Claudia Jones and the emancipatory promise of socialism

Denise Lynn explores the life, work and revolutionary contribution of now legendary member of the Communist Parties of the USA and Britain, Claudia Jones. This article first appeared in 21 Century Manifesto.

At her sentencing hearing in February 1953, Claudia Jones stood before judge Edward Dimock with 12 of her fellow American Communist Party members (CPUSA) and declared her belief that her guilty sentence was based solely on her leadership in the CPUSA, something for which she declared, she proudly pled guilty. Jones and her co-defendants were found guilty under the Smith Act which made it illegal to advocate or be a member of an organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the United States government..m Caught up in the anti-communist hysteria during the Cold War, Jones knew that what was on trial was the “ideas of Marxism-Leninism.” In her particular case, Jones understood that as a Black woman, not born on American soil, who loudly advocated for the liberation of Black America and women, she was tried not for any crime, but for her convictions. She credited her early devotion to Marxism-Leninism, what she called “the philosophy of my life” for opening her eyes to the awareness of injustice and the need to fight back, for it was her belief that only with socialism could she and Black America, and all colonized peoples and workers of the world, be emancipated.[1]

Claudia Jones was a leading communist theorist of the CPUSA. 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.[2] 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.

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. Before she completed High School, her mother died at work, an event that would forever influence Jones’ future agitation for working people. A worker herself who would spend her early adult years in low-paid industries in New York, Jones understood the oppressive conditions endured by working people. But as she would also tell the court, it was American racism that would radicalize her. One incident in particular stayed with her well into her adult years. As a teenager, Jones contracted tuberculosis and was committed to a sanitorium for rest and isolation. When she agreed to donate blood to a fellow white patient, others warned the woman that she could turn Black. The fellow patient, however, was grateful.[3]

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. After graduating High School in 1935, she started to work on a Black Nationalist paper, but grew frustrated when her ideas were credited to men in the group. 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. Before World War II, the Party focused its energies on anti-fascism and working with social justice organizations to create progressive reform. The language of revolution was refocused on the expansion of American democracy via the eradication of oppression. The Party became a leader in social justice movements, just as anti-communism would come to dominate American domestic and foreign policy.[4]

The FBI worked to get Jones deported once it learned that she was not only not a citizen, but also that her attempt to apply for citizenship was denied because she listed the CPUSA as her employer. Jones knew that as a Black woman and an immigrant, she was an easy target. Her first arrest came in 1948. She was detained at Ellis Island awaiting deportation under a 1918 immigration law that allowed for the removal of foreign radicals from American soil. But in the midst of the Cold War, the Bureau gained new and more powerful weapons to use against communists including the McCarran-Walter Act that allowed for the deportation of disloyal citizens. Arrested in 1951 with sixteen others, she and twelve of them would be tried, found guilty and sentenced. It was at her sentencing hearing that she told the judge that all she was guilty of was advocating socialism and the liberation of women and Black Americans, indeed her FBI file confirms this. Her file contains her written work and some of her speeches and radio interviews. Bureau agents admitted that what Jones wrote and spoke about, and focused her career on, was race and gender equity. At a time when calls for equality were linked to communism, this was enough to convict and eventually deport her.[5]

She served nine months in a segregated facility where her health deteriorated after experiencing heart failure during the trial. Upon her release, the FBI was eager to expel her from the country and it finally succeeded in December 1955. Jones was deported to England where she would continue her affiliation with communism. 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.[6]

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 economic dislocations of the Great Depression refocused the Party on the working family and not just industrial workers; and the rise of fascism in Europe reinforced that women and non-whites were especially vulnerable. These ideas were circulating when Jones joined the Young Communist League. By the postwar years, she would make a name for herself by openly criticizing CPUSA policy in its general neglect 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.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

It was Black women’s exploitation that concerned Jones the most and led her 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.

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.[10]

Jones pointed out that white women, including progressives, were as guilty of white chauvinism 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.[11]

Jones believed that it was white men and women’s responsibility to challenge white chauvinism, 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.[12]

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.[13]

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. Jones credited leading Party women like Ella Reeve Bloor and Anita Whitney for being leaders in securing women’s right to vote, for speaking out for Black equality, and their work for worker’s emancipation. She argued that the Party was central in pushing trade unions to organize women and encouraging boycotts of consumer goods. 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. [14]

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.[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]

Denise Lynn


Dr Denise Lynn is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. Her research centers on women in the US Communist Party during the Popular Front. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLynn13.

 Endnotes

[1] Claudia Jones, 13 Communists Speak to the Court. (New York: New Century Publishers, 1953), pp. 19-26
[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 Carol Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), pp. XXIII-XXVII.
[4] 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.
[5] Carole Boyce Davies, ‘Deportable Subjects: U.S. Immigration Laws and the Criminalizing of Communism,’ 100:4 South Atlantic Quarterly, Fall 2001, pp980-985.
[6] Carole Boyce Davies, ‘Deportable Subjects: U.S. Immigration Laws and the Criminalizing of Communism,’ 100:4 South Atlantic Quarterly, Fall 2001, pp980-985.
[7] Claudia Jones, “For New Approaches on the Woman Question,” August 1948, Political Affairs, pp. 739-740.
[8] Claudia Jones, International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace,” 1950 Political Affairs, p. 34.
[9] Jones, International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace,” Political Affairs, 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. 35.
[12] Jones, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Women!” p. 39.
[13] Claudia Jones, “We Seek Full Equality for Women,” 4 September 1949, The Daily Worker, p. 11.
[14] Jones, “We Seek Full Equality for Women,” p. 11.
[15] Jones, “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace,” p. 39.
[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.


Next month the Communist Party will be publishing The Political Life and Times of Claudia Jones – a biography by David Horsley. Check the party shop in late November for more details!

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