This issue of e-flux journal presents one of the most remarkable, and overlooked, conjunctural texts to come out of the Black Power movement: “Black Power: A Scientific Concept Whose Time Has Come,” by James Boggs, an autoworker, organic intellectual, and lifelong revolutionary activist. In this text, which first appeared in the spring 1967 issue of the radical black nationalist journal The Liberator and was later included in his 1970 collection, Racism and the Class Struggle: Further Pages from a Black Worker’s Notebook, Boggs perceptively analyzes the rising tide of black struggle in the Northern cities in the wake of the civil rights movement, and places these events in the context of anticolonial national liberation projects in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Black Power had always been ambivalent as a political slogan since Stokely Carmichael propelled it onto the nationwide stage during the March Against Fear in June 1966. Black Power formulated a pressing need—that black people in the United States obtain actual economic and political power beyond integration—but there were many potential routes to achieve that goal. Boggs attempts to not only refine the concept, arguing that it is grounded in the “specific historical development of the United States”; he also advances a set of tactics and a long-term revolutionary strategy of social struggle with the aim of establishing black political power. Boggs and his wife and close collaborator, Grace Lee, had already elaborated their particular understanding of Black Power in practice. In 1965, they helped form the Organization for Black Power in Detroit, which was a coordinating group of grassroots activists that looked to establish a concrete program for black self-determination centered in the cities, and one of the countless organizing projects the Boggses would initiate over the course of the 1960s and ‘70s: other initiatives would include the Inner City Organizing Committee, the Committee for Political Development, and the National Organization for an American Revolution. In the rich political context of Detroit, the Boggses acted as a “resource base” for a new generation of African-American radicals who were interested in the nexus between revolutionary socialism and black nationalism. As historian and Revolutionary Action Movement leader Muhammad Ahmad recalls, “Discussion sessions were held at the Boggs home which provided young Black radicals with insight on concepts, goals, strategy and tactics of socialism and revolution.” These younger activists included the future core of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers: John Watson, Luke Tripp, John Williams, General Baker, and others.
The texts included in Racism and the Class Struggle continue and update the fundamental arguments of Boggs’s landmark 1963 pamphlet, The American Revolution: Pages from a Black Worker’s Notebook. Boggs’s first book, The American Revolution, established him as a leading intellectual force on the US left, a position that would only solidify over the coming years. But the text was both the cause and outcome of an acrimonious split within the Correspondence Publishing Committee, the Detroit-based political organization to which both James and Grace Lee Boggs belonged throughout the 1950s (a continuation under a different name of their activity as the Trotskyist splinter collective the Johnson-Forest Tendency), along with several close comrades, including the famed Trinidadian Marxist theorist C. L. R. James and the radical labor historian Martin Glaberman. The reasons for this split can help lead us into the discussion of Boggs’s distinct definition of Black Power.
The American Revolution was guided by an effective methodological principle: theoretical analysis would be prompted primarily by conjunctural developments in social conflict. Two historical threads guided the text’s argument. First, that automation and technological breakthroughs in US industry had created the conditions for a post-scarcity society; a sufficient amount of socially necessary goods and services could be produced and distributed to all members of the population. Recalling earlier arguments made by C. L. R. James and Grace Lee Boggs in The Invading Socialist Society (cowritten with Raya Dunayeskaya) and Facing Reality (cowritten with Cornelius Castoriadis), Boggs forecast that the seeds of a “classless” and “workless” society were already present, wherein the masses could “walk out on the streets and get their milk and honey.” However—and this is the second thread—the same trends towards automation and cybernetic command had deleterious effects on the industrial labor force, union power, and shop-floor organization. Old forms of labor were becoming outmoded and generated an ever increasing surplus population of the “permanently unemployed,” the “underclass,” or the “outsiders,” predominantly concentrated in urban black communities—a trend demonstrated by Detroit employment statistics tracking the period from 1940–1970.
Read the full article here.