Extremism in Poiesis and Praxis: Hugh MacDiarmid, Malcolm X, and Barry Goldwater, Oxford 1964

Corey Gibson
2018 Modernism/modernity Print Plus  
Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. -Oxford Union Debate, December 3, 1964[1] This motion was adapted from Barry Goldwater's speech at the Republican National Convention on July 16, 1964, in which he accepted the party's presidential nomination. One month after Lyndon B. Johnson's landslide victory over the firebrand conservative, the motion was debated in an altogether different though no less performative context. Amongst those
more » ... t. Amongst those speaking for the motion at the Oxford Union were two unlikely bedfellows: the poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, an avant-gardist in the cultural sphere and vanguardist in the political, outspoken Scottish nationalist, and professed communist ideologue, and the political activist and cultural icon, Malcolm X, former Nation of Islam minister, revolutionary black nationalist, and, increasingly during this period, anti-colonial internationalist. [2] Just a few minutes before midnight the motion they had supported was defeated 228 votes to 137. Nevertheless, in MacDiarmid's thirteen minutes of diverse, emphatic aphorisms, and in Malcolm X's thirty minutes of careful exposition on the depth and breadth of global injustice, the poet and the activist revealed a common culturalpolitical agenda. Through close analysis of the respective speeches, the motion and its resonances, and thorough cultural and political contextualization, this article identifies a unique opportunity in this televised debate: to imagine a new way in which modernist avant-gardism and political vanguardism of the interwar period might relate to the Civil Rights Movement, anti-colonial struggles, and human rights discourses emergent in the early 1960s. While both MacDiarmid and Malcolm X make for controversial representatives of these respective cultural-historical moments, their fleeting and entirely arbitrary allegiance during this singular event in Oxford reveals that in their defense of "extremism" they each rejected the conventional ontologies of political action, supplanting ends with pure means. This focus on process and commitment would allow them, at least in rhetorical terms, to advocate for a revolutionary political consciousness while rejecting "moderation" for its perceived cynicism and instrumentalism, and for the so-called "common sense" arguments that are frequently invoked in support of it. contained. It can also help us to map out one convergence between this modernist scepticism towards the confluence of actions and ideals, and the immanence of active political struggles in the post-war era (from Harlem to central Africa). How, in this context, can revolutionary strategy conceived in abstract and delivered in aphorism (MacDiarmid), and that born of personal hardship, racial cosmology, and the experience of political and cultural leadership (Malcolm X) align? And why is it that this alliance is not concerned with clear or common definitions of "liberty" or "justice"? Arguing on the side of the poet and the activist was Eric Anthony Abrahams, the outgoing President of the Union. Opposing the motion were Christie Davies, president of the Cambridge Union; Humphry Berkeley, at that time Conservative Member of Parliament for Lancaster; and Lord Stoneham, a Labour Peer. This thoroughly establishment opposition appealed to an appetite The need for "extremism" was, then, predicated on the false consciousness of the people. For MacDiarmid and Malcolm X, threats to liberty and justice were not confined to the most overt manifestations of state power but were part of the fabric of socio-political hegemony. MacDiarmid reminded his audience that "persecution, bullying, intimidation, humiliation and cruelty, are forms of mental violence," and Malcolm X described the "language of violence" spoken by the "racialist." In doing so, they pre-empted and contextualized the opposition's elision of "extremism" and "violence." Malcolm X also referred to the use of "extremism" as a "label." If you were known as an "extremist," all of your behaviour was that of an "extremist," whether or not a given act had anything to do with your political agenda. It is worth noting that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose legacy is so often set in contradistinction with that of Malcolm X, was also frequently described as "extremist." Just one week after the Oxford debate King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (1963), he professed to have "gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. . . . [T]he question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be." After all "justice too long delayed is justice denied." [34] Malcolm X developed his notion of the "label" into an exposition on the apparatus of the dominant political ideology, its manipulation of "images," the propagandist role of the press, and the imposition of a universal "yardstick," or ethical framework, sanctioned by established power. Tracing these phenomena in his own reputation, in contemporary coverage of the civil war in Congo, and in the political structures of the US, he arrived at the hypocrisy that characterizes, but ought to undermine, these forces: The black man is] supposed to sit passively and have no feelings, be nonviolent, and love his enemyno matter what kind of attack, verbal or otherwise, he's supposed to take it. But if he stands up and in any way tries to defend himself, [chuckles] then he's an extremist. MacDiarmid made a similar point when he lamented "the continued confinement of the people of these [so-called Christian] countries to a mere earthly eudemonism." Eudemonism is a system of ethics basing moral value on the likelihood of actions generating happiness. It is close to the Christian ethics of "love thy neighbour," and "turn the other cheek," that were, for Malcolm X, simply part of the apparatus of consent: what he called "brainwashing" and MacDiarmid called "false consciousness." To explain the importance of combatting ignorance and apathy among the people, the poet called on Mao for a most incisive diagnosis: What is the strength of the imperialists? It lies only in the unconsciousness of the people. The consciousness of the people is the basic question, not explosives or weapons, or atom bombs, but the man who handles them. He is still to be educated. [35] Malcolm X reflected on a similar awakening in his Autobiography: "My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black man in America" (274). In this context, the term "extremism" can be used to delineate those transformative means that have not been absorbed, and therefore neutralized, by established power. Both the poet and the activist couched their defense of "extremism" in relation to broad historical processes and the need to overturn false consciousness of one form or another. Malcolm X and MacDiarmid both advocated unity in
doi:10.26597/mod.0041 fatcat:g5d6yiv4v5acfebsbozu34qoey