The activist and the intellectual

Young person leading a demonstration in the city. Files included – jpg, ai (version 8 and CS3), svg, and eps (version 8)

Young person leading a demonstration in the city. Files included – jpg, ai (version 8 and CS3), svg, and eps (version 8)  

When the moral temperature of a society falls, as it has globally in recent times, activists will arise

It is ironical that those who have always been an essential catalyst for a just society have also been those who have been kept at its margins. Activists have become increasingly unpopular and have become the targets of an upwardly mobile middle class. It is difficult to understand this phenomenon: why would those who have a comfortable life get so angry and upset at those who sacrifice their personal well-being for the good of others? The public and government reaction against NGOs, the killing of social activists, the cynicism towards those who decide not to follow the mainstream are all part of this larger trend, a symptom of the silent corporatisation of society itself.

In the line of attack

Intellectuals, including artists and academics, also bear the brunt of this hatred. As many have pointed out, it has never been as difficult as it is now to disagree about something without being called names. These are symptoms of what our society is becoming. As a society, we lack a culture of protest, whether in the public or in institutions. Disagreeing with a policy is always misinterpreted as if it is an attack on individuals associated with that policy.

It is not easy being an activist, although it is somewhat easier being an intellectual. The activist is in the middle of conflicts while the intellectual is in the midst of the world of ideas and scholarship. Historically, this tension is powerfully manifested in the apparent opposition between ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’. The stereotype is that activists ‘do’ while intellectuals ‘think’.

Like almost everything else, this is not an Either-Or situation. There are good arguments for supporting the view that some intellectual activity, especially that which develops new vocabulary and arguments for social change, helps activism. Similarly, major agents of social change have often contributed to the creation of new perspectives on society which academics have not been able to.

Nevertheless this tension persists. Activists working with a variety of marginalised groups often believe that scholarship and ‘theory’ is of little use to them. Intellectuals, on their part, seem to have got cocooned inside their academic spaces or other elite spaces with very little engagement with the people and the situations that they write about. This has led to a rejection of intellectuals by many activists, and a benign neglect of activists by the intellectuals.

However, there is an important difference between both these acts. There is something special to the domain of activism which a knowledge-based intellectual activity does not have.

Being an activist

Becoming an intellectual is a long process and is often dependent on access to education as well as resources of various kinds. A school student will not be considered an intellectual but she can be an activist. She can join marches, shout slogans and write blogs. The opportunity to be an activist is more easily available. There is something more democratic and egalitarian about activism as compared to intellectualism, a feature which has often led to cynicism about intellectuals.

The idea of an organic intellectual, drawing from Gramsci’s original use of this term, can be understood as a mediation between these extremes. The history of activism in India has shown us that some of the greatest activists have also been organic intellectuals. Nevertheless, this invocation of the organic intellectual is itself a response to the specific privilege of being an intellectual.

I believe that there is one significant difference between the activist and the intellectual. An activist may or may not be a scholar. But what she does is far more important than the scholar because her action is most fundamentally a moral action. On the other hand, an intellectual’s action is most often an epistemic action, an action that is concerned with information and knowledge.

An activist acts on behalf of, and with, others. In most cases, activists work with the dispossessed and the marginalised. They can imagine a better world for those the larger society forgets about and, in doing this, they sacrifice something. Their actions are not geared towards personal benefit but for the benefit of communities and individuals with whom they can stand in solidarity. For an intellectual’s action to become moral, it needs the intervention of activists.

All activism involves a sense of giving and giving-up something. While ‘normal’ individuals in a society act in order to benefit themselves or their family, activists often act against their own interests. Often the actions of the activist improves the well-being of others (who are not just family and friends) more than that of the activist herself. And this is the real strength of an activist. Her actions are not rationally utilitarian but morally robust, as powerfully exemplified by countless activists who have worked with labour, women, the marginalised and the dispossessed.

This is the important skill that differentiates an activist and the intellectual. When a student goes on a protest, she is picking up an important skill — that of developing a moral sense of the social, a sense of concern and respect for others who may or may not be in a situation like hers. Her actions have the benefit of others as her good. And this sense, akin to the truth or soul force as Gandhi would call it, is the most important quality of being an activist.

The intellectual does not possess this necessarily, although some intellectuals have a deep sense of the moral. The history of intellectual labour has consistently removed the moral from the accumulation of knowledge. This is best exemplified by science and the creation of scientific knowledge decoupled from moral considerations. Academic intellectualism is clever, deep in knowledge and understanding but less so in its moral force. Organic intellectualism can be seen as an attempt to put back the moral within this pursuit of knowledge.

So when the larger society fails in its moral sense or when its intellectuals ignore moral action, activists will arise to counter them. When the moral temperature of a society falls, as it has globally in recent times, activists will arise. If this does not happen, the moral force of a society gets depleted. It is only the activists who can make sure that the moral skills of a society do not vanish. It is activists, who give up their personal, material comforts for the larger values of dignity, respect and equality of individuals in a society, who can function as the moral compass for others. Activists and intellectuals are essential to protecting the society from two of the greatest dangers — power and profit. Getting rid of such people is to compromise our present as well as the future of our society.

Sundar Sarukkai is Professor of Philosophy at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 6:57:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-activist-and-the-intellectual/article19771654.ece

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