By John Merrick

10 May 2021

In 1991, a 72-year-old former auto worker stood in front of a class of students at the University of Michigan and declared that “nobody knows more about running this country than me.” A nervous laughter broke out among the students in attendance. What, after all, could this old man mean? Was this hubris – the massively inflated arrogance of age – or something else? The man then addressed his young charges again: “You better think that way,” he said, pointing around the room. “You need to stop thinking of yourself as a minority because thinking like a minority you’re thinking like an underling. Everyone is capable of going beyond where you are, and I would hope that everybody in this room thinks that way.”


The man at the head of the class was James Boggs, legendary Detroit activist and revolutionary. And it wasn’t arrogance that made him say this (or not entirely), but a deep humanism and faith in the ability of ordinary people to make and remake their own lives, and the lives of others. The statement was steeped in the experience of decades of organising and thinking through the struggle of the working classes. It was not bombast, but a reflection of the centuries of struggle of ordinary people for a better world and a spur to future struggle: an attempt to give those young men and women confidence in their own power and strength, to steel them for future battles. Boggs’s politics may have been forged in a different time, having come of age during the great upswing in labour militancy of the post-war years, but here he was, the veteran activist in his final few years, reaching across generations and instructing those who came after about the power and the strength of the working class.

From Alabama to Detroit

James Boggs, or Jimmy as he was known, was born in 1919 in the small town of Marion Junction, just a few miles outside Selma, Alabama. The youngest of four children growing up in a largely Black area of the American South, his childhood was spent under the dark shadow of Jim Crow, the system of laws that created a legally enforced form of racial hierarchy across the Southern US. As he was to say later, Alabama was a place “where white folks were gentlemen and ladies by day and Ku Klux Klanners by night,” and this experience and understanding of the deep and abiding effects of racism on American society was to influence much of his later work. If the South’s white supremacy negatively shaped the young Boggs, then it also provided a positive foundation in the community and support provided by family and neighbours in Alabama. As his biographer Stephen M. Ward notes, he often credited his grandmother, Big Ma, a woman who was born into slavery in the 1850s and lived long into the twentieth century, with providing “an understanding of the continuity of struggle in black people’s lives.”


The third force that shaped Bogg’s early life and brought him into the world of revolutionary politics was the intense crucible of labour of wartime Detroit. At the age of eighteen, Boggs joined the millions of men and women in the Great Migration from the segregated South to the industrial cities of the North in search of work. After bumming his way north on freight trains, and working in the hop fields of Washington along the way, Jimmy arrived in Detroit in 1937. By then, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the US and was undergoing a boom driven by the then-thriving automobile industry, an industry that he had hoped to find work in himself, much as his uncle who housed him in his first months in the city had, after he became the first African American to be hired at the Budd Wheel plant in the city. But finding work as a Black man in post-depression Detroit wasn’t always so easy. At first, he did occasional day work, painting houses and washing cars, until he got a job with the New Deal Works Progress Administration digging curbstones. It wasn’t until 1940, with the changes in the US economy prompted by the arrival of war, that Boggs was to find the work that he was to continue for twenty-eight years at city’s Chrysler plant.


As Boggs wrote in his book The American Revolution, the “Negroes said that Hitler and Tojo, by creating the war which made the Americans give them jobs in industry, had done more for them in four years than Uncle Sam had done in 300 years.” Unlike in the South, Detroit had no formal or legally enforced system of segregation, but there were informal systems, often enforced by unions and the strict seniority system in place in many workplaces, that denied employment to African Americans. With the increased demand with the switch to wartime production, work that turned Detroit into the fabled “arsenal of democracy,” employers were forced to bring African Americans and women into the workforce, often for the first time, to deal with the sudden shortage of labour.


It was in the Chrysler plant that Boggs first became involved in labour politics. Soon after he found work in the auto industry, he joined Chrysler Local 7 of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and although he was later to become a stern critic of the UAW and its entrenched bureaucracy, his experiences in the labour movement proved a galvanising one. As Ward says, “Boggs was part of a generation of black workers who found in the UAW a platform for various forms of working-class black activism,” and this milieu lead him further into activism, first with the mainly middle-class NAACP and then later with the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP). While involved with the SWP, Boggs first came into contact with the group around the Trinidadian Marxist CLR James. This informal grouping was initially a faction of US Trotskyist movement and was known as the Johnson-Forrest Tendency, after the pseudonyms of its leading members James (J. R. Johnson) and Raya Dunayevskaya (Freddie Forest). After their break with the SWP and with Trotskyism, the group moved to Detroit and became known as the Correspondence Publishing Committee. Involved in it were some of the most original thinkers in the post-war US left including James, historian Martin Glaberman, architect Lyman Paine, and philosopher and activism, and Jimmy’s future wife, Grace Lee Boggs.


'The American Revolution'

The work that Boggs is rightly still famous for, The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebooks, was initially written as a discussion document for Correspondence’s annual convention in 1962. Some nine years earlier CLR James had been forced to leave America and return to England, and after finishing his initial draft of the text, Jimmy sent a copy to James in London for comments. On receiving it, James was furious. Immediately he denounced the text and wrote a furious letter to the errant comrades in Detroit saying that they needed an immediate schooling in the fundamentals of Marxism; a schooling that James would provide via articles in the group’s newspaper. Boggs countered: Marxism they understood, what they needed was a serious study of the development of American capital.


As Grace Lee Boggs noted, the split that this caused in the organisation was as much about a fight over the leadership as about the text itself. But there’s also no doubt that Boggs’s writing offered a challenge to how many in both the group, and the American left more generally, thought about the potential for revolution in the Global North. The text, later published in full by Monthly Review, begins with an analysis of the decline of industrial unionism from its New Deal peak. The main failure of the UAW and the AFL-CIO in the post-war years, Boggs contended, was their failure to understand the rising tide of automation and the challenge that it posed not just to the labour process but also to how we think about socialism and revolution. And it is for this that Boggs is most famous today.


From the 1930s until the 1950s, US manufacturing was hit by a wave of industrial action, at stake in which was, in Boggs’s words, “control over production,” or the ability of workers on the shop floor to dictate the rhythm and pace of their work. By the 1950s, however, a new force was introduced by management with the collusion of unions: that of automation, a force that was to wrest control of work from the workers and in doing so undercut their ability to resist the rapid increases in productivity. Such technologically-driven speed-ups of the rhythm of work threw workers out of manufacturing jobs and into the growing surplus populations, as fewer workers were now needed to produce the same total quantity of goods. Yet while the introduction of machinery into the production process is a tale as old as capitalism itself (one need only think of the machine breakers of the early 19th century resisting the mechanisation of the textile trade) the workers now had nowhere else to go. The mid-century American economy was increasingly an industrialised one, and with the shift in production brought about by the rising wave of automation, there was no longer any agricultural work to soak up the unemployed made redundant – and, even if there was, most workers would be loath to return to the segregated South.


What this lead to was thus a “growing army” of “permanently unemployed,” and it was Boggs’s contention that these massing ranks of the out of work are to be “the ultimate crisis of the American bourgeoisie.” Vast numbers of humans were being made redundant and, with the historical dynamics of US society and the way that the American economy was run, this would inevitably take a racialised form. The majority of those likely thrown from the production process first would be the newly-arrived Black population, those who worked in the riskiest and most difficult jobs, and the jobs that would be automated away first. As Boggs says, “the Negroes have been and are today the most oppressed and submerged sections of the workers, on whom has fallen most sharply the burden of unemployment due to automations.” These were the “outsiders”, people for whom the question of automation was a question of survival and for whom the system had no answers. As such, they could, for Boggs, be the wedge it split it apart. The struggle for Black liberation was thus, potentially, the struggle for a new, classless form of society. Here, though, is one of the areas that CLR James clashed with Boggs. As Patrick King writes, “despite the former’s consistent appreciation of the validity and strength of African-American movements for self-determination and the global reach of Pan-Africanism, James was not simply willing to uphold the black liberation movement as the central front of struggle.”

A new politics of automation?

Boggs was by no means the first to herald the rise of technologically-driven unemployment. As Jason Smith and others have noted, laments over automation have returned cyclically since the early 20th century, with the first wave coming in the 1930s and since then recurring on roughly 30-year cycles. Most of the writers and economists who have worried over the threat of automation have been concerned with the preservation of the system and how to manage the fall-out from such shifts. As Smith says, it has largely been “the emissaries of the dominant class charged with implementing automation, rather than by those at risk of replacement” who have done the fretting. Boggs is therefore uniquely placed, writing from both the shop-floor and the heart of the labour movement. It’s not simply the economic effects that he sought to chart, but perhaps more fundamentally, the terrain on which workers’ struggle. Boggs did not seek technocratic or managerial fixes for the rise of the outsiders, but to understand the coming wave of struggle for a better world.


With the rise of automation, Boggs saw a potential shift in the conception of human value, both from capitalism and actually existing socialism, based not around productivity but “man’s value as a human being.” This is the heart of James Boggs’s humanism. For him, capitalism was fundamentally degrading of all who toil under it. To be free meant, by the mid-1960s, drawing up a “new theory,” a “Declaration of Human Rights to fit the new Age of Abundance.” Automation has the potential to free up purposeful human activity, to free millions of the necessity of work. But there is no inevitability to this process, it must be struggled for and won. Prefiguring later discussion of Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a fix for the problems brought about by mass unemployment, he says that to deal with the outsiders, it would be better to simply give them “a weekly check” than let them languish as a human surplus in slums and ghettoes – but that is “not enough.” Instead, the struggle for socialism will hinge on giving the outsiders a way to “develop their creative abilities,” to work towards a new form of society. Human freedom must be fought for, and not simply with the old tools. Under the current conditions, Boggs says, arguments made by many in the labour movement for a return to full employment are reactionary, based as they are on the old notion that a person’s value resides in their ability to work.


The American Revolution’s publication in the summer of 1963 helped to catapult Boggs into the centre of debates over changes in capitalist production. It was Jimmy’s friend, W. H. “Ping” Ferry, the vice president and co-founder of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, who brought the text to the attention of Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy, the editors of Monthly Review, and was thus pivotal in the book’s publication. Later, Ferry was to also push Boggs further into discussions of automation after he founded the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution in Cybernation, Weaponry, and Human Rights, a group which Boggs also joined. The document that the Ad Hoc Committee wrote, which identified three fundamental changes occurring in the 1960s society –automation and “Cybernation”, and the mass unemployment that they would herald; the weaponry revolution with the rise of nuclear weapons on a global scale, and the “ever-present threat of total destruction”; and the human rights revolution, seen in the US with the civil rights movement – was sent as an open letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson in March 1964.


The “Triple Revolution” letter, and his earlier analysis of automation in The American Revolution, brought opportunities for Boggs to speak and collaborate with a huge number of people about the changes in production that he saw. Looking through his archives in Detroit a few years ago, I was struck by just how many people Boggs corresponded with, from ordinary workers across America to luminaries like Bertrand Russell, who after reading The American Revolution sent Boggs an admiring letter. Yet, the massed rank of outsiders threatening capitalism with collapse that Boggs predicted never came to pass – or, at least, not in the way he envisioned. Following the financial crisis of 2008, automation discourse has returned for another cycle, making the work of previous automation theorists newly relevant. Following the dreams of these new thinkers it is easy to see a world of gleaming new factories filled with thousands of robot workers, each churning out millions of cheap consumer durables. The reality though is more prosaic. Far more common are endless deindustrialised cities and town, each with crumbling infrastructure and a workforce of low-paid service and care workers. As Aaron Benanav has brilliantly and convincingly shown, it’s not automation that has created the rising global population of the chronically un- and under-employed, but the slowdown of the global economy during the “long downturn.” As Benanav writes: “Decades of industrial overcapacity killed the manufacturing growth engine, and no alternative to it has been found, least of all in the slow-growing, low-productivity activities that make up the bulk of the service economy.”


If Boggs was wrong on the description, that makes his work no less relevant. Automation is, in many ways, an easily grasped concept that – while missing certain specific features of the global economy – does draw attention to how the changes in the mode of production alter how and where workers struggle, and for what goal. Boggs’s deep humanism and his understanding of how race and capitalism are connected in America can still teach us much today.

  • Boggs, J. (1963) The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook. Monthly Review Press: New York, NY.

John Merrick is a writer originally from Crewe, who now lives in London. He writes on culture, class, place, deindustrialisation, and British and Global history, and his work has appeared in TLS, New Statesman, Tribune, Jacobin, New Left Review, Boston Review and elsewhere. He is currently writing a book about the experience of working class life in Britain.