Black Bolshevik. Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 4 May/June 1980

black_bolshevikHarry Haywood. Liberator Press, Chicago, Illinois. 1978.

This is a big book by a big man. Born in 1898, the son of slaves, Harry Haywood was for 36 years a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America, the CPUSA. The history in this book, the history of a lifetime’s struggles, the history of the CPUSA is the history of 20th century America.

It was in the 1890's that American imperialism really took off. The Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rica, much of South America and most Caribbean countries were conquered by American imperialism within a decade. When Harry Haywood speaks of imperialism he knows exactly what it means. The looting and stealing of the wealth of other countries, the political control by force of other countries, and the deliberate restriction and prevention of the economic development of national economies is the character of US (as well as British) imperialism.

US imperialism abroad was also carried on within the US. Just as imperialism oppresses external nations, so it keeps the black Americans, and other minority groups, in a position of special oppression. In the Southern States black people were excluded from basic democratic rights by the Jim Crow system, dating from the Hayes-Tilden Gentlemen's Agreement of 1877. This baldly stated that no black person has any rights that need be recognised by white persons. In the industrial North of America, black labour was excluded from the trade unions, from the more skilled jobs, from housing, and pushed into ghettos. Black people were used as a pool of reserve labour - to be hired last and fired first, and brought in to break strikes. This was US imperialism on the home front. Many of the laws which were used to specifically oppress and exclude black people have been thrown out. This gain was won by the heroic struggles of the black masses in the 1920s and 1930s and again in the 1960s. But the legal victories which cost so many lives and so many years of struggle are only a limited gain, like the independence of a country from Britain or the US which is independent in name only because it is still dominated by Western capitalism. American black people know that this legal equality is a pretence. The reality was shown by the ghetto rebellions, 24 in 1964, 38 in 1966 and in 1967 128 and in 1968 131.

Harry Haywood spent a lifetime fighting for the liberation of the Afro-American population. He was also a communist. For him it was clear from his youth that the racist state of America - racist at home and abroad - was racist because capitalism thrives on dividing the working class and dominating nations. Within the imperialist homeland of North America there is a stratum of workers who gain in status and material living standards from the violent and vicious repression carried out by imperialism. In America, the trade union leadership and large sections of the white working class make up this privileged layer. They live off ‘the ability of the imperialists and the labour aristocracy to grant concessions’, in Harry Haywood's words. Their democratic rights and living standards are won at the expense of others’ enslavement.

As a communist, Harry Haywood understood that this all-powerful US imperialism is a decaying system. In the need for ever-greater expansion, in the search for ever-greater profits, capitalism creates the forces that will destroy it. The exploited nations from without and the oppressed workers from within have the historic task of joining forces to deal the death-blow to American capitalism by a joint anti-imperialist struggle.

Harry Haywood and the Communist International

Harry Haywood gained a full understanding of the nature of imperialism from his studies of  Lenin and the Bolshevik Party at the International Schools in Moscow in the 1920s. It was the result of his years there, meeting representatives from India, Indonesia, Korea, the Philippines, Persia (Iran), Egypt, Arabs from N Africa and the Middle East, China, Japan and Africa that Harry Haywood became a thorough internationalist. He was a major contributor to the revolutionary communist position on race and class. In his life he supported the growing national liberation struggles of oppressed peoples. ‘Genuine communists’, he said, 'of course must distinguish between the nationalism of the oppressor nations and that of the oppressed’. The just national aspirations of the Irish and South African black peoples, among others, were actively supported by Harry Haywood. But he had to continually fight those so-called communists who spoke of pure socialism that knew no national boundaries -the Utopia of the future not the real struggles of the day. And he also clearly saw that these Utopian socialists just so happened to be white and middle-class and from privileged countries or strata. For example, in 1928 at the 6th Congress of the Comintern, the white CP delegates from South Africa were more concerned about the position of the white minority than the black struggle for liberation and independence. They feared, they said, that the slogan of such a struggle would be ‘Drive the whites into the sea’ In the words of Harry Haywood, ‘The cat was let out of the bag, and a mangy, chauvinistic creature it was’.

Equally, the delegates from the British Communist Party, from the oldest and most experienced oppressor nation in the world, defended the idea that imperialism would aid the industrial development of the colonised world. It was no surprise that those who represented a working class, sections of whom were an aristocracy of labour, should come out with such a reactionary position. Both South African and British delegates were roundly defeated in the debate about the nature of imperialism and support for national liberation struggles.

In the case of South Africa, Harry Haywood played a vital role in the formulation of the Black Republic thesis, a thesis which allowed the revolutionaries within the Communist Party of South Africa to place the national question on a firm revolutionary footing. In the terms of this thesis, the right of the oppressed to self-determination was interpreted to mean the right of the oppressed to the entire territory of South Africa, not just one part of it. Moses Kotane, as well as other revolutionary communists were able to turn the Black Republic thesis into a weapon against both landlordism and national oppression in South Africa and therefore ultimately against imperialism itself.

Black liberation and the CPUSA

The main question which occupies Harry Haywood throughout his years in the CP was the position of black people in the USA. Here his story is a brave but tragic one. For long periods in the 1920s and 1930s it seemed that the Party had arrived at a correct revolutionary understanding on the question of race and class. It built massive struggles and united many thousands of workers, black and white, around demands that arose from the conditions of black workers North and South. On his return from the 6th Congress of the Comintern in 1929, Harry Haywood was armed with a revolutionary position on race and imperialism.

‘The new position grounded the issue of Black liberation firmly in the fight of the American people for full democratic rights and in the struggle of the working class for socialism. The struggle for equality is in and of itself a revolutionary question, because the special oppression of black people is the main prop of imperialist domination over the entire working class and the masses of exploited American people. Therefore, blacks and the working class as a whole are mutual allies. The fight of blacks for national liberation, quite apart from humanitarian considerations, must be supported as it is a special feature of the struggle for the emancipation of the whole American working class.’

The message is clear: the Afro-Americans are doubly oppressed, as workers and also racially. Their struggle against the American state, landowners, big business corporations and banks is the key struggle, the leading and truly revolutionary struggle of the working class. While a small section of black people may be bought off to form a minute middle class, the continual wage slavery, utter economic dependence and powerlessness of the masses of black workers shows the true nature of capitalist class society, its necessary and vicious exploitation of labour power and its need for a reserve army of cheap labour. Vast sections of the white American working class have obtained their relative employment security and living standards because of the continuing enslavement of the black population.

Harry Haywood, with a handful of other black and white members of the CPUSA understood the dual oppression of black people. They had to deal with those who saw the position only from one side or the other. There were many movements in the 1920s, and indeed in every decade, which viewed the situation that blacks found themselves in as a question of racial oppression alone. These movements, the most famous of which was the Universal Negro Improvement Association of Marcus Garvey, were dedicated to black nationalism, the complete separation of black people from white society. The most popular form that this separation took was the various ‘Back to Africa’ organisations which gained the support of many thousands of blacks, especially at times of deep despair when the class struggle was on the retreat and violently repressed. Many of these movements, including Garvey's, were in favour of capitalism, and unwittingly played into the hands of white racists.

Then there were those sections within the CPUSA who denied the special oppression of black people - racism. They tended to view all such matters as ‘pure’ class questions and were deliberately blind to the white chauvinism and white aristocracy of labour within the working class as a whole. These reactionaries not only ignored the leading role of the black struggle, but did so because they were themselves riddled with white supremacist ideas. As a matter of fact the Party had to conduct regular fights against the racism of its own membership. This section actually ended up supporting the nationalist, pro-imperialist labour and trade union movement which dominates in the United States today.

In addition to black separatism and white chauvinism, Harry Haywood had to conduct a struggle against organisations like the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). Such organisations, involving both black and white reformists, were usually funded by the state or big business interests and were concerned to undermine the living, militant and justly violent struggles of the times.

On his return from the 6th Congress in Moscow, Harry Haywood worked with the Party’s National Negro Commission. Armed with the Leninist understanding of imperialism, he put his efforts into directing the CP to organise around the black struggle. Rapidly a nation-wide movement in support of the Scottsboro Boys developed which mobilised massive protests against the lynch law social conditions of the Southern States. At the same time, an armed and militant Share-Cropper Movement was developing in which black and white poor farmers of the South defended themselves against the robber baron methods of the big banks which mortgaged every inch of soil and every hoe and spade. In the North the fight in the mines, factories and workshops against conditions, wages and the abuse of black labour continued to be organised by Communist Party cells, the most militant workers.

The Programme of the Communist Party on the Negro Question in the USA was a simple one though fraught with problems. In the North, the Party had to organise its members and build on the question of Civil Rights and industrial struggles. In the South, the slogan should be for ‘Self-determination’ and the creation of a Black Belt, an independent and self governing number of Southern states where the black population, made up about 70% of the entire population This programme can be criticised. It was wrong at that time to call on Afro-Americans to establish a new country in the United States of America. Although most of the black people then were tied to the land in one way or another, they were not peasants (as they were in South Africa or India for example) but rather they were semi-proletarians who were in the process of being thrown into the pool of unemployed land and factory workers. The task facing communists was rather to link up the struggle of the share-croppers with the struggle of the black proletariat who were already fighting against racism and industrial capitalism elsewhere in the USA. This would have provided a revolutionary foundation for the linking-up of the national question with the struggle against imperialism and for socialism. The setting-up of actual geographical black self-governing areas would have meant the setting up of Bantustans, which would have played into the hands of the imperialists.

The position of the CPUSA on the Southern states (which was almost exactly mirrored seven years later by the Trotskyist movement) was a mistaken one. None of the other movements, whether Trotskyist or otherwise, were able to offer any viable alternative. But Harry Haywood stuck to his support of the Southern Black Belt because it was the strongest way that he could insist that Black liberation is the essential foundation of a revolutionary position in the USA. The soiled and dirty ‘democracy’ of the US means nothing until the actual material and political conditions of the black proletariat in the most underdeveloped sectors is changed. The white chauvinism rife within the CP had to be confronted, not as a secondary issue, but as the central one, and Harry Haywood mistakenly chose this programme as the resting ground of the reactionary elements.

The defeat of US communism

The tragic story of the CPUSA is the story of its deliberate liquidation as a separate party despite the efforts of revolutionary communists within its ranks to maintain a Bolshevik tradition. It turned its back on the Southern Sharecroppers' Movement and closed down active branches in trade unions in the North and altogether turned to a national chauvinistic position at the outbreak of World War 2. In 1935 Communists were active in mobilising massive demonstrations of black and white workers against Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia in the 'Hands Off Ethiopia' Campaign. By 1957 the 16th Party Convention refused to support the struggle for independence against the US in Puerto Rico.

The Party was killed off because of those elements which refused to make the struggle against white chauvinism and opportunism central to the building of a revolutionary party. It hoped to merge with liberal tendencies to form a third American party to stand against Republicans and Democrats, the Progressive Party. Bitterly, inevitably, it was exactly at this time, the end of the 1940s and the early 1950s that Cold War politics seized all US institutions. In the final assault of US imperialism for control of the world economy, it turned viciously once again on the socialist countries. The party which had deliberately thrown away its power base in the workers' struggles was harassed, imprisoned and pursued by FBI agents until it was impossible to openly take up any anti-war activities. It was outlawed for the second time in its history in 1950.

The major contribution that Harry Haywood makes in his autobiography is to describe the relation of revolutionary communists to the spontaneous revolutionary movement of the oppressed. The main role of the communist organisation in relation to the upsurge is to defend and support that movement. First and foremost it must strengthen the anti-imperialist section, the most advanced section and prevent it being subordinated to liberalism and the American middle-class. It must above all fight the opportunists both within and without the movement who will divert, destroy and actually disarm the militancy of the masses.

The communist organisation must wage a relentless struggle against the isolation, defeat and destruction of the vanguard movement, these are the lessons of a lifetime learned by Harry Haywood and they come home with particular power when he deals with the Black Power and Black Panther movements of the 1960s. He writes that sections of the Black Power movement were bought off by ‘a thoroughly reformist trend which was backed directly by the imperialists. This new Black elite moved systematically to take over the movement, sap its revolutionary potential and restrict it to goals which US capitalism was willing to concede.’ The progressive and anti- imperialist trend within the Black Power movement was systematically destroyed ‘by a growing apparatus of repression – FBI, CIA, National Guard and Army Intelligence – which murdered, jailed and suppressed many unco-operative leaders.’

This two-pronged tactic of buying off the opportunists and physically destroying the revolutionaries like Malcolm X and George Jackson could happen because no genuine communist movement existed to prevent the isolation, demoralisation and decay of the revolutionary upsurge. In the words of Harry Haywood,

‘I believe that if we had had a revolutionary party in the sixties that much of the spontaneity and reactionary nationalism of the period could have been combatted. Undoubtedly, the ruling class would still have tried to split the Black Power movement, but the left wing would not have nearly been wiped out as an organised force in the Black community. If the CPUSA hadn't liquidated communist work in the South and in the factories, the sixties would have seen a consolidated proletarian force emerge in the Black Belt and the ghettos. The communist force could have come out of the Revolt with developed cadres rooted in the factories and communities, with credibility among the masses.’

From reading Black Bolshevik we learn that communists have a task of the utmost gravity: to defend the proletarian element within the spontaneous movement of the oppressed and to strengthen the anti-impererialist sections. This means a rigorous and determined assault against opportunism and white chauvinism within the labour movement. 'No concession to chauvinism!' that is the banner under which Harry Haywood fought. Notwithstanding his inadequacies and many errors, we salute this great fighter and welcome this book as a timely contribution to the ongoing debate in this country on the question of racism, opportunism and the anti-imperialist struggle.

Susan Davidson


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