Sex, Race and Class

Sex, Race and Class – the Perspective of Winning: a selection of writings 1952–2011, by Selma James, reviewed by Ruth London

June 23, 2014
5 min read

sex-race-classSelma James’ Sex, Race and Class offers a way to grapple with many of the unanswered questions that are frustrating today’s movements for social justice. This new collection of pieces (James’ short pamphlet of the same title was first published in 1974) is the harvest of seven decades of grassroots organising, a lifetime spent listening to – and amplifying – unheard voices, and a bold political imagination that is not shy to break new ground. What else would you expect of a book that has the nerve to subtitle itself ‘the perspective of winning’?

It also treats you to wit of a kind you see only when the absolute absurdity of capital’s logic meets someone who accepts not even one little one of its premises.

A review can’t begin to do justice to an anthology of classics that ranges from art and literature to Marx and feminism, from breastfeeding to Zionism, from 1950s Los Angeles through an occupied church in 1980s London to present day Haiti. Instead, here are a few of the questions this anthology addresses.

Diversity

A question often raised in social justice groups is ‘Why are we all so white and middle class?’ even in groups where everyone is not. Sex, Race and Class has a different starting point: how have we – a different, more inclusive, ‘we’ – been divided, and how and on what terms can we manage to come together? Looking ‘from the bottom up’, it opens with ‘A Woman’s Place’ (1952), written when James was a young housewife and factory worker, and is then informed by people of colour in the global South: by West Indians, Tanzanians, Haitians, Venezuelans, the immigrant ‘south in the north’, and more broadly by ‘the wageless of the world’.

For James, the ‘work . . . hard work’ of ‘confronting the power relations among ourselves and with others as they surface in the course of our campaigning, spelling out the varied, pernicious and subtle forms they take, and working out ways to organise against them . . . is not separate or apart from organising but central to it.’

‘Freely associating with each other to reshape the world’

James names the liberation we feel when we begin to overcome the pervasive social hierarchy, the hierarchy of sex, race, class, and, particularly, education, which diverts organisers’ energy into ‘competition, antagonism and even violence among us’ – and movements into directions of academics’ choice. In contrast to many activists’ horror of anyone having ‘more say than anyone else’, she sees leadership as potentially a power for suppressed social layers, encouraging working class ‘self-activity’. Sadly, she largely bypasses the question of how to prevent leadership, and organisations’ self-determined hierarchies, undermining collectivity.

Work

Most people know the call for full employment is as absurd as it is unachievable. Yet we’re still supposed to dance to the tune of ‘Fight for Jobs’, while the Labour Party promises childcare for all, so every woman ‘can work’, ignoring the work that every mother is already doing. Those who dreamed that technology could end wage slavery cower in fear of offending ‘hard-working families’ – or the many parties who claim to represent them, at a time when, increasingly, waged jobs are hard won, easily lost, and the only “respectable” route to survival.

In her 1972 text ‘The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community’, James makes the bold assertion that ‘we have worked enough’. This was based not only on an intimate understanding of the many ways capital steals your time – ‘which happens to be your life’ – but on a startling extension of Marxist theory. In these pages you find the first exposition of women’s work as reproduction of labour power, the commodity without which no wheel can turn. ‘First it must be nine months in the womb, must be fed, clothed, and trained; then when it works its bed must be made, its floor swept, its lunchbox prepared, its sexuality not gratified but quietened . . .’

On the foundation of this worldwide work stands an entitlement. ‘There is no cake, there is no budget, there is only the wealth which we have created and which they have stolen.’ And welfare ‘should be afforded the dignity of being called a wage’.

A positive vision

Thrown on the defensive by capital’s hoovering up of the world’s resources, betrayed by what’s called itself ‘socialism’ and fighting tooth and nail against austerity and climate apocalypse, many in movements of resistance are looking to identify ‘something positive to fight for’.

‘Invest in Caring Not Killing’ is a positive, world-embracing vision that is grounded in the here and now and blunt about the nature of the enemy. It was developed in 2000 by the international network Selma James founded, the Global Women’s Strike. This idea inspires the later pieces in the anthology. The concept is in tune with ‘people not profit’ but digs far deeper. Prioritising caring is human, common sense – and the opposite of market economics. Women, children, people who are old or disabled are at its core. Directly confronting the world’s most lethal industry, this vision offers a way to interrogate other industries – and, crucially, to question our own movements, and even ourselves as individuals. In practice, in the Strike, it helps to draw “the dividing line between reformism and revolutionary politics”, to refuse co-optation, and to “connect struggles that may seem to be in competition or even in conflict”.

This, then, is both a history and a handbook, offering real answers to your most urgent questions, an uncompromising way forward, when we need it most.