Michigan Citizen, March 6-12, 2011

At a recent meeting of Detroiters planning a People Festival to celebrate “Bringing the neighbor back into the ‘hood”

Wayne Curtis noted that we are creating “a whole new culture.”

His remark suggests to me that we need more discussion and understanding of the cultural revolution Detroiters are now making in response to the devastation of deindustrialization. It is transforming how we view our selves, our surroundings and our institutions. We are making a life and not just a living by feeding ourselves, educating our children and taking more responsibility for each other and our communities.

This cultural revolution is very different from the cultural revolution involving the education of mostly illiterate Russian peasants advocated by Lenin after the Bolshevik seizure of state power in 1917. It is also very different from Mao’s 1966 cultural revolution which sent millions of educated Chinese youth to work in the countryside and learn from the peasantry. It goes beyond the cultural revolution of the 60s which began to redefine race, gender, generational relations.

Today’s cultural revolution, which is emerging from the ground up especially in Detroit, is as awesome as the transition from Hunting and Gathering to Agriculture 11,000 years ago and from Agriculture to Industry a few hundred years ago,

Forty years ago Wayne Curtis was a Black Panther. Now a softspoken man with gray dreadlocks, he and his wife Myrtle Thompson are co-founders of Feedom Freedom Growers, a community garden which is revitalizing their east side neighborhood, supplying fresh produce to local restaurants, and energizing and educating schoolkids by giving them opportunities to be of use now by doing work that is real, like growing food.

They are also growing hearts and minds.

For example, this year on Martin Luther King Day, Feedom Freedom Growers hosted a neighborhood gathering at Hope Community Church. A four year old told a joke, a seven year old rapped, and Myrtle’s son, Tyrone, a twenty – some th ing veteran, directed participants to MLK’s April 4, 1967 speech on the Vietnam War “If you never read any other speech, please read this one.”

He challenged everyone, especially young people, to accept responsibility for right thought fulness, conscience, a n d r i g h t actions. To have faith and to seek guidance when we have questions. To establish just values in terms of human lives and the consequences of taking a life.

He was profound in his wisdom and understanding of how war injures all of us. (For more on this gathering , see Gloria Lowe’s report in my January 30- February 5 column).

This wide-ranging transformation is taking place in response to the devastation and disaster of our deindustrialized city. Instead of viewing our selves as victims, grassroots Detroiters are discovering and embracing the power within us to create ourselves and our world anew.

More than a thousand community gardens have been planted. Neighbors are coming together to look out for each other and to turn war zones into peace zones. Inner city churches which became “parking lot churches” during the 70s as upwardly mobile parishioners fled to the suburbs, are transforming themselves into “place-based churches,” seizing the opportunity to become meeting places for young people struggling to bring the neighbor back into the’ hood.

Detroiters are carrying on the African American tradition of “making a way out of no way.”

Charles Johnson, the philosopher and artist who won the National Book award in 1990 for his novel The Middle Passage, has described this re-creation of ourselves as “collective transformation through disaster.” It is a black narrative in sharp contrast with the narrative of blacks as victims that made Richard Wright’s Native Son a best seller in the 1940s.

What Democracy looks like

Michigan Citizen, March 6-12, 2011

“This is what democracy looks like” was the rallying cry on the streets at the Battle of Seattle in 1999. Today it echoes on the winds of change in Egypt and northern Africa. The longing of people for dignity, freedom and control over the decisions of their daily lives is instantly recognizable by people everywhere. It is a longing that has found its way to Madison, Wisconsin.

This cry raises some troubling questions. Some say we already have democracy. After all, Governor Scott Walker was duly elected. So was his Republican majority. Some say “All those people on the streets are just sore losers.”

Anyone with even a little understanding of history knows that the idea of democracy has always been a difficult one. In many ways our struggles over the last two centuries have been an ongoing effort by the American people to bring the idea of democracy to life.

It took massive uprisings and organizing to get the right to vote extended to all white men, not just those who owned property. It took a civil war to introduce the idea that African Americans were full human beings,  and another 100 years to make their right to vote real. It took us two decades into the 20th century to extend the vote to women.

Today the Battle of  Wisconsin makes it clear that voting and democracy are not the same thing.

First, there is the problem of elections without substance. The combination of too much money, too little public discussion and too few news outlets ends up in individuals  being elected and coming to the power of office without any understanding of the will of the people. It allows for a tyranny of a manufactured and manipulated “majority” where the most basic rights of individuals and groups are sacrificed for the interests of those in power.

Basic human rights cannot be decided by majority rule. This country would never have ended slavery, extended voting rights to women or established unions if we had  depended on majority rule. All these victories were first won in the streets, challenging the vested interests of those in power.

Now in Wisconsin we have a Governor using a financial crisis to ram through a union busting bill that has nothing to do with money. His plan is to dismantle any sources of people power that could raise questions about his efforts to privatize and sell off the assets of his state. As the New York Times reported last week, buried under the anti-union rhetoric are lines that give the governor the unquestioned power to sell off any and all state assets, without public overview or competitive bidding.

This abuse of power is not new to  Detroiters. Our own newly-elected Governor is pursuing  equally anti-union policies. tho without the same anti-union rhetoric.

Most notable are those surrounding the creation of Emergency Financial Managers. These managers, appointed at the will of the governor, would have the power to set aside negotiated contracts within a city.  They could also set aside any locally elected body of government, including school boards and city councils.

Such powers not only strip unions of their role in protecting workers and giving them a measure of control over their lives. They also strip citizens of their most basic right to elect and hold officials accountable for their actions.

Emergency financial managers violate the basic tenets of democracy. They become the means to impose policies we would never accept, to use and abuse assets we have long nurtured and to transfer the hard-earned wealth of the people into the hands of a few.

That is not what democracy looks like. It’s time for us to create a new, living democracy.

This will require something more from all of us.

The Audacity of the Organic Intellectual

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.

A new moment

This new century began with great promise. On the eve of the millennium thousands of protesters gathered on the streets of Seattle and brought the efforts of powerful global elites to a halt. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, the protesters unleashed a new energy, challenging the idea that Earth and her resources were to be used and abused in the service of unrestrained development. What became known as the neo-liberal agenda to reshape the world to benefit corporate elites was confronted directly by people who had been working for years to protect neighborhoods, safeguard the natural world and establish justice.

 On the heels of the Battle of Seattle the first World Social Forum was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil,  in January 2001 to directly counter the elite gathering at the World Economic Forum in Davos,. The Social Forum brought together civil society groups from around the world to share ideas, strategies and hopes. In a democratic, open space format, people came together in the belief that “Another world is possible.”

Over the decade the annual WSF has grown and matured, establishing regional gatherings such as the 2nd USSF held in Detroit in June  2010. This February the WSF met in Dakar, Senegal, as the world was riveted by the democratic forces in Egypt breaking free of decades of repression.

The promise of the Battle of Seattle and the first WSF were soon lost in the explosions of September 11, 2001. The neo-liberal forces in the U.S,A.,  under the leadership of Bush and Cheney, unleashed a politics of fear and greed that twisted our country into one of the most violent and repressive regimes on the globe. With doctrinaire ideas like pre-emptive war, we invaded countries that had done nothing to us, killing hundreds of thousand of people. We justified torture, the abandonment of basic rights and any claim to representing decency.

This aggressive use of military might was combined with an assault on the public sphere. In the name of more efficient private enterprise, all areas of common life were turned over to corporate profit seekers. From janitors to soldiers the functions of government became the province of big business. The public square was eroded, distorted and diminished.

As the decade wore on, fear gradually gave way to questioning and unrestrained greed led to near financial collapse. The candidacy of Barak Obama evoked longings for a more decent, productive and compassionate country. He promised Change and Hope. Now, two years into the Obama administration, it is clear that the changes we need go far beyond the capacity of any elected official. The forces of military might and corporate interests are too deeply in control of the representatives of democracy.

More and more, people are realizing that something new must be created if we are to take our place within the family of nations and create a country where all human beings  are loved, welcome, productive and cared for as they grow.

This change has been building in the neighborhoods and towns across America as people struggle to create new ideas on how to make a living, how to educate our children and how to care for our health and well-being. These small efforts exploded on the streets of Detroit last June at the 2nd USSF, proclaiming not only that another world is possible, but another world is happening here in Detroit and around the country.

It is among those working to create this world anew that the energies unleashed in Tunisia and Egypt resonate most deeply. It is an energy that is now gaining strength on the streets in Wisconsin.

We should have no illusions about the difficulties and dangers ahead. But those of us who care about justice surely recognize that this is a new moment, filled with possibilities.