In Left of Karl Marx, Carole Boyce Davies assesses the activism, writing, and legacy of Claudia Jones (1915-1964), a pioneering Afro-Caribbean radical intellectual, dedicated communist, and feminist. Jones is buried in London's Highgate Cemetery, to the left of Karl Marx-a location that Boyce Davies finds fitting given how Jones expanded Marxism-Leninism to incorporate gender and race in her political critique and activism.
Claudia Cumberbatch Jones was born in Trinidad. In 1924, she moved to New York, where she lived for the next thirty years. She was active in the Communist Party from her early twenties onward. A talented writer and speaker, she traveled throughout the United States lecturing and organizing. In the early 1950s, she wrote a well-known column, "Half the World," for the Daily Worker. As the U.S. government intensified its efforts to prosecute communists, Jones was arrested several times. She served nearly a year in a U.S. prison before being deported and given asylum by Great Britain in 1955. There she founded The West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News and the Caribbean Carnival, an annual London festival that continues today as the Notting Hill Carnival. Boyce Davies examines Jones's thought and journalism, her political and community organizing, and poetry that the activist wrote while she was imprisoned. Looking at the contents of the FBI file on Jones, Boyce Davies contrasts Jones's own narration of her life with the federal government's. Left of Karl Marx establishes Jones as a significant figure within Caribbean intellectual traditions, black U.S. feminism, and the history of communism.
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About the Author
Carole Boyce Davies is Professor of African–New World Studies and English at Florida International University. She is the author of Black Women, Writing, and Identity: Migrations of the Subject; the editor of the Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora (forthcoming) and Decolonizing the Academy: African Diaspora Studies; and a coeditor of The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities.
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LEFT OF KARL MARXTHE POLITICAL LIFE OF BLACK COMMUNIST CLAUDIA JONES
By Carole Boyce Davies
Duke University PressCopyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWOMEN'S RIGHTS / WORKERS' RIGHTS / ANTI-IMPERIALISM
Challenging the Superexploitation of Black Working-Class Women
We can accelerate the militancy of Negro women to the degree with which we demonstrate that the economic, political and social demands of Negro women are not just ordinary demands, but special demands flowing from special discrimination facing Negro women as women, as workers, and as Negroes.... Yes, and it means that a struggle for social equality of Negro women must be boldly fought in every sphere of relations between men and women so that the open door of Party membership doesn't become a revolving door because of our failure to conduct this struggle (emphasis added). CLAUDIA JONES, "FOR THE UNITY OF WOMEN IN THE CAUSE OF PEACE!" 1951
Participation of increasing numbers of West Indian women side by side with their men in struggle for national independence and self-governing will grow because women above all, want a better life, dignity and equality and a better world in which their children will live. CLAUDIA JONES, IN AN INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE BOWRIN, 1956
Tangible links between women's rights and anti-imperialism mark the politics and poetics of Claudia Jones and appear throughout the corpus of her writings. Indeed, we can say with assurance that she brought an explicitly women's rights orientation to the politics of the Communist Party USA and its organizations, through which she did most of her political work during her years in the United States.
Claudia Jones was a major theoretician for the CPUSA during the 1940s and 1950s. Using her particular ranking position in the party during this period, she wrote nine essays on women, most of them published in Political Affairs, the Communist Party's theoretical journal. Additionally, she would run her "Half the World" column, and regularly write other articles on various political issues in the Daily Worker. A phenomenal output by any standards, her contribution in all of these various writings is that she brought together theoretically the intersections of race, class, gender, and anti-imperialism. By these means, given her considerable power of persuasion, she challenged the limitations of CPUSA politics as she advanced positions that would influence the subsequent women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Angela Davis describes it this way in Women, Race and Class: "Claudia Jones was very much a Communist-a dedicated Communist who believed that socialism held the only promise of liberation for Black women, for Black people as a whole and indeed for the multi-racial working class" (169). In her book Red Feminism: American Communism and the Making of Women's Liberation, Kate Weigand explicitly credits Claudia Jones's work with advancing the issues of black women in the CPUSA and thereby informing the party's position on gender and the "triple oppression" logic that would later characterize its ideological orientation (97-113). However, she also recognizes that Jones's work had implications beyond the party. She writes,
What made the Communist Party particularly unusual among other multiracial organizations working to improve women's status in this period before the Civil Rights movement burst on the national scene was that it attempted to analyze and respond to the particular problems that burdened black women along with class and gender oppression. This work, inspired by the Party's leading black woman, Claudia Jones, made the Communist movement unique among feminist organizations that existed before the 1960s and shaped the ways that second wave feminists would conceptualize the intersections between race and gender oppression in the 1970s and later. (98-99)
This is a position that Weigand seems to have come to later in her career, for in her dissertation, she had concluded, prematurely it seems, that Jones's contribution was not so independent.
Clearly, Claudia Jones gave to the Communist Party USA as much as she got from it in terms of theoretical orientation. In other words, if the party made Jones, she also made it, at this time. For Jones was definitely and unabashedly a radical black woman, a communist of Marxist-Leninist orientation, willing to pay the price for her political positions. She was also equally clear that she was writing as a black woman, approaching writing as resistance literature. So while one should always use some caution in recuperating historical figures, in order not to make them what they were not, Jones's own writings prove that she occupied this complex position. She put on the table, within the Communist Party, as her refinement of Marxism-Leninism, the particular importance of black women. But she also had other traditions out of which she lived. And outside of the party, she was able to bring some of her party positions to her work in black communities in the United States and United Kingdom.
For some other scholars, it is Jones's Marxist-Leninist politics that remain dominant and through them that one must analyze her positions on women. John McClendon maintains that one cannot read Claudia Jones as feminist in the sense of having a primary gender orientation as a defining politics. For McClendon, "She consistently explained the issues of gender in terms of their connection to class struggle, anti-imperialism, and the battle for peace" (345). His judgment is valid; indeed, it is articulated by Jones herself in her classic 1951 essay "For the Unity of Women in the Cause of Peace": "In this struggle, Communist women, by their leadership among the masses of women, and learning from them to fight for their demands will fuse the women's peace movement under the leadership of the working class, and will thereby help to change the relationship of forces in our land in such a way as to make for a new anti-fascist, anti-imperialist people's coalition, advancing through this struggle to Socialism" (168).
A close reading of this passage reveals that there is a progression in the hierarchy of importance in the stages of the struggle, with the final goal being socialism. Nonetheless, Jones's vision included an anti-imperialist coalition, managed by working-class leadership, fueled by the involvement of women, before socialism will be achieved. Still, all the major ideological components are present and therefore must be accounted for in assessing her politics.
Yet, as in similar analyses from an earlier period that try to bring a female radical subject into a current feminist discourse, one has to make the case from the available published material, through the political positions taken by the subject, as well as from the subject's practice, all of which together provide the feminist equivalence. An example of this would be the work that retrospectively identified Sojourner Truth as a feminist, when that was not how she identified herself in her own time. Contemporary reassessments of other black female historical figures reveal a politics that today would be defined as feminist, with appropriate qualifiers in place, although they personally never described themselves as feminist. Joy James refers to such people as "protofeminist."
While there are several available definitions, generic "feminism" here is defined as a series of political and ideological movements and theories that aim to end all subordination of women in private and public life. Various qualifiers cast particular ideological positionings on this generic definition. Thus, for example, Rosemary Hennessey, in her Materialist Feminism and the Politics of Discourse, defines feminism as an emancipatory movement but also as "a set of discourses born out of modernity [, which] has long questioned the master narratives of western knowledge" (1) and which has offered a "long standing and productive questioning of the subject of feminism itself" (2). This "double move between solidarity and critique," she argues, has been perhaps one of the most useful features in allowing space for a materialist feminism.
What we do know about Claudia Jones, and what can be asserted from the outset, is that she was a person able to make linkages between a variety of appropriate political and ideological positions, to identify multiple positionalities and the ways these are interrelated. This chapter identifies her anti-imperialist /women's rights politics from a variety of angles. It makes its case through an analysis of a variety of applicable contemporary feminist/anti-imperialist theoretical positions. The two quotations that form the epigraphs to this chapter articulate an understanding of Jones's role in organizing black women on the domestic level (that is, within the United States), as well as her internationalist role in political organizing of black women in the context of decolonization movements.
Black Feminist Theoretics
Claudia Jones's politics was anchored in the communist struggle for full emancipation of working classes everywhere. But, as a black woman and a communist, she saw black working-class women as absolutely central to that full emancipation.
Jones consistently presented herself as she does in this stream of self-identifications: "[As] a Negro woman Communist of West Indian descent, I was a thorn in their [the U.S. government's] side in my opposition to Jim Crow racist discrimination against 16 million Negro Americans in the United States, in my work to redress these grievance, for unity of workers, for women's rights and my general political activity urging the American people to help by their struggles to change the present foreign and domestic policy of the United States."
Primary among these self-identifications is Jones's identity as a black woman, followed by her origin, and then her range of positions against racism and for workers' and women's rights, followed by a general politics of articulation against state oppression at the national and international level. But clearly, her black female identity was always the primary position, strong enough to lead her other positions, as defined. And her role as the leading black woman of her time in the Communist Party USA gave her the space to advance the specific issues that plagued black women then as they still do now. She was the most prolific writer of her group of women on this issue, and, as a result, we have several essays with which to make an assessment of her positions.
From all accounts, the appearance in 1949 of her essay "An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman" laid this consideration more frontally before the party. Following it, the various "CP [Communist Party] newspapers and journals ... regularly published essays and articles about the achievements of heroic women such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Moranda Smith, Mary Church Terrell, and Mary McCleod Bethune." McDuffie, who defines Claudia Jones as the best-known theoretician on black women's issues in the Communist Party ("Long Journeys," 9), demonstrates that she was still just one of a group of black women communists in this era who were also taking positions that would bring together issues of race, class, and gender. He identifies Louise Thompson Patterson, for example, as the "leading black woman in the American left during the 1930's" (8). To this list of pioneers we can add Maude White, a black communist woman and labor organizer, who articulated the special needs of black working-class women and their superexploitation as early as 1932.
As a prime organizer for women of the Communist Party, Claudia Jones served as secretary of the Women's Commission, which had Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, her friend and comrade, as its president. The only black woman among a group of thirteen communist leaders, Jones was tried with Flynn and incarcerated under the McCarran-Walter Internal Security Act of 1952 during the hysterical House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) era. Claudia Jones's relationship with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is also worth underscoring here in the context of women's rights. Both she and Flynn shared a communist analysis of the problems of women. Both are identified as taking particular positions on women's rights before and after, inside and outside, their incarceration on political grounds. For Claudia, in particular, these positions were always internationalist. While their feminist identifications were ones born of struggle and shared politics of women's rights within the party, their work in the Women's Commission (where the focus was on the particular needs of U.S. women) made them both acutely aware of the specific capitalist interests that located women (and for Claudia in particular, black women) in subordinate economic positions in society.
It is not difficult to argue retrospectively, then, for the identification of Claudia Jones as an early black feminist. She was a black woman, clear about both the condition and the rights of black women and the ways in which these get subordinated to a range of other interests, exploited for financial gain and not allowed to live their fullest. She expressed these ideas publicly, orally and in writing. Indeed, she was aware that she, her mother, and her sisters-all solidly in the black working class-were negatively impacted by these processes. Additionally, since Jones had spent a great deal of time organizing cadres of black women for the CPUSA, she saw black women as one of the party's greatest untapped resources. Her columns in the Daily Worker were consistently directed at this black female audience.
The argument made by those, like John McClendon, who see Marxism-Leninism as her dominant position is that her organizing of women was primarily within the context of the advancement of workers' rights, and not women's rights on their own. But in so doing, these commentators fail to understand the links that were being made between black feminism and socialism, expressed often through the intersections between class, gender, and race as systems of domination. Claudia Jones, in particular, made such links. One of the earliest documents in the definition of black feminism, from the black feminist and lesbian activist group Combahee River Collective, articulates a radical politics as follows:
We believe that sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in Black women's lives as are the politics of class and race. We also find it difficult to separate race from class, from sex oppression because in our lives they are experienced simultaneously.... Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.... We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic system of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products and not for the profit of the bosses.
These are the positions that marked the politics of Claudia Jones and that are expounded in her articles, which constitute early theoretical texts for this line of 1970s black feminism. The fact that Jones belonged to the developing black women's movement is shown by her alliances within a number of black women's organizations and by the support she received from a wide spectrum of these groups at critical moments, particularly during her imprisonment and her deportation. Various newspapers of the time published statements of support from the black women's civil rights group Sojourners for Truth and Justice, the National Council of Negro Women, the black and women's rights activist and publisher of The California Eagle Charlotta Bass, and a range of others.
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Table of Contents
Introduction. Recovering the Radical Black Female Subject: Anti-Imperialism, Feminism, and Activism....................1
1. Women's Rights/Workers' Rights/Anti-Imperialism: Challenging the Superexploitation of Black Working-Class Women....................29
2. From "Half the World" to the Whole World: Journalism as Black Transnational Political Practice....................69
3. Prison Blues: Literary Activism and a Poetry of Resistance....................99
4. Deportation: The Other Politics of Diaspora, or "What is an ocean between us? We know how to build bridges."....................131
5. Carnival and Diaspora: Caribbean Community, Happiness, and Activism....................167
6. Piece Work/Peace Work: Self-Construction versus State Repression....................191