Self hatred of intellectuals : Andre Beteille, 1991

I was present recently at an academic gathering where a popular social scientist was speaking on a subject of general interest: the contradictions of Indian society. Halfway through this talk, and without much warning, he lurched into an attack on the ‘intellectual class’. That class, he said, was a creature of colonial rule, without any organic relation with workers and peasants whose productive labour constituted the real basis of our sustenance. Intellectuals were, in this view, unproductive, parasitical and self-serving. There was nothing new in all this, but it was greatly appreciated by his audience which consisted entirely of intellectuals.

Now, it is all to good that intellectuals should adopt a critical rather than a complacent attitude to the world in which they live. Nor can they fulfil their role as critic without turning the light of criticism on themselves. Many things have gone wrong in our society in private as well as public life, and intellectuals have perhaps failed to diagnose these problems and suggest remedies. Moreover, though all these failures, they themselves have not fared altogether badly, at least in material terms. So there is ample scope for self-criticism; and indeed there are intellectuals in India who are critical in sober and constructive way. But today they seem to be outnumbered by those who alternate between being self-consciously virtuous and feeling sorry for themselves.

It is truism that intellectuals do not perform the same kind of productive labour as peasants and workers, although some of them like to say, not matter what they feel or do, that they are of the working class. Further, intellectuals as a whole succeed in securing for themselves a better standard of life than manual workers in all societies. To be sure, they have their political troubles from time to time, usually instigated by their fellow or rival intellectuals, but in the end they generally manage to land on their feet. The record of East European countries in the last fifty years clearly shows that intellectuals have been victimised most commonly by other intellectuals, acting from a real or simulated sense of moral outrage.

Intellectuals are in every society product of their history and circumstance, but they also shape these to a greater or lesser extent, as do other class and strata. Their larger capacity for reflection and articulation given them a special role in society and makes that role more visible in times of change. But the same capacity also enables them to promote their own interests more effectively, while at the same time it encourages them to offer imaginary solutions to real problems. It thus comes about that many of the disputes among intellectuals are not about real conditions and real tendencies, but about imaginary ones. There is much scope in all this for combining the pursuit of private interests with the propagation of public ideals.

Indians are heir to an intellectual tradition that is both very rich and very ancient; there are only few parallel to it in human history. But its impressive continuity over time was associated and partly the results of its highly exclusive character. This tradition was exclusive both in its intellectual style and in the social composition of its characteristic bearers. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of our contemporary life is its response to the dominant intellectual culture of the modern world, which is western. However much Indian intellectuals may castigate themselves, it remains a fact that they have on the whole been more positive and more successful than their counterparts in most other countries in adapting intellectually (emphasis in original) to the challenges of the modern world.

It is far from my intention to suggest that the intellectual adaptation of modern world is an easy or a painless one, or one whose success is guaranteed, in India or elsewhere. At the very least, it calls not only for new ideas but also for new institutes. Indians have never been short of ideas, but they have failed signally in building and sustaining institutes through which alone their ideas can become socially effective. Despite this, their response to the intellectual challenges of the modern world has been on the whole both positive and successful. So far at least, they have neither surrendered blindly to the allure of western civilization nor, what would be even worse, turned themselves irrevocably against it out of fear of corruption, degeneration and decay.

A general condition of malaise is not unusual among intellectuals. But is there a special intensity to the malaise among intellectuals in India today? At the level of thought and expression, there is the problem of dealing intelligibly with the problems of the modern world. This can turn out to be more difficult than it seems. One of our psychologists has noted that the Indian intellectual tradition refused to dissociate history from myth. And aroma of mythology still pervades the language in which problems such as national unity, social justice and economic planning are discussed by journalists, judges, and academics. The language is suited to a timeless and unconstrained world in which the reality principle does not operate and where everything is possible. The world of the modern intellectual is devoid of such enchantment; his task is, to adapt the language of famous sociologist, ‘a slow boring of hard boards’. [1]

The inflated style habitually adopted in the public discussion of social questions leads to much mutual recrimination among intellectuals. A large part of this recrimination is both pointless and harmless, except when it gets entangled in factionalism which is endemic, at least among academics. Although academic factionalism is common throughout the world, it takes a particularly disruptive form in India because of the weak institutional foundation of academic life. This enables powerful individuals to subvert, undermine or even take over institutes in order to promote their own interests and the interests of their clients, euphemistically described as ‘like-minded intellectuals’.

Thus the charge made most characteristically by intellectuals against each other is that they are self-serving. Where everybody accuses everybody else of being self-serving, people come to believe that being so must be an inexorable part of their social condition. Even those who are honest and upright in their individual capacity may come to believe that they are self-serving by virtue of their class position. The cloud of rhetoric about elitism, class interest and social revolution has created a pervasive feeling among intellectuals that they are at bottom a self-serving lot. Large numbers of them have been demoralised by their own rhetoric into viewing themselves as an ineffectual elite, tried to narrow class interests, with nothing to contribute to any social revolution.

But Indian intellectuals are not all self-serving, not even those who leave their country in pursuit of their vocation elsewhere. On the other hand, they are animated by a kind of self-hatred that may in the end prove more destructive than being self-serving. It will be difficult to prove that Indian intellectuals are more self-serving today than their predecessors were forty or fifty years ago; but they certainly carry the marks of self-hatred much more prominently than before. Self-hatred is not only an unamiable personality trait, it cannot possible contribute anything positive to society.

Intellectual anxiety and malaise need not take the form of self-hatred, and can indeed have a creative potential. On the cultural plane, the Indian intellectual stands in an uneasy position between the resources of his traditional culture and the attractions of a modern outlook and orientation that first developed outside his own cultural tradition. He has all the disadvantages of the latecomer who is found wanting by others who started before him, and by whose standards his achievements appear meager and endeavours inauthentic. There is naturally a strong temptation to stop along the way and to look for alternatives. But the attempt to turn one’s back on the intellectual resources of the modern world cannot but be retrograde, and so far at least, those who have called for its radical rejection have shown little more intellectual authenticity that those who accepted it passively.

The tension created by the Indian intellectual’s peculiar situation between two worlds will continue, and there is nothing to fear from it, unless the process is short-circuited by shutting either the one world or the other. This tension does not by itself generate the self-hatred of which I have spoken. The real source of it lies elsewhere; it lies in a false definition of the intellectual’s social commitment which, moreover, it is impossible for intellectuals in India or elsewhere to fulfil. Intellectuals elsewhere have come to the slow and painful realization that neither scarcity, nor inequality, nor class interest can be abolished through a social revolution; such evils can be abolished by the power of ideas only in the world of fantasy and myth. The passage from the world of mythology to that of history is a painful one, but it also offers exciting intellectual challenges. Those challenges cannot be met by alternating between rhetoric and bombast on the one hand, and recrimination and self-hatred on the other.

Andre Beteille

Times of India

March 20, 1991


About Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.
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