The Revolutionary Task of Self-Activity: a Note on Grace Lee Boggs

Grace Lee Boggs passed away on October 5th, 2015 as a celebrated political activist and a veteran of powerful social movements who, over the course of seven decades of militancy, always maintained a deep commitment to eradicate society’s divisions and inequalities — a faith perhaps encapsulated in the title of her 1998 autobiography, Living for Change. The tone of this accolade has been set by an obituary in the New York Times which eulogized and praised her support for community organizing and civic reforms in Detroit in the last decades of her life, but at the expense of the “arcane” debates about the nature of communism she engaged in and which belonged, the obituary explains, to the earlier part of her political existence. This short essay lends a renewed focus to those arcane debates, as they constitute the core of Grace Lee Boggs’s contribution to a version of Marxism, one both humane and emancipatory in its vision. While Lee Boggs’s political philosophy evolved over time — in dialogue with and in response to her environment and circumstances — the revolutionary praxis she developed between the early 1940s and mid-1960s alongside an eclectic group of political militants has left a strategic legacy for political movements that still seek a drastic change in society, beyond the often more localized concerns of community organizing and food cooperatives.

In the postwar years, Grace Lee Boggs developed her defining contribution to Marxist social theory within a tight group of theorists and activists dissenting from the official doctrine of Stalinism and, later, of Trotskyism: the Johnson-Forest Tendency (later Correspondence). Named after its initiators, CLR James (Johnson) and Raya Dunayevskaya (Forest), this Trotskyist splinter group elaborated an original theoretical position that soon forced them to sever their ties with the Old Left and anticipate some of the themes of the New Left. While the figure of James usually looms large in historical accounts of the group, their political position was borne out of intense internal debate, one in which the political contribution of its women is not often highlighted. Grace Lee was as integral to the Johnson-Forest Tendency as Dunayevskaya and James, and the group often relied on the input of other distinguished members, such as Martin Glaberman, George Rawick, Selma James, and James Boggs, who married Grace Lee in 1953.

Holding a PhD in philosophy and proficient in German, Grace Lee (together with Dunayevskaya) prepared the first English translation of Karl Marx’s early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts dating from 1844. One cannot underestimate the impact that the Manuscripts, with their emphasis on the alienation of the working class and the pre-eminence of a revolution driven by human agency rather than structured historical “laws” had on Lee Boggs’ understanding of revolutionary practice; they provided the underpinning of her political praxis for the rest of her life. Following this scholarly work, Boggs spent several years in New York working in a Brooklyn defense plant, where she participated in study groups, Workers’ Party political forums, and cultural activities across the city, especially Harlem.1As her grounding and engagement with Marxism increased, Lee Boggs became the co-author of three seminal texts that established the political view of the group, The Invading Socialist Society (1947), State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950) and Facing Reality (1958) as well as contributing to other position papers of the Johnson-Forest Tendency.

Driving the Johnson-Forest Tendency’s reflection about workers’ revolution and societal transformation was the theoretical debate on an issue crucial to the left in the war years: what was the nature of the Soviet Union? Broadly speaking, three answers were available, outside Stalinism:

1) the nationalization of the means of production made the Soviet Union a workers’ state, but a “degenerated” one, where the party bureaucracy held too much power. This was the position of Leon Trotsky as well as James Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

2) The Soviet Union was no longer a recognizable workers’ state, nor a capitalist state, but a new entity that Max Shachtman’s Workers’ Party called “bureaucratic collectivism” in polemics with the SWP.

3) The Johnson-Forest tendency developed a third independent position, arguing for the Soviet Union to have transformed into a form of “state capitalism.” where the means of productions were owned by the state, but where the extraction of workers’ surplus occurred under the same principles of privately-owned capitalism. “For us,” wrote the trio, “production in Russia is subject to the laws of the capitalist world-market. The bureaucracy is as subjected to the basic laws of capitalism as is any capitalist class. All the monstrosities of the Stalinist society are rooted in the laws of the capital-labor relation which reach their highest expression in Russia.”2

Grace Lee Boggs and her fellow revolutionaries recognized that the core of Marx’s critique of capitalism stood in its social relations of production (not property), which were replicated to an even greater coercive extent in the Soviet Union. They identified in the bureaucracy that stifled working-class insurgency (the party in the Soviet Union and the union in the United States — both “agents of capital”) a common development to the whole world of capitalism, whether publicly or privately owned.3A socialist revolution would have to rise from the rank-and-file and topple that layer of oppressive institutions. Thus, the Johnson-Forest Tendency advocated an essentially workerist position, that is, one that emphasized above all the autonomous self-activity of the working class, that was to have a long-term impact on Marxist social theory, finding eventually more than an echo in the position of the Italian operaisti in the 1960s.4

While a good portion of those texts form a polemical invective against former Trotskyist party members, Grace Lee was attracted to the theory of state capitalism primarily because it put her in the company of like-minded people who saw revolution in terms of the self-activity of workers on the shop floor. “When Marx turned Hegel ‘right side up,’” she wrote, “he didn’t abandon Hegel’s vision of the continuing evolution of humanity towards greater self-determination or the ability to assume greater control over our lives.”5

The city of Detroit, where Boggs moved in 1953, was integral to the development of the Tendency’s approach to grassroots militancy and its effects on their theorizing. As a leading manufacturing center at the heart of the union movement, and then a rapidly changing metropolis in terms of racial composition and industrial base, Detroit constituted an ideal vantage point from where to observe and intervene into American political struggles. A city of extremes, post-war Detroit never lacked groups arguing revolutionary change, though of different hues.

In this context, where the UAW and car industry had reached a modus operandi that had “normalized” industrial relations after the strike wave of 1946, the largest in American history, the Johnsonites aimed to emphasize the continuing independence and self-activity of workers on the shop floor. Thus, they sponsored “investigations” into working conditions, the most famous of which was the autobiographical account of an autoworker by the name of Phil Singer (who wrote under the pen name of Paul Romano). In it, Singer carefully described everything from working condition to transformations in production to forms of worker organization and struggle.

Singer’s account, “Life in the Factory,” was paired with a theoretical essay by Lee Boggs to form the now classic 1947 pamphlet, The American Worker. In her essay, Lee Boggs framed, via Singer’s individual story, an allegedly universal condition that reduced workers to a degraded position, with management and union bureaucrats conspiring to mutilate much of their spirit and creativity, but without completely crushing their day to day resistance. The pamphlet sought to channel that militant spirit into revolutionary change beyond the question of wage increases, the sole concern of the union. The agony of the process of production and the alienation of workers from their own creative nature drove workers to oppose capitalism, whatever their remuneration (“be his payment high or low,” in Marx’s words). The “axis of Marx’s thinking,” in Grace Lee’s summation, was that “[t]he new society must bring about a revolutionary transformation in the lives of the workers in the shop.” Significantly, this pamphlet constituted an exemplary attempt at workers’ inquiry: a co-creative act of research between an intellectual and a worker in the pursuit of a common political project (what would later evolve in the co-research of the Italian workerists).

In the these texts, the evolving analysis of the contradictions of capitalism and the impasse of Soviet socialism was driven by an optimistic expectation of workers’ own ability to bring forth revolutionary social and political change. This, it was argued, was particularly true for the American workers who, far from being a backward element of the international working class, were resisting and struggling against the capitalism within the factory on a daily basis. This optimism would remain a constant in Grace Lee and James Boggs’s thought, as well as among other members of the Johnson-Forest tendency; but it led them to different strategic considerations that would make continued work as a collective group impossible.

There was another issue that made Grace Lee link her political destiny to the “Johnsonites”for about two decades: the so-called “Negro Question.” As the subject herself of racial discrimination towards Asians and sensitive to how issues of race and politics intersected on U.S. soil, Grace Lee shared CLR James’s opinion that African-Americans were the segment of society most likely to revolt against capitalism — “when the opportunity should present itself,” as James wrote.6Having participated in the movement to bring about the aborted March on Washington of 1941, Grace Lee was convinced that African Americans had a revolutionary potential in their own right, not only as part of the working class, and that their independent struggles were legitimate and should be encouraged. This position further distanced the Johnson-Forest tendency from the rest of the Trotskyist and Communist left, which limited itself to the rather banal slogan, “Black and White, Unite and Fight!” Grace Lee Boggs called instead for autonomous black organizing and struggle. In time, this emphasis would evolve in a way that drove a wedge between Grace Lee and many of the Johnsonites.

No doubt Grace Lee’s thinking on the political role of African Americans grew and changed in tandem with that of her husband, James Boggs, and in response to the rise of black radical activism centered around Detroit. Correspondence, the publication that the group started to work on after abandoning Trotskyism altogether, with Grace Lee Boggs serving as full-time editor, dedicated a section to African Americans as one of the four distinct social groups (the other were workers, women, and youth) the organization was trying to reach. Correspondence differed from other contemporary publications of the Old Left in its effort to be a magazine written and, for the most part, edited by workers; at the very least, much of its content was the direct result of workers’ participation in theoretical and political discussions.

While this attempt was only partially successful, Correspondence distilled a philosophy of co-inquiry with workers that posited a cross-fertilization between workers, readers, and intellectuals.7With a core number of contributors, including James Boggs, Martin Glaberman, and Si Owens, who worked in the factories, Correspondence represented a model of how to foster a layer of organic intellectuals through dynamic relationships and connections with other social forces. It would find resonances with other collaborative political projects in Europe and elsewhere, as militants sought to put both new theoretical concepts and revolutionary organizational forms into circulation.

Grace Lee and James Boggs used the magazine to tell the stories of black rank-and-filers who resisted and struggled independently from and in spite of liberal labor leadership of the CIO. An autoworker at Chrysler, James Boggs had witnessed firsthand the dwindling commitment of the United Automobile Workers to fight racial discrimination in the employment structure of the automobile industry, which relegated black workers to the most heavy and dirty jobs. As the civil rights movement swept across the United States and Detroit became a key center of black nationalism, the Boggses started to question the veracity of the oft-maligned Marxist orthodoxy which saw class, rather than race, as the key force of revolutionary change. When the Boggses posited that in fact the next revolution would see social forces outside the ranks of stably employed industrial workers emerge as protagonists, they distanced themselves from CLR James whom, they argued, had lost touch with the emergence of African Americans on the political scene after his repatriation to England in 1953. Their position, sympathetic to Black Nationalism, was a stark departure in a group that had prided itself on returning to the roots of Marxism.8From London, James responded that the Boggses needed education classes in Marxism.9Curiously, James, who had always championed the importance of an independent black workers’ struggle, was not ready to endorse the idea that the black masses, rather than the industrial working class, would overcome capitalist society. In fact, in a private letter of this period, CLR James considered the idea that Blacks would “spearhead the fight for socialism” a “serious theoretical error.”10By the time James Boggs’s The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook appeared in 1963, the split was consummated. The book drew extensively from Marxian concepts and the arguments developed within Correspondence, but characterized Marxist analysis as outdated in an “advanced capitalist country” such as the United States where economic grievances did not run deep enough to mobilize the majority of workers. African-Americans, located at the intersection of race and class, were better positioned, Boggs argued, to carried out such struggle and pose “the question of the total social reorganization of the country.” Beyond the finer points of the exact role that African Americans would have in socialist revolution, the split might have been hastened by the fact that Boggses saw CLR James drifting towards “spontaneity” and “not assuming the responsibility for creating an American Revolutionary Organization,” as they declared in a later reminiscence.11

Organizing was precisely what James and Grace Lee Boggs set to do in the next two decades. For the remainder the 1960s, they threw themselves into an ascending Black Power movement by sustaining events, organizations and campaigns. Many of the groups they helped form short-lived, such as the Organization for Black Power (OBP), the Inner City Organizing Committee (ICOC), or the Committee for Political Development (CPD); but, more broadly, the Boggses emerged as thoughtful, influential organizers and theorists striving to transform Black Power — often an elusive concept — into a movement for full-fledged societal transformation. The number of grassroots activists that the couple aided, connected, or mentored is impressive. In the 1960s alone, it included members of the the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) (of which James initially served as Ideological Chairman and Grace as Executive Secretary), and in turn, by only a degree of separation, the Black Panther Party. “Practically anyone who has been involved in movement politics in Detroit, even some that I don’t remember, can recall sitting on the couch in our living room discussing issues and strategies,” wrote Grace Lee Boggs.12Immersed in their efforts trying to build a viable Black Power movement, the Boggses started to advocate the need for a cadre of people who would provide leadership to the movement, a call encapsulated in James Boggs’ Manifesto for a Black Revolutionary Party (1969), co-written with Grace Lee. This was a further departure from the emphasis on spontaneity that had characterized the Johnson-Forest Tendency during the 1950s.

The Boggses’ enduring conviction that Black Power could ultimately transform society in an anti-capitalist direction ran counter to the evidence of a movement that, by the mid-1970s, risked embracing a narrow nationalism, with all its cultural and political limits, or pushing African Americans to settle as another interest group within the fold of the Democratic party. However, the organization of a vanguard party that would leverage the spirit of Black Power to build an all-encompassing revolutionary organization, which the Boggses pursued with the creation of NOAR (National Organization for an American Revolution), no longer seemed viable either. In this context, James and Grace Lee Boggs began to argue for a more profound human transformation, steeped in creativity, self-awareness, social responsibility, and community values, as a required precedent to any political revolution. It was a perspective that underlined the Boggses’ distance from certain aspects of Marx’s thought as well as from black nationalism. A human “evolution” was needed in the passage from rebellion to revolution. Their confidence in this theoretical frame is apparent in their book, Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century (1974), in which they concluded that “humankind will always be engaged in struggle, because struggle is in fact the highest expression of human creativity… because human beings have only themselves to rely on in their unending struggle to become more profoundly human.”13

Because of her political longevity, Grace Lee Boggs leaves as a legacy a corpus of ideas and revolutionary practices linked to the shifting dynamics and cycles that mark the history of capitalism in the United States. She was an example of a life dedicated to the movement, informed by a spirit of solidarity, and attuned to the pressing issues of the period. Perhaps her greatest insight is that theoretical underpinnings of revolution must be rethought in line with the transformation of society, which requires a radical change in analysis, priorities, strategy, and values. Notwithstanding the considerable shift in her political analysis and forms of engagement, this insight is consistent with her early formative years in the Johnson-Forest Tendency. In that group she questioned reigning political orthodoxy to return to Marx’s vision of socialism as liberating the creative self-activity of workers, one mutilated by the split between manual and intellectual labor that capitalism had created for the benefit of a few. Such a situation called for inventing new and historically specific approaches to political organizing, making connections between different workers and social forces to form a new collective political subject.

Originally published at on January 4, 2016.