Review 31: A Living, Breathing Work

Selma James, Our Time Is Now: Sex, Race, Class, and Caring for People and Planet

PM Press, 256pp, $17.00, ISBN 978629638386

reviewed by Frith Taylor

Selma James is a writer and activist who has written extensively on the interrelated issues that affect women’s liberation. Her book Sex, Race and Class (1974) is regarded by many as a classic of early Marxist feminism. This new anthology of her writing begins in 1977 with the Wages for Housework campaign for which she is best known, and concludes in 2020 with James advocating a care income in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Along the way she looks at a number of revolutionary post-colonial movements, such as those in Haiti, Tanzania and Bolivia, and revisits The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938) and other works by her late husband, C. L. R. James. The resulting volume is a compendium of radical politics and movement building in which James details the development of her thinking over the last 50 years.

James’s Wages for Housework (WFH) campaign is premised on the idea that society — and crucially, capital — is indebted to women’s gestational and domestic labour, and that the state should therefore pay women a care income. WFH questions the liberal feminist perspective that imagines that women’s liberation is solely achievable in the capitalist workplace. Speaking in 1977, James said that ‘we’re not the kind of feminist who thinks that only the career woman is the ideal — maybe they think Margaret Thatcher is the ideal, she’s a career woman, and she certainly doesn’t like housewives.’ Through her deliberate use of ‘housewife’ James draws attention to the specific social relation shaped by domestic economy, and the material preconditions for women’s liberation. Asked about the problems of ‘commodifying’ all forms of human labour in a 2014 interview, James explained: ‘We are not more commodified if we work for the market invisibly than if we work for the market and everybody sees what we are doing.’ Here she teases out exploitative implications of ‘commodifying’ work, questioning the idea that it is possible for women to extract themselves from an exploitative relationship by withdrawing their labour from the home and selling it instead in a capitalist economy, while also challenging the notion that the labour involved with care is a natural expression of women’s gender, and therefore not work.

James’s accounts of her dealings with political parties are wide-ranging and informative. She includes reflections from Julius Kambarage Nyerere, former president of Tanzania, who describes the concept of Ujamaa or ‘Familyhood’. It is a socialism ‘opposed to capitalism, which seeks to build a happy society on the basis of the exploitation of man by man; and is equally opposed to doctrinaire socialism which seeks to build its happy society on a philosophy of inevitable conflict between man and man [. . .] We, in Africa, have no more need of being “converted” to socialism than we have of being “taught” democracy. Both are rooted in our own past’. James praises the work of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president of Haiti, and the grassroots activism of Jeremy Corbyn. There is sometimes a tension here: how does one reconcile revolutionary politics with participation in the state apparatus? James has no intention of being ‘in and against the state,’ as John McDonnell said of Corbyn’s Labour party. For her the state is necessary to facilitate a care income, but she is careful not to endorse it. The WFH’s focus on state provision also hopes to demonstrate that the ‘necessity’ for periods of austerity is not grounded in economic reality but ideologically driven.

Our Time Is Now offers valuable insights into the practical work of organising, and the theoretical work in sustaining revolutionary vision. There is a sense of near constant recalibration and assessment of values and political methods, near constant work. Margaret Prescod’s introduction argues that it is a movement of love and friendship as well as shared values. Prescod describes the organising principle of ‘fusion’, that a movement is shaped by its members as it takes on their qualities and concerns. The chronology of the book is a little scattergun, jumping suddenly from early press releases in the 1980s to James’s articles in The Guardian from 2012. But this is a handbook, a campaigning book. Its aim is to pull out the most useful organising lessons for current activists. It is a living, breathing work, and James’s ringing rhetoric is audible throughout.

Intersectionality is one of the guiding principles of the book. The scope of James’s political imagination is remarkable; she holds together Marxist feminism, prison abolition, Palestinian liberation, post-colonial state projects, materialist analysis of sex work and climate justice as part of a single revolutionary vision. The basis of this vision is care: James presents care as society’s adhesive, and the relationship between mother and child as the primary building block of all social relations.

Much of James’s rhetorical power is to do with its accessibility. In her introduction Margaret Prescod writes that James’s writing ‘was popular, straightforward, and full of home truths.’ This theme of common sense runs through the collection, positioning James’s perspectives as logical solutions rather than radical grandstanding. Our Time is Now is punchy, readable and to the point — a useful orientation for young activists that fleshes out histories with which they may be unfamiliar. It is particularly illuminating on the pressures of motherhood, describing the ways in which capitalism forecloses the worker’s imagination, and emphasising that a life of mere survival is no life at all.

Frith Taylor is a writer and researcher based in London. She is currently writing a PhD on 18th-century queer domesticity at Queen Mary University of London.