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Living by the Clock of the World: Grace Lee Boggs’ Call for Visionary Organizing

Matthew Birkhold
Date Published: 
April 17, 2012

In response to a question regarding advice for young activists, 96 year old movement veteran Grace Lee Boggs recently told Hyphen Magazine that activists should turn our backs on protest organizing because it “leads you more and more to defensive operations” and “Do visionary organizing” because it “gives you the opportunity to encourage the creative capacity in people and it’s very fulfilling.” This quote made its way around facebook, twitter, and tumblr, as fans of Grace reposted it like it was common sense while others thought the quote bordered on conservatism.

To better understand Grace’s call, we need to understand the historical perspective in which it’s rooted.  We also need to understand how visionary organizing differs from protest organizing, how Grace understands revolution, and that the way history develops means that ideas that were progressive or even revolutionary in one era, can become mental roadblocks to progress in another era. Although I largely agree with Grace, I write this to clarify her position, not merely endorse it. My hope is that we can debate these ideas in ways that contribute to the theoretical, reflective, and practical work that movement building requires.

Rebellion, Revolution & the Clock of the World

For Grace—as well as for her late husband James Boggs—the present is the culmination of thousands of years of human responses to structural conditions.  These responses include consent to state policies, rebellion against them, and revolutions.  In the development of human history, the Boggses believed rebellions were important because, contrary to consent, they represented moments when oppressed people stood up to assert their humanity by protesting what society has done to them. They argued that rebelling masses “see themselves as victims and call on others to see them as victims and the other side as villains.  They do not yet see themselves responsible for reorganizing society, which is what revolutionary social forces must do.”  While rebellions disrupt society—questioning the legitimacy of existing institutions—they cannot lead to the reorganization of society.

In contrast to rebellions, revolutions create new societies because they begin with “projecting the notion of a more human human being” whose development has been limited by structural conditions.  Revolutions are not significant simply because they involve seizing state power but because they create societies more conducive to human development. A revolution is not for the purpose of resolving past injustice.  Rather, “the only justification for revolution is that it advances the evolution of man/woman.” Understanding revolution as “a phase in the long evolutionary process of man/woman,” that “initiates a new plateau, a new threshold on which human beings can develop,” the Boggses saw revolution as a period when human beings rapidly advanced.

In 1974’s Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, Grace and James asked, “What time is it on the clock of the world?”  They answered by visualizing 3,000 years of human history on a clock where every minute represented fifty years and argued that the age of revolutions was only four or five minutes old. Scientific revolutionary thinking, as represented by Marx and Engels, was just wo minutes old, and the epoch of global revolution represented by the anticolonial struggles of the 1950s-60s was a mere thirty seconds old.  In 1974, the US Civil Rights Movement began merely 15 seconds ago.

The Boggses stressed this long view of history because it’s necessary for thinking dialectically—understanding that things are always changing.  Because conditions change, if progressive ideas don’t change in ways that correspond to changing reality, they become limitations on human development.  As history develops, what was revolutionary in one period may not be revolutionary in another. From the American Revolution through the present, this premise was central to how the Boggses understood history and the changing nature of revolution.

American Contradictions, American Revolution

By analyzing history dialectically the Boggses concluded that every movement in the history of this country has been incorporated into the capitalist system because they have all ended up internalizing capitalist values. While progressive, the American revolution also initiated a contradiction between economic development and political underdevelopment.  By eliminating slavery from the constitution for the sake of national unity, the founding fathers pursued economic development at the expense of black humanity.

Similarly, while Northern industrialists and abolitionists were progressive for their position on slavery, their actions also furthered the contradiction initiated by the founding fathers.  After the Civil War, Southern forces agreed to support Northern capitalist presidential candidate Rutherford Hayes if Northern politicians agreed to recognize “state’s rights.”  This 1877 compromise dismantled the Freedman’s Bureau and led to the creation of Jim Crow.  Placing economic interests first, black humanity was again forsaken and the contradiction between economic development and human underdevelopment became a rewritten law.

In the 1930s-40s it appeared as though a strong, integrated labor movement might be able to resolve this contradiction, but its consistent willingness to compromise shopfloor conditions and the rights of black people for wage increases simply furthered it. Seeing a historical pattern, James Boggs concluded, “all organizations that spring up in a capitalist society and do not take absolute power, but rather fight only on one tangential or essential aspect of that society are eventually incorporated into capitalist society.”

The labor movement’s ability to secure wage increases was related to international factors.  Following WWII the United States was the world’s sole hegemonic power which allowed US transnational corporations to keep wages outside the US lower than in the US.  Using profits made abroad, US firms were able to subsidize annual wage increases for US workers. Because others were paid less, US workers became the highest paid workers in the world.

A raising standard of living in the US was also made possible by industrial automation. While before the war, food, clothing, and shelter were scarce, after the war, automation developed manufacturing capacities to a very advanced stage. Not only were human needs being met, but there was such an abundance of products that particular brands developed varying prestige. For the first time in history, working people were able to derive status and identity from the consumer products they bought.

Rise of the Welfare State

With global economic growth following WWII, the tax base governments drew upon to provide services also grew.  Thus, when social movements emerged to press for more access to benefits, states had the means to meet those demands and welfare states took hold throughout the industrialized world.  As global economic growth continued, new jobs were created, higher wages were paid, and both the working and middle classes enjoyed vast increases in their standard of living.  Because this economic growth provided the basis for the state sponsored poverty programs of the 1960s and 70s, many activists working on these issues developed an unintentional economic stake in maintaining US hegemony.

In the midst of such abundance and global economic factors, the Boggses concluded that revolution had to be rethought. While third world revolutionaries could organize around basic needs, American revolutionaries had to “discover the purpose of a socialist revolution in an advanced country like the United Sates where material abundance and technological advancement already exist, where more is stolen in the ghettoes everyday than is produced in most African countries during an entire year, and where many of the oppressed have a higher standard of living than the middle classes in most countries.” The Boggses decided that socialism in the US meant putting political and social responsibility in command of economics.

Because the Black movement almost universally prioritized the question of what it meant to be a human being over economic demands in the 50s and 60s, it looked as though it would resolve the contradiction between economic development and human underdevelopment.  However, according to James Boggs, after the urban rebellions from 1965-1968, when concessions were granted to blacks and crime increased in black communities, the black movement became incorporated into the capitalist system because leaders “made no serious effort to repudiate the bourgeois method of thought on which U.S. capitalism is based, which involves each individual or group just getting more for itself.”  Refusing to acknowledge “that blacks are an integral part of the 5 percent of the world’s population living in the United States and using up 40 percent of the world’s energy resources for their big cars and their new appliances, just as whites are doing,” Boggs argued that the black movement stopped thinking about projecting a vision of new man/woman and began fighting for a bigger slice of the American pie.


As the Black movement shifted its focus, a global economic crisis emerged and the welfare state began unraveling.  Unable to keep increasing wages, US based firms laid off thousands of US workers to deal with increased competition from British and Japanese based Transnational Corporations.  A domestic backlash calling for drastically smaller government and lower taxes also emerged, fueled by white resentment towards African Americans and other oppressed groups who had been engaged in very successful sustained protests. With increased unemployment creating a smaller tax base than what existed before 1968-1974 and with an increasing number of tax expenditure limitations passed at the state level after 1974, the economic base of the welfare state in the United States crumbled.

In the midst of this crisis the Boggses saw that US based exploitation of the global South had created such abundance that even the most oppressed people in the US were able to advance themselves economically at the expense of the rest of the world.  Accordingly, they concluded that the fundamental contradiction in the US lay between its economic/technology overdevelopment and human/political underdevelopment. While racism, sexism, and poverty are important contradictions, they can be explained as a consequence of the tendency of Americans to prioritize economic development and individual gain over political and social responsibility. Having become more politically inhumane the more technology advances, Americans have become “a people who have been psychologically and morally damaged by the unlimited opportunities to pursue material happiness provided by the cancerous growth of the productive forces.”

Because these technological and economic advances have become a danger to the physical survival of the rest of the world, demanding more things—regardless of who demands them—has become a fetter on developing a revolutionary movement. Therefore, the Boggses argued, “the revolution to be made in the United States will be the first revolution in history to require the masses to make material sacrifices rather than to acquire more things.”

Because it would be incredibly difficult to organize protests whose aim is material sacrifice, Grace believes organizing and joining “massive protests and demanding new policies fail to sufficiently address the crisis we face.  They may demonstrate that we are on the right side politically, but they are not transformative enough.  They do not change the cultural images or the symbols that play such a pivotal role in molding us into who we are.”  Visionary organizing can play this role.

A Radical Revolution of Values

It is within this understanding of historical development and revolution that Grace has called on young activists to “do visionary organizing,” and to “turn your backs on protest organizing.” Visionary organizing demands not only “repudiating the bourgeois method of thought on which U.S. capitalism is based, which involves each individual or group just getting more for itself,” but also developing alternative institutions and communities that facilitate doing “the work of re-imagining our selves,” and helping us “think beyond capitalist categories.”  Because we have all internalized the values of this racist, sexist, capitalist system to some extent, we must all transform ourselves by undergoing what Martin Luther King called “a radical revolution of values” allowing us to become person, rather than thing oriented, if we are to participate in a revolution that makes material sacrifices.  Rather than relying on protest to achieve this personal transformation, visionary organizing facilitates this transformation by re-imagining institutions that can facilitate new cultural images and symbols, molding us into new kinds of people.

Because capitalism is a system that flourishes when people think they can’t live without it, capitalist institutions work to convince human beings we can’t create alternatives. Having consented to this coercion, most of us have not developed the creative capacities necessary to project alternatives to the capitalist world.  Instead, we make demands that corporations and the government fix things they’ve broken.  Alternatively, by placing an emphasis on creating re-imagined spaces and institutions in which healthy relationships with people, nature, and our selves can be built—by creating beloved communities—visionary organizing heals us from capitalist dehumanization and restores an awareness of people’s innate ability to create.

Beloved communities should not be seen a means to build unity so that we may better build a protest movement.  As communities in which King’s “concept of love as the readiness to go to any length to restore community” is primary, beloved communities are spaces where people can be nurtured and heal the damage our racist, sexist, capitalist world has done, giving us a foundation to develop identities outside of capitalist categories and consumption, while creating a base for political power stemming from the creation of alternative institutions, or dual power structures.  Beloved communities thus serve as a transmission belt for the radical revolution of values needed for a revolution in which we have to sacrifice material things.

Turning Our Backs or Understanding Limitations?

The current time on the clock of the world is incredibly complex.  We in the United Sates are experiencing a crisis in our standard of living, something the Wisconsin labor protests, the movement to defend education, and the occupy movements have all emerged in response to. Yet, little of this organizing reflects an understanding that the US empire supported welfare state made that higher standard of living possible in the first place. Despite this, because rebellious protests have combined with the current economic crisis to bring the legitimacy of existing institutions into question, people in the United States are more willing to envision what new men and women should look like than at any point in my lifetime. These conditions lend themselves to the possibility of building a revolutionary movement based on what men and women could be. Thus, Grace believes relying solely on protest is a fetter on creating a revolutionary movement.

Because we are a nation of people who have been damaged by the way we’ve endlessly consumed, in order to take advantage of this crisis we must heal. We must wage what James Boggs called a “Two-Pronged Struggle,” and combine the struggle against the internal enemy with the struggle against the external enemy. As unemployment rises, homes get foreclosed, education and health care get cut, and state sanctioned violence against all people who are not straight white men continues, people have immediate needs that must be met and traditional protest movements can help meet some of these immediate needs.  We must recognize that there is a difference between meeting the immediate needs of human beings in a society that is destroying the world and meeting needs that will allow people to create a new society with a vastly more human relationship to the world. These are two different sets of needs and building the next American revolution requires we put the satisfaction of our immediate needs in the service of satisfying the needs that allow us to create a new world.

Resolving the complex dilemmas of the current moment requires immense creativity and imagination.  While we must absolutely stop home foreclosures, we must also understand that home ownership, as it currently exists, cannot be separated from global finance and the destruction of the global South.  This means we can’t only stop foreclosures but have to also re-imagine housing.  Rising unemployment and individual states’ inability to extend unemployment insurance means people have to find ways to survive. Because the current jobs economy is so closely interconnected with the exploitation of the global South, simply protesting to demand more jobs will continue destroying the world.  Accordingly, we need to create and utilize neighborhood time banks and skill shares as a way to meet some of our immediate needs without money.  We also need to create businesses that reflect the values of beloved communities.  Protesting various laws that create barriers to business creation might be useful here.

These dilemmas pose incredible challenges. We are lucky to have two upcoming events that might help us better learn how to do this.  From July 1-15 2012, the Boggs Center is organizing a gathering called “Detroit 2012: Re-imagine the World, Transform Ourselves, Fight for the Future,” where delegates from all over the US can come to Detroit for two weeks and be trained in visionary organizing while sharing their work with people in Detroit.  If you can’t make it to Detroit, in New York the Foundry Theatre is organizing a weekend-long event featuring Grace Lee Boggs on the opening night, April 20, in Cooper Union’s Great Hall.  The entire gathering, titled “This Is How We Do It: A festival of Dialogues About Another World Under Construction,” is in many ways inspired by Grace’s concept of visionary organizing and features innovative practitioners from throughout the US as well as from South Africa, Argentina and Brazil. For those unable to make it to New York, the event will be live streaming at:

Matt Birkhold is a Brooklyn based writer, visionary organizer, and co-founder of Growing Roots, a work group dedicated to re-imagining ourselves, building new economies, and creating new communities.  He is currently writing a book on the evolution of visionary organizing in Detroit and can be reached at Birkhold [AT] gmail [DOT] com