sneer at don’t we love our intellectuals? - Books - The Observer
"…or of the British intellectuals of the 1930s who so admired Stalin, even as he was slaughtering his own people."
There’s more than a slight touch of the bizarre about this Guardian set of features on ‘Britain’s Intellectuals’ - culminating in this list of 300 names that are, more or less, recognizable and which includes two psychotherapists, two religious leaders (the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi, natch), two activists and two classicists, and four social scientists and four theatre directors; also three Irish people that I noticed - Declan Kiberd, Fintan O’Toole and Ruth Dudley Edwards (the Brits can keep her, she’s a West one anyway). But mostly it’s that the notion of the ‘public intellectual’ is almost exclusively defined in relation to the French examples (principally Sartre/de Beauvoir and Bernard-Henri Lévy), with a few mentions of American Ivy League professors.
If the British conception of the public intellectual is supposed to be that they begin at Calais, then the counter-response ends at Charles de Gaulle and doesn’t take off, apart from a few connecting flights to the States. It must be a sign of the British detachment, even in such an outward-looking newspaper as the Guardian, from Europe that someone like Jurgen Habermas, the quintessential public intellectual with regards to German national affairs and its European role, as well as the academic or political philosophy of public discourse itself as it is taught across the West, is absent from a comparative discussion seeking to establish the type of the British intellectual.
The most interesting contribution from the ten ‘celebrated thinkers’ on the question of Britain’s intellectuals comes from youthful, TV-friendly, former 90s pop musician and now physicist Prof. Brian Cox, who notes: “The dilemma for the public intellectual is to remember at all times that the point of the project is to remove arguments from authority.” Of course, he’s speaking from the position of hard science, not the humanities - but his argument on public discourse is all the better for it. In Ireland currently, I’d see our public intellectuals as coming from the fringes of both disciplines - namely economists and essayists (whether primarily novelists or journalists): those who can no longer claim authority, because of the erosion of their fields due to the changes in the economy and society, but who can display both experience and vision in describing those changes.
Which, in a rather roundabout way, brings me back to Koestler - who may have been a deeply unpleasant person to be around, but who also wrote Darkness at Noon while in Paris as an exile from Nazi Germany and his Hungarian homeland, and who then became in the interval between its completion and its publication an exile from the Continent itself; the experiences he recounts in The Scum of the Earth point to a good degree of abominable treatment of himself and similarly situated political refugees, from which British intellectuals were almost entirely insulated, a fact Orwell used as the starting point for his essay on Koestler:
"…There has been nothing resembling, for instance, FONTAMARA or DARKNESS AT NOON, because there is almost no English writer to whom it has happened to see totalitarianism from the inside. In Europe, during the past decade and more, things have been happening to middle-class people which in England do not even happen to the working class. Most of the European writers I mentioned above, and scores of others like them, have been obliged to break the law in order to engage in politics at all; some of them have thrown bombs and fought in street battles, many have been in prison or the concentration camp, or fled across frontiers with false names and forged passports. One cannot imagine, say, Professor Laski indulging in activities of that kind."
One result of this, he says, “is that there exists in England almost no literature of disillusionment about the Soviet Union.” That is the particular reason for the complaint above, oddly juxtaposed as it is with the half-criticism of Koestler; of course some French intellectuals persisted in their commitment to Stalinism for much longer, practically to the finish in many cases - but that is a function of political climate of the post-war period there as the gradual disengagement was in Labour-led Britain. What this Guardian articles decries as a theory of ‘British exceptionalism’ is simply an exaggeration of the true state of affairs which separated Britain from the more volatile course of Continental European history in the 20th century:
"As a historian, Collini smells an ideological rat here, and traces the odour to an ideological belief in British exceptionalism. What it amounts to is the belief that the course of British history has been so exceptionally smooth – with its adaptable aristocracy, (relatively) tolerant church, apolitical military and reformist bourgeoisie – that there was no call for the evolution of an oppositional intelligentsia. So the fact that there are no intellectuals in Britain is something to be proud of. It’s a byproduct of the Whig interpretation of history.
This strikes me as baloney, mostly derived from a comprehensive misunderstanding of other cultures – a species of what Collini calls “Dreyfus envy”, after the celebrated late 19th-century affair in which intellectuals took on the French establishment and won. Intellectuals may enjoy a higher celebrity status across the Channel but I can see little evidence that France is more governed by ideas than is Britain.”
And so on, to complain of the stereotypical image of the continental intellectual, which is of course limited to that of France. The problem is not that the author is incorrect in diagnosing the problems of that country’s politicised intelligentsia, but that it’s then used as an excuse to cast off the influence of European history and to paper over the glaring short-sightedness of that stereotypical scope. From that point on, the intellectual is to be defined in a purely Anglo-American sense, with a virtuous pragmatism and an affinity for the low-key - exemplified in Will Self’s comparison of “the odious spectacle of Bernard-Henri Lévy urging Sarko on to bomb Libya” with the contribution of ethicist Mary Warnock to public policy on IVF treatment. Though since she is now a peer, speaking in the House of Lords, and given the wistfulness with which many contributors regard the profile of Ivy League professors as the ‘American public intellectuals’, the aversion to celebrity seems more a matter of taste than intellectual principle.