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Prague: Intellectuals & Politicians

Having made my main point about “intellectuals,” I commented briefly on the other words in the theme PEN asked us to discuss: “government policy and tolerance.” The liberal state—but mainly the legislature and the judiciary rather than the executive branch of government—may sometimes have to limit the freedom of the enemies of freedom. If, say, a private television channel were to mix popular light entertainment with consistent advocacy of the extermination of gypsies, a liberal state should stop it being used for that purpose. If a writer is threatened from abroad with assassination, like Salman Rushdie, the government has a duty to protect him.

Beyond this, however, the contribution of politicians in power to “tolerance” lies less in specific acts or policies than in a certain attitude and style of political conduct. No politician likes being criticized. Mrs. Thatcher would often complain about “the media.” Her current epigones blame “the chattering classes,” which, I noted, is the current English phrase for intellectuals. Yet the closer the politicians can stick to the attitude summed up in the famous phrase “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” the more secure freedom will be. This, I suggested, is where the business of PEN and the business of prime ministers meet.

Now if these thoughts were expressed around a seminar table at Harvard or Oxford they might be questioned for their simplicity or banality, but they would hardly be thought provocative.3 Here, with the Czech television cameras rolling and the famously arrogant prime minister locked in this strange intellectual-political wrestling match with his own president, they were accounted so.

Dr. Klaus was not amused by my comments. He wanted to reply immediately. He sat fuming while our strong-minded American chairwoman let all the other panelists have their turn. Then he let go. In his essay on tolerance, he had written: “The responsibility of a tolerant person is to listen attentively to others and to attempt to understand what they are saying.” This was not my experience of Dr. Klaus. Instead, I found him a sharp political debater, happy to twist an argument in order to score a point. But then, what else would you expect of a politician sitting in front of TV cameras at the beginning of an election campaign?

Yet by behaving in this way, he actually made my point far more effectively than I could myself. If he had listened attentively and then calmly made a reasoned argument in response to mine, he would have brilliantly illustrated his own proposition that there is no fundamental difference or clear dividing line between the roles of independent intellectual and professional politician. Here he would have been: a professional politician, yet arguing as an intellectual among intellectuals….

But instead, he began by exclaiming, in his peculiarly effective tone of aggressive exasperation, that he found what I had said “incredible.” He knows me as an intellectual, an essayist, he said, but I had just delivered a “political speech.” But here again he was, in a backhanded way, making my point. For the criticism only has meaning if there is, indeed, a fundamental difference between an intellectual speech and a political speech, between the way intellectuals use words and the way politicians do.

He went on to say that there is nothing worse than an intellectual delivering a political speech. Politicians may not like to be criticized, he observed, but do intellectuals? And he also found “incredible” my observation that politicians “live in half-truth.” This was a rather revealing misquotation, since one of the most famous leit-motifs in the whole Central European debate about intellectuals and politics is Václav Havel’s pre–1989 formula: “living in truth.” But what I said was that politicians work in half-truth. 4 The phrase characterizes the professional party politician’s job, not his life.

No politician worthy of the name will seriously maintain in private that what he said in a public, party-political speech is the whole truth on a particular issue. It may possibly have been the truth; it might even have been nothing but the truth; but it is most unlikely to have been the whole truth—or he will not be a very effective party politician. Every time a politician says to a journalist “off the record…” he is recognizing this elementary fact about his profession. Off the record, Václav Klaus would doubtless acknowledge this.

Here I need to explicate two issues which were not clarified in the subsequent discussion—partly, I would have to add as a critic, through my own fault. Both were raised by Ivan Klíma, in interventions which effectively supported his prime minister. First, Klíma objected to what he saw as the implication that intellectuals are morally superior to politicians, or somehow possessed of “truth” with a capital T. We have heard too much of these claims, especially in Central Europe, suggested Klíma, in a discussion which we had earlier begun and subsequently continued in private.

Look what a mess intellectuals in power have made of things! Look at the damage done by their utopias! And look what monsters they have been in their private lives! In which connection he quoted Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals. The charge about private lives is probably the least pertinent. But there is much in the rest of the indictment. Intellectuals obviously do bear a heavy load of responsibility as architects or accomplices of some of the greatest political crimes of the twentieth century. As George Orwell caustically observed of fellow-traveling intellectuals: “No ordinary man could be such a fool.”

Yet I am not making any such high moral, let alone ideological or metaphysical, claim for intellectuals. Many politicians are no doubt better people than many intellectuals. They may also be more intelligent, better read, more cultured. My argument is only that they have, and should have, a different role, which is reflected, crucially, in a different use of language. If a politician gives a partial, one-sided, indeed self-censored account of a particular issue, he is simply doing his job. And if he manages to “sell” the part as the whole then he is doing his job effectively.

If an intellectual does that, he is not doing his job; he has failed in it. The intellectual is not the guardian or high priest of some metaphysical, ideological or pseudo-scientific Truth with a capital T. Nor is he simply the voice of Gesinnungsethik (the ethics of conviction) against the Verantwortungsethik (the ethics of responsibility) of the politician, to use Max Weber’s famous distinction. But he does have a qualitatively different responsibility for the validity, intellectual coherence, and truth of what he says and writes.

I therefore have an answer to the second question which Ivan Klíma injected into the discussion: “What do you mean by an intellectual?” What I mean is a person playing a particular role. It is the role of the thinker or writer who engages in public discussion of issues of public policy, in politics in the broadest sense, while deliberately not engaging in the pursuit of political power.

I certainly don’t mean all members of the “intelligentsia” in the broad sociological definition of “intelligentsia” officially adopted in Communist Eastern Europe; that is, everyone with higher education. Nor do I mean the “intellectuals on the road to class power” of György Konrád and Ivan Szelényi’s book of 1974;5 or the pre–1989 Václav Klaus, an employee of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences under President Husák. These were all intellectuals, but in a different sense.

My description of the intellectual’s role, which is both a Weberian ideal type and simply an ideal, certainly has more in common with the self-understanding of the opposition intellectuals in Central and Eastern Europe before 1989; of the pre–1989 Václav Havel (who barely qualified as an “intellectual” in Communist sociology, since he had scant formal higher education and for a time did manual labor); of the patriotic Polish, Czech, or Hungarian “intelligentsia”; in their idealistic, pre- and anti-Communist interpretation of their own role. Yet it differs also fundamentally from this. In the “abnormal” conditions which have actually been normality for much of Central Europe over much of the last two centuries, intellectuals have been called upon, or have felt themselves called upon, to take roles that they did not take in the West. The conscience of the nation. The voice of the oppressed. The writer as priest, prophet, resistance fighter, and substitute politician.

Since the liberation of 1989, all these extra roles have fallen away, with stunning rapidity. This is healthy and long overdue. As Brecht’s Galileo exclaims: Unhappy the land that has need of heroes. The role of the intellectual as critic of a democratically elected government cannot be equated with that of the intellectual as leader of the opposition against an alien, totalitarian power. But I am deeply convinced that Hans Morgenthau expressed a universal and not a particular truth when he observed: Truth threatens power and power threatens truth. That applies not just to totalitarian or authoritarian power, as described in Václav Havel’s great essay “The Power of the Powerless,” but also, albeit to a lesser degree, to democratically elected and constitutionally limited power.

Now obviously, this ideal of the intellectual has never fully been achieved. Indeed, as the twentieth century closes, the catalog of the trahison des clercs is a thick volume; the list of those who preserved real independence is a thin one. In our own free societies, we see examples of journalists who have been corrupted by the proximity to power. Academic readers of The New York Review will perhaps know, in their own universities, scholars who have politically trimmed their analyses, or at least their conclusions, in the hope of following Kissinger or Brzezinski to a job in Washington. But to say that an ideal has never been fully achieved is merely to say that it is an ideal.

We have Orwell. We have Raymond Aron. We have other writers, academics, and journalists who have maintained a high standard of intellectual independence while engaging in political debate. Even in a free society, there is still an important part to be played by the spectateur engagé. By the critic on stage.


And by the playwright on stage? Václav Havel was, of course, the invisible panelist in our discussion. Klaus certainly interpreted much of what I said in the light of his running argument with Havel. Doubtless many Czech listeners did. And from what I have written so far you might also think that I was, so to speak, taking Havel’s part—breaking a lance for Václav I against Václav II. That would be a misunderstanding. It is wholly true that I feel strong ties of admiration and friendship with Václav Havel. It will also be clear that I think he is right to argue that independent intellectuals should take an active part in the public life of a democracy.

  1. 3

    A very useful exploration of this subject, partly inspired by Havel’s earlier writings, is Ian MacLean, Alan Montefiore, and Peter Winch, editors, The Political Responsibility of Intellectuals (Cambridge University Press, 1990).

  2. 4

    I first used this phrase in an article in The New York Review, August 16, 1990.

  3. 5

    Published in English as George Konrád and Ivan Szelényi, The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power (Harcourt Brace, 1979), Szeleny notes in his introduction that the manuscript was completed in 1974.

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