Marable's Malcolm X: Is Black nationalism the path to liberation?

"Although Manning is unquestionably entitled to his own opinion, he is not entitled to his own facts."

"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."

Kasama wants to encourage a new and in depth examination of the oppression and liberation of Black people -- to understand  causes and solutions much better.  The current debate over Malcolm X, and over Manning Marable's reworking of Malcolm's legacy is connected to precisely such an examination.


We would like to share with you this critical discussion of Marable's work -- by Kali Akuno, who is stands as an articulate spokesperson for revolutionary Black nationalism in the U.S.

Kali is  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). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of MXGM, USHRN, or Kasama. The following just  appeared on Kali's site Navigating the Storm. It was written for Left Turn magazine.

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

by Kali Akuno


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.

Nowhere 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 cooptation 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-impmerialism, 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.

People in this conversation

  • Guest - MLW

    sovereignty is european idea

  • Guest - chicanofuturet

    Having read through Kali Akuno's <i>A Work of Negation:
    A Critical Review of Manning Marable’s
    Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention</i>
    ..evaluating it from my point of view,I came to the conclusion that both of the respective positions which these black brothers identify with are in general..
    <i>"off the mark"</i>.

    I'd also like to add,going through Kali Akuno's article was to me like reading a literal transcription of my own lifetime inner dialogue dealing with many of the same objective contradictions Akuno attempts to resolve.
    I believe that Manning Marable and Kali Akuno represent relative extremes which fail to hit the target of ideological correctness.
    ...<i>"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."</i>
    IMHO,Kali Akuno errors here in his position of posing the black petit bourgeoise as a tacit enemy of black revolution.I don't think the reality he assumes is so absolute-cut and dry.I believe there have been and will be significant positive contributions the liberal black petit bourgeoise can make to better the conditions of their black brothers and sisters.From my point of view black revolutionaries should unify when needed,make alliances with the liberal black petit bourgeoise around progressive issues and policies which can actually help the proletariat,improve their lives and condition in manifold ways.It's a mistake to write them off and draw a line in the sand.In my opinion that is a huge error.
    As for Manning Marable-to me he is representative of so many well intentioned liberals including people of color who buy into the foolish and very mistaken notion of a new and equal "post-racial" nation which somehow now represents a real change of essence in the heart of a still capitalist,racist imperialist america.Manning's analysis to me is subjectively inacurate, superficial,shallow and unrealistic.He is doing black america great harm in settting them up for co-optation by the neoliberal ruling class,helping forge the chains of captivity for them on the Democratic Party "Plantation".Manning Marable errs in the wrong direction opposite to Kali Akuno. Brother Akuno has chosen his road.
    It seems to me Kali Akuno has already burned his bridges with white america,crossing the threshold travelling well down the path of black revolutionary nationalism.In my heart I can totally understand his choice.I myself have agonized countless times whether to follow the same road.White racism is so pervasive,destructive,so corrosive and overwhelmingly oppressive that for a person of color maintaining optimism for a multi-racial unified struggle is extremely difficult to sustain.Racism is an incredibly toxic poison which is found throughout all classes and sectors of white american society from the poorest to the the most educated,and yes,even extending into the advanced,left,progressive and communist movements.Bluntly stated,for many people of color living in a near hellish racist society it is not so difficult a choice to give up on white people.That's is why I can deeply relate to brother Akuno's personal struggle and choice.Ultimately,it is distinct possibilty Akuno may very well be correct in his analysis.

    As a Chicano Communist I have often found myself at the same crossroad brother Akuno has faced.At this fork in the road I frequently have found myself deliberating,deeply pondering which road is the right one to follow.
    To be a Revolutionary Communist fighting a class war based on multi-racial struggle??
    or,Revolutionary Nationalism based on many objective potentially powerful conditions for nationalist struggle:(2,000 miles of border-an extensive land bridge connected to a vast mountainous territorial base area-Mexico,a large and rapidly growing population based on a circulation of fresh blood-live and continually replenishing direct roots in Mexico and Latin America,geographical,historical,linguistic,cultural,social)etc etc etc ..
    To fight for Mexicano/Chicano national self-determination and secession,then within that new context,set of conditions pressing ahead in the fight for socialism.?
    I have considered myself a Revolutionary Communist fighter most of my life.I believe in Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse Tung ideology,class struggle.I am a stubborn Marxist-Leninist and I am optimistic by nature.As compelling as a tendency it is to follow brother Akuno's footsteps down the road to Revolutionary Nationalism,I have always been reluctant,hesitant,wary of taking that defining determining step of <i>"no looking back"</i>
    Having said that,I believe many advanced people of color share Akuno's predicament faced,that is,of racist america putting them in an impossible compromised position where they will no longer have any choice in the matter,the decision will have been made for them by racist america.Many will join the ranks of Revolutionary Nationalism where brother Akuno has already decided to go.
    Nationalism will then for this stage of history have trumped Marxist ideology.

  • Guest - carldavidson

    Sovereignty is a European idea? Not if you include the notion of popular sovereignty almost universal among the peoples of the New World, most of whom thought the notion of one person bowing in submission to other was rather odd, if not both madness and hilarious.

  • Guest - carldavidson

    Whatever you want to say of Manning, I wouldn't attribute 'post-racialism' to him.

  • Guest - Keith

    Here is a discussion of Marable's book on Democracy Now with Amiri Baraka, Herb Boyd, And Eric Michael Dyson. Baraka makes a pretty sharp critique of Marable and his book.

  • Guest - MLW

    Carl to full understand the notion of sovereignty you have to know a lot about Aristotelian philosophical assumptions which assume an inside to outside driven locality, so called popular sovereignty is an extension of Aristotelian philosophical models as well an roman discourse, I think they all suck personally, black people in this regard are playing a slave moralistic game of catch up as opposed to just dispensing with these things all together.

  • Guest - carldavidson

    I'd make a guess that it's you that's tangled up in Euro-centrism, MLW, not the notion of popular sovereignty. The Iroquois managed to get the essence of it, and much more, into their 'Constitution', the 'Law of Great Peace', without ever coming across one iota of the writings of Plato, Aristotle or any of their successors.

  • Guest - MLW

    The Iroquois have had a lot of western spooks pushed down upon them, none of us lived in that context and really know the objective factors in its creation, I know that they did not have the same law and order models that roman aristotalian derived societies have neither did that have all those annoying institutions, needless to say I don't think that black nationalism leads to the Iroquois, it leads more to what you have in Africa and the West Indies today, "post colonial"-still colonial, I will grant you the Iroquois had something better then anything Rome or Greece ever conjured but there is no concept of sovereignty to be found in that model. Sovereignty is religious and monotheistic in origin if case you haven't figured it out, its a secular continuation of the inside to outside godhead.

  • Guest - MLW

    "“To Engels, Morgan’s description of the Iroquois [in Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society and The League of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois] was important because “it gives us the opportunity of studying the organization of a society which, as yet, knows no state.” Jefferson had also been interested in the Iroquois’ ability to maintain social consensus without a large state apparatus, as had Franklin. Engels described the Iroquoian state in much the same way that American revolutionaries had a century earlier: “Everything runs smoothly without soldiers, gendarmes, or police, without nobles, kings, governors, prefects or judges; without prisons, without trials. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole body of those concerned. . . . The household is run communistically by a number of families; the land is tribal property, only the small gardens being temporarily assigned to the households — still, not a bit of our extensive and complicated machinery of administration is required. . . . There are no poor and needy. The communistic household and the gens know their responsibility toward the aged, the sick and the disabled in war. All are free and equal — including the women. “ — Bruce E. Johansen, Forgotten Founders

  • Guest - Keith

    First, ideas are not invalid because they are "European." Second, the idea that they are "European ideas" and "non-Western" ideas or whatever ethno category MLW might propose is the fruit of an irrational philosophy. Rational ideas are rational because they are universal ideas. Third, Marx was a European (and a rather careful student of Aristotle) so does that mean that he is invalid (on the basis of his national origin)?

    In other words, MLW raises a non-issue in what should be an important discussion.

    I think that the essence of Kali's critique is similar to Baraka's. Marable is trying to make Malcolm into a social democrat, when he was in fact a revolutionary nationalist. Baraka's argument is that the Civil Rights Movement/Black Power movement were the most important revolutionary movements of the 1960's , and Malcolm X was one of the most important figures in that movement, and the social democratic left was relatively unimportant. But to read Marable Malcolm becomes more important as he moves (supposedly towards social democracy).

    I think that this is an important critique of Marable and an important point in general. The question for us is, I think, do and will the struggles of oppressed nations (Blacks, Native Americans, Chicanos)and immigrant workers remain the most important engines of the revolutionary movement or will a more explicit multi-national/multi-racial class based politics move to the fore?

  • Guest - MLW

    I raised the issue of european origin as being incompatible with those who have been directly dominated by the ideas of an operational level, not all things from Europe are bad obviously but something like sovereignty certainly is if you have read people like Battaille or Stirner, they are quite rational and analytical in how they deconstruct these various mythologies, in terms of people from an african context, at best they will just become another alienated master in history, the point is to get beyond domination all together, sovereignty with all its monotheistic traces of reification will not do.

  • Guest - MLW

    Oh and Aristotle is at the heart of a lot of domination in the world, the idea of a fictitious inside to outside organism with a purpose driven end is at the heart this dominant civilized ideology which consumes and subsumes, his faulty ideas are what made the concept of sovereignty possible combined with roman monotheism, its time to throw them in the trash.

  • Guest - celticfire

    I really appreciated this. Kali Akuno makes the best assessment of this book thus far, i think.

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