Intersectionality and black communist women

Issue: 141

Ken Olende

Erik S McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Duke University Press, 2011), £15.99

The radical and significant work of early Communist Party members is written out of mainstream history. Erik S McDuffie looks to an especially marginalised group, black women in the United States who joined the Communist Party.

His study ranges from Grace Campbell, the first black woman to join the party in 1923, to later figures such as Claudia Jones, who was imprisoned in the 1950s. He writes, “In the post-war years [Jones] emerged as the most prominent black woman in the Communist Left and as a leading theoretician on the Negro Question and the Woman Question” (p167).

McDuffie is rightly angry that these figures have been removed from history. He records fascinating campaigns—from attempts to organise black domestic workers in the 1920s, through to the Sojourners for Truth and Justice, set up by black women in the CPUSA in the 1950s to promote links between women from the Global South—but his book offers an incomplete political memorial.

One reason why such important historical figures are so marginalised is because few people have been prepared to defend them as Communists since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Black nationalists and feminists have not been keen to focus on people who so publicly identified themselves as Marxists. McDuffie saves them from the ignominy of being seen as simple dupes to manipulative whites. The book is very much concerned with the women’s self-activity, but this tends to overemphasise their separation from the mainstream communist movement.

The book often seems to slip over into judging the CP by the standards of Western political organisations since the 1970s. Yet, as McDuffie points out, the US Communist Party (CPUSA) was doing something pretty nearly unique in its early days, organising both men and women, black and white. “The CPUSA’s unique movement culture, which promoted interracialism…both attracted black communist women and often alienated and marginalised them” (p21).

He notes that the first article in the Daily Worker about black women workers was published in 1924 and complains that it is written by a white woman. He comments: “The article’s vagueness and the Comintern’s inattention to black women were indicative of how Communist leadership at this moment understood all working women as white and all blacks as men” (p49).

This shows a significant weakness in the book, as the strength of the Comintern, the international organiser of Communist Parties, was precisely that it did not take such a conservative approach.

McDuffie repeatedly stresses how black women were outsiders within the Communist Party, which makes it hard to explain why so many were so attracted to it in the first place. Yet he quotes Campbell herself as saying: “My interest in Communism was inspired by the national policy of the Russian Bolsheviks and the anti-imperialist orientation of the Soviet state birthed by the October Revolution” (p34). And, contrary to the implication of complacency quoted above, he accepts that it was the Comintern, the organised international communist movement, which pushed the US party in 1928 to “focus on the Negro question as never before” (p47). But he complains that it was “disruptive” for the Comintern to intervene and stop the US party organising in “internal factions based largely in foreign language federations”. However, it was only this insistence on white and black communists working together in integrated branches that blocked internal racism and allowed the mass recruitment of black members after the campaign over the Scotsboro boys. Again this isn’t to put the party above criticism. Grace Campbell was vilified for disagreeing with the turn.

For complex international reasons this occurred as part of Stalin’s ultra-left “Third Period” which was disastrous elsewhere. In the US South, where the unions were so racist that it was near impossible to recruit black workers, the formation of separate anti-racist unions made a kind of sense. This policy was followed by the “Popular Front” which tried to work with much wider layers of society, including parts of the ruling class. This was a mixed blessing, as communists abandoned an overall critique of capitalism. But in terms of black membership the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939 was a disaster.

Each of these elements affected the course of the CPUSA and preoccupied the women discussed here, but none can simply be explained through the interaction of class, gender and race, and so the dynamic of how and why the party developed is lost. Many of these issues were considered in Mark Naison’s Communists in Harlem (1983). More recently Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore’s Defying Dixie (2009) has given a picture of the CPUSA’s development in the South between 1919 and 1950. It is not critical enough of the party’s twists and turns, but on the terrain it has picked is much better at bringing these neglected people and their experience back to life.

McDuffie mentions several of these shifts, but doesn’t see how they relate to the shifting position of black people and women in the party, which he appears to see as linked to an unchanging “old left” attitude among Marxists before the 1970s.

McDuffie defines the communists he studies as “black left feminists”, a term coined by literary writer Mary Helen Washington. He comments: “Although I use the term ‘black left feminism’, my subjects would probably not have self-identified as ‘feminists’ (in fact…some vocally rejected the term)” (p4-5). But he adds, “Nonetheless, naming them as feminists makes analytical sense…because they understood gender, race and class in intersectional terms as interlocking systems of oppression” (p5).

His terminology is based on the triple oppression of race, class and gender faced by such women and the belief that: “The eradication of one form of oppression requires the concurrent dismantlement of all types of oppression.” This conceptual framework is known as intersectionality, adding that “black Communist women were the first to articulate this theoretical paradigm” (p4).

In itself this is true, so is it simply a matter of quibbling to be unhappy with recategorising communists in this way? I think not, because the proponents of this theory believe they are adding to a theoretical framework—Marxism—which is unable to deal adequately with issues of race and gender. This is a position this journal has long argued is mistaken.

Carole Boyce Davies’s biography of Claudia Jones, Left of Karl Marx (2008), inspired much of McDuffie’s method. Boyce Davies was very aware that Jones “was a black Communist woman very conscious of her location in history and of her contributions to advancing her particular understandings of anti-imperialism” (p xiv). But she does not engage with Jones’s Marxism. The book’s title suggests that by engaging with race and gender Jones moved beyond Marx.

These theorists tend to see Marxism as an unchanging block of ideas, which makes it difficult for them to relate to, for instance, the way that the Stalinisation of the Communist Parties affected their arguments on gender and race. So abortion and homosexuality were both legalised in Russia after the 1917 Revolution. Divorce was made accessible for ordinary people. Yet in 1933 homosexuality was made illegal again in the Soviet Union. In 1936 abortion was made illegal and divorce once more became inaccessible. Also specific turns like the “Third Period” directly affected how the CPUSA related to the black struggle. McDuffie continues the trend, seeming to see the Communist movement as largely of interest because it prefigured some of the intersectional concepts he wants to concentrate on.

It is always useful to relate political activists from the past to your own political tradition. But putting these activists in the context of later developments is not the same as removing them from their own tradition as McDuffie tends to.

Despite the retreat from the politics of the period of the Russian Revolution the Communists were still seen as _dangerously sexually liberal. This in itself caused tensions when organising with some significant groups, such as the followers of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. McDuffie says, “Garveyites would have wanted little to do with the sexual radicalism popularly associated with the Soviet Union and American Communism” (p43).

Which is not to say there weren’t real problems. As one of the few organisations that attempted to operate as an integrated unit in a viciously racist society, the CP was sometimes uncertain how to respond. Some of the book’s strongest sections relate to social and personal problems party members faced. A particular issue of contention that McDuffie raises is the fact that, though the party insisted that its socials were integrated, black women felt they were not asked to dance. One wrote, “These are the things that hold a lot of Negro women back from the party. They are not so political, but they do mean a great deal” (p119).

Claudia Jones, who later came to Britain and founded the Notting Hill Carnival, explained in an autobiographical letter how she was drawn to the CP. She had suffered from sexism and marginalisation in the African Patriotic League, but was impressed by the CP’s ability to build a mass _multiracial movement in support of Ethiopia. McDuffie, however, sneers: “Jones’s account of her radicalisation should not be taken at face value… Reading like a religious conversion narrative, the letter contains a tone of self-righteous certainty in the eventual defeat of capitalism and racism” (p98).

He does not explain why we should not believe Jones’s account of her own life and should accept his interpretation, emphasising the influence of her mother’s early death, instead. This is despite the fact that he records the political and emotional opening up that joining the party gave her.

Another example from Jones’s life is her relationships with the CPUSA where she was a leading member and the British CP, where she was entirely peripheral. In Claudia Jones, a Life in Exile (1999), Marika Sherwood details the problems Jones had, noting that “the CPGB simply did not know how to respond to this fiery, highly experienced black woman, who was capable of absolutely mesmerising her audience” (p80). Certainly these difficulties came from the party’s inability to link issues of gender and class to race, but as the experience of Russia shows, they are not inherent difficulties on the left or with communist ideology. The CPUSA had been far stronger on these matters.

We look at history both to understand how people coped with distinct problems that arose in their own times and to see how these problems and solutions relate to our own. McDuffie’s method weakens both approaches.

These people are frequently not allowed to exist in their own time, because he is so keen to fit them in with post-1970s attitudes and arguments. And it is partly because of this that it is hard to relate to the concrete reality of what they achieved and how it relates to the interconnected issues of race, gender and class today. The thing that united the women who joined the CPUSA was a profound desire to end these oppressions. They saw the party as a tool to achieve this. What is lacking in this account is a sense of how to organise to continue the work they initiated.

Having said that, both Sojourning for Freedom and the earlier Left of Karl Marx are valuable because they save their subjects from obscurity. Their existence makes the importance of serious Marxist studies on these issues all the more urgent.