Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Frances M. Beal

’Black Bolshevik’ Harry Haywood Dies at 87

Veteran Communist And Worker Intellectual

First Published: Frontline, Vol. 2, No. 14, January 21, 1985.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Harry Haywood, a major architect of the theoretical and political perspective which guided the Communist Party U.S.A.’s work among Blacks through the 1930s and 40s, died of cardiac arrest on January 4,1985 in New York City. The 87-year old veteran communist succumbed after a year-long battle against a severe form of asthma which required constant medical attention and hospitalization.

A tireless worker intellectual, Haywood made numerous contributions to the U.S. and international working class movements, including a period of service with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain. He is best known, however, for playing a central role in winning the U. S. communist movement away from the profound neglect of the question of Black liberation that afflicted it until the late 1920s. Along with other leading figures from the U.S. and the Communist International, Haywood developed the thesis that Blacks in the U.S. South constituted an oppressed nation with the right to self-determination–a position that, despite its theoretical flaws, posed the issue of racism as a special, central and revolutionary question in the U.S. for the first time.

The practical impact of the CPUSA adopting this perspective in the 1930s was felt immediately. The party became one of the foremost fighters against white supremacy and racism; it established special organizations and publications aimed at the Black community, and it rapidly expanded its work in the South. Blacks, in turn, began to join the CPUSA in large numbers.

The Black Nation thesis guided the CPUSA’s work in the Black movement for the next 20 years, but by the late 1940s, the migration of Blacks out of the South caused some party leaders to question the theory’s continued validity. In an attempt to undergird the original thesis, Haywood penned his famous 1948 work “Negro Liberation.”


Despite the opposition of Haywood and others, the CPUSA abandoned the view that Blacks constituted a distinct nation, finding it no longer applicable to conditions of the 1950s. Haywood felt that this was part of a general swing toward right opportunism and revisionism in the CPUSA, and, in the late 1950s, left the party that he had served for over 30 years.

Without an organized political anchor from which to operate, Haywood’s activities receded somewhat. He moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he continued to write. Haywood remained in Cuernavaca until he was offered a fellowship with the Institute of the Black World in 1970.

With the emergence of the Maoist “new communist movement” in the early 1970s, once again there were communist formations in the U.S. that embraced the Black Nation thesis, though this time without either the ideological vitality or practical success of the CPUSA in the 1930s. Haywood became associated with the October League (later called the Communist Party-Marxist-Leninist) which facilitated the writing and publication of his “Black Bolshevik: The Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist” in 1978.

Haywood’s book is a remarkable documentation of the experience of a lifelong fighter for the interests of the working class. It traces Haywood’s development from the age of 21 when he was working as a trainman and maritime seaman, to his participation in the African Blood Brotherhood and his transformation into a communist.

Though marred by an epilogue that is permeated with distorted Maoist propositions, the main picture to emerge is one of a worker intellectual, a son of the proletariat, deeply committed to the liberation of Black people and the U.S. working class as a whole.


At the time of his death, Haywood believed that the Black Nation thesis needed to be updated to take into account the demographic changes that Blacks had undergone since the 1930s, but he still asserted that the right to self-determination was an appropriate political demand for the Black liberation movement.

Regarding the international struggle, Haywood was able to regain his political bearings, publicly repudiating the Maoist Theory of the Three Worlds and his former condemnation of the Soviet Union as capitalist. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Haywood’s wife of 25 years, told Frontline that Haywood believed that “China and the USSR would settle their differences and reunite into one international force.”

The influence of Haywood’s life and writings on younger generations of radicals and communists is unmistakable. William Strickland, who was associated with Haywood at the Institute of the Black World, noted that “Harry stayed faithful to his political visions for over 80 years. His life is proof that it is possible for all of us to live our whole lives following the political star that we see and not succumb to the blandishments of compromise with America.”

A group of friends, comrades and family members in New York are planning to hold a memorial meeting in Harlem in April to pay tribute to Haywood’s memory. In the meantime, an urn with Haywood’s ashes will be placed in Arlington National Cemetery. As noted by Gwen Hall, “This is very fitting since Harry was a soldier doing more to defend the people of his country than many others buried there.”

We agree.