Mary Davis pays tribute to the Trinidadian activist and tireless fighter for working-class women
It is surprising that not more has been written about Claudia Jones given her stunning achievements as an activist, freedom fighter ideologist and theoretician.
The fact that she is buried next to Karl Marx is an appropriate but not an adequate epitaph.
The bare bones of her all too short life — she died at the age of 49 — is relatively well known.
She was born in 1915 in Trinidad and emigrated with her parents, an aunt and three sisters to the US where they settled in Harlem; and where she and her family, like most of the black population, experienced appalling racism and great poverty.
These experiences, together with the trumped-up case against the Scottsboro “boys” (1935-6), led Claudia, aged 18, to join the Young Communist League (YCL).
This is how she put it: “It was out of my Jim Crow experiences as a young negro woman, experiences likewise born of working-class poverty that led me to join the Young Communist League and to choose the philosophy of my life, the science of Marxism-Leninism — that philosophy not only rejects racist ideas, but is the antithesis of them.”
This quote indicates that very early on in her life she understood the relationship between exploitation and oppression and in particular the connection between class, race and gender.
This was something that informed her politics throughout her life both in the US and later when she was deported to England.
Although she rose swiftly through the ranks of the YCL and the party this did not stop her retaining a critical view of what she perceived as a gender-blind and colour-blind approach to women’s and negro oppression (she always used the term “negro” as it was in common parlance at the time).
She was supported on the issue of oppression, however, by William Z Foster, who served as general secretary of the CPUSA from 1945-57 after the expulsion of the former general secretary Earl Browder.
In the bitter struggle against Browderism, Jones supported the party’s rejection of the “revisionist position on the national character of the negro question.”
In a long discussion article entitled On the Right to Self-Determination for the Negro People in the Black Belt, she argued that the CPUSA had always understood that the negro question was a special question taking on the character of a national question.
She made a distinction between the position of negroes in the north and in the Black Belt where they constituted a majority of the population.
She argued that self-determination was not the same as separation and argued that the former had to be seen as a “programmatic demand” and a “guiding principle.”
She quoted Lenin, who argued that the negro people in the US constituted an “oppressed nation.” She was informed by his teachings which is why she opposed Browder from1944.
The latter by now envisaged a rosy future for “peaceful capitalism” which would end racism, imperialism and exploitation.
Jones was imprisoned for writing and delivering an Inter national Women’s Day address in which she strongly supported the fight for peace against imperialist aggression.
Furthermore she castigated the left and the party for failing to uproot male supremacist ideas.
Such ideas ensured that the stated aim of building a mass party was unlikely to be achieved given that women constitute half the population and that while working-class women are doubly oppressed, black women are triply oppressed.
Further, echoing Clara Zetkin, she criticised bourgeois feminism, which instead of seeing women’s oppression as founded on class exploitation, viewed it as stemming solely from men, substituting “the battle of the sexes” for the class struggle.
Jones quotes Engels, citing his work on The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, in which he said that within the family the man is the bourgeois and the woman the proletarian.
Thus: “Marxist-Leninists fight to free women from household drudgery, they fight to win equality for women in all spheres, they recognise that one cannot adequately deal with the woman question or win women for progressive participation unless one takes up the special problems, needs and aspirations of women as women” (from We seek Full Equality for Women, 1949).
In the same article she wrote that the CPUSA was the first party to demonstrate to white women and to the working class “that the triply oppressed status of negro women is a barometer of the status of all women.”
After several periods of imprisonment under the viciously anti-communist Smith and McCarran Acts, she was eventually deported.
She suffered bouts of serious ill health as a result of her prison experiences, in particular, a heart problem which was untreated.
Because she was not a US citizen she was eventually deported to England because Trinidad was still a British colony.
In Britain she continued her activism. She founded the West Indian Gazette and the Notting Hill Carnival and remained a communist until her dying day.
Mary Davis is a visiting professor at Royal Holloway, University of London and was writing in the Morning Star