Grace Lee Boggs’s The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century

Grace Lee Boggs has taken part in just about every progressive movement in modern America – civil rights, labor organizing, women’s rights, global justice, and more. At 95 and now often confined to a wheel chair, the Detroit-based activist and visionary shows no signs of slowing down, at least intellectually. Her new book The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century sets out her ideas for making real that other world the slogans tell us is possible. Indeed, based on her experience as recounted in her book, that world is already happening and in some of the most seemingly unlikely of places.

Along with C. L. R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya, Boggs was a founder of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, a theoretical perspective within the American left that in the 1940s identified the Soviet Union under Stalin as constituting an example of state capitalism, i.e., a system in which the state functions in essence like a gigantic corporation, therefore keeping conventional capitalist relations of production and labor alienation intact. (By contrast, the then prevailing Trotskyite view labeled it a “bureaucratic collective,” a new form of political economic organization that while not purely capitalist was not strictly speaking socialist either.) The Johnson-Forest Tendency is also identified with the emergence of Marxist humanism, which takes its inspiration from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, several essays of which Boggs, who holds a PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr, was among the first to translate into English. Today the bottom-up orientation of the Johnsonite view lives on most closely in autonomism. And indeed, Antonio Negri’s co-author Michael Hardt blurbed the book’s dust jacket as did Robin D. G. Kelly and Immanuel Wallerstein.

Boggs, the daughter of early twentieth-century Chinese immigrants, begins by setting out the problem and the opportunity for those of us living in the end times, that is, in the wake of the Apocalypse of the modern capitalist world-system that was the 2008 economic meltdown. And there are arguably few better places in the Western world from which to view the devastation than from the postindustrial wilderness of Detroit. Yet, Boggs argues, “the D,” as it is known especially to the young folk now that the “motor” of the Motor City has run out of gas, isn’t a site of despair but of hope.

From the abandoned zones of modernity new forms of life have sprung up, urban farming in the shadows of factory ruins, a system of solidarity economics where big box retailers fear to tread, and grassroots arts movements that stress community participation and the development of a new image ecology in place of the ideological emptiness of solipsistic modernist aesthetics. All of this activity is informed by what Ezio Manzini of the international consortium Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) calls “cosmopolitan localism.”

“Living in the margins of the postindustrial capitalist order, we in Detroit are faced with a stark choice of how to devote ourselves to struggle,” Boggs writes. Rather than remediate a deteriorating system, Boggs sets out ideas for starting anew. In addition to local supply chains of food and other goods and services, a radical rethinking of education is in order. The system currently in place is obsolete, she asserts, having been designed to train young people to become willing cogs in a social, economic, and political machine that no longer functions. Taking a cue from one of her philosophical influences, John Dewey, Boggs proposes an experience-based pedagogy based on the civil rights movement model of Freedom Schools, put into practice in the form of Detroit Summer, which holds workshops and other participatory educational programs.

Traditional social movement theorists, not to mention cynics, may view all of this as marginal at best. And yet what Boggs is talking about is essentially a new form of post-party politics. Given the current state of the union, it’s an idea well worth considering.

Below: Immanuel Wallerstein and Grace Lee Boggs in conversation at the 2010 US Social Forum.

in conversation with Grace Lee Boggs and Immanuel Wallerstein from Mark Dworkin on Vimeo.

  • DorothyP

    Thanks for explaining Johnson-Forest. I still wonder–if she and her comrades had been activists for so long–what went wrong in Detroit? I don’t doubt her sincerity, but not much was accomplished.

  • June

    I cannot believe this comment by DorothyP. Fact is revolution and enlightenment are but for a few. It would be nice if transformation occurred simultaneously and in blanket form. However, it’s step by step and situation by situation and an unfolding of life — otherwise we’d be in dictatorship mode.