Real Girl's Talk

Black Left Feminism and the 'Old Left'

By John Forte


Marxism continues to influence the lives of radical black women. To paraphrase Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the traditions of the dead haunt the minds of the living. Black Marxist feminism, or black left feminism, rose during the ‘Old Left’ of the 1920s and the 1930s. Black women worked inside and adjacent to the Communist Party in places like Chicago, Harlem, and the urban South. These black left feminists were profoundly shaped by the politics of the Communist Party. In turn, they pushed traditional Marxist theory to the left by developing alternative forms of street politics, deepening theories of women’s oppression, and expanding internationalist commitments. Through their work with the International Labor Defense, Unemployed Councils, Tenants Unions, and other CP-affiliated organizations, black left feminists carved out a space for themselves that centered the basic needs of working people. Through their lived experiences, they challenged traditional notions of black womanhood and theorized intersections between race, class, and gender that demonstrated the unique revolutionary capabilities of radical black women. Their travels abroad and interest in Pan-African solidarity elevated commitments to internationalism. Even so, the dynamic between the Comintern’s directives and their own grassroots initiatives was complex due to black women’s rich legacy of collective agency.

Domestic workers organized for their rights as free laborers during the era of reconstruction. As Tera Hunter’s book To ‘Joy My Freedom shows, domestics – many of them formerly enslaved - viewed their work as a means to self-sufficiency. They resisted Antebellum valuing of black women’s bodies in terms of their reproductive capabilities.2 The politics of “quitting” was widespread, as they left jobs that did not suit their liking. Quitting could not guarantee better working conditions or pay, but it was a political act that deprived largely white employers of their power in relations with laborers.3 As early as 1866, black washerwomen organized strikes against predominantly white patrons in Jackson, Mississippi. Similar rebellions erupted in Galveston, Texas in 1877 and Atlanta, Georgia in 1881. At the same time, black women engaged in political work for the Republican Party and organized mutual aid groups, secret societies, and church groups.4 Thus, many working-class black women were well versed in social and political organizing as the nineteenth century ended.

The early twentieth century saw an organized left that swelled, despite its inability to adequately address issues of race and gender. Eugene Debs ran for president under the Socialist Party ticket five times – receiving nearly one million votes from prison in 1920.5 In his article “The Negro in the Class Struggle,” written in 1903, Debs acknowledged that blacks were “doubly enslaved.” Personally, he felt a “burning sense of guilt... that makes me blush for the unspeakable crimes committed by my own race.” Nevertheless, Debs prioritized concerns of class over of race, arguing that “we have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races.”6 Similarly, black socialist Lucy Parsons viewed sexism and racism as economic problems. She blamed employers for sewing identarian divisions among workers in order to exploit them.7 On the other hand, pioneering black socialist Hubert Harrison captivated black audiences with rousing street corner speeches that demonstrated the intersection between capitalist exploitation and racism. Harrison’s West Indian background and working-class demeanor appealed to black immigrants in Harlem. This contributed to the rise of a particularly transnational form of Caribbean socialism.8 Recognizing the Socialist Party’s limitations, Black women concerned with everyday experiences of racism and sexism looked elsewhere for their politics.

Most importantly, it was the Women’s Conventions of the black Baptist church that gave black women reformers a voice for their political needs. They articulated what scholar Evelyn Higginbotham calls the “politics of respectability,” which advocated racial uplift and assimilation to high class Victorian manners. Fundamentally, it championed individual moral reform as the path to structural change. To appeal to middle-class Americans and white philanthropists, Women’s Conventions condemned “idleness” and “vice” among the black lower classes, but also materialism among the upper class.9 Women’s Conventions tapped into Christian teachings that emphasized the struggles of the poor and downtrodden, echoing later pronouncements of liberation theology.10 By the early 1920s, women's clubs were seen by the black masses as increasingly elitist, concerned with middle-class respectability, and disdainful of the working poor.11 Despite its contradictions, the “politics of respectability” created a space for working class black women to engage in organizing that directly addressed their unique experiences.

In contrast, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) appealed to African Americans who were impatient with assimilationism and moderate reforms. This ideological formation was committed to black nationalism, or what African American studies scholar Eric McDuffie calls “New Negro Radicalism.” Rooted in the urban United States, this militancy was sparked by Northern migration, anti-colonial struggles, and race riots in American cities that culminated in the Red Summer of 1919. The New Negro movement promoted racial uplift, self-help, temperance, and the accumulation of individual wealth.12 In 1920, 25,000 UNIA delegates drafted a statement in Harlem, titled “Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World.” Exemplifying its Pan-African politics, it condemned European colonialism and demanded self-determination, independent social institutions, and an end to discrimination for black people.13 In spite of the UNIA’s paternalism, the influence of women such as Amy Ashwood and Amy Jacques Garvey – Marcus Garvey’s first and second wife, respectively – contributed to Pan-African theorizing and prompted a “lady president” at each local UNIA branch.14 In Black Marxism, the Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Cedric Robinson contended that traditional accounts of the UNIA tend to focus on the cult of personality surrounding Garvey and accusations of opportunism. The aspirations and interests of black working people mobilized under its sway are rarely given attention.15 Symbolic of the UNIA’s lasting influence, black nationalism was a major point of interest for the African Blood Brotherhood and the Communist Party.

The African Blood Brotherhood was formed in 1919 as the first group to fuse socialist politics and racial liberation in the United States. Its founding members included Cyril Briggs, Richard B. Moore, Harry Haywood, and Grace Campbell – all of whom were active on the Communist left a decade later.16 Although the group was committed to liberation, Grace Campbell’s role was limited to secretarial work, as men assumed the lead positions in the organization.17 Liberation of women under capitalism was not a priority. According to scholar of black intellectual history Minkah Makalani, the ABB included some of the first black Communists in the world, but never adopted feminist leanings. In general, it viewed liberation through the lens of armed self-defense and black manhood, relegating women to caretaking positions as “mothers.”18 The African Blood Brotherhood never matched the size and influence of the UNIA, but it was the basis for Communist International’s commitment to black liberation.

The Communist movement in the United States rose out of the ashes of a split in the Socialist Party after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. The Socialist Party’s left formed the Communist Party of America, consisting mostly of foreigners born in Eastern Europe and well versed in Marxist theory. Other left socialists - mostly American born and lacking experience in formal political work - formed the Communist Labor Party. Both groups were united as the Workers Party, later renamed the Communist Party USA under pressure from the Communist International in Moscow.19 The CPUSA was a unique fusion of previously existing tendencies in the left wing of the Socialist Party and principles of the Bolsheviks in Russia.

The rhetoric of "the new Soviet woman”attracted American leftist women, as it depicted women as modern and sexually liberated. Russian Marxist revolutionary and theoretician Alexandra Kollontai was one of the key drivers of Soviet women’s liberation. In her 1909 essay, The Social Basis of theWoman Question, she attacked middle-class feminists for their neglect of working-class women:

It is true that several specific aspects of the contemporary system lie with double weight upon women, as it is also true that the conditions of hired labour sometimes turn working women into competitors and rivals to men. But in these unfavourable situations, the working class knows who is guilty.20

Kollontai’s notion of “double oppression,” echoed similar American articulations, such as Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech Ain’t I a Woman. In comparison, Kollontai rooted women’s oppression in class oppression. Soviet policy towards women was directly influenced by these expressions of socialist feminism.

The Soviet Union was the first nation in the world to legalize divorce and abortion, positioning it as a leader of progressive struggles for women.21 In response to the “women’s question,” the Third Congress of the Communist International declared in 1921:

But as long as the proletarian woman remains economically dependent upon the capitalist boss and her husband, the breadwinner, and in the absence of comprehensive measures to protect motherhood and childhood and provide socialised child-care and education, this cannot equalise the position of women in marriage or solve the problem of relationships between the sexes.22

In essence, the Soviet Union insisted that women’s rights had to be advanced beyond suffrage. Some of its policymakers recognized that the social position of women was rooted in their role as caretakers and providers of unpaid social reproduction in the home. The Bolshevik Revolution was seen as a model for women around the globe.

In the 1920s, two landmark directives on the “Negro question” came out of the Soviet International that directly addressed the position of Africans Americans. In the Communist Party’s early years, its position on race differed little from the Socialist Party’s class-reductionism. In 1920, Lenin addressed the American Communist Party’s lack of interest in the "Negro question." This led to the CP actively organizing blacks in 1921. Inspired by the 1922 Fourth Comintern Congress resolution that endorsed black liberation, Cyril Briggs, Richard B. Moore, and other black leftists joined the Workers Party in 1923.23 One year later, “Negro Women Workers,” was published in the Daily Worker, the CP’s main publication. Written by a white woman, it articulated the party’s changing positions. It cited the unique struggles of black women both at home and at work, quoting a black mother who remarked, “I am so worried and worn in my strength that I feel at times as if I can stand it no longer. It is not alone the need of money but the responsibility of being nurse, housekeeper and wage earner at one time.”24 The special oppression of black working women was noted, but not theorized by the party. Drawn to Communism for its special recognition of racial oppression, black women brought their own talents and experiences that challenged the Party’s positions on race and gender.

Grace Campbell

Grace Campbell was born in Georgia in 1882 to an African American mother and a Jamaican father. She was one of the first black women to join the Communist Party. After graduating from Howard University, she taught in Washington D.C. and Chicago, seeing this as racially uplifting work. She moved to New York City in 1905 and became a probation officer for the New York Court of General Sessions. In 1916 she established the Empire Friendly Shelter for single mothers in need.25 It was her experiences in New York City that exposed Campbell to poverty and discrimination in the criminal justice system that working class black women regularly faced. Grace Campbell was radicalized as she began to view the causes of oppression as systemic, rather than rooted in individual moral failures.

Campbell’s changing views brought her into contact with intellectual and radical circles in Harlem. After World War I, she befriended black socialist luminaries such as Hubert Harrison, Cyril Briggs, Richard B. Moore, and A. Phillip Randolph.26 Previously, women were absent from this milieu. In the summer of 1917, she helped launch the People's Education Forum. The PEF sponsored lectures and debates on Sunday afternoons. Some of the lectures included W.E.B. Dubois on “The War and the Darker World,” William Pickens of the NAACP on “What I saw in Russia,” and Hubert Harrison’s talk “Is the White Race Doomed?” Discussion events included topics such as "The Relation of the Race Problem to the Proletarian Movement,” which connected black liberation with anticolonial struggles and socialism. Referred to as an “intellectual battleground,” it is hard to believe that Campbell did not interject concerns of gender at PEF events.27 Campbell did not put much of her writing into print, but her activities set the stage for African American women to assert their own issues in the CP.

One of Grace Campbell’s greatest contributions was her work with the Harlem Tenants League. Formed in January 1928, its original leadership included black radical women such as Elizabeth Hendrickson, Hermina Dumont Huiswoud, Williana Burroughs and Grace Campbell - reflecting black women's unique interest in addressing the basic needs of the working-class. Its activities included demonstrations, rent strikes, physically blocking evictions, and fighting for housing regulations to be enforced through direct action. In its rhetorical analysis, this group connected housing issues to imperialism, capitalism, and white supremacy. The HTL became the model for the CP-affiliated Unemployment Councils – which were some of the most popular organizing platforms during the height of the Great Depression. With as many as 500 members, the female led HTL connected everyday experiences to capitalism by focusing on cost-of-living issues that directly affected families.28 This suggests that black women on the left recognized the need for a different means to raise class consciousness, which then brought an entirely new swath of people into CP networks. Even more, it was one of the first uptakes of the Comintern’s “Black Belt thesis.”

Grace Campbell’s intellectual thought progressed in tandem with her organizing. She published a column entitled “Women in Current Topics” in the New York Age—a column that differed remarkably from earlier views which blamed poverty on individual moral failings. In her column, she argued that the criminal justice system functioned primarily to reproduce hierarchies of race, class, and gender. She went on to note that institutional oppression reinforced stereotypes about poor black women as criminal and deviant.29 Truly, this work was ahead of its time. It predates Louis Althusser’s Marxist theory of interpellation - how ideology transforms individuals into pliant subjects through actions, which was illustrated in the early 1970s.30 In addition, it was a precursor to Are Prisons Obsolete? - Angela Davis’s landmark book on prison abolition.31 Therefore, Campbell was one of the first black left feminists to argue that the hyper-exploitation of black women put them in a position to be the premier vanguard for social change.

Williana Burroughs

Williana Burroughs was another early contributor to the tradition of black Marxist feminists in the US. She was born to a formerly enslaved woman in Petersburg, Virginia in 1882.32 After moving to New York City, she graduated from Hunter College in 1902 and met Hubert Harrison in 1909. She was radicalized as an elementary school teacher in poor neighborhoods in New York City and joined the CP in 1926. Throughout the early 1930s, Burroughs was involved with the Rank and File Caucus of the New York City Teachers Union, which was dominated by Communists. In 1934, Burroughs was dismissed from her teaching position for “conduct unbecoming a teacher,” after she criticized the school board for failing to provide adequate lunches to students and for discriminating against black teachers. As historian Clar