Left Of Karl Marx
by Dr. Carole Boyce-Davies

Left of Karl Marx is essential reading for students of the broader Caribbean community. -- Linden  Lewis



(Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones.  Carole Boyce Davies.  Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008 vii+311 pp. Cloth US$ 79.95, Paper US$22.95)

Linden Lewis -
Department of Sociology & Anthropology
Bucknell University, Pennsylvania

At the 33rd Annual Caribbean Studies Association conference held in San Andres, Columbia last year, I told Carole Boyce Davies that Claudia Jones is to left of Marx, depending on where you stand in relation to the latter.  Her quick-witted reply to me was “true, so you have to stand with Marx”.  In her book Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones, Davies moved beyond the physical location of Jones’ burial site, to argue that the latter is both located in death, as she was ideologically in life, to the left of Karl Marx.  Admittedly, this is a clever book title, but to address some lacunae in the work of Marx does not necessarily place one to his left. To suggest a position to the left of Marx is to assert a more radical, more extreme position, perhaps even a dogmatic stance.  Davies is not at her most persuasive in this claim, particularly, when she is at pains throughout the book to note Claudia Jones’ commitment to Marxism-Leninism.

Davies clearly indicates that the book is not a work of biography but a study of one of the most important black radical thinkers of the time.  It was good to see that Davies acknowledged her initial encounter with Claudia Jones’ contribution to a chance audience with Buzz Johnson, who at the time was advocating that more work needed be done on this Trinidadian-born woman.  Over the years, Johnson’s initial effort (see, I Think of My Mother) to rescue from obscurity, the political work and contribution of Jones has been essentially vilified as intellectually underdeveloped.

Claudia Jones in the opinion of Carol Boyce-Davies, was a ‘sister outsider’ in the sense in which Audre Lorde used that term.  “The fact is that she is not well know in the Caribbean, just as she is also not remembered in the United States ” (p. 25).  Though this may be true, the same can be said about such people as Oliver C. Cox, Richard B. Moore, W. A. Domingo or Hubert Harrison, none of whom features prominently on any of the undergraduate syllabi of courses at the University of the West Indies. “One of the purposes of this book is to challenge the status quo in which Claudia Jones escapes a certain belonging in Caribbean feminist history and the larger Caribbean intellectual and political genealogy as well” (p. 25).

According to the FBI’s files, Jones was “a member of the National Committee, of CP USA; Secretary of the Women’s Commission, CP USA, and Negro affairs editor of the “Daily Worker.”  She is one of the most prominent of the younger leading Negro Communists (cited in Davies, p. 197).  Claudia Jones was no doubt a very important theoretician for the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), but to argue that “if the party made Jones, she also made it, at this time” (p. 31), is to stretch her contribution just a bit beyond reason. 

In addition to her work within the CPUSA, Jones was also a journalist of long standing not only in the United States but also later in the United Kingdom where she settled after being deported from the former.  Some have credited Jones with having established a radical, black, journalism tradition in the United Kingdom . 

Given Jones’ activism, her linking of women’s rights and anti-imperialism, her opposition to Jim Crow segregation, and her explicit communist connections, it was no surprise that she would merit the attention of a the US government in the heydays of the McCarthy witch hunts.  Claudia Jones was first arrested in 1948 and threatened with deportation.  She was convicted in 1953 under the Smith and McCarran-Walter Act, and sentenced to one year and a day and fined $200.  She was imprisoned at Alderson, West Virginia.  By the time she had been released, deportation was already ordered. She was forced to leave the only country she had know as home since she was nine years old.  Jones was sent to London, where the according to Davies, the British authorities felt that it might have been better to control her and her political ideas, than in her native Trinidad.

Unlike her US experience, Jones received an unenthusiastic reception from the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).  Given her difficulties with the party, she turned her attention to addressing the problems of immigration and racism facing the African, Asian and Caribbean communities.  She is generally credited with establishing the Notting Hill carnival, in response to “the riots and intimidation of Caribbean people in Notting Hill and Nottingham and in particular to the murder of Kelso Cochrane*”

(p. 178).  Jones believed: “A people’s art is the genesis of their own freedom” (cited in Davies, p. 125).  She did not separate the political from the aesthetic.  Deportation from the U.S. therefore did not dampen Jones’ political activism; it simply broadened the scope of her work, reconfiguring it according to the specific cultural peculiarities of England.

Carole Boyce makes an important contribution to the history of Caribbean, communist, feminist women, such as Hermie Huiswoud and Grace Campbell, who have tended to figure only at the margins of their male counterparts’ political profiles.  The work is much more compelling in the chapters where Davies discusses Claudia Jones’ deportation, carnival and Diaspora activism, and in her work in the interest of peace.  Claudia Jones died in 1964 of heart failure in London.  There are areas of Claudia Jones’ life still in need of exploration however. For example, Paul Robeson’s telephone call at Jones’ funeral was no ordinary intervention, for some, it was one of the highlights of the entire service.  The confusion surrounding the funeral arrangements and who were asked to speak on her behalf is an interesting story in its own right. The attempt to bury her quickly by the CPGB is another story of intrigue.  However the clash between the CPGB’s atheistic orientation to such matters and the desire to have an appropriate religiously oriented service, complete with church hymns selected by the Caribbean community of which she had been a significant part, and who related to her in quite different political terms, all need to be aired fully in a future biography of Claudia Jones.  Left of Karl Marx is essential reading for students of the broader Caribbean community.

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©2009 Carole Boyce-Davies