Intellectuals and History

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Writing for City Journal, Adam Kirsch reviews Charles Kurzman's Democracy Denied, 1905–1915: Intellectuals and the Fate of Democracy, which examines the role of intellectuals in ultimately unsuccessful attempts by six nations -- Russia, Iran, Turkey, Portugal, Mexico, and China -- to establish Western-style democracies.

His conclusion should provoke thought among those wondering about the fates of more recent revolts, from the the Ukraine's Orange Revolution, to Lebanon's Cedar Revolution, to the current "Tea Party" movement in the United States.

[T]hese six revolutions are not remembered as a glorious chapter in history. In each, pro-democracy activists scored dramatic initial successes, only to surrender quickly to infighting, resentment, and apathy, setting the stage for counterrevolutionary coups.


[T]he revolutions of 1905–1915 failed because intellectuals overestimated popular democratic support and underestimated the challenges that democracy presented. Kurzman writes acerbically about these intellectuals, repeatedly suggesting that such liberal values as a free press and universal education were just parochial interests of the class that writes and teaches for a living. But are democracies' enthusiasms for these values really just examples of "hegemony" in the Gramscian sense, as Kurzman argues -- "the acceptance of the interests of the ruling group as though they were the interests of the whole society"? If so, it's hard to understand why, as Kurzman acknowledges in his concluding chapter, these rights became the goal of the post-1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe -- which were led not by intellectuals but by labor movements like Solidarity. The intellectuals of 1905–1915 were, Kurzman amply shows, deluded about their peoples' readiness for democracy. They were ahead of their time, a misfortune not just their own, but their countries'.
Kirsch sounds, in his critique, closer to the truth than Kurzman, but I think that stopping with the conclusion that the intellectuals are "ahead of their time", as perceptive as it is, misses a larger, crucial point.

Why were they "ahead of their time," if they were at all? Later democratic movements may have striven for similar values, but history is not preordained, either, as the failure of Iran to overthrow the mullahs by now shows us. Why has this not happened? And what, ultimately, causes society to change for the better, anyway?

Kirsch and Kurzman are getting warm when they look at intellectuals; for abstract, philosophical ideas clearly play a role in changing society. They are also right to wonder whether the societies these intellectuals functioned within were ready to implement their ideas. But two more things merit attention from anyone genuinely concerned with preserving and expanding freedom: (1) whether the ideas of such "revolutionaries" are consistent with freedom, and (2) how well-accepted they are by the population at large. A revolution can fail because the ideas of its leaders are not really compatible with freedom, because such ideas do not already permeate the culture, or both.

The notion that a people may "not be ready" for freedom more obviously touches on the second of these, and Bush's attempt to bomb and rebuild Iraq into freedom is often seen as futile for this reason. But this notion also touches on the first. The tenets of Islam -- the dominant ideology of the Iraqi people, as well as the acknowledged source of law in its new constitution -- are incompatible with freedom. This is why the Iraqis are not ready for freedom.

And what of the revolutionary? If we take Bush, the architect of this "revolution" as an intellectual leader for the sake of argument, we see that his acceptance of theocracy is an idea incompatible with freedom. (Nor has he, needless to day, attempted to introduce the Iraqis to a coherent political philosophy supporting individual rights.) Bush is no intellectual to be sure, but what he tried to do is no different than what any band of intellectuals is attempting to do by staging a political revolution without first winning minds to their side. Thus, as a theocrat, or at least someone tolerant of theocracy, Bush has the wrong ideas, and this caused him to fail to challenge the wrong ideas already held by the Iraqi people.

No matter how modern Iraq's new infrastructure looks, be that infrastructure the bridges we built or Western-looking parliamentary elections, freedom cannot prevail without the population generally favoring individual rights. The ideal of total obedience to Allah contradicts a proper conception individual rights.

Putting the last differently, unless the intellectuals succeed in changing the overall outlook of the larger society in favor of ideas consistent with freedom, attempts to cause fundamental political change will be premature and will eventually fail. Why? Because the people will ultimately demand policies and institutions in line with their personally-held views. (Would our government's forming an Islamic morality police be tolerated in America?) In fact, in order for lasting political change to occur, an intellectual revolution is necessary first, as Yaron Brook recently pointed out on Pajamas TV regarding the "Tea Party" movement. (He gets to this around 16:30.) To succeed in bringing about freedom, intellectuals must have ideas that lead to freedom when put into practice and influence society enough that those ideas can be put into practice.

Ayn Rand, writing in her essay, "For the New Intellectual," discusses how intellectuals who want freedom must work to achieve that end.
The professional intellectual is the field agent of the army whose commander-in-chief is the philosopher. The intellectual carries the application of philosophical principles to every field of human endeavor. He sets a society's course by transmitting ideas from the "ivory tower" of the philosopher to the university professor -- to the writer -- to the artist -- to the newspaperman -- to the politician -- to the movie maker -- to the night-club singer -- to the man in the street. The intellectual's specific professions are in the field of the sciences that study man, the so-called "humanities," but for that very reason his influence extends to all other professions. Those who deal with the sciences studying nature have to rely on the intellectual for philosophical guidance and information: for moral values, for social theories, for political premises, for psychological tenets and, above all, for the principles of epistemology, that crucial branch of philosophy which studies man's means of knowledge sad makes an other sciences possible. The intellectual is the eyes, ears and voice of a free society: it is his job to observe the events of the world, to evaluate their meaning and to inform the men in all the other fields. A free society has to be an informed society. In the stagnation of feudalism, with castes and guilds of serfs repeating the same motions generation after generation, the services of traveling minstrels chanting the same old legends were sufficient. But In the racing torrent of progress which is capitalism, where the free choices of individual men determine their own lives and the course of the entire economy, where opportunities are unlimited, where discoveries are constant, where the achievements of every profession affect all the others, men need a knowledge wider than their particular specialties, they need those who can point the way to the better mousetrap -- or the better cyclotron, or the better symphony, or the better view of existence. The more specialized and diversified a society, the greater its need for the integrating power of knowledge; but the acquisition of knowledge on so wide a scale is a full-time profession. A free society has to count on the honor of its intellectuals: it has to expect them to be as efficient, reliable, precise and objective as the printing presses and the television sets that carry their voices. (For the New Intellectual, pp 26-27) [bold added]
Unlike in Iraq, many of the ideas necessary for a free society are widely held by many in the general American population, although often only implicitly and in inconsistent form. The job of the intellectual is, relatively speaking, much easier here than elsewhere, and our political situation is less dire. Nevertheless, political revolutions do not happen without philosophical revolutions -- and turning an anti-freedom political tide cannot occur without a turning of the philosophical tide. We elected Obama because many Americans favor the welfare state, which is incompatible with freedom.

What's next for the Tea Party movement? Third party futility at best, unless intellectuals who understand the philosophical roots of freedom notice that the public is on their side this time, and carry the day.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

What's next for the Tea Party movement? Third party futility at best, unless intellectuals who understand the philosophical roots of freedom notice that the public is on their side this time, and carry the day.

Thank-you for your latest piece, and for this concluding comment. Indeed. Something is afoot in the country. To simply poo-poo or otherwise dismiss the tea parties is to miss a golden opportunity, especially for Objectivist intellectuals. I personally would love to seee Objectivist intellectuals (Dr. Brook, for example?!) make contact with the organizers of these events, attend these gatherings when possible and speak of substance with the participants.

Gus Van Horn said...

Perhaps, although just commenting publicly about the protests might be enough. The link at "third party futility" discusses how being politically organized at this early point can be counterproductive.