The Cornel West/Ta-Nehisi Coates Twitter Feud Explained Through Russian Writers

Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

There’s a phrase I’ve been thinking about a lot recently by the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He says in his book The Gulag Archipelago, “Wherever the law is, crime can be found.” —Ta-Nehisi Coates

Chekhov for me is the great writer of compassion. —Cornel West

It was the fall of 2008 and I had just started a Ph.D. program in Russian literature at Princeton University. In retrospect, I don’t know what kind of twenty-two-year-old I was that I would leap so enthusiastically into long days and nights spent reading about serfs, brain fever, and Cossack rebellions, but there I was. I was anxious about keeping up with all the reading, so I eagerly signed up for a course on Anton Chekhov, who once famously said, “Brevity is the sister of talent.” About a month into the class, my already frazzled nerves snapped in two when I learned that our next session would be guest taught by Cornel West. As someone who grew up in a black family, this was bigger news than if Chekhov himself would be joining us. I was, however, a bit surprised; I knew Cornel West as many things: an intellectual and lyrical genius, a spitter of “black prophetic fire,” an extra in my least favorite Matrix film, and even a fashion icon, but back then I did not associate him (or really anyone who’d ever been on TV) with nineteenth-century Russian literature.

But that day I would learn that West has long loved Russian writers, Chekhov in particular, whom he places at the center of his vision for radical social change. In interviews and public talks, West describes himself a “Chekhovian Christian” (he seems refreshingly unconcerned that most people don’t have a clue what he means by that). There were only two other students in the class, and we were scheduled to be there for about three hours, so there would be no hiding in the corner; I’d have to talk to Cornel West, most likely more than once. When he arrived, he smiled warmly (revealing his signature gap tooth) and introduced himself to each of us individually. He wore his usual three-piece black suit, and he took care to thank our professor, “Sister Ellen,” as he called her, for inviting him.

West began by talking about Chekhov as a blues man, weaving connections between Chekhov and the African American musical tradition (he was working on a piece comparing Chekhov to another of his heroes, the jazz musician John Coltrane). As West put it, Chekhov wrote about characters whose lives were ensnared by disappointment, dashed hopes, and unfulfilled potential—the stuff of the “gut bucket blues.” Chekhov was obsessively concerned with how to cope with pain without retreating into despair or, worse, metabolizing resentment as hate. West tied this to Chekhov’s own tragic fate: at just twenty-four years old, Chekhov, a doctor, contracted tuberculosis. West spoke solemnly about how Chekhov continued to practice medicine. In offering comfort to those in pain, Chekhov found a compassionate love that allowed him to push past his own anguish. It was in that love, in that refusal to turn away from the horror of mortality, that West located the seeds for social transformation.

In an interview with professor David L. Smith (published in The Cornel West Reader), West spoke about this Chekhovian Christian love in Marxist terms, explaining, “What Coltrane and Chekhov represent is how the indispensable nonmarket values of love, care, concern, service to others, intimacy and gentleness are to all of us who move from womb to tomb.” And love continues to figure in West’s anti-capitalist political vision; as recently as the 2016 election, when stumping for Bernie Sanders, he referred to the Vermont senator’s campaign as a “love train.” I remember watching him say that on TV and thinking to myself—ah yes, Chekhov.

That said, I hadn’t given much thought to West or his affinity for Chekhov since that first meeting. Strangely, it’s been Ta-Nehisi Coates (whose new book We Were Eight Years in Power, received a … let’s say unfavorable review from West) who I have been thinking more about in the context of Russian literature. Since Coates began devoting more of his writing to the subject of mass incarceration, I noticed he was increasingly invoking the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author best known for his indictment of the Soviet-forced labor-camp system in novels such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), In the First Circle (1968), and, his magnum opus, The Gulag Archipelago (1973), a genre-defying three-volume text that contains testimonies from hundreds of Gulag survivors and a detailed account of Solzhenitsyn’s own arrest and imprisonment. Coates’s October 2015 cover story for The Atlantic, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” begins with an epigraph from Solzhenitsyn, pulled from The Gulag Archipelago, that reads: “Wherever the law is, crime can be found.” Solzhenitsyn was referring to the proliferation of new categories of crime that were invented under Stalin, particularly those that fall under category 58, the section charged dealing with counterrevolutionary activities. Solzhenitsyn writes: “there is no deed, design, action, or inaction, that could not be punished by the hand of article 58.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that Coates would find an intellectual interlocutor in Solzhenitsyn. Coates and Solzhenitsyn focus on policies and practices that allow powerful institutions to naturalize violence, disenfranchisement, and plunder. While West, the Chekhovian Christian, imagines a kind of spontaneous love that could cure our apathy toward human suffering, Coates imagines the work of compassion as a slow, arduous pulling apart of a carefully constructed state apparatus. As he puts it in his 2015 memoir, Between the World and Me (just a few lines after reiterating his indebtedness to Solzhenitsyn), Coates dissects the building blocks of political apathy, writing, “The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hand.”

West’s preferred Russian author, Chekhov briefly turned his attention to the structural matter of state-organized violence. In 1890, he traveled for three months across Siberia in order to reach the island of Sakhalin, a Russia penal colony just north of Japan. Writing to a friend about the purpose of his journey, Chekhov wrote, “It is clear that we have sent millions of people to rot in prison, we have let them rot casually, barbarously, without giving it a thought.” Solzhenitsyn later wrote about Chekhov’s visit to Sakhalin in The Gulag Archipelago, though just to argue that the czarist system of forced labor was mild compared to that of Stalin’s. But Chekhov’s most famous works, which he would publish after his return, were his four major plays, all of which set the question of human cruelty away from the gargantuan world of the Russian labor-camp system, and back in the country estate, the cherry orchard, the sitting room, back into everyday forms of callousness and the redeeming power of irrational love.

In December, West published a widely circulated critique of Coates in the Guardian, calling him “the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle.” Central to West’s continued criticism of Coates is his reluctance to engage with topics outside of American race relations. Coates has defended his focused attention on racism in U.S. history, saying, “Those people who have specialties on foreign policy probably can’t write with the depth that I can about race.” Watching (along with many) in confusion as Coates and West, two of the most dynamic thinkers of our time, seemingly spoke past one another, I couldn’t help but wonder if their differing choices in Russian authors, Solzhenitsyn and Chekhov—two writers tackling the question of how to make a better world at vastly different registers—might shed some light. Solzhenitsyn, like Coates, wants to master the granular world of procedure—the mechanics, policies, and practices of institutional violence. West wants from Coates the kind of radical empathy he recognizes in Chekhov—a boundless concern, documented in print, for every form of injustice; he reads Coates’s hesitation to take on subjects he feels are outside of his purview as apathy—the ultimate sin for a Chekhovian Christian. Chekhov, though, was agnostic, and, like Coates, was accused of pessimism. He was a dyed-in-the-wool gradualist liberal who hoped a revolution wouldn’t unfold in Russia—in sum: a seemingly unlikely candidate for West’s veneration. Likewise, Solzhenitsyn might have actually agreed with West’s complaint that Coates is too parochial (Solzhenitsyn famously alleged that Angela Davis did not do enough to fight state violence outside of the United States, accusing her of silence regarding Soviet repression of Czech dissidents). But finding our heroes (and foes) on the page is always a process of selective reading. In any case, I’m just glad to have a new Russian literary dichotomy on the table. The “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?” question was getting a bit tiresome.

Jennifer Wilson is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

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