Soon after its publication by Monthly Review Press in 1963, James Boggs’ first book The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook, was published in French, Italian, Japanese, Catalan.
In 2010 it was re-issued with new introductions by six Detroiters, including myself. Now, in anticipation of its 50th anniversary , a number of scholars are preparing essays for a special issue of SOULS, a critical journal of black politics published at Columbia University. Matt Birkhold is guest editor.
Why is this little book still being studied and celebrated? I think it is because it challenges us to recognize that the analyses and projections of Karl Marx about the role of the working class were made in the 19th century, a period of scarcity. So someone needed to do for our time, a period of abundance, what Marx did for his.
Jimmy had the audacity to accept this challenge because he was an organic intellectual. As he wrote in the Introduction, “I am a factory worker but I know more than factory work.” He was constantly reflecting on his experiences, constantly asking “ What time is it on the clock of the world?” He kept abreast of the changes taking place in his reality and recognized that these changes were creating new contradictions demanding that we think anew. In other words, he thought dialectically, historically.
In our “Now” culture, most people find that hard to do. Radicals especially spend so much time and energy developing and promoting their ideologies that they get stuck in what Hegel called the “fixed notions of the Understanding.” Alfred North Whitehead called it “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Mao, a philosopher who valued concepts, was also a peasant who recognized that “all genuine knowledge originates in direct experience, in perception.”
Having studied Husserl, the philosopher who emphasized the need to return to perception, Charles Johnson, the award-winning black novelist and cartoonist, warned against what he called “calcifications.”
Even when radicals are able to recognize that other radicals have been stuck in “fixed notions,” they find it difficult to recognize calcification in their own ideas.
For example. C.L. R. James, the brilliant West Indian Marxist, split with us in 1962 because he had been forced by immigration regulations to leave the United States in the fall of 1952.
During his American years,(1938-52) as I explained in my article in the October 1993 Monthly Review, CLR had been in touch with American reality through his close relationships with members of the Johnson-Forest Tendency. He, Raya Dunayevskaya and I also spent a lot of time studying Hegel.
In his 1948 Notes on Dialectics: Hegel-Marx-Lenin. CLR used Hegel’s concept of “fixed notions” to oppose Trotsky’s position that the Soviet Union was a “degenerated workers’ state” because the means of production remained nationalized. Trotsky, CLR insisted, was not thinking dialectically because instead of recognizing that nationalization was the form assumed by the 1917 Russian Revolution, a particular revolution at a particular time in history, he had made nationalization into a “universal.”
In 1962, CLR found himself stuck in a similar box. Living in isolation in London, he had made a universal of the “constantly expanding working class” celebrated in Marx’s Capital, published in 1867! So he could not recognize that 100 years later the working class was shrinking instead of expanding because HiTech from World War 2, or what was then called automation, had been introduced into industry.
Thus, when we sent CLR the manuscript of what was published as The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Workers Notebook, he proposed that we study Marxism, When Jimmy made a motion that we discuss CLR’s proposal, be replied that he was breaking off all ties, political and personal, with anyone who voted for Jimmy’s motion.
That is the kind of foolishness that can overtake even the most brilliant intellectuals when their ideas become calcified. To avoid such foolishness, I recommend “Dialectics and Revolution,” chapter 6 in Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century which was written by Jimmy. Originally published in 1974. RETC was reissued in 2009 as a revolutionary classic with a new introduction by me.
For an overview of how Jimmy’s ideas were constantly and organically evolving during the tumultuous 20th century, I recommend Pages from a Black Radical’s Notebook, a James Boggs Reader, compiled and edited with a 34 page introduction by Stephen M. Ward, Wayne State University Press. 2011.