The Intellectual as Critic and Conscience

By Rodden, John | The Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 2014 | Go to article overview

The Intellectual as Critic and Conscience


Rodden, John, The Midwest Quarterly


Speaking Truth to Power

IN JANUARY 2010 leading European intellectuals commemorated the deaths of two great men of letters of the twentieth century: the Englishman George Orwell and the pied noir French Algerian Albert Camus. That month marked the sixtieth anniversary of the death of George Orwell in 1950 and the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Albert Camus, precisely a decade later in January 1960. British and French writers in particular celebrated the heritage that Orwell and Camus represent, a legacy of intellectual integrity, moral courage, and literary excellence.

Both of these men exemplified a rare honesty to speak truth to power, to voice a cry against oppression and injustice. They did so not only against the malfeasance of government officials and the cowardice of the so-called Establishment, but even against their own immediate reference group, their fellow intellectuals on the Left, what the New York intellectual and social critic Harold Rosenberg called "the herd of independent minds" stampeding together in the same direction (242-45). Rosenberg was referring to his own group of New York intellectuals, but he was in fact merely echoing what Orwell had repeatedly said three decades earlier in London and Camus shortly thereafter in Paris. Yet in order to appreciate fully the heritage that Orwell and Camus represent, a short history lesson is in order.

L'Intellectuel Is Born

The very word "intellectual" was not even part of the Western lexicon until the late nineteenth century. Yes, there were men of letters, essayists, journalists, and gentleman scholars. But not an identifiable class--"the intellectuals," or the "intelligentsia"--as we have come to understand them as a formal social category. Both these terms arose after the conviction in 1894 of Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French Army who had been convicted unjustly on trumped-up charges. The truth was suppressed by both the French military and the French government. Dreyfus, a Jew who was the victim of vicious anti-Semitic prejudices during his military trial, was packed off to prison. However, some writers, especially Emile Zola in J'Accuse! [I Accuse!], could not and would not remain silent once they had discovered the truth. In his explosive manifesto, Zola wrote, "I accuse the government, I accuse the military, I accuse the powers that be of lying and corruption and deception of those whom they would proclaim to serve, the public" (Zola). Published in 1898, J'Accuse! caused a firestorm of controversy in Paris. Plenty of Parisian writers and men of letters wanted to suppress the truth. "Let this French Jew take the blame," they believed. There were others, however, who agreed with Zola. And thus "the intellectual" was born, that is, the thinker who insists that the truth must be proclaimed in language clear and direct and simple and concrete--and, wherever possible, fluid and euphonious.

And so, the role of the intellectual began, first in France and then throughout the continent and elsewhere, that is, the intellectual as a critic of power. But what happens when, soon thereafter in the twentieth century, the intellectuals themselves begin to demonstrate that they are corrupt and deceptive, when they begin fully collaborating with power, such as during the French Occupation? Or for a much longer period shortly thereafter with Soviet Russia? The Western intellectuals' betrayal of their calling continued even after Joseph Stalin occupied all of Eastern Europe--partly because "Uncle Joe Stalin" was our ally against the Nazis, even if only beginning in June 1941, not before that and not after World War II.

It is much more difficult, and it requires much greater intellectual integrity and moral courage, to be a critic of your own side, of your fellow intellectuals. Yes, it's easier to speak truth to power if the powerful are in faraway places like the White House or Number 10 Downing Street or the Palais Elysee, where they ignore you like an elephant does a fly, as you declaim and breast-beat in your academic publications and ephemeral newspaper columns. …

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