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Fri Jun 10, 2016, 05:51 PM Jun 2016

Beyond the Whack-a-Mole Left--Jacobin

Beyond the Whack-a-Mole Left

Though often condemned to the fringes of American political life, the radical left has changed the course of US history.

In 1923, Claudia Jones and her parents emigrated from Port of Spain, Trinidad to New York City. As a teenager in Harlem during the 1930s, she joined the international movement to free the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama.

This activism compelled her to join the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), which had worked tirelessly on the Scottsboro defendants’ behalf, and she spent the rest of her life as a committed Communist, serving the party in several roles, including editor of the Daily Worker.

In 1955, after being hounded by the federal government for nearly a decade, Jones was deported. She lived out the rest of her life in London, where she continued her work as a left-wing activist and journalist. She now rests in Highgate Cemetery, next to Karl Marx.

Jones’s biography appears in Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps’s excellent book, Radicals in America: The US Left Since the Second World War, because it — as well as the stories of other American radicals like mid-century unionist Emil Mazey and contemporary environmentalist Winona LaDuke — illustrates their theory that the American left must exist both at the margins and in the mainstream.

As a black, immigrant, working-class woman, Jones could hardly have been more marginalized. Joining the CPUSA — as an open admirer of Stalin’s Soviet Union no less — was probably not the best path to the American mainstream.

Yet Jones committed to the Communist Party not because she relished alienation, but because she believed it was the correct vehicle to fashion a more just world. Her objective was to take her fringe vision of the future and make it a reality.

Brick and Phelps argue that, like Jones, radicals must be estranged from the mainstream — lest they become liberals committed to its defense — while simultaneously shaping it to reflect their political visions.

The Left’s mission is to maintain “ardent opposition to the status quo, as outsiders if need be, while also seeking solidarity with strong social forces, here and now, that might be capable of changing it root and branch.”

This task “poses a dialectic of margin and mainstream” through which Brick and Phelps analyze the American left’s history since World War II.
Radical Roots

Although Radicals in America is a book about the last seventy years, it is impossible to make sense of its story without looking to the antebellum abolitionist movement from which the modern American left emerged.
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