Anti-Intellectualism and the US Left

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

A spectre is haunting US progressivism–the spectre of anti-intellectualism. While once leftist politics was defined by the unification of academic theory and mass movement–the essence of praxis–it increasingly looks devoid of the intellectual structure that traditionally defined the left. The movement is now everything, the strategy and goals are nothing.

Historian Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in US Life is often seen as an indictment of conservatism and reactionary politics. Anti-intellectualism is for Hofstadter a “resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind.” It is a conservative politics based on fear, nativism, emotion, and simply a repudiation of science, facts, and knowing. It is a dismissal of intellectuals as snobbish, elitist, and out of touch with ordinary US citizens. The Adlai Stevensons of the world are depicted as pointy-headed intellectuals. Vice-president Spiro Agnew once labeled them as an “effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” Trumpistas and Fox News hosts such as Tucker Carlson who espouse alternative facts about the covid vaccine and the 2020 election returns are only the latest manifestation of a reactionary and often paranoid anti-intellectualism that goes back to the Salem Witch Trials beginning in 1692. Yet the right no longer has a monopoly on its disdain or divorce from intellectualism–the contemporary left in America is increasingly captured by a similar disease.

Historically leftist politics was guided by intellectuals and theory. Think of Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci as theoreticians of radical politics. They crafted political economic critiques of capitalism, defining a plan for action that included criticism, strategy, and goals. It was the linking of theory to practice that defined left politics. Similarly, Michael Harrington, one of the founders of Democratic Socialists of America, fashioned a theory of politics and a vision for political movement in books such as The Twilight of Capitalism and The Next Left. Others such as Frances Fox Piven and Cornel West were progressives who bridged the gap between intellectualism and political activism. Progressive politics linked the intellectuals to the movement, working together to forge a plan for action that included policies, goals, and a strategy. Ideas mattered.

Today, there is no praxis. There is little or no effort to connect intellectual thinkers to everyday politics. What we used to call “armchair socialists” often twaddle esoteric theories about politics in academic journals that at best only other academics read, perhaps if only to build literature reviews for their next article. Similarly, what counts for progressive politics today ranges from warmed over neo-liberalism with a human face, such as what Barack Obama and now Joe Biden espouse, to at best movement politics lacking goals and strategy. More often than not progressive politics is reactionary–defined in opposition to Trumpism, overt racism, homophobia, or sexism. Rarely is it class-driven, at best it is a demand for better pay or working conditions, but again not linked to a plan for action or clearly articulated goals. It is slogans without strategy, ideas without ideology, politics without a program.

Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction brilliantly criticized capitalism for stripping away the aura of art and replacing it with politics. Capitalism politicized everything. His argument, building upon Karl Marx’s line in the Communist Manifesto that capitalism’s destructive power was that: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Capitalism destroys; the goal of socialism is to build from the ashes of what bourgeois society had burned.

Progressive politics today too has stripped the aura away, but this time from real leftist politics. Rightly it criticizes the murder of George Floyd, environmental destruction, or the horrible treatment of front-line workers during the pandemic. But the response to these real wrongs is social-media driven, simply reactive and not well thought out in terms of what the real institutional problem is, the goals for action, and the path to get there. Mad about police killing people of color? Get rid of the police. Mad about environmental destruction? Protest a pipeline. Angry about racism? Tear down statues of Confederate generals and Christopher Columbus. These actions may make one feel good, and if they were part of a Granscian war of position might make sense, but alone they are at best symbolic actions and they do not necessarily constitute political change. You need a plan of action. Bernie Sanders can get 25,000 to a rally, 2,000 to the polls. Political action is not liking something on Facebook.

Leftist anti-intellectualism replaces institutional change with cultural and historical denial. Social change is censoring the past and not learning from it. It is refusing to confront opposing hegemonic opinions and thinking that by preventing them from being expressed they will disappear. Leftist anti-intellectualism is the smugness of thinking one is correct, that the arc of history or demographic change is on your side, or that simply one merely needs to wait out the opposition to win a political battle.

After the revolution someone has to pick up the garbage; there must be a viable theory of how to replace and rebuild institutions. Left politics is critique but it is also constructive and goal directed. Build new political institutions to replace the old, do not simply run against the status quo. What we have now is leftist reactionary politics, anti-intellectual in the sense that it is raw emotion and anger, however justified.

Eduard Bernstein’s Evolutionary Socialism is often considered the intellectual origins of democratic socialism. Yet it is also criticized for Bernstein’s line the “ultimate aim of socialism is nothing, but the movement is everything.” For Bernstein, the practical politics of socialism was building a movement, getting social democrats elected, and then voting socialism into office. Whatever a majority produced would be a step toward some vague notion of socialism. However much criticized, at least Bernstein had something approaching a plan built upon some intellectual foundations. Much of today’s progressive politics is even less than that.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.