Detroit Radicals' Odyssey
— Bill V. Mullen
In Love and Struggle:
The Revolutionary Lives of James & Grace Lee Boggs
By Stephen M. Ward
University of North Carolina Press, 2016, 464 pages, $39.95 hardback.
STEPHEN M. WARD has written what is likely to be the definitive joint biography of the Detroit-based political activists and organizers, Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015) and James Boggs (1919-93). Ward, an associate professor at University of Michigan, and board member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, offers a compelling, well-researched, accessible and politically nuanced book, excavating the Boggses’ singular place in 20th century U.S. radicalism.
Their combined life story, even in outline, is by itself remarkable: Grace, born to Chinese immigrants and restaurateurs in New York City in 1915; one of the first Asian American women to earn a Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr College; won to the radical left by Communist and Socialist soapbox orators in Chicago’s Washington Park in the early 1940s; led to the cause of Black radicalism by A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement; and finally into membership in the Trotskyist Workers Party.
James, raised amidst Klan terror in Marion Junction, Alabama in the 1930s; hoboed across the country during the Great Depression; a leading member of the UAW’s “flying squadrons” to protect striking workers at the Detroit Chrysler Jefferson Plant just before outbreaks of Wildcat Strikes there in 1943; backbone of Correspondence, the Marxist study group formed with Grace, C.L.R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Martin Glaberman and others in the 1950s in Detroit; by the early 1960s, perhaps the preeminent Black worker intellectual in the history of the United States, and a leading theoretician of what became the Black Power movement.
In Ward’s meticulous telling, their political and marital union was a matter of parallel tracks converging. The key was shifting dynamics of race and class in the 1940s, and the urgent question of how revolutionary socialists should relate to them.
From Johnson-Forest to Correspondence
While Jimmy (as Grace would always call him) was active in Detroit auto plants, a leading rank-and-file Black organizer, and member of the Socialist Workers Party, Grace joined the newly formed Johnson-Forest Tendency along with Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James and Russian émigré Raya Dunayevskaya.
Johnson-Forest became a small, innovative Marxist circle dedicated to applying insights mainly from the Trotskyist tradition to the conditions of labor in the United States, to the Soviet Union (which they argued was state capitalist, not a degenerated workers state as Trotsky had argued) and increasingly to racism and race in the U.S. workplace.
In 1947, Johnson-Forest Tendency (JFT) published a pamphlet titled The American Worker co-authored by Grace (under the pseudonym Ria Stone) and autoworker Phil Singer (under the pen name Paul Romano). The pamphlet argued that the U.S. working class had become “the most powerful, the most advanced in the world in social perspective.” The pamphlet foreshadowed Johnson-Forest’s break with the Workers Party, which it argued had “lost all confidence in the American working class.”
JFT then sought to enter the Socialist Workers Party, which it saw as the most proletarian and revolutionary organization on the U.S. left. Yet over the next three years, the group moved out of both the SWP and the Fourth International, concluding that the idea of the Leninist vanguard party had outgrown its usefulness, and cast its lot as an independent political force dedicated to building a revolution among four groups it argued had been abandoned: rank-and-file workers, Negroes, women and youth.
In 1951, James Boggs and Simon Owens broke from the SWP to join a new organization called Correspondence. By then Grace was already a member, as were C.L.R. James and Dunayevskaya. This zig-zagging, in-and-out pattern of affiliation established early in Grace’s career especially would be a lingering political practice, a point to which I shall return.
Ward is generally judicious in documenting these shifts, though at times introducing analytical categories that can obscure rather than illuminate. For example, in his section on the 1940s, Ward describes the Workers Party criticisms of A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement as part of the party’s “ideologically driven line” which prevented it from full comprehension of what he calls “black politics.”
This antinomy is difficult to sustain given the complex dynamics of both the March on Washington movement, itself a Popular Front-style program, and Grace’s own deep identification as a young Marxist with the Black liberation struggle. The juxtaposition also tends to read backwards while valorizing nationalistic arguments about political organizing.
Yet without question James and Grace Lee Boggs’ political union, and marriage, gave concrete theoretical expression to their joint desire to establish an independent political line of Marxist thought that would unify a theory and practice of class struggle.
The merging of southerner and northerner, organic and credentialed intellectual, Black migrant and daughter of Asian immigrants, worker and philosopher, love and struggle, did seem to embody for each of them a truly dialectical moment. Indeed, between 1951 and 1953, each would make significant contributions to building their new political formation. Ward dedicates a rich chapter to the building of the organization, which debuted its journal, titled Correspondence, October 3, 1953.
From the start, the organization and journal indicated competing directions in the Boggses’ thought. The paper sought to foreground the self-activity of rank-and-file workers, what Ward calls “ordinary people,” while casting off fealty to Marxist-Leninist ideas like “vanguard party.”
As Ward notes, the words “Marxism” and “socialism” rarely appeared in the paper. Instead, the paper was anchored by James Boggs’ shop-floor perspective on capital-labor relations at his factory, the Chrysler Jefferson Avenue assembly plant, and by reader responses published under a section called “Building Correspondence.”
Correspondence also created a women’s page and highlighted experiences of working women. Yet, most significantly, Correspondence revealed emerging tensions between the Boggses’ dedication to what Ward calls “a greater focus on the black struggle,” and C.L.R. James’ commitment to the paper as primarily for workers.
Seeds of Black Power
These tensions crested over three events of 1956 and 1957: the Hungarian Revolution, the independence of Ghana, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. C.L.R. James in particular championed the worker uprising against Soviet domination in Hungary as a great leap forward for worker self-activity: “Since 1917,” he wrote, “nothing has so shaken the world.”
C.L.R. James’ overstatement was juxtaposed with Grace and James Boggs’ contention that the anti-colonial rebellions across Africa, including Ghana’s independence, were of greater world-historical import, especially as they were “threatening the whole country just as the Negroes in this country shut down the buses in the South.”
Jimmy argued especially that the anti-colonial rebellions represented a “new form of organization of life” resistant to the narrow “technological advancement” offered by Russia and the West. Herein lay the seeds of what became the break between the Boggses and C.L.R. James, and the end of the Correspondence formation, in 1961: namely, the Boggses’ orientation to a nascent Black Power perspective, wedding Third World struggles to those of Black workers in the United States, against James’ assessment of Hungary, Ghana and Montgomery as what Ward calls “popular insurgency.”
The final significant collaborative project of the Correspondence group, the 1958 book Facing Reality, was something of a breaking point: C.L.R. James’ argument that increasing automation in the workplace would galvanize more workers to self-activity like the Hungarian workers’ councils mismatched James Boggs’ perspective that automation both diminished working-class capacity to fight, and increased workers’ participation in consumer-culture.
As Ward puts it, “Jimmy argued that automation, as a new stage of production, forced a rethinking of Marx’s scenario of revolution. By the early 1960s, Jimmy believed that black Americans, not the industrial working class, constituted the social force best suited to lead a revolution in the United States.” Those position differences were decisive: the Boggses broke with C.L.R. James in 1961 while maintaining control of the journal.
Ward breaks his book into its third part at this juncture, and introduces the reader to a figure who would play an oversized, charismatic role in the narrative of Black political struggle in the 1960s: Robert F. Williams.
Williams came into the Boggses’ purview in 1958. The former Detroit autoworker was head of the Monroe, North Carolina NAACP when he intervened in a local racial panic caused when two African-American boys reportedly kissed an eight-year-old white girl.
A mob gathered, the police arrested and beat the boys. Williams took up their public defense, but gained notoriety and FBI pursuit when he shielded a white couple from the mob, earning a charge of kidnapping. He fled Monroe to Canada.
The Boggses initially brought front-page attention to Williams’ case in Correspondence. After their break with the group, they built an alliance with Williams and his attorney Conrad Lynn to help build support for his client. Williams then fled Canada to Cuba, where he initially supported the Castro revolution, and began writing letters to Mao Zedong urging him to release a statement in support of Black liberation struggle in the United States.
In 1963, Mao obliged. By 1967, having split with Castro over disagreement about racism against Cuban blacks, Williams and his wife Mabel, along with their two children, moved to Beijing.
The Boggses’ solidarity with Williams was a key part of their turn towards Black Power politics. In tandem, they befriended several prominent Black community leaders in Detroit: the Reverend Albert Cleague, the brothers Richard and Milton Henry, and soon Malcolm X.
In 1962, the Henry brothers formed the Group on Advanced Leadership (GOAL) in Detroit. The Boggs meanwhile moved into their new home at 3061 Field Street on Detroit’s east side in the spring of 1962. In January 1963, buoyed by Williams’ activism, U.S. protests against the assassination of Congo leader Patrice Lumumba, and new local Black political organizing, Correspondence published a special “Emancipation Proclamation” issue — the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s formal proclamation — extolling a new Black politics “Nationalist in tone and content.”
The issue broke sharply with what it called “the ideological paternalism which socialists have always maintained in regard to the Negro struggle,” calling it “white supremacy in a radical guise.”
Two high points marked the period of the Boggses’ roles as leaders of Detroit’s Black nationalist upsurge: their prominent organizing role in the 1963 Northern Negro Leadership Conference, where Malcolm X delivered his now famous “Message to the Grassroots” speech, and the July, 1963 publication by Monthly Review Press of James Boggs’ The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook.
The latter was a book-length treatise on new keynote themes of the Boggses’ radical platform: that automation was making Black workers obsolete and “outsiders” to both labor and labor unions, and that, as James Boggs put it in a speaking engagement on the book, “The American Revolution…now is primarily a Black Revolution.”
The book made Boggs a cause celebre on the American Left, the face of radical Black labor, and a pillar on a triumvirate in 1963 (along with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.) declaring the need for full-blown Black liberation.
A culmination of Boggs’ thinking on this period was perhaps his 1963 essay “The Meaning of the Black Revolt in the U.S.A.,” published in the journal Revolution. There, Boggs argued that the era of “Dialectical Materialism” — traditional historical Marxism — was over, and a new era, one of “Dialectical Humanism,” had begun.
In 1967, James Boggs published “Black Power — A Scientific Concept Whose Time Has Come,” which argued that by virtue of their location in the capitalist economy Black people were best positioned to lead a revolution in society. The essay appeared the same year as the Detroit rebellions.
Ward leaves somewhat open-ended the relationship between the Boggses’ work and the popular resistance it helped gain ground in Detroit, but his book makes clear that Detroit’s role as a place of political, theoretical and organizational vanguardism in the 1960s owes heavily to their influence. At the same time, he intimates that the mass urban rebellion of 1967 motivated the Boggses to further distinguish between “rebellion and revolution” afterward, without abandoning confidence in the Black working-class as the primary agent of social change.
Ward somewhat abruptly ends his main narrative in 1967, summarizing the remainder of the Boggses’ lives and work in a 16-page epilogue. That decision strains the book’s coverage model: as noted above, James Boggs lived and wrote and worked until his death in 1993, while Grace died at 100 in 2015.
In that interval the Boggses went through more momentous changes, abandoning Black Power to form new grassroots Detroit groups like NOAR (National Organization for an American Revolution) and published new treatises like the 1974 Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century.
Grace also cofounded in 1970 the Asian Political Alliance in Detroit, a small study group focusing on Asian identity in the United States, and protest against the war in Vietnam. Her relatively late embrace of Asian American politics is one of her strongest legacies now, especially in the academy, where she has become an iconic figure of Asian American history.
The most generalizable point of the epilogue is that the Boggses spent much of their life after 1967 searching for a way to suture together the fragments of the Detroit upheavals with the best remnants of their long-time commitment to revolutionary theory and practice. This resulted in a new formulation they called “dialectical humanism,” a term meant to replace dialectical materialism with a broader conception of social relationships beyond the centrality of class struggle in Marxist theory.
Yet the fairly rapid gloss on such a long period of the Boggses’ life and work begs several questions for scholars. First, though they are today venerated mainly as activists of Black Power and localized community activism, Ward’s volume as structured suggests that the richest political and theoretical breakthroughs in their lives occurred in the period between 1940 and 1963, as they attempted to apply Marxist analysis and dialectics to the U.S. economy and class struggle.
Indeed, while their “break” with Marxism (and C.L.R. James) is a common talking point in discussion of their legacy, Ward’s book suggests that Marxism was throughout their body of work and thought the single most influential mode of analysis.
Second, Ward leaves somewhat underdeveloped, for this reader, analysis of the Boggses’ decision to align themselves with a nascent Black nationalism in the early 1960s. He cites the rapid growth of Detroit’s own Black population during the 1950s as one factor, but the Boggses’ overarching thesis — that class struggle and labor unionism were becoming increasingly irrelevant — is belied by the fact that the 1960s and early 1970s were two of the more militant decades in U.S. labor history (see https://socialistworker.org/2011/08/26/workers-rebellion-of-the-1960s).
Of course, that militancy was impelled in part by class conscious Black workers — the Detroit League of Revolutionary Black Workers were one example — whose main influences were Maoism and Marxism (http://www.isreview.org/issues/22/black_workers.shtml). The League also retained a core commitment to class struggle led by Black workers, a position Ward might have tested against the Boggses’ contention that socialism was “white supremacy” in disguise.
Third, late in life, Grace Boggs embraced a brand of what their earlier selves would have called reformist politics in Detroit, for example opening a charter school dedicated to progressive educational politics.
Ward might have explored in more detail the long historical circumstances in Detroit after 1967 — deindustrialization, plant closings, declining union membership, neoliberal economic policies — that drove such decisions, and queried what gains and losses, and political lessons, might be drawn from such complex shifts in political direction. One clear effect was the Boggses’ commitment to local and community-based organizing, something Ward touches on but could have treated in more detail.
And finally: the Boggses’ mercurial political shifts and turns, occasional sectarianism and personal idiosyncrasies might have brought out more critical discussion by a scholar who knows their lives and work so well. There is sometimes a tendency to turn away from contradictions in the Boggses’ work where embracing them might have richened analysis, deepened understanding.
In short, a more consistently dialectical method by the author could have yielded even richer insights into the Boggses’ own dialectics. Still, Ward has done the Boggses and scholars and historians of U.S. radicalism a great service. In Love and Struggle fills a gaping hole not just in the history of the lives of two extraordinary activists, but in the history of the 20th century U.S. Left, and the history of Detroit. People interested in any of the above should read this book.
May-June 2017, ATC 188