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International Socialism, Spring 1965


Bert Benson

Sick in Mind


From International Socialism (1st series), No.20, Spring 1965, p.31.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Anti-Intellectualism in American Life
R. Hofstadter
Jonathan Cape, 45s.

American intellectuals in the 1950s were demoralised. Many believed the McCarthy Committee represented a national attitude, powerful and unprecedented. Professor Hofstadter disagrees. McCarthyism was neither powerful nor new. In American national character it was the terminal exacerbation of the ‘dislike of eggheads’ syndrome which lasted almost three centuries but which is now virtually cured.

The causes, the onsets and the course of the varied symptoms are traced and full recovery is set in the late 1950s. Today the intellectual is no longer estranged. That is because over the generations he has adapted as his host society. The intellectual, as an advising expert, was first given political form early this century by mid-Western Progressives. The New Deal set the mould and mutual benefits between power and intellect then spread beyond politics.

Today the intellectual’s problem is not one of being ignored but one of choice: to serve by guiding power at its source or by influencing popular opinion and taste. But he still suffers a minor disability, the personal one of resolving vestigial feelings of alienation. There must be no ‘frustrated cultural lumpen-proletariat’. Although isolation is still useful to some pursuits the ‘Beatnik’ intellectual way of passivity and disengagement must be avoided.

‘The fixed conviction, almost an obsession’ of social alienation among intellectuals between the wars is therapeutically explained. It seems they had all read Henry Adams’ Education, mistaking for their own the plight described therein of the post Civil War genteel intellectual (who really was alienated).

The book is a series of fluent essays and useful source material. Especially interesting is the material on populist religion in the United States. The thesis that so much harmony and intimacy between the powerful and the intellectuals is desirable, or that it even exists, is questionable. The professor’s definition of intellectualism excludes dissenting, nonconformist thinking. This limits his survey of the roles and modes of the modern intellectual. Seminal intellectualism is often subversive to society as it is. Before this century the intellectual could still be idealised as the discomfortingly persistent revealer and enumerator of the inadequacies in his own society. But all the professor notes today is that the intellectual still frequently takes himself very, very seriously.

In this formation there is either expert service to power or intellectual passivity. Dissent, if characteristic rather than occasional, is sick and anachronistic. There is little conception of dissenting intellectualism rising newly from, coping spontaneously with, wholly present day conditions.

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