By Ruby Hirsch
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A Rebel’s Guide to Malcolm X

This article is over 5 years, 6 months old
Issue 415

This book is a celebration of Malcolm X’s legacy: his uncompromising championing of black pride and the right to self defence; his revolutionary opposition to capitalism; his relatable and inspiring oratory talent; and his militant and tireless organising in poor black communities.

As the Black Lives Matter movement brings the fight against racist police brutality to the forefront of struggle in the US, the ideas and iconic symbol of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party are re-entering public consciousness.

At this year’s Super Bowl, Beyoncé’s performance, in which her dancers dressed in the black berets and raised gloved fists of the Black Panthers and stood in an “X” formation, was broadcast to more than 100 million Americans. It was a powerful tribute to Malcolm X and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Last month the establishment and mainstream media were shedding crocodile tears over the death of boxer Muhammad Ali, an anti-racist, anti-war activist who was hated and hounded by the same establishment in his hayday.

Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are relevant to more and more people who are looking to understand the roots of racism and how to fight it. It is important that we fight to defend the revolutionary legacies that they left, against attempts to co-opt their memories into harmless and two-dimensional relics.

Hamilton’s succinct but thorough account of Malcolm’s political life, development and achievements is a welcome contribution to this task.

A Rebel’s Guide to Malcolm X offers a concise and insightful history of black struggle in the US through the key moments of transformation in the life of a great revolutionary.

It begins in the segregated Southern United States in the 1920s and follows the course of the struggle for black liberation throughout the US up until the growth of the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s.

Hamilton follows the changing ideas of one man and the epic trajectory of his life, but the portrayal is much more than just a personal story. It is told as an intensely political life that sets the turning points of Malcolm’s transformation in the context of the historical conditions and the material forces that led to each development.

Too often we are offered a version of history that sees the ideas of powerful leaders as the driver for change rather than the collective actions of ordinary people. This obscures the power that ordinary people can have to change the world, instead attributing our achievements to a few “great men”.

But Hamilton clearly shows how Malcolm was created and propelled by the movements that he was a part of, and by the lessons of the liberation movements across the world.

For example, Hamilton describes the time in Malcolm’s development when he undertakes his Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, and tours parts of Africa and some Arab states.

Malcolm sees the results of the anti-colonial national liberation struggles in these countries that have fought and won independence from the British and French empires. He is hugely impressed.

Seeing people of all skin colours united in resistance to oppression completely revolutionised Malcolm’s ideas and led him to question some of the principles of black separatism.

While the visit had this progressive effect on him, we also learn how Malcolm’s new ideas about how to challenge racism and capitalism were distorted by being his immersion solely in the top sections of the newly liberated African and Arab societies he travelled through.

Surrounded by leading government figures and royalty, while being removed from ordinary people, Malcolm’s emphasis was pulled towards national interests and away from seeing working class people as the active agents of change.

But at the same time Malcolm’s ties with the most radical and active elements of the civil rights movement were pulling him towards a strategy of mass participation in direct action against the government.

These contradictions resulting from the pull of different movements could be clearly seen in the Organisation for Afro American Unity (OAAU), the group that Malcolm X set up after breaking from the Nation of Islam.

While the OAAU directed itself towards mass struggles such as school boycotts and rent strikes, it also put a significant emphasis on organising the support of leaders of African nations in the UN in order to shame the US into conceding the demands of African Americans.

So the organisation incorporated both bottom-up and top-down methods for challenging the system.

Hamilton’s book allows us to further understand the life of Malcolm X, drawing out the contradictions, the changes and the inspirational power of his contribution. It is a must-read for all who want to challenge the racist system today.

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