A SYSTEMATIC STUDY of the contemporary Australian intelligentsia is a task of some urgency. It emerged some forty years ago within the adversary culture of the 1960s, a period of cultural revolution that affected most Western societies.
This article begins with some essential historical and theoretical material, and then focuses on the work of several prominent Australian intellectuals from the early 1960s who were developing their thoughts about the role of intellectuals and the intelligentsia just as the massive expansion of the education system that would transform society was gathering momentum. In their work it is possible to see the intelligentsia coming to self-consciousness as an ideological vanguard of radical change. It is possible to see also some of the core dilemmas it faced, and the appearance of themes, values, tropes and preoccupations that came to characterise its work and its political interventions in subsequent years.
In the postwar years in Australia, education expenditure as a proportion of GDP nearly trebled, from 1.6 per cent in 1950–51 to 4.3 per cent in 1970–71; and primary, secondary and tertiary enrolments grew by 11 per cent, 45 per cent and 89 per cent respectively, in a single decade after 1964–65. Consequently, the number of Australian universities grew from nine in 1958 to sixteen in 1971, with four new universities established in 1964–66 alone. This increased the proportion of people aged seventeen to twenty-two attending university by 48 per cent between 1960 and 1972, with many coming from families and social classes that had had little or no previous association with universities, often relying on teaching studentships, which gave impecunious students an opportunity to attend university but required them to study in specific fields, and then work in often isolated or undesirable government schools. Overall, between 1955 and 1970 university student numbers increased 300 per cent, from 30,000 to 120,000, while full-time academic staff increased 250 per cent, from 2000 to 7000.
Such rapid periods of expansion have occurred before and the results have been the same—the politicisation of students, teachers and academics, and the emergence of a radical cadre that impacted on their societies for decades to come. As James Billington remarks in Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (1999): there is a “recurring problem of satisfying a rapidly increasing educated population with expectations that run far ahead of vocational opportunities”, and this first became manifest on a mass scale around the 1840s, when “the rise of revolutionary movements … was directly related to the development of a new class of intellectuals in continental Europe [which] created original … ideologies, and eventually developed a new sense of identity” as an intelligentsia committed to radical social and political change. During the European revolutions of 1848, it was the intelligentsia that “bore the contagion from their studies into the streets, from banquets to barricades, and across national borders. They popularized, legitimized, and internationalized the revolutionary impulse.”
The situation intensified through the nineteenth century, as education became compulsory and public expenditure multiplied dramatically across Europe, with Germany alone increasing primary school funding 3000 per cent over the three decades up to 1901. Students of various ages and teachers at various levels became ubiquitous, with the latter forming “a kind of officer’s corps [with] a strong corporate esprit”, and commitment to pursuing their own interests (Carlton Hayes, A Generation of Materialism, 1963).
Developments were particularly dramatic in Russia, where the composition of the student population in secondary schools changed radically as vast numbers of commoners entered the system, quickly transforming the educated class from “a small band of rich youths with troubled consciences and patriotic aspirations, [into] a large pool of people of all estates” antagonistic to the Tsarist regime. Consequently, throughout “the last half century of its existence, the old regime was in a state of permanent war with the student population” (Richard Pipes, Russia under the Old Regime, 1977). In the period from 1905 to 1914 alone, the number of higher institutions and their students doubled, to reach 100 and 150,000 respectively, making Russian higher education “a battleground for a reactionary government and a revolutionary movement bent upon the government’s destruction” (Oron Hale, The Great Illusion, 1971).
In such periods (then and now), the dominant political ideologies and commitments of academics, teacher educators, tertiary students, teachers and school students became vital political factors. The key ideologies throughout Europe and Russia were various forms of nationalism, liberalism and socialism, and increasingly radical versions of the sociology of Henri de Saint-Simon, and the Idealist philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel, especially in the radical versions devised by Mikhail Bakunin or Karl Marx, which retained their influence into the period under consideration here. While all of these differed on the question of whether it should be the nation, the people, an ethnic group, a social class, or a conspiratorial vanguard that led the revolution, all envisaged an elite position for the intelligentsia, while the latter also had the added advantage that this was done as part of a universal—indeed, “scientific”—scheme of history, providing, as Billington puts it, “intellectual security and strategic guidance for revolutionaries”, and becoming “the principal sources of modern revolutionary ideology, [spreading] across national and cultural boundaries to attain nearly universal appeal”.
In The Russian Revolution (1990) Richard Pipes provides a vivid and comprehensive historical portrait of intellectuals and the intelligentsia in general, using the latter term as the collective noun for intellectuals considered as a specific social stratum, reflecting their desire for “elective alienation” from society, and their historical tendency “to form castes committed to extreme ideologies”. Membership requires “severing connections with one’s social group and dissolving one’s class identity in a community bound exclusively by a commitment to common ideas”, and in particular to an abstract notion of “the people”. This reflects one of the most striking characteristics of the intelligentsia—its self-abnegation: “the intelligentsia likes to see itself as selflessly dedicated to the public good”, and hence as a moral force standing above the petty world of politics, and not just another interest group, caste or class seeking to advance its own interests. Inevitably, this entails denial, delusion and bad faith, which are dealt with by falsifying reality:
“they created their own reality, or rather, sur-reality, subject to verification only with reference to opinions of which they approved. Contradictory evidence was ignored: anyone inclined to heed such evidence was ruthlessly cast out … Live reality was treated as a perversion or caricature of ‘genuine’ reality.”
Such processes of denial apply particularly to the relentlessly negative attitude of the intelligentsia towards capitalism and liberal democracy, which historically have been the pre-conditions of its existence, providing economic support and a public sphere within which it can vent its opinions in a generally free and unhindered fashion (in contrast to the Soviet regime under Stalin, when the intelligentsia was systematically liquidated). Para-doxically, the intelligentsia seeks to entrench its ascendancy by replacing “the free play of economic and political forces” that apply under capitalism and liberal democracy with plans and systems devised and administered by itself in some version of socialism, which is merely “an ideology formulated in the interests of the intelligentsia, an emergent privileged class, whose capital consists of higher education”.
The period of concern in this article saw a flowering of interest in the pivotal role played by intellectuals in the Russian revolution, international communism, Third World revolutionary movements and post-revolutionary regimes, and they began to be studied systematically in history, political science, sociology and related fields, with many major studies appearing (such as The Opium of the Intellectuals by Raymond Aron, 1957; The Russian Intelligentsia by Stuart Tompkins, 1957; The Russian Intelligentsia, edited by Richard Pipes, 1960; and Neither War Nor Peace: The Struggle for Power in the Postwar World, by Hugh Seton-Watson, 1960). This growing interest can also be illustrated by a survey of academic articles in these fields available on the electronic database JSTOR. This records a 630 per cent increase in the number of articles specifically on intellectuals published in relevant journals between 1950– 54 and 1970–74.
As far as the official Soviet Marxist theoretical position on the intelligentsia was concerned, it was stated in Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism (1961). This declared that the development of industry, technology and culture under capitalism produces a
“broad stratum … consisting of persons engaged in mental work (technical personnel, teachers, doctors, office employees, scientists, writers, etc.). The intelligentsia is not an independent class, but a special social group which exists by selling its mental labour.”
This definition had some significant features: it included only those actually in the workforce, excluding unemployed artists, writers and the like; it accepted that members of the intelligentsia can originate in any class; and it emphasised the “technical intelligentsia”—the bureaucrats, administrators or apparatchiks that populated the Soviet system—rather than the creative and critical intelligentsia, which had been decimated under Stalin.
This self-conception came under very effective attack in 1957 by the Yugoslavian communist Milovan Djilas. The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System argued that communism as it had evolved was neither egalitarian nor representative of the working class; had instead allowed the technical intelligentsia to entrench themselves as a privileged new class—the nomenklatura—who enjoyed considerable benefits as a result of their titled positions in the sprawling bureaucracies of communist societies; and had in fact assumed many of the characteristics of a ruling class. Inevitably, Djilas was arrested and jailed, but his work highlighted the need for a comprehensive theory of intellectuals and their role in revolutionary movements and regimes.
In Western social science, the most thorough theoretical analysis of intellectuals and the intelligentsia before the 1960s was provided by the German sociologist Karl Mannheim, who had been troubled by the nihilism and self-negating relativism that arose inevitably from the Marxist principle that all systems of thought are determined by class-specific interests. He consequently took up and developed an idea derived with his teacher Alfred Weber: that intellectuals form a “socially unattached” or “free-floating” intelligentsia, which is capable of constructive, diagnostic and critical thought, undistorted by interests arising from a class-specific location within society. This objective type of thought arises from the training intellectuals receive, which equips them to view any particular problem from a variety of perspectives. This idea attracted Western intellectuals because it provided a theoretical rationale for their special intellectual status and an expansion of their role, although the Soviet experience refuted Mannheim’s argument.
Within mainstream sociology at the time, Talcott Parsons was the dominating presence. He saw intellectuals as forming an elite based on their pre-eminent role in the formation of the patterns of meaning that constitute culture. For Parsons the principal site of activity for intellectuals was the university and their currency was ideology, which he saw as a modern equivalent to religion in its capacity to dictate values, arbitrate moral positions, and bestow a sense of meaning on people’s lives. Consequently, the intelligentsia functioned as a new secular clerisy, and in the continual conflict that characterises the circulation of elites in modern societies, the presiding elites will increasingly face challenges from this clerisy, which will exploit its control over the ideological and intellectual functions in society, especially in the education system and the media.
Another important work to appear at the time was The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1966), which introduced a phenomenological approach to knowledge and the role of intellectuals. This approach became exceptionally influential throughout the intelligentsia and academia because it depicted reality itself as something that was “constructed” by intellectuals through complex systems of legitimation operating within specific symbolic universes and discourses where intellectuals play the dominant role. Consequently, when they occupy strategic positions (for example in education or the media) and are able to operate as a co-ordinated group, intellectuals become a major political force.
I turn now to a more detailed review of some Australian works on intellectuals and the intelligentsia from the period, which illustrate the process by which this vitally important social stratum discerned a role for itself as an agent of radical and eventually revolutionary change.
I start with Jack Lindsay, the expatriate communist novelist, historian and critic, whose essay on “The Alienated Australian Intellectual” was first published in Meanjin in 1963 (and reprinted in his collection of essays Decay and Renewal). Lindsay used an orthodox Marxist approach, but also utilised the concept of alienation, as did the other Australian intellectuals considered here. The term has two related meanings. First, it refers to the neo-Marxist notion—derived from the romantic period of the young Marx—that under capitalism a person is alienated or estranged from him/herself. Second, it refers to the idea that intellectuals as a social stratum are alienated from their social roots and that this marginality endows them with a special form of insight. This idea became progressively more prominent as the intelligentsia searched for an ideological rationale for its activities. Like “intellectual”, academic interest in “alienation” grew rapidly at the time. JSTOR records a massive leap in interest, with only one article specifically on alienation published in 1950–54, compared to 111 in 1970–74.
Lindsay applied the concept in its romantic sense to argue that self-estrangement is inherent in the division of labour under capitalism, and especially in the separation of the intellectual and sensuous dimensions of human life. Consequently, according to Lindsay all revolutionary struggles are driven by “the quest for wholeness”, and he went on (rather tendentiously) to associate the concept with
“what T.S. Eliot has called dissociation of sensibility, a breakdown of sensuous wholeness that becomes especially apparent from the seventeenth century on; what Ruskin passionately realized as the fragmentation of man in a mechanized world; what Morris saw as the withering-out of all joy from the human personality through the ending of labour as a creative process concerned with the making of whole things; [and] what modern social and psychological analysts of all sorts have described as a worsening world-condition of anxiety, frustration, and rootlessness …”
In postwar Australia, in Lindsay’s view, rapid industrialisation had intensified this condition to an unprecedented extent, but while this condition of extreme alienation was “acute and distressing” for the Australian people it also promised a deepening class consciousness “of what has happened and what is at stake” in the class struggle as Lindsay saw it.
It is here that intellectuals had an historic role to play. Their task was to
“expose and attack the alienations of which the mass of people are unaware, [grasping] the mechanisms of oppression, exploitation, and power-domination which play a key-part in perpetuating and deepening alienation, [and revealing] the link-up between the individual distortion and the general structure and movement of alienation.”
At the same time, they themselves must both embrace the alienation that sensitises them to the reality of capitalist society, while resisting the hopelessness and dread that accompanies it—that “sense of horror before the vast unconsciousness of the alienating forces that mould and condition people”.
Seeking examples of alienation in Australian literature, Lindsay focused on Patrick White as a writer who succumbs to “the dangers besetting the intellectual who grasps with any fullness the forces of dehumanization and inner division let loose by a matured capitalism”. Lacking roots in the Australia he sought to depict, White was crippled by
“an unconsciousness of his own relation to the world he condemns, and for this reason he is unable to define relationships within that world itself. His people can collide, but not really impact; they are in the last resort dummies of isolated force, of totally inturned [sic] and alienated essence …”
The alienation that undermined White’s work arose, according to Lindsay, from “his inability to come to terms with his own allies, with the elements in the people and the culture that also fundamentally repudiate the evil forces” of capitalism. In other words, White’s work suffered from a lack of commitment to the organised communist movement, which alone, according to Lindsay, could give authentic and articulate voice to the struggles of the people against the forces of alienation.
Lindsay himself had made such a commitment, moving away from the libertinism of his father Norman Lindsay and an enthusiasm for Nietzsche and William Blake, towards communism, once the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War had made it look prescient and heroic. He subsequently wrote in the socialist realist mode that became the officially approved type of art in the world communist movement following Stalin’s 1932 decree “On the Recon-struction of Literary and Art Organisations”. Those intellectuals who failed to conform were of course punished—often severely, with many condemned to the Gulag system of labour camps.
During the 1950s and early 1960s Lindsay completed a nine-novel sequence on “The British Way”, including ideologically didactic and moralising works like Betrayed Spring (1953), A Local Habitation (1957),and All on the Never-Never (1961). Such studies of the British working class, national politics and the consumer society depicted the alienation and emptiness that allegedly overwhelm people who lack the theoretical understanding of the social forces shaping their lives provided by Marxism-Leninism. While they may have been tiresome for British or Australian readers, they sold nearly a million copies in the Soviet Union.
What is striking about Lindsay’s work is that although 20 million people were liquidated by the Stalinist regime, it was liberal democratic societies that Lindsay found riddled with alienation, oppression, exploitation, domination, hopelessness, horror and dread. In this he displayed not only the intellectual’s wilful blindness to reality that Richard Pipes described above, but also invoked a major trope—the irredeemably destructive nature of liberal democratic capitalism— that has been central to the work of the intelligentsia throughout its history.
The second intellectual from this period that I will discuss is Ian Turner, a communist historian of the labour movement who published “Culture of the Intelligentsia” in Arena in 1964, and “Intellectuals in Australian Life” in Overland in 1965 (both reprinted in Turner’s posthumous collection Room for Manoeuvre, 1982). An ex-member of the Communist Party of Australia, Turner moved away from the official line observed by Lindsay, incorporating into his definition of the intelligentsia “the creators, the innovators, the administrators, the technologists, the educators, the opinion formers of contemporary society”.
Surveying the Australian situation, Turner identified five characteristics of intellectuals: they don’t directly produce goods and services, but are concerned primarily with ideas; as employees they enjoy relative independence and autonomy, and their output is largely judged by their peers; their work is individual rather than collective in nature, they can pursue a project from plan to execution, and they are tolerant of non-conformity; they belong to various professions and are mobile in their employment; because of the demand for their services, they have relatively high job security. For Turner, the intelligentsia constituted possibly “the only finally indispensable element in industrial society”—with the proletariat eventually being replaced by robots.
Turner’s discussion of the culture of the Australian intelligentsia in the early 1960s confirmed the subsequent findings of Pipes, showing how elective alienation and peer group pressure were central to the construction and maintenance of an identity as a radical intellectual. According to Turner, this found expression in a rejection of conventional thinking, bourgeois norms and the “degraded mass culture” enjoyed by the common folk, which “reduces the individual to a consumer of mindless and tasteless mass production”. Moreover, certain intellectuals—serving as the vanguard of the intelligentsia—set not only the political and ideological agenda but serve also as trend-setters and arbiters of taste. They assume this role because they possess a total worldview, capable of encompassing “the whole measure of the life of society and the individual personality”.
The totalising vision enjoyed by intellectuals constituted a “caste exclusiveness” that manifested itself in an alternative “material way of life”, and this elective alienation entailed a quite distinctive set of choices that Turner itemised in considerable detail. These involved every aspect of life, including where to live (for example, Carlton or Eltham); what to live in (a restored Victorian terrace, but definitely not a “Housing Commission box”); household appliances and conveniences; furniture; fabrics; pottery; paintings; books; magazines; newspapers; gardens; pets; dining, drinking, and on and on.
The leisure time of intellectuals was also subject to close self-regulation and their principal social activity was visiting each other to maintain their places within their various networks. Reading books was taken for granted, while listening to LP records took priority over watching television. The intelligentsia rejected the “clichés of bourgeois society”; supported “serious theatre, music (classical, folk, jazz), art films”, art classes and other creative pursuits; pursued the “intellectual cult of the pop song and the western and crime film”, was “tolerant of deviant behaviour and belief”, embraced moral relativism and rejected racial and sexual discrimination, “double standards” and violence. Not surprisingly, Turner lamented the anti-intellectualism that confronted intellectuals in Australia, and the isolation that flowed from this marginal status, a state of elective alienation that intellectuals nevertheless had both to seek out and embrace as the precondition of the radical insight that allegedly informed their work.
Turner’s articles were part of a systematic attempt undertaken in the early 1960s by ex-members of the CPA to formulate a theory of revolution that explicitly recognised the central role to be played by intellectuals. This group clustered around the journal Arena, which began publication in September 1963, and argued, in the words of the first editorial, that the emergence of an “intellectual workforce” in the “affluent society” provided a “new class”, sharing “a non-conformist and left-inclining outlook” that could be harnessed for radical political activity. This neo-Marxist analysis sought to address both the new realities of modern society, and the previous theoretical deficiencies of the intellectual Left, especially its economic determinism and preoccupation with the traditional working class. It would also draw upon American theorists, such as Herbert Marcuse and C. Wright Mills, who were central to the American New Left at the time. More broadly, it believed socialism was “steadily gaining ground” on capitalism, and “the great colonial awakening has reached a crescendo” as “the newly liberated millions [demand] to share in the fruits of advanced technology”.
Internationally, these developments had produced a hybrid form of “Bakuninist-Marxism” based on the premise that the labour movement was no longer a progressive force in history and that alienated intellectuals were now the revolutionary vanguard. It was therefore no longer necessary to look towards economic crises as the engines of revolutionary change because “the personal voluntarism of individual guerrilla action [was now] the igniting agency”, finding expression through “the tactic of continuous insurrection and terrorism [designed] to disrupt and dislocate the System” (Lewis Feuer, Marx and the Intellectuals, 1969).
In Australia, the “Arena Thesis” was spelt out succinctly by two Melbourne academics, Geoff Sharp and Doug White, in “Features of the Intellectually Trained” (Arena, No. 16, 1968). It drew heavily on the notion of alienation and distinguished between intellectual and manual workers, asserting the importance not only of intellectuals but of the “intellectual culture” within which they received their training: “intellectual technique is [very] different to material technique”:
“an intellectual is more conscious of his humanity; he is more aware of what he is doing, more anxious to bring the whole of his life into rational order … And because he wishes to carry through the whole of his life activity in accord with his values [he] is more concerned about the uses of the product of his labour than older style workers.”
From this distinction emerged a new theory of revolution:
“because of the values implicit in intellectual work through its tie to the intellectual culture a collision tends to arise between two ideologies. On the one hand there is the rational, universalist, humane and autonomous outlook of the intellectual culture. On the other there is the sectional, materialist and purely instrumental approach of owners and controllers.”
This “ideological collision” constituted a new form of class conflict, the thesis claimed, because “intellectual values … occupy the centre of the personality. This means that the person [that is, the essential self, the soul] of the intellectually trained worker must be controlled and not simply his labour”. Capitalism demands total control of the intellectual. Consequently, “the centres of formation of the intellectually trained [that is, the universities] become a main centre of conflict” in what is nothing less than an existentially charged battle for the souls of intellectually trained people.
The universities, schools, and all cultural organisations were central to this revolutionary strategy not only because they were the site of this new form of class struggle, but also because they were responsible for the transmission of the “intellectual culture”. This served both as the matrix within which the intelligentsia was formed and the prototype of the socialist society of the future—a future that the Arena group came increasingly to anticipate as the cultural upheaval of the 1960s unfolded. For example, the May events in 1968 led Sharp to declare that the “previously hidden shape of a socialist society can be clearly seen to be carried within the basic structure of the intellectual culture”.
This analysis was developed in other articles and book chapters, and its main strategic insight had considerable influence on the radical Left. It was also taken up by the CPA, which re-launched its party theoretical journal as the Australian Left Review in late 1966, aimed at intellectuals. Given the central role that the education system played in this theory of revolution it was not surprising that the Arena group had a very strong presence in the School of Education at La Trobe University, where it initiated a generation of students into the neo-Marxist and postmodern educational theories that have dominated educational policy ever since.
Lindsay, Turner and the Arena group were committed communists, so it is instructive to discuss finally the work of a committed anti-communist. Frank Knopfelmacher, a University of Melbourne academic, published a long essay on “Intellectuals and Politics” in 1968, drawing on decades of intellectual activism at the height of the Cold War, and an excellent grasp of the inner logic of revolutionary and totalitarian ideologies.
Like Pipes, Knopfelmacher identified the fundamental bad faith that was intrinsic to the intelligentsia, showing how “the social system which maximizes the conditions for the emergence, proliferation and functioning of the intellectual is capitalism”, and not socialism. This supportiveness arises because of the ramified affects of the free market system that intellectuals, paradoxically, want above all to destroy:
“Pluralism of enterprise and power under conditions of capitalism is paralleled by a pluralism of ideas and doctrines, by a ‘free market of ideas’ … capitalist culture is rational, polycentric, distrustful of established doctrines, profane, destructive of religious and traditionalist restraints, and opposed to centralized controls of intellectual and political activity.”
Indeed, capitalism produces powerful anti-capitalist constituencies, which sustain intellectuals while leaving them free to articulate and organise their opposition to the very system that underwrites their existence. Such a supportive environment favors the rise of the intelligentsia as an anti-capitalist secular clerisy:
“the intellectual … can say and write what he pleases without facing persecution for heresy. He has powerful institutions behind him to subsidize and shield him. [Indeed,] if it could be said that intellectuals form a ‘class’, then the system which would serve their ‘class interest’ best would be capitalism.”
Knopfelmacher also emphasised the intellectual’s tendency towards self-abnegation, and the caste mentality that betrayed a desire for immersion in a collective identity. It was a feature of Marxist-Leninism that it catered to such desires with two key ideological conceits: It is the working class that is the driving force of the current stage of history; and the intelligentsia is merely its intellectual and ideological handmaiden and should subordinate itself to the needs of the proletariat and the demands of the vanguard revolutionary party, in a “ritual of submission”. In an incisive passage, Knopfelmacher described how these conceits generated severe tensions within intellectuals:
“The state of being an intellectual is often a very unhappy and painful one. [And] the frequent signs of protest, rejection, despondency, and sometimes despair are obviously not calculated to capture control over a usable mass of followers.”
Indeed they are not calculated at all, being instead expressions of guilt and self-hatred; betraying a desire not ultimately for leadership, but “for self-destruction and disappearance—e.g., by integration into a ‘perfect’ society … or by fantasized submission rituals to non-intellectual and anti-intellectual strata”. Consequently:
“Intellectuals very rarely celebrate their own status group. The objects of their veneration are other thoroughly idealized groups, such as political autocrats … the proletariat, or the new emergent forces whose rather sordid leaders are misperceived with a Rousseau-ite glory as noble savages.”
The latter groups serve as proxies onto whom the intelligentsia projects its guilt, fantasies and self-hatred.
Revolutionary intellectuals are also caught in another double bind that strikes at the rationale for their existence: on one hand they are committed to critique as their principal form of political intervention; while on the other, once their programs of social and political change are adopted, their role evaporates and the initiative shifts from the critical intellectuals to the professional administrators. As noted above, in communist countries this stratum became known as the nomenklatura,the apparatchiks whose “temperament, mental formation, and system of motivation [made them] the very antithesis of an intellectual”. Indeed, at the time Knopfelmacher was writing, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union “had fully become a nomenklatura party, the corporate organization of the managerial elite”, while the Soviet intelligentsia had been liquidated (Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy).
Knopfelmacher also discussed the revolutionary intellectuals of the Third World, focusing on the role played by tertiary-educated people in pre-modern societies, who are alienated from their fellows by their isolated and elite status, but also denied government or corporate appointments commensurate with their aspirations. When this alienation is accompanied by a deeply felt sense of moral outrage the intellectuals fuse together and react as a collective entity, as:
“the revolutionary class, par excellence. Alienation, yearning for justice, personal humiliation as well as national humiliation, a sense of frustration and outrage, hope for jobs ‘after the revolution’—all these factors fuse into one powerful intention: to do away with the past”
—and everything and everyone associated with it.
Inevitably, the proto-revolutionary intelligentsia in the West—denied its own proletarian icons—sought to identify with these “revolutionary heroes”—exemplified by Che Guevara, who was to rise to posthumous stardom soon after Knopfelmacher published his essay —but the parallels were illusory. Above all, intellectuals in the West were not driven by frustrated aspirations arising from the absence of a booming modern economy into which they might be integrated, but by precisely the opposite:
“the protest of contemporary dissident and revolutionary intellectuals in Western societies is directed precisely against such integration [and] the managerial, professional, bureaucratic, social roles it imposes on university graduates.”
This rejection of modernity created tensions between the intelligentsia and the population at large, which couldn’t comprehend such a negative attitude towards unprecedented and hard-won opportunities. This in turn confirmed the intelligentsia in its elective alienation, and in its negative attitude towards ordinary working people.
Knopfelmacher carefully debunked the notion that alienation is an essential condition for an intellectual. Although elective alienation was seen as “a psychological instrument of critique [that] alone creates the emotional … conditions which are compatible with the cognitive activity of critique”, in reality, alienation is a pathological condition. It is not a state of detachment accompanied by a heightened critical awareness, as its proponents claim, but rather “a state of anguish which induces neurotic and psychotic distortions of the thought process”. Elective alienation was therefore more of a lifestyle pose than an authentic intellectual posture.
At the time he was writing, 1967, Knopfelmacher concluded that Australian intellectuals had achieved only “trade union consciousness” and not revolutionary consciousness, as Lenin put it. Crucially for subsequent Australian history, such self-consciousness was to emerge within months of his essay’s publication, drawing on many of the theoretical developments that I have reviewed here. As the tumultuous events of 1968 unfolded, the radical Left greatly extended and intensified its agitation and “through confrontations, demonstrations, direct action … student newspapers, broadsheets, etc, the radical core … detonated … mass student unrest” (Warren Osmond, “Student Revolutionary Left”, Arena, No. 19, 1969). In accordance with the theory of revolutionary alienation, “shock tactics” were used against students to “crack an essentially emotional attachment to the status quo”, with militants seeking to “create a certain emotional disjuncture or ‘chaos’ in which the ordinary, routinized passivity [of students] was no longer bearable” for them and they were driven into activism.
Universities were quickly transformed “from relatively secluded centres of learning into sites of real political conflict, and of successful radical political mobilization [confirming] the importance of the academic intelligentsia’s social role” (Andrew Milner, “Radical Intellectuals: An Unacknowledged Legislature?”). The forces of the radical Left seized the ideological initiative amidst all the turmoil of the period, co-opting an essentially libertarian counter-culture and mobilising it in support of various Stalinist causes while demonising liberal democracies, and giving a specific form and direction to the cultural revolution of the sixties that has remained extremely influential ever since.
At the same time, the essential characteristics of the intelligentsia discussed in this article remain constant—its elective alienation, its acute moralism and bad faith, its wilful detachment from reality, its desire for self-abnegation and immersion in some great collective cause, its totalising systems of thought, its fascination with power and violence, its caste mentality, its unacknowledged elitism, its ideological promiscuity, its hatred of free markets (of goods and ideas), and its misplaced confidence that it is on the side of history—all of these will continue to cripple and corrupt its intellectual and political activities at every level, doing untold damage to the liberal democratic societies in which it makes its home.
Finally, as a postscript, it should be emphasised that intellectuals and the intelligentsia are perennial features of modernity, and the present focus on left-wing ideological commitments shouldn’t obscure the fact that other systems of ideas (religions, for example) can function as the ideological underpinning of an intelligentsia. This is readily apparent from the emerging role of the Islamist intelligentsia, which is becoming increasingly important in Australia and internationally. Although its ideology is derived from a politicised form of Islam, in almost all respects this intelligentsia exhibits the characteristics identified above, while adding to them a particularly benighted attitude to women and an acute anti-Semitism.
The preceding discussion therefore has relevant lessons about the role that committed cadres amongst academics and students historically have played in universities, and steps should perhaps be taken to counter any similar activity and influence by Islamists in Australia, whose strategy largely replicates that of the past, including a reliance on copious foreign funding. The alternative will be to saddle future generations with yet another dangerous, dysfunctional, and well-entrenched intellectual elite, committed to the destruction of the very society that provides for its existence.
Mervyn F. Bendle is Senior Lecturer in History and Communications in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at James Cook University. He wrote on the ideological takeover of terrorism studies in the September issue.