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The role of intellectuals in society

Posted on March 8, 2011 by mpuravankara

The responsibility of intellectuals is to speak the truth to power and to expose their lies. In doing so they facilitate debates and shape the general policy directions. This is the generally accepted wisdom about the role of intellectuals. However, the historical and contemporary records tell an altogether different story. Noam Chomsky in his seminal essay titled The Responsibility of Intellectuals written in 1967 demonstrates that intellectuals have always been subservient to power and that they perform the function of apologists and propagandists for the state policies. He says: Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority (i.e. intellectuals), Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than … the “responsibility of people,” given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy. …. And yet the historic role of intellectuals if you look, unfortunately, as far back as you go has been to support power systems and to justify their atrocities. This is generally true for liberal democracies and Chomsky argues that intellectuals are the most indoctrinated section of such societies. Listen to Chomsky himself explaining the role of intellectuals:

A more fundamental analysis of the role of intellectuals in liberal democracies can be found in the work of Antonio Gramsci. According to Gramsci all men (and women) are potentially intellectuals in the sense of having an intellect and using it, but not all are intellectuals by social function. Intellectuals in the functional sense fall in two categories: “traditional” and “organic”. The traditional intellectuals are those whose position in the society has a certain inter-class aura about it like the clergy, the men (and women) of letters, the philosophers and professors. They are what the people generally consider as intellectuals. These intellectuals regard themselves as neutral and independent of any social class or group. However, their social position and prestige ultimately derive from the past and present class relations and critically depend on the status quo. As a result they are essentially conservative and are generally aligned with the dominant group/ruling class in the society. The second category called the organic intellectuals are the thinking and organising elements of a particular fundamental social class. The organic intellectuals cannot be distinguished by their profession, which may be any job characteristic of their class. Rather, they are characterised by their function in formulating and directing the ideas and aspirations of the class to which they organically belong. The dominant social group or the ruling class will always

Gramsci argued that in order to counter hegemony and to upset the consensus or the „common sense‟ view of society the oppressed class/groups should produce its own organic intellectuals. He explains this by stating that “everyone at some time fries a couple of eggs or sews up a tear in a jacket. The Leninist model took place in a backward country with a huge peasantry and a tiny working class. The organic intellectuals of the dominant group include business leaders. It is important at this juncture to note that when Gramsci wrote about intellectuals. lawyers. doctors etc. they should also „ideologically‟ win over and assimilate a section of traditional intellectuals. Ithad to be the work of the majority of the population conscious of what they were doing and not an organised party leadership. Organic Intellectuals This brings me to my second theme. Gramsci‟s notebooks are quite clear on the matter. He writes that “all men are intellectuals” [and presumably women] “but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals”. journalists. technicians and scientists. mass consciousness was essential and the role of the intellectual was crucial. For Gramsci. They are the “deputies” of the dominant group and help the ruling class maintain its hegemony over the rest of the society. They are produced by the educational system to perform specific functions in the society. The revolution led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 was not the model suitable for Western Europe or indeed any advanced industrialised country. There was no question that socialism could be brought about by an elite group of dedicated revolutionaries acting for the working class. He was clear that the transformation from capitalism to socialism required mass participation. he was not referring solely to the boffins and academics that sat in ivory towers or wrote erudite pieces for academic journals only read by others of the same ilk. teachers. civil servants. The result was that the mass of the population were not involved. we do not necessarily say that everyone is a . Not only that. What he meant by that was that everyone has an intellect and uses it but not all are intellectuals by social function. Gramsci saw the role of the intellectual as a crucial one in the context of creating a counter hegemony.create within itself its own organic intellectuals. His definition went much further and he spread his net much wider. managers.

The second type is the organic intellectual. For Gramsci it was important to see them for what they were. outside their particular professional activity. that is. They can take the form of managers. the clergy. this is usually a myth and an illusion. Remember that Gramsci said that all men were intellectuals but not all men have the function of intellectuals in society. the ruling class. The problem was how to harness those capabilities and capacities. has a conscious line of moral conduct. Gramsci maintained that the notion of intellectuals as being a distinct social category independent of class was a myth. They were produced by the educational system to perform a function for the dominant social group in society. They are essentially conservative allied to and assisting the ruling group in society. Gramsci saw one of his roles as assisting in the creation of organic intellectuals from the working class and the winning over of as many traditional intellectuals to the revolutionary . they have developed organically alongside the ruling class and function for the benefit of the ruling class. participates in a particular conception of the world. He identified two types of intellectuals – traditional and organic. in his Notebooks. Lenin and Gramsci were examples of this) but also the working class movement should produce its own organic intellectuals. lawyers. how could this be done? Gramsci. This is the group mentioned earlier that grows organically with the dominant social group. Each social group that comes into existence creates within itself on e or more strata of intellectuals that gives it meaning. civil servants. a method of upsetting the consensus. The clergy are an example of that as are the men of letters. They seem autonomousand independent. of countering the „common sense‟ view of society. Although they like to think of themselves as independent of ruling groups. “c arries on some form of intellectual activity …. Essentially. and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it. They give themselves an aura of historical continuity despite all the social upheavals that they might go through. This sounds as if he was exaggerating the possibilities but what he was really trying to convey is that people have the capability and the capacity to think. Having said that what was required for those who wished to overthrow the present system was a counter hegemony. professors and teachers. These are what we tend to think of when we think of intellectuals. Traditional intellectuals are those who do regard themselves as autonomous and independent of the dominant social group and are regarded as such by the population at large. the philosophers and professors. and is their thinking and organising element. doctors etc. He went on to point out that “there is no human activity from which every form of intellectual participation can be excluded” and that everyone. maintained that what was required was that not only should a significant number of „traditional‟ intellectuals come over to the revolutionary cause (Marx.cook or a tailor”. to bring into being new modes of thought”. technicians and scientists. that helps to bind it together and helps it function. It is through this group that the ruling class maintains its hegemony over the rest of society.

… or. helping to create a counter hegemony that would undermine existing social relations was Gramsci‟s contribution to the development of a philosophy that would link theory with practice. as constructor. “permanent persuader” and not jus t a simple orator…” [Gramsci 1971 p10] The creation of working class intellectuals actively participating in practical life. He believed in the innate capacity of human beings to understand their world and to change it. “They can strive to sustain people‟s critical commitment to the social groups with whom they share fundamental interests. What is important is that they develop relationships with the people they work with that ensures that wherever they go. therefore. [Gramsci 1971 p323] The role of informal educators in local communities links up wi th Gramsci‟s ideas on the role of the intellectual. Gramsci wrote that “the mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence … but in active participation in practical life. He attempted this through the columns of a journal called L’Ordine Nuovo (New Order).cause as possible. His approach was open and non-sectarian. In his Notebooks. Their purpose is not necessarily individual advancement. The educator working successfully in the neighbourhood and with the local community has a commitment to that neighbourhood. Gramsci‟s insistence on the fundamental importance of the ideological struggle to social change meant that this struggle was not limited to consciousness raising but must aim at consciousness transformation – the creation of a socialist consciousness. organiser. This journal came out at the same time as the huge spontaneous outbreak of industrial and political militancy that swept Turin in 1919. but human well-being as a whole” . subtitled “a weekly review of Socialist culture”. This outbreak mirrored events throughout the industrial world that shook the very foundations of capitalist society. The intellectual realm. They are not „here today and gone tomorrow‟. they are regarded as part of the community („one of us‟). His philosophy was a direct counter to those elitist and authoritarian philosophies associated with fascism and Stalinism. It was not something that could be imposed on people but must arise from their actual working lives. He wanted revolutionaries to be critical and made it clear that “the starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is …”. on the other hand. he asked the question: “is it better to “think”. is it better to work out consciously and critically one‟s own conception of the world?”. They may have always lived in the area and have much in common with the local people or they may not. without having a critical awareness. was not to be seen as something confined to an elite but to be seen as something grounded in everyday life.