Grace Lee Boggs R.I.P.

Grace Lee & Jimmy Boggs

Grace Lee Boggs, founding member of the Johnson-Forest Tendency (where her party name was Ria Stone), has died at the age of 100 in Detroit. She was born on June 27, 1915 and passed away today, October 5, 2015

Here's the obituary in the Detroit Free Press.

When she was 96 I saw her at an event, entitled "Building the Next American Revolution: A Celebration and Tribute to Grace Lee Boggs," in March of 2012 at the Chinese Cultural Center in San Francisco's Chinatown, where she gave a passionate speech. The huge room was packed with San Francisco's political establishment, including city supervisors: two were Chinese-American (one of whom represents my district and considers himself a Marxist), three were Chicano, and other was Korean-American (the progressive caucus at City Hall). Yet Grace was the most radical speaker there -- and probably among the most articulate advocates of revolutionary change in the whole room.

I don't remember much of the fluff in the introductory comments before she spoke, but it was typical glad-handing compliments and statements about how deeply Grace influenced these politicos when they were college activists (which I found only partially believable). These supervisors praised Grace as an "American revolutionary," then showed the emptiness of that when they declared March 3rd "Grace Lee Boggs Day" in San Francisco by a city proclamation.

Grace talked about things that no one else did, namely:

    1. class struggle
    2. Hegel's philosophical insights, but in a totally accessible way
    3. the usefulness of Marx's critique of political economy as a tool for revolution

Since I first read about the Johnson-Forest tendency in Harry Cleaver's Reading Capital Politically, I've always had a respect for Grace, CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Marty Glaberman, James ex-wife Constance Webb, Si Owens (Charles Denby's real name, author of Indignant Heart). But I'd grown skeptical of the slavish idolatry the contemporary News & Letters group for Dunayevskay. Also, reading Constance Webb's memoir, Not Without Love, I saw a side of the group that's worthy of the tawdriest soap opera. But hearing a 96-year-old correct the sycophantic -- and social democratic -- comments of her presenters was truly refreshing. Additionally, I heard on the radio an interview she'd done the day before in Berkeley with Angela Davis. Grace actually interrupted Davis to point out that some of her ideas were reformist nonsense. I guess being a nonagenarian has its perks.

Additionally, in the late 1930s Grace and Dunayevskaya found some interesting texts in German collections of Marx's works. They started translating them, using a typewriter and making carbon copies. They were the first ever English-language translations of what we now call the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

Grace Lee Boggs, who took her surname from her long-deceased black autoworker-revolutionary militant husband Jimmy Boggs, will be sorely missed.

So I say, Grace Lee Boggs—presente!

Posted By

Oct 6 2015 02:34


Attached files


Oct 6 2015 04:05

Interesting observations as always. I've always found the later "New American Revolutionary" Grace Lee Boggs rather liberal, curious as to the comments about class struggle.

Oct 6 2015 20:18

Thanks and I agree about the liberal orientation of some of her later writings. Also, she and Jimmy became too black nationalist. Glaberman, as the upholder of the Jamesian legacy, certainly didn't as much.

Since she was so spirited and passionate at age 96, I was swayed more by the good than the bad..

Oct 6 2015 19:54

Although I have little politically in common with Grace Lee Boggs, let me take a moment to salute her 100 years of life. There are few people who stick with the movement a lifetime, she was one.

For some of youse left commie types:

"Significantly, as late as 1953, Pannekoek was in dialogue with Cornelius Costoriadis of the French ex-trotskist tendency, Socialisme ou Barbarie. The correspondence also involved the US "Johnson-Forrest Tendency" of the Fourth International, then led by CLR James (Johnson), Raya Dunayevskaya (Forrest) and Grace-Lee Boggs."

"Lenin's Philosophy and the Council Communist Non-alternative"

From her Trotskyist years:

Sojourner Truth Organization - 1969-1983 - Urgent Tasks - Number 12 - A Critical Reminiscence
When most American radicals think about a revolution in the United States, they visualize the oppressed masses, workers, Blacks, women, rising up to sweep away the bourgeoisie and institute a new socialist society. So preoccupied are they with the social forces — which are necessary for any revoluti…

Gregory A. Butler
Oct 7 2015 14:08

The Grace Lee Boggs of the last 30 years was basically an honest, decent, non corrupt 501(c)(3) not for profit social service agency executive - basically not that different than Geoffery Canada (except he never pretended to be a leftist)

Even the early "revolutionary" Boggs was an identity politics leftist, opposing the class struggle in the auto plants and counterposing a classless Black nationalist struggle in it's stead.She also had this technocratic idea that automation in industry would somehow end the class struggle - an idea that workers in today's computerized offices and factories would find astonishing

The last decades of her life, as she went from radical to corporate grant funded liberal, Boggs completely renounced the idea of struggle. She blamed all of the problems of the working class in general and Black workers in particular on "immorality" - a position not that different than the Republican Party

I don't know why so much of the left is mourning her - I'm sure she was a nice person, but politically she was terrible (so was her husband when he was alive - he didn't live long enough to politically degenerate to the degree that she did)

Gregory A. Butler
Oct 7 2015 14:12

Some more accurate takes on Boggs' politics:

In a speech titled “THINKING/ACTING DIALECTICALLY: C.L.R. JAMES, THE AMERICAN YEARS”, Boggs remarks that the working class is no longer the (or at least the only) locus for social change and revolutionary transformation[i]. Her context for such a shift is that, while she was waiting for the working class to build a renewed revolutionary movement, the Black movement sprang forth flowing with all the promise for the kind of change not found in the contemporary struggles of the working class which she characterizes as merely a “paper tiger”. While this is a visibly Maoist phrase it more substantively exemplifies a crucial collapse in her view of the working class today.

The weakness in her assessments is manifold, but particularly in her failing to locate Black folks as part of and central to the struggles of the working class.

For Boggs, the Black struggle functioned outside of the working class. The Black Power movement of the 1960s was somehow external to the general struggle of working people which she saw as white, male, and blue collar. She confounded the question of race and class by subordinating the latter to the former, instead of the other way around.

In Boggs’s vocabulary, what most activists engage in—protests, marches, demonstrations and the like—is “rebellion.” Rebellions are moments of protest that attack the legitimacy of society’s dominant institutions. Rebellions, however, “cannot lead to the reorganization of society” because people still “see themselves as victims. . .and the other side as villains.” “Revolutions,” on the other hand, project a new “notion of a more human human being” and “create societies more conducive to human development.”

So-called “visionary” (or sometimes “transformative”) organizing is therefore a “revolutionary” strategy which seeks to break people from “the bourgeois method of thought on which US capitalism is based” by developing alternative institutions and communities—such as community gardens, small businesses, and free schools—that facilitate doing “the work of re-imagining ourselves” and helping us “think beyond capitalist categories.”

One of the better known figures in official “left” circles in Detroit is Grace Lee Boggs, founder of the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership. Boggs, a long time Detroit resident, in collaboration with Scott Kurashige, an associate professor of American culture and history at the University of Michigan, has published The Next American Revolution, Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century.
Boggs and Kurashige use Detroit as a focus to advance a right-wing agenda, justifying the impoverishment of the working class and opposing any collective struggle against capitalism.
One is struck in reading The New American Revolution by the authors’ utter indifference to the conditions facing the working class. Poverty, homelessness and unemployment are barely mentioned. The problem, assert the authors, is not the capitalist system and the conditions of mass misery that it is creating, but the American people themselves, who are denounced as “self-centered and overly materialistic.”
The authors oppose any notion that revolution should involve the improvement of the lives of working people or a redistribution of wealth. They write, “The next American Revolution, at this stage in our history, is not principally about jobs or health insurance or making it possible for more people to realize the American Dream of upward mobility. It is about acknowledging that we Americans have enjoyed middle class comforts at the expense of other peoples all over the world.” (p. 72)
Boggs advances the retrograde view that technology itself, not its misuse under capitalism, is the cause of the problems facing society. She writes, “It has also been my good fortune to live long enough to witness the death blow dealt to the illusion that unceasing technological innovations and economic growth can guarantee happiness and security to the citizens of the planet’s only superpower.... At this point in the continuing evolution of our country and of the human race, we urgently need to stop thinking of ourselves as victims and to recognize that we must each become a part of the solution because we are a part of the problem.” (p. 29)
As for the schools, Boggs writes, “We are not going to solve the crisis of public education with more money, more computers, new buildings...” (p. 144)
What Boggs proposes is that the working class accept a huge lowering of its living standards. From this standpoint, the impoverishment of the working class is not an evil to be opposed, but a welcome development that should serve as a model. To call this right wing does not do it full justice.

Oct 10 2015 15:49

Gregory, in all due respect, posting disses on Grace Lee Boggs from Trotskyite propaganda mills doesn't suffice for an honest critique. To the the wooden and irrelevant 4th International ideologues at WSWS and the SWP, Grace is a heretic for having broken with the counter-revolutionary ideas of Trotsky and like most disingenuous Trotskyite boilerplate, they're not beyond calumny and lying.

What I respect about her is that she planted roots in Detroit and lived her dying breath there, for better or worse. While I don't always agree with how she approached struggling in a dying deindustrialized city, the questions she provoked are crucial for other hollowed out places where rebellion has recently broken out. Detroit peaked out at nearly 2,000,000 residents. Today it's around 680,000. Very similar conditions exist in other decaying depopulating cities with many African Americans once having lived in their cores, like Baltimore (minus 35% in population), New Orleans (-25%), Cleveland (-17%), Cincinnati (-10%), Pittsburgh (-8%), Toledo (-8%), St. Louis (also -8%, but with a knock-on decay to its its surrounding suburbs, like Ferguson), east Oakland, and many, many others.

While I'm all for class struggle, how can you have that when workers are laid off en masse as sites of mass production are shuttered and the population is driven away in droves, let alone with those who are trapped and can't leave? Those are sincere questions. I think Grace grappled with them, despite whatever flaws she might have had. To me, that's her lasting legacy. Greg, read her earlier autobiography Living for Change and critique it yourself. Don't depend on the dogma and lies of counter-revolutionary Trotskyites.

Oct 8 2015 04:14
Serge Forward
Oct 8 2015 12:10

Obituary in yesterday's Morning Star.

S. Artesian
Oct 8 2015 19:48

Warts and all, comrades. Can't ignore the warts. CLR James had them, Grace had them, Stokely had them (smartest guy I ever met), John Lewis (bravest guy I ever met) has them.

Just because the WSWS etc etc. give the usual rigid formulaic blah,blah, blah,-- that's doesn't change the appearance or the reality of the warts.

The decay of the urban centers in the US doesn't mean the class struggle is no longer possible, or extant, it just means the bourgeoisie have been winning.

Oct 9 2015 04:13


Oct 9 2015 04:15

Gregory A. Butler
Oct 9 2015 21:47

Hieronomous - that's some good high quality straw man arguing there ("trotskyite propaganda mills")

What you forgot to mention was the extensive quotes from Boggs IN HER OWN WORDS expressing her reactionary ideas - especially her contempt for the class struggle - and her actual record in Detroit as a not for profit social services agency executive - plus all the praise she got from the Michigan capitalist class upon her death.

Yes, Detroit's population has shrunk - but does that mean that the folks remaining are somehow magically not in the working class?

Also Boggs "strategies" were dead ends like urban gardening - do you see that as a way forward, brother? Seriously?

As for "how can you have the class struggle" - does the City of Detroit not have public employees? Does Detroit not have an airport with lots of workers in it? Are there not auto plants and auto parts plants in and around Detroit? (I'll give you the answer to that one - Fiat Chrysler Jefferson Av, GM Poletown, Ford Rouge, and all the parts plants) Hell, are there not casinos in your city?

There's your proletariat right there, brother

Boggs has no interest in their struggles - and that's why the bourgeoisie mourned her death

Maybe she was a friend of yours - so if you're mourning her personally you have my condolences - but POLITICALLY her politics were reactionary and I can't mourn that

Gregory A. Butler
Oct 9 2015 21:48

Tell me who your friends are, and I'll tell you who you are

S. Artesian
Oct 9 2015 22:03
Gregory A. Butler wrote:
Tell me who your friends are, and I'll tell you who you are

I have no friends. That way, I remain a cypher.

Oct 9 2015 22:47
S. Artesian wrote:
Gregory A. Butler wrote:
Tell me who your friends are, and I'll tell you who you are

I have no friends. That way, I remain a cypher.


Then you can't post links to counter-revolutionary sectarian dogmatists talking shit about them -- or me.

Gregory A. Butler
Oct 11 2015 15:58

Describing Grace Lee Boggs' reactionary politics accurately isn't "talking shit"

At her best, she was a narrow nationalist (ironically enough for my nationality - which she's not a member of). She spent the last three decades of her life as a not for profit social service agency reformist, defending the capitalist system on behalf of and funded by the Democratic Party machine in Wayne County, Michigan.

In that context, its odd that you call Boggs' critics "counterrevolutionary"

You might want to choose another phrase.

In any case, it says volumes that the only way you can criticize three separate articles, written by people who disagree with each other as much as you and I disagree, that accurately diagram Boggs' politics and her political degeneration, is to resort to ad hominem attacks on the organizations that the authors of those articles belong to.

Here's a sympathetic liberal account of Boggs and her politics - including her two decades running a charter school (for folks outside the US, the charter school movement is a corporate sponsored campaign to destroy public schools and break teachers unions in the US - part of a broader neoliberal attack on public benefits and public employee unions in this country - the fact that Boggs was a part of that movement speaks volumes about her and her politics)

I guess National Public Radio are "counterrevolutionary sectarian dogmatists" too?

Gregory A. Butler
Oct 11 2015 16:00

The bottom line is, "revolutionaries" who get eulogized by President Obama.... probably aren't really revolutionaries

Oct 11 2015 22:28
Gregory A. Butler wrote:
"how can you have the class struggle" - does the City of Detroit not have public employees? Does Detroit not have an airport with lots of workers in it? Are there not auto plants and auto parts plants in and around Detroit? (I'll give you the answer to that one - Fiat Chrysler Jefferson Av, GM Poletown, Ford Rouge, and all the parts plants) Hell, are there not casinos in your city?

There's your proletariat right there, brother

Please don't assume. No, there aren't casinos where I live (or even in the next county, nor in the next ones beyond that). Also, there's not a single Walmart in my county (my city and county are coterminous); my district, represented by the aforementioned Chinese American city/county supervisor who claims to be a Marxist, doesn't have a single McDonald's, has only one Starbucks, and only two other formula fast food chain restaurants. And it's the most populous district in the city, full of family-run retail and food service where the majority of workers (and many bosses) don't speak English.

So the proletariat where I live doesn't face the same bosses as where you, Gregory, live or where others who are reading this live. We all face the same ruling class, but the class composition is different. That's why we need to learn the lessons radical workers inquiries and analyses of class composition.

What models of workers' inquiries can we draw on? To my mind, the very best is "The American Worker" by Paul Romano and Ria Stone. Who was the latter? The party name of Grace Lee Boggs. So it's simply a bold-face lie to say that Grace was an "identity politics leftist" when she was younger. She was a Hegelian Marxist, perhaps too much into abstract theory and not enough into rank-and-file class war for my tastes, but she singlehandedly translated the first-ever English versions of Marx's writings from 1843-1844. That's enough to eulogize her for.

As for Detroit, it ain't Motor City no mo. Here's where those plants moved to, much of it because of the failure of the post-World War II Operation Dixie that made south of the Mason-Dixon Line entirely non-union (some of these plants closed, especially with the crisis of 2008 and restructuring of the industry):

1. BlueBird Macon, Ga.
2. BMW Greer, S.C.
3. Chrysler Fenton, Mo.
4. Daimler Trucks Fort Mill, S.C.
5. Daimler Vans Ladson, S.C.
6. Ford Claycomo, Mo.
7. Ford Louisville, Ky.
8. Ford Truck Louisville, Ky.
9. Ford Hapeville, Ga.
10. Ford Atlanta, Ga.
11. Ford Kansas City, Mo.
12. Ford New Orleans, La.
13. Ford Norfolk, Va.
14. Ford Hazelwood, Mo.
15. Frightliner-Daimler Trucks Mount Holly, N.C.
16. Frightliner-Daimler Cleveland, N.C.
17. GM Arlington, TX
18. GM Kansas City, Kan.
19. GM Spring Hill, Tenn.
20. GM Bowling Green, Ky.
21. GM Wentzville, Mo.
22. GM Doraville, Ga.
23. GM Lakewood, Ga.
24. GM Kansas City, Mo.
25. GM Oklahoma City, Okla.
26. GM Shreveport, La.
27. Hino Trucks Williamstown, W.V.
28. Honda Lincoln, Ala.
29. Hyundai Montgomery, Ala.
30. IC Bus Conway, Ark..
31. Kia West Point, Ga.
32. Mercedes-Benz Vance, Ala.
33. North American Bus Anniston, Ala.
34. Nissan Canton, Miss.
35. Nissan Smyrna, Tenn.
36. Peterbilt Denton, Texas
37. Toyota Blue Springs, Miss.
38. Toyota Georgetown, Ky.
39. Toyota San Antonio, Texas
40. Toyota Tupelo, Miss.
41. Volkswagen Chattanooga, Tenn.
42. Volvo Trucks Dublin, Va.

And with NAFTA others moved to Mexico:

43. Audi San Jose Chiapa
44. Chrysler Ramos Arizpe
45. Chrysler Saltila
46. Chrysler Toluca
47. Fiat Saltillo
48. Fiat Toluca
49. Ford Hemosillo
50. Ford Chihuahua
51. Ford Cuautitlán-Izcalli
52. GM Ramos Arizpe
53. GM San Luis Potosi
54. GM Toluca
55. Hino Tecate
56. Honda El Salto
57. Honda Celaya
58. Isuzu Aguascalientes
59. Kenworth Mexicali
60. Mazda Salamanca
61. Mercedes Benz Santiago
62. Nissan Aguascalientes I
63. Nissan Aguascalientes II
64. Nissan Morelos
65. Toyota Tijuana
66. Volvo Tultitlan
67. Volkswagen Puebla
68. Volkswagen Motores

This Southern U.S.--Northern Mexico Auto Corridor is the greatest cluster for vehicle production in the world. There are a whooping 68 plants, which doesn't count the thousands of parts subcontractors.

Detroit, sadly, is dead. Take a look, first of how it once was (from a BBC documentary):

then compare with how devastated it is now; it's indistinguishable from a bombed-out warzone:

The public sector unions and teachers' unions in Detroit have been crushed and race backwards with concession-after-concession. The bailout to Detroit automakers cuts wages in half and created a second tier. Thankfully, workers at Chrysler just decisively voted down a contract creating more tiers. But auto and parts makers don't have to threaten to move if workers rise up. They're already building plants in the South or northern Mexico, so it's not a question of if they'll move but when the plant will be relocated.

How to struggle in such circumstances? We all agree that Grace Lee Boggs, at 100 years old, had nothing to say about such questions (and had even not had anything to add about class struggle since the heyday of Johnson-Forest: see an excellent review of her Living for Change by N.F., now of Internationalist Perspectives). Gregory, you used the critiques of counter-revolutionary Trotskyites (to whom Grace is a heretic for breaking with their reactionary anti-class struggle vanguardist dogma) to deny her past and paint her in the worst light. Switching gears, how would you encourage class struggle in Detroit (honest question)?