It is now more than fifty years since World War I shattered all hope that Europe and, in its wake, the rest of the world, would advance on paths other than those of systematic blood-letting toward greater democracy, economic and social justice, and what was then considered to be “Civilization.” The world we have fallen heir to is a world in which violence, overt or covert, of weapons, institutions, and economic scarcity, reigns supreme; it is a world of fear and terror.
In sixty years, humanity has lived through two world wars, the triumph and destruction of fascism and Nazism, the genocides that had as their victims Armenians, Jews, and Gypsies, the massacres that have accompanied colonial wars. Meanwhile, the attempt made in 1917 to bring about a workers’ socialist revolution in Russia led to the totalitarian tyranny of Stalin; the anti-imperialist peasant revolution in China witnessed, with its “cultural revolution,” the deification of Mao Tsetung and the execration of recalcitrants. These mutations have permitted the installing of a system of global co-dominance, first by two powers (United States and Soviet Russia), then by three (United States, Soviet Russia, and China) which, at some future date, can well become four or five, if Japan and Europe succeed in compelling recognition of their force.
As it more and more impinges on us, the Third World is being colonized and plundered by colonialist powers. Often its leaders adapt to this situation and try to reap benefits from the obligations of loyalty it imposes. At times, they resist: the Indochinese war has been and will remain the culminating point of this struggle. In the developed countries, meanwhile, a section of the younger generation is rejecting a society that the new forms of capitalism condemn to uncontrolled consumerism, social injustice, and destruction of men and their natural or traditional surroundings.
Concurrent with these vast upheavals, the social role of intellectual workers has assumed ever greater importance. Their number is increasing in both absolute and relative figures, since their work is essential to the production of wealth, and the global transformations taking place must be conceptualized, explained, and, as the case may be, justified or combated. But the intellectual workers of today’s world are far from constituting a coherent, meaningfully active ensemble. One might even say that their political, not to say prophetic, role has diminished in proportion to the growth of their social role. Some—and they are a majority—shut themselves up in fragmentary tasks which, at times, result in their becoming the more or less conscious accomplices of crimes against humanity, as for instance in the case of scientists working for the manufacture of deadly war materials.
Others act as propagandists for established governments; while still others formulate unconditional ideological justifications for self-styled revolutionary movements, prompt to switch to other revolutions if they feel they have been betrayed by the one they were serving. The critical function, which is inherent to intellectual activity, and whose abandonment constitutes the only real act …