Harry Haywood was born in South Omaha, Nebraska, on February 4, 1898, the son of former slaves. He was a soldier in France during World War I and arrived home during the 1919 riots in Chicago. His experiences led him to become involved in the revolutionary African Blood Brotherhood. Attracted by the Russian Revolution, he joined the Young Communist League in 1923 and later the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA).
He spent four and one half years in the Soviet Union where he studied at the Lenin School. While working with the Comintern during the late 1920s, he developed a theoretical framework for the Black liberation movement in the United States and South Africa. Haywood's major thesis revolved around his assertion that a Black nation existed in the Deep South of the United States. He considered the Blacks of the Deep South as constituting an oppressed nation, placing the Black struggle in the fight against all forms of national oppression, including the right for self-determination. As the first American communist to assert this position, Haywood helped write the draft for the 1928 resolution on the Negro question in the United States. His draft was adopted by the Communist International with some reluctance by the CPUSA.
In the 1930s he was active in the labor movement and was one of the pioneers in the struggle to organize the Sharecropper's Union and the Scottsboro campaign. In Chicago he organized a massive protest against Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. Shortly after the Chicago protest he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting against Franco in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Returning to the United States, he served in the Merchant Marine during World War II and was an active member of the National Maritime Union.
In 1948, his major work Negro Liberation, was published. Following publication he came under attack by the revisionists and fought against dropping the concept of the Black nation in the Deep South and support of the right to self-determination. His beliefs were explained in a pamphlet, For A Revolutionary Position on the Negro Question. He believed that the burgeoning civil rights movement in the South during the 1950s should be understood as a struggle of the oppressed Black nation for self-determination and against imperialism. Thinking that any other understanding would underestimate the revolutionary potential of the movement, thus ending the possibility of an interracial alliance against imperialism, he was expelled from the Communist Party.
Although expelled from the Communist Party, he continued to struggle for socialism. In 1969, in collaboration with his wife, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, he wrote Toward A Revolutionary Program for Negro Freedom. The author of numerous other articles, his greatest triumph was the publication of his autobiography, Black Bolshevik, in 1977.
Haywood died January 4, 1985, one month before his 87th birthday. His ashes remain in Arlington National Cemetery.