Cornel West: There Is No Progressive Politics Without Internationalism

Cornel West

As wars ratchet up across the globe and the ecological crisis wreaks widespread havoc, internationalist politics is more necessary than ever. Cornel West explains why the fight for climate justice must join with an anti-militarist movement now.

“Nationalism is the most powerful ideology in the modern world.” (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Interview by
Srećko Horvat

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 have become known as the Los Angeles riots. These riots are considered to have galvanized Cornel West’s most influential book, Race Matters, published the following year.

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, spoke with West about internationalism, solidarity in the multipolar world, and the dangers of a rapidly changing climate.

Srećko Horvat

You have written extensively about, and been inspired by, revolutionary internationalism. Whether Frantz Fanon, Ali Shariati, Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, 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 that internationalism needs today if it wants to be more than an empty word?

Cornel West

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 center 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 history, structure, and psychoanalysis. It begins with understanding the forces at work across the globe, as well as the central moments within a particular historical era, such as the age of Europe (1492–1945) and the age of the United States (1945–).

At present, the American empire spells deep trouble, disintegration, decay, decadence, organized greed at the top, and institutionalized fear monopolized 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 multinational and international solidarity is all about. Without institutional capacity, even the grandest international visions remain in the abstract. These visions have to be embodied, they have to be enacted, and they have to be institutionalized.

Srećko Horvat

In recent years — with the pandemic, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine, and this war between the United States and NATO and Russia — the US empire’s influence has been declining and is in decay. The world order which existed after the Second World War, organized around the United States as the most powerful country, is also collapsing. What we are also witnessing is a multipolar 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 this new, multipolar order developing in the near future, and how do you see the declining role of the United States?

Cornel West

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 program or 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 United States, 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-woman, anti-gay, anti-lesbian, and anti-trans. These are galvanizing and energizing a significant number of my fellow citizens who are deeply misled but also fearful; many of them are economically suffering.

Srećko Horvat

Recently, the German government, for instance, decided to invest €100 billion into arms, which represents a U-turn from its policy following the Second World War. Today, even the so-called pacifists who speak against war also promotes the arms industry. Elsewhere in Europe, more walls are being built and investment in the military is spiking. How do you see the rapid militarization of Europe?

Cornel West

As Europe escalates its own anxiety about its safety, it first has to deal with its own internal neofascist movements, which are usually anti-immigration, given the massive movement of precious human beings due to catastrophes in various parts of the world.

Second, 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 neofascist elites who are in control and concerned about the Russian empire being gloriously based on its past, Ukraine being a part of it, and Ukraine not existing. This is the typical colonizing 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 colonization 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 United States.

Srećko Horvat

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 saw rising temperatures and extreme weather in India and Pakistan too, not to mention many other symptoms of climate breakdown. I would say that, in the ’70s and ’80s, when you had a strong antinuclear movement, it was at the same time an antiwar movement. It was connected. The anti–Vietnam War movement worked alongside the antinuclear organization. But today, the climate movement isn’t necessarily an antiwar movement, and the antiwar movement isn’t necessarily a movement for climate action. How might these different but complementary movements come together and unite to form a much stronger movement?

Cornel West

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. We’ve got to have a coming together of the antiwar 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 Worker 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 antiwar 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.