Manning Marable Was a Pioneering Black Marxist. His Work Speaks Directly to Our Moment

Manning Marable was a leading radical thinker whose brilliant writings showed how the struggle for black liberation is bound up with the struggle against capitalism. Though he didn’t live to see the rise of Black Lives Matter, his work has a tremendous amount to offer the movement today.

Manning Marable poses for a photograph in his office at Columbia University in New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama / Getty Images)

Manning Marable was one of the most accomplished radical intellectuals in the United States when he died in 2011. Part of the founding generation of black studies scholars in the United States, Marable entered the academy in the wake of the struggles of the 1960s and became a towering historian of movements for racial justice. Throughout his life, he dedicated himself to disseminating radical ideas as widely as possible, writing regularly for black newspapers across the country. In many ways, he was a model socialist intellectual. Though he passed away before the Black Lives Matter movement sprung up, his work has a tremendous amount to offer today, providing a rigorous account of how the struggle for black liberation is bound up with the struggle against capitalism.

Marable was born into the black middle class in Dayton, Ohio in 1950. He grew up watching and reading about the Southern civil rights struggle, and cut his teeth as a student journalist in high school writing about race and politics. When Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968, the paper sent him to Atlanta to cover the funeral. As Marable later recounted, “my innocent faith in American democracy and freedom was forever shattered; my understanding of political change began a trajectory from reform to radicalism.”

Like many other black Americans coming into adulthood in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, Marable felt the pull of black nationalism, convinced that black advancement in American society would come through black unity. In 1972, he attended the National Black Political Convention (NBPC) in Gary, Indiana. Though little remembered today, the NBPC was a pivotal moment in the evolution of civil rights and Black Power struggle. It was an attempt to translate the movement — by then on the decline — into an electoral vehicle for black Americans. But while the convention gave birth to an organization, the National Black Political Assembly, internal schisms developed between moderates and radicals, and the group quickly waned in relevance.

Marable earned his PhD from the University of Maryland in 1976 (the first black American to earn a doctorate in history from the school), and taught at a number of colleges and universities over the next few decades. Unlike many radicals who entered the academy in these years, however, Marable didn’t retreat from the militancy of the early 1970s. In fact, he moved further left, ultimately jettisoning black nationalism in favor of democratic socialism. As he later put it,

A nationalist perspective generally minimized the importance of class stratification and income polarization among African-Americans. Race, however important, was not the fundamental issue which defined the nature of inequality and oppression within capitalism. Strategies for black empowerment and solidarity had to be grounded in something beyond skin color.

Reading theorists like Walter Rodney, Marable came to believe that “the democratic transformation of the US political economy and society was necessary to empower and liberate black people.”

In 1979, Marable joined the New American Movement (NAM), an organization of New Left veterans attempting to build a successor to Students for a Democratic Society. He also waded into the New Left’s intellectual culture, contributing an incisive critical evaluation of the black socialist A. Philip Randolph’s early career as a trade unionist to the journal Radical America. When NAM merged with Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee to form the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in 1982, Marable was elected one of new organization’s vice chairs.

At the same time Marable was joining, he was producing. In 1980, he published From the Grassroots, a collection of his newspaper columns and a few academic pieces, and in the subsequent years he put out a dizzying array of books: on African and Caribbean politics, on contemporary black politics, and on the life of W. E. B. Du Bois.

Two books in particular deserve attention today. The first is How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, published in 1983. The book was Marable’s first sustained work as a Marxist and represented his completed settling of accounts with his black nationalist past. Drawing theoretical inspiration from the dependency theory of Andre Gunder Frank, Marable argued that capitalism was responsible for black oppression. At the same time, he laid out a forceful critique of the politics of the black middle class, arguing that while lawyers and preachers had often led black struggle in the past, the black working class would have to develop its own leadership to win liberation. At a moment when  black politicians like corporate lawyer-turned-Chicago-mayor Lori Lightfoot are opposing initiatives to rein in the police, Marable’s writings provide a useful framework for understanding why.

The second notable book from this period is Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America. Originally published in 1984, it remains the best single-volume history of the Civil Rights Movement. Marable opened the book by detailing how McCarthyism had crushed the black left in the 1940s, before chronicling the classic phase of the movement from Montgomery to Selma, and discussing the rise and fall of Black Power. What makes the book so powerful is how insistently political it is. Marable trains his attention on the myriad debates that roiled the movement, from disputes over nonviolence in the 1950s to the many meanings of Black Power. It’s a vivid picture of the culture of debate and democracy that has animated the various black movements.

As Marable’s output was growing, his political allegiances were changing as well. Though initially a leader of DSA, he left the organization in 1985 after Michael Harrington and his allies, following the lead of much of the mainstream union leadership, refused to back Jesse Jackson’s insurgent campaign in 1984, preferring instead the nostalgic promise of Walter Mondale. In 1993, Marable joined the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, a group founded by ex-Communist Party members after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

While his academic output slowed in the 1990s, Marable turned towards institution building. He founded the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, and in 1999 established Souls, a journal of black studies that aimed to promote engaged intellectual work in the tradition of W. E. B. Du Bois. In 1998, he helped set up the Black Radical Congress, an attempt at regrouping black radical political tendencies.

Marable wrote steadily in these years for a broad audience, offering thoughtful commentary on everything from the Million Man March to Bill Clinton’s cynical embrace of backlash politics. He also edited The Autobiography of Medgar Evers, collecting the assassinated civil rights leader’s speeches, letters, and articles. But his major project was a new biography of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X loomed especially large to black activists of Marable’s generation, claimed by everyone from cultural nationalists happy to make common cause with Richard Nixon, to the socialists in the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. Marable saw producing a comprehensive assessment of Malcolm’s controversial legacy as a profoundly political project, offering a usable past to a new generation of radicals.

In researching the biography, Marable was able to leverage his reputation and institutional prestige to gain access to sources other historians would have killed for. He received full access to the Schomburg Center’s Malcolm X collection, previously closed FBI files, and Malcolm X’s diaries from the last year of his life. He was even allowed to see unpublished material from Malcolm X’s Autobiography.

Marable’s biography of Malcolm X was a massive project, but unfortunately, it was hindered by his growing health problems. He had developed lung problems in the late 1980s, and in 2010, shortly before his death, had a double lung transplant. As a result, his Malcolm biography was rushed, and though it won wide praise from literary heavyweights like Henry Louis Gates Jr and David Remnick, specialists faulted its careless use of sources and limited interpretive ambition.

Marable was only sixty when he died in 2011. He didn’t live to see the uprisings in Ferguson, Baltimore, or Minneapolis, though he surely would have had much to say about their place in the history of black struggle. In the wake of these rebellions, the intellectual work of black radicals is finally being recognized. Angela Davis’s work on prison abolition is in GQ, and James Boggs is being quoted in the New York Times. Marable left behind a massive body of work that deserves to be read alongside theirs. His writings both analyzed the structure of black oppression, demonstrating the centrality of class exploitation in maintaining it, and excavated the history of movements that challenged it.

Marable was always deeply attentive to the dynamics of black resistance. But he also understood that simply celebrating movements in their spontaneity was an abdication of his responsibility; movements lived and died through political debate, and they needed to be studied with that same spirit. It is this deep recognition of the need to analyze how the system works as well as the prospects of its challengers that make Marable’s work a crucial part of the arsenal of ideas for today’s movements.