The City and the Pen: An Excerpt from Shlomo Sand’s “The End of the French Intellectual”

By Shlomo SandApril 17, 2018

The City and the Pen: An Excerpt from Shlomo Sand’s “The End of the French Intellectual”
The following is an excerpt from Shlomo Sand’s The End of the French Intellectual: From Zola to Houellebecq, translated by David Fernbach and out this month from Verso.


But Paris is in actual fact all of France. The rest is just a great suburb of Paris … The whole of France is a desert, at least in intellectual terms. All that is distinguished in the provinces emigrates early on to the capital, the focus of all light and all brilliance.

— Heinrich Heine, On France (1833)

Five years would be just about long enough after our first book for us to be shaking hands with all our confrères. Centralization has grouped us all in Paris … It is Paris to which writers from the provinces, if they are well-off, come to practise regionalism; it is Paris where the qualified representatives of North African literature have chosen to express their nostalgia for Algiers.

— Jean-Paul Sartre, What Is Literature? (1948)


IN FRANCE, the age of collective intervention by intellectuals began in the late 19th century, when the liberal-democratic space, with its national culture, had reached an advanced stage of establishment and expansion. Following the achievement of male suffrage in the 1870s, and the birth of compulsory education in the 1880s, an autonomous collective intellectual of a new kind slowly constituted itself, which accompanied political life for almost a century and gained a privileged status in the French cultural field.

In the 18th century, the monarchical state had not hesitated to imprison Denis Diderot, the architect of the Encyclopédie. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was prosecuted by the Paris parlement, and the Marquis de Sade, despite becoming a writer in prison, was not permitted any remission of his sentence. When Victor Hugo felt threatened, however, the state did not take up his challenge to arrest him, and he chose exile instead.

The status of the Parisian intellectual was further consolidated at the turn of the 20th century. Émile Zola was indeed condemned to prison in 1898, but unlike Oscar Wilde, imprisoned only three years before in England, the French authorities refrained from arresting the writer and allowed him to take refuge abroad. And in 1960, when Jean-Paul Sartre publicly appealed to French soldiers to refuse to serve in Algeria, and many voices were raised to demand that the existentialist philosopher be prosecuted in accordance with the law, General de Gaulle, as is well known, replied, “You do not imprison Voltaire.”

A more recent episode was quite strange, at least for someone not native to France and not knowing the rules of the French capital. On November 16, 1980, Louis Althusser strangled his wife on the premises of the École normale supérieure. According to the law, anyone having committed such a crime should immediately be arrested, even if they are considered mentally ill. In the latter case, they are to be examined by a psychiatrist from the prefecture of police, and only then sent to a psychiatric institution by police authority. This rule of law, however, which applies to every citizen of the republic, made an exception for the famous Marxist philosopher. All parties involved, including the justice minister, Alain Peyrefitte, himself a former student of the École normale supérieure, ignored the law, so that the philosopher was directly admitted to the Sainte-Anne hospital without spending even an hour under arrest. [1]

The particular relationship to intellectuals, and perhaps also the Cartesian legacy, would not allow the supposition that a philosopher of Althusser’s status could have deliberately committed a murder; so he had to be automatically considered mentally unbalanced. Althusser spent nearly four years in hospital, and was then able to return home. Shortly before his death in 1990, he wrote an autobiography in which he complained at not having had the possibility of defending himself as a legal subject. [2]


French Exception … or Just Parisian?

The particular status of Parisian intellectuals is a phenomenon that has been repeatedly studied. In a society where the level of language itself amounts to an ideology, and cultural distinction still competes with social distinction, the “producers of high culture” have always enjoyed eminent privileges.

We might say that in the French capital, intellectuals have inherited both the role of court jester, able always to say whatever was in their minds without being punished, and of priest, serving as intermediary between the believer and divine truth. Nor has France ever forgotten that, since the great epoch of the Enlightenment, the prestige capital built up by men of letters made it for many years the cultural epicenter of the Western world. It could even be maintained that in Paris today, intellectuals have long been the last aristocrats. And if the monarchist tradition has been replaced by a popular thirst for authoritarian and paternalist presidents, a deep nostalgia for knights and musketeers, seemingly foreign to bourgeois values, has also contributed to the prestige of this modern “nobility of mind,” who confront dangers and brandish their sharpened pens to defend truth and justice.

With due precaution, we might add that Paris is distinguished by the fact that it was there that intellectuals became conscious of themselves. If we borrow from Karl Marx the famous distinction between a “class in itself,” in other words an objective sociological fact, which human subjects are not necessarily aware of belonging to, and a “class for itself,” when subjects see themselves as forming part of a group and act in the context of this identity and according to its demands, we can conclude that it was in the French capital that intellectuals appeared for the first time as a “class for itself.”

This does not mean that Parisian intellectuals ceased to speak in the name of others. Their status, like that of politicians, depends on their recognition by the rest of society as representatives of the general interest. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that France in the Age of Enlightenment was the place where men of letters created an agora in which a hegemonic discourse with a universal essence was developed. At the threshold of the 20th century, intellectuals once again organized collectively in Paris to take back possession of a public arena already well configured and very widely recognized.

The status of the intellectual in a national culture is clearly dependent on the nature and dimensions that this grants the public sphere. [3] By “public sphere,” I have in mind the public field of debate, which in a liberal democracy is open despite its relations of dependence with the apparatuses of the state and/or big capital, enabling it to maintain various levels of autonomous dialogue in relation to these powers. Through the intermediary of the press, books, cultural institutions, and other forms of communication, a public opinion is formed and intervenes in decisions taken by governments. In France, this space has taken on specific characteristics, and continues to assume them.

Any attempt to decipher the role of intellectuals in France must start from the following postulate: the public sphere here is more homogeneous and more centralized than in any other liberal democracy, and the origin of this cultural and linguistic homogeneity lies in the long effect of absolute monarchy. The transition from administrative language to national language, in the 17th and 18th centuries, took the form of a slow centrifugal process from an urban center to the provincial margins. Besides, if for the kings of France, as for other sovereigns, the language and culture of the majority of their subjects was of little importance, the accumulation of financial capital at the level of the supreme leadership of the kingdom was accompanied by a growing accumulation of symbolic cultural capital, powerfully channeled toward the capital city.

It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that the Great Revolution began with a revolt in Paris, before being transformed into the “French Revolution.” Similarly, Paris played an unprecedented role, and one without equivalent, in the fashioning of national culture, which only really began to crystallize in the 19th century. True, this national construction from the center toward the periphery is also found in other societies, but in France it was conducted continuously and in the same direction, in a far more significant and striking fashion; and this tendency has lasted a long time.

It is not only high politics that is decided in Paris, but also all the strategies, novelties, and changes in the fields of cultural creation. By way of comparison, in Great Britain we find quite a high degree of centralization, but not equaling that of France. Oxford, Cambridge, and even Edinburgh have maintained a power and effect in relation to London. In the United States, Germany, or Italy, the morphology of the public sphere has a radically different shape: establishments of higher education, newspapers, reviews, and periodicals, publishing houses and high cultural creation have always existed here in a far more dispersed and pluralist manner, whereas in France everything is essentially limited to Paris.

In the United States, an important book may be published in Boston, Los Angeles, Washington, New York, or Chicago; in Germany, it could appear in Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg, or Heidelberg; in Italy this could be Rome, Milan, Turin, or even Naples. In France, a major work can only be published in Paris, for the simple reason that prestigious publishing houses are located in the capital and nowhere else.

The intellectual currents that have stamped their mark on Western culture, such as symbolism, surrealism, existentialism, or structuralism, were not born in France but in its capital. These artistic expressions and magnificent currents of thought, like many others, appeared in the Parisian press, in periodicals established in Paris, and in books that were published there. Their impact was clearly widespread in all French cities, and even in other centers of culture across the world, but only after they had been elaborated and fashioned in a restricted geographical space. This abundance of original production has always maintained a metropolitan character.

As a result, to clarify the specificity of the intellectual in France, it is necessary to start by defining him or her as a Parisian intellectual. Young intellectuals, writers, essayists, and professors have certainly emerged from the provinces, but they have soon been attracted by the magnetism of the capital, an obligatory move for access to the pinnacle of their power and intellectual maturity. If one of them had not been educated at a Parisian lycée, they would join some prestigious Paris institution at university level, the pinnacle being the École normale supérieure on the rue d’Ulm. The summit of republican pedagogic elitism has always been fundamentally Parisian. In the determining stage of the production of ideas, positions, and sensitivities, the public sphere of the man or woman of letters is not genuinely French; it is the effervescent and dynamic zone of a great metropolis, or even just certain districts of this. Thus, the intellectual polemic around the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, far from having been a storm in a teacup, was essentially a squall in the Paris public arena rather than a series of events of national scale. [4]

French intellectuals have always quarreled among themselves, banded together, reacted to one another and frequented the same salons, cafes, and restaurants where their potion is distilled. Everything remains in the Parisian intellectual family — not only the symbolic capital, but also the disputes and hatreds, alliances and reciprocal homage. With a journalistic lightness of tone, Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman traced in the early 1980s a group portrait of this intellectual centralism that is precise, well targeted, and somewhat provocative. [5] Paris has always known talented intellectuals, some brilliant, original, and very prolific, others more superficial, their sole advantage being excellence in their mastery of language. It has not always been easy to distinguish between these, particularly on account of the all-powerful rhetoric that echoes speedily throughout the national territory and even beyond its borders.

A basic sociological fact has to be noted. Across the rest of France the intelligentsia has almost always lived and acted as a receptacle of the ideological products and cultural symbols received from Paris, which it has gone on to diffuse to wider strata. As distinct from political figures, the Left Bank intellectuals have not had to share their absolute power with any other intellectual center in France. Their hegemony has not been threatened from another source. They were not content with planting themselves on the highest summit; they were the mountain in the middle of a plain. [6]

It has been an irony of fate that the writings of Parisian scholars devoted to intellectuals, their status, and their relationship to politics and government, have in most cases ignored this geocultural aspect, or made only a very marginal reference to it. When you live in a bubble, it is hard to see the world outside. They have generally seen themselves as the intellectuals of France as a whole, rather than a group of agents specially selected, at the heart of a ruling capital. It was quite natural that they should identify Paris with France. There has been no specific sociology of Parisian intellectuals, let alone a comparative history with other intellectual centers across the world.

The ability to understand the specific character of intellectuals in France, and the dynamic of the relationships that animate them, depends above all on perceiving their urban concentration and their manner of lasting domination of public opinion in the whole of the country. Concentration is a synonym of strength, density creates quality, while physical proximity to power (a section of politicians were also their former students) has engendered self-confidence and self-importance. With time, however, this contributed to the decline of the Parisian writing “star,” a decline still more rapid than that of their counterparts in other Western countries. When a bubble bursts, it deflates very quickly. All that is left for those in the bubble is to grumble about the difficulties of modernization, to investigate the problems of their wronged identity, or else the constant threat of communist or Islamic totalitarianism to their freedom of creation and the “French way of life.”


Intellectuals and Intelligentsia

Intellectuals are not of course an exclusive feature of the French capital. To judge from the many works and studies whose title includes the term “intellectual,” one may readily conclude that in the 20th century intellectuals were present in almost all public forums, or alongside every apparatus of power in the modern nation-states. In fact, works of history, sociology, and even philology of the intellectuals have been published for many years in a number of languages, and occupy several shelves in university libraries. We know far more today on the status of intellectuals, not only in the Western world or the communist world of yesterday, but also their social and cultural position in the countries of Africa and Asia. [7]

It might be useful to open debate on the problematic of the intellectual with the preliminary question — why “intellectuals”? Why not simply the better defined professional categories, such as writers, philosophers, poets, historians, or artists? Why does the French language, and other languages in its wake, have the need for a common denominator for all the “accredited” producers of knowledge and culture, despite their means of expression being so different?

The response is broadly contained in the central concept that I have used to formulate this question. There has always been a certain common foundation for the producers of symbolic goods, differentiating them both from producers of material goods and from the holders of political power. These differences, and the specific characteristics of the learned strata, became still more marked in the 19th century with the developing division of labor. This meant that linguistic cultures had need for new inclusive denominations, which appeared at different times.

As I shall show in the first chapter of this book, the concept of “intellectual” only entered current usage in the late 19th century. It had certainly been used already for a long time as an adjective, and was used just once as a noun by both Claude Henri de Saint-Simon and by Ernest Renan. But a period of latency was needed for it to become a usable term, generally employed. The concept was popularized in the context of the events that followed the military trial of Alfred Dreyfus, and the widening of this usage was a direct effect of the ensuing political and legal battles. It is important to emphasize that the term “intellectual” did not initially appear as a neutral professional category, but rather as an ideological expression par excellence. Certain of those who first used it did so in the form of an insult, while others began on the contrary to give it a positive and sympathetic connotation. In actual fact, this ambivalence has lasted until our own day, and the use of the term remains contested and problematic. It is hard to find “scientific” distancing in the field of research devoted to “intellectuals.” The majority of those who write on the subject either view themselves as intellectuals or, on the contrary, explicitly reject belonging to such a category and vigorously resist the idea that the term might be applied to them.

To characterize and define the expression “the intellectuals” is not an easy matter. Its usage has always been multiform, to the point that any attempt to arrive at an unambiguous definition that would integrate all the meanings affixed to the word over a century strikes me as bound to fail. Each national culture has added new variations to it, and historical circumstances have brought a continuous evolution. In some times and places the term is replaced by synonyms. Thus the somewhat older word “intelligentsia” successfully competes with it in various languages, while in Germany there is the notion of Geistmenschen. [8]

In any case, I believe it is by writing its history, and the various uses the term has found, that we obtain the best definition of the “intellectual” and are best able to understand its multiple facets. The major part of the analyses contained in this book will deal with interpretations inherent in the concept of “intellectual,” in parallel with presenting the different images that have been imposed on it. This is in no way a guarantee to the reader that he or she will have acquired at the end of this exercise a less ambiguous notion than they already had beforehand. The importance I attach to a clear and precise conceptual apparatus does not necessarily make me a zoologist, and the attribution of labels and classification of genera is not my main object of interest.

We can however start by pointing out a double usage that generates confusion and misunderstanding. On certain occasions, the term “intellectual” serves to denote those scholars who, after gaining notoriety chiefly in the humanities but outside of their particular professional field, address the broad public or the government with a political and moral proclamation. Several historians have adopted this usage, which has likewise been popularized in the media, and it is why those scholars who view themselves as “pure” scientists in no way recognize themselves in this definition.

In other cases, particularly among sociologists, the concept is applied to all those groups whose profession it is to produce or diffuse works of culture. From the tribal sorcerer, through the prophet or priest, down to modern philosophers, writers, and the last of today’s journalists and professors, this criterion lumps together the ensemble of “mental workers” in a single specific social stratum which, in the human division of labor, is regularly engaged in organizing and diffusing a knowledge capital or in examining moral norms. Despite sometimes arousing reservations, and not really being accepted by the wider public, this latter approach is no less legitimate than that which sticks to a narrow use of the term. Which is why, even if most of the debates discussed in this book turn around the “intellectual” as producer of “high culture,” who intervenes in the public arena to defend politically explicit positions, I have been led here and there to expand the concept to the educated class as a whole. The “weight” of politics is widely expressed in almost all cultural creation and diffusion, even among people persuaded that it does not pertain to their field.

I have sometimes used the term “intelligentsia” as an alternative to “intellectuals”; the varying use of these terms is a subject in itself, and has already given rise to a copious literature. To make an absolute distinction between them seems to me today artificial and problematic. In general, I have always preferred to reserve “intelligentsia” for the wider strata of diffusers and duplicators of culture, and keep “intellectuals” for the producers of the “deep symbols” that formalize public language. However, I have not always been strictly coherent in this distinction, which remains dependent on the historical context in which a particular debate is inscribed.

In fact, the dividing line between “high” intellectuals and “low” intelligentsia is elastic and mobile, and the internal hierarchy of the various categories of producers of culture has always been an object of confrontation and negotiation. The balance of forces between different groups is constantly evolving, as is the level of prestige within each of them, giving rise to new images and previously unknown scales of evaluation. For example, many non-Western societies view those who have completed secondary education as forming part of the intelligentsia, and, until the last third of the 20th century, university graduates almost everywhere saw themselves as “naturally” forming part of the cultural elite. The rapid democratization of higher education over the last few decades, however, has deeply modified the marks of cultural distinction, with the result of blurring the boundaries of membership of those groups viewed as embodying an elite.

Having been a professor of history for many years at Tel Aviv University, I know from experience how in our day the devaluing of the status of the traditional human and social “sciences,” in the intensified division of labor, can increase and intensify internal struggles. The residues of a declining symbolic capital in subjects such as philosophy, history, sociology, or literature are at stake in tough confrontations, which sometimes end in disillusion and frustration. It seems that there is no longer sufficient prestige capital to be calmly shared, as in the early 20th century; nor is the situation any better on the side of writers and poets. It is said that, when he was asked why he was leaving the university to become Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger replied that he had had enough of politics. The grain of truth in this joke relates to the academic milieu, rather than the personal ambitions of the honorable professor. To become the foreign policy architect of the leading world power was far more attractive than teaching international relations to a new generation of students. It is in no way surprising that a good number of university intellectuals have regularly turned toward the spheres of politics or the media, with the aim of accumulating a new prestige capital.

The American sociologist Lewis S. Feuer has suggested an excellent way of defining the difference between intellectuals and politicians. The former wield influence, the latter wield power. [9] If we leave aside the direct forms of power that, for example, teachers wield over their students (by assessments), newspaper editors over journalists (by setting salaries), or publishers over writers (by the very fact of publication), it would appear that intellectuals act mainly in the world of symbols, and not directly in the system of social relations. For the most part, as distinct from those with political responsibility, they do not exercise any power over people. They do not fix the level of taxes, they do not vote on laws or decide on foreign policy. Contrary to bosses in the world of production and exchange, they do not give other people any immediate directive to be carried out. What they produce above all is knowledge, symbols, and particular brands of images and values. Some of them elaborate, modify, and diffuse these, for which they receive their reward from various cultural establishments and institutions.

Their impact on the consciousness of their fellows, or among wider circles of the public, is what essentially determines their status. It follows that their power derives principally from the symbolic capital they have managed to accumulate. This capital is clearly not a “thing” but a social relation, and in this respect it resembles financial capital. We might say that to a certain degree the patterns of thought of the consumers of intellectual production are banks in which this important capital accumulates. Its symbolic power can be measured by academic qualifications, the awarding of prizes, the number of references and citations, the volume of publications, and many other practices current in the stock exchange of esteem and fame.

The level of prestige or, in other words, the potential for “influence” of these intellectuals, is what makes for their margin of autonomy in relation to the institutional or economic powers. Their degree of dependence or independence vis-à-vis the powers of the cultural field, or other powers such as politics or big capital which, though located outside the cultural field, are nevertheless always a part of it, is a function of the level of charismatic authority they have managed to establish. The advent and expansion of national democracies over the last 150 years has placed new functions on the shoulders of all learned strata, on top of the accumulation of knowledge and the various services they already rendered to the state: the invention, fashioning, and transmission of national memory and culture, and in tandem with this, the manufacture of a stable democratic ideological consensus around the central institutions of power. The nation-state and the democratic principle could not have functioned or become a reality without the active mediation of accredited cultural agents, and this is one of the sources of their importance in the process of political modernization.

This importance, however, was not enough to establish the autonomy of the cultural field vis-à-vis the apparatuses of the nation state. The relative autonomy of the intellectual only managed to develop in the liberal democracies where a plurality of institutional, political, and economic powers was maintained, and where the state did not succeed in totally absorbing civil society. It is good to remember that, in “totalitarian democracies” (to use the old and pertinent expression of Bertrand de Jouvenel and Jacob Talmon), [10] the ruling bureaucracy has needed an educated class who not only organize and institutionalize knowledge but also produce the hegemonic national consciousness and ideologies, while at the same time assuring their defense.

The existence of state socialism in the 20th century, in its various forms, was made possible by the foundation of a national culture and an ideological consensus no less structured than those that accompanied the development of liberal democracies. In the “popular democracies,” and other authoritarian democracies in the Third World, the learned provided their cultural goods while being happy to enjoy socio-economic privileges; the struggle for a wider autonomy of their specific cultural field scarcely led to significant results. The lack of stable traditions that could provide political conflict with legitimacy, and the absolute economic dependence of the learned on the apparatus of the nation-state, rather than that of the market, almost demolished any possibility of collective intellectual struggles to win an independent presence and acquire more influence.

In the liberal democracies, on the other hand, relative autonomy became a marker of intellectual activity. The pluralism that enabled the masses to replace the ruling political elites, from time to time and to a certain extent, made these broadly dependent on a public sphere that was open to debate. It is in this space, which particularly includes the press, periodicals, literature, higher education establishments, the audio-visual media and social media networks, that a substantial part of political opinion is elaborated, a fact that obliges the ruling political personnel to have at their disposal a docile intelligentsia, and also to collect spontaneous favors from the cultural elites. The intervention of intellectuals in the public arena expresses a relative freedom of action that generates this autonomy, an object of pride for all intellectuals in the liberal world. It is on the basis of this relative autonomy that the image of the critical intellectual was constructed.

The majority of intellectuals are perceived in public opinion as figures prepared to challenge, independent of and outside a state that they do not hesitate to oppose. The prestige capital acquired in the West by such individuals as Émile Zola, Romain Rolland, Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, or Noam Chomsky has created the impression that talented literati have always fought against injustice and arbitrary rule. Knowing the major role that scholars play in the formalization of the collective imaginary, the reputation of the critical intellectual became widespread. The ancient world was also enlisted in support of this view: Socrates of Athens, the Hebrew prophets, and the first Christian missionaries of the Mediterranean civilization appeared to many as distant ancestors of the contemporary intellectual. Did these Biblical figures and ancient Greeks not challenge the despots of their day? Did they not risk their lives to defend truth and justice? Any original creator who enriched our culture by their great works had also to appear as a figure who preached amending the ways of exercising power and reducing arbitrariness. Ethics and aesthetics were intertwined, and the social group that produces “beauty” and “wisdom” for our culture was naturally perceived as its enlightened and moral section.

Jean-Paul Sartre is seen as the most emblematic and famous critical intellectual of the 20th century. His creative work spread across a number of fields, as philosopher, playwright, novelist, essayist, and editor of a prestigious periodical. This authentic Renaissance man sold more books of philosophy than any other philosopher, and his plays also attracted a wide public. Perhaps he was not as great a philosopher as he was said to be in his day, and his plays often suffer from excessively abstract verbiage, but his economic independence and high level of autonomy (was it a coincidence that, like Émile Zola and André Gide before him, he was never a professional academic?) enabled him to take up bold critical positions that powerfully reinforced and magnified his celebrity. His attacks on the misdeeds of French colonialism conferred on him the aura of a modern “prophet,” which aroused a great deal of jealousy. He was perhaps the only intellectual who could allow himself to refuse the Nobel Prize for Literature (Boris Pasternak did too, but against his will).

Thomas Mann was not only one of the most important and famous writers of his century; he regularly expressed his opinion on the political course of the world. If during World War I the future author of The Magic Mountain proclaimed himself a German patriot, proud and conservative, he preferred exile when the Nazis came to power, and only returned to his homeland after the fall of the Third Reich. His publications against Hitler’s Germany made him a symbol of anti-totalitarian Aufklärung, and cast a beam of dignity on the German intellectual tradition. Goethe had clearly found an authentic 20th-century heir.

Bertrand Russell was perhaps the most brilliant intellectual in the British cultural world. A philosopher who came from an aristocratic milieu, and whose early writings brought him great fame when still a young man, he soon turned to social problems and did not stint at sharp criticism of the ruling classes. During World War I, he left the comfortable ivory tower of the university and courageously adopted a minority point of view that led to his imprisonment. In the 1960s he still marched at the head of demonstrations to demand the banning of nuclear weapons, surrounded by many who could have been his grandchildren — if not great-grandchildren.

We could continue to list these “great names” who brought glory to the history of relations between intellectuals and power in the modern era, names that, in the age of nations, conferred the aura of cultural producer while showing that men of reason and intellect have labored to limit the power of the nation-state by the counterweight of higher moral norms. The halo of romanticism that undoubtedly surrounds the intellectual professions was maintained by the bearers of “high” culture by way of hundreds of publications and works of research. And yet, a detailed examination of the history of relations between intellectuals and the authorities, as well as a study of the balance of forces within the various intellectual fields, reveals a picture of the modern man of letters that is not always flattering.


Between Morality and Power

It is worth mentioning right away that the “great names” mentioned above enjoyed a process of idealization that left a certain number of their actions in the shadows.

Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, while valiantly battling against the moral corruption that was inherent in colonial oppression, was also one of the main intellectuals to have sought for several years to defend the criminal practices of the USSR. The great German liberal writer Thomas Mann, who left to settle in Switzerland as soon as Hitler came to power, was prepared to return to his beloved homeland despite the establishment of the Nazi regime. He feared that his publications might be banned, and was also concerned for his substantial wealth if he did not return to Germany. He finally gave in to the strong pressure of his pacifist daughter Erika and his radical son Klaus, who spurred him to give up this idea. Reluctantly he remained in exile. Bertrand Russell, one of the great pacifists of the century, seemed to suggest in 1948 that a threat of a preemptive nuclear strike might be justified to block the expansion of communism. He wrote letters stating that it was morally justified and better to go to war against the USSR using atomic bombs while the United States possessed them and before the USSR did. [11]

It was not at all certain that if these or other intellectuals had been in charge of 20th-century politics, it would have been conducted in a significantly more responsible or rational manner. Jacques Prévert was perhaps not completely wrong when he wrote in 1946, “Intellectuals should not be allowed to play with matches.”

We should also take care not to view critical or dissident literary figures as typical representatives of intellectual elites as a whole. Since the start of the 19th century, the majority of scholars in the liberal West — professors of philosophy and history, writers, poets, essayists, journalists, et cetera — lent their support to colonial conquests and took pride in the territorial gains made by the states to which they belonged. It is well known, for example, how the cream of English university graduates enthusiastically enlisted in the service of the empire, seeing this as an important and obligatory first step on a career. When the anti-colonial wave broke in the wake of World War II, and was met by bloody warfare designed to stem the tide, only a small minority of the intellectual world took a clear stand against the long repression conducted by the West against the Third World.

The famous images of the May 1933 book-burnings in the streets of Berlin remained engraved in the memory of many throughout the 20th century. The visual message was strong and clear: totalitarianism against the book, the barbarism of an excited and ignorant crowd against the intellect and culture. It was easy to lose sight of who actually were the book-burners and enthusiastic spectators around the bonfires. They were not uneducated illiterates from the poor quarters of Berlin, nor downtrodden workers solely preoccupied with ensuring the subsistence of their families in a period of harsh economic crisis. These gleeful incendiaries were students, whose main occupation was to study and read other books. What they particularly set out to do was purge their libraries of works that they deemed to be insufficiently “German”; it was in the universities that the fires were lit. Several professors took part in the proceedings, or at least watched them, while university rectors spoke with strong emotion. Before Nazism gained its first impressive successes among the citizenry of Weimar Germany, it had won the elections of the student associations, whose members all belonged to the middle and upper classes.

A good number of German intellectuals chose exile in the 1930s, but the great majority of scholars remained where they were and continued to faithfully serve the Thousand-Year Reich and its eternal racial nation. Careful examination of the list of German exiles shows that the majority of these were of Jewish origin, or else had expressed pacifist or radical-left views; in other words, they were declared enemies of Nazism. Thomas Mann, considered a pure “Aryan” and far from a man of the left or a pacifist, was thus not a “natural” representative of liberal or conservative intellectuals, which is the impression often given by history books written for the “general reader.” Despite the anti-intellectual image commonly associated with Nazism, it is worth remembering that many eminent scholars — such as Werner Sombart, Ernst Jünger, Carl Schmitt, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Gottfried Benn — supported their powerful nation-state, and indeed adjusted very well to the Hitler regime. Even the writer Erich Kästner and the pacifist film director Georg Wilhelm Pabst, despite their critical view of Nazism, preferred to remain in Germany and compromise with the “new order.”

Hundreds of philosophy professors whether Nietzschean or neo-Kantian, teachers of history and archeology whether idealist or positivist, physicists and biologists, continued to publish and teach without a problem. Some of them even became enthusiastic Nazis. [12] Martin Heidegger, the preeminent philosopher of the Weimar period, whom a growing consensus today tends to view as the most important philosopher of the 20th century, was appointed rector of Freiburg University in 1933. He joined the Nazi Party at this point, and remained a member until the end of the war. [13]

Just as the majority of British and French intellectuals were not anti-colonialist, so the majority of educated Germans were not anti-Nazi, and indeed a wide stratum of the “enlightened” Western intelligentsia showed no opposition to totalitarianism. The blindness of many literary figures in relation to the USSR, and what took place there in the 1930s and early 1950s, is glaring today, and has been documented in many publications. [14] The fact that the Stalinist regime appealed to humanist progressive principles brought it widespread sympathy in intellectual milieus. Seen from afar, revolutionary politics was perceived as the logical application of a coherent and perfect theory. The abstract ideas of communism, associated with the universal values of equality and fraternity between peoples, were seductive to intellectuals, including a number who never became communists themselves. George Bernard Shaw, as well as Beatrice and Sidney Webb, expressed their admiration for Stalin’s five-year plans. Bertolt Brecht, Pablo Neruda, and Louis Aragon saw Stalin as the “sun of the people” and Soviet communism as the realization of human rationalism.

Even in the USSR, the majority of the intellectual elite supported the repressive regime. The physicist Andrei Sakharov and the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn were not typical representatives of intellectual Homo Sovieticus. Hundreds of professors in the humanities and social sciences, along with journalists, writers, filmmakers, and other cultural producers, showed themselves faithful supporters of the totalitarian dictatorship. This support for a revolution that had devoured its children and massacred millions of peasants was not limited to those of average education: from Vladimir Mayakovsky to Nikita Mikhailov, from Sergei Eisenstein and Maxim Gorky to Ilya Ehrenburg, the elite of Soviet literati and artists offered their talents to the greatest nation-state apparatus of the 20th century, and sought to adapt their cultural creativity to the taste of the all-powerful rulers. [15]

The situation was no different in the “people’s democracies.” Apart from recurrent confrontations between the state and a few isolated creative figures, the struggle to liberalize political culture and the autonomy of the intellectual field remained relatively marginal in relation to cultural production as a whole. Revolts and protests may well be imprinted in social memory, but the number of dissidents was actually quite negligible. We should recall that in the 1960s, the period when the totalitarian tendency of communist power in China was at its height, it was the intellectual youth from universities and high schools who acted as spearhead in imposing a form of terror over the whole population. The great Cultural Revolution that shook China and caused large-scale massacres was a political project with little cultural about it, applied in the main by a new generation of young intelligentsia.

In the West, it was precisely during the most totalitarian years in China that intellectual youth expressed sympathy for Maoism and the Red Guards. In Paris in particular, the pro-Stalin fashion of 1945–’56 gave way to the Maoist one that attracted thousands of students. And it was the École normale supérieure that most frenetically expressed the aspiration to repeat on the banks of the Seine the totalitarian actions of the Cultural Revolution: the most rigid activists, who distributed the most ridiculous Maoist pamphlets, were recruited from the prestigious elite institution of the rue d’Ulm. Philippe Sollers, soon to be an up-and-coming writer; Julia Kristeva, an original researcher; and Serge July, future editor of the newspaper Libération, mouthed the language of revolutionary contradiction, idolizing the father of the Chinese revolution and crying their contempt for “reformist traitors.” Those who would later call themselves the “new philosophers,” and many others who took up their ideas and popularized them, came from precisely this Maoism then in vogue. Intellectuals such as André Glucksmann, Benny Lévy, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Jean-Claude Milner, Blandine Kriegel, Alain Finkielkraut, Pascal Bruckner, and many others changed their ideological banner in the course of time. They were “revolutionaries,” warm admirers, and champions of a totalitarian regime, when Maoism seemed in the process of imposing itself on a large part of the world. When its star declined, and with the advent of neoconservatism, they abandoned this “revolution” to become sycophants of the “anti-totalitarian” bourgeois order, while maintaining the same intolerance and self-satisfaction. [16]

It is a constant surprise that such major French intellectuals as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, or Jean-Luc Godard, who had supported the protests of the rebel generation of the late 1960s, were precisely able to fix their choice on the current with the most totalitarian tendency (Foucault was still able to rally to the final totalitarian squall of the century, the Islamic revolution in Iran). [17] Why did these thinkers, and others with them, not prefer the less authoritarian and more rational currents of political revolt? Why did they bring themselves to sympathize with movements that organized a cult, and whose affinities with a distant dictatorship and its oppressive practices were visible to the naked eye?

One of the answers to these questions may perhaps be found in the observation of the complex relationships that exist between intellectuals and power. The widespread image of the reticence of intellectuals toward state power and its arbitrary side seems simplistic and unsatisfactory. The world of symbols is the central object of the activity of intellectual elites, which frequently arouses tensions or frustrations toward the castes that hold power and are perceived as major decision-makers of the fate of the real world. The aspiration to free themselves from dependence on power and expand their autonomy has also played a notable part in the ambivalent relationship between the world of the intellect and that of political decisions.

The desire to share power has always been a fairly widespread mental component. The Platonic image of the philosopher-king has haunted the dreams of a good number of writers. When intellectuals are offered the opportunity to cross the lines, they are found not only as counselors to the prince, but also as political figures to whom the taste and habits of power are not foreign, particularly outside of the West. True, the will to power may always be interpreted as a sincere aspiration to reform and improve the world, and it would be wrong to reject such an explanation out of hand. Yet it is still pertinent to judge intellectuals in terms of concepts that combine their desire for power and their aspiration to participate in it. We may thus suppose that the fundamental contradiction and gap in values that appeared between the sovereign and the philosopher in the 20th century had the effect of leading the latter’s dreams to drift toward substitute powers located in other places. The strong attraction to the dictatorships of Stalin, Mao, or Castro was able, to a certain extent, to serve as substitute for a banal local impotence.

Any attentive observer of the political and moral attitudes of intellectuals in the 20th century will note that only few of them have been able to preserve a clear and balanced judgment on the situations of distress that attend their age. This sad reality, however, should not lead to a misjudgment that would attribute to intellectuals a greater share of blame in the century’s tragedies than to other mortals.

Given their eminent and hegemonic place in the process of examining of norms, it should be a requirement that producers of “high culture” rise above their fellow citizens. They are in fact the people whose written expression creates the compass needle that will aid future generations in forging their moral judgments, and they are also deemed to know more than others, given that a section of them earn their living by producing “truth.” Nevertheless, if we leave aside the romantic conception that would see the man or woman of letters as an idealist in search of public good, it becomes possible to grasp the problematic of the intellectual in a fashion both less normative and less demanding.

Intellectuals, and the educated stratum as a whole, are no less moral than other humans, but neither should they be expected to be any better. Just as there has never been a causal link between cultural refinement and moral behavior, so it is useless to seek a simple and direct relationship between the privileged status of the intellectual in society and their political “turpitudes.” Many intellectuals supported the Nazis; others — mainly those on the left and certain religious figures — opposed them at the risk of their lives. Students certainly formed the vanguard of the Nazi breakthrough, but the White Rose group that formed against Nazism in splendid isolation was also made up of young students. Many university and high school students took part in the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, but it was also students who 10 years later marched on Tiananmen Square and defied the tanks sent to repress their new demands for freedom and political pluralism.

In the Western metropolises, the groups who protested against colonial conquests were not made up of trade unionists or socialist workers; they were most often minorities from intellectual milieus. [18] In the United States, it was not truck drivers, waiters, or shopkeepers who went to demonstrate against the war in Vietnam, but writers and the student youth. The voices raised against nationalist wars, dictatorships, and racism came almost always from the intelligentsia and rarely from political mass movements. Many intellectuals also paid with their lives in the harsh battles for freedom or social justice.

A certain incisive anti-intellectualism has again made itself felt, seeking only to expose the “treason” of the intellectuals, their weaknesses and mistakes — in large part as a reaction to the romantic adoration and idealization that formerly attached to their status. In fact, a global critique that presented intellectuals as either enemies of tradition or hostile to progress arose along with the very appearance of the term, and would last until the end of the 20th century. In 1906, Charles Péguy began to sharpen his critique of the “party of intellectuals,” aimed among others at the entire university professoriat. [19] Biting condemnations of intellectuals were countless throughout the century, from Édouard Berth, a follower of Georges Sorel and author in 1914 of a virulent pamphlet Les Méfaits des intellectuels[20] through to Noam Chomsky, who characterized the educated classes in 1986 as “the most indoctrinated, most ignorant, most stupid part of the population.” “[T]here are very good reasons for that,” he added. [21]

Over the years, many politicians have certainly expressed contempt for literati, but the heart of the critique of the producers of “high culture” has come from typical intellectuals themselves. Why did these individuals suddenly decide to condemn their peers and cease to see them as legitimate colleagues? Contrary to a widespread idea, this kind of attitude does not come from self-hatred. The majority of intellectuals have nothing against the image that the mirror shows them, and self-criticism is rarely found in their own writings. If we leave aside writers’ jealousies, anti-intellectualism is most commonly fueled by ideological disagreement. Opposition to the value judgments contained in a political position is a stimulus to discrediting the professional status of competitors, and thus to challenging the totality of the functions of the intellectual in society. However, critical discourse on intellectuals sometimes also develops for other reasons, and in complex circumstances, as the second chapter of this book will seek to clarify by close examination of the French intellectual field over a long period.

In the second chapter of this book I shall seek to present certain forms of discourse characteristic of leading intellectuals, chiefly in Paris, from Voltaire in the 18th century to Pierre Bourdieu in the 20th. These forms can in fact help us to better understand the origins of the development of anti-intellectualism. The third chapter, which describes the relationship of various Marxists to intellectuals, also includes an analysis of certain characteristic anti-intellectual approaches. There is always an evident tension in Marxism between, on the one hand, theories that see the organized working class as a universal subject, by which revolutionary change will be accomplished, and, on the other hand, a reality that confers on intellectuals an almost total hegemony over the formation of the political and historical consciousness of the masses. We shall see that certain Marxists actually tried to legitimize this hegemony.


Public Intellectuals

Given that these two chapters deal mainly with types of discourse that have taken shape in the European continent, and above all in Paris, it seemed desirable to tackle in this introduction, at least with some general reflections, the critical debate concerning intellectuals in the English-speaking world (to which I shall return briefly in the fifth chapter). Discourse on intellectuals in the British and American public sphere developed later than in France or Italy, but its importance has steadily grown, to the point that the “intellectual” seems by the end of the 20th century to have emigrated to those national cultures that refused in the past to recognize the existence of such. Beyond the significant difference in the relationship toward scholars between Britain and the United States, these two societies have in common a long anti-intellectual tradition. Richard Hofstadter has written a fundamental and exhaustive work on anti-intellectualism in American society, to which there is scarcely anything to be added. He tackles here the question of the populist tradition in American culture, which glorifies immediate success, vis-à-vis the ineffectiveness of the “eggheads.” [22] Little, however, has been published on British anti-intellectualism. [23]

Comparison between the status of “public intellectuals” in Britain and France, to take up the terminology used by Stefan Collini, shows the many advantages that the French enjoy, and Parisians in particular. [24] As shown by the British historian Denis William Brogan at the end of a study on France: “We British don’t take our intellectuals so seriously.” [25]

Ever since the Dreyfus Affair, British literati have viewed with mistrust the term “intellectual,” imported from the French, and tended to use it ironically, even as an insult. We should however remember that in the second half of the 19th century, the great liberal thinker John Stuart Mill, seeking to encourage the development of democracy in his country, proposed granting a double vote to educated citizens. [26] The idea did not remain a dead letter, as until 1950 graduates of certain English universities had the privilege of electing additional members of parliament.

The British Isles certainly did not lack critical intellectuals who castigated the governments of the day and challenged the foundations of the established order. From George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and the Bloomsbury Group in the early part of the century, via writers and poets such as Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden, attracted by communism in the 1930s, through to Bertrand Russell and Harold Pinter, Great Britain has known men of letters not very different from the prototype of the Parisian intellectual. Besides, eminent historians such as E. P. Thompson or Eric Hobsbawm adopted a version of Marxism, and critical positions in politics, that were far more coherent than those of their Paris counterparts, thus assuming the role of committed intellectuals in the most typical sense of this expression.

At the same time, Great Britain has also been marked by a long anti-intellectual tradition with multiple origins. Some researchers explain the deep suspicion toward men of letters by the development of Protestantism, which was more ambivalent than Catholicism vis-à-vis a clerical hierarchy claiming to exercise mediation between God and the earthly community. [27] The greater autonomy of Protestant believers reduced their dependence on the clergy, and this tradition of suspicion was transposed into the secular sphere. Added to this was the fact that political modernity, initially liberal and then democratic, was established in Britain without the aid of universal abstractions, and was accompanied by an ambivalence toward ideological professionals. Ever since Edmund Burke, who at the end of the 18th century imputed the revolutionary earthquake of 1789 to the work of French philosophers, there has been a lively critical stance toward abstract principles, supposedly the result of the meditations of radical intellectuals. The famous British empiricism, whose scientific achievements past and present were viewed as the reward of collective work, rejected the deification of the intellectual as inventor of formulas designed to explain the workings of the world.

A view of this kind was not the monopoly of the conservative pole of British public life. A strongly anti-intellectual tradition was also widespread on the British left. The labor movement here, as distinct from its origins in France, sprung directly from the conflict between capital and labor; it was never taken in hand by intellectuals, but created and animated on the initiative of the trade unions, who at a particular moment decided to found a political party. It is unthinkable that this party, the Labour Party, would have accepted as its leader a former philosophy teacher, as was the case in France with Jean Jaurès, who headed the Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière (SFIO) established in 1905. Later on, in the interwar period, the SFIO chose as its leader a high-flying civil servant and literary critic, Léon Blum, maintaining the contrast with Britain.

This particular configuration of the public sphere may well explain why the British left intellectual always displayed a certain modesty in great contrast with the French cultural world. George Orwell, a great figure of the left, listed in order of importance the main reasons that impelled him and his colleagues to take up the pen: first and foremost, “pure egoism” (in other words: the self-interest to appear intelligent, to win celebrity, to settle accounts); then “aesthetic enthusiasm” (the satisfaction and sense of beauty and pleasure of a finished work); then the “historical impulse” (the desire to bring facts to light and transmit them to generations to come). It is only after these reasons that Orwell finally mentions the “political objective” (the aspiration to advance the world in a certain direction). [28] The order in which these motivations are listed, which does not cast particular glory on writers, shows the sincerity of the author of Animal Farm and 1984. It would be hard to find, at least before the 1970s, any such scale of values in the French cultural tradition, where even the most anti-intellectual thinkers were not accustomed, in Paris, to present themselves as subjects moved by personal or professional motivations. In French discourse, where the Dreyfus Affair long remained an absolute point of reference, the models of social and political functioning of intellectuals were always subject to categorical moral imperatives, leaving scarcely any room for “pure egoism” as a major reason for intellectual production. [29]

In his way, the famously “anti-intellectual” Paul Johnson also illustrates the singular place that the “intellectual” occupies in British public opinion. For a long time Johnson was a very prominent left intellectual. He edited the New Statesman, a weekly of high quality and radical orientation, and established himself as a prolific and talented commentator and writer. In the mid-1970s, like many Western intellectuals, he began to slide toward the conservative pole of the political spectrum. He became a close advisor to Margaret Thatcher and purported to see the trade unions as a totalitarian threat to British freedom. Having completed his intellectual metamorphosis, he published in 1988 a successful book titled The Intellectuals, soon translated into several languages including French, in which he attacked a number of major intellectual figures, including Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Brecht, Sartre, and Russell. [30]

The figures whom Paul Johnson accused, and whose “true face” he claimed to show in his book, were not only celebrated intellectuals. They all belonged to the specific category of thinkers who sought to improve society and committed what Johnson clearly considered as a crime: utopianism. In the lineage of Edmund Burke and Karl Popper, Johnson starts from the principle that a single human mind is incapable of judging and assessing historical processes. It is preferable to rely on hegemonic institutions, safe and stable state apparatuses, customs and beliefs anchored in long experience. The great misfortune that has befallen the modern world, according to Johnson, came from these humanist intellectuals, for the most part of the left, who were not satisfied with the achievements of Western liberalism and accordingly invented dangerous abstract formulas that led to effusions of blood and large-scale massacre. The extermination of peasants by Stalin in the USSR, the genocide under Pol Pot in Cambodia, were characteristic products of this utopian delirium, for which these great Western “pen-pushers” were in part responsible.

As evidence of the conservative drift observable in the late 20th century well beyond the English-speaking world, Paul Johnson’s diatribe is scarcely an original contribution. [31] If it deserves a certain attention, it is not on account of the vitriolic portrait he draws of intellectuals, described in passing as sexual deviants, perverts, and debauchees heedless of any morality, [32] but rather because Johnson made a new move: equating anti-intellectualism and anti-totalitarianism, he rejected for himself the label of “intellectual.” And this is what radically differentiates him from those of his Parisian counterparts who, undertaking at the same time a remarkably similar ideological turn and passing en masse “from Mao collar to Rotary Club,” [33] continued to flatter themselves with the glorious title inherited from Zola, Sartre, and others. Do the striking transformations of the ideological climate at the end of the 20th century herald the end of the intellectuals, or simply a significant shift in their ideological orientations? In other words, is the place and status of intellectuals still the same as a century ago, and only their values changed? Are the classic “means of production” of intellectuals still the source of the ways they express themselves in our intellectual world?

To deal with these questions, if only partially, I have chosen to return to the intellectual’s moment of birth. It may seem that a figure who is born is capable of dying out completely one day or another. I have therefore chosen to begin with some critical remarks on the modes of engagement of intellectuals at the end of the 19th century. The critical and rather skeptical gaze with which I examine intellectuals does not just come from my particular approach to history, but may also have its origin in my particular position in the intellectual field. I go on to pay particular attention to various forms of discourse that touch on intellectuals, both positively and negatively, over a long time frame.

Marxism has been a major factor in my intellectual and political development, even if I no longer define myself as a Marxist today. This is why I have taken the time to discuss the viewpoints of several Marxist thinkers on the role of intellectuals in relation to the workers’ movement. And since, like many people on the left, I have been all too quick to pin the label “fascism” on a variety of historical phenomena, sometimes mutually contradictory ones, I felt obliged to add an analysis of the presence of fascism in French intellectual milieus in the interwar years.

The terrible attack against the editors of Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015, took place while I was still writing this book. The rise of terrorism in France, and the reactions it has aroused, have only sharpened existing ideological tendencies. For this reason, I decided to devote the second part of this work to recent developments on the French political scene that attest to an important ideological shift: while the modern Parisian intellectual was born in the battle against Judeophobia, the twilight of the intellectual in the early 21st century is happening under the sign of a rise in Islamophobia. [34]


Shlomo Sand is professor of history at Tel Aviv University and author of The Invention of the Jewish People (2009), The Invention of the Land of Israel (2012), How I Ceased to Be a Jew (2013), The End of the French Intellectual (2016), among many other works.


[1] Not long after leaving the ENS, Alain Peyrefitte had written a book about it: Rue d’Ulm. Chroniques de la vie normalienne, Paris: Fayard 1946.

[2] Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts a Long Time, London: Chatto, 1993.

[3] I take this term from Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT, 1991, despite rejecting some of the “ideal” meanings that he attributes to it.

[4] There were of course provincials among those who signed petitions, especially professors and students, but the lines of cleavage between the hostile camps, and the struggles of ideas, were established by the Paris nerve centers. On the subject of the provincial petitioners, see in particular Christophe Charle, Birth of the Intellectuals: 1880-1900, Cambridge: Polity, 2015, pp. 152ff. It should also be spelled out that the wave of popular Judeophobia at this time was not just a Parisian phenomenon but affected the whole of the country.

[5] Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman, Les Intellocrates. Expédition en haute intelligentsia, Brussels: Complexe, 1981. The negative reactions of the Parisian press and, a contrario, the favourable reception in provincial media, well reflected this geocultural syndrome.

[6] The fact that there have been in the past writers such as Jean Giono, sociologists such as Jacques Ellul, or, in our own time, singular philosophers such as Jean-Claude Michéa who have insisted in living away from Paris, in no way changes the fact that there has never been an intellectual center that competed with the capital.

[7] See Christophe Charle, Les Intellectuels en Europe au xixe siècle. Essai d’histoire comparée, Paris: Seuil, 1996.

[8] On the German use of the term and the status of Geistmenschen, see Dietz Bering, Die Intellektuellen. Geschichte eines Schimpfwortes, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta; Jürgen Habermas, “Heinrich Heine und die Rolle des Intellektuellen in Deutschland,” in Eine Art Schadensabwicklung. Kleine politische Schriften VI, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1987, pp. 25–54. See also the excellent article by Hans Manfred Bock, “Histoire et historiographie des intellectuels en Allemagne,” in Michel Trebitsch and Marie-Christine Granjon (ed.), Pour une histoire comparée des intellectuels, Brussels: Complexe, 1998, pp. 79–109.

[9] Lewis S. Feuer, “What Is an Intellectual?” in Aleksander Gella (ed.), The Intelligentsia and the Intellectuals: Theory, Method and Case Study, Beverly Hills: Sage, 1976, pp. 47–58.

[10] See Bertrand de Jouvenel, Du pouvoir. Histoire naturelle de sa croissance, Geneva: Éditions du Cheval Ailé, 1947, pp. 313-42, and Jacob Talmon, The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy, Boston: Beacon Press, 1952.

[11] For example, in May 1948 he wrote to Walter Marseille, “Communism must be wiped out […] I don’t think the Russians will yield without war.” See Ray Perkins, “Bertrand Russel and Preventive War,” in Alan Schwerin (ed.), Bertrand Russell on Nuclear War, Peace, and Language. Critical Historical Essays, Westport: Praeger, 2002, p. 6.

[12] On the question of scientists, see Benno Müller-Hill, Murderous Science: Elimination by Scientific Selection of Jews, Gypsies, and Others in Germany, 1933–1945, New York: Cold Spring Arbor Laboratory Press, 1997.

[13] See Victor Farias, Heidegger and Nazism, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991; Hans Sluga, Heidegger’s Crisis: Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994; and Trawny Peter, Heidegger et l’antisémitisme. Sur le ‘Cahiers noirs’, Paris: Seuil, 2014.

[14] See the pioneering works of David Caute, Communism and the French Intellectuals 1914-1960, London: Deutsch, 1964 and Fellow-Travellers: A Postscript to the Enlightenment, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973; Jeannine Verdès-Leroux, Au service du Parti. Le Parti communiste, les intellectuels et la culture (1944-1956), Paris: Fayard/Minuit, 1983 and Le Réveil des somnambules. Le parti communiste, les intellectuels et la culture (1956-1985), Paris: Fayard/Minuit, 1987.

[15] In 1931, just when a deadly collectivization was in full swing, Gorky published a polemic against those Western intellectuals who dared to protest against what was happening in his country. In particular, he wrote: “Never have intellectuals shown their weakness so clearly, and their indifference to life so shamelessly, as in the twentieth century, so full of tragedies created throughout the world by the cynicism of the ruling classes” (Maxim Gorky, “Réponse à un Intellectuel,” available at The humanist writer clearly did not think of including himself in the category of intellectuals having shown this “indifference to life.”

[16] On this tendency, it is useful to refer to the interview with Gilles Deleuze in the supplement to no. 24 of the bi-monthly Minuit, May 1977, and to François Cusset, La Décennie. Le grand cauchemar des années 1980, Paris: La Découverte, 2006.

[17] See Michael-Scott Christofferson, French Intellectuals Against the Left: The Antitotalitarian Moment of the 1970s, New York: Berghahn Books, 2004.

[18] Except the CGT in France, which was active against the war in Indochina in the early 1950s.

[19] See Simone Fraisse, “Péguy et la Sorbonne,” Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France, 3, 1970, pp. 416–34.

[20] Édouard Berth, Les Méfaits des intellectuels, Paris: Marcel Rivière, 1914.

[21] Speech given in Nicaragua in 1986, quoted in Bruce Robbins (ed.), Intellectuals: Aesthetics, Politics, Academics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990, p. 101.

[22] Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, New York: Vintage, 1963.

[23] See for example Jeremy Jennings, “L’anti-intellectualisme britannique et l’image de l’intellectuel français,” Mil Neuf Cent — Revue d’histoire intellectuelle, 15, 1997, pp. 109–25.

[24] Stefan Collini, Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1850-1930, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

[25] Quoted in H. L. Wesseling, Certain Ideas of France: Essays on French History and Civilization, Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002, p. 65.

[26] John Stuart Mill, “Considerations on Representative Government,” in Three Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 285.

[27] See André J. Bélanger, The Ethics of Catholicism and the Consecration of the Intellectual, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997.

[28] George Orwell, “Why I Write” (1946), in Orwell and Politics, London: Penguin, 2001, p. 460.

[29] Clearly Parisians have no monopoly in idealistic elaboration of the self-portrait of the intellectual as subject motivated by moral purity. Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual, New York: Vintage, 1996, is the latest to date of examples of naïve presentation of the “authentic” intellectual as spiritual exile in perpetual struggle for the defense of the oppressed, and never for himself.

[30] Paul Johnson, Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, New York: Harper, 2007 [1988].

[31] In France, a trendy essayist, Pascal Bruckner, had already published a similar argument Le Sanglot de l’homme blanc. Tiers-Monde, culpabilité, haine de soi, Paris: Seuil, 1986.

[32] The irony of history has it that in the wake of Johnson’s conservative and hypocritical preachings, the novelist Gloria Stewart revealed that she had been for 11 years the secret lover of this devoted paterfamilias, whose greatest pleasure consisted in being spanked on the buttocks. See Christopher Hitchens, “The Rise and Fall of Paul ‘Spanker’ Johnson,” Salon, May 28, 1998.

[33] See Guy Hocquenghem, Lettre ouverte à ceux qui sont passés du col Mao au Rotary, Marseille: Agone, 2014 [1986].

[34] For several reasons I prefer to use most often the terms “Judeophobia” or “hatred of Jews” rather than “anti-Semitism.” There has never been a Semitic race, only Semitic languages, which European Jews never used in everyday life. Wilhelm Marr, a secular racist responsible for the application and diffusion of the term “anti-Semitism,” cherished an irrational hatred toward Jews. He was clearly not resorting to any scientific terminology. The term “Judeophobia” was current well before “anti-Semitism.” Leon Pinsker, a Zionist thinker and predecessor of Theodor Herzl, used it as early as 1882.

LARB Contributor

Shlomo Sand is professor of history at Tel Aviv University and author of The Invention of the Jewish People (2009), The Invention of the Land of Israel (2012), How I Ceased to Be a Jew (2013), and La fin de l’intellectuel français? (2016), among many other works. He specializes in the question of nationalism, film as history, and French intellectual history.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.