Three intellectuals of the left

Issue 

Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures
By Edward W. Said
Vintage, 1994. 90 pp., $12.95 (pb)

Styles of Radical Will
By Susan Sontag
Vintage, 1994. 274 pp., $12.95 (pb)

Revolutionaries: Contemporary Essays
By E.J. Hobsbawm
Phoenix, 1994. 278 pp., $24.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

The alliance of intellectuals and the left has had a chequered history. There has been a steady procession of intellectuals in this century retreating from an earlier socialist commitment — a retreat always presented as an intellectual and moral advance, of course, and latterly decked out in the finery of discourse theory and the latest postmodernist fashions.

Three recent books show that this itinerary of the intellectuals is not inevitable. Edward Said's Reith Lectures are a sturdy defence of the intellectuals' role in seeking "human freedom and knowledge and truth" in a spirit of critical alignment with the oppressed and their political movements.

Said, an independent member of the Palestinian parliament-in-exile, opponent of the US war-for-oil invasion of Iraq in 1991 and a kindred spirit to Noam Chomsky, argues that to be a genuine intellectual, a trafficker in ideas must confront orthodoxy and dogma, rather than produce them, and must oppose, rather than accommodate to, the political status quo.

It is a commitment to facts and moral judgment that separates an academic like Said from, for example, a consultant to the Defense Department. A political and social reality do exist, he argues, despite Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis or Lyotard's "disappearance of the grand narratives of emancipation and enlightenment", and the obligation of a moral stance in favour of the victims of this reality can not be avoided by the intellectual.

A concern with social truth, he argues, requires a concern with linguistic truth and a critical attitude to the conventional clich‚s we hear from the licensed media experts and politicians who would "seduce the consciousness into passive acceptance of unexamined ideas and sentiments".

Said's only blemish is his fastidiousness for an individualist independence, claiming that the intellectual's independence is incompatible with membership in any political party and commitment to any political system of thought.

Organisational involvement, however, need not entail putting blinkers on the brain. Unity in collective action does not preclude freedom of discussion, and both are necessary for political effectiveness. As Gramsci said, cited by Said, everyone is an intellectual because everyone analyses social reality and attempts to influence others' ideas. Without these "organic" intellectuals organised into parties or movements or "causes", there would be no social change for professional intellectuals to align themselves to.

Susan Sontag is one of those dedicated amateur US intellectuals who did not decamp to the "Second Thoughters", those '60s radicals, says Said, whose "enthusiastic idealism was simplified and refashioned retrospectively as caving in to the enemies of the US and blindness to communist brutality".

The re-release of Styles of Radical Will shows Sontag at her radical '60s best. Although she displays a partiality for "post-Marxist" ideas in her 1966 essay "What's Happening in America" (as in her undiscriminating enthusiasm for all aspects of the youth culture — "the way they dance, dress, wear their hair, riot, make love", their Eastern mysticism, drugs and macrobiotic rice), she can not join the anti-Marxist liberal intellectuals who are "at home in the system", looking for change to "enlightened men wielding power justly".

Sontag is, nevertheless, marked by her intellectual culture. An abstruse intellectualism masks what social radicalism she tries to invest in some of her cultural essays, and her self-confessed fear of being no more than a "mere volunteer in the armchair army of bourgeois intellectuals with radical sympathies in the head" threatened to spike her solidarity trip to North Vietnam in 1968.

As she describes in "Trip to Hanoi", she suffered the agonies of the middle class liberal, repelled by the communist rhetoric and the "poverty" of Vietnamese culture (no San Francisco rock bands). Her attitude changes, however, as she learns to accept the Vietnamese as real people who are committed to the political struggle for independence and a future of caring and cooperation.

Stalinism had betrayed Marxist language for Sontag, but after Hanoi she "can pronounce 'capitalism' and 'imperialism' again" and recapture the revolutionary idealism of her youth.

What started out as a self-centred account of "Susan Sontag does Hanoi" eventually develops into an "active confrontation with the limits of [her] own thinking". In this collection of essays, "Trip to Hanoi" is worth revisiting as an idiosyncratic but moving example of the politically awakening Vietnam War essay.

Vietnam also brought the revolutionary best out of E.J. Hobsbawm, Communist Party of Great Britain intellectual and economic and labour movement historian. A re-release of some of his '60s essays shows the impact of these radical times in energising the traditional left.

Yet, whilst Hobsbawm is clearly excited by the possibilities of France in '68 and the Vietnamese resistance, a political reserve is evident. Hints of what was to come during Hobsbawm's 1980s conservative fling with Eurocommunism and his advocacy of political alliance with middle-class liberal parties during the siege of Thatcherism, surface with his devaluing of the "ultraleft" (an unduly broad definition including anyone to the left of the CPGB) and a reluctance to accept the virtual disappearance of revolutionary intentions from the world's Communist parties, which were either still Stalinist or headed towards the reformist mainstream.

Hobsbawm is one of those Marxists who is a better revolutionary the further he is from his own time, but even when he is wrong (he down-plays the PCF's anti-revolutionary role in France in 1968) or too cautious (on the stability of capitalism in the industrialised West) he is still worthwhile, ready to criticise received Marxist wisdom when necessary, to temper the revolutionary's sometimes wild optimism of the will by a dose of realism of the intellect, and to argue the case for revolution with informed enthusiasm.

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