In Tribute to Henry Winston


Editor's note: These remarks were delivered at the memorial for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Henry Winston. Charlene Mitchell is a long time labor and political activist, a former candidate for President of the US, and a founder of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.


Good Afternoon. It is an honor to be present at an event to honor the life, work, and thought of Henry Winston. I count myself as among the lucky ones who had the privilege of working with Comrade Winston over a number of years and in a number of struggles. Marx wrote that: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past." Henry Winston made history, but his contribution to history was not based on his unique genius - although he was a genius. The history he made was grounded in the world he lived in. Growing up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and Kansas City he experienced first hand the brutal oppression of the African American people and the callous exploitation of the working class. In Hattiesburg, in the early 1900's more then one-half of the town
was African American, yet only one percent of them were registered to vote due to the disenfranchisement of the African American people in the South. His father was a laborer
in a local saw mill, who struggled to feed, clothe and house his young family on the meager wages of the mill. Thus, from birth Winston's life was intertwined with the two social
forces that would mark his future life - a member of the working class, viciously exploited by the capitalist system; and an African American, subjected to the base degradations of
national oppression.

As a fighter, Winston grew to adulthood organizing against these twin forms of oppression. He was a leader of the Young Communist League, the Unemployed Councils, and the
Scottsboro Defense Committee. In the midst of these struggles he honed the theoretical and organizational abilities that would serve him so well later as a leading member of the
Communist Party.

Many of Winston's most lasting theoretical contributions are in the areas of the anticolonial and independence struggles of Africa and the movement for African American equality. Although his personal life experiences certainly gave him important insights into these issues; it was not a sense of nationalism that drove his analysis. Instead, it was a firm
belief in the future of socialism and the historic role of the working class in bringing about that future. Winston was fully aware of Lenin's admonition that Marxism cannot be mixed with even the most refined forms of nationalism.

In a 1964 pamphlet entitled, "Negro Liberation: a goal for all Americans," Winston referred to the African American question as "the touchstone in the struggle for democracy in this
country" - adding that "...the achievement of equality for the Negro people is the key in the struggle to defend and extend democracy for all."

Winston was an advocate of the centrality of the struggle for African American equality. He understood that the fight against African American oppression was "central" to the
uniting of the working class. He understood that this "centrality" could not be posed against the class struggle - as some social democrats attempted to do by insisting that only
the class struggle is "central." Instead, Winston understood the interconnection between the class struggle and the struggle against national oppression. He also understood that no
movement would lead the U.S. working class towards the fundamental transformation of this system without a correct understanding of the centrality of the fight against African
American oppression. The white sector of the U.S. working class will never break with bourgeois ideology without cleansing itself of the odious ideology of racial superiority - in
whatever form it takes.

These ideas, the struggle for a correct line in the African American and African support movement, are the centerpiece of Winston's "Strategy for a Black Agenda." In that work,
which was a major intervention in the ideological struggle within the African American movement and among those in solidarity with African liberation and independence,
Winston pulled the covers off of the Maoists, who under the guise of "anti-revisionism" sided with the imperialists in the struggle for the liberation of Angola. More importantly,
Winston's analysis demonstrated that these positions were not merely mistakes or errors in judgment by the Maoists, but were the logical outcome of an anti-Leninist, anti-working
class philosophy.

In that book and in his "Class, Race and Black Liberation," Winston also dissected the then-current Pan-Africanist movement. He demonstrated that the nationalism and lack of anti-imperialist grounding in that movement reflected that it owed more of an intellectual debt to George Padmore and Marcus Garvey than to DuBois' conception of Pan-Afrcanism.
He noted that they were quick to base their analysis on Dubois' famous quote that "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line." However, Winston added
that "Dubois said it was the problem, Dubois did not say it was the solution." Winston went on to write that, "As Lenin demonstrated, the solution lies in a strategy to overcome the
disunity of the oppressed and exploited at the line of differences in color and nationality."

Comrade Winston's leadership on these issues was not limited to the theoretical sphere. He played an active role in guiding mass movements in these areas. Winston was the
organizational brains behind the formation of NAIMSAL - the National Anti-Imperialist Movement in Solidarity with African Liberation. Under his guidance, and through his
connections with African leaders throughout the continent, NAIMSAL succeeded in injecting a consistent anti-imperialist content to the then-developing movements in
solidarity with African liberation. NAIMSAL was one of the first organizations in this country to campaign for the freedom of Nelson Mandela and, with the National Alliance,
launched a petition drive that helped make Mandela's freedom a national issue. Much of NAIMSAL's work laid the basis for the larger African liberation support movement that
developed in the 1980's.

And under Winston's guidance, the Party helped build the largest political defense movement this country had seen since the Scottsboro defendants. I can still remember receiving a call from my brother, Franklin Alexander, in the summer of 1970 informing me that Angela Davis was facing arrest on trumped up charges stemming from a shootout at a courthouse in San Rafael, California.

I immediately went to discus this development with Winston and Gus Hall. Both had no hesitation in throwing the weight of the entire Party behind the movement to defend Angela and both immediately saw this threat as an attack against the Communist Party, the African American movement, and the entire progressive movement. Winston, especially, demonstrated a particular sensitivity to the role of gender. It was an advanced attitude I had seen displayed by him over the years. In his work in defense of Angela, he consistently expressed the importance of the role of women in the movement's leadership and in the broader society. This may have partially been due to the influence of Claudia Jones, one of his closest comrades from the "old days" and at one time chair of the Party's Women's Commission.

With Winston's assistance we rallied the Party to build an international movement demanding the release of Angela and all political prisoners. This movement, more than any other single motion, helped rebuild the Party's image in the African American community and in the broad Left. There are still many activists around who "cut their political teeth"
in that movement. And in the process of building that movement the Party made many valuable contacts with activists across the country. It was this movement that positioned us
to launch the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.

In Winston's last years he had developed a particular concern for the plight of African American youth. He recognized that the general crisis of capitalism and the national oppression of the African American people were combining to stigmatize African American youth as, in Winston's words, "social pariahs." More than twenty-five years later we see Winston's concerns manifested in astronomical youth unemployment rates, collapsing public education, and mass incarceration as a method of control of African American youth.

Yet Winston was full of optimism about the long-range future. I believe he would have welcomed the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. And he would have been the first to point out the importance of the 2012 elections for the future of our country. Just think about Winston's notion about the African American question being the "touchstone in the struggle for democracy" while listening to the racist "dog whistles" - some would say "foghorns" - of every single one of the Republican Party candidates. And lined up opposed to those dog whistlers is -- albeit, with Obama at the head -- a united African American community; the organized sector of the working class, which is newly energized; and nearly all organized sections of the progressive movement. How could one be neutral in this fight and consider oneself a progressive - or even a (small "d") democrat? And make no mistake, to support a third party candidate in this election is to be neutral -- the definition of neutrality being that of having little to no impact.

It's like being in a car. Your material reality presents limited options for movement. You can't go sideways. You either hit "drive," and go forward; or you hit "reverse," and go backward; or you stay in neutral, and go nowhere. We can't afford to backwards - we have to move forward. Now, some of you all might think you're in "park" - like that's a viable option. But that's even worse since it's harder to push forward when you're in "park." We all have our criticisms of the President. But we make a fatal mistake if we see Obama as the end and not as the beginning. We make a fatal mistake if we see that entire social motion that coalesced to elect Obama as being complete and finished and not see it as an arena of struggle. Now, many forces in that coalition won't make it down to the goal line of fundamentally transforming our society. Some will drop out. Many will be pushed out. But, if we are to fundamentally transform this society, who will we transform it with if not the progressive forces that are currently behind the re-election of Obama. And, I'm sure Winston would remember Lenin, who wrote, "...bear in mind that the struggle for the main thing may blaze up even though it has begun with the struggle for something partial." Does the phrase "Bread, Peace, and Land" sound familiar?

In a 1951 pamphlet entitled "What it means to be a Communist," Winston wrote, "Those who see only backwardness, immobility and disunity in the working class, are bound to ignore the essential truth that it is the working class that possesses all the necessary qualities to bring about the transformation of society, and build socialism." Embedded in the movement to re-elect Obama are those forces - the only forces - that can bring about the fundamental transformation of this society.

Finally, it is important that we honor the life and legacy of Henry Winston. But we must also recognize that Henry Winston was not a great man in spite of being a Marxist-Leninist.
He became a great man because he was a Marxist-Leninist. He was not a great man in spite of being a member of the Communist Party. He became a great man because he was
a member of the Communist Party. Nothing in his contributions makes sense if separated from the Party and its ideology. And yet his legacy belongs not just to the Marxist-Leninists
or to the Communist Party. His legacy belongs to the African American people, to the working class, and to the oppressed people all across this world, who all strive for a better
society and a better future.

Charlene Mitchell


Post your comment

Comments are moderated. See guidelines here.


No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments