Revolution as a New Beginning: An Interview With Grace Lee Boggs

Adrian Harewood and Tom Keefer

Part 2 of 2

For over 60 years Grace Lee Boggs has been thinking about and working towards making social change. Along with her late husband, the African-American writer and activist Jimmy Boggs (1919-1993), she has been centrally involved in numerous grassroots organizations including the Johnston-Forest Tendency, Correspondence, the National Organization for an American Revolution, the Freedom Now Party and Detroit Summer. She has worked with and provided counsel to hundreds of writers and activists including Malcolm X, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Kwame Nkrumah and Stokely Carmichael.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Grace Lee Boggs was born in 1915 in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1940 she received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College. Refusing to settle for an academic lifestyle, she moved to Chicago to join the movement as a tenants’ rights activist. In subsequent years she moved to Detroit and became a leading member of socialist, Black, and Asian liberation struggles. In 1973 she co-authored with James Boggs the book Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century and in 1998, she published her autobiography Living For Change. Now in her 90th year, she writes a weekly column for the Michigan Citizen, participates in the organization Detroit Summer, and otherwise remains an active member of the Detroit community. Today, Grace works with the Boggs Center, a non-profit community organization based on the Eastside of Detroit which was founded in 1995 by friends and associates of Grace and Jimmy to honour and continue their legacy as movement activists and theoreticians. The webpage of the Boggs Center can be accessed at http://www.boggscenter.org.

Grace was interviewed by Adrian Harewood and Tom Keefer on July 22, 2003 at her home in Detroit, Michigan. The first part of this interview was published in first issue of Upping the Anti in April of 2005.

UTA: Who was James Boggs?

Grace Lee Boggs: In the program I gave you of our recent 40th anniversary celebration of his first book, The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook, he is described as an “organic intellectual, a revolutionary citizen and a radical visionary.”

UTA: Can you elaborate on that? In Living for Change, you compare CLR James and James Boggs. What you seem to suggest is that these were two very powerful minds, two very powerful individuals who had an enormous influence on many generations of people. Yet, they were very different, and we can learn important lessons from the different ways in which they lived their lives and made their politics. What was it about James Boggs that made him unique?

Grace: In the chapter on Jimmy in Living for Change, I begin to answer that question. First of all, Jimmy had an incredible sense of himself as part of the evolution of humanity. He would talk about how he had lived through three epochs: through agriculture, industry and automation. It was an extraordinary example of how he combined the personal and the social. I know very few people who do that. Now that I am 88 years old, I am almost able to talk about my journey in that way, but it has taken me a long time. I’ve just been asked to open the Democratic Socialist of America speakers series by talking about my political journey, and I now have a sense of myself as having made a journey. Jimmy had that sense from the time he was a boy. I think that came from two things: first, from being Black which means you are born with a sense of the role your people have played in this country’s history, and, second, from seeing himself as a writer, which Jimmy always did because in his illiterate community, the adults depended on him to write letters for them. Those two things, I think, gave him a self-consciousness that very few people have.

Another contrast I make is that CLR James was unable to function without a whole retinue of people supplying him with paper and pen, getting his books for him, serving him. On the other hand, Jimmy was always helping other people. People in the community just knew that if they had problems with taxes, with getting their birth certificates, with their cars, with their families, Jimmy was the person to come to. Very simple things.

The other difference is that CLR was a Trotskyite and with all due respect I think one of the worst things to have been was a Trotskyite.

UTA: Why?

Grace: Because Trotskyism developed in opposition to Stalinism and Trotskyites always saw themselves as critics of the policies of the Stalinists. They were always sort of marginal and there was always this element of blaming or putting down the communists. Jimmy wasn’t like that. He just could not put down the people whom he saw as having fought for the Scottsboro Boys, who had taken so many risks on the race question and who had also been a force vis a vis the U.S. which made it possible for Blacks in this country to be militant as hell. They knew that part of their power came from the cold war with the Soviet Union and that the United States stopped doing a whole lot of things because they could be embarrassed by the Soviet Union. That was part of Jimmy’s reality as a Black person growing up in the American South. It’s a very different way of looking at politics.

CLR James’s reality was very different. He was recruited to the Trotskyites a couple of years after he landed in London from Trinidad. The Trotskyites saw this very bright, very handsome young black West Indian man carrying on huge debates with the Stalinists in Hyde Park, and recruited him. And soon he was writing books on how Stalin killed the Chinese revolution, the German revolution, etc.

There was something about CLR’s personalization and demonization of Stalinism which was very foreign to Jimmy’s experience as a black American. At the same time Trotsky was just as committed to the nationalization of property as Stalin, just as committed to state control as Stalin. Yet the implication was he would have done it differently.

I was never a Trotskyite, I am glad to say, not because I wished it that way but because by the time I came on the political scene, controversy over why the Russian Revolution had not lived up to its promise was no longer at the center of radical politics. I came into the movement on the wave of growing Black militancy. This is one of the things that I emphasize a lot. It’s when you become a Marxist or a radical that helps to define your politics. You became one thing if you came in during the period of huge struggles between the Trotskyites and the Stalinists, carrying on ideological and physical battles on university campuses, each thinking they had the truth. If you came out of that period (those who did were mostly intellectuals), you are a certain kind of radical. If you come out of the struggle of actual masses of human beings in the community, you are a different kind of person. Radical parties are always trying to get grassroots people who emerge as rank and file leaders to embrace their particular ideology, and are rarely successful because they are coming from two very different places. I believe that ideas both liberate and constrict. But I think that what happens with radicals is too much what happens with people who accept the dogmas of religion. They try to convert other people to ideas which have usually came out of experiences in the past.

UTA: How does the local become international? How does community organizing in Detroit become connected to struggles that are happening elsewhere?

Grace: That is our challenge. How, for example, do we link the global anti-war movement with the local movement to rebuild communities? I think there is a whole lot of work we need to do before that happens. That’s what I’m trying to get at in a speech that I’m going to make Saturday night. I really think that the Bush thing is a debacle. The refusal of most Democrats to take Bush on seriously with regard to the war is an indication of the kind of chaos that they feel can ensue if the war in Iraq becomes a real political issue.

Lenin said that there are three characteristics of a revolutionary situation (I think of it more as a revolutionary period): the increasing bankruptcy of the ruling class, the worsening state of the masses, and the increasing mobilization of the people. Except for Vietnam, we have not had the kind of bankruptcy of the ruling class that we are seeing now as a result of the debacle in Iraq. At the same time, there is the starvation of state funds that’s taking place, and the plummeting economy.

UTA: You’ve stated that the movement against racism has produced something which isn’t being understood by intellectuals. How would you define that?

Grace: The modern anti-racist movement started with the March on Washington in 1941, which brought Blacks into the plants and into the cities and created a whole new population of Black people. Then young people and people coming back from the war began refusing to move to the backs of buses. Next came the incident with Rosa Parks on December 1st, 1955 in Montgomery. That inspired a 13 month boycott, during which Black people began transforming themselves in the course of struggle. As a result, the Montgomery Boycott triggered the women’s movement, the ecology movement and all these other movements, introducing a whole new dimension of struggle.

Very few people had any inkling of the contradictions that would emerge out of success. Black people didn’t realize how much they would be co-opted into the system. Thus, the Black Radical Congress is a mess because it is run by leaders who are able to run around the country because they have professional positions, while the local units don’t amount to anything. The BRC has celebrity leaders, but no base. It’s sad, but it could have been anticipated if black intellectuals had dealt seriously with the development of the movement. If you don’t deal seriously with your history, you have nothing. They thought the history of the movement was some sort of vague heroic struggle against racism – which it was – instead of also recognizing that the development of Martin Luther King, and the emergence of Black Power and the Black Panther Party, were responding to and creating new contradictions that required new struggles over ideas and strategies.

UTA: What are some of the lessons from the Black Panther Party?

Grace: To begin with, the split between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton was extremely important. Cleaver simply wanted to pursue the violent confrontation, while Huey, with all of his weaknesses, felt the need to move into the communities in some way. So that was a significant split with the women in the party pursuing the community building. The other thing is that radicals have talked about making an American revolution, but have never considered the possibility and the challenges of a party emerging with 5000 rebellious Blacks talking about power and setting up ministries of Defense and Education and Health and so on. Young Blacks did that, beginning in 1966. They took Mao’s ideas of revolution and tried to make them work in this country. And I think that their experiences demonstrated that these ideas don’t work here. Would they have worked if instead of only 5000 Black Panthers, there had been 50,000? Would they have worked if the party in each city had had a Ministry of Defense or of Education? What ideas did the Black Panthers have for rebuilding America except those borrowed from Marxist Leninism and Mao? What sort of roots and infrastructures were they building towards the creation of a new society?

I’m not asking these questions to criticize the Black Panthers but to try to get us to view them as a significant historical phenomenon that we need to evaluate so that we don’t repeat their experience. That is why Martin Luther King’s critique of Black Power is so important. He understood that militancy is not enough for a revolution, that we had reached the stage where we had to be thinking about building a society that goes beyond both capitalism and socialism; that to do this, we have to be thinking about technology, and not about racism as something separate, but as an integral part of militarism and materialism. It is very troubling to me that there has not been serious evaluation by movement activists of the Black Panthers and of King’s critique of Black Power. That’s why I didn’t go to the founding meeting of the Black Radical Congress. I was against starting something new without an evaluation of the contradictions we had inherited from the past.

Kwame Nkrumah said “seek ye first the political kingdom and all else shall be granted.” But what happens after the taking of political power? The leaders of the Third World revolutions really believed if they got political power, it would solve their problems. They didn’t think about what happens after you get political power. They didn’t anticipate that they would then face critical questions about development. They were mostly men who had been to school in the West. They didn’t understand the role of women, they disregarded the role of agriculture, they became beholden to the West in terms of arms. Since the 60s, a whole lot of water has flowed underneath the bridge, and it is not right to ignore those things and to stick to thinking developed in the post-World War II before the explosion of the independence struggles and the civil rights movement.

UTA: I find it interesting, having read both Facing Reality and The Awesome Tasks of Revolutionary Leadership, that you and James Boggs carry the line that we need to build a cadre base Revolutionary party.

Grace: The Awesome Responsibilities of Revolutionary Leadership was written for Monthly Review on the hundredth anniversary of Lenin’s birth in 1870. Jimmy was a vanguard party man – I have a lot of doubts about vanguardism.

The history of NOAR, the National Organization for American Revolution, that Jimmy and I founded in 1980 is a very contradictory one. In one sense, NOAR was a little like the radical parties formed by the Trotskyites in the wake of the decline of the Russian Revolution, organizations purporting to provide better leadership. There was some of that in the creation of NOAR, but the most important work we did was our effort to update ideology, to create new concepts of education, new concepts of health, and new concepts of energy use that would be basic to the new society. Our theoretical and internal development was tremendous. We made a critique of scientific rationalism, of patriarchal society. We held discussions and published pamphlets on the women’s movement which were urgently needed in the male dominated Black movement. That theoretical work stands to this day.

Creating a national organization was extremely important to us. Prior to creating the NOAR, we had only local groups. In Detroit, our group was called, first, the Committee for Political Development, and then Advocators. One of the things we maintained was that Blacks had carried out this enormous and critical struggle, but they were politically underdeveloped and that their great need was to develop theoretically and politically by projecting ideas for a new America.

Have you seen the Manifesto for the Black Revolutionary Party? It was written in 1969. A few years after it was issued, we decided that we could no longer talk about the Black Revolution; we needed to talk about an American Revolution. So in 1982 we issued the Manifesto for an American Revolutionary Party. During the 1970s we studied a lot of American history and decided that the fundamental contradiction built into the founding of this country was the pursuit of economic development at the expense of political and human development.

The structure of NOAR was created by Bill Davis, a brother from Philadelphia, who had been influenced by the Communist Party. Our structure was very interesting and, I thought, quite sound. We created three committees: a political development committee, a propaganda committee and a program committee. The political development committee’s role was the expansion of our theory. The propaganda committee’s responsibility was to begin examining the significance of the spoken and written word and study the speeches of people like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Patrick Henry and documents like the Declaration of Independence so that we would be able to do the kind of propaganda that was necessary to communicate fundamental ideas. The program committee was the committee responsible for organizing external activities.

An important part of the structure was an annual convention which all members had to attend. At the convention, all members were on an equal level in examining what we had done the previous year, and proposing and voting on resolutions and motions which made up the “Political Line” for the following year. At the beginning of each annual convention we elected a presidium which was the governing body for the duration of the convention until a new leadership was elected. Former members of the organization still use variants of these structures in their community organizations.

I don’t know what the structures of revolutionary leadership should be, but what I do know is that that the idea of a vanguard party to lead the revolution in the United States is obsolete. But CLR’s idea that it’s just a question of the whole people spontaneously becoming revolutionary all at once is too simplistic.

In 1951, we left the Socialist Workers Party. The main reason for leaving the SWP was the widening gulf between our members who had come out of the experiences of WWII, and the SWP members who had begun as followers of Trotsky in the 1920s, led the Minneapolis Teamsters’ strike in the 1930’s, and were now in their 50s and 60s. The social, political and generational gulf between them and the youthful members of the Johnston-Forrest Tendency was unbridgeable. So we left, and decided to put out a newspaper called Correspondence which would be written and edited by what we identified as the new social forces, rank and file workers, Blacks, women and youth.

Correspondence brought me to Detroit in 1953, which changed my life. In the years that followed, Jimmy formed or joined all kinds of organizations; Organization for Black Power, Freedom Now Party, Organization for Advanced Leadership (GOAL), Inner City Organizing Committee, Inner City Parents Organization, Black Teachers Workshop. That is the kind of scenario that I anticipate in the future – all kinds of organizations being formed. To expect that they will all be led by one party is silly. The people who form vanguard parties tend to think that their ideas are the ones that everybody else should have. Their practice is mainly to try to convince people to adopt their ideas, whereas most people who are building a movement are forming their own organizations based on differing kinds of activities and differing visions they have of what needs to be done.

I don’t know whether that was the sort of thing that happened in other periods. Maybe that was what was happening in France prior to the French Revolution. I really don’t know. When we think of the Russian revolution, for example, we think of the march on the palace in 1905, and the forming of Soviets. When we think of 1917, we think of the disillusionment with the war and the breakdown of the society which gave Lenin the chutzpah to organize the insurrection in October. But I don’t think that the kinds of things that happened among the people at that time have any resemblance to what’s happening in the United States at this time. The times and the histories are so different.

Earlier, for example, when you brought up Marcus Garvey, I thought of the huge difference between the people who were Garveyites in the 1920s, and the people who worked in the plants and served in the military during World War II. It’s almost like another species in terms of where they were and what they had learned.

UTA: Many folks lament the fact that this thing we might call the progressive movement is so fractured. They talk about the fact that there’s an environmental movement, a women’s movement, a gay and lesbian movement, and suggest that there are too many segments. I was speaking to a 90 year old woman by the name of Irene Kon, who lives in Montreal. She worked alongside Norman Bethune, knew Paul Robeson and was involved in the Communist Party in Canada. She laments how divided the left is. Maybe she’s a bit romantic, but she feels there was a time when things were more cohesive. Even though she recognizes the hope that has come from what occurred in Seattle in the anti-globalization movement, she still argues that there are too many sections, too many different movements. How would you respond to that kind of fear?

Grace: The first thing that comes to my mind is what Stokely Carmichael was doing prior to his death a few years ago of cancer. Shortly before he died, Stokely sat in at some office down south, pledging that he was not going to leave until Black people united. I thought that his action, dramatic as it was, didn’t make sense. Because in my opinion, what Black people now need most is not unity, but struggle over ideas and direction. I am constantly reminding people of the famous quote from Frederick Douglass “without struggle there is no progress.” I believe that the dilemma of Black people at this juncture is that they’re pretending to hang together instead of recognizing how much things have changed since the days when Blacks were united physically and politically by segregation. Now we’re in a very different place with a huge geographical separation between the black middle classes and inner cities. We need to do some struggling to figure out where we need to go. At this stage, I don’t have much patience with the idea that we can just be unified on the basis of race. We don’t have to fight the way the Trotskyists and the Stalinists fought about direction, but somebody has to stand up and say, “this is what I think, this is where I think we need to go. Do you agree or do you have different projections”? That’s one reason why I like Adolph Reed. Reed isn’t popular with Black intellectuals and leaders because he criticizes them so openly and harshly for continuing to talk about Black unity despite the gulf that has emerged between Black politicians and their inner city constituencies. Unity in the Black community now means unity with the Black mayors who support casinos and break the strikes of garbage workers. Is that what the Black community needs?

The idea that all Black people and that all progressive people should be struggling together under one tent, being led by the same party, is sentimental. We can all come together to oppose Bush as the anti-war movement is doing. But the many different groups also need to keep struggling among themselves and with one another to clarify what we need to create in the place of Bush & Co.

UTA: Could you explain the Alinsky model and the problems that you have with it as a method of community organizing?

Grace: Saul Alinsky used to say that we need to “rub raw the sores of discontent.” He saw organizing chiefly in terms of increasing the anger of people. By contrast, I feel that at this point there’s too much anger in the world, and that we need organizing that evokes hope and nurtures the creativity that people have for imagining something new. Moreover, the Alinsky model was created in an earlier period before the rise of consumerism. We were in a very different time. On the other hand, Martin Luther King saw materialism as one of the giant triplets to be struggled against, so he always kept before us the goal, the vision of the beloved community. He distinguished between three kinds of love. Eros, or erotic love, filia or friendship, and agape, which is the kind of love which is willing to go to any lengths in order to restore community. And considering the amount of demoralization and anger and violence towards one another in our neighborhoods, the sense of isolation and individualism, I believe that all our organizing should seek ways to increase the agape kind of love.

It’s not easy to do, but that is the challenge. Because it hasn’t been tried, except in Montgomery, we don’t know how to do it. All we know is that King was giving the kind of leadership that was bringing out an enormous energy and commitment from everybody, not only from the people who were suffering from racism but from a lot of other people as well.

There are passages in Marx, by the way, which have the same prophetic quality to them. In the German Ideology, Marx says that for a struggle to be really revolutionary, it must be able to appeal to the universal. My favourite passage in the Communist Manifesto is the one that comes at the end of that fantastic paragraph which begins with “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production and ends of technology…, all that is holy is profaned, all that is solid melts into air and man is at last compelled to face his sober conditions, his conditions of life and his relations with his kind.”

That passage is so different from the kind of writing that we associate with Marx. I constantly remind people that Marx was born in 1819, the same year as Herman Melville, and wrote the Manifesto when he was 29. You, Tom, are 26. I became a radical when I was 25. When you are 25 or 26 or 29, especially if you are an intellectual, you see the world and make leaps in ideas in a particular way. In the unions that were being formed, Marx saw a new kind of community being created, and elaborated that perception into this great vision of Communism which has inspired thousands and millions of people all around the world. Over the years I have found it helpful to remember Marx’s age and where he was coming from when he was writing the Manifesto. He had recently come from years of studying Hegel with the tremendous sense of historical sweep, the vision of the universal becoming constantly more concrete, and the concrete constantly becoming more universal, which comes from being a Hegelian. It is a wonderful way of thinking, but it also has its contradictions.

UTA: I want to pull one quote from Living for Change, a quote about your father, Chin Lee, who was a very prominent and successful restaurateur in New York. You write, “he always saw his failures as part of the price one pays for living.” I was wondering about the kind of impact your father and that kind of statement made on you.

Grace: I have a friend who says I’m a father identified child, and I think she’s right. My mother was a charmer, but she was also such a victim. My father just refused to be a victim. He died in 1965 in front of our house at the age of 95. The day before he died, he walked for two miles. The morning of his death, he said to me, “as I was walking around yesterday, I felt tired but there was no place for me to rest. So today I’m going to tape my legs and when I go out, I’m going to ask people to sign a petition to put benches on the street, so old people can rest.” As he walked out of the house with his petition, he fell, hit his head and never regained consciousness. And I thought, “that’s the way I’d like to die.” Every situation was a challenge to him. His restaurants were closed down in 1949, when he was 79 years old, but he always thought he was going to open up another restaurant. He just didn’t believe in giving up.

UTA: It seems like you always think there’s another door to be opened.

Grace: It’s like that poem that I love from Alice Walker; “Locked doors full of treasures to which my blind and fumbling key does not yet fit.” I can’t remember exactly how it goes, but yes, there are always new doors to open.