The Official James Petras website


Left intellectuals and the desperate search for respectability


When George Soros, one of the biggest and most rapacious speculators in the world, published a book calling into question some of the most destructive aspects of speculative capital, left intellectuals raced to reproduce his quotes as evidence that indeed \”global capital\” was a threat to humanity.

The curious part of this scenario is that Soros got free publicity, increased his royalties, a raise in political and intellectual stature, while continuing to profit from his management of speculative investment funds. This is not an isolated case: more often than not, leftist intellectuals seek out “respectable” sources to bolster their arguments, citing them as “impeccable” or as “without a hint of leftist sympathies,” as if leftist research and scholarship is less reliable or less likely to convince. The leftist search for bourgeois respectability has profound implications in discussing the problem of the growth of an alternative political-intellectual culture.

One of the striking aspects of contemporary politics is the gap between the declining objective conditions of the working class and rural labor and the subjective responses, which are diffuse, fragmented, and frequently under the tutelage of neo-liberal parties. This contrast is most glaring in the Third World, but is also present in the advanced capitalist countries.

While inequalities between classes, races, gender, and regions has increased and social services for the working class have been slashed to provide lower taxes and higher subsidies for the rich, the subjective response is muted: strikes and protests tend to be defensive reactions, agrarian movements lack urban allies, and most intellectuals are dissociated from the popular struggles or have accepted the basic premises of neo-liberal ideology, namely that “globalization” is inevitable and irreversible. In a word, “bourgeois hegemony” plays a vital role in ensuring the stability of a highly unequal and exploitative social system.

Bourgeois hegemony is a product of numerous factors, including the mass media and the cultural institutions of the state. However, bourgeois hegemony is also the result of the behavior and methods of work of left intellectuals, who seek out legitimacy for their intellectual production in the bourgeois world.

Today many left intellectuals borrow from and have assimilated the key concepts and language of bourgeois theorists and publicists in analyzing the contemporary world. The language and concepts borrowed from the bourgeoisie include “globalization,” “stateless capital,” “information revolution,” “structural adjustment,” “labor flexibility,” etc. These concepts are integral to the imperial system and neo-liberal ideology?they are understandable in the context of a system of power that seeks to disguise and legitimate its domination. Yet, left intellectuals eschew using more precise concepts which are far more useful in identifying contemporary power configurations, such as imperialism instead of globalization; imperial state instead of stateless corporations; ascendancy of financial power instead of the “information revolution”; intensive/extensive exploitation instead of labor flexibility; economic reversion instead of economic reform; reconcentration and monopolization of wealth instead of structural adjustment.

Left intellectual tail-ending of the bourgeoisie with regard to the “globalization” paradigm is part of a larger problem embedded in a deeper subordination to bourgeois culture; namely, of looking up to the dominant culture for sources of truth, objectivity, prestige, and recognition. Left intellectuals’ search for bourgeois prestige, recognition, institutional affiliations, and certification imply a de facto embrace of the values associated with them. The overt embrace of these values and practices play an important role in perpetuating bourgeois hegemony, despite the left intellectuals’ protestations.

An important aspect of career advancement and recognition, as well as securing a position in prestigious bourgeois institutions, involves playing by their rules of the game in pursuing intellectual work. By following these “rules of the game,” left intellectuals give legitimacy to bourgeois claims of legitimacy and strengthens their hegemonic position.

Legitimizing Hegemony

One of the principle rules practiced by left intellectuals in conducting research is to cite bourgeois sources, even when left sources are available and provide a critical perspective. The pseudo- argument put forth by left intellectuals is that by citing bourgeois sources over left sources, they will be more convincing to the “general audience” or academic world. By proceeding in this way, left intellectuals strengthen the authority of the bourgeois writers as the source of objective truth. They reinforce and perpetuate the invisibility of left researchers and their work by failing to acknowledge their contribution. They acquire respectability and acceptability by sharing with their bourgeois colleagues a common literature and common understanding of what and who is “important to read.” Left intellectuals, by citing particular criticisms of capitalism by particularly notorious pro- capitalist personalities, refurbish their images and thus provide them with a future platform from which to denounce the left.

The response of left intellectuals to George Soros’s book, is a case in point. Soros has a well- earned reputation as a speculator who has made billions pillaging economies and ruining countries, before, during, and after the publication of his book. He played and continues to play a major role in bankrolling cultural institutions and co-opting intellectuals particularly in the ex- communist countries, who subsequently implemented “free market” economic policies that have devastated these countries. Despite this background, left intellectuals fell all over themselves quoting his criticisms of speculative activities and capitalist excesses as if he was a special authority on the pitfalls of capitalism. Left intellectuals in their desperate search for vindication quoted Soros to back their criticism of neo-liberalism, overlooking the fact that Soros was making billions bilking Asian economies.

The relation of left intellectuals with the World Bank is another illustration of this search for respectability. The World Bank annually publishes a statistical appendix that includes data on poverty in the world. More often than not, left intellectuals cite the World Bank’s figures to make their arguments without critically examining the way in which poverty is measured and the manner in which poverty is underestimated. The fact is the World Bank’s figures are unreliable and their measures of poverty totally inadequate. Their “poverty line” is one dollar a day, which is not livable anywhere in the world. If an adequate poverty index was constructed by left researchers they would double or triple the number of poor in the world. Yet by citing World Bank figures, left intellectuals appeal to their “conservative” colleagues, demonstrating that they share common sources. By citing the authority of the World Bank, they strengthen its image as at least “a useful source of data.” The World Bank’s measure of poverty in the Third World reaches such absurd heights that the percentages of the population living in poverty in Southeast Asia are almost at the same level as the U.S. and Canada.

The Economic Commission on Latin America (ECLA) is another “impeccable” source of data and point of reference for left intellectuals?as if being a leftist would contaminate the data. For example, left intellectuals frequently look to ECLA for data on the privatization of public enterprises (a key part of ECLA’s political agenda). But a closer look at ECLA’s documents reveals that they hardly ever discuss the corruption and give-aways involved in privatizations. ECLA describes it as a pure economic process, and claims they are not involved in the political aspects of privatization and even less the negative consequences both in the long and short term. ECLA says that state transactions should be transparent. But ECLA doesn’t face up to the fact that privatizations are not “transparent.” Why does ECLA continue to promote the privatization recipe, when they know first hand that the process of privatization is corrupt and involves the give-away of valuable resources at bargain prices? Knowing ECLA’s bias, why do the left intellectuals cite its data on privatizations when prominent leftist writers and journalists have published more complete and critical discussions?

Featuring Prominent Personalities

Left intellectuals, in their constant search for respectability, not only look toward bourgeois institutions to buttress their arguments, but also they search for prominent bourgeois personalities with name recognition and prestige in bourgeois circles to promote popular causes. Frequently, in organizing a public event, left intellectuals will ignore the most consequential writers, the militant activists or leaders in favor of a so-called “progressive” actor, lawyer, judge, or writer who has neither knowledge of or practice in the struggle at hand, but will offer some glittering platitudes that educate no one and fail to resonate with the people in action.

Left intellectuals, by promoting individuals with “celebrity status” as a method of attracting mass media publicity, sacrifice the content of the meeting. The political cost can be significant: the political meeting becomes a “spectacle,” entertainment that de-politicizes more than educates people into the cause and consequences of struggle. Moreover, left intellectuals frequently have to explain away the “lapses” of the prestigious celebrity who frequently equates popular violence in defense of their lives, land, and livelihood with the violence of the predatory imperial powers.

“Of course,” left intellectuals would reply in an apologetic manner, “he (or she) is not one of ours, but look how many people showed up, look how many centimeters of print we got in the bourgeois press, how many seconds on television.” In the name of the “broadest unity,” the left creates a platform for bourgeois celebrity’s speech, which frequently deflects criticism from the system to a policy, from a policy to a personality thus obfuscating the purpose of the mass meeting. Even worse, the prestigious bourgeois celebrities touted by the left intellectuals as progressives at a public event can turn around the next day and celebrate festivities with high dignitaries of a regressive regime…which discredits the left and sows confusion among the populace about the nature of left politics.

The Quest for Symbols of Prestige

Left intellectuals crave recognition from their bourgeois colleagues and will eschew public action, denounce activist colleagues, and adopt servile postures to please their conservative superiors and judges in hopes of securing a symbol of bourgeois prestige. Prestigious bourgeois awards are a ticket to promotion and legitimacy in the eyes of upwardly mobile leftist intellectuals. Consequential intellectuals with commitments to practical popular struggles do not receive any prestigious awards. For left intellectuals, winning a Nobel Prize, a Guggenheim, or Ford Foundation fellowship is seen as the culmination of a successful career. It provides certification from the academic power elite that left intellectuals can be honored for abstaining from any anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist struggle. It was that understanding that caused Jean Paul Sartre to reject the Nobel Prize.

For left intellectuals, however, in sponsoring political events, it is these very titles and awards, which are cited in introducing a “prestigious” speaker. By giving prominence to the titles and awards, left intellectuals have to convince the audience that the left has somehow achieved intellectual status. In fact, what the Left does is to legitimate bourgeois standards and selection procedures and the underlying conditions that determine the granting of awards thereby strengthening bourgeois hegemony.

The left’s craving for bourgeois respectability is also found in the prominence it gives to institutional identities: left intellectuals boast of being graduates of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge, the Sorbonne as if these were not centers to indoctrinate students with neo- liberal and pro-imperialist doctrines. The same is true of former government officials who are given prominence by left intellectuals. While no one can object to ex-government officials having a change of thinking and becoming critical of the state, the point of convergence with the left should be the fact that they are ex-officials and not the former holders of “prestigious” positions in a bourgeois regime.

Recruiting talented individuals from the popular classes constantly renews bourgeois hegemony. Frequently this is done by offering scholarships to poor but bright students to attend “prestigious” universities, which “re-educate” and train them to serve the dominant classes. The Left should listen and read what intellectuals write despite their prestigious institutional credentials not because of them.

In addition to prestigious awards and institutional identities, left intellectuals are perpetually looking for prominent bourgeois sponsors for events: personalities, institutions, and official agencies. The idea is that the more bourgeois a sponsor, the greater the respectability, the greater the legitimacy and the wider the public. In fact, this leads to greater visibility and legitimacy for the bourgeois institutions of power, while radical institutions are marginalized and made invisible.

Securing a Successful Career

We can identify at least four career strategies for respectable and upwardly mobile left intellectuals. The first strategy could be described as the “cold storage” approach, whereby left intellectuals maintain a low profile for many years, more or less doing conventional research until they secure a position in a prestigious university and consolidate their career and then “turn” radical. The problem is, of course, that most “crypto” leftists in the course of adapting to the career exigencies of success eventually believe what they are doing and never “turn”: they become what they do. For the minority that “convert,” they have their cake and eat it too: they have their prestigious identity in the bourgeois world and the applause of the left, particularly since they bring to their radical rhetoric the added merit, in the eyes of left intellectuals, of a prestigious title.

The second strategy for securing a successful career in a prestigious university is to combine conventional research and teaching during work time and workplace with after-hours radical chitchat. Leftism as an “avocation” is particularly attractive to the bourgeois guardians of academia, because it does not inform scientific research, nor does it question the educational system’s role in reproducing elite leaders or conformist skilled workers. This can be described as the “cocktail left”?where in discreet private settings, leftists from prestigious institutions can vent their inconsequential radical views while in working time they climb the academic ladder.

The third strategy for leftist success in academia is found in the disproportionate time and effort devoted to conventional academic work in comparison with the meager intellectual efforts devoted to popular movements. In this strategy, left intellectuals devote months and years to preparing lectures and publications for academic consumption, while they improvise a lecture with anecdotal material for radical/popular audiences, frequently recycling or repeating the same talk given the previous year. In some cases, leftist intellectuals, drawing a substantial stipend, will simply reminisce on a distant radical past; nostalgia becomes a substitute for serious analysis.

Finally, there are left academics that conduct research and scholarship as “disinterested” scholars, divorced from struggles, movements, and political commitments. They write about the working class without any political perspective. They may provide useful information if someone else can elaborate an intellectual-political framework to link it to contemporary political events. This strategy for academic success has some merit and utility if other intellectuals or activists have been doing the risky (career-wise) political work of building a movement; otherwise, it merely serves to extend one’s curriculum vita. This particular type of leftist academic is particularly prominent in the U.S. where there are annual conferences mimicking the conventional professional meetings, where the academics talk to each other?in other words, divorced from popular movements. The divorce between academic leftism and popular struggles has led to some leftists securing highly remunerated distinguished chairs in prestigious universities.

The practice of left academic arrivismo perpetuates the myth, particularly in the Third World, that “true knowledge” is abroad in the prestigious schools with name recognition and that local “national” left intellectuals are inferior and certainly not role models.

Left intellectuals from prestigious institutions, for reason of their own appointments and status, overlook or understate the ideological distortions, mystifications, and inappropriate theoretical and conceptual frameworks which are taught at the prestigious centers of higher learning. The heavy ideological bias that is packaged into education in prestigious institutions is obfuscated by the presence of the left intellectuals who rarely challenge their colleagues’ work, even less the curriculum, knowing full well they would be penalized. In any case, if leftists at prestigious institutions do occasionally verbalize dissent, it is their presence in the institutions and the process of accession that fuels the ambitions of the new generations of writers.

What is striking about the left intellectuals in prestigious universities and those seeking entry is their suspension of criticism of bourgeois sponsors, foundations, and personalities who fund big research agendas for perpetuating and extending imperial power. Left intellectuals, by suspending criticism, improve their chances of entry into the prestigious journals, the international conferences, and the lucrative positions of academic prominence.

Contemporary Intellectual “Lifestyles”

There are a variety of “lifestyles” in “being” a left intellectual today, in the face of the power and wealth of the Euro-American empire. There is the intellectual today who wanders across the political spectrum offering to service a variety of patrons. One well known French intellectual denounced the public employees’ strikes in 1995, attended an international Zapatista meeting in 1996, and then flew to meet with and praise the right-wing president of Uruguay. These are the intellectuals for all places and prices. Their public posture is motivated more by the need for recognition and publicity from whatever side as it is by firm intellectual principles. They do not “sell out” to the right, they are rented, and are even available to the left in certain circumstances.

House intellectuals are those whose universe is other intellectuals or even their own “internal reflection.” These exchanges are particularly prominent among the post-modernists who discuss how many identities can stand at the end of the pin. They have their own exotic language, only understandable to the initiated and their work is largely confined to deciphering texts and language divorced from the objective world.

There are intellectuals who are in perpetual anguish, who fret over social-economic problems (”neo-liberalism” and “globalization”) and never go beyond the common refrain, “We must find an alternative.” They ignore the everyday struggles trying to create alternatives. They fear the problem (imperialism) and fear the solution (a social transformation).

Leftists who bathe in historic defeats find in them a pretext for what they dub a new realist or pragmatic accommodation with the status quo. While overdramatizing political losses as profound and irreversible historical defeats, they fail to recognize the new revolutionary struggles emerging in the Third World and in the West, the new social movements opposing the WTO, the militant farmer and transport workers’ movements, the massive producer and consumer rejection of corporate sponsors of genetically altered food and seeds, etc. Pessimistic pathos becomes either an alibi for inaction and disengagement or a one-way ticket to liberal politics since it is perceived as the only show in town.

In sharp contrast to the above-mentioned intellectual postures, there are the irreverent intellectuals, irreverent toward academic protocols and unimpressed by the prestigious titles and prizes. On the other hand, they are respectful of the militants on the front lines of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggles. They are steady and productive in their intellectual work, which is in large part motivated by the big questions facing movement struggles. They are anti-heroes whose work is respected by the people who are actively working for a basic social transformation. They are objectively partisan and partisanly objective. They discuss and listen to the pessimists and other intellectuals, despite their titles and pretense, to see if they have anything worthwhile to say.

For the irreverent and committed intellectuals, prestige and recognition comes from activists and movements and intellectuals who are involved in popular struggles. They work with those intellectuals and activists. They conduct research looking for original sources of data. They create their own indicators and concepts to identify the real depths of poverty, exploitation and exclusion. They recognize that the prestigious awards and prizes are part of the system sustaining bourgeois hegemony. They recognize that there are a few intellectuals in prestigious institutions and award recipients who are clearly committed to popular struggles and they acknowledge that these exceptions should be noted, while recognizing the many, in climbing the ladder, that succumb to the blandishments of bourgeois certification. Most of all, the irreverent intellectuals fight against bourgeois hegemony within the Left by integrating their writing and teaching with practice, avoiding divided loyalties.


While a good deal of research and writing has been done on the issue of bourgeois hegemony, little attention has been paid to how, within the left, the signs and symbols of bourgeois hegemony are transmitted by putatively left intellectuals. Intellectuals are an important group, particularly in forming the subjectivity of students, and in some contexts, popular classes. Insofar as they are visible and have access to the media, they represent another channel through which subjectivity or political consciousness is formed.

The problem of subjectivity is a key issue today. Increasingly popular disaffection spreads throughout the Third World and even in the imperial countries. The key challenge is linking these discontents with social transformative movements. This requires revolutionary theory, critical concepts, and engaged intellectuals, which, in turn involves a two front struggle, one with the bourgeois powers and the second with the double discourse of left intellectuals.

March 2001 :: Printing version