Lecture Delivered at the Fourth Annual Conference on the Social Sciences and Humanities

Marrakesh, March 2015

Critical Approaches to Prevailing Views

on the Intellectual 

Azmi Bishara delivers the Opening Address


I have previously dealt at length with the subject of the intellectual in an essay I wrote on “The Intellectual and Revolution”[1]. That work obliged me to revisit the prevailing conceptions on this topic, particularly in differentiating between the intellectual and the expert or educated individual. This is in line with the approach of the French tradition since Emile Zola’s famous indictment J’accuse, where the intellectual is dealt with as a moral authority, who derives legitimacy not just from a social status based on literary or other achievements, but also from the taking of a critical stance towards the practices of the authorities, or towards prevalent preconceived ideas. In this sense, the concept of the intellectual is necessarily embedded in one’s normative position in the public sphere.

I will summarize here the conclusions of that study with a few additions.[2]

 1. The intellectual’s predecessor, that is the public function that derives its legitimacy from a status related to work in fields concerned with the semiotic, the semantic, and the symbolic, such as science and culture, was not the poet, writer, or the ruler’s mouthpiece. The predecessor was found instead in the critical voices of the religious scholars who established a tradition for the intellectual, based on the bringing together of knowledge and moral authority, which is encapsulated in the Arab aphorism, “the best jihad is speaking truth to an oppressive ruler.” This contrasts with another tradition whose essence is obedience to the ruler, the legitimization of their tyranny, and adherence to the status quo, which in Arabic is given expression in “A tyrant is better than sedition.”

Today’s intellectual differs from its predecessors in that he or she is the product of the union of the methodologies of scientific knowledge, together with a new function of moral authority in the public sphere that arose from the decline in the authority of communities and the religious establishment. The need for this function also developed with the creation of the public sphere within the state, and developed at the same time outside the power center, there being a distinction between power and state.

There exists a long tradition forged by Arab intellectuals, secular, religious, and Islamic reformers, who took advantage of their intellectual and literary standing to influence the public sphere by combining critical reason and a moral position. One should not disregard this modern tradition which started with Rifaat al-Tahtawi and Francis Marrash, continuing with the reformists Muhammad Abdu, Abdel Rahman al-Kawakibi, and Rashid Rida, and on to the inter-war period of liberalism, culminating with contemporary intellectuals who have criticized authoritarianism and backwardness.

2. If we make a distinction between the terms intellectual and philosopher – the latter what the Church used to describe the Enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century – we can deduce that the phenomenon of the intellectual in the West developed in tandem with the appearance of university graduates, and with the distinction that was made in their milieu between the specialist professional experts working in the state apparatus or elsewhere, and those who formed the class of intellectuals, that is those who began to participate in intellectual, cultural, and political struggle in the public sphere.

The need to describe these educated people developed in Russia and France in the second half of the 19th century. In Russia they were termed the intelligentsia, and in France the intellectuals. It is worth pointing out here that the Russian concept of the intelligentsia included people with low educational levels or semi-educated, unlike the contemporary meaning of the word. The meaning of the intelligentsia changed subsequently to comprise the class of the educated and technical experts in general, after the Latinate French word become dominant and was adopted by many languages and cultures when 19th century Paris became the center for Europe’s exiled intellectuals, including Russian leftist, democratic, and anarchist intellectuals who took refuge there.

3. What is intended by the term intellectual is a class of people formed historically. It is not a scientific concept for understanding and analyzing the phenomena. Rather, we use it to describe those who use their status arising from working with knowledge to take a position to influence the public sphere, which, in the modern state, is a political sphere before anything else. We will have to demonstrate that our use of the term intellectual is the closest to defining the features of this class.

4. Note this is not the organic intellectual of Gramsci. That refers specifically to the intellectual who sides with the working class and its interests without actually belonging to that class, and who can adopt universal critical positions because the interests of that class are universal according to Marx. Such intellectual tries to bring about the cultural hegemony of that class, and participates in its struggle for victory. This term, which was taken up by the new left and the new critic at some stage, is not what we mean by the intellectual.

5. True, the academic specialist is not necessarily an intellectual in that the concerned person is not necessarily able to employ their knowledge to create rationalist generalizations on whose basis normative positions are established that attempt to influence the public sphere, or it is not in their interest to do so. In contrast it is also true that the intellectual of our age is no longer an amasser of knowledge—“from every garden a fruit”—and mostly derives his or her status from creativity in their own specialist field.

6. The expression the critical intellectual lacks a clear meaning and is not well understood. Social theory is by nature critical, in the sense that it is analytic, and is supposed to represent a critique of ideology in general. Criticism is usually applied to the world of ideas, and it is possible to critique an ideology or theory. The critique of social relations however is an act of will, and an act of will starts from a stance. There is a difference between saying this and saying that the critical role formed by the will is of limited effect.

The intellectual takes positions that influence the public sphere from the starting point of his or her moral standards. These positions are not necessarily an expression of alienation or exile. The contribution to the critique of ideas and intervention in the affairs of the public sphere might be from a conservative, reformist, or revolutionary position. In this sense, the standing of the intellectual in accord with this term is not necessarily one of being on the left, or being a revolutionary, and so on. Nor is it necessarily the product of alienation or exile.

7. There are alienated and exiled intellectuals at home and abroad, or both. But most of those who theorize about alienation and exile as being a condition for the intellectual are university professors most concerned with their academic careers, who have done all it takes to get promoted and have stuck to the rules of academic publication. That is, they have not acted independent from the establishment, but as people highly attached to it. They operate in the ample margin granted by Western academia for the development of critical theories of academic discourse itself. This has been achieved by the expansion of its liberalism and by its ability for containment, to the extent that the critical current in some Western universities has become the central trend in the social sciences. There is no exile or alienation here, just pretense.

In my opinion, the growth of schools of post-modernism that shifted a sector of intellectuals from radical critical positions to a cultural and practical relativism has raised questions that mostly end with an acceptance of the status quo, along with a preoccupation with the critique of texts. This is an expression of a fabricated compromise between the critical practice of the academic--which may go as far as nihilism-- and the institutional reality which may go as far as conservatism and the consecration of the rites of American academia, the university presses, and the honorifics of Western academia. The university professor who publishes post-modern theory most likely has a strong attachment to the academic establishment and is engaged with the minutiae of its rituals. This is in contrast with 19th century intellectuals such as the young Hegelians Feuerbach, Marx, David Strauss, Striner, and Bauer who were rejected by universities or entered into conflict with them. The same applies to the French tradition prior to Foucault and Derrida, by which I mean from Emile Zola to Sartre, and even to the predecessors of post-modernism who withdrew from academia such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

Having said this, many unpretentious intellectuals active in the public sphere were, and are, university professors and not necessarily in the social sciences, take for example Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky.

8. There are major scholars who have proved just how petty they are when it comes to the details of daily life. This isn’t so much of a problem in that there is no connection between such attributes and that of the grandeur of scholarly achievement. However, some specialists in the social and human sciences have drowned themselves in such trivial details and made them the foundation for their spiraling in vicious circles ranging from the disappearance of the subject to post-constructivism. In my view, what such people actually are is experts, experts in how to turn theorizing into a replacement for theory and for taking a stance in the public sphere, by means of questioning that leads to nihilism. Taking a stance easily becomes a conservative position that calls for not doing anything and contentment with a chair in criticism. A few of them have taken clear stances in the public sphere and fulfilled the role of the intellectual engaged with what is happening in the here and now, and not through their academic or literary influence which they hope future generations will discover. Academic influence is connected to the field of specialization, not the role of the intellectual.

In contrast, and irrespective of the issue of specialism, most of those who sign appeals directed at public opinion or decision-makers in democratic states are university professors with academic standing. Mostly, they do not belong to one of the various critical philosophical schools of thought (or doctrines).

9. What makes an intellectual is not the orientation that pushes for not taking a stance, but the opposite, particularly when people are mobilizing against oppression. Taking a stance against oppression does not justify not taking critical positions towards the movement of the oppressed and directing criticism at the revolution itself. What drives this is the rational, analytical component in the role of the intellectual which diagnoses the social order, deals with developments analytically, and makes predictions. Similarly, the component of moral standards drives the intellectual to take critical positions regarding the reprehensible practices of the revolution itself.

10. Artists who address the aesthetic, or instinctual, sensibility in various ways by means of “entertainment”, pleasure, or provocation directed at various groups have a hint of innocence about them in a world of conflicts over interests. It is as though artists do not have links to special interests. They are not necessarily intellectuals, or even highly educated.

Here, commitment comes as a role external to art. It is the role of the artist as an intellectual who decides to have an impact through art. When he or she becomes an intellectual, they automatically gain another role as a citizen whose active role in the public sphere is not latent in art itself, just as it is not latent in any specialism per se. Commitment is not a structural element of art that addresses the aesthetic sensibility, but it distinguishes the artist if the person in question is an intellectual. Because their specialism is of the mind, and is a means for communication and influence at the same time, their culture can affect their art and lead it to play a role in the public sphere.

11. The most important literary, artistic, and scientific works that have had major influence were not committed works in the sense applied to today’s intellectuals. They did not write appeals or necessarily take positions in the public sphere. Hence, the position of the intellectual is free from considerations of leaving some sort of legacy to the generations to come, and it should be free of considerations of academic and literary status. What is expected of an intellectual is to act like a citizen who enjoys specific abilities and a specific status regarding a current issue of the here and now (this may expand to include what is happening in other states or what humanity as a whole is enduring).

12. The most dangerous thing facing intellectuals, in my opinion, is to succumb to the temptation of shunning responsibility to avoid being held to account by the public. For these individuals, those responsible are politicians, economists, businessmen, and security officials. They are to be held to account by the public according to the definitions of Gerard Leclerc of the accountable and unaccountable elite. Here the intellectual imitates the artist, in the desire to become a celebrity who benefits from fame but is not held accountable because of it. Such individuals enter the public sphere on those conditions, like the artists in the context of the unaccountable elite.[3] It is precisely here that intellectuals, in my opinion, betray their role to bear the responsibility for their positions in the public sphere.

13. In the Arab world no distinction is made between the conservative intellectual, who represents the traditions of the state, opposes the changes sought by the people, and views the state as the font of wisdom, and the intellectual of the regime and the security apparatus, who justifies the oppression of the movement of the oppressed. The lack of traditions for a state reliant on legitimacy derived from representing the people has also caused there to be no role for state intellectuals. In the Arab world they are the intellectuals of power.

To the above points I will add one other theoretical issue, which I will draw from the role of the Arab intellectual at this critical historical juncture of change for the Arab world and its peoples. I am referring specifically to the transformation of the uprisings for change and revolutions for freedom into civil wars in the fragile states with powerful communities and the rise of extremist groups to fill the vacuum caused by the state’s weakness and loss of prestige at a period when the barrier of fear had been broken before the same status quo in the region was forcefully imposed.

We are familiar with two patterns of behavior for intellectuals in these circumstances. The first is the transformation into the defense of the status quo, on the conviction that the source of the calamity is the immature attempt to change things. This kind of intellectual fails to analytically diagnose the reason for the precariousness of the state, and refuses to analyze the responsibility of the oppressive regime for choosing to turn to violence. This matter can be understood by means of rational analysis, even before moral condemnation. In this way, intellectual withdraws from their role to provide rational guidance. Graver still is the lack of solidarity with the popular aspiration to end the state of oppression and the avoidance of condemnation of the ruling regime as being responsible for the conditions of oppression and corruption and responsible for the consequences of opting for repressive security measures. Here, responsibility for the situation is being evaded by blaming those who aspire for change. This mechanism is well known in the everyday mentality of individuals who are not intellectual, and that hold the view that acceptance of the status quo and submission to oppression is natural, and that the attempt to change things bears responsibility for the crimes committed to suppress it, rather than the perpetrators of those crimes, guardians of the status quo with whom such intellectuals have in reality aligned themselves.

Then there exists another category of intellectual, who stands with the revolution against dictatorship and corruption and identifies with the just nature of its cause. They see that those regimes that block avenues for change, and resort to violence, are responsible for the revolution’s slide into chaos and extremism. However, in their explanation of the reasons behind the chaos and extremism, they avoid critique of the people who rebelled against the regime, and who also bear responsibility for their actions and mistakes. Here, explanation becomes justification.

The clash becomes latent when we discover in the analysis of the position of this intellectual that in some cases such positions are adopted because they themselves, whether consciously or unconsciously, belong to a partisan group, in one way or another. The ability of the intellectual to maintain critical distance from partisan groups existing in any society, whether sectarian, tribal, or even party-ideological, is one of the most important conditions for intellectual to fulfil their role in its rational and normative components. Partisan groups, which inherently imply a pre-existing bias, contradict rational judgement and moral judgement simultaneously. The only thing in common between them—as it appears and went unnoticed by Kant—is that decisive distance from partisan groups which must be maintained. Here specifically lies the special feature of the intellectual’s role that distinguishes him or her from the expert scholar and the political or religious propagandist.

The clash is latent in the recombining of what the critique of human reason separates, and which reveals the limits of its various theoretical, practical, and aesthetic faculties. Science and its precepts are distinct from issues of creed and free moral judgements. Free moral judgements are completely separate from the necessities of reason. The special feature of the intellectual lies in combining two functions: rational analysis based on the faculties of reason and a normative position based on free moral judgement.

The intellectual does not unite them, and if they try to do so, they will lose both, as happens to someone who turns ideological positions into scientific theories in place of knowledge, or someone who turns religion into a political platform. Rather the intellectual combines them in his or her social function. The condition for their being able to combine rational analysis and a normative position is their liberation from the partisan groups that strangle them both in the cradle.

The requisite distance from partisanship is not an abandonment of the culture to which the thinking subject belongs and which is the subject of critique. Cultural affiliation is a condition for being an intellectual. Indeed, there is no intellectual without a culture. Equally, there is no global intellectual except as simple exile or the exploitation of a hegemonic culture that highlights the global intellectual because of its hegemony and not because of the intellectual’s hegemony.  

[1] To read the full paper on “The Intellectual and Revolution” by Azmi Bishara see

[2] These were published in a new edition of “Revolution and Susceptibility to Revolution” and also in Tabayyun. See Azmi Bishara, “On Revolution and the Susceptibility to Revolution,” Doha: ACRPS, 2nd edn., 2014; and Azmi Bishara, “On the Intellectual and Revolution,” Tabayyun, 4 (Spring 2013), pp. 127-42.

[3] Gerard Leclerc, The Sociology of Intellectuals, translated by George Kattoura (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-Jadid, 2008), p.90.