165. The wanderer (II)
Updated: Mar 1
Consider the case of Karl Marx, the most successful leftist in history. Marx was never a university lecturer; he had a PhD, granted—but his ideas cut against everything scholars taught in the system. Marxism was excluded from the universities for decades as a crank subject; a fact Marxists repeatedly complained about, blaming “bourgeois ideology”. How could this be, if the universities were natural territory for leftism? The universities are not natural territory for leftism. It is the intellectual entrepreneur—the intellectual, the man like Marx—who develops and popularises leftist ideas; remember, Marx was also an avid part-time journalist—about his only real job, when not sponging money from Engels.
When Anglo-Saxons complain about “postmodernism” part of what they are really complaining about is not postmodern ideas as such, but “the intellectual”—by which they mean “the French”. The intellectual is not a recognised class in Anglo-Saxon countries, where you can be a professional, worker, tradesman, businessman, or scholar. The closest the English get to this class is people like H.G. Wells or Richard Dawkins—strongly self-identified as scientists with social ideas, not intellectuals; though they are captured by the ideas of intellectuals, whose memes trump their science.
It is France, above all the nations, that has this specialised role “the intellectual”, a man whose work is not scholarly, not literary, not journalism, not technical, not truly philosophical and yet has high esteem as a work of intelligence. The figures of Voltaire, Lacan, Sartre, and Bernard-Henri Lévy spring to mind as examples of a type, a type so esteemed that de Gaulle famously refused to arrest Sartre on the grounds that: “You don’t arrest Voltaire.” Ironically, it was Voltaire—his ideas—that led in large part to the original catastrophe of the French Revolution—you really, really should arrest Voltaire.
Contemporary French philosophy, from Deleuze to Badiou, is an exercise in novelty for the sake of novelty and high style—it is theory, no? What does that word mean? “to picture”: they paint a picture—so abstract, so challenging…mmmm. It is less philosophy, more intellectualisation. Theory has no interest in reality, much to the chagrin of autistic Anglo-Saxons—it just wants to be chic and high status.
The golden age of English intellectuals, not recognised as such, was in that period after the Civil War when Ranters and Levellers competed for public support through sermons and cheap pamphlets—the period when the English Revolution threatened to go full Mao, before Cromwell stepped up. The intellectual is a sermoniser, Marx was a frustrated rabbi.
The Anglo-Americans, perhaps under the influence of that 20th century development, the New York Jewish intellectual, created the “public intellectual”—a sort of hybrid of the French model, given respectability by support from the foundations and think tanks. Today, woke ideology is developed and spread by the likes of Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo—these people are intellectuals, not scholars. It is often said they are not sophisticated, but they are about as sophisticated as Tom Paine; and Paine helped to bring about the American Revolution—they are sophisticated enough. Paine was also obtuse as only an intellectual can be, imprisoned by the French revolutionaries he still praised the Revolution to the Heavens—a foretaste of similar asinine intellectual praise for the Soviet Union in the 20th century. You could say that an intellectual is interested in ideas as ideas, whereas some people are interested in ideas as those ideas relate to reality.
Edmund Burke was correct when he identified the roots of the French Revolution in “the scribblers”: men like Tom Paine and Marx, essentially secular preachers. Genuine scholars are terrible at promoting leftist ideas, even if they have them, but the scribbler knows how to make money and status from bromides: The Hand that Rocks the Cradle: White Supremacy in America’s Nurseries or Fraterniser: How to be an Ally in the Workplace. These are saleable products—though often enough these pamphlets are written from genuine fanaticism, not for money.