Celebrated Chinese-American community activist, writer and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs died in her house in Detroit, Michigan, on Monday, October 5. She turned 100 in June this year. Her vision of a community-driven socialist alternative to capitalism resonates well with some of the concerns of the basic income movement. While basic income was not a central theme in her work, she endorsed the idea of a city-level universal basic income (UBI).
She was born in New York and grew up in a Chinese immigrant family running a restaurant business. A brilliant scholar, she completed her PhD in philosophy in 1940. After that, she became increasingly drawn into full-time political activism. In 1942, she started her close collaboration with Marxist revolutionary theorist C.L.R. James and the Johnsonites, which lasted for two decades. The Johnsonites were revolutionary socialists who focused more than other Marxist groups on marginalized groups like women, people of color and youth, and rejected the notion of a workers’ vanguard party.
Lee Boggs’ personal encounter with Marxism and socialism was shaped by a focus on race and poverty, in particular the systematic discrimination faced by black American working class communities. In 1953, she married Detroit-based black activist and autoworker Jimmy Boggs, author of the influential 1963 book The American revolution: pages from a Negro worker’s notebook. In the same year she moved to Detroit to live with him. The city remained her home until her death. Grace and Jimmy partnered in community activism, political struggles and revolutionary writing.
Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Grace and Jimmy were prominent in organizing the civil rights and Black Power movements in Detroit. They collaborated with towering figures like Martin Luther King and Malcom X, and organizations like the Black Panthers. After the decline of mass political activism that started in the 1980s, they continued to focus on community work and alternative urban livelihoods. Jimmy passed away in 1993, and Grace continued with these activities until her death.
In a 2011 piece, Grace Lee Boggs mentions a workshop presentation in the early 1990s in which she had imagined a future where Detroiters would come together to implement a city-wide UBI by the year 2015:
Because Detroiters have developed a deep sense of moral responsibility, citizens decided in 2015 A.D. to adopt a Universal Basic Income Grant (UBIG) as an alternative to welfare. The UBIG is based on the idea that every citizen has a right to the basic material necessities of life, including health care and education, and every citizen also has a duty to share in the responsibilities of the community, city, nation and planet, and to contribute in some form to the overall well-being.
Lee Boggs’ engagement with UBI was more complex than her words above let transpire. Her take was heavily influenced by evolving ideas about work, community and the rejection of the capitalist system. Her socialist approach was informed by Marx’s critique of alienation and wage labor under capitalism. Lee Boggs’ association with black working class communities became a pragmatic entry point into the concept and practice of revolution – which she always saw as something changing, shifting and emerging from uncertainty, rather than a linear path driven by monolithic ideas. Revolution, for Lee Boggs, was what people did on the ground when they took practical action informed by a long-term vision of the society they wanted to build.
Her work speaks to UBI activists because she lived through the decline of formal jobs in the Detroit automotive industry, and the social and economic devastation black communities experienced as a result. In the 1960s, all the signs of the crisis were clear, with black workers losing their jobs in large numbers due to automation and other irreversible structural changes in global capitalist production. In the following years, Lee Boggs was particularly concerned with the dramatic contradictions emerging from the decline of formal labor coupled by rampant consumerism. She identified the capitalist system as the main cause of the breakdown of communities plagued by mass unemployment, crime and drugs.
The Boggses led decades of urban renewal experiments emerging from the ashes of capitalism and focusing on youth entrepreneurship, urban agriculture and community education. Where others saw a post-industrial wasteland, they saw opportunities to build a new society that would break away from consumerism and dependence on large-scale structures like the state and big companies. The James & Grace Lee Boggs School and the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership are among the many projects that carry their legacy today.
The basic income grant that Lee Boggs envisioned was to be delivered by self-governing Detroiters coming together, not as a large-scale redistributive mechanism at state or federal level. It was closely tied to the duty to participate and share with others locally and globally, and to behave responsibly towards other humans and the natural environment. The strong connections between UBI and the community would have neutralized the potential negative effects of linking cash grants to mass production and global capitalism.
I’m not sure I’m ready to propose a guaranteed annual wage. I think that’s too simplistic. … I think we need to do a lot more with ourselves, with our economy, and envisioning a new kind of economy. You can think so much in terms of re-distribution. Or you can begin thinking about justice in terms of restoring another way of life.
Whether one agrees with Lee Boggs’ communitarian conception of UBI or not, her work is a major contribution to basic income debates. Lee Boggs’ writings emphasized the dignity of work, and how its redemptive qualities had little to do, if at all, with wage labor. On the topic of change, she was an advocate of “visionary organizing.” She believed that community activism in the “here and now” could bring about global systemic change only if driven by a strong vision of the future to come. Her mature views about revolution and social change are presented in her powerful book The next American revolution: sustainable activism for the twenty-first century, first published in 2011.
Her radiant presence and profound insight will be sorely missed. She influenced basic income advocates like Scott Santens, who celebrated her life work with these words: “Some people see where the arc of history should bend, do all they can to make it bend, and live long enough to see it bend.” She will continue to inspire thousands of UBI activists engaged in small-scale experiments that are already sowing the seeds of a future world where UBI becomes the norm.
Grace Lee Boggs, “Visionary organizing and the MLK Memorial,” James & Grace Lee Boggs Center, September 2011.
Grace Lee Boggs, “Jobs aren’t the answer,” James & Grace Lee Boggs Center, September 2011.
Grace Lee Boggs at the New School, New York [TRANSCRIPT], April 22, 2012.
Grace Lee Boggs, Living for change: an autobiography, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
Grace Lee Boggs (with Scott Kurashige), The next American revolution: sustainable activism for the twenty-first century, Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2011.
Documentary film “American Revolutionary: the evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” directed by Grace Lee, June 2013.
Ryan Felton, “Grace Lee Boggs, longtime Detroit activist, dies aged 100,” The Guardian, October 6, 2015.
Michelle Chen, “Grace Lee Boggs’ century of social renewal,” Al Jazeera America, October 7, 2015.
Thomas J. Sugrue, “Postscript: Grace Lee Boggs,” The New Yorker, October 8, 2015.
Barbara Ransby, “The (r)evolutionary vision and contagious optimism of Grace Lee Boggs,” In These Times, October 6, 2015.
Jordan Weissmann, “Martin Luther King’s economic dream: a guaranteed income for all Americans,” The Atlantic, August 28, 2013.