The Paradox of Public Intellectuals

tags: intellectuals

Eric Hobsbawm, who died in 2012, was a professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London. This essay, which originally appeared in German in 2010, was translated by the author himself, and is excerpted from Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, just out from the New Press.

... The "short 20th century" of revolutions and wars of ideological religion was to become the characteristic era of political engagement for intellectuals. Not only were they defending their own causes in the epoch of anti-Fascism and later of state socialism, but they were recognized on both sides as acknowledged public heavyweights of the mind. Their period of glory falls between the end of the Second World War and the collapse of communism. This was the great age of countermobilizations: against nuclear war, against the last imperial wars of old Europe and the first of the new American world empire (Algeria, Suez, Cuba, Vietnam), against Stalinism, against the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and so on. Intellectuals were on the front line of almost all of them.

One such example, the British campaign for nuclear disarmament, was founded by a well-known writer, the editor of the period’s most prestigious intellectual weekly, a physicist, and two journalists; it immediately elected the philosopher Bertrand Russell as its president. The eminent names in art and literature rushed to join, from Benjamin Britten to Henry Moore and E.M. Forster, among them the historian E.P. Thompson, who was to be the most prominent face in the European nuclear-disarmament movement after 1980. Everyone knew the names of the great French intellectuals—Sartre, Camus—and those of the dissident intellectuals in the U.S.S.R., Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov. Prominent intellectuals were on the masthead of the influential literature of communist disillusion (The God That Failed). The secret services of the United States even found it worth their while to fund and found special organizations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom to win European intellectuals away from their unfortunate lack of enthusiasm for Cold War Washington. This was also the period when, for the first time since 1848, the universities of the Western world, now dramatically expanding and multiplying, could be regarded by their governments as nurseries of political and social opposition and, indeed, sometimes of revolution.

This age of the intellectual as the chief public face of political opposition has retreated into the past. Where are the great campaigners and signatories of manifestoes? With a few rare exceptions, most notably Noam Chomsky, they are silent or dead. Where are the celebrated maîtres à penser of France, the successors of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Camus, and Raymond Aron, of Foucault, Althusser, Derrida, and Bourdieu? The ideologists of the late 20th century preferred to abandon the task of pursuing reason and social change, leaving them to the automatic operations of a world of purely rational individuals, allegedly maximizing their benefits through a rationally operating market that naturally tended, when free of outside interference, toward a lasting equilibrium. In a society of unceasing mass entertainment, the activists now found intellectuals to be less useful inspirers of good causes than were world-famous rock musicians or film stars. The philosophers could no longer compete with Bono or Eno unless they reclassified themselves as that new figure in the new world of the universal media show, a "celebrity." We are living in a new era, at least until the universal noise of Facebook self-expression and the egalitarian ideals of the Internet have had their full public effect.

The decline of the great protesting intellectuals is thus due not only to the end of the Cold War, but to the depoliticization of Western citizens in a period of economic growth and the triumph of the consumer society. The road from the democratic ideal of the Athenian agora to the irresistible temptations of the shopping center has shrunk the space available for the great demonic force of the 19th and 20th centuries: the belief that political action was the way to improve the world. Indeed, the object of neoliberal globalization was precisely to reduce the size, scope, and public interventions of the state. In this it was partly successful....

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Ed

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