Left Intellectuals And The Desperate Search For Respectability

James Petras

When George Soros, one
of the biggest and most rapacious speculators in the world, published a book
calling into question some of the most destructive aspects of speculative
capital, left intellectuals raced to reproduce his quotes as evidence that
indeed “global capital” was a threat to humanity. The curious part of this
scenario is that Soros got free publicity, increased his royalties, a raise in
political and intellectual stature, while continuing to profit from his
management of speculative investment funds. This is not an isolated case: more
often than not, leftist intellectuals seek out “respectable” sources to
bolster their arguments, citing them as “impeccable” or as “without a hint of
leftist sympathies,” as if leftist research and scholarship is less reliable
or less likely to convince. The leftist search for bourgeois respectability
has profound implications in discussing the problem of the growth of an
alternative political-intellectual culture.

One of the
striking aspects of contemporary politics is the gap between the declining
objective conditions of the working class and rural labor and the subjective
responses, which are diffuse, fragmented, and frequently under the tutelage of
neo-liberal parties. This contrast is most glaring in the Third World, but is
also present in the advanced capitalist countries.

inequalities between classes, races, gender, and regions has increased and
social services for the working class have been slashed to provide lower taxes
and higher subsidies for the rich, the subjective response is muted: strikes
and protests tend to be defensive reactions, agrarian movements lack urban
allies, and most intellectuals are dissociated from the popular struggles or
have accepted the basic premises of neo-liberal ideology, namely that
“globalization” is inevitable and irreversible. In a word, “bourgeois
hegemony” plays a vital role in ensuring the stability of a highly unequal and
exploitative social system.

hegemony is a product of numerous factors, including the mass media and the
cultural institutions of the state. However, bourgeois hegemony is also the
result of the behavior and methods of work of left intellectuals, who seek out
legitimacy for their intellectual production in the bourgeois world.

Today many left
intellectuals borrow from and have assimilated the key concepts and language
of bourgeois theorists and publicists in analyzing the contemporary world. The
language and concepts borrowed from the bourgeoisie include “globalization,”
“stateless capital,” “information revolution,” “structural adjustment,” “labor
flexibility,” etc. These concepts are integral to the imperial system and
neo-liberal ideology—they are understandable in the context of a system of
power that seeks to disguise and legitimate its domination. Yet, left
intellectuals eschew using more precise concepts which are far more useful in
identifying contemporary power configurations, such as imperialism instead of
globalization; imperial state instead of stateless corporations; ascendancy of
financial power instead of the “information revolution”; intensive/extensive
exploitation instead of labor flexibility; economic reversion instead of
economic reform; reconcentration and monopolization of wealth instead of
structural adjustment.

intellectual tail-ending of the bourgeoisie with regard to the “globalization”
paradigm is part of a larger problem embedded in a deeper subordination to
bourgeois culture; namely, of looking up to the dominant culture for sources
of truth, objectivity, prestige, and recognition. Left intellectuals’ search
for bourgeois prestige, recognition, institutional affiliations, and
certification imply a de facto embrace of the values associated with them. The
overt embrace of these values and practices play an important role in
perpetuating bourgeois hegemony, despite the left intellectuals’

An important
aspect of career advancement and recognition, as well as securing a position
in prestigious bourgeois institutions, involves playing by their rules of the
game in pursuing intellectual work. By following these “rules of the game,”
left intellectuals give legitimacy to bourgeois claims of legitimacy and
strengthens their hegemonic position.



One of the principle
rules practiced by left intellectuals in conducting research is to cite
bourgeois sources, even when left sources are available and provide a critical
perspective. The pseudo- argument put forth by left intellectuals is that by
citing bourgeois sources over left sources, they will be more convincing to
the “general audience” or academic world. By proceeding in this way, left
intellectuals strengthen the authority of the bourgeois writers as the source
of objective truth. They reinforce and perpetuate the invisibility of left
researchers and their work by failing to acknowledge their contribution. They
acquire respectability and acceptability by sharing with their bourgeois
colleagues a common literature and common understanding of what and who is
“important to read.” Left intellectuals, by citing particular criticisms of
capitalism by particularly notorious pro-capitalist personalities, refurbish
their images and thus provide them with a future platform from which to
denounce the left.

The response of
left intellectuals to George Soros’s book, is a case in point. Soros has a
well-earned reputation as a speculator who has made billions pillaging
economies and ruining countries, before, during, and after the publication of
his book. He played and continues to play a major role in bankrolling cultural
institutions and co-opting intellectuals particularly in the ex-communist
countries, who subsequently implemented “free market” economic policies that
have devastated these countries. Despite this background, left intellectuals
fell all over themselves quoting his criticisms of speculative activities and
capitalist excesses as if he was a special authority on the pitfalls of
capitalism. Left intellectuals in their desperate search for vindication
quoted Soros to back their criticism of neo-liberalism, overlooking the fact
that Soros was making billions bilking Asian economies.

The relation of
left intellectuals with the World Bank is another illustration of this search
for respectability. The World Bank annually publishes a statistical appendix
that includes data on poverty in the world. More often than not, left
intellectuals cite the World Bank’s figures to make their arguments without
critically examining the way in which poverty is measured and the manner in
which poverty is underestimated. The fact is the World Bank’s figures are
unreliable and their measures of poverty totally inadequate. Their “poverty
line” is one dollar a day, which is not livable anywhere in the world. If an
adequate poverty index was constructed by left researchers they would double
or triple the number of poor in the world. Yet by citing World Bank figures,
left intellectuals appeal to their “conservative” colleagues, demonstrating
that they share common sources. By citing the authority of the World Bank,
they strengthen its image as at least “a useful source of data.” The World
Bank’s measure of poverty in the Third World reaches such absurd heights that
the percentages of the population living in poverty in Southeast Asia are
almost at the same level as the U.S. and Canada.

The Economic
Commission on Latin America (ECLA) is another “impeccable” source of data and
point of reference for left intellectuals—as if being a leftist would
contaminate the data. For example, left intellectuals frequently look to ECLA
for data on the privatization of public enterprises (a key part of ECLA’s
political agenda). But a closer look at ECLA’s documents reveals that they
hardly ever discuss the corruption and give-aways involved in privatizations.
ECLA describes it as a pure economic process, and claims they are not involved
in the political aspects of privatization and even less the negative
consequences both in the long and short term. ECLA says that state
transactions should be transparent. But ECLA doesn’t face up to the fact that
privatizations are not “transparent.” Why does ECLA continue to promote the
privatization recipe, when they know first hand that the process of
privatization is corrupt and involves the give-away of valuable resources at
bargain prices? Knowing ECLA’s bias, why do the left intellectuals cite its
data on privatizations when prominent leftist writers and journalists have
published more complete and critical discussions?


Prominent Personalities

Left intellectuals, in
their constant search for respectability, not only look toward bourgeois
institutions to buttress their arguments, but also they search for prominent
bourgeois personalities with name recognition and prestige in bourgeois
circles to promote popular causes. Frequently, in organizing a public event,
left intellectuals will ignore the most consequential writers, the militant
activists or leaders in favor of a so-called “progressive” actor, lawyer,
judge, or writer who has neither knowledge of or practice in the struggle at
hand, but will offer some glittering platitudes that educate no one and fail
to resonate with the people in action.

intellectuals, by promoting individuals with “celebrity status” as a method of
attracting mass media publicity, sacrifice the content of the meeting. The
political cost can be significant: the political meeting becomes a
“spectacle,” entertainment that de-politicizes more than educates people into
the cause and consequences of struggle. Moreover, left intellectuals
frequently have to explain away the “lapses” of the prestigious celebrity who
frequently equates popular violence in defense of their lives, land, and
livelihood with the violence of the predatory imperial powers.

“Of course,”
left intellectuals would reply in an apologetic manner, “he (or she) is not
one of ours, but look how many people showed up, look how many centimeters of
print we got in the bourgeois press, how many seconds on television.” In the
name of the “broadest unity,” the left creates a platform for bourgeois
celebrity’s speech, which frequently deflects criticism from the system to a
policy, from a policy to a personality thus obfuscating the purpose of the
mass meeting. Even worse, the prestigious bourgeois celebrities touted by the
left intellectuals as progressives at a public event can turn around the next
day and celebrate festivities with high dignitaries of a regressive
regime…which discredits the left and sows confusion among the populace about
the nature of left politics.

The Quest
for Symbols of Prestige

Left intellectuals crave
recognition from their bourgeois colleagues and will eschew public action,
denounce activist colleagues, and adopt servile postures to please their
conservative superiors and judges in hopes of securing a symbol of bourgeois
prestige. Prestigious bourgeois awards are a ticket to promotion and
legitimacy in the eyes of upwardly mobile leftist intellectuals. Consequential
intellectuals with commitments to practical popular struggles do not receive
any prestigious awards. For left intellectuals, winning a Nobel Prize, a
Guggenheim, or Ford Foundation fellowship is seen as the culmination of a
successful career. It provides certification from the academic power elite
that left intellectuals can be honored for abstaining from any
anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist struggle. It was that understanding that
caused Jean Paul Sartre to reject the Nobel Prize.

For left
intellectuals, however, in sponsoring political events, it is these very
titles and awards, which are cited in introducing a “prestigious” speaker. By
giving prominence to the titles and awards, left intellectuals have to
convince the audience that the left has somehow achieved intellectual status.
In fact, what the Left does is to legitimate bourgeois standards and selection
procedures and the underlying conditions that determine the granting of awards
thereby strengthening bourgeois hegemony.     

The left’s
craving for bourgeois respectability is also found in the prominence it gives
to institutional identities: left intellectuals boast of being graduates of
Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge, the Sorbonne as if these were not
centers to indoctrinate students with neo-liberal and pro-imperialist
doctrines. The same is true of former government officials who are given
prominence by left intellectuals. While no one can object to ex-government
officials having a change of thinking and becoming critical of the state, the
point of convergence with the left should be the fact that they are
ex-officials and not the former holders of “prestigious” positions in a
bourgeois regime.

talented individuals from the popular classes constantly renews bourgeois
hegemony. Frequently this is done by offering scholarships to poor but bright
students to attend “prestigious” universities, which “re-educate” and train
them to serve the dominant classes. The Left should listen and read what
intellectuals write despite their prestigious institutional credentials not
because of them.

In addition to
prestigious awards and institutional identities, left intellectuals are
perpetually looking for prominent bourgeois sponsors for events:
personalities, institutions, and official agencies. The idea is that the more
bourgeois a sponsor, the greater the respectability, the greater the
legitimacy and the wider the public. In fact, this leads to greater visibility
and legitimacy for the bourgeois institutions of power, while radical
institutions are marginalized and made invisible.


Securing a
Successful Career

We can identify at least
four career strategies for respectable and upwardly mobile left intellectuals.
The first strategy could be described as the “cold storage” approach, whereby
left intellectuals maintain a low profile for many years, more or less doing
conventional research until they secure a position in a prestigious university
and consolidate their career and then “turn” radical. The problem is, of
course, that most “crypto” leftists in the course of adapting to the career
exigencies of success eventually believe what they are doing and never “turn”:
they become what they do. For the minority that “convert,” they have their
cake and eat it too: they have their prestigious identity in the bourgeois
world and the applause of the left, particularly since they bring to their
radical rhetoric the added merit, in the eyes of left intellectuals, of a
prestigious title.

The second
strategy for securing a successful career in a prestigious university is to
combine conventional research and teaching during work time and workplace with
after-hours radical chitchat. Leftism as an “avocation” is particularly
attractive to the bourgeois guardians of academia, because it does not inform
scientific research, nor does it question the educational system’s role in
reproducing elite leaders or conformist skilled workers. This can be described
as the “cocktail left”—where in discreet private settings, leftists from
prestigious institutions can vent their inconsequential radical views while in
working time they climb the academic ladder.

The third
strategy for leftist success in academia is found in the disproportionate time
and effort devoted to conventional academic work in comparison with the meager
intellectual efforts devoted to popular movements. In this strategy, left
intellectuals devote months and years to preparing lectures and publications
for academic consumption, while they improvise a lecture with anecdotal
material for radical/popular audiences, frequently recycling or repeating the
same talk given the previous year. In some cases, leftist intellectuals,
drawing a substantial stipend, will simply reminisce on a distant radical
past; nostalgia becomes a substitute for serious analysis.

Finally, there
are left academics that conduct research and scholarship as “disinterested”
scholars, divorced from struggles, movements, and political commitments. They
write about the working class without any political perspective. They may
provide useful information if someone else can elaborate an
intellectual-political framework to link it to contemporary political events.
This strategy for academic success has some merit and utility if other
intellectuals or activists have been doing the risky (career-wise) political
work of building a movement; otherwise, it merely serves to extend one’s
curriculum vita. This particular type of leftist academic is particularly
prominent in the U.S. where there are annual conferences mimicking the
conventional professional meetings, where the academics talk to each other—in
other words, divorced from popular movements. The divorce between academic
leftism and popular struggles has led to some leftists securing highly
remunerated distinguished chairs in prestigious universities.

The practice of
left academic arrivismo perpetuates the myth, particularly in the Third World,
that “true knowledge” is abroad in the prestigious schools with name
recognition and that local “national” left intellectuals are inferior and
certainly not role models.

intellectuals from prestigious institutions, for reason of their own
appointments and status, overlook or understate the ideological distortions,
mystifications, and inappropriate theoretical and conceptual frameworks which
are taught at the prestigious centers of higher learning. The heavy
ideological bias that is packaged into education in prestigious institutions
is obfuscated by the presence of the left intellectuals who rarely challenge
their colleagues’ work, even less the curriculum, knowing full well they would
be penalized. In any case, if leftists at prestigious institutions do
occasionally verbalize dissent, it is their presence in the institutions and
the process of accession that fuels the ambitions of the new generations of

What is
striking about the left intellectuals in prestigious universities and those
seeking entry is their suspension of criticism of bourgeois sponsors,
foundations, and personalities who fund big research agendas for perpetuating
and extending imperial power. Left intellectuals, by suspending criticism,
improve their chances of entry into the prestigious journals, the
international conferences, and the lucrative positions of academic prominence.


Intellectual “Lifestyles”

There are a variety of
“lifestyles” in “being” a left intellectual today, in the face of the power
and wealth of the Euro-American empire. There is the intellectual today who
wanders across the political spectrum offering to service a variety of
patrons. One well known French intellectual denounced the public employees’
strikes in 1995, attended an international Zapatista meeting in 1996, and then
flew to meet with and praise the right-wing president of Uruguay. These are
the intellectuals for all places and prices. Their public posture is motivated
more by the need for recognition and publicity from whatever side as it is by
firm intellectual principles. They do not “sell out” to the right, they are
rented, and are even available to the left in certain circumstances.

intellectuals are those whose universe is other intellectuals or even their
own “internal reflection.” These exchanges are particularly prominent among
the post-modernists who discuss how many identities can stand at the end of
the pin. They have their own exotic language, only understandable to the
initiated and their work is largely confined to deciphering texts and language
divorced from the objective world.

There are
intellectuals who are in perpetual anguish, who fret over social-economic
problems (“neo-liberalism” and “globalization”) and never go beyond the common
refrain, “We must find an alternative.” They ignore the everyday struggles
trying to create alternatives. They fear the problem (imperialism) and fear
the solution (a social transformation).

Leftists who
bathe in historic defeats find in them a pretext for what they dub a new
realist or pragmatic accommodation with the status quo. While overdramatizing
political losses as profound and irreversible historical defeats, they fail to
recognize the new revolutionary struggles emerging in the Third World and in
the West, the new social movements opposing the WTO, the militant farmer and
transport workers’ movements, the massive producer and consumer rejection of
corporate sponsors of genetically altered food and seeds, etc. Pessimistic
pathos becomes either an alibi for inaction and disengagement or a one-way
ticket to liberal politics since it is perceived as the only show in town.

In sharp
contrast to the above-mentioned intellectual postures, there are the
irreverent intellectuals, irreverent toward academic protocols and unimpressed
by the prestigious titles and prizes. On the other hand, they are respectful
of the militants on the front lines of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist
struggles. They are steady and productive in their intellectual work, which is
in large part motivated by the big questions facing movement struggles. They
are anti-heroes whose work is respected by the people who are actively working
for a basic social transformation. They are objectively partisan and
partisanly objective. They discuss and listen to the pessimists and other
intellectuals, despite their titles and pretense, to see if they have anything
worthwhile to say.

For the
irreverent and committed intellectuals, prestige and recognition comes from
activists and movements and intellectuals who are involved in popular
struggles. They work with those intellectuals and activists. They conduct
research looking for original sources of data. They create their own
indicators and concepts to identify the real depths of poverty, exploitation
and exclusion. They recognize that the prestigious awards and prizes are part
of the system sustaining bourgeois hegemony. They recognize that there are a
few intellectuals in prestigious institutions and award recipients who are
clearly committed to popular struggles and they acknowledge that these
exceptions should be noted, while recognizing the many, in climbing the
ladder, that succumb to the blandishments of bourgeois certification. Most of
all, the irreverent intellectuals fight against bourgeois hegemony within the
Left by integrating their writing and teaching with practice, avoiding divided



While a good deal of
research and writing has been done on the issue of bourgeois hegemony, little
attention has been paid to how, within the left, the signs and symbols of
bourgeois hegemony are transmitted by putatively left intellectuals.
Intellectuals are an important group, particularly in forming the subjectivity
of students, and in some contexts, popular classes. Insofar as they are
visible and have access to the media, they represent another channel through
which subjectivity or political consciousness is formed.

The problem of
subjectivity is a key issue today. Increasingly popular disaffection spreads
throughout the Third World and even in the imperial countries. The key
challenge is linking these discontents with social transformative movements.
This requires revolutionary theory, critical concepts, and engaged
intellectuals, which, in turn involves a two front struggle, one with the
bourgeois powers and the second with the double discourse of left
intellectuals.       Z

Petras teaches sociology at SUNY Binghamton.