Book Review: The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism For The Twenty-First Century.

By Grace Lee Boggs with Scott Kurashige. University of California Press, Los Angeles, 2011. Review by Rita Bober

In the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s, Norm and I lived in the city of Detroit and were involved in the civil rights movement. I don’t remember hearing about Grace and James Boggs then, though Norm remembers hearing that they were considered radical. We thought our ideas were pretty radical but after we moved to Washington, D.C., then to southwest Michigan, we weren’t sure what radical meant anymore. I was delighted to hear of Grace’s new book, The Next American Revolution. Here are some of my thoughts on its content.

When the book was published, Grace was 95 years old. Throughout her long life, she has been influenced by such “humanity-stretching” movements as the civil rights movement, labor movement, women’s movement, Black Power movement, Asian American movement, and the environmental justice movement. These have all influenced her philosophy of life. In her early years, she was a committed Marxist but focused more on the human and spiritual contradictions that arise from a rapidly evolving technology versus the economic stages from feudalism to capitalism to communism. She reminds us that Marx was born in 1818. He had not experienced all the human dissonance that is part of our current reality, a reality that is constantly changing. “These two notions – that reality is constantly changing and that you must constantly be aware of the new and more challenging contradictions that drive change” - is the core of her thinking.

Another key to her philosophy is the difference between rebellion and revolution: “rebellions break the threads that have been holding the system together. They shake up old values so that relations between individuals and groups within society are unlikely ever to be the same again . . . but rebels see themselves and call on others to see them mainly as victims.” James and Grace came to view revolutionaries as going “beyond ‘protest politics,’ beyond just increasing the anger and outrage of the oppressed, and concentrating instead on projecting and initiating struggles that involve people at the grassroots in assuming the responsibility for creating the new values, truths, infrastructures, and institutions that are necessary to build and govern a new society. Activists transform and empower themselves when they struggle to change their reality by exploring, in theory and practice, the potentially revolutionary social forces of Work, Education, Community, Citizenship, Patriotism, Health, Justice, and Democracy.” In this regard, you must believe that humanity can be transformed. Using Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as guides, Grace emphasizes that we “must become the change we want to see in the world.”

Grace relates that it is easy to unite against that which we are against. We need to redirect our focus by defining what we are for while enacting proposals to govern the whole of society. To do this we must develop non-antagonistic means to work among ourselves, to reevaluate our own outmoded concepts and practices in order to create new energies. Thus, “we must develop our own capacities for self-government rather than simply demanding and expecting that our elected representatives take care of us.”

Grace touches on the changes happening in Detroit, “the city that was once the national and international symbol of the miracle of industrialization and is now the national and international symbol of the devastation of deindustrialization.” Community building programs; hundreds of home, school, and community gardens; commercial-size greenhouses; Healthy Kids programs, the Detroit Agricultural Network and Garden Resource Program, etc. are a sign that grassroots members of this community are moving to make a difference. They are taking charge of their own lives and livelihoods. Numerous articles have been written about the new emerging Detroit. However, this movement is not only found in Detroit, but seen in many other urban gardens throughout the United States. She mentions Will Allen’s Growing Power program in Milwaukee and Chicago as one initiative. These programs are not only helping to provide individuals with healthy food, but are striving for long-term and sustainable transformation of our society. They are working “to keep our communities, our environment, and our humanity from being destroyed by corporate globalization.” The urban agricultural movement is the fastest growing movement in the United States.

There is so much covered in this book that I found inspiring. Her concept of good education, her involvement in the Beloved Communities Initiative, her own thinking transformed by her involvement in many movements during her lifetime – all have influenced her approach to understanding what revolution means. She concludes that the revolutionary movement in the United States is not headed by a particular party with a common ideology but by individuals and groups responding to the real problems and challenges that they face in their lives and work. The movement is made out of love for people and for the place where we live. James Boggs shared this thought: “I love this country, not only because my ancestors’ blood is in the soil but because of what I believe it can become.” We all need that belief that the United States can become a better place.

Although I was looking for ideas on how to go about making “revolutionary” change in my own community, by reading Grace’s book I began realizing the need to acknowledge the innate goodness of human beings who have the capability to work cooperatively for the greater good. In Western civilization we lack a sense of Spirituality or an awareness of our interconnectedness to all things. Has our society always been this way? Because we give priority to economic and technological development over human and community development, have we lost what it truly means to be a human being? Grace leads us on a search to find this truth and at the same time change the way we view “revolution” in our society.