Repost: “The Working Class is Not a Paper Tiger,” a Critique of Grace Lee Boggs (2007)

Grace-Lee-Boggs-by-boggsblog.org_Jul. 17, 2007

In his latest blog, Lester K. Spence posted a video clip of Bill Moyers’ interview of Grace Lee Boggs where she elaborates her program for social change. As much respect as I have for her and as much of an influence that she bears on my own thought and practice, especially through her contributions to the Johnson-Forest Tendency of the SWP and to Correspondence, I couldn’t disagree more with her current approach to the questions of revolution, culture, and social relations.

This video clip is a perfect example of the lingering Maoist influence (the Chinese variant of Stalinism which typified much of the ideology of the Black Power movement and which became the basis of her and James Boggs’ eventual split with C.L.R. James and Correspondence in the 1960s) still pervading her thought.

It is not my place to take sides in that split because, one, it transpired before I was conceived and, two, ideological loyalty is just as Maoist as cultural revolution. Any serious critique of that split must involve its application and relevance to the world in which we live today. What I will argue is that Boggs has little of this relevance and that we can draw much more from her Correspondence period as well as from the movements which have succeeded it.

In a speech titled “THINKING/ACTING DIALECTICALLY: C.L.R. JAMES, THE AMERICAN YEARS”, Boggs remarks that the working class is no longer the (or at least the only) locus for social change and revolutionary transformation[i]. Her context for such a shift is that, while she was waiting for the working class to build a renewed revolutionary movement, the Black movement sprang forth flowing with all the promise for the kind of change not found in the contemporary struggles of the working class which she characterizes as merely a “paper tiger”. While this is a visibly Maoist phrase it more substantively exemplifies a crucial collapse in her view of the working class today.

The weakness in her assessments is manifold, but particularly in her failing to locate Black folks as part of and central to the struggles of the working class.

For Boggs, the Black struggle functioned outside of the working class. The Black Power movement of the 1960s was somehow external to the general struggle of working people which she saw as white, male, and blue collar. She confounded the question of race and class by subordinating the latter to the former, instead of the other way around. Take the following quote from Selma James as an alternative to the position assumed by Boggs. “The Black working class was able through [their] nationalism to redefine class: overwhelmingly Black and Labor were synonymous (with no other group was Labor as synonymous—except perhaps with women), the demands of Blacks and the forms of struggle created by Blacks were the most comprehensive working class demands and the most advanced working class struggle.”[ii].

Additionally, she forgets the workplace struggles of Black workers during this same period and that, ironically, she and her late husband James Boggs were very influential to, particularly that of the Revolutionary Union Movements (RUM). Through their activity they were able to send up “the most comprehensive working class demands” by stating that, “In this wasteland of labor’s twisted hopes, where else could redemption come than from among those whose interests were at every turn sacrificed so that another, more favored group could make its peace with the masters? Where else, indeed, but from among the Black workers at the automobile manufacturing infernos of the city of Detroit?”[iii].

The economic foundation for this “paper tiger” can be found, as she asserts, in the “outsourcing of jobs” and the “disaccumulation of capital” leading to the introduction of automation and computerization which destabilized any potential threat the working class presented to the power of capital.

However, this is neither a context for the erosion of the working class nor a new tendency of capital. Lenin plainly saw as early as 1916 that, “The export of capital influences and greatly accelerates the development of capitalism in those countries to which it is exported. While, therefore, the export of capital may tend to a certain extent to arrest development in the capital-exporting countries, it can only do so by exporting and deepening the further development of capitalism throughout the world.”[iv].

The “outsourcing of jobs” is the export of capital, it is imperialism. It is the drive and motive force of capitalism to “[increase] profits by exporting capital abroad to the backward countries.”[v]. In this export of capital, the population of the imperialist country becomes isolated from production which is the origin for its own decay. “Post-industrialism”, “post-modernism”, “deindustrialization”, etc. are all modern, exotic terms for a phenomenon that has been in motion for over a hundred years and which has not undermined the presence of the working class, but, in fact, has drawn larger and larger pools of people into its ranks.

Whether or not we’re speaking of imperialist (creditor) and debtor nations, whether we speak of productive and non-productive work, Civil Rights and Black Power, the working class still exists in America and the world over. People still work and work, i.e. wage labor, is still the source of all wealth. Productive labor still takes place and in ever larger numbers than it has previously, but in non-productive work as well the general laws of value apply.

Non-productive labor adds value to the service or commodity being exchanged on the market, just as productive work gave this commodity its original value. This growing national stratum of non-productive or commercial laborers, like their productive counterpart, creates value over and above the value of their own labor-power exchanged in the form of wages. This unequal exchange is the basis of workers as a class and is the basis of its resistance.

Similar to her limited view of the working class and of social relations is her view of revolution, which is just as finite and non-dialectical. Boggs contends that we need a cultural revolution, that the dominant culture and ethics are the main impediments to building a different way of living and working.

A cultural revolution, however, comes only as the result of an actual revolution. That is, a revolution where working people throw off the employer-employee relation described above and manage society in their own collective self-interests. Any argument that cultural change is required prior to a revolutionary movement, a wresting of power, or a transfer of class domination, ignores the history of how working people have created more egalitarian and democratic societies.

In a book review from a 1980 issue of Urgent Tasks, an anonymous author wrote, “a distinctive autonomous working class culture will develop as part of a distinctive and autonomous working class.”[vi]. The values that the working class supposedly lacks, but that I contend exists, though sparsely, cannot fully mature within the confines of the society in which we live. We cannot inject full “socialist” values into capitalist social relations that are necessarily in conflict.

The point is to find those threads of socialist or new consciousness already in existence and which reveal the working class’s capacity to be self-managing now, not in some hopeful, distant future.

Martin Glaberman, also a former member of JFT, Correspondence, and Facing Reality, wrote somewhere that no survey of the consciousness and values of regular people prior to a particular revolution or movement would reveal any indication that it was possible or on the horizon. That if a survey was to take place that it would disclose all the hopelessness, decay, racism, defeatism, etc. that we find present today. He was referring particularly to the claim of the Chair of the American Sociological Association as to why they were not able to predict or foreshadow the Civil Rights or Black Power movement.

We must dispense with the idea that workers or black people or whomever we consider as “degenerate” need some kind of overhaul in ethics in order to make concrete change. Those values already exist, but are merely fragmented and episodic as they exist in competition with the values of the decaying old society.

People are just as ready now to make revolution as any time. There is no way to anticipate the kind of change that comes in revolutions because they largely happen spontaneously. But this does not preclude sorts of intervention and conscious revolutionary engagement in the daily conflicts of working people that can accelerate the development leading to revolution. Whether we find a place organizing in our workplaces, neighborhoods, schools, etc., we can create the possibilities through decisive, direct action which can bring a different world closer, the kind of world without a ruling class to govern us, the kind of place where full relations and socialist culture can maturate.

i Boggs, Grace Lee. “THINKING/ACTING DIALECTICALLY: C.L.R. JAMES, THE AMERICAN YEARS”. In Monthly Review, October 1993. Accessible at:

ii Dalla Costa, Mariarosa and Selma James. The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. Bristol, England: Falling Wall Press, 1975. p. 8.

iii Georgakas, Dan and Marvin Surkin. Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1998. p. 37.

iv Lenin, V.I. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975. p. 61.

v Ibid. p. 59.

vi Anonymous. “A New Collection of Short Stories”. In Urgent Tasks, no. 10. Accessible at:

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