This article appeared in the new journal Avant-Garde: A Journal of Peace, Democracy, and Science. The whole article can be read at avantjournal.com. This is the first half of the article. We will post the second half at our next posting. -THE EDITORS
Science, the Black Proletariat, and Revolution: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Henry Winston’s Strategy for a Black Agenda
November 9, 2023
This essay celebrates the 50th anniversary of the publication of Henry Winston’s Strategy for a Black Agenda: A Critique of New Theories of Liberation in the United States and Africa, a classic in the scientific investigation of the Black and working class struggles in the United States. Along with its companion work Race, Class and Black Liberation, we have his core scientific works. Winston writes as a committed Marxist-Leninist and chairman of the Communist Party of the United States. For him, Marxism-Leninism was a science of sciences (in a similar way that Hegel saw philosophy as a science of sciences). Therefore, this tribute is more than a 50th anniversary celebration of Strategy; it is, in the end, an investigation of the intellect and scientific mind that produced it.
Strategy is a work of creative Marxism. It is grounded in the works of Marx, Lenin, and the scientific discoveries of W.E.B. Du Bois. I explore Winston’s scientific method both through Winston’s writings and my almost 15 years of working very closely with him. Strategy is his working out of complicated questions of philosophical methods, the relationships between the general theoretical and the concrete and specific, how theory and practice interconnect, and how all of this is paramount to understanding his methods of thought. For him, making science practical and applying it to the struggles of working people and oppressed groups gives it a human and revolutionary essence. Connecting science to the struggles of working people would help build unity among them. In the end, this is a first attempt to probe the deep structure of Winston’s mind—and to investigate the generative power of his thinking.
Winston was an extraordinary figure in the revolutionary and communist history of the United States. He was also an important figure in the world communist, anti-colonial, and peace movements. His commitment to materialism and dialectics was joined to his lifeworld.
Being brought up under Jim Crow laws and the sharecropping economy produced an imaginary that connected his life to the Black proletariat, producing what I’m calling a Black Proletariat Imaginary. This Black Proletariat Imaginary anchored and enriched the scientific apparatus that informed his engagement with the objective world. This imaginary drove his quest to know the world and increasingly drove him to Marxism-Leninism. Winston sought to know the world and how to change it through knowledge and purposeful, revolutionary action, engaging regions of thought which included epistemology, ideology, dialectical logic, political science, political economy, and sociology. He rejected the dogmatism inherent to purely abstract thinking and the general and nebulous phrases that accompany it. He was predisposed to a creativity and intuitiveness, similar to what might be found in musicians like Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra or John Coltrane, or writers like James Baldwin, or artists like Jacob Lawrence, Beauford Delaney, Barbara Bullock, and Serafina Harris.
Winston was born in 1911 in Hattiesburg, in the Black Belt of Mississippi. Mississippi was among the poorest and most repressive states in the nation. He grew up around former slaves; the scourge of racial terror visited his family, as an uncle was lynched. He knew suffocating poverty that was so intense he breathed, smelled, and literally tasted it; he felt it in his bones. The Great Depression of the 1930s only deepened an already calamitous situation, produced by the super-exploitation of the Black proletariat. His family moved to Kansas City, Kansas, seeking to escape these harsh conditions.
The collapse of the world capitalist system was catastrophic for Black folk and the entire working class. He joined the unemployed councils in Kansas City. Side-by-side with youth who were in a similar situation to his and who wished to change the world through struggle, he sought to figure out what produced the economic depression. He met members of the Young Communist League, and began discussing why the capitalist system worldwide had collapsed, what the future was for young people, and whether there was even a future under capitalism. He concluded a new socialist economic system was the answer to the capitalist collapse. He joined the Young Communist League and quickly rose to become its organizational secretary. He fought in WWII against fascism, for democracy, and to defend the Soviet Union. After WWII he was arrested and convicted by the U.S. government for his speech and thoughts and his daring to publicly proclaim them and debate them. He served six years of an eight-year sentence in Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary. Because of intentional prison neglect, Winston lost his sight in prison.
Released from prison in 1961, he proclaimed he had lost his sight but not his vision. This was his declaration that he would continue the fight against the rule of monopoly capitalism and for democracy. He had not changed. However, he resumed his leadership of the Communist Party at the moment when the Black Freedom Movement was reshaping the nation. A third American Revolution was underway. Strategy for a Black Agenda was a defense of this revolution and its main leaders, in particular Martin Luther King Jr.
Science’s Indispensability to Struggle
Understanding that Winston sought to discover the truth scientifically helps to locate his theorizing and how he lays the groundwork for a larger, yet incomplete, theory of the specifics of the U.S. class, democratic, and anti-racist struggles. His work elevates the theory of revolutionary change to more complex—and at the same time more concrete—levels. In Winston’s work, rather than empty theory which predisposes thought to dogmatism, he seeks to know concrete reality and to enrich theory through understanding the concrete and the actual. As such, his work seeks to achieve greater understanding of working people. His work focuses upon the emerging concrete, the new, and seeks out the revolutionary possibilities inherent to the new.
For Winston, science was indispensable to revolutionary theory and change. He referred regularly to Marxism-Leninism as revolutionary science. For him, the foundation of Marxism-Leninism was dialectical materialism and thus it was the core of Winston’s approach to knowing the world. He viewed it, moreover, as a method that generalized the achievements of natural and social science. He viewed science as more than an observational enterprise but as an active engagement with the world; active in two ways, first the connections to the actions and agency of working people and the racially and nationally oppressed, but also in the constant development of and generalization upon the most advanced discoveries of knowledge.
The engine of the patterns of social and historical movement is contradiction, which is inherent in all things. He recognized that the material world is the foundation of the unity and interconnection of all things. The mode of the existence of the world is dialectical, which is to say all things, including human socio-historical relationships and consciousness, exist in a state of movement and development. These interconnections and these developments, these laws are what Winston tirelessly sought to understand.
An example of this is how he went about explaining the dual, yet interconnected, systems of capitalist exploitation and racial oppression in the U.S. To illustrate their unity, he references Marx and Frederick Douglass during the anti-slavery struggle, and Lenin and Du Bois during the state monopoly and imperialist stage of capitalism. Each, Winston argued, pursued scientific approaches based upon materialism. He saw in their theorizing and scientific practices a way of thinking about the two systems. For him, understanding the interconnectedness of these thinkers is a way to explain the interconnectedness of the systems of the exploitation of labor and the racist system. Winston saw that the two systems together make up the capitalist mode of production. There was another aspect to this type of thinking: how to solve the problem of uniting the class struggle, broadly conceived, with the Black struggle. And how the unity of these struggles was critical to uniting all working people for their rights, ultimately giving rise to a new system.
In acknowledging the dual systems, Winston logically asserts the centrality of the struggle for Black liberation to the class struggle and the struggles for democracy and socialism. The concept of the centrality of Black liberation is important and an advancement upon revolutionary social science and theory. He sees a special role of Black folk in the development of capitalism in the U.S. and to the liberation of the working class from exploitation. Yet, more specifically he viewed this centrality to ultimately be the centrality of the Black proletariat. However, the centrality of the Black proletariat operated as an objective gravitational pull attracting the white and Black workers towards one another. That which interrupts this mutual pull of gravity is bourgeois ideology and the inadequacy of class and anti-racist consciousness among white working people. At another level, it is apparent that if the general theory of capitalist development exists as reflected in, for instance, Marx’s Capital and Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, then it is Du Bois and Douglass who manifest the special or specific theory of capitalist development in the context of the United States. The special theory gives anchorage and application and concreteness to the general theory. In this regard we see in the thinking of Winston what Marx called the ascension to the concrete. In the end, Winston saw this centrality as a law of the development of the specifics of the class struggle in the U.S. Though not stated in his work, it seems its logic suggests that in the throes of the systemic mix of race and class, there was emerging not just an oppressed racial group and nationality, but a civilization in potentiality. This civilization of working people could become the basis of a new American civilization of freedom, based upon working people. Their music, art, philosophical and religious ideas, their moral aspirations, could become the foundations of a new American civilization rooted in the Black proletariat. A new American people and a new American civilization thus becomes possible.
The Trialectic of Science, the Black Proletariat, and Revolution
Winston agreed with Frederick Engels (the co-founder with Marx of scientific socialism and the modern communist movement) that freedom (agency and action) is the recognition of necessity. In other words, science is not confined to observation, but a creative and messy enterprise that seeks the truth. Freedom is tied to discovering scientific truths. Yet, science must, he reasoned, recognize the laws of motion of reality, especially of society. This acknowledgement liberates science from static dogmas and pure abstraction. Winston, moreover, sought to apply science to the day-to-day issues of tactics and strategy, always connecting it to the struggle for unity against the monopoly capitalist class and their ideology. Winston’s practice and method of science and theory is organized within a dialectical triad, composed of three aspects; first, the scientific/rational and empirical; second, the Black Proletariat Imaginary and intuition; and third, the revolutionary and moral imperative.
The Scientific/Rational Dimension
Arguing that the revolutionary process must be connected to a scientific outlook—which must grasp the logic and trajectory of history and society, including in its most concrete terms—Winston understood that the rational dimension of thought is a critical apparatus. This dimension operates through reason, setting boundaries such as space/time, the materiality of the world, and dialectical logic. He rejects the positivist construal of science and the pragmatist rejection of science as a method to achieve truth.
The Black Proletariat Imaginary
There is, however, a second, and as it turns out, as significant dimension, the imaginary/intuitive dimension. It sometimes appears to be, and perhaps is, the opposite to the scientific and rational. It is the non-rational and is the artistic and imaginative dimension of knowing and discovery. It produces leaps in theory, challenging previous theoretic formulations with new, often novel constructions. These leaps can come off as eruptions and disruptions of normal assumptions; they are produced by taking epistemic stances far removed from normal thinking. It is like going to the margins of thought and science to come up with new theoretical syntheses to explain new conditions. Albert Einstein understood the intuitive as essential to new insights and new knowledge. He insisted that “without sinning against reason we could never arrive at any conclusions.” In Einstein’s debate with theorists of quantum physics, he said what they lacked was an imaginary and intuitiveness. In Winston’s case, the Black Proletariat Imaginary is driven by the necessity to understand new concrete realities of Black folk and the Black proletariat, and hence the urge to rise to the level of concrete knowledge.
An example is Du Bois’s discovery of the Black proletariat as a social and historically constituted class category; different from, yet not separated from the working class as a whole. When he wrote Black Reconstruction in America, the idea of the Black proletariat as a proletariat, albeit enslaved, shattered most images of the working class and the believed logic of the class struggle. Applying Marxist theories to U.S. history, Du Bois discovers a new social/class category, the Black proletariat, that explained both the concrete complexities of the class struggle in the U.S. and developed radical theorizing concerning revolutionary change. Du Bois also introduces racial oppression as necessary to understanding the capitalist mode of production and the logic of class struggle. These discoveries challenged what was considered normal science concerning the class struggle.
Du Bois’s thinking carried tremendous weight for Winston. Based upon it he could see the central role of the Black proletariat to the class and democratic struggles and to the logics of revolutionary change. For Du Bois to arrive at this new understanding of the working class in the U.S. meant going beyond normal scientific and rational assumptions and assertions. It was an intuitive/imaginative leap; a new social category was thus discovered; scientific knowledge was advanced.
-The second half of this article will appear at the next posting (scheduled for 12/12/23).