Bernie Sanders, Cornel West, and the Failure of Left-Liberal Leadership

(Credit: AP/John Locher/Richard Drew)

(Credit: AP/John Locher/Richard Drew)


One Struggle Grinnell was asked to co-sponsor the Iowa for Bernie Sanders meeting with Dr. Cornel West this weekend. While we are heartened to see someone who decries the “class war on poor and working people” speak in Grinnell, we have seen it best to decline the offer of co-sponsorship. West’s support of the Sanders campaign is yet one more example of the failure of the left-liberal intelligentsia to provide a response to the very capitalist class war it rhetorically condemns.

In 2007, West introduced then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama as “my brother, my companion, and my comrade” before a “yes-we-can-ing” crowd of more than 1,000 supporters in New York. Four years later, West called President Obama “the black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs” and said he wanted to “slap him on the side of his head.”

What led to this change of heart? Was he merely deceived by the (false) promise of the Obama campaign, or was there something more to this 180 degree turn? West is a formidable intellectual and committed activist with a passionate zeal for justice. It’s difficult to say that he was simply “duped” by Obama’s faux progressivism. Indeed, West’s inability to offer a coherent and consistent political line has little to do with any personal deficiency. Rather, this lack of coherency and consistency is woven into the very fiber of the radical petite bourgeois’ social being.

As a class, the petite bourgeoisie is non-antagonistically dominated by capital and, thus, focuses its politics on the effects rather than the causes of capital’s reproduction. Instead of identifying the irreconcilable antagonism between labor and capital as the driving reproductive force of capitalism, the petite bourgeoisie obfuscates contradictions under capitalism with terms like “the 99%,” “the billionaire class,” and other empty populist slogans. Indeed, while West correctly denounces the class war waged upon workers, he fails to articulate a political strategy guided by working class leadership, one with the potential to address and overturn the fundamental contradiction.

Without a grounding in proletarian leadership and theory, the petite bourgeoisie’s political line is subject to haphazard changes and superficial “solutions.” An example: after his about-face on Obama, West said that he “couldn’t vote for a war criminal” in 2012 and summed up Obama’s reign as a “drone presidency.” But surely Sanders is a candidate who will take the “high ground” rather than Obama’s “middle ground” (to use West’s moralistic prose)? Speaking of the very same drones used to remotely immolate “terrorists” (and anyone near them), while giving their operators rates of PTSD rivalling those of foot soldiers, Sanders replied affirmatively when asked if he would continue using drones if U.S. interests demanded it. It’s unclear whether West has revised his stance on “drone presidency” (or presidencies?) or if he will derive enjoyment from watching yet another presidential “prophet” fall from grace.

West’s rhetoric about poor and working people is already at odds with “Brother Sanders’” rationale for a presidential bid: in Sanders’ own words, “I’m running for a declining middle class.” Because West fails to assert the political imperative of working class leadership, his talk of workers’ plight is hollow and ephemeral, subject to revision by the latest populist petite bourgeois figurehead to emerge from the quadrennial election spectacle.

Bernie Sanders as an individual is an utterly inadequate substitute for the mass struggle necessary to rein in capital’s most ruinous effects. More importantly, at this historical juncture, working to merely curb capital’s effects is futile. While capitalism has played a progressive historical role in certain contexts, as it faces us now, it is devoid of any redeeming qualities.

At present, humanity and the planet face two divergent paths: communism or self-annihilation. It is solely in proletarian revolution that the path to communism can be forged in dynamic and ever-adapting practice. This requires building connections with workers, creating autonomous workers’ organizations, and, ultimately, seizing the means of production and ending all forms of capital accumulation, circulation, and concentration. This task is abstract but not utopian and can only be completed through arduous and ceaseless daily struggle.




  1. campus conservative

    November 12, 2015 at 10:42 AM


  2. angry but also left

    November 14, 2015 at 6:33 PM

    if you’re writing for the proletariat, maybe you should write so the proletariat can understand. this article is the bourgeoisie.

  3. A first step to connecting with Americans is to drop the timeworn old-left terminology, and sound to them like a fellow citizen.

  4. Georgetown University did a equivalent research that lasted 8 weeks.

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