It seems odd to reinvent oneself after 95 years, but in 2011, Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese-American philosopher turned radical civil rights activist, basically started afresh. In her last book, “The Next American Revolution,” she began to call for a new, holistic way of human development that braided environmental and social justice; she urged activists to looked to direct action in the community, not law or government, as a wellspring of urban change.
Last year she told me about her new vision of social renewal in one of her final interviews, published in Guernica after the release of a biographical documentary. I pressed her on the need for poor people to seize control of their lives and political systems, expecting her to agree. But she demurred on the question of power, turning instead to the question of healing souls. “I think that at some level, people recognize that growing our economy is destroying us,” she said. “I think there’s a great human desire for solutions, for profound solutions — and that nothing simple will do it. It really requires some very great searching of our souls.”
These were searching words from a woman who never stopped questioning.
When Boggs died earlier this week, she had lived for a full century, but her social and political movement — the product of 100 years of witnessing and pushing forward cycles of social struggle — remains incomplete.
Writing on her adopted hometown of Detroit a few years ago, where she moved in the 1950s from Chicago, she described the American economic system as doomed. She called for a program of humanistic development. “Instead of trying to resurrect or reform a system whose endless pursuit of economic growth has created a nation of material abundance and spiritual poverty — and instead of hoping for a new FDR to save capitalism with New Deal–like programs — we need to build a new kind of economy from the ground up,” she wrote in “The Next American Revolution.”
At the heart of Boggs’ vision of social renewal was a reimagining of America as a more compassionate society. As a veteran radical of the civil rights and black power movements — an Asian-American academically trained philosopher with a Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr who devoted decades to working with racial and environmental justice campaigns — Boggs knew too well the power and contradictions of social movements.
Her final proposition contains tough lessons on both their potential and their complexities.
Boggs saw hope blossoming in a city that had been written off by politicians and even some of its own residents as hopeless. She found it by redefining hope itself. In contrast to the Fordist industrial evangelism that spawned, then cannibalized the Motor City, she didn’t see the future springing from mass production. She instead drew upon the grass-roots ethos cultivated in the youth development projects she helped found, such as Detroit Summer, which championed social change through sustainable and cooperative restoration of neighborhoods. Hope, for her, was the spirit of community regeneration.
Having witnessed Detroit’s hellish demise in the years leading up to the Great Recession, Boggs saw development in terms of artisanship and creativity, not the assembly line or the relentless drive to consume more, faster. Or, in her words, when blending socialism and anarchism, “we need to see progress not in terms of ‘having more’ but in terms of growing our souls by creating community, mutual self-sufficiency and cooperative relations with one another.”
In her ideal social structure, one’s sense of personal worth would be invested in one’s neighbors and the local social fabric and, down the line, invested yet again in the economic infrastructure through mutual aid and place-based education — the urban farm, community center and neighborhood store instead of the factory compound or big-box retailer.
Constructing such a society could require some self-sacrifice — giving up material comforts we take for granted, for instance. But to Boggs, these weren’t so much modern indulgences as they were burdens that needed to be shed. She saw materialism and greed as impediments to genuine social innovation; at the same time, she saw human invention taking place on a far more intimate level than the massive scale on which public social programs are executed today. She theorized that we wouldn’t have to wait for wealth to trickle down: A horizontally structured economic landscape would not focus on pursuing redistributive policies but rather revolve around sharing of resources and decentralized governance.
The Right to the City movement, which operates in cities from New York to Los Angeles, picks up where Boggs left off, with urban communities taking ownership of the city’s land and claiming the right to public space in an age of gentrification, police oppression and economic blight. Its members reimagine urban space to build economic justice, seeing communities as ecosystems and ecosystems as social structures. Mobilizing against a toxic waste dump in a poor neighborhood becomes as vital an environmental issue as curbing global carbon emissions or fighting deforestation on the other side of the world. Locally, fighting structural poverty might start with tiny acts of solidarity and resistance — rallying to block a neighbor’s eviction or planting a community garden.
Although her new vision certainly helped humanize radical politics, I see an underlying element of resigned, hardened realism, which ought to inform future movements struggling to balance local and global and to combine community service with political organizing.
The most sustainable solution for Boggs seemed to be to reach equilibrium by turning inward, constructing the neighborhood as a utopian microcosm. Perhaps that is the best way to maintain a revolution, writ small; while she observed generations of sweeping social change, tiny revolutions thrived on the community level.
It’s nevertheless incumbent on the rest of us to look beyond this sphere. Perhaps her primary legacy might be not her Detroit experiments but her willingness to connect the soul, with all its vulnerabilities, to the political, environmental and economic challenges facing future generations. I still wonder about the question of power that she left unanswered. Building solidarity doesn’t mean retreating to anti-politics or rejecting the role of the state in bringing about social equity. We can’t work toward social solutions without social conflict, whether we’re resisting police violence with Black Lives Matter, demanding gender equality at work or marching for climate justice. Achieving racial and economic equity by dismantling oppressive institutions requires more than soul searching.
The arc of Boggs’ life embodied the vast potential and inevitable limitations of the individual as revolutionary. She left open the question of bringing an individual revolution to scale. We all need to seek peace within ourselves, but that cannot preclude — indeed, that demands — a parallel pursuit of justice.