Hegemony and mass critical intellectuality

Issue: 137

Panagiotis Sotiris

During the past years there has been an impressive wave of student movements.1 What has been distinctive about them is their tendency to be more radical politically in comparison to most forms of student protest in the 1980s and 1990s. They did not limit themselves to protesting against the various student grievances (higher tuition fees, diminished value of degrees, etc), but also have presented themselves as part of a broader movement against neoliberalism and the current form of capitalist politics. This was facilitated by student participation in the various forms of the movement against globalisation, from the first campaigns against sweatshops to the big international demonstrations. This renewed politicisation of student protest has been even more evident in most post-2005 movements (the 2006-2007 Greek student movement, the 2005-2006 French mobilisation, the December 2008 explosion of the Greek youth, the 2009 wave of occupations in California, the 2010 student demonstrations in Britain and the 2012 student movement in Quebec).2

What has also been distinctive has been the emergence along this movement of a new wave of critical theorising. This has been facilitated by the fact that many faculty or junior faculty members and postgraduate students have supported and taken part in the movement (exemplified in the presence of radical academics in the movement in both Britain and the United States). This has also led to a new flourishing of theoretical debate and production by students and academics, that tend to combine political activism and theoretical work.

This is a very important development. On the one hand, we should stress the renewed interest in the political importance of theory. This has not only the sense of an apprehension of the politics of the theory, something evident in the 1980s and 1990s in disciplines such as poststructuralist literary and cultural studies, radical feminism and gender studies and postcolonial studies, but also in the importance of theory for radical politics today. On the other hand, we can see the emergence of new militant forms of theoretical production on the margins (or even outside of) academia. It is obvious that the divorce between theory and practice that Perry Anderson presented in the 1970s as the distinctive feature of “Western Marxism”,3 and as the condensation of the crisis of the Communist movement, for the first time shows some signs that it can be overcome.

That is why we need to think of new forms of militant collective intellectuality, new ways to articulate militant practice and theoretical work, new synergies between theory and the movement. However, in order to do that we need to go back to the traditions of the revolutionary movement and radical theory and revisit their attempts to come to terms with these major theoretical and political questions. That is why in this paper we will try to discuss attempts at presenting a theory of critical intellectuality.

The Workers’ Inquiry: from Marx to the workerists.

The first has to do with the concept of workers’ inquiry. Karl Marx first thought about a novel way to inquire about the actual condition of the working classes. The result was a big questionnaire written by Marx and circulated through La Revue Socialiste, a French socialist journal.4 The aim was to gather as many completed questionnaires by workers, and then use them to study their condition. The use of a militant journal, the attempt to get the help of the workers themselves, making them active subjects and not simply “objects under observation”, the form of the questionnaire that was designed to help the researcher and at the same time to help the worker gradually come by himself to the realisation of the conditions of exploitation, mark the distinctive characteristics of Marx’s Enquête Ouvrière.

In the 1960s this theme of the “workers’ inquiry” was taken up by the workerist tendency of Italian Marxism.5 The first forms of expression of the workerist tendency, organised through the reviews Quaderni Rossi and La Classe Operaia, were based on the combined work of academics and political and trade union activists. They were oriented mainly to an audience of union activists and not necessarily academics, despite the theoretical richness and profundity of the texts appearing there, especially by Raniero Panzieri and Mario Tronti. It is here that the very concept of workers’ inquiry became a central tenet of workerists, both as a theoretical concept but also as a particular practice.

In the case of the workerists, the workers’ inquiry served a double purpose. On the one hand, it served the attempt actually to study the condition of the working classes, the forms of neo-capitalism, the operations of capitalist power within the workplace and especially the modern factory, and the forms of resistance. This created the conditions for a militant sociology of advanced capitalism. At the same time, it stressed the importance of workers’ resistance as the driving force of capitalist rationalisation and modernisation. On the other hand, it served the attempt actually to relate to the workers, to create a form of a common practice that would be not only theoretical or research oriented but also deeply political, a new way to help the formation of political vanguards deeply rooted in the workplace and to overcome the exteriority of politicised students and researchers to workers. As Stephen Wright has shown, taking the work of sociologists oriented toward field researches, interviews and life stories, such as Danilo Dolci and Danilo Montaldi,6 the workerists thought of the workers’ enquiry as both an analytical and a political tool. In the case of Panzieri this was linked to his conception of Marxism as a sociology conceived “as a political science, the science of revolution”.7 The aim of the inquiry must be to investigate the balance of forces but also to track the changes and the new tendencies. The same conception is obvious in Dario Lanzardo’s long excursus on Marx’s “Enquête Ouvrière” in Quaderni Rossi, still one of the most interesting readings of workers’
inquiry.8 For Lanzardo the object of workers’ inquiry is exactly to help the workers understand that the capitalist reality is historical and not natural.9 This was exemplified by the pioneering research by Romano Alquati in workplace conditions and struggles in companies such as Fiat and Olivetti.10 The long cooperation of students, academics and workers around the big chemical complex in Porto Maghera in the Veneto area and other sites of struggle exemplified this tendency.11 It was also expressed in the richness of reviews such as Primo Maggio that combined militant engagement and political oriented interventions with highly sophisticated inquiries into questions of theory of value, history of the labour movement, analyses of the changes and restructurings of capitalism.12

Foucault and “specific intellectuals”

Another example, contemporaneous to the long experience of the workerist tendency, was Michel Foucault’s insistence on the need for a new form of specific intellectuals. Foucault in his long interview “Truth and Power” made a distinction between the figures of the traditional intellectual as “the bearer of the universal”,13 as a “universal consciousness”,14 with writing as the principal form of expression, and the new emerging figure of the specific intellectual. Although he admits the radicalisation of traditional intellectuals expressed in the “relentless theorisation of writing we saw in the sixties”,15 he points to a new figure of politicised intellectual emerging after the Second World War. He calls this figure the “specific intellectual”, and thinks that it was the nuclear physicist that offered the first such example of an intellectual that constituted a threat to political power “no longer on account of a general discourse he conducted but because of the knowledge at his disposal”.16 He also attributes this to the rising importance of the “technico-scientific structure” in modern life. Foucault is aware of the dangers specific intellectuals can face in their political intervention: the risk of engaging in partial struggles, the risk of manipulation, the risk of isolation for lack of a global strategy or outside support.17 At the same time, he insists that we cannot go back to the nostalgia for a universal intellectual, nor can we attack specific intellectuals as serving the interests of capital. On the contrary, we must see how intellectuals can intervene in the specific “politics of truth”18 in modern capitalist societies, which for Foucault is a battle “about the status of truth and the political and economic role it plays”.19 Although Foucault insists—as in many other instances—on opposing any global and all-encompassing project of emancipation, he nevertheless stresses the need for radical intervention:

It’s not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power (which would be a chimera, for truth is already power) but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time.20

It is obvious that what Foucault had in mind is a whole wave of militant scientists and researchers connected to radical social movements, especially in relation to struggles around nuclear energy, pollution, the state-prison complex, psychiatric power, feminism. Contrary to the traditional left’s conception of science as being inherently progressive (as opposed to the supposed tendency of capital to fetter the development of science, an assumption that ran contrary to the very development of science under capitalism) Foucault offers a much more complex conception of the politics of science. It is important that in this conception we treat militant scientists and researchers as active subjects engaged in struggles and not as passive savants simply waiting for the labour movement to liberate them and their respective role.

It is also important to note that part of the impetus for this conceptualisation of the specific intellectual came not only from the experiences of critical sciences and movements challenging the neutrality of science, but also from Foucault’s own engagement in militant scientific practice around the Groupe d’Informations sur les Prisons, part of which was also the drafting of a questionnaire for prisoners.21

Bourdieu and the need for a scholarship with commitment

In the 1990s Pierre Bourdieu emerged as one of the vocal proponents of the need for socially and politically engaged public intellectuals. In a series of interventions,22 exemplified in his support of the 1995 French strike movement—a rare exception in the French theoretical landscape, he opposed all forms of current neoliberal ideology and particularly the accommodating positions adopted by most prominent French intellectuals. For Bourdieu, in a period of neoliberal attack on social rights intellectuals have an obligation to support social movements, instead of being ideologues of the capitalist politics.

What is particularly interesting in the interventions by Bourdieu is that he did not limit himself simply to calls for a return to the figure of the public intellectual as bearer of social and political virtue, in the classical sense of the term, what Foucault would have called a universal intellectual. Bourdieu also insisted on the need for a new engaged, collective intellectual effort, the creation of a collective intellectual in collaboration with the movement, including new forms of collaboration between activists and intellectuals. The following passage summarises the exigencies especially for social scientists:

Social scientists are not fellow-travellers, in other words hostages and guarantors, figureheads and alibis who sign petitions and who are disposed of as soon as they have been used; nor are they Zhdanovian apparatchiks who come in to exercise apparently intellectual powers within the social movements which they cannot exercise in intellectual life; nor are they experts coming in to give lessons—not even anti-expert experts; nor are they prophets who will provide answers to all questions about the social movement and its future. They are people…who can point out that the people here are not present as spokespersons, but as citizens who come into a place of discussion and research, with ideas, with arguments, leaving their slogans, platforms and party habits in the cloakroom.23

Gramsci, hegemony and intellectuality

Finally, I come to a theorist who preceded the interventions discussed so far: Antonio Gramsci. I believe that in Gramsci’s work one can find the most advanced confrontation with the question of a new militant intellectuality able to serve the purpose of social emancipation. Gramsci in such a reading was not simply a theoretician of the role of intellectuals. He was a theoretician of the articulation of politics, culture and knowledge, exemplified in the richness and complexity of the theory of hegemony as a theory of social and political power in modern capitalist societies. Moreover, the question of mass militant intellectuality was for Gramsci one of the main challenges for emancipatory politics:

For a mass of people to be led to think coherently and in the same coherent fashion about the real present world is a “philosophical” event, far more important and “original” than the discovery by some philosophical “genius” of a truth which remains the property of small groups of intellectuals.24

For Gramsci the question of proletarian hegemony also entailed the emergence of new forms of mass intellectuality, a transformed common sense, and new strata of intellectuals. Gramsci was led to this position by his study of the emergence of bourgeois hegemony, the importance of mass cultural forms, the role of intellectuals and the institutions responsible for their reproduction but also for the dissemination of their work and ideas. However, he insisted that these new intellectuals could not be in simple continuity to traditional intellectuals: “If the ‘new’ intellectuals put themselves forward as the direct continuation of the previous ‘intelligentsia’ they are not new at all”.25 Moreover, for Gramsci the emergence of new types of intellectuals was the manifestation of the ripeness of the new historical situation. This demand for new intellectuals formed within the workers’ struggle for hegemony, but also within the practical effort for new forms of social organisation and production, is exemplified in the complexity of extracts such as the following:

The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organiser, “permanent persuader” and not a simple orator (but superior at the same time to the abstract mathematical spirit); from technique-as-work one proceeds to technique-as-science and to the humanistic conception of history, without which one remains “specialised” and does not become “directive” (specialised and political).26

What is interesting about this conception of the militant intellectual is that Gramsci seems to overcome the universal-specific dichotomy evident in Foucault’s theorisation of the specific intellectual. For Gramsci the new intellectuals must be at the same time specific, linked to particular practical questions, immersed in practical questions of politics, science, economy (hence the acceptance that they should be “specialised”), and have a broad and critical ideological and cultural orientation, able to facilitate the struggle for hegemony.

For Gramsci this process of the forming of new intellectuals is a collective process. The political party is responsible for the formation of new intellectuals. Moreover, Gramsci insists that all members of a political party should be treated as intellectuals. In the words of Gramsci: “That all members of a political party should be regarded as intellectuals is an affirmation that can easily lend itself to mockery and caricature. But if one thinks about it nothing can be more exact”.27 This collective conception of the emergence of mass forms of militant intellectuality is made evident in Gramsci’s conception of the political party as laboratory.

One should stress the importance and significance, which, in the modern world, political parties have in the elaboration and diffusion of conceptions of the world, because essentially what they do is to work out the ethics and the politics corresponding to these conceptions and act as it were their historical “laboratory”… The relation between theory and practice becomes even closer the more the conception is vitally and radically innovatory and opposed to old ways of thinking. For this reason one can say that the parties are the elaborators of new integral and all-encompassing intellectualities and the crucibles where the unification of theory and practice understood as real historical process takes place.28

This is also evident in Gramsci’s reference to the figure of the democratic philosopher. Gramsci suggested that the need for a different practice of philosophy would lead to the need for a new type of philosopher, the “democratic” philosopher who “is a philosopher convinced that his personality is not limited to himself as a physical individual but is an active relationship of modification of the cultural environment”.29 The figure of the democratic philosopher suggests the need for a new form of intellectuals where the important distinction has exactly to do with their awareness of the limits of their subjectivity and the need for them to engage in collective political and knowledge practices that are the necessary conditions for their critical intellectual activity. This is a highly original conception of a non-subjective or post-subjective condition of intellectuality

The notion of the democratic philosopher is one of Gramsci’s most insightful moments, because it grasps not only the relation between philosophy, history and politics, but also the need for a relational and transformative conception of philosophy as social practice and not only as subjective thinking, a conception also evident in Gramsci’s treatment of man as “historical bloc”.30

It is obvious that with Gramsci we have a much more elaborated conception of the need for new militant forms of mass intellectuality. His conception encompasses both the need to work side by side with the movement in practical relations of knowledge, collective self-awareness and common struggle that was evident in the practice of workers’ inquiry, and also the need to combine militancy with knowledge, including technical knowledge, as envisaged by Foucault in his conception of the specific intellectual. Moreover, Gramsci’s conception also includes the need for profound changes and a radicalisation of the institutions producing intellectualities along with the need for new institutions. At the same time, he avoids certain dangers: the danger of particularism, the identification of specificity with the academic division of labour (something evident especially in the way Bourdieu treats intellectuals as specialists in their field), the refusal to engage in collective forms of militancy.

Militant intellectuality today

All these examples show us that there can be militant forms of intellectuality, both in the sense of critical and politically engaged theoretical production oriented towards projects for emancipation and in the sense of mass intellectuality and a change in common sense and mass ideological practices. At the same time, we have to confront the whole process through which 1960s and 1970s theoretical radicalism lost both its momentum and its political engagement. The well-known story about radical academics becoming self-entrenched within the confines of academia and all the rituals of formal academic research, losing touch with urgent social and political exigencies, although in most aspects a distortion of reality, did indeed capture some of the problems of post-1970s radical theorising. Even today, with an impressive wave of young Marxist or more generally radical academics (mainly in junior positions) in place, one can still sense the gap separating theoretical and political activity or participation in movements. The standardisation of academic research, the quantification of research assessment, both individually and institutionally, the pressure for immediate results, papers and quantifiable research outcomes surely contributes to this.

However, there have also been other forms. To give one example: The edu-factory network has been more than instrumental in promoting both a radical anti-capitalist agenda regarding the entrepreneurialisation of higher education and forms of coordination between activists and activist networks.31 To give another example: all the international networks of economists helping movements against globalisation, against Third World Debt, in favour of debt-auditing processes.32

Recently the notion of mass intellectuality has gained new interest, especially in the work of writers working in a post-workerist direction such as M Lazzarato and Paolo Virno.33 According to this theme, the importance of intellectual “immaterial” labour in post-Fordist capitalism makes mass intellectuality even more important, as is evident in the intellectual (in the sense of non-manual) character of many work processes and in the need for capital to exploit not just labour time but also collective knowledge, skills, representations. This follows the workerists’ emphasis on the “Fragment on Machines” from the Grundrisse where Marx refers to the General Intellect.34 For this tradition mass intellectuality is an analytical concept, a description of the objective and subjective conditions for post-Fordism, and follows the workerist tendency to ground insurrectionary tendencies in the ontology of labour. However, it is not a concept that can account for the complexity of the division between intellectual and manual labour in capitalist production, of the recurring tendency both of the incorporation of scientific knowledge and technique in the production process and of the trivialisation of tasks, and of the forms of the transformation of science into a productive force. It is also a one-sided reading of Marx that stresses the importance of the Grundrisse but tends to leave aside Marx’s more elaborate confrontation with questions of science and technology, especially in the Economic Manuscript of 186163.35 In those notes a more complex conception emerges of the relation of science to capitalist production, one that, instead of a simple image of a collective intellectual capacity being put under the command of capital, stresses the importance of technology and machinery on the transformation of science into a production force and the processes of skilling and deskilling associated with this process. Moreover, the post-workerist emphasis on immaterial intellectual labour as the “hegemonic form”,36 can easily lead to an underestimation of all other forms of labour and misrepresent capitalist exploitation as mainly some form of blocking the creative capability of the multitude.

By contrast, I am using intellectuality here much more in the sense that Gramsci uses it, as a strategic concept describing a condition to be attained, the result of (counter)hegemonic apparatuses and projects, the outcome of struggles and new forms of collective organisation. We have to see how this increased importance of intellectual labour in modern capitalism (something that Gramsci also stressed) creates conditions for collective practices and networks of militant intellectuality. In this sense mass intellectuality is not something given in advance; it is a political stake of social and political antagonism and of the collective practices of social movements.

In the light of the above, we can discuss some of the tasks facing us today. We need more examples of critical intellectuality and of politically engaged theoretical production. We need radical academics and researchers providing theoretical material to activists. We want activists and militants to have a much more theoretical background acquired not only through formal academic channels. We want radical social movements to become also theoretical sites, to develop their own knowledge institutions, both in the sense of producing and of disseminating knowledge and critical theory. The current protest cycle can only help this process. Social movements, especially when they are politicised in a collective and non-hierarchical manner, are also knowledge processes. People engaging in them have to know things, have to form arguments, and at the same time they learn from the very collective experience of struggle. The presence of radical theorists and researchers alongside militants surely helps, but this is not enough. We need to go beyond this relation of externality between the movement and critical theory and build new institutions of knowledge within the movement itself, new knowledge practices, and new forms of militant research. Only in this way will it be possible to actually not only produce new readings of the conjuncture but also discuss new projects and alternative social forms and arrangements, exactly what is more needed in order to galvanise support for radical politics and social change. We also need a new ethics of research and scientific engagement, stressing the importance of independence from corporate interests, the work alongside the movement, the timely publication of results, especially regarding dangers for society, the need for a critical popularisation of scientific findings, the acceptance of the questions and needs of people from the movement as legitimate concerns.

Such a conception also offers a way out for that growing segment of highly trained scientific and technical workforce, employed in corporations or the state, that in a period of radicalisation wants to find an outlet not only for political activism, but also for its knowledge and expertise (a small example being all those corporate economists who used intensive blogging in the period after the eruption of the current economic crisis as a means to offer to the general public a critical perspective on economic developments, based on their knowledge and expertise). The same goes for teachers in both primary and secondary education, whose scientific training is usually used only for the reproduction of the curriculum, whereas they could be at the forefront of community based and localised collective forms of mass intellectuality.

Such a collective work will help us change the way people think and consequently act. The emergence on a mass scale of new collective representations, mentalities, worldviews and discursive practices, of new ways for working people to understand social reality and their place within it and realise the collective potential to transform it, can never be simply a question of effective propaganda. It must also be a collective effort to change “common sense”, putting into practice the necessary dialectic of revolutionary theory on the one hand and the knowledge and collective experience that working people get from their participation in struggle, in order to achieve new forms of hegemony in the fight for radical social change. This is an indispensable aspect of revolutionary politics today.

Above all we must think of radical left parties, political fronts and organisations as knowledge practices and laboratories of new forms of mass critical intellectuality. In a period of economic and political crisis but also of new possibilities to challenge capitalist rule, questions of political organisation gain new relevance. Thinking of organisation simply in terms of practical or communicative skills for mobilisation, or of electoral fronts and tactics is not enough. It would be better, in order to build today’s parties and united fronts, to revisit Gramsci’s (and Lenin’s) conception of the party as a democratic political and theoretical process that produces knowledge of the conjuncture, organic intellectuals, new worldviews, social and political alternatives, as a potential (counter)hegemonic apparatus. We need forms of organisation that not only enable coordination and networking, democratic discussion and effective campaigning, but also bring together different experiences, combine critical theory with the knowledge coming from the different sites of struggle, and produce both concrete analyses but also mass ideological practices and new forms of radical “common sense”.

Mass radical intellectuality is at the same time a prerequisite and an expression of a new hegemony emerging. Contrary to the tendency of many people on the left to think simply in terms of electoral dynamics, we need to start thinking in terms of hegemony and the construction of an alternative.


1: The first version of this text was presented at the Second International Conference on Critical Education, Athens, 10-14 July 2012, and has benefited by the comments made in its presentation. The writer also wants to thank Alex Callinicos for his comments and suggestions.

2: On the recent wave of student movements, see Solomon and Palmieri, 2011.

3: Anderson, 1976.

4: Marx, 1997.

5: For an overview of Italian workerism see Wright, 2002.

6: Wright, 2002, pp22-23.

7: Panzieri, 1965, p110.

8: Lanzardo, 1965.

9: The openly political character of the workers’ inquiry is exemplified in the following passage from a text by Antonio Negri in the 1970s: “Workers’ inquiry is a political battle right from the start: it is a political battle on the side of theory as well as praxis”-Negri, 2005, p72.

10: Alquati, 1985; Armano and Sciortino, 2010; Wright, 2002, pp42-58.

11: Wright, 2002, pp110-114.

12: A full series of Primo Maggio in pdf format can be found at www.autistici.org/operaismo/PrimoMaggio/La%20rivista/

13: Foucault, 2002, p126.

14: Foucault, 2002, p127.

15: Foucault, 2002, p127.

16: Foucault, 2002, p128.

17: Foucault, 2002, p130.

18: Foucault, 2002, p132.

19: Foucault, 2002, p132.

20: Foucault, 2002, p133.

21: Brich, 2008. The Groupe d’Informations sur les Prisons (Group for Information on Prisons) in the early 1970s tried to bring attention the horrible conditions in the French penal system and to defend the rights of prisoners and was based on the work of both intellectuals and activists.

22: Bourdieu, 1998, 2001, 2002.

23: Bourdieu, 1998, p56.

24: Gramsci, 1971, p325.

25: Gramsci, 1971, p453.

26: Gramsci, 1971, p10. We should note that for Gramsci directive refers to the essence of revolutionary politics, the ability to lead a social class in the struggle for self-emancipation.

27: Gramsci, 1971, pp5-6.

28: Gramsci, 1971, p335. I have slightly altered the translation. Hoare and Nowell Smith translate as “elaborators of new integral and totalitarian intelligentsias”. However, in the Italian original Gramsci refers to political parties as “elaboratori delle nuove intelletualita integrali e totalitarie” (Gramsci, 1977, p1387), so I choose to translate intelletualita as intellectualities, following here the French translation of the Prison Notebooks (Gramsci, 1978). Moreover, since totalitarian had a different meaning in the early 1930s than its post Second World War meaning, I translate totalitarie as all-encompassing.

29: Gramsci, 1971, p350. For a reading of the importance of the concept of the democratic philosopher, see Thomas, 2009, pp429-436.

30: Gramsci, 1971, p360.

31: See Edu-factory Collective, 2009.

32: See, for example, the work done by the Committee to Abolish Third World Debt
(www.cadtm.org) or the work of the Initiative for the Greek Audit Commission (www.elegr.gr).

33: Lazzarato, 1996 and Virno, 2004.

34: For the “Fragment on Machines”, see Marx, 1973, pp690-712.Marx refers to the general intellect in the following phrase: “The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it”-p706. On the concept of the general intellect in the Grundrisse and its subsequent use by post-workerists see Haug, 2010.

35: Especially in Marx’s extended notes on machinery and the utilization of the forces of nature and society (Marx, 1989, pp318-346; Marx, 1991, pp372-501; Marx, 1996, pp8-61).

36: On this see Hardt and Negri, 2005, pp103-115.


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