Cornel West: 'Internationalism is the starting point'
In 1992, four white policemen were acquitted by a jury of assaulting Rodney King, an African American man, despite video-footage showing them repeatedly beating King on the ground while he lay unarmed. The verdict sparked protest and violence on the streets in what has become known as the Los Angeles Riots. These riots are considered to have galvanised Cornel West’s most influential book, Race Matters (1993).
West is among the most distinguished scholars today on race, African American cultural theory, critical thought, music, religion, and philosophy. He has authored several seminal texts, including Democracy Matters (2004), and, more recently, Black Prophetic Fire (2014). West has held numerous professorships and fellowships including at Harvard and Princeton.
This week, Srećko Horvat, a member of the Progressive International’s Cabinet, talks with West about internationalism, solidarity in the multi-polar world, and the dangers of a rapidly changing climate.
Srećko: You have written extensively about, and been inspired by, revolutionary internationalism. Whether Frantz Fanon, Ali Shariati, Karl Marx, Rosa Luxembourg, Emma Goldman, Martin Luther King, or others. So, my first question is: what have you learned from them? What can we learn from them today? What are the kinds of pertinent, potent revolutionary ideas which internationalism needs today if it wants to be more than an empty word?
Cornel: For me, internationalism is always a starting point because, without it, you’re not going to be able to see a number of things, including the limitations and shortcomings of your own government – especially its domestic and foreign policy. Today, nationalism is the most powerful ideology in the modern world, where nation-states sit at the centre of one's life. It’s got a monopoly on violence and the institutions of public administration, and it shapes the discourse in terms of how people understand their everyday life. Nationalism, to me, is so often an impediment, an obstacle that doesn't allow us to see how nation-states are connected to nation-states and, in my own case, how an empire is connected to other nation-states.
Internationalism is a starting point, not just at a moral and spiritual level but also at an analytical level in terms of historical, structural, and psycho-analysis. It begins with understanding the forces at work across the globe and the central moments within a particular historical moment, such as the age of Europe (1492–1945) and the age of the US (1945–). At present, the American empire spells deep trouble, disintegration, decay, decadence, organised greed at the top, and institutionalised fear monopolised by various politicians. We’ve got a situation with neofascism on the one hand and neoliberalism on the other.
We must have an alternative. And that’s what multi-national and international solidarity is all about at the level of vision, analysis, and organisation. Without institutional capacity, even the grandest international visions remain in the abstract. They have to be embodied, they have to be enacted, and they have to be institutionalised.
Srećko: You mentioned the US empire. What we can see during the last years – with the pandemic, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine, and this war between the US and NATO against Russia – is that the US empire’s influence is declining and is in decay. The world order which existed after the Second World War, organised around the US as the most powerful country, is also collapsing. What we are also witnessing is a multi-polar world. The role of China is becoming more important with the possibility of new conflicts in the Pacific. The map of the world is changing rapidly.
How do you see it developing in the near future, this new multipolar order, and the declining role of the United States?
Cornel: The future is always unfinished, incomplete, and open-ended. The dominant tendencies, as it seems around the globe, are deeply neofascist ones. I hate to be so dim and bleak at this moment, but we don’t have a major intervention that provides a progressive, internationalist, left-vision programme and platform. Then, on the other hand, neoliberalism is so discredited that its legitimacy has been radically called into question, if not shattered. There is grotesque wealth inequality, ugly xenophobia, and unbelievable depression while the pandemic’s consequences are still being felt. People are looking for some alternative to the neoliberal order in the United States and its international manifestations.
In the US, if the dominant tendencies remain in place, then we’re going to be dealing with a fascist coalition built off the power of big money and big military xenophobia. While this especially means white supremacy, it is also anti-Jewish, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-women, anti-gay, anti-lesbian, and anti-trans. These are galvanising and energising a significant number of my fellow citizens who are deeply misled but also fearful; many of them are economically suffering.
In the US, if the dominant tendencies remain in place, then we’re going to be dealing with a fascist coalition built off the power of big money and big military xenophobia.
Srećko: In this context, how do you see the rapid militarisation of Europe? Recently the German government, for instance, decided to invest €100 billion into arms, which is a completely new situation after the Second World War, even though before they had proclaimed ‘never war again’. What we can see today is that even the so-called pacifists, who speak against war, actually talk about weapons and how the arms industry needs to provide more weapons if we want to have peace. Isn’t that a paradox? Over the pond, what does Europe look like from your eyes? You mentioned the age of Europe, when it began colonisation aided by militarisation. How does it look today when Europe is building walls again, investing so much into the military and, through NATO, joining wars of the US?
Cornel: As Europe escalates its own anxiety about its safety, it first has to deal with its own internal neo-fascist movements, which are usually anti-immigration, given the massive movement of precious human beings due to catastrophes in various parts of the world. Secondly, Europe seems to be lurching toward the United States for its security. It’s a desperate reach, as it were, against what appears to be Russian expansionism. Now, I think the invasion and occupation of Ukraine is a crime against humanity, there’s no doubt about that. Russia has its own deep authoritarian and neo-fascist elites who are in control and concerned about the Russian empire being glorious based on its past, Ukraine being a part of it and Ukraine not existing. This is the typical colonising language that you get going back to the early moments of the age of Europe – the people are not there, the land is ours, etc.
I hope Europe will also be in contact with its glorious revolutionary and progressive past. I think it's very important that when you look at the age of Europe, you don't only see colonisation and imperialism, but you also see anti-colonial and revolutionary struggles, critiques of imperialism and capitalism by Marx and Engels, and we can go on… There is a tradition that needs to be recovered and reclaimed, but in solidarity with the anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggles in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and my own imperial country, the US.
Srećko: Lastly, here in Croatia, from where I speak, we are witnessing heat waves. We’re witnessing temperatures much higher than usual in Spain, Portugal, and France. Last month, we witnessed rising temperatures and extreme weather in India and Pakistan too, not to mention many other symptoms of a complete climate collapse. I would say that in the 70s and 80s, when you had a strong anti-nuclear movement, it was at the same time an anti-war movement. It was connected. The anti-Vietnam war movement worked alongside the anti-nuclear organisation. But today, the climate movement isn’t necessarily an anti-war movement, and the anti-war movement isn't necessarily a movement for climate action. How do these different but complementary movements come together and unite into a much stronger movement than what we are witnessing today?
Cornel: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. We’ve got to have a coming together of the anti-war and the climate movement so that the struggle with ecological catastrophe goes hand in hand with the indictment of militarism and predatory capitalism, obsession with profit, squeezing out of nature, workers and anything you can touch in order to generate some kind of commercial and market value.
I was asked to speak last month at Mary House about the great legacy of Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Workers Movement. Her granddaughter Martha had just gotten out of jail because she had poured blood on the nuclear submarines – this is an example of a deep anti-war struggle. As a result, they were arrested and were just released. It was a wonderful celebration. That legacy of Dorothy Day, of Philip Berrigan, of a host of others who always understood the relationship between anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-capitalist – we need to shine a limelight on that. Unfortunately, they didn't receive the kind of attention they deserved.
Now, as you know, we’ve got the Poor People’s Campaign, and part of the message of that campaign is a Dorothy day-like, Martin Luther King-like critique of the ways in which ecological catastrophe goes hand in hand with economic and militaristic catastrophe, and the attack on working people and the trade union movements. It’s an attempt to create that kind of solidarity that has an international vision, global analysis, and strong local praxis. That’s true of Croatia, and that’s true in the belly of the beast, the US empire, where we continue to struggle. Most importantly, though, brother, in the end, the people have the last word.
'The creation of a new international requires the rotation of our minds from North and West to South and East. What makes this turn possible is a union-oriented will to hear the voices of social and political movements in the Global South. If we listen carefully, we hear a voice singing: Give me your hand, tell me your name.'
Golrokh Nafisi is an illustrator, animator, and puppet maker who experiments with performances in public space. Nafisi works through bodies and ideologies to imagine and shape new forms of collective action. You can buy the poster from our workshop and help support the Pl.
Coming up next week: Walden Bello on his arrest and detention
'...people interpret my arrest and detention as a response to my run for vice president against Sara Duterte, daughter of the controversial former president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. It has also been interpreted as the first significant assault on democratic rights under the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who assumed power barely six weeks before. The massive outpouring of support for me, in both the Philippines and internationally, confirms that people realize that it is not only my welfare at stake here; this bogus case presents a major assault on our freedoms...'
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