April 12, 2007


Intellectuals, society and the left (Eric Hobsbawm, New Statesman)

There is now a large body of intellectuals, who are critical of capitalist society. A mass of dissenting radicals appeared in and around the universities in the 1960s. This may or may not be permanent, and it is not without precedent. But in the developed capitalist countries, till recently, most student movements were on the political right, if they existed at all.

The quickest way of defining intellectuals is: people who have successfully undergone the required level of schooling. They have been ground down between the same millstones.

Nonetheless, their social origin and form of training remain relevant. It is important to know whether a person or group belongs to the first generation to have received higher education or not; whether they passed through an established set or transformed one; whether they belong to the diminishing group of the individually or collectively self-educated.

Whatever the nature of intellectuals one point about them now is of considerable practical importance—their sheer size as a social group. The proportion of students in West Germany in the l970s was, relative to the total population, about 30 times greater than in the Germany of the 1870s. Quite small groups of intellectuals can play a very significant part in the politics of their countries. But we are today dealing, in Britain as elsewhere, with a very substantial mass of people, though not necessarily a homogeneous one.

Intellectuals may attach themselves to wider political and social movements such as the labour movement. They may also form movements on their own, though they often claim only to be keeping the place warm until the masses themselves go into action. The British Labour and Communist parties grew up as basically proletarian bodies with a small number of intellectuals attached. The social democratic party or parties of tsarist Russia were overwhelmingly composed of intellectuals who claimed to—and, in fact, did—represent the workers. It does not follow that every group of marxist intellectuals does.

Broadly speaking, the more developed the class organisation of the manual workers, the greater what the French call its ouvrierisme—ie, its suspicion of people who are not manual workers. An obvious example is the most purely proletarian organisation, the unions. In the major western industrial countries—Britain, the us, West Germany and France—it is still inconceivable that a man of non-working class origin could head a major union of manual workers.

During the past few years, and especially since 1968, groups of intellectuals have played an unusually prominent part in the political and social movements of their nations.

Perhaps we can best define it in the negative. Here's how Richard Hofstadter defined anti-intellectualism, that classic bent of the American mind: "The common strain that binds together the attitudes and ideas which I call anti-intellectual is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life."

Or, we might just use Michael Oakeshott's description of Rationalism, wich is really just another term for Intellectualism:

There are some minds which give us the sense that they have passed through an elaborate education which was designed to initiate them into the traditions and achievements of their civilization; the immediate impression we have of them is an impression of cultivation, of the enjoyment of an inheritance. But this is not so with the mind of the Rationalist, which impresses us as, at best, a finely tempered, neutral instrument, as a well-trained rather than as an educated mind. Intellectually, his ambition is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man. And this gives to his intellectual and practical activities an almost preternatural deliberateness and self-consciousness, depriving them of any element of passivity, removing from them all sense of rhythm and continuity and dissolving them into a succession of climacterics, each to be surmounted by a tour de raison. His mind has no atmosphere, no changes of season and temperature; his intellectual processes, so far as possible, are insulated from all external influence and go on in the void. And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail. And if, with as yet no thought of analysis, we glance below the surface, we may, perhaps, see in the temperament, if not in the character, of the Rationalist, a deep distrust of time, an impatient hunger for eternity and an irritable nervousness in the face of everything topical and transitory.

Now, of all worlds, the world of politics might seem the least amenable to rationalist treatment--politics, always so deeply veined with both the traditional, the circumstantial and the transitory. And, indeed, some convinced Rationalists have admitted defeat here: Clemenceau, intellectually a child of the modern Rationalist tradition (in his treatment of morals and religion, for example), was anything but a Rationalist in politics. But not all have admitted defeat. If we except religion, the greatest apparent victories of Rationalism have been in politics: it is not to be expected that whoever is prepared to carry his rationalism into the conduct of life will hesitate to carry it into the conduct of public affairs.

But what is important to observe in such a man (for it is characteristic) is not the decisions and actions he is inspired to make, but the source of his inspiration, his idea (and with him it will be a deliberate and conscious idea) of political activity. He believes, of course, in the open mind, the mind free from prejudice and its relic, habit. He believes that the unhindered human 'reason' (if only it can be brought to bear) is an infallible guide in political activity. Further, he believes in argument as the technique and operation of reason'; the truth of an opinion and the 'rational' ground (not the use) of an institution is all that matters to him. Consequently, much of his political activity consists in bringing the social, political, legal and institutional inheritance of his society before the tribunal of his intellect; and the rest is rational administration, 'reason' exercising an uncontrolled jurisdiction over the circumstances of the case. To the Rationalist, nothing is of value merely because it exists (and certainly not because it has existed for many generations), familiarity has no worth, and nothing is to be left standing for want of scrutiny. And his disposition makes both destruction and creation easier for him to understand and engage in, than acceptance or reform. To patch up, to repair (that is, to do anything which requires a patient knowledge of the material), he regards as waste of time: and he always prefers the invention of a new device to making use of a current and well-tried expedient. He does not recognize change unless it is a self-consciously induced change, and consequently he falls easily into the error of identifying the customary and the traditional with the changeless. This is aptly illustrated by the rationalist attitude towards a tradition of ideas. There is, of course, no question either of retaining or improving such a tradition, for both these involve an attitude of submission. It must be destroyed. And to fill its place the Rationalist puts something of his own making--an ideology, the formalized abridgment of the supposed substratum of rational truth contained in the tradition.

Either way, it's easy to see why we Americans hate them so and how that saved us from the Enlightenment.

Here's a funny bit where a man of the Left is confronted with the Intellectual in action, A silent springtime for Hitler? (Alex Beam, April 10, 2007, Boston Globe)

[I] am reading the important book, "How Green Were the Nazis? Nature, Environment and Nation in the Third Reich."

I know what you are thinking. I have fallen for a hoax. No one in their right mind would research and publish a book stating, "The Nazis created nature preserves, championed sustainable forestry, curbed air pollution, and designed the autobahn highway network as a way of bringing Germans closer to nature." Or: "The Nazis did in fact impact the landscape in ways far out of proportion to the short twelve years they were in power."

But in fact, three professors -- Franz-Josef Bruggemeier of Freiburg University, Mark Cioc from the University of California/Santa Cruz, and the University of Maryland's Thomas Zeller -- have done just that.

It is undeniably true that Adolf and his crew were A-number-one landscape-impacters. London got plenty impacted by the Nazis' environmental outreach program, as did cities like Leningrad, Stalingrad, Dresden, and Berlin. According to this book, the Nazis had big plans for spreading their green ideology eastward into Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. "In the vast territories conquered in the east . . . they saw the opportunity to create a better, greener, future, combining racist and environmental thinking," the authors write. How sad that the eastern European Jews didn't go along with the program! What soreheads.

It's incredible that anyone would actually publish sentences like these: "The Nazis, however, were not interested in turning Germany into a tree farm"; "World War II was the opportunity that many modernist landscape architects had been waiting for"; or, "In the end, everyone . . . agreed that it was the wrong moment to embark on any projects with organic farming."

Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees.

To be fair, I did learn a lot. I already knew that Hitler was a vegetarian with a taste for nonalcoholic beer, but I didn't know that SS boss Heinrich Himmler also eschewed meat or that Hermann Goering had a "sincere interest in forest conservation." Nazi party secretary Rudolf Hess was a devotee of organic gardening. Did you know that there was an organic herb garden at Dachau? Marvelous! It's depressing how many historians insist on dwelling on the negatives.

Co-author Zeller directed me to some reviews. " 'How Green Were the Nazis?' is a must for those who want to be introduced to the controversial relationship of Hitler's regime with the natural world," says the website Humanities and Social Services Online. Striking a more realistic note, another reviewer comments that "the articles collected here provide little evidence that the Nazis were, in fact, sincere environmentalists."

Note how easy it is to excuse Hitler when your idea of environmentalism matters more than the reality of Nazism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 12, 2007 1:06 PM

--The quickest way of defining intellectuals is: people who have successfully undergone the required level of schooling.--

They could also be defined as "professional students."

Posted by: Sandy P at April 12, 2007 4:18 PM

Strange... I usually cite environmentalists as the prime example of the anti-intellectual Left.

In any case, Americans don't hate intellectuals; Americans ignore intellectuals.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at April 12, 2007 4:22 PM

The juxtaposition of the two articles was most skillfully done.

Both the nostalgic Communist and the underlying refefence to the Gaia cult of the Nazis are joined by the theme of Anti-Yawehism on the part of Communists and Nazis and, of course, witches and queers of every description.

Nazi nature-worship was cut short by the exigencies of war, but their paganism is well known.

As for the irrelevancies of that aging Stalinst apologist, whose date with the reaper stands to cheat the justice of a Nguyen Ngoc Loan headache cure, we would just ask him how many aircraft carriers the "intellectual" Marxists have.

Posted by: Lou Gots at April 12, 2007 4:47 PM

Nazis were really more into the Norse Pantheon - You know "Thor! Odin!" than anything else.
But Hitler liked dogs, and Goering was into hunting, so nature preserves would help with that, conserving wildlands so that hunters and their dogs could continue.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 12, 2007 5:33 PM

So does the fact (that Stalin and the Soviets obviously weren't "environmentalists") further twist the convoluted logic (used here to make contemporary "environmentalists" seem like Nazis) into even more self-deluded fanatic fantasy?
Wait a second, I forgot where I was. I guess you don't have to answer that question.

Posted by: gupta at April 12, 2007 6:22 PM

At the risk of further Godwinning, the Nazis were also the first anti-smoking zealots.

Posted by: ted welter at April 12, 2007 7:34 PM

An intellectual is someone who has been educated beyond their intellegence.

And once their victory over the Bolsheviks was assured, the National Socialists planned to turn all of the Slavic east into a nature preseve for future Aryan generations, areas not unlike what Gaian dirt worshipers have imposed in the form of "Roadless Areas" on the American West. The latter, fortunately, didn't have to get rid of a bunch of Slavs to create their sacred paradises.

Soviets obviously weren't "environmentalists"

But like their National Socialist cousins, they worshiped an abstract ideal, in this case, "the workers", for which any and all actions were justified and permitted. That their policies did nothing to make "the workers" who survived the slaughters in their name from being better off was immaterial. All, including Gaian dirt-worshipers, trreat human beings as in the way, an annoyance to be removed on the road to paradise.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at April 12, 2007 9:11 PM

Environmentalists aren't Nazis--they're the sort of folks who think environmentalism excuses Nazism or Bolshevism.

Posted by: oj at April 12, 2007 11:42 PM

News flash: A large body of intellectuals now oppose capitalism. Gosh, I must have slept through the period when intellectuals embraced it.

Posted by: erp [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 13, 2007 6:47 AM

Pedantic curmudgeon moment: Donner and Wotan, not Thor and Odin.

Posted by: Lou Gots at April 13, 2007 10:27 AM