Here’s an interesting bit of history…
Ever wonder where the term “intellectual,” as a descriptor for a person, came from?
At the turn of the 20th century, there was an enormous scandal in France called the Dreyfus Affair, where the Jewish artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus was framed for selling military secrets to the Germans. Anti semitism was a powerful strain in French society at the time, and much of the hatred came from Dreyfus’ Jewish ancestry.
Several writers and poets, notably Emile Zola and Anatole France, used their position in society as respected writers and artists to speak out against the injustice that was going on against Dreyfus. They brought to attention details that the powers-that-were would have preferred kept secret, and thereby helped to eventually exonerate Dreyfus.
It’s important to note that those figures were not politicos or political scientists; their expertise was outside the political realm. So they were interfering with affairs that, professionally speaking, didn’t concern them. The anti-Dreyfusards who spoke out against Dreyfus (often with openly anti Semitic disdain) mockingly called Zola et al. “intellectual,” in the sense that they thought they were so smart they could talk about any subject they wanted.
Anatole France in particular took the term and ran with it, and now we have the modern notion of the “intellectual,” a person who, as Wikipedia puts it, “engages in critical thinking, research, and reflection about the reality of society, and proposes solutions for the normative problems of society.”
More specifically, it refers to people who use their abilities in writing/speaking/research/whatever and their access to information to, as Noam Chomsky put it “speak the truth and expose lies.” Emile Zola and Anatole France are the two examples from the Dreyfus Affair, but later Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre were both public intellectuals who spoke out against injustices. Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Edward Said, and Howard Zinn are a few other prominent examples. But anyone who uses their place of intellectual privilege (i.e. training/experience in research and access to information) to represent the underrepresented in the political sphere is an intellectual; the key element is your engagement with the public sphere – there is no such thing as a “private” intellectual.
And this element of critical dissidence has been a part of many societies. The names listed above are more contemporary, but we’ve all heard the story of Socrates being forced to drink hemlock for asking uncomfortable questions, and the stories of the prophets in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures who were crucified or exiled for questioning the authority of the king. That’s all part of the same historical line.
This is not to glorify the intellectual. In fact, more often than not the intellectual decides to side with the status quo and with power, since there are often large incentives to do so. Heidegger siding with the Nazis is a common example. We might say that although individual intellectuals can always be found speaking out against injustice, the class of intellectuals ( the intelligentsia) tends to be conservative. Why?
Because any ruling class worth anything will recognize that the underclasses have the power to overthrow them: they are immensely and invariably larger than the ruling classes. David Hume recognized this in 1777 when he wrote on “the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers…as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion.”
In light of that, the ruling class must control opinion, and for this reason is employs/creates the intellectual class to do just that. When it comes to issues of cultural or political indoctrination, it is the intelligentsia – teachers, professors, scientists, TV figures and journalists, etc – that has to be the most thoroughly indoctrinated, since they are the ones who control the flow of information. Therefore intellectual figures are given enormous incentives to go with the flow or to contribute to the ideological justification of whatever the powers-that-be want. Because they are indoctrinated (that is, they really believe in the status quo ideology), there is no perception on their part of an ideological repression; they don’t need to be censored, because they have been educated their whole lives to have the correct thoughts and the correct instincts on the relevant political issues.