Claudia Jones is not a name that comes to mind when thinking about African-American feminist theorists and activists. Hopefully, this memoir of her life and achievements will change that.
Jones was a communist, Marxist-Leninist to be precise, a union activist, a feminist and an anti-racist activist. She integrated the ideas of those theories into activism and practice, in the United States for the majority of her life and in London, England.
At the beginning of Left of Karl Marx, Davies provides the reader with an abbreviated chronology of Jones' life, then divides the book into chapters focusing on different aspects of Jones' life: her radical writing as a journalist, her activism within the Communist Party USA, her prison writings, mostly in the form of letters and poems that she wrote, her arrests and her imprisonments in the United States, her deportation to London, England, and how she continued her work there until she died.
Jones died in London at the age of 49 of heart failure. Poor health had plagued her throughout her life, and imprisonment, it could be argued, accelerated her death. Her ashes are buried literally to the left of Karl Marx's tombstone in Highgate Cemetery, London.
Jones was born in Trinidad in 1915 and emigrated to the United States in 1924. She had tuberculosis as a young woman, and suffered from inadequate medical attention throughout most of her life. She worked manual labour positions such as laundry and factory work, and became involved in working class politics.
Jones first joined the Communist Party in 1936 at the age of 21 and was active in the Youth Movement. She was an avid writer and journalist and wrote for many newspapers throughout her life, many of them focusing on issues related to black Americans, working class life, and the role of women in the Communist party.
In the introduction, Davies talks about how Jones' life and work were very much ahead of her time, and relevant to the politics of anti-oppression, and linked oppressions that modern feminist and left movements struggle with to this day. Davies describes the black subject, such as Claudia Jones, as a body that can challenge the status quo from several subject locations:
- The radical black subject, male or female, challenges the normalizing of state oppression, constructs an alternative discourse, and articulates these both theoretically and in practice. This is a resisting black subjectâe¦resisting dominating systems organized and enforced by states, organizations and institutions in order to produce a complicit passive people and to maintain exploitative systems. The revolutionary subject works in a movement geared toward dismantling that oppressive status.
Jones talked about the "superexploitation" of black working-class women. Davies explains: "She brought an explicitly women's rights orientation to the politics of the Communist Party USA." Davies assesses Jones as part of the canon of Black transnational theorists such as Ella Baker, Ida B. Wells, and Angela Davis, as well as radical organizations of the time such as the Combahee River Collective and the National Black Feminist Organization. For Jones, the ideas and practices were inseparable, "that our current geopolitical locations are products of multiple historical processes, many of which we had no control over, which have produced us, as subjects, in various 'nation-states' of the world."
The Communist Party was illegal in the United States during the time of Jones' activism. In 1942, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began a file on her, obtained by Davies under the Freedom of Information Act. Despite harassment and threats, Jones continued her writing and activism, rising to the level of Editor-in-Chief of the Weekly Review, the Communist Party newspaper in 1943, Editor of the Negro Affairs section of the Daily Worker in 1946, and was elected a full member of the National Committee of Communist Party USA in 1946 as well.
In January 1948, Jones was arrested for the first time, and was threatened with deportation to Trinidad. While out on bail she spoke at May Day rallies across the country, and worked on issues relating to the working class, peace, equality and black women. She recruited for the Party, even as the FBI continued to gather evidence to be used for her deportation hearing.
In 1953, Jones was convicted for one year and a day, a shorter sentence than two other women arrested with her, due to her health issues. She was released after serving nine months, and her deportation order came shortly afterwards. In London she was affiliated with the Communist Party of Great Britain and continued with the work she loved, including, in 1958, founding the newspaper West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News.
Davies makes a number of references to the parallels of Jones' treatment in the United Stated during the era, the McCarthy Era, and the recent restrictions on civil liberties within the United States since September 11, 2001. Parallels include imprisonment and deportation based on nothing more than affiliations with certain groups considered to be (current) enemies of the United States, the enacting of the USA-Patriot Act in 2001 whose full name is "Uniting and Strengthening American by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism."
The criminalization of communism took place under very similar circumstances, in which the Internal Security Act (1950), also known as the McCarran Act, shares similar clauses to parts of the Patriot Act, specifically that all communists register with immigration authorities and local police.
This is a dense, academic, and thorough book about the life of a Black feminist theorist that more people should know about. It is my hope that this is the start of a revival of Jones' life and work. This is a must read for any women's studies class, as well as American history, politics and other disciplines. Highly recommended.bigcitygal
Thank you for reading this story…
More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.
rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.
So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.
And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.