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by ANGELA COBBINAH 26 April 2012
In a time of social upheaval when the word “capitalism” has re-entered the public discourse and the works of Karl Marx are being revisited, Selma James’s Sex Race and Class is a timely publication. A collection of essays spanning the past six decades, it is as much about James’s own political trajectory as it is an exposition of her political theory about a woman’s place in society and social justice in general.
Born in Brooklyn in 1930 to a Jewish family, James was a factory worker before becoming a mother in her teens. She was politically active from a young age, becoming a member of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, a political grouping set up by the Marxist scholar CLR James, who would later become her husband. She would join him in Britain – he was deported from the US during the McCarthy witch-hunts – and went on to work with leading figures of the anti-colonialist struggle, including George Padmore. In 1958 she accompanied CLR to his native Trinidad to be at the heart of the revolutionary push for independence and a federation of West Indian states. Far from being in the shadow of a great man, James was developing her own political thought.
A Woman’s Place, published in 1952, sought to bring women in from the margins by allowing them to speak for themselves for a change. This essay, which opens the collection, formed the seeds of the Wages for Housework Campaign that James set up in the UK 20 years later. Based today at the Crossroads women’s centre in Kentish Town, it has become part of an international network. The campaign’s central basis is that women the world over go unpaid for the vital work of reproducing and caring for the next generation, thereby placing them at the bottom of the heap in a system that only sees a person’s worth in paid labour. If a woman goes out to work she is doing two jobs. One she gets paid for. One she doesn’t. By the same token, as members of the working class, albeit “unwaged”, women are part of the class struggle alongside other marginalised sectors of the capitalist pecking order.
Using Marxism as a starting point, James is quite clear about the task ahead. “If the divisions among us keep capital in power, then overcoming the divisions among us is by definition the destruction of capital, and the transformation of us individually but on a mass scale,” she writes. Strong stuff. But then the global Occupy movement – from Tahrir Square to St Paul’s – and its attack on the power of markets and the “one per cent” has shaken the idea once and for all that capitalism is part of the natural order of things.
Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, Julius Nyerere’s attempt to create a communistic society in newly independent Tanzania and the multinational food conglomerates’ efforts to undermine breastfeeding – particularly in the developing world – at the expense of infant health are among the subjects of her other essays. As someone who sums up her strategy for change as “invest in caring not killing”, James also turns her ire on New Labour and the present government for dismantling the welfare state and, with it, those measures that are an unspoken, if limited, acknowledgement of “wages for housework” – child benefit, family tax credit and one-parent benefit.
James has clearly walked the talk during six decades of activism but nevertheless remains an overlooked figure in the UK women’s movement, perhaps because her radical voice seems out of step with the great strides women themselves have made in the last 40 years. The book shows how fragile these gains are as the market seeks to reassert itself over every aspect of human life and create a vast pool of cheap – and unpaid – labour. Equally importantly, it shows how another world is indeed possible through collective action.
• Sex, Race and Class – the Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952-2011.
By Selma James. PM Press £14.95
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