Race Versus Class: Understanding the Significance of Black Nationalism in the Pan-African Struggle

I recently published a short kindle ebook titled Black Nationalism Versus Marxism which addresses the the debate between the Marxist position and the Black Nationalist position within the global African struggle. This is a debate that has been ongoing for some time. In the ebook, I begin with the disputes that Marcus Garvey had with black communists such as George Padmore and C.L.R. James.

This debate essentially comes down to the question of whether or not race or class should be the primary focus in our struggle. My answer is that both should be given equal importance. Of course, the nuances of this debate cannot be reduced to such a simplistic answer. In fact, this is such a complex topic that it is one which I have addressed in number books and even then I am sure there is still room for elaboration.

I will start by noting that race is very real in a cultural, historical, and social sense. This is a reality that African people have had to confront in our struggle for liberation. Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) explained: “Exploitation is when you exploit somebody of your own race; colonization is when you exploit somebody of a different race. We are colonized.” A significant aspect of colonization is being is that the colonized group is stripped of their culture. Enslaved Africans lost important aspects of their languages, religions, names, music, traditions, foods, and history. The same process occurred in Africa during the period of colonialism as well. So in the first place we have to deal with this question of culture and identity because as a people we have been robbed of culture and identity. We have also to deal with the psychological component that comes along with being robbed of one’s identity.

We also have to deal with the topic of history because African people do not share the same historical experiences as Europeans. Karl Marx’s stages of history correspond to the historical development of Europe (specifically Western Europe) and as such does not apply to Africa’s historical development. For example, ancient Greece and Rome developed “slave societies”, but in Africa’s history one does not find slave societies which are comparable to that of Greece and Rome. African societies also remained more communal than European societies were and the concept of private property was not so harshly enforced in Africa, which is one reason why Africa’s penal system was not as harsh and unforgiving as Europe’s was.

On a conceptual level there are certain limitations with trying to apply a purely Marxist approach to the African struggle. This is to be expected because Marx was not studying and theorizing about the struggles of African people. This is why I made the point that many of those African leaders who embraced Marxist thought and organized successful movements were leaders who were not dogmatic in their Marxism. I speak of individuals such as Walter Rodney, Amilcar Cabral, or Thomas Sankara who were all clearly inspired by Marxism, but whose views were also rooted in the culture and historical struggles of their people.

The debate is not merely a conceptual one, however. The debate must also be viewed in light of the material conditions of the struggling Africans masses. As I explain my ebook, this is where Black Nationalism holds a stronger appeal. Black Nationalism has not only historically appealed to that sense of a lost identity, history, and culture. Black Nationalism appeals to the material suffering of African people. In my ebook I utilize Malcolm X’s definition of Black Nationalism:

My personal economic philosophy is also Black Nationalism, which means that the black man should have a hand in controlling the economy of the so-called Negro community, he should be developing the type of knowledge that will enable him to own and operate the businesses and thereby be able to create employment for his own people, for his own kind. And the social philosophy also is Black Nationalism, which means that instead of the black man trying to force himself into the society of the white man, we should be trying to eliminate from our own society the ills and the defects and make ourselves likable and sociable among our own kind.

Black Nationalism is about economic control and empowerment, which requires building institutions. The reason why Marcus Garvey’s organization amassed a larger following among African people than any other organization at the time was not only Garvey’s psychological and emotional appeal, but also because his organization employed people, fed people, and educated people. The Universal Negro Improvement Association sought to look after the material needs of the people. Garvey has been denounced as a bourgeois nationalist and reactionary, yet he understood the struggles of the African masses more so than many of his critics did. I have made the point that C.L.R. James was very dismissive of Garvey’s organization, yet James never had an alternative of his own for the masses. None of Garvey’s black communist critics did.

The same point could be made of Elijah Muhammad, who has been even more harshly denounced than Garvey was. The appeal of the Nation of Islam was that, much like the UNIA, it provided real tangible opportunities for its followers. It provided jobs and education to people who had been denied these things by the society at large. It was also a health conscious organization, which urged its followers to cease abusing drugs and alcohol, and to improve their diets. Malcolm X was one of many individuals who benefitted from this program. After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm would state:

I feel responsible for having played a major role in developing a criminal organization. It was not a criminal organization at the outset. It was an organization that had the power, the spiritual power, to reform the criminal. And this is what you have to understand. As long as that strong spiritual power was in the movement, it gave the moral strength to the believer that would enable him to rise above all his negative tendencies. I know, because I went into the movement with more negative tendencies than anybody in the movement. It was faith in what I was taught that made it possible for me to stop doing anything that I was doing and everything that I was doing. And I saw thousands of brothers and sisters come in who were in the same condition. And whatever they were doing, they would stop it overnight, just through faith and faith alone. And by this spiritual force, giving one the faith that enabled one to exercise some moral discipline, it became an organization that was to be respected as well as feared.

The other thing to keep in mind is that Malcolm X came from the lumpenproletariat, which was a class that lacked revolutionary potential in Marx’s views. Pan-African Marxist thinkers like Walter Rodney and Thomas Sankara differed with Marx on this view. The Nation of Islam made it a point to convert individuals such as Malcolm who, according to Marx, was a criminal with no revolutionary potential.

I am very clear on the fact that there are certain contradictions within the Nation of Islam, which contributed to Malcolm’s split from the organization and the public dispute that followed after. My position is that the Nation of Islam should not be dismissed, however, without first understanding the appeal that the organization had for many of its followers. I wrote a separate ebook on the Nation of Islam, which includes accounts from people who joined the movement and attested to the fact that the teachings of the Nation of Islam did transform their lives in positive ways.

The final example I will give here is the Black Panther Party, which began as a Black Nationalist organization before adopting Marxism-Leninism and eventually intercommunalism. Like the U.N.I.A. and N.O.I., the Black Panther Party sought to look after the material needs of African people through the free breakfast program.

None of this is to suggest that class is an irrelevant factor in the African liberation struggle — Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey both addressed the topic of class differences. The point that I make in my ebook is Black Nationalism should not be dismissed as a reactionary or bourgeois ideology because it has historically addressed itself to the material conditions of the African masses in a manner than many Marxist organizers have not been able to do. I trace the ideological development of Black Nationalism to Martin Delany, who is typically regarded as the “Father of Black Nationalism” and this is a label that has been well-deserved because he espoused ideas and views which were adopted by leaders who followed him, including Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Thomas Sankara. It is also worth noting that Marx was born only six years after Delany was, so they were contemporaries.

There are certain drawbacks to Black Nationalism, which I do address as well. Black Nationalism has sometimes led to the type of “cultural nationalism” which the Black Panthers denounced. These are leaders such as “Papa Doc” in Haiti who utilized Black Nationalist rhetoric to justify his brutal grip on power and the oppression of the Haitian people, so I certainly am not blind to the manner in which racial unity and racial empower can be a tool utilized by the African ruling class to mask the exploitation of their own people. But I also hold the view that Black Nationalism has been an ideology that has made a very important contribution to the liberation struggle of African people and should not dismissed as readily as some Marxists have dismissed it over the years.

Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.

Dwayne Wong (Omowale) is a Guyanese born Pan-Africanist, author, and law student.

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