Cornel West: What It Means to Be a Leftist in the 21st Century

Roundup: Historians' Take

What does it really mean to be a leftist in the early part of the 21st century? What are we really talking about? And I can just be very candid with you. It means to have a certain kind of temperament, to make certain kinds of political and ethical choices, and to exercise certain analytical focuses in targeting on the catastrophic and the monstrous, the scandalous, the traumatic, that are often hidden and concealed in the deodorized and manicured discourses of the mainstream. That's what it means to be a leftist. So let's just be clear about it.

So that if you are concerned about structural violence, if you're concerned about exploitation at the workplace, if you're concerned about institutionalized contempt against gay brothers and lesbian sisters, if you're concerned about organized hatred against peoples of color, if you're concerned about a subordination of women, that's not cheap PC chitchat; that is a calling that you're willing to fight against and try to understand the sources of that social misery at the structural and institutional level and at the existential and the personal level. That's what it means, in part, to be a leftist.

That's why we choose to be certain kinds of human beings. That's why it's a calling, not a career. It's a vocation, not a profession. That's why you see these veterans still here year after year after year, because they are convinced they don't want to live in a world and they don't want to be human in such a way that they don't exercise their intellectual and political and social and cultural resources in some way to leave the world just a little better than it was when they entered. That's, in part, what it means to be a leftist.

Now, what does that mean for me? It means for me in the United States -- and I go back now the 400 years to Jamestown. You all know this is the 400th anniversary of the first enduring English settlement in the new world. It was Roanoke before, but it didn't last. Jamestown last, right? And what do you have at Jamestown? The Virginia Club of London, an extension of the British Empire, makes its way over, the three boats whose names we need not go into at the moment. And what did they do? They interact with another empire, the Powhatan Empire, that's already in place, of indigenous peoples. You actually get the clash of empire. This is the age of empire.

But what are they here for? Looking for gold and silver and, secondarily, to civilize the natives. So already you get America as a corporation, before it's a country. Corporate greed is already sitting at the center in terms of what is pushing it. And corporate greed, as Marx understood it, capital as a social relation, an asymmetrical relation of power, with bosses and workers, with those at the top who will be able to live lives of luxury and those whose labor will be both indispensable, necessary, but also exploited in order to produce that wealth.

Then there's religion, to" civilize" the indigenous people. Now, you can't talk about the US experience -- and I think in many ways this is true for the new world experience -- without talking about the dominant role of religion as an ideology. And we also know one of the reasons why vast numbers of our fellow citizens today in the United States, one of the reasons why they're not leftists, is precisely because they have not been awakened from their sleepwalking. They have not been convinced that they ought to choose to live a life the way we have chosen, in part because we've been cast with the mark of the anti-religious or the naively secular, or what have you.

And that's 98 percent of fellow citizens. So no matter what kind of political organization Brother Stanley is talking about, he's going to get Gramscian about it. He's got to dip into the popular culture of the everyday people, and 98 percent them are talking about God. That's 97.5 percent of fellow Americans believe in God. Seventy-five percent believe Jesus Christ is the son of God. Sixty-two percent believe they speak on intimate terms with God at least twice a day. That's who we're dealing with in terms of our fellow citizens. You can't talk about organization that's sustained over time, unless you're talking in Gramscian terms of how do you tease out leftist sentiment, vision, analysis, in light of the legacy of these dominant ideologies -- Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and so forth and so on.

But then, what else happens? In 1619, you've got white slaves and you've got black slaves. You have the first representative assembly that takes place as modeled on the corporation, but it is attempt at democratic elections, the first representative assembly. They gathered July 30, 1619. They cancelled August 4, because it got too hot. And thirteen days later, here comes the boat with the first Africans. And at that time, slavery was not racialized. You had white slaves and you had black slaves.

But the white slaves, you look on the register, 1621, they had names like James Stewart and Charles McGregor. But you look on the right side and you see negro, negro, negro, negro. So even before slavery became a perpetual and inheritable structure of domination that would exploit the labor of Africans and devalue their sense of who they were and view their bodies as an abomination, you already had the black problematic of namelessness. White supremacy was already setting in as another dominant ideology to ensure that these working people do not come together.

And corporate greed would run amok in the midst of that kind of deep and profound division, which is not just a political division. It's a creation of different worlds, so that the de facto white supremacist segregation that would be part and parcel of the formation of the American Empire would constitute very different worlds and constitute a major challenge to what it means to be a leftist in America from 1776 up until 1963, given the overthrow of American apartheid, which took place in the '60s. And then, we now wrestle with the legacy, with the triumph of the Black Freedom Movement and all of the white and black -- I mean, the white and brown and yellow and Asian comrades who were part and parcel of that Black Freedom Movement that broke the back of American apartheid in the '60s.

What am I saying? I'm saying, in part, that at least for me to be a leftist these days, in the way in which -- and I take very seriously Antonio Gramsci's concern about the historical specificity of the emergeous sustenance and development and subsequent define of the American Empire. And when you actually look closely at that empire, it seems to me what we have to come to terms with is the fundamental role of corporate greed, religious ideologies, white supremacy, the fundamental rule of the popular culture, youth, and acknowledge that anytime you're talking about white supremacy, you're always already in some ways talking about the treatment of black women. And if you're concerned about the treatment of black women, you ought to be concerned about the treatment of women across the board. So the vicious ideologies, the patriarchy, come in. And the same thing would be true for the James Baldwins and the Audre Lordes, the gay brothers and the lesbian sisters.....

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