Intellectuals in Politics


Publisher: RKP 1997

Editors: Jeremy Jennings and Anthony Kemp-Welch

The modern state no longer needs to imprison or shoot intellectuals. It has become pragmatic and welcomes intellectuals albeit on terms set by the state itself. As one senior government commented, current leaders are only interested in the question of whether a policy works. “Don’t complicate it with the question of truth.” This seems an easy requirement for intellectuals to accept and comply with in exchange for state patronage and job security. But the outcome is the disappearance of intellectuals in the traditional sense, i.e. as those who speak out of a non-partisan commitment to the wider truth even if it means confronting the state. Hence the prophetic fulfillment of Julian Benda’s classic essay on the “betrayal of the intellectuals”.

But who are intellectuals in the first place and why should society take them seriously? At the outset, we must first not equate an intellectual with someone who is highly educated. State education has, after all, been extremely effective in its mass production of narrow technocrats and bureaucrats without souls. In contrast, intellectuals are expected to display the following qualities:

1. Hold that social values and norms arise from objective truth in contrast to pragmatic policies.

2. Uphold truth based on a consensus that is arrived at through a process of philosophical clarification and rational argumentation.

3. Commitment which expresses itself in social and cultural engagement in contrast to ivory tower academics.

4. Address issues in the context of comprehensive intellectual and historical frameworks. This implies that an intellectual is a specialist in his own field who is able to cross the academic disciplines.

The authority of an intellectual is therefore based on his ability to undertake objective, well informed decisions. Conversely, the absence of intellectuals results in disastrous social policies. A few years ago Syed Hussein Al-Attas in his book Intellectuals in Developing Societies catalogued a long list of disastrous policies arising from a lack of robust analysis and a vital intellectual tradition in Malaysian society. His complain assumed that intellectuals are able to and should contribute constructively in the development of society and culture. The ideal of an ‘organic intellectual’, (i.e. one connected with social movements and social institutions) in contrast to a ‘free floating intellectual’ comes to mine.

Intellectuals were once looked upon as fearless and independent thinkers. An impressive example may be found when French society conferred on intellectuals such as Jean Paul Sartre the status of the conscience of the nation and the voice of the oppressed. Intellectuals were expected to call the state to task for incompetent social policies and abuse of justice. Unfortunately, many present day societies have lost this traditional respect for intellectuals because intellectuals are seen to be tainted by a history of compromises in appeasing the authoritarian state or submitting to its patronage. Alas, intellectuals now find themselves perceived as state functionaries and peddlers of public policies. One wonders though, if such intellectuals (religious functionaries or party ideologues) secretly relish their new fortune, in a manner so aptly described by one of the writers of Intellectuals in Politics,

There was the feeling of belonging to the elite, the taste of power, the joy of participation in a chosen group that was arbitrarily reshaping society; the privilege of prying into other people’s lives, the exhilarating experience of acting beyond the law and beyond the social rules that limited the freedom of ordinary citizens.

But what alternatives are there for intellectuals caught in an unenviable dilemma of either languishing in humiliating alienation or clawing for power? Intellectuals in Politics represents a rich compilation of essays which explore the conflicting roles of intellectuals in societies that ranged from Algeria to Israel, Eastern Europe to the USA. The essays are supported by solid historical research and probe into the nuanced relationships between intellectuals and the State. It emphasizes the need to take the peculiar circumstances of individual societies and their historical backgrounds into account when evaluating the impact of intellectuals in society.

The book demonstrates clearly that it is not just ideas that change society, however exalted such ideas may be. It is the socially engaged intellectuals who change society, intellectuals who as humans are vulnerable to the temptation of power, hungry for recognition and hesitant if not confused when faced with opposition if not intimidation from a powerful state. As the book notes, this situation constituted “the tragic predicament that faces any man who is in one way or another caught between his most demanding ideals and his more immediate ambitions and interests.” But surely it is the essence of an intellectual to view his “primary responsibility to truth or creative vision, and he must be prepared to follow them even when they put him at odds with his society.”

The historical case studies underscore time and again that intellectuals must be organized if they want to make an impact in wider society. Different historical circumstances determine the different roles intellectuals must take on. Leszek Kolakowski’s succinct list of intellectuals as priest, jester or agnostic is most instructive. Societies characterized by religious authoritarianism and ethnic nationalism naturally employ the priestly intellectuals who will “sustain the cult of the final and the obvious as acknowledged by and contained in tradition.” In recent communist regimes especially in Eastern Europe, the jester intellectuals “must stand outside good society and observe it from the sidelines in order to unveil the non-obvious behind the obvious, the non-final behind the final.” The jester intellectual may be marginalized if not harassed by the authorities. However, it is argued that such intellectuals benefit from an ironic distance which enables them to attain a critical and therefore objective perspective of their society. Priestly intellectuals face the danger of turning senile while jester intellectual may degenerate into irresponsible adolescents. Unfortunately, of these two intellectual deformities, only the adolescence is curable.

Intellectuals may evade their dilemma with state power by assuming an agnostic stance (though some may view this as indifference). This is particularly evident in case studies on intellectuals in USA which show that intellectuals have retreated from social political engagement. To be an intellectual today is simply to be a professor. Such intellectuals are concerned with the internal disputes of their guilds and for political correctness rather than the moral renewal of wider society. Intellectuals no longer face a precarious existence since they can sustain their individual pursuits within the self-contained academic institutions. Such privileges must surely be envied those intellectuals hard pressed by hostile authorities elsewhere. Unfortunately, the price is public disillusionment with these ivory tower academicians who are described by the derogatory term ‘egghead’: “a self-conscious prig, so given to examining all sides of a question that he becomes thoroughly addled while remaining always in the same spot.”

The book also notes the ambivalence about the intellectual vocation arising from the manner in which intellectuals respond to the demands of mass culture. In particular, intellectuals need to adapt to the post-modern American culture which cynically reject truth claims supported by logical arguments and view intellectual articulation as merely statement of personal preferences, supported by rhetoric. The outcome is the rise of a new phenomenon, i.e. the intellectual is seen as an entertainer and a public cheer leader. It seems one must appear on TV in order to attain the status of an intellectual. Undoubtedly, such a development may spring from the honorable desire to discard elitist pretension and an attempt to disseminate knowledge to the wider public. TV appearances further offer recognition with minimum intellectual accountability by virtue of the medium being impressionistic. In contrast, an intellectual who puts his convictions on paper has to work harder to offer precise thoughts for analysis. He also effectively avails himself to be permanently called to account for his views by virtue of the permanence of the printed page. TV recognition without responsibility, which intellectual can resist? The irony, however, is his submission to new masters, namely, the media magnates who decide who should have the opportunity for public recognition. What would be left of intellectual integrity if the TV is itself under the full control of the State?

The above reflections represent in a small way the rich stimulation offered by the book Intellectuals in Politics. Reading the book itself impresses on me the need for intellectual reflection to be rooted in concrete society and history. On the one hand, it is reasonable to assume that each society has its own cultural resources for renewal. But paradoxically, renewal presupposes an intellectual’s ability to transcend narrow communal interests. That is to say, while truth can be locally embodied, a truth that transcends cultures is necessary to enable one to critique one’s own culture. This poses a particular challenge to Asian ethnic nationalists who may view social critique as a betrayal of communal identity.

The pursuit of the intellectual vocation also implies commitment to rational analysis and argumentation. But can a culture which stresses ‘giving face’ be capable of encouraging criticism without taking matters personally? Furthermore, some segments of Asian society value status and honorific titles and look to authority figures to settle conflicting truth claims. Such an outlook will inhibit an intellectual approach to social issues. Truth claims should not be received passively just because someone with a prestigious title pronounces it. Instead these claims are received only if they are rational and morally compelling.

Developing an intellectual tradition for our society would certainly require a ‘Revolusi Mental’, a slogan much hyped in the early 1970s by a former minister En. Senu Abdul Rahman. Unfortunately a genuine ‘Revolusi Mental’ will actually be opposed by powerful state functionaries with vested interests. The need to cope with threats from hostile authorities only stresses the fact that no intellectual can make an impact unless he is passionately concerned for truth and justice and demonstrates a life of moral integrity. The cost entailed by such a commitment may perhaps be too high for citizens softened by the bread and circuses of Caesar. No wonder there is no intellectual left to be imprisoned or shot.

Dr. Ng Kam Weng.

Kairos Research Centre

April 1998

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