A Work of Negation: A Critical Review of Manning Marable’s, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention”
Written for Left Turn Magazine
Manning Marable’s, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention”, must be seen for what it is, an ideological polemic. The general focus of this polemic is Black Nationalism, and Black revolutionary nationalism in particular. Manning’s critical focus and fixation on Malcolm X as the quintessential point of reference for Black Nationalists since his cold blooded assassination in 1965, is a means to socially advance a line of reasoning against this broad political philosophy and social movement by turning its iconic figurehead on his head. The objective of this inversion is to prove, in 594 pages no less, that those who adhere to and 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 at the end of his days.
As Manning would have it, at the time of his assassination, Malcolm X had all but abandoned Black nationalism, and had instead become a pragmatic, liberal humanist, with social democratic political leanings. As several critics have already pointed out, this character bears a striking resemblance to Manning himself. Paraphrasing Patrick Moyniham, although Manning is unquestionably entitled to his own opinion, he is not entitled to his own facts. And the fact stands that the document that most clearly reflects Malcolm’s political philosophy and programmatic orientation at the time of his death was the Program of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. This program 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 by the Casablanca block of the Union in the early 1960’s. The Casablanca Group included several progressive states offering political, financial and military aid to the revolutionary anti-colonial struggles then raging on the continent, particularly in the Portuguese held colonies and Southern Africa. Chief amongst the Casablanca states were Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana, Sekou Toure’s Guinea, and Gamal Abdel-Nassar’s Egypt, all of which Malcolm X had long standing knowledge and admiration of. This is evidenced by his constant references to the 1955 Afro-Asian or Bandung Conference, even prior to his departure from the Nation of Islam (NOI), and the Non-Aligned Movement which he was concretely relating to at the time of his death. Manning consistently tries to tip toe around these and other clearly known facts, and where he can’t he insists on trying to twist their meaning into something more temperate and palatable to the liberal, non-racial or multi-cultural, social democratic movement and program he was seeking to advance.
No where was this more painfully evident than on pages 484 – 486 of the book. The portion that perhaps best illustrates Manning’s disdain for Black nationalism and his narrow interpretation of it is found on page 485. He states:
“The unrealized dimension of Malcolm’s racial vision was that of black nationalism. A political ideology that originated before the Civil War, black nationalism was based on the assumption that racial pluralism leading to assimilation was impossible in the United States. So cynical were many nationalists about the incapacity of whites to overcome their own racism that they occasionally negotiated with white terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, in the mistaken belief that they were more honest about their racial attitudes than liberals. 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.”
First, he rehashes an old, liberal line against Black nationalism that it is the largely rejected strain of Black politics that periodically reemerges like a phoenix during times of heighten oppression against Black people. Manning, like many of his predecessors who held and advanced this line, has a hard time grasping that since the inception of the genocidal white-settler project that is the United States, that there have been African people not in the least mystified by the material and ideological trappings of their would be masters, and have sought to establish their own independent states or safe havens on American soil or sought repatriation back to Africa. Uncompromising self-determination and sovereignty has always been the fundamental objective of this tendency of the Black Liberation Movement. Further, Manning’s statement assumes that structurally the US is qualitatively less white supremacist now than it was in the 19th century. While some of the formal trappings of white supremacy have changed, and changed considerably as in the case of the elimination of de jure apartheid, the fundamental essentials of the racist political economy remain the same. And we have to keep in mind, that although history never repeats itself exactly, there are plenty of signs that the “second reconstruction” has exhausted itself with the election of President Obama, and is in the process of being reversed, much as the first reconstruction was between the late 1870’s and 1890’s.
Second, neither Pan-Africanism, Third Worldism, or Tri-Continentalism were ever “race-neutral”. All of these social movements were and are crystal clear that one of their primary enemies was and is white supremacy in the guise of European and American colonial occupation and imperialist exploitation. Malcolm X’s deepening embrace of Pan-Africanism and Third World internationalism was never a rejection or retreat from Black nationalism. If anything, as it pertains to his adoption of these ideologies and movements, the base of his contemporary US influences alone (the myth that it was international travel alone that advanced Malcolm’s politics in this vein needs to be totally debunked) – which run the gamut from Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, Queen Mother Moore, Robert F. Williams, CLR James, Vickie Garvin, Carlos Cooks, Elombe Brath, Harold Cruse, John Henrik Clarke and Gaidi and Imari Obadele, to name but a few – indicate more than anything, that Malcolm was in fact embracing the more revolutionary and internationalist currents of the Black Liberation Movement. These revolutionary currents were brutally repressed in the 1940’s and 50’s by the US government and largely sidelined by the liberal, petit bourgeois leadership of the social movement now labeled the “Civil Rights Movement”, which made a conscious choice to abandon the economic demands and human rights framework advanced by the BLM in the 1930’s and 40’s, so as not to be castigated or associated with communism and the revolutionary nationalist movements opposed by US imperialism during the high tide of the Cold War.
In light of these facts, I think it becomes clear that Manning’s distortions are more than just mere twists of fact. “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention”, has to be read as a product of the political and ideological struggles of its own time and historical context, just as much as it should be read and interpreted as a product of a singular (or team, as I believe there was more than one hand responsible for some of the sections of this work) consciousness. It is the contemporary weaknesses of the Black Liberation Movement on a whole, and its Black Nationalist wings more specifically, buttressed by imperialism’s hegemonic co-optation of Afrocentrism and other liberal variants of multi-culturalism into a “post-racial” politics of American nationalism that define the so-called “age of Obama”, that enabled the production of this work. Nowhere is this most evident than on page 486, where Manning raises the question:
“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’.”
Here again, Manning displays his narrow understanding of Black Nationalism. In this leap frog of a statement, Manning fails to address the more than 40 years of the Black nations internal struggle over the question of self-determination. What is negated here is an explanation of the political and military defeat of the Black Liberation Movement in the 1970’s and 80’s, and the Black petit bourgeoisie’s broad betrayal of the liberation movement by making conscious, deliberate and consistent choices since the 1970’s to incorporate itself within the American imperialist project. Thus by virtue of a vacuum, the Black 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 the peoples’ political engagement would be safely confined to narrow electoral channels. The liberal Black petit bourgeois program and cultural orientation willfully subjects and subordinates the interests of Black people to the interests of the American imperial project, essentially to ensure that its own position within the projected is secured and consolidated. The “post-racial” political climate that Manning speaks of 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 qualitative fragmentation (particularly after the collapse of the National Black Political Convention and the dissolution of the African Liberation Support Committee in the mid-1970’s) and repression induced retreat in the 1970’s, the Black Liberation Movement has been largely unable to address the deteriorating conditions of the Black working class produced by capital’s globalizing counter-offensive to the gains of Black workers and the working class as whole won between the 1930’s and 60’s, and fundamentally blocked from enacting on a comprehensive scale an independent political program that advances the goal of self-determination. One of the primary results of this defeat has been a steady right orientated ideological drift in the Black community 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 occupy the hegemonic center, and through the hegemonic block that they have constructed within the Black nation have advanced a program that creates space for the general acceptance of Black cultural and physical inclusion within the imperial project, just so long as it doesn’t threaten the settler-order at home and the never ending expanse of capital globally. The Have-Not’s meanwhile, due to the present lack of a strong and viable alternative, are increasingly excluded from labor markets, warehoused in prisons, and contained in isolated urban ghetto’s or ex-urbanian cantonments seeking economic justice and self-determination.
Manning 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. As one of his defining political projects, he was unwavering in his resistance to the advance of conservative and reactionary Black nationalist politics, as well he and all of us should be in my own opinion, posing as that alternative. But, he often displayed a somewhat narrow understanding of the complexity of Black nationalism, which often led him to short change revolutionary nationalism and its promise and potential as an alternative in his works and political engagements. However, its clear from reading “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention”, that Manning was not just casting Black nationalism narrowly unintentionally, but that he was committed to seeing that no version or tendency of this phenomenon be projected as an alternative. However, as hard as “A Life of Reinvention” tries to negate the propagation of this ideological and political alternative by its attempted inversion of the political life and legacy of Malcolm X, it largely fails. And it fails because as much a 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.
For reference to many of the historical points raised herein, please consider the following sources as a sample of the rich history of the Black Liberation Movement:
- “Race Against Empire: Black Americans and anti-impmerialism, 1937 – 1957”, by Penny M. Von Eschen.
- “Eye’s Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944 – 1955”, by Carol Anderson.
- “Black Reconstruction in America, 1860 – 1880”, by W.E.B. Du Bois.
- “From Civil Rights to Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity”, by William Sales, Jr.
- “Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle”, edited by Dayo Gore, Komozi Woodard, and Jeanne Theoharis.
- “Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics”, by Cedric Johnson.
- “The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850 – 1925”, by William Jeremiah Moses.
- “Black Power in the Belly of the Beast”, edited by Judson L. Jefferies.
- “Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition”, by Cedric J. Robinson.
- “We Will Return in the Whirlwind: Black Radical Organizations, 1960 – 1975”, by Muhammad Ahmad.
- “New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965 – 1975”, by William L. Van Deburg.
- “A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics”, by Komozi Woodard.
- “Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power”, by Timothy B. Tyson.
- “Negroes with Guns”, by Robert F. Williams.
- “Free the Land”, by Imari A. Obadele.
Kali Akuno is the National Coordinator for the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXMG) and the Director of Education, Training, and Field Work for the US Human Rights Nework (USHRN). Kali is currently working on a book tentatively entitled “Confronting a Cleansing: Hurricane Katrina, the Battle for New Orleans, and the Future of the Black Working Class”. The views expressed in this article do not reflect those of MXGM or USHRN. Email feedback to: kaliakuno at gmail dot com