Historian of the Left

Engineering Operations game with Milton Weiner, Olaf Helmer, and others, 1966. RAND Archives.

Insider Intellectual History

— Paper delivered at the Society for US Intellectual History conference in New York City, November 2019. —

A new trend has emerged in transatlantic intellectual history. Within the past five years, several books have appeared that focus on European émigré intellectuals or internationally active Americans who helped build new political, legal, and economic institutions toward the middle of the twentieth century. These books feature people like the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, the diplomat and Protestant ecumenist John Foster Dulles, the political scientist Carl J. Friedrich, the sociologist Hans Speier, and the economist Wilhelm Röpke. The midcentury crisis of democracy prompted many such figures to reexamine the social role of intellectual elites and to devise new ways of institutionalizing ideas.[1]

What concerns me in this paper is not the thematic overlap between these books so much as their shared method. In addition to my co-panelists, Emily Levine and Gene Zubovich, I have in mind the work of Udi Greenberg, Daniel Bessner, Or Rosenboim, James Chappel, Quinn Slobodian, and Noah B. Strote, to name several. While often commenting on canonical thinkers of the past century, this new generation of transatlantic intellectual historians tends to focus instead on the somewhat lesser-known, middling, or forgotten intellectuals whose importance lay chiefly in the institutions that they helped create rather than in the novelty of their ideas. They were not the typical public intellectuals who spoke truth to power or swam against the current of popular opinion. Instead, what I call insider intellectuals were networkers, institution builders, and power brokers.

Often, insider intellectuals developed original ideas about militant democracy or neoliberalism or something else, earning them minor places in the theory canon. Just as often, their work was merely symptomatic, as Dominick LaCapra called texts that reinforce rather than transform existing ideologies.[2] But insider intellectuals measured their own success according to how well they operationalized their ideas. They were institutionalists, and many participated actively in politics.

So, the method practiced by the new historians of insider intellectuals corresponds to or somehow derives from their subject matter. Neither the Lovejoyan history of ideas, nor the Cambridge School contextualist history of political thought, nor the synoptic approach developed by H. Stuart Hughes and Martin Jay, nor the deconstructionist approach favored by Dominick LaCapra, seems to suffice for analyzing insider intellectuals. What I’ve detected in these new histories is instead a return, whether implicit or explicit, to the sociology of knowledge.

In his popular 1929 book Ideology and Utopia, the Hungarian-German sociologist Karl Mannheim sought to root worldviews in their social milieu or class basis. Each social class—for example, the old Prussian landed gentry—developed a particular ideology that derived from its members’ educational background and that justified their material interests. Mannheim believed that the history of particular ideologies tracked the development of social classes, just as the history of total ideologies or the Zeitgeist could be linked to ensembles of social relations. In addition to classes, and unlike Karl Marx, he also wrote about generations as a kind of social ensemble that could produce a shared worldview.[3]

But did such a sociology of knowledge imply that every idea is relative and contingent on its particular historical context? Couldn’t Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge itself have been heavily conditioned by his own social origins in the midcentury Central European bourgeoisie, thus undercutting the universal validity of his theory? I think so, but he didn’t.

Mannheim was as influenced by Marx’s ideology critique as he was by Max Weber’s commitment to value-free, objective science. Seeking an Archimedean point from which the sociologist could raise up knowledge of the world, Mannheim designed a way out of socially determined ideologies. Intellectuals themselves, with their scholarly training and shared ethos of critical objectivity, were the only social group, according to him, that was capable of detaching themselves from their class positions. Such socially unattached or “free-floating” intellectuals could overcome partisan interests in order to reach a total perspective on society. Every other group, Mannheim claimed, remained bound by particular interests and a partial outlook. Intellectuals’ privileged perspective on totality made it incumbent on them to engage in civic education and ensure the healthy function of a democratic public sphere. The classic sociology of elites from Vilfredo Pareto to Robert Michels had left little room for democracy, reducing all forms of government to the circulation of power elites. But Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge emerged at a time when it became possible to imagine a symbiosis of intellectuals and democracy.

Not long after that book appeared in 1929, American sociologists such as Edward Shils, Louis Wirth, and Talcott Parsons hoped that an influx of German ideas could renew the sociology discipline in the US. Since the late nineteenth century, Europe and North America had engaged in sustained knowledge transfer and cultural exchange. Many “Atlantic crossings” occurred in the areas of higher education reform, social policy, and political theory.[4] In the 1930s and ’40s especially, political crisis in Europe produced refugee intellectuals who migrated West. At the same time, American intellectuals such as John Foster Dulles and Reinhold Niebuhr stepped out onto the world stage. Philosophers and social scientists such as John Dewey, Walter Lippmann, and Carl J. Friedrich shared a common concern about democratic elites. And many of these intellectuals joined institution-building projects both within and outside of government. This was an era of expanding civil service and state administration across the Atlantic, as historians like Wolfgang Schivelbusch and paranoid conservatives like to point out.[5] Intellectuals of all sorts, from economists to political scientists to physicists, played a big role in the modern welfare state that developed in response to the global depression of the 1930s. They played an even bigger role in the military-industrial complex that appeared everywhere before, during, and after World War II.

The historian Jan-Werner Müller has labeled these midcentury intellectuals “in-between figures,” who mediated between scholarly research and the exercise of power through the institutions of the growing state.[6] I find Müller’s label unhelpful, actually, since it assumes that pure scholarship and governmental research were otherwise distinct spheres of knowledge production. What Rebecca Lowen and others have called “the Cold War university” and Clark Kerr much earlier called the multiversity suggest that these spheres became so entwined by the 1960s that the term “in-between figure” loses its analytical purchase.[7]

In another sense, all traditional intellectuals could be labeled in-between figures. They mediate between a sphere of trained expertise and the public sphere. When Russell Jacoby coined the term “public intellectual” in 1987, he admitted that it was redundant but wanted to make a point: American intellectuals, once by definition engaged with the public, had become overly professionalized in academic jobs.[8] In their midcentury heyday, however, the Jacobean ideal of public intellectuals was so widely accepted that Friedrich Hayek saw fit to deride such figures as “professionalized secondhand dealers in ideas.” Speaking of left-wing journalists, teachers, radio commentators, writers, artists, technicians, scientists, and doctors, Hayek claimed in 1949 that these socialist intellectuals actually didn’t need any specialized knowledge in order “to perform [their] role as intermediar[ies] in the spreading of ideas.” They were arbiters of public opinion and sometimes also insider intellectuals with positions of governmental power or media influence. But they weren’t experts. Even though Hayek’s polemic ignored conservatives who did the same thing, it did fit with his general criticism of abstraction, universalist ideas, and rational planning. Both public intellectuals and insider intellectuals spread fraudulent ideas that lacked any scientific basis, he thought.[9]

Essentially, Hayek called into question the symbiosis between intellectual elites and democratic politics that was so characteristic of the midcentury era. Regardless of his agenda, we might greet his polemic against “The Intellectuals and Socialism” as an invitation to historicize the phenomenon of insider intellectuals. When and why did technical experts or scholars, on the one hand, and public intellectuals, on the other, decide to throw their weight behind state apparatuses, military research, or even non-governmental institutions such as, for example, the World Council of Churches? I’ve probably been speaking too generally of transatlantic intellectual history, because an answer to this question requires differentiating between American and European intellectuals’ respective relationship to their state—not to speak of different German and French relationships, and so on.

In any case, the method most frequently used by the new insider intellectual history derives from the sociology of knowledge. Whether through Mannheim, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, or even Bruno Latour, sociologies of knowledge dwell on the interplay between ideas, media, institutions, habitus, milieus, and social networks. All forms of knowledge are implicated in systems of power, but it seems that the activity of midcentury insider intellectuals was especially implicated. The sociology of knowledge, as opposed to both idealist and contextualist history, forces us to reckon with the dialectical process by which social institutions shape ideas and those ideas in turn help create new institutions.

It’s for this methodological reason that I think the recent books by Slobodian, Greenberg, Bessner, and others cast today’s populist backlash in an ironic light. They demonstrate just how insider intellectuals crafted liberal democratic norms, responsible civil service, technocratic expertise, and neoliberal world orders as responses to the interwar political and economic crises. Now, after a long and winding history, those midcentury crisis responses have concretized into the transatlantic establishment at the center of a new crisis.

Back in 2010, as that crisis billowed, the American literary magazine n+1 published an editorial titled “Revolt of the Elites.”[10] It alluded to the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset’s 1930 book The Revolt of the Masses, which had described the emergence of the popular masses as the protagonist of modern democracy. Ortega criticized the mass culture, violence, and tyranny of uneducated opinion that for him epitomized the age of mass-man. As an antidote, he called for rule by an elite of enlightened intellectuals.[11] The n+1 editors drew on the sociologist C. Wright Mills to argue that Ortega’s plan did in fact come to fruition in the US: an Ivy-educated power elite developed in the mid-twentieth century that monopolized positions of political, economic, and cultural power. Since that midcentury convergence, however, the intellectuals of the cultural elite became disconnected from the power elite in business, finance, parliament, and the military.[12] The editors claimed that, in the post-2008 era, anti-elitist revolts usually target only university-educated people with egalitarian views, not the plutocrats who actually wield power. So, for them, it was time for intellectual elites to stage a democratic counter-revolt against the power elite, siding with the masses while redirecting their anger toward better targets.

Ten years have passed since that call to arms. The problem that n+1 did not address was the continuity between the midcentury power elite and the neoliberal technocracy of the early twenty-first century. A certain kind of insider intellectual never became disconnected from the institutions of political and economic power. In diagnosing the 2008 crash as well as the current crisis of democracy, some commentators such as Adam Tooze treat insider economists, regulators, policy analysts, and EU bureaucrats as the very problem itself. Bad elites allegedly caused the crisis, so now we must produce “better” elites. Or is this the final revenge of the masses?[13] Either way, for transatlantic historians, the study of insider intellectuals has become socially relevant.

New objects of historical analysis go hand in hand with new methods. In examining insider intellectuals, a younger generation of historians has asked how ideas gain social power. “Books spawned movements,” the historian Peter Gay once wrote in his classic book about Weimar culture, but that statement seems inadequate for explaining the work of insider intellectuals.[14] Attuned to the concrete ways in which ideas emerge, spread, and become institutionalized, the new generation of intellectual historians hopes to avoid the trap of abstract idealism that has ensnared past generations—that is, ideas floating in the air, spawning movements.

Not everyone is on board, however. Matthew Specter detects a reductive materialism in certain kinds of insider intellectual history that privilege networks of reception and influence over careful textual and contextual analysis.[15] Critical ideas might get buried in discourses that were merely symptomatic of their time. In particular, cultural production that did not occur in political, economic, or sociological fields—such as the arts and humanities—often resisted institutionalization and thus could go unnoticed by historians of insider intellectuals. Of course, the humanists also had their institutions, as Levine’s first book showed.[16] Still, insider intellectual history tends to downplay or ignore ideas that lacked social influence in their own time. A method based on the sociology of knowledge might commit historians unwittingly to a project of historicism, insofar as we let our criteria of relevance be determined by the existing society of a given time and place. An enemy of all historicism, LaCapra warns against “depriving historiography of the need to recover significant aspects of the past that may have ‘lost out.’”[17] If I may quote another intellectual historian, Martin Jay, the practice of intellectual history might be without justification unless it has the “capacity to rescue the legacy of the past in order to allow us to realize the potential of the future.”[18] I wouldn’t put so much emphasis on rescue and redemption. After all, many of us work on subjects whose political or social projects we have no wish to redeem. But when we inhabit past arguments, we do encounter radical otherness. Even mundane texts by middling intellectuals contain fragments that are irreducible to past social history or that gesture toward alternative futures. Those are the “outsider” fragments, or membra disjecta, that insider intellectual history might sweep aside.

A more serious risk of insider intellectual history is that it could reproduce the historical mechanisms of gender and racial exclusion that governed who belonged to past institutions of power. So far the new histories that I have in mind privilege the perspectives of white males, because at midcentury the core institutions of the transatlantic order generally excluded others. It’s more complicated, of course, because people from oppressed groups can enter institutions of power while still remaining outsiders. The black radical and civil rights traditions offer many examples of that.

Finally, I think it might be worth asking why so many intellectual historians now have an allergy to abstract theory—or rather, an allergy to writing abstractly about theory. We demand the concrete, and we look askance at those rare colleagues who can get away with pure textual analysis and yet another book on Adorno. The allergy to theory is stronger among US intellectual historians than among Europeanists. Still, it’s strong enough in both camps for Ethan Kleinberg, Joan W. Scott, and Gary Wilder to have called recently for a “theory revolt”: a revolt against the empiricist or positivist bent of most academic history today.[19] Regarding insider intellectual history, how much of that allergy to abstraction is methodological, and how much owes to our very political concern not to produce irrelevant or elitist scholarship? The methodological is the political, I suppose. In any case, I’d wager that today’s dual crisis of democracy and intellectual expertise has conditioned our choice of subjects and the questions we ask about them. Future historians, should they exist, will hopefully historicize our early twenty-first-century turn toward insider intellectuals. Because the subject matter and historical methodology are interrelated, that turn itself functions as “crisis history” as much as history merely in a time of crisis. Whether it’s a new beginning or a dead end might depend on the outcome of the current political revolt against democracy’s insiders.

[1] For example, see Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2018); Daniel Bessner, Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2018); James Chappel, Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2018); Or Rosenboim, The Emergence of Globalism: Visions of World Order in Britain and the United States, 1939-1950 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2017); Noah Benezra Strote, Lions and Lambs: Conflict in Weimar and the Creation of Post-Nazi Germany (New Haven: Yale UP, 2017); Udi Greenberg, The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2015); Michael G. Thompson, For God and Globe: Christian Internationalism in the United States between the Great War and the Cold War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2015); Sean A. Forner, German Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democratic Renewal: Culture and Politics after 1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014); and Emily J. Levine, Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 2013). See also the essay on which this paper is largely based: Terence Renaud, “Insider Intellectuals and the Crisis of Democracy,” German History, 37, no. 3 (2019), 392-404.

[2] Dominick LaCapra, “Rethinking Intellectual History and Reading Texts,” History and Theory, 19, no. 3 (1980), 245-76.

[3] Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge [1929], trans. Louis Wirth and Edward Shils (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1936), and Mannheim, “The Problem of Generations” [1928], Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, ed. Paul Kecskemeti (New York: Oxford UP, 1952), 276-320.

[4] Daniel T. Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998).

[5] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, 1933-1939 (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).

[6] Jan-Werner Müller, “The Triumph of What (If Anything)? Rethinking Political Ideologies and Political Institutions in Twentieth-Century Europe,” Journal of Political Ideologies, 14, no. 2 (2009), 211-26.

[7] Rebecca S. Lowen, Creating the Cold War University: The Transformation of Stanford (Berkeley: UC Press, 1997), and Clark Kerr, The Uses of the University (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1963).

[8] Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (New York: Basic Books, 1987).

[9] Friedrich Hayek, “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” University of Chicago Law Review, 16, no. 3 (1949), 417-33.

[10] “Revolt of the Elites,” n+1 (Fall 2010), online at <https://nplusonemag.com/issue-10/the-intellectual-situation/revolt-of-elites/>.

[11] José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses [1930] (New York: Norton, 1932).

[12] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford UP, 1956).

[13] For various interpretations, see William Davies, “Why we stopped trusting elites,” The Guardian (Nov. 29, 2018), online at <https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/nov/29/why-we-stopped-trusting-elites-the-new-populism>; Hugo Drochon, “Why the elites always rule,” New Statesman (Jan. 18, 2017), online at <https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2017/01/why-elites-always-rule>; and the Twitter hashtag #WeNeedBetterElites. A need for better elites also seems to be Adam Tooze’s conclusion in his masterful book, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2018).

[14] Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 80.

[15] Matthew Specter, “Deprovincializing the Study of European Ideas: A Critique,” History and Theory, 55, no. 1 (Feb. 2016), 110-28.

[16] Emily J. Levine, Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School (Chicago, 2013).

[17] LaCapra, “Rethinking Intellectual History and Reading Texts,” 35.

[18] Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas (Berkeley: UC Press, 1984), 20.

[19] Ethan Kleinberg et al., “Theses on Theory and History,” Wild on Collective (May 2018), online at <http://theoryrevolt.com>.