A fighter for Black liberation,
revolution and socialism
Harry Haywood was born in 1898. His parents had been born in slavery and had left the South by the time of his birth. Nevertheless, in youth he experienced the lacerating racism which faced African Americans everywhere in the U.S. By his teens he had become a determined enemy of oppression and a fighter for his people. Influenced by the Russian Revolution, he took up socialism and to his dying day in 1985 upheld it as the road to liberation for Black Americans and for all the world's peoples. His life was dedicated to the struggle, and no hardship could batter him down, no bribe sway him from his course. His lifelong efforts helped set the stage for the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the modern Black Liberation Movement, which have changed forever the face of this country. Today, there are still deep lessons to be learned from his life.
Unlike his friend Paul Robeson, Harry Haywood is not the subject of any centennial hoopla this year. Like Robeson, however, he made enormous contributions to the centuries-old freedom struggle of Black people in this country. While Robeson’s work was in the public eye, Harry Haywood was an organizer and theoretician who did much of his work as a member of the Communist Party. When Haywood felt that the CP had turned its back on revolutionary struggle, he contributed to the creation of new revolutionary formations.
Understanding the Black Nation
Harry Haywood’s greatest contribution was his central role in developing a theoretical understanding of the Black nation in the United States. At least since the 1800s, the concept of the Black nation has been on the African American agenda, and nationalism has always been a banner under which many of the finest fighters of our people have marched. This nationalist stream in our history has included various currents. One current has centered on Africa and the idea of African Americans returning to the continent they were stolen from. Another current, which dates back almost as far, is the demand for a national homeland here in the country which was built with the labor of Black men and women, the United States.
Still in his twenties, Haywood, a World War I veteran, joined the recently formed Communist Party. He did so along with many other core members of the African Blood Brotherhood, a small but influential revolutionary group. Shortly thereafter he was sent to the Soviet Union to study and represent U.S. communists. There he met men and women from around the world–from countries like South Africa, Ireland and China–who were fighting to liberate their homelands from colonial and imperialist domination. He and a handful of American and Russian comrades undertook an intense study of the history of Black people in the United States, including Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.), which had been ascendant only a few years before. They also looked at Marxist theory and at the role that national liberation struggles had played throughout history.
Harry Haywood and his coworkers developed a Marxist analysis of the situation of Black Americans. They were not merely a downtrodden sector of the working class. Neither were they, as the ruling class liked to argue, a distinct “race.” Rather, they were a nation. Slavery had molded members of diverse African peoples into a single group with a distinct culture and language. When the promise of Emancipation and Reconstruction was broken, the possibility of Black people being assimilated into U.S. society as full citizens evaporated. Instead, Jim Crow oppression and the serfdom of the sharecropping system forged them into a separate nation within the Black Belt South.
The Communist International adopted this position at its 1928 world congress, which drew together revolutionary delegates from around the globe. The Communist Party of the United States also adopted the position.
This development had very important consequences for the African American struggle. Most important, the concept of the Black nation carried with it the right to self-determination, up to and including the right to secede and form an independent African American republic in areas of historic Black majority. (These areas are known as the Black Belt South, so-called not because of its population but because of its rich farming soil.) This position also implied that the goal of the Black struggle was not merely equality but liberation, and that this struggle was a progressive one, not a nationalist distraction from the tasks of the multinational U.S. working class.
A Life of Struggle and Sacrifice
Guided by this new stand, the Communist Party stepped up its organizing in African American communities in the rural South and big-city ghettoes alike. Harry Haywood’s second great contribution can be seen clearly in this burst of organizing. He gave his life to the struggle, taking on whatever tasks were most pressing at the moment. Slim, dark-skinned, earnest, Haywood never complained about the cost of being a professional revolutionary to his personal relationships and wishes for a quieter, more stable life.
In the 1930s alone, he helped launch the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, which campaigned against lynching. He mobilized national demonstrations to defend the Scottsboro Boys, when they were railroaded on charges of raping two white women. He organized Black coal miners in Pennsylvania who were slow to join a strike, and challenged the racism among their striking white co-workers which contributed to their reluctance. He made risky clandestine visits to sharecroppers in the deep South who had dared to form a union. He went where the party sent him, leading campaigns in Memphis against police brutality and in Chicago against the Italian fascists’ invasion of Ethiopia, an independent African country. Like other dedicated communists, year in and year out, he went where the battle was sharpest–to give it structure, focus, and organization.
Haywood’s Final Battle
Harry Haywood’s third great contribution kicked in after his service in the Merchant Marine during World War II. He began a battle that would take him to the end of his life four decades later, a battle against the liquidation of the national question by the Communist Party, and later among the new generation of revolutionaries who arose in the 1960s and 1970s.
From the beginning, some people in the party had disagreed with the CP’s position on the Black nation. Others, who did agree with the position, felt that the party should not promote it in their organizing because the concept was unfamiliar to the majority of Black people and would definitely alienate many white workers. During the late 1940s, the push to abandon the revolutionary position on the Black nation was gathering steam. Harry Haywood plunged back into research and study, even as he was shipping out on freighters to make a living. His friend Paul Robeson gave him a monthly stipend so he could work on this project full-time. The result was the 1948 book, Negro Liberation, a detailed analysis of the national character of Black oppression, particularly in the South.
Haywood’s book, and other writings, rallied forces to fight for a revolutionary line on the national question and kept the party from formally abandoning its position for several years. Still, the tendency to put the national struggle on the back burner remained strong. It took various forms: downplaying the importance of party work in the South, arguing that all organizing should be channeled through the reformist N.A.A.C.P., and devoting a lot of energy to a campaign against white chauvinism inside the party.
Haywood fought against all these diversions. In the case of this last campaign, he argued that it was conducted in a way which detracted from the struggle among the masses in the real world and gave vent to petite-bourgeois nationalism within the party, which like white chauvinism posed a real danger to revolutionary politics. And he carried on his fight under the most difficult of conditions. As the anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950s raged, he lost job after job as a result of FBI visits to his employers.
By 1957, the battle within the Communist Party had been lost. Leading African American members, like Ben Davis, insisted that “the slogan of self-determination should be abandoned.” Some even claimed that Black people had already exercised the right to self-determination and decided to become part of the mainstream American nation, as if that were a real option.
Haywood and others drew another lesson from this defeat: the abandonment of a revolutionary position on the Black nation goes hand in hand with the abandonment of revolutionary politics altogether. Liquidating the party’s organizations in the South foreshadowed the liquidation of factory-based working class units in favor of broad, loose “clubs” that concentrated on reformist struggles and Democratic Party politics. The party declaration that Black people could win full social, political, and economic equality in the United States came from the same politics which declared that there would be a peaceful, non-revolutionary transition to socialism in the U.S.
This defeat and Haywood’s subsequent expulsion from the Communist Party was a bitter blow. Though he was in his late fifties, Harry Haywood did not give in to cynicism and despair. When Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party criticized the kind of politics his old party had taken up, he was heartened. Buoyed by the emergence of the civil rights and anti-war movements, he linked up with some of the young revolutionaries that these powerful upsurges had thrust forward.
Harry contributed a wealth of historical insight and knowledge to the new communist movement. Many veterans of the ’60s and ’70s recall long evenings learning and exchanging views with Harry and his wife, comrade and co-worker, Gwen Midlo Hall. In the 1970s he gave one of his greatest gifts to the struggle. He spent several years authoring his life story, Black Bolshevik. Were it not for the thousands of copies of this book sold by the small Liberator Press, Harry’s contributions might today be little more than scholarly footnotes in academic texts. The idea of the Black nation would still exist, of course–and will for as long as the nation itself exists!–but the systematic Marxist approach he pioneered would not be as well known. This must give us pause: How many other women and men have given their lives to the long struggle for Black liberation and human emancipation and left uncredited inheritances that we benefit from today as we step forward in our own time to push the struggle onward?
All respect to our ancestors, be they famous like Paul Robeson or too little known like Harry Haywood and so many others!