I was reading over at Tony Jones yesterday, and came across this idea of organic intellectuals, something that I did not know about before. One can learn plenty of new things at Tony’s site.
The below was taken from this site.
This brings me to my second theme. Gramsci saw the role of the intellectual as a crucial one in the context of creating a counter hegemony. He was clear that the transformation from capitalism to socialism required mass participation. There was no question that socialism could be brought about by an elite group of dedicated revolutionaries acting for the working class. It had to be the work of the majority of the population conscious of what they were doing and not an organised party leadership. The revolution led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 was not the model suitable for Western Europe or indeed any advanced industrialised country. The Leninist model took place in a backward country with a huge peasantry and a tiny working class. The result was that the mass of the population were not involved. For Gramsci, mass consciousness was essential and the role of the intellectual was crucial.
It is important at this juncture to note that when Gramsci wrote about intellectuals, he was not referring solely to the boffins and academics that sat in ivory towers or wrote erudite pieces for academic journals only read by others of the same ilk. His definition went much further and he spread his net much wider.
Gramsci’s notebooks are quite clear on the matter. He writes that “all men are intellectuals” [and presumably women] “but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals”. What he meant by that was that everyone has an intellect and uses it but not all are intellectuals by social function. He explains this by stating that “everyone at some time fries a couple of eggs or sews up a tear in a jacket, we do not necessarily say that everyone is a cook or a tailor”. Each social group that comes into existence creates within itself one or more strata of intellectuals that gives it meaning, that helps to bind it together and helps it function. They can take the form of managers, civil servants, the clergy, professors and teachers, technicians and scientists, lawyers, doctors etc. Essentially, they have developed organically alongside the ruling class and function for the benefit of the ruling class. Gramsci maintained that the notion of intellectuals as being a distinct social category independent of class was a myth.
He identified two types of intellectuals – traditional and organic. Traditional intellectuals are those who do regard themselves as autonomous and independent of the dominant social group and are regarded as such by the population at large. They seem autonomous and independent. They give themselves an aura of historical continuity despite all the social upheavals that they might go through. The clergy are an example of that as are the men of letters, the philosophers and professors. These are what we tend to think of when we think of intellectuals. Although they like to think of themselves as independent of ruling groups, this is usually a myth and an illusion. They are essentially conservative allied to and assisting the ruling group in society.
The second type is the organic intellectual. This is the group mentioned earlier that grows organically with the dominant social group, the ruling class, and is their thinking and organising element. For Gramsci it was important to see them for what they were. They were produced by the educational system to perform a function for the dominant social group in society. It is through this group that the ruling class maintains its hegemony over the rest of society.
Having said that what was required for those who wished to overthrow the present system was a counter hegemony, a method of upsetting the consensus, of countering the ‘common sense’ view of society, how could this be done?
Gramsci, in his Notebooks, maintained that what was required was that not only should a significant number of ‘traditional’ intellectuals come over to the revolutionary cause (Marx, Lenin and Gramsci were examples of this) but also the working class movement should produce its own organic intellectuals. Remember that Gramsci said that all men were intellectuals but not all men have the function of intellectuals in society. He went on to point out that “there is no human activity from which every form of intellectual participation can be excluded” and that everyone, outside their particular professional activity, “carries on some form of intellectual activity -, participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought”. This sounds as if he was exaggerating the possibilities but what he was really trying to convey is that people have the capability and the capacity to think. The problem was how to harness those capabilities and capacities.
Gramsci saw one of his roles as assisting in the creation of organic intellectuals from the working class and the winning over of as many traditional intellectuals to the revolutionary cause as possible. He attempted this through the columns of a journal called L’Ordine Nuovo (New Order), subtitled “a weekly review of Socialist culture”. This journal came out at the same time as the huge spontaneous outbreak of industrial and political militancy that swept Turin in 1919. This outbreak mirrored events throughout the industrial world that shook the very foundations of capitalist society.
Gramsci’s insistence on the fundamental importance of the ideological struggle to social change meant that this struggle was not limited to consciousness raising but must aim at consciousness transformation – the creation of a socialist consciousness. It was not something that could be imposed on people but must arise from their actual working lives. The intellectual realm, therefore, was not to be seen as something confined to an elite but to be seen as something grounded in everyday life. Gramsci wrote that “the mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence – but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organiser, “permanent persuader” and not just a simple orator-” [Gramsci 1971 p10]
The creation of working class intellectuals actively participating in practical life, helping to create a counter hegemony that would undermine existing social relations was Gramsci’s contribution to the development of a philosophy that would link theory with practice. His philosophy was a direct counter to those elitist and authoritarian philosophies associated with fascism and Stalinism. His approach was open and non-sectarian. He believed in the innate capacity of human beings to understand their world and to change it. In his Notebooks, he asked the question: “is it better to “think”, without having a critical awareness, – or, on the other hand, is it better to work out consciously and critically one’s own conception of the world?”. He wanted revolutionaries to be critical and made it clear that “the starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is -“. [Gramsci 1971 p323]
The role of informal educators in local communities links up with Gramsci’s ideas on the role of the intellectual. The educator working successfully in the neighbourhood and with the local community has a commitment to that neighbourhood. They are not ‘here today and gone tomorrow’. They may have always lived in the area and have much in common with the local people or they may not. What is important is that they develop relationships with the people they work with that ensures that wherever they go, they are regarded as part of the community (‘one of us’). “They can strive to sustain people’s critical commitment to the social groups with whom they share fundamental interests. Their purpose is not necessarily individual advancement, but human well-being as a whole” (Smith 1994 p127).