The Political Life and Times of Claudia Jones. By David Horsley.
The Political Life and Times of Claudia Jones. David Horsley. 60 pages with colour photos. The CPB Shop
Price 4.95 British pounds, or about $6.60.
Reviewed by Denise Lynn
Dec. 15, 2020
Nearly twenty years ago when I started graduate school Claudia Jones was virtually unknown outside of academia in the United States where she spent most of her life. In Great Britain, Jones’s legacy has been more visible with the annual Caribbean Carnival celebration she founded. With the deprivations of neo-liberal capitalism and the rise of an excessively wealthy global elite, young people are turning toward radical politics. This process has led to more interest in radical history and figures such as Claudia Jones who helped to frame the theoretical basis of a global emancipatory program. David Horsley’s text The Political Life and Times of Claudia Jones, published by the British Communist Party offers readers a look into Jones’s political work through the eyes of her contemporaries as well as in her own words.
Horsley opens the text by noting that this profile is meant to explicate Jones’s life through her own words and the records of her life. She was known as an anti-racist, working-class warrior who found her political home within the multi-racial Communist Party, first in the United States, then after deportation in Great Britain. Jones was born in Trinidad in 1915, then part of the British empire; Horsley does the important work of contextualizing life in the British West Indies that has rarely been done in treatments of Jones. As he argues, resistance to oppression was rooted deep in Jones’s homeland, something that her father and later she would take up in the United States.
The text explores the radicalizing influence American racism had on the young Jones after immigration in 1924. By her own admission, Jones turned to politics and specifically the Communist Party because of discrimination in the United States. The book opens with an excerpt from Jones’s statement to the court, it was in this text that she explained that it was America that made her a Marxist, and it was American anti-Marxism that would drive her out of the country.
Jones’s family had immigrated to the heart of American radicalism; even while she faced discrimination and poverty, Harlem, New York was vibrant with Black Nationalist organizations and working-class political groups that brought their message to the streets. Horsley spends time in the text contextualizing this for his readers, an important part of American radical history that may not be well-known outside the US.
True to his word, Horsley includes lengthy, though uncited quotations from Jones. Though he does not include footnotes, Horsley uses Jones’s own biographical letter written in 1955 to American Communist Party Chairman William Foster extensively. This is the lengthiest and most important biographical material we have on Jones and provides insight into her life and radicalization from her own perspective. She describes in the letter how impressed she was that the Communist Party took up anti-racist campaigns such as the Scottsboro boys and condemning the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, two events that convinced her to make the Party her political home.
After joining the Party Jones, who was born Claudia Cumberbatch, changed her name. Both Horsley and Carole Boyce Davies who has written extensively on Jones, claims that she did it to protect her family from harassment, a common tactic among American Communists. The Daily Worker later claimed she used Jones as a pen name. Whatever the reason, it probably kept the FBI from successfully deporting her earlier; it took the Bureau nearly five years just to confirm that she was not a citizen.
Jones was immediately recognized as a talent in the Party and she became a leading name first among the Young Communist League members and later in the Party. As Horsley mentions, she was also in a circle of influential Black leaders including Ben Davis, Maude White, and Louise Thompson Patterson. Jones along with her fellow Black communists ensured that the CPUSA would expend significant energy on what was then called the “Negro Question.”
Jones’s leadership expanded throughout the World War II years and into the troubling years of the Cold War. It was at this point that she began to make a name for herself as a leading theoretician of the Party. She wrote several articles and pamphlets on internal Party issues as well as the increasingly tense political situation in the US. As Horsley points out, Jones became a well-respected writer and thinker who many in the Party turned to; she could illuminate internal Party issues and help create policy, while also keep an eye out for the deteriorating conditions of the Cold War.
Anti-communism has been a ubiquitous element in American politics since the end of the Civil War. With a new population of industrial laborers and freed Black people, anti-communism has served politicians and elites alike in suppressing dissent and dividing the multi-racial working class. Anti-communism remains so powerful that even today some Americans believe Donald Trump’s admonitions that Joe Biden is a socialist.
It has caused untold damage in American politics, and Jones recognized it for what it was, a racist, sexist, imperialist ideology that fed off manufactured fear and kept working people from reaching their true potential. Even more damaging is that, as Horsley points out, anticommunism alienated radicals from other progressives who feared the red label. The liberal and progressive abandonment of the left in the Cold War prevented substantive progress on poverty, anti-racism, and anti-sexism.
Jones’s first arrest happened in 1948, the same year nearly the entire leadership of the CPUSA was arrested under Smith Act violations (the Smith Act made advocating or belonging to an organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the US government illegal). Over the next several years Jones would battle FBI harassment, legal attempts to deport her, and declining health; but even in the midst of her legal troubles, Jones continued to produce some of her most important written work on the Party.
As Horsley writes, Jones’s articulation of Black women’s triple oppression (oppressed because of race, sex, and class) built on the work of other communists. In 1949 she wrote her most important article on the topic, “We Seek Full Equality for Women.” That same year she also wrote the article she is most well-known for “An end to the neglect of the problems of the Negro Woman.” In it she takes the Party to task for failing to confront Black women’s particular issues grounded in racism, sexism, as well as working class exploitation. Jones’s work laid the groundwork for later Black Radical Feminists who took her triple oppression even further to discuss the interplay of oppression.
Horsley writes that despite Jones’s second and third arrests, she continued her political work and writing, only increasing American intelligence frustrations at their failure to silence her. She participated in the Civil Rights Congress’s 1951 We Charge Genocide petition; written by William Patterson, the petition accused the US government of perpetuating genocide against Black Americans through discriminatory legislation and willful indifference in the persecution of Black Americans across states. She also became outspoken against the Korean War and the Cold War containment policy that committed the US to endless war and taking on the self-appointed position as global police. In 1955, after serving time in a segregated federal penitentiary, Jones’s was deported to England.
Why she was deported to England rather than Trinidad is not totally clear, as Horsley mentions, but Jones later told others that the British government did not want to send her to its colony for fear she might organize people there. Once in England, even after locating a hospital that could treat her illness in Trinidad, her passport was denied, lending credence to the belief that the British wanted to keep Jones close. Despite the years of harassment, Jones immediately took up political work in London. As she would later tell friends, it was difficult to be sent somewhere she never lived, a place without family, all the while being ill. But once she was back on her feet she displayed the resilience she was so well-known for.
Perhaps the most important contribution of Horsley’s text is the first-hand accounts from people who knew her in her London years. Horsley, who interviewed some of Jones’s contemporaries like Billy Stratchan and Trevor Carter, describes how Jones’s time among Black American leaders helped her to impress upon her new comrades the importance of anti-racist organizing. She brought to the CPGB almost twenty years of political work and experience, and Black British communists frequently turned to her for assistance.
Horsley also acknowledges the conflicts between Jones and the CPGB; though there were never any public issues, the CPGB leadership was largely from an older generation that had never put a Black person on its committee. Jones was a central leader and writer in the CPUSA, but the CPGB never employed her skills. This unfortunate circumstance did not dissuade Jones from communism but did push her toward organizing among London’s West Indian community where her legacy is felt most.
Horsley does claim that this neglect was not from racism as other Black communists claimed they had not felt racism from their fellow communists. But as critical race theory has shown, good or bad behavior is not what makes a racist institution or organization, it is the failure of systems that consistently and unquestioningly define leadership as white. Even in the US, when Black communists called out their fellow comrades and the leadership for leaning on racist institutions and practices, the Party struggled to change. It seems the CPGB likely had similar problems.
Horsley writes that Jones’s greatest achievement in England was the founding of the West Indian Gazette, a Black newspaper aimed toward the growing West Indian immigrant community and the racism it faced in London. The Gazette was not just a newspaper however, it was also a means to organize people in the community against police abuses and for labor organizing and to show solidarity with anti-imperialist movements abroad. The paper later renamed the West Indian Gazette & Afro-Asian Caribbean News, encouraged multi-national organization against imperialism. The paper and the CPGB also rallied against racist immigration laws aimed to deter immigrants of color from coming into the country.
The founding of the Notting Hill Caribbean Carnival is one of Jones’s most lasting and visible legacies in London. Beginning in 1959, Jones organized a Carnival that would exhibit the music and culture of the Caribbean. Starting as an indoor celebration, today it has moved to August and remains an annual event, though the Covid pandemic forced it online in 2020.
Despite ill health, in the years before her premature death, Jones kept up a frenetic pace traveling to the USSR twice, Japan, and China once each, attending anti-Apartheid rallies, and leading a march on the US embassy in solidarity with the 1963 March on Washington. Jones remained active up until she died on Christmas day in 1964. As Horsley writes, her loss was felt globally. Three hundred people attended her funeral, representing several nations; her friends and colleagues across the world sent condolences mourning the loss of a friend and a freedom fighter.
So often radical politics have been co-opted by government and capitalist interests to commodify radical sentiment and excise its emancipatory promises. Recently, even Jones’s legacy has been hijacked by interests who would have rejected her radicalism.
In 2008, Jones’s likeness was put on a stamp in the UK; only this year, as American politics have drawn attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, Google made Claudia Jones a Doodle. In its description of her she was largely constructed as an anti-racist activist but was briefly mentioned as a communist. This kind of virtue signaling from corporations offers empty platitudes but not change. Jones herself would likely have rejected “monopoly capitalism’s” use of her image.
Horsley’s text comes at an important time and serves as a reminder that radical activists persevered despite the worst abuses; and perhaps most important, they would not take too kindly to the contemporary tendency to trivialize and commodify their politics in service to capitalism. Horsley shows that Jones was first and foremost an activist who laid a foundation for a radically free future.
 Gerald Cook, “C.P. Board hits arrest of Claudia Jones,” Daily Worker, 21 January 1948, 2.
 Claudia Jones to Howard ‘Stretch’ Johnson, 21 April 1956, Claudia Jones Memorial Collection, Schomburg Library, Harlem, New York.
Dr. Denise Lynn is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. Her research centers on women in the American Communist Party during the Popular Front. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLynn13.