The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Redux

Chomsky_36.5_dewey Noam Chomsky and Archon Fung discuss in The Boston Review. Chomsky:

The concept of intellectuals in the modern sense gained prominence with the 1898 “Manifesto of the Intellectuals” produced by the Dreyfusards who, inspired by Emile Zola’s open letter of protest to France’s president, condemned both the framing of French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus on charges of treason and the subsequent military cover-up. The Dreyfusards’ stance conveys the image of intellectuals as defenders of justice, confronting power with courage and integrity. But they were hardly seen that way at the time. A minority of the educated classes, the Dreyfusards were bitterly condemned in the mainstream of intellectual life, in particular by prominent figures among “the immortals of the strongly anti-Dreyfusard Académie Française,” Steven Lukes writes. To the novelist, politician, and anti-Dreyfusard leader Maurice Barrès, Dreyfusards were “anarchists of the lecture-platform.” To another of these immortals, Ferdinand Brunetière, the very word “intellectual” signified “one of the most ridiculous eccentricities of our time—I mean the pretension of raising writers, scientists, professors and philologists to the rank of supermen,” who dare to “treat our generals as idiots, our social institutions as absurd and our traditions as unhealthy.”

Who then were the intellectuals? The minority inspired by Zola (who was sentenced to jail for libel, and fled the country)? Or the immortals of the academy?


In the domain of politics and policy, Chomsky stresses the responsibility of intellectuals to help their societies understand the truth about their governments. States, not least the United States, often act immorally, hypocritically, deceptively, and unjustly. Officials and other elites frequently justify these actions through deception and ideology. Intellectuals can help other citizens come to more truthful understanding of what their governments are doing and what is being done in their name. With regard to the foreign policy of the United States—in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East—any honest reader of Chomsky’s work over the past 50 years must acknowledge that there is plenty to criticize.

But at the risk of belaboring the obvious, criticism is not the only public responsibility of the intellectual. Intellectuals can also join citizens—and sometimes governments—to construct a world that is more just and democratic.