James Frey and Jocelyn Cohn critique a panel held at the progressive New School University where Grace Lee-Boggs was giving a lecture.
Last year The New School hosted a rare New York appearance by Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese-American revolutionary active in the US for over 70 years. As a member of the Johnson-Forest tendency and other revolutionary organizations, Boggs worked closely with such luminaries as CLR James, Raya Dunayaveska, and her late husband, James Boggs. Boggs was organizing auto workers in Detroit at a time when the murder of a Chinese-American, never mind a communist labor organizer with a black husband, was basically legal. She co-authored Facing Reality, The American Worker, and other seminal studies of labor and revolution whose renown and impact spans the world over. At almost 100 years old, Boggs is a living monument to the rich history of labor militancy in the United States.
The panel was called “The Next American Revolution”, the title of Boggs’ latest book, and fresh on the heels of Occupy, this was an enticing topic. After the dramatic rise and decline of a mass movement with breathtaking rapidity some months before, many organizers in the city found themselves looking for a frame of reference by which to understand it all, and a return to the history of militant American struggle was a logical place to turn. Utterly deaf to this, The New School chose as its moderator Bill Gaskins, a young black professor from Parsons School of Design most known for his book Good Hair And Bad Hair, a photographic retrospective of black Americans’ hairstyles. Opposite Boggs was student organizer Milena Pelaez, who did a wonderful job maintaining composure on this panel, given its complete and utter absurdity.
For starters, the moderator either didn't know or didn't care who Boggs is. He scarcely referenced any facts about her rich life which were not found on her bio for the event. Instead, Gaskins turned the entire panel, purported to deal with the question of moving forward revolution in America, into a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, who we must note, was actually a contemporary of Boggs despite being younger (!) and someone with whom she had many theoretical disagreements, especially regarding questions of revolutionary leadership, the ostensible topic of the event.
Gaskins had absolutely no interest in talking about Boggs, her political work, or her theory. Instead, he posed questions to the panel by playing short recordings of the King speech “Where Do We Go From Here”, in which King extols about pacifism, belief in God, frames the struggle of the downtrodden within a Christian transcendence narrative, dismisses Marx, and bashes Marxists for lacking religious faith. Boggs is of course one of the pre-eminent American Marxists of the 20th Century, which Gaskins either didn't know or did know and took issue with. The only questions he posed to the discussants consisted of asking them to comment on the snippet of King's speech he had just played. It was as if Bogg’s entire life’s work had been accomplished in order to at last serve as a commenter on King, who fell dead some half century earlier.
This presented what must have been an uncomfortable situation for Boggs. After all, she was politically active at the time the speech was made, and was organizing workers to be self-acting militants to strike at their shops, build revolutionary associations across industries, and confront the capitalist state in directly militant terms. Christianity, pacifism, and the desire for deliverance from any agent external to the working class figured in her analysis only as obstacles to be overcome. To this effect Boggs authored many important texts on revolutionary leadership, which again, the moderator was either unaware of or held in contempt.
Particularly notable is Boggs' specific critique of “proletarian Jesuits” published nine years before King's speech, which denounced the self-appointed leaders of the class as neutralizing its potential political power and channeling it into institutional venues. Against this, Boggs and her tendency formed a significant wing of anti-racist, anti-capitalist struggles of the 50's and 60's, presenting practical and theoretical opposition to the religious activism of King. Her co-author, CLR James, was writing “On the Negro Question” in 1938, and Boggs herself collaborated on a number of pieces about racial dynamics in the US and abroad, and pieces specifically on Asian-Americans in the US working class.
Further, Boggs had a complicated relationship with black nationalism, and by the 1960's had changed some of her positions on the role of the state (as had CLR James), making her perspective on leadership and her own political history even more fascinating. While bringing in King was already an abstraction from the content of Bogg's incredibly full life, there was certainly an opportunity for productive dialogue regarding political analysis and what kinds of organization and activity to which they lead.
After about an hour of politely playing along with this format, Boggs finally spilled the beans: she in fact did not agree with much of anything Martin Luther King said in his speech. She explained that there is a way of addressing oppressed people that's actually disempowering and mystifies the conditions of their oppression. And that is precisely what she felt King was doing in his speech, which mystified not only the circumstances of oppression and exploitation in the United State, but also the power of the working class to act as an agent and overcome them. At last, the chance to discuss the urgent questions facing the revolutionary masses had arisen! The audience notably perked up.
But upon hearing Boggs speak ill of Dr. King, Gaskins became furious, raising his voice and waving his hands at the 97 year old wheelchair-bound woman who had dared criticize King. He accused her of being a privileged (!) academic (!) with no connection to real working people. Speaking plainly to working people might be well and good in the ivory tower in which she lived her life, he snapped, but among real working people this kind of talk is necessary. Gaskins thus revealed a contempt for the intelligence and capabilities of working people matched only by his ignorance of Boggs’ life’s work. Boggs was noticeably startled by this aggressive turn, and no fruitful discussion followed. She had instead been silenced by the weapon of choice for so many academics, “privilege theory”, deployed here in all its absurdity, by a bourgeois young man, against an elderly working class militant.
After this disturbing scene, it was time for Q & A. In keeping with the theme “Where Do We Go From Here?”, which had apparently supplanted the title of the event, “The Next American Revolution”, Gaskins announced that instead of the audience posing questions to Boggs, he intended to silence her altogether. In the breathtaking apex to the entire liberal farce, Gaskins asked the audience to provide an answer rather than a question; he wanted everyone to answer how they were going, as individuals, to improve themselves. The authors whispered back and forth, joking to each other that the responses were all going to be about rooftop farms and self care. And sure enough, the first answer was about going home to grow tomatoes.
It’s possible of course to write off the whole event as a sad mismatching of moderator and discussant. However, given our experiences with The New School, and the “radical” academy as a whole, it makes perfect sense. The “radical” academy is largely the domain of liberal intellectual historians who reduce the centuries long self-activity of the proletariat, which is of course the motor of class struggle, to the agency of a handful of self-appointed leaders who arose in times of struggle, and more often than not served to diffuse their revolutionary potential. Boggs wrote extensively about this phenomenon, and provided an alternative understanding of class struggle in which the unnamed workers are its motor, but we didn’t get to hear much of that at this event. Perhaps deliberately.
In addition to the alarming dismissal of serious questions surrounding leadership, this event also failed to engage important questions about race in politics. Contemporary political debates around race tend to fall in three tired and ultimately counter-revolutionary categories: identify politics, through which discussions of race are all about the individual's experience, neglecting and even refusing to engage class, the state, and structures of societal social relations; “rainbow coalition” politics which seeks to place people of color in "powerful" political positions of dominance, such as city council, mayor, school principal, and non-profit executive (these politics engulfed much of what remained of militant parties like the Black Panthers and Young Lords after so many of their members were murdered or imprisoned); and finally the re-emerging trend of nationalism that somehow failed to learn from the contradictions of over 50 years of national liberation movements.
By engaging such a rare militant-intellectual as Boggs, this panel presented a uncommon opportunity to bring important questions of race, class, and anti-capitalism to light, around the question of revolutionary leadership. Instead, it ushered any potential for new thought grounded in the past revolutionary struggle, unceremoniously and without any recognition of the movement of history, back into the dark and windowless classrooms of 21st century academia. We find this to be the norm rather than an exception.
Only when we tune our ears to America’s silenced radical history and learn its lessons will we stop looking to alienated academics for answers to the dilemmas facing militants today, and create our history--not by ceaselessly resurrecting the dead weight of the past, but by drawing forward its most powerful lessons toward action in the present.