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The Evolution of Dialectical Humanism

Matthew Birkhold (birkhold [at] gmail.com) is the editor of a special edition of Souls: A Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society on James Boggs’s The American Revolution: Pages From a Negro Workers Notebook and is author of the forthcoming Becoming the Leaders We Need: A Guide to Transformative Campus Organizing in the Twenty-First Century (AAKT Concepts).

James Boggs, edited by Stephen M. Ward, afterword by Grace Lee Boggs, Pages From a Black Radical’s Notebook: A James Boggs Reader (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011), 424 pages, $27.95, paperback.

As demonstrated by Stephen M. Ward’s Pages From a Black Radical’s Notebook: A James Boggs Reader, James Boggs is one of the most important and underappreciated activist/theorists of the twentieth century. Divided into four sections and an introductory biography of Boggs, these speeches, articles, books, and pamphlets give readers insight not only into Boggs’s thought from 1954 to 1993, but also into the historical development of capitalism and social movements. The first section consists of writings published in the organizational journal Correspondence between 1953 and 1964. The second section is a reprint of Boggs’s 1963 book, The American Revolution: Pages From a Negro Workers Notebook. The third consists of reflections on the black power movement written between 1963 and 1979, and the fourth covers Boggs’s writings on community building after deindustrialization from 1984 until his death in 1993.

Though divided into four parts, taken as a whole the book provides much to think about. It offers a materialist explanation for why and when the black movement emerged as the primary revolutionary social force in the United States, why the black movement came to an end, and an explanation for why community building is part of the twentieth-century revolutionary process. Because Boggs always looked at social movements and capitalism both historically and in relation to one another, the book provides a methodological and theoretical example of how race, capitalism, and social movements can be usefully analyzed and understood in ways that are always evolving. Finally, because it illustrates a forty-year intellectual trajectory, the book offers profound insight into how one man understood history as a dialectical process, showing that ideas and processes that were once progressive can become fetters to human development.

Understanding Boggs’s position on the impact of automation on capitalist development is critical to understanding his articulation of historical development. In section two, Boggs describes three significant impacts of automation on the United States. First, the advent of automation increased productive capacities to the point where scarcity could be eliminated. Second, in the context of the CIO’s drive for wage increases, the abundance created by automation created the conditions for mass consumption which allowed everyday working people to consume at unprecedented rates and internalize capitalist values. Consequently, automation allowed Americans to associate political freedom with the freedom to consume. Third, because automation rendered the labor of many black people socially unnecessary, hundreds of thousands of black people would join millions of already-unemployed blacks who “have never been and never can be absorbed by this society at all. They can only be absorbed into a totally new type of society whose first principle will have to be that man is the master and not the servant of things” (112).

Unemployed and underemployed in a land of abundance, Boggs argued that the difference between African Americans and Indian beggars “was that in India the means to live without having to work are not available, while in the United States these means are all around them.” Therefore, “the only question, the trick, is how to take them” (114). Similarly, Boggs wrote in Manifesto for a Black Revolutionary Party, “Rejected by the economic system, today’s ‘field hands’ have also been freed to reject the system. Pushed out of the system by the system itself. They have become outlaws, at war with all the values and legalities of America” (208).

Understanding black people’s war with American values is important for comprehending Boggs’s view of long historical development. In The American Revolution Boggs argues that because automation created the material conditions for communism under capitalism, the transformation to socialism in the United States would require us to rethink what it meant to be human. Because white people had the means to associate political freedom with the freedom to consume and had yet to be displaced by automation to the same degree as blacks, white people were still able to identify their worth in relationship to consumption and labor. Black people’s historical relationship to capitalism meant something different however. Faced with the reality that they would likely never find work in a factory yet witness to an abundance of available commodities for consumption, blacks would be forced to develop other means to develop human value. Consequently, Boggs saw that historical development made black people’s relation to capitalism structurally revolutionary. Thus, these “outsiders,” as Boggs referred to them in The American Revolution, provided a material basis to extend an argument he put forth in Correspondence—that black people made up the most likely revolutionary social force because “The Negro question means recognizing everybody as a human being” (50).

Ward argues in the introduction to the third section that Boggs completed his move away from Marxism that began with The American Revolution during the black-power era and focused on providing a practical and theoretical framework for revolutionary black power. Boggs certainly broke with Marx’s conclusions but he remained a proponent of Marx’s methodological approach, seeing capital as a historical social relation. Because he applied Marx’s historical method to understanding social movements in relationship to capitalism’s historical development, Boggs began to believe that the possibilities of spontaneous self-activity had been exhausted after the urban rebellions of the 1960s. Thus, the idea that Boggs put forth in The American Revolution that the outsiders had to organize themselves had run its course. Making the outsiders revolutionary now required developing a practical and theoretical framework for black revolutionary power. While the call to black power in 1966 was only serious if it was accompanied by “a call to black people to organize” (176), by 1969 achieving black power required a vanguard capable of changing the consciousness of the outsiders “from the consciousness only of self-interest to the consciousness that comes from commitment to the struggles necessary to change things from the way they are to the way they should be” (199). Questions concerning revolutionary leadership within the black movement became critically important because black power was the sole hope for an American revolution for two interrelated reasons. As Boggs saw it, black people had a unique relationship to capitalism’s historical development and therefore when the black movement raised the question of power, whether they understood it or not, they were talking about changing social relationships to such an extent that they necessarily had to create a new society.

Boggs made it clear that the development of capitalism within the United States and the history of African Americans could not be separated. Building on an idea advanced in Correspondence and The American Revolution—that white workers served as a labor aristocracy—Boggs argued that the black struggle had a dual character because the position of blacks at the bottom of the economic ladder resulted not just from the behavior of capitalist firms, but also because whites kept blacks at the bottom because they benefitted from doing so. “Therefore, all those people above the Negro—i.e., all the whites—become responsible for the Negro’s position, either actively or passively” (158). For Boggs, what it meant to be white could not be separated from the social position of blacks and therefore, “when a Negro says that the whites have better opportunities, what he means is that these better opportunities exist only in relation to an opportunity that Negroes are denied” (159).

Accordingly, in 1967 Boggs raised the question, “Isn’t it obvious that the working classes of Europe and America are like the petty bourgeoisie of Marx’s time and that they collaborate with the power structure and support the system because their high standard of living depends upon the continuation of this power structure and this system?” (173). In contrast to integration, which Boggs saw as “an umbrella under which American radicals have been able to preach class collaboration without appearing to do so,” black power was revolutionary because it was a “struggle against oppression which, by virtue of the historical development of the United States, requires a mobilization of the oppressed blacks for struggle against the oppressing whites” (173). Because African Americans had no history separate from the United States, Boggs believed problems experienced by black people could not be resolved without resolving the political and economic problems of all Americans. Leadership for the black power movement had to therefore assume leadership of all people.

Ultimately, for Boggs, the failure of the black movement to assume this responsibility produced its demise. While in 1969 black people were in a position to create revolution because they were at war with American values, by 1973 Boggs believed that many black activists had retreated from battling white values and institutions because they refused to undertake the intellectual and theoretical work associated with raising the call for black power and the socialist revolution it required. According to Boggs, instead of doing the intellectual work needed for revolution, many blacks embraced nationalism as an end in itself, retreated to fantasies about returning to Africa, and took advantage of the openings within capitalism created by the rebellions of the 1960s. Seeking to improve only the lives of black people within the United States, Boggs believed the black movement had evaded its revolutionary responsibility because it failed to discover what the purpose of socialist revolution was, despite living “in an advanced country like the United States where material abundance and technological advancement already exist, where more is stolen in the ghettos everyday than is produced in most African countries during an entire year, and where many of the most oppressed have a higher standard of living than the middle classes in most countries” (260).

Because the black movement had not done this important theoretical work and continued to retreat into nationalism without reflecting on the changes that had occurred in the United States and the world, black intellectuals had crippled themselves, and by extension black youth. Boggs expressed his concern by writing, “With every day the thinking among black youth becomes more antihistorical, more metaphysical, and more superstitious and therefore more vulnerable to manipulation by unscrupulous demagogues and the mass media. The reality, the very sad reality today is that most of our young people have no basis for making decisions except their own momentary feelings, their own immediate selfish interests or their desire not to be unpopular with their peers. Everyday more black youth are becoming more individualistic, more pleasure-seeking, more unable to tell the difference between correct and incorrect ideas and principles” (272).

Building on this analysis, Boggs argued that in the 1970s several intellectual and material processes converged to create conditions that allowed black people to internalize capitalist values for the first time and thereby exhaust the potential of black power. Primary among these processes was the failure of the black movement to assume leadership for the entire country and its failure to embrace what Boggs described as “the awesome responsibilities of revolutionary leadership.” Because of this failure, when the rebellions of the 1960s opened up capitalism to the black middle class and “the black movement made no effort to repudiate the bourgeois method of thought on which U.S. capitalism is based,” black folk were gradually incorporated into the capitalist structure (268). Because blacks were undergoing incorporation into the capitalist system without revolutionary leadership to repudiate bourgeois thinking and values, black people—youth in particular —were becoming more individualistic.

For Boggs, the combined impact of these processes spelled the exhaustion of the progressive possibilities of black power. Because African Americans had been incorporated into capitalism, now no Americans were immune from reaping the benefits of America’s exploitation of the rest of the world. Because technology in the United States “has advanced to such a degree that even those who are on welfare live better than the middle class in the rest of the world” (301), creating a revolution after the exhaustion of black power meant stopping the capitalist drive “toward economic and technological development so that we can develop our human relationships with one another and our capacity to make socially responsible decisions for our communities and our country” (303).

After the exhaustion of black power, Boggs spent the last ten years of his life organizing and writing about the need for personal transformation within the context of building community as a necessary part of the revolutionary process. Seeing that runaway shops and the flight of whites and blacks to suburbs necessarily led to the breakdown of communities, Boggs believed young people were losing their chance to develop any sense of human identity because they had no community in which to do so. Though Boggs ultimately understood that the drive for profits was responsible for destroyed communities, in this set of historical conditions, “there was no point in trying to mobilize or organize Americans for a revolution against the capitalists as long as the great majority of Americans are still dominated by the same capitalist vision of material and scientific expansion, struggling only to get for themselves material goods that other Americans have. If by some miracle, tomorrow or in the near future, the oppressed in American society were able to take power away from the American capitalists without having overcome our own individualism and materialism, the New America would not be any different from the old” (305).

Further developing this idea, Boggs chided a group of activists in 1987 for refusing to admit that black people had become more scared of their own neighborhoods than white neighborhoods and for thinking like victims of capitalism and racism. Alternatively, Boggs put forth a program of two-pronged struggle to create what he called a “life-affirming culture” that went hand in hand with rebuilding communities destroyed by runaway shops. One prong was for activists to resist the attempts of corporations to “destroy communities by closing down our places of work,” while the other prong “must be building the communities necessary for the human identity of ourselves and our children” (334). To accomplish this two-pronged struggle, Boggs said “we must recognize that it is much easier to cuss out and blame somebody else out there or to resist shutting down a hospital than it is to change our way of living so that we are practicing preventative health care—even though we know that if we are not healthy we won’t be able to struggle at all. So our first serious struggle should be to stop eating junk food. But at the same time we also have to mount a campaign from coast to coast for a national health care program that will entitle everyone to complete medical care” (335–36). Boggs developed a plan for job creation that built on the importance of community building to developing a sense of humanity. “We need to be creating all kinds of locally owned stores in our communities so that we can buy our necessities locally and our young people can see stores not just as places where you spend money to buy what you want but as places where people are working to meet the needs of the community.” Accordingly, “In every neighborhood there should be a bakery where families can purchase freshly baked bread and children can stop by after school to buy their sweets” (345).

By the time of his death in 1993, Boggs had participated in marches to close crack houses, organized senior citizens, and cofounded Detroit Summer, an urban agriculture program for Detroit youth. While it may seem as though Boggs grew more conservative as he grew older, Ward’s introductions to the various sections of the book help the reader understand that this is not the case. Ward attributes Boggs’s evolution to his commitment to practice politics and analyze developments from a dialectical perspective—“to recognize that social struggles create new conditions and new contradictions.” Based on this practice, Boggs recognized that the “social and political challenges facing African Americans in the 1980s and 1990s must be approached differently than they had been during the 1960s” (318).

According to Boggs’s wife and comrade of forty years, Grace Lee Boggs, James Boggs regularly said, “Just coming out of your mother’s womb does not make you a human being.” Ward’s volume demonstrates that much of Boggs’s political life revolved around raising questions about what makes people human, how we become human, and how we become more human. Because the book covers forty years of movement theorizing and activity, it provides a profound sense of how changing conditions resulting from the relationship of capitalism to movements constantly create new conditions that also change what it meant to be a more human human. Thus, in the 1950s and ‘60s Boggs argued that the black movement could humanize all of the United States, but by the 1970s and ‘80s he argued that this ability had been lost because new conditions allowed blacks to internalize capitalist values. Consequently, in the 1980s and ‘90s, Boggs believed the next revolutionary movement would be based on building community with values that countered capitalist individualism, racism, and sexism.

At a moment when the capitalist crisis is clearly showing itself as a human crisis on a world scale, there may not be a better time to study Boggs’s insights into community building and revolution. Because his assessments are so timely, it is particularly concerning that nothing from Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century appears in Ward’s reader. At a time when the global ramifications of capitalist crisis are clearly evident, the way Boggs discusses the humanist principles that shaped his later works in the context of a capitalist world system are particularly useful as is the claim that the principal contradiction facing humanity is the historical tendency to place economic development over human and political development. Despite this omission and the omission of a few important pamphlets such as What About the Workers and The Awesome Responsibilities of Revolutionary Leadership, radicals around the world owe Stephen Ward a debt of gratitude for providing us with an excellent example of how one revolutionary theoretician’s ideas constantly evolved to meet new challenges created by ongoing historical changes.

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