Frank Knopfelmacher
Intellectuals and Politics

The intellectual's principal job is to practise critique. The objects of critique are social institutions, both as objective social structures and as internalised beliefs, norms, states of mind, and dispositions. If you share the ways of the objects of your critique, you cannot treat of them objectively since one cannot think discursively and objectively about institutions and norms which one subjectively values. The notion that it one's values are involved understanding ceases is Max Weber's best-known methodological principle. In this manner alienation can be seen as an instrumental, indeed almost a professional, prerequisite for critique, pretty much like the microscope and the skills to use it for the bacteriologist. You cannot be an observer and a critic of a society unless you are alienated from it, since you cannot be an objective observer of that in which you participate. Alienation is thus seen as a psychological instrument of critique. It alone creates the emotional and connative conditions which are compatible with the cognitive activity of critique.

So much, then, for the thesis that alienation is a necessary prerequisite for proper intellectual functioning.

Is this thesis tenable? To start with, the term alienation is notoriously obscure, and in its current usage it designates more than just non-acceptance of prevailing social norms, or an attitude of detached objectivity towards them. Hegel's original use of the term is wholly unhelpful to the present discussion. Rousseau's notion of the fall from the good life as a result of civilisation is perhaps nearer to the modern age, rooted in Feuerbach and the young Marx, which obscures its romantic origin. In Feuerbach's usage, alienation is a state of human bondage to institutionalised religious fancies of man about his idealised self. Those idealising fancies—the objects of religious worship—and the institutional props which sustain them are the real cross which man must bear, since they distort a realistic vision of human life as a part of nature and saddle humanity with moral codes which are inhuman. Yet the truly significant gist of Feuerbach's description of religion as 'alienation' does not really concern religion as such and goes much deeper. It is the notion that man is held in bondage by his own unconscious historical and cultural products which enslave him and deprive him of his freedom and humanity. He is the victim of man-made, irrational, institutional forces whose 'sacred' character is bogus and which rob him of his humanity and his happiness. The function of critique is to overcome this state of alienation by exposing the 'anthropomorphic' character of the alienating institutions, and by restoring the rule of empirically informed reason in human affairs. Marx extended Feuerbach's critique of religion to all institutions of society and combined it with his theory of historical materialism: the basis of human alienation is seen by Marx to lie in the fact that in a private property-based economy in which production of the means of existence is distorted into commodity worship, man becomes alienated from his labour, the very expression of his creative self. His own products and the economic machinery in which production is enmeshed confront him as menacing, inscrutable and deadly forces to whose maintenance his own 'alienated' labour contributes. Thus man is being exploited in a truly fundamental way—the very essence of his life, his own labour, is being torn from him and used to prop up the very engine which is crushing him as a person.

From this to the contemporary sociological conception of alienation is but a small step. It is a state of feeling threatened and menaced, resentful, confused, anxiety-ridden and lonely, vis-a-vis an overtowering institutional set-up. Alienation is not just non-participation in institutional goals and purposes, and certainly not detached non-participation, but a set of attitudes which make men see their institutions as a source of fear, as a threat to themselves as persons. Alienation and the attitude of 'dissent' it induces are therefore not psychological conditions of non-involvement with the values to be criticised, but they involve the alienate negatively. He does not accept, but he rejects; he does not approve, but he condemns; he is not detached from institutions, but involved with them in a terrifying imbroglio, facing anonymous and meaningless might as a lonely cipher.

Rejection and condemnation of institutions are as likely to impede critique as an attitude of acceptance and approbation. Weber's dictum applies to both. Alienation is not a state of ataraxia or detachment, but a state of anguish which induces neurotic and psychotic distortions of the thought process, hardly a suitable state of mind for the practitioner of critique. It should also be added that the deliberate cultivation of 'alienation' by a cultural elite as a sort of fuel for critique in an otherwise sated and contented society is a conception wholly foreign to Marx. For Marx, alienation was a prevailing human condition induced by a dehumanised system of ownership and production, of which the principal sufferers were not the intellectuals but the proletariat. The intellectual's task was not to perpetuate his own alienation, but to bring about a break in human alienation in general, by becoming himself a revolutionary —that is, a leader in the struggle for the forcible humanisation of a dehumanised society.

If it were true, as the contemporary prophets of alienation assert, that tor the intellectual alienation is the only alternative to 'integration' into a social system in a manner which robs him of impetus to practise critique, the situation would pose a real dilemma: on the one hand, thoughtless conventionalism and complacency which flow from 'integration'; on the other hand, anxiety and guilt-distorted rationalisations and fantasies of punishment, release and revenge, which flow from alienation. Integration encourages intellectual somnolescence. Alienation induces distorting, defensive critique.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.