Review of Living For Chang by Grace Lee Boggs.
"If the future is to be lived the past must be understood." With this paraphrase of Kierkegaard, Grace Lee Boggs ends her effort to provide an account of both her own past and that of an American left. For those seeking to make sense of the contradictory and confusing world of left- wing politics in the US over the course of this century, it is often useful to have a guide. Grace Lee Boggs' recently published autobiography Living for Change is the story of a first generation Chinese-American woman's ongoing journey in politics and community in 20th century America. In highly readable prose Grace Lee Boggs, records her fascinating account of growing up Chinese in America, her involvement in the dissident Trotskyist Workers Party and the "Minority" within it, her break with Trotskyism and later break with CLR. James, as well as her work with her husband James Boggs in community organizing in Detroit from the 1950's to the present day.
Grace Lee Boggs was born in 1915 in Providence, Rhode Island. Her family name was Chin, but the family often used Chin Lee or Lee as a surname. In 1924 the family moved to New York city where Grace's father owned what was to become one of the biggest and most popular Chinese restaurants in the city, Chin Lee's on Broadway. Grace recounts once being stopped by a Police Officer for an illegal turn and being released after the cop realized she was Chin Lee's daughter!
Grace won a scholarship to Barnard in 1931 and began college at age 16, studying philosophy. Although initially attracted to Kant, Hegel proved to be of greater use as part of her "own struggle for meaning as part of the continuing struggle of the individual to become part of the universal struggle for freedom." In 1940 Grace Lee received her doctorate, writing on George Mead. After moving to Chicago a few months later, she got a job at the University of Chicago library, where a chance encounter led her to a group called the South Side Tenants Organization. This group was affiliated with the Workers Party.
The Workers Party appeared in 1940, after a split in the American Trotskyist organization, the Socialist Workers Party, over the nature of the Soviet Union. Soon after she joined the WP Grace met CLR James and became part of the opposition grouping within the party known internally as "the Minority." The Minority was to become better known as the Johnson-Forest Tendency after the pen names of its most prominent spokespersons C L R James (JR Johnson) and Raya Dunayevskaya (Freddie Forest). That the tendency became best known as Johnson-Forest is perhaps unfair, given that James and Dunayevskaya were but part of a pool of talented comrades.
The 1940's were an extremely fruitful and productive decade for Johnson-Forest. Bursting with energy and innovative theoretical writings, they produced literature on Hegel and the dialectic, the economics of state capitalism and critiques of Trotskyism, both the orthodox version and the ‘heretical' version as represented by the Workers Party. In the course of their investigations Johnson- Forest were to break with the idea of the vanguard party focusing instead on the creative abilities of working people. In addition Johnson-Forest were the first to publish an English translation of Marx's writings of 1843-44 in 1947. Moreover, it was Grace Lee who translated three of the essays from the original German into English which served as the basis for publication. Also in this period Boggs' wrote the second essay, on philosophy, for the J FT publication The American Worker under the pen name Ria Stone. A name which had apparently been given to her by Martin Abern of the Workers Party.
In 1956 the Johnson-Forest, by now known as Correspondence, after their newspaper, and an independent organization, split. Raya Dunayevskaya. formed her own organization News & Letters and took over half the membership of the organization with her. Boggs' comments that Dunayevskaya was the most powerful woman she ever met, and suggests one of reasons for the split was that James treated her like a subordinate, never realizing Dunayevskaya saw herself as a co-leader. Dunayevskaya was also enough of an "old Bolshevik" never to forget where everyone stood on the split. Boggs recalls Duneyevskaya looking right past her, whenever their paths crossed in the years after the split.
In 1962 Correspondence split again. This time it was Grace Boggs together with her husband James, as well as Lyman and Freddy Paine who launched their own organization taking the paper Correspondence with them. In the document that was to provide the theoretical justification for the breech with the rest of the group and later published as The American Revolution, James Boggs argued that Marx had envisaged socialism under the rule of the workers creating a surplus for everyone; however, in the US capitalism had already developed the means of production to this extent. As a result the working class no longer necessarily had that primary role. In her book Boggs' argued that it was James who broke relations with them. James' account, which centres on the refusal of Boggs to print certain articles in Correspondence, as well as new line James Boggs was developing, can be found in the Facing Reality pamphlet Marxism & The Intellectuals.
From that point, while socialist themes and values were always a part of the Boggs' world view, other ideas such as spiritual rebirth, justice and community also came to figure prominently in their writings. As a result sympathetic references to Mao and Castro, and even Louis Farrakhan can be found in the book, because in their own way they too strove redevelop the communities of which they were a part. Living for Change is a virtual who's who of American radicalism, and despite the political weakness of the latter part of the book, it is a marvellous account of a life in struggle. As a concluding thought I might add that early in 1998 I helped build a tour with striking newspaper workers from Detroit in Western Canada. At that point I had never been to Detroit, but I tried to think of a name the speaker might know. "Grace Boggs?" I offered. The response, needless to say, one of recognition.
Originally published in Red & Black Notes, #7, Winter 1999, This article has been archived on libcom.org from the Red and Black Notes website.