ReviewsTony Greenstein

The Responsibility of Intellectuals

ReviewsTony Greenstein
The Responsibility of Intellectuals

In February 1967 Noam Chomsky’s essay ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’ was published by the New York Review of Books. It was a searing attack on the pseudo intellectuals and establishment ideologues who were in the business of manufacturing consent for the war industry. These were the academics and commentators who had hired themselves out to the war industry and who created the conditions in the United States where it was seen as normal for the country’s military to wage a war thousands of miles away against a largely peasant people fighting for their freedom and liberation. All in the name of democracy!

The Vietnam War was not only fought in the paddy fields of Vietnam but on the campuses and in the lecture halls of America’s most prestigious universities. Indeed the moral and ethical responsibility for the 3 million dead and maimed, the child victims of napalm and all the other barbarities rested primarily with the fake intellectuals of US academia and its think tanks. But as the war intensified the US campuses also became the site of a battle waged by students against the draft and society more generally.

McCarthyism in the United States went hand in hand with rolling back communism militarily, first in Korea and then Vietnam. The demonization of radical or socialist ideas was necessary in order to build support for the military industrial complex and its war machine.

That is why it is appropriate that, with the advent of McCarthyism in the Labour Party today under the banner of ‘anti-Semitism,’ Jackie Walker — the Black-Jewish activist expelled for daring to question the basis of Labour’s support for Zionism and the Israeli state — contributes a powerful essay ‘I don’t want no peace’ – a black, Jewish activist’s take on the responsibility of intellectuals’

Jackie addresses a theme that runs throughout the book – the division between ‘technocratic’ and ‘value judgment’ intellectuals.  Jackie says that she is not concerned here with what she calls the ‘lackeys of the establishment’ but with intellectuals who see their role as part of the struggle against oppression.

Most academics and intellectuals in a capitalist society merely reproduce rather than challenge the existing ideology of domination and conformity. What we have seen in the Labour Party, as a direct response to Jeremy Corbyn’s election, is the use by the Right of a false anti-racism ‘decoupled from notions of power’.

What we are seeing is the poisonous legacy of identity politics.  Strip away class and oppression and then any group can claim to be the victims of racism, including those who claim that merely to offer a critique of Zionist ideology or the policies of the state of amounts to anti-Semitism. It is no accident that a Black anti-racist Jewish activist such as Jackie is expelled as part of the anti-Semitism witch-hunt.

One of the most remarkable essays in this rich collection is by Craig Murray, the UK’s former Ambassador to Uzbekistan who was forced to resign by New Labour’s Jack Straw. Murray comments on how right-wing historians such as David Starkey, Andrew Roberts and Niall Fergusson are called upon by the media to interpret events. Murray’s observation that  ‘it is impossible now to imagine that the public intellectuals the BBC admired 50 years ago, such as Bertrand Russell and AJP Taylor, would ever be given significant air time now.’ is a telling comment on how far the political pendulum has swung.  What is tragic is that even though this ideological offensive has been stepped up in response to the election of Corbyn he himself remains unable to comprehend the nature of the attack upon him.

Chomsky’s response to Jackie Walker’s essay highlights the question ‘Who is an Intellectual’? The idea of an intellectual is an elitist one, someone with privilege who is part of a structure of power.  Why is a Nobel Laureate considered an intellectual but not a janitor? Most academics are not intellectuals.  Academics specialise in their own field and nothing more.  They know a lot about very little. Working class activists often make real sacrifices which those who are part of a university faculty rarely do. When we talk about the responsibility of the intellectual we also need to ask whether someone can be considered an intellectual when their only role is to reinforce the existing structures of power.

  • To download the whole book, free of charge, click here.

  • For Jackie Walker discussing the book with George Galloway, click here.

  • For University College London’s book launch on October 29, click here.

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is a founding member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a member of Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods.