophy of black nationalism means we must control the politics and politicians of our community. They must no longer take orders from outside forces. We will organise and sweep out of office all Negro politicians who are puppets of outside forces.”

After Malcolm returned from a trip to Africa he began to break with black nationalism. Describing a meeting with a white Algerian revolutionary nationalist Malcolm said:

“He showed me where I was alienating people who were true revolutionaries, dedicated to overthrowing 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’ve noticed, I haven’t been using the expression for several months.” (16 January 1965)

However Malcolm remained a black separatist in the organisational sense. Though he collaborated with elements on the predominantly white left his project remained to build a black organisation to fight for black liberation.

After returning from Africa he posed this in a more international way. He founded the strictly secular Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), even though he himself remained a Muslim until his death.

But his organisation’s aims were confused from the beginning. On the one hand he conceived it as an umbrella organisation which could unite all the civil rights and black nationalist groups. On the other hand Malcolm was obliged to build the OAAU as a separate political organisation which challenged the programme and tactics of the King/Farmer assimilationist leaders.

The Statement of Aims (June 1964) and Programme of the OAAU (February 1965) contain Malcolm’s most developed statements of his political analysis and strategy.

The central flaw of the programme is its failure to understand the causes of racism--capitalism and imperialism--from a class standpoint. Consequently it contains no strategy to remove these roots of racism.

Malcolm made a number of anti-capitalist statements towards the end of his life:

“There can be no freedom for our people under capitalism, and further you can’t operate a capitalist system unless you are vulturistic; you have to suck someone else’s blood to be a capitalist.”

But Malcolm’s programme was not overtly anti-capitalist.

The OAAU programme does expose the sham of US capitalism’s “emancipation” of black people from slavery. The statement of aims identifies the “economic exploitation” of black people as “the most vicious form practised on any people in America”.

It denounces poor housing, job discrimination and the high cost of living in the ghetto. But nowhere does it set itself against the whole system of wage slavery: the exploitation of the worker by the employer.

Consequently its solutions to the economic plight of black people are couched as a series of reforms to the capitalist system, and militant self-organised tactics to achieve them.

The statement of aims proposes a housing self-improvement programme and a rent strike to win it. The only real economic demand in the section on “Economic Security” is for the establishment of a pool of black technicians, which would be available to the developing independent African countries, and provide work for black Americans:

“Thereby we will be developing an open market for the many skills we possess and at the same time we will be supplying Africa with the skills she can best use. This project will be one of mutual co-operation of benefit."

This is a form of utopian socialism, reliant on the capitalist “open market” to create some form of economic stability and livelihood for the black working class in the USA. It is futile as a strategy for economic liberation.

Like all utopian socialist programmes, Malcolm’s emphasises education rather than class struggle. It outlines a series of reforms in education black people must fight for: control of 10% of all schools, the right to write the textbooks, etc. The OAAU wanted to develop a skilled black working class able to compete with whites for jobs, and a black population able to overcome ignorance as one of the chains that enslaved them.

But Malcolm’s economic programme contains no orientation to the workplace, strike action, occupations and picket lines--even over the specific question of job segregation and discrimination. Still less is there any strategy for building unity in action with white workers.

If at an economic level the programme is totally inadequate and reformist, it does contain a revolutionary challenge to racist state violence. All of Malcolm’s programmatic statements are clear on the right to black self-defence against racist attack.

Sickened by a succession of racist murders and beatings, police attacks on peaceful marches and widespread repression against civil rights activists, Malcolm’s outspoken support for black self-defence struck a chord with many young people at the time:

“In areas where the US government has shown itself unable and/or unwilling to bring to justice the racist oppressors, murderers, who kill innocent children and adults, the OAAU advocates that Afro-American people ensure ourselves that justice is done--whatever the price and by any means necessary.”

But even here Malcolm’s programme fails to show how to link this defensive struggle with the offensive against the whole capitalist state machine. The statement of aims betrays a startling innocence about the US constitution and various pan-national imperialist bodies. The OAAU was:

“. . . persuaded that the Charter of the United Nations, the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, the Constitution of the USA and the Bill of Rights are the principles in which we believe and these documents if put into practice represent the essence of mankind’s hopes and good intentions.”

All the democratic rights in the world are not enough to end the system of exploitation which starves Africa and reduces America’s ghettos to killing fields.

Nor are they enough to overcome the imperialist state machine that is supposed to embody and protect such rights. It is impossible for US imperialism to systematically uphold these fine declarations of “hopes and good intentions” because it is committed to defending private property and the bosses’ profits which rely on this exploitation.

Once we remove the myths about Malcolm X his anti-capitalism has to be seen as a mixture of utopian and reformist socialism; his internationalism as a laudable desire to help the bourgeois nationalist revolutions in the third world, but not proletarian internationalism; his revolutionary opposition to state racism devoid of a strategic goal.

Unfortunately the left has failed to point this out.

In particular George Breitman and the American SWP have spent the years since Malcolm’s death peddling the myth that he was “a black nationalist plus a socialist”, or at least in the process of becoming a socialist. Breitman argues that Malcolm was on the road to a “synthesis of black nationalism and socialism” and that others must complete it.

No. The best tribute to Malcolm X we can pay today is to complete the break Malcolm was making with nationalism and separatism, not dress up the confusion as a “synthesis”.

Stokely Carmichael: From civil rights to black power

The Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) was created as the first attempt to give an organisational structure to the spontaneous revolt of black youth against segregation. In the years after its founding meeting, on 16 April 1960, it was to become one of the most radical organisations in America.

The extreme dedication and bravery of the young militants was linked to the notion, derived from Martin Luther King, that white America would be shamed into granting equal rights by demonstrations of the “capacity of black people to suffer”. Under the influence of a large delegation of Nashville students committed to Gandhian principles of non-violence and to Christian pacifist ideals, SNCC adopted a code of conduct that included:

“Don’t strike back or curse if abused . . . Show yourself courteous and friendly at all times . . . Report all serious incidents to your leader in a polite manner. Remember love and nonviolence.”

These principles embodied the innocence of the movement in its earliest stages. It was an innocence based on the idea that America really was “the land of the free”. The leaders of the movement believed that white liberals in the USA, especially those within the Democratic Party, could be gently edged towards reform.

Eventually the repression meted out to the black protesters exposed the weaknesses of pacifism in the movement. They were hounded and beaten. The authorities, including the white liberals amongst the Democrats, were not persuaded to carry out reforms. Whenever they did act it was because they were frightened into doing so by militant action and the threat of disorder.

The movement was growing up, and the innocent ideals of pacifism began to be questioned. As the struggle assumed truly mass proportions more and more radical youth were drawn in, and they were less inclined to be courteous to racist gun thugs or deferential to Democrat politicians who sat on their hands while the racists ran riot.

The famous March on Washington was led by Martin Luther King in August 1963. Millions have heard and been moved by the vision of a society free from racism that he expressed in his historic speech that day. But there was another speech planned for that day which was never made.

SNCC’s John Lewis drafted a declaration which rejected Kennedy’s proposed civil rights bill as inadequate, as failing to protect people who were actively claiming and fighting for their rights in the South.

Lewis planned to tell the 250,000 people at the Washington rally:

“I want to know, which side is the federal government on?”

He intended to declare:

“. . . the revolution is at hand and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery.”

Though Lewis remained committed to non-violence, he wrote:

“We will not wait for the President, the Justice Department, nor Congress, but will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power, outside of any national structure, that could and would assure us of victory.”

He showed the speech to other civil rights leaders first. They told him to change it, because otherwise the Archbishop of Washington would not appear on the platform! Reluctantly Lewis agreed, and a committee was set up to modify his declaration. But on the day Lewis still launched into a bitter attack on the Democrats and the Republicans.

Many SNCC workers, who had built the delegations to the march from the South, deeply resented the moderate slogans of the march, and the petty restrictions imposed by its organisers, such as the strict control of slogans on placards and banners. Gradually a new radicalism was beginning to permeate the younger, grass roots civil rights campaigners.

SNCC workers started to discuss and consider more favourably ideas of organised self-defence of black communities, as well as openly investigating pan-Africanist and socialistic ideas. A number of members of the SNCC staff were also members of Students for a Democratic Society, which was to become one of the main “New Left” organisations that flourished during the radicalisation of youth at the time of the Vietnam War.

By 1964 Stokely Carmichael was emerging as a leader of the radical wing of the movement. His emphasis shifted from pacifist pleading to demanding the nationalisation of the top corporations and the breaking up of large landed estates. He wanted to see “more than 100 people control over 60% of the industry”.

At the same time he began encouraging SNCC staff to “stop taking a defensive stand on communism.” SNCC leaders began an African tour where they met, among others, Malcolm X and discussed collaboration with his newly formed Organisation of Afro-American Unity.

In early 1965 events took a sharp turn. Attempts to organise a mass march from Selma to Montgomery met with sustained police attack and barricades. On 10 March, Martin Luther King, at the head of a demonstration, angered local residents and SNCC staff by unilaterally deciding to call off the march, turn around and go back.

But SNCC, under the leadership of the militant activist Jim Forman, seized the opportunity to challenge the leadership of King and his SCLC over the mobilisation. He argued firmly for building the demos and not flinching from confrontation with the police. As Forman put it, “If we can’t sit at the table of democracy, we’ll knock the fucking legs off.”

Also in 1965, SNCC took the highly political step of speaking out against the war being pursued by the USA in Vietnam.

A statement was already in the process of being prepared when SNCC were spurred to speak out by the death of Sammy Younge, a 21-year old veteran of the US Navy who was shot to death while trying to use a whites-only rest-room at a filling station. The SNCC statement exposed US hypocrisy and explicitly linked racism in the South to imperialism overseas. A furious witch-hunt against SNCC ensued.

As an expression of the increased radicalism of the SNCC staff and volunteers, Stokely Carmichael challenged John Lewis for the position of Chair of SNCC in 1966.

Born in the West Indies, Carmichael had family and personal connections with black members of the Communist Party of the USA. When he joined the Nonviolent Action Group and then the full time SNCC staff in 1964, he brought with him both secularism and an emphasis on economic and social issues.

By 1966 he was becoming heavily influenced by ideas of black consciousness, of pride in blackness, the positive promotion of black culture and the construction of black institutions. He insisted, in response to attacks from liberals against this approach, that his position was, “. . . not anti-white. When you build your own house, it doesn’t mean you tear down the house across the street.”

But it was not until the events surrounding the Mississippi march of 1966 that this orientation began to take shape, when the new slogan of Black Power was to sweep the USA.

In June 1966 James Meredith began a solo walk across Mississippi as a demonstration of the right of black people to live without threats and fear of violence. He was shot three times and hospitalised.

Martin Luther King, Congress of Racial Equality leader Floyd McKissick and Stokely Carmichael joined forces to lead a protest march that would also boost local voter registration efforts. King viewed the march in much the same way he viewed the whole campaign--a strictly peaceful protest. But SNCC was adopting a more militant stance than before.

Sick of years of beatings, shootings and arrests, Carmichael argued that an organisation called the Deacons of Defence provide armed protection for the march.

At mass rallies across Mississippi, Carmichael spoke against the non-violence line being pursued by King, and condemned the federal government for failing to provide any real protection against racist terror. In Leflore County Carmichael told a meeting of hundreds after he had been detained in jail:

“This is the twenty-seventh time I have been arrested. I ain’t going to jail no more . . . What we gonna start saying now is ‘black power’.”

What did Black Power mean? To many SNCC workers and poor blacks, from Mississippi to the ghettos of the big cities, it meant an end to compromise, to non-violence, to reliance on white liberals. Rank and file SNCC workers had seen the consequences of reliance on the support of liberal whites in failed attempts to get the Northern Democrats and the administration in Washington to act in their support.

The liberals expected a political pay-off for their support: the renunciation of the right to self-defence (something no liberal ever demanded of whites), the censoring of Lewis’ speech to the Washington rally in 1963 and King’s attempt to get SNCC to call off a demonstration on the Vietnam question in August 1966. As Carmichael explained:

“We will not accept someone who comes to us and says: ‘If you do X, Y and Z, then I’ll help you’.”

This refusal to tie the movement’s hands in return for the illusory support of fair-weather bourgeois allies was a real political step forward.

But the idea of Black Power, as Carmichael came to theorise it in his book of that name, co-authored with Charles V. Hamilton, also contained serious ambiguities.

When Carmichael wrote of the need for black consciousness and self-identification as a vital first step, that “only when black people fully develop this sense of community, of themselves, can they begin to deal effectively with the problems of racism in this country”, he was not just speaking of the justified need to develop pride and confidence in black culture.

He invested Black Power with another--wrong and dangerous--meaning. He was advancing the principle of black unity, irrespective of any class divisions.

Unity of all black people--workers, poor farmers and the urban poor, as well as middle class and even rich blacks--became for him a precondition for an effective fight against racism. This is what he meant by his famous statement that:

“Before a group can enter open society, it must first close ranks.”

The first, and most fundamental, problem with this approach is that it downplays the central question of class. The unity of black people, as blacks, blurred the real conflicts between blacks of different classes. It blurred the differences between those who advocated reliance on the Democrats, and those who fought for militant action. It was a “unity” that contained the real possibility of holding back the black struggle.

At the same time it cut off, in advance, the possibility of building fighting unity between black and white workers against the common enemy. In far too many cases the white working class and their unions had proved themselves to be racist.

Insofar as Black Power meant not holding back the struggles of black people until white workers became anti-racist it was right and justified. But for Carmichael it was not simply this.

He went on to ignore the real material difference between white workers and their white bosses, and the potential for anti-racism to be built within the white working class because of this difference.

As he told a meeting in Watts, Los Angeles, “the only reason [whites] suppress us is because we are black”. For this reason white society was conceived simply as a monolith, with no fundamental contradictions between the interests of its respective classes.

While Carmichael insisted that all blacks must be united across class divisions, working class organisations, like the trade unions, were all but written off as “coalitions between the economically secure and the insecure”.

The racism of the official unions had to be acknowledged and fought. But Carmichael threw out the baby with the bath water, downgrading the rich experience of black workers who played leading roles in the rise of industrial unionism and the CIO union federation.

These experiences proved that it was both necessary and possible to challenge racism within the working class and build unity in struggle.

For a minority, such as Julius Lester, Black Power meant an increasingly hardline separatist stance, involving rejection on principle of collaboration with whites (he gave one of his pamphlets the ironic title Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!).

Carmichael however did not rule out coalitions with whites, but said they could arise only after black people had united.

At the same time as relegating the importance and downplaying the possibility of common class action between black and white workers, Carmichael’s conception of the black community closing ranks failed to get to grips with the political and class differentiation within that community.

As Jim Forman acutely observed when appealing to SNCC staff to recognise the ambiguities and inadequacies of the Black Power slogan:

“Are the problems we face only ones of color? . . . What is upper, lower, middle class? Do they exist among blacks? Why is there a black banker in one town and a starving Negro in the same? . . . Do the problems of a black welfare mother only arise from her blackness? If not, then what are the other causes?”

Whilst for SNCC workers and poor blacks the Black Power slogan was one of militancy, for other more moderate and conservative blacks it meant promoting black businesses, a black middle class and even bourgeoisie, rising not with their class but out of their class.

In short it meant the furthering of the development of a black middle and upper class, with the attendant danger of a layer of privileged blacks being co-opted into support for the very establishment that Carmichael and others had repeatedly risked their lives to challenge.

Thus Black Power was to become the rallying call not only of the most exploited and oppressed blacks, but also of the most conservative and bourgeois forces within the community.

That is why one Black Power conference was sponsored by black Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. He was trying to subordinate the movement to the Democrats and, as Carmichael admitted, was “talking about stopping the throwing of Molotov cocktails and not stopping the causes that bring about the throwing of the cocktails.”

A new layer of moderate community leaders was able to consolidate around the Black Power slogan, holding conferences sponsored by, among others, the white-owned corporation Clairol.

This was in line with the attempts of US capitalism to co-opt a privileged layer of blacks as its answer to the urban uprisings and mass struggles of the 1960s. This is clear from the words of former Republican President, reactionary racist and crook, Richard Nixon:

“What most of the militants are asking is not separation but to be included in--not as supplicants, but as owners, as entrepreneurs--to have a share of the wealth and a piece of the action. And this is precisely what the federal central target of the new approach ought to be. It ought to be oriented toward more black ownership . . . black pride, black jobs, black opportunity and yes, Black Power . . .”

In the end, the Black Power slogan and the approach it represented proved not only ambiguous and capable of being adopted by conservative forces, but also disorienting for some of the most militant fighters in the civil rights movement.

As SNCC declined under the twin blows of external repression and internal ideological incoherence, Carmichael himself turned to the pan-African nationalist “socialism” of Nkrumah and Sekou Toure, President of the bourgeois republic of Guinea.

Carmichael ended up accepting Toure’s offer of moving to Guinea and acting as his personal secretary in 1968, taking the name of Kwame Ture and joining the leadership of Guinea’s ruling party in 1972.

The notion of uniting all black people before, and as a precondition for, fundamental social change allowed him to support a government which, despite its radical rhetoric, upholds the capitalist system. Carmichael was wrong to believe that the only reason whites suppress black people is because they are black. The root cause of racism is the capitalist system of production for profit.

Black Panthers; seize the time!

In October 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, two young black militants, founded and became leaders of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, which later became known just as the Black Panther Party.

Newton and Seale grew up in the black ghetto of Oakland, a working class city in the Bay Area of California. Influenced by the teachings of Malcolm X, they quickly broke with the “cultural nationalists”.

The nationalists looked back to Africa for their inspiration and saw all whites, irrespective of their class position, as the enemy. The Panthers saw through the nationalists’ attempts to disguise the conflict of interests between black capitalists and the black poor behind the camouflage of African dress. Seale wrote:

“Huey would explain many times that if a black businessman is charging you the same prices or higher, even higher prices than exploiting white businessmen, then he himself ain’t nothing but an exploiter. So why should black people go for this kind of system?”

As the Panthers developed they collaborated with white-dominated organisations. They organised inside the unions, building Panther caucuses. Their lawyer, Charles R Garry, dubbed the “Lenin of the court room” by Seale, was white.

Not one of these actions compromised their struggle against racism and for black liberation. In contrast the separatists, on a number of occasions, seriously damaged the struggle by collaborating with black cops employed by the racist state.

While the separatists and posers talked Newton and Seale decided to act. After failing to win over the separatists in Merritt College Soul Students Advisory Council to taking up arms and building in the community Huey Newton denounced them:

“We don’t have time for you. You’re jiving in these colleges. You’re hiding behind the ivory-walled towers in the college, and you’re shucking and you’re jiving.”

The Panthers’ foundation was the direct consequence of this split with cultural nationalism and separatism.

The Panthers’ first principle was armed black self-defence. By the brilliant exploitation of the US constitution and California state laws on the right to bear arms, the Black Panthers began to conduct armed patrols of the Oakland ghetto.

The technique was simple. So long as guns were on display and not pointing at anyone the Panthers could legally ride the streets armed to the teeth. And they did--tailing cop cars wherever they went. Of course the police tried to put a stop to this. They hadn’t counted on Newton’s knowledge of the gun laws.

Time and again the police were faced down by Panthers with pistols and shotguns. Every time the police tried to take the guns from them Huey Newton quoted the constitution, leaving them baffled. Every time the police threatened the Panthers, each one of them would click a bullet into the firing chamber and quote the law on the right to self-defence if attacked.

The effect of these patrols on the black community was electric, and after a number of major confrontations the ranks of the party began to swell. Demonstrations and rallies against police harassment or in support of black rights were flanked by armed Panthers. The police stood by, helpless to do anything other than bitterly complain that “the niggers were twisting the Constitution round”.

The Panthers put Malcolm X’s message, “by any means necessary” into practice. But they combined their armed self-defence programme with a range of political activities that won them mass support beyond Oakland. With Eldridge Cleaver as their “Minister for Information” they produced a regular paper and built a nationwide organisation.

They initiated united front actions against fascists and ran in elections.

They developed a community programme based on satisfying the immediate needs of the poor of the ghetto--breakfasts for children, free health clinics, free education centres that taught black history. They conscientiously purged criminals and opportunists--“jackanapes”--from their ranks.

While all of these activities demarcated the Panthers from the reformist wing of the black movement, led by Martin Luther King, and earned them the trust of black communities across the USA, the Black Panther Party failed as a political organisation. The heroism and determination of the Panthers could not substitute for a clear revolutionary strategy.

Throughout their existence the Panthers remained unclear on their strategic goals. The programme, drafted by Newton and Seale, consisted of ten points, divided into “what we want” and “what we believe” sections. Its concept of “freedom” for black people to determine their own destiny went no further than a call for a “United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony in which only black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of the black people as to their national destiny.”

This demand conceded to the separatists and nationalists the existence of a black nation. It hampered the ability of the Panthers to develop a fully fledged class strategy for black liberation in the USA, for it left as a possibility a purely national solution. And when the Panthers were pressed to give a concrete form to this potential national solution, they ended up by projecting the utopian idea of a nation based on the disparate urban black ghettos.

In turn, flowing from the idea of the US black population as a series of communities constituting a nation, the Panthers increasingly turned to concepts of community control--of the police, of education, of industry. These nationalist and communitarian projects, based on the idea of nationally separated communities, flatly contradicted the Panthers’ occasional calls for socialism and workers’ control.

Underpinning these confused programmatic goals was the influence of Stalinism. When the Panthers started out they got money for guns by selling Mao’s “Red Book”, at a profit, to the “radical leftists” on the Berkeley university campus. But Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Castro and Guevara all began to exert considerable influence on the thinking of Newton and Seale. They embraced the Stalinist “stages theory” of revolution: first black liberation, then socialism.

In the fight against the “fascist” US state they saw the primary task as being to unify the lumpenproletariat of the ghetto. Only after that would the struggle for socialism become possible. The lumpenproletariat were seen as the decisive force for social change. And the method for change most suitable to this class was the armed struggle in the ghetto.

Various declarations from Huey Newton contradicted this strategy. But they remained declarations. He called for a general revolution in the “white mother-country”, but developed a practice exclusively based on the struggle in the black ghettos. Stalinism also influenced the organisation of the Black Panther Party. Franz Fanon’s teachings on guerilla war were decisive in Newton and Seale’s thinking.

The two of them set up the Panthers and became Minister of Defence and Chairman respectively. With more recruits they established other posts, but the organisation remained elitist and undemocratic. Huey Newton became a cult figure whose own thoughts were rarely questioned by the rank and file. None of this detracts from the place of honour that the Black Panthers have in the history of the black liberation struggle. It merely explains that they failed to develop a political strategy that could ultimately defeat the US imperialist state.

That state took vicious revenge on the young black militants who had used the gun laws to defy its racist police and the brutalisation of the black communities. A massive FBI operation, the Counter Intelligence Programme, was launched against the Panthers. Key militants were shot dead in deliberately provoked shoot-outs with the police.

Huey Newton was wounded in one such shoot-out and, in defiance of all the evidence, was incarcerated for murder. Bobby Seale was framed and shipped to Chicago where, when he tried to defend himself in court, the judge ordered that he be chained to a chair and gagged throughout the trial.

Faced with this persecution many of the Panthers stood firm. To this day some of their members remain in US prisons. Today’s generation of black militants can learn from the mistakes of the Panthers. Black self defence can be a starting point, and is a vital element of the struggle.

But it has to be fought for as part of a programme to link the everyday struggles of black workers and youth to the overthrow of the capitalist system. Likewise, black self organisation has to be class based and rooted within the wider working class movement.

But as well as learning from the Panthers’ mistakes, today’s youth must also learn the spirit of heroism and the will to act that permeated the Black Panther Party at the height of its struggle with the US state.