Intellectualism
The following was an email message provided by Ed Ashment. He has allowed me to reproduce it below.


Gelernter's "How the Intellectuals Took Over (And What to Do About It)", in the March 1997 issue of Commentary is a fine and provocative essay. I only have trouble with his definition of bohemians and socialist ideologues as intellectuals versus (neo-) conservative intellectuals. He writes:

'Contemplate a couple of interesting intellectual crowds: the poets, painters, writers, and salon-keepers around the young Picasso in 1905 Paris, say -- some of them bohemians but some true-blue intellectuals, with theories to sell and ideas to put over. Or the Trotskyists around Partisan Review in 1930's New York. There is scant love lost in either group for organized religion, the military, social constraints on sexual behavior, traditional sex roles and family structures, formality or fancy dress or good manners, authority in general. Intellectuals have had these tendencies throughout the 20th century, and back to the 19th and into the 18th' (34).

Gelernter correctly laments that 'Today's newspapers and popular magazines, museums and TV stations, movie studios and schools mainly line up with the intellectualized elite'; in response to which he proposes 'new institutions', having 'no political agendas', that 'would merely promote cant-free history, apolitical art, nonfeminist news reporting for the masses, the teaching of technique and not self-esteem, moral seriousness, ideology-free language -- items that today's elite despises and is attempting to destroy'.

He writes that these new institutions 'would build on the groundwork laid down by conservative and neoconservative intellectuals over decades' (38; emphasis added). But by his own definition, intellectuals are anti-authoritarian, anti-cultural iconoclasts (and have been for the last three centuries), with the result that such a thing as a '(neo-) conservative intellectual' would be an oxymoron. What Gelernter does, I think, is define 'intellectual' too narrowly -- even for himself.

The OED broadly defines "Intellectualism" as 'The doctrine that knowledge is wholly or mainly derived from the action of the intellect, i.e. from pure reason.' It is generally acknowledged that the Enlightenment was an intellectualist movement. It was 'characterized by the emphasis on experience and reason, mistrust of religion and traditional authority, and a gradual emergence of the ideals of liberal, secular, democratic societies' (Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy [ Oxford: The Oxford University Press, 1994], 120). Jefferson and Madison were perhaps the greatest exponents of the Enlightenment in America, and it therefore is no wonder that the Enlightenment is reflected in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution: the 'Constitution of the United States, which is not a utilitarian document but one based on an ethic of natural rights, is frequently cited as a concrete embodiment of Enlightenment ideals' (_ibid_.)

Jefferson's strongest belief was 'the sufficiency of reason for the care of human affairs'. He was 'a man of the Enlightenment who believed in the application of reason to society as well as to nature'. From such a commitment 'flowed his devotion to the rights of man and his faith in majority rule' (Cunningham, In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987], xiv-xv).

So: it would be safe to conclude that the entire political framework of the United States is based on intellectualist (i.e., Enlightenment) tenets. On the other hand, Gelernter identifies intellectualism as the greatest threat to the health of the Republic, while (neo-) conservative intellectualism may save it. If he is right, we have a labeling problem.

From the above definitions, it can be concluded that intellectualism, per se, may not necessarily be applicable to reality -- free-basing as it does on 'pure reason' -- while the Enlightenment ties itself to reality by emphasizing experience along with reason. I think this is a crucial difference.

In contrast to governments based on socialism, democratic republicanism has succeeded quite well, although certainly not perfectly. Jefferson and Madison studied everything they could find about government, and when the time came to begin crafting a new one, Madison (in constant contact with Jefferson, who was in France as ambassador) based it on reason and the experience of previous governments. Our Constitution reflects the intellectual distrust of authority in its division of power and establishment of checks and balances among the several branches of the federal government; between the states and the federal government; between armed citizens and a tyrannical government; as well as in the wall of separation between the church and government, thus denying the church the coercive power and largesse of government. Indeed, it cannot be over-emphasized how important the framers considered experience to be. They knew that experience would prove that the new government based on the constitution they were crafting would not be perfect, and provided for a process to amend it.

As Gelernter points out, Trotskyists were intellectuals, as, of course, were/are other Hegelians, Marxists, and Leninists. Unfortunately, their intellectual cogitations were/are not based on the historical experience of governments, with the result that when they have been implemented, the results regularly have been disastrous. Sympathizing historians point to everything but the real cause to account for the failure of socialism, which contributes to the fact that socialists continue to repeat mistakes that the experience of history should have taught them. A recent example of this is Figes' massive history of the Russian Revolution, in which he blames the failure of socialism there on, inter alia, the 'Russian mentality' and the Bolsheviks ignoring Hegel's and Marx's doctrines. (See Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution [New York: Viking, 1996], 824pp.)

The truth is that, ultimately, socialism is not anti-authoritarian. In fact, it cannot brook any opposition. One after another socialist governmental experiment has been nothing more than a repressive, brutal, totalitarian dictatorship; where there is no freedom of expression, where 'equality' of result is forced upon the citizens by an ideological elite. Consider the murderous purges, beginning in Russia at ending at Tianamen Square.

The former radical socialist David Horowitz discusses the unwillingness of the socialists to evaluate their own ideology in the same way they evaluate their opponents':

'Despite the uniform disasters of socialist revolutions, the socialist goal remained unexamined and unquestioned. Even worse, the Left's responses to these catastrophes were shaped by a system of double standards. "The Left's indignation seems exclusively reserved for outrages that confirm the Marxist diagnosis of capitalist society. Thus, there is protest against murder and repression in Nicaragua but not Cambodia, Chile but not Tibet ... Israel but not Libya or Iraq." Worse, still, the Left had accepted no responsibility for the part that its own ideas and actions had played in the revolutionary disasters. "Unpalatable results (e.g., the outcome of the Revolution in Russia) are regarded as 'irrelevant' -- and dismissed -- as though the Left in America and elsewhere played no role in them, and as though they had no impact on the world that the Left set out to change"' (Horowitz, Radical Son: A Journey through Our Times [New York: The Free Press, 1997], 306.

Horowitz describes eloquently the difference between the free-basing, ideological, socialist intellectualism to which he subscribed and the intellectualism of democratic republicanism, to which he was opposed:

'There was plenty of injustice in the system we opposed. But it had created procedures and institutions designed to redress grievances, correct injustices, and put checks on the power of government. In rejecting our radical agendas, our opponents had always stressed the importance of "process" and following rules, even when the issues seemed obvious. As radicals, we were impatient with order and had contempt for process. We wanted "direct rule" and "people's justice," unconstrained by such legalisms and the hierarchies they required. We had no use for law that pretended to be neutral between persons and classes, that failed to recognize historical grievances or the way rules were shaped by social forces. We did not believe in bourgeois legality and objective standards. The revolutionary will embodied justice and truth. We were going to eliminate "checks and balances" and let the people decide' (270). There would be no more social classes in the socialist Xanadu. But the problem of who are going to be the ones to decide just 'who would be made equal, and at what rate, would -- by the very fact of that power -- become a new ruling caste. The quest of equality would create a new inequality. There was no exit from the cycle of human fate' (271). In other words, socialism is always doomed to failure.

What are the possibilities for resolving the labeling problem that Gelernter unintentionally introduces? Obviously, there are at least two types of intellectualism: one, an ideology free-basing on 'pure reason'; the other grounding its reason in experience. Ultimately, only one is anti-authoritarian, although both distrust coercive religious authority and the military (as in standing armies, etc. [see Fisher, Presidential War Power (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 225pp.]), advocate change, and so forth. While the former has produced nothing but monumental disasters and is, I think, doing it again in America; the latter created a system that is, in my opinion, so far unequaled on earth. I also think we need to realize that there has been a definitional sea change, just as with the term 'liberal'. Years ago, a liberal was a person who was generous with his own things; today, a liberal is a person who, coercively, is generous with everyone else's things by means of governmental instrumentalism. Those whom we label as 'intellectuals' today are the free-basing socialist idealists and bohemians that Gelernter describes. What do we call those whose intellectualism is grounded in experience? 'Conservative Intellectuals' will not do. I am sorely tempted to call them Enlightened Intellectuals....


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