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Christian Smalls, a key organizer and president of the historic Amazon Labor Union, has dubbed summer 2022 #hotlaborsummer. In doing so he has helped bring attention to the massive unionizing campaigns and labor struggles raging throughout the nation. Since October 2021 petitions to the National Labor Relations Board for union representation have increased 57 percent. Meanwhile, general approval for union efforts in the United States has reached 68 percent, the highest it’s been since 1965. Workers at corporate behemoths—including Amazon, Starbucks, Chipotle, and Google—are banding together to wrest better benefits, wages, and working conditions from their employers as inflation reaches levels not seen in forty years and material conditions continue to deteriorate.
This assertion of worker power stretches beyond the United States: Panamanian workers took to the streets starting on July 1, 2022 to protest rising costs of living and a growing economic crisis. That same month in Paris, strikes led by airline workers grounded a significant number of flights. For the past several months, strikes and labor unrest have spread throughout the African continent, including in Tunisia, South Africa, Ghana, and Eswatini. In the summer of 2022, strikes also repeatedly halted rail transportation in the United Kingdom, where Mick Lynch, head of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union, has called for a general strike in response to the ruling Conservative Party’s failure to keep wages in line with inflation. While these demands are contextually specific, workers around the world are rising up against deteriorating living and working conditions as a tiny minority reaps historic profits.
The exciting resurgence of labor notwithstanding, #hotlaborsummer might more aptly be understood as #classwarsummer, as the ruling class is not sitting idly by as workers assert their labor power. U.S. corporations have illegally retaliated by shutting down stores where union activities have taken place and engaged in draconian anti-union efforts. Elsewhere governments have violently cracked down on labor protests, intimidating, jailing, and killing hundreds. The current dialectic between labor radicalism and ruling class repression, happening in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine, proto-fascisms rising throughout the world, and leftist fightback—from the election of the first-ever leftwing government in Colombia to the reinvigoration of global anti-imperialist solidarity—repeats patterns of struggle familiar to twentieth century organizers. As appeals to better working conditions once again gain broader popularity, it serves us well to engage with past labor struggles, movements, and leaders. In particular, Black communist women have long served as a vital, albeit overlooked, source of hope and inspiration in challenging times.
We do well to learn from their writing and work as anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-fascist, and anti-imperialist organizers and, of course, to say their names: Grace Campbell, Williana Burroughs, Maude White, Thyra Edwards, Ella Baker, Marvel Cooke, Louise Thompson Patterson, Esther Cooper Jackson, Thelma Dale, Claudia Jones, Vicki Garvin, Eslanda Goode Robeson, Dorothy Hunton, Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, Dorothy Burnham, Yvonne Gregory, and Charlotta Bass. As founders and leaders of unions, parties, and militant organizations—such as the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), the Trade Union Unity League, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, Sojourners for Truth and Justice, and many others—these women offer powerful guidance in a time when deep polarization makes many despair. Yet possibilities for substantial change are cause for optimism. Under conditions of economic depression, war, and intense state repression, these women worked to build unity among the oppressed, confident that they could win.
At the founding convention of the National Negro Labor Council on October 27 and 28, 1951, Black communist women received emphatic applause as they asserted their importance in the labor movement. They emphasized that as long as Black women were locked out of significant sections of U.S. industry, reduced to domestic service, and marginalized in or excluded from unions, the labor struggle as a whole would suffer. The refusal to fight against the abuse of domestic workers and to organize this section of oppressed laborers rendered the union movement incomplete at best. Women such as Helen Lunelly and Viola Brown pointed out that a key struggle of the Labor Council was to open the doors of factories and industry to Black women while simultaneously struggling for livable working conditions and wages for domestics. By offering this powerful critique, Black communist women redefined who counted as a worker, shed light on the intersections of oppression and exploitation that needed to be addressed by the labor movement, and presented the necessary actions for launching a truly representative labor struggle.
This analysis did not originate after World War II. At the first meeting of the National Negro Congress (NNC) from February 14–18, 1936, Black communist women helped to shape a resolution for a national movement. Under the direction of the NNC, the resolution would organize domestic workers—85 percent of whom were Black women—to regularize their hours, raise their wages, and improve their living conditions. Such a movement would elevate the conditions not only of Black workers, but of all working people.
It was out of this meeting that Louise Thompson Patterson wrote her pivotal 1936 article “Toward a Brighter Dawn,” in which she laid out how Black women in the Northern “slave markets” and on Southern farms were “severely exploited” as workers, as women, and as “Negroes.” This superexploitation was exacerbated by Black women’s high rate of unemployment, discrimination in relief programs, exorbitant rents, and terrible housing, all of which they endured while maintaining and rearing their families. Black women’s plight was not only the plight of the Black community; it was the plight of all workers struggling against the intensification of subjection in the throes of the Great Depression.
This astute analysis of the structural and material conditions of Black women was articulated even earlier by Grace Campbell, one of the first women to join the CPUSA. Campbell was ahead of her time in using the realities of Black women workers to illuminate the importance of simultaneously struggling against both capitalism and racism to shore up interracial worker unity. Black communist women understood that satisfying the material needs of the most exploited group would strengthen the labor movement and its ability to fight against class domination and its intensification by imperialism, war, racism, and fascism. This was not least because, as Claudia Jones put it, Black women were the “real active forces—the organizers and the workers” in the institutions and organizations that were central to the economic, political, and social life of Black people, and addressing their special oppressed status would help to bring their militant energy to even greater heights in the fight for peace and socialism.
For several decades in the early- to mid-twentieth-century United States, Black communist women organized, fought, and led mass campaigns against national oppression and economic exploitation. Within and alongside the CPUSA, they highlighted the conditions facing Black women workers, placed the abolition of white supremacy at the center of the class struggle, and viewed the achievement of socialism as necessary for full social and economic equality. Racism in domestic, agricultural, and industrial labor demonstrated the necessity of unionizing all workers, with a special consideration for those who bore the brunt of racism and capitalism—Black communist women’s experiences as organizers taught them how challenging this task is.
From their analyses of the economic bases of racism, Black communist women also generated a compelling theorization of fascism, contending that capitalists hold on to power via white supremacy, militarism, sexism, and imperialism. Engaged in international struggles against fascism and colonialism, they built new organizations and created an international movement for peace. Yet their work forging the CPUSA and envisioning an international socialism dedicated to Black liberation—and a Black liberation dedicated to socialism—has been largely excluded from popular visions of twentieth-century radical left politics. This “intellectual McCarthyism,” erasing and suppressing the contributions of these theorist-organizers, distorts our understanding of organized radical politics. Acknowledging the role these women played expands our understanding of radical left movements’ history and future.
Seeing the Patterns, Fighting the System
A deep sense of the patterns of oppression and resistance guided Black communist women’s activism. Specific issues—for example, the campaign around the “Scottsboro boys,” nine Black youth who were wrongfully convicted of raping two white women in a freight train boxcar in Alabama in 1931—served as a catalyst for bringing more people into organized struggle. Through its militant defense of these young men, the Communist Party established itself among Black people as a leader in the struggle against Jim Crow, lynching, and white supremacy. Attention to this specific crime exposed a general, structural injustice. The Scottsboro boys crusade brought national and international attention to the white supremacist violence and economic deprivation of the Jim Crow South. It also brought more Black people into the party, building their capacities for ongoing political work. Black communist women also highlighted similarities between the situation of Black people in the “Black Belt” of the southern United States and in Ethiopia when that country was invaded by Italy under Benito Mussolini in 1935. In each instance, defending the safety and freedom of Black people was necessary for the defeat of fascism—and neither the U.S. government nor the League of Nations found Black lives worth defending.
Black communist women’s political writing can teach contemporary organizers practical and theoretical lessons. Practical lessons include going directly to the people to learn about their experiences, creating opportunities for people to speak and advocate for themselves, and using organizations to amplify power. After the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of New Negro militancy, Black women in and around the CPUSA saw the party as an alternative to the Republican and Democratic parties, both of which oversaw Jim Crow segregation, overlooked lynching and racist violence, and facilitated the rise of monopoly-finance capitalism.
Theoretical lessons recognize capitalism’s centrality to white supremacy and oppression, and the imperative of unity in the struggle for liberation while also acknowledging the special nature of anti-Black oppression. Black communist women in the first half of the twentieth century foregrounded how capitalism incites racism and sexism to fragment workers and maintain class power—and how the participation of the working class in these forms of discrimination undermines worker unity. Shedding light on Black women’s experiences as racialized and sexualized workers, Black communist women’s political writing avoids identity reductionism—the assumption that a particular confluence of identities renders one more oppressed or inherently radical. Rather, their speeches and articles highlight the experiences of Black workers, analyze their patterns of exploitation and oppression, and propose strategies for organization and agitation based on these analyses, all with the goal of building collective power capable of winning the struggle for liberation.
Communists Against White Supremacy and Fascism
Anti-communism in the United States has long been tied to anti-foreignness and white supremacy. In the First Red Scare of 1919, fears of anarchism—stemming from anarchist bombings and anxieties about Bolshevism, as well as rising labor militancy and the Seattle General Strike—combined with the nationalism, anti-Germanism, and anti-immigrant sentiment of World War I. Unwarranted arrests and illegal search and seizures led to the deportation of hundreds of noncitizens. This anti-radicalism also manifested in the related “Black Scare,” in which savage white mobs harassed Black soldiers returning home from the war and Black workers occupying “white” jobs in industrial centers. During that violent Red Summer of 1919, Black people resisted white terror, fighting back against race rioters and lynchers. Instead of acknowledging justified Black outrage, white newspapers blamed the Bolsheviks and “outside agitators” for inciting revolt.
In the following decades, the U.S. State Department consistently depicted Black internationalists as subversives and enemies of the state who were prone to foreign inspiration. They presented Black resistance not as the logical response to lynch law but as a manifestation of Black disloyalty. The McCarthy era unleashed a fear of communism. During this Second Red Scare, state repression damaged the lives of thousands of people. Communists were arrested, imprisoned, and deported. Anti-communism knit together and intensified anti-Blackness and anti-foreignness and was used to justify the violent repression of Black political leaders. Because anti-colonialism, the peace movement, and desegregation were construed as dangerously un-American, leaders of the Black liberation movement came under attack. Communism—because of its mobilization for economic redistribution, racial equality, and Black-white labor solidarity—was presented as antithetical to legitimate political struggle, rendered as totalitarian, antidemocratic, and criminal. Anything that could be construed as even potentially communist, not least Black militancy, became akin to sedition.
Anti-communism is a key plank of white supremacy, as it binds democracy with liberal capitalism and white class rule while also rendering Black struggle a threat to the “American way of life.” These tropes are alive and well today: from the liberal and right-wing attacks on “wokeism” to the far-right scapegoating of “cultural Marxism” and “Critical Race Theory.” Anti-communism persists by associating Black radical struggle with criminality, destruction, outside agitation, and subversion.
Another version of anti-communism manifests in the refusal to acknowledge that Black people were founding members of the CPUSA, visible leaders of the party, candidates for office, and respected theoreticians, as well as leaders in party-backed mass organizations. It is assumed that such acknowledgment would stain or tarnish the legacy of these Black leaders, since communism is understood as illegitimate. At the same time, such erasure allows critics to misconstrue the CPUSA as racist by obscuring the central contributions of Blacks organizers and theoreticians to its program.
The scholarly and activist attempt to hold communism and the CPUSA at arm’s length has sometimes been a well-meaning effort to protect people from false accusations, since the Red Scare persecution menaced communists and noncommunists alike. But avoiding communism to present a more “acceptable” left politics dishonestly severs communism from that very politics, presenting it as an opponent of democracy rather than as an opponent of fascism. Even worse, the separation of Black communists from their own party work generates a mistaken view that all communists are white, and all Black people are liberal. This obscures the tie between the U.S. Black liberation struggle and international movements against fascism, colonialism, and imperialism.
Indeed, antifascism—and its strong links to anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, and peace—was a key component of Black communist women’s political work. They understood that a war to make the world “safe for democracy” only made “Africa safe for exploitation by European powers.”
Black communist women’s theory of fascism deepened the CPUSA’s understanding of Black people’s oppression in the United States as national oppression. The “Black Belt” thesis held that Black people were an oppressed nation with a right to self-determination, a view V. I. Lenin had already proposed to the Comintern in 1920. As theorized by Harry Haywood, Black people in the United States met all the criteria for a nation: they had a common territory (the “Black Belt” in the U.S. South, named for the dark soil) and a common economic life, historical experience, and culture. Black oppression in the United States was thus considered a function of imperialism, as it was throughout the world. Haywood argued that treating the Black struggle as a problem of racism downgraded its revolutionary nature, ignored its economic basis, and reduced a struggle for equality to a struggle against prejudice. Under party chair Earl Browder, U.S. communists retreated from this position, adopting the view that Black people in the United States preferred integration to self-determination. Together with Thelma Dale and other comrades who excoriated such revisionism, Claudia Jones pointed out that it was the party’s thesis on national oppression that put it at the vanguard of the fight against the “imperialist ideology” of white supremacy. White workers recognized that joining the fight against racism was in their own interest, as the ruling class’s “white chauvinism” kept workers weak and divided. Defending Black people’s right to self-determination was central to confronting “petty-bourgeois nationalism” and building proletarian internationalism.
Following the end of World War II, Jones began to theorize that women’s material conditions were linked to Black oppression understood as national oppression. She noted the “tremendous ideological campaign” put forward by Wall Street imperialism to influence popular perceptions of women. With its “Hitlerite” slogan that “a woman’s place is in the home,” the campaign cloaked social and economic inequalities, obscuring how the postwar effort to push women out of industry and into the domestic sphere undermined gains made during the war. Working-class women were being relegated to low-paying clerical, sales, and service work. The first to be fired from industry jobs, Black women were most impacted by the reactionary intensification of a sexual division of labor. Cuts in social services, particularly to the childcare centers available for wage-earning mothers during the war, accompanied the attack on women, rendering it an attack on the whole working class. Jones argued that employers were trying to create a “sex antagonism” to divide male and female workers as part of a large-scale offensive to bring down wages. Men were encouraged to support the return of women to the kitchen because that would free up more jobs for men. Through this characteristically fascist offensive, the ruling class also attacked women’s social participation in the peace movement, not to mention their engagement in economic struggle. The more confined women are to the household, the less free they are to participate in politics.
Jones’s treatment of “sex antagonism” as fomented by bosses in an effectively fascist drive to divide working-class women and men problematizes readings of Black communist women as primarily feminists. The Black women organizing in and around the Communist Party in the first half of the twentieth century did not name their politics “feminist.” They were deeply engaged in what the socialist tradition had designated the “woman question,” sharing the view that “feminism” was the politics of bourgeois, typically white, women. Members of the party pushed the CPUSA to undertake special efforts to recruit Black women and develop them as party leaders. Louise Thompson Patterson reminded her comrades that welcoming Black women into the party required that party members transform their personal as well as their political lives: they needed to challenge social oppression not only by inviting Black women to dances and events, but also by dancing with them and making sure they weren’t wallflowers.
Black communist women also focused on the working conditions facing Black women in unregulated domestic day labor: as sharecroppers in the “semi-feudal” conditions of the South, and as primary providers for their families, concerned with housing and food. Black working-class women’s social and economic position primed them for organizing; they were an intensely exploited and intensely militant segment of the labor force ready to challenge fascism, imperialism, war, and economic exploitation. Black communist women organizers also appealed to Black women’s knowledge of and experience with violence, whether of lynch mobs, police, or the imperialist state. They organized Black mothers to speak out against the attacks on their sons and the disrespect leveled at their husbands. As attacks on Communist leaders intensified during the Red Scare, some Black communist women organized specifically in defense of their husbands and comrades. The vocabulary associated with contemporary feminism—“gender,” “standpoint epistemology,” or “intersectionality”—did not figure into, and does not map neatly onto, their analyses. Nor did an emphasis on a division between men and women.
Black communist women’s attention to concrete material conditions drives an analysis that demonstrates—in theory and practice—that “there can never be real equality for all women until Negro women are also given equality,” as Thelma Dale argued in 1947. Claiming radical left Black women for feminism helps to dismantle myths of a hegemonic white bourgeois feminism and complicate understandings of Black women’s activism. It also opens a more internationalist feminism that rejects capitalist and imperialist constraints. At the same time, describing the Black communist women’s organizing up through the 1950s as “feminism” risks a certain anachronism as it sweeps aside their racist and classist treatment by non-Black women.
Depression-era conditions forced Black women who had previously held better paid jobs in industry or in the homes of the wealthy to accept cleaning jobs in lower-income white houses for below subsistence wages, as white housewives insisted on paying them less and less. Black women seeking housework were sometimes pushed into sex work, exemplifying the power differential between employers and job seekers and continuing the dynamics of slavery. Baker and Cooke did not recommend attempting to convince white women to recognize ties of sisterhood or pervasive gender stereotypes, nor did they believe sex work should be criminalized. Rather, they suggested that domestic workers organize to build the collective power necessary to fix wage exploitation and abolish the “existing evils in day labor.” This organizing task required both combatting the “American illusion” that determination is all it takes to get ahead and remedying organized labor’s all too limited concept of exploitation.
Anti-communism did not come to an end with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. It continues to animate fascist mobilization around the world, as is apparent in Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, and Brazil. It is also apparent in the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Attention to the political writing and work of Black communist women helps unravel anti-communist and Cold War assumptions and the stunted political imaginary that accompanies them. When one begins from the writings of Black communist women, one sees a Communist Party created at the branch and neighborhood level through local organizing that recognizes itself as part of an international struggle. The party is perpetually responding and changing, assessing its failures and bettering itself. The caricature of an all-powerful political monolith falls away before the appreciation of a vibrant organizational ecosystem, with new organizations, conferences, and campaigns to bring more people into the struggle. The Black communist women of the early- to mid-twentieth century have a lot to teach the contemporary radical left about concrete, action-oriented, materialist analysis—and about organizing to fight, build, and win.
The authors wish to acknowledge the passing of Esther Cooper Jackson—whose mighty words and powerful deeds are documented throughout this volume—just a few days after her 105 birthday. They extend their deepest condolences to her loved ones and hope that this and future generations continue to be inspired by her contributions.
Editors’ Note: Excerpted from Organize, Fight, Win: Black Communist Women’s Political Writing by Charisse Burden-Stelly and Jodi Dean.
Charisse Burden-Stelly is an Associate Professor of African American Studies at Wayne State University. A scholar of critical Black Studies, political theory, political economy, and intellectual history, Burden-Stelly is the co-author, with Gerald Horne, of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History and the co-editor, with Jodi Dean, of the forthcoming volume Organize, Fight, Win, Black Communist Women’s Political Writing. Her book Black Scare/Red Scare is forthcoming with University of Chicago Press in 2023. Her published work appears in journals including Small Axe, Monthly Review, Souls, Du Bois Review, Socialism & Democracy, International Journal of Africana Studies, and the CLR James Journal.
Jodi Dean teaches political, feminist, and media theory in Geneva, New York. She has written or edited thirteen books, including The Communist Horizon and Crowds and Party, both published by Verso.
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