I spent the last four months, slowly poring over Grace Lee Boggs’ memoirs, Living for Change. I started the book looking to her as a model for how an Asian American could contribute to radical movement in the U.S. Her words filter Marxism and dialecticism to their root concepts. Her book provides insight into the development of revolutionary groups from the 1930s to the present. She recalls what an Asian American experience was like, before there was an Asia America. In sharing this personal history, Boggs lays down a model for revolutionary thinking, continues to inspire, and—like good books do—this autobiography leaves me with more questions than answers.
Boggs is an inspiration in that she applies her Ph.D in philosophy to her revolutionary work. She has not isolated herself with privileged groups but instead brings her philosophical background to her planning and visioning with Detroit communities. In this effort, she has realized that revolution is more complex than even Marx described it to be. While Marx focuses on economic conditions, Boggs learned from Detroit residents that people must personally transform to the point which they can imagine life beyond their given conditions. In order to be engaged, they need to recognize that their individual and collective efforts do lead to real outcomes.
It is in her chapter “Beyond Rebellion” that Boggs details her Hegelian beliefs about revolution. It is also here that she critiques the Black Panther Party and other “aspiring revolutionaries.” She explains, “Even if [the Black Panther Party] had wanted to, they had not had the time to create a revolutionary philosophy and ideology and a structure and programs to develop the thousands who were knocking at their door. So they borrowed virtually intact Mao’s Little Red Book, without distinguishing between what is appropriate to China, or a postrevolutionary situation, and what is appropriate to the United States, or a potentially revolutionary situation.” She suggests that the party did not want to establish its philosophy and used Mao’s work in a misinformed manner. Boggs goes on to write, “Forced into a virtual civil war with the police both by the impatience of members and by provocateurs sent into the organization to destroy it, the party began to fall apart” (145). Not much credit is given to the Party and to those that were inspired by them. Signs of Boggs’ battle scars glimmer in this passage. Assuming this was written from a place of love, Boggs is impatient to move forward without wasting time on making mistakes. While this is understandable, it does appear contradictory to her humanist philosophy.
Based on the analysis laid out in previous chapters, Boggs’ described her current work in Detroit and how it focuses on getting people active in their community. She helped organize multiple groups to respond to violence, misguided and dangerous budgetary decisions, and to the environmental crisis. I admire how she and others in Detroit have expanded the meaning of “environment” to include schools, housing, jobs and other aspects of life.
It is also Bogg’s contemporary efforts and conclusions that I question as a young organizer, myself. She reflects, “Experience has taught me that in order to create a movement, people of widely differing views and backgrounds needs to come together around a vision, submerging ideological differences that will undoubtedly surface and create splits after the movement declines or succeeds.” In her ideals, a movement is focused around a vision. Unlike her, other radicals have focused on developing unity through political beliefs in order for their organizations to sustain itself despite disagreements about concrete action. Who has the better idea? Do we organize based on what we want to see happen or do we organize based on how we understand history and thus based on how we analyze current events? There are of course overlaps in these approaches. I see this today in how radicals and progressives work together though they might disagree about the need for revolution or militant action.
I am left to wonder, how radical is Boggs’ work today? Have young people like myself have overemphasized the work of groups in the era of the 1960s-1970s. Have I focused too narrowly at the positive without being able to learn from their mistakes? I also ask the question about her politics because Marxists would argue that her ideas about realizing our human possibilities are inherently an aspect of Marxism. I do not want to focus on whether or not these Marxist humanists are correct. Instead, I wonder about the implications. As Boggs pushes away from this school of thought, what has she been encouraging the organizers—young and old—around her to read, think, and argue? Are they becoming engaged without becoming analytical?
P.S.- U.S. Social Forum is in Detroit this year… and they are celebrating Boggs’ birthday is in about 6 days. Happy 95th Birthday!