Who or what are left intellectuals' Are there any clear criteria by which they can be distinguished from other intellectuals, for instance, liberal, moderate, nationalist or conservative ones' The French philosopher, Alain, who once enjoyed great influence among intellectuals in his own country, said that when a person asked such questions one could be sure that he was not himself a man of the left.
For the better part of the 20th century, being a man of the left was a badge of honour with many intellectuals in France. Men of the left were presumed to uphold the best values of the Republic, that is, liberty, equality and fraternity; to oppose exploitation and oppression; to be free and fearless critics of state and society in their own country. Intellectually, they were committed to what is called the 'class approach' in which division and conflict rather than unity and harmony are viewed as being the basic features of society. This has given a certain appeal to left intellectuals in many countries, irrespective of their calibre and conduct as intellectuals.
This conception of the left intellectual worked reasonably well during much of the 20th century in most of the world, but there was a notable exception. As the Soviet regime established its hold over society, Soviet intellectuals found themselves speaking increasingly in one voice, which was also the voice of the men who assumed power and controlled the state after the Bolshevik Revolution. Dissent came to be regarded as being either unnecessary or unsafe. Where all intellectuals speak in the same voice, what sense does it make to speak of left intellectuals as against intellectuals of other kinds'
After the dismantling of the Soviet system in Russia, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere, intellectuals in those countries have again begun to speak in more than one voice. Will we once again have left intellectuals as against other kinds of intellectuals there' It is too early to tell. But there can be no doubt that Leninism devastated four or five generations of the bearers of a great intellectual tradition. On a recent visit to Moscow, I was touched by the warmth and candour of the few social scientists I met. I asked them if the official representation of Soviet society as being made up of two classes ' peasants and workers ' and one stratum ' the intelligentsia ' was still valid or had become out of date. My interlocutor smiled and said that it never did give a true picture of the reality, and then added ruefully, 'But we were all complicit in it, so what is there for us to say today'
One can understand and even sympathize with Russian, Polish or Hungarian intellectuals who found it prudent to follow the Leninist path in the face of an oppressive state that brooked no dissent. But what about the 'men of the left' in France who kept quiet during Stalin's lifetime and for two or three decades after his death while thundering against oppression and exploitation in their own country and in the United States of America' The lengths to which left intellectuals carried prudence and caution in what they said or wrote about the Soviet Union mocked the vigour with which they exhorted others to attack the capitalist system. Among themselves, any hint of criticism of Lenin or Stalin had to be kept in check for fear that they might fall out of line.
Things have no doubt changed in France to such an extent that it has become difficult to identify a distinct set of persons as 'left intellectuals'. They have also changed in India, but left intellectuals still occupy an important place in the minds of many, not all of whom are themselves intellectuals. In India, left intellectuals continue to be identified by their attachment to particular political causes, no matter how vague, and, even more, by their loyalty to a particular political tradition, no matter how widely discredited outside India.
The causes espoused by left intellectuals are good ones, but they are not the only ones who espouse good causes. No doubt left intellectuals have stood up for secularism, but so have most, if not all, liberals. It is also true that left intellectuals have stood out against economic exploitation and social oppression, but so have the Gandhians. I have known no Indian intellectual to be more steadfast in his commitment to secular values or in his opposition to economic exploitation and social oppression than my teacher, the late Nirmal Kumar Bose. Yet no one would call him a left intellectual, nor would he expect to be called one. He was not a left intellectual simply because he refused to subscribe to the political tradition of Lenin and Stalin.
Other intellectuals may subscribe sincerely and consistently to liberal, secular and egalitarian values, but the singularity of left intellectuals lies in their attachment to the myth of the proletariat. This myth was created in western Europe and sustained by the Bolshevik Revolution. It has lost much of its force in the countries of its origin, in Germany, France and England, and also in Russia, where it enjoyed its greatest authority. But in India it is still vigorous and flourishing, despite the substantial changes in the composition and character of the class of manual workers. Today in this country, the organized working class, whether in the public sector or in the corporate private sector, is by income and lifestyle, and by the education of its younger members, much more like the middle class than the working class of mid-19th century England about which Marx and Engels wrote. Yet the myth of the proletariat, whose members 'have nothing but their chains to lose', is kept alive by left intellectuals in India.
Political myths have a corrosive effect on intellectual judgment. Under their influence, historians, sociologists and political scientists are judged by their political orientation rather than their scholarly work. Where left parties are in power or close to the centres of power, a freemasonry of left intellectuals and left pseudo-intellectuals comes to the fore. They become dispensers and recipients of unmerited patronage. In a system where patronage extends far and wide, it is the pretenders who rise to the top, and they operate according to principles of selection in which merit is sacrificed to accommodate like-minded persons and fellow travellers. All of this is still sought to be justified in India by arguments which, though plausible 100 or even 50 years ago, have become obsolete in those countries where left intellectuals first became ascendant. The world has changed, but left intellectuals continue to perpetuate and benefit from the myths of the Russian Revolution.