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‘Detroit, the Chiapas of North America’

Part two of two in “Identity politics and left activism,” a review of Grace Lee Boggs’ “The Next American Revolution” by Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Analyst, Yale University 

Regarding Martin Luther King, Jr., Grace Lee Boggs talks of “catching up with Martin” and recapturing his “Radical Revolutionary Spirit.”  She says King realized after the Watts uprising in 1965 how little his struggle for measures like the Voting Rights Act was relevant to “the powerlessness and uselessness that is the daily experience of Black youth made expendable by technology.” It was more than just asserting Black Power.

King was calling for a radical revolution of values. He said in 1967 the war in Vietnam was “but a symptom of a far deeper malady with the American spirit. We are on the wrong side of a world revolution because we refuse to give up the privileges and pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.”

Malcolm X was a second hero who went faster than his supporters. “Like Martin, like every true revolutionary, Malcolm was a work in progress,” says Boggs. She quotes his interview with Jan Carew a few weeks before Malcolm’s assassination: “I’m a Muslim and a revolutionary, and I’m learning more and more about political theories as the months go by … If a mixture of nationalism and Marxism makes the Cubans fight the way they do and makes the Vietnamese stand up so resolutely to the might of America … then there must be something to it.”

Grace came to see the schools were a critical agency through which the poor were being socialized, but which they might transform into self-reliant agencies of their liberation. This is what brought her to the now largely forgotten, at least neglected, views of John Dewey. She quotes Dewey’s insistence that education is “a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” Dewey was calling for constructive participation of the schools in the life of the community in ways that would liberate “our impulses to make, to do, to create, to produce whether in the form of utility or of art.”

The concern with the realities of education and the possibilities of a different kind of education in Detroit and everywhere else led the Boggs and her late husband James Boggs to Paulo Freire who, like them, saw the urban uprisings or rebellions as moments when the rebellious became conscious their oppression was “rooted in objective conditions” and sought “to overcome the silence in which they have always existed.” However, for Freire as for the Boggs duo, this was not yet revolution, because revolutions are made by people (as distinguished from masses) who have assumed “the role of subject in the precarious adventure of transforming and re-creating the world. They are not just denouncing but also announcing a new positive.”

Grace argues one can apply Freire’s revolutionary method of education to political organizing and struggle as well. “We must view revolution as an inherently educational process. (Revolution) is about overcoming the (dehumanization) fostered by the commodification of everything under capitalism and building more democratic, just and nourishing relations to people.” The ultimate message of all this is that “we are the leaders we’ve been looking for.” And to do that, we must learn the importance of “combining activity with reflection.”

Her own reflection includes citing her favorite passage in the Communist Manifesto: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Most persons citing this passage stop there. But Grace completes it: “and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

Grace has devoted her life to recreating Detroit. She says the way to sum up what we are doing is to call “Detroit, the Chiapas of North America. Despite the huge differences in local conditions, our Detroit City of Hope campaign has more in common with the revolutionary struggles of the Zapatistas in Chiapas than with the Russian Revolution of 1917.”

In another decade, activists and analysts alike may have forgotten Grace Lee Boggs — a great pity, but quite normal. But the emphasis she has placed and exemplified of the se1f-reliant person, located in communities of self-reliance and hope, is not about to disappear. It is all around us. It is the positive side of the structural crisis of the modern world-system in which capitalism is self-destructing. The face of this structural crisis in which we are living is a chaotic world order and a bifurcation in which the great political struggle is between those who would replace capitalism with a new, non-capitalist mode of terrible oppression and those who would create a new world-system that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian, but above all self-reliant.

If left activists read Grace Lee Boggs with an open mind, and a willingness to rethink traditional political strategies, we shall all do better in our common struggle for a better world.

This review originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Monthly Review; the first part was also published in the Michigan Citizen Oct. 13, 2013.

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