Revolutionary intellectuals

History will reward those thinkers whose ideals and actions remained aligned with the people.

Issa Shivji, screengrab from August 2017.

Intellectuals are producers and purveyors of ideas. They produce all kinds of ideas, many ideas: ideas to rationalize and legitimize, ideas to explain and deceive; ideas to mystify and mesmerize; ideas to decorate and demonize; ideas to inform and entertain—all kinds of ideas. They may produce ideas gratuitously or for a price—these days, more often than not, for a price. Thus ideas become a commodity, an artificial commodity. So to Karl Polanyi’s list of three artificial commodities—land, labour and money—we should add a fourth one: ideas.

When mystifying and clarifying ideas are fused together and systematized in a coherent whole, they become ideologies. As ideologies are propagated and disseminated, and internalized, they become common sense—beyond doubt, beyond question. Such ideologies we call hegemonic—following the Italian philosopher and political activist, Antonio Gramsci.

Intellectuals produce ideas to explain and define others, and in the service of others. But they also produce ideas to define and serve themselves. And they are very good when it comes to producing self-serving ideas. They exaggerate and inflate their importance and role, their indispensability and alacrity, their sanctimony and sacrifice. Intellectuals are one species who are egoistic to the bone. But being masters of mystification, they package their egoism as altruism.

Who are intellectuals? Half a century ago when I was still a student at the University of East Africa, Dar es Salaam Campus, Ali Mazrui, the rising and shining intellectual star of the time, defined an intellectual as someone who is fascinated by ideas. “Even a clown is fascinated by ideas,” a student-comrade retorted, obviously in ridicule. Now with the maturity of hindsight, I say: why not? Indeed, a clown is an intellectual. And some clowns are bloody good intellectuals. They can do something that academic intellectuals can’t do. They poke fun at power; they ridicule power. They not only speak truth to power, as Said would have it, but they also speak to people, which many of us fail to do. We speak to each other, and, a few, to our credit, do dare speak truth to power! If such few did not exist, we would have fallen from people’s grace long ago.

There are intellectuals and intellectuals. A revolutionary intellectual of humble intellectual origins (he was a school teacher), sitting in a fascist jail in Italy like Gramsci, gave us the first significant classification of intellectuals—organic intellectuals. To simplify Gramsci somewhat, we can say there are organic intellectuals of the ruling bloc and there are organic intellectuals of the dominated classes. They generate and articulate respective ideologies from the elements of existing ideologies according to the hegemonic logic or principle of the dominating or dominated bloc. Organic intellectuals of the oppressed and exploited social classes may be considered, proto-revolutionary intellectuals to the extent that they seek to make the ideology—by word and deed—of the oppressed hegemonic. By thus participating in ideological struggles, they contribute to the underlying class struggle, even though they may not participate directly in such struggles. Some of these organic intellectuals may become actual revolutionary intellectuals by directly participating in class struggles.

We have examples of such revolutionary intellectuals in our midst. Amilcar Cabral was one such intellectual; so was Chris Hani, John Garang, Félix Moumié, Walter Rodney, to name a few. All of them were assassinated at strategic moments in the respective struggles they were involved in. We do not know how they would have metamorphosed on attaining power. I know of at least one and his metamorphosis in power—Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. He was the head of our University Students African Revolutionary Front (USARF) when we were students at the University of Dar es Salaam. He was involved in armed struggle to oust Idi Amin Dada, the coup leader who overthrew Milton Obote and ushered in an eight year reign of terror in Uganda. Obote returned to power only to be overthrown by Museveni, who took power with a pretty radical program of transformation. Once in power, Museveni, however, was so fascinated by it that now he doesn’t want to leave it. (I’m not sure if it is a normal trajectory—from being fascinated by ideas of power to being fascinated by power. I guess power produces its own ideas—like the idea of immortality in power.)

Some putative, revolutionary intellectuals, particularly in the academia, metamorphose into public intellectuals. This is a relatively new term in the African discourse on intellectuals. I can’t recall if that is how we described ourselves in the heydays of the 1960s and 1970s. Public intellectuals, I take it, are political intellectuals. They comment on everything political but also on matters not so political. They are articulate and admired by young aspiring intellectuals and have many followers on social media. They are sought after by the media to comment on anything and everything. Their works and deeds are in the public domain and they do not shy away from publicity which, occasionally, puts them on the firing line of politicians.

A few, brilliant ones, migrate to the northern hemisphere joining Ivy League universities. Many, not so “brilliant,” remain home. A few of the remainder continue to be in the academia weathering the storm of economic scarcity and overt and covert political repression. Not so few, give up intellectual vocation altogether. They shift their terrain to NGOs and policy institutes, where donor pressure and funding constraints metamorphose them from public intellectuals to policy pundits. Other few, not so few in some countries, “enter” politics as practitioners. They become politician-intellectuals. Very soon they find themselves increasingly giving up the consistency and commitment required of a public intellectual to become politician-entrepreneurs.

When I talk of few entering political power, I am not referring only to state power. I include entering into other sites of power—à la Michel Foucault—like university administrations.

What about our migrants to the North? A significant few attain celebrity status. They are held up as an example of some—I say some!—brilliance in an otherwise intellectually barren continent. They are under pressure to produce best sellers to maintain their status. And what sells best in the North is that which finds a niche in the academic fashion of the day. Which means they end up recycling and regurgitating the same content packaged in fancier language.

Said says somewhere: “All organic intellectuals are public intellectuals but all public intellectuals are not organic intellectuals.” I agree with the second part—all public intellectuals are not organic intellectuals. In fact, many public intellectuals give up their organic link with the oppressed masses so as not to tarnish their public image. I am not sure, though, of the first part of Said’s statement. I don’t think all organic intellectuals are public intellectuals. If I am right in my description of public intellectuals, then organic intellectuals are not, and cannot afford to be public intellectuals. Their loyalty is not to the amorphous public. Their loyalty is to the oppressed, the downtrodden, to the wretched of the earth. And more often than not that loyalty has to be hidden, has to be disguised and at times has even to go underground rather than exhibited in public. When Said made that statement, maybe, he was thinking of public intellectuals in the North, or public intellectuals of the South living in the North.

Then there is another category of intellectuals. Fidel Castro, agonizing over the role of intellectuals in the Cuban revolution, in an address to the conference of writers and artists in 1961, talked about what he called honest intellectuals. Honest intellectuals don’t want to tell lies. They want to pursue truth and stick to truth. But they don’t want to speak truth to power. They don’t want to take sides. That is not the job of intellectuals. They plead objectivity and neutrality. They desire change but don’t want to do anything about it. They are fence sitters. As fence sitters they are vulnerable; inevitably they roll over to the side of domination, their neutrality notwithstanding.

Honest intellectuals constitute a huge chunk of academic intellectuals. Their site of operation is universities and institutions of higher education. As the academia is increasingly commodified, universities become marketplaces. Academics, willingly or under duress, have to break up their courses and introduce new ones to make them saleable to the consumers. They have to package, brand and certify their products. History becomes “tourism and heritage;” corporate greed becomes “corporate responsibility” and democratic governance is taught as “good governance.” Archaeology is museumized whose artifacts are exhibited at a fee to ignorant and disinterested American tourists. Political economy is replaced by econometrics, with no sense of either politics or economy. Africans in Africa study Africa in centers of African studies in the image of centers in the North. Aren’t all our studies African studies? Law students write PhDs applying the convention on rights of indigenous people to their own citizens. To talk of citizens’ rights is foreign, Western; to ruminate on indigenous rights is authentic, African! We have been metamorphosed—from colonial natives and migrants to neo-colonial indigenous and tyrants, thanks to imperial intellectuals and their African caricatures.

A few resist the metamorphosis but many, with an eye on funding, job security and promotions resign to their fate, taking pride in the ranking of their universities. Just as ratings agencies, Fitch and Moody’s, give credit rating to our countries, some fishy ranking agencies in the North rank our universities. Once upon a time our universities took pride in being centers of controversy; now we covet to become centers of excellence. You can’t attain excellence if you’re controversial! A simple truth often overlooked.

As I approach the end of my auto-critique, let me take the tongue out of my cheek and pay tribute to hundreds of revolutionary, including public intellectuals, who have sacrificed their lives and families in the service of the liberation of their countries and the emancipation of the masses. Revolutionary intellectuals led our liberation movements. Revolutionary intellectuals initiated and organized our left, and democratic, formations. Thugs and mercenaries of imperialism and their hirelings have murdered revolutionary intellectuals all over the continent. They have been subjected to torture and humiliation of prison as Harold Wolpe was. But with Thomas Sankara they continue chanting: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”

Revolutionary intellectuals, whether living or dead, continue to inspire and lead by example our young intellectuals. Revolutionary intellectuals are humble and modest people. They do not inflate their role nor do they suffer from inflated egos. They remain the beacon of hope.

History will reward them.

These are edited excerpts from Shivji’s Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture at the University of Witswatersrand in South Africa on 19 October 2017.

About the Author

Issa Shivji is Director of the Nyerere Resource Centre at the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology in Dar es Salaam.

Further Reading