The civil rights icon on Detroit, the limits of protest organizing, and what she’s learned over seven decades of activism.
Image by Woodstock Film Festival
Detroit is a city whose rise and fall has paralleled the tragic arc of America’s industrial history. In a few generations, the capital of Big Auto’s empire has crumbled into an urban wreck, strewn with rusted factories and suffering from political decay. It’s a city associated with deep stagnation. So it might seem surprising that it claims as one of its most esteemed public figures Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese-American philosopher who has been refusing to stand still for nearly a century, mobilizing alongside various freedom struggles from civil rights to climate change campaigns.
Born on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, the daughter of a Chinese-American restaurant owner and philosophy doctorate steeled her political analysis translating Marx’s treatises and palling around with Malcolm X. Today she cites Hegel and 3D printing among her cultural muses.
Boggs arrived at the Motor City in the 1950s, settling with her husband, activist and auto worker James Boggs, in the early days of the civil rights movement. Around that time, she also collaborated with C. L. R. James and other radical theorists in the leftist intellectual group the Correspondence Publishing Committee. The Boggses spent years organizing with the Black Power movement and the Black Panthers, as Detroit turned from an American boomtown to a wellspring of social insurgency and then to a ground zero for post-industrial collapse. In the early 1970s she and James published Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, a sweeping historical text that explores forms of Marxist revolution through uprisings in China, Russia, Vietnam, and contemporary community-based groups.
Since then, Boggs has become something of an American cultural icon, a mentor to a new crop of activists who are building, in her view, a new revolution. They’re not protesting so much as they are cultivating systems of homegrown production, promoting self-reliance as a way to heal. Detroit’s budding urban agriculture scene is serving as fallow ground for testing a theory of social change based on communalism as resistance to materialism. Boggs recently founded a small social justice-themed charter school in the community, the James and Grace Lee Boggs School.
In her latest book, The Next American Revolution, Boggs reimagines revolutionary politics as a project of holistic transformation that is both integrally connected to global and historical transformations and intimately embedded in the individual soul. Her life has spanned numerous human catastrophes, from the Great Depression and the atom bomb to the incineration of Vietnam. But what keeps her optimistic is the fact that she’s also lived through “the great humanizing movements of the past seventy years,” including the black freedom struggle, the antiwar campaigns, and other historic mass actions. Detroit is now at the vanguard of an even more massive transition, she argues, evolving a new way of organizing society that focuses on self-reliance and a rejection of material excess.
I spoke with Boggs by Skype while she was in Detroit, home from a promotional tour for her book and the biographical documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.
—Michelle Chen for Guernica
Guernica: How do you define what you call the “Next American Revolution”? What does it mean to you historically, as well as in terms of today’s politics?
Grace Lee Boggs: I think that most people don’t think in terms of an American revolution, they think in terms of a Russian revolution, or even a Ukrainian revolution. But the idea of an American revolution does not occur to most people. And when I came down to the movement milieu seventy-five years ago, the black movement was just starting, and the war in Europe had brought into being the “Double V for Victory” [campaign]: the idea was that we ought to win democracy abroad with democracy at home. And that was the beginning of an American revolution, and most people don’t recognize that. The image of blacks usually is one of people who are suffering from hunger, unemployment, and poverty. The idea of them as agents and activists—as starting revolutions—does not exist in most people’s minds. And I think it’s very, very important that folks understand how much this country was founded on the enslavement of blacks, and how the resistance of blacks to that enslavement has been the spark plug for so many important developments.
Guernica: Did being part of a minority play a role in your radicalization?
Grace Lee Boggs: I think at the time, my radicalization was not through growing up Chinese, but through the role that the black people were playing at the beginning of World War II, when they had started the “Double V for Victory” movement—for democracy at home as well as abroad—and the “March on Washington” movement led by A. Philip Randolph had forced F.D.R. to issue Executive Order 8802 banning discrimination in defense plants. And that really started the American revolution.
Guernica: Around the ’70s is when the Asian-American movement crystallized. Do you remember witnessing the rise of that movement, and were you involved with that at all?
Grace Lee Boggs: The Vietnam War was taking place, which was raising all sorts of questions in the United States, and it was forcing Asian-Americans to stop thinking of themselves as model minorities and to identify themselves more with world revolution, which was very important in my development.
We’re at a great transition point in terms of population, demographics, and what it means to be a human being.
Guernica: How is immigration informing new social movements today? Is it giving people a different perspective on what national borders and national identity mean, as they relate to a new, more global sense of social change?
Grace Lee Boggs: I think the mass expansion of the Asian-American population, particularly the Chinese population, is having an impact. I would not be surprised if [New York City Mayor Bill] de Blasio was challenged by a Chinese competitor in the next election, because the Chinese population in New York is so huge. New York has become almost a third-world country. When I was growing up it was mostly a Euro-American country. And it wasn’t until LaGuardia was elected in 1933 that Italians were even considered Americans.
We’re at a great transition point in terms of population, demographics, and what it means to be a human being.
Guernica: Do you see Detroit as a seedbed for the next American revolution that you hope to bring into being?
Grace Lee Boggs: Well, I think of what’s happening in Detroit as part of something that’s much bigger. Most people think of [the decline of the city] as having to do with African-Americans and being in debt, and [all the issues like crime and bad housing]. But what happened is that when globalization took place, following World War II, Detroit’s role as the center and the symbol of industrialization was destroyed. It wasn’t because we had black citizens mainly or a black mayor; it was because the world was changing. And the standardization and specialization of industrialization was being undermined by globalization. When people in Bangladesh could produce things much more cheaply than anybody could produce them in Detroit, we no longer were the world capital of industrialization.
In my husband James Boggs’s book [The American Revolution: Pages From a Negro Worker’s Notebook (1963)], what he saw happening in the Chrysler plant where he worked was how the automation, how high tech, was eliminating so many people on the line, that it was creating “outsiders”—and was raising the whole question of how we should work. Is industrialization the high point and the aim of all societies, or is it the end of a certain epoch?
I think Detroit shows that we’ve come to the end of the industrial epoch and have to find a new mode of production. And that also is being created in Detroit. It’s a community mode of production, which essentially [uses] 3D printers. I think when every household in almost every neighborhood can produce what it needs without going through the market, we’re going to undergo a huge change in the elevation of the community to the center of the city, and the elimination of the factory.
Guernica: What are some of the universal lessons you can take from some of these very localized projects?
Grace Lee Boggs: I think most people do not imagine how things can change. In Detroit, there are community gardens that are only an indication that the country is coming back to the city. And that is something that actually is necessary to stop the real imminent danger of the extermination of our planet. When I came to Detroit, if you threw a stone up in the air it would hit an autoworker on its way down. A few years after that, if you threw a stone in the air it’d hit an abandoned house or a vacant lot on its way down. And most people saw those vacant lots as blight. But meanwhile during World War II, blacks had moved from the South to the North. And they saw these vacant lots as places where you could grow food for the community. And so urban agriculture was born. And that came about not because anyone planned it, but because the vacant lots, produced by abandonment, created the opportunity for bringing the country back into the city, and actually saving the planet in the process.
Some people are afraid of gentrification, but what I see is young people want to live in a different world. And they see possibilities here. They see that rents are relatively cheap compared to places like New York and California.
Guernica: You’ve talked about what “work” really means—the difference between a job and having work that is truly productive. But we do live in a world where wage work is still how people get by, and where workers depend on this system for survival. How do we get past that?
Grace Lee Boggs: Well, wage work is also disappearing. I didn’t make the jobs disappear, but they have disappeared. And people are forced to be looking for other alternatives. One of the things that’s very important, when you’re an activist and an organizer like me, is to understand that when things happen of that nature, some people become immobilized and other people begin to find solutions. And Detroit is the kind of city where we begin to find solutions.
Guernica: What do you think of Detroit now being seen as a kind of experimental ground? Do you fear that it might become kind of commodified that way, or that the city might become a spectacle?
Grace Lee Boggs: Some people are afraid of gentrification, but what I see is young people want to live in a different world. And they see possibilities here. They see that rents are relatively cheap compared to places like New York and California. And they see the opportunity of being pioneers and blazing new trails. And it’s very wonderful to watch it happen.
Guernica: Looking back on your experiences with the civil rights movement and other radical movements in the ’70s, where are we today? It seems like there has been progress in many respects, but some people don’t necessarily see it that way; they see the last few years as almost a setback, particularly in terms of racial divisions.
Grace Lee Boggs: I think the trouble is that most people tend to look for quick solutions. When I joined the movement back in the ’40s, the idea that the American revolution could take place was impossible. People thought revolutions were going to be like the Russian revolution. But what was happening was the revolution in the US was beginning already, because blacks were beginning to struggle for jobs. And A. Philip Randolph formed the “March on Washington” movement and forced F.D.R. to issue Executive Order 8802, and that started a whole trend of events. And so what’s happened is that people who were seen mainly as victims very often become the agents of change. And that’s what’s happening now in the United States.
Guernica: It seems that some people think of the ’60s and ’70s as a far more radical time than our current one.
Grace Lee Boggs: People in Detroit aren’t just urban gardening. They’re starting a new mode of education. They’re trying to give children the education to be “solutionaries” rather than people who are going to get jobs in the system. And that is a huge change, a cultural revolution. The things that are happening in Detroit would amaze you if you’re [used to] only looking at statistics, and only thinking of blacks as sufferers and not as activists.
Guernica: Where do people draw the power that they need to seize in order to start this revolution?
Grace Lee Boggs: I think people look at revolution too much in terms of power. I think revolution has to be seen more anthropologically, in terms of transitions from one mode of life to another. We have to see today in light of the transition, say, from hunting and gathering to agriculture, and from agriculture to industry, and from industry to post-industry. We’re in an epoch transition.
Guernica: Do you feel that talking about power and conflict might take away from that, or distract people from that focus on long-term transition?
Grace Lee Boggs: It does. Because when you think of power, you think the state has power. When you look at it in terms of revolution, in terms of the state, you think of it in terms of Russia, the Soviet Union, and how those who struggled for power actually became victims of the state, prisoners of the state, and how that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We have to think of revolution much more in terms of transitions from one epoch to another. Talk about Paleolithic and Neolithic.
Guernica: Given the fact of increasing government intrusion into our lives, it seems like it would be difficult to ignore these power structures.
Grace Lee Boggs: Just think of Obama and think of how powerless he is. I think we have to understand that the nation-state became powerful in the wake of the French Revolution, whereas the nation-state has become powerless in light of globalization.
It’s really important that we get rid of the idea that protest will create change. We don’t realize that that kind of organizing worked only when the government was very strong, when the West ruled the world, relatively speaking.
Guernica: What are some strands of philosophical thought that guide your thinking on how people should make change in the contemporary world?
Grace Lee Boggs: I was very lucky that as a graduate student at Bryn Mawr College, I studied Hegel’s Phenomenology. He talked about how we do not reach freedom like a shot out of a pistol, but rather that it takes a lot of labor, patience, and suffering. And I’ve seen it happening. I’ve seen how it takes time for change to take place. But then when huge changes are taking place, they are extraordinary. And it requires a kind of philosophical thinking, thinking in terms of epochs.
Guernica: Do you feel like that kind of intellectual inquiry is missing from today’s education system?
Grace Lee Boggs: Well, I think that education today is a form of child abuse. The natural tendency of children is to solve problems, but we try to indoctrinate them with facts, which they are supposed to feed back, and then we fail them. And that’s child abuse. And you should never raise children that way. You should cultivate and encourage their natural tendencies to create solutions to the problems around them. We have a school in Detroit that’s founded on that idea—the Boggs school. They have wonderful teachers who create solutionaries.
Guernica: How important is it for a movement to have a charismatic leader, or iconic slogan or image?
Grace Lee Boggs: I think it’s really important that we get rid of the idea that protest will create change. The idea of protest organizing, as summarized by [community organizer] Saul Alinsky, is that if we put enough pressure on the government, it will do things to help people. We don’t realize that that kind of organizing worked only when the government was very strong, when the West ruled the world, relatively speaking. But with globalization and the weakening of the nation-state, that kind of organizing doesn’t work. We need to do what I call visionary organizing. Recognize that in every crisis, people do not respond like a school of fish. Some people become immobilized. Some people become very angry, some commit suicide, and other people begin to find solutions. And visionary organizers look at those people, recognize them and encourage them, and they become leaders of the future.
I think that rebellions arise out of anger, and they’re very short-lived.
Guernica: Based on your earlier experience as an activist, what are things that you would warn younger organizers against?
Grace Lee Boggs: It took me living in Detroit and watching what happened, as we faced vacant lots and abandoned houses and devastation, to see the differences in how people respond. Really, people are not a school of fish. Finding the leaders of the future is a question of recognizing those people who give leadership in a crisis.
Guernica: How would you explain the distinction between rebellion and actual revolution?
Grace Lee Boggs: I think that rebellions arise out of anger, and they’re very short-lived. And a revolution has some sense of a long time frame, millions of years that we’ve been evolving on this planet. We have to think in a very different sense than the way we think now. We think in terms of quick fixes, that solutions will come out of a few protest demonstrations, and calling upon the government to do something. And we can keep trying to do that, and it won’t work.
Guernica: Do you still see nonviolence as a key organizing principle, to be incorporated into any revolution?
Grace Lee Boggs: You know, when I first joined the movement, we talked about violence and nonviolence mostly in tactical terms. But over the years as I’ve grown older, I’ve thought more in philosophical terms. Nonviolence is based on recognizing that all of us are human beings. And at a certain point we begin to learn that you don’t gather very much by making enemies out of people and not recognizing their humanity. Nonviolence is essentially based on recognizing the humanity in every one one of us.
Guernica: Do you still invest any hope in things that may seem pretty mainstream, such as voting or electoral politics? Or do you think those things are just corrosive to the values that we should be upholding?
Grace Lee Boggs: I’m not calling for a boycott on voting. But I think it should be very clear that just voting is not going to solve our problems. And we need to undergo a very radical revolution in values. And we need to think about what it’s like to have become so materialistic that we think having a good job, and consuming like crazy to compensate for the dehumanization of the job, is living like a human being.
Guernica: What kind of impression do you hope to give to future generations?
Grace Lee Boggs: I have been amazed by the number of people who leave [the film screening of American Revolutionary] with tears in their eyes, thanking me for giving them another view of revolution. Because I think people know that we need some very fundamental changes, and up to this time, they thought those changes took place by seizing power, the way they did in 1917. And we know how that ended.
Guernica: When you see people thanking you for inspiring them, do you feel like they’re just searching for some kind of validation for what they already felt?
Grace Lee Boggs: I think so. I think people are really looking for some way whereby we can grow our souls rather than our economy. I think that at some level, people recognize that growing our economy is destroying us. It’s destroying us as human beings, it’s destroying our planet. I think there’s a great human desire for solutions, for profound solutions—and that nothing simple will do it. It really requires some very great searching of our souls.
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