Cornel West gave a wide-ranging interview to Chris Maisano, YDS co-chairs Beth Cozzolino and Matt Porter, and Maria Svart during the YDS winter conference, on the legacy of the 1963 March on Washington and the challenges facing the country and the left today.
Chris Maisano: One of the priorities for DSA this year is to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that took place in 1963. What has been gained since then? What still remains to be done?
Cornel West: When we look at 1963, what we saw was the best of the black freedom movement under Martin Luther King, Jr. and the best of the trade union movement under Walter Reuther and a host of others. So you saw the intersection of race and class. It was a march for freedom and jobs, and people tend to downplay the jobs part. But the black freedom movement and the trade union movement were brought together in the struggle against white supremacy, against the inequalities built into the capitalist system.
Since then, we’ve seen tremendous gains in terms of the black freedom movement, gains in the women’s movement, gains in the LGBT movement, and growing concerns over impending ecological catastrophe. The latter issue was not really talked about at the March on Washington. At the same time, and this is a sad feature of our day, the big banks and the big corporations are in the saddle more than ever before, more than in 1963. Our trade unions were stronger, and therefore there was more of a social contract in the workplace. That’s no longer the case. And you’ve got the financialization of the capitalist system since then, so you’ve got a much bigger percentage of the profits going into banks that don’t generate anything of productive value. So in 1963 you have companies like American Motors producing cars with Mitt Romney’s father George – now Mitt Romney produces deals, but no real jobs. Big money, but no productive value for the real economy and everyday people. And so on the one hand we’ve got some real progress and gains, but on the other, in terms of the core of the capitalist system and the big banks and corporations, they’re more powerful than ever.
Maisano: What specifically would you say are the most important gains we’ve won since then?
West: Voting rights, fair housing or at least open housing. You’ve got the creation of a black political class, a woman political class. Access to educational and job opportunities, access to high levels of corporate status, high levels in academics. So there’s been a wonderful transformation in terms of access, but there hasn’t been a fundamental transformation because wealth inequality has escalated, class inequality has escalated. It’s just more colorful at the top. Both the White House and American Express run by a black person, and on and on. Women running major corporations, you know those are important things in terms of access, but at that deeper level of who’s really running things…
Matt Porter: When there were rumors about Barack Obama being sworn in for his second term on Martin Luther King Jr.’s bible, you spoke about how this sort of symbolic gesture, if it happened, would be shallow. Are you afraid that the spirit of the March on Washington will be lost and that it will be turned into a symbol without any real historical context?
West: I think there’s a deep fear because first, the corporate media is not too concerned about the full employment demand – that’s a little bit too threatening to the system. They reduce it more to social programs and service programs, whereas the Humphrey-Hawkins bill, which was pushed by one of our members named Ron Dellums in Congress – Dellums was the Bernie Sanders of his day, even though Ron was in the House and Bernie is in the Senate – but he pushed for that full employment over and over and over again. We were at a fork in the road. If we had gone full employment, the trade union movement and the black freedom movement would still be together. Instead, social programs become identity politics, divide and conquer, compartmentalized and differentiated and suddenly these are “your” issues and these are “my” issues. And one of the wonderful things about DSA is that we’ve always believed in coalitional progressive politics. We never fell for any kind of identity politics trap in a narrow sense. We understand identity is important, but it doesn’t trump coming together, unity, around serious critiques of capitalism in the name of justice for everybody – black, white, red, yellow, gay, lesbian, elderly, and so forth.
Maria Svart: After Occupy Wall Street, the social terrain has shifted. But the question is, how do we build bridges among all of the different groups out there? DSA is just one organization among many.
West: I think we have to be very clear about our institutional identity. We are deep democrats with libertarian sensibilities. We are critical of imperial wars. We support rights and liberties at home for everybody. We overlap with Ron Paul on our critique of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the Patriot Act, and so forth. And of course we break with him radically on a whole lot of other things. We just did an interview with him on our show this week, and boy we had a time! I said “Brother Paul, I’m a deep democrat with libertarian sensibilities and you’re a deep libertarian with a small dose of democracy thrown in.” And I said “Why are you so suspicious of democracy?” and he said “Yeah, that’s a good point Brother West, I am suspicious of democracy.” He said democracy is just majority rule, mob rule, look at the founding of the nation when the majority opted to support slavery, etc. Now, democracy is not just majority rule. There can certainly be a tyranny of the majority, and we talked about Tocqueville and things like that. But he was very honest about it. And I made a distinction between liberty and freedom and argued that there has never been such a thing as a black liberty movement – it’s the black freedom movement. Freedom embraces liberty for individuals, but you’re too individualistic, you’re too tied to the atomistic conceptions of society. We believe in solidarity. But that doesn’t mean we’re not committed to rights and liberties for individuals. And that’s where he and I ended up talking about our concerns over drones and so forth.
But I mention that to say that in the midst of these emerging upheavals we need to be true to ourselves. We need to try to build bridges, but we have our sense of moral integrity, what the great Jane Austen called constancy, which is moral and political consistency – something for which you can get in a lot of trouble!
Maisano: You’ve been a consistent critic of the Obama administration and its lack of attention to the plight of the poor. As I’m sure you know, in the State of the Union, he called for raising the minimum wage to $9 and indexing it to inflation, as well as other measures that if implemented – and that’s a very big caveat – would do a little something to address some of the criticisms that you and others have made. Is this too little to late? Do they have any chance of passing Congress? Or is this more symbolic politics in the guise of class politics?
West: I’m not cynical about the brother, though I’m intensely critical of him. When he talks about making sure every four-year-old gets pre-kindergarten, that’s beautiful. That’s something we’ve been talking about for a long time, that’s something that goes back to Michael Harrington and others. When he talks about minimum wage, Ralph Nader has been hitting this issue for the last year – it should really go up to $10 or $10.50. Obama talked about $9.50 and now he’s talking about $9, and I support that.
The problem is that it’s so isolated and minimal in terms of what’s really necessary. And then you go back to the basic moves – bringing in Geithner and Summers and you bail out the banks rather than homeowners and you don’t really support the trade union movement with the Employee Free Choice Act even though you said you would, no serious talk about poverty up until the second inaugural. I applaud him when he does that, but we need to keep pressuring him. He has more intimate relations with the Business Roundtable than he does with us, and as long as that’s the case we need to keep strong, principled pressure on him.
That’s domestic policy, but on foreign policy, when it comes to innocent people and children killed in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen you have to say well, we understand the need to protect the country but that kind of “collateral damage” is morally obscene. It deserves serious criticism from folk who want to be principled when it comes to foreign policy. So that’s the beginnings of my attempt to be morally consistent when it comes to Obama in the White House.
Porter: When you talk about foreign policy, it’s tricky because it’s a very opaque, technocratic policy arena. It’s difficult to discuss. The foreign policy debates were really difficult to watch because it was just two people agreeing with each other for two hours. Bringing pressure on the administration on foreign policy seems much harder than on domestic policy – how could we begin to do that?
West: First, the kind of thing that sister Medea Benjamin, the Code Pink sister, did, speaking outside of the corporate media bubble. Even kind of symbolic acts can make a difference. And when you continually have the Bill Mahers and the others talking about it, making jokes about it, it spills over into the popular culture and it becomes a “legitimate” thing to talk about. What’s going on with these drones? Brennan told us that there wasn’t a single civilian killed in drone strikes – no, the brother’s lying. It’s a risk they’re willing to take if they can get along with it in the collateral damage category. They don’t wake up saying “we’re going to kill children.” They say we’re willing to engage in this kind of warfare with no American soldiers lost and so forth.
And most importantly when it comes to democracy – secrecy, secrecy, secrecy. That was a bold-faced lie that Obama told at the State of the Union the other day about keeping Congress fully informed. Please. Come on, don’t insult our intelligence like that. Even the Congress was sitting up there like “we better not clap to that one.” It’s just not true. And you encourage journalists to be more aggressive. The New York Times has been decent on this, in terms of taking them to court. Thank God for the American Civil Liberties Union! But you’re so right about people being very reluctant to engage in conversations about foreign policy. It’s very true.
Maisano: The president owes his re-election to a very significant extent to African-American, Latino, and Asian-American turnout. What has he done to deserve that support? What must he do to repay that loyalty?
West: As a democratic socialist, as a deep democrat, I try not to look at our society as a collection of interest groups. The tradition that produced me, the black freedom movement, has fundamentally been about justice for everybody. The problem has been, when you begin with justice for everybody, on the chocolate side of town, we tend to be those catching more hell. Indigenous people, Latinos, black folks, so on. So the justice for everybody is going to have a tremendous impact, but I start there. So I’m not really obsessed with him doing something special for black people. I want him to talk about justice as much as about growth. I want him to talk about fairness as much as he talks about growth. And when you’re fundamentally concerned about justice, you’re going to wind up doing a whole lot more for people who are being treated more unjustly than others in the society.
What he thinks is he’s following his interest group articulation model, singing a bit of Al Green, dropping some crumbs at black colleges, “OK, I’ve taken care of that interest group, let me go on to the next one.” But that’s not what it’s about. Same is true when he goes to AIPAC. It’s not about interest groups. The question is “What does it mean to have a just situation in the Middle East?” You’ve got to have security for Jewish brothers and sisters, and you’ve got to also make sure you’ve got fairness for Palestinians because any occupation needs to be called into question. It could be China occupying Tibet, Morocco occupying Western Sahara, it’s about fairness you see. That would be the kind of language I would want to use coming out of the tradition I come out of. But you know, most black leaders don’t use that kind of language anymore. We’ve got such shameful silence among black leaders, and such shameful capitulation to the neoliberal politics of the black president.
Maisano: Someone like Corey Booker comes to mind.
West: I hear he’s running for Senate now! He came out, huh? Wow. But it’s a whole slew of them.
Maisano: This brings me back to something that we talked about earlier – the splitting of class-based and identity politics. To what extent do you think those of us on the Left have been complicit in that, in privileging gains on the basis of ascriptive identity as opposed to a justice-for-all project, a class project?
West: DSA is in no way perfect, but we’ve always put the class character of American society at the center of things. We recognize that identity politics not only has its place, but also is real. Male supremacy is real. It’s a lie, but it’s very entrenched in our society and has to be hit head on. In DSA, the feminist voices have always connected the issue back to the society’s class character. The same has been true of Manning Marable and myself, running Third World Socialist, the magazine we ran for a while, or brother Duane Campbell, the brother who’s always connecting Latino politics to class politics.
But it’s also true that class politics was superseded among progressives as a whole. In DSA, we held on to our identities, but we were in no way in control of that broader shift. We’ve held on for so long, and one of the reasons why we’re able to grow now is that we’ve been consistent, we really have. You always have the Red Left, my brother Carl Dix and the others with whom I work very closely, who say “you’re just pink social democrats, not really revolutionaries. We like that you talk about class but you don’t talk about empire enough.” That’s a good dialogue. That’s a good discussion. We learn something from anarchists. We have a deep suspicion of the authoritarian tendencies of the nation-state, so rights and liberties are very important. We have our own identities, and people can go at it in different ways.
Some people say “You’re too tied to the Democratic party. Oh my God, how can you be on the tail end of that neoliberal vampire?” You get that a lot too. We have never been in loooove with the Democratic party. But we live in America, got a two-party system. You’ve got to make a choice. Sometimes some of us go outside, sometimes some of us stay inside. We probably had some Jill Stein folks in DSA, I’m sure. And that’s fine, absolutely.
Svart: DSA is indeed growing, but what can we do to best relate to this new political moment? The world has radically changed since DSA was founded, and especially with more youth getting involved in “adult” DSA locals, what should be done?
West: Some days I think, well, it is going to be a matter of the authoritarian state and the imperial presidency that’s going to be the most serious issue for us to confront. Hey, in 1976, Gerald Ford, responding to the Church Report, said that never again would America participate in the assassination of people from other countries. And you think my God, we’ve reached a point where Gerald Ford is on the cutting edge of freedom in America! We got a problem! So my hunch is that this libertarian side of our democratic socialist politics will emerge more and more, I really do. And I think that’s connected to the New Jim Crow and the activism especially among young people of color around stop-and-frisk policies and what have you. So those are the two things that come to mind.
But we have to defend our unions. We have to defend our teachers’ unions. We’ve got to stand tall with them and let them know that they will not be isolated and marginalized. There’s something about being in a union that alters your consciousness, even if you get bad contracts.
Beth Cozzolino: One of the things I’ve been amused by is the Republican party’s attempts to appeal to the Latino electorate. To me, I feel like that’s impossible because racism is so crucial to conservative ideology. What do you think will come of these efforts?
West: What I find most disturbing about it when you talk about immigration policy, when you talk about perceptions of our Latino brothers and sisters, is that it has nothing to do with numbers. At all. It’s a moral question. It’s not just because they’re voting in growing numbers, and now you’re back to interest group articulation, back to Machiavellian politics. It’s a moral question. We want a fair immigration policy. We don’t care if you have ten Latinos, we don’t care if you have 30 million. The same is true with our indigenous brothers and sisters. The same is true with black folk. It’s a matter of justice, and we need to tell our Latino brothers and sisters that. We want a just immigration policy from the beginning.
And people say “Who really pushed the president over?” Well, 56 percent of women voted for him, they pushed him over too. Ninety percent of blacks. Jewish brothers and sisters came through strong as always. Who really pushed him over? Well, they all did. But do they sit in the White House and ask “well, who pushed us over the most?” What’s just Barack? Oh, forgot about that question.
Maisano: When you look out at the current political landscape, it’s easy to be pessimistic about the future, whether you’re talking about the labor movement, the weakness of the Left, or impending ecological disruptions that will be coming sooner rather than later. But what’s going on out there, not just in DSA but generally, that gives you grounds for hope?
West: An older brother like me, I find tremendous hope when I see folks like yourself, the younger generation that realizes there’s a long tradition to build on and creatively appropriate in light of what it means to love people and love justice and love your neighbor. And I see that all over the country. Out in Oregon where I was – it’s all young folks. I was at a conference on justice, 1200 of them [inside] and 300 overflow. At Ann Arbor, same thing. Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, packed. There’s an awakening taking place, but it’s taking all kinds of different forms. A lot of it’s moral, some of it’s spiritual, some of it’s political, some is economic, some is concerned about ecological catastrophe, but that’s a positive thing to see. For me, that gives me tremendous hope. That Michael Harrington and Frances Fox Piven and Stanley Aronowitz and Barbara Ehrenreich and Bogdan Denitch and others did not struggle in vain. That is a delightful thought! Those brothers and sisters have a legacy through you all.
Cornel West is an honorary chair of DSA; professor emeritus of African American studies at Princeton and professor of religious philosophy and Christian studies at Union Theological Seminary; and author of 19 books including his latest, with Tavis Smiley: The Rich and the Rest of Us (2012).
Picture credit: Phil Easton.
This interview appears in the spring issue of Democratic Left magazine, to which DSA members have an automatic subscription. You can join DSA here.