Deepen Democracy—Or Lose It

glb_headshotLIVING FOR CHANGE
Deepen Democracy—Or Lose It
By Grace Lee Boggs
Michigan Citizen, March 21, 2010

When I’m asked what keeps me going after all these years, I recall the 1940-50s when I was working with C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya in the Johnson-Forest Tendency and we studied the personal and political development of Marx and Lenin.

Translating and reading Marx’s 1843-4 Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts, we were profoundly moved by the humanist and democratic spirit of the young Hegelian who was just becoming a revolutionary. Unfortunately, most radicals have been more influenced by the older Marx, the bearded doctrinaire, materialist economist author of Capital.

In 1915, the 45-year-old Lenin was depressed when the German Social Democrats, who had provided the leadership of the Second International, decided to support their Kaiser in World War I. Traumatized by this betrayal, Lenin healed himself by reading Hegel and began to understand what the German philosopher had learned from the contradictions of the French Revolution—that progress does not take place in a straight line but through “the labor, patience and suffering of the negative.” After having been a revolutionary theoretician and organizer for twenty years, Lenin began for the first time to appreciate what it means to think dialectically.

A few years later, after the Bolshevik party had won state power in the 1917 revolution, Lenin realized that under revolutionary leadership, the Soviet Union was actually moving towards a form of state capitalism. Disappointed by this negative outcome of what was still being celebrated as a great victory for the workers of the world, Lenin sought a solution in the creativity of the grassroots. The only way to slow down the movement towards state capitalism, he decided, was to deepen democracy by increasing the participation of workers and peasants. He called them the “Third Layer,” as contrasted with the “First Layer” Bolshevik Party members and the “Second Layer” trade union activists. Lenin’s efforts to counter the rise of state capitalism by mobilizing the grassroots did not succeed, but the way he addressed the crisis was revolutionary because it deepened the meaning of democracy.

In the fall of 1952 the Johnson-Forest Tendency was unsure what we should do next. Since the early 1940s we had been a “tendency” developing our distinctive ideas about revolution inside the Workers Party and the Socialist Workers Party. Now our members were saying that they could no longer remain active in either party because our theoretical differences required more democratic ways of relating to the grassroots.

Inspired by the way that Lenin had addressed the crisis of his vanguard party, we decided to organize a Third Layer school run by blacks, rank and file workers, women and youth, whom we had identified as the social forces for the next revolution. They would be the teachers. Intellectuals like myself would be the students.

I met James Boggs for the first time at the 1952 Third Layer school. Listening to and learning from this rank and file black worker, I resolved to become the kind of leader who is constantly learning from and encouraging the grassroots.

Carrying out this resolve is what has kept me going all these years.

That is why I have been so inspired by the Detroiters who in the midst of our city’s devastation are discovering new ways to make Detroit a City of Hope.

In times of crisis you deepen democracy. OR you go to the other extreme and become totalitarian.

Mayor Bing and corporate interests are plotting to use eminent domain to “downsize” Detroit because they are topdown “leaders” who can’t see the grassroots Detroiters who are rebuilding, redefining and respiriting our city from the ground up.

Similarly, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, like Bush, are punishing teachers and principals for the schools crisis instead of encouraging them to pursue the place-and-community-based education that would motivate all our children to learn and at the same time turn our communities into lively neighborhoods where drugs and crime are going down because hope is going up.

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