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Telos 139: Intellectuals and Power

Intellectuals and power: the relationship has always been fraught with tensions, dangers and disappointments. A certain enlightenment utopia imagined a world ruled by reason as a formula for universal peace and prosperity. If only the brightest—who, in this account, are identical with the best—could hold the reins of power, their intelligent schemes could banish the benighted habits of humanity. This aspiration to empower intellectuals took on various shapes during the past century, from the Leninist party, whose mission it was to lead the backward working class, treated as never class-conscious enough to act on its own, to the allegedly post-ideological technocracy of bureaucrats, constantly issuing new regulations on the lives of the rest of us. The mishaps are many. Intellectuals, finding themselves at a distance from political centers, succumb to a will to power, a desire to control. Should they succeed, their efforts to impose their plans on to the social world often take a repressive turn. More likely, they do not succeed but fool themselves about their own significance, projecting categories onto power only to facilitate systematic misunderstanding. Such is the fate of intellectuals who draw close to power or who participate in movements, deluding themselves about their import or having to come to grips with their own disillusionment.

Yet this is not only about the intellectuals themselves; it is also about the reason that they, purportedly, carry into political debate. Through its modern history, reason loses suppleness, growing every more instrumental, oriented toward the pursuit of scientistic solutions rather than a reflective investigation of the world. Catastrophic outcomes ensue, as with the self-described sciences of race for Nazi Germany and economics for Soviet Russia. Arendt wrote about the “logicality” of this degraded rational thought; for Horkheimer and Adorno, it represented the dialectic reversion of enlightenment reason into the mythic consciousness it thought it had long before overcome. The question of the relationship of intellectuals to power is inseparable from this fate of reason: the more instrumental reason grows through the process of modernity, the more technocratic intellectual empowerment becomes.

Beyond the historical transformation of intellectuals, there lies a deeper question that echoes concerns since antiquity regarding the specialized standing of reason (and its representatives) in relationship to other forms of mental life. In Phaedrus, Plato inquires into the status of writing and, therefore, of intellectuals; yet the dialogue takes place explicitly outside the walls of the polis, highlighting the tenuousness of the intellectual’s claim on political power. Moreover, Socrates concludes by shifting from philosophical language into prayer, bringing another element into play: faith, as both corrective and counterpoint to reason. Telos has recently discussed the question of religion and politics; this issue continues with the corollary: reason and politics. But religion is not the only alternative to reason (nor are religion and reason necessarily alternatives). Another option is tradition. While expert reason typically sees itself as superior to tradition and convention, social life depends on inherited cultural resources to sustain community and allow for the very sort of transformations that reason imagines but often inhibits. The traditionalist nature of communities can have more humane flexibility than the logicality of a reason dependent on the violence of the state.

Common sense is a third alternative to reason. Whether intellectuals prove deficient in this category because they have their heads in the clouds (as Aristophanes suggested of Socrates) or because they fall prey to their own narratives of utopian reason—and there may not be much difference between those two answers—it is here that the theoretical abstractions of conceptual reason collide with a facility for everyday life. From the standpoint of theory, common sense is merely unexamined opinion and inefficient habit. Still, common sense also implies practical capacities and ways of life, which benefit from inherited experience, at odds with the abstractions of planning and power. A common sense, as commonly shared, comes close to a democratic wisdom, in contrast to elite narratives of reason. That particular argument became important for this journal when, appropriating criticisms of the role of intellectuals in Soviet communism, Telos transposed them as elements of an analysis of bureaucratic western society in order to develop accounts of a new class, opposed to traditions and community.

This issue examines intellectuals and power in several familiar venues with important new material. In 1947, just sixty years ago, Carl Schmitt underwent several interrogations in Nuremberg for his role in the Third Reich, and twenty years ago, Telos published the transcripts. A new archival find has come to light: the transcript of an additional—chronologically, the second—interrogation, and it is published here, with an extensive reassessment by Joseph Bendersky. The material starkly presents the problems of intellectuals and power: what is the responsibility of the authors of ideas? Can one sustain a distinction between theory and policy formulation? How do we evaluate the points when intellectuals and political movements go their separate ways?

The Italian case is different. The Mussolini regime ended in July 1943, and by the end of the war, Italy had become an allied co-belligerent. There was little pressure to investigate Fascist intellectuals, and certainly nothing like the efforts to marginalize former Nazis in Germany. The postwar Communist Minister of Justice Togliatti paid little attention to revising Fascist laws, and Fascist prisoners, including many who had committed brutal crimes, benefited from an amnesty: this might surprise those who still think of Communism and Fascism as antithetical, but as we saw in Telos 133, a special issue on Italian Fascism, Communists like Togliatti had long tried to reach out to the Fascist cadre. The two movements had more in common than previously imagined. The Italian transition into postwar democracy therefore took place without a national examination of collaboration. This silence has now been broken, thanks to the 2005 publication of Mirella Serri’s book I Redenti, which shows how a generation of Fascist intellectuals could be “redeemed” after the war, primarily through the good graces of the Italian Communist Party, and therefore reappear as left-wing intellectuals. This special section includes an introduction by Frank Adler, two pieces by Serri herself, a critical review by Ruth Ben-Ghiat, and Giorgio Israel’s analysis of the significance of Serri’s thesis for a specific evaluation of the memory of Fascist racial politics.

Richard Golsan provides a parallel account of collaboration in France by the author Jean Giono, whose celebration of rural life against modernity slid into a pacifist refusal of national defense against Nazi Germany. Through a reading of Giono’s Journal de l’Occupation (first fully published in 1995), Golsan traces Giono’s indifference to suffering, his contempt for the resistance, his vocal anti-Semitism, and this intellectual’s fascination with the power of the occupiers. Aryeh Botwinick continues his exploration of negative theology in an essay on Avicenna, in pursuit of a philosophy of reason within Islam, a tradition that—had it not been truncated—might have provided an alternative model for reason and power in the Muslim world. This foray into medieval thought is accompanied by Elizabeth Coggeshall’s treatment of Islam in Dante: an Islam that is more familiar than exotic, even when it is subject to condemnation. Jean-Claude Paye’s discussion of dictatorship examines the iterations of anti-terrorism law in light of Schmitt’s categories. Paye’s book, Global War on Liberty, has just been published by Telos Press Publishing. At stake, ultimately, is the repressive character of an unchecked process of police power in the expansive state. Walter Block and Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., provide a corollary critique of the state, albeit from the standpoint of Austrian economics, in their analysis of the predicament of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. More bureaucracy is hardly a promising formula. The issue concludes with Andrew Bieszad’s diligent review of the recent conference on Secular Islam, which gathered many intellectual advocates of liberal democratic reform from the Muslim community. The red thread through these contributions is the relationship between intellectuals, reason, and philosophy, on the one hand, and political power on the other.

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