By Any Means Necessary: Malcolm X and the Struggle Today

By Noaman G. Ali

Fifty-two years ago today, Malcolm X was gunned down in Harlem. He was killed most likely by agents of the US government, but also, the fact is, the Nation of Islam wanted him dead, too. It may be worth thinking about Malcolm X and his relevance to the way we engage in struggle today.

While today the discourse of love and peace is bandied about in the mainstream, in his time Malcolm’s message was one of the few voices that unrepentantly defended hatred and anger as necessary conditions of revolutionary struggle.

Where former NDP leader Jack Layton’s dying words were some vague platitudes about love being greater than anger and hope being greater than fear, Malcolm X was on another tip: “Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.”

In all of our discussions these days of love and hope trumping hatred and anger, why do we surrender these powerful emotions and motivating factors to our enemies? We have to harness our hate if we want to do anything about hatred, we have to recognize our anger if we want to do anything about the conditions that produce our depression, anxiety and frustrations. Yes, we require more than just the negation or refusal of the system, we require positive goals, but we are damned if we don’t hate the system and if we aren’t angry about our conditions. That’s the only way we can actually trust our love for each other and the people, is if we hate what destroys them — that which destroys us.

And you sit there when they’re putting the rope around your neck saying, “Forgive them, Lord, they know not what they do.” As long as they’ve been doing it, they’re experts at it, they know what they’re doing!

Here, too, is what separates Malcolm from others. He had no faith in the system, whatsoever. Liberation was not going to be the gift of leaders, politicians, bureaucrats, the federal government, or anybody else. He had faith in the people.

We, the Black masses, don’t want these leaders who seek our support coming to us representing a certain political party. They must come to us today as Black Leaders representing the welfare of Black people. We won’t follow any leader today who comes on the basis of political party. Both parties (Democrat and Republican) are controlled by the same people who have abused our rights, and who have deceived us with false promises every time an election rolls around.

On the contrary, liberation and emancipation required mass movement and mass organization, which was his primary concern. But Malcolm’s faith in the people was not based on a belief that people are automatically correct. He believed in the necessity of political education and education more broadly. “I for one believe that if you give people a thorough understanding of what confronts them and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own program, and when the people create a program, you get action.”

Today, political activists either approach “the people” with disdain because of their supposedly backward and irrational ideas or “the people” as authentic bearers of political action because of their experience of oppression, as if being oppressed somehow automatically leads to having a proper analysis of why that oppression exists. Neither of these positions is tenable. Too often, these approaches are based on the distance and alienation of activists from people.

Malcolm was deeply rooted in the northern-US Afrikan working class communities, particularly in Harlem which was his base, but also in places like Detroit and Boston. He helped expand the Nation of Islam and later attempted to build his own organization (the Organization of Afro-American Unity) and joined a similarly rooted semi-clandestine Marxist-Leninist organization (the Revolutionary Action Movement). I don’t think that he was a Marxist-Leninist himself, but he was, in no uncertain terms, a revolutionary who was deeply rooted in the working-class.

This is why his criticisms of the civil rights movement and its leaders have to be read not only as criticisms of tactics, but as criticisms of class orientation and interests, which determined one’s relationship to the politics of the liberation struggle more broadly.

That house Negro loved his master. But that field Negro — remember, they were in the majority, and they hated the master… If someone come to the field Negro and said, “Let’s separate, let’s run,” he didn’t say “Where we going?” He’d say, “Any place is better than here.” …. I’m a field Negro.

Today there is a lot of analysis about radicals but little analysis of their class politics. Please note that Malcolm was not asking for a bigger piece of the American pie, nor was he focused on any pie in the sky. Malcolm was talking about self-determination and revolution, a complete overhauling of the system politically, economically, culturally and socially. He was not interested in climbing up the social ladder as a political program. He wasn’t against individuals doing better for themselves, but he was against the opportunism that proposes individual gain as political transformation.

“My going to Mecca and going into the Muslim world, into the African world, and being recognized and accepted as a Muslim and as a brother, may solve the problem for me personally, but I personally feel that my personal problem is never solved as long as the problem is not solved for all of our people in this country.”

In other words, don’t ignore personal transformation, it is necessary, but don’t act like it’s revolutionary.

Malcolm X was not afraid of criticizing Afrikan leaders in public, nor was he above trying to forge principled unity for common objectives by suspending public criticism. The question was one of what was necessary at what point in time. The hive mentality of defending people or positions because of where they came from was also not something he was interested in: “You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or who says it.”

He was also, so importantly, not above being criticized and accepting criticism, even from trenchant enemies, and publicly expressing his mistakes and errors. Note, he wasn’t self-degrading about his past mistakes, he explained why he had believed and done the things he had. But he was self-criticizing, pointing to other ways of understanding the world and doing things. He was not above dialoguing with his enemies — he frequently started off speeches by addressing, “brothers and sisters, ladies and gentlemen, friends and enemies….”

In the last year of his life, and to be fair, long before that, too, he was experimenting with ideas and actions, he was testing organizing methods and attempting to be creative and productive. This, more than anything else, is what he meant when he said “by any means necessary.” These words are often reduced to a possible defence of violent means, and while such defence is certainly part of “any means necessary,” above and beyond that it meant pursuing creativity in strategy while sticking to principle, flexibility in tactics while avoiding opportunism. This meant, above all, demonstrating revolutionary humility.

“Our objective is complete freedom, justice and equality by any means necessary.”