Sunday, April 18, 2021

Between the Lines: Beyond the hype (1993)

The Between the Lines column from the April 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

Beyond the hype

It seemed almost impossible to switch on the TV without heating someone talking about Malcolm X. On Monday 1 March Channel 4 showed Seven Songs For Malcolm X: the same night Darcus Howe on Devil's Advocate examined the historical legacy of Malcolm X; on Thursday 4 March Oprah Winfrey interviewed Spike Lee, the director of Malcolm X, the three-and-a-half-hour. $35-million-dollar film; the same night The Late Show had one of its painfully pretentious studio discussions about Malcolm X; on Saturday, 6 March Moving Pictures considered Malcolm X. And the month was only a week old. Thirty-five million dollars evidently is enough to buy a man a place in history.

In all of the discussion one question remained unaddressed: Was Malcolm X a racist? Yes, he was. He was a mob orator who spoke about "the blue-eyed white devil" as "a race of two-legged white dogs". It was Malcolm X who said of whites. "We don't want to integrate with that old pale thing . . . The dog is their closest relative. They got the same kind of hair, the same kind of skin, and the same kind of smell". These views were never retracted, not once disowned. Spike Lee told Oprah Winfrey that in making the film he consulted closely with a man he called “Minister Farrakhan". Ironically. Farrakhan was one of the so-called Muslim Brothers who helped betray Malcolm X to his murderers, but. more importantly, this is the same anti-semitic. fascists black nationalist. Louis Farrakhan. whose speeches and writings have done so much to divert black anger towards hatred and violence.

The white liberal taboo against mentioning racism when it comes from a black rabble-rouser will not be accepted by socialists. Malcolm X was a racist whose main legacy is in the realm of Black Power separatism as preached by Farrakhan and other modern racists; as such he was nothing but an enemy of wage-slaves, both black and white (the labels are themselves racist).

We can recognize the appeal of anti-white racism amongst impoverished wage-slaves who lives were even more stunted than they might be by the prejudices of American racist culture—we recognize it but we are hostile to those who exploit such political appeal, just as we are hostile to the racism of the white supremacists. We recognize also that Malcolm X appeared to change his mind about some of his most venomous views in the last year of his life. But why did he change? Not because he came to reject the religious confusion of Islam or because he accepted class rather than race as the main social division. He changed because he was involved in a sordid leadership battle within The Nation of Islam movement and his one-time fellow leaders were trying to take his house away from him and eventually sought to kill him.

The bullet which murdered Malcolm X came from a gun which he had ideologically loaded. His legacy to black workers today is a force for reaction, not advance. Indeed, whatever criticisms socialists must express in relation to the Christianity of Martin Luther King, there is no doubt that his message of peaceful resistance to oppression and the necessity of gaining democratic opportunities was far more successful and interesting than anything which Malcolm X ever said. The X logos which have been so persistently upon our TV screens might well be seen as the symbols of the politically illiterate. It is to be hoped that Malcolm X's S35-million publicity hype will last no longer than last year's craze for turtles.

Who's being screwed?

Roger Graef’s three-part documentary series, Turning the Screws (C4. 9 pm. finished 4 March) was supposed to be about the lives of prison screws, but very rarely touched on the subject. Its main theme was the battle between the Prison Officers Association, the screws' union, at Wandsworth prison, and the extraordinarily disagreeable prison governor, a man who bore an uncanny resemblance to one of those Nazi POW camp commandants in an old black-and-white film.

The governor was determined to push through new employment conditions which would make life harder for the screws. The POA committee was determined to resist. This was a documentary about the class struggle. And the war-like character of that struggle became all too clear as we saw just how cunningly the two sides pursued the battle.

The ironies were inescapable. Firstly, here were prison guards being seen as militant trade unionists. So much for the left-wing nonsense about police and soldiers and screws being incapable of thinking about their class position. Secondly. as screws who spend much of their time doing some pretty nasty things to their fellow-workers, do we want to offer them our sympathy? Workers in their cells might think differently.

Thirdly, it was evident from the series just how much the life of the screws mirrored that of the inmates. They are both workers stuck in prisons, even though the screws are allowed out for a few hours a day. But most ironically of all. the series depicted with great clarity the economic prison of The Wages System. However well-organized workers are in the battle over wages and conditions (and the trade unionists in the series were no fools), the most that can be achieved is re-arrangement of the terms of exploitation, a re-shuffling of the furniture in the prison cell. Only the abolition of the wages system will bring about real liberation. That is something which the followers of Malcolm X and the militant screws have yet to learn.
Steve Coleman

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