American philosopher-public intellectual Prof Cornel West comes together with leading Dalit scholar Dr Suraj Yengde to discuss race, caste and politics — questions inflamed in the light of the George Floyd protests in the US, and recurrent incidents of oppression in India.
Indian scholar Suraj Yengde and his mentor, the African-American philosopher and public intellectual Cornel West, come from a long and robust tradition of Dalit-Black solidarity. They come together here, speaking about their ideas of a future freedom, its possible shape, structure…and colour. Edited transcripts from a video conversation, in response to questions from Sunil Menon. The first was, in light of the fact that the present epoch exhibits a strong reactionary trait globally—as if the emancipatory ethos of the last century is being forfeited and reversed—what could be the way forward?
Suraj Yengde: Prof West, you are in Princeton right now and I am here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, two institutional locations which wield a kind of power, their own cultural, social and economic capital. How would we discuss this issue in this age of polarisation that we have created, in light of the George Floyd protests in the US and the multiple crises in India that impinge on the Dalit movement?
Cornel West: Well, first, I would like to say that it is a blessing to be in dialogue with my dear brother, Suraj…that we are part of the rich legacies of Ambedkar and W.E.B. Du Bois, that we come together as voices, as figures, as persons who are willing to live and to die for that quest for truth, beauty, goodness and justice that sits at the centre of what Ambedkar and Dubois stand for. Now, we are in a unique historical moment in terms of the spiritual decay, moral decline, and relative transition of the American empire…moving to a low point, unable to regenerate the best of its democratic tradition. And the Chinese empire, ambiguous, still too repressive, still too locked into forms of domination, but escalating its economic production, trying to elevate itself against tremendous difficulties, until the pandemic hit. Then there’s the Indian and the Russian regimes, trying to sustain themselves. Brazil much further on the side. The UK and France, crucial, but in many ways remaining middling. Therefore the fundamental dynamic taking place in our moment has to do with those four fundamental regimes. All of them, of course, are shot through with forms of repression and domination. But all of them are also shot through with marvellous forms of resistance and critique. And you and I are trying to keep track of the radically democratic streams, the ones genuinely empowering those that Frantz Fanon called ‘the wretched of the earth’. This is why I think our dialogue is so very important. I’m looking at it through the lens of a Black people who have been so thoroughly exploited, degraded and dominated and yet still producing so many freedom fighters and love warriors. You are looking at it from the rich, deep heritage of Dalit brothers and sisters, right there at the centre of the Indian regimes, the ways in which Brahmin supremacy has always lost contact with the humanity of Dalits.
Suraj Yengde: It’s very interesting, even looking at the past century. I see Du Bois as someone who really fashioned twentieth century political thought. That man never stopped, his pen never stopped…you would have needed an industry to provide him ink!
Cornel West: (Laughs)
W.E.B. Du Bois, author and civil rights activist..
Suraj Yengde: And now, in the modern era, in the 21st century, what we see is the politics of Ambedkar and Du Bois resonating, almost 100 years later. I look at this era as someone who has lived a few decades of the 20th century, linking up to the arc of their inspirations, their energies…now that needs to be carried on to the next century. It is no accident that Du Bois and Ambedkar carried so many resonances, though it couldn’t come to fruition as much as we might have expected. But now, if they were to relive, the possibilities and connections would be so strong! Not only because there are vocabularies that can connect us more confidently, but also because of the unfinished business of love that they, our ancestors, inaugurated. One of the parallels we see is of course the Dalit and Black Panthers…the civil rights spirit that the African American public sphere as well as private sphere brought to us, and similarly, the land rights movements led by Dalits. The Dalits are the most landless people of India, 77 per cent of them don’t own any land, which means they have been virtually permanent refugees in the Indian nation. However, this is an era of new appropriations, the politics of development sponsored by neoliberal organizations with international names. These don’t really resonate with the world of the poor people, the internationalism of the oppressed people. For them, it’s not about getting loans or applying for grants to grow grains, when the grains they harvest are not feeding their own people.
Cornel West: It’s true. I think the intellectual greatness of Du Bois and Ambedkar goes hand in hand with their spiritual greatness and their moral greatness. The intellectual greatness is a commitment to an intellectual truth-telling, which keeps track of the suffering of the vulnerable ones, the dominated ones, the oppressed ones. The moral greatness has to do with their fundamental commitment to a compassion, a solidarity with those who are suffering. That requires courage, requires taking a risk. They both took tremendous risks, right? But the spiritual greatness has to do with the vision and imagination of a better world. The authorising of an alternative reality, different from the nightmarish reality oppressed people find themselves in. So we miss both figures at their best if we don’t connect intellectual, moral and spiritual greatness. It’s all of those that take the form of solidarity with movements that are bringing power, bringing pressure to bear on the status quo, on unjust and unfair structures of domination. Part of our call…we’ve been able to work together, struggle together, teach together, I was blessed to write the foreword to your powerful text, Caste Matters. With my Race Matters, that provides a connection rooted in this legacy of Du Bois and Ambedkar. Now, what does that mean concretely? It means we have to begin with an analysis of empire and colonialism. We have to connect any talk about caste and race and color to predatory capitalist groundings with imperial tentacles. And we have to be profoundly critical of any form of patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, any ideology that loses sight of the rich humanity of people, of persons.
And it’s a challenge because it means we have to cut so radically against the grain. We have to get used to being non-conformists. The neo-fascists on the one side, and the neo-liberals on the other, both require serious critique and resistance. The others, the populist forces, the leftist forces…they also must be criticised when they are not democratic, when they’re not allowing for a robust conversation, when they are being intolerant or repressive. In that regard, I think there’s a hunger, a thirst, especially among the younger generation, for this kind of legacy that Du Bois and Ambedkar are bequeathing to us, to which we intend to be faithful unto death.
Suraj Yengde: Indeed, and also in your foreword to Caste Matters, you say how Gandhi cannot be with us in the 21st century, in the way Du Bois and Ambedkar are together with us. But in the initial phase, coloured solidarity worked. But now I think, although the issues remain same, approaches have matured—with more and more people from the dungeons of Dalit ghettos, like myself, are aspiring to get into educational institutions, places where you can build power and connect histories. That brings us to the question of power. How do we utilise power? How do we romance with power? Because our flirtation with power is not necessarily to stay with or marry power. Unless it’s a creative power. Ambedkar emphasises the importance of political power. He is very clear. Unless and until you have political power at your disposal, you can’t make the necessary changes, because you operate in a very strict political framework. We see that happening to the great legacy of the civil rights movement, where we pay tributes to the legacy of the Big Six of the Washington march…Dr John Lewis. I personally had the occasion to spend some time with him twice, and I wanted the Indian audience to know. So I wrote a piece in English as well as in Marathi, my mother tongue, for the people to know. That, you know, it’s work in progress. People in India know that Suraj Yengde is in touch with, and works together with, Professor Cornel West…so they have immediate markers to connect, which was not possible before. People initially would have a literary connect. Dalit scholars, when they wrote anything about Black issues, it was mostly via readings of Langston Hughes or the people who wrote about the Harlem Renaissance. But now they have something concrete…young boys and girls with access to the internet, watching us speak, for instance. They can relate immediately. And they can feel happy that these two people—one Black man and one Dalit man are actually trying to fuse something, trying to create a vision for the next generation.
This brings us to the question of power. Prof West, you moved from your early endorsement of Obama to rather trenchant critique. Do we see it as a historic chance bungled…or worse, a alternate vision that actually sharpened the Alt Right?
Suraj Yengde: We see the success of people, like Obama, and Prof West, your initial rallies…and then the striking reference people across the world have about Cornel West is when you had called him a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface”. That’s the kind of politics I also embrace. I wouldn’t want to be dishonest to poor people’s experiences. I don’t want to compromise my grandmother’s tears. They come with a whole history of pain. She’s not just crying herself, she’s crying for sixty generations of tears that never were given a chance to be seen. So, in this, this…this beautiful moment of revival, rejection, appropriation, we see a new historical archive is being made. But there is a fear also, where perhaps a new Alt Right vision has been sharpened. I don’t make a difference between Alt Right and Liberal Right…for me Right is Right, because Right has never been right. So in our wrestling with…our critiquing of our own political spaces, in quote unquote exposing them, there is always this fear that you are actually creating more giving more arsenal to the Right. How do we then place ourselves?
Cornel West: I think one is that the Ambedkar-Du Bois tradition claims that there can be no intellectual quest for truth, or spiritual quest for goodness, or moral quest for compassion, without engaging with the plight and predicament of Dalit brothers and sisters. Just as in the American empire, there can be no intellectual, moral and spiritual quest for truth, goodness and beauty without wrestling with the plight of Black people, indigenous people, brown people. Now what does that mean? It means we have to be very candid about the sources of domination in the American past and present, in the Indian past and present. So you have to tell a story about the British Empire, and the Indian resistance, about predatory capitalism and neo-imperialism. You have to tell a story about patriarchy. You have to tell a story about any form of domination that inhibits precious Black folk and Dalit folk from living lives of decency and dignity. That’s what it means to be true to our grandmothers and grandfathers, to be true to their suffering, their resistance, about the institutional sources of their sorrow, and about the institutional and personal resources that provide joy…. And it’s always a matter of domination and resistance. Unbelievable sorrow, and yet the courage to find joy and love. And love of course is at the very centre of this, for both of us. For both Ambedkar and Du Bois. Martin King, of course, is crucial here.
I want to come here to John Lewis. He was one of the greatest disciples of Martin Luther King Jr and Jim Lawson. Jim Lawson, at 91 years of age, gave the most magnificent, the greatest eulogy at John Lewis’s funeral this April. He remembered the tradition that produced John Lewis in the face of the US apartheid, in the face of Jim Crow laws, in the face of American terrorists…John Lewis, the young man coming out of Troy, Alabama, with his mother and father. He was ordained a Baptist minister as a teenager, like Martin Luther King Jr, and he was willing to give his life in the face of one of the most vicious forms of White supremacist domination in the modern world. Now, this is what you will not hear in most of the US press, once John Lewis made the move from heroic freedom fighter to liberal and neoliberal politician, there was a continuity…because he was a lovely man, a kind man, critical of certain forms of discrimination as it related to voting, and to his own liberal/neoliberal politics, but he lost some of his revolutionary fire. So, like Barack Obama, he was close to Wall Street, he didn’t have a major critique of Wall Street. He didn’t have a major critique of US drones and bombs that were dropped on Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places. He didn’t have a major critique of the militarism of the US government abroad, the imperial tentacles. So he became a darling of the neoliberal Democratic Party because of his magnificent freedom fighting against apartheid in his earlier years. I love brother John Lewis very much. But I was very critical of him as a neoliberal politician, like Obama. If we’re going to be true to Du Bois and Ambedkar, to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, we’ve got to engage in genuine intellectual truth-telling. And that has to be very critical of neoliberal politics, no matter what colour.
I would say the same thing about the latter years of Nelson Mandela. He is one of the greatest, towering freedom fighters of the 20th century. But as he moved into electoral politics, he began to promote neoliberal policies…. People say, ‘oh my god, how can anybody be critical of Mandela, we love him, his example is so overwhelming’, but precisely for that we have to be true to the early Mandela. When we criticise John Lewis, the neoliberal politician, we have to be true to the early John Lewis. He had a revolutionary speech that the Kennedy administration had to censor, he had to rewrite it…the Kennedy administration checked every word of every speech. That’s why Malcolm X called the Great March “a picnic in Washington”! John Lewis was very upset. He was the youngest speaker, 23 years old…that’s the John Lewis I’m connected to, the one I love. I’ve got to be true to Du Bois, Ambedkar, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and others.
Is it possible to find a ‘universalist’ language for justice, for leadership from oppressed sections? In what terms would you reconcile forms of politics like Marxism, which claim to be universalist and claim to articulate everyone’s interests, with politics rooted in identity—Blackness, even Christianity, Dalit politics? Both sides see each other with suspicion….
Suraj Yengde: Prof West, I come here to the language you deploy. People might label you as a Marxist thinker, as someone who’s talking the language of Marxism. If I use that language, talking working class solidarity or poor people’s struggles, I am also labelled a Marxist thinker, and then there is such a pungent reaction. Whether you are Marxist or not becomes a secondary thing. The first thing is, how do you even bring this discourse? So, fighting against an anti-war discourse, talking about the big money that exploits poor people…in the language of a rogue Bush administration, “you’re with us or against us”. How do you then provide these observations without being entangled in those cobwebs?
What I speak to here is also Ambedkar. He had a huge critique of Marx, simply because he disagreed with Marxist techniques of using violence. That’s why he juxtaposed Marx with Buddha. He said, both talk about eradication of miseries and poverty. Similarly, you look at Jesus Christ through this very critical and important lens…a poor people’s hero, if you will.
Cornel West: One must be true to oneself. There’s this wonderful line in Brothers Karamazov…“Don’t lie to yourself.” We have to speak the tradition that is inside of us, as we find our voices in that tradition. So whatever titles and labels people will put on me, it doesn’t matter. I know I am a Jesus-loving, free Black man, a revolutionary Christian who is doing all that I can to preserve, and to give form to a love of truth and love of justice in my short life, and I go anywhere I can for intellectual, political and spiritual weaponry, in order to be, in the language of John Coltrane, a real force for good…or to leverage my own Christian tradition, to be someone who’s in the world, but not of the world, who’s always trying to look for a better world. Karl Marx himself was one of the greatest secular prophets of the 19th century, precisely because he was fundamentally concerned about the unnecessary social misery forced on the masses of working people. There’s much I can learn from him. As much as I can learn from others who have learned from him in the Marxist tradition. That doesn’t make me a Marxist at all, not at all. It makes me concerned about capitalism, because it is a system in which there’s a structure of domination of working people who are exploited, and bosses who are not accountable. The same is true with forms of nationalism. You see, as a revolutionary Christian, I never put any flag over the Cross. That Cross stands for unarmed truth, and the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. It’s unconditional love. So that’s my tradition. That’s my trajectory. Like a jazz man or a blues woman, I find my voice, I lift my voice, I remain in solidarity with others. You find your voice in the light of your own R.O.O.T.S., the best of your roots, while being critical of the worst. I’m critical of the worst of my roots, but those roots allow us to travel together in solidarity, with my Dalit brothers and sisters, with working-class Indians, with my brothers and sisters in Kashmir, with the landless peasants in Brazil, with the Jews in Russia, with the Palestinians who are under vicious Israeli occupation, with my Roma brothers and sisters in Europe, with my indigenous brothers and sisters in Canada and the USA, in Latin America. There’s no way, in the end, that I could really be viewed as a Marxist because I believe in the primacy of morality. And the centrality of spirituality. My Marxist comrades, they say you put too much stress on the moral and the spiritual, brother West. I say, I understand, we have fascinating conversations, we have disagreements about that. But if we’re both fundamentally concerned about the misery of working people, we’re going to have overlaps, but the labels are not going to work.And I’m not gonna call them Christian either, because they’re not Christian. They’re my brothers, my sisters, they’re my comrades.And this is true of anybody who is fundamentally concerned about empire, predatory capitalism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, White supremacy and so forth.
Suraj Yengde: So what we see is, there’s a splintering of consciousness, in a philosophical sense, of the oppressed people right now. Everybody sees things via their vantage points. We have multiple victims operating side by side, and solidarity does not always happen spontaneously, as we saw in the George Floyd moment, the protests that erupted with Black Lives Matter. There’s also a genuine critique from some circles about some of the NGO-based activism that too wants to derive its own strength. And I think there’s a popular sense, almost a kind of commandment, that people who live on the margins will have to make do with whatever the ruling class wants them to do. And that you really cannot challenge them because you’re helpless. Even though we try to present their bodies as something very efficient, to topple any kind of oppression, that just doesn’t happen. In a way, what’s happening is, certain revolutionary ideas are getting refashioned but also, I fear, at least in the Indian context, radical ideas are getting labelled as such and then they are imprisoned. So we have courageous activists who talked about poor people, who fought for their freedom, now languishing in prison under flimsy charges of being anti-State, that’s working against anybody who worked in that tradition; very much what we had in America.
Do we emphasise structural disempowerment, or go deeper, to the roots: ‘ethnic otherness’, biological racism? And how, in the latter, would the larger Indian-American community figure: a prosperous professional class hitherto aloof from politics, with its class/caste interests now showing through….
Suraj Yengde: That connects to the other plane of activism, the second one, which is when we come to America, where we have a South Asian or Indian ‘model minority’ already operating in this space. The younger generation is wrestling with the question of their racial or racist upbringing vis-à-vis the Black problem, but also caste, the Dalit problem, and I think there has to be a coming out. But then, Prof West, we also see the Republicans have huge support from the Hindu community. And one of the basic ways in which we look at it is, Hinduism is a 19th century construct; before that it was always Brahminism. They always promoted the idea of Brahmin supremacy through their native practices. We have so many castes…close to 10,000 castes! And each caste has its subcastes and each subcaste has its own gods, its own forms of worship, their own ancestors that they bow to…. But all of a sudden, their independent religious practices were colonised. Eventually, to consolidate an anti-imperial unity, a Hindu identity worked very well. But in private practices, none of the castes observe, worship or even offer fasting like the others. There are very significant differences.
Now in America, we have caste discrimination cases coming out, which is fascinating on various levels. Is there a way where a Dalit-led solidarity gets global attention, just like Black-led solidarity got global attention in this space? Obviously, one can relate to the Black-and-Whiteness of this whole program of global oppression. But the oppression of Dalits is not, quote unquote, biological in a very eugenicist way, if you will. How does then one reconfigure this? I do have a short answer to this. I’m looking at the people, the victims of global oppression through this frame. I read this when I went to South Africa for my PhD…the people who were enslaved and sent across the Atlantic were the lowest caste people of West Africa.
Cornel West: Ah…
Suraj Yengde: And right now, that thesis is actually coming out more prominently. There was a fantastic New Yorker piece…there were slave owners who were Black people, who already had slaves, when the negotiation for slave trade came. This pattern is in a way written all across. So the way I look at it is, the lowest castes…the Dalits of Africa were the victims of the slave trade. Not necessarily the elites, who retained their power structures. And some of them from among the old elite of Africans are now trying to, you know, visualise their own complicity in this. And even from those who were enslaved…so there’s a whole conversation building up around this. So I’m looking at it as a question of the global Dalit and the global Brahmin. Where you know, the Brahmin class and Dalit class exists across societies, we just call it by different names. In America, one might call it something, there’s a structure and its history….
Cornel West: Right…
Suraj Yengde: And Isabel Wilkerson has been advocating now, through her fantastic book, about seeing it as a caste system, she calls it the very cardinal principle, the core of this. So I want to come to 21st century politics. The last century was about anti-colonial politics. From that we had Orientalism et al. Now, in the 21st century, there are new academic debates coming forward. That’s the way I am trying to think through the broader canons of human liberation.
Cornel West: I think what you’re saying is fascinating, these new discussions about the varieties of caste and racism—tied to predatory capitalism, especially highly financialised forms now of capitalism—moving toward the centre of academic reflection. But because I put a primacy on morality and spirituality as a revolutionary Christian, I began with the notions of the abolition of any form of caste, the abolition of White supremacy, the fundamental transformation of predatory capitalism, the attenuation of imperial tentacles of empires, and the democratisation of any empire into citizen-run, worker-run social regimes. So I cannot but be then a certain kind of revolutionary Christian, or Christian revolutionary.
For me the crucial thing, though, is that in the end we’re not just dealing with systems and institutions, as important as they are. But we’re talking about greed, and indifference to other people’s suffering, and corruption. Now these are phenomena of the human heart that get gripped and transfigured by systems and institutions. This is why Dostoevsky and Kafka and Toni Morrison and Eugene O’Neill and Anton Chekov…and why, the blues singers…Ma Rainey, or Aretha Franklin, or Curtis Mayfield, or John Coltrane become indispensable. Because they remind us that, as vicious as these systems and institutions of domination are—caste, race, class, gender—we also have to understand the ways in which they are operating in the very, very grim precincts of the human heart. And this has to do with human beings who have feelings, ideas and insecurities in the face of death.
We must be able to tell stories of why it is that we human beings have been so creative in coming up with systems of cruelty and barbarity and domination…and then the great courage, the vision, the imagination to fight those systems, in order to undertake the massive dismantling of those forms, of caste, of racism, of predatory capitalism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia. So it’s always an uphill battle. And that’s what it means to be in the world, but not of it, to be transformative in this world. To always leave some kind of blow for love and justice. My old Black church tradition says if the kingdom of God is within you, then everywhere you go, you ought to leave a little heaven. And the heaven you leave behind in a hellish world is one of love, justice, integrity, honesty, beauty, sacrifice, courage, to be willing to be crucified, be willing to be assassinated…character assassination, literal assassination. Because that’s the witness you want to enact in the short life that you live. And that’s Ambedkar, that’s Du Bois, that’s Martin Luther King, that’s a whole wave of Black people, Dalit people, and some courageous Brahmins too! Those courageous Brahmins who fight against Brahmin supremacy, in the name of wanting to be decent human beings, or White people who fight White supremacy, because they want to be decent human beings. But we must always connect it to capital, to empire, or we’ll miss out on what’s going with caste and race and gender.
Suraj Yengde: I think the forms of oppression that we operate in…the idea is not to mention them as catalogue entries but to recognise the humanity of each group that forms the wonderful universe that we co-inhabit.
Cornel West: That’s right…
Suraj Yengde: And I think there has to be a new word—perhaps a lengthy word with no commas or hyphens, Dalit, Black, woman, which doesn’t end, a long, difficult word, but I think it has to be musical, and adaptable, because I, and my dignity, is as valuable as that of a Black man or woman. If a Black man, or woman, or anyone of the different genders and sexualities gets oppressed, that is part of me. That I think cannot be reduced to a comma or a hyphenated solidarity. It needs to be uttered as part of the same breath. In one breath one has to identify all the oppressed! At least to maintain a true ground where we all draw our true inspirations. And I think the names you mentioned…Dostoevsky, Toni Morrison, Chekov…probably what we need now is a library of a shared solidarity, where these ideas don’t just remain confined to one canon but get lifted up to every other space. As they say, ideas are like floating air, and whoever breathes it produces other ideas, another idea. What we need now, Prof West, is more ideas for us to really connect, and I’m more interested in how to shape 21st century thought, so that the 22nd century that we will bequeath has something more solid and profound than what our predecessors gave us.
Cornel West: That’s why I’m looking forward to teaching our class at Harvard together, so I can learn from you! We learn from each other, we revel in each other’s humanity, with laughter, with tears, sorrow…we resist domination, but in the end we keep the smile on our faces because we come from a great people!