125th birth anniversary tribute to Harry Haywood

Harry Haywood

Harry Haywood was for a prolonged period a member and leader of the Communist Party-USA and other communist organizations from the 1920’s until his death in 1985. On February 4th this month we commemorated his 125th birth anniversary. He championed the crystallisation of the concept that Blacks represented a separate “nation” inside the United States.

Haywood’s theoretical writings probably contributed more than any other one individual to project the terms of the debate about the historical character of the Black community. Without doubt one of the outstanding Afro-American Marxist leaders of the last Century. No Afro-American leader had such comprehensive Marxist perspective on nationality question.

Unquestionably one of the most astute and innovative Afro-American Marxist theoreticians. At every crucial juncture Haywood sharpened the cutting edge of Marxist-Leninist theory and prevented black militancy from turning into mere militarism devoid of class ideology. He was instrumental in giving a structure to subject of black liberation or nationality movement.

His teachings prevented Black resistance from drifting away from class politics. In era with globalisation marginalising Black or Afro-American people further, his writings need to be resurrected, which are of golden use. Haywood unflinchingly withstood New Left and Trotskyite trends.

His major writings are Negro Liberation (1948), For a Revolutionary Position on the Negro Question (1958), and Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro American Communist (1978). Importantly, Harry Haywood’s analysis laid the foundation for later Marxist-Leninist theoretical work not only on the African American Nation in the Black Belt, but also on the Chicano Nation in the Southwest

Early Life

Haywood was born in 1898 in what is now Omaha, Nebraska, to a family of self-educated ex-slaves. Driven out of Omaha by racist violence, Haywood’s family settled in Minneapolis, where he lived during his adolescence. Faced with bitter racial prejudice in Minneapolis schools, Haywood ended his formal education in the 8th grade and went to work full time, embarking on a variety of occupations.

Haywood moved to Chicago in 1915, where he soon ended up in the National Guard, entangled in the war mobilization for WWI. He suffered all the discrimination of the Black soldiers of his time, serving in segregated units, and training in the hot belly of reaction, the Deep South. Even while deployed in France, Haywood’s regiment could not escape Jim Crow’s long shadow. The racist military establishment attempted to poison the French people with prejudice and refused to allow any Black    officers to command the segregated troops.

After returning to the United States, Haywood    immediately made his way into the 1919 Chicago Race Riot. Throughout 1919 race riots inflamed the United States, with that summer being known as “Red Summer,” because of the bloodshed caused by racist mobs. In retaliation in cities and towns across the country, Black communities led by war veterans organised self defence in their vicinities.

Harry Haywood clubbed with Black veterans in Chicago, who mounted a Browning sub-machine gun in an apartment window and stood guard with Springfield rifles. Haywood mentions this moment in his autobiography as the most important turning point of his life. Fed up with the endless racism in U.S. society—and believing firmly that a better world was possible—Haywood devoted his entire life  from then on “to struggle against whatever it was that made racism possible.”

Becoming a leading communist

Haywood came into contact with a number of radical groups of the period, briefly becoming a member of the African Blood Brotherhood, led by Black communists, before joining the communist party itself in the mid 1920s. A few years later the Party chose Haywood for further studies at the Communist International schools in Russia.

It was in the Soviet Union that Haywood lit the first spark as one of history’s most prominent Black communists. As a body dedicated to stimulating and coordinating worldwide revolution, the Comintern emphasized the working class’s unity with the world’s colonized and nationally oppressed peoples. As such, the Comintern leadership was sharply critical of the CPUSA’s virtually boycotting work amongst African Americans. While a few Black activists had joined primarily because of their attraction to the Russian Revolution, mass work amongst Blacks was lagging.

Haywood did not attribute this problem primarily to lack of effort, nor simply white chauvinism (although this was a considerable problem among some members). Rather, he diagnosed that the Party had not adopted any Marxist analysis of the history and state of oppression facing African Americans. Without a theoretical root to harbour and guide their work, the young Communist Party was basically oscillating.

It was here, working on various Comintern commissions that Haywood became the key figure in formulating what became known, perhaps somewhat erroneously, as the “Black Belt Thesis.” He also was involved in discussions around the question of race and nationality in South Africa.

Haywood returned to the United States in the early 1930’s and continued to play a leading role in formulating the theoretical positions of the Communist Party on the “Negro question.” He served for a time as the head of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, a party sponsored mass-organization constructed to fight white supremacy. Haywood also served as an organizer in the 1931 miners’ strike in West Virginia, bridging unity between Black and white workers. He was involved in defence of the framed up Scottsboro Boys, who were sentenced to death by Jim Crow courts in Alabama, but set free due to mass struggle waged by the Black and white working population.

In 1938, Haywood also served in the Spanish Civil War along with other left-wing volunteers who went to join the fight against fascism. Personal disputes  with local commanders paved the way for his  return to the United States after only six months—and were then used to demote him from the CPUSA’s top leadership.

Haywood’s Relentless Spirit

During the late 1930s, the CPUSA diverted from the theoretical conceptions put forward by Haywood, and began to dissolve a number of the more successful campaigns amongst Blacks. The Party’s welcoming of Popular Front politics required that they become a more integral part of liberal and centrist political organizations. In the North, this led them to accept the reformist leadership of the NAACP. In the Party’s southern work, an adjustment with liberalism required a rejecting of the militant, communist-led sharecroppers’ movement.

The Party by no means abandoned the struggle against racism, and they continued to recruit large numbers of African Americans. But those like Harry Haywood—who advocated a united front against racism that would allow the Communists to challenge bourgeois leadership—were forced to the sidelines.

As the Cold War began to take shape after WWII, the CPUSA rekindled towards sharper confrontation with the capitalist class. In this context, Haywood was able to revive his landmark theory in the 1948 book “Negro Liberation,” written with the financial help of Paul Robeson. This, however, was a short-lived victory as the Party became major target of  the anti-communist witch-hunt.It  again inclined  towards liberalism, seeking refuge in unwelcoming organizations like the NAACP. Harry Haywood was increasingly rebuked and his revolutionary analysis of the “Negro question” was replaced with a theoretical conception that had more in common with bourgeois liberal currents of the period. In 1959, Haywood was expelled.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Harry Haywood relentlessly defended his “Black Belt Thesis,” which shimmered again in the radical resurgence. As a new generation of activists in the Black liberation movement and the Left studied and debated the African American national question and the concept of “internal colonies,” the work of Harry Haywood was a landmark reference point.

The “Black Belt thesis”

The “Black Belt thesis” emphasised the oppression of African Americans as a “national question” imperative for revolutionaries in the United States.

What became known as the “Black Belt” thesis has its roots in the conception of Black Americans initially conceived by Haywood and other communists of various nationalities in the Communist International.

Basing itself on the conceptions developed by Lenin and moulded n the Soviet experience with oppressed nations, this theory held Blacks in America constituted  not simply a racial or ethnic group, but d an oppressed nation. The thesis was adopted at the Sixth Congress of the Communist International—under Stalin’s leadership—in 1928.

This conception did not refer to nation in the sense of the “nation-state” as today’s common terminology would suggest, but rather had its roots in the concept of how nation states were formed by capitalism. As feudalism paved path  to capitalism, the new social system eradicated the barriers of countless  fiefdoms, and through a prolonged process of war and market growth carried people of different historical backgrounds and across relatively large areas and converted them  into one people with a common language, national market, culture, etc. Each nation-state that developed in this way— the most common examples of this process being Western European countries, such as France and England—had a unique historical development.

Lenin’s traditional conception concluded that “multi-national states” emerged in countries where the process of capitalist development had been uneven, where non-capitalist or semi-capitalist economic forms held the monopoly, economically and socially. Romanov monarchs attempted to establish advanced capitalism, without affecting feudal mode of production in any manner. Russia thus created a conglomeration of the most advanced capitalist methods, on the basis of the social structure and agricultural life of the 13th century. This historical unevenness created a multinational nation-state, encompassing an entire continent, integrating over 100 different distinct nationalities and ethnicities.

Haywood gauged a similarity in the situation of African Americans. Although transported to America from many different ethnicities and cultures, the unique experience of slavery overtime moulded Africans into a new distinct people. For Haywood, this was not only a cultural phenomenon—in which Blacks developed a common identity based on their common experiences and struggles—but also had geographic roots. The integration of Africans of disparate backgrounds into a United African American nation occurred over a defined land base in the Deep South where Blacks incorporated the  majority of the inhabitants.

After the toppling of Reconstruction, debt peonage in the south and the Jim Crow system further accentuated  the super-exploitation of Blacks in the “Black Belt” south as a dominant and enduring feature of U.S. capitalism. The region in question, Haywood argued, in fact represented an internal colony. What followed from this was the diagnosis that if Blacks built  up a “nation” within the United States, they also had the right to self-determination—that is the right to form their own nation-state in the Black Belt South.

Haywood’s concepts still manifest the best starting point to understand the Black “national question.” One can disagree with  the south-centered “land base” of a potential Black nation, but one cannot debate the landmark historical evolution of African Americans as a distinct nation within the framework of a multi-national state.

Distinguished from almost all other theories propagated on this issue since Haywood’s concepts were based on a methodological class analysis of the actual conditions prevailing of Blacks in America. His craftiness in applying the historical materialist method sets a high parameter for Marxists to follow.

Distinctions from Black Nationalism

Communist Party cartoon from 1936. During this period, the CPUSA’s anti-racist militancy stood apart from nearly all other organizations with white members in U.S. society.

Harry Haywood did not establish his theoretical conceptions on the Black nation out of any goal e for Black separatism; he was totally committed to the idea of a united working class party. However he realized only a party that waged  a death defying struggle  against white supremacy could overcome the obstacles to class unity. Such a struggle was necessary to win over of the Black masses on one hand, and also to extricate  white workers from ruling class ideology on the other.

While Black communists allied with all sorts of other forces in the mass struggle, Haywood lucidly distinguished the program of communists. The communists’ efforts to win working-class leadership of the Black liberation struggle and their propagation for socialism as the only resolution to national oppression brought them into conflict with bourgeois Black leaders of both the “integrationist” and “nationalist” type.

Haywood placed the bourgeois integrationist trend and the nationalist trend in the 1930s Black community under a microscope in a class analysis. The integrationist NAACP and Urban League, represented by “successful businessmen, top-echelon leaders, upper-bracket educators, and local politicians,” typically commanded leadership of the Black movement, due to their deep linkages to Wall Street and white philanthropic organizations.

On the other hand, the nationalists engulfed the Black “ghettos” among “small businessmen, the intelligentsia, professionals and the like” and expressed the desires of the Black petit-bourgeoisie, stunted by modern imperialism, to hold monopoly over the economic life of Black urban communities. In conditions of crisis especially, Haywood noted, the nationalists’ appeal to race solidarity or Back-to-Africa programs had the capability of drawing large sections of the Black poor, for whom the integrationists gave no economic solutions.

Haywood asserted it was necessary for communists to recognize the anti-imperialist, revolutionary potential and historical legitimacy of the Black Nationalist movement. At the same time, Haywood warned the Party that the militancy of its petty bourgeois stratum “is very misleading” (424) and repeatedly urged the Party to not commit  the opposite error of “surrendering to the propaganda of local nationalists.”

Haywood’s point is further illustrated  by the fact that “Black capitalist” schemes have frequently garnered support  from  the most reactionary elements of the white community, from the Ku Klux Klan to Richard Nixon, who declared in 1968 that many Black militants merely wanted a “piece of the action” rather than overthrowing  the social system.

One prominent  example of Haywood’s rejection of  petty bourgeois Black Nationalism is in the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns of the 1930’s, which sprouted in Harlem, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. These campaigns, led by local Black nationalists who abhorred work with whites, targeted the white-owned stores that excluded Blacks from employment while selling products in the ghetto. Nationalist leaders called for the white employees to be replaced with Black employees at the targeted stores, a demand that quickly developed a significant following.

Haywood contrived that the campaigns sparkled on the “justly felt anger” of the Black working-class, but argued that “the ruling class was overjoyed with this type of movement” because it diffused the class line and “tended to quickly become anti-white.” They “directed the struggle against these small establishments, which had only a small fraction of jobs,” as well as white workers, and thus “the broad struggle of Black unemployed was diverted away from the large corporations located mostly outside the ghetto.”

Haywood argued that the Communist Party could not stand abreast of this struggle for Black jobs, instead calling for the Party to focus on a broader campaign, spearheaded by Black and white unionists, which opposed firing of any existing workers.

Many then and since have criticized the CPUSA for this, considering it an unnecessary concession to white workers that weakened the struggle. Ira Kemp and Arthur Reid, two nationalist leaders, were some of the leading critics of the CPUSA. They had started something known as the Harlem Labor Union, which won some jobs for the community by convincing store owners to hire Black workers at lower than the prevailing wage.

In contrast, Haywood’s tactics were always undertaken incorporating h the Party’s strategic outlook: building Black-white unity in the fight against both national and class oppression. Indeed, Haywood invested   political energies, as well as his later autobiography, to this fundamental question facing revolutionaries in the United States.

Black and white Unity

Building class unity has always been an uphill task. For one, white supremacy has long held status as an unofficial state religion. Secondly, Black people in the United States face “special oppression” above and beyond the “normal” forms of oppression meted out by capitalist society; the resistance to these forms of oppression will thus take a unique form.

Finally, summarising the country’s history, a pattern crystallises  in which Black people march forward in struggle, become the instrument  for radicalism in society as a whole, but are overpowered by the combined forces of the ruling class before a sizable enough section of white workers identify  their common interests with the Black freedom movement.

Liberals and nationalists tend to accept this pattern as inevitable and permanent , but draw opposite conclusions: either that Black people should nullify revolt  and not demand so much (the liberal argument), or that Black people should concentrate  on sculpting  areas  or states independent of the existing social order (the nationalist argument). Revolutionary Marxists support the right of self-determination, but also advocate a militant organization that has knitted together the workers leading in each sector, holds s significant influence in each, and formulates tactics that synthesise the common objectives of class struggle and Black liberation.

This perspective of promoting multinational unity is easy to propagate on paper, but must be upheld in practice. Fostering racism among white workers has long been the most lethal weapon in the ruling class’s kitty to break unity.. Further, Haywood recognized that the nationalist sentiments of the Black working class inevitably would b manifested within the Party—a trend that he warned against most emphatically in the Party’s 1934 Convention.

Haywood wrote:

“Just as the ruling class ideology of white supremacy had its influences on white comrades, it was not unusual that Black comrades would similarly be affected by petty bourgeois nationalist ideology. These moods were and sentiments were expressed in feelings of distrust of white comrades, in skepticism about the possibility of winning white workers to active support in the struggle for Black rights, and in the attitude that nothing could be accomplished until white chauvinism was completely eliminated. This latter was particularly dangerous because it failed to understand that white chauvinism could only be broken down in the process of struggle.”

The two trends of white chauvinism and petty bourgeois nationalism were not equivalent, but both “deviated from the line of proletarian internationalism” and needed to be confronted.. As a leading Black member of the CPUSA, Haywood played his part in upholding the long-held division of labour in the communist movement with regards to national oppression: comrades of the oppressor nation would lead the fight against chauvinism inside the Party’s ranks, while comrades of the oppressed nation must combat narrow nationalist deviations.

Haywood emphasised that any disorientation on the part of the Party in leading the practical struggle among Black workers would turn them impotent to combat both considerable dangers.

Haywood asserted d that multi-national unity is not a feel-good exercise, or simply a helpful secondary factor. Rather, a united working class is the only road to an overthrow of capitalism, which holds the only chance for the full liberation of the mass of Black workers, who constitute the vast majority of Blacks in America.

This is the legacy left to us by Harry Haywood: a critical and uncompromising dedication to the total liberation of Black workers, the working class, and humanity itself.

Analysis of USSR

Where Haywood erred was his analysis of USSR after 1956 as a Socialist state and termed characterisation as ‘social imperialist,’ Still he was correct in opposing three worlds theory and USSR being the biggest danger of world people. Although part of Pro-China New Communist party he asserted that it was the United States of America that was the main enemy of the world people. Tooth and nail he rejected the Chinese three worlds theory, and CCP diagnosing USSR as the main enemy of world people. “History demonstrates that, overall, Soviet foreign policy has been basically defensive and non-aggressive. This fact does not mean that everything the Soviet Union does is correct or that it cannot make serious mistakes or pursue wrong lines. For example, its relations with China and other socialist countries have been marked at times by chauvinism and hegemonism. But these problems do not make the Soviet Union a social imperialist power.”

“While many problems contributed to the crisis of the new communist movement, the underlying cause of its collapse was the incorrect strategic line of the Three Worlds Theory which our part of the party building movement uncritically adopted from the Chinese. This view that the Soviet Union is a social-imperialist country in which capitalism has been restored marked, for the Chinese, a fundamental change in the international balance of forces. It portrayed the Soviet Union not only as an enemy but the “main enemy” of the world’s people. It led the Chinese at times into a tacit alliance with the U.S. It also created deep contradictions in the political line of the new communist movement.”

Best Works

Black Bolshevik. Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist: by Harry Haywood. Is not simply the narration of a single man’s life and struggle but a most penetrative and congeal narration of both Afro-American history and the history of the communist movement overlapping more than six decades of this century.

It is a pioneering work in analysing from a Marxist Leninist perspective  the history of the Communist Party U.S.A. and how revisionism crept into the party to become a dominant force.

A glance at the chapter titles illustrates the theme of the book. It begins with “A Child of Slaves,” giving a touching account of Black life in the U.S. around the turn of the century. It passes through “A Black Regiment in World War I” and “Searching for Answers,” the story of Black youth in Chicago in the 1920s.

The headings then manifest an epic: “The Lenin School,” “A Student in Moscow,” and “Sixth Congress of the Comintern: A Blow against the Right.” Next the scene shifts to the U.S., with “Class Warfare in the Mines” and “Sharecroppers with Guns: Organizing the Black Belt,” accounts of the revolutionary storms of the Depression years. Towards the end, the focus gravitates again, beginning with “The Spanish Civil War: A Call to Arms” and concluding with “Browder’s Treachery” and “Revisionism Takes Command.”

Black Bolshevik is a sword in the struggle against imperialism, revisionism and white chauvinism.

The Negro Nation is another classic with the 7th chapter explaining why in the struggle against the plantation system of the South, the Negro people are necessarily the chief driving force. The liberal “remedies” which obliterate the fundamental economic changes imperative for the democratic transformation of the South, ignore this crucial fact and, with it, they ignore the distinguishing features of the social and political struggle of the Negroes Haywood most intensively penetrates in superlative depths. The Myth of Race, Negro Liberation, Effect on the Negro, Real Nature of the Problem, Objective Conditions for Nationhood , Effect on the Negro, Self-government ,Democracy in the Black Belt ,The Status of National Consciousness and Negro Culture.


Haywood could not completely grasp the significance of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China or synthesise Marxism-Leninism with the Black Panther Party or movement He also could not imbibe important lessons from the National Liberation Struggles worldwide .Haywood was not able to give practical shape to a Marxist Revolutionary Afro-American movement or integrate the Black working class into a party through party building from below.

Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist who has studied Liberation Struggles

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