by Vijay Prashad
This article previously appeared on Counterpunch.
“A weakened State and a national economy convulsed by the domination of finance would not be able to guarantee the civil rights of the people.”
In August 1964, Malcolm X spent several weeks in Egypt. While in Cairo, he wrote an essay in the Egypt Gazette entitled “Racism: the Cancer that is Destroying America.” Here, Malcolm X noted, “The common goal of 22 million Afro-Americans is respect and HUMAN RIGHTS….We can never get civil rights in America until our HUMAN RIGHTS are first restored.” The distinction is essential. Civil Rights are earned through the State form. They are historically specific to the modern world, and came onto the agenda of the modern State only because of the struggles of ordinary people to move the ideals of the early modern era into the realm of legality. These are Civil Rights.
Human Rights, Malcolm notes, are to be restored. They are innate, the essence of our species being, the way in which we as social actors want to see ourselves, and how our best instincts force us to see each other. These are innate, but they are not always enacted, for human history is as much a struggle of ordinary people for justice (civil rights) as it is the march of dehumanization. The dance between human rights, our rights as people in society, and civil rights, our rights as citizens in states, is a fundamental part of the grammar of modern politics. To believe that to win civil rights from the state is sufficient is what constitutes modern liberalism: legal provisions for equality are enough for it. That is why it celebrates the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 as its highest achievement. After that, modern liberalism sees that the task is to tinker with reality, not to fundamentally transform it.
Malcolm X looked through and beyond modern liberalism. Of course civil rights in the state are necessary, but these are not sufficient. More is required.
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