The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Paradox of Louis Farrakhan

Jul 28, 1994

In January, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith took out a full page advertisement in The New York Times. The ad denounced a speech that Khallid Muhammad, at the time the national spokesperson for the Nation of Islam (NOI), gave to about 200 students at Kean College, a small state school in Union, New Jersey. The excerpts which were reprinted from his speech led to a veritable avalanche of condemnations from the news media with articles titled "The Hate Game", "State of Hate" and "Ministry of Hate". And with great righteous indignation, the U.S. Senate took time out of its supposedly busy calendar to unanimously condemn the Nation of Islam, making slighting references to Farrakhan.

Certainly, Khallid Muhammad's speech was riddled with anti-Semitic statements. But almost none of those who did the accusing have any right to claim moral superiority, since they support or carry out policies which are infinitely more racist – starting with the ADL, which among other things, defends Israel's bloody policies against the Palestinian people.

If anything, the storm of condemnations revealed the obvious double standard in which there is one kind of treatment meted out to a black leader, Farrakhan, while white politicians are judged by a far looser standard. Ernest Hollings, a member of the very same U.S. Senate that condemned the NOI, has been quoted calling African leaders "cannibals", and has publicly "joked" about dropping another atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It is all tolerated and winked at in "polite" society and by the news media. They have more important things to worry about, like making sure they continue to defend and justify the American bourgeoisie's quite profitable racist oppression of black people, which has lasted now for more than 400 years.

The condemnations put Louis Farrakhan and the NOI right in the center of a very bright spotlight. But the attacks almost certainly did nothing to shake the respect which exists in the black community for Farrakhan and the NOI. If anything, support for him was strengthened. Once again Farrakhan appeared as a symbol of defiance against a racist power structure which was seeking to blame the racism and violence and oppression in this country on the victims.

But past all the hype and publicity, the question stands: Why does the Nation of Islam come under such attack?

From Elijah Muhammad to Louis Farrakhan

The history of the Nation of Islam is well-known: founded in the 1930s in Detroit by Elijah Muhammad, the organization struggled and grew slowly for the first 20 years. Then, with the recruitment of Malcolm X, combined with the continued increase of the urban black population with its developing consciousness, the Nation of Islam's growth took off.

In those years, while the civil rights movement espoused non-violence, the Nation called for self-defense "by any means necessary." This stance let it speak to and recruit from a different constituency than did the civil rights movement, which at the time was concentrated in the rural south. The Nation reached the most oppressed and angriest elements of black society in the biggest cities: those in prison and other people discarded by American society, as well as parts of the black working class. Some were organized into the Fruit of Islam (FOI), the unarmed but paramilitary defense guard of the Nation.

The break between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad is often presented as a question of personalities and jealousies inside the leadership of the Nation of Islam. In fact, the break reflected deep disagreements about where to take the Nation. As the Nation of Islam continued its rapid growth, the people around Malcolm were looking to find ways to actively intervene in the ongoing black struggle. Malcolm X, for example, said that he thought if disciplined contingents of the FOI could act as a defense guard against the attacks of the police or the KKK, black people could take their struggles a lot further. On the other hand, Elijah Muhammad represented the faction that obviously was looking to become more acceptable to the black middle class, which it actively courted.

The crisis that foreshadowed the final break occurred in 1962 when L.A. cops attacked a mosque near Watts. One Muslim, Ronald Stokes, was killed. Several others were wounded. Everyone expected the Muslims to fight back, including particularly the members of the Fruit of Islam, who converged on L.A. from other cities across the country. Friends of Malcolm X described his reaction in the 1993 PBS documentary "Make it Plain." Said Gordon Parks, "Malcolm was furious, you know. He was furious. And I expected that particular moment something really explosive to take over." But at that point Elijah Muhammad drew away from the crisis. Said Yusuf Shah, at the time a Captain in the FOI, "Malcolm's response was he wanted to do something about it. And naturally, Mr. Muhammad heard about it. He told Malcolm, 'That's one man we lost. I never did tell you that we weren't going to lose anyone, or some, or a few. 'Cause that's the way it is when you're building a nation.' He said, 'If I send my followers out there to do battle with those people in L.A., either undercover or on top of the covers, they will get slaughtered, and I'm not going to do that.' And Malcolm didn't like that." Elijah Muhammad issued directives to all Muslims to put down their guns and to wait for Allah to take revenge on the white devils. Malcolm X was sent first to Los Angeles, and then all over the country to overcome opposition to the directives.

Little more than a year later, Malcolm X was suspended from the Muslims; by early 1964 he was out definitively; barely one year later, he was assassinated. Almost certainly some layers of the state apparatus were implicated in the attacks on Malcolm. But the Nation of Islam also played some kind of role. Louis Farrakhan, who stayed with Elijah Muhammad, later admitted that the organization helped create the climate that led to the assassination. Shortly after Malcolm X was killed, Elijah Muhammad told a Savior's Day crowd that Malcolm was "a hypocrite" who "got what he was preaching."

With the urban uprisings, first in Birmingham and then in Watts, Detroit and Newark, as well as most other major cities of the North and Midwest, the black movement reached its apogee. Radical organizations such as the Black Panthers and SNCC after its Black Power transformation came on the scene and quickly eclipsed not only the older middle class civil rights organizations and leaders, but also, to some extent, the Nation of Islam. But without clear prospects, the black movement slowly retreated, and so did the radical political organizations. Heavy government repression, assassinations, bombings and mass jailings took their toll. Some activists reconciled themselves to the situation and found a niche in the middle class. Others simply became demoralized and dropped out. The black power organizations withered away.

The Nation of Islam continued intact. It wasn't until after Elijah Muhammad died in 1975 that it went though its own crisis and partial disintegration. His successor, his son W.D. Muhammad, tried to do away with much of what had made the Nation a force in the black community. He purged the nationalist element from the Nation's teachings, and got rid of the Fruit of Islam. He tried to lead it in the direction of becoming a respectable orthodox religion, in this case orthodox Islam.

A couple of years later, Louis Farrakhan split away. With many of the old militants, he began to resurrect the old organization. This new Nation of Islam was able to keep part of the old base in the plants, ghettos and prisons, and it succeeded in building from that base. In the early 1980s, it emerged as the sole nationwide organization in the ghetto with a militant reputation and a defiant stance. And it began to attract a layer of younger people, including some college students.

A Militant Base and Conservative Policy

But the NOI is a mix. While its base is militant, its ideology is conservative and even sometimes outright reactionary. To a people demoralized by the ravages of racism and police brutality, made worse by the economic crisis, the NOI preaches self-help. Obviously, any people who want to resist the racism of this society have to be prepared to take responsibility for their own struggle. But what the NOI propagates are the old individualist dreams of the middle and professional classes that in a world dominated by monopoly capitalism and imperialism, an oppressed people can find liberation by super-exploiting their own labor in some mom and pop businesses. For those in the working class, or those youth deprived of all economic prospects, the NOI puts out the hope that if they work hard enough, they too can become middle class.

The NOI newspaper, the Final Call, advertises the NOI's brand of bootstrap capitalism. It celebrates the building of a bakery and restaurant complex in Chicago, a new building to house its budding video and television business and studio, the reopening of a supermarket, the expansion of its printing plant, its various guard businesses, as well as a line of personal care products. No wonder that in 1983 Clarence Thomas, who was then Reagan's hatchetman directing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and who later became Bush's token black for the Supreme Court, could say that he "admires" Farrakhan's philosophy.

The NOI's demands of the government are just as conservative. First, it demands reparations to go to black businesses. Apparently Farrakhan is planning a march on Washington next year around just this demand. To demand reparations from the government may sound militant. But it is based on the illusion that more black businesses would bring more money into the black community. Experience shows that it doesn't work that way. Starting in the 1960s, the government began to implement set-aside programs for black businesses. As a result, some black businesses, including some of those belonging to the NOI, did make some money. But the money did not trickle down, as promised. It did not bring down the poverty and unemployment rates in the black community. Reparations are nothing but a demand in the interests of the small black middle class. The main beneficiaries remain those token black businessmen.

Farrakhan also proposes that the U.S. government help the NOI build a nation in Africa – by shipping the 600,000 black prisoners in this country to settle in Africa! This too is a really reactionary demand. In this country, with crime the problem it is, liberal and conservative politicians alike carry out a real drumbeat of propaganda about stopping crime through executions or sending people away for life with "3 strikes and you're out" types of proposals. Among other things, this diverts people from the real causes of crime, this racist, class society in the process of serious decline, and directs them to blame the very victims of this society. Farrakhan's proposal goes in this same reactionary direction: "ship the criminals out!" Farrakhan admits that most of these prisoners don't want to settle in a new country. Shipping them to Africa would constitute a continuation of their punishment, exile.

Moreover, where would such a settler state be established? Pushing aside which African peoples? History shows what this settler state would be. Settler countries like Australia, New Zealand, Israel, South Africa wound up being racist societies, with the recent settlers on top as tools for whatever imperialist power that backed them up. This is not just a question of European settlers. The same held true in Liberia, the African country settled in the 19th century by former slaves from the U.S. The Liberian ruling class is today made up of descendants of these former slaves, who rule over the African population.

As far as the social problems created by this capitalist society, the NOI, like other conservative and religious organizations, blames these ills on the breakdown of the black family. The NOI's goal is to reconstitute the traditional family, with women in their "proper" place, that is, one of oppression. This oppression is symbolized by the NOI's opposition to abortion rights.

Finally, instead of calling on people to organize to really fight against this society, the NOI substitutes the consolation of religion. Farrakhan preaches that he, like Elijah Muhammad before him, is divinely chosen, and therefore, people should place their hopes in him. And, like all religious leaders, he preaches that if they keep the faith, their God will take care of them.

And so, despite its radical appearance as a separatist organization opposed to this society, in fact the NOI's reactionary ideology does not call the basic social structures and institutions into question. Everything it proposes points in the other direction; that is, despite a sometimes radical rhetoric, the NOI in effect searches for a way to be integrated into this society, both economically and politically. One clear indication of this is what Farrakhan did in his various attempts to bring the NOI into the Democratic Party.

Political Ambitions Collide with Scandal

As far back as at least 1984, Farrakhan tried to play a role in the Democratic Party. In that year, the NOI supported Jesse Jackson's first campaign for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Thomas A. Todd, a close Jackson associate, described how Farrakhan's highly disciplined followers helped the Jackson campaign get off the ground. They served as the candidate's original bodyguards before the U.S. Secret Service took over. They contributed money collected in baskets at religious meetings, and they staged the huge Jackson rallies in key cities like Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. Said Todd, "My personal opinion is that we would not have been able to do what we did in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and the South without Minister Farrakhan. His influence extends far beyond the Nation of Islam to black professionals, educators and others who agree with Farrakhan's position on some of the social ills and how we got there." (The Wall Street Journal, April 26, 1984)

But most of the Democratic Party apparatus opposed Jackson's campaign. Certainly, Jackson's campaign had the potential of benefiting the Party as a whole, by bringing in millions of potential black and other working class voters. But that was a kind of double-edged favor, which the Democratic Party leaders didn't want. First, they still considered Jackson to be an "outsider" in their exclusive club. Second, the ruling class feared that a Jackson campaign could stir hopes among the workers and the poor that they could expect something better. At a time when the ruling class constantly was preaching "sacrifice" to justify its unremitting attacks against the laboring classes, this was the last thing it wanted. Hope, even if it was in the form of Jackson's brand of illusions, also carried the possibility of sparking some kind of social struggles. So the Democratic Party tried to isolate Jackson's campaign.

Jackson came under attack. Jackson, and not Farrakhan, was accused of "anti-Semitism", under the most slender of pretexts. A black reporter from the Washington Post, Milton Coleman, claimed to overhear Jackson in a private conversation use the term "Hymie" and "Hymietown" in referring to New York City. The entire news media and Democratic Party feigned shock. The media picked up the "scandal", and Jackson's campaign had suddenly been put on hold.

Jackson, of course, was ready to do what had to be done to keep his place in the Democratic Party. He tried to make peace with his accusers. This pushed him into a defensive posture, one that the 1984 campaign never fully recovered from.

But Farrakhan could not afford to be as pliant, especially given his base. He had to go on the offensive. How he did this indicated what he was made of politically. After publicly branding Coleman a betrayer, Farrakhan went on the offensive against Judaism and Israel; the press quoted him calling Judaism a "gutter religion" and Hitler a "great man" (he later qualified it by saying "wickedly great").

Of course, that pushed Farrakhan out of the Jackson campaign, and not just for 1984. By 1988 he was still too hot for Jackson's next, more successful presidential campaign. Farrakhan was effectively barred from formal entry into mainstream Democratic Party politics for a while. But in the process, he earned a reputation for not being afraid to take on the political establishment and the news media. Of course, he did this in the most demagogic manner.

Despite the Democratic Party's holding him at arm's length, Farrakhan continued to support the Democratic Party – or at least individual Democrats – behind the scenes. And once Clinton took office, Farrakhan publicly defended him in a national press conference in Washington, D.C. Farrakhan pretended that Clinton really was different from Bush, that Clinton's health care program was a step forward, etc. In effect, Farrakhan was laying the ground work so the Congressional Black Caucus could make a formal public agreement to work with him. Once again, Farrakhan was inching in to the Democratic Party.

But it didn't last long. Only a few months later, the big media created a new scandal around Khallid Muhammad's speech. Despite Farrakhan's public distancing of himself from Muhammad, most black Democrats as well as leaders of other black organizations tied to the establishment went through the degrading litany of denouncing Farrakhan.

After 10 years of this, one would expect that Farrakhan would get tired of trying to join with the people who are attacking, denouncing and condemning him; and that the black Democrats would be tired of always taking hits after publicly associating with Farrakhan. But this June, Farrakhan was back at the National Black Summit, organized under the auspices of the NAACP's Ben Chavis.

How did that happen? First, the assorted black organizations and leaders risk losing influence and credibility in the black community if they keep Farrakhan out – and some of them admit this. But what did Farrakhan have to gain by attending a conference, billed as a "black" summit, run by people who call themselves black leaders, but who condemn him whenever he displeases the "white" establishment? Why would Farrakhan attend their summit, and therefore lend it more credibility? The most likely reason is that Farrakhan wants to keep open the possibility of eventually being accepted into the same old Democratic Party.

The Farrakhan "Problem"

For 10 years, Farrakhan has made it clear to the Democratic Party that he wants in. And yet, every time he begins to court the party openly and begin to work with it, a major scandal comes tumbling down around him. Why has the Democratic Party consistently blocked Farrakhan, practically turning him into Public Enemy Number One?

Obviously, the business about his anti-Semitic rhetoric is merely a pretext, given the racist nature of all the institutions of this society.

Of course, today the political establishment is more careful about anti-Semitism than other forms of racism, due to the U.S. government's links with Israel as well as to the fact that in the U.S. today, Jews, in contrast to most other minorities, tend to be in the bourgeoisie or petty bourgeoisie. The politician who wishes to safeguard his political career is apt to react and at least for the record oppose anti-Semitism.

Nonetheless, the establishment's problem with Farrakhan is not anti-Semitism. And the establishment itself could begin to foment anti-Semitism, and do so very quickly. If the establishment didn't have this issue to use against him, it would have found another. It has always been ready to manufacture issues in order to get rid of someone.

So, what is really behind the attacks? Clearly, the Democratic Party has a major problem with the NOI. Certainly, most of the NOI's program is perfectly acceptable to the Democratic Party. But the NOI itself remains a militant, separatist organization. And it still expresses the anger and defiance of its base. It – or at least its members – are ready to defend themselves against the police. For example, in L.A. in 1990 Oliver Beasly, a recent recruit was shot and killed by the police. The next day, 15 members of the NOI confronted the LAPD. And last year in New York City, the NOI confronted the NYPD after the police had invaded the mosque, supposedly on a robbery call. The NYPD later filed a 2 billion dollar lawsuit against the NOI. Besides that, the NOI continues to organize in the prisons. It continues to take the side of other victims of police brutality and police frame-ups, as for example, the L.A. Four, after the 1992 L.A. rebellion. In other words, it continues to organize among a part of the population that the bourgeoisie fears the most, because it is potentially among the most explosive.

For the bourgeoisie, that is more than enough reason to keep Farrakhan and the NOI at arm's length – at least for now.

Farrakhan and Anti-Semitism

What about Farrakhan? If he really wanted to get in to the Democratic Party, why would he continue to hand his attackers a pretext like Anti-Semitism to keep him out?

Before 1984, the NOI and Farrakhan had no special anti-Semitic stance. Elijah Muhammad's Message to the Black Man makes no particular focus on Jewish people. The NOI usually just said that it opposed the white power structure. Farrakhan was no different on this question.

But once Farrakhan made it an issue, the NOI began to embrace truly anti-Semitic propaganda. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the classic anti-Semitic tract penned by a Czarist police agent and pushed in this country by Henry Ford in the 1920s and '30s, began to be sold in their bookstores, along with similar tracts. Over the last few years, they have been working on a 3-volume work entitled The Secret Relationship of Blacks and Jews. The one volume that has so far appeared blames Jewish people for a key role in the institutions of the slave trade and slavery.

Farrakhan employs this kind of propaganda because he also has a potential problem with his base. At least a part of this base must be ready to organize and carry out a fight against this racist society. But this is not the direction that Farrakhan is taking the NOI.

By employing anti-Semitic propaganda, Farrakhan kills two birds with one stone. First, he appears to be taking on an enemy. And the more he is attacked for it, the more credibility in the black community he stands to gain. And at the same time, Farrakhan renders the U.S. bourgeoisie a service. For his anti-Semitic rhetoric diverts black peoples' anger away from the larger capitalist class that exploits and oppresses them.

Certainly, black people have found themselves oppressed by sections of the Jewish middle class. Explained James Baldwin in the 1948 issue of Commentary, the publication of the American Jewish Committee, "Jews in Harlem are small tradesmen, rent collectors, real estate agents and pawnbrokers. They operate in accordance with the American business tradition of exploiting Negroes and they are therefore identified with oppression and hated for it."

And while most of those shopkeepers and businesses have now been replaced by Koreans, Chaldeans and Pakistanis, etc., the conflicts with some Jewish people continued. In 1968, New York City teachers, who at that point were predominantly Jewish, clashed openly with the attempt of the black community to make the public schools in Oceanhill-Brownsville more responsive to the needs of black children. In the 1970s, there were clashes between blacks and Jews, as black people moved into many city neighborhoods in Chicago and New York that had been occupied by Jews. The Jewish Defense League of Maier Kahane was founded in 1969 in Brooklyn as a paramilitary racist organization to fight against black people who were moving into old Jewish neighborhoods. Many of these racists, such as Dr. Baruch Goldstein, emigrated to Israel after Kahane. Goldstein was the Israeli settler who last year massacred the Palestinians in Hebron. (It was, by the way, the JDL which acted as a provocateur during the 1984 Jackson campaign and regularly clashed with Fruit of Islam bodyguards. According to them, Jackson was an anti-Semite because he did not condemn outright the PLO and Yasir Arafat).

But although some small shops and businesses owned by Jews have taken advantage of and clashed with black people, and although a part of them are truly racist, they are in no way responsible for the general situation of black people. Jewish businessmen did not create slavery, tenant farming, rampant black unemployment in ghettoes, super-exploitation, police brutality, prisons. Big capital and imperialism did. Attacking Jews is a way to divert peoples' attention from the power of big capital, and the necessity to overthrow it in much the same way that Henry Ford drew on anti-Semitic tracts in the 1920s and '30s to try to divert the anger of the burgeoning working class movement. In fact, Ford's support for the creating of the fascist-like Black Legion, which was used against union organizers and black activists, was justified by some of the anti-Semitic tracts he published. It is instructive to note that today the NOI seems to be circulating copies of some of the anti-Semitic articles that Henry Ford himself wrote.

Today, Farrakhan represents a diversion and a barrier. But his kind of demagoguery could be far more dangerous and destructive in the future. In a period of a big social movement beginning to challenge the status quo, the bourgeoisie could use a Farrakhan to divert that movement, directing it against Jews or another minority, such as immigrants. And if a deep social and economic crisis gives birth to a real fascist movement, then the bourgeoisie could use a demagogue like Farrakhan to mobilize a section of the black population against a workers movement, including first of all against black workers. Certainly, with the social rot of growing long-term unemployment, there are now several lost generations of young black people who have never held jobs, who live off of crime and drugs. This social layer of the black lumpen proletariat could make up a part of the human material, along with the white lumpen proletariat and ruined middle classes, of a future fascist movement. Someone like Farrakhan could be instrumental in turning a section of the most oppressed from an explosive social force which could challenge and even finally overturn capitalist society, into a force of extreme reaction in the interests of the U.S. bourgeoisie.

Of course, these are just possibilities. Perhaps the present situation will continue for a much longer time, and Farrakhan will remain on the fringes of the Democratic Party.

But no matter what, Farrakhan's anti-Semitic rhetoric is an important proof to the bourgeoisie of his willingness to be used by them. And it is a clear warning of what kind of dangers and traps black workers confront.