Studying speeches arms militants to rebut those who seek to dilute his message
September 20, 2010
BY JACK BARNES
Printed below is an excerpt from Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the
Road to Workers Power, a book by Jack Barnes, national secretary of
the Socialist Workers Party, recently published by Pathfinder Press.
The excerpt is from the chapter titled "Malcolm X: Revolutionary
Leader of the Working Class," a presentation by Barnes to a meeting
in Atlanta in March 1987.
The face of Malcolm X is seen worldwide today. It can be found everywhere… .
But those of us who continue learning from Malcolm's political
example, and organize to keep it alive in word and deed, have a
responsibility to recognize that with each passing anniversary, we
are one year further away from Malcolm's living presence in politics
and the class struggle. Malcolm's message, like that of other martyrs
of the working classes, and of all great revolutionary leaders,
becomes blurred. Different people give it a different political
meaning, a different class content. Many try to tame it, to make it
compatible with this or that illusory scheme to reform capitalism, to
make imperialism "more peaceful," to support one or another bourgeois
politician in the Democratic or Republican parties. But Malcolm never
ceased denouncing such notions. With Malcolm no longer among us to
speak and act for himself, and with the direct impact of his
political activity receding further into the past, those who wish to
distort his revolutionary course have an easier time. Malcolm's
message seems to dissolve into an image, a simple commodity for sale.
As that happens, what gets lostsometimes intentionallyis the modern
revolutionary leader whose concrete political legacy is needed more
than ever each time working people begin fighting. The idea, often
unspoken, begins to be spread that while Malcolm was a "prophet" in
his times, what he said and what he did have become less "relevant"
today. Not that Malcolm wasn't a great leader, the purveyors of such
notions will say. Not that his traits as an individual don't remain
praiseworthy. But he was operating "way back" in the 1960s, under
different social and political conditions. So the political
conclusions Malcolm began drawing, especially during the last few
months of his life, have little relevance to today's world. Time marches on.
No matter how veiled or prettified, that's a fairly common view of
Malcolm's significance more than two decades after his assassination.
Others narrow in on the fact that Malcolm was a wonderful speaker.
But that, too, ends up being a way to devalue the significance of
Malcolm's political legacy, to diminish the strategic course he had
thought out and was organizing to implement. Because what Malcolm
spoke about were political ideas with practical implications,
carefully reasoned ideas based on decades of experience in struggle
by the oppressed and exploited not only in the United States but in
revolutions the world over.
Malcolm spoke the truth clearly
Malcolm was an effective speaker. To be in the same room with him, to
hear him from a podium, had a powerful impact. He worked at speaking
clearly, because he knew it was important to explain ideas. He knew
it was not easy to dissect and clarify oppressive social relations
that are papered over and obfuscated by the rulers. But Malcolm was
never a "show-off" speaker. He had a quiet but powerful voice. He
didn't fashion himself a revolutionary "preacher." He spoke the
"King's English," not street talk. He didn't lace his words with
rhymes, alliteration, or political doggerel, in order to get around
difficulties or deflect attention from inconsistencies.
Malcolm spoke like he was having a conversation with youan insistent
conversation, but a conversation. He was the opposite of a demagogue.
He appealed to the mind, to the determination, and to the
selflessness of those he was addressing, not to your preconceptions,
emotions, or prejudices. He tried to wake you up to the facts, to the
truth, including about yourself. In that, he was like other
outstanding revolutionary leadersfrom Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, and
Leon Trotsky, to Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara, Maurice Bishop, and
Above all, however, what Malcolm said must be available in writing.
Because that political record needs to be read, reread, thought
about, and studied. It needs to be accessible, so it can be checked
against various latter-day "memories" or "interpretations." That's
why it's important that so many of his speeches and interviews,
especially from late 1963 to his death in February 1965, are in print
in hundreds of pages of books and pamphlets. Pathfinder Press, which
publishes several of these collections, has announced plans to
release in coming months another book by Malcolm, containing
previously unpublished speeches.
Study Malcolm's speeches
Coming out of our discussion tonight, I hope many of us will go back
and read Malcolm's last speeches and interviews, perhaps some of us
for the first time. Because while it's great to listen to tapes of
Malcolm's talks, reading and studying what he had to say is part of
the irreplaceable work of absorbing and preparing to act on the
lessons of revolutionary struggle from past centuries.
Malcolm was not the wild, violent hatemonger that millions have been
taught he was by the bourgeois media, both during his lifetime and
since. Those of you old enough to have been politically active during
the late 1950s or in the 1960s can recall how Malcolm was portrayed
by the daily newspapers, by magazines like the Saturday Evening Post,
and by national television networks. Their aim was to get people to
stop listening to him, and, eventually, that false image helped set
him up to be killed. But their caricature of Malcolm was false and
misleading when he was a leader of the Nation of Islam, and even more
sowere it possibleafter his break with the Nation in early 1964.
There's an additional distortion that some since Malcolm's death have
used to blunt the impact of his revolutionary political message. They
imply that during the final months of Malcolm's life, he was
converging with other prominent figures who made significant
contributions to the fight for Black rights, including some who even
gave their lives in the course of that struggle, but who acted on the
conviction that U.S. capitalist society, its government, and its twin
political parties could be pressured into advancing the interests of
the oppressed. The main example, of course, is the "Malcolm-Martin"
theme we hear so much about these daysfrom sentimental popular songs
to drawings and wall hangings, from the mass media to academic
research, writings by former revolutionaries, and so on.
Malcolm certainly was ready to show respect and appreciation to
anyone who devoted their life to the fight against racism and for
Black equality. He was ready for united action to advance common
demands on the powers-that-be in the fight for Black liberation,
colonial freedom, and other goals. But Malcolm was also always ready
to expose and rebut not only the lies but the political dead ends
offered by these same individuals. He punctured the pretensions of
misleaders whose overall outlook, strategy, or tactics politically
disarmed the oppressed, taught us to rely on the promises and "good
will" of any section of the exploiters and their political parties,
and left us defenseless in face of racist terror, police violence, or
other imperialist horrors. Concretely, it's simply false that Malcolm
during his last year was converging politically with Martin Luther
Kingwith King's bourgeois pacifism, his social-democratic ideas, his
commitment to the reformability of capitalism, his support for the
imperialist Democratic Party and various of its politicians.