Contributions of George Breitman

by Paul Lee, Director, Best Efforts, Inc.


[Note from the Editors of Labor Standard: Paul Lee is widely recognized as one of the most knowledgeable authorities on the life of Malcolm X, and was a.consultant in the making of Spike Lee’s film on Malcolm. Paul Lee was also closely acquainted with George Breitman, editor of Malcolm X Speaks, the first published collection of speeches after Malcolm’s death, which helped circulate and keep alive the ideas of one of history’s greatest revolutionaries. Breitman also wrote the outstanding study Last Year of Malcolm X: Evolution of a Revolutionary.

[George Breitman was one of the founders and main editors of our magazine (under its previous title Bulletin in Defense of Marxism). Breitman was for many years a leader of the main political party of American Trotskyism, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), but he along with hundreds of others was expelled in 1984 when the current “Barnes team” of SWP leaders turned against Trotskyism and expelled all supporters of that viewpoint.]

The following is the annotated text of a talk presented at the “Trotskyism and African Americans” panel, “Explorations in the History of U.S.  Trotskyism” Conference, New York University, New York, NY, Saturday, September 30, 2000, sponsored by Tamiment Library. Since the author could not be present himself, the talk was read by Cynthia Young, Assistant Professor, Comparative Literature and Africana Studies, State University of New York-Binghamton. The added annotations are in bold face.

Good morning.

I’m sorry that I can’t be with you in person at this historic conference. As the moderator probably told you, wife, son, and I were involved in a rear-end accident in Tulsa, Oklahoma, two weeks ago.  Fortunately, we sustained no serious injuries, but I’ve been advised to undergo several weeks of physical therapy to treat a stiff neck and sore back.

However, due to the kindness of Peter Filardo [of Tamiment Library] and Cynthia Young, I am, in a real sense, able to be there with you in spirit. I’d like to thank them for making this possible.

Unfortunately, my therapy also made it impossible for me to return to my home in Highland Park, Michigan, where my library is. I have, therefore, been compelled to write this talk without the benefit of George’s writings, edited collections, recorded speeches, our correspondence, and my notes of our discussions.

I beg Mrs. Breitman’s forgiveness for violating a cardinal tenet of George’s—namely, not to make assertions without supporting evidence. However, I will honor my promise to my friend and comrade Paul LeBlanc and submit a documented version of this talk, if he should find it worthwhile.

Before I begin, I’d like to send a “shout out,” as young people say today, to Kwame Somburu, whose principled stands I’ve admired over the years; Christopher Phelps, whose able stewardship of Monthly Review I respected, and the other panelists.

I am, to a considerable degree, a product of the work of George Breitman. In terms of my scholarship, he was—and he remains—my most important mentor.

It might surprise you to know, however, that he rarely advised me on the particulars of scholarship. Instead, he taught by example.

But this is equally true for at least two generations of young revolutionaries from the early 1960’s until George’s passing two decades later. I am perhaps unique in that I was never a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a non-party socialist, nor even much of an activist.

George, in fact, never attempted to politically proselytize me. We rarely even discussed current politics. Instead, for some reason, George talked to me at length about the fractious history of the U.S. Left and particularly the early years of the SWP and U.S. Trotskyism.

He gave me copies of his early articles and pamphlets and a rare recording of Leon Trotsky speaking in New York—in the 1930’s, I think. I am, as a consequence, a student of U.S.  Trotskyism and the North American Left.

George was largely self-educated. A telling example of this is the fact that, as an adult, he taught himself French. While his lack of formal education might have been limiting in some ways, it also seems to have been a spur to his intellectual growth and a source of his intellectual creativity.

“A trained mind is often a tamed mind.” This was the estimate of Malcolm X’s lack of formal education made by “Professor” Lewis Michaux, proprietor of Harlem’s famed black nationalist bookstore at the corner of 125th Street and Seventh Ave. [The full, and correct, quote is: “He [Malcolm X] was fortunate enough not to have enough education to be tamed. A trained Negro is a tamed Negro—he’s trained to say soft, intellectual things” (Peter Goldman, The Death and Life of Malcolm X, 2nd ed. [Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979], 52).]

As necessity is the mother of invention, autodidacts are often noted for their innovation. This was true of George and Malcolm, both of whom made substantial contributions to their respective traditions.

George joined the SWP as a young man and was quickly noted for his commitment, curiosity, and, in the eyes of others, his boldness. George, however, didn’t see it that way. To him, if something needed to be done, anyone who had the opportunity to do so should do it.

Note that I said “opportunity” and not “ability.” To George, it seemed, “ability” was more a measure of one’s commitment to learn than a question of natural endowments.

For example, he had no formal training as an intellectual or a writer, yet, under pseudonyms and his own name, he was soon producing articles and pamphlets on a wide variety of subjects. Thus began a lifelong process of politically educating others as he educated himself.

In this, he was fortunate to have joined a party and an ideological tradition that not only respected creativity and initiative, but expected it. Leon Trotsky and many of his revolutionary comrades were autodidacts.

After the overthrow of the tsar, they had to create a government, then defend it. In this climate of necessity, Trotsky not only distinguished himself as the most important Bolshevik ideologue after Lenin, but also as a brilliant military tactician and theorist, and later as an economist. After his ouster by Stalin, he became a noted historian, one of the most important chroniclers of the Russian Revolution.

The Bolsheviks adapted and applied the ideological principles and methods of Marx and Engels to the Russian context. In the same way, George and the early leaders of the SWP “Americanized” Trotskyism.

One of the key figures in this process was James P. Cannon (who, I might add, has been sadly neglected in the history of U.S.  Trotskyism and the Left). So powerful an influence was he on George that, in his early speeches, George folded several of his fingers while gesturing. He told me that he later recognized this as a subconscious mimicking of Cannon, who was missing several digits.

Cannon, George, and the other early party members were encouraged in this process by Trotsky’s example. Like Marx before him, Trotsky was keenly interested in the U.S.  class struggle, and particularly its racial aspects. He kept abreast of its developments and deepened his understanding of it by regularly corresponding and conferring with his North American comrades.

However, unlike the leaders of the U.S. Communist and Socialist parties, Trotsky saw great potential in the phenomenon of black nationalism, which reached its highest development in the Garvey movement, then widely dismissed, even by Leftists, as a Utopian “back to Africa” movement.

(In fact, no major black nationalist leader before Malcolm X, including Marcus Garvey, advocated the mass emigration of Western blacks to Africa. [Paul Lee, “Garvey Re-explains ‘Back to Africa’/ Only Freedom and Nationhood Can Bring Peace to Negroes,” The Michigan Citizen (Highland, MI), Aug. 16–22, 1998, B-8.]

It was fitting that George would later edit, in pamphlet form, a series of discussions on the black struggle in the U.S. between Trotsky and several North American comrades, including the brilliant black West Indian intellectual C. L. R. James. [George Breitman, ed., Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination (New York: Pathfinder, 1967, 1972).]  These discussions foreshadowed George’s later engagement with the religio-nationalism of another controversial movement, the Nation of Islam (NOI), and particularly the radical tendency represented by its chief spokesperson, Malcolm X.

Ironically, it was Trotsky, not James, who saw in Black nationalism an appeal to the Black working class that might be encouraged to a radical or revolutionary orientation. [Ibid., 24–26 (James), 29–32 (Trotsky). In these discussions, held in Coyoacán, Mexico, in April 1939, James was identified as “J. R. Johnson.” After the original publication of this pamphlet in 1967, James admitted that he was “Johnson.” In their first discussion, James spoke dismissively of the Garvey movement: “Garvey raised the slogan ‘Back to Africa,’ but the Negroes who followed him did not believe for the most part that they were really going back to Africa” (25). Trotsky offered an insightful correction that would do any Garvey scholar proud: “The American Negroes gathered under the banner of the ‘Back to Africa’ movement because it seemed a possible fulfillment of their wish for their own home…Garvey spoke in glowing terms, that it was beautiful and that here all would be wonderful. Any psychoanalyst will say that the real content of this dream was to have their own home” (29–30). In a nearly complete capitulation of his position, James replied, “…I agree with you entirely” (31).]

Three decades later, George similarly noted the appeal of the NOI to the black working class and, unlike the Garvey movement, to the black lumpen proletariat, as well. (Malcolm X called the latter the “bottom-of-the-pile Negroes.”) He saw beyond the NOI’s otherworldliness and recognized, particularly in Malcolm X, a radical tendency that he believed socialists could and should encourage and support.

When the NOI mosque in Los Angeles was attacked by the police in April 1962, with several Muslims being killed or crippled, George encouraged The Militant newspaper to report on and editorially support the NOI’s call for a “united front” of all black groups against police brutality. [Breitman related this to me in a personal discussion. He carefully monitored this development in 1962, and showed me a rare copy of Extra, a special publication of the NOI devoted to the Los Angeles incident. Elijah Muhammad eventually withdrew his support from Malcolm X’s united-front initiative. As Breitman perceptively noted, this publicly exposed the fact that there were conflicting “tendencies” in the NOI that helped to precipitate the split between Muhammad and Malcolm X (Breitman, The Last Year of Malcolm X, 15–19; quote at 19; Extra cited at 153n11).]

More importantly, after Malcolm X’s suspension from the NOI in December1963, George began contributing a series of full-page articles on the NOI to The Militant. In these, he carefully analyzed the public statements of the conservative and radical wings of the NOI (which Malcolm distinguished as the “Extremists” and the “Extreme Extremists”) and suggested areas where socialists could support the latter. [George Breitman, “An Appraisal of Current Moves by Malcolm X/ New Force Can Bring Major Rights Gains” and “Malcolm X Spurs Civil Rights Forces/ His Stand Can Unite and Build Movement,” The Militant (New York), March 30, 3, and April 6, 1964, 3; Yael Lotan, “An exclusive interview with Malcolm X, leader of the US Black Nationalist Party,” The Sunday Gleaner Magazine (Kingston, Jamaica), July 12, 1964, 5–6. See also “A Marxist Viewpoint/ Meaning of Black Nationalism,” op. cit., April 20, 1964, 4, which summarizes a 1963 SWP resolution on black nationalism. Though Breitman was not credited as the author, he probably was involved in drafting it.]

This was not pandering, as George made clear after Malcolm X broke with the NOI and announced the formation of an explicitly black nationalist group in March 1964. (Ironically, as George noted, Malcolm named it the Muslim Mosque, Incorporated.)

In a series of speeches entitled “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X advanced what he apparently thought was an original thesis—namely, that African Americans held the “balance of power” in U.S. politics. If intelligently wielded, he argued, this could be leveraged to win them “recognition and respect” from the two establishment parties.

Thus, he claimed, the U.S. government could avoid a bloody “black revolution” by “giv[ing] the black man everything that’s due him” through the political process. [The quote was transcribed from an audiotape of a Detroit version of this talk delivered on April 12, 1964 (“The Ballot or the Bullet” [Los Angeles: Pacifica BB 3101, n. d.]; this recording is more complete than a long-playing record released by several record companies).]

In a detailed, two-part critique of this in The Militant, George pointed out that the “balance of power” thesis had been advocated in the 1940’s. Moreover, he continued, Malcolm’s advocacy of this line was contradicted by his characterization of the Democratic Party as a sly “fox” and the Republican Party as a growling “wolf,” both of which saw African Americans as a “meal.” [George Breitman, “A Discussion of Malcolm X’s Views/ Going to the UN Can Help, But It’s No Cure-All,” The Militant, May 25, 1964, 5.  This article—which, in fact, had only one part—critiqued both Malcolm X’s proposal to take the African American struggle into the United Nations and his “balance of power” thesis.  Breitman analyzed a version of Malcolm X’s talk entitled “Black Revolution,” delivered at the Militant Labor Forum in New York on April 8, 1964 (George Breitman, ed., Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements [New York:   Merit, 1965], 45–57, particularly at 56–57).

[However, a Militant reader did not view Breitman’s critique as constructive. “How come no colored cat can so much as open his mouth on the Freedom Now scene without one of you white radicals devoting three or four pages to ‘analyzing’ everything he’s said right down to the dots on the i’s? Like George Breitman’s remarks on Malcolm X’s suggestion that Negroes take their fight for freedom to the UN. Now I’m not sure how much weight brother Malcolm attaches to this idea, but the way brother Breitman took off after him you’d have thought Malcolm had never said anything in his life but ‘UN’!” (“A Criticism,” letter from “W. D.,” Los Angeles, CA, in Ibid., June 15, 1964, 7).]

While George’s critique was trenchant, it was offered in a constructive spirit. Malcolm, himself, recognized this and sent George his appreciation through a third party. [Breitman advised Bruce Perry, author of a reductive biography of Malcolm X, that Malcolm communicated his appreciation “orally.” However, Breitman apparently declined to identify the person who transmitted the message (Bruce Perry, Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America [Barrytown, NY:   Station Hill, 1991], 316, 484n316. Perry typically put a negative spin on Malcolm X’s message. “He virtually conceded,” he would like his readers to believe it meant, that “there was little the United Nations could do for America’s blacks besides focusing international opinion on their plight” (315–16).]  While other factors might have been involved, it is a matter of record that, after George’s series appeared, Malcolm abandoned this line.

On the eve of the 1964 presidential election, Malcolm X declared from Lagos, Nigeria, that African Americans would be showing “political maturity” by not voting for either Lyndon Johnson or Barry Goldwater, the Democratic and Republican standard-bearers, respectively, as they would only be choosing between the lesser of two evils.

[The correct quotation is: “Malcolm X…said here U.S.  Negroes would show political immaturity if they voted in Tuesday’s presidential election” (Reuter dispatch, datelined 31 Oct. 1964, widely published in the African press). According to a Lagos daily, Malcolm X added that “it would amount to madness and in fact suicide” for African Americans to vote for Johnson or Goldwater.  “As far as I am concerned,” he said, “there is no difference between a wolf [Goldwater] and a fox [Johnson]…   American Negroes will show more maturity this year if they don’t vote at the coming elections” (“Don’t cast any votes—US Negroes Told,” Daily Express, 31 Oct. 1964, 2).]  

For the remainder of Malcolm X’s last, independent year, the SWP, following George’s lead, regularly covered the statements and activities of the Muslim Mosque, Inc. (which had become a Sunni Islamic group) and his explicitly political group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

I will leave other examples of the SWP’s growing relationship with Malcolm X and the black nationalist movement in general to Kwame Somburu’s able hands. It should be clear, though, that this relationship owed much of its impetus and orientation to George’s farsightedness and principled example.

Ironically, these two men, who shared a mutual respect, were never to meet. George hoped to do so during what turned out to be Malcolm’s final visit to Detroit on Feb. 14, 1965, exactly one week before he was assassinated. However, George sustained a back injury several weeks prior and was unable to attend his speech at Ford Auditorium, though his wife and the Frank and Sarah Lovell did.

I said at the beginning that George never discussed the particulars of scholarship with me, but taught by example. I am only one of many who learned from George by studying his writings. I also learned a great deal by studying how he edited his collections of Malcolm X and Trotsky.

George used the pages of The Militant and the pamphlets and books he wrote and edited for Pathfinder Press as what we would call today a “virtual classroom.” His writings were characterized by their simplicity of prose, directness, clarity, and critical rigor.

I have long felt a special affinity for others, like Paul Le Blanc and Alan Wald, whose mode of thinking and writing styles bear George’s imprint. While this talk and my other writings are poor representations of this, I nevertheless continue to use George as my model.

Moreover, like any good classroom, there was room for critical discussion. A classic example of this occurred in 1964, after another one of my mentors, the African American intellectual Harold Cruse, issued a broadside against the SWP and its relationship to the black-led Freedom Now party in The Liberator, a sometimes black nationalist magazine published in Harlem.

It was left to George to give the socialist response in The Militant. Instead of attacking Cruse, George systematically responded to each of Cruse’s arguments and innuendoes and explained in the process how socialists examine social phenomena.

In part two of his article, he set forth perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of the relationship of Trotskyism to the black struggle, and particularly to black nationalism, to date. Pathfinder later released this brilliant treatise, along with Cruse’s article, as a pamphlet. [Marxism and the Negro Struggle: Articles by Harold Cruse, George Breitman, Clifton DeBerry (New York:   Merit, 1965). By “part two,” I meant the second section of the pamphlet, which reprinted Breitman’s five-part response to Cruse.]

In Detroit, George inaugurated the Friday Night Socialist Forum as another means of disseminating socialist ideas and examining and engaging other political perspectives. For example, he invited Wilfred Little Shabazz, the minister of the Detroit NOI mosque and Malcolm X’s eldest brother, to address the forum.

Finally, I would like to comment on George’s relationships with Black people. 

I must add here, however, that I no longer subscribe to the Western concept of “race,” which most scientists consider to be biologically untenable. In fact, I now believe that the acceptance of what I see as the mythology of “race” is at the root of racism. So, in using the terms “white” and “black,” it should be understood that I am speaking within the socio-cultural context of the West. 

It has been rare in my experience to meet white people who define themselves as people before they define themselves as white. That is, most whites that I’ve known see themselves and their culture as the norm, which implicitly or explicitly expresses itself in an attitude of superiority. 

In George’s case, I’m not sure if he had any attachment to his so-called whiteness or to his ethnicity. I am sure that I never felt judged or “different” in his regard because of my so-called blackness. I’ve been told the same thing by other African Americans who knew him, including the late Wilfred Shabazz, who was an exceptionally perceptive person.

I can’t account for why this was so, but I do know that it gave him an advantage in dealing with people defined as black, who, after all, just wanted to be treated as people. He related to black people with an ease and unselfconsciousness that won him their respect and trust. Another revolutionary who happened to be white, John Brown, is said to have had a similar relationship with black people.

[W. E. B. Du Bois neatly captured Brown’s unusual relationship with black people, which I believe holds equally true for Breitman: “He came to them on a plane of perfect equality—they sat at his table and he at theirs. He neither descended upon them from above nor wallowed with their lowest…Nor did this appreciation of the finer qualities and capacity of the Negroes blind him to their imperfections. He found them ‘intensely human,’ but with their human frailties weakened by slavery and caste; and with perfect faith in their ability to rise above their faults, he criticized and inspired them” (W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, John Brown [Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs, 1909; reprinted, New York: International, 1962], 99). Frederick Douglass went so far as to claim that, “though a white gentleman, [Brown] is in sympathy a black man, and is as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery” (Frederick Douglass to “My Dear [William C.] Nell,” Feb. 5, 1848, in “Editorial Correspondence,” The North Star (Rochester, NY), Feb. 11, 1848, 2).]

I thank you for your patience today. As long as this talk was, it only scratched the surface of what I could have said about George’s contributions. I hope that I have at least sketched the outlines of how innovative he was in applying socialist principles to our social struggles in this nation, and particularly the black rights struggle.

I also hope that I’ve given you some idea of George’s gifts as a teacher and the influence that he had, and still has, on those of us who learned from and thru his works.

I might never achieve George’s high standard of scholarship, but I will always be deeply grateful for his example, no less than for his generous personal support. 

Thank you.