What is and what does an intellectual do? | Luis Britto Garcia


Intellectuals, intelligence, intelocrats, intelligentsia, even glitter or pomade are terms in vogue since 1880, when a group of thinkers and artists established a position in France on the controversial Dreyfus case and after fierce debate achieved its revision. If the terminology is novel, the issue goes back to early human societies. From Egypt with its scribes, China with its mandarins, Greece with its philosophers, and the Middle Ages with its monks, there have been human beings specialized in the conception, preservation, diffusion and application of ideas. Which of them can be appropriately designated as intellectuals, in the modern sense?


For the fourth quarter of 2018, the National Institute of Statistics reports that of the 32.985.763 Venezuelans 15.947.719 are economically active, about half. Of these, 15,08% are professionals, technicians and the like; 3,6% managers, administrators or directors¸ 7,1% office employees and related, and 17,8% salespeople and dependents. 44,3% of the workforce, approximately a quarter of the population, works in the collection, processing and dissemination of information, in which the use of the intellect predominates over physical effort. They can therefore be classified as intellectual workers.


Without an intellectual worker there is no civilization. Since sapiens first used a pebble as a tool, the intellectual workers originated the most decisive practices and far-reaching changes in history. Currently, they activate the so-called tertiary sector of the economy (research, education, information, tourism, entertainment, finance, politics) that generates about 70% of global GDP. The physiognomy of a country is revealed, more than by anything else, by the proportion of intellectual workers that hosts. But a majority of these only apply formulas and procedures elaborated by others, without adding or omitting any component. To be rated as intellectual in the modern sense, the intellectual worker it must also be creative, propose new ideas or knowledge or significantly rework existing ones.


But it is not enough to act creatively in the generation, reworking or dissemination of information to be considered intellectual in the modern sense. Such designation applies historically for those who use the prominence obtained in their specific field to intervene in public debate. Newton, who limited his studies to the natural sciences, is a intellectual worker; Voltaire, Zola, Marx, Engels, who use their skills as writers and thinkers to creatively propose social and political change, are intellectuals in the modern sense of the term.


This distinction does not deny or evade the concept of organic intellectual developed by Gramsci. Between the intellectual workers most can be considered organic insofar as they apply their specific skills in institutions of the class to which they belong, either to perpetuate their hegemony or to establish it. Although there are intellectuals who do not show an institutional affiliation, the meaning of their works makes up for it. But they should only be considered intellectuals, in the contemporary sense of the term, the group of intellectual workers that exerts a creative function and further actively intervenes in public debate. Noam Chosmky, a prominent linguist on the academic staff of a university institution, is also a public person, who by expressing his opinions can and does influence the course of events he comments on. 


This influence can be exercised even outside the will of the intellectual worker. No one is further from the intention of participating in a public controversy than Nicolás Copernicus, who ordered that his works on the heliocentric system remain unpublished until after his death. But the idea expressed in them was of such relevance, it so decisively modified our perception of the world, that even today we speak of "Copernican" revolutions. Similarly, Charles Darwin refused to participate in the fierce debate that sparked the publication of The origin of speciesBut his research still largely determines the way we interpret life. I am inclined to also qualify as intellectuals to people whose conceptual work has a decisive economic, political, social or cultural effect, even if it has not been programmed, foreseen or debated by its author.


The preceding categorization includes artists. A work of art is an idea expressed sensually. Few things are as decisive in the ideological debate as aesthetic creations, either because of the ideological content they express, or because of the authority that the creator's opinions invest in. The compositions of Chopin and Giuseppe Verdi are powerful agents of the national revival of Poland and Italy. Picasso's Guernica is the ideological tombstone of fascism.


All the revolutions of modernity have been conceptually prepared by enlightened avant-gardes. For the constitution of these a nucleus of intellectual workers with difficulties of social integration is necessary; with creativity to formulate an alternative project; that it elicits adhesions; that these are validated by a commitment, and that they have the means of communication to spread it. Without intellectual there is no revolution. Once this has been achieved, it is essential to understand reality in order to plan the new society, defend it and maintain the cohesion of the emerging classes. Without intellectuals there is no socialism.


 What to respond to those who despise the task of the intellectual? Once and for all, the young Karl Marx answered in a lapidary way to the mystic Weitling: "Ignorance has been of no use to anyone."


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