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Remembering Manning Marable

When one of New York’s leading Marxist scholars, Manning Marable, died unexpectedly last week after finally completing his long-anticipated biography of Malcolm X, the leading corporate papers — including the NY Times — couldn’t quite figure out what to make of Manning’s life. Their obituaries were pretty soulless. They know he was a very important figure in academic circles because he headed a number of programs at Columbia University, and because others told them so. But they didn’t quite know how to assess his contributions.

In actuality, Manning was extremely supportive of direct action activists of all leftist stripes. He contributed funds to the Red Balloon Collective (which I co-founded at the State University of Stony Brook back in 1969), among many other groups, and co-Chaired the Committees of Correspondence for Socialism and Democracy after its break with the Communist Party USA — even though Manning had never been a member of the Communist Party. He also was involved with an attempt to give structure to an “adult” version of the new SDS a few years ago (the student version was far more dynamic and important).

Manning was the first radical in the “dark ages” interregnum between the demise of Liberation News Service and the invention of the internet to focus on establishing a network to publish his great column “Along the Color Line” among scores of underground newspapers, and his column strongly influenced the new waves of activists in the 1980s and early 90s. In fact, if I remember correctly the story he told me when I and other Red Balloonies visited him at Columbia near the beginning of his tenure there, he was very proud of having negotiated with Columbia to pay for the printing and distribution of his bi-weekly columns as part of his contract — no small expense. He clearly believed that radical movements were just as (or more) important than academia, and twinkled at the thought that Columbia U. was being forced to pay for some of it.

And, he was one of the few socialists to give great credence to ecologically based movements. Manning wrote regularly about how the Black and Latino communities were being devastated by environmental catastrophes and encouraged the rest of the organized environmental movement to understand and ACT ON the intersection of class, race, and environment in America.

There was one very unfortunate incident with the NY Green Party that clearly upset him and which I always regretted. That was when Manning was talking at a plenary at the Socialist Scholars Conference and argued for the left to give critical support to the John Kerry campaign for president against Bush. As the Green position for Ralph Nader was conspicuously not allowed to be presented during the conference and environmental issues were studiously ignored there, several members of the Green Party vocally challenged Marable during his speech, clearly angering Manning and especially his wife, the scholar Leith Mullings. I was present there and, while not shouting out, I did defend the position of those Greens who did, pissing off Manning who’d been so supportive of us all those years. I don’t think he ever forgave me … or us. And of course, I felt and still feel terrible about the way we Greens “intervened” in Manning’s speech, as understandable as that may be given the entire weekend of Green issues being shunted aside. It’s just too bad that it was Manning that received the enunciation of that pent up frustration, and not others who deserved it much more.

We should remember Mao’s warning to deal with “contradictions among the people” differently than “contradictions with the enemy”. (On the other hand, in “Combat Liberalism” Mao directly contradicts that warning — as so often is the case.)

Partly, rejection of the Democratic Party and anti-ecology politics of the old Socialist Scholars Conference formed the basis for the formation of the group that later went on to organize the much more radical (and inclusive) “Left Forum” in its stead. Revolution in the revolution, as Regis Debray, who later went from revolution to counter-revolution once put it.

I didn’t know Manning was sick with sarcoidosis (an ailment to which some African-Americans are especially vulnerable due to the interplay between particular genes and environmental “triggers”), and to pneumonia. We are losing many heroes to infections that are resistant to antibiotics (I’m not sure to what extent Manning’s final illness was a result of the immune system’s collapse due to drugs designed to suppress rejection of his lung transplants). I cannot understand why the U.S. does not utilize MacroPhage therapies, as they did with great success in the Soviet Union, in fighting bacterial illnesses that are resistant to antibiotics. In that regard, Manning himself appreciated the appropriateness of one of my pamphlets widely distributed to members of the Committees of Correspondence: “The Capitalist System vs. the Immune System.”

I am looking forward to reading Manning’s new book on Malcolm X. I heard him talk about Malcolm over the years, and he was extremely excited about the new material he was uncovering and about to report in Malcolm’s biography, which contextualized and challenged much of the prior accounts based on Alex Haley’s famous “Autobiography of Malcolm X”. Maybe in Manning’s honor (and for our own political benefit) the Green Party can arrange with the publisher to sell the book on our websites and listserves, and set up study groups around it, discussing it not only for its historical interest but in uncovering lessons for radical and ecological movements today.

THAT, I’m sure, Manning would have loved.

MITCHEL COHEN is an organizer with the Brooklyn Greens/Green Party, coordinates the No Spray Coalition against pesticides, and Chairs the WBAI (99.5 FM in NYC) Local Station Board.* You can write to him at mitchelcohen@mindspring.com . (*for ID purposes only)