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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 41 October 7, 2023

What Makes Social Change Successful? An Examination of Black Politics in the US | Yanis Iqbal

Saturday 7 October 2023


Methodology: From Empiricism to Dialectics

Distinguishing successful movements for social change from unsuccessful ones requires the establishment of specific criteria to identify the factors responsible for the former’s higher political efficacy. How do we demonstrate the existence of these criterial grids? Empiricism [1] provides the dominant concept of criteria, suggesting that the benchmark of political success is constituted by common characteristics – a shared abstraction – that must be derived from the historical multitude of social movements. The foregrounding of the separation between essence and reality subordinates the plurality of social movements to the oneness of abstract formal principles (consider, for instance, political philosophy’s reduction of politics to “discussion,” “communication,” “consensus,” etc. [2]).

The overarching structure of constructability resulting from empiricist ideology can be traced back to the epistemological structure of representation [3]. Representation involves accepting the manifestations of reality as they appear and presenting them as governed by the constructive logic of representation itself. This results in an analytical externality that denies the existence of an internal causality beyond the immediate manifestation of form in reality. As a result, the general nature of causality finds expression solely through the observed regularity in its manifestations. The identification of recurring attributes becomes the primary approach to forming abstract concepts. These concepts are subsequently connected to the non-recurring attributes that were initially considered “accidental” factors. As the analysis perceives reality as devoid of any causal necessity beyond its immediate objectivity, the relationship between abstract concepts and concrete details relies on a constructive necessity that is inherently external to them. “Logic is thus this constructive necessity which represents all objective connection as if it were an external relationship between concepts.” [4]

While empiricist representation dissolves social movements into abstract criteria of political success, thereby inhibiting their dynamism, dialectics reinstates their autonomy by considering the causal necessity at work in their concrete reality. The conceptualization of successful social movements relies not on the abstract similarity of recurring characteristics, but rather on their specific position and role within a coherent system of interacting phenomena. An exploration of the objective interconnections and interdependences that compose the definiteness of successful social movements opens the space for the universal i.e. the ontological relationality that is constitutive of its foundation. This methodological shift from the epistemology of a-relational abstractions to the ontology of concrete interaction between real social phenomena is similar to what Slavoj Žižek calls the “parallax view” [5]: an epistemic shift of subjective perspectives that facilitates an insight into the ontological plurality/inconsistency of the object. This inconsistency is not a mere result of a changed perspective but points towards a different form of subjective involvement. In this context, successful social movements are not seen as a category defined by the presence of a common essence. Rather, their unity lies in their specific orientation with regard to the objective complex of interrelations in which they are embedded.

Herein lies the theoretical point where a distinction can be made between success and unsuccessful movements for social change: while the former is cognizant of its universal constitution, the latter conflates it with a fixed positive content. The politics of successful social movements is a “universalism of the multiple” [6] since it recognizes the universal as the dynamic interplay of the particular elements that compose it. This recognition forces it to acknowledge the impossibility of a self-contained existence and the consequent experience of negativity, of the inadequacy-to-itself of a particular phenomenon. An unsuccessful social movement, by contrast, is a “universalism of the One” [7] as it imposes an a priori consistency upon the ontological relationality of the universal. This prevents it from understanding how any phenomenon is propelled towards an incessant process of becoming through the negation that exposes its internal division. As such, isolation and immobility grips the project of social change.

Universalism of the Multiple: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X

The competing universalities of movements for social change can be illustrated through the convergent trajectories of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. King began his political journey by working within the system to get legislative civil rights. Trained in the traditions of the black Christian church, he used a religious language to show how the moral damage of racism on hearts, minds, and souls went against the American constitution’s promise of equality and citizenship. The purpose of this discursive vocabulary was to alleviate both white fear and black anger, with the aim of persuading the institutions of white power about the value of black citizenship [8]. King’s assumption of a common ethical standard between white and black people was fundamentally flawed because it overlooked the inherent dehumanization of black individuals by white supremacy. The racist order perceives the injustices inflicted upon black people as indefensible only if it considers the black individual as equally human. William R. Jones remarks: “The underlying assumption of King’s theory, the acknowledgment of our shared humanity, is simply not present in a racist society. King is putting the cart before the horse because in the presence of racism, the belief that black suffering is undeserved is absent.” [9]

Thus, King’s integrationist rhetoric can be said to have practiced a universalism of the One, which effected an external transcendence of black identity without working through it to reveal its inherent antagonism to the entire system of white supremacy. During the last three years of his life, King adopted a more combative stance, asserting black identity not as an abstract part of a harmonious moral landscape but as an unstable particular that revealed the structural deadlock of American society. After witnessing urban violence in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in August 1965, he came to the realization that genuine citizenship encompassed more than just the act of voting; it entailed access to meaningful employment, fair wages, adequate housing, quality education, healthcare, and proper nourishment. This could not be accomplished without “a radical redistribution of economic and political power” [10].

On May 10, 1967, King gave a speech at the Hungry Club Forum, Atlanta, where he explored the intersections of racial injustice, economic disparity, and the Vietnam War to articulate a sharp denunciation of American imperialism, systemic racism, and violence. In contrast to his earlier proclamations of abstract moral equality, he positioned black people as a concrete embodiment of the universal brutalities of racial poverty and economic exploitation suffered by marginalized masses, including whites, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans. In this “struggle for genuine equality on all levels,” declared King, “we are going to lose some friends” [11]. This highlights the necessity of division and exclusion in the antagonistic plurality of social change, contra the enforced homogeneity of integrationist universality. Black identity is not a genus of a selfsame community of moral equals. On the contrary, it is an out-of-joint particular whose universality appears in the gap that prevents it from achieving self-identity. In the words of Žižek, the “right to universality” is the “right of a political agent to assert its radical non-coincidence with itself.” [12] In 1968, this was vividly demonstrated when King traveled to Memphis to lend his support to the sanitation strike and to rally a multiracial coalition of underprivileged individuals for the upcoming Poor People’s Campaign march to Washington. He framed the fight for fair wages as a component of a broader nationwide endeavor for social equality, highlighting the notion that “if one black person suffers, if one black person is down, we are all down.” [13] This denotes the moment when the project for social change opens up to something beyond itself, when the struggle is no longer about finding a common positive content but confronting a systemic antagonism that prevents self-realization.

Unlike King, the deficiencies of Malcolm’s early political thinking flowed not from the integrationist view of an ahistorical moral framework but from the naturalization of a religio-communitarian sensibility. Malcolm was closely aligned with the Nation of Islam, which propagated the belief that white individuals were oppressive “devils” who subjugated the black race [14]. The organization advocated for racial and economic separation, with the ultimate goal of creating an independent black nation. Similar to the case of King’s politics, this can also be characterized as a universalism of the One, which uses cultural or biological essentialism to assert the superiority of the black community vis-à-vis white the community, thus constraining the relational plurality of social change in the container of external ideals. After his break with the Nation of Islam in 1964, Malcolm no longer subscribed to Muslim essentialism. The roots of black oppression were to be sought not in the nefariousness of the white race but in the historical structure of society. This historicization involved the internationalization of Black radicalism. Malcolm embarked on visits to African nation-states, Middle East capitals, and European cities with the aim of establishing connections between domestic black politics and the rising tide of anti-colonial and national liberation movements.

On April 3, 1964, Malcolm delivered a speech at Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, where he emphasized the imperative to elevate the civil rights struggle to a higher plane: that of human rights. While civil rights confined the black struggle within the borders of America, human rights opened doors for support from African, Asian, and Latin American masses in the pursuit of black power [15]. Through a militant agenda of human rights, Malcolm waged a two-pronged battle against the separatist and moral variants of the universalisms of the One. Firstly, he countered Muslim politics’ attribution of racism to the human nature of whites with a Pan-Africanist critique of the historical structures of imperialism and capitalism. In his words: “The system in this country cannot produce freedom for an Afro-American. It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, this social system, this system, period.” [16]

Secondly, Malcolm opposed the discourse of abstract integrationism with the political self-determination of black people. In his Cleveland talk, he explained that the civil rights approach, which presupposed the existence of common ethical standards, upheld the symbolic consistency of the racist order. However, the human rights approach, on the other hand, disrupted that consistency by subtracting black people from all the fixed predicates of the status quo. This subtractive operation – summarized in Malcolm’s declaration “I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare” [17] – replaces the finitude of national community with the infinitude of a global antagonism. Universal relationality expands beyond the constraints of abstract ideals and opens up pathways to explore the emancipatory possibilities of global cooperation within the historical arena of subalternity.

The 2020 police brutality protests in the US against the killing of George Floyd continue the revolutionary heritage of King and Malcolm. Floyd’s last words – “I can’t breathe” – serve as a concentrated expression of American society’s deep-seated inhumanness. The response to this can only consist in proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter”. This slogan is unique in two respects. First, it locates race as a site of singular universality wherein the truth of the nation is revealed. Instead of glorifying black identity in a parochial manner, this shifts the political focus towards social equality. Second, the slogan is opposed to the abstract unity of “All Lives Matter,” which bypasses the concrete experience of racial humiliation to enact the external transcendence of material divides. Social change can come about only by expanding upon the universal insights contained in the experience of those who suffer police violence.

To conclude, successful movements for social change can be distinguished from unsuccessful ones by their embrace of the universalism of the multiple. Through a methodological critique of the speculative tendencies of empiricism, it was shown how traditional knowledge has regarded social movements as an incarnation of an abstract essence. This stands in opposition to a dialectical perspective that details the immanent self-development of social movements from the plurality of ontological relationality. The political acknowledgment of this relationality serves as a defining characteristic of successful movements for social change.

(Author: Yanis Iqbal is studying at Aligarh Muslim University, India. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Education in the Age of Neoliberal Dystopia”)


Allen, Robert L. Black Awakening in Capitalist America. Trenton: Africa World Press, 1990 [1969].

Althusser, Louis. “From Capital to Marx’s Philosophy.” In Reading Capital. Translated by Ben Brewster. London/New York: Verso, 2015.

Balibar, Étienne. On Universals: Constructing and Deconstructing Community. Translated by Joshua David Jordan. New York: Fordham University Press, 2020.

Carrera, Juan Iñigo. “Method: From the Grundrisse to Capital.” In Marx’s Laboratory: Critical Interpretations of the Grundrisse. Edited by R. Bellofiore, G. Starosta, and P.D. Thomas. Rotterdam: Brill, 2013.

Corcoran, Steven, and Agon Hamza. “Metapolitics.” In The Badiou Dictionary. Edited by Steven Corcoran. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.

Joseph, Peniel E. The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. New York: Basic Books, 2020.

Jones, William R. “Liberation Strategies in Black Theology: Mao, Martin, or Malcolm”. In Philosophy Born of Struggle. Edited by Leonard Harris. Iowa: Kendal/Hunt 2000. Quoted in Chioke A.M. I’Anson. “Otherness and Blackness.” Master’s thesis, University of South Florida, 2003.

King Jr., Martin Luther. “Martin Luther King Jr. Saw Three Evils in the World.” May 10, 1967. The Atlantic, accessed June 27, 2023.

X, Malcolm. Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, edited by George Breitman. New York: Grove Press, 1990.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. London: MIT Press, 2006.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Against Human Rights,” New Left Review 34, no. 4 (2005):

[1Louis Althusser, “From Capital to Marx’s Philosophy,” in Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster (London/New York: Verso, 2015), 36.

[2Steven Corcoran and Agon Hamza, “Metapolitics,” in The Badiou Dictionary, ed. Steven Corcoran (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 206.

[3Juan Iñigo Carrera, “Method: From the Grundrisse to Capital,” in In Marx’s Laboratory: Critical Interpretations of the Grundrisse”, ed. R. Bellofiore, G. Starosta, and P.D. Thomas (Rotterdam: Brill, 2013).

[4Ibid, 51.

[5Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (London: MIT Press, 2006), 17.

[6Étienne Balibar, On Universals: Constructing and Deconstructing Community, trans. Joshua David Jordan (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020), 89.


[8Peniel E. Joseph, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: Basic Books, 2020), 120.

[9William R. Jones, “Liberation Strategies in Black Theology: Mao, Martin, or Malcolm,” in Philosophy Born of
Struggle, ed. Leonard Harris (Iowa: Kendal/Hunt 2000), 94, quoted in Chioke A.M. I’Anson, “Otherness and Blackness” (Master’s thesis, University of South Florida, 2003), 30.

[10Joseph, The Sword and the Shield, 277.

[11Martin Luther King Jr., “Martin Luther King Jr. Saw Three Evils in the World” (May 10, 1967), The Atlantic, accessed June 27, 2023,

[12Slavoj Žižek, “Against Human Rights,” New Left Review 34, no. 4 (2005):

[13Joseph, The Sword .and the Shield, 296

[14Robert L. Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America (Trenton: Africa World Press, 1990 [1969]), 30.

[15Malcolm X, Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, ed. George Breitman (New York: Grove Press, 1990), 34.

[16Ibid, 69.

[17Ibid., 26.

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