The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Yes, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?

Yesterday in a shop near the Hawes Inn I came across a copy of the mass-market paperback of Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan. I've never read it, and (for now) I didn't buy it. But it made me think of how things were different back when I were a lad, in the late sixties and early seventies. McLuhan was one of the thinkers of whom everyone with the slightest intellectual pretensions (e.g. moi) had at least heard. Others: Herbert Marcuse, Buckminster Fuller, Claude Levi-Strauss, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Teilhard de Chardin, Harvey Cox, Paul Tillich, Karl Popper, Arthur Koestler, J.K. Galbraith. My high-school English teacher, who was by no means pretentious, had well-thumbed copies of books by almost all of these on her living-room shelf. Turning to the public library, I could find the counter-culture ably if optimistically surveyed by Theodore Roszak and Charles Reich; the new women's liberation movement by Germaine Greer; Black nationalism by Malcolm X. Nor was Marxism without champions in the paperback lists: I hadn't then come across Isaac Deutscher or Ernest Mandel, and the lonely hour of Althusser was still to come, but Paul A. Baran and Paul Sweezy were in print in Penguin and referred to off-hand in the semi-anarchist alternative press as sound on capitalism but soft on state capitalism.

Most of these thinkers were of the Left - even Popper was a social democrat, though the most established critic of Marx - but Koestler and Robert Conquest fought their corner, and the great conservatives and classical liberals - Burke, Spencer, Smith, Hume, Mill - were well served by Penguin Classic editions. The novels of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, the memoirs of Ginzburg and Djilas, the testimony of Marchenko were all in Penguin or Fontana. Soldiers, diplomats, dissidents, exiles and historians who excoriated Communism shared the same popular imprints.

The quality and lasting relevance of the then-living thinkers listed (and plenty of others from the time, as you can see if you happen across the old Fontana Modern Masters series) of course varies a lot. The point is that they were all read, and not just for show. And to reiterate, I came across practically all of them in Greenock - in my teacher's bookcase, or in the local library or the local mainstream commercial bookshop.

At the time, of course, I thought Greenock was something of an intellectual backwater. It was for sure no hotbed of the sixties counterculture or the far left. It had one Maoist, two International Socialists, one hippie, and one very old Communist. All these serious mass-market paperbacks can't have been bought by them and my English teacher. And who, I wonder, are the present-day equivalents of these paperback writers - and their readers?

Yes, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?


Post a Comment