Intellectuals and Public Life: Between Radicalism and Reform, edited by Leon Fink, Stephen T. Leonard, and Donald M. Reid. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. xii, 327 pp. 

Reviewed by Ralph Dumain

The subject of intellectuals in society is a hot topic nowadays, but this book is among the best of its genre, a healthy alternative to postmodern navel-gazing. In addition to the general introduction, there are specific treatments of Habermas and Foucault as the heirs of Voltaire and Rousseau, the German labor movement, the Russian intelligentsia, Regis Debray, social science and public policy, progressive intellectuals and labor reform, women's history, liberation theology, and Chinese student protests of 1989. These detailed studies of intellectuals in specific social settings are very helpful for testing Gramsci's general notions about organic intellectuals and analyzing in depth the complex relations of intellectuals to society.

There are two chapters dear to my heart. One is "'Bred as a Mechanic': Plebeian Intellectuals and Popular Politics in Early Nineteenth-Century England" by James Epstein. Fittingly, the essay is dedicated to E.P. Thompson. Richard Carlile and the freethinking republican movement of the 1820s, people known as the "zetetics," were radical artisan Paine-ites, rationalists, and advocates of female equality, but their organic relation to the rest of their class was problematic.

Another important chapter is "The Political Uses of Alienation: W.E.B. Du Bois on Politics, Race, and Culture, 1903-1940" by Thomas C. Holt. This essay begins with the famous quote on double consciousness, but it leads to Du Bois' complex articulation of the relation between race and class in political strategy. Anyone interested in the politics of race and class needs to read this. There is a fascinating discussion of Du Bois' political thinking of the early 1930s, which led to his rupture with the NAACP. In the face of America's bleak racial prospects, Du Bois advocates voluntary self-segregation to build up black economic power. But Du Bois denies that he is advocating either the policies of Booker T. Washington or Garvey. In fact, Du Bois' embrace of a 'nationalist' strategy coincides with the intensification of his interest in and study of Marxism. The more 'Marxist' Du Bois becomes, the more he advocates black solidarity and autonomy, because he does not believe that transracial class solidarity is a realistic perspective and thinks that the Communist Party is stupid to think so and cannot be trusted. Du Bois is also distrustful of the bourgeois leadership of the NAACP and tries to fight its leaders unsuccessfully. This curious combination of class consciousness with black autonomy in that period immediately reminds me of the position of C.L.R. James first developed in 1938.

I am happy not only to see all this attention given to Du Bois, but to see him integrated into the general study of intellectuals, an integration I did not see before the 1990s. Russell Jacoby leaves black intellectuals altogether out of The Last Intellectuals. Now we not only have reclaimed the pioneering ideas of Du Bois and James of the black masses as vanguard, but we are beginning to see the fruits of Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic, in which the black approach to the problems of modernity gets center stage at last.

Written 4 June 1996, revised 30 April 2002
© 1996, 2002 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

Addendum on Heine, Habermas, et al

Kramer, Lloyd. "Habermas, Foucault, and the Legacy of Enlightenment Intellectuals", in: Intellectuals and Public Life: Between Radicalism and Reform, edited by Leon Fink, Stephen T. Leonard, Donald M. Reid (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), chapter 2: pp. 29-50.

Habermas and Foucault are seen as the two contemporary paradigmatic figures with directly opposing views on Enlightenment intellectuals. Both see two different forms of intellectuals emerging in the modern period: the critical intellectual and the specialized authority figure enforcing the command structure of the bourgeois order. The first type emphasizes criticism and social transformation, the second, technical expertise that legitimate the existing order. Habermas emphasizes the first type, Foucault the second. In a way, these two recapitulate the difference between Voltaire and Rousseau, the first emphasizing the critical, democratic potential of the new intellectual, the latter emphasizing the despotic tendencies inherent in specialized expertise. For all Habermas' valorization of Kant, Habermas takes Heinrich Heine as the ideal embodiment of the best of the Enlightenment tradition. Heine was vilified precisely because he linked up politically progressive Enlightenment rationality and the Romantic literary imagination, rescuing the latter from nationalism, irrationalism, and worship of the past (p. 39).

At the same time Heine maintains a qualitative distinction between poetry and politics, a trait also prized by Habermas. Heine is politically committed yet reserves an autonomous cultural space for poetry, art, expertise, and knowledge, whose proper integrity must be respected and not slighted in the cause of partisanship (pp. 39-40). Heine is the Enlightenment intellectual par excellence precisely because he is unflinching in the struggle against authoritarianism while remaining loyal to the demands of autonomous reason. So how do you like them apples?

Written 26 November 1997
© 1997, 2005 Ralph Dumain

Compare to:

In re: Habermas, Jürgen. "Heinrich Heine and the Role of the Intellectual in Germany", in The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Historians' Debate, edited and translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen, introduction by Richard Wolin (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), pp. 71-99.

I found this essay enormously satisfying. Habermas is interested in the various configurations of the public role of intellectuals and of the arguments for against against their involvement in political affairs and on what basis. Heine functioned as a public intellectual in the face of censorship and in the absence of a parliamentary system. Heine was not permitted by subsequent generations as part of the establishment of a public intellectual tradition in Germany. Habermas compares the German situation to the functioning of the Dreyfusards in France. Both the proscription of political involvement (Weber) and the anti-intellectualism implicated in domesticating intellectuals for party politics in Germany (and also France: cf. Bebel) are predicated on the conflation of public role and political power. (Lukács is also guilty of this, as implied by this essay.) Heine's sophisticated approach to the public role of the intellectual was chronically misunderstood up until at least 1945. Heine was opposed both to quietism and instrumentalism, committed both to the preservation of the autonomy of the intellectual and the right to intervene in the political sphere as a voice of education and conscience (i.e. not subordinated to instrumental party discipline).

There are other interesting features of this essay, too. Habermas claims that Heine was never forgiven essentially for being a pro-Enlightenment romantic. Heine not only had an interesting position on the folk spirit, but also on the fusion of life and art distinguished from the impermissible fusion of art and instrumental politics.

This essay resonates with what I perceive (hastily) to be the position taken by Habermas in the introduction to Theory and Practice. It is the sort of position I've been trying to articulate myself in recent years.

It would be interesting to compare Habermas' essay with Georg Lukács' "Heinrich Heine as National Poet" (1935) in German Realists in the Nineteenth Century (pp. 95-156). Lukács' essay is initially jarring (re others' accusations of Heine as treacherous), but Lukács rises to Heine's defense and has an especially interesting take on Heine's use of irony. My guess is that Lukács wrote as he did partly because of the conditions of duress he experienced living under Stalinism, still managing to assert a complex interpretation even with the gun of political orthodoxy pointed to his head.

Written 18 June 2002
© 2002, 2005 Ralph Dumain

On Habermas’s Theory and Practice by R. Dumain

Historical Remarks on the Question of Organization
by Jürgen Habermas

“The partisanship of the critique of ideology in favor of technological rationality” (Excerpt)
by Jürgen Habermas

Jürgen Habermas on centralized automation of social control

On the self-reflection of rationalistic “faith”
by Jürgen Habermas

The Analytical Theory of Science and Dialectics
by Jürgen Habermas

A Positivistically Bisected Rationalism
by Jürgen Habermas

Commentary on Matthew Piscioneri, Habermas: The Myth of Reason
by R. Dumain

Metacritique Critiqued by R. Dumain

Komunika Etiko kaj Esperantismo
[Communication Ethics & Esperantism]
de Helmut Welger (in Esperanto)

Heinrich Heine: Selected Bibliography

The Philosophy of Theory and Practice: Selected Bibliography

Philosophy and the Division of Labor: Selected Bibliography

Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe Study Guide

Intellectual Life in Society, Conventional and Unconventional, & Related Topics:
A Bibliography in Progress

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Uploaded 30 April 2002
Addendum 13 August 2005

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