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Claudia Jones: intersectional communist

By: 
Jesse McLaren

February 20, 2016

“I was deported from the USA because as a Black woman Communist of West Indian descent, I was a thorn in their side in my opposition to Jim Crow racist discrimination against 16 million Black Americans in the United States, in my work for redress of these grievances, for unity of Black and white 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.”

With these words, in an interview in 1956, Claudia Jones summarized her political activity that combined struggles against anti-Black racism, sexism, capitalism and imperialism—and for this she was incarcerated, deported, and erased from history. As her biographer, Carole Boyce Davies, argues in Left of Karl Marx: the Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones, the physical deportation of Claudia Jones also marked “the deporting of the radical black female subject to an elsewhere, outside the terms of ‘normal’ African American intellectual discourse in the United States…this recovery of Claudia Jones, the individual subject, reinstates a radical black female intellectual-activist position into a range of African diaspora, left history, and black feminist debates.” As a new generation radicalizes against capitalism and an intersectional approach to fighting multiple forms of oppression, we can learn from the life and work of Claudia Jones.

Early life

She was born on February 21, 1915 in Trinidad—then a British colony—and migrated with her family to Harlem in 1924. Under the combined impact of racism, sexism and exploitation, she contracted tuberculosis and her mother died of meningitis: As Jones described, “The conditions of non-union organization, of that day, of speed up, plus the lot of working women, who are mothers and undoubtedly the weight of immigration to a new land where conditions were far from as promised or anticipated, contributed to her early death at 37…I was later to learn that this lot was not just an individual matter, but that millions of working-class people and Black people suffered this lot under capitalism.”

She drew these connections in 1935, when she became involved in the defense campaign for the Scottsboro Nine: Black youth who were framed in a rape charge and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. The Communist Party played an important role in their defense campaign, and Jones joined: “It was out of my Jim Crow experiences as a young Black woman, experiences likewise born of working-class poverty that led me in my search of why these things had to be that led me to join the Young Communist League and to choose at the age of 18 the philosophy of my life, the science of Marxism-Leninism—that philosophy that not only rejects racist ideas, but is the antithesis of them.”

Intersecting oppressions

Emerging as a leading organizer and theorist of the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s, Claudia Jones fused the fight against sexism and anti-Black racism with working class struggle. As she summarized in her 1949 essay “We Seek Full Equality for Women,” “The triply-oppressed status of the Black woman is a barometer of the status of all women, and that the fight for the full economic, political and social equality of the Black woman is in the vital self-interest of white workers, in the vital interest of the fight to realize equality for all women.”

She elaborated on this point in depth in her 1949 essay “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of Negro Women” (her use of the word “Negro,” the terminology of the time, has been changed to “Black” in this article). In this essay she described the historical and contemporary experience and leadership of Black women in America, and called for the labour movement and broader left to fight anti-Black racism as a central strategy to winning women’s equality and building working class struggle.

Fourty years before the term “intersectionality” was coined, Claudia Jones explained how Black women workers experience the intersection of racism, sexism and economic exploitation: “Black women—as workers, as Blacks, and as women—are the most oppressed stratum of the whole population... The super-exploitation of the Black woman workers is thus revealed not only in that she receives as woman, less than equal pay for equal work with men, but in that the majority of Black women get less than half the pay of white women.

Racism and sexism (and other forms of oppression) are not just additive, but interactive: As Jones described, the sexism that Black women face is racialized and the racism they experience is gendered. To reduce sexism to the experience of white women ignores the experience of Black women—who disproportionately work for poverty wages as domestic workers—and therefore the fight for women’s liberation has to fight anti-Black racism. As she explained, “The bourgeois ideologists have not failed, of course, to develop a special ideological offensive aimed at degrading Black women…They cannot, however, with equanimity or credibility, speak of the Black woman’s ‘place’ as in the home; for Black women are in other peoples’ kitchens…The whole intent of a host of articles, books, etc, has been to obscure the main responsibility for the oppression of Black women by spreading the rotten bourgeois notion about a ‘battle of the sexes’ and ‘ignoring’ the fight of both Black men and women—the whole Black people—against their common oppressors, the white ruling class.”

Working class strategy

What made her intersectionality communist was that Claudia Jones differentiated between the ruling class that generated and that benefited from oppression—through cutting wages and dividing workers—and the working class that internalized oppressive ideas and behaviors despite their class interests. As a consequence her intersectionality was a call for working class unity in which white people had a responsibility to fight anti-Black racism both out of solidarity and because their own class interest depended on it: “Chauvinism on the part of progressive white women is often expressed in their failure to have close ties of friendship with Black women and to realize that this fight for equality of Black women is in their own self-interest, inasmuch as the super-exploitation and oppression of Black women tends to depress the standards of all women…The responsibility for overcoming these special forms of white chauvinism rests, not with the ‘subjectivity’ of Black women as it is often put, but squarely on the shoulders of white men and white women.”

Highlighting the role of Black women in strikes in the 1930s, despite their lack of representation in leadership roles, Claudia Jones called on the labour movement to prioritize its most oppressed members—organizing domestic workers and fighting for the full range of jobs for Black women. By centering the experience and leadership of Black women workers Claudia Jones theorized the intersection of Black liberation, women’s liberation and socialist revolution: “Only to the extent that we fight all chauvinist expressions and actions as regards the Black people and the fight for full equality of the Black people, can women as a whole advance their struggle for equal rights. For the progressive women’s movement, the Black woman, who combines in her status the worker, the Black and the woman, is the vital link to this heightened political consciousness. To the extent, further, that the cause of the Black woman worker is promoted, she will be enabled to take her rightful place in the Black-proletarian leadership of the national liberation movement and, by her active participation contribute to the entire American working class, whose historic mission is the achievement of a Socialist America—the final and full guarantee of woman’s emancipation.”

Dream deferred

Tragically, this vision was undermined by Stalinism and McCarthyism. Communist Parties inspired by the Russian Revolution didn’t realize the counter-revolution that undermined it, and followed Stalinism. The Communist Party of the USA, which had fought for unions and against racism, followed Moscow’s line and supported the imperialist WWII—which suppressed workers demands and civil rights. This led many to become disillusioned and to leave the Communist Party, like Bayard Rustin—who went on to play a central role in the Civil Rights Movement. Claudia Jones remained in the party, changing her position on the war but continuing to fight against oppression and for workers rights, especially in the post-war period of the late 1940s. But then the right-wing reaction of McCarthyism swept the US, leading to a witch-hunt of Communists and progressives. Jones was hounded by the FBI, and incarcerated twice because she was a migrant and a Communist, and then deported in 1955—just as the Civil Rights movement was emerging.

In Britain the Stalinized Communist Party of Great Britain refused to welcome her but she kept up the struggle—setting up London’s first Black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian-Caribbean News; organizing the first Carnival as a protest against anti-Black violence; and organizing a parallel March on Washington and boycott against South African apartheid. She died in 1964 at the early age of 49, and is buried next to Karl Marx.

Now that false Communist regimes and McCarthyism are fading, and a new generation is rising to fight capitalism and the multiple forms of oppression on which it depends, we can learn from Claudia Jones’ intersectional communism and continue her fight. As her tombstone says: “Valiant fighter against racism and imperialism who dedicated her life to the progress of socialism and the liberation of her own Black people”

Pick up a copy of “Left of Karl Marx: the Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones” from A Different Booklist

Join International Women’s Day rally and March, Saturday March 5 in Toronto

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