Art by Yousef Amairi

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February 21, 2018

Claudia Jones, Communist Posted on March 1, 2010

Claudia Jones, Communist

In honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day (March 8th), The Marxist-Leninist will post a number of articles throughout the month of March dealing specifically with the issue of women’s liberation. The following article is from latest issue of the British journal, Lalkar:
Claudia Jones, communist
A presentation made to the Stalin Society by Ella Rule on 22 March 2009
Today is Mother’s Day. Claudia Jones too thought often of her mother. At a party given for her in New York, Claudia spoke about the early influences that pointed her in the direction of communism:
On this, my 37th birthday, I think of my mother. My mother, a machine worker in a garment factory, died when she was just the same age I am today – 37 years old. I think I began then to develop an understanding of the suffering of my people and my class and to look for a way to end them.”[1]
Right from the start, Claudia realised that what she and her family was suffering in New York was also being suffered by working-class people of every race and nationality, even if black people and women were often suffering more.
A recent issue of British stamps featured Claudia Jones, describing her as a civil-rights activist. Her best-known achievement is that she is considered the mother of the Notting Hill Carnival, the biggest carnival in Europe. All very respectable, but concealing the fact that, first and foremost, Claudia was a communist.
She became a communist at the age of 18. Her reason for doing so was that in the United States, where she grew up, the only political party fighting the country’s institutionalised racism was the Communist Party. In particular, the Communist Party USA had taken up the case of the Scottsboro boys,[2] nine black youths unjustly accused in 1931 of raping two white women and convicted without any serious opportunity to defend themselves by an all-white jury.[3]
The Communist Party took the lead in this matter, eventually being joined by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in forming the Scottsboro Defense Committee. Because of the work of this Committee, five defendants were released and the four other defendants’ death sentences were commuted to lengthy terms of imprisonment. One of the two women who had allegedly been raped courageously withdrew her testimony and admitted that she had succumbed to pressure in Alabama to make false accusations, but still the US ‘justice’ system was incapable of declaring all the defendants to be innocent.
However, the fact that the CPUSA had mobilised to save their lives, and, in the course of the mobilisation, had also taken a stand against segregation in public services and exposed the inherent racism of the legal system, meant that it gained massive support from working-class black people. It was in this context that Claudia joined the Young Communist League in 1934.
In a speech made to a court in February 1953, Claudia explained:
It was out of my Jim Crow[4] experiences as a young Negro woman, experiences likewise born of working-class poverty that led me to join the Young Communist League and to choose the philosophy of my life, the science of Marxism Leninism – that philosophy that not only rejects racist ideas, but is the antithesis of them.” [5]
Intelligent, hard-working, committed, Claudia rose rapidly in the ranks of the YCL. According to Buzz Johnson, “The organiser of the political education classes at the time recalls that Claudia quickly grasped the scientific basis of the economic and historical theories and developed a deep interest in the theory of scientific socialism. She studied and worked hard.” [6]
Claudia was elected to the chair of the National Council of the YCL in 1940, became Education Officer for New York State in 1940 and National Director in 1940. She worked on the YCL’s weekly newspaper, for which she wrote regularly, and in due course became its editor.
In 1945, Claudia was accepted into membership of the CPUSA, and was appointed editor for Negro affairs in the party’s newspaper, the Daily Worker. In 1947, she was appointed executive secretary of the National Women’s Commission, and in 1948 was elected to the National Committee of the CPUSA. In 1952, she was assigned to the National Peace Commission, which was leading the opposition to the Korean War,[7] and in 1953 she became the editor of Negro Affairs Quarterly, a party journal.
In these various capacities, Claudia toured the US extensively to speak at meetings in all 43 states. She was welcomed as a powerful orator with a deep understanding of the party’s policies.
Her devotion to the cause is further proved by the fact that she undertook this punishing schedule despite very poor health. Tuberculosis contracted when she was 17 had left her with a weak heart, which frequently caused her lengthy hospitalisations. She did not, however, allow herself to become an invalid, but, on the contrary, undertook a much heavier burden of work than was the norm.
During the second world war, while the US was fighting on the same side as the Soviet Union against Hitler, the Communist Party was able to build up its forces. At this time, opportunities opened up for the poorest sections of American society, including black people, in war industries and in the armed forces. Once the war was over, however, and the army demobbed, competition for jobs intensified, and it was taken for granted that black people could be dismissed to make way for unemployed white people.
The US ruling class had no compunction whatsoever in exploiting American workers’ racist weaknesses to turn their anger against black workers, with frustrated whites resorting with alarming regularity to lynching of black people, who were subjected to a reign of terror.
In these post-war conditions, communism – which was fighting tooth and nail against racism and to defend the rights of all workers to work and to decent living conditions – became an increasing threat to the US ruling class. It responded by mobilising anti-communist hysteria, using propaganda techniques undoubtedly copied from Nazi Germany.
Legislation was passed that was designed to curtail the activities of communists, and, needless to say, Claudia Jones, as one of the most active and prominent members of the CPUSA, soon found herself being prosecuted and harassed under this legislation.
The two principal acts involved were known as the Smith Act (Alien Registration Act, 1940) and the McCarran Act (Internal Security Act, 1950). The Smith Act made it illegal for any alien to engage in “subversive activities”, ie, to advocate overthrowing the government of the US by force or violence. The McCarran Act applied to American citizens as well, requiring all Communist Party members to register with the Attorney General! This was the act under which Paul Robeson had his passport and right to travel revoked by the US government from 1950-58.
Claudia’s first arrest was on 19 January 1948, under the Smith Act. She was one of some 150 ‘aliens’ that the US sought to deport at this time. She was liable to deportation because she was technically a Trinidadian, even though she had lived in the US for 24 of her 33 years and had no links whatever to Trinidad or, indeed, anywhere else. She was locked up in a prison on Ellis Island, within sight of the Statue of Liberty, which prompted the editor of the US Daily Worker to write:
The Lady with the Lamp, the Statue of Liberty, stands in New York Harbour. Her back is squarely turned on the USA. It’s no wonder, considering what she would have to look upon. She would weep, if she had to face this way.” (23 January, 1948)
Claudia was bailed out of jail by the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born (a party-supported organisation), and the CPUSA organised for letters of protest to be sent to President Truman. Claudia refused to participate in the hearings on the ground that they were unconstitutional (the US constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech and thought), and the case was adjourned.
However, a deportation order was in the end made in June 1950, against which an appeal was immediately launched. In October 1950, with the appeal against the Smith Act deportation still pending, new proceedings were brought against her under the McCarran Act, which had newly come into effect. Undoubtedly, the principal motivation behind these new proceedings was her stance, and that of her party, against the war of aggression launched by the US and its allies against Korea.
At her trial, held between 31 March 1952 and February 1953, Claudia was convicted and ordered to serve a year and a day in jail, and thereafter to be deported. She appealed. Of course, she lost the appeal and finally commenced serving her jail sentence in January 1955. She was extremely ill with coronary heart disease, yet was denied the salt-free diet she needed, until a court ordered she should have it or be released.
It should be noted that the CPUSA was not an illegal party. In none of the court proceedings did the prosecution admit that the real reason for persecution of communists, especially those of foreign birth, was to reduce the Communist Party’s ability to campaign against racism, against war and in favour of justice for the American poor. Instead, the alleged ‘crime’ was advocating the overthrow by force of the US government.
Claudia’s main defence, which one assumes is the defence the CPUSA wanted her to run, was that the party did not advocate the use of violence to overthrow the US government. In fact, however, conditions were not ripe in the US for overthrowing the US government by force, so the party could not be said to have been advocating this at that time. However, at the time, the party would have adopted Khrushchevite revisionist concepts of there being a peaceful road to socialism, and, in that context, the defence was genuine. What brought Claudia down was evidence that, in party schools, texts such as Lenin’s State and Revolution were still studied, and it is certain that, at the time, party members would still have been arguing at such schools of the inevitability of use of force in the process of overthrowing capitalism.
The defence of the unconstitutionality of the laws under which Claudia was being tried was also brought. As one commentator said at the time of the Smith Act, “This law of ill fame is unconstitutional because it violates the first amendment by penalising the advocacy of political ideas. It runs counter to the great American tradition of free speech, which has always held that opinion and advocacy, even of revolution, are permissible in our democracy and that only overt illegal acts or direct incitements to such are punishable.” (cited in Johnson p.23)
This comment is equally applicable to the McCarran Act. This defence could have been followed through by pointing out that the United States was established by people who rose up in arms against the ‘legitimate’ government of the United Kingdom over the territory. Quite rightly, Claudia pointed out that she was being persecuted because “as a Negro woman, I have dared to challenge the civil rights lip-service cry of [Truman’s] reactionary administration which has yet to lift a finger to prosecute the lynchers, the Ku Klux Klan or the anti-semites”.
In the face of such institutionalised injustice, it was entirely within the American traditions that its constitution claimed to uphold that such an unjust regime ought to be overthrown.
In the end, despite the best efforts of the CPUSA, Claudia Jones decided on her release from jail to abandon her appeals against deportation on the understanding that she would be deported to the UK rather than to Trinidad.
It must have been an important consideration that, in the UK, medical treatment was available that would not have been available in Trinidad. She boarded the Queen Elizabeth on 9 December 1955, amidst a crowd of hundreds, who had come to bid her farewell.
Almost immediately after her arrival in the UK, Claudia was admitted to St Stephen’s Hospital in London, suffering from combined hypertensive and arteriosclerotic heart disease, calcifying pleuritis and non-specific bronchitis with emphysema.
Claudia in London
Claudia came to London with enthusiastic endorsement of her capabilities from the Communist Party of the USA. She made contact with the Communist Party of Great Britain and was enrolled as a member. The CPGB, however, appears to have made little use of her talents, and various people have described her relationship with the party as “difficult”.
Claudia’s biographers, Marika Sherwood and Carole Boyce Davies, are anti-communists, whose interest in Claudia was sparked by their black nationalist views. Claudia herself, although in the forefront of fighting for the interests of black people, was in no way a black nationalist. She was very clear in her proletarian class orientation. She had already spoken to the US court of her “passionate idea of fighting for full unequivocal equality for my people, the Negro people, which as a communist I believe can only be achieved allied to the cause of the working class”. (Court speech reproduced in Johnson, p.121)
However, because of Claudia’s heroic stance while in the US, and her outstanding achievements in the UK in initiating Carnival and mobilising in this country against racism and racist immigration laws, black nationalists cannot but be interested in her – but this is despite her communist affiliations, not because of them.
The black-nationalist perspective is always tainted by a belief that racism is ingrained in white people, for which reason it is necessary for black people to organise separately against white people in order to promote their interests. For this reason, these biographers are anxious to stress the difficulties Claudia appears to have encountered within the CPGB and to attribute these difficulties to the race prejudice of party members. However, the examples Marika Sherwood gives of race prejudice within the party do not support her case very well, because she is forced to admit that after inner-party debate on the issues in question (eg, whether there should be separate black branches, and the removal of somewhat chauvinist formulations regarding the relationship of Britain to the colonies following the establishment of socialism), the progressive side won the argument in every case.
On the other hand, it is strange that Claudia was (a) given no paid employment within the party similar to what she had had in the CPUSA; (b) was never a member of any higher organ of the party, and (c) despite her extensive journalistic experience in the US, rarely contributed articles to the Daily Worker. Clearly all was not well between Claudia and the party. This problem led her to write a memorandum to the party, which is preserved in the CPGB archives:
Another aspect I want to raise is the Party’s evaluation towards me as an individual regarding getting settled down in this country, both politically and financially … I want clarification as to what basis and what estimate they have of my assets to the Party. There have been times when I have resisted concluding that either I’m to be retired from political life or so invalided that I must lead a sedentary life – or if the opposite is true, then not only clarification but some implementation would appear to be required.”[8]
In a tribute at Claudia’s funeral, Gertrude Elias mentioned that “One day I ran into her [Claudia] in Oxford Street and I asked her: ‘You are probably sent all over the country to address meetings, that’s why we never see you on a London platform?’ ‘Ha’, she said in her very own way, ‘not at all. I might as well be dead.’” (cited in Johnson, p.163)
Claudia’s political positions
We would almost certainly have more concrete knowledge of her political positions had the political journal which she kept all her life, and from which she was accustomed to reading extracts to her close friends, not disappeared after her death.[9]
The behaviour of the party towards her does suggest that she had major differences with the party leadership, and certainly she fought within the CPGB, as she had within the CPUSA, for the adoption of correct policies and activities on the question of race and internationalism.[10]
It does not follow, however, that racism within the party was the reason for Claudia’s isolation. The fact is that throughout Claudia’s life in Britain, the CPGB had split the communist movement in the UK by following a Khrushchevite line that demanded (a) the denunciation of Stalin, (b) the adoption of the policy of the possibility of a peaceful road to socialism, and, after 1963 when the Chinese Communist Party made its criticisms public, (c) the denunciation of China and Mao Zedong because they opposed Khrushchevism.
It seems clear that Claudia was at odds with the party leadership on all these points. As a loyal party member to the end of her life, she did not publicly state her views. However, the fact that she maintained a close relationship with Comrade Abhimanyu Manchanda, a prominent communist who was expelled from the CPGB for opposing the revisionist policies it adopted after Khrushchev came to power in the USSR, until her death is indicative of her political thinking on the question of Stalin and on the question of China, since Manchanda himself was a strong supporter of both.[11] Her support for China is further proved by the visit she made to China in 1964, a few months before she died, when she was highly enthused by everything she saw.
On her return from China she wrote:
I observed first hand with my own eyes the magnificent achievements of 15 years of Socialist Construction and its effect on lives, agricultural industry and society of the 650 million people of the New Socialist China. I talked and spoke to many of China’s leaders – in government, in the People’s Communes, in light and heavy industry – in the ardent revolutionary men, women, youth and children of New Socialist China who are led by the Chinese Communist Party and their world Communist leader, Chairman Mao Tse-tung … The great achievements in Socialist Construction in New China, based on its policy of Self Reliance which permeates every aspect of its society – in agriculture and industrialisation in light and heavy industry. A new morality pervades this ancient land which less than 15 years ago was engaged in a bitter, protracted anti-imperialist armed struggle to free itself from the ravages of feudalism, semi-colonialism, bureaucratic capitalism and imperialism, and achieved victory over US imperialism, the Kuomintang puppets and the Japanese militarists.”[12]
Claudia was an honoured guest in China in a delegation that went to meet Comrade Mao Zedong himself, whom she met twice – once as part of a South American delegation and once on her own.[13]
The CPGB’s record on internationalism and fighting racism at that time was by and large an honourable one. Members of the party had set up a British branch of the Caribbean Labour Congress in May 1948, and the CLC’s paper, Caribbean News, was set up in 1952 and kept going until 1956, printed on the CPGB’s printing press at no cost to the CLC (although Marika Sherwood claims that the CLC received little support from the party). Trevor Carter wrote that:
The CLC kept up our morale in the face of racism from all sides at the workplace, gave us political direction and enabled us to make a collective contribution to the labour movement as black workers. It was the CLC which was responsible for organising the presence of young black people at the World Youth Festivals. As CLC members, we carried out hundreds of speaking engagements at trade union branches up and down the country, either drumming up support for the independence movement in the West Indies, or organising opposition to the first moves towards racist immigration laws in Britain …” (Carter, pp.46-7)
The CLC, incidentally, was proscribed as a communist front by the Labour Party and the TUC.
Furthermore, Trevor Carter is forced to admit that the CPGB was the only party in the UK that was “in complete opposition to quotas and controls for Commonwealth immigrants”. Claudia Jones herself wrote in this context:
“[A]ll other parties have capitulated in one way or another to this racialist measure. A recent statement of the Executive Committee of the British Communist Party declared its opposition to all forms of restrictions on coloured immigration; declared its readiness to contest every case of discrimination; urged repeal of the Commonwealth Immigration Act; and called for equality of access for employment, rates of wages, promotion to skilled jobs, and opportunities for apprenticeship and vocational training … It also projected the launching of an ideological campaign to combat racialism, which it noted, infects wide sections of the British working class.[14]
It is, of course, impossible that the party’s entire membership should be completely free of race prejudice. Britain had long justified its imperialist activity on the pretext that ‘inferior races’ benefited from having Britain controlling their countries, and the belief that black people were inferior was deeply embedded in the psyche of most white British people.
The British bourgeoisie, through its control of the media and the labour aristocracy, took advantage of this race prejudice to divert British people into blaming the immigrants for the deprivation to which the bourgeoisie subjected the working class, whether they were white or black, and the media were full of hysterical articles about the need to avoid being ‘swamped’, much as today the bourgeois media never allow a day to go by without giving a nudge to backward racist thinking with a plethora of articles that explain how the government has ‘lost control’ of immigration, the implication being that the presence of immigrants in this country is a terrible problem – propaganda of which the fascist British National Party takes full advantage.
However, it is clear that the CPGB did give a lead in combating that racism, and, indeed, was the only British party doing so. Of course, it is possible, because of its policy of seeking alliance with the Labour Party, which was then as it is now, a party of imperialism, that it toned down its activity to some extent in order to avoid offending labour aristocrats promoting colour bars in some British unions. Nevertheless, whatever its weaknesses and whatever the backwardness of some of its ordinary members, it was possible for party members to work effectively on issues of race.
Trevor Carter quotes a black communist expressing views that Claudia almost certainly shared:
“I stayed in the Communist Party because I disagreed with those who claimed that the racism of the left was an inherent and permanent feature of their attitudes. I felt that since racism was part of the ideological structure of a bourgeois capitalist society, those same comrades could learn and change their attitudes.
“An important feature in my thinking was that, in order to liberate myself and other black people, we have also got to help liberate our white brothers and sisters. You can’t win one struggle without the other. But what convinced me more than anything was seeing how the many black comrades who left the party found themselves in what I would describe as a rudderless ship, and how quickly careerism became of paramount importance in their lives.
“I was one of those who went to complain to Johnny Gollan about the lack of black leadership in the party. But I have stuck with it. That was the only serious disagreement I’ve had with the party in all these years. I don’t think the party is dealing properly with racism and sometimes I get angry. But I know who I am. I am a communist and I have come to terms with where I can and can’t reach.
“I have a sense of fulfilment being a communist and I’m not selling out. The Labour Party occasionally has enticed me, but I know that my political education couldn’t improve anywhere but in the Communist Party.”[15]
The West Indian Gazette and carnival
Claudia’s arrival in London happened to coincide with the demise of the Caribbean News (which, for reasons explained above, had never been an official party newspaper). Yet never had the need for such a newspaper been more acute. At the time Claudia arrived in London, black people living in this country were subjected to gross discrimination in the provision of housing and of services.
The Race Relations Act did not become law until 1976, and, before then, colour bars were not illegal and were to be found everywhere – in employment, in rental housing, in the grant of mortgages, in catering – black people were subjected to daily humiliation. Black people were arriving from the West Indies in large numbers partly because immigration to the United States had recently been blocked, and partly because of active recruitment of black people for jobs in the National Health Service and transport in particular.
What could be more natural for Claudia that as a communist she should put herself to work within the black community in order to serve its needs? It would have been self evident to Claudia that it was a matter of utmost priority for communists to take up the question of racism, both because it is the duty of communists to defend the interests of all sections of the working class and because it is their duty to fight strenuously to prevent the bourgeoisie dividing the working class against itself.
She had acquired, through her work in the Communist Party of the USA, both the journalistic skills and the organisational skills to bring out a replacement newspaper for the Caribbean News, which she proceeded to do with effect from 1958, some two years after her arrival, although she did not secure free printing facilities from the party.
She sought, however, to give her West Indian Gazette a broader appeal than its predecessor by focussing beyond simply the employment issues that had been the latter’s main concern. She also dealt extensively with Caribbean people’s contribution to the arts, for example. She also ensured her readership was kept informed of anti-imperialist struggles worldwide, as well as of political developments in the West Indies:
WIG was present to celebrate Castro’s revolution by promoting the film Island Aflame. It shook its fist at the Congo civil war and the abandonment of Patrice Lumumba. It printed the picture of Lumumba without his spectacles, bound and in a truck to be delivered into the hands of his rival Moise Tshombe, the West’s place-man in Katanga. It reported the Sharpeville Massacre and the Rivonia Trials. The names of Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Robert Sobukwe were known to WIG’s readers – freedom fighters labelled by the British national broadsheets as troublemakers at best and terrorists by definition. There was no louder voice than WIG’s on Commonwealth issues or on decolonisation.[16]
In other words, it was not a black-nationalist paper, but a progressive paper that sided with the struggles of the proletariat at the national level and with the anti-imperialist struggles internationally.
In the summer of 1958, only five months after the first issue of the West Indian Gazette appeared, the racist ideology being promoted by the media and the various bourgeois political parties erupted into riots, first in Nottingham and then in Notting Hill, in areas with large black populations, but where the poor, both black and white, were crowded into substandard accommodation.
In Notting Hill, the riots broke out on 30 August 1958, arising out of taunts made by white lumpen elements to a mixed-race couple. Egged on by Oswald Moseley’s fascist ‘Union movement’ and other racist organisations, crowds would gather in the area to shout slogans such as “Let’s find another nigger.” PC Michael Leach wrote: “There were several hundred people, all white, congregated about the footway and … shouting obscene remarks like, ‘We will get the black bastards’.[17]
Thus mobilised, disaffected white youth set out to attack defenceless black people, who, in their turn, formed self-defence groups and fought back. Although the main riots ended on 5 September, the situation was tense for several months and on 17 May the following year, a young black student, Kelso Cochrane from the Caribbean island of St Vincent, was murdered by a gang of six white youths, who were never caught or brought to trial.
The riots, according to Carter, “changed the way we saw ourselves. We had been used to the everyday verbal abuse in the streets, in shops, factories and on the buses; teddy boys used to pick fights, but we did not fear for our lives or think that our houses could be burned down.” [18]
In these circumstances, the West Indian Gazette came into its own, as a campaigning tool supporting those organising self defence and anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigns, raising money for the defence of both black and white youths who were being prosecuted for putting up resistance to fascist violence.
Claudia Jones and Manchanda became founder members of a broad organisation designed to unite all those who could be united against racist violence and the institutionalised racism of the British state apparatus. The organisation in question was the Association for the Advancement of Coloured People which was “modelled by its founder, Amy Ashwood Garvey, on her US experience with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People”. (Sherwood, p.92)
The organisation was broad enough to include various petty-bourgeois elements, who were earnest in their desire to promote its aims, including such establishment figures as David Pitt (subsequently made a life peer) and Fenner Brockway MP, who were both members of the Labour Party. Following the murder of Kelso Cochrane, the organisation was broadened still further and became the Inter-Racial Friendship Co-ordinating Council, of which Claudia Jones became co-Vice Chair, while Manchanda undertook secretarial duties.
Subsequently, the British bourgeoisie ‘responded’ to the riots with proposals to limit black immigration into the UK that ultimately culminated into the passing of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962, the first of a whole series of enactments that continue to this day, promoted by Labour as much as by the Tories, to create the impression that the problems faced by the working class of unemployment, poor housing, poor schooling, poor health care, etc, are caused by black immigration and can be alleviated by halting it.
The West Indian Gazette campaigned vigorously against these racist laws, exposing the hypocrisy of the Tory and Labour politicians who supported them, tirelessly organising demonstrations and pickets. Although all this work was not able to free Britain from racist legislation, it cannot be denied that the consciousness-raising that it brought about was fundamental to the eventual passing of the Race Relations Act 1976, which Fenner Brockway had been sponsoring for many years before it was finally treated seriously, and which has, notwithstanding its many weaknesses, played an important part in reducing the injustice meted out to people on the basis of their race.
Carnival
The Notting Hill Carnival arose out of all the activity surrounding the response to the Notting Hill riots. Claudia Jones was very much its moving spirit. She saw it as a way of putting people back in touch with their cultural traditions, reminding them of all they had to be proud of, while at the same time extending the hand of friendship to white people by sharing this joyous culture with them.
Not only did she organise the first carnival – an indoor event at St Pancras Town Hall – but she also arranged for it to be televised and broadcast to the nation. Again, the West Indian Gazette was invaluable for ensuring the success of this event – for its interest in Caribbean artistic developments, for making the necessary contacts, and for making sure it was packed out.
While Claudia was alive, Carnival continued to be an indoor event, but ultimately moved outdoors to Notting Hill to join traditional British celebrations that had been held there on the August bank holidays. So popular were the Caribbean contributions that it was not long before the Notting Hill Carnival became the celebration of Caribbean culture enjoyed not only by people of Caribbean background but by all sections of British society.
Conclusion
Because she was a communist, Claudia Jones could not be hurt by white racism. Her attitude would be that, as a communist, her duty was to do all in her power to help white people overcome the prejudices that tied them to their exploiters and oppressors, the common enemy of white and black proletarians alike. For this reason, she could never have been seduced by the siren songs of black nationalism, as the record of her political activity proves.
Claudia fully understood the class basis of racism, and, not only that, she realised why this racism was festering among the working class, fostered by the labour aristocracy: “These artificial divisions and antagonisms between British and colonial workers, already costly in toll of generations of colonial wars and ever-recurrent crises, have delayed fundamental social change in Britain, and form the very basis of colour prejudice. The small top section of the working class, bribed and corrupted, and benefiting from this colonial robbery, have been imbued with this racist ‘white superiority’ poison.” (Caribbean community in Britain, reproduced in Johnson, p.144)
Claudia was a loyal communist with a deep understanding of Marxism Leninism: a born organiser and an indomitable spirit, and we in Britain are extremely lucky to have had her among us for the last nine years of her life. Her spirit and commitment are an example to us all, when we remember that she would get up out of her hospital bed to attend political meetings and then return to it.
Let us remember Claudia, pay homage to her, and strive to follow the example that she set in literally giving her life to the movement, thereby living forever in the hearts and minds of progressive people the world over.
NOTES
1.  Speech by Claudia Jones at the Hotel Theresa, New York, 21 February 1952.
2.  To quote blackpast.org, “The Scottsboro Boys were nine young black men, falsely accused of raping two white women on board a train near Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. Convicted and facing execution, the case of Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson, Eugene Williams, and Andrew and Leroy Wright sparked international demonstrations and succeeded in both highlighting the racism of the American legal system and in overturning the conviction.
On 25 March 1931, nine unemployed young black men, illegally riding the rails and looking for work, were taken off a freight train at Scottsboro, Alabama and held on a minor charge. The Scottsboro deputies found two white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, and pressured them into accusing the nine youths of raping them on board the train. The charge of raping white women was an explosive accusation, and within two weeks the Scottsboro Boys were convicted and eight sentenced to death, the youngest, Leroy Wright at age 13, to life imprisonment.
The American Communist Party (CP), in this period at the height of its organising focus in the American South against racism and economic exploitation, immediately took the case on, and largely through activist efforts, sparked a mass defence movement. The CP brought in their legal arm, the International Labor Defense (ILD) to represent the nine. After two trials in which an all-white jury, fuelled by a biased Alabama press, convicted the nine, the ILD and the CP began a national protest campaign to overturn the conviction, marked by numerous street marches, national and international speaking tours, and popular songs. Because of their principled leadership in the campaign, the CP gained much widespread respect among African Americans and civil-rights activists. When they travelled to Washington DC to demonstrate, the CP stopped at segregated restaurants to stage sit-ins against discrimination, helping to turn the campaign into a trial of the system of segregation and racism in America, presaging the sit-in tactics of the 1960s civil-rights movement.
Although initially hostile to the Communists and wary of being involved in the touchy issue of black men raping white women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) ultimately joined with the CP and other civil rights organisations to form the Scottsboro Defense Committee. Eventually, one of the white women, Ruby Bates, came forward to repudiate her testimony, acknowledging that she and Price had been pressured into falsely accusing the Scottsboro Boys, and she became part of the campaign to save their lives.
The case went to the United States Supreme Court in 1937, and the lives of the nine were saved, though it was almost 20 years before the last defendant was freed from prison. The trial of the Scottsboro Boys is perhaps one of the proudest moments of American radicalism, in which a mass movement of blacks and whites – led by Communists and radicals – successfully beat the Jim Crow legal system.
3.  Carole Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2007.
4.  Jim Crow laws were segregation laws enacted particularly in the southern states of America under the slogan ‘Separate but equal’. In fact, they were separate and unequal, of course. It was possible to pass these laws in the southern states, notwithstanding a majority black population, because of laws that disenfranchised those unable to pay a poll tax, or unable to read, etc. The laws passed, therefore, reflected the attitudes of the white middle class in those states.
5.  Trevor Carter, Shattering Illusions, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1986.
6.  Buzz Johnson, ‘I Think of My Mother’, Notes on the Life and Times of Claudia Jones, Karia Press, London, 1985.
7.  Eric Levy (see Note 8 below) remembers that Claudia’s peace activism was not of a bourgeois pacifist variety. She strongly held the view that as long as the imperialist powers had atomic weapons, then all other countries were entitled to have them as well, that being the best guarantee of peace.
8.  Cited in Marika Sherwood, Claudia Jones, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1999, p73.
9.  Mikki Doyle, a CPGB stalwart, apparently had access to Claudia’s possessions at some point between the time when Claudia died on 25 December 1964 and the emergency grant of Letters of Administration to Claudia’s close friend Abhimanyu Manchanda on 13 January 1965. Clearly, if the journal was critical of the CPGB, Mrs Doyle had every reason to destroy it to prevent Manchanda using it against the CPGB. Indeed, one suspects that she would have considered it her duty to do so in defence of her party’s interests.
Suggestions have been made that Manchanda himself might have destroyed it because it may have contained details of differences Claudia may have had with him, but this seems quite improbable, since, if he had control of the document, he had no need to destroy it as there was no danger of it being used against him.
10. Ivor Kenna, at the Stalin Society meeting at which this presentation was made, drew attention to the details given in Sherwood, pp74-75, of struggle at the 1957 Congress of the CPGB over references in party literature to “helping backward peoples” (by which was meant the populations of oppressed countries), for, as Claudia Jones pointed out at this congress, “the anti-imperialist struggles of the backward Afro-Asian nations, from Egypt to Ghana, are today leading the progressive anti-imperialist struggle
11. Boyce Jones claims that Claudia was not a Stalinist because she did not write any articles supporting “Stalinist positions”. It is far more significant, however, that, following Khrushchev’s secret speech condemning Stalin, Claudia never joined the ranks of those who rushed to echo Khrushchev’s malign accusations.
12. From an untitled and unpublished draft report made to the Committee of Asian and Afro-Caribbean Organisations, found among the papers of Claudia Jones inherited by Diane Langford on the death of Manchanda. Carole Boyce Davies has deposited all the Claudia Jones papers held by Diane Langford with the Schomburg Library in New York where it is entitled ‘The Claudia Jones Memorial Collection’.
13. At the Stalin Society meeting at which this presentation was made, another speaker, Eric Levy, who knew Claudia Jones personally, lived in another flat in the same building, and was the person who found her body by climbing in through a window of her apartment when she failed to meet up with him as had been arranged, confirmed that Claudia Jones was an ardent admirer of Cde Mao Zedong.
14. Quoted in Carter, pp70-71. Carter claims that he has borrowed this quotation from Johnson, but he is mistaken on this.
15. Quoted in Carter, p62.
16. ‘The West Indian Gazette: Claudia Jones and the black press in Britain’ by Donald Hinds, Race and Class, July 2008.
17. According to a statement made at the time of the riots by Police Constable Michael Leach, based in Notting Hill, quoted in ‘The Home Office cover-up of Notting Hill’s race riots’ by Ian Burrell, The Independent, 23 August 2003.
18. Carter, p66

February 13, 2018

No, wealth isn’t created at the top. It is merely devoured there, Rutger Bregman The Guardian 30 March 2017



These days, politicians from the left to the right assume that most wealth is created at the top. By the visionaries, by the job creators, and by the people who have “made it”. By the go-getters oozing talent and entrepreneurialism that are helping to advance the whole world.
Now, we may disagree about the extent to which success deserves to be rewarded – the philosophy of the left is that the strongest shoulders should bear the heaviest burden, while the right fears high taxes will blunt enterprise – but across the spectrum virtually all agree that wealth is created primarily at the top.
So entrenched is this assumption that it’s even embedded in our language. When economists talk about “productivity”, what they really mean is the size of your paycheck. And when we use terms like “welfare state”, “redistribution” and “solidarity”, we’re implicitly subscribing to the view that there are two strata: the makers and the takers, the producers and the couch potatoes, the hardworking citizens – and everybody else.
In reality, it is precisely the other way around. In reality, it is the waste collectors, the nurses, and the cleaners whose shoulders are supporting the apex of the pyramid. They are the true mechanism of social solidarity. Meanwhile, a growing share of those we hail as “successful” and “innovative” are earning their wealth at the expense of others. The people getting the biggest handouts are not down around the bottom, but at the very top. Yet their perilous dependence on others goes unseen. Almost no one talks about it. Even for politicians on the left, it’s a non-issue.
To understand why, we need to recognise that there are two ways of making money. The first is what most of us do: work. That means tapping into our knowledge and know-how (our “human capital” in economic terms) to create something new, whether that’s a takeout app, a wedding cake, a stylish updo, or a perfectly poured pint. To work is to create. Ergo, to work is to create new wealth.
But there is also a second way to make money. That’s the rentier way: by leveraging control over something that already exists, such as land, knowledge, or money, to increase your wealth. You produce nothing, yet profit nonetheless. By definition, the rentier makes his living at others’ expense, using his power to claim economic benefit.


 ‘From Wall Street to Silicon Valley, zoom in and you’ll see rentiers everywhere.’ The Facebook main campus in Menlo Park, California. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP
For those who know their history, the term “rentier” conjures associations with heirs to estates, such as the 19th century’s large class of useless rentiers, well-described by the French economist Thomas Piketty. These days, that class is making a comeback. (Ironically, however, conservative politicians adamantly defend the rentier’s right to lounge around, deeming inheritance tax to be the height of unfairness.) But there are also other ways of rent-seeking. From Wall Street to Silicon Valley, from big pharma to the lobby machines in Washington and Westminster, zoom in and you’ll see rentiers everywhere.

There is no longer a sharp dividing line between working and rentiering. In fact, the modern-day rentier often works damn hard. Countless people in the financial sector, for example, apply great ingenuity and effort to amass “rent” on their wealth. Even the big innovations of our age – businesses like Facebook and Uber – are interested mainly in expanding the rentier economy. The problem with most rich people therefore is not that they are coach potatoes. Many a CEO toils 80 hours a week to multiply his allowance. It’s hardly surprising, then, that they feel wholly entitled to their wealth.
It may take quite a mental leap to see our economy as a system that shows solidarity with the rich rather than the poor. So I’ll start with the clearest illustration of modern freeloaders at the top: bankers. Studies conducted by the International Monetary Fund and the Bank for International Settlements – not exactly leftist thinktanks – have revealed that much of the financial sector has become downright parasitic. How instead of creating wealth, they gobble it up whole.


Don’t get me wrong. Banks can help to gauge risks and get money where it is needed, both of which are vital to a well-functioning economy. But consider this: economists tell us that the optimum level of total private-sector debt is 100% of GDP. Based on this equation, if the financial sector only grows, it won’t equal more wealth, but less. So here’s the bad news. In the United Kingdom, private-sector debt is now at 157.5%. In the United States, the figure is 188.8%.
In other words, a big part of the modern banking sector is essentially a giant tapeworm gorging on a sick body. It’s not creating anything new, merely sucking others dry. Bankers have found a hundred and one ways to accomplish this. The basic mechanism, however, is always the same: offer loans like it’s going out of style, which in turn inflates the price of things like houses and shares, then earn a tidy percentage off those overblown prices (in the form of interest, commissions, brokerage fees, or what have you), and if the shit hits the fan, let Uncle Sam mop it up.
The financial innovation concocted by all the math whizzes working in modern banking (instead of at universities or companies that contribute to real prosperity) basically boils down to maximising the total amount of debt. And debt, of course, is a means of earning rent. So for those who believe that pay ought to be proportionate to the value of work, the conclusion we have to draw is that many bankers should be earning a negative salary; a fine, if you will, for destroying more wealth than they create.
Bankers are the most obvious class of closet freeloaders, but they are certainly not alone. Many a lawyer and an accountant wields a similar revenue model. Take tax evasion. Untold hardworking, academically degreed professionals make a good living at the expense of the populations of other countries. Or take the tide of privatisations over the past three decades, which have been all but a carte blanche for rentiers. One of the richest people in the world, Carlos Slim, earned his millions by obtaining a monopoly of the Mexican telecom market and then hiking prices sky high. The same goes for the Russian oligarchs who rose after the Berlin Wall fell, who bought up valuable state-owned assets for song to live off the rent.


 ‘One of the richest people in the world, Carlos Slim, earned his millions by obtaining a monopoly of the Mexican telecom market and then hiking prices sky high.’ Photograph: Carlos Jasso/Reuters
But here comes the rub. Most rentiers are not as easily identified as the greedy banker or manager. Many are disguised. On the face of it, they look like industrious folks, because for part of the time they really are doing something worthwhile. Precisely that makes us overlook their massive rent-seeking.

Take the pharmaceutical industry. Companies like GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizerregularly unveil new drugs, yet most real medical breakthroughs are made quietly at government-subsidised labs. Private companies mostly manufacture medications that resemble what we’ve already got. They get it patented and, with a hefty dose of marketing, a legion of lawyers, and a strong lobby, can live off the profits for years. In other words, the vast revenues of the pharmaceutical industry are the result of a tiny pinch of innovation and fistfuls of rent.
Even paragons of modern progress like Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber and Airbnb are woven from the fabric of rentierism. Firstly, because they owe their existence to government discoveries and inventions (every sliver of fundamental technology in the iPhone, from the internet to batteries and from touchscreens to voice recognition, was invented by researchers on the government payroll). And second, because they tie themselves into knots to avoid paying taxes, retaining countless bankers, lawyers, and lobbyists for this very purpose.
Even more important, many of these companies function as “natural monopolies”, operating in a positive feedback loop of increasing growth and value as more and more people contribute free content to their platforms. Companies like this are incredibly difficult to compete with, because as they grow bigger, they only get stronger.
Aptly characterising this “platform capitalism” in an article, Tom Goodwin writes: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.”


 ‘Every sliver of fundamental technology in the iPhone, from the internet to batteries and from touchscreens to voice recognition, was invented by researchers on the government payroll.’ Photograph: Regis Duvignau/Reuters
So what do these companies own? A platform. A platform that lots and lots of people want to use. Why? First and foremost, because they’re cool and they’re fun – and in that respect, they do offer something of value. However, the main reason why we’re all happy to hand over free content to Facebook is because all of our friends are on Facebook too, because their friends are on Facebook … because their friends are on Facebook.

Most of Mark Zuckerberg’s income is just rent collected off the millions of picture and video posts that we give away daily for free. And sure, we have fun doing it. But we also have no alternative – after all, everybody is on Facebook these days. Zuckerberg has a website that advertisers are clamouring to get onto, and that doesn’t come cheap. Don’t be fooled by endearing pilots with free internet in Zambia. Stripped down to essentials, it’s an ordinary ad agency. In fact, in 2015 Google and Facebook pocketed an astounding 64% of all online ad revenue in the US.
But don’t Google and Facebook make anything useful at all? Sure they do. The irony, however, is that their best innovations only make the rentier economy even bigger. They employ scores of programmers to create new algorithms so that we’ll all click on more and more ads. Uber has usurped the whole taxi sector just as Airbnb has upended the hotel industry and Amazon has overrun the book trade. The bigger such platforms grow the more powerful they become, enabling the lords of these digital feudalities to demand more and more rent.
Think back a minute to the definition of a rentier: someone who uses their control over something that already exists in order to increase their own wealth. The feudal lord of medieval times did that by building a tollgate along a road and making everybody who passed by pay. Today’s tech giants are doing basically the same thing, but transposed to the digital highway. Using technology funded by taxpayers, they build tollgates between you and other people’s free content and all the while pay almost no tax on their earnings.

This is the so-called innovation that has Silicon Valley gurus in raptures: ever bigger platforms that claim ever bigger handouts. So why do we accept this? Why does most of the population work itself to the bone to support these rentiers?
I think there are two answers. Firstly, the modern rentier knows to keep a low profile. There was a time when everybody knew who was freeloading. The king, the church, and the aristocrats controlled almost all the land and made peasants pay dearly to farm it. But in the modern economy, making rentierism work is a great deal more complicated. How many people can explain a credit default swap, or a collateralised debt obligation? Or the revenue model behind those cute Google Doodles? And don’t the folks on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley work themselves to the bone, too? Well then, they must be doing something useful, right?
Maybe not. The typical workday of Goldman Sachs’ CEO may be worlds away from that of King Louis XIV, but their revenue models both essentially revolve around obtaining the biggest possible handouts. “The world’s most powerful investment bank,” wrote the journalist Matt Taibbi about Goldman Sachs, “is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
But far from squids and vampires, the average rich freeloader manages to masquerade quite successfully as a decent hard worker. He goes to great lengths to present himself as a “job creator” and an “investor” who “earns” his income by virtue of his high “productivity”. Most economists, journalists, and politicians from left to right are quite happy to swallow this story. Time and again language is twisted around to cloak funneling and exploitation as creation and generation.
However, it would be wrong to think that all this is part of some ingenious conspiracy. Many modern rentiers have convinced even themselves that they are bona fide value creators. When current Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein was asked about the purpose of his job, his straight-faced answer was that he is “doing God’s work”. The Sun King would have approved.

 ‘A big part of the modern banking sector is essentially a giant tapeworm gorging on a sick body.’ Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images
The second thing that keeps rentiers safe is even more insidious. We’re all wannabe rentiers. They have made millions of people complicit in their revenue model. Consider this: What are our financial sector’s two biggest cash cows? Answer: the housing market and pensions. Both are markets in which many of us are deeply invested.

Recent decades have seen more and more people contract debts to buy a home, and naturally it’s in their interest if house prices continue to scale new heights(read: burst bubble upon bubble). The same goes for pensions. Over the past few decades we’ve all scrimped and saved up a mountainous pension piggy bank. Now pension funds are under immense pressure to ally with the biggest exploiters in order to ensure they pay out enough to please their investors.
The fact of the matter is that feudalism has been democratised. To a lesser or greater extent, we are all depending on handouts. En masse, we have been made complicit in this exploitation by the rentier elite, resulting in a political covenant between the rich rent-seekers and the homeowners and retirees.
Don’t get me wrong, most homeowners and retirees are not benefiting from this situation. On the contrary, the banks are bleeding them far beyond the extent to which they themselves profit from their houses and pensions. Still, it’s hard to point fingers at a kleptomaniac when you have sticky fingers too.
So why is this happening? The answer can be summed up in three little words: Because it can.
Rentierism is, in essence, a question of power. That the Sun King Louis XIV was able to exploit millions was purely because he had the biggest army in Europe. It’s no different for the modern rentier. He’s got the law, politicians and journalists squarely in his court. That’s why bankers get fined peanuts for preposterous fraud, while a mother on government assistance gets penalised within an inch of her life if she checks the wrong box.
The biggest tragedy of all, however, is that the rentier economy is gobbling up society’s best and brightest. Where once upon a time Ivy League graduates chose careers in science, public service or education, these days they are more likely to opt for banks, law firms, or trumped up ad agencies like Google and Facebook. When you think about it, it’s insane. We are forking over billions in taxes to help our brightest minds on and up the corporate ladder so they can learn how to score ever more outrageous handouts.

One thing is certain: countries where rentiers gain the upper hand gradually fall into decline. Just look at the Roman Empire. Or Venice in the 15th century. Look at the Dutch Republic in the 18th century. Like a parasite stunts a child’s growth, so the rentier drains a country of its vitality.
What innovation remains in a rentier economy is mostly just concerned with further bolstering that very same economy. This may explain why the big dreams of the 1970s, like flying cars, curing cancer, and colonising Mars, have yet to be realised, while bankers and ad-makers have at their fingertips technologies a thousand times more powerful.
Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Tollgates can be torn down, financial products can be banned, tax havens dismantled, lobbies tamed, and patents rejected. Higher taxes on the ultra-rich can make rentierism less attractive, precisely because society’s biggest freeloaders are at the very top of the pyramid. And we can more fairly distribute our earnings on land, oil, and innovation through a system of, say, employee shares, or a universal basic income.
But such a revolution will require a wholly different narrative about the origins of our wealth. It will require ditching the old-fashioned faith in “solidarity” with a miserable underclass that deserves to be borne aloft on the market-level salaried shoulders of society’s strongest. All we need to do is to give real hard-working people what they deserve.
And, yes, by that I mean the waste collectors, the nurses, the cleaners – theirs are the shoulders that carry us all.

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