“War is the health of the State,” wrote social critic Randolph Bourne in a classic essay as America entered World War I:
It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense. … Other values such as artistic creation, knowledge, reason, beauty, the enhancement of life, are instantly and almost unanimously sacrificed, and the significant classes who have constituted themselves the amateur agents of the State are engaged not only in sacrificing these values for themselves but in coercing all other persons into sacrificing them.
And at the service of society’s “significant classes” were the intelligentsia, “trained up in the pragmatic dispensation, immensely ready for the executive ordering of events, pitifully unprepared for the intellectual interpretation or the idealistic focusing of ends.”
They are “lined up in service of the war-technique. There seems to have been a peculiar congeniality between the war and these men. It is as if the war and they had been waiting for each other.”
The role of the technical intelligentsia in decision-making is predominant in those parts of the economy that are “in the service of the war technique” and closely linked to the government, which underwrites their security and growth.
It is little wonder, then, that the technical intelligentsia is, typically, committed to what sociologist Barrington Moore in 1968 called “the predatory solution of token reform at home and counterrevolutionary imperialism abroad.”
Moore offers the following summary of the “predominant voice of America at home and abroad” - an ideology that expresses the needs of the American socioeconomic elite, that is propounded with various gradations of subtlety by many American intellectuals, and that gains substantial adherence on the part of the majority that has obtained “some share in the affluent society”:
You may protest in words as much as you like. There is but one condition attached to the freedom we would very much like to encourage: Your protests may be as loud as possible as long as they remain ineffective. … Any attempt by you to remove your oppressors by force is a threat to civilized society and the democratic process. … As you resort to force, we will, if need be, wipe you from the face of the earth by the measured response that rains down flame from the skies.
A society in which this is the predominant voice can be maintained only through some form of national mobilization, which may range in its extent from, at the minimum, a commitment of substantial resources to a credible threat of force and violence.
Given the realities of international politics, this commitment can be maintained in the United States only by a form of national psychosis - a war against an enemy who appears in many guises: Kremlin bureaucrat, Asian peasant, Latin American student, and, no doubt, “urban guerrilla” at home.
The intellectual has, traditionally, been caught between the conflicting demands of truth and power. He would like to see himself as the man who seeks to discern the truth, to tell the truth as he sees it, to act - collectively where he can, alone where he must - to oppose injustice and oppression, to help bring a better social order into being.
If he chooses this path, he can expect to be a lonely creature, disregarded or reviled. If, on the other hand, he brings his talents to the service of power, he can achieve prestige and affluence.
He may also succeed in persuading himself - perhaps, on occasion, with justice - that he can humanize the exercise of power by the “significant classes.” He may hope to join with them or even replace them in the role of social management, in the ultimate interest of efficiency and freedom.
The intellectual who aspires to this role may use the rhetoric of revolutionary socialism or of welfare-state social engineering in pursuit of his vision of a “meritocracy” in which knowledge and technical ability confer power.
He may represent himself as part of a “revolutionary vanguard” leading the way to a new society or as a technical expert applying “piecemeal technology” to the management of a society that can meet its problems without fundamental changes.
For some, the choice may depend on little more than an assessment of the relative strength of competing social forces. It comes as no surprise, then, that quite commonly the roles shift; the student radical becomes the counterinsurgency expert.
His claims must, in either case, be viewed with suspicion: He is propounding the self-serving ideology of a “meritocratic elite” that, in Karl Marx’s phrase (applied, in this case, to the petty bourgeoisie), defines “the special conditions of its emancipation [as] the general conditions through which alone modern society can be saved.”
The role of intellectuals and radical activists, then, must be to assess and evaluate, to attempt to persuade, to organize, but not to seize power and rule. In 1904, Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.”
These remarks are a useful guide for the radical intellectual. They also provide a refreshing antidote to the dogmatism so typical of discourse on the left, with its arid certainties and religious fervor regarding matters that are barely understood - the self-destructive left-wing counterpart to the smug superficiality of the defenders of the status quo who can perceive their own ideological commitments no more than a fish can perceive that it swims in the sea.
It has always been taken for granted by radical thinkers, and quite rightly so, that effective political action that threatens entrenched social interests will lead to “confrontation” and repression. It is, correspondingly, a sign of intellectual bankruptcy for the left to seek to construct “confrontations”; it is a clear indication that the efforts to organize significant social action have failed.
Particularly objectionable is the idea of designing confrontations so as to manipulate the unwitting participants into accepting a point of view that does not grow out of meaningful experience, out of real understanding. This is not only a testimony to political irrelevance, but also, precisely because it is manipulative and coercive, a proper tactic only for a movement that aims to maintain an elitist, authoritarian form of organization.
The opportunities for intellectuals to take part in a genuine movement for social change are many and varied, and I think that certain general principles are clear. Intellectuals must be willing to face facts and refrain from erecting convenient fantasies.
They must be willing to undertake the hard and serious intellectual work that is required for a real contribution to understanding. They must avoid the temptation to join a repressive elite and must help create the mass politics that will counteract - and ultimately control and replace - the strong tendencies toward centralization and authoritarianism that are deeply rooted but not inescapable.
They must be prepared to face repression and to act in defense of the values they profess. In an advanced industrial society, many possibilities exist for active popular participation in the control of major institutions and the reconstruction of social life.
To some extent, we can create the future rather than merely observing the flow of events. Given the stakes, it would be criminal to let real opportunities pass unexplored.
This article is adapted from the essay, “Knowledge and Power: Intellectuals and the Welfare-Warfare State,” which appeared in the 1970 book The New Left, edited by Priscilla Long. The essay is reprinted in Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures, 1969-2013 by Noam Chomsky.