Understanding Cornel West

Published Date: May 3, 2020 | Topics: Philosophy, Religion

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By Robert George

In an article published in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago, Martin Peretz attributed to Cornel West the view that every social encounter can be reduced to identity and power. Having not only read Professor West’s writings, but also having taught with him at Princeton and discussed social, moral, and political issues with him countless times, both publicly and privately, I can say with certainty that this understanding of  his views is a misunderstanding–a gross misunderstanding. So I sent a letter correcting Mr. Peretz to the WSJ. I’ve been waiting for it to be published, but it is now clear that the editors have decided not to publish it. So I am posting my letter here:

There is a form of leftism that “reduces every social encounter to identity and power,” but Martin Peretz (April 15, 2020, “Bookshelf”) is wrong in attributing that form to Cornel West.  In fact, West’s deeply-held Christian faith, and his devotion to non-reductionist thinkers from Plato and St. Augustine to Martin Buber, Dorothy Day, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, precludes his embracing it. Although he does not hesitate to criticize what he regards as the unjust distribution or use of political and economic power, he is a critic, not a proponent, of the idea that human relationships are inevitably and decisively shaped by power–or identity. He is no disciple of Marx or Foucault. — Robert P. George, Princeton University

Cornel West is a rich, complex, and fascinating thinker–one that people across the political and ideological spectrum can learn from. He is also a widely misunderstood figure. His critics, and sometimes even his allies, mistakenly think he is a conventional sort of leftist. He is certainly a man of the left. But he is certainly not conventional.

An example: West (like his left-wing Harvard colleague and teaching partner Roberto Unger) utterly rejects the “progressive view of history” that has been leftist orthodoxy at least since the time of Marx and which is conventional leftist thinking today. How many times have you heard Barack Obama, for example, claim that people who disagree with him about this or that issue are on “the wrong side of history”? How often have you heard other progressives invoke the “judgment” of history, as if history possessed deific powers to decide, and even define, what is good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust? West has no patience with this nonsense. He has no belief–in fact he rejects the belief–that history inevitably (or even likely) moves in the direction of greater justice, equality, freedom, respect for human dignity, or anything of the kind. And yet sometimes–as with the case of a television interviewer I saw a while back talking with West on a left-leaning news and opinion show–people assume that, as a leftist, he must believe it.

Why doesn’t he believe it? Well, West’s rejection of historical determinism, like his rejection of materialism and his rejection of the reduction of all social relations to identity and power, are grounded in his Christian commitments. This distinguishes him not only from secular progressives but also from many self-identified religious (including Christian) progressives who, whatever their personal devotional practices and self-identification, have abandoned the substance of Christian faith in favor of precisely the views of human nature, the human good, human dignity, human destiny, and history that divide secular progressivism, at the root, from Christianity. West is a socialist–though one that allows more room for the private sector and for civil society than is typical among contemporary socialists–but not a Marxist, not even an inchoate Marxist (or neo-Marxist), as many self-described “Christian socialists” are. Marx’s materialism, historicism, and reduction of social relations to the class struggle (“identity and power”), as well, of course, as his atheism, are rejected, not embraced, by Cornel West. 

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