Introduction

Justifying intellectual production in today’s environment is no easy task. There is, at once, the crumbling finances of the print word, which has defined the public sphere since the mid-eighteenth century. In its place has arisen a new digital paradigm forming not just new ways of communicating but restructuring, for the affluent West at least, new habits and practices of our daily lives. The Internet is a ubiquitous, heterogeneous, acephalous voice. In America, which forms the context of this essay, the ever increasing capacity for enlightenment immodestly implied by communicative technology is opposed by a reactionary suspicion of knowledge, expertise reduced to conspiracy. This is unsurprising, since, as the world becomes more interconnected, complex, and accelerating, individuals understand very little of the world and exert deliberate control over less. As always, technological progress makes a mockery of our ability to understand the consequences of our actions, and thus of our conceit to autonomy and informed choices. All of this is to say that the challenges of the modern world are not obviously ones solved by a new journal of ideas or a call for critical intellectuals.

To believe that speech, written or otherwise, is the solution to the world’s problems is worldview particular to modern liberal societies. It is perhaps that humans have found few alternatives for resolving conflict other than speech; as Hannah Arendt suggested, speech is the counterpoint to violence.1 Or perhaps our reliance on speech is because of its power to demand recognition from other, equally fragile beings. Here, speech threatens to subsume political action, which we might resist not because politics is primary or hegemonic, far from it, but because politics reflects the spaces where speech is most necessary, where the implicit social habits break down into disagreement. As a society, as political groups, as communities, and as neighbors, it is incumbent upon us to practice the art of sympathetic conversation, which might be the primary virtue of politics.

Political speech is mediated by the public sphere and its questions of access, voice, equality, and power. Who speaks is as contentious as where speech appears. Just this year, the topic of the “intellectual” has arisen from surprisingly different contexts. Nicholas Kristof provoked the most public and contentious responses with his op-ed accusing academics of absenting themselves from the public sphere. Elsewhere truncated discussions on twitter bemoan the diversity of access and voice in American media along gender and race. New journals, such as Jacobin or New Inquiry represent the argument, at least on the Left, that intellectual discourse should be fostered. The question of “intellectuals” is surprisingly vibrant today. Oddly we use the word “intellectual,” or person who is educated, instead of the more appropriate term “intelligensia,” a group or class of intellectuals performing a social function. What is less clear is whether the model of intellectual participation in the public sphere championed by the early nineteenth century is possible or desirable today. Surprisingly, despite the vitriol of the responses to Kristof, no one thought to question the terms of the debate.

Since the inception of the public sphere, it has been populated by intellectuals, though the latter term dates roughly from the fin de siecle. Two moments seem to mark watersheds in this history: The first appears in Kant’s What is Enlightenment? (1784) where the exhortation to think for yourself is balanced by the acknowledgement that the widespread enlightenment remains dependent on pedagogical practice of public intellectuals.2 The second moment is marked by Vladimir Lenin’s work on revolutionary practice, What is to be Done? (1902). The vanguard party is nothing more than Marxist intellectuals whose knowledge makes them necessary leaders. Lenin’s party is the rule of the intelligensia.3

Today the situation is much different. In the intervening years, a history of questionable political alliances have left the authority of intellectuals much diminished. The intellectual has become a comic figure: a court jester of questionable political judgment; a moralizing huckster trading bromides for notoriety; or just an academic climbing the ivory tower. Jean-Paul Sartre, the 20th century’s most iconic intellectual, famously supported Stalinism well past 1956. Today, the popular examples are Malcolm Gladwell, Alain de Botton, or Bernard-Henri Lévy, less questionable morally perhaps but with an attenuated critical vision. This alone makes Kristof’s argument bizarrely historically myopic. Indeed, it begs the question: what should the relationship be between intellectuals, as a group or individually, and the public sphere?

The Enlightened Public

What is Enlightenment? is, for us today, a foundational statement in the sense that we read, wrestle, and reinterpret it, but never break with the discursive continuity established by the text (and by Kant’s critical project more generally). For Kant, as we will see, the intellectual is a shepherd of human teleology.

His influence in political theory remains strongest where theorists most praise the virtues of the public sphere.4 Kant never wrote a major treatise on political theory, though his essays on the subject have since been collected under that rubric posthumously. They are largely concerned with the extension of moral duty to questions of freedom, law, and history. Nevertheless, Kant exerts a strong influence on how we think about the role of public discussion in politics and ethics. He was deeply influenced by, and returns that influence to, classical political liberalism: we owe the importance of autonomy—self-legislation—to Kantian morality. For Kant, political freedom is not merely desirable in itself, it is a necessary precondition of moral action: we cannot act out of duty unless we are free to do otherwise. Kant’s point appears to militate against all forms of authority: who can be both free and accept the guidance of another?

What is Enlightenment? is traditionally presented as a story of individual development and taught as a call to individual self-cultivation. And it is true that while Kant was faithful to the traditional German value of Bildung, it would be a mistake to read Kant’s famous “Sapere Aude!” as merely an appeal to throw off the “ball and chain of his permanent immaturity.”5 The broader context of Kant’s political essays clearly transfers that responsibility to society and to the philosophes responsible for promoting the moral progress of man. A public ostensibly self-sufficient remains under the watchful eye of the “scholar.” Jürgen Habermas, in his early study of the public sphere, explains:

The position of this public was ambiguous. Being, on the one hand, under tutelage and still in need of enlightenment, it yet constituted itself, on the other hand, as a public already claiming the maturity of people capable of enlightenment.6

This is the fundamental tension at the heart of the Kantian enlightenment: The fulfillment of Kant’s call to overthrow the false authority of tutelage is accomplished only through the careful guidance of public intellectuals.

Kant’s ideal egalitarian, critical public, sharing knowledge and judgment to lift themselves from ignorance towards enlightenment, is quickly tempered. Public reason was unlikely to lead to a general enlightenment without the intervention of an educated elite: “Such guardians, once they have themselves thrown off the yoke of immaturity, will disseminate the spirit of rational respect for personal value and for the duty of all men to think for themselves.” Kant, evidently, was a Leninist avant la lettre, a theorist of an enlightened vanguard injecting moral virtue into the consciousness of the masses. He was not sanguine about the reception of such an elitist pedagogy. He warned that the people are likely to reject the example of their “guardians”: a public, incited against their benevolent teachers, “may subsequently compel the guardians themselves to remain under the yoke.”7

Political philosophy is haunted by the story of Socrates and his treatment by the Athenian polis.8 Philosophy unsettles the political order and asks uncomfortable questions; it is suspicious of authority. But the key historical opposition is not our modern “people versus power,” but a fear of the democratic masses pushing back against the benign rule of their intellectual betters. Hatred of democracy, to borrow the title of Rancière’s pamphlet, has been a constant of political history. Kant echoed this tension. Intellectuals moderate the irrational political passions of the masses, as parents do for children. After the excesses of the French Revolution, of which Kant’s audience would have been all too aware, the celebration of the enlightened intellectual took a conservative, elitist cast.

Kant’s formalistic liberalism explains the strange political message of the essay. It concludes its opening call for independent thought by stating: “Argue as much as you like, but Obey!” Indeed, Kant spends much of the essay insulating political leaders from criticism. Kant’s public sphere was not a source of political legitimacy in the same way that it is today. Instead, Kant viewed it primarily as a pedagogical space. His standard for legitimacy was hypothetical consent, requiring only a correct application of moral reasoning by an individual. Thus it occurs privately and not, as we are more used to today, through a vigorous public debate. The key distinction is between private reason, which may be limited without consequences, and public reason, which may not. Today, we consider private space protected from legislation, while our public lives are subjected to law. Further complicating the language game is that we hold a strong presumption that speech, public or private, is protected. For Kant, however, it is public, non-professional reason which is free, and not, as we might suspect, what he calls private, or professional, reason.9 Public reason is employed in the role of human, homme, or species; private reason, confined to the household or office, is employed in the role of bourgeois. In today’s terms, when academics are at home, in private, and not in their role as professional knowledge workers, their public interventions are allowed.

There is the problem, no less relevant today, of alloying personal interest into a general will or public interest. In modern democracies, we assume that elections aggregate individual into group preferences. In the Kantian state, laws are legitimate if both legislators and citizens can imagine themselves consenting to those laws.10 The political legitimacy of the Kantian constitutional state relied on the existence, however imaginary, of public sphere wherein the general will arises and may be apprehended. The general will does not, for Kant, arise out of personal interest. Instead, public reason disqualifies the private, personal qualities—just as for many other theorists self-interest must be limited if politics is to serve the common good. Kant’s public sphere is several things at once: It is a really existing conversation in which the public gradually achieves enlightenment; it is an imaginary, “regulative” idea guiding legislators in crafting laws; and it is the intellectual guardians who mediate between the general will and self-interested masses.

Kantian intellectuals practice disinterested reason. They are bodies without interests. Or in the language of Kant’s moral theory: they recognize their duty despite their particular interests. (Again, this is not a conceit unique to Kant.) Their existence is crucial to the function the public sphere performs in Kant’s political theory. They practice the stance of disinterest that both educates the masses of the correct political judgment. Secondly their disinterested participation creates the general will by which laws may be judged.

For Kant, the general will was a tangible thing, because he assumed that the structure of reason was the same for each individual. I doubt today we hold that same faith. At the least, we have a healthier respect for pluralism and the central place of disagreement in modern politics. Modern politics is far too cynical to believe that anyone, intellectuals or politicians, leave their self-interest at home when they speak in public.

Marx, writing a scant few years after Kant, criticized his predecessors for assuming that the bourgeoise could embody universal, disinterested consciousness, but he too imagined a world where one class or group was a cipher for the whole, the working class. The history of Marxism, though, is a history of the the failure of this vision—not because the Soviet Union failed, but because the working class has at every chance failed to seize control in the way Marx envisioned.

The Enlightened Party

In many ways, Lenin is the antithesis of Kant: radical where Kant was liberal; violent where Kant is evolutionary; transgressive where Kant is normative; intellectually derivative where Kant is original. If Kant is celebrated as a quintessential philosopher of political liberalism, Lenin’s writing sneers at the pretensions of bourgeois freedom. He was a caustic polemicist who engaged in arguments with his contemporary socialists both in Russia and Europe, where he lived for decades in exile. The shrill power of his writing took full advantage of the public sphere that stitched the national parties into an international workers movement, then centered around the 2nd International dominated by stale, dogmatic ideas. His power, arguably even after 1917, rose from his ability to wield a pen against his opponents—to insult and cajole when reason failed.

Marx and Lenin both agreed in many ways with Kant: that human progress and enlightenment was inevitable and desirable. They are enclosed within the eschatological circle of philosophical Christianity that promises a resolution to conflict and an answer to our existential questions. Lenin responded to the perceived shortcomings of Marx’s theory, but he did so by invoking the idea of the intellectual. According to Lenin, the working class in Russia failed to develop at the same level of sophistication as in Western Europe. If Marxism required workers to be brutalized by capitalism, Russia was underdeveloped economically and politically repressive compared to Germany. Lenin’s novel contribution to Marxism was to divest the workers of any autonomous development of self-understanding, of enlightenment, and transfer that potential to a group of intellectuals tasked with educating the masses. Here we find an unexpected consonance with Kant: Enlightenment is the goal, intellectuals the vehicle.

Lenin’s reputation is deservedly tarnished by the history of the Soviet Union, but after 1989, it has been possible to revisit more soberly the life and legacy of Lenin. The European Left’s rehabilitation of Lenin rests on his status as a political leader, not as an intellectual or totalitarian dictator.11⁠ This is a selective, contestable appropriation, as is the one offered here.

What is to be done? is Lenin’s first defense of the vanguard party, the committed revolutionary core driving history forward. The Leninist Party solved a practical problem: how to educate and lead a revolutionary party with mass appeal without being arrested. If the working class, especially in Russia, could not achieve revolutionary emancipation, then a group was needed to shepherd them towards the goal. This was the role of the Leninist Party: to understand the ostensible truth of Marxism better than the people supposed to understand it intuitively. The intellectuals knew the truth of capitalist oppression better than the oppressed. The vanguard was Lenin’s term for the educated core of intellectuals who retained control of the party newspaper, congresses, and propaganda. They were the readers of the sacred texts of Marxism, the interpreters and teachers of its truths. The 1903 split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was not over violence, but over the level of access and responsiveness between the party core and the workers. Lenin prioritized isolation over accountability. He makes several reasonable arguments for his position, pointing to the Tsarist secret police—who had already prosecuted and exiled him once—and the need to work in secret.

Prior to 1917, Lenin was a writer, editor, and fundraiser. After his Siberian exile, for the high-crime of distributing a newspaper, Lenin moved in 1900 to Geneva where he served on the editorial board of Iskra for the next three years, along with several prominent Russian socialists. WITBD was written during this period. In 1902, when Lenin was editing foreign reports and writing his scathing denunciation of his Russian compatriots, there was no expectation of immanent revolution. Perhaps there was a small hope in Western Europe, but not in Tsarist Russia. After 1905, there is an element of comic intrigue to Bolshevik’s revolutionary activities. The reputation of Lenin as a masterful political tactician is retroactive, and despite the ministrations of Žižek, et al., largely apocryphal. But as a writer, a public intellectual, and a theorist of the intelligensia he is instructive. The central text in which he addresses this problem is What is to be Done?

Where Lenin referred to the tasks of his party core, he never refers to violence explicitly, though this changes in later texts. Subsequent events clearly demonstrate Lenin’s willingness to deploy extra-legal violence. But within the text itself, there is little trace of the Leninist putsch leader of 1917. The text is not a tactical handbook, nor even an organizational guide outside of Lenin’s rejection of democratic control. It is largely a polemic dismissal of fellow Russian socialists’ willingness to embrace German Social Democracy and its attenuated version of Marxist revolution.

Instead, the translation reads “as theoreticians, as propagandists, as agitators, and as organizers.”12 This is characteristic of the essay: the primary task of the vanguard party is not violence, but propaganda. And the book contains not a manual of terror, but a call for an “all-Russia newspaper” edited, of course, by Lenin himself. In this text, the vanguard party is primarily an editorial staff committed to writing, printing, and distributing Marxist theory for the workers. Remarkably, for Lenin, this organ solves the two central problems posed in the text: It allows for relative autonomy and secrecy by the Party leaders, while at the same time it educates and coordinates the workers. Much of the text is devoted to supporting this conclusion.

The problem of Leninism has always been the monopolization of knowledge and power implied by the Party. Only the party properly understands the science of Marxism and how to apply it.13 Thanks to their special knowledge, the authority of Marxist intellectuals was, if not infallible, then sufficiently advanced as to be unquestionable. Their expertise made it impossible for the layperson to criticize their judgments. The intellectual authority of those leaders proved the far more dangerous legacy of Leninism. The consequences of this vision are profound and well-documented. It introduced a centralizing logic into a Marxism that had hitherto been diverse and heterodox.

There is an aporia between the emancipatory utopia of Marx, which echoes Kant’s valuation of freedom and self-development, and the Leninist Party. The difference between Kant and Lenin is that Lenin has resolved the tension, identified by Habermas above, between the intellectuals and the masses in favor of the former. There is no longer the presumption that humanity can improve itself. Instead there is a subtle but powerful displacement of progress, moral and political, from the public or workers to a detached group of individuals, who because of their knowledge are uniquely suited to move history forward. Unlike Kant, Lenin has no need for consent to legitimate Party rule: the party already speaks in place of the general will and the mediating function of the public sphere is irrelevant. In his favor, however, Lenin has discarded Kant’s assumptions about detached intellectuals. The conceptual shift from intellectual to intelligensia marks a transition from an abstract liberal subject to a more nuanced sociological theory. The intelligensia, while not quite a class, nevertheless share common interests, are identifiable as a group, and have influence and ideas tied to that identity.14 We can speak now of intellectuals as more than a disinterested individual reasoning in public. Intellectuals, like other groups in society, prove to be self-interested and their arguments reflect it.

If Kant theorized the enlightened public sphere; Lenin complicates the story. Kant exerts a strong influence on our assumptions about publicity, political legitimacy, and social progress. Both our sense of how democracy is supposed to work and our assumptions about social obligations are, today, mediated through the “talking cure” of public discussion.15 What we have failed to appreciate is how tightly coupled theory of the public sphere is with intellectuals. From the beginning, the process of enlightenment, and of forging political consensus, was one guided by an educated elite. The sort of intuitive practical knowledge that once resided in the people, then the public, is finally delegated to experts. This progression is certainly not a problem of Marxism or of the Left, but a general problem confronted by all political theory. It is a problem of democratic representation: how to represent the interests of the people, when such interests are obscure, contradictory, and poorly articulated by the people themselves. Kant and Lenin never posed the question in these terms, however, for both thinkers, the intellectual class, those who trade economic for cultural capital, function as the hermenuticists of the general will.

Final Thoughts

Knowledge today is too specialized to find Kant’s general public intellectual very persuasive. We are paradoxically too close and too far from his world: We are closer to his public of educated interlocutors who, by leveraging communication technology, have largely assumed the guise of detached knowledge consumers, sampling widely but shallowly from history, criticism, art, or literature. We are farther from accepting the benevolent influence of “authoritative” intellectuals or any authority at all. Critical democratic theory has yet to unpack the consequences of the appeal to authority implicit in intellectual production. Our expectations for the public sphere increasingly resemble radical democratic equality that is instinctively suspicious of expertise of any kind. Habermas’ diagnosis of the disintegration of the public sphere remains relevant: “the public is split apart into minorities of specialists who put their reason to use non-publicly and the great mass of consumers whose receptiveness is public but uncritical.”16

The critical intellectual is not dead. Perhaps, given the examples of Kant and Lenin, it is impossible to think the public sphere without the intellectual. However, the space in the public sphere has withered as society has embraced instrumental forms of knowledge. Prying open that space, and the possibility of alternative critical languages, must be the goal. The question of whether the intellectual is still relevant today can be translated as: from what place, with what linguistic resources, and with what authority, can we speak critically, reflexively about modern society, an object we are enclosed within?

We should fear the loss of a sort of non-technocratic, non-economic thinking once considered the foundation of a developed human. America’s policy makers call relentlessly for educators to equal the math and science skills of our global rivals, forgetting perhaps that America more than exceeds its rivals in disregard for moral judgment, ethics, and respect for human life. In every aspect of life, our priorities speak to this consensus, so presciently diagnosed by Herbert Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man, that progress is no longer moral but technological and nothing remains but the final reduction of human to tool. It is remarkable that philosophy began by marking the distinction between the master and tool and today all that remains is the final instrumentalization of the human tool. The Aristotelian relationship is reversed: our tools make us more than we make them, morally and otherwise.

Such non-instrumental knowledge was once the purview of the liberal arts university. We do not want to waste time wringing our hands over the death of the humanities or the academy in general; others have done it better and with more competence. Suffice it to say that the crisis of the university again demonstrates the values of American society: defund state universities in order to pay for the police-surveillance state. Academics have, more often than not, followed decline of politics into administration and enlisted social science in the service of state power. The alliance between social science and the state after 9/11 has been especially problematic. Knowledge served torture and invasion. Political Science, my home discipline, has not sufficiently persuaded policy makers of the difficulties of creating stable democratic societies, mistaking the absence of states for the malleability of culture. And in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks a new genre of political theory appeared calling for an aggressive defense of liberal values, conveniently draping warmongering in more palatable cloth. A new iron triangle is forming from the passage of scholars from elite universities into government administration. In sum, it is not that the academy has disengaged fully from the public sphere, but that its contributions serve to enshrine more fully the status quo.

If you will permit me a simple metaphor, that speech can be understood cartographically, then it is the loss of the intellectual space that is most significant. We can provisionally posit two troubling trends that shape that space today: On one hand, since the second World War, technology and science has achieved a hegemonic position as the arbiter of truth. Such hegemony has come to define not only our social values, but has increasingly structured subjectivity on an atomic level. How we think about ourselves, our role in the world, and our obligations to others is determined by technological and scientific practices. On the other hand, the growing specialization and professionalization of knowledge in the academy has left theoretical knowledge increasingly esoteric and disconnected from broader public life. As scientific values encroach on the traditional domain of the humanities, we are losing those counter-knowledges and practices that might, at one time, have provided society and its constituents with a way to think against the status quo. Today, one-dimensional citizens of a technologized, consumer society imagine a neoliberal future of frictionless communication between disembodied consciousnesses. Those that might have argued otherwise, relying on practices, knowledges, theories developed out of adventurous reimaginings, they have ceded the public discussion.

In the past, the urgency of now motivated the task of theory. The fear of the lost moment, of missed eschatological resolution, pressed upon our theoretical conscious. Theory waited for its Finland Station. “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.”17 The disenchantment of modernity has finally colonized theory. Today theory is spectral: shorn of its relevance for political action, it is narcissistically consumed with its own impotence. We must relearn how to think utopia, to find potency in our theoretical diagnoses of society, and to translate that into political change. It is not that theory is mute, indeed in many ways theorists clamor more loudly than ever. But what is being said? What questions are being confronted, aside from the ever-present professional anxiety implicit in our new monetized universities? What habits and practices have been placed under our discursive microscopes? What subjects, counter-practices, resistances have been discovered and mobilized?


  1. Hannah Arendt, “On Violence” in Crisis of the Republic, (Mariner Books, 1972). 

  2. Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? in Political Writings. 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 54-60. Available online

  3. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, What is to Be Done? in Selected Works vol. 1, trans. Joe Fineberg and George Hanna. Available online at the Lenin Internet Archive, part of the Marxist Internet Archive 

  4. The best examples of Kant’s influence on political philosophy today are Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls. 

  5. Kant Enlightenment, 55. 

  6. Jurgen Habermas. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (MIT Press, 1991), 105. 

  7. Kant Enlightenment, 55. 

  8. See the Crito and the Apology in The Collected Dialogues of Plato. They are also discussed here. The notion that politics and philosophy are inherently antagonistic is borrowed from the work of Leo Strauss from whom I otherwise mark my difference.  

  9. “The public use of man’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men; the private use of reason may quite often be very narrowly restricted, however, without undue hindrance to the progress of enlightenment” (Kant, Enlightenment, 55). 

  10. “It is in fact merely an idea of reason, which nonetheless has undoubted practical reality; for it can oblige every legislator to frame his laws in such a way that they could have been produced by the united will of a whole nation, and to regard each subject, in so far as he can claim citizenship, as if he had consented within the general will” (Kant, “Theory and Practice,” Political Writings, 79). 

  11. Primarily found in Slavoj Žižek, Revolution at the Gates (Verso, 2002). 

  12. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, The Lenin Anthology, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1975), 52.  

  13. On this topic, see A.J. Polan, Lenin and the End of Politics (University of California Press, 1984).  

  14. This was developed by Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, and more recently by Pierre Bourdieu in several of his books. 

  15. I borrow the phrase from Deborah Cook, “The Talking Cure in Habermas’ Republic,” The New Left Review 12 (2001). 

  16. Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, p. 175.  

  17. Theodor W. Adorno. Negative Dialectics (New York: Continuum, 1973), p. 3.