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Ulf Schulenberg (University of Bremen)

Theorizing the Dialectic of Race and Class – Remarks on Cornel West’s Prophetic Pragmatism and the Question of Antifounda-tionalist Leftist politics


Race is of central importance for the writings of Cornel West. Race does indeed matter to him. As a philosopher, cultural critic, and social critic, he has been analyzing the complexity of racism and the black struggle against discrimination and degradation since his early texts. Trying to critically confront the legacy of racism, West’s contention is that the issue of race must not be marginalized or given only secondary status. On the contrary, questions about race and white supremacy lead directly to the heart of the American democratic experiment. West has repeatedly underscored that he is above all interested in what it means to be black, modern, and American. Race is central to the U.S., and West’s work since Prophesy Deliverance! has attempted to understand and fight against the economic, political, cultural, and psychological forces underlying racism and white supremacy. The second chapter of Prophesy Deliverance!, for instance, offers a complex “Genealogy of Modern Racism.” In the preface to the twentieth anniversary edition of Prophesy Deliverance!, West states that his motivation in that book was “to understand the complexities and ambiguities of modernity through the lens of an enslaved, Jim-crowed, and hated people of African descent in the United States of America” (2002: 5).

            Race is of utmost importance to West’s thinking, but it is clearly not his only focus. Race and racism, discrimination and attacks on the feelings of self-worth and self-confidence, are existential problems for most of his fellow African Americans, but West also calls attention to the fact that it is absolutely necessary to move beyond a narrow vision of race. West presents himself as a kind of race-transcending prophet, aiming at the building of coalitions and leftist alliances, who claims that the indispensable antiracist struggle must be linked to other forms of leftist political resistance, such as class and gender struggles. His version of prophetic pragmatism, as a leftist critique which illustrates that critique is theoretical praxis, cannot be adequately understood without the category of class. Undoubtedly, he is not the only Left African-American theorist who has advocated a renewed interest in class in the last years. Not only has the republication of Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (2000; first published in 1983) to be mentioned in this context (which unfortunately went unnoticed by too many people). Theorists as varied as bell hooks, Adolph Reed, and Manning Marable have emphasized that a return to class politics must not necessarily be a bad move.

While a kind of return to the category of class can be detected in the books of some American Studies scholars (e.g., Michael Denning, Paul Lauter, and Eric Lott), bell hooks is presumably right in pointing out that class, in comparison with race and gender, is still “the uncool subject” (2000: vii). hooks suggests that it has been difficult for black people to talk about class because of the danger that the realization and acknowledgment of class differences would destroy the illusion of racial solidarity. Further, she holds that “class warfare will be our nation’s fate if we do not collectively challenge classism, if we do not attend to the widening gap between rich and poor, the haves and have-nots. This class conflict is already racialized and gendered” (2000: 8-9). A productive collective public discourse, if we follow hooks, can only be established if race is linked with class and gender. It is crucial to see that feminist theorists have stressed the importance of bringing together gender, class, and race aspects in our analyses for decades now.

            The critique of capitalism and class hierarchy is especially evident in West’s early writings. As far as his attitude toward class and class politics is concerned, there is a clear change from his early radical critique in the 1980s to the left-liberal progressivism and a somewhat moralistic approach of his later texts. Although West has always presented himself as a black progressive Marxist, opposing every form of orthodox and dogmatic Marxism, in his early writings he made sufficiently clear that in order to overthrow the class system and abolish the capitalist system in general, one had to hold on to the (traditional) instrument of class politics. The early West constantly directed attention to the dual oppression of race and class under which his fellow African Americans had been suffering. Moreover, he admitted that Marx’s notion of the proletariat as the sole and central agent of change had turned out to be hopelessly obsolete under late-modern or postmodern conditions and thus had to be replaced by a politics of difference which would be better equipped to confront the two evils of racism and classism. At the same time, however, he made unequivocally clear, in “Left Strategies Today,” that class politics “must be the prism through which black politics are elaborated” (1988: 137). In the same essay, he also contended that what was needed was not “a racial (or, even worse, race-first) political strategy,” and that “the effectiveness of a black counteroffensive depends on its ability to adopt a transracial political strategy and thereby promote a broad class counteroffensive to the business assault” (1988: 139). Rethinking Marxism in the American context implies to try to conceptually grasp the subtle, and partly not-so-subtle, interplay of racism and classism. This also means that racial oppression cannot be seen as simply the result of economic oppression and exploitation, that is, there is no monocausal and simplistic relation between racism and the respective mode of production. Marxism thus has to develop more sophisticated theoretical tools if it wishes to confront this twin problematic.

            In “Prophetic Afro-American Christian Thought and Progressive Marxism,” the fourth chapter of Prophecy Deliverance!, West strives to mediate between these two schools of thought and he mentions “the age-old question as to whether class position or racial status is the major determinant of black oppression in America” (2002: 115). He reformulates this question by focusing on the problem of powerlessness in America, that is, he wants to know whether class position or racial status contributes most to this powerlessness of most Americans. According to West, although blacks additionally suffer from racist oppression, both black and white middle-class people have hardly any control over their lives, both are slaves to the capitalist system and its hierarchical structures and firmly established economic relations. In other words, both groups are equally powerless. West’s early class-first gesture leads him to advance the argument that American liberal and radical criticism, instead of seeking to abolish the class exploitative and imperialist capitalist system of production and gain control over the major institutions that regulate people’s lives, has succumbed to the power of this system of production and silently accepted its class divisions. It has concentrated its energies on including marginalized groups in the mainstream of liberal capitalist America.

            West, in his first book, is a mediator in a double sense. First, he develops his theoretical framework by mediating between black prophetic Christian thought (or black liberation theology), progressive Marxism, and American pragmatism. Second, he presents himself as a race-transcending prophet aiming at the establishment of a leftist counterhegemonic alliance politics in the U.S. and thus facing the problem of how to create a common ground between the various marginalized groups. In order to define this common ground, he uses the rhetoric of class politics. In spite of his severe critique of Marxism, the materialist West cannot propagate his political ideas, his program for radical political and social change, without the vocabulary of Marxism: class politics, class struggle, exploitative capitalist system, mode of production, ideology, hegemony in a Gramscian sense, etc.

            West’s radical voice seems more or less muted in his later texts such as Race Matters. Whereas the early West was a race-transcending prophet who put a premium on the category of class, the later West seems more like a mellow and tame race-transcending prophet who has hardly any use for class politics anymore. Admittedly, he still mentions issues of class in Race Matters and The Future of American Progressivism. He suggests, for instance, that Americans “must connect the urgent black domestic issues to pressing class and gender issues in the corporate globalization around the world” (2001b: xix). There is still his critique of the power of capitalist market culture, of the black middle class and black intellectuals, of the inadequacies of liberal structuralists and conservative behaviorists when discussing the fate of African Americans, and of the ideology and practice of white supremacy. However, the solutions he offers to alleviate the suffering of African Americans are clearly less radical than before. Regarding this Westian change of orientation, and this has been repeatedly pointed out, a good example is his essay “Nihilism in Black America” (in Race Matters). Since this text has been criticized from numerous sides, we do not have to discuss it in detail. I just wish to draw attention to West’s proposed solution to the problem of black nihilism. On West’s account, nihilism, like alcoholism and drug addiction, “is a disease of the soul.” Trying to overcome nihilism by arguments or analyses is pointless. It can only be “tamed by love and care.” West seeks to confront black nihilism by stressing the need for what he terms “a politics of conversion.” A chance for conversion, to him, means “a chance for people to believe that there is hope for the future and a meaning to struggle” (2001b: 29). A turning of one’s soul is supposed to heal the dangerous disease of the soul he refers to as black nihilism. He explains nihilism as “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness” (2001b: 22-23; emphasis omitted).

            This turning of the soul can be interpreted as a spiritual response of love that consists of two kinds of love: first, a love of self, that is, an affirmation of self-worth; and second, a love of others. Consequently, West contends that a “love ethic must be at the center of a politics of conversion” (2001b: 29). It is undoubtedly crucial to grasp that the Christian West, generally speaking, intends to remind the Left of its moral responsibilities which have been ignored for too long, and that his understanding of ‘love’ has to be strictly differentiated from its secular use in everyday situations. West’s Christian love ethic, grounded in his interpretation of the Bible as a social critique which aims at the liberation of the oppressed and which desires to change the fate of the wretched of the earth, wants to provide a leftist moral framework for social and political change.

            It is problematic to argue, as some critics have done, that West’s suggestions eventually boil down to another blaming-the-victims perspective. Nonetheless, a change can be detected from his prior concern with and focus on political economy, economic relations, class politics, and the aspects of inequality, oppression, and exploitation, typical of the capitalist mode of production, to his later psychological and moralistic stance. In contrast to other critics, however, I do not think that it is adequate, or justified, to advance the argument that Race Matters was written by a former radical who now presented himself as a (neo)conservative. One should rather identify West’s position since Race Matters as that of a moderate left-liberal progressive who has not yet completely forgotten his leftist radical origins, and who somehow still holds on to the idea of building leftist alliances in the U.S., but who has at the same time realized that one could also try to democratize the market instead of trying to overthrow the capitalist system in its entirety. This thesis is confirmed by West’s left-liberal progressivism in The Future of American Progressivism.

            The primary problem with critics such as David Theo Goldberg and Stephen Steinberg is that they concentrate almost exclusively on “Nihilism in Black America” without considering the rest of West’s oeuvre. Steinberg, for instance, quotes only from Race Matters without taking into account West’s complex development as a philosopher, cultural critic, and activist. According to Steinberg, West “offers no political framework for his so-called politics of conversion” (1997: 39). Against this judgment, one could argue that West’s political framework is still that which he established in his texts of the 1980s. It has been profoundly modified, but it is still that of a leftist alliance politics. Steinberg does not see this continuity since he discusses Race Matters in isolation. West’s love ethic is one decisive part of his desire for the building of leftist(-liberal) alliances and it thus contributes to the establishing of a multiracial, or multicultural, creative democracy. This conception of a multiracial democracy ought to be capable of successfully mediating between the notions of commonality and universalism on the one hand and those of difference and particularity on the other. The question that inevitably arises in this context is whether the Westian proposals regarding coalition building are mere rhetoric or whether it is on the contrary probable that they will be effectively realized in the realm of politics.