Predictably there has been a far greater outpouring of sentiment over the death of the charismatic boxer Mohamad Ali, than was apparent when he was alive. As was the case with the death of Nelson Mandela, establishment figures have queued up to heap accolades upon Ali, when before his death, the same establishment figures (and more) heaped animosity and scorn upon the many causes he stood for. Particular anger and contempt were levelled at him when he changed his name, then when he joined the Nation of Islam and when he refused to enlist for the American-led war in Vietnam. However not only was he the most accomplished boxer of his era and will probably be so for many generations to come, but he was considerably more. So it is not just his many boxing skills for which he will be remembered but because he was also something of a consistent activist, particularly for black rights in North America and elsewhere.
The media and the establishment will undoubtedly mention his activism, as they did with Mandela before him, but also from a similar reformist perspective. He will be presented and viewed as an active reformer for bourgeois human rights, and this is essentially the correct characterisation, for he never embraced a revolutionary anti-capitalist position. In all his criticisms of the social and economic situation for black Americans and white workers there was no hint of an anti capitalist perspective. His decision to discard his given name of Cassius Clay as with his other stances took bravery and strength of character but his consciousness never went much further than the religious understanding of The Nation of Islam. Nevertheless, for the most part and in his actions he represented a strong humanist trend albeit within the boundaries of a religious perspective.
This limitation of Ali’s understanding is not surprising and his failure to go further and become a revolutionary – humanist rather than a religeous – humanist cannot be really laid at his door. The example of anti capitalism presented to the world in the form of the former Soviet Union, China and their local defenders in the various sectarian Communist Party guises, acted as a barrier not only to talented charismatic persons such as Ali, but millions of ordinary citizens as well. The rapid degeneration of the Bolshevik model of anti capitalism into repressive state capitalism had sealed off generations from the revolutionary – humanist perspectives of Karl Marx and other such 19th century humanist orientated anti-capitalists. All that remained with a modicum of humanity for those dissatisfied with the many negative characteristics of capitalism in the late 20th century, was left reformism, institutionalised voluntary work and religeous introspection.
So it is well that ordinary people celebrate the life and perhaps mourn the death of Mohamad Ali as an example that not all those who succeed within the capitalist mode of production and make millions of pounds, dollars etc., are as thoroughly corrupt as the rest of the capitalist and pro-capitalist establishment. Ali stands for what the rest of the capitalist elite are not capable of becoming ie radical reformers, but he also demonstrates the limitations of the individual and of limited understandings of the current mode of production based upon capital and wage labour. The latter is something the present and future generations will have to re-discover in order for humanity to really put behind it divisions of race, religion, gender and ability and move on to a less destructive mode of production.
Roy Ratcliffe (June 2016 )