Magazine article The American Conservative

Untenured Radical: What Are Intellectuals Good for? by George Scialbba: Clearing Space for the Utopian Imagination

Magazine article The American Conservative

Untenured Radical: What Are Intellectuals Good for? by George Scialbba: Clearing Space for the Utopian Imagination

Article excerpt

Spare a thought, conservatives, for America's leftist intellectuals. The Right has had its ups and downs over the last 30 years, but the Left has had nothing but downs. What could be more painful than to see so many of your hopes hammered flat by history, so many good intentions turned to ashes? All the more reason then for readers from Left and Right alike to salute George Scialabba, whose new book teaches valuable lessons on how to look difficulties in the face and to accept defeat gracefully.

Scialabba is a rare bird among serious nonfiction writers in that he's not a professor or a foundation fellow. In some ways reminiscent of the longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer, he comes to the work of Plato, David Hume, Matthew Arnold, and Karl Marx not on the basis of a life spent in university seminars but from his own experiences as a social worker and office clerk. He can always produce an appropriate insight from John Stuart Mill or a scintillating quip from George Bernard Shaw. He keeps alive the ideals of the Enlightenment, dares to think utopian thoughts, and still feels the romantic pull of the Left, but hardly ever succumbs to wishful thinking. This collection of his essays and reviews from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s makes surprising reading, not least because Scialabba, from a principled position on the Left, makes so many assertions with which conservatives will readily agree.

His heroes are the public intellectuals of the 20th century who spoke for a humane version of socialism, who rebuked cruelty and malice wherever they found them (including on their own side), and who resisted the temptation of thinking in lockstep for political reasons. He singles out for high praise Randolph Bourne, Dwight Macdonald, George Orwell, and Irving Howe among the English speakers, Albert Camus, Nicola Chiaromonte, and Ignazio Silone among the Europeans. They all brought wide learning, moral subtlety, and a refined literary style to their work.

Why, Scialabba asks, are such writers no longer to be found? Part of the problem is the greater complexity of the world, many elements of which can be mastered only through years of technical training and specialization. A general familiarity with the humanities and a deep sense of common decency might have been sufficient for Orwell to denounce the Communists in the Spanish Civil War, but it's not enough when the issues are ICBM-targeting doctrine, biotechnological research, and the arcane lore of leveraged buyouts. Today's public intellectuals find it difficult to speak confidently on more than a few topics. Another part of the problem is the vastly increased sophistication of government and corporations, whose manipulation of the media and whose skillful, unremitting propaganda have come almost to shape the reality in which we live. "When amateurs were in charge of deceiving the public about American foreign policy," Scialabba writes, "they did it badly; Henry Kissinger, Richard Perle, and Elliott Abrams are another matter entirely."

But must increasing complexity and the sinister reach of propaganda end the dream of a better world? In a meditation on utopianism, Scialabba says no. He understands the intellectual progress of recent centuries as a joint venture undertaken by skeptics and visionaries, who challenged ancient falsehoods and dreamed of a finer world: "The skeptics can be seen as clearing a space for the utopian imagination, for prophecies of a demystified community, of solidarity without illusions. The skeptics weed, the visionaries water." He is not ashamed to outline his own utopia, a world in which everyone will sing in harmony at least once a week, in which folks will know plenty of great poems and speeches by heart, have useful and stimulating work, enjoy civil arguments with one another, won't depend on consumerism for a feeling of self-worth, and will be able to hike in unspoiled wilderness. I would be glad to join him there.

Scialabba regrets that most leftist intellectuals have given up on utopia and retreated completely into academic life. …

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