Cornel West & the Struggle for Social Transformation

by Andreas Saugstad

Cornel West has been called the “pre-eminent African-American intellectual of his generation.” In this essay I bring you a review of The Cornel West Reader, and his new CD, Sketches of My Culture, and I also try to give you an introduction to this philosopher’s world of ideas and struggle for social justice.

The Reader
The Cornel West Reader brings together a number of key texts by the Harvard professor and social activist Cornel West. Most of the texts are brilliantly written: West is a poet-philosopher, with a deep love of music; he is a linguistic genius, empowering the reader through his conceptual creativity; and also a social reformer, who inspires people of all colours to struggle for a better society and to have empathy for the wretched of this world.

West is a lover of black music – from John Coltrane and Charlie Parker to Aretha Franklin to rap, and his texts give evidence of his musicality. While many analytical philosophers write dry, logical, semi-mathematical works marked by their physics envy, West by contrast is an artist-philosopher, providing deep insights, articulated in beautiful black poesy.

West is a scholar and university professor and shows his thorough knowledge of Marx, Gramsci, Kafka, European thought and American literature. His writings are marked by an appetite for ideas and he connects different texts and thinkers in new and interesting ways. West is a Christian democratic socialist, inspired by everything from Black thought and John Coltrane to Kierkegaard, Richard Rorty and Russian novelists. This Reader lets you enter West’s intellectual landscape, and see how he struggles to make sense of the world, and to work towards a better social order in a post-modern, capitalist world. The Reader contains an introduction called “On My Intellectual Vocation,” where West traces his intellectual development, which is useful background information for those who want to study his works. As previously noted, various intellectual sources have inspired West, but also his family, the Black Church and “a Christian ethic of love-informed service to others.” The Cornel West Reader also contains several interviews, and these are very illuminating – West talks about the role of intellectuals, his soul mate-mentors, racism as well as human suffering.

In total, the book teaches the reader a lot about West’s vision: “To be an intellectual is to speak a truth that allows suffering to speak. That is, it creates a vision of the world that puts into the limelight the social misery that is usually hidden or concealed by the dominant viewpoint of society.” West is a social critic and philosopher. He is what he himself calls a “prophetic intellectual” – someone who addresses the social and existential misery of our time, and calls for change and empathy. He is what he calls an “organic intellectual” an intellectual not merely engaged in a professional career, but working towards social transformation in relation to political organizations or churches.

Public Realm & Critical Social Issues
One of my personal favourites is the last piece in the collection, an interview with West by David L. Smith entitled “Chekhov, Coltrane and Democracy.” In this interview West presents many of his views about the intellectual vocation. What is the function of intellectuals in society? For West the work of the intellectual connects the public realm and critical social issues of our times with reflection upon existential issues. In his view “exemplary intellectuals move both within and outside the academy” and there is certainly no reason to think that being a public intellectual means you deliver a lower quality of work – some of the best thinkers in the USA and other places today are indeed relevant to society in general. In the same interview, West talks about intellectual work in the age of TV culture and market values, and that his philosophical writings are attempted to be a kind of wisdom literature. Intellectuals should challenge people to reflect upon a number of issues. Intellectuals are not race horses as some may think, but should seek personal and social transformation towards a world of love, equality and justice. Sub-comandante Marcos ended one of his essays in Le Monde by saying “do not forget that ideas are weapons.” For West ideas are weapons, but perhaps even more words and concepts: Through conceptual innovation and linguistic creativity, West makes a case for his social justice and anti-racist struggle.

West is first of all known for his work on racism, and in this collection you will find pieces about racism in America. I would encourage the reader to look at West’s little book Race Matters, although one of the chapters from Race Matters is included in the Reader as well. In his essay on Martin Luther King, Jr., he explains the background and thought of this Afro-American leader, the most successful organic intellectual in American history. As an organic intellectual, King, Jr. was more than an Ivory Tower academic – he made connections with grassroots movements and struggled for freedom in society at large. West describes Martin Luther King, Jr. as someone inspired by “the prophetic black church tradition,” “prophetic liberal Christianity” and “the prophetic Gandhian method of social change.” West’s description is interesting because the Left and the social critics sometimes take a negative stance against religion, which doesn’t really seem to be legitimate. Of course religion can be misused, but West notes that King thought that “prophetic Christianity could empower people to fight for freedom and justice.” As West writes another place: “King’s thought remain a challenge to us principally in that he accented the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and antiracist consequences of taking serious the American ideals of democracy, freedom and equality.”

Other highlights from The Cornel West Reader include essays on pragmatism, where Cornel West has done some groundbreaking work; Marxist theory and among other things sections on “Prophetic Christian Thought,” “The Arts” and “Race and Difference.” He has written many books, including such scholarly works as The American Evasion of Philosophy (on pragmatism) and Keeping Faith (on philosophy and race). You will find passages from these books in the Reader. The Reader serves as an excellent introduction to the thought of Cornel West, both some of his profound social-existential insights as well as his grasp on a variety of topics from social theory to Afro-American music to a couple of discussions of concrete political problems. For West, philosophy is more than a vocation, it is a calling, and I think he indeed writes “philosophical phronesis” – wisdom literature in a post-modern world.

Like all writers and philosophers, West can be criticized. In a well-known essay in The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier attacks West as a vain and superficial writer. Wieseltier’s essay, marked by rhetoric and elegance, points to a few of West’s shortcomings, but does not manage to hide his lack of understanding of West’s writings nor hide what may be anger and self-assertion. I agree that West does a lot of name dropping, and sometimes he can be a bit superficial. Still, I see him as someone who really has an agenda, and even though West touches upon many different themes in his writings, it doesn’t necessarily make him superficial. Even though he sometimes mentions a lot of names (so-called “name-dropping”), his Nietzschean artistic language-games are very creative. West’s writings combine scholarly research, existential insights, critical analysis, poetic sensibility and a rhythmic use of language that perhaps is marked by the Black Church. His linguistic talents are probably best experienced if one hears him talk on the radio, television or live (for those who have that opportunity), but his texts also demonstrate this. Like in the case of Richard Rorty, his teacher at Princeton, the texts of Cornel West have both scholarly and literary qualities.

To understand a deep thinker it is not enough to just read the text and increase your knowledge. It requires to understand the spirit of the work, and see the passion behind the expression. Those who understand the Leitmotif of West’s works, will find gold, and see that he is an important source for anti-racist and social critical thought today.

Sketches of My Culture
West has also made a CD. It is not typical that a Harvard Professor makes a CD with rap, hip hop and soul, but West has. The CD is manufactured and marketed by Arthemis Records, and is produced by Cornel West’s brother Clifton West and Michael Dalley.

One of the central figures of American philosophy, Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “whoso wants to be a man, must be a non-conformist,” and West follows the example of his mentors and forerunners Emerson and Thoreau in not being tied up by conventions and bourgeoisie attitudes. He tries new things and avant-garde intellectual activity. Thus he has appeared on Oprah Winfrey and been interviewed by Bill Moyers on TV. It seems to me that he has overemphasized this, giving more than 100 lectures a year, but the fact that he tries to communicate with many people is most interesting. According to the Cornel West website:

“His presence is a mainstay in the American media. So much so that he has virtually become a household word. His dedication to enhancing the lives of ordinary people and
people of color is in the tradition of the freedom fighters of the past.”

Out of the Ivory Towers
In the Anglo-Saxon academic tradition academics have often viewed themselves as elites, with the right to escape from society and live comfortable in their Ivory Towers. Universities like Oxford and Cambridge have for centuries practiced elitist academics, and scholars in humanities have often showed little interest in the life of the “common man.” This problematic elitism has been radically challenged by the Marxist tradition, emphasizing solidarity and social justice. As Marx said: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The particular kind of Marxist theory West believes in, is that of the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci’s developed a theory on how the elites and rulers of a society could hold on to socio-economic power by ideological dominance. It is, as Gramsci sees it, the mentality of a culture which largely shapes its politics and social and economic patterns. Since West believes in a Gramscian Marxist approach, it is natural to try to change the deep culture, ideologies and mentalities of our culture. And through pop music he can reach young people, even though they may be situated far from the Ivory Towers of his university campus. In one of tracks on Sketches of My Culture, West thus sings:

“ No other people in the modern world have had such unprecedented levels of
unregulated violence against them.
Psychic violence taught to hate ourselves and told we have the wrong hips and lips
and noses and hair texture and skin pigmentation.
Physical violence, slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, police brutality”

West focuses on the suppression of black people, Jim Crow laws – and racism which still is a problem in the USA. The American society suffers from what he calls “historical amnesia” –his task is to remind the world that the previous oppression of black people in America still has its effects.

In his bestseller Race Matters, West develops the idea of black nihilism. By this he means the hopeless and lovelessness that many Afro-Americans experience. Many Afro-Americans still struggle in poverty and against racism. In a social setting dominated by culture industry and neo-liberal capitalism, certain people struggling with problems may give up. “We are not dancing on Nietzsche’s books” West says, – this is not nihilism as a philosophical or theoretical construction, rather nihilism as a response to difficult situations. Perhaps this is why he sings the following, in “Elevate,” one of the best tracks on this album:

“Without self-respect, you certainly self-destruct be true to
your history, therein lies your possibilities. Harriet Tubman,
Ida B. Wells Barnett, Marcus Garvey. Malcolm X,
The past is prologue to the future.”

It is important to keep your self-respect, even in difficult times, and tradition gives us tools to cope with our present problems and even to solve them. In “Elevate” West in his Afro-American rapping/talking style says: “Train of justice. Ship of freedom. What a rich tradition of struggle for decency and dignity.” It is not that we uncritically should accept tradition, but rather that we can learn from it and understand more of the present by looking at the history. West doesn’t accept all of Malcolm X’s ideas, and can criticize people like Malcolm X, but he still finds inspiration in learning from the tradition. “We will live and die for what you struggled for […] we shall never forget what you gave us and try to take it to a higher level in the 21st century.”

Conclusion
Cornel West’s work and philosophy is about solidarity, love and compassion. He is a “prophetic freedom fighter” in the 21st century. Those who study Cornel West’s texts will see they almost always refer to social justice, existential wisdom or some kind of social criticism. And in this struggle for a better world, with more compassion, various tools may help us: American pragmatism, continental philosophy, Marxist criticism, philosophy of religion and black thought. Tradition plays a vital role here.

It seems to me that both his books and the CD are guided by the grand narratives of Cornel West’s philosophy: Compassion and solidarity. No one is perfect, and indeed we all have our faults. But West introduces love of others as a central part of his critical philosophy, and by doing this, he has indeed taken philosophy to a new and higher level.

Additional Resources
Cornel West: The Cornel West Reader. Basic Civitas Books 1999. 603 pages.
Cornel West: Sketches of My Culture, CD 2001, see http://www.cornelwest.com

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