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Thinking Dialectically: What Grace Lee Boggs Taught Me

Robin D.G. Kelley's searching tribute to Grace Lee Boggs: She never gave up on our capacity to think and act and think more deeply. She relentlessly and lovingly pushed us with the force and precision of the expert dialectician we all knew her to be.

Americans Who Tell the Truth , Robert Shetterly

We knew this day would come, but I am not prepared to call Grace Lee Boggs an ancestor.  Not yet.  Brilliant, demanding, critical, exacting, serious, searching, as cranky as she was empathetic, Grace mentored me like no other.  She had unbelievably high expectations for those around her, myself included, and despite her occasional disappointment, she never gave up on our capacity to think and act and think more deeply.  She relentlessly and lovingly pushed us with the force and precision of the expert dialectician we all knew her to be.

I’ve known Grace twenty-two out of the one hundred years she spent on this planet. I first encountered her in person in April of 1993, at a conference on C.L.R. James held at Brown University.  Of course, I first met her on the page as co-author with her equally famous husband, James [Jimmy] Boggs, of radical texts like Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century(1974) and the small pamphlets Detroit: Birth of a Nation(1967) and Uprooting Racism and Racists (1969).  There was also the series of small books/pamphlets issued in the 1970s under the title, Conversations in Maine.  I had a copy of her pamphlet, The Awesome Responsibilities of Revolutionary Leadership (1973) along with many pamphlets and books published by the National Organization for a New American Revolution, an organization founded by Grace and Jimmy.

I also knew a bit about how the daughter of Chinese immigrants with a degree from Barnard College and a doctorate in Philosophy from Bryn Mawr ended up at the center of radical politics in Detroit married to a Black autoworker, labor organizer and community activist.  After graduate school, Grace moved to Chicago where rat infested flats were available for anyone willing to fight the rats.  There she joined forces with her black working-class neighbors, developing a sense of solidarity and oppositional politics that ultimately lead her to support A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement for racial justice and fair employment.  She joined the Trotskyist Workers Party and eventually became part of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, a small group inside the Workers Party and the Socialist Workers Party led by C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya.  Grace became a principal theoretician and co-author with James, Dunayevskaya, and other group members.  Together they wrote State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950) and Facing Reality: The New Society, Where to Look for It, How to Bring it Closer (1958) among other titles.  The three of them moved to Detroit in 1953, where Grace and Jimmy Boggs would devote four decades of their lives to movement building and collaborating on some of the most important political, historical, and theoretical texts of the 20th century. 

The Boggs’s stood in the eye of the political whirlwind that was Detroit in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  The city is critical for understanding the contours of the Boggs’s analysis—how they grasped the key struggles that defined the historical moment, notably the impact of automation on employment, the opportunities capital flight and middle-class abandonment created for moving beyond reform to revolution, and their recognition (at that time) of the independent force of the Black Liberation movement surpassing that of the labor movement.  As Stephen Ward explains in his forthcoming book on the Boggs’s, In Love and Struggle, through the publication Correspondence, the Detroit group maintained ties with Black nationalists, progressive labor organizers, and Civil Rights activists ranging from Robert Williams, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the radical lawyer Conrad Lynn.

Back in 1993, Grace Lee Boggs stood before me for the first time live and in person.  Grace was slated to speak with Marty Glaberman, another principal in the Detroit group, about their comrade, the venerable C. L.R. James, and this was an event not to be missed.  For me and other aspiring Black radicals of my generation, C. L.R. James towered above all others. The Black JacobinsBeyond a BoundarySpheres of ExistenceNotes on Dialectics, and so many other classics, were mandatory reading, and I had practically memorized Paul Buhle’s illuminating biography, C.L.R. James: Artist as Revolutionary (1989).  So imagine my immediate disappointment when Marty and Grace spent some ninety minutes criticizing James for losing reality, as it were.  Grace, in particular, argued that his life in exile disconnected him from the conditions on the ground in Detroit and in the U.S. in general, just as his sense of authority and self-importance began to inflate.  It all blew up eventually into a painful but necessary split, consequently convincing Grace and Jimmy to abandon Marxism for new modes of analysis rooted in dialectical thinking.[i]

The experience was both painful and liberating, like having cataracts removed.  Fortunately for me, Grace and I were booked on the same flight back to Detroit and I seized the opportunity to sit next to her.  I had just turned thirty-one, held a tenured position in History at the University of Michigan, was a published author, had nearly a decade of experience in various Left movements (communist, social democratic, united front formations, etc.) and yet I realized my education had just begun.  Grace schooled me on thinking dialectically and challenged me to discard my own inherited assumptions about socialism and revolution.  She taught me that transformation is not a magical process but hard work that required taking responsibility for ourselves and our communities.  She demonstrated her point by describing an initiative they had launched the previous year called Detroit Summer, a multicultural, intergenerational youth project designed to “rebuild, redefine and respirit” the city from the ground up.  Young people planted community gardens in vacant lots, picked up trash, created huge murals on buildings, and renovated houses.  They also launched coops to produce local goods for the needs of the community, and sought ways to replace the state’s punitive justice system with restorative justice programs to keep young people out of prisons.  She embodied Gramsci’s dictum that revolutionaries should possess “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.”

When we arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Jimmy was sitting in their car curbside, looking over some papers.  I parted with a promise to send them a copy of my book, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression—a promise I kept.  (I later learned that Hammer and Hoe was the last book Jimmy read before he passed three months later.)

We started a vibrant, sometimes contentious correspondence.  In fact, in 1998 we had some of our most intense debates, producing deep fissures that forced me to alter my thinking and pushed my work in new directions.  First, the Black Radical Congress was founded that year, an organization she initially regarded as misdirected and obsolete.  In her letters to me she expressed concern that its leaders were stuck in the same old categories: nationalist, socialist, integrationist, radical democrat, etc.  No one was thinking dialectically; the BRC was locked in the old racial politics in an era when we had to remake ourselves as human and shed those old identities.  I understood her critique but pointed out that those of us who showed up at the founding convention of the BRC were responding to immediate problems such as “police brutality cases, welfare reform bills, unpublicized labor struggles” and the like.  I agreed that we had a better sense of what we were against since “there is little space to imagine, debate, and define what a revolutionary movement might look like.”[ii]  She didn’t buy my explanation and sharply criticized Manning Marable’s brand of social democracy, against which she urged me to wage a public attack.  (She made this request of me until the end of her life.  Ironically, it was Manning who often directed me to read Grace and Jimmy and study the pamphlets issued by the National Organization for a New American Revolution!)  While I agreed that the BRC was saddled with the old categories and frameworks, I defended our work by pointing to its multiracial politics, its stand on sexism and homophobia, and its push for Black feminist/labor alliance through connecting wage inequality and welfare reform struggles—connections made possible by the visionary leadership of black women, notably Barbara Ransby, Leith Mullings, Cathy Cohen, Lisa Brock, Rose Brewer, Venus Green, Tracye Matthews, Jean Carey Bond, Barbara Smith, Fran Beal, and others.

Despite her criticisms, she did not dismiss the BRC altogether.  Ultimately, some of her critiques proved constructive, revealing a level of engagement that many others who purported to champion the BRC failed to sustain.  In the summer of 2000, two years after the founding convention, Grace endorsed the BRC’s campaign for “Education, not Incarceration,” turning what might have been a nebulous slogan into a program to radically transform education altogether.  Citing the examples of the Mississippi Freedom Schools and Detroit Summer, she insisted on an education that deepened the connection between children and their community, nurtured “resourceful and independent thinkers,” and empowered them to become agents of change capable of transforming their environment.  “In the last two years of his life,” she explained in her regular column for the Michigan Citizen, “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was anticipating this kind of Freedom Schooling when he deplored the way that educators were trying to instill middle class values in black youth and called for programs to involve young people in direct actions ‘in our dying cities’ that would be both self-transforming and structure-transforming.”[iii]

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Grace’s response to the BRC campaign was nevertheless consistent with her critique: that our main strategic and ideological impetus basically amounted to better social democracy and a politics of protest based largely on making demands on the state.  This point really drew her ire, and it lay at the heart of her critique of my book Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (1997).  She took me to task for targeting the state, its neoliberal withdrawal, erosion of safety, labor protections, pro-corporate deregulation, and expansion in the realm of criminal justice.  She recoiled from my argument that grassroots organizations ought to make greater demands on the state, and that we have the right to demand support, services, and a humane, democratic welfare state as opposed to a warfare state.  But Grace exposed the limits of my vision and compelled me to soften my position, to re-evaluate the power of organizational independence and the radical possibilities of autonomy.  I paid more attention to the Zapatistas and Autonomista movements in Argentina—movements more concerned with creating spaces for prefiguring or modeling the world they sought to create than taking state power.  In fact, I acknowledged the validity of her criticisms in the new Afterword I wrote for the 10-year anniversary edition of Yo’ Mama’s DisFunktional!

Finally, in that same year, 1998, she penned a sharp critique of my treatment of Malcolm X in my bookRace Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (1994), which appeared first in a letter to me then in a footnote to her memoir, Living for Change: An Autobiography (1998).  She accused me of not knowing the difference between rebellion and revolution because I had suggested that Malcolm began developing an incipient critique of the state and aspects of capitalism as a zoot-suit wearing hipster in the context of World War II.  I argued that Malcolm’s culture was not consciously “oppositional,” instead the context of the war, the state’s identification with zoot-suiters as anti-American/anti-patriotic, and a racially segmented labor market that limited economic opportunities for black and brown men brought these youths in conflict with the state whether they liked it or not.  In a very long letter, I did my best to defend Race Rebels from Grace’s charge.  “I completely agree with you that resistance is not the same as revolution,” I wrote, “which is why I constantly say that resistance is a double edge sword and use the term ‘oppositional’ without the moral baggage revolution carries with it. . . . While some [acts of resistance] were direct challenges to the dominant ideology, other demands drew on the dominant ideology to make the case.”  I even resorted to citing Facing Reality to drive home the point that “Oppression alone doesn’t breed revolutionary movements; on the contrary, sometimes it breeds fascism. . . . Community, solidarity, collective struggle is very hard work and is not a product of oppression.  It’s a product of imagination, culture, conversation, safe spaces, spaces of semi-freedom where people can laugh and cry out loud, share pains and pleasures, plan, teach, learn.  In other words, [Race Rebels] is not a celebration of spontaneity.  It argues against it, says we have archeological work to do to figure out what people are fighting for, why, and when they decide to fight back.”

Impassioned as I may have been, my response was unsatisfactory.  I never addressed the source of revolutionary ideas, i.e., those ideas that represent a qualitative break from the dominant ideology, not just a rebellious reaction to it.  In short, it was these three exchanges, these political and interpretive fissures that led me to write Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (2002).

That book broke a kind of impasse.  Grace did not agree with all of it, but she recognized immediately that I was groping to break through old categories by wrestling with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s concepts of agape and the Beloved Community—that is to say, the concept of love that seeks to preserve and create community.  Freedom Dreams argues, among other things, that the catalyst for political engagement has never been misery, poverty, and oppression but the promise of constructing a new world radically different from the one the aggrieved have inherited.  The profound necessity of this move and what it entails had been Grace’s project for years, and she immediately recognized a convergence.  By this time she was working closely with historian and activist Scott Kurashige, who arranged a conversation between Grace and me in New York.  We talked for at least a couple of hours, and the meeting left me so exhilarated and hungry, I was practically in tears.  She insisted on revisiting Dr. King’s last Sunday sermon before his assassination, where he warned Americans against sleeping through a revolution.  “[O]ne of the great liabilities of life, is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change and yet they fail to develop new attitudes, the new mental responses–that the situation demands.”  For King, the revolution was three-fold: “a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution in weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapons of warfare; then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world.”[iv]

Sadly, the tape of our conversation was lost.  But the essential sentiments, the lessons, were not.  The chief ideas she conveyed to me that afternoon appear in her brilliant collection of essays edited by Kurashige, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century (2012).  They also found voice in Grace Lee’s extraordinary documentary, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.  As her musings make clear, the conditions we face under neoliberalism and war mark the end of an epoch (and the beginning of a new one) in which the old protest strategies and ideological postures are no longer relevant or effective.  The Next American Revolution offers a new way forward, one based in dialectical thinking but also informed by a personal history of struggle against materialism, militarism, and racism.  She calls on us to transform the urban economy and landscape by “taking back the commons” in order to promote self-sufficiency, ecological sustainability, and human interaction.  She emphasizes community development, values of cooperation, mutuality, non-violence, equality, and love—in other words, what the Beloved Community is supposed to look like.  And she recognizes that revolution requires remaking ourselves, building community, taking governance and production into our own hands in order to rebuild our crumbling cities—not as sites of global finance but as new communities governed by cooperation, mutuality, ecological sustainability, non-violence, equality, and love.

Grace remained a revolutionary thinker to her last breath.  To say she became more “evolutionary than revolutionary,” as one obituary put it, is to misunderstand how she and Jimmy held revolution and evolution in dialectical relationship—the former producing, even requiring, the latter.  The Next American Revolution boldly challenges old dichotomies, moving away from simple pronouncements for socialism or even anti-capitalism, to focus on questions like how do we “grow our souls,” how do we shift our thinking away from seeking middle-class comforts or upward mobility to creating the beloved community, living lives committed to ending inequality globally.  The revolution she proposed is nothing less than a new “American Dream whose goal is a higher Humanity instead of the higher standard of living dependent on Empire.”[v]  And she makes a compelling case why this is all possible and that the leadership for a new American Revolution is already here.  As she wrote in the Preface to the paperback edition, “Americans have learned that the tremendous changes we now need and yearn for in our daily lives and in the direction of our country cannot come from those in power or from putting pressure on those in power. We ourselves have to foreshadow or prefigure them from the ground up.”[vi]

Grace, you’re not through with me yet.  I’m still learning, still grappling with thinking dialectically, still trying to understand the epoch we’re in and the one we are desperately trying to bring about.  I can hear you saying to us all, “What time is it on the clock of the world?”

[i] Grace’s talk was published soon thereafter as, “Thinking and Acting Dialectically: C. L. R. James, the American Years,” Monthly Review 45, no. 5 (October 1993), 38-46.

[ii] Both quotes from letter from me to Grace Lee Boggs, July 24, 1998, in author’s possession.

[iii] Grace Lee Boggs, “Freedom Schooling,” Michigan Citizen, August 20, 2000; and “More on Freedom Schooling,” Michigan Citizen, September 2000.

[v] Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century (Los Angeles and Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 72.

[vi] Ibid., p. xiv.

Robin D.G. Kelley teaches History and Black Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.  His latest book is Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times. You can follow him on Twitter @RobinDGKelley.