The Corner

Obama: Pragmatist or Ideologue?

Over at Powerline, Paul Mirengoff has some fun comparing the reported claim of a new book that Barack Obama was a philosophical pragmatist with some of the wilder schemes Obama supported through his foundation work, as reported in my book, Radical-in-Chief. Mirengoff’s headline drives home the point: “Barack Obama–Philosophical Pragmatist or Left-Wing Ideologue?” I want to expand on a particularly interesting answer that Mirengoff himself gets at through the figure of Cornel West.

Cornel West was a Marxist and a philosophical pragmatist, and it is entirely possible to be both. When West addressed the Cooper Union Socialist Scholars Conference of 1983 (which had so formative an effect on Obama, I show in R-i-C), West had just completed what he still says is his favorite book Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity. In the 2002 preface to that 1982 book, West describes it as a blending of philosophical pragmatism with “progressive Marxist theory.” The book goes on to present a history of black liberation theology under the heading, “Prophetic Afro-American Christian Thought and Progressive Marxism.”

In Radical-in-Chief, I tell the story of how, after the 1984 Socialist Scholars Conference (which Obama also attended, and which West also addressed), West sent a paper to be read aloud in Cuba at a seminar attended by Jeremiah Wright and Wright’s theological mentor, James Cone (who had also addressed the 1984 Socialist Scholars Conference Obama attended in New York). So in the minds of black liberation theologians like West, there was no mutual incompatibility between philosophical pragmatism and the neo-Marxism of black liberation theology. To answer the question, then, “Barack Obama–Philosophical Pragmatist or Left-Wing Ideologue?” it is entirely possible to say “both.”

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