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Manning Marable and the March Toward a Socialist America


Manning Marable who passed away on Friday, April 1, 2011, in New York City belonged to the traditions of Black radicals who were not afraid of red baiting, and therefore he spoke out clearly against the capitalist system and the associated values of greed, individualism, sexism and exploitation. Like Ella Baker, W.E.B. Dubois and Paul Robeson, Marable used his intellect to challenge the system of injustice and this was clear in his first major book, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society. This book was a thorough critique of the evolution of US capitalism. Marable made it clear through the chapters that one could not fight against racism without fighting the capitalist mode of production. In the last section of the book, Marable raised the issue of the genocidal tendencies of the capitalists and concluded with his vision of the need to organize and mobilize towards a socialist America.

Throughout his earthly life, Manning Marable never forgot the imprint of chattel slavery on the United States and the concomitant crimes against humanity. Hence, Marable understood the limitations of liberal democracy and natural propensity of the system towards militarism and warfare. He opposed the wars against the people of Vietnam as a young man, just as he opposed the war against the people of Iraq and the imperial pursuit of US policies. He worked within the radical left in the United States. As he passed away on April 1, 2011, the challenges of building a socialist alternative were becoming clearer in the middle of the capitalist crisis, in which the capitalist class is moving to take away the basic rights of collective bargaining from US workers.

MARABLE AS A SCHOLAR AND ACTIVIST

Since 1993, Manning Marable was the M. Moran Weston/Black Alumni Council Professor of African American Studies at Columbia University.  He was also the founding director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies and the Center for the Study of Contemporary Black History at Columbia University. Before joining the faculty at Columbia, Manning had taught and directed Black Studies programs at Ohio State University, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and at Colgate University in New York. He was also a former Director of the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University. Manning used his position in academia to further the knowledge of the social system and the institutions of oppression; his scholarly activities over the past thirty years has furthered the Black radical and socialist traditions that has raised a generation of distinguished Black intellectuals.

As a teacher and mentor of students, Manning Marable built a base from inside the belly of Columbia University that was essentially viewed as an occupying power in Harlem. For decades this University, like so many others in urban areas, has been encroaching on the black community, displacing people from their neighborhoods. Thus, Manning Marable understood that he had to work inside and outside academia to build one front for the struggle for change within the very corridors of the same institution that legitimized capitalist oppression in New York. 

Marable was a prolific writer. Apart from the book, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, Manning Marable authored  and co-edited more than 20 books including, African and Caribbean Politics from Kwame Nkrumah to the Grenada Revolution (1987), Race, Reform and Rebellion (1991)  Beyond Black and White (1995), Black Liberation in Conservative America (1997), Speaking Truth to Power: Essays on Race, Resistance, and Radicalism (1996),  Black Leadership (1998),  Let Nobody Turn Us Around (2000),  Freedom: A Photographic History of the African American Struggle (with Leith Mullings and Sophie Spencer-Wood, 2002),  and The Great Wells of Democracy (2003).    

His most recent book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011), was issued on Monday April 4, 2011, three days after he joined the ancestors. From press reports of the book, this work of over 600 pages will ignite new debates and discussions on one of the principal figures of the black liberation movement in the United States. I have not yet read the book, but the New York Times has already declared that it is a “re-evaluation of Malcolm X's life.” In due time, I will be reading and commenting, but I vividly remember the challenge that came from Manning Marable when he gave an interview about the book on Democracy Now. He called on scholars and intellectuals within the Black Studies movement to engage the scholarship on Malcolm X, drawing attention to the thousands of pages of documents that still had to be processed to have a better appreciation of the life of Malcolm X. Scholars in general, but especially younger scholars, were being challenged to do serious scholarly work that can advance the understanding of the social conditions, ideas and forms of community that created leaders such as Malcolm X.

Manning Marable wrote hundreds of scholarly articles. He was an internationalist who exposed the conservatism of those sections of the black community who sought to domesticate black political activity in the United States in the service of capitalism and through the two established political parties – the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. In his castigation of black capitalism and black conservatism there was one article in Race and Class where Marable took Marcus Garvey out of the context of Jim Crow and chided Garvey for the attempts to build corporations such as the Black Star Line. Shades of the 1920’s divisions between nationalists and communists could be discerned in that essay. Marable critiqued the idea that capitalism can be the basis for liberation and he was clear in his opposition when Louis Farrakhan embraced Sani Abacha in Nigeria. Manning Marable understood that one could not be anti-racist at home and embrace dictators overseas. Hence, he was consistent in his support for African liberation and the attempts of the Cuban people to build an alternative way of life away from Yankee imperialism.

Like his former colleague at Columbia, Robin D.G. Kelly, Manning Marable understood the centrality of cultural struggles within the left movement and he worked within the Board of Directors of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network. His clarity on the need to work from the inside of the power of the hip hop movement in the United States showed a level of political maturity because Marable was against the crude capitalist orientation of other members of the Board of Directors of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network.

In the traditions of W.E.B. Dubois and Walter Rodney, he ensured that his skills and training did not serve those who oppressed the majority of the working peoples, both black and white. He was the general editor of Freedom on My Mind: The Columbia Documentary History of the African American Experience (2003). He was also the general editor of Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society.  This journal was a platform for discussion on the principal debates within the Black Studies community.

For years, when I taught an introductory course on African American Studies at Syracuse University, I used Marable’s co-edited text, Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices on Resistance, Reform, and Renewal an African American Anthology.  This was a text that he edited with his wife, Leith Mullings, and it brought to life for younger students the history of struggles and the revolutionary leadership provided in the society by thinkers and activists such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. This text captured the voices of black people who spoke for themselves. For young undergraduates who were exposed to this history for the first time, this text was an important inspiration. However, Manning was not only interested in lifting up historical voices. Manning Marable worked closely with the feminist movement and the gay and lesbian movement to expose and challenge homophobia in black political spaces.

While teaching, running a research center and speaking on the circuits of the international freedom struggle, Manning Marable was on the editorial board of the Black Commentator  ensuring that his ideas did not remain solely within academia. He wrote political columns that were syndicated widely in numerous platforms and newspapers in the United States.  In the last twenty years, Manning had been researching and writing the book on Malcolm X, and while he was ill and diagnosed with sarcoidosis, he soldiered on with his determination to contribute to building a solid basis for the ideas and organization that will be the foundation for an alternative society.

Manning did not shy away from the hard questions, like the issue of police brutality, the hollowing out of the urban spaces, and the conservatism of a section of the black church that wanted to turn religion into a business venture.  Working inside the black freedom traditions, he was forthright in his opposition to the prison-industrial complex, and was involved in numerous conferences and meetings to oppose the mass incarceration of black youths. He used his position in academia to build the Africana Studies Against Criminal Injustice Network. In bringing together formidable scholars and activists such as Julia Sudbury, Angela Davis, Anthony K. Van Jones and others to tap into the vast reservoir of knowledge that is locked away inside the prison system, Manning used his position to advance research, education and political action. There were so many facets of his massive contribution that this short tribute cannot do justice to his legacy. He left a valuable body of work for those who want to interrogate the injustices of capitalism and racism.

In his efforts to build Africana Studies in the service of the people, Manning embarked on projects that brought together some of the best activists and he did not confine himself to the work in the black community. As a committed socialist working in the traditions of Paul Robeson, Manning Marable served as Chair of Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS). This remains one of the broad fronts for the radical and socialist left forces in the United States. It was his work with MDS that brought Manning to the forefront of the broader struggles for socialism, and he understood that this struggle must be anchored in the history of the black liberation struggles. In this work, he was very close to the formation of former members of the Communist Party of the United States who were organized under the umbrella of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. After the fall of the Soviet Union, this group of committed socialists sought to maintain the organizational basis for thinking through the challenges of building socialism in the United States.

 

MARABLE, SOCIALISM, AND THE REPARATIONS MOVEMENT

Throughout his life and in his political practice, Manning Marable was an educator who sought to educate the society that there needed to be repair from the destructive traditions and contemporary forms of capitalist exploitation. As a historian he understood the impact of the transatlantic slave trade on human history and he actively participated in the activities of the international and US-based reparations movement. This work was not the kind of political activism that endeared him to the sections of the left that refuse to deal with the issues and consequences of slavery. I remember when Manning traveled to Durban, South Africa for the NGO conference of the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in August-September 2001.   Marable spoke before a big rally at the City Hall of Durban where he linked the struggles for repair and renewal in Africa and the United States. Reparations were not simply about monetary compensation, but a way of opposing militarism and reactionary conservative politics. Writing in support of reparations, Marable observed that:

Billions of dollars of tax money paid by blacks and whites alike were allocated to the military-industrial complex to finance global military interventions and a nuclear arms race. The vast majority of African Americans strongly opposed these reactionary policies. We were not “guilty” of participating in the decisions to carry out such policies. Yet, as citizens, we are “responsible”  for paying to finance Reagan’s disastrous militarism, which left the country deeply in debt. We have an obligation under law to pay taxes. Thus, all citizens of the United States have the same “responsibility” to compensate members of their own society that were deliberately stigmatized by legal racism. Individual “guilt” or “innocence” is therefore irrelevant. America’s version of legal apartheid created the conditions of white privilege and black subordination that we see all around us every day. A debt is owed, and it must be paid in full.

Manning Marable was fully aware that capitalism could not pay this debt, so he understood that the fight for reparations was part of a fight to lift the political consciousness of the society of the “crimes against humanity” that had been committed by the United States and Western Europe. Like the different forms of black struggles, there were differing formations within the Black Reparations Movement, and Marable stood out while others within the “dream team” from Harvard studiously avoided serious discussions about reparations in fear of alienating their benefactors in the capitalist classes. Manning Marable’s Institute of Research held sessions on reparations at Columbia. In the State of New York, Marable was also a member of the New York Legislature’s Amistad Commission, created to review state curriculum regarding the slave trade.

I interacted with Manning inside the Black Radical Congress (BRC).  Within the BRC, there was always the concrete question of the organizational form necessary to build an alternative to the traditional forms of politics. There were differences of opinions on whether the Congress would be a formation with individual members or based on networks that were grounded in local organizing committees (LOCs)

In New York City, where the traditions of black left politics were strongest, there were two LOCs: the New York LOC and the New York Metro.  Manning Marable was a dominant force within the New York branch of the Black Radical Congress. There were, however, differences over tactics and strategies with sections of the BRC that had formed the New York Metro.

Despite its short life, the Black Radical Congress worked to oppose war and militarism at home and abroad and fertilized the black liberation struggles and the wider socialist movement inside the United States. Marable worked very hard to place the important stamp of linking anti-racism to anti sexism work with in the liberation movement. Working with his partner Leith Mullings and fighters such as Barbara Ransby and Cathy Cohen, among hundreds of others, the BRC successfully placed the fight against homophobia within the liberation history. The documents and statements of the Black Radical Congress remain a force in the struggles for an alternative social system.

Manning Marable was one of the authors of the Freedom Agenda that declared,

Resistance is in our marrow as Black people, given our history in this place. From the Haitian revolution, to the U.S. abolitionist movement against slavery, to the 20th Century movement for civil rights and empowerment, we have struggled and died for justice. We believe that struggle must continue, and with renewed vigor. Our historical experiences suggest to us, by negative example, what a truly just and democratic society should look like: It should be democratic, not just in myth but in practice, a society in which all people — regardless of color, ethnicity, religion, nationality, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age, family structure, or mental or physical capability — enjoy full human rights, the fruits of their labor, and the freedom to realize their full human potential.

We will fight to advance beyond capitalism, which has demonstrated its structural incapacity to address basic human needs worldwide and, in particular, the needs of Black people.

Manning fought and even in poor health left his mark in the struggle to advance beyond capitalism. By his work within a socialist organization such as the Committee for Correspondence, he made it clear that he was working in theory and in practice for a socialist alternative. I will agree with our brother Cornell West who said of Manning, that he was “our grand radical democratic intellectual,” and that “he kept alive the democratic socialist tradition in the black freedom movement.”  Manning Marable passed at a moment when the struggle for an alternative system has matured with revolutionary upheavals all over the world. May his example of commitment inspire the generation that is learning from the history of the strengths and weaknesses of the Black Radical Congress.

To Leith and all of the members of his family we send our deepest condolences.

Horace Campbell is Professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University. He is the author of Barack Obama and Twenty First Century Politics: A Revolutionary Moment in the USA. See www. horacecampbell.net

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