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.1 As 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.3 A 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.6 Hav­ing 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.7 With 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.8 From Lon­don, James responded that the Bog­gses needed edu­ca­tion classes in Marx­ism.9 Curi­ously, 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.”10 By 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 carry 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.12 Immersed 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 col­lec­tive polit­i­cal sub­ject.

  1. On this period of her life, see Stephen Michael Ward, “‘Ours Too Was a Strug­gle for a Bet­ter World’: Activist Intel­lec­tu­als and the Rad­i­cal Promise of the Black Power Move­ment, 1962-1972,” Ph.D. dis­ser­ta­tion, Uni­ver­sity of Texas-Austin, 2002. 

  2. CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Grace Lee Boggs, The Invad­ing Social­ist Soci­ety (Detroit: Bed­wick Edi­tions, 1972 [1947]). 

  3. CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Grace Lee Boggs, State Cap­i­tal­ism and World Rev­o­lu­tion (Chicago: Charles Kerr Pub­lish­ing, 1986). 49. 

  4. Harry Cleaver, Read­ing Cap­i­tal Polit­i­cally (Brighton: Har­vester Press, 1979). 

  5. Grace Lee Boggs, Liv­ing for a Change (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1998), 50. 

  6. CLR James, “The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Answer to the Negro Prob­lem in the US,” in CLR James and Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ism: Selected Writ­ings of CLR James 1939-1949, ed. Scott McLemee (New York: Human­i­ties Press Inter­na­tional, 1994). 

  7. Mar­tin Glaber­man, intro­duc­tion to Marx­ism for Our Times: CLR James on Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Orga­ni­za­tion (Jack­son, Miss: Uni­ver­sity of Mis­sis­sippi Press, 1999), xviii-xix. 

  8. James and Grace Lee Boggs, “A Crit­i­cal Rem­i­nis­cence,” in CLR James: His Life and Work, ed. Paul Buhle (Lon­don: Allison and Busby, 1986), 177-179. 

  9. Grace Lee Boggs, Liv­ing for Change, 109. 

  10. CLR James to Marty Glaber­man, Octo­ber 14, 1963,  in CLR James: His Life and Work, p. 160. 

  11. James and Grace Lee Boggs, “A Crit­i­cal Rem­i­nis­cence,” p. 179. 

  12. Grace Lee Boggs, Liv­ing for Change, 91. 

  13. James and Grace Lee Boggs, Rev­o­lu­tion and Evo­lu­tion in the 20th Cen­tury (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974), 266. See also Grace Lee’s recent intro­duc­tion to its re-pub­li­ca­tion, avail­able here.