ModernGhana logo
11.12.2010 Feature Article

Malcolm X, Black Liberation and Pan-Africanism *

Malcolm X, Black Liberation and Pan-Africanism *
Listen to article

I am speaking of a ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in two senses: The criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be [1].

The new book by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the American Socialist Workers Party is a great disappointment; it raises expectations it is ill-equipped to satisfy, fomenting discord where there need be none.

As a consequence this essay, originally conceived as a “simple, straightforward review” of Malcolm X, Black Liberation & the Road to Workers Power[2] (henceforth Workers Power), is instead going to be a “ruthless criticism” a la Marx.

Problems with the book range from intellectual sloppiness and use of quotations out of context, to conclusions supported neither by empirical evidence nor by logical exposition.

I will first give a brief overview of the book and then proceed to a point-by-point refutation of the author's contentious positions. The latter exercise will, I hope, serve to highlight certain issues in political theory some Marxists still find problematic.

I. Malcolm X, Black Liberation & the Road to Workers Power

Barnes's book is a collection of excerpts from interviews with Malcolm X and speeches and reflections by the author. The material dates from 1965 to the present decade.

It includes contributions by Trotsky and JP Cannon, a former leader of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and transcripts of discussions between Trotsky and CLR James and other SWP members on the subjects of Black Liberation and Black Nationalism.

The tome comes to more than 400 pages, including 70-odd pages of black and white photographs and illustrations, spanning over 100 years of struggle by blacks for liberation and equality in white, capitalist America. The wider working class struggle against Big Capitalist Brother is also covered, as are anti-imperialist battles by Cuba, Vietnam and Guyana.

Revolutionary Conquest of Capitalist Power

workers power
One of its theses is that black workers, because of their position as the most exploited layer of the American proletariat, and their role in past struggles, will be in the vanguard of the revolutionary conquest of capitalist power.

The book also contends that only socialist revolution will end racism and oppression in America.

Since many even today see Malcolm's legacy as that of a hatemongering black-nationalist preacher, how does he fit into this post-Iron Curtain communist conspiracy?

The book rightly highlights Malcolm's political reorientation after his 1964 break with Elijah Mohamed's Nation of Islam (NOI), and his subsequent travels abroad.

However, the author goes overboard by claiming Malcolm had made what Barnes calls a “class break” [3] [Barnes's emphasis]. The author knows he is on shaky ground here, so he says in the next line that Malcolm “would not have called it that at the time.” [4] We will return to this in due course.

Malcolm lauded, identified with and took inspiration from anti-colonial and anti-imperialist revolutions in both Arab and black Africa and in Cuba; at home he began working with white revolutionaries, including those of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

Diatribes against "blue-eyed devils"
“And I, for one,” he told Oxford students in 1964, “will join in with anyone -- I don't care what colour you are -- as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.” [5]

The above quote, illustrates just how far Malcolm had moved from the hate-filled automaton that spewed out diatribes against “blue-eyed devils.”

The words he spoke just before that passage, which are not in the book, show the enduring relevance of Malcolm's legacy:

I read once, passingly, about a man named Shakespeare. I only read about him passingly, but I remember one thing he wrote that kind of moved me.

He put it in the mouth of Hamlet, I think, it was, who said, 'To be or not to be.' He was in doubt about something—whether it was nobler in the mind of man to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—moderation—or to take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.

And I go for that. If you take up arms, you'll end it, but if you sit around and wait for the one who's in power to make up his mind that he should end it, you'll be waiting a long time. And in my opinion, the young generation of whites, blacks, browns, whatever else there is, you're living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there's got to be a change.

People in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built, and the only way it's going to be built—is with extreme methods.

And I, for one, will join in with anyone—I don't care what color you are—as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.” [6]

The book attempts a fair historical account of Malcolm's contribution and of the wider black struggle. However, given the author's tendency to play fast and loose with his material, the reader should proceed with caution.

Just how cautious was made clear to me early into the book when the author quotes Malcolm out of context. In the passage Malcolm is talking about blacks uniting in the face of racist attacks.

Orwellian Ministry of Truth
Here is the relevant part of the speech by Malcolm at a press conference in March 1964, quoted at length to avoid ambiguity:

The Muslim Mosque, Inc., will remain wide open for ideas and financial aid from all quarters. 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 after we have first united among ourselves. We cannot think of being acceptable to others until we have first proven acceptable to ourselves. One can't unite bananas with scattered leaves.

Concerning nonviolence: it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks....[7]

The following is the rendition of the above in Barnes's book:

“'We cannot think of uniting with others until after we have first united with ourselves. We cannot think of being acceptable to others until we have first proven acceptable to ourselves. One can't unite bananas with scattered leaves.' Malcolm knew that Afro-Americans had had enough of this kind of unity –- with the liberals, the Communist Party, and the Socialist Party.” [8]

Malcolm's words have been invested with a new meaning by this sleight of hand, achieved by shaving off a few “irrelevant” sentences off the top and adding a completely new, unrelated one. The latter, although located outside the quote marks, is placed right next to Malcolm's words as “clarification.”

What was the motive for this? Was it done to highlight that Malcolm X was associating with the SWP, as opposed to the other groups mentioned. However, given that the interviews he gave the party paper demonstrate this, why does Barnes want to leave himself open to accusations of “evidence-tampering?"

The eagle-eyed reader would have spotted the incongruity between the earlier claim, that Malcolm had made a “class break,” with his statement that “There can be no workers' solidarity until there is first some racial solidarity.”

Radical Reconstruction
Ironically, this bit of creative reporting is in a piece titled “He Spoke the Truth to Our Generation of Revolutionists.” The Ministry of Truth in 1984 [9] would have been envious.

The article on Radical Reconstruction, based on a piece Barnes wrote in 1984, was particularly instructive.

Radical Reconstruction was the post-civil war era between 1867 and 1877, when proletarianised ex-slaves waged struggle for labour-law and radical agrarian reform, achieving political representation in the Southern states.

The slogan “Forty acres and a mule” –- the cry by freed slaves for farmland –- originates from this period. Blacks served in the legislatures of the former confederacy, the most advanced of which were the regimes in South Carolina and Mississippi, Barnes writes.

They barred racial discrimination, enacted voting rights for males irrespective of race, the elimination of whipping and other cruel punishment, free public schooling and healthcare for the poor, and extended grounds on which a woman could get a divorce.

Cross-burning night-riders of the Ku Klux Klan

A gap in my knowledge of American history was revealed upon reading these pages, such as that some of these legislatures had majority black members –- the South Carolina regime, for instance, boasting 50 black to 13 white members.

The house of cards that was Radical Reconstruction came tumbling down in 1877, blown asunder by the troika of Republicans, Democrats and the cross-burning night-riders of the Ku Klux Klan. Jim Crow segregation, over succeeding generations, became the order of the day.

When we consider that violent racist oppression -- and nigger-lynching as family-entertainment -- were actually-existing social phenomena in Malcolm Little's lifetime, it is easy to see why and how he became Malcolm X.

Barnes concludes that X was on the verge of becoming a communist just before he was slain. He arrives at this conclusion by hacking through hitherto existing SWP policy positions, misrepresenting the legacy of Alhajj Malik Shabazz and rubbishing the contributions of two Marxist writers and former SWP members -- Comrades CLR James and George Breitman.

II. Pan-Africanism is not Black Nationalism
I have in the previous section given a brief overview of Workers Power, in the process highlighting two problems I found with the text. In this section I will go into more detail about my disagreements with the author's positions and then address them.

My disagreements with Barnes fall within three categories –- his positions on Pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism (terms which he takes to be interchangeable), and Malcolm's so-called imminent conversion to communism.

II. i) Pan-Africanism
Early in the book, Barnes notes that some people described Malcolm's political course during the last months of his life as a “new form” of Pan-Africanism.[10] He acknowledges in the next line that Malcolm used the term, although he does not tell us in what context. He goes on to say:

“But 'Pan-Africanism' captures neither the scope nor the revolutionary political character of Malcolm's internationalism and anti-imperialism. Malcolm, of course, recognised the shared aspects of the oppression facing those of African origin – and of their resistance to that oppression. Because of the combined legacy of colonialism and chattel slavery, Blacks shared many such elements whether they lived and toiled in Africa itself, in the Caribbean and Latin America, in Europe, or what Malcolm, echoing Elijah Muhammad's marvellous term, called 'this wilderness of North America.'”[11]

Terms are the currency with which arguments are transacted. The first thing any polemicist learns as a baby is to define their terms. Barnes may have been asleep during the relevant lesson. Therefore, he leaves it up to his readers to deduce the meaning of Pan-Africanism from the context; and he uses it in a manner guaranteed to mislead.

Intellectual sloppiness
Given that many Africans cannot agree on the content of the term “Pan-Africanism” among themselves, Barnes expecting his mainly Western audience to know what the word meant to Malcolm is tantamount to intellectual sloppiness. Either that or he prefers ambiguity to clarity.

Although the author has not given a substantive definition of Pan-Africanism, textual analysis tells the dear reader what it is not. So, through a process of elimination in the mind of the reader, the ambiguity is resolved into its dialectical opposite, clarity; but it is clarity of a qualitatively inferior kind, because it obscures more than it reveals.

The reader is thus equipped with a working definition of Pan-Africanism that is wrong, namely, it is not revolutionary; it is not international or anti-imperialist enough; and its internationalism extends only to people with dark skin. In a word, it's a black, backward thang! Let's call this Exhibit A.

Poor Pan-Africanism!
We now go to the section of the book titled “Black Freedom & Proletarian Dictatorship,” where our recent acquaintance, Pan-Africanism, makes its second and final appearance:

Recognizing and embracing the world-class political leadership of revolutionists who are Black –- whether an African American such as Malcolm X, or leaders such as Maurice Bishop and Thomas Sankara doesn't lead militant workers and youth in the political direction of nationalism or Pan-Africanism [emphasis mine]. Otherwise, why would we put such leadership time and resources into keeping their words in print? Why would we give such high priority to getting those books and pamphlets into the hands of working people in the United States, Africa, Latin America, Asia – the whole world over as part of our political arsenal? [12]

Once again we are not given a definition of Pan-Africanism; but this time it's teamed up with “nationalism” to suggest an association, that the two words are interchangeable, synonymous: “...nationalism or Pan-Africanism...”

This is after the author has spent the previous six pages consigning both nationalism and bad step-brother Black Nationalism to perdition. We shall call this Exhibit B, which with Exhibit A, serve to establish the “guilt” of Pan-Africanism –- by innuendo and by association.

Poor Pan-Africanism! As if this heavy burden of guilt were not enough, he learns in the next sentence that he's so despicable that he's not worth even an iota of “leadership time and resources.” How much opprobrium can a poor soul take!

Barnes has upended reality
It is my contention that the reason the author does not provide a working definition of Pan-Africanism –- in a book boasting a sizeable glossary and replete with footnotes –- is because to do so would expose his flawed central thesis to even the most casual reader.

This central thesis is that Alhajj Malik Shabazz was not moving towards “a new form” of Pan-Africanism, but that he was becoming a communist. The edifice of his book rests on that one support. I further contend that Shabazz came back to the United States from his African and Middle Eastern travels a great admirer of Kwame Nkrumah, the foremost Pan-Africanist of the time.

Furthermore, I will demonstrate that, if anything, he came back to the States a “prospective Pan-Africanist” ready to work with socialists and communists to further his goals. Barnes has upended that reality by claiming Malcolm was becoming a communist whose “revolutionary political character” put him beyond the scope of Pan-Africanism [13]. By the end of this essay we shall have Malcolm back on his feet where he belongs.

Malcolm X admired Kwame Nkrumah

According to Kwame Nkrumah [14], Pan-Africanism is “the total liberation and unification of Africa under an All-African Socialist Government... It is an objective which, when achieved, will bring about the fulfilment of the aspirations of Africans and people of African descent everywhere. It will at the same time advance the triumph of the international socialist revolution."[15]

There are many conflicting interpretations of Pan-Africanism; they do not concern us here. The above definition is the one Malcolm would have gone with.

This is because he was a great admirer of Nkrumah and his Pan-Africanist project, including the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) [16], something Barnes naturally omits.

Author's claim turns to dust
As we saw earlier, Barnes claims that Alhajj Shabazz could not have been moving towards a “new form of Pan-Africanism” because that political philosophy “captures neither the scope nor the revolutionary political character of Malcolm's internationalism and anti-imperialism.”

However, as I submitted, this claim crumbles to dust when placed alongside the definition of Pan-Africanism suggested above. Pan-Africanism is socialist, revolutionary and internationalist.

All that remains to add is that the continental unity envisaged by the ideology transcends “blackness” (think Arab Africa); by definition, it is not Black Nationalism. (We will revisit this issue when we discuss Black Nationalism under the next sub-head.)

Malcolm's organisation modelled on the OAU
Any doubts concerning Malcolm's admiration for Nkrumah –- or that he was at the very least a “prospective Pan-Africanist” at the time of his death -– should be dispelled when we consider that the name of the new organisation he formed once back on home ground was called the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), clearly modelled on “Nkrumah's OAU.”

As Malcolm said at the inaugural meeting of the OAAU in June 1964:

So it was our intention to try and find out what it was our African brothers were doing to get results, so that you and I could study what they had done and perhaps gain from that study or benefit from their experiences. And my travelling over there was designed to help to find out how. [17]

Barnes's vilification of Pan-Africanism does not sit well with his rampant enthusiasm for slain Burkinabe revolutionist and avowed Pan-Africanist Thomas Sankara, who he calls a leader “of exceptional political calibre.” [18]

From a book put out by the SWP-owned Pathfinder publishing house, here is what Comrade “Tom Sank” had to say on the matter:

Yes, Pan-Africanism, in its purest form, inspired great hopes not only for Africans but for Blacks of the Diaspora as well. Faced with the ravages and other abuses of imperialism, Nkrumah had every reason to place all his hopes in the unity of the continent, as everyone today notes with bitterness. Nevertheless, the idea remains, and it falls to us, to African patriots, to struggle everywhere and at all times for its realisation. It falls to all Pan-Africanist people to give Africa hope by taking up the torch of Nkrumah. [19]

Oops! How did that one get past the censor? On a more serious note, however, it is revealing to see that to Sankara -- Barnes's darling -- being a Pan-Africanist is not such a bad thing at all.

Before concluding this section, I want to make clear that I have not claimed that Malcolm was a Pan-Africanist. Unlike Barnes, I like him “just the way he is.”

I have established several things in this section of the essay. They are:

1. Barnes's assertion that Malcolm X's politics was not moving towards a “new form” of Pan-Africanism lacks credible foundation.

2. Barnes's claims, smuggled by the “backdoor,” that Pan-Africanism is not revolutionary, not sufficiently international, not sufficiently anti-imperialist -- are not backed up by evidence.

3. Malcolm X was a “prospective” Pan-Africanist at the time of his death, based on his admiration for Nkrumah, the name of the organisation he formed on his US return, and his words about “studying” and “benefiting” from the African experience.

4.Thomas Sankara, whose judgement as a revolutionary Barnes holds in high esteem, endorses Pan-Africanism, saying it was worth “struggling for.”

5. Finally, since Barnes has failed to provide any rational, verifiable justification for his animosity towards Pan-Africanism, we are entitled to conclude that his negative disposition towards that ideology is ahistorical, unscientific, and therefore contrary to the methodology of Marxist dialectics.

* The second part of this essay will be posted next week.

1. “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing,” in The Marx-Engels Reader (Norton, 1972), ed. Robert C Tucker, p.8.

2. Jack Barnes, Malcolm X, Black Liberation & the Road to Workers Power (Pathfinder, 2009).
Barnes has been a leader of the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) since the late 1960s.

3. Ibid. p. 354
4. Ibid.
5. “Any Means Necessary to Bring About Freedom,” in Malcolm X Talks to Young People (Pathfinder, 2002) p. 35.
6. Ibid.
7. “A Declaration of Independence,” in Malcolm X Speaks (Pathfinder, 1989), p. 34.
8. Jack Barnes, Malcolm X, Black Liberation & the Road to Workers Power (Pathfinder, 2009) p. 37.
9. This is a reference to the dystopian novel 1984 (Secker and Warburg, 1949) by British writer George Orwell. The Ministry of Truth (Minitrue), where protagonist Winston Smith works, is charged with rewriting history to fit the party line.
10. Jack Barnes, Malcolm X, Black Liberation & the Road to Workers Power (Pathfinder, 2009) p. 82.
11.Ibid. pp. 82-83.
12.Ibid. p. 345.
13.Ibid. pp.82-83
14.Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972) was Africa's foremost Pan-Africanist and first leader of independent Ghana. He failed to sustain the momentum of the “African Revolution” and was overthrown in a CIA-sponsored coup in 1966. He died in exile in Seiku Ture's Guinea.
15.Kwame Nkrumah, The Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare (Intl Pub, 1968) p. 88
16.Malcolm X Speech at the Foundation of the OAAU (PDF, 28 June 1964), p.1
17. Ibid.
18. Jack Barnes, Malcolm X, Black Liberation & the Road to Workers Power (Pathfinder, 2009) p. 119.
19. Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-1987 (Pathfinder, 2007) pp. 246-247.

"J L Samboma, the writer of this essay, is a Sierra Leonean writer who blogs at"

Originating at