Who is an intellectual What should the role of intellectuals be in society?

Essay 2004 9 Pages

Sociology - Political Sociology, Majorities, Minorities


Who is an intellectual ?- What should the role of intellectuals be in society?

It is very difficult to give a proper and precise definition of the social group or milieu of intellectuals because of its heterogenity and non-unity. Which should be the criteria and structure similarities that determine the definition? Is it possible to summarize all categories and types within a definition? Many perspectives exist concerning what an intellectual is and of course what his role or function in the society already is or should be, they all depend on different contexts or thematic fields and deviating focuses. Based on this variety I would define the explanandum according to the concept of the Weberian ideal type. In this case we should find universal categories which could stand for every object we can call “intellectual” in every time and every place, without moral, ethic or functional intentions. To my opinion intellectuals are a minority who have – due to their public/private education or natural talent – an above average expert knowledge or mind and consequently further reaching and profound realizations or specific ideas which are used to produce cultural goods in the broadest way of the word’s meaning. This includes for example scientists, authors, journalists, artists, composers, musicians, directors, priests and so on. So we have only three characteristic categories, by the may this makes them in comparison to other social groups – only in a quantitative point of view – a minority: An above average expert knowledge or mind, because of these realizations or ideas of a higher order which are finally transformed and materialized in speech, books, music, films, paintings or sculptures. Let us shortly closer light up these categories, for example in the social system of art, especially the modern art, as one subsystem of the cultural system. Some of the cultural products and with it the specific ideas, realizations and intentions have reached a point that they are for the average citizens, very difficult to understand or to interpret because of a lack of knowledge and mind in this special field. The cultural goods of the subsystem art as the so far final products of development and differentiation can therefore only in the first line really be understood by intellectuals with their special knowledge within this system that is separated from the outside. And this is similar to other tranformations from above average expert knowledge or mind in far reaching and profound realization or ideas about human living together, the position of men in the world or the “good”, “true” and “beautiful”, can often only be achieved by intellectuals with of course very different intentions and aims.

One possibility of the diverse world of the three categories can be the creation of utopias in its general meaning as imaginary ideal of a better society or community, an alternative to the existing circumstances, as in literary/poetical or a more theoretical form like in political programms or philosopical considerations. The term “utopia“ was created by Tomas Morus in 1516 by the equally named book and is a combination of the greek words “ou“ for “not” and “topos“ for “place”, the meaning stands for a place that nowhere exists.1 Of course, the utopian thinking is much older. Ernst Bloch saw in the utopian thinking - as a vision of a better life – a basic principle of human existence: “Das Utopische selbst ist das Charakteristikum des Menschen“2. In Bloch’s anthropological perspective in the tradition of Arnold Gehlen men is a “Mangelwesen“; “Hunger”, “Mangel“ and “Nicht-Haben“ manifest themselves in “Sehnsucht“ and “ausmalendes Hoffen“ and finally as “tätiges Wollen“, the imagined, so to speak the “Noch-Nicht“, to plan rationally and to realize.3 Therefore, in the utopian thinking there is a moment of realization but also in a utopia? Leonardis Donskis is not of this opininion, for him utopia is “a unique method for reflecting on human experience and social reality” as a ”model”4 that “emerges as a passionate questioning, even rejection, of the present in favor of tomorrow or yesterday”5. Only the ideology is endeavor “to make history per se, and create a sense of history”, as its fixed truths as “framework for human creation and interaction”6 are transformed in the social reality. Another important point in Donskis’ differentiation of ideology and utopia is that the latter not only critically reflects on the empirical reality but in the first line on the predominant ideological framework.7 So for example in Andrea’s utopia Christianopolis (1619), which is orientated on calvinism, or Zamyatin´s anti/dystopia We (1920) on communism or Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) on capitalism and biological-technical determinism or Orwell’s 1984 (1948) on totalitarism. Of course, Donskis’ differentiation of ideology and utopia is right but I cannot agree with him upon his first arguments, because at the latest since the enlightenment in France literary utopias can also claim a convertion of its ideas, even much more indirectly than ideologies and also more than theoretical-programmatical utopias as for example the utopian socialists Saint-Simon, Fourier und Owen. Mercier´s book L´An 2440 (1770) can be seen as the starting point, since now a “Verzeitlichung der Utopie”8 begins and so decisive change in the literary utopian sketch9, because for the first time the social conditions were projected in the future and therefore into the world of the feasible. The empirical transformation of Owen’s more theoretical ideas failed miserably in his communistic settlements in the U.S.10 This failing is only mentioned in a subordinate clause in Engels Die Entwicklung des Sozialismus von der Utopie zur Wissenschaft (1880), as it to some extent anticipated the failing of communism due to general preconditions. For him the utopian socialists present only the first step of the way to the ideology of the scientific socialism, because they only criticize capitalism’s production circumstances, but they cannot explain it, their “unreifen Theorien“ correspond to the “unreifen Stand der kapitalistischen Produktion”11. However, the socialism after Karl Marx is due to its historic-philosophical foundations of the historical materialism and due to its uncovering of the secret of capitalism, the Mehrwert, a science. 12 It is possible to call Engels a theoretical/programmatical utopian, too but I think this goes not far enough, because his holistic and comprehensively worked out ideological framework - the laws of history (development only as a result of economical structures - antagonism between the classes etc.) and the law of capitalism - for human reality. I agree with Donskis that totalitarism and the ideologies of national socialism, fascism and communism cannot only „be reduced to an alleged product of some utopian frame of reference”13, that would be a simplification. Also it is not possible to make the ideological starting points Marx and Engels responsible for the crimes of communism which lie 100 years in the future. But we can find ideological foundations in real history or real time and the actual implementations guilty. The certain implementations of utopias or ideological constructions, as large scale projects, for example alternative communities or only in smaller unities of human living together, have and will make clear, if the desired better relations really make a better life possible or if they degenerate to horror scenarios.

Lets move even closer to the world of reality. What was the role of intellectuals in past societies like post-totalitarism like Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia and what is and should be their role in democratic systems, are there any differences? Which were the far reaching and profound realizations or ideas about human society, or the “true” and “good”, and in which situations and circumstances and which intentions and aims produce cultural goods? In my opinion there are no momentous differentiations concerning an intellectual in a post-totalitarian or in a democratic system, if we adopt a more general point of view. For Havel intellectuals have the “right to think about the future”, but their “chief priority is, …, to understand the present, to understand its crises and put a name to them and they “must watch, warn, put people on their guard”14.This focus on the present, on society, and the intention to play an active role within – as far it is possible - is of course also valid for democratic systems. Bourdieu´s view of intellectuals is similar, they have to play an active part, for example like a “Störenfried”15 from the perspective of the power ruler, who uncovers the networks of elites and shows how the circulation of power and ideas works16. Or Foucault, who throws his weight behind civil rigths, also in times of terrorism, which is by the way again very topical, as far as restrictions in the U.S. have shown.17 But if we look closer to the situation and circumstances, the starting conditions are of course different. In order to understand a post-totalitarian system, it is helpful to examine the most important criteria of a totalitarian system. For Friedrich and Brzezinski these are the following ones: A worked out ideology, which covers all aspects of human existence; a mass party headed by a dictator, who is connected without reservations to the ideology and is ready to push through this ideology with every means; a terror system based on physical and psychological force; the monopoly of mass communication and weapons in army and police.18 We can apply the most criteria to a post-totalitarian regime, too: the main importance of the ideology; a mass party, terror system, the monopoly of mass communication, weapons and army - but the main point, the efficiency of repression, physical and psychological force, the sanctions etc, which are nevertheless terrible enough, “cannot ligthly be dissmissed, but they are far short of the brainwashing, concentration camps, or arbitrary”19. In Kundera´s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) we can see how the repressions deeply intervene in a human life: loss of job, loss of social status, no freedom to speak, observations, psychological terror etc.20 The post-totalitarian system stands or falls with the “more precise, logically structured, generally comprehensible and, in essence extremely flexible ideology”21. The “complex machinery of units, hierarchy, transmission belt, and indirect instruments of manipulation” secures “in countless ways the integrity of the regime”22. For Havel, two closely connected points are mainly important: Ideology as a “pseudo reality” and as a “metaphysical order”. At first, that for some people the fixed truths offer ready answers to any questions and provide a kind of home, including an illusion and identity, dignity and morality.23 Out of the perspective of the system, it is not necessary for the people to believe in everything what is given, it is enough to tolerate: “They must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. (…) For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system”24. The latter fact with its ideological framework like rules, laws, instructions, restriction, rituals etc. guarantees through the conformity and discipline inner coherence of the power structure. But both pillars are based on unstable foundations, because they are built on lies, and they “work only as long as people are willing to live within the lie”25. The goal must be to enter live with its real aims like longing or dignity or fundamental rights in order to “live within the truth”26. And this is the first step and the starting point of opposition. The hidden sphere is a pre-political one and does not take place on the level of real confrontation with the actual institutional power but on the level of human consciousness and conscience27, before the rise something visible will appear. And in the first line, the important role of intellectuals is located here - but also the task of ordinary citizens- to look through the ideology, to criticise and to enlight the other, in the possible ways. As Saxonberg and Thompson show, intellectuals dominate also the active dissident/opposition circles, because of a dilemma according to their main aim to produce cultural goods. On the one hand, this products are based on knowledge or ideas, like “eternal truth”, humanity and freedom etc., in which the given ideology cannot often be inculded, and on the other hand, also the pressure to support the regime by using their cultural values, like socialist realism.28 The way to act is closely related to how the ideology is legitimated. By the way this also applies to the Marxism “semi opposition”29, that helped to undermine the ideology by utilizing “the Marxism paradigma as the basis for a critique of the real socialism”30. Let us refer to the typology by Saxonberg and Thompson. In early post-totalitarian (1956-1968) systems, the ideological legitimacy is still strong within the regime, only small groups exist, aiming at the goal to revise the regime. In the first stages of “frozen” (GDR, Czechoslovakia) and “mature” post-totalitarain (Poland, Hungary) the legitimacy declines, and the still small groups are disillusioned, before in late post-totalitarianism the loss of ideological legitimacy turns into a formation of broader groups and dissidence and finally to the collapse of the system31, of course only in connection with other social groups, especially the workers and professionals.


1 Helmut Jenkis, Sozialutopien – barbarische Glücksverheißungen? Zur Geistesgeschichte der Idee von der vollkommenen Gesellschaf, (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1992), p.1.

2 Enst Bloch, “Antizipierte Realität. Wie geschieht und was leistet utopisches Denken ?” (1965), in Rudolf Villgradter a. Friedrich Krey eds., Der utopische Roman, (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1992), p. 22: “The utopian itself is the nature of men”, trs. by me.

3 ibid., pp.18/23: “being of lack”, “hunger”, “lack”, “not-having”, “longing”, “picturing hope”, “active wanting”, “not-yet”, trs. by me.

4 Leonidas Donskis, The End of Ideologie and Utopia, (New York: Peter Lang, 2000), p. 37.

5 ibid., p. 49.

6 ibid., p. 38.

7 ibid., pp. 37/38.

8 Reinhart Koselleck, “Die Verzeitlichung der Utopie” in Wilhelm Vosskamp ed., Utopieforschung. Interdisziplinäre Studien zur neuzeitlichen Utopie, vol. 3, (Stuttgart: Suhrkamp, 1985), p. 1.

9 Jürgen Habermas, “Die Krise des Wohlfahrstaates und die Erschöpfung utopischer Energien”, in Die Neue Unübersichtlichkeit, (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1985), p. 143.

10 Jenkis, Sozialutopien, p. 324.

11 Engels, Friedrich, Die Entwicklung des Sozialismus von der Utopie zur Wissenschaft (1880), (East Berlin: Dietz, 1984), p. 54: “unripe theories”; “unripe position of capitalistic production”, trs. by me.

12 ibid., p. 72.

13 Donskis, The End of Ideologie and Utopia, p. 39.

14 Václav Havel, “Interview (1989)”, in Unesco Courier, vol. 54, Dec. 2001, p. 12.

15 Pierre Bourdieu, “Störenfried Soziologie. Zur Demokratie gehört eine Forschung, die Ungerechtigkeiten aufdeckt“, in Joachim Fritz-Vannahme ed., Wozu heute noch Soziologie ?, (Opladen: Leske + Budrich, 1996), p. 65: “troubelmaker”, trs., by me.

16 Pierre Bourdieu, “Social Scientits, Economic Science and the Social Movement“, in t.s., Acts of Resistance (New York: New Press, 1998), p. 55.

17 Michel Foucault, “Truth and Power: Letter to Certain Leaders of the Left”, in The Essential works of Foucault, 1954-1984, vol 3: Power, (London: Penguin, 1994), pp. 426/428.

18 Carl Joachim Friedrich & Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Die allgemeinen Merkmale der totalitären Diktatur”, in Eckard Hesse ed., Totalitarismus im 20. Jahrhunderts. Eine Bilanz der internationalen Forschung, (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 1999), pp. 230/231, trs., by me.

19 Steve Saxonberg & Mark R. Thompson, “Opposition and Dissence in Transitions and Non-Transitions from Communism- A Comparison of Eastern Europe to Asia and Cuba”, in Detef Pollack a. Jan Wielgohs, eds., Oppositions and Dissidentce in the State Socialist Countries of Eastern Europe, (still not published), p. 1.

20 Milan Kundera, Die unerträgliche Leichtigkeit des Seins (1984), trs. by Susanna Roth, (München/Wien: Carl Hanser, 2004).

21 Václav Havel, The Power of the Powerless, (London: M.E. Shape, 1985), p. 25.

22 ibid., p. 29.

23 ibid., pp. 25/28.

24 ibid., p. 31.

25 ibid., p. 35.

26 ibid., p. 39.

27 ibid., pp. 41/42.

28 Saxonberg & Thompson, “Opposition and Dissence”, p. 14.

29 ibid., p. 3.

30 Raymond Taras, “The ´Meltdown` of Marxism in the Soviet Bloc”, in Raymond Taras ed., The Road to Disillusion: From Critical Marxism to Postcommunism in Eastern Europe, (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1992), p. 4.

31 Saxonberg & Thompson, “Opposition and Dissence, p. 3.


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Title: Who is an intellectual  What should the role of intellectuals be in society?