By ALEX CHUNG, New York, USA
The Stanford Summer Humanities Institute, 2015
Professor: Dan Edelstein
Graduate TA: Dylan J. Montanari
As Karl Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “A spectre is haunting Europe —the spectre of communism.” For the Civil Rights Activists during the 1950s and 1960s in America, a similar specter was haunting the United States - communism. The Civil Rights Leaders turned to communist ideology for inspiration. Leading figures and organizations involved in the Civil Rights Movement such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panther Party found profound relationships between Marx’s theories of alienation and revolution and the state of racial inequity in the United States. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panther Party each applied Marx’s theories in their speeches and in support of their views. Their application of Marx's theories, however, was done in a selectively self-serving manner and in very “broad-strokes” as necessary in order to fit the doctrine to the practicalities of their plight, rather than literally. In addition, when considering the socioeconomic climate within which the Civil Rights Movement was occurring, the Civil Rights activists used the readily apparent demarcation of classes in their fight for racial equality. First, they understood that race inequality was connected to class inequality. Second, they used the ideals of Marxism. Given the Cold War efforts to contain Communism, this ideology was feared by the general public and the American Government as a threat to the social order in the United States.
I. Events Leading to the Civil Rights Movement
Two critical events ignited the Civil Rights Movement in the United States: the brutal killing of Emmett Till, an African-American teenager from Mississippi who was murdered at the age of fourteen for reportedly flirting with a white woman on August 28, 1955 and Rosa Parks’ decision not to move to the back of a Montgomery bus on December 1, 1955. In light of these events, significant revolutionaries like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers were compelled to step forward and advocate the need for reform – a need for social equality.
During the 1960s, America was engaged in the Cold War and communism was generally viewed by America as an evil with a propensity for proliferation that had to be stopped, or in the words of George Kennan, “contained.” It was this fear of communism, rather than its literal philosophy, that some Civil Rights leaders embraced as a catalyst for discussion and change since espousing any part of this ideology would perhaps be fearful to the establishment and would, they believed, promote a reaction. Ultimately, though Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers were not interested necessarily in the Soviets, Chinese, or Vietnamese communist regimes, but rather, used Marxist ideology and class segregation in order to frame the discussion for racial inequality.
II. The Communist Manifesto
Karl Marx generally wrote and spoke about socioeconomic inequities that were pervasive in societies throughout history, while the activists in the Civil Rights Movement were engaged in a discourse regarding the definitions of one’s racial identity in relation to society. While Marx focused on the socioeconomic aspect of one’s identity and the Civil Rights Movement on the racial aspect of one’s identity, key Civil Rights activists argued that the two are linked intrinsically.
Accordingly, it was their view that society interlinked class and race. It is this central theme that was reflected in the speeches and writings of revolutionary Civil Rights figures, which demonstrates the influence of Marxism on their philosophy. The ideals of Marxism, however, as expressed and applied by Civil Rights activists were done in a manner that was selective, fragmented and contorted to support their own agenda for racial equality and not literally or uniformly applied. One could say they were largely “playing by their own rulebook” as to the manner in which they adopted, applied and exploited the ideology of Karl Marx.
A. Martin Luther King Jr.
W.E.B. DuBois died in August 1963, a day before Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech and his death was announced from the podium as African-Americans marched on Washington. King and DuBois were relatively close, and DuBois incidentally had a significant impact on King. On February 23, 1968, King delivered a speech in honor of DuBois on what would have been his 100th birthday. In this speech, titled “Honoring Dr. DuBois,” King calls DuBois “one of this most remarkable men of [his] time…Dr. DuBois would be in the front ranks of the peace movement today.” King desired “to make the American Dream as relevant, meaningful, and applicable to black Americans as to white Americans.” Elements of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech echoed DuBois’ commentary on capitalism in relation to the African-American community in the United States. For example, in the beginning of this speech, King states “One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” This excerpt conveys King's view of the African-Americans socioeconomic status.
In King’s 1967 speech, “Where Do We Go From Here?” he described the flaws of capitalism in detail. King remarked, “There’s something wrong with capitalism…There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, 'Why are there forty million poor people in America?' And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society...And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, 'Who owns the oil?' You begin to ask the question, 'Who owns the iron ore?' You begin to ask the question, 'Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that's two-thirds water?' These are words that must be said.” King’s criticisms regarding the American capitalistic system demonstrate an understanding of the inequitable nature of this system. King’s sentiments paralleled earlier anti-capitalism statements made by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto. First Marx declared that the bourgeoisie “cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society…has through its constant exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.” Marx argued that the capitalist bourgeoisie mercilessly exploited the proletariat. He recognized that the work carried out by the proletariat created great wealth for the capitalist. Thus both King and Marx identified the unjust nature of capitalistic society and both sought to eradicate its current parameters.
According to Marx, despite what the bourgeois claim, communism does not keep people from appropriating the products of labor. Rather, it prevents individuals from subjugating others in the process of this appropriation. The corollary is that white society, which can be viewed as the bourgeoisie, ought not to be able to exploit the African-American community by keeping wealth out of their possession. Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr. often spoke of the economic inequality that plagued the United States. Integration and economic equality were two issues that “were tied together for [him].” Much of the end of Martin Luther King Jr.’s work was focused on this economic disparity that unfortunately existed in the United States.
In one of his lesser-known speeches titled “The American Dream,” King stated, “If the American Dream is to be a reality, secondly we must get rid of the notion once and for all that there are superior and inferior races.” King’s goal is to make the “American dream” applicable to all. King tells the audience that his initial dream had transformed into a nightmare. This sermon was delivered on July 4, 1965 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and comes off the heels of his most well-known “I Have a Dream” speech. Interestingly, this speech comes one year after Malcolm X’s “Ballot or Bullet” speech in which he also mentions this “American nightmare.” King says “…my dream has often turned into a nightmare … I’ve seen my dream shattered as I've walked the streets of Chicago and see Negroes, young men and women, with a sense of utter hopelessness because they can't find any jobs…” Marx proceeded King’s claims in The Communist Manifesto when he proclaimed “Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society: all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labor of others by means of such appropriation…it has been objected, that upon the abolition of private property all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us.” The consequences of the abolishment of private property, according to Marx, would result in a reorganization of society. The division of society into different, mutually hostile classes would then become unnecessary. Indeed, it would be not only unnecessary, but also intolerable in the new social order. The existence of classes originated in the division of labor, and the division of labor, as it has been known up to the present, would completely disappear.
According to Thomas Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream has developed into a dream that is “now clearly tied to equal job opportunities and decent wages.” Often the jobs that African Americans were seeking or getting were in factories and consisted of other menial and laborious jobs. As Marx noted, “Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers … Not only are they slaves of the bourgeoisie class and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself.” These individuals of the proletariat class according to Marx are inherently slaves to the bourgeoisie and because of that; they also become slaves to industry, production and thus, capitalism.
The theme of Marx’s theories, and also King’s revelations, is to dispel the political and economic system that is capitalism. Capitalism made racism much worse and aided in the establishment of the black poverty cycle that is still pervasive today. Once Martin Luther King Jr. makes this connection, he dedicates much of his time toward the end of his life to both looking at and trying to improve the socioeconomic status of Blacks in the United States. In his fifth and arguably most radical book, “Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community,” published in 1967, King states that the country must institute a "massive, new national program" to attack poverty and combat America’s “economic colonialism.” King writes, “White Americans must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.” According to Doreen Loury, a sociology professor at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania, King was a “revolutionary.” King’s sentiments are preceded by the earlier words of Karl Marx. Marx wrote, “every class struggle is a political struggle.”
B. Malcolm X
Malcolm X's speeches also contained a number of elements of Marx’s ideology. In a 1964 address to a group of British students, he told them “[it is] incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of Black against white, or as purely an American problem. Rather, we are seeing today a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter." Malcolm X’s words are reminiscent of earlier remarks made by Marx in The Communist Manifesto. Marx wrote “oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstruction of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Thus, both Malcolm X and Marx highlighted the divisive nature of society into the oppressed and oppressor, coming to the conclusion that now the exploited was finally turning against the exploiter.
In his last year of life, before his assassination on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X’s political views evolved towards anti-capitalist positions. “You can’t have capitalism without racism,” he said. Thus, in Malcolm X’s view, racism proceeded capitalism and was a “necessary evil”, similar to government, which would allow for a capitalistic society. In a later interview with the Young Socialist, he stated, “It is impossible for capitalism to survive, primarily because the system of capitalism needs some blood to suck. Capitalism used to be like an eagle, but now it’s more like a vulture and can only suck the blood of the helpless. As the nations of the world free themselves, then capitalism has less and less victims, less to suck, and it becomes weaker and weaker. It’s only a matter of time in my opinion before it will collapse completely.” The “helpless,” in Malcolm X’s eyes, were African-Americans – they were the victims of the capitalistic and predatory nature of American society. Marx in The Communist Manifesto similarly stated “hitherto, every form of society has been based, as we have already seen, on the antagonism of oppressing classes…the modern laborer…instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class.” A capitalistic society was essentially built on the “oppressor/oppressed” motif and both Malcolm X and Marx were able to identify that important trend.
Similar to Marx’s commentary on the proletariat’s status in society, Malcolm X states that black revolutionaries “don't compromise with the enemy; they don't even negotiate. Like the flood in Noah's day, revolution drowns all opposition, or like the fire in Lot's day, the black revolution burns everything that gets in its path.” A parallel remark can be found in Marx’s Communist Manifesto in which Marx writes, “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims…let the ruling class tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” Common to these quoted excerpts is the urgency and right to revolution. There is no room for compromising or trying to “make nice with the enemy” – revolution and direct action is the only answer to their problems.
In Malcolm X’s notable “Ballot or Bullet” speech delivered on April 3, 1964, at Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, he urged African-Americans to judiciously exercise their right to vote. He also cautioned that if the government continued to prevent African-Americans from attaining full equality, it might be necessary for them to take up arms.
Malcolm X then followed this statement with additional claims that were even more radical during the time period. He states, “I'm one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy.” From his point of view, democracy is “nothing but disguised hypocrisy.” In making these informatory and audacious statements, he desired to elicit a response from the African-American community. He wanted to “get them riled up.” He wanted to convey that democracy was an illusion for them as African Americans were exploited did not have a voice. That is why he also stated, "I'm speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
Malcom X sought to evoke a negative association with the notion of "democracy" and "American dream" as neither of these things could be attained by African-Americans. Although, to most Americans, they appeared to be “natural rights,” Malcolm X sought to disprove that notion and dispel the myths of American democracy and the American dream. This notion of being a “victim of the system” or being oppressed by the bourgeoisie can be traced back to portions of Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Marx writes, “The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” In other words, the government is not representative of the full body of individuals living in society; rather it represents only a small fraction of the population.
C. Black Panthers
The Black Panther Party, originally known as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, was comprised of a group of radical African-American individuals (far left) that viewed it as their mission to spread their core beliefs, which was arming citizens' patrols to monitor the behavior of police officers and challenge police brutality. This group cites that they were highly influenced by the work of Malcolm X and “Marxism-Leninism... [is] a guide to action!” Some scholars have characterized the Black Panther Party as the most influential black movement organization of the 1960s. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the organization in 1966. Members of the Black Panther Party were able “to apply many Marxist-Leninist principles.” Seale described Newton as a “revolutionary that all the people want and need here at home in the communities … teaching us how to use correct Marxist-Leninist’s ideology as a guide to revolutionary action to lead and free our people.” The party’s leaders, Newton and Seale, taught the Panthers that they were not engaged in a race struggle, but rather a class struggle. Thus, these Marxist principles developed into an important platform that the Panthers would use to jump off of in order to fully engage in and take part in the crusade for civil rights in this country for African-American people in this country. Seale declared, “We can never even try to fight the U.S. imperialism with more imperialism, but we will fight it with proletarian internationalism.”
David Hilliard, the Black Panther Party Chief of Staff, was quoted saying “Because we recognize that Marxism-Leninism is not a philosophy for Russians, it is not a philosophy for Chinese, but it’s a philosophy for any people that’s moving against an oppressive power structure such as the capitalistic fascist system of the American society. And we have adopted that.” Similar to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party also identified themselves as the proletariat class, the marginalized and oppressed class that needed to break free from the tight reigns of the bourgeoisie.
From Hilliard’s quote, it is evident that the Black Panther Party, similar to Marx, recognized the damaging effects of capitalism and its inherent weaknesses. Marx, for example, wrote “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality." One of the group’s founders, Bobby Seale proclaimed, “We are an organization that represents black people and many white radicals relate to this and understand that the Black Panther Party is a righteous revolutionary front against this racist decadent, capitalistic system.” Seale’s sentiments echo those of Hilliard and of Marx. Thus, Elmer Pratt’s words describe what needed to be done: “There is no government for the people so we have to lay the foundation for the people to form a government that is truly representative of the people.”
IV. Was the Promise of Revolution Fulfilled?
In Marx’s Communist Manifesto, he described in detail the proletariat class and the bourgeois – the class antagonism that has infected nations throughout the world and throughout time. Marx began the Communist Manifesto by stating the “history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freedman and slave…oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large.” At times this fight is concealed and at other times, this fight is open. Each time, however, the fight between the oppressor and the oppressed ends in either revolutionary reconstruction of society or in the classes’ common demise. Many of the African-American individuals who were living in America during the Civil Rights era viewed themselves as the proletariat class of this country – they were being oppressed by white society. As Marx wrote “Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is really a revolutionary class…the proletariat is its special and essential product.” The proletariat class, as defined by Marx, is used to name the social class that does not have ownership of the means of production and whose means of subsidence is to sell their labor power.
Furthermore, the activists of the Civil Rights Movement sought to transform “the system” (as defined by Karl Marx) – they sought to eradicate the hugely unequal world in which they were living. But how would they do this? How would they change “the system”? Who could they look to? When they looked to antecedents, many activists saw Mao, Lenin and Stalin, all of which derived at least a fraction of their ideas from Karl Marx. Communism and the ideas of Karl Marx, historically, have been adapted to some extent in many other revolutions, such as by Lenin during the Russian Revolution with the Bolsheviks and by Mao during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Both were peasant-based revolutions – Lenin and Mao replaced the worker with the peasant. The word “revolution” is key point in describing all of these moments in history. The Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia both had roots in Marxist ideology.
The three Civil Rights entities, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers, each applied communist theories in ways that would further their cause. Martin Luther King Jr. used the communist school of thought to break apart the myth of the American dream. Malcolm X, similarly, used Marxist theories to elucidate the capitalistic system of America and emphasize the pivotal role of African-Americans in this system. The Black Panthers further contributed to Malcolm X’s political theories by trying to apply “Marxist-Leninist” ideology in a pure form.
Perhaps, the question now arises, who was closest to Marx’s views? Was there a pure application of Marx’s theories? Can there be a pure application of Marx’s theories? Most of Marx’s writing focuses on a critique of capitalism rather than a proposal of what to replace it with, which left it open to misinterpretation for various leaders during the 20th century. Thus, the Civil Rights leaders did not paint a picture of a communist future, but rather used his analysis of the history of class struggle, but deepened it by including the role of race. For instance, Marx in a letter to Arnold Rouge in September 1843 wrote, “Since it is not for us to create a plan for the future that will hold for all time, all the more surely, what we contemporaries have to do is the uncompromising critical evaluation of all that exists, uncompromising in the sense that our criticism fears neither its own results nor the conflict with the powers that be.”
The Civil Rights Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s was successful in some aspects but also a failure. Put another way - how much has changed for African-American individuals since the 1960s? What real progress has been achieved? Some would argue that we, as a society, have moved leaps and bounds. On the surface it appears as though Blacks are not persecuted to the same degree they were in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, the current President of the United States is of African-American descent. However, if you look more closely, it becomes evident that African-Americans in general still remain below Whites on the socioeconomics scale. Since the Civil Rights Movement, the African-Americans experience has not been one free of struggle. There have been numerous instances of violence targeted against African-Americans both directly and indirectly. The white rapper, Macklemore says in his song A Wake, “Now every month there’s a new Rodney on YouTube/It’s just something our generation is used to/And neighborhoods where you never see a news crew/Unless they’re gentrifying, white people don’t even cruise through.” Macklemore’s lyrics vocalize the sentiments of many Americans today regarding the condition of African-American people in this country. As Michael A. Fletcher from The Washington Post writes, “Even as racial barriers have tumbled and the nation has grown wealthier and better educated, the economic disparities separating blacks and whites remain as wide as they were when marchers assembled on the Mall in 1963.” One study from 2012 demonstrates that this gap between Blacks and Whites has grown even larger, if anything. The data shows the median adjusted household income for households of three. In 1967, the gap between Whites and Blacks was $19,610. In 2012, however, the gap between Whites and Blacks was $27,415. Will this gap continue to grow? How can we abolish the socioeconomic gap between Whites and Blacks? Was the promise of this revolution fulfilled? Perhaps individuals will look back to Marx again, consider our present and think about the next revolution. It is hard to say what the future will look like for Blacks in America, but as Malcolm X once said, “We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary.” When will the cycle of urban black poverty cease to exist? Today, in a world of unheard of wealth and abject poverty, where the richest 85 individuals have more wealth than the poorest 3 billion individuals collectively, the phrase, “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains,” has yet to lose its potency and applicability.
By looking at the current state of African-Americans in the United States and identifying areas of progress and of regression, the question can arise: does communism have anything to do with it? How much influence did Marx have on Civil Rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers? To some extent, the current state of African-Americans can be attributed to the thought process of Marx. But in other ways, there were noticeable gaps in their interpretations that have become evident by studying these events in retrospect. For one, most of these civil rights leaders left out the “poor white” demographic from their arguments – did they simply not exist during the 1960s? Probably not.
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