[News] A Work of Negation: A Critical Review of Manning Marable's "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention"

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri May 20 17:22:02 EDT 2011

A Work of Negation: A Critical Review of Manning Marable's, "Malcolm 
X: A Life of Reinvention"

by Kali Akuno

Written for Left Turn Magazine
Thursday, May 19, 2011

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 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:

1. "Race Against Empire: Black Americans and anti-imperialism, 1937 - 
1957", by Penny M. Von Eschen.

2. "Eye's Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American 
Struggle for Human Rights, 1944 - 1955", by Carol Anderson.

3. "Black Reconstruction in America, 1860 - 1880", by W.E.B. Du Bois.

4. "From Civil Rights to Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the 
Organization of Afro-American Unity", by William Sales, Jr.

5. "Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom 
Struggle", edited by Dayo Gore, Komozi Woodard, and Jeanne Theoharis.

6. "Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of 
African American Politics", by Cedric Johnson.

8. "The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850 - 1925", by William 
Jeremiah Moses.

9. "Black Power in the Belly of the Beast", edited by Judson L. Jefferies.

10. "Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition", by 
Cedric J. Robinson.

11. "We Will Return in the Whirlwind: Black Radical Organizations, 
1960 - 1975", by Muhammad Ahmad.

12. "New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American 
Culture, 1965 - 1975", by William L. Van Deburg.

13. "A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black 
Power Politics", by Komozi Woodard.

14. "Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black 
Power", by Timothy B. Tyson.

15. "Negroes with Guns", by Robert F. Williams.

16, "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: 
<mailto:kaliakuno at gmail.com>kaliakuno at gmail.com.

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