Why Are Intellectuals Divorced from Working People?


This article is a transcript of a presentation for a panel on the subject, hosted by the International Manifesto Group, the Critical Theory Workshop, and the Midwestern Marx Institute, with other presentations from Gabriel Rockhill, Radhika Desai, Glenn Diesen, and Noah Khrachvik.

​The question we are exploring today, concerning the divorce of intellectuals and the working class, is fundamental for assessing the crisis we face in the subjective conditions for revolution. The first thing I think must be interrogated is what is presupposed in the formulation of the problem in such manner. When we say that there has been a split, a schism, between intellectuals and the working class, there is a specific type of intellectual that we have in mind.

The grand majority of intellectuals, especially within the capitalist mode of life, have had their lots tied to the dominant social system. They have functioned as a necessary component of the dominant order, those who take the ideals of the bourgeoisie – the class enemy of most of humanity – and embellish them in language which opens the narrow interests of the ruling class to the consenting approval of contending classes. In the same manner Marx describes the bourgeoisie as the personified agents of capital, the intellectuals have been the personified agents of capitalist ideology. They are tasked, as Gramsci taught us, with making these dispersed and unpopular bourgeois assumptions into a coherent and appealing outlook – one people are socialized into accepting as reality itself. Intellectuals have always, in a certain sense, been those groups of people that light the fire and move the statues which the slaves in the cave see as cave shadows embodying reality itself.

These intellectuals – the traditional intellectuals – are of course not the ones we have in mind when we speak of a schism between intellectuals and workers. We are speaking, instead, of those who have been historically able to see the movement of history, to make slits within bourgeois worldviews, and who have subsequently thrown their lot in with the proletariat and popular classes – those forces which present the kernel for the next, more human and democratic, mode of life. Marx and Engels had already noted that there is always a section of “bourgeois ideologists” that raise “themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole” and “cut [themselves] adrift [to] join the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands.” We are talking about the Duboises, the Apthekers, the Marinellos, the Parentis and others who, while coming out of the institutions of the bourgeois academy, would align their interests with working and oppressed peoples. They would become the theoreticians, historians, and poets which gave the working-class movement various forms of clarity in their struggle for power.

What has happened to this section of intellectuals and its relationship with working people? Have they lost their thirst for freedom? Has their capacity for trembling with indignation at the injustices waged on working and oppressed people dissipated?

It is important to note that any attempt to answer this question in this short timespan will always, by necessity, leave important aspects of the conversation out. I would love here to speak at length about the campaigns of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the formation of a fake anti-communist left, and the role imperialist state departments, bourgeois foundations, and other such outfits had in creating a left intelligentsia divorced from the real movements of working people, both within the imperial core and in the periphery. I know my colleagues here will be paying due attention to such monumental components of answering the question we have before us.

However, I’d like to instead focus on the practice of intellectuals; on the expectations and requirements set by the academy itself, which have already baked into its very structure the divorce of radical intellectuals from the struggles and movements of working and oppressed peoples. The first thing that must be noted is the following: We cannot simply treat this problem as one rooted in the intellectuals as a class, nor as one rooted in the subjective deficiencies of particular intellectuals. The Marxist worldview requires us to examine the system, the social totality, that produces such a split. We are tasked with exploring the political economy of knowledge production, if you will, which structures the relations of its mental workers through forms which insularize them to the structures and needs of the academy. As Gabriel Rockhill would say, it is a political economy of knowledge that systematically reproduces radical recuperators, compatible lefts, and pseudo-radical purity fetish outlooks that play an indispensable role in the reproduction of our moribund capitalist-imperialist system.

From the moment prospective radical scholars enter graduate school they are integrated into this system. Their lofty hopes of being active participants as intellectuals in a class struggle are castrated by the demands the academy makes upon them qua scholars. They’re told that their writing should take a distinctively academic tone, that popular vernacular is frowned upon, that hyper-referentiality, the practice of citing all the intellectual gods in the cosmos who have commented on a topic, is a sign of good work, of proper scholarship.

Truth and the struggle for human freedom are at best given a backseat, and that’s if they’re in the vehicle at all. Young scholars in the incubators of their careers are already indoctrinated in the aristocratic dogmas of writing for a select group of elite scholars, worshipping journal impact factors, and condescendingly dismissing those who use their intellectual capacities to work for the people, to actually, in proper Socratic fashion, engage in the radical quest for truth – those who seek to properly understand the world in order to work with the masses of humanity to change it.

Young scholars, burdened by tens of thousands of dollars accumulated in undergraduate studies debts, are told that even with a PhD they will have an extremely difficult time finding a job – at least one suitable for continued academic work that pays sufficiently enough to payback the accumulated debt. They are told – specifically those with radical sensibilities – that they should focus on joining academic associations, network with people in their fields, familiarize themselves with the work published in leading journals so that they too, one day, can join the publication hamster wheel aimed at advancing these slaves through the tenure ladder. They are told they must not waste their time writing for popular audiences, that doing broadcasts and media work that reaches infinitely more people than the readers of ridiculously pay-walled journals or university editorial books is a waste of time. Every attempt at rooting their scholarship in the people, in the real movements of our day, is shot down.

The gurus mediating their initiation into the academic capitalist cult ask: “do you know how this sort of work on your resume would look to hiring committees?” “Do you think the scholars in charge of your tenure advancement will appreciate your popular articles for Countercurrents, your books from Monthly Review, your articles in low impact factor, or impact factor-less, journals?”

At every turn, your attempts to commit yourself to the Socratic pursuit of truth, to playing a role in changing the world, is condemned as sinful to the Gods of resume evaluations. “Do you not want to finish your degree with the potential of obtaining gainful employment? Do you want to be condemned to adjunct professorialship, to teaching 7 classes for half the pay of the full professors who teach 3? Do you want to condemn your family to debt-slavery for the decades to come simply because you did not want to join our very special and elite hamster wheel? After all, who wouldn’t want to spend months writing an article to send it in to a journal that will reply in a year telling you, if you’re amongst the lucky ones, that it has been accepted with revisions rooted in the specific biases of the arbitrary reviewers? Doesn’t that sound fun? Isn’t this what philosophy, and the humanities in general, is all about?”

Eventually, material pressures themselves break the spirit of young visionary scholars. Reproletarianized and unable to survive on teaching assistantships, they resign themselves to the hamster wheel, with hopes of one day living the comfortable lives of their professors.

Their radical sensibilities, however, are still there. They need an outlet. They look around and find that the academic hamster wheel has a pocket of ‘radicals’ writing edgy things for decently rated journals. They quickly find their kin, those who reduce radical politics to social transgressiveness, those who are concerned more with dissecting concepts like epistemic violence than with the violence of imperialism.

Here it is! The young scholar thinks. A place where I can pad my resume and absolve myself of the guilt weighing down on my shoulders – a guilt rooted in the recognition, deep down, that one has betrayed the struggles of humanity, that one has become an agent of the forces they originally desired to fight against.

Their existence, their lives, will always be rooted in what Sartre called bad faith. Self-deception becomes their norm. They are now the radical ones, the ones enlightened in issues of language. The working class becomes a backwards rabble they must educate – and that’s if they come near them at all. What hope could there ever be in the deplorables? Sure, American capitalism could be criticized, but at least we’re enlightened, ‘woke’ to lgbtq and other issues. Those Russians, Chinese, Venezuelans, Iranians, etc. etc., aren’t they backwards? What are their thoughts on trans issues? Should we not, in the interests of our enlightened civilization, support our government’s efforts to civilize them? Let’s go take them some of our valued democracy and human rights. I’m sure their people will appreciate it very much.

I have presented the stories which are all-too familiar to those of us still working within the academy. It is evident, in my view at least, that the divorce of radical intellectuals from working class people and their movements has been an institutionalized effort of the capitalist elite. This division is embedded, it is implied, in the process of intellectuals becoming what the system requires of them for their survival. The relations they occupy in the process of knowledge production presupposes their split with working people.

This rigidity of academic life has intensified over the last century. Yes, we do have plenty of past cases of radical academics, those who have sided with the people, being kicked to the curb by their academic institutions. But where have they landed and why? Doesn’t a blackballed Dubois get to teach at the Communist Party’s Jefferson School? Doesn’t Herbert Aptheker, following his expulsion from the academy, obtain a position as the full-time editor-in-chief of the Communist Party’s theoretical journal, Political Affairs? Besides the aforementioned, what other factors make our day different from, say, 1950s US?

The answer is simple: what counter-hegemonic popular institutions we had were destroyed, in part by the efforts of our government, in part by the collapse, or overthrow, of the Soviet bloc. Although some, like ourselves, are currently in the process of attempting to construct them, today we have nowhere near the material and financial conditions we had in the past. The funding and aid the Soviets provided American communists is, unfortunately, not something provided for us by the dominant socialist states of our era.

Ideology does not exist in a transcendental realm; it is embodied materially through people and institutions. Without the institutions that can ensure that radical scholars are not forced to tiptoe the line of the bourgeois academy, the material conditions for this split will be sustained.

If I may, I would like to end with the following point. It is very easy to condemn the so-called radical academics we find in the bourgeois hamster wheel divorced from the people and their struggles. While condemnation might sometimes be justified, I think pity is the correct reaction.

They are the subjects of a tragedy. As Hegel notes, the essence of a tragedy is found in the contradictions at play between the various roles an individual occupies. Sophocles’ Antigone is perhaps the best example. Here a sister (Antigone) is torn between the duty she has to bury her brother (Polyneices), and the duty she has as a citizen to follow King Creon’s decry, which considers Polyneices a traitor undeserving of a formal burial. This contradiction is depicted nicely in Hegel, who says that “both are in the wrong because they are one-sided, but both are also in the right.”

Our so-called radical intelligentsia is, likewise, caught in the contradiction of the two roles they wish to occupy – one as revolutionary and the other as academic. Within the confines of the existing institutions, there can be no consistent reconciliation of the duties implied in each role. This is the set up of a classical tragedy, one which takes various forms with each individual scholar. It is also, as Socrates reminds Aristophanes and Agathon at the end of Plato’s Symposium, a comedy, since “the true artist in tragedy is an artist in comedy also.”

The tragic and simultaneously comedic position occupied by the radical intelligentsia can only be overcome with the development of popular counterhegemonic institutions, such as parties and educational institutions akin to those sponsoring today’s panel. It is only here where scholars can embed themselves in the people. However, scholars are humans living under capitalism. They need, just like everyone else, to have the capacity to pay for their basic subsistence. These institutions, therefore, must work to develop the capacity of financially supporting both the intellectual traitors to the traditional bourgeois academy, and the organic intellectuals emerging from the working class itself. That is, I think, one of the central tasks facing those attempting to bridge the divide we have convened to examine today.

  • First published at Midwestern Marx.
  • Carlos L. Garrido is a Cuban American philosophy instructor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He is the director of the Midwestern Marx Institute and the author of The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism (2023), Marxism and the Dialectical Materialist Worldview (2022), and the forthcoming Hegel, Marxism, and Dialectics (2024). Read other articles by Carlos.