Monday, March 25, 2024

Review: Left of Karl Marx by Carole Boyce Davies

Sometimes I wonder what compels someone to write a book. This one seemed like it was written out of a genuine and deep admiration for Claudia Jones, and a desire to impart that joy with other academics. 

For all the author’s high regard for Claudia Jones, the author does not seem to be writing for the next Claudia Jones (there is an interesting aside in the Introduction where the author justifies her use of non-academic (communist!) sources, such as Jones herself). The book is missing a sense of urgency (Jones certainly considered her writing to be of pressing importance) and of scale — it is nearly claustrophobically focused on Jones, failing to ground her writing in the thinking of her time or to much extent explore her influence on the writers and political movements that came after her. 

I’m not convinced that the author really even understands Jones in her context. For example, in Jones’ famous 1950 International Women’s Day speech, Jones affirms solidarity with people facing all types of oppression, linking their struggles with the socialist movement. This, the author claims, is something “more radical than communism”, despite it aligning fully with Lenin’s 1902 work, What Is to Be Done?, a work Jones, as a self-identified Leninist, would have read but that the author seems unaware of. (Relatedly, the title of the book is an allusion to the location of Jones’ gravestone relative to that of Marx, and not a political statement the author argues effectively.) When we come to Jones’ well-documented beliefs with which the author particularly disagrees—Jones’ alignment with the CPUSA’s positions in the 1950s, for example—the author insists this smart, well-read, well-traveled woman has been naively deceived. 

Yet for all the minute focus on Jones, it isn’t even an exhaustive one-stop-shop for understanding her experience as a Black socialist woman. Her exclusion from the CPGB due to racial prejudices is briefly mentioned and the reader is pointed towards a work where some other scholar has elaborated it. Academic convention prevents you from stepping on other people’s toes, I suppose. Someone with fewer constraints should write a book on this very deserving thinker.

As a stand-alone chapter to see if you will enjoy the book’s approach to Jones’s writing, I suggest Chapter 4 (“Deportation: The Other Politics of Diaspora”).

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