A Conversation with Grace Lee Boggs and Immanuel Wallerstein

photo via AREA Chicago

Listen to the audio of Grace Lee Boggs and Immanuel Wallerstein’s dialogue on June 24 at the 2nd U.S. Social Forum.

Read Scott Kurashige’s introduction to this dialogue:

Thank you all for coming and welcome to Detroit.

My name is Scott Kurashige. I am an activist based among several organizations in Detroit and a professor of U.S. history and ethnic studies at the University of Michigan. I am deeply honored to moderate this historic conversation between two movement elders—two paradigmatic figures who collectively embody well over 100 years of political engagement: Grace Lee Boggs and Immanuel Wallerstein.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Grace Lee received her PhD in philosophy in 1940, but has spent the next 70 years of her life as a movement activist, mostly in Detroit, including four decades in partnership with James Boggs, an African American autoworker and organizer, developing theories of black power and a new American revolution. Her ideas have constantly challenged both the powers that be and her own comrades in struggle. Had she lived to be 60 or 70, we might be sitting here today talking about how Grace Lee Boggs was ahead of her time. But at the age of 95, Grace appears to more and more people to be right on time to address the crises and dilemmas of the 21st century. She remains an active member of the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, founded by friends of Grace and Jimmy in the 1990s, and Detroit City of Hope. Her writings include Living for Change: An Autobiography; Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century (co-authored with James Boggs); and the forthcoming book (as I stressed she’s still very active) The Next American Revolution, which she has co-authored with me.

While I have thus worked closely with Boggs, I have also been tremendously influenced by Immanuel Wallerstein—despite never meeting him before this week. He is to be certain our younger panelist, but Wallerstein is one of the most influential thinkers and writers you will find inside or outside the academy. After holding many distinguished posts, he is currently a senior research scholar at Yale University. He is worldly renowned for his ground-breaking, multi-volume study of the Modern World System, which seeks to do nothing less than interpret the global history of capitalism. Countless scholars have modeled their entire careers on Wallerstein’s world systems analysis. (Lately, I’ve even tried deploying his analysis to discourage my 4-year-old daughter from worshipping princesses whose decadent lives are derived from exploitation and oppression.) The titles of his recent books: After Liberalism, Utopistics, Or Historical Choices of the Twenty-First Century, The End of the World as We Know It, and The Decline of American Power: The US in a Chaotic World reflect his ongoing effort to make sense of the contradictions and challenges of our time. And I should add that his biweekly commentaries delivered by email are a must read for all critical scholars and activists.

Reading our panelists’ complete lists of publications, accomplishments, and awards could take up our entire session—you can easily find these on the web. I want to focus instead on THREE CONCEPTS LINK THAT OUR SPEAKERS TOGETHER

When I first got politicized as a college student, my initial conception of the role of ideas within activism was quite simplistic. For the most part, I believed the role of ideas in our struggle was to name the enemy and rally the forces of resistance.

But we need to understand that while those in power possess a bounty of weapons and are capable of administering deadly force to protect their interests, capitalism does not and cannot survive as a system sustained only by coercion.

Capitalism is also a cultural and ideological system. It advances a way of life, a way of viewing and valuing the earth and its resources—a way of viewing and valuing (and devaluing) life itself. Greed is of course central to capitalism but is not unique to this system. What distinguishes capitalism, as Wallerstein points out, is both the ceaseless pursuit of profit and the privileging of this ceaseless pursuit of profit above all else.

As Boggs argues, capitalism seeks to reduce all our relations to money relations—to turn every piece of land, every human activity, every speck of creativity, even every feeling and emotion into a commodity to be bought and sold. We are all on some level caught up in this way of life. That is why it is so critical that our movements break with this decrepit and unsustainable conception of life by projecting and enacting new ways of living based on the values of a more just and humane society.

2) WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND OUR PLACE IN HISTORY, or as Boggs would say, we have to ask ourselves, “What time is it on the clock of the world?”

Capitalism presents itself as the natural order—one that reflects the essence of human nature. But every system is a product of history. Every empire has a beginning and an end.

The work of Boggs and Wallerstein helps us put the current crises we face—the wars, economic meltdown, climate change, and the failure of government—into context. They open our eyes to how we have been shaped by history and how we are capable of reshaping the future.

This also means appreciating that all movements are a product of history. No matter how much we treasure the revolutionary movements and icons of the past, we cannot be wedded to the truths that they discovered in their time. We cannot be fixed to a rigid ideology; we must instead remain open to new possibilities. As Wallerstein declares, “uncertainty makes possible creativity.”


We are fortunate to bring together two figures who have been avid seekers of new truths—but from different vantage points. Boggs has been rooted for nearly six decades in Detroit, particularly its working-class African American community. In her time, Detroit has gone from one of the world’s great centers of wealth creation, one if its shining models of industrial progress, and one of the vanguard sites for the struggle to raise the workers’ standard of living into a site that puts on visible display the pain and decay of an amoral system. Abandoned by multinational corporations which have shifted the locus of production and profiteering to other corners of the earth, Detroiters have been compelled to develop new ways to survive and struggle, to sustain life and rebuild community from the ground up.

Wallerstein writes with a global sweep of history and politics, spanning multiple centuries and continents, with a command that very few can muster. His ideas have influenced more diverse audiences around the world than most heads of states can boast. Volume 1 of the Modern World System has been translated into at least 14 languages. His writings incorporate localized trends and conflicts into an analysis of the global economy and international politics.

What we shall discover in this conversation is that revolutionary ideas and breakthrough steps toward social transformation can and must occur through thought and action that is grounded in local communities yet somehow connected on a global scale. This difficult but urgent challenge is one that we shall rest at the feet of our panelists. So let’s proceed.

The panelists will begin with some personal remarks, followed by an extensive conversation about the state of the world and the struggle to advance humanity beyond capitalism. We will allot one hour for this portion, then reserve the remaining time for audience questions.

For the sake of our panelists, please write your questions down on a note card or paper and hand it to one of the volunteers who are collecting them.


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