At a time of social upheaval when the word capitalism has re-entered the public discourse and the writings of Karl Marx are being revisited, Selma James’ Sex Race and Class is a timely publication.
A collection of essays dating back to the 1950s to the present, it as much about her own political trajectory as it is an exposition of her political theory about a women’s place in particular and social justice in general.
Born in 1930 to a Jewish family in Brooklyn New York, James was a factory worker before becoming a mother in her teens. But she was also 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 following his deportation from the US during the McCarthy witch hunts, where she worked with leading figures of the anti-colonialist struggle like George Padmore. In 1958, she accompanied CLR to his native Trinidad, to be at the heart of the revolutionary ferment sweeping the Caribbean during the push for independence and a federation of West Indian states.
Far from being in the shadow of a great man, she was developing her own political thought that would see the publication of the seminal A Woman’s Place in 1952, which sought to bring women in from the margins by allowing them to speak for themselves for a change.
This essay, which is republished here as the first in a chronological order of writings, 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 is now part of an international network, frequently scoffed at but still going strong, as is James herself.
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 she goes out to work, as she is often forced to these days to survive, she is doing two jobs, one she gets paid for and 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 like black and indigenous peoples.
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 forming a direct thread with the global Occupy movement, from Tahrir Square to St Paul’s, whose attack on the power of the market and the “1 per cent” has shaken the idea once and for all that capitalism is part of the natural order of things.
Hugo Chavez’ 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, even life, 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 ConDem government for dismantling the welfare state and with it those measures that are an unspoken, if limited, acknowledgement of ‘wages for housework’ like child benefit, family tax credit and one parent benefit.
An in depth examination of the novels of Jean Rhys, the creole writer from Dominica, and a brief commentary on the work of painter Aubrey Williams and the writer Wilson Harris, both from Guyana, a country James became familiar with during her four-year Caribbean sojourn, indicate the range of her interests and how they link up with her overall political perspective.
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 by Selma James is published by PM Press
Published April 26 2012