Despite having been ignored by most historical accounts, African American women have been central to the history of American communism. Erik McDuffie’s Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism and Carole Boyce Davies’ Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones are two recent works which provide an in depth exploration of the contributions and experiences of African American women in the US Communist Party. McDuffie and Davies’ work seeks to excavate the experiences of Black communist women and move their stories out of the margins and into the center of radical history. Far from portraying these women as “dupes” to a race-blind Eurocentric Marxism, McDuffie and Davies employ a “bottom up” reading of history that focuses on Black women’s agency, and in doing so illustrate the important contributions of Black women to the Marxist tradition.
Sojourning for Freedom traces the experiences of many Black communist women, including the work of Grace P. Campbell, Louise Thompson Patterson, Esther Cooper Jackson, Audley Moore, and Claudia Jones. McDuffie begins with highlighting the early contributions of black feminist pioneers in the 1920’s such as Grace P. Campbell, who earned her reputation as a powerful street orator, to the party’s theorizing on race, gender, and class and it’s organizing against evictions, unemployment, and for greater relief efforts in Harlem.
McDuffie then moves into exploring the contributions of Black women during the heyday of American communism, the Great Depression. It was during this decade that Louise Thompson, Claudia Jones, and Audley Moore joined and rose to leadership positions inside the party through their work on the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys and through their involvement in community-based movements in Harlem.
McDuffie spends the later half of his book uncovering the history of Black women in the party during World War II, the McCarthy period, the 1960s, and beyond. While centering the stories of Black women leaders inside the party, McDuffie also highlights the tensions, and at times conflict, that emerged for Black women, where they were, as he describes, “outsiders within” an organization that was majority white and male. While some African American women would leave the party, many stayed and played an important role in writing its history and pioneering Marxist theorization on the intersections of race, class, and gender.
Davies’ Left of Karl Marx is the only exhaustive politically biography of Claudia Jones, the leading African-American communist woman next to Angela Davis. Given Jones’ tremendous stature within, and contributions to, American communism and the Old Left, it is shocking that more has not been written about her. The absence of writing and historiography regarding Black communist women, and Claudia Jones in particular, from African American and radical left history, illustrates the powerful impact McCarthyism has had on erasing their experiences and rendering their lives invisible. In Left of Karl Marx, Davies explores Jone’s own political radicalization, her theoretical contributions to expanding Marxism’s understanding of race, class, and gender, her immense journalistic achievements, her rise to leadership inside the party, her ultimate incarceration and then deportation under the rise of McCarthyism, and finally her work as an Afro-Caribbean activist inside the United Kingdom until her death in 1964. Jones’s incarceration and ultimate deportation is a painful reminder of the lengths the American state is willing to travel in order to squelch dissent.
As Davies’ title, Left of Karl Marx, indicates, she is advancing the argument that Claudia Jone’s work demonstrates a body of politics separate and distinct from Marxism, since Marx himself never accounted for the experiences of African American women. But this is where Davies gets it wrong. Jones’ did not consider herself, her life’s work, or her politics to be “left of Karl Marx.” To the contrary, she considered herself a Marxist, a communist, and dedicated revolutionary. She strongly believed that the liberation of black women could only be achieved through a socialist revolution of the working class that championed the struggles of all the oppressed and marginalized. Jones’s politics represent an important extension of the Marxist tradition and demonstrate its adaptability as a theoretical framework and method to understand experiences and transformations well beyond the time of Marx himself. Jones deserves to be understood for what she was; a pioneering figure in the Marxist tradition and the struggle for Black women’s liberation.
While both Left of Karl Marx and Sojourning for Freedom recognize the impacts of Stalinism on the communist movement, and the effect it had on Black communist women, neither provide much in the way of a critical analysis of Stalinism and the distorting influence it had on the revolutionary aspirations at the heart of Marxism. Whatever shortcoming these books may have, however, they are both well worth the read. Both texts are paving the way in uncovering the rich history of Black Marxist feminism and moving these inspirational women out of the margins and into the center of history.