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Claudia Jones and the Emancipatory Promise of Socialism

Denise Lynn

In the 1930s, the American Communist Party (CPUSA) was the center of the American Left. Capitalism seemed to have failed, evidenced by the Great Depression, and socialism in the Soviet Union was unfazed. The rise of fascism made securing equality a new imperative, and the CPUSA put itself in the forefront of the anti-fascist movement.

As historian Michael Kimmage has argued, the Party was also intellectually dynamic and appealing producing thinkers that interpreted Marxist theory for a wider audience. This popularity continued into the early Cold War years and the Party drew in women and minorities because it was one of the only interracial organizations that called for the demolition of sexist and racist institutions. It was also during this period it would come under attack. Nevertheless, communists expanded traditional Marxist concepts of class conflict to include a more nuanced theoretical framework that articulated an inclusive emancipatory program.[1]

Claudia Jones was one of the Party’s leading theoreticians and a central voice for anti-racism and anti-sexism. Her writings focused largely on the potential of socialism to liberate all oppressed peoples. One particular idea she has been credited with popularizing was the concept of Black women’s triple oppression. Jones took an idea that had been circulating for decades among Black women activists, that their oppression was three-fold based on race, gender, and class, and articulated it for a wider audience. Triple oppression, she argued, defined Black women’s experiences within American capitalism as well as in both Black and white society. Jones pushed the CPUSA to recognize that as the most oppressed population in the United States, Black women, and not working-class men, were the vanguard of the working-class revolution. Within her analysis was the commitment that by freeing the most oppressed, everyone would be free. She expanded traditional Marxist concepts that working people would need to rise up and the shop floor would be the site of revolution, and instead emphasized that working for the liberation of the Black woman would benefit all women and all workers. She argued that it was only socialism that held the promise for emancipation, but that the revolution had to begin with Black women’s freedom.[2]

She also identified a problem that plagued the left then, and today, racism and sexism within its own ranks. Jones argued that socialism was the only true guarantee of equality, but that socialism would never be achieved while capitalists kept working people divided among themselves using race and gender. She argued that white leftists had to confront their own racism, and men had to understand that so-called traditional gender roles were bourgeois constructs. Jones believed that socialism could never be achieved without first confronting the divisions in the left. The growing interest in socialism today offers an opportunity to revisit Jones’ most important contributions to socialist thought. Many who identify with Democratic Socialism today, including Bernie Sanders, have fallen into the same trap that Jones’ white contemporaries did, arguing that class oppression is the tie that binds all people exploited under capitalism and demolishing the capitalist economic system would/will eradicate social differences and usher in equality. The danger in these assumptions is putting forward a colorblind and gender-blind analysis that ignores the intersections of race and gender-based oppression alongside class, not within it. In other words, Claudia Jones warned in the post-World War II era that without first confronting race and gender inequalities, there was no way that working people could be unified against capitalist forces and therefore there would be no way to achieve socialism.

Claudia Jones was born Claudia Cumberbatch in Belmont, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad in 1915. When she was nine years old, she and her sisters moved to New York City to join their parents who preceded them. As a youth Jones worked in a local NAACP youth branch and also on the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young Black men falsely accused of rape who were tried and sentenced to death in Alabama. She was drawn to the CPUSA both because of its work on the Scottsboro case and its anti-racism, and because it was a leading voice in calling for women’s rights. Jones was arrested in 1951 with sixteen others, she and twelve of them would be tried, found guilty and sentenced. At a time when calls for equality were linked to communism this was enough to convict and eventually deport Jones to England in December 1955. She left behind a body of work that articulated a Black Left feminism that focused on recognizing the common oppressive threads all workers shared and how they were embodied in Black women’s triple oppression. Jones’ written work outlines an emancipatory ethos that focuses on the expansion of democracy as the key to liberation; embedded within her triple oppression paradigm is the argument that to demolish race, gender, and class oppression, social justice advocates had to focus on Black women’s freedom and in that struggle, all people would be freed.[3] 

A common refrain of many women in the American Communist Party, dating to the Popular Front period (1935-1939) was that the shop floor was not the primary site for revolutionary change, the home was. Women leaders argued that to revolutionize the working-class home regarding gender relations, consumerism, production in the form of reproduction and maintaining worker’s health, and for Black families, securing the safety and protection of their family members, would incorporate the full working-class into the drive for socialism. The language of revolution was refocused on the expansion of American democracy via the eradication of oppression. Some have interpreted this emphasis on the home and women’s reproduction as an essentialist construction that defined women as bound by their reproductive capacity. This is an unfortunate dismissal of an important theoretical construct that recognizes the household as a political site where gendered constructions limit women’s political and economic potential. Differences did not imply weakness, Jones would argue, instead, differences had to be reconciled in order to understand the full spectrum of working-class exploitation. Women were not exploited as laborers alone, women were exploited as bearers of children, and as wives bound to the domestic sphere, regardless of whether they worked outside the home. This was often referred to as the “double shift” – the combination of having a job and the domestic responsibilities placed solely on women’s shoulders. Communist men rarely questioned this, and for Jones and other Party women, this reflected their bourgeois hang-ups and prevented the organization of the full working class.

By the postwar years, Jones would make a name for herself by openly criticizing CPUSA policy and men in the Party for the general neglect and dismissal of women, particularly Black women, and the household. She forcefully argued that the Party largely ignored the central role women played as leaders and organizers of the people and the revolutionary potential to organize the working-class home. She admonished the Party leadership to realize that “Wall Street imperialism” recognized the power of women, even if the Party did not. This was especially true in the postwar drive to push women out of the wartime industries and into the home. In a 1948 article discussing the CPUSA’s draft resolution for its future tasks, Jones argued that the Party failed to recognize the potential of engaging women. It is here where she begins to outline the triple oppression paradigm. Jones notes that women in general faced “two strikes” – that of their gender, and their class status. But it was Black women who were more disadvantaged in the workforce as the last hired and the first fired. In addition, Jones noted that Black women faced lower wages and were often concentrated in low wage industries like domestic work. This was compounded by postwar reconversion when women were expected to leave well-paying industrial jobs and return to the home, but for Black women, returning to the home was not the option. Because of the low wages of Black men, women had to remain in the workforce without protection, and representation from trade unions. Jones wanted the Party to step into that void and push its allies in trade unions to reach out to women to organize them. Despite Cold War repression, unions remained an institution that embodied the potential for change. The organization of women and Black Americans was one way to seek cross-racial unification, a necessary requirement to organize against capitalism.[4]

In these early years of the Cold War, Jones and others were also increasingly concerned that the same forces that defeated fascism and “Hitlerism” in the war, were adopting fascist practices that encouraged women’s domesticity. Jones warned of the “fascist triple-K” – Kinder, Kuche, Kirche – a German slogan that referred to women’s role as mothers, domestics, and devout Christians. She argued that while fascists insisted that women remain in the home as dependents, socialism recognized that household relations had to be revolutionized in order to usher in socialism. In other words, long before later feminists coined the idea that politics are personal, Jones and others knew well that the home was where socialist revolution could begin and changing personal relationships there was a revolutionary act. Not only was it a revolutionary act, but it was essential for men in the left to recognize women as their equals in the struggle for change.[5]

Jones believed that the emphasis on women’s so-called traditional obligations to remain in the household was an ideological attack to prevent women’s political power and organization. Women in the postwar world faced an emerging military state and limited economic opportunities. Jones sought to organize women against further war and to resist the “worsening…of their economic status.” She noted that criticisms of women’s activism and growing political demands were often masked as attacks on “woman’s femininity,” her “womanliness” and her personal and “family happiness.” In other words, not unlike today, women in politics were degraded for taking positions outside the bounds of expected feminine roles. But Jones believed this was often a reflection of men’s own hysterical fears of women’s power. Organizing womanhood against the war machine and capitalist interests would be formidable and Jones counseled the CPUSA to cultivate it and to reject sexist biases in its own ranks. Male progressives, she feared, ignored women’s oppression and their work for change at their own peril. There was no way to achieve democracy without addressing women’s oppression.[6]

It would perhaps surprise American women today that Jones and her peers rejected the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), not because they rejected equal rights, but because they recognized the inability of the constitution to ameliorate oppressive conditions and guarantee equality. What Jones called “Left-progressives” wanted to preserve the limited labor legislation that protected women and children in the workforce, and they feared that ERA passage would eliminate those protections. The protections were in place not because women were weaker, but because women were more vulnerable in the workplace and for Jones, short of socialism, there was no guarantee that without legislation they would be shielded from total economic exploitation.[7]

It was Black women’s exploitation that concerned Jones the most and led her in 1949, to write perhaps her most well-known article “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Women!” In many of her articles she articulated Black women’s triple oppression, but it was here that Jones laid out the issue more clearly in another admonishment meant for the CPUSA leadership. She took the Party to task for failing Black women, but the article is also valuable in understanding Jones’ emancipatory politics. She saw in Black women the worst forms of exploitation, but she also saw the greatest potential to seek freedom and achieve democracy.

Jones argued that the bourgeoisie was afraid of Black women because they had always been leaders in their homes, in their communities, and in the larger movement to gain equal rights. She offered a history lesson outlining Black women’s importance dating to slavery when their children’s status legally followed their own. Because slaveowners did not preserve family units, it was women who were left with the care of Black children. This role led white society to assign the “mammy” stereotype to the Black woman. This “white chavunist ideology,” a phrase used by the Party to describe racism, perpetuated a belief that the Black woman was “backward” and “inferior,” but Jones argued that this belief had to be “combatted and rejected” as a device of “imperialists” who sought to confine Black women to menial labor in white people’s homes.[8]

The Party was equally guilty of ignoring Black women’s historical role and its neglect in confronting their continued oppression. Jones wanted her comrades to recognize the Black woman as a worker, as Black, and as a woman, as the “most oppressed stratum.” She pointed to the tendency among Party members to use degrading language calling all Black women, despite age or status, “girl.” The tendency on the part of even radicals to ask their Black comrades if they had any family that could clean their homes, and the failure of white men to recognize Black women at all, even in social settings where they were looked over for women with light skin. Racism, she argued, remained a barrier among progressives and prevented change.[9]

Jones pointed out that white women, including progressives, were as guilty of white chavunism as men. White women, though economically disadvantaged, still had the advantage of their race in the workplace. This was particularly true in the home where white women would hire Black maids. This “madam maid relationship” was not strictly confined to the home. In failing to see Black women as anything other than laborers, white women failed to have “close ties” with Black women. This, she said, prevented any real progress among progressives. She argued that the fight for Black women’s equality was in the “self-interest” of white women, because the “super-exploitation” of Black women depressed the standards of “all women.” White progressives had to begin to shed their own prejudices in social relations, including in inter-marriage, in order to embrace real progressive change. This is an important contribution Jones and her generation made to the later women’s movement, a contribution that is often ignored and misunderstood. Jones did not believe that gender was a unifying force when race remained a divisive issue among progressives. Women did not have the same needs politically or socially because of their gender and differences had to be accounted for to achieve equality. The notion that “sisterhood is powerful” used by white feminists could be more destructive because it failed to acknowledge that Black women’s experience had to be accounted for to realize true democracy.[10]

Jones believed that it was white men and women’s responsibility to challenge white chavunism, in the white community and in themselves. She argued that ending racist policies and practices was in the self-interest of all working people because racial equality was “prior to, and not equal to” women’s issues. Only by fighting for the emancipation of Black people could women ever gain equality. Because Black women combined the status of “worker, Black, and woman,” she is therefore the “vital link” in creating a “heightened political consciousness.” Black women had to take leadership in the movement for liberation to achieve the true goal which was to create a “Socialist America” the “final and full guarantee of women’s emancipation.” This was key to Jones’ emancipatory vision, that in order to find freedom for all working people, undermine monopoly capitalism, and achieve a democratic society, progressives had to embrace Black women as the revolutionary vanguard.[11]

Jones did recognize that despite the Party’s flaws, it was still a leader in pushing for Black women’s rights and the emancipation of all women. On the thirtieth anniversary of the CPUSA founding, Jones hailed it as a leader in the struggle to free women from male oppression. She argued that “Marxism-Leninism” revealed that not all women’s oppression is the same everywhere, but that it does come from “women’s relation to the modes of production.” Marxism-Leninism viewed the “woman question,” a pejorative used to describe women’s issues, as a special question that derived from women’s economic and social dependence on men. Referring to Friedrich Engels’ famous and much-loved essay among CPUSA women, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State,” Jones argued that women’s oppression was rooted in her sexual exploitation in the home and her subjugation as the proletariat to the male bourgeoisie.[12]

The Party’s strength, Jones argued, was in recognizing that the bourgeois and proletariat household condemned women to “drudgery” both in terms of labor performed there, and her economic and sexual dependence on men. Confronting personal relationships as reflections of political, particularly capitalist, imperatives was central to the Party and what made it appealing to women. One of the most important contributions of the CPUSA was in getting white women to recognize that Black women’s triple oppression was a “barometer” for all women’s status. Jones gave credit to the Party when it was in fact she and other Black women in the Party that pushed for women to recognize that Black women’s oppression was a way to measure not just all women’s oppression, but all people’s liberation. [13]

But Jones believed that real progressive change and real emancipation was only possible under socialism. She did not mince words on this point when she stated in several articles that “complete emancipation” of women would only occur in a socialist America. She argued that bourgeois democracy guarantees of equal rights under the law was impossible when “capitalist exploitation” undermined these rights. Only under socialism where “class divisions and human exploitation are abolished” could there be a full and final guarantee of equal rights. Under capitalism, women’s equality was “at best” a “programmatic demand” to seek, but it required constant struggle to defend those rights. Equality under capitalism was an illusion because economic relationships guaranteed the uneven distribution and expression of power. Jones argued that capitalism required unending war and colonial expansion, it also fed off divisions within the working classes. To keep working people divided by gender and race and regularly stoking the embers of hate secured the perpetual power and wealth accumulation of capitalists at the expense of working people. For Jones, democracy and capitalism could not coexist because the wealthy needed to keep working people focused on hating each other instead of the real enemies, “Monopoly imperialists” who exploited others labor for their own greed.[14]

This was one point in the communist opposition to blanket legislation like the ERA. Constitutional amendments required constant struggle to defend, something that remains true to the present. Democracy under capitalism meant that working people had to make regular claims to their rights, often to the detriment of their safety. A constitutional guarantee to grant women equality would require an entire legislative program to uphold, and even then it would not guarantee equality, much like the 15th amendment failed to guarantee Black people the right to vote, or the 14th amendment could not guarantee the full rights of citizenship. Marxist-Leninism, Jones wrote, rejected “all petty-bourgeois equalitarian notions.” Equality did not serve capitalism because it opened the possibility of challenging elite’s power. Only with the destruction of the capitalist state and social divisions could true equality be secured and finally enjoyed.[15]

Jones believed that it was her job, and the job of her fellow communist comrades to heighten the socialist consciousness of women, both Black and white. The organization of women was necessary to mobilize the entire working-class against capitalist exploitation. She counseled the Party to  refine its theoretical understanding of Marxist-Leninist teachings on the “woman question,” combined with the need to undermine all “male supremacist ideas” that prevented progressives from attaining socialism in America. She argued that proletariat men needed this education because many still subscribed to “ruling class” ideologies that convinced them of women’s “biological inferiority.” This failure to understand the “special social disabilities of women under capitalism” was the worst damage done by male supremacy. She believed that it was CPUSA men who had to become the “vanguard fighters” for women’s rights.[16]

The lack of inclusivity in feminism was, Jones argued, another barrier to true progress. She argued that “bourgeois feminism,” the same feminism that held the ERA up as one key for women’s emancipation was a false flag because its basic premise was that women’s oppression stemmed from men and not capitalism. Bourgeois feminism tended to see struggles against racism as separate from the larger movement for emancipation as evidenced by an equal rights campaign that failed to mention race or class. Jones believed that feminists ignored Black women’s equality at their detriment. She counseled that to undermine “Wall Street imperialism” and attain a true political and socialist consciousness was to understand that Black women’s emancipation was key to liberation struggles. Therefore, the struggle for Black women’s “social, political, and economic” equality was (and is) in the “self-interest” of the white working-class. This is the heart of Jones emancipatory politics, that to free Black women was to free all women and men, all colonized people, all working people, and to finally achieve the socialist promise of true liberation and democracy.[17]

Even as Jones was deported to Europe, her emancipatory vision would inspire later generations of Black women activists who saw in her ideas true revolutionary promise. Philosopher and communist Angela Davis wrote about Claudia Jones in her book Women, Race, & Class. She noted that Jones’ liberation thesis about Black women, was a plan for the “multi-racial working class.” Davis noted that it was earlier generations of Black thinkers, like Jones, that articulated feminist ideas that would become central in the Black feminist movement of the 1970s. Historian Erik McDuffie argues that Cold War repression did lead many Black feminists to “reinvent the wheel” before they finally discovered the written work of Claudia Jones and others. Nevertheless, Jones’ ideas could be seen in Frances Beal’s Third World Women’s Alliance and her article “Double Jeopardy: To be Black and Female,” and the Combahee River Collective and its seminal statement that outlined Black women’s troubled relationship with white feminism. These activists, and arguably feminists until our own historical moment, continue to struggle with what Jones would describe as “bourgeois” sentiments that equality could be achieved via legislation. Legislation coupled with the capitalist state meant constant struggle, often among workers rather than those that were the true enemies of liberation, capitalists. Meanwhile, the divisions between and among working people sustained capitalist power and made liberation an impossible dream.[18]

Jones died in 1964; today she is buried next to Karl Marx in Highgate cemetery in London. Carole Boyce Davies has argued that Jones’ grave is literally left of Marx, but her theories were also left of Marx. A devoted Marxist, Jones expanded Marxism by outlining what she believed was the true path to the liberation of all people. She insisted that the true socialist revolutionary promise was the emancipation of the most oppressed group in a capitalist society, Black women. Jones’ focus on Black women’s oppression was two-fold. She argued that progressives had to recognize that as the most oppressed population of Americans, the freedom of all people would follow Black women’s freedom. She also regularly argued that the Party, and all progressives, had to foster women’s leadership. Women, particularly Black women, were already leaders and had been leading, but without recognition. This leadership was necessary to ensure that the full spectrum of issues working people faced would be recognized. While male progressives focused on union organizing, or radicalizing industrial workers, women’s focus on the family and social issues, were the only avenue toward ushering in real democratic change that would encompass all working people, and all people of color. Democracy, Jones believed, could not be achieved without fostering women’s leadership, ending capitalist exploitation, and recognizing that both racism and sexism were barriers to progress. Until her death, Jones believed that women’s organization against capitalism was the key to liberation, and that liberation meant the destruction of race, gender, and class oppression.[19]

Today, capitalism’s critics often ignore that race and gender oppression are markedly different from class oppression, and that ending class exploitation would not address the racist and sexist sentiments that keep the left deeply divided. These divisions arguably delivered a Donald Trump presidency as so-called progressive men could not stomach voting for a woman, and some progressive voters hold up Bernie Sanders as their savior, though he regularly downplays race and gender and was even accused of ignoring sexism among his own staff in the 2016 election. Dismissing these allegations and ignoring the prejudices among the left has helped to usher in a right-wing nationalism that exploits these divisions to secure its own power. Contemporary audiences would do well to revisit the socialist thinkers of the past like Claudia Jones, who already spelled out a path to liberation, which we ignore to our own detriment.

Notes


[1] Michael Kimmage, The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).

[2] Erick McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

[3] Claudia Jones to William Foster, 6 December 1955. Claudia Jones Vertical File, Tamiment Library, New York University, New York and Davies, Left of Karl Marx, pp. XXIII-XXVII and Carole Boyce Davies, ‘Deportable Subjects: U.S. Immigration Laws and the Criminalizing of Communism,’ 100:4 South Atlantic Quarterly, Fall 2001, pp980-985.

[4] Claudia Jones, “For New Approaches on the Woman Question,” August 1948, Political Affairs, pp. 739-740.

[5] Claudia Jones, International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace,” 1950 Political Affairs, p. 34.

[6] Jones, International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace,” Political Affairs, p. 35.

[7] Jones, “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace,” Political Affairs, p. 39.

[8] Claudia Jones, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Women!” 1949 Political Affairs, p. 32-33.

[9] Jones, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Women!” p. 35.

[10] Jones, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Women!” p. 35.

[11] Jones, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Women!” p. 39.

[12] Claudia Jones, “We Seek Full Equality for Women,” 4 September 1949, The Daily Worker, p. 11.

[13] Jones, “We Seek Full Equality for Women,” p. 11.

[14] Jones, “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace,” p. 39.

[15] Jones, “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace,” pp. 41-42.

[16] Jones, “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace,” pp. 43-44.

[17] Jones, “We Seek Full Equality for Women,” p. 11.

[18] Angela Davis, Women, Race, & Class. (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), p. 169 and Erick S. McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 209.

[19] Carole Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones, Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.