Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Challenge of Jesse Jackson - Notes from Cornel West

Cornel West, keynote speaker at the Martin Lut...Image via Wikipedia

Cornel West,  “The Challenge of Jesse Jackson,” 1984

Notes and annotations by Alfred Snider

America began as a liberal capitalist nation permeated with patriarchal and racial oppression.
American liberalism is not about opposing feudal systems, as in Europe, but on creating opportunities to accumulate private property, and thus at home with the domination of African descendants and women.
America embodied ideals of bourgeois freedom (property owning, accumulate capital, speak ones mind, and equal opportunity with racist and sexist constraints.
When the white male non-property owners got the vote without having to organize a mass movement for it, they became eternally in allegiance to the existing political order.
Extraordinary American productivity owing to technology, natural resources and the importation of labor (like slaves) enabled considerable upward social mobility for many. Lower classes subscribe to the “rags to riches” theory even though they may be excluded for racial and ethnic reasons.

The American left attempts to call into question the consensus of the liberal American ideology on behalf of the disenfranchised and disadvantaged.
There are seven historical elements of the American left:
Civic republicanism
Trade unionism
Socialism (including communism and anarchism)
And Black Radicalism

Civic Republicanism: Important mostly for its presence in political discourse, the idea of an ideal democracy where all citizens participate.  Yearns for a utopian polis of equal citizens. Rarely surfaces in an organizational form, does not mobilize people to action and change.

Populism: Those who are oppressed and are a majority need to rise up to have their needs met. Examples: farmers, exploited tenant laborers, victimized workers. Focuses on centralization as an enemy and large institutions as villains. Chain stores and mail order crowd out local businesses, large corporations hurt small companies, etc. Huey Long & Father Coughlin.  But it mostly tried top use federal power to stop these other centralized forces, which were inherently in league with them. Populism was weak because it also embraced xenophobia and isolationism, and feared “the other.”

Trade Unionism: was not class-consciousness as much as craft consciousness. It tried to mobilize workers, but focused on white male workers. It focused on large top-down organizations and bought into foreign policies that reflected xenophobia, especially fear of communism. New progress is being made by a focus on women and workers of color. The left probably cannot be regenerated in America without the contribution of labor.

Communitarianism: utopian radicalism that is proud of its utopianism. American society cannot be transformed, but we can build new communities around principles we embrace. These communities naturally presupposed ideological and cultural homogeneity.

Feminism: Most impressive contemporary movement in America.  Rooted in abolitionist movement of 19th Century and the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.  Biggest contribution is to show how taken for granted natural everyday affairs and language can be oppressive, in this case to women. This is deeply transformative to many.  Although divided into different camps, it is highly able to influence the future of the American left.

Socialism: Not indigenous to America, but came over as a European import. Populist socialist movements like that of Eugene V. Debs thrived, but also resisted incorporating people of color early on. It was poisoned by the existence of the Soviet Union in the minds of many.  The communist movement actually successful recruited many African Americans but still had the poison of Soviet linkage. The “rags to riches’ myth also undercut it substantially.

Black Radicalism: It has been bred in a unique black Christian culture, but is always seen as different from more European isms. Divided as integrationist, assimilationist, or nationalist has not helped.  Opportunism (scrambling for crumbs) has often been its downfall, from Douglass to Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King.


In a time of political triumph by the right in the 1980’s, many in the left still held black radicalism at arm’s length.  This was true of the Jackson campaign. He has the first really serious black candidate for president and gained well over 20% of the vote and showed well in polls, also attracting Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and whites. But the American left kept its distance.

African Americans finally had some political success in Chicago and in NYC (Adam Clayton Powell), but their strength remained in urban areas and in gaining some seats in congress. Jackson sought to go far beyond this, to have a national campaign, yet this effort was based on his ability to broker with democratic party elites. Jackson’s attempt to build new institutions such as the Rainbow Coalition were limited, because:
1. Jackson’s charismatic style accentuates enthusiastic attraction to him but not to creating enduring structures.
2. The black supporters that are the main pillar of his movement find it difficult to engage in prolonger political organization.
3. Allegiance to the democratic party diffuses energy that could be spent on political mobilization.

Jackson was very successful in the primaries. This is because his opponents had ceded much of the liberal left positions to him in a race to the middle of the American electorate.
He focused on updating New Deal programs to a post-industrial America.
In foreign policy he rejected knee-jerk anti-communism, demanded attention to the situation in South Africa (ignored by many), he sided with third world revolutionary movements and against US support for dictatorships.
More importantly, he rejected US favoritism towards Israel and called for recognition of the needs of Arab states and specifically the Palestinian people.  Other candidates towed a pro-Israel line.
Jackson was damaged by his association with Louis Farrakhan and his unfortunate statement about NYC being “Hymietown.” These associations and policies were interpreted by the media and “Anti Israel, anti Jewish.”
The black political class would not endorse Jackson, thus ensuring that the more radical forces who did would stand out to others.

But, Jackson did create the broadest and largest political front of a Black nature since the days of Martin Luther King. His ability to harness the energies of Black Baptists was a good example of this.

The result is that although no one expected him to win, it was a coming of age for Black politics. If it could have caught on with other democrats, it could have made a huge difference and saved the waiting until Barack Obama in 2008.
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