Militant conversion in a prison of the mind: Malcolm X and Spinoza on domination and freedom

Taylor, Dan (2023). Militant conversion in a prison of the mind: Malcolm X and Spinoza on domination and freedom. Contemporary Political Theory [Early Access].

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-023-00637-1

Abstract

The Autobiography of Malcolm X highlights the eponymous subject’s conversion from aimless rage and criminality to a form of militant study while in prison, a conversion dedicated to understanding the societal foundations of power and racial inequality. Central to this understanding is the idea that new philosophical perspectives and ‘thought-patterns’ are necessary to reprogramme dominant or ‘brainwashed’ mindsets towards organising political resistance. In this article, I explore Malcolm X’s concepts of ‘conversion’ and ‘prison’, identifying them, not only as mere spatiotemporal locations, but also as larger frames in which Malcolm conceives of domination and freedom. I identify Malcolm’s three-aspect account of domination through which radical education and mental liberation drive his project of Black nationalism. I then consider the significance of an unexpected ally invoked by Malcolm: the 17th century philosopher Benedict de Spinoza, described as a ‘Black Spanish Jew’ and presented as an oppositional figure to the western philosophical canon. While this alliance is partly rhetorical, if overlooked, both work through problems of ‘epistemic agency’ and ‘democratic civic agency’ as vital for ameliorating domination and enhancing freedom. Malcolm and Spinoza offer distinct but significant contributions to ideas of domination and freedom in terms of both an individual and a collective capacity to think and act.

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