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A Work of Negation

Kali Akuno
Date Published: 
August 12, 2011


Viking, 2011

Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention must be seen for what it is—an ideological polemic. The general focus is Black nationalism, and Black revolutionary nationalism in particular. Marable's critical fixation on Malcolm X as the quintessential reference point for Black nationalists since his assassination in 1965 is a means to advance a line of reasoning against this broad political philosophy and social movement—by turning its iconic figure on his head. The objective of this inversion is to prove, in 594 pages, that those who seek to advance some variant of a Black nationalist program not only have it all wrong, but in fact are distorting what Malcolm himself stood for towards the end of his days.

As Marable presents it, at the time of his death at the age of 39, Malcolm X had all but abandoned nationalism and had instead become a pragmatic liberal humanist. As Patrick Moynihan said, everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. And the fact stands that the document that most clearly reflects Malcolm's philosophy and programmatic orientation at the time of his death is the 1965 program of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). This is without question a revolutionary nationalist program. The OAAU's program is modeled on the anti-imperialist program of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), advanced in the early 1960s by the Casablanca bloc of progressive states—including Nkrumah's Ghana, Nasser's Egypt, and Toure's Guinea.

Marable tries to twist these facts about Malcolm’s agenda into something more palatable to a contemporary non-racial, social-democratic program that he himself was seeking to advance. Nowhere is this more evident than on pages 484-486 of the book. Marable writes, "The unrealized dimension of Malcolm's racial vision was that of black nationalism… based on the assumption that racial pluralism leading to assimilation was impossible in the United States.… Yet as Malcolm's international experiences became more varied and extensive, his social vision expanded. He became less intolerant and more open to multiethnic and interfaith coalitions. By the final months of his life he resisted identification as a 'black nationalist,' seeking ideological shelter under the race-neutral concepts of Pan-Africanism and Third World revolution."

Actually, since the inception of the genocidal white-settler project that is the United States, there have been African people not in the least mystified by the material and ideological trappings of their would-be masters—who have sought to establish their own independent states or safe havens on American soil, or sought repatriation to Africa. A goal of self-determination and sovereignty has always been the objective of this tendency of the Black Liberation Movement. The fundamental essentials of the racist political economy remain the same through the present day (although history never repeats itself exactly). There are plenty of signs that the "second reconstruction" (marked by “civil rights”) has exhausted itself with Obama’s election and is being reversed—much as the first Reconstruction was betrayed starting in the late 1870s.

Also, neither Pan-Africanism nor Third Worldism were ever "race-neutral." These social movements were crystal clear that one of their primary enemies was white supremacy, in the guise of European and American colonial occupation and imperialist exploitation. Malcolm’s deepening embrace of Pan-Africanism and Third World internationalism was never a rejection or retreat from Black nationalism. To consider some of his influences and peers—including Queen Mother Moore, Vicki Garvin, Carlos Cooks, John Henrik Clarke, and Gaidi and Imari Obadele, to name but a few—indicates that Malcolm was actually embracing the more revolutionary and internationalist currents of the Black Liberation Movement (BLM). These currents were brutally repressed in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and largely sidelined by the petit-bourgeois leadership of what is now labeled the "Civil Rights Movement," which made a conscious choice to abandon the economic demands and human rights framework advanced by the BLM, so as not to be castigated or associated with communism or the revolutionary nationalism opposed by US imperialism.

In light of these facts, A Life of Reinvention has to be read as a product of the ideological struggles of our own time and context—marked by the contemporary weaknesses of the Black Liberation Movement on the whole, and its Black Nationalist wings specifically.

National questions

Marable writes, "If legal racial segregation was permanently in America's past, Malcolm's vision today would have to radically redefine self-determination and the meaning of black power in a political environment that appeared to many to be 'post-racial.'" What is negated here is an explanation of the political and military defeat of the Black Liberation Movement in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Black petit bourgeoisie's betrayal of the liberation movement by making deliberate and consistent choices to incorporate itself within the American imperialist project. This petit bourgeoisie, in alliance with the Democratic Party, has assumed an unrelenting hegemonic stranglehold over Black politics—removing it from the streets, the schools and the shop floors to ensure that political engagement would be safely confined to narrow electoral channels. The "post-racial" climate is not some neutral phenomenon that somehow spontaneously emerged. It is the outcome of this struggle, an outcome with clear winners and losers—the primary loser being the Black working class.

Since its fragmentation—particularly after the collapse of the National Black Political Convention and the dissolution of the African Liberation Support Committee—and repression-induced retreat in the 1970s, the Black Liberation Movement has been largely unable to address the deteriorating conditions of the Black working class—or enact a political program that advances self-determination. One of the results of this defeat has been a steady rightward drift that has tailed the growing class fragmentation of the Black nation into the Haves (and Have-access) and the Have-Not's. The Have's have advanced a program that creates space for a partial acceptance of Black inclusion within the imperial project, so long as it doesn't threaten the settler-order at home and the neverending expansion of imperialist capital globally. The Have-Not's are consistently excluded from labor markets, warehoused in prisons, and contained in isolated urban ghettos or ex-urban cantonments.

Marable, who died on the eve of this book’s publication, spent a considerable portion of his political and academic life contemplating what could and should be a viable political alternative for the Have-Not's. He was unwavering in his resistance to the advance of conservative and reactionary Black nationalist politics. But he often displayed a somewhat narrow understanding of the complexity of Black nationalism, which led him to short change revolutionary nationalism’s promise and potential. As hard as this book tries to negate the propagation of this ideological and political alternative, however, it largely fails. It fails because as much as Malcolm X was constantly pushing himself and being pushed by his peers to grow politically, his commitment to the self-determination of African people in the US and throughout the world was unwavering—and no assemblage of minutia can twist this historical fact.