Re: specific and organic intellectuals (SI)


A wise and valuable reminder about Gramsci.

On Tue, 30 Sep 1997, Daniel F. Vukovich wrote:

> Hello John and Colin, and all,
> Just a note to say that it behooves us to think of another category here:
> the organic intellectual, be it Marx and Engels (etc), Gramsci, Cornel West
> or bell hooks.

Yes: given the notion of the SI (specific intellectual), how would it
compare to Gramsci's notion of the organic intellectual? No doubt this has
been written about somewhere. Foucault spent time in Italy and was
interviewed by Duccio Trombardini (spelling may be off) for the interviews
that appear in English translation in _About Marx_ or whatever that little
book of interviews is. I can't believe some Italians haven't written about

Regarding Gramsci, I think we would have to break off his notion of the OI
(organic intellectual) from some of his other writings in the _Prison
Notebooks_ that valorize the role and importance of "the Machiavellian
Prince." Gramsci equates the latter with the Party. The prince/party is
able to recast the the assumptions, expectations, the very truths of
capitalist society into an alternative vision of the social totality. See
International Publisher's version of _The Prison Notebooks_, pp. 127ff.

Each class produces its own intellectuals, according to Gramsci (_Prison
Notebooks_, pp. 5-7). But it is unclear to me if Gramsci thinks that these
organic intellectuals can ever play an independent role in the class
struggle. Organic intellectuals need their Prince, whether this is Lenin
or Bismarck or Mussolini.

> I don't, myself, take Foucault as berating Marx or even
> most Marxists in his comments on the universal vs. the specific
> intellectual. Maybe the critique of the universal "standpoint" would apply
> to an Eric Fromm, but for the most part marxist humanism -- I'm thinking
> of Lukacs or Henri Lefebvre -- is still rooted in class, or the social
> division of labor. I don't see how that (or marxism itself) is about
> "economic reductionism"; is not the distinction between "reductionism" and
> "determinism" (or determination) one we want to hold on to? The former is
> an "error," the latter, not. Additionally, I would agree with Colin,
> though, in that Foucault's remarks here do, or can, get taken up as a
> critique of marxism.

But certainly Lukacs believes that there is a universal standpoint from
which the current (ever-shifting) totality can be assessed. See 149 (and
surrounding material) of Livingstone's translation of _History and Class

> Meaghan Morris says somewhere that we need both of these types of
> intellectuals (organic and specific), and this makes sense to me. For that
> matter, the question here (specific or universal: which one works best?)
> cannot really be decided in the abstract, by way of the concept (as Adorno
> might say). The political or cultural work such an intellectual can do,
> would have to be decided in context, or in the details. So I'd have to say
> that a universal intellectual could do such (good) work, in the right
> context. Not that I'm much interested in "saving" the category, let alone
> humanism itself.

Such an individual might do some good today because most of us have such
strong feelings concerning the need for such an individual and such a
voice. But I think the overall effect (affect? I'll never get those two
straight!) would be retrograde. Remember in the Eighteenth Brumaire where
Marx says that revolutionaries had to put on Roman or Greek togas to gain
a respectful hearing -- who can say the same anachronism might not yet
occur? But to the extent we still need such a voice it shows the extent
to which we have not yet heard the news that God (the universal
intellectual) is dead.

Best wishes,


> Paradoxically, Edward Said springs to mind as a model specific intellectual
> (notwithstanding the fact -- I think -- that he calls himself a humanist).
> His piece in the "Foucault: A Critical Reader" collection might be a useful
> thing to throw into the mix here. I believe he ends his (sympathetic,
> positive) review of Foucault with an invocation of Gramsci and Raymond
> Williams (and hegemony, culture, blocs, etc); memory suggests his point was
> to point to the absence in Foucault of a notion of counter-hegemonic
> resistance, collective struggle (as in decolonization, for example). I
> think Said's point is a good, provocative one here, though on the other
> hand, Foucault never claimed to be analyzing (or believing in?) hegemony.
> Best,
> Daniel Vukovich
> English; Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory
> University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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