It is interesting that Americans do not invoke Malcolm X the way they invoke other civil rights leaders. Where ideas about American militarism go, X’s contributions were piercingly insightful but lamentably overlooked when the man lived. For that they deserve greater attention today.
But first a word on X’s sporadic anti-Semitism and anti-white fulminations, both of which lead some people to ignore everything else X had to say. If we believe it fair to judge historical figures on the basis of their most contemptible sympathies alone, then X is indeed irredeemable. But then, so too are Gandhi, Plato, and Aristotle irredeemable for some of their nefarious beliefs. For that matter, the ideas of four of the United States’ first five presidents are worthless, and for much greater reason than X’s are; after all, Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe all owned human beings, whereas X did nothing so barbaric.
If we instead opt to examine X in his nuanced totality, we find not a kook but a winsome human rights activist with a lot of wisdom to share. As a black nationalist during the Cold War, he took no stock whatever in American militarists’ humanitarian pretensions. When many others did not, X questioned the “integrity” and “sincerity” of leaders who tackled problems that were not theirs to solve. Even “liberal” interventionists who genuinely desired progress in foreign lands were not heroes in X’s book. The American meddlers “minding somebody else’s business way over in South Vietnam,” X declaimed, were unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst.
Malcolm saved his admiration for Africans vying to “establish their own independent nations” and working to “create a future for their people” without the involvement of intruders. He noted positively that when “the people in Africa and Asia get some power of their own, they get a mind of their own. They start seeing with their own eyes and listening with their own ears and speaking with their own mouth.” He admired leaders like Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, a CIA target whose anti-colonial disposition disturbed the departing Belgians in 1960. X went so far as to call Lumumba “the greatest black man who ever walked the African continent,” for Lumumba “didn’t fear anybody. He had those people so scared they had to kill him.” X also commended members of the Organization of African Unity for trying to extinguish colonial “vestiges of oppression and exploitation being suffered by African people.”
Nearly 40 years after X’s death, the Organization of African Unity gave way to the African Union, a Pan-African organization at one point chaired by the Libyan Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. As we know, that same Gaddafi fell prey to NATO fighters who decided to “rescue” Libya during the 2011 uprising. Malcolm certainly would have bemoaned that development. America and her allies had no more of a right to dethrone the despot Gaddafi and to deliver Libya to Jihadists than Gaddafi would have had to bomb the United States and to unseat an American president for the political benefit of domestic terrorists.
But Malcolm knew how “Pax Americana” operated, and he probably would have taken recent interventions in Libya, Somalia and Yemen as par for the course. As he understood, and as Randolph Bourne before him indicated, habits of American imperialism can thrive among Democrats, Republicans, “liberals” and “conservatives” who here manage to find common cause. Truculent jingoists relish the opportunity to consolidate their country’s power overseas, and self-styled humanitarians jump aboard in hopes of saving foreigners from tyranny. Civilian casualties, devastated infrastructure, lawlessness, and exploitation generally follow.
To be sure, Malcolm made some unpalatable choices of his own. Some of his language was caustic, some of his tangents were bizarre, and some of his comrades were vulgar. But whatever X’s flaws, one must savor the temerity of a man who, in the face of hegemonic calls for Western militarism – to “save” Vietnam, to assassinate Fidel Castro, to protect the Congo from Communism, to civilize Kenya – called bogus on the whole enterprise. “Athwart history,” as William F. Buckley might put it, Malcolm unabashedly denounced the imperial doctoring, maceration, and dubious “improvement” of foreign societies. He repudiated the American government for its “criminal activity” and took note of the United States’ “ignorance, her blindness, her lack of foresight and hindsight” in foreign affairs. Many people labeled X an “extremist” for that, and surely he was an extremist. Malcolm was extremely opposed to governments that pay lip service to other people’s freedom but ultimately promote authoritarianism and bloodshed throughout the world.
Tommy Raskin is a contributor to the Good Men Project and Foreign Policy in Focus. He is also an intern at Antiwar.com.