Excavating Claudia

By Jeremy Taylor

Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones, by Carole Boyce Davies
(Duke University Press, ISBN 978-0-8223-4116-1, 316 pp)

Claudia Jones

Claudia Jones as editor of the West Indian Gazette. Photograph courtesy Duke University Press

First comes a barrage of rhetorical questions.

How could someone who had lived in the United States from the age of eight, who had been so central to black and communist political organising throughout the 1930s and 1940s, up to the mid 1950s, simply disappear? How could such a popular public figure, an active journalist and public speaker, a close friend of Paul and Eslanda Goode Robeson, a housemate of Lorraine Hansberry, mentored by W.E.B. Du Bois, remain outside of major consideration? How could someone who was so central to Caribbean diaspora community organising abroad, the founder of the London Carnival and of one of the first black newspapers in London, the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian-Caribbean News, a close friend of Amy Ashwood Garvey, a female political and intellectual equivalent of C.L.R. James, remain outside the pool of knowledge of Caribbean intellectual history?

Pause for breath. These are good questions. In its crusading zeal, Left of Karl Marx doesn’t really get around to answering them. But it certainly shows why they need to be asked.

So who was Claudia Jones?

“Tall, elegant, brilliant, and Trinidadian,” as the author puts it, she was born in the Belmont district of Port of Spain in February 1915. Her real surname was Cumberbatch: Jones was a false name, adopted later in America as “self-protective disinformation.” In 1924, when she was only eight, she was moved to Harlem to join her parents, who had migrated two years earlier in the economic depression of 1920s Trinidad.

Though life was tough, she did well, at least until her mother died suddenly of spinal meningitis (really of exploitation, says the author) in 1933, and Jones herself was hospitalised for months the following year with tuberculosis, possibly the result of the miserable conditions the family lived in. Her health was fragile for the rest of her life.

After high school she did various menial jobs, became involved with journalism and community activism, and in 1936 joined the Communist Party and the Young Communist League (YCL). Her writing developed steadily with the Daily Worker, Spotlight, and the Weekly Review, whose editor-in-chief she became in 1943. Politically, she rose quickly in the YCL, joining the National Council in 1938 and becoming educational director in 1941. By 1946 she was on the National Committee of the Communist Party itself, and later the secretary of its Women’s Commission.

Historically speaking, her timing was bad. In the late 1940s America was becoming paranoid about Soviet communism; the Cold War was under way in earnest, and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s rampage was beginning. There were supposed to be nests of communist spies in Harry Truman’s administration, in the State Department, the army, the Voice of America. China fell to the Maoists, the Russians tested their first nuclear bomb, the German-born nuclear scientist Klaus Fuchs was found to have passed secrets to the Russians. And who knew what the lawyer and international diplomat Alger Hiss — then president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and publicly accused of being a communist spy — might have been up to?

In short, this was not a good time to be a communist, and the FBI took a keen interest in Jones from around 1942. (Just as well, as it turned out, because the FBI’s two-volume thousand-page file became the best biographical source available on her.) She was arrested four times, was refused US citizenship, detained briefly on Ellis Island, and served nine months in jail in West Virginia, while deportation hearings dragged on. She went on writing and editing, touring and speaking, in the intervals between these conflicts with the state, despite a serious heart condition; in December 1955 she was finally deported to England.

For a communist, life in London was not much better. Oswald Mosley’s fascist movement, though in decline, still had popular support. Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean had been unmasked as Soviet spies and had made a dash for Russia. And the English, happy to have an influx of Indians and West Indians to do their menial work since the late 1940s, were in a panic about the numbers of unwhite people now sullying their green and pleasant land. The months following Jones’s arrival saw the Anglo-French debacle in Suez and the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

Undeterred, Jones embarked on a new journey much the same as the one rudely interrupted in the US. She joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and was soon involved in crusades against racism, immigration controls, apartheid, and the general oppression of minorities, especially the Caribbean community. She founded and edited the West Indian Gazette, which soon embraced African and Asian interests as well.

She started the London Carnival as a way of binding the Caribbean community more closely in the face of racist attacks, and of showing Londoners a positive face of the culture that was upsetting them. At first it was an indoor affair, launched at St Pancras Town Hall in 1959, and venturing onto the streets of Notting Hill only in 1965, after Jones’s death; but she is widely credited as the real instigator of the event.

By the time she visited Moscow in 1962 and 1963, she was a popular and charismatic figure among minorities and activists. Her causes extended from South African apartheid and nuclear disarmament to political prisoners and world peace. She met Martin Luther King, visited Japan for the World Conference Against Hydrogen and Atom Bombs, travelled to China as a guest of the China Peace Committee and met Chairman Mao.

But her health was declining — she had been hospitalised three times in New York, in London in 1956 and in Moscow in 1962 — and in December 1964 her heart failed. She was cremated in Golders Green, and interred in Highgate Cemetery, beside the grave of Karl Marx.

Author Carole Boyce Davies — who developed the African-New World Studies programme at Florida International University (and moves to Cornell this year) — makes it very clear that Left of Karl Marx is not a biography. Which is true, and a pity, because Claudia Jones deserves one. Instead, the author says, it is “a study of someone who, in my estimation, is one of the most important black radical thinkers, activists, and organisers in African diaspora history . . . a black feminist critic of Afro-Caribbean origin . . . a black communist woman very conscious of her location in history and of her contributions to advancing her particular understandings of anti-imperialism.”

Boyce Davies is also very specific about her own mission, which is to restore Jones to her proper place: to “recover [a] radical black subject” and “reinstate [a] radical black female intellectual-activist position into a range of African diaspora, left history, and black feminist debates.” She wants to have Jones “enter history” and extract her from the “US narrative of conquest and domination.”

This she does with a vengeance. Various other authorities are rebuked, corrected, or seen off altogether. By the time Boyce Davies is finished with her, Jones is most definitely reinstated and relocated. She is definitively co-opted for black feminist scholarship. She is established as an earnest and indefatigable ideologue, a being defined by her sociology and her politics.

Jones is indeed a wonderful subject for scholarship. A communist, a Marxist-Leninist, a black woman, a tireless activist, anti-imperialist, decolonialist, pan-Africanist, internationalist, West Indian, proletarian, scourge of racism and gender inequality, of class and imperialist exploitation — what more could a postmodern scholar want? (It would be just too perfect if she had been a lesbian as well.)

Left of Karl Marx is not an easy book to read. Its chief and obvious value is as a pioneering documentation of Jones’s political profile. But its default language is the tortured dialect of the academy, which does not aspire to beauty or clarity or elegance of prose, nor to humour, irony, or human drama.

Boyce Davies is severe with any of us who might want to know how the young Claudia reacted to Harlem, coped with TB, or wept over her deportation; what effect her mother’s sudden death had on her; what drove her into Marxist-Leninist politics; who Abraham Scholnick was (the man she was married to from 1940 to 1947); what happened to her father Charles Bertrand Cumberbatch, who has no place in the study at all; who exactly was Abhimanyu Manchanda, with whom she was apparently consorting in her final years; why she got along so much better with the US Communist Party than with the British one; and many other such interesting questions.

The author speaks of (but does not reproduce) “wonderful, sensuous . . . beautifully seductive” photographs of Jones in holiday and social mode. And there must have been a dangerous idealism in Jones too, a naïveté, a romanticism, which is not accounted for here. She really thought that

Communist women, by their leadership among the masses of women, and learning from them to fight for their demands[,] will fuse the women’s peace movement under the leadership of the working class, and will thereby help to change the relationship of forces in our land in such a way as to make for a new anti-fascist, anti-imperialist people’s coalition, advancing through this struggle to Socialism . . . Under Socialism, full enjoyment of equal rights by women is guaranteed by the very nature of the society in which classes and exploitation are abolished.

In 1951, in Joe McCarthy’s America? Even Boyce Davies feels obliged to remark of that last sentence, apparently without irony, that “in hindsight, we can see that this was an idealistic position.”

But then, “this is not a biography,” so Jones’s psyche is off limits. We concentrate strictly on proper academic analysis. Claudia confronting Superexploitation. Claudia as Political Journalist. Claudia as Activist. Claudia as Deportee. Claudia as Prison Poet. Every chapter heading contains the obligatory academic colon (as in “Piece Work/Peace Work: Self-Construction versus State Repression”).

And no doubt Boyce Davies is wise in this, since, apart from the FBI file, there is not much source material to work with, and what there is she milks for all it’s worth. In compensation, there are interesting diversions, such as a mini treatise on little-known oppressive powers in American legislation dating back long before 9/11. From time to time, there are intriguing glimpses of a human being behind the abstractions: but Boyce Davies makes surprisingly little use of the human material she must have garnered from the many people named in her acknowledgements. Maybe there is more to come: there is “so much more to be said,” the author hints, “but for now, there must be a reluctant and temporary closure.”

One problem with campus-speak is that it wants to reify its subject. Jones’s deportation on the Queen Elizabeth becomes primarily a symbol of the “deportation of the radical black female subject from US political consciousness.” The suffering and harassment Jones went through is mere grist for the idea that she successfully linked interior and exterior decolonisation struggles. Whatever process pushed the uprooted motherless girl into communism at such a perilous time is hidden behind her idea of “superexploitation.” Ordinary workers are exploited, so black or female workers are doubly exploited, or superexploited. All this seems so obvious that it hardly warrants discussion, but it takes up a large amount of paper and ink.

So does the critique of Marxism-Leninism that Boyce Davies tries to mount on Jones’s behalf. Karl and Vladimir Ilyich might have been pretty hot when it came to the clashing of classes and the triumphant progress to socialism, but they were miserably inadequate on other subjects: gender, the situation of “the gendered black subject,” decolonisation, ethnicity, imperialism. Jones is presented as their corrective. This is why, as the book’s title jests, Jones was actually “left of Marx,” assuming that “left” is the right place to be.

Boyce Davies uses this conceit to hold her material together, and is particularly pleased with it, judging by the number of times she alludes to it. She locates Jones not only ideologically to the left of Karl Marx, but physically too. As you face Marx’s bust in Highgate Cemetery, Jones’s grave is on the left. Jones was buried there, and lay there for nearly twenty years without even an inscription to identify her: anonymous, disappeared. (Get it?)

This construction is sadly vulnerable to anyone approaching from the other direction.

But no matter. The important thing is that Jones is retrieved. She now has a headstone (which describes her as a “valiant fighter against racism and imperialism,” something of a snub for Marx next door), she is a hot topic for black feminist scholarship, she has an entry in Wikipedia, and maybe soon there will be a proper biography.

Soon after Jones’s death on Christmas Eve 1964, the actress, activist, and writer Ruby Dee wrote in the West Indian Gazette that Jones “made of her life a fury against poverty, bigotry, ignorance, prejudice, war, oppression — for all our sakes.” Boyce Davies uses this as the epigraph to her preface. It’s that fury one wants to sense now. We have the intellectual Claudia Jones: now we need the passionate, emotional one.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2008

Jeremy Taylor was born in the United Kingdom, and has lived in Trinidad for over thirty years. He is a writer, editor, broadcaster, and publisher. Many of his essays and reviews are collected in Going to Ground.