Claudia Jones : Revolutionary Pan-Africanist

Claudia Jones used the organizational space of the Communist Party to advance the cause of anti-racism, world peace, decolonization and the class struggle.

By Ajamu Nangwaya

Claudia Jones was a revolutionary whose activism spanned two continents, North America and Europe. Claudia Vera Cumberbatch was born on February 21, 1915 in Belmont, Trinidad and Tobago, the land that has given rise to political luminaries such as C.L.R. James, Eric Williams, George Padmore and Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael). She and family were forced to migrate to New York City during the years 1922-24 as a result of the economic hardship they experienced as members’ of Trinidad’s working-class.

She adopted the surname “Jones” as a protective measure in carrying out her organizing work with the Communist Party-USA (CPUSA). The preceding action was not an unusual one given the anti-communist hysteria and persecution of communists in the United States. Claudia passed away in the land of her exile, Great Britain, on December 25, 1964. Interestingly enough, Jones’ final place of rest is located just left of Karl Marx in London’s Highgate Cemetery.

She contributed to the work of the CPUSA as a journalist, editor, leader, theoretician, educator and organizer from 1936 until her deportation in December 1955. She worked with the party’s newspaper Daily Worker, served as the editor of the Young Communist League’s (YCL) Weekly Review, functioned as the YCL’s state director of education and state chairperson, became a full member of the CPUSA in 1945, elected to the National Committee of the CPUSA in 1948, took on the role of Secretary of the Women’s Commission, CPUSA, and worked in various roles in other party publications. Claudia was arrested three times because of her work in the CPUSA. She was convicted under the Smith Act that targeted the leaders of the CPUSA and served eight months in prison.

Professor Errol Henderson of Pennsylvania State University captures Claudia political relevance:

“She was brilliant and incisive. She provided the feminist component of Marxist analysis coupled with Haywood’s incisive incorporation of “Negro culture”, which she supported and extended…an exceptional mind…and her deportation from the US was a major loss to the liberation struggle here, but such an addition to that in the UK where she made even more contributions.”

Jones used the organizational space of the CPUSA to advance the cause of anti-racism, world peace, decolonization and the class struggle. Furthermore, she used her various roles and resources of the communist party to advance the liberation of women in general and African-American working-class women in particular.

It is a great injustice of history that the work of Claudia Jones is little known among radicals who might draw lessons from her integrated approach to eliminating racism, capitalism, patriarchy and imperialism. In this period of vulgar identity politics, it is critical for us to highlight the contribution of this revolutionary whose activism was guided by an anti-capitalist, critical anti-oppression and anti-imperialist political orientation.

Professor Carole Boyce Davies, in her book “Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones,” offers a reason for Claudia’s invisibility:

“The study of black communist women remains one of the most neglected among contemporary examinations of black women for at least one of the reasons that Joy James identifies: The revolutionary remains on the margin, more so than any other form of (black) feminism.”

This type of neglect by most feminist academics is not surprising. Most of these bourgeois researchers are not socialist/communist and, as such, are not attracted to subjects that are associated with communism.

The continued working-class experience of Claudia and family in American society helped in shaping her class struggle, feminist and anti-racist political commitments:

“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 that not only rejects racist ideas, but is the antithesis of them.”

As an African working-class woman, Claudia’s lived experience provided her with a broad understanding of patriarchy. The clearest example of her understanding and analysis of the oppression of African women is present in the article An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman! It was published in 1949. Long before the development of the intersectional analytical framework in the 1970s by African-American feminists and lesbians as expressed in The Combahee River Collective Statement, Jones was already that approach to analyze the multiple forms of oppression that shape the lives of working-class African-American women.

Jones’ concern with women’s liberation focused on changing unequal economic, social and political conditions and not the cultural-cum-psychological obsession found within current vulgar identity politics circles:

“For the progressive women’s movement, the Negro woman, who combines in her status the worker, the Negro, and the woman, is the vital link to this heightened political consciousness. To the extent, further, that the cause of the Negro woman worker is promoted, she will be enabled to take her rightful place in the Negro 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.”

The capitalist state and corporations from the global North exploit the resources and labour and dominate the economies and societies in the global South. According to Davies in “Left of Karl Marx,”

“Claudia’s anti-imperialist politics linked the local struggles of black people and women against racism and sexist oppression to the international struggles against colonialism and imperialism.”

Claudia’s Pan-Africanism led to her advocacy for freedom of Caribbean and African peoples from colonialism.

In Britain, two of Claudia’s notable achievements are the creation of the Notting Hill Carnival and the West Indian Gazette. A part of the epitaph on her gravestone reads:

“Valiant Fighter against imperialism and racism who dedicated her life to the progress of socialism and the liberation of her own black people.”

It should have added:

“Assertive advocate of socialist feminism.”

Ajamu Nangwaya, Ph.D., is an educator, organizer and writer. He is an organizer with the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence.