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Monday , January 12 , 2015
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A decisive shift

- The changing concept of the public intellectual

The term, "public intellectuals", used to refer simply to intellectuals who addressed the public at large, instead of confining themselves to addressing only a small group of professional peers. They had their own specific views, their own political leanings, and even affiliations to particular political parties. The public was supposed to know these leanings and affiliations, but whether it knew these or not was not considered to be of any particular significance. The presumption was that the public, exposed to different views coming from intellectuals of different persuasions, would sift through them to make up its own mind on major issues. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, both ardent Leftists, were public intellectuals par excellence in this sense during my student days.

Whether these intellectuals were professionally "front-ranking", whether they were "morally upright", whether they had "impeccable integrity" were matters which were ideally supposed not to affect the public's receptivity to their views; all that was supposed to matter was the intellectual substance of these views themselves. This, no doubt, was not the case in reality, where the intellectual's persona did matter; but the public being influenced by the personal qualities of an intellectual in assessing the worth of his or her intellectual position was seen as a shortcoming, an instance of a thoroughly avoidable ad hominem reasoning.

Of late, however, a very different concept of a public intellectual has begun to emerge, which believes that a public intellectual must not have any affiliation to a political party, for that undermines the "autonomy" and "objectivity" of the intellectual. But "affiliation to a political party" can take a multitude of forms including even implicit ones, such as mere sympathy for a party, or making common cause with it, or refusing in principle to make common cause with its enemies (as Sartre had done vis-à-vis the French Communist Party); hence this second concept of a public intellectual which demands lack of affiliation with a political party must entail in practice that such an intellectual should have no notable political leanings.

What this means is that a public intellectual in this sense must take positions on each issue separately, and entirely on the basis of "rational arguments" and "unassailable" ethical considerations, without having any "ulterior" motive of any kind. And since the absence of ulterior motives must be demonstrably so, such an intellectual must strive for "credibility" with the public at large, which necessarily means inter alia being even-handed in his or her attitude towards the failings of both the Right and the Left.

When Left intellectuals, like myself, are attacked for showing "selective righteousness" over violations of public interest, in the sense of being softer on Left transgressions than on Right transgressions, those doing the attacking, who are public intellectuals in this second sense, are necessarily insisting upon even-handedness. And as the essence of politics is to make distinctions (which may keep shifting over time) between "my side" and the "other side", that is, to eschew even-handedness, public intellectuals in this second sense are not just opposed to political affiliations; they are epistemically against politics.

We thus have three immediate and obvious differences between the two concepts of a public intellectual. One, unlike the first, the second concept holds that a public intellectual must be not just without political affiliations, but also even-handed in his or her dealings with political parties and formations. Two, unlike the first, the second concept believes, even though this is not necessarily made explicit, that the intellectual's engagement with public issues must be shorn of any overarching theoretical position (for otherwise it might lead to a violation of the criterion of even-handedness, as the Left intellectuals under the influence of Marxism are accused of doing), and must be based on a case-by-case micro-level use of "rationality" and "ethics". He or she must, in other words, exhibit an atomistic occupation with issues. And three, unlike the first, the second concept holds that a public intellectual, since he or she avoids the route of a personal engagement with politics for effecting desirable social change, must believe in doing so by seeking to arouse public opinion directly, for which his or her "credibility" with the public becomes an important pre-requisite. A public intellectual in this second sense, therefore, must necessarily rely on ad hominem reasoning on the part of the public, the fact that it is impressed by the "honesty", the "integrity", and the "professional standing" of the intellectual in question.

I shall not dwell on my obvious differences with this second concept of the public intellectual arising from my general acceptance of the validity of the Marxist analysis of capitalism, and of our modern times being shaped by it. I reject epistemically any atomized perception of issues, and shrug off the charge of "selective righteousness" as an effort at best to impose on me a liberal world-view which I consider scientifically unsound and ethically unacceptable (since it amounts to making peace with, and "adjusting" to, the capitalist system that fundamentally negates human freedom through a process of commoditization).

I shall, however, make three other points against this second notion of a public intellectual which are not directly concerned with any specifically Marxist tenets. The first is that such an intellectual in the strict sense does not exist. All of us, including even those who seek to shun them, have political leanings. Hence the insistence on the absence of political affiliations boils down in practice to something quite different, namely subscribing to a sort of "middle path". Saying that the public intellectual must avoid any affiliation to a political party boils down in practice to the public intellectual being sympathetic to a middle-of-the-road position, which can lay no greater claims to "objectivity" than the position of those affiliated to some political party or the other.

Second, aloofness from politics, with its corollary of the need for "credibility" and even-handedness, implies that such a public intellectual cannot afford to ignore any issue that happens to occupy centre-stage at any time. Such a public intellectual, therefore, gets inevitably reduced to the role of a ritual protester. Anyone who does not rank "injustices", who is not selective between them (or, in Mao Zedong's words, does not distinguish between the "principal" and the "secondary" contradictions), but protests uniformly against all "injustices" (for otherwise he or she would lose "credibility"), actually protests in effect against none; he or she becomes a ritual protester. But ranking "injustices" requires an overarching theory which such a public intellectual makes a point of rejecting as a necessary condition for avoiding political affiliations. The rejection of politics, in short, makes one a ritual protester.

Third, and most important, underlying this concept of a public intellectual is a "substitutism" that should be a cause of concern. The first, old-fashioned, concept of the public intellectual was premised on the "public" having a subject role, and intellectuals providing inputs for it to play that role. They could do so notwithstanding their "warts", that is, whether or not they had ideological positions, whether they subscribed to this or that ideology, whether they were professionally successful, whether they were paragons of virtue, and so on. But the second concept of the public intellectual, which emphasizes the "credibility" of the intellectual, the need for him or her to be without "warts", implicitly assumes that the public is incapable of making up its mind on intellectual matters, that it needs to follow certain "credible" intellectuals in whom it can repose its trust; it, therefore, implicitly downgrades the subject role of the people.

It does, in short, what critics of Bolshevism even within the ranks of Russian social democracy used to accuse it of, namely a "substitutism" where the party "substitutes" for the class (and, further, the central committee for the party and a leader for the central committee). The merit of this criticism against Bolshevism per se need not detain us here. But the idea of a group of public intellectuals not just placing their views before the people as inputs for their decisions, but also trying to be acceptable to the people in the sense of the latter reposing trust in their judgments, in short, a group of intellectuals seeking a place above politics and the people, has a whiff of this very "substitutism". It marks a decisive, and in my view unwholesome, shift in the conception of a democratic polity.

In the course of the student uprisings of the late 1960s, the students had demanded of their teachers that they should make their political-ideological positions explicit, so that the students could judge better the intellectual worth of what was being taught to them. Making political positions explicit seems to me to be a better demand than the demand for eschewing political positions altogether -which is impossible and generates pretence.

The author is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Economic Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi