In October 1943, as the fate of the Second World War started to turn, the great German writer and intellectual Thomas Mann addressed an illustrious group of lawmakers, journalists and tycoons at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Perhaps his audience expected him to be subtle and ironic, like every genius is supposed to be. Mann quickly disabused them of the notion. Speaking to them that day was not the novelist of many voices and hidden meanings but someone certain of a few truths and willing to go into battle for them.
In certain conditions, Mann said, it is the duty of intellectuals to renounce their freedom for the sake of freedom. He would not be questioning the values of freedom and justice. He was going to affirm them. It was his “duty to find the courage to affirm ideas over which the intellectual snob thinks that he can shrug his shoulders”.
The speech seems to have been written yesterday and to speak of the war in Ukraine. We, too, are surrounded by intellectual snobs who think that values such as freedom or justice are boring and banal. And perhaps they were, before young Ukrainians started to die for them, and to die for the freedom of the intellectual snob to continue mocking them.
During the past few months there have been those, such as the American political scientist John Mearsheimer, who have felt comfortable telling Ukrainians that the way to defend themselves against Russia is to lay down their weapons. The Canadian intellectual Jordan Peterson has argued that Russia invaded Ukraine to stop American “wokeism”.
There have been dozens of German intellectuals writing letters on how peace is better than war. Jürgen Habermas, the ultimate intellectual snob, has reflected with amusement on the childishness of the Ukrainians, who still believe that wars can be won. Silicon Valley luminaries have mocked the war as the new “current thing”, a form of virtue signalling used for social control. I have even heard from a prominent American conservative that he would be secretly cheering for Russia because he is against trans rights.
Intellectuals are not always required to take a side in the great battles of our time. In many cases they are required not to take a side. When political tribes fight about matters that can only be described as trifles, intellectuals should stay aloof and, if possible, bring their irony to bear on the dispute. But, as Mann pointed out, the moment arrives when a battle becomes personal for the intellectual as well.
In the Ukraine war intellectuals are face to face with their oldest enemy. This is a battle one can join with no ambivalence. It is a battle between those who create culture and those who aim only to destroy. In this case, the role of the intellectual is to inspire his or her society with the will to fight for sacred values. There is a moment when even intellectuals have to realise everything they stand for is at stake: when violence is pitted against culture, darkness against light, destruction against history, imbecility against mind.
This is also the moment when the difference between the intellectual and the academic is most acutely felt. The academic is, in a way, lost to the world. We have seen many examples during the war, among which Mearsheimer is only the most spectacular. The academic lives among theories and concepts. To quote from an imaginary dialogue between a Western academic and the Russian president tweeted by the writer John Ganz:
you: noooo its essentialismoooo to say russia is calling on its imperialistttt pasttttt
putin: I’m like peter the great in this bitch
Ganz’s tweet is satire, but Vladimir Putin expressed something close to this in a meeting with young Russian entrepreneurs on 9 June.
Intellectuals lose interest in simple truths because everyone has access to those. Conquest and war? Too primitive. Better to develop abstract theories, removed from the hustle and bustle of politics, which reflect real intellectual power and can remain the preserve of the expert class.
The problem, of course, is that the world is often a lot less subtle than theories, and in order to understand it one has to make a deliberate effort not to be subtle. Very few manage to do this. For many intellectuals in the past it took years or even decades before they learned how to be as naive as the events around them. Like George Orwell, they ended up feeling much closer to the world but irremediably disconnected from their peers.
[See also: Can Ukraine win the war with Russia?]
What did Orwell conclude? He was not particularly original in thinking that the role of the intellectual is to stand up for truth, but he added two further considerations which have urgent relevance given the war in Ukraine. First, there is no point in defending the truth in public if one does not use the whole arsenal of weapons without which it cannot survive: passion, skill, courage and, if need be, aggression. Second, there is no such thing as standing up for truth unless one has made the difficult effort of looking for it, sometimes on the front lines. The right to speak for truth is not granted but won.
More than ever, we need those who can tell us the truth about the war. The wisdom of the decisions we make in the next few weeks depends on this rare knowledge.
Note: This article was updated on 1 August 2022 to clarify that in a tweet of 23 July the journalist Michael Tracey queried whether there had been independent verification of the Russian attack on Odesa, and did not suggest that Russia wasn’t responsible for the attack either before or after the Kremlin officially claimed responsibility the following day. (Signed: The Editors)
This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special