The truth speakers

Absent Minds: intellectuals in Britain

Stefan Collini <em>Oxford University Press, 526pp, £25</em

Have intellectuals vanished, as Stefan Collini's deftly ambiguous title suggests? Did the distinguished lineage from Voltaire to Bertrand Russell finally die out with the passing of Edward Said? There are, to be sure, many clever people still around; but not all clever people are intellectuals, and not all intellectuals are particularly clever. Academics, broadly speaking, count as intellectuals, given that they trade in ideas; but so-called public intellectuals, those who seek to be opinion-formers and cultural commentators, are a rarer, perpetually endangered breed.

Raymond Williams once remarked that the only sure thing about the organic society was that it had always gone, and the same applies to the flourishing of the intelligentsia. Michel Foucault proclaimed the passing of the classical, Sartrean type of intellectual, one who pronounced authoritatively on everything from aesthetics to politics as the very voice of truth and justice. With the death of grand narratives, he considered, these hubristic creatures would need to draw in their horns and think small. Yet despite Foucault's strictures, Jürgen Habermas, Pierre Bourdieu and Julia Kristeva continued to operate in this public space, as though they had never heard that it had been closed down.

Lamenting the decline of the "general" intellectual is part of the general intellectual's stock-in-trade. For F R Leavis, only the disinterested gaze of the literary critic could withstand the waves of commercial vulgarity and political partisanship churned up by the 20th century. Yet this Canute-like project had happened several times before. Matthew Arnold had argued much the same in Victorian England, while Samuel Johnson mourned the collapse of a universal knowledge almost a century earlier. Despite Johnson's complaint that no one mind could now encompass an increasingly fragmented, specialised culture, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Stuart Mill made a brave stab at doing just that. Once again, public intellectuals stubbornly overlooked the supposed fact that they had withered away, defeated by the decline of the public sphere, the rapid division of conceptual labour and - in our own day - the rise of a formidable new power of opinion-forming known as the media.

The British are supposed to be particularly averse to intellectuals, a prejudice closely bound up with their dislike of foreigners. Indeed, one important source of this Anglo-Saxon distaste for highbrows and eggheads was the French revolution, which was seen as an attempt to reconstruct society on the basis of abstract rational principles. For the revolution's critics, a fanatical bunch of disaffected dreamers had turned an entire nation into a laboratory for their odious thought experiments. The stoutly pragmatic British, by contrast, trust in custom, instinct, precedent, piecemeal reform and robust common sense. If they ever decide to drive on the right-hand side of the road, they will make the change gradually. The British middle classes, so the theory goes, never needed grand political ideas because they crept into power by slow degrees, rather than seizing it by revolutionary confrontation. When they use the word "intellectual" they usually preface it with "so-called" or "soi-disant", just in case they might be unwittingly paying their enemies the compliment of believing they are clever.

One of the aims of Collini's magisterial study is to challenge the assumption that the British are a peculiarly anti-intellectual race. They may scoff at the idea of the intellectual, but they are hardly alone in this prejudice. Besides, a nation that produced Coleridge, Mill, Shaw, Wells, Russell, Keynes, Huxley and Orwell has hardly been bereft of an intelligentsia. Collini also demolishes the myth that intellectuals are always oppositional. On the contrary, Britain has a venerable heritage of conservative intellectuals, from Edmund Burke to Roger Scruton. There is nothing about ideas that automatically sets you askew to the dominant set-up. Many intellectuals have been loyal servants of the state.

There is, Collini rightly argues, a smack of Romantic individualism about the late Edward Said's notion of the intellectual as a freewheeling, independent, eternal outsider. To live like this requires a material base in the very culture you criticise - in Said's case, a professorship at Columbia. Yet this is no reason to endorse Collini's cynical assumption that such dissent is simply a form of bad faith. Were William Morris, Sylvia Pankhurst and Walter Benjamin no more than self-glamorising ego-trippers? The intellectual outsider, Collini suggests, has a self-indulgent tendency to caricature the insider as discreet and soft-footed, well connected, conventional, conformist and unoriginal. Given that a number of these adjectives accurately describe the author himself, his satirical shaft is somewhat blunted.

There is, in fact, something of the view-from-King's-Parade about this book. Collini has a donnish distaste for structural analysis, and seems to distrust most generalisations except his own. Polarities are inevitably oversimplifying. When he sees an antithesis, he steers boldly down the middle. Like many an Oxbridge academic, he has spent a lifetime bouncing off other people's ideas, however brilliantly. The Oxbridge tutorial was traditionally a place in which one partner, the student, staggered in clutching huge, unwieldy armfuls of ideas, while the other, the tutor, cut them sarcastically down to size with the rapier of his disinterested intelligence and packed him off poorer but more honest. There is more than a dash of such sceptical suavity about Absent Minds, a book for which (unlike the work of Raymond Williams) commitment is finally irreconcilable with complexity. The study's enormous blind spot, needless to say, is a critique of its own modern-day, middle-class liberalism. In dishing it out even-handedly to both left and right, it stands where we all instinctively, corporeally imagine we are: bang in the middle.

Even so, the liberal temper can be observed here at its most impressive. Collini is a skilled portraitist and provides us with some judicious, vividly detailed cameos of such figures as Collingwood, T S Eliot, Orwell, A J P Taylor and Freddie Ayer, alongside some more general reflections on the history and nature of the intelligentsia. Despite its suspicions of the left, the book pays generous homage to the most polymathic of all our con- temporary thinkers, the Marxist Perry Anderson. If it has the kid-gloved, fastidious disengagement of Cambridge, it also has its combination of deft verbal analysis and respect for ideas. It is a stylish, finely analytical study, a demonstration in its supple intelligence of the very liberal virtues it champions. Collini himself is more of an academic than an intellectual, but his literary style combines journalism with erudition, in the best manner of the tradition he investigates. The book has an enjoyable line in sardonic wit and, despite the author's name, is as English as a vicarage tea party. It will be vastly admired - partly because it is a superb distillation of several decades of research and reflection, partly because Collini has never been known to utter an opinion that any decent type might find remotely offensive.

The role of the intellectual, so it is said, is to speak truth to power. Noam Chomsky has dismissed this pious tag on two grounds. For one thing, power knows the truth already; it is just busy trying to conceal it. For another, it is not those in power who need the truth, but those they oppress. Collini is uneasy with notions of power and oppression; for him, society is just a delightfully diverse set of positions and opinions, with nothing as vulgar as a dominant power in view. Yet this magnificently perceptive survey of the British intellectual caste, with a handful of French and American thinkers thrown in for good measure, will prove hard to outstrip as the definitive account of its subject.

Terry Eagleton's most recent book is Holy Terror (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Heroes Special