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Learning from Harry Haywood in the fight for Black freedom and socialism

By staff

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Anyone doubting the relevance of Harry Haywood’s writings in 2020 hasn’t paid much attention to political events this year.

After success in three early Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders’ social democratic campaign for president, supported by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), ran first aground in South Carolina in February. African American voters turned out in greater numbers for his opponent, Joe Biden, even while favoring many of Sanders’ policies like Medicare For All. Voter turnout was low in general, owing to the fundamentally undemocratic character of the U.S. political system, and a lot of factors went into his loss. But nevertheless, South Carolina proved the beginning of the end for Sanders.

Although Sanders’ defeat left many of his left-wing supporters demoralized, something else was brewing. In Brunswick, Georgia, where Black people make up 60% of the population, two white men connected with the police murdered Ahmaud Arbrey, a Black jogger. Video of the incident and evidence of a police coverup outraged the country and primed the pump for rebellion. Less than two months later, mass unrest erupted across the U.S. in response to the racist police killings of George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and others.

But while unprecedented crowds swell across the country – in big cities as well as small, rural towns with no history of mass protests – many self-described socialists and radicals in groups like the DSA and publications like Jacobin have struggled to relate to the movement. Many have participated in and supported rallies and protests, but as a whole, the Sanders-inspired social-democratic movement of the last four years has not been in the forefront of the struggle.

At just such a moment, an independent publisher, Pravda Media, has reprinted one of the most important works of American Marxist theory: Negro Liberation by Harry Haywood. Written in 1948, the book is a crucial look by a leading Black communist into the character of the oppression faced by African Americans in the U.S. Haywood outlines the view of the Communist Party in the first half of the 20th century, which allowed it to organize many thousands of workers and sharecroppers – Black and white – in the U.S. South and challenge Jim Crow.

Haywood’s book isn’t an academic exercise aiming for acceptance on the New York Times editorial page. It’s not a hodgepodge of new buzzwords for Twitter radicals to deploy. This is theory, emerging from the practical organizing experience of communists like Haywood in workplaces and communities. Books like Negro Liberation are meant to be studied by revolutionaries for the purpose of making revolution and ending oppression.

Harry Haywood: A titan for Black freedom and socialism in the United States

Harry Haywood was one of the first African American members of the Communist Party of the United States, joining in 1925. Over the course of his life – chronicled in his autobiography, Black Bolshevik - Haywood witnessed many of the most important events in the 20th century history of world socialism. He studied in the Soviet Union for several years during the late 1920s and 1930s, organized mineworkers and sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South, served in both world wars and served in the Abraham Lincoln International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War against fascism.

Before 1928, the Communist Party had difficulty recruiting Black members and seldom carried out sustained organizing among African Americans. Much of that owed to the legacy of the Socialist Party’s pitiful ‘pure class’ approach to Black freedom, summed up in a statement from Eugene Debs: “We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all races. The Socialist Party is the party of the working class, regardless of color. Social equality, forsooth…is pure fraud and serves to mask the real issue, which is not social equality, but economic freedom.”

Haywood and other Black trade unionists came to Marxism through a left-wing offshoot group of Marcus Garvey’s Black nationalist movement called the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB). Though they admired the mass character of Garvey’s movement, they rejected Garvey’s attacks on organized labor and his ‘Back to Africa’ campaign, which Haywood says “drove Garvey to a tacit alliance with the southern Bourbons.” Indeed, Garvey even sought the support for his plan from the Imperial Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in 1924.

After the ABB merged into the Communist Party, Haywood and other Black party members went to the Soviet Union to study the science of making revolution (Marxism Leninism). After observing the elevated status of formerly oppressed nations in the Soviet Union and studying Lenin’s writings on imperialism and national liberation, Haywood came to understand the struggle of Black people in the U.S. for freedom as a national question. This line eventually won acceptance in both the party in the U.S. and the world communist movement as a whole.

African Americans and the Black Belt South

In Negro Liberation, Haywood further developed the Communist Party’s line on the Black national question in the United States, which had guided the party’s work since 1928. Written in the immediate post-World War II period, the book argues that African Americans constitute an oppressed nation in the U.S. south, anchored in a region called the Black Belt. Rather than relying on concepts like race and racial prejudice, Negro Liberation drills down to the material root of these ideas in imperialism and puts the Black freedom struggle on a scientific, revolutionary basis.

Named for its nutrient rich, dark soil, the Black Belt is a crescent-shaped stretch of counties that cuts through twelve southern states, in which African Americans comprise a majority or plurality of the population. It was the concentrated center of the slave plantation system before the Civil War and the main battleground of the democratic struggles in the South during Reconstruction.

“The Black Belt is the center of America’s Negro problem,” writes Haywood. “The core of its greatest concentration. Here is the seat of the infection from which the virus of Negro persecution spreads throughout the country, contaminating all phases of Negro life.”

Indeed, in 1948, about 5 million African Americans lived in the Black Belt – roughly one-third of the total Black population. While these counties of Black majority are the anchor of the African American nation in the South, they aren’t the nation in its entirety. Earlier works on the Black national question, like James Allen’s The Negro Question in the United States (1936), included neighboring cities and counties with large Black populations in their consideration because the Black Belt, as Haywood says, “is arbitrarily broken up by a mass of state or county boundaries,” which “in no way correspond with the economic and political needs of the oppressed majority population and are artificially maintained and gerrymandered by the real rulers of the South.”

It’s beyond the scope of this review to go into detail, but the Black Belt and its border territory still exists today. According to the 2018 American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 133 counties in the southeastern states with majority or plurality-Black populations. African Americans make up 30% or more of the population in even more southern counties in and around the Black Belt. In total, about 56% of the entire Black population in the U.S. lives in the South – and those numbers are growing.

The distinction between a national question and a question of racial prejudice is not academic. Rather than a struggle against backward ideas to be worked out after the revolution, the fight for Black freedom is the fight of an oppressed nation, for full equality, liberation and self-determination, in the here and now. It means that the Black freedom struggle, far from distracting from the class struggle, strikes at the heart of monopoly capitalism (imperialism). It recognizes both the revolutionary potential of the movement itself and the objective interests it shares with the multinational working class as a whole.

The shadow of the plantation

Much of Negro Liberation looks at the conditions of African Americans in the South, which were primarily rooted in the semi-feudal agricultural system of sharecropping. Although sharecropping and agriculture no longer define the economy of the South, the national oppression of African Americans in the Black Belt remains—and has profound significance today.

Chapter Four, entitled “The Shadow of the Plantation,” offers some of the most important insights. Here, Haywood looks closely at the ways national oppression in the Black Belt affects African Americans living outside the South and the entire multinational working class – including white workers.

“The shadow of the plantation falls upon the Negro in Harlem, in Chicago’s South Side, in the hundreds of urban 'Black Belts’ throughout the country, frustrating his efforts toward economic and social betterment,” says Haywood. “The 'color line,’ which in the agricultural regions of the South, freezes the Negro at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, operates in industry to achieve the same end. The net result is the establishment of a ‘job ceiling’ above which a Negro can rise only rarely and under which the great mass of urban wage earners are forced into the categories of lowest paid and least skilled jobs in industry or into the menial drudgery of domestic and personal services.”

Haywood knew first-hand the long shadow cast by the plantation system. Born in Nebraska to emancipated slaves, his family fled Ku Klux Klan terror at the turn of the century when he was a kid—incidentally, a background Haywood shared with Malcolm X. Living and working in Chicago, Illinois, Haywood experienced rampant discrimination at work and saw Black neighborhoods torn apart by racist mobs and police. In Negro Liberation, he puts it this way: “From its tap root in the semi-feudal plantation system, anti-Negro racism has spread throughout the country, shaping the pattern of Negro-white relationships in the North as well.”

But there’s another aspect to the plantation system’s long shadow that Haywood emphasizes: the “degradation of the whites.” He writes, “It is not accidental then, that where the Negroes are most oppressed, the position of the whites is also the most degraded.” Noting that nearly 45% of sharecroppers in 1940 were white, Haywood examines the rampant poverty, illiteracy, child labor, poor health and decrepit housing that marks the entire South, both in and around the Black Belt.

It’s not just economics either. Asking “what price white supremacy?” Haywood writes, “Political controls which are aimed primarily at the disenfranchisement of the Negro have also resulted in depriving the mass of poor whites of their right to the ballot.” It brings to mind the ongoing battle in Florida over the 2018 ballot amendment restoring voting rights to non-violent ex-felons. Mass incarceration is a form of national oppression developed and aimed at African Americans, and laws blocking ex-felons from voting are designed to restrict their political power. Florida Republicans have fought tooth and nail to keep the 2018 amendment from going into effect for that reason. And yet a majority of those who would regain voting rights – and remain disenfranchised – are white.

This is the importance of understanding the problems facing African Americans as a national question, rather than as a question of purely racial prejudice and backwards ideas of white people. It clearly identifies who benefits from the misery and horrors experienced by Black people and puts the blame where it belongs: on the monopoly capitalist class that rules this country.

Getting to the real nature of the problem

To be sure, Haywood talks a lot about the race ideology that accompanies national oppression in the United States. “Woven into the national fabric,” he writes, “it has become an integral part of the ‘American way of life,’ despite repeated refutation by authoritative science.” That’s as true in 2020 as it was in 1948. But all ideology, even something as bogus as race, comes from a set of material conditions and social relations. In other words, there’s something very real underwriting this very wrong ideology.

“Race, a strictly limited biological concept, becomes a social factor and is used as an instrument for perpetuating and intensifying Negro subjugation,” says Haywood. “In reality, the so-called racial persecution of the Negro in the United States is a particular form and device of national oppression. The use by an oppressor nation’s ruling class such social differences as language and religion to preserve the isolation (and thus the economic and social inequality) of a subject people is common knowledge.”

Getting beyond the dead ends of ruling class ideology, Haywood drills down to the material root: “The secret to unraveling the tangled skein of America’s Negro question lies in its consideration as the issue of an oppressed nation. Within the borders of the United States, and under the jurisdiction of a single central government, there exist not one but two nations: a dominant white nation, with its Anglo-Saxon hierarchy, and a subject black one.”

Class struggle within the Black freedom movement

The national question has serious implications for both Black freedom and for socialism in the U.S. Haywood masterfully draws this out in the book’s final chapter: “The Negro Liberation Movement.”

Lenin understood imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism, in which monopoly capitalist nations dominate, subjugate and exploit entire nations for their labor and resources. But while all classes of an oppressed nation suffer from imperialism, they do not suffer equally – and they all have their own objective class interests.

With that framework, Haywood traces the development of the Black freedom movement – from the betrayed democratic revolution promised by Reconstruction to the post-war period. He identifies two trends in the movement emerging out of the aspirations of the Black middle class (petty bourgeoisie): one seeking accommodation with and gradual reform from the ‘enlightened’ white ruling class; the other taking a more nationalistic, combative approach, which Haywood terms ‘ghetto nationalism’.

He offers a lucid class analysis of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, the Niagara movement of WEB DuBois, the NAACP and Urban League and finally Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement. Rather than glibly dismissing these movements or uncritically praising them, Negro Liberation seriously grapples with why they emerged at particular moments in time, whose class interests they served, and why they failed to end national oppression.

Negro Liberation provides the material basis for understanding the complexities of the Black freedom movement, rather than painting it as a monolith. Nations have classes, and the Black nation in the U.S. is no different. But while national liberation movements are united fronts comprised of several classes, Haywood makes a compelling case for the need for the Black working class to struggle for leadership of the movement. He writes, “Negro labor, organically united with the militant and politically conscious section of white labor, is the only force which can rally and unite the scattered segments of the Negro people in the fight for freedom.” In other words, leadership shouldn’t be left to Black capitalist or Black middle-class forces. The Black working class should struggle to lead the united front.

Socialism and Black freedom

So what does this mean for socialism in the United States?

It means that the multinational working class and the Black freedom movement have the same enemy: monopoly capitalism. To unite the multinational working class in the U.S. and take on the enemy, Haywood is adamant: “It means the waging of a relentless, uncompromising fight against the lethal plague of white chauvinism, that is, the idea of ‘white superiority,’ the secret weapon of Wall Street and its Bourbon hirelings, which is designed to rally the masses of American white people for active support of at least unquestioned acceptance of the policy of Negro oppression.”

But that struggle against racist ideas within the working class doesn’t happen through attending workshops on ‘white fragility’ or long posting sessions on Twitter. “The fight against this ideology,” says Haywood, “must be waged in conjunction with the job of mobilizing white labor, that is, the working class of the oppressing nation, for energetic, uncompromising, and all-out support for the fundamental demands of the Negro people.” In other words, less moral posturing; more organizing among the working class in our unions, our neighborhoods and our communities.

White socialists have to take this struggle seriously. Some on the left have made careers for themselves attacking the manifestations of narrow nationalism today (‘identity politics’). But seldom do these attacks accompany sustained mass organizing among the working class to support the Black freedom movement. This does a disservice to Black working class leaders struggling to give the movement revolutionary leadership. Haywood calls this alliance “the only strategy that will enable the class-conscious Negro contingent of American labor to assume the offensive against the ‘racial’, that is, national narrowness, suspicion and distrust fostered by its own bourgeoisie against all whites.”

Check out Harry Haywood

Haywood called the Black national question “a focal point of vulnerability of American imperialism,” and he was right . Negro Liberation offers invaluable strategic insight to anyone interested in seeing the end of capitalism and oppression. Activists and organizers in the South will find the book particularly useful. As masses of people continue marching in the streets, chanting “Black lives matter” and demanding justice for victims like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Abrey and so many others, it’s well-worth your time to pick up a copy.

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