Thursday, March 22, 2012

Notes on two political books from 1974

As noted, I'm reading Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, by James and Grace Lee Boggs, published in 1974. Last week, I read An Autobiography, by Angela Davis, also published in 1974. Why am I reading these books?

In a sense, they both came to my attention as part of my effort to read more feminism, and in particular more by black women and other women of color, though neither book is explicitly feminist. Angela Davis is very well known, of course, but it never really occurred to me to read her (or read much about her) before encountering references to her work in my recent reading of bell hooks. So I'd added her to my list of writers to check out. Seeing the interview with her in The Black Power Mixtape clinched it and pushed her to the top (you should absolutely watch that interview, by the way; and here also is a recent short interview with Davis about that film: really good stuff). Grace Lee Boggs first came to my attention last Fall, when I attended a panel discussion on race, here in Baltimore. She was not in attendance, but Scott Kurashige was. He is co-author (it's billed as Grace Lee Boggs with Scott Kurashige) of her most recent book, The Next Revolution in America: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, which was available for purchase at the event. The discussion was excellent, and in another, more flush time, I would have walked out with a pile of books. As it was, I only bought David Roediger's classic, The Wages of Whiteness, though even so I was sorely tempted by The Next Revolution in America. In any event, reading Roediger's book re-awakened my need to deepen my understanding of racism in America, to read black history, and works by black writers, especially black women writers. Which is one reason I was going back to bell hooks in the first place: both for hooks herself, and for the other writers and books she references. And in her Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, she quotes several times from Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century. So then I spent some time looking into Grace Lee Boggs, and by extension, her husband and partner, James Boggs.

Once I began looking up Grace Lee Boggs, it appeared that she was everywhere and that everyone else was already familiar with her. She is Chinese-American, born in Providence, Rhode Island, now aged 94, who has been a fixture in Detroit activism for decades. James Boggs was African-American, an auto-worker when they met. He died in 1993. They worked closely with C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya, among others. (Those details are essentially cribbed from Grace's Wikipedia entry, which is rather skimpy, as is James Boggs'. See also the Boggs Center, which appears to serve as a kind of blog and document repository and community organizing site.) They split with C.L.R. James in the early 1960s, and the many works they appear to be best known for come after this time. If they are anything like as good as Revolution and Evolution, then they are very important indeed. Among these works are (which I list here in part as a reminder to myself):

The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker's Notebook (1963; James Boggs)
Racism and the Class Struggle: Further Pages from a Black Worker's Notebook (1970; James Boggs)
Living for Change: An Autobiography (1998; Grace Lee Boggs)

And just last year, Wayne State University published Pages from a Black Radical's Notebook: A James Boggs Reader, which I imagine includes at least a few pieces from the first two books listed above (both of which, incidentally, like Revolution and Evolution, were also published by Monthly Review Press, which is always a good sign in my book).

Anyway, reading these two books—Angela Davis' autobiography and Revolution and Evolution—at this time is a strange experience. I find them fascinating, inspiring, yet also dispiriting, a little depressing. These last two effects have very little to do with what the authors have written, but with what has transpired since they wrote. As I mentioned, both books appeared in 1974. Reading Davis there is a palpable excitement, of evil being confronted, of victories, however limited, being won, victories that you get the sense can be built on. But those victories didn't last; far from it. For one example, I'd completely forgotten, before reading her book, that the death penalty had ever been outlawed in the United States. It seems ages ago. And far from solving the problems of prison and policing, and its disproportionate impact on African-Americans, we have been subjected to the ever intensifying logic of the prison-industrial complex. (I say "we", as if I'm not as shielded from its evils as it's possible for a non-wealthy person to be.) And we know it was part of an explicit counter-offensive intended to contain black people, who have always been more dangerous to the system than white people.

On this last point—the intentional containment of politicized and dangerous African-Americans—allow me to briefly revisit a point I made in passing in my post on The Black Power Mixtape. This is what I said:
In the later years, we see the ways drugs flooded American cities, and politics, focus, power, recedes. In light of the scenes that came before, it is difficult to believe anything other than that this was absolutely intentional. (I've always wondered: as if there's any chance huge quantities of illegal drugs could make into the United States without some powerful governmental entity making it happen.) There'd been a clip earlier in the film, in which someone, I forget who, says something like "they can't jail all of us". Then you see the drugs, and the dissipation, and it comes to you with an astonishing clarity, though you already knew it, that this is in fact what they intended. They will jail you, or they will fuck you up. Whatever the case, you will not win. 
Now, I wasn't sure how to word this paragraph. I was angry, but trying not to sputter. And I was somewhat wary of being taken for a kook. After all, those of us who were raised as good little white liberals, especially of a certain age (I am closing in on 42), don't we fundamentally have a hard time believing that the system is not basically good? Even when we finally believe that it's not (and it's not, not at all), when we finally come around to the idea in its fullness, do we not feel a tug? (Do we not, still, after all this time, get sucked into utterly debased debates about "humanitarian intervention", as if there was any validity to the terminology or idea at all?) In the event, it was nevertheless still suggested that what I'd written there amounted to an unnecessary "conspiracy" theory. I admit I wasn't really sure what to say in response, or even which part was supposed to be the conspiracy (the jailing? the drugs?). It wasn't as if I was suggesting that Federal agents literally forced heroin into a person's arms. But don't we know that drugs were allowed into the cities intentionally? Is it really that controversial? And, really, how do so many drugs make it into this heavily fortified country if they aren't somehow let in?

Well anyway, I let it go, not wanting to get into it. But then as I was reading Revolution and Evolution, in the riveting chapter on the Vietnamese Revolution, "People's War in Vietnam", I noticed this passage, covering the history of French imperialism in Vietnam, around the time of Ho Chi Minh's birth:
From Vietnam the French chiefly wanted rice and rubber for export. The establishment of rubber plantations necessitated removal of the peasants from large tracts of land. The peasants thus displaced were transformed into a labor force working to produce rubber and rice and to construct the roads and railroads to take these commodities to the ports. The sale of opium and alcohol was encouraged to help the police force control this labor force. To finance the new apparatus of transportation and control, taxes had to be collected, etc., etc. (p.99)
The sale of opium and alcohol was encouraged to help the police force control this labor force. Well, of course. It's after all not a new technique, is it? In this case, in the U.S., the traffic of drugs is encouraged to dull the edges of rebellion, and/or possible revolutionary fervor, and just so happens to fit in quite nicely with the nascent expansion of what came to be known as the prison-industrial complex.

But in Revolution and Evolution, though James and Grace Lee Boggs are highly critical of various aspects of American leftism, Marxism, Black Power, and so on, they nevertheless are writing under the assumption that they are in the middle of a "revolutionary period", and they spend a lot of time discussing what a revolution is, what sorts of questions and problems it needs to address, how these problems are peculiar to the United States (you cannot import revolution from elsewhere without understanding what you're doing or the place you're in), how it's distinct from a rebellion, how it requires so much of would be revolutionary leaders, and so on. Presumably they do this because they thought it was worth their time. And yet, all the myriad problems they diagnose have only deepened over the last 40 years. Nearly everything they talk about is considerably worse now than it was then. That thought is more than a little dispiriting.

It occurred to me, while reading both of these books, that they appeared right as the ruling class was itself responding to various questions of its own. This is exactly the period of the so-called oil crisis of 1973-1974, the manufactured crisis that the U.S. Government and the oil companies and conservative think-tanks used as the opportunity to completely change the game, bringing into being what we now call neoliberalism. Timothy Mitchell describes the true nature of this crisis very well in his recent book Carbon Democracy, which I have blogged about a couple of times (here and here). There is quite a lot to say about his argument in that book, but I bring it up here to point out that this neoliberal turn was happening at the precise moment when people on the left might have had reason to believe that something like victory was, if not imminent, then possible. And it essentially took place without anyone noticing—it took years for the left to notice and analyze what had happened. Sympathetic liberals still haven't noticed. The question, I suppose, is how to take the proper kinds of lessons from of all this. That, after all, is what James and Grace Lee Boggs say repeatedly: without the correct understanding of the problems needing to be solved, along with the willingness to take the responsibility to formulate solutions to those problems, true revolutionary change is not possible. Though they seem a lot smarter about technology than a lot of Marxists, yet they say nothing about the problem of energy, which is and has been an international problem, where their analysis repeatedly emphasizes, correctly it seems to me, the ways in which revolution must be addressed to the problems and contradictions specific to each individual country. How to resolve that contradiction?

I'm not sure how to finish up, whether I have a specific point to make, other than to be struck anew by the enormousness of it all. I imagine that'll have to do for now.


Bruce said...

Hi Richard,

I've been reading your pieces for some time now and have never let you know how much I appreciate them. You have a knack for combining head and heart, much the same as Stan Goff.

Thanks again,


Richard said...

Hi Bruce,

Thanks for reading, and many thanks for your comment. Stan Goff has meant a lot to me, so the comparison sort of knocks me over.