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Revisiting Malcolm X’s Address at the 1964 Oxford Union Debate

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

By Kwaku Aurelien

“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice

is no virtue.”

The above phrase was spoken by Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican National Convention, and became the subject of argument at the Oxford Union Debate later that year. Speaking before the Oxford Union on the side of the affirmative fifty-six years ago today on December 3rd, 1964, human rights activist Malcolm X very deftly connected "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" with Black liberation struggles worldwide and with his own philosophy of acquiring respect and recognition of Black people as human beings by any means necessary. His address will forever stand out as one of the greatest and most important speeches of the Civil Rights Movement and the worldwide revolutionary period of the 1960s. Within it are a number of key points that can and must be applied to revolutionary politics today.

In the past when the oppressor had one stick and the oppressed used that same stick, today the oppressed are sort of shaking the shackles and getting yardsticks of their own, so when they say extremism they don’t mean what you do, and when you say extremism you don’t mean what they do. There are entirely two different meanings. And when this is understood I think you can better understand why those who are using methods of extremism are being driven to them.”

Malcolm X

This idea of yardsticks and the oppressor and oppressed classes each having their own by which extremism is measured is extremely pertinent to the current social and political climate in the United States. "Defund the police" as a slogan has become heavily contentious amongst members of both the Republican and Democratic parties, who make up the United States' ruling class. In the eyes of major U.S. politicians such as South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn and former President Barack Obama, the very mention of defunding the police is extreme. But it is not the slogan itself that is the problem; rather, it is the Movement for Black Lives and its demand for fundamental change that is antithetical to the interests of both major parties' establishments. And those who would argue that the slogan alienates moderate support for the movement ignore a critical point: that the goal of liberatory social movements is to pursue a clear and well-defined objective, no matter how unpopular said objective might be at first. "Defund the police" is not an illusive phrase unlike "Abolish chokeholds" or "Abolish no-knock warrants," both of which fall under the umbrella of "Defund the police" anyway and would fail to make a dent in extrajudicial murders of Black people if they were implemented on their own. Beyond the two major parties, the notion of defunding the police is extreme to the majority of Americans due to the fact that they attribute police violence to individual loose-cannon officers rather than to policing itself. Extreme to revolutionaries and practitioners of the Black Radical Tradition, however, is the fact that U.S. police department budgets, some of them dwarfing the budgets of Third World nations' militaries, come at the cost of essential social services.

At the 1:38:57 mark of the following video, Yusuf Abdur-Qadir, director of the central New York chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), points out how the vast majority of Syracuse police officers live outside of the city, meaning that money is being funneled out of a community with underfunded schools and into communities with great schools. This should very well be considered extremism against Black communities and communities of color, as should prisoners and inmates who are themselves scantly protected from COVID-19 being paid a measly $2 an hour to move bodies of COVID victims.

Additionally, the policing question perfectly demonstrates how moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue, because the NYPD has been known to fly officers to remote countries such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, and Pakistan, and close-by areas like Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in order that they can conduct "special interrogations." For years, they monitored mosques, Muslim student organizations, and Muslim restaurants in New York City, something which even members of the FBI could not abide. Both are instances of extremism against sects of people, and the former begs the question of how and why a police department's reach can extend out of the country in which they are based. If this was common knowledge, "defund the police" might even be seen as being the moderate position, because the general public would come to the incontrovertible conclusion that the NYPD has vastly overstepped its jurisdiction and is therefore unworthy of its nearly $11 billion budget. In a city where more than half of its officers don't even live there, that is money that could be going into schools, the Department of Health, the NYC Department of Homeless Services, and the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, among other things.

Malcolm X understood perhaps better than any activist during his time how the United States and the Western world at large manipulated mainstream media and the press to make the general public love who they wanted them to love and hate who they wanted them to hate. He summarized that idea in his address as such:

“When the people who are in power want to, again, create an image to justify something that’s bad, they use the press. And they’ll use the press to create a humanitarian image, for a devil, or a devil image for a humanitarian. They’ll take a person who's a victim of the crime, and make it appear he’s the criminal, and they’ll take the criminal and make it appear that he’s the victim of the crime.”

A good example of this dynamic playing out today is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or more accurately, Israel's policy of Manifest Destiny into the Occupied Territories. In the United Kingdom recently, former Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn was suspended amidst accusations of anti-Semitism stemming from his longstanding views regarding Israel's aggression in the Middle East, and comments legitimizing Hamas as an organization dedicated to the good of the Palestinian people.” Corbyn has since been reinstated, but the halfhearted response to his suspension by the Labour Party under new Leader Keir Starmer and the international left will only serve to embolden the right. Moreover, Corbyn's name is now sullied. A simple Google search of "Jeremy Corbyn Israel" will yield a laundry list of articles casting aspersions on his name.

The fact of the matter is that Corbyn's statements condemning Israel's passage of the racialist nation-state law in 2018 and Israeli aggression in Gaza are valid statements that shed light on the type of extremism Malcolm X disapproved of. In his address, Malcolm X cited the Congo, which had been thrown into a state of unrest lasting to this day after the assassination of its democratically elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, and its subsequent takeover by Moïse Tshombe and his South African mercenaries contracted to kill off opposition to Tshombe's cause. X stated that this was extremism that had not been labeled as such because it was "endorsed by the West, financed by America, [and] made respectable by America." Malcolm X made it a point to clarify his stance to make it very clear to his audience that this was not the type of extremism he supported:

"Because it’s not extremism in defense of liberty, and if it is extremism in defense of liberty as this type just pointed out, it is extremism in defense of liberty for the wrong type of people. I am not advocating that kind of extremism, that’s cold-blooded murder."</