By Bernard E. Harcourt
“Malcolm X’s example taught us the profound dignity and courage that can come from being willing to change one’s mind and reinvent oneself even in public—and in our era of social media, that is a lesson that is sorely, sorely needed.”
— Brandon Terry, Revolution 10/13
“Malcolm X is an exemplar of what Socrates says in line 24a of Plato’s Apology: ‘the cause of my unpopularity was parrhesia’ – fearless speech, plain speech, frank speech, unintimidated speech, speaking from your heart.”
— Cornel West, Revolution 10/13
The intense, stirring, and moving conversation between Brandon Terry and Cornel West at Revolution 10/13 left me feeling convinced of—and deeply inspired by—the exemplarity of Malcolm X’s life and writings.
Of course, much has changed since the 1960s, geopolitically, with the transformation of Africa and Asia, and with the end of the Cold War. There are many aspects of Malcolm X’s work that remain fascinating but are less directly applicable today. His internationalist argument resonates differently now and plays a less prominent role in contemporary social movements. The Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, has global influence and effects, but is not internationalist. It is focused on the domestic, it is tethered to a unique American history. The discourse of human rights has changed dramatically over the past few decades. It has become increasingly punitive; it has turned to criminal accountability and criminal law enforcement, and is now increasingly at odds with prison abolitionism. The questions surrounding Black nationalism are different today as well—as are racial struggles more generally.
But what has not changed—as both Brandon Terry and Cornel West underscore—is the exemplarity of Malcolm X: How he ministered for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of society. “In the end, the measure for Malcolm X would always be: Are you empowering these precious brothers and sisters?” Cornel West said, pointing to the Black women and men at Malcolm’s side in the photograph projected behind him at the People’s Forum. Malcolm X “had sincerity as his main credential,” Cornel West emphasized, and humbly fought on behalf of the most despised among us.
This love, this solidarity, this authentic concern for the most vulnerable—born of his own experience of foster homes, juvenile detention, and prison—was conjoined, in Malcolm X’s speeches and writings, with a searing critique of the corruption of elites, including Black elites. As Brandon Terry argued, Malcolm X placed this critique at the very front and center of his thought: he opposed the corrupt elites to the virtuous people.
Brandon Terry places this quintessential aspect of Malcolm X’s thought under the title of “Black populism.” Terry emphasizes that the populist element is not exhaustive of Malcolm X’s thought; but that it represents a unique dimension of his political philosophy.
At the seminar, I expressed some reservations about the term “populism.” I suggested that the term may be too fraught in these times of recurring white supremacist populism. One problem is that the term itself has myriad connotations that point in different directions. Another is that, in the current American context, it has acquired a decidedly negative meaning. It is no accident that many accuse Donald Trump of being a “populist,” or of using “fascist” rhetoric, as Jason Stanley suggests.
When we studied the subject of “Left populism” at an earlier 13/13—Praxis 9/13 with Seyla Benhabib, Jean Cohen, Federico Finchelstein, Jan-Werner Müller, and others—I suggested that the term populism may be too closely associated today with exclusionary claims to representation to be useful to the Left. At Praxis 9/13, I offered a lexicon of the different meanings of “populism” in an effort to disambiguate the term. The expression itself, I argued, is a quagmire—a nominalist’s worse nightmare, or a case in point—and too easily lends itself to negative connotation. One of the more dominant meanings today follows Jan-Werner Müller’s definition of populism in What is Populism?, where Müller argues that populism is inherently anti-pluralist, represents a form of identity politics, and makes an exclusive and exclusionary claim to representation. For Müller, populism necessarily instantiates the Schmittian friend-enemy antagonism in an exclusionary manner.
Now, Brandon Terry draws on a notably different historical tradition and understanding of populism. Terry ties Black populism specifically to nineteenth-century American and African American conceptions of populism, rather than the critical theoretic, Eurocentric writings on populism tied to mid-twentieth-century fascism. In this sense, Terry’s use of the term does not have at its core the negative connotation of fascist populism of mid-twentieth-century Europe.
But that specter does haunt the term, and Terry is willing to play on that ambivalence. He suggests that the use of the term “populist,” with that ugly baggage, is useful today in part because it allows us to critique contemporary forms of Black populism that potentially go off the rails.
I appreciate both the different historical tradition that Brandon Terry draws on and the danger that he warns against. In his theoretical intervention, Brandon Terry makes a crucial distinction between two intellectual traditions—Black studies and critical theory. This is extremely important and something we need to pay particular attention to—especially me, coming as I do from the critical theory tradition (writ large, in other words, not just the Frankfurt School and French poststructuralism, but also postcolonial and queer theory, feminism, critical legal studies, critical race theory, and so on). Steeped in both traditions, Brandon Terry is very attentive to the difference in approaching problems from the two vantage points. He is equally attentive to this in his critique of Afro-pessimism in his forthcoming book, The Tragic Vision of the Civil Rights Movement. (In that context, he argues, critical theory sees novelty where those who are more familiar with Black nationalist writings see repetition.) Brandon Terry is undoubtedly right, and this does, in many respects, quiet my concerns.
But at the end of the day, I remain uncomfortable using only the term “Black populism.” I fear that it does not sufficiently highlight the admirable and exemplary side of Malcolm X: his embrace and elevation of the most vulnerable among us. Yes, it does warn us about possible slippages in Black populist rhetoric, which is important; however, it does not highlight a path forward. It warns us of danger, but does not guide us to the promised land (well, you understand what I mean).
More specifically, I feel that using only the term Black populism does not quite capture the ethical, deeply subjective, affective, and emotional dimension in Malcolm X’s life and work, which Cornel West brought out so forcefully at Revolution 10/13—the strand of love and sacrifice, the interior or personal dimension. The notion of populism gives the impression of being profoundly impersonal in a way that Malcolm X’s commitments were not, at least as I understand them.
Cornel West mentions Bryan Stevenson and suggests that his commitment to the law is secondary to his overarching service to the vulnerable. This is true as well of Malcolm X’s use of human rights discourse, where the underlying theory of human rights is less important than its ethical and practical implications, as I suggest in the Introduction. Malcolm X’s “critique and praxis and judgment” (to borrow Brandon Terry’s subtitle to his course on Malcolm X this semester at Yale) operates at a deeply ethical and personal level. Populism, by contrast, seems more ideological and institutional, no matter how we disambiguate the term. It operates at a different level than does the sincerely engaged activist-organizer.
Cornel West spoke of this so powerfully, urgently, and so beautifully at Revolution 10/13. “If you love these people, you will empty yourself to empower them,” Cornel West tells us. “You will give everything inside you to empower them. As Bryan Stevenson does for the brothers and sisters on death row… who else affirms their humanity and accents their potentiality? That is what Malcolm signified.”
In Search of Respect
I would like to see this aspect of Malcolm X’s life and thought reflected in the term we use—or at a minimum, in a term we might twine with “Black populism.” It should be a term that highlights the privilege, the honor, the necessity and importance of working alongside the most marginalized in society. There is a splendor and magnificence to this dedication and love.
I am drawn to the term “plebeian,” although I hesitate because of its Roman genealogy and connotation. It may be too associated with the Roman “plebs” and the “patricians.” Camila Vergara does excellent work with “plebeian” politics, especially in her book Systematic Corruption, which was originally titled Assembling the Plebeian Republic. But that too has a strong Eurocentric critical theory influence, as well as Latin American influence, which may not resonate perfectly with the North American and African American experience.
I am also attracted to other terms, but they tend to be too historically specified. “Spartacan” would be an interesting choice and has been used by many revolutionaries, such as Rosa Luxemburg and her anti-war “Spartakusbund,” or “Spartacus League,” which later became the German communist party. “Levellers” would also be an interesting choice, but there too, it is too closely associated with a historical moment in 17th-century England.
I am drawn as well to the original term “communist,” based as it is on the notion of the common, of common people, and insofar as it refers to an ideal of treating everyone, including the most disadvantaged, equally and with similar respect. But the term is simply too fraught and would distract us from the specific issue at hand.
Plus, there is the problem of the Marxist vilification of the “lumpenproletariat,” and it is precisely the lumpenproletariat that is at the heart of Malcolm X’s ministry—as the Black Panthers understood well.
If there were, then, a favorable turn-of-phrase to speak of the lumpenproletariat, of the underclass, of the “disreputable poor,” of the “dangerous classes,” of the “criminals, vagrants, and unemployed,” of the “wretched of the earth” in Fanon’s words, then that would be the term to combine with Brandon Terry’s “Black populism.”
This raises, in the end, perhaps the most puzzling question of all—not surprising, but so unsettling: Why isn’t there an empowering term for the politics of the wretched of the earth?
How shocking is it that there isn’t one?
It is time, long past time, to coin that term. This might be our most important contribution here.
To conclude for now, though, at least for the moment, I will propose that we either stay with a term like “plebeian,” or coin a term like “fanonian.” Or perhaps you can offer an even better expression?
“Malcolm is America’s Fanon. He is also unschooled, but many colleges went through him.”
— Cornel West, Revolution 10/13