From the Archive | The future of the black revolution

In this second of a two-part series, activist James Boggs explains how Malcolm X’s rhetoric could lead the US movement from Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights towards black power.

James Boggs’ essay on Martin Luther King’s assassination was published in the Italian collection Lotta di classe e razzismo (Laterza, 1968), and then appeared in Racism and the Class Struggle: Further Pages from a Black Worker’s Notebook (Monthly Review, 1970), now out of print.

The essay is reproduced with the kind permission of Monthly Review Press. Boggs’ The American Revolution: Pages From a Negro Worker’s Notebook, and Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century (co-authored with Grace Lee Boggs), are both available from Monthly Review. 

Northern attempts to apply the strategy and tactics of King in the years after Birmingham had very little to show in the way of success. The miseries of slum life in the black ghetto could not be alleviated by civil rights legislation. Civil rights groups boycotted stores, picketed construction projects, etc, in an effort to get better jobs for blacks. They boycotted segregated schools in protest against inferior education. But the liberal regimes up North did not respond with the same kind of counter-violence which had helped the struggle in the South develop a momentum of its own. Thus the civil rights demonstrations and protests in the North only helped to expose the futility of such methods to achieve any significant progress, and helped to drive the leadership of the movement to the conclusion that blacks must acquire power if they are to change their lives.

This first period of struggle in the North culminated in the assassination of Malcolm in February 1965. Unlike King, Malcolm was killed by a black man, who, however, stated at the trial that he had been paid by someone to do the killing, a question which the prosecutor did not pursue. At Malcolm’s funeral, unlike at King’s, not one white leader had anything to say; nor were there any white leaders there, even though Malcolm had spoken to white audiences all over the country and many celebrities, particularly TV and radio celebrities, boasted that they were friends of Malcolm’s. But whites were not going to lend legitimacy to any of Malcolm’s ideas by attending his funeral.

Malcolm had not only come from the Muslim movement. In Detroit in 1963, when he made his famous Grassroots Leadership Conference speech, he had begun to deal with revolution and revolutionary struggles and to place the black revolution, as distinguished from the “Negro revolution” so beloved by whites, in the tradition of the great French and Russian revolutions. The organisation to which he belonged, the Nation of Islam, had played a very important role in rehabilitating black people, both those inside the organisation and, by its influence, those who did not actually join. But it had not evolved any strategy of struggle to achieve the power necessary for black people to rule themselves in a concrete political manner. To this day the Muslims have not seemed to understand that even the Muslim religion at one time required not only a religious revolution for men’s minds but also a tremendous power struggle by Muslim leaders and their followers, just as those dedicated to the Christian religion had to carry out great power struggles and crusades to institute Christianity in the areas where it now prevails.

Part one:

Today, even more than in the religious era, the struggles for men’s minds require concrete struggles for the power to rule over land, goods and the means by which goods are produced.

Malcolm X’s speech to the Grassroots Leadership Conference revealed that it was essentially on this issue of struggle for power that Malcolm was beginning to find life inside the Muslims increasingly difficult. An organiser and revolutionist by temperament, increasingly exposed to political ideas about past and present revolutions in other countries, Malcolm’s mind and skills could longer be contained within the apocalyptic vision of black ascendancy and white denouement of the Black Muslim religion.

Malcolm’s political life, though brief, left an ineradicable impact on the black movement and the black masses, because he led the movement out of the stage of civil rights into the stage of struggle for black power. Although he was surrounded by intellectuals, he began to arouse the deepest layer of the black mass which, up North in particular, had not seemed interested in participating in the struggle at all. The method he used was that of chiding and even berating them for, their self-hate, their acceptance of the white man in the America as their superior, and their efforts to make themselves acceptable to him and to integrate with the white enemy – when all the time they were being systematically segregated and degraded by this enemy.

The phrase “Malcolm said” became the by-word of the black movement soon after Malcolm was ousted from the Muslims for stating publicly that the “chickens have come to roost” in reference to President Kennedy’s assassination. In this statement he summed up unforgettably what many blacks were vaguely aware of but had not been able to or had been afraid to articulate. Black people knew, even as they mourned Kennedy, that the Kennedy government had talked about civil rights but had not prosecuted one white person for the killings, beatings and brutalisations of the blacks engaged in the civil rights struggle. But blacks didn’t want to face this fact. Malcolm stated it so that it had to be faced. This is what he was always doing.

Malcolm was fearless in his recognition that the black revolution in the USA must be linked to the world revolutionary struggle, a fact which civil rights leaders would gingerly approach and then shy away from.

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Malcolm recognised that it was necessary for the movement to go beyond civil rights to a revolutionary struggle against the enemy forces which possessed and ruled. He saw that the struggle of black people in the USA – dispossessed, despised, uprooted from their past culture and robbed of identification with Africa and the rest of the black world – would have to be linked up with the other revolutionary forces in the world and particularly those of Africa. Thus, after his split with Mr Muhammad, Malcolm made two trips to Africa in order to establish the necessary relations between the national and the international movements. In his efforts to pull together the national and international forces of the black revolution, Malcolm spent much of his time during this period travelling from city to city in the USA speaking to the national forces, and travelling to Africa speaking to the international forces. Because this period was so short, it is impossible to determine who Malcolm’s constituents really were, except that they were the black masses in general. Trying to bridge the gap between the civil rights struggle, which was carrying out action after action in the South and was led primarily by King and SNCC, and the world black revolution, Malcolm did not and could not develop any serious cadre of people to begin to project a strategy for the philosophy and concepts which he was developing.

His now-famous statement, “ballots or bullets”, came not from any projected experience or action but as a reflection on what was happening with the voter registration drive being carried on by King and SNCC in the South and with attempts being made in the North, through the Freedom Now Party in Michigan in particular, to get black people to pool their political power by voting black.

Black people up North identified themselves with what Malcolm was saying as he was saying it, in a way that they have identified with no other black leader. But they did not identify with him in any actions. In the period following the split, Malcolm himself insisted that he was an evangelist rather than an organiser. It cannot be said that Malcolm was incapable of organising. Organising was one of his great contributions to the Muslims in the years when he was right-hand man to Mr Muhammad. But his political life outside the Muslims was too brief to enable him to undertake organisational work. He was suspended in November 1963, shortly after President Kennedy’s assassination. He began to develop independently early in 1964, and he was slain in February 1965 following his organisation of the Organisation for Afro-American Unity. In that period, actually lasting less than a year, his contribution was enormous.

Because Malcolm represented and led the transition from civil rights to revolution, his following since his death is 10 times greater than it was at any time during his life. Today many old and young, but particularly the young, quote Malcolm in the same way that people in Europe quote Marx and Lenin and people in China quote Mao. Malcolm had put forward a historical concept of revolution in his Grass Roots speech back in 1963 in Detroit. However, after his split the mass media took him over and portrayed him as a pure advocate of violence vs non-violence. This has made it difficult to make a true evaluation of Malcolm. Take, for example, the statement “ballots or bullets”. The phrase contains the concept of alternatives and the concept of escalation. That is to say, if ballots do not work, then there is no alternative but for the masses to take the road of bullets. The mass media, however, for reasons of its own, represented Malcolm as calling only for violence. What Malcolm was in fact explaining was that a revolutionary movement makes demands which meet the needs of the masses for fundamental changes. If these demands are not granted by peaceful means, the revolution must have a strategy for taking them. Thus, having demanded the right to vote, the struggle would have to escalate to the point of seizing power to vote – first by the threat of violence, and then, if that does not work, by actual violence.

The same is true of another of Malcolm’s famous statements, “by all means necessary”. The phrase has been interpreted to mean only the advocacy of violence. Yet Malcolm was advocating what every great revolutionist has advocated, that the strategy of revolution requires the escalation of demands and actions, stage by stage, in conflict with the enemy, utilising the whip of the counter-revolution to deepen the conflict and to drive the revolution forward, without stopping at the most extreme actions required to win.

Malcolm never had the opportunity to develop a cadre to carry out or attempt to carry out a strategy. This is what he left for the emerging nationalist movement to do and that is what up to now the nationalists have not done.

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Today from coast to coast black nationalists meet in reverence to Malcolm at services memorialising both his death and his birth. They leave these meetings as loose and incoherent as when they came in. They are no clearer than they were at the time of Malcolm’s death.

Malcolm’s death exposed the one fundamental weakness of the movement; that no serious black cadre-type organisation exists, disciplined by a political perspective and capable of developing and carrying out strategy and tactics necessary to implement this perspective. In his brief independent political existence Malcolm sought to create a unity of blacks. But unity in general is abstract or defensive and only an organisation made up of those who are conscious of the positive objectives for which unity is necessary can shape unity into united action and give it meaningful offensive form.

When Stokely Carmichael, the leader of SNCC from 1966 to 1967, shouted “black power” on a dusty road in Mississippi in June 1966, he did so in a march which had been organised for civil rights. That the words were uttered in such a context does not detract from their significance nor from the significance of Stokely, whose contribution to the movement is already historic. But what does black power mean in political and not just psychological terms? The failure to apply itself to this question remains the chief reason why the rapidly growing nationalist tendency has not been able to launch any offensives. Instead, it has been forced to depend upon the spontaneous outbursts of the masses, rebelling against outrages perpetrated by the oppressor. 

The movement therefore remains fragmented into little groups, locally and nationally, which are more interested in coming together to “rap” (talk) with each other over what Malcolm said or what the “cat on the corner” is doing or might do than they are in developing a strategy to give direction and meaningful confrontation to what the “cat on the corner” is ready to do. Exhibiting more anti-organisational feeling than organisation, they refuse to recognise that the prime need of any revolution is a serious disciplined cadre which can give leadership and structure to the needs of the masses through demands that force them into the arena of struggle. Without such a cadre, a leadership is not leading but is always waiting on the masses to react. With such a structure, a leadership is in a position to place before the masses issues and demands and propose strategy and tactics to realise those demands as well as parallel hierarchies to implement them. The refusal of the leadership to recognise this as its specific task leads to a misconception of the role of the masses in revolution and in turn to a strengthening of the anarchistic tendencies that exist in any revolutionary movement.

What the present and potential leadership of the black revolutionary movement needs to recognise is that, as all past historical experience shows, the masses are not always in a state of revolutionary consciousness. Some days they are just going their way trying to eke out an existence; at other times they are passive and cannot be aroused. Usually they are stimulated to erupt as the result of the whip of the counter-revolution. If the masses were a continuing conscious mass, then the revolution would have already been over! The spontaneous eruption is decisive for any revolution in that no successful revolution is possible without it, but the revolutionary leadership and the cadre must be constantly giving leadership, using propaganda and agitation to organise the struggle and to create the momentum of a continuous offensive toward revolutionary objectives. Across the USA spontaneous eruptions are taking place and will continue to take place, while the counter-revolution is developing its method of containment and repression. Essentially, the method will be constant states of occupation similar to that of Europe under Hitler or of the French army in Algeria before the Algerians won control.

The United States, however, is neither France nor Algeria – where the occupied were the numerical majority. This factor alone requires the black power movement to develop a strategy that will build a movement around escalating demands and escalating struggles so that the movement of escalation assumes a momentum of its own. Such a strategy cannot be devised or implemented except by a leadership certain of its political objectives and with a highly disciplined organisation to achieve these objectives.

When black power took over the centre of the stage of the revolution, it was not just a new stage of development. It also required new insights into the positive objectives of the movement different from those defined by King, and a concrete organisation to achieve these objectives which Malcolm did not have the time to organise. Black power now has the responsibility to structure and state its demands and organise its struggles just as King did for his stage of the movement. When a movement moves from a reform stage to a revolutionary stage, it requires not only people who have developed out of the past but a clear concept of the further development of goals and struggles to achieve these goals.

This excerpt was first published by Viewpoint Magazine.

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