In Defense of Malcolm X and George Breitman
by Joe Auciello
[a review of Manning Marable, Living Black History (
Once again the burning of Southern Baptist
churches has broken into the national news. Television reporters have been quick
to assure their audiences that in the fire this time, race was not a factor. After
all, of the five burned churches, four were white and only one was Black. (Another
five Baptist churches in
Absent from the news reports was the simple—and unavoidable—realization that the very existence of white and Black Baptist churches in twenty-first century America means that race is not a matter of the distant past but continues to be a defining factor in the present.
Thus, the publication of Manning Marable’s newest book, Living
Black History, is timely. Its purpose is expressed in the book’s subtitle: “How
Reimagining the African-American Past Can Remake
Frustration with the superficial treatment of the African American experience, both in the writing of history and in compiling the archival record, compelled Marable to put together the speeches and essays that comprise this book. He is especially concerned to provide an accurate and truthful assessment of the work of W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, and Robert Carter, general counsel to the NAACP during the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
As Marable explains in the preface, “Too often the study of history is an exercise in nostalgia or political myth-making rather than an honest interaction with the raw materials of the past” (p. xiv). His aim is to provide a corrective by treating African American history both honestly and critically.
Manning Marable is well qualified to sift through the Black American history of the twentieth century, to explore the lives of prominent Black leaders, and to direct that study “to imagine new futures, and to use history as a critical force for change” (p. xx).
Marable, “Professor of
History, Political Science, and Public Policy at
Marable also has a long history as a political activist in Black and reform-oriented socialist organizations. He has been a member of the New American Movement, a member of the executive committee of the National Black Political Assembly, an associate of the journal Socialist Review, national vice-chairperson of the Democratic Socialists of America, a leader of the National Black Independent Political Party, and finally, co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence.
Despite the wide and varied knowledge Marable brings to this book, Living Black History unfortunately fails to live up to its premise. The chapters are thin on content, and the book reads like a rambling rehash of material previously published elsewhere. The little that is new is fairly unimportant. There was no compelling need to bring this collection into print, and some of it does not deserve the light of day.
A key flaw in Living Black History is Marable’s inability to recognize that the political and historical problem, as he explains it, is logically contradictory, and its solution remains unarticulated and unresolved.
History is vital, Marable asserts. Since study of the past is essential to constructing a better future, materials for scholarly research must be preserved and gathered. Yet, he says, in the new era of globalization and color-blind racism, the freedom struggles of the past are obsolete—or, worse, they unintentionally contribute to the very problems that constitute oppression today.
Still, he maintains, it is important to study that no-longer-relevant history to envision a new tomorrow. Activists “must step outside of their preconceived notions of group advocacy to reimagine another model of politics” (p. 61). But how? In what way? Where exactly is the link between the semi-successful struggles for freedom of a bygone age and the world of today, which has supposedly rendered those struggles out of date?
Is such a link even possible? Why, in other words, does history really matter? The mere assertion that it does fails to resolve the question. Marable never squares the circle.
Unfortunately, this vagueness of thought is reflected in the vagueness of the writing. Much of Marable’s prose remains mired in generalities and platitudes. Thus, readers are told, “The process of frank reevaluation of a shared past of suffering and struggle may prompt a rededication to enduring democratic values and policies, which will bring at long last all elements of our fragmented nation into a common civic project” (p. xxi).
Marable asserts that a study of history and of self can help “racialized populations reflect” and lead to greater knowledge. “That journey of discovery can produce a desire to join with others to build initiatives that create space, permitting the renewal or survival of a group, or a celebration of its continued existence despite the forces arrayed against it” (p. 36).
The language here is simply the boilerplate rhetoric of any politician. Talk of a “common civic project,” “celebration of continued existence,” etc., would not sound strange or unusual coming from the mouth of George W. Bush. Just read or listen to Bush’s speech at the funeral of Coretta Scott King.
The quality of Marable’s prose, the literary equivalent of Sleepy-Time tea, continues throughout the book. Partly, this results from the fact that his political goals are so negligible. For instance, when Marable expresses the hope that historical research and study will lead to political action, he writes, “By documenting and preserving the past, and by promoting civic conversations about the historical struggles to dismantle institutionalized injustice, we build new possibilities for public dialogue about the real challenges that all Americans face in this brave new world of ours” (p. 65).
Even Marable’s call for “new possibilities” is not new—certainly not for him. It’s just that he wrote so much better and more accurately in the past. In his book, Black American Politics, published in 1985, Marable concluded: “The next stage in the struggle to uproot racism, gender oppression, and social class inequality, requires that Afro-Americans and other oppressed sectors begin to think of politics in a new way, and perceive that the power to transform capitalist society is already in their hands” (p. 305).
But in place of Blacks, the working class, and its allies transforming capitalist society, much less overthrowing capitalism itself, Marable now serves up mush-mouthed platitudes about “the real challenges that all Americans face in this brave new world.” For a political analyst of the left, this transformation to respectability hardly represents progress.
Finally, by the end of the book, Marable does venture some concrete political proposals. Arguing for a strategy of Black liberation, Marable rightly criticizes “integrationists” for their unwarranted “faith in the national Democratic Party.” However, in place of faith, Marable argues for “an ‘inside-outside’ approach to power” in order “to pressure Democratic administrations into greater accountability to blacks’ interests” (p. 213).
This argument is coupled with Marable’s frequent assertion of the need to study past political struggles: “An oppressed people without total recall of their own history of exploitation and resistance cannot craft a new history of liberation” (p. 213).
But Marable’s injunction
to make a “frank reevaluation” of the past apparently does not extend to Marable’s own political schemas. What, exactly, have been the
fortunes of the “inside-outside” strategy? Hasn’t it led to nothing because the
corporate wealth and power of the Democratic Party (one of the two major parties
That is, having joined the Democrats, haven’t the “insiders” themselves been influenced, even captured, by the party they naively sought to direct? No discussion of this strategy and its outcome is presented or even referred to in Living Black History.
Even more troubling is Marable’s distorted account, in the chapters on W.E.B. DuBois and Malcolm X, of the Trotskyist movement.
Marable’s argument, quoted
in full, proceeds as follows: “One of DuBois’s harshest
Cold War–era critics in the early sixties was Harold Isaacs. During the 1930s, Isaacs
had been active in the deeply anticommunist Trotskyist
movement. In 1950, the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party
ran a candidate, Joseph Hansen, against DuBois during
his unsuccessful campaign for the United States Senate in
This account is untrue on several levels—falsehoods are wrapped around falsehoods. To use Marable’s own words, it is another instance of “myth-making” rather than an “honest interaction with the past.” It is necessary to set the record straight.
First, the Trotskyist
program had nothing in common with and offered no support to the Cold War, either
in its bourgeois liberal or conservative variant. The Trotskyist
position was clearly stated by James P. Cannon, who wrote, “[T]he fight against
Stalinism is part of the general anticapitalist struggle,
not separate from it nor in contradiction to it—the greatest and most menacing enemy
of the human race is the bipartisan imperialist cabal in Washington. We consider
the fight against war and reaction in the
Having themselves been victims of government witch hunts, the Trotskyists gave no aid or comfort to Cold War attacks on members or sympathizers of the Communist Party. To discuss Cold Warrior Harold Isaacs’s criticism of DuBois in the same paragraph as Trotskyist Joseph Hansen’s criticism of DuBois is to imply a political similarity, even identity, where none exists.
Indeed, Marable says that it was the “polemic views” of “the deeply anticommunist Trotskyist movement” that influenced Isaacs and explains why he “pilloried DuBois on a wide variety of grounds.”
Actually, a look back at Hansen’s own words (to the extent that it is possible; Marable provides no source for his quotation), where he speaks of DuBois’s “good name and distinguished reputation,” shows that Hansen had nothing in common with Isaacs’s assessment of DuBois, though, of course, Hansen was critical of the Communist Party.
The matter does not end there. The fact is that, though he does not say so, Marable has shifted from an earlier assessment he had made of Isaacs. In his book, W.E.B. DuBois, Black Radical Democrat (1986), Marable attributed Isaacs’s criticism of DuBois to a rather different source.
Cited here are the relevant passages: “A former Trotskyist, Isaacs retained a deep hostility towards communism, and his Cold War biases distorted his treatment of DuBois in his book The New World of Negro Americans (1963). DuBois was described sarcastically as a ‘breakfast-table autocrat,’ whose ‘half-digested Marxism’ and elitism had culminated ‘in a close embrace—indeed, a marriage—with totalitarian Communist world power.’ Isaacs declared DuBois had the potential for greatness but fell short of the mark…‘In summary, DuBois is hardly to be classed as a world shaker or world changer,’ Isaacs insisted. ‘Other Negroes have been far greater as leaders and played much larger historic roles’” (p. 269).
In 1986, Marable
says it was Isaacs’s “Cold War biases” that animated his prejudiced criticism of
DuBois. Twenty years later this passage was rewritten
to implicate the Trotskyists—who had the audacity to run
their own, independent campaign for
Nowhere in Living Black History does Marable explain this shift in his thinking; in fact, nowhere does he even acknowledge his earlier statement from his 1986 work. Of course, a frank acknowledgement might have made it more difficult to add an unjustifiable slander against the Trotskyists.
Nor does Marable acknowledge what the Trotskyists actually wrote about DuBois in a lengthy article in the May-June 1950 issue of their magazine, then titled Fourth International. In this often laudatory article, the author, William Gorman, begins by claiming, “As he approaches eighty-two, no higher tribute can be paid William Edward Burghardt DuBois than that it is impossible to seriously consider the Negro in America without being confronted by his name at every turn” (p. 80).
In this article criticisms were made of DuBois, including “his present sympathy with Stalinism,” but the main criticism held that DuBois’s thinking could develop only so far as “the modern proletariat—Negro and white”—had advanced in his formative intellectual years. “The younger militants would have to build on DuBois’s achievements…The present generation of Negro intellectuals has one immense advantage of DuBois. The last generation of social experience has been more permeated with the dynamics of class struggle out of which the future will be created than all of DuBois’ eighty-two years. Yet his earlier sociological writings, his Black Reconstruction, and even Souls of Black Folk are imperishable” (p. 86).
So wrote the Trotskyists, those “deeply anticommunist” Trotskyists, with their “polemic views,” in 1950. Admittedly, a 56-year-old article in an obscure revolutionary socialist publication is hardly common knowledge, even for scholars. Yet Marable knows of the work; he cited it in the “Select Bibliography” of his book on DuBois.
Oddly enough, despite Marable’s slanderous comments about the Trotskyists, he echoes the 1950 Trotskyist article and its criticism of DuBois when, in Living Black History, Marable himself takes stock of DuBois’s political weaknesses. At the conclusion of his chapter on DuBois, Marable says, “The inadequacies and incomplete character of DuBoisian social theory, in the end, may have less to do with the shortcomings of DuBois as an individual than with the objective conditions and level of ideological and political development of the African-American people during the first half of the twentieth century…The social context in which DuBois had to construct his arguments never approximated the revolutionary preconditions suggested by Lenin. DuBois could only go as far as history could permit him to go” (pp. 118–119).
This assessment merely duplicates what the Trotskyists said decades earlier, that “despite the highly radical coloration of his later beliefs, he [DuBois] remains fixed in the prejudices of the protest movement of small-farmer Populism and urban middle class Progressivism between 1885 and 1915” (Fourth International, May-June 1950, p. 85). This article can be read on line here.
In an effort to discredit the Trotskyists—falsely—Marable is compelled to deny and distort himself, twice over. It is falsehood of almost Biblical proportions.
What, then, causes Marable to smear the Trotskyists when, in fact, he agrees with the Trotskyists’ overall assessment of DuBois’s achievement? The answer may lie in that 1950 New York Senate campaign in which the Trotskyists ran against DuBois. Although in Living Black History Marable does not say so, DuBois was a candidate for the American Labor Party (ALP) ticket.
According to the Encyclopedia of the American Left, “The ALP did not fully operate as an independent party. For the most part, it was a satellite party proffering endorsements to candidates of the Democratic Party, and to Republicans considered sufficiently progressive. When the major parties forwarded unacceptable candidates, the ALP ran its own” (p. 24).
The ALP embodied, in other words, the “inside-outside” strategy that Marable continues to call for to this day. Naturally enough, the Trotskyists, revolutionary socialists who favored real political independence of the working class and its allies against both Democrats and Republicans, would oppose what the Encyclopedia of the American Left called the “left-leaning nonsocialist program” of the ALP, a vehicle to hustle votes for the class enemy.
Perhaps the real issue, after all, is not hostility to DuBois but Marable’s own hostility to the Trotskyist movement, its traditions and program.
Marable’s ill-founded and antagonistic arguments against the Trotskyists continue in the chapter on Malcolm X. Marable’s polemic—it cannot be called “analysis”—is a combination of fact, distortion, innuendo, and hypocrisy that, taken together, adds up not merely to poor scholarship but to falsehood and slander.
Again, for the sake of fairness and clarity,
the paragraph is quoted in full: “Texts of the actual transcripts of the majority
of his speeches went unpublished for decades and many still remain unpublished.
The major edited collections of Malcolm X’s speeches, including Malcolm X Speaks and By Any Means Necessary, were published by
Pathfinder Press and Merit Publications, which are affiliated with the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The SWP, following
the Marxist theories of Leon Trotsky, believed that the ‘revolutionary black nationalism’
of militants like Malcolm X was a necessary precursor to the staging of a socialist
revolution in the
The opening sentences of Marable’s polemic confuse the time frame and suggest malevolent intentions where none exist. Marable implies that the Trotskyists held back publication of Malcolm X’s speeches when Malcolm X Speaks was published. Such an implication is not true.
Then SWP member George Breitman, editor of the Pathfinder books of Malcolm X, said this book “contains everything from his last year that was available at the time it was published at the end of 1965” (from “Myths About Malcolm X,” included in Breitman, Porter, and Smith, eds., The Assassination of Malcolm X, p. 129). Breitman’s article “Myths About Malcolm X” can also be read on line here.
As other material became available, additional books were published, two edited by Breitman: Malcolm X on Afro-American History (1967) and By Any Means Necessary (1970). Breitman’s introduction to the 1967 book may be read on line here.
Marable accuses the SWP (meaning Breitman) of editing Malcolm in order to cast him in the Trotskyists’ own image, “to emphasize those particular views that conformed most favorably to their own dogmatic perspectives.” What evidence is there for this accusation? Marable presents none.
In Malcolm X Speaks, Breitman asserts the opposite intention. “The aim of this book is to present, in his own words, the major ideas Malcolm X expounded and defended during his last year” (p. v). Further, “In editing, we have made only such changes as any speaker would make in preparing his speeches for print, and such as we believe Malcolm would have made himself” (p. vi).
In 1967 Breitman explicitly refuted the kind of accusation Marable raises today, an accusation unaccompanied by fact. In “Myths About Malcolm X,” Breitman said, “I say Malcolm is both the Malcolm of the period before the split and the Malcolm of the year after the split, and I want to see and understand the whole man. I want to see the whole man…That is why in editing his speeches, I included everything available, not just the parts I agree with. That is why in the book about his evolution [George Breitman, The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary] I was just as concerned in presenting his positions that diverge from my own as I was in exploring those that resemble or approach mine” (The Assassination of Malcolm X, pp. 119–120).
In the question and answer period to his speech, Breitman reiterated, “I stress ‘everything’ because I want to make the point that the material was not picked over to present only things that Marxists like and agree with—it includes what Malcolm liked and agreed with, and that was the sole and overriding criterion that was used in preparing Malcolm X Speaks.”
Additionally, Breitman pointed out, “Malcolm’s three Militant Labor Forum speeches were all printed in The Militant while he was alive, not later. He didn’t think they were inaccurate in any way. If he had thought so, you can be sure he would have said it, and he wouldn’t have had a bundle of The Militant on sale in his office” (“Myths About Malcolm X,” pp. 28–29).
How does Marable respond to Breitman’s explanation? In a word—he doesn’t. He simply pretends that Breitman’s comments do not exist. Marable claims, and there is no reason to doubt him on this point, that he “plowed through” hundreds of books and articles about Malcolm X. Breitman’s books and pamphlets are well known, and it is reasonable to assume Marable read them in the process of his research. At any rate, Marable read Breitman’s editorial introduction to Malcolm X Speaks.
A scholar less polemical and factional than Marable, one perhaps less tied to his own “dogmatic perspectives,” would have attempted to develop a reply to Breitman. Instead, Marable simply ignores what he wrote and dredges up old criticisms as if they were new and as if Breitman had not already refuted them years before. Marable’s arguments might possess some measure of credibility if he offered new information or new evidence to show where Breitman was wrong, but Marable attempts nothing of the sort.
What Marable does attempt, though, is malicious insinuation. He refers to the fact that George Breitman never met Malcolm personally and italicizes it for emphasis—but Marable never says what point he is trying to make by this emphasis. It’s not an accidental omission. Marable does not want to be directly responsible for the idea he hopes to plant in his readers’ minds, hence, he makes no clear, direct statement. A naive reader might assume that Marable has discovered some significant and new information, which would be precisely the wrong conclusion.
In a speech given in March 1965 Breitman himself says that he had never met or seen Malcolm in person. This speech was printed in The Militant newspaper and reprinted in a pamphlet. Two years later Breitman repeated this information, and it can be found on the first page of the introduction to his book, The Last Year of Malcolm X.
This is how Marable can present the fact as “indisputable”—Breitman wrote it down more than 40 years ago. The problem for Marable is that it just does not sound as damning if you tell the truth plainly and say, “as Breitman explained.” Hence, Marable insinuates instead, as if that somehow makes him less responsible for misleading his readers.
Marable’s implication is clear. He implies that Breitman was unfit for the job of editing Malcolm’s speeches, not only for his alleged “dogmatic perspectives,” which, as a Trotskyist, Breitman must have held, but also because Breitman lacked personal knowledge of his subject. The logical conclusion of this implication, which Marable does not and can not bring himself to state overtly, is that only those who know their subjects personally, or who at least have met them, are capable of writing about them properly.
When Marable’s implication is fully spelled out, it is revealed as nonsense and hypocrisy. Nonsense because many editors, biographers, and scholars never met the individuals whose works they edit and whose lives they chronicle. Nonsense because other criteria—understanding, objectivity, fairness—are far more significant than personal contact.
How can a reader know that Marable believes criteria other than personal acquaintance are significant? Marable himself says so in his criticism of Alex Haley, who met Malcolm continually for two years in order to compose Malcolm’s autobiography. “The individual most responsible for removing the radical and revolutionary context from the image of Malcolm X was Alex Haley,” Marable states. Haley, the celebrated author of Roots and coauthor of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, “was a Republican most of his life and was a committed advocate of racial integration” (p. 148). Obviously, personal collaboration is not a sufficient guarantee of good analysis.
The hypocrisy in Marable’s accusation is evident from the facts of his own career. Marable wrote a book on W.E.B. DuBois, though Marable never actually met DuBois himself. Furthermore, Marable is now at work on a biography of Malcolm X, though it is indisputable that Marable never actually met Malcolm himself. If Marable was consistent enough to apply his foolish standard to his own work, he would have to stop writing.
But there is no need of such self-censorship. The maligned George Breitman long ago outlined a fair and reasonable standard of criticism and scholarliness: “[W]e Marxists have interpreted the raw material—again, not by distorting what Malcolm said, only by giving our analysis and opinion about what he said and did. That is everybody’s privilege, that is the duty of anybody who considers himself a radical, and we hope that all tendencies will work out and present their interpretations, as we have done, so that all interpretations can confront each other openly and provide a sound basis for what will be the historical judgment and tradition” (The Assassination of Malcolm X, pp. 129–130).
What exactly, according to Marable, is the proper historical judgment of Malcolm X? How have the “dogmatic perspectives” of the Trotskyists misinterpreted and misedited Malcolm so that “millions of activists who read and quote from the writings of Malcolm X are really unfamiliar with what the man actually said”? What correction in interpretation does Marable provide?
The answer—and, given all of Marable’s accusations and insinuations, the startling answer—is that Marable’s view of Malcolm X is similar to, and may even derive from, the view presented by…George Breitman!
In The Last Year of Malcolm X, Breitman traces the evolution of Malcolm’s thinking through a scrupulous examination of his speeches, letters, public statements, etc. Breitman divides the last 50 weeks of Malcolm’s life into two parts, a transition period and a final period. He also points out that Malcolm’s thinking was never completed but instead “was halted by the assassins’ bullets.”
It is not possible here to summarize all that Breitman wrote—the book is in print and well repays careful study— but some themes stand out:
(1) Malcolm X was neither a violent hatemonger nor a mild integrationist.
(2) “The Autobiography, even with Haley’s long epilogue, is politically incomplete, and in some ways ambiguous or misleading.”
(3) Malcolm created religious and political
organizations but at the same time looked to forge alliances internationally, especially
(4) Malcolm X was still evolving politically at the time of his death, and “he was on the way to a synthesis of black nationalism and socialism that would be fitting for the American scene and acceptable to the masses in the black ghetto” (p. 69). Yet, though “Malcolm was pro-socialist in the last year of his life, [he was] not yet a Marxist” (pp. 50–51).
Marable, in his chapter on Malcolm X in Living Black History, stresses the same political points. He, too, dismisses the false media images, and, based on a reading of the unpublished chapters of the Autobiography, points out Malcolm’s efforts to create “an unprecedented African-American united front” (p. 57).
Marable’s overall assessment of Malcolm’s final year echoes Breitman on another important and controversial point: Malcolm’s relation to socialism. Marable criticizes “the Shabazz family’s interest in isolating Malcolm X from both his black nationalist phase and from his later connection with revolutionary socialism” (p. 132), and faults Alex Haley for misrepresenting in the “Autobiography” “Malcolm’s political pan-Africanism, his growing attraction to socialism” (p. 161).
These results of Marable’s research merely confirm the truth of what Breitman had already established. Yet in Marable’s listing of “the best previous scholarly studies of Malcolm X,” Breitman’s work is notably neglected.
Marable’s treatment of Breitman cannot be attributed to incomplete knowledge or lack of comprehension. The fault, instead, lies in a blind factionalism or crippling sectarianism that prevents Marable from arguing conscientiously and fairly with the Trotskyists or even discussing the Trotskyists’ political positions accurately.
Life is short; there are many books to read, and not a few to reread. But not this one. Despite its admirable purpose, Living Black History is a vapid failure marred by a poisonous dose of dishonesty that resembles the crude rewriting of history practiced by Stalinism. Marable is more than capable of writing better books in the future, but whether he will remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, readers would be better served by seeking out Malcolm X and the Third American Revolution: The Writings of George Breitman, which we review below.
“What Remains Fresh Is Breitman’s Method of Thinking”
A Review of
Malcolm X and the Third American Revolution: The Writings of George Breitman, ed. Anthony Marcus (
by Joe Auciello
At the Socialist Activists and Educational Conference
The themes which Breitman announced in his talk were struck by other speakers at the conference, sometimes more simplistically and schematically. What was unique, and typical of Breitman, was the warning he delivered in his very next paragraph: “You should be critical in your consideration of this proposition, because it corresponds to what you would like and because wishful thinking, although it sometimes has beneficial side effects, is generally damaging to the revolutionary movement. I think that this proposition will stand up under the most critical examination” (ibid).
These words reveal much about the man who spoke them. A demagogue would have encouraged wishful thinking; a conscientious speaker would have dutifully warned against it, but Breitman was more insightful. Not only did he caution his listeners about the dangers of self-delusion; he was also perceptive and precise enough to note that wishful thinking could sometimes have “beneficial side effects.” Then he took the next, necessary step and subjected his thesis to “the most critical examination.”
This approach, which included an injunction to the audience to regard skeptically the very speech they were about to hear, is quintessentially Breitman. What other political leader, in the opening of a talk or report, would urge the audience to think in a way that might undermine the very premise of his or her presentation? Breitman’s stance was not an instance of unwonted self-confidence or arrogance; instead, he spoke from a deep conviction in the power of reason and in the ability of his listeners or readers to, in the words of Malcolm X, “see for yourself and listen for yourself and think for yourself.”
Linking the names of Malcolm X and George Breitman is not at all arbitrary. In fact, many readers will know Breitman as the editor of several volumes of Malcolm X’s speeches, including the first and perhaps most influential, Malcolm X Speaks (1965). He also wrote the first book-length analysis of Malcolm, The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary (1967).
A central idea of Breitman’s work is that African Americans will play a central role in the coming American revolution and that the nationalist sentiments of the Black population are not an obstacle or diversion from the class struggle but are an essential part of it. Within the American left overall, this was a distinctly minority theory, but one solidly based on a study of history, especially the experience of the Russian Bolsheviks who had developed and successfully applied a Marxist theory of the national question to the revolutionary struggle in their own country.
In “The National Question and the Black Liberation
Struggle in the United States,” (1968), Breitman wrote,
“The black liberation struggle in the United States has a two-sided character…As
the drive of an oppressed racial minority bent on self-determination, freedom, and
human rights, it is first of all a popular movement with a nationalist and democratic
mainspring. But it is much more than that…It is the upheaval of superexploited workers crowded into city slums who are victims
of intolerable conditions of life and labor in the richest and most advanced capitalism.
They constitute the backbone of the industrial reserve army of
“This combined character of their struggle, which is both national-democratic in its demands and proletarian-socialist in tendency, endows it with doubly explosive force.
The black rebels are so many time bombs planted in the vital centers of the capitalist colossus” (Malcolm X and the Third American Revolution, p. 138; all citations below are to this work).
This orientation helped Marxists understand and, in some modest ways, advance the cause of Black liberation. Breitman’s key ideas retained their validity even after his death in 1986. For instance, when the Million Man March was held in 1995, many confused progressive and even socialist critics denounced it, and some even spoke of its leaders as “fascist.” Those Marxists who were schooled in the Breitman tradition were far better equipped to understand the nature of this distorted expression of revolutionary Black nationalism.
Some years later, as the first Gulf War exploded, revolutionary socialists were able to make common cause with the Nation of Islam in opposing Bush I’s imperialist war. This initiative had its roots in Breitman’s appreciation of Black nationalism.
Breitman had been reporting on the African American struggle for freedom and equality since the 1940s. As a socialist writer and activist, his literary work also included coverage of the labor movement and more specialized studies of socialist, especially Trotskyist, history.
Accordingly, Malcolm X and the Third American Revolution: The Writings of George Breitman is actually divided into three sections: Black Liberation, Socialism, and Life and Legacy. The first two sections include introductory essays by Malik Miah and Steve Bloom, writers who knew and worked with Breitman; the last is a lengthy biographical account and appreciation by Paul LeBlanc, a socialist scholar greatly influenced personally and politically by Breitman.
Several of Breitman’s more significant pieces, first published in the 1950s and 1960s, are included in this book. Though dated in some respects, they still repay careful study.
For instance, “Is It Wrong for Revolutionaries to Fight for Reforms?” was originally published in the heady days of 1969 when many young radicals fervently believed revolution was imminent. Based on this misguided hope, as well as the more accurate conviction that the political establishment was too rotten to reform itself into a government “of, by, and for the people,” some youthful revolutionaries mistook any struggle for reform as a “sellout,” so that only the most far-reaching radical slogans were considered suitable to galvanize the masses. This kind of thinking hardly describes the political climate of the present day. Currently, labor’s fight is joined, not over utopian slogans or even new reforms, as desirable as those would be, but over the struggle to maintain the reforms won in the past.
Yet, on closer examination, even this article, seemingly out of date, has much to recommend it. What remains fresh is the method of thinking Breitman employed and the lessons he drew. First, he based his thinking not on hopes but on facts. Even in 1969, when nationally coordinated antiwar protests drew hundreds of thousands into the streets, Breitman said, “The United States is not now is a revolutionary situation. This is unfortunate, but true; and it is from this truth that revolutionaries must proceed in the development of strategy and tactics” (pp. 230–231). He began with factual honesty, with truthfulness.
That sense of integrity also was evident in the more polemical speeches included in this book where Breitman was careful to summarize accurately the position of his antagonist, particularly in the debate with Harold Cruse (“Marxism and the Negro Struggle“). Giving a fair and honest account of another’s position is more the attribute of a scholar than a politician, even a revolutionary one, but Breitman held himself to high standards of objectivity, a sign of deep respect for his audience.
Second, he resolved the false dichotomy that caught and confused many radicals of the sixties generation. The choice then was neither dead-end reform nor make-believe revolution. “The essence of Marxist strategy,” Breitman wrote, “of any revolutionary strategy in our time, is to combine the struggle for reforms with the struggle for revolution. This is the only way in which to build a revolutionary party…” (p. 230).
Finally, Breitman outlined the how: “Revolutionaries fight for reforms, but they never stop teaching the masses the truth about the inadequacies of reforms so long as the ruling class is not displaced from power…” (p. 232). Furthermore, Breitman explained, “revolutionaries encourage independent mass action and independent mass organization as the only way to win and keep reforms, to deepen consciousness and extend the conditions for continuing social change” (ibid).
These are the methods and lessons which have lost
none of their meaning and relevance for today, even when some of the conjunctural arguments are out of date. Young (and older!) activists
drawn to the movement against the war in
The underlying reason for this strategy is also meaningful and timely. “Struggle is the school of the masses. All demands that move the masses into struggle and raise the level of their consciousness are worth raising, fighting for and incorporating into the over-all revolutionary strategy” (p. 237).
Breitman’s conclusions, if absorbed by this generation of activists, would provide an orientation that would strengthen the movement against the U.S.-led war in Iraq and would bring the force of mass discontent to bear against this government.
As a revolutionary socialist, Breitman also had to confront the dilemma of the Democratic Party, a capitalist party supported by unions, workers, and racial minorities. Yet despite the time, labor, and money they give, Breitman points out “they aren’t the ones who decide the real aims of the party” (p. 211). Instead, as Breitman explains, the Democratic Party “is dominated, as the Republican Party is dominated, by a minority of its members—by a small group of monopoly capitalists who also control the economy, the government, the means of communication, and the educational system” (ibid).
But even if Breitman is accurate in claiming that the Democrats are run by a section of the capitalist class, can’t that party be influenced and ultimately led by the mass base of progressive activists who constitute the majority of its members? Couldn’t the Democratic Party then become the voice of the people, a beacon of hope and struggle? These familiar questions will be raised anew in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. Most of the left will be urging support for the Democrats (and trying to block ballot access to third parties) in order to “take back the White House.”
Breitman’s rejection of that perspective is still essential and timely: “Supporting the Democratic Party is at best an exercise in futility for radicals, and one of the causes contributing to their decline” (p. 216).
The reason for this position is simple enough. As Breitman explained, supporting the Democrats means “you have to lie, you have to cover up for the fact that the Democratic Party stands for the cold war, more armaments, little or no help to the unemployed, racial oppression, restrictions on the Bill of Rights, retention of the Taft-Hartley Act, maintenance of the status quo generally” (ibid).
Change “cold war” to “
Malcolm X and the Third American Revolution can be purchased by ordering directly from the Amazon.com web site. Many more of George Breitman’s writings may be read on line by going to the Breitman index page of the Marxist Internet Archive.