Thursday, March 22, 2007

What It Means To Be A Leftist In The 21st Century

Professor, culture critic, and social justice advocate Cornel West addressed a panel at the 2007 Left Forum in New York last weekend. West is a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University and has been described as one of America's most vital and eloquent public intellectuals. He has written and co-authored numerous books on philosophy, race and sociology. His most recent book is "Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism."


Below is a transcript of his speech. The video is HERE.


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.


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