I haven’t spent much time reading Cornel West, but I do love to hear him speak. I thought it was time to digest some of his main ideas and so I turned to one essay in The Cornel West Reader that caught my eye, “Fredrick Jameson’s American Marxism.” West argues that Jameson confuses an ethics based upon material history with an ethics based upon the “isolated subject of bourgeois epistemology” (244). West argues for another Marxist tradition, one finely attuned to the historicity of ethics and which has hitherto remained unexamined by Jameson:

“The Marxist lesson here is that only if one has taken metaphysics, epistemology and ethics seriously, will one be attracted by Heideggerian rhetoric about going beyond metaphysics or Nietzschean rhetoric about going beyond good and evil. If one, instead, takes history seriously – as do Marx after 1844 and American pragmatism at its best – then metaphysics, epistemology and ethics are not formidable foes against which to fight, nor are the Ali-like shuffles of the deconstructionist that “destroy” them impressive performances. On this view, deconstructionist become critically ingenious yet politically deluded ideologues who rightly attack bourgeois humanism, yet who also become the ideological adornments of late monopoly-capitalist academics (246).”

Jameson, according to West, jettisons one form of Marxism for another. It is a Marxism with a “thin historicism and glib optimism” and one that is colored by a “bad utopianism” (249). “Jameson’s works are therefore too theoretical,” what his work needs are “more substantial reflections on practical ‘political’ strategies” (249). With claims like this, it’s shocking that West’s article hardly comes across as anti-intellectual, as if he’s merely calling out yet another academic. Something more profound is going on.  It’s almost as if West is asking the left to be more social than modern socialism; to make the social primary, which means philosophically accounting for the role of story, people, movements and political actors within wider, narrative structures.