Martin Thomas looks at George Breitman’s book, The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary (Pathfinder, £7.95)
THIS BOOK, written over the year after Malcolm X was murdered in February 1965, sets out to prove that from June 1964 until his death “Malcolm was a revolutionary — increasingly anti-capitalist and pro-socialist as well as anti-imperialist”.
On one level, it is solid and convincing. Shortly before his death Malcolm said plainly that his struggle was not “a racial conflict of black against white, or... a purely American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter”.
“I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing... but I don’t think it will be based upon the colour of the skin, as Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad had taught it.”
Anyone who uses Malcolm X as authority for narrow black nationalist politics is being disloyal.
In his last year Malcolm became willing to work with the (liberal-led) mass civil rights movement.
He called for a struggle of both black and white people, not black people alone. “When the day comes when the whites who are really fed-up — I don’t mean these jive whites who pose as liberals... — learn how to establish the proper type of communication with those uptown [in Harlem] who are fed-up, and they get some co-ordinated action going, you’ll get some changes... And it will take both.”
He dumped the Black Muslims’ vague talk of a “black state”: “No. I believe in a society in which people can live like human beings on the basis of equality.” Immediately after quitting the Black Muslims, he summed up his philosophy as “black nationalism” — but by January 1965 he had rejected that: “I haven’t been using the expression for several months.”
He dropped the Black Muslims’ line of promoting black capitalism, in a way which Breitman shows must have been deliberate and considered — though he never openly argued against it, and never came out clearly with an alternative.
He denounced capitalism: “You can’t have capitalism without racism... You can’t operate a capitalistic system unless you are vulturistic; you have to have someone else’s blood to suck to be a capitalist...” He told Breitman’s comrade Harry Ring that he “felt it necessary for his people to consider socialist solutions to their problem. But as the leader of the movement, he said, it was necessary to present this concept in a way that would be understandable to his people and would not isolate him from them”.
The basic statement of his Organisation of Afro-American Unity, in June 1964, had cited “the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Constitution of the USA and the Bill of Rights” as “the principles in which we believe”; but in December 1964 he urged the OAAU to look wider: “The man doesn’t want you and me to look beyond Harlem or beyond the shores of America”.
He told the OAAU to consider socialism because, he said, that was the system that the new independent countries in Africa and Asia (and Scandinavia, too, he said in passing) were using to get rid of poverty and provide a decent life and decent education for everyone.
That those countries were not as he thought them to be does not undo the importance of Malcolm’s preaching of social provision for need in place of “vulturistic” profit. Unfortunately, however, Breitman’s own illusions here blur the argument of the book.
He weaves his presentation into a general notion of “the tendency of revolutionary nationalism to grow over into and become merged with socialism”, and thus blurs over both Malcolm’s sharp change of direction in 1964-5 and the deep differences Malcolm still had with working-class socialists.
Breitman was a Trotskyist, a long-standing member of American Socialist Workers’ Party (no relation to the SWP-Britain). When the SWP went Castro-Stalinist in the early 1980s, he fought against the turn and, nearly 70 years old, was expelled. He knew that the new states in Africa were not socialist at all.
All that, however, was blurred in his mind by a concept which he shared with all the “mainstream” Trotskyists of the time: that a great process of “colonial revolution” was sweeping the world which somehow had an inbuilt and semi-automatic tendency to “grow over” into socialism, and within which class issues were secondary details.
Malcolm’s identification with Third World states was thus, for Breitman, an identification with the “colonial revolution” and ipso facto an identification with a movement or process tending towards socialism. Moreover, for Breitman, Malcolm was also himself an example of that movement or process.
Breitman’s general summings-up, as opposed to his detailed documentation, therefore blur Malcolm’s change of direction. And Breitman gives a very blurred picture of the socialist view which he says Malcolm was moving towards.
THE SOCIALIST answer to racism is black and white workers’ unity on a programme of eliminating disadvantage by levelling up at the expense of the capitalists and capitalism. The principle of unity should not stop socialists supporting black people who start struggles against racism before any large number of white workers are ready to back those struggles; revolutionary unity can be established only by building on struggles, using them as a lever to change consciousness, not by dampening them down to get “unity” in silence and stillness. Nevertheless, class unity remains the basic principle.
Breitman mentions this issue quite clearly. “It is important to note that Malcolm... was talking about [an alliance with] ‘militant whites’, not white workers... He did not share the belief of the Marxists that the working class, including a decisive section of the white workers... will play a leading role”.
But Breitman’s blurred vision stops him developing this, or another important point he makes: “class questions are often expressed in racial terms”, that is, “racial” issues often have to be demystified by exposing class issues inside them.
Breitman concludes: “Malcolm was not yet a Marxist.” Not yet! But it was not only a matter of time!
Malcolm was not a Marxist. Whether he would have become one if he had lived longer depends on whether he would have become convinced on the key issues separating the sort of socialism at which he had arrived (with various state-capitalist and bureaucratic regimes as models, and without any special connection to the working class) from Marxist working-class socialism. It was not just a matter of trundling a little further along an automatic conveyor-belt.
On another level Breitman misses the point.
Malcolm was beginning to think and read about socialism. He was not, and could not have been, anywhere near producing a new socialist strategy against racism.
For a dozen years before that, he had had a strategy against racism — the “Black Muslim” strategy of building black self-respect and pride, encouraging racial separation, and using black resources to build up black (capitalist) businesses in black communities. Malcolm had rejected that strategy.
Malcolm was and is a great political figure not because he offered strategic guidance. His most famous slogan was “Freedom — by any means necessary”. The phrase “by any means necessary” shattered all the liberal taboos about non-violence and not demanding “too much”, and the black-separatist taboos too. In place of all talk of gradually scaling down racism, bit by bit, it put the basic human demand: we will not tolerate any racism any longer!
It was a revolutionary principle. But it said nothing about which means were suitable and effective! It offered no strategy.
All it did was to open the way for clear thinking about strategy — and that was a great thing to do, especially at that time and in that place. Malcolm opened the way for others (and for himself, in his last year) to think for themselves.
And to string together “Malcolm X’s strategy” from whatever selection of Malcolm’s statements suits your prejudices — black-nationalist, Muslim, or socialist — is not the best way to think for yourself. It is not the best way to learn from Malcolm X.
Really interesting article and debate on Malcolm X's sexuality, and the issues flowing from this, here:
Malcolm X was bisexual. Get over it
by Peter Tatchell
October is Black History Month in Britain – a wonderful celebration of the huge, important and valuable contribution that black people have made to humanity and to popular culture.
It is also worth celebrating that many leading black icons have been lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), most notably the US black liberation hero Malcolm X. Other prominent black LGBTs include jazz singer Billie Holiday, author and civil rights activist James Baldwin, soul singer-songwriter Luther Vandross, blues singer Bessie Smith, poet and short story writer Langston Hughes, singer Johnny Mathis, novelist Alice Walker, civil rights activist and organiser of the 1963 March on Washington Bayard Rustin, blues singer Ma Rainey, dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, actress, singer and dancer Josephine Baker, Olympic diving gold medallist Greg Louganis, singer and songwriter Little Richard, political activist and philosopher Angela Davis, singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman and drag performer and singer RuPaul.
Few of these prominent black LGBT achievers are listed on the most comprehensive UK Black History Month website, which hosts biographies of notable black men and women. In the section on people, only Davis is mentioned and her lesbianism is not acknowledged. The website fails to identify the vast majority of black public and historical figures who are LGBT. The Official Guide to Black History Month UK is equally remiss. Why these omissions? Black people are not one homogenous heterosexual mass. Where is the recognition of sexual diversity within the black communities and black history?
In contrast, LGBT History Month, which takes place in the UK in February, devotes a whole section of its website to the lives of leading black LGBT people and links to the websites for Black History Month. Disappointingly, this solidarity is not reciprocated. On the Black History Month websites I could not find a LGBT section or a LGBT History Month link.
Perhaps it is unintentional but Black History Month sometimes feels like Straight Black History Month. Famous black LGBT people are not acknowledged and celebrated. Either their contribution to black history and culture is ignored or their sexuality is airbrushed out of their biographies.
A good example of this neglect is the denialism surrounding the bisexuality of one of the greatest modern black liberation heroes: Malcolm X. The lack of recognition is perhaps not surprising, given that some of his family and many black activists have made strenuous efforts to deny his same-sex relationships and suppress recognition of the full spectrum of his sexuality.
Why the cover-up? So what if Malcolm X was bisexual? Does this diminish his reputation and achievements? Of course not. Whether he was gay, straight or bisexual should not matter. His stature remains, regardless of his sexual orientation. Yet many of the people who revere him seem reluctant to accept that their hero, and mine, was bisexual.
Malcolm X's bisexuality is more than just a question of truth and historical fact. There has never been any black person of similar global prominence and recognition who has been publicly known to be gay or bisexual. Young black lesbian, gay and bisexual people can, like their white counterparts, often feel isolated, guilty and insecure about their sexuality. They could benefit from positive, high-achieving role models, to give them confidence and inspiration. Who better than Malcolm X? He inspired my human rights activism and was a trailblazer in the black freedom struggle. He can inspire other LGBT people too.
Right now, there is not a single living black person who is a worldwide household name and who is also openly gay. That's why the issue of Malcolm X's sexuality is so important. Having an internationally renowned gay or bisexual black icon would do much to help challenge homophobia, especially in the black communities and particularly in Africa and the Caribbean where homosexuality and bisexuality are often dismissed as a "white man's disease".
So what is the evidence for Malcolm X's bisexual orientation? Most people remember him as the foremost US black nationalist leader of the 1960s. Despite the downsides of his anti-white rhetoric, black separatism and religious superstition, he was America's leading spokesperson for black consciousness, pride and self-help. He spoke with fierce eloquence and defiance for black upliftment and freedom.
Malcolm's complex, changing sexuality was never part of the narrative of his life until the publication of Bruce Perry's acclaimed biography, Malcolm – The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America. Perry is a great admirer and defender of Malcolm X, but not an uncritical one. He wrote the facts, based on interviews with over 420 people who knew Malcolm personally at various stages in his life, from childhood to his tragic assassination in 1965. His book is not a hatchet job, as some black critics claim, it is the exact opposite. Perry presents an honest, rounded story of Malcolm's life and achievements which, in my opinion, is far more moving and humane than the better known but somewhat hagiographic The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told To Alex Haley.
Based on interviews with Malcolm's closest boyhood and adult friends, Perry suggests the US black liberation leader was not as solidly heterosexual as his Nation of Islam colleagues and black nationalist acolytes have always claimed. While Perry did not make Malcolm's sexuality a big part of his biography – in fact, it is a very minor aspect – he did not shy away from writing about what he heard in his many interviews.
He documents Malcolm's many same-sex relations and his activities as a male sex worker, which spanned at least a 10-year period, from his mid-teens to his 20s, as I described in some detail in a previous article for the Guardian. Although Malcolm later married and, as far as we know, abandoned sex with men, his earlier same-sex relations suggest that he was bisexual rather than heterosexual. Abstaining from gay sex after his marriage does not change the fundamentals of his sexual orientation and does not mean that he was wholly straight.
Towards the end of his life, Malcolm's ideas were evolving in new directions. Politically, he gravitated leftwards. Faith-wise, after his trip to Mecca, he began to embrace a non-racial mainstream Islam. His mind was becoming open to new ideas and values.
Had he not been murdered in 1965, Malcolm might have eventually, like Huey Newton of the Black Panthers and the black power leader Angela Davis, embraced the lesbian and gay liberation movement as part of the struggle for human emancipation. Instead, to serve their homophobic political agenda, for over half a century the Nation of Islam and many black nationalists have suppressed knowledge of Malcolm's same-sex relations. It is now time for Black History Month to speak the truth. Malcolm X was bisexual. Get over it.