The Intellectual in the Post-Colonial World: Response and Discussion

By Said, Edward; O'Brien, Conor Cruise et al. | Salmagundi, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

The Intellectual in the Post-Colonial World: Response and Discussion


Said, Edward, O'Brien, Conor Cruise, Lukacs, John, Salmagundi


CCO'B: I think we're much indebted to Edward Said for a large retrospective on those matters which have produced present situations. I would like to try to supplement and complement-and I must say I feel it is very necessary to complement what Edward has said-by talking a little more directly about our announced subject, "The Intellectual in the Post-"-I stress "Post-"-Colonial World. What we've heard most about here is the pre-colonial world. I don't dispute the relevance of that to the other. But I'd like to concentrate in my own remarks on 20th century developments, on the role and position of intellectuals both in the decolonization process and in the post-colonial world. Edward has had very little to say about how intellectuals now live, how they express themselves, what freedom they have, what they are. I would like to have a look at that too. But I want to begin with the expectations of intellectuals in the initial period of decolonization. And I come from that country which was first in the process of decolonization, an Ireland whose example in 1921 was to be followed by many in India, Egypt and other places.

What did people expect? Intellectuals, throughout that whole area of the former colonial world, expected to be the inheritors of their newly liberated countries because they had been the challengers of the colonial governments. The people who first challenged British or French power were intellectuals: teachers, writers, publicists. I call them intellectuals because they were people who used concepts, who used words, and who used these to challenge the imperial power, principally Britain and France, knowing that they had an echo for their words and concepts in London and in Paris, and knowing that because they had that echo they were respected in their country. They were the spokesmen for their people. It was an intoxicating role, and a splendid one, as long as it lasted.

Very often these people knew less about the actual conditions in their own countries than they knew about the currency of ideas learned from books which were current in Western Europe at the time. They thought that when the British or the French or the Belgians were gone, their legacy would be what had always been denied them before, an enlightened world. Democracy, for example, had not been shared. The British and the French, who were democrats in their own countries, were not democrats in their colonial administration. And those who were struggling against them assumed the natural development of democratic tendencies in their decolonized countries, along with the continuation of things like freedom of expression, and the rule of law.

So the colonial powers withdrew. And how did they withdraw? Partly by handing over power to intellectuals. Some of these intellectuals were what Christopher Lasch has called "Voice of Reason" intellectuals, persons essentially associated with the status quo,or relatively conservative intellectuals like Leopold Senghor in Senegal. But there were also "Voice of Conscience" intellectuals, persons who claimed to be speaking for the poor and the underdeveloped and the oppressed, though desiring in many cases simply to win power for themselves and their cronies in the name of all that. Typically both types of intellectuals became involved in the first phase of decolonization. Then there was the second wave, wherein the elite that had won the elections could only survive if it satisfied the military. At least throughout most of the decolonized world, this was the phase of the military coups, when the soldiers came in and said to the intellectuals, "Chatterboxes, shut up." And they either shut up or else they went onto the radios and the press of the decolonized world, and said what the soldiers wanted, or what the dictators wanted.

We do not always like to remember this aspect of the decolonization process, but if we are going to talk about the post-colonial world, we can't forget it. The source of all the evil we've heard about was not just in London or Paris. …

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