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Making Marxism from Gandhi in Detroit

grace lee boggsPart one 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 

The biggest internal debate absorbing the world left for at least the last 75 years has been whether identity is a left concept and therefore a left concern. In 1950, most activists on the left would have said no. Today, a majority would say yes, indeed. But the debate remains fierce. Grace Lee Boggs’ life has been both a prime example of evolution on this issue, and a prime exponent of the legitimacy of making identity central to what she calls in the subtitle of this book “sustainable activism for the twenty-first century.” Today in 2013, Grace is in her late nineties, and is a living legend of left activist politics.

I have now read this book twice — once to write a blurb for it and once to do this review. The more I read Grace’s writings, the more I appreciate her invigorating wisdom. Danny Glover in his Foreword notes the composition of the very large crowd assembled in Detroit in 2009 to celebrate her 94th birthday. “That rainbow of all ethnicities and all ages is what this struggle is about. That’s what Grace Boggs has been about all her life,” Glover wrote.

Grace took a Ph.D. in philosophy and was immersed in Hegelian dialectics. Witnessing the multiple discriminations against Asian Americans, she became a Marxist and active in the so-called Johnson-Forest Tendency of the Workers Party — led by C.LR. James. She explains what attracted her, “unlike most radicals in that period, they emphasized the significance of the Negro struggle in the making of an American revolution.” She found this way of discovering Marx and discussing the great revolutions of the past empowering because it focused “not so much on the oppression suffered by people at the bottom of the society, but on how they organized themselves and in the process advanced the whole society.”

The group read early Marx texts carefully and decided that being a Marxist was not merely focusing on property relationships but also “on the spiritual as well as the physical misery of capitalism.”

After 10 years of involvement with this group, she felt it was still too “stuck in the ideas they had derived mainly from the Russian Revolution.” So she moved to Detroit and soon married Jimmy Boggs.  Helped by Jimmy, she soon realized her ideas had come from books and had little relation to reality, a reality of fleeing industries and fleeing whites from Detroit. She and Jimmy became organizers of the Black Power movement in Detroit.

On July 20, 1967, an aggressive and intrusive police raid provoked a rebellion of young Black Detroiters. It was brutally suppressed but it led to the election in 1973 of a Black mayor, Coleman A. Young. He had been a left-wing union activist, and did end the racism in the city administration. But he could do nothing about the industrial decline of Detroit. Eventually, Young proposed the development of casino gambling as a new source of city income. When the Boggs duo successfully led a protest and defeated the proposal in a referendum, Young challenged them to offer an alternative. They realized they were actually faced with a great opportunity. “In its dying, Detroit could also be the birthplace of a new kind of city,” said Boggs.

Building a new kind of city has been the Sisyphean task of Grace Lee Boggs ever since. Grace tells us of her gradual discovery of a long series of analysts who were more radical than she had realized. They include Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, John Dewey, and Paulo Freire.

This is not the usual list one associates with someone who claims to be a Marxist. Indeed, this list is precisely what has led other varieties of Marxists to insist that she is nothing but a middle-class reformist. So, if we are to understand her argument, we must look more closely at why she turns our attention to these figures.

Her views are anchored in the immediate realities of the poorest segments of the population in Detroit — what they need, what they have been doing, what they could do to survive, to improve their lives, and to contribute to “the next American revolution” — the title of her book.

When she discusses Gandhi, she does not point to his espousal of satyagraha as most persons do. She says Gandhi warned that our societies “would eventually become so gigantic and complex that human beings would be: reduced to masses, dependent on experts, serving machines instead of being served by them … They would end up being enslaved by the temptations of material wealth and luxuries, a form of bondage … even more cruel than physical enslavement.” Furthermore, Boggs says Gandhi argued that the struggle for independence “should not be mainly a struggle for state power. It should revolve around going to people at the grassroots, helping them to transform their inner and outer lives in order to create self-reliant  local communities.”

This review appeared in the October 2013 issue of Monthly Review. Part two of the review will published in next week’s Michigan Citizen.

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