[Below is the text of Jackie Walker's talk delivered to the conference, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals 50 years on", held at University College London on Saturday February 25]
Professor Chomsky’s 1967 essay, The Responsibility of Intellectuals, was written in the context of the ongoing American invasion of Vietnam. American post-Second World War optimism was fading as stories of defeat and American savagery, scenes of GIs on the rampage, overlapped with homegrown footage of white barbarity waged against fellow black citizens. Some consider this a turning point in American consciousness.
For people of colour, forever excluded from the dream of America, this ‘fall from grace’ was no turning point, it was simply another encounter with the truth as they lived it, as victims, with the native peoples of America, of what Chomsky describes as “one of the two founding crimes of American society”, an America built on genocide, enslavement and oppression.
Today, while Trump’s campaign suggested a desire for decreased US involvement overseas, his presidential rhetoric implies a resurgence of crude nationalism. It suggests an America unwilling to accept limitations to its power, with calls for a fight to the finish with Isis, assurances of increased support for Israel and an escalation of its nuclear arsenals.
While this time round the bogey-man is terrorist Muslims rather than communists, there’s a whiff of Senator McCarthy to Trumpism, an authoritarian politics backed by a good helping of the witch hunt; fake news, smears and scapegoating.
Why worry, some say, after all, America is 2,000 miles away and has long been our ally. What’s changed?
Well, plenty is the answer. As the UK moves towards an unknown post-Brexit, pressure to get closer to Uncle Sam will increase, whoever its president, however crazed he may seem. Attacks on minorities are increasing. Chomsky’s assertion that intellectuals have a responsibility to speak truth feels ever more like a clarion call, whatever the colour of our skin.
Intellectuals, those who have the ability to reflect, comment and propose solutions on what they see, are not however an homogenous group, and it takes more than intelligence to see beyond the prevailing ideas of the ruling class in order, as Edward Said said, to ‘present alternative narratives and other perspectives’.
And the truth is many intellectuals promote, or turn a blind eye, to the oppressions of the Establishment. Financial inducements increase complicity.
Control over university academics for example, as with other public servants and institutions, with austerity cuts and job insecurity, has if anything increased over recent years.
All these are a problematic, but I’m not concerned here with the ‘lackeys of the Establishment’ whatever form they take. I’m interested in intellectuals who see their role as more than suggesting solutions. It is to those people I speak today.
The global economic crash, the crisis of capitalism, has resulted in the rise of demagogic leaders. The forces of the right, aided by the mainstream media, first undermined the vocabulary of liberation as ‘political correctness’ and then appropriated our hard fought for formulations of identity, our histories of oppression, in order to enhance their reactionary narratives. We see this for example in an increasing tendency to normalize constructions of whites as a group under siege.
Of course this crude populism, a reaching out to the ‘common man’ – very rarely the common woman - reinforces the power of the establishment these demagogues claim to challenge.
In Britain the left is now under sustained attack as a consequence of its success in knocking at the doors of power. It is no coincidence that among the tools used to undermine, fracture and attempt to defeat us is the appropriated language of liberation - in particular that of race.
Since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party we’ve seen the most sustained attention on racism I’ve ever known in an ongoing debate focused around anti-semitism.
Of course, all racism, whether Islamaphobia, antisemitism or any other is abhorrent. But the palatable nature of critiquing a racism decoupled from notions of power, or the lack of it, has proved a powerful tool for the Establishment to attack the left – and they have run with it. False allegations of antisemitism have proliferated.
This whitewashed version of anti-racism is one where racists are not Tory ministers who ridicule the appearance of people of African descent, it certainly isn’t those complaining of a Muslim woman reporter wearing a headscarf.
Conveniently it’s the left who are the culprits in this new racism. And on the left, its our very commitment to antiracism that is used against us to undermine the unity we so badly need in order to resist this particular onslaught, as well of course as an inability to get access to the mainstream media, however much we have tried.
It is not a coincidence that the most oppressed minorities have barely registered in this dialogue – except as the accused; at best being called ignorant where racism is concerned. Black voices have yet again been effectively silenced, this time under a wave of self-righteous indignation, voiced by some of the most reactionary forces in and outside the media
This new anti-racism simply has the effect of continuing the oppression of minorities it pretends concern with. The exclusion of working class people, the exclusion of the left from power, by all means that can be mustered, adds to a growing sense of the divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’. That the very few of ‘us’ who get any influence are speedily, and easily incorporated or destroyed.
We inhabit a world where politics increasingly appears like a fraud perpetrated by interest groups, backed by an economic and political elite who control what is said, what you can say, and disseminate what they choose, in order to keep control of what they increasingly have.
This is the world I as I have long lived it.
For the truth is while I share Jewish heritage with others on the panel, it is my black voice that speaks in this session and as a black woman I inhabit a markedly different set of realities to my colleagues here today.
Fundamentally divorced from the structures of power, carrying the stigma of historical oppression on my skin, as a black woman even the concept of ‘the intellectual’ needs fundamental rethinking if it is not to be practically meaningless, simply another act to exclude me.
No post-war uplift has raised blacks from ghetto to power. Historical injustices against blacks remain barely acknowledged, let alone commemorated; it is with trepidation people of colour lift their head to speak truth to power on any issue, even those that relate to their own history and experience, for fear they find themselves derided at best, the subject of witch hunts, or threats of violence at the worse.
I am told by people who should know, that the campaign against me, not just the online abuse, but the well orchestrated attempts to have me excluded from speaking at meetings, to exclude me from political activity is something people have not seen before.
For to tell truth, to disturb the ‘intentional ignorance’ of Euro-American society, is to infringe a taboo that is savagely policed and maintained.
Of course there are, and have been, individual voices that have gained attention, but in Britain, black academics lack numbers to be significant. The best universities and schools remain mostly closed to us. Except in popular culture, sport, prisons and arriving too early at the graveyard, people of colour continue to be excluded at all levels, including from left wing politics, where too often we are used as tokens to decorate some faux liberal agenda, or moved like pawns to further other people’s careers, where we are repeatedly asked, or in my most recent experience ‘told’ to stay silent, ‘let’s just get power first and we’ll deal with ‘you’ next’. Or even worse, ‘we know you’re right, but if we do anything, the media will rip us to shreds’.
Yet if it is our duty to speak truth to power, as black and oppressed peoples, as people who seek the liberation of humanity, those of us who heed that call, must act on it, in whatever way we are able, and let’s be clear, the cost can be high, it can be everything.
Brought together by revolution and resistance to 1950s America, he a communist, she a political activist, my black mother of Jewish descent and my Russian Jewish father were joined by this call.
They risked their lives, were tortured, derided and disposed of. Their people were black and white, Jew and Gentile, their concerns encompassed the liberation of human-kind and so I stand here, as my mothers and fathers did before me, fighting for emancipation, refuting ideologies that put one suffering, one people’s claim to nationhood, as more important than any other, rejecting boundaries that separate, refusing to move to the back of the bus, to play the minstrel, to remain dumb and blinded because the media, or anyone else, says I should do so.
‘I don’t want no peace, I want equal rights and justice.’ This is the demand Peter Tosh speaks, or rather sings of. He dances as he lays his challenge at the door of an Establishment that presents itself as valourising peace and quietude while simultaneously enforcing a violent and destructive status quo. Tosh’s speech is directed to the mass of the people, his ideas formulated in a genre that can be heard by any who choose to hear and take up its rhythms.
Developing Tosh’s words, ‘No justice, no peace’ has become the marching cry of black activists and protestors on both sides of the Atlantic, these are the intellectuals of our movement, the mothers and fathers, cooks and cleaners, the unemployed, fast food workers, the office workers - all are our intellectuals, all who resist while standing witness to the truth.
Chomsky’s essay, the subject of this conference, was a response to an earlier work, ‘The Responsibility of Peoples’ a collection of essays written by Dwight Macdonald. What is the responsibility of any intellectual if it is not wedded to the interests of the people?
And while separation from power is a particular and acute problem for black intellectuals, it is a problem shared by all intellectuals, all people who seek global transformations.
To take on the responsibility of the intellectual is to be part of a movement for change, discarding the trappings that separate thought from action, body from mind, that confine some of us to action in the classroom and others to the streets.
Until the streets become the classrooms and the classrooms the streets our task as intellectuals will be incomplete. It is a necessary journey. It will be a long and perilous one.
is on the Editorial Board of Labour Briefing and was until recently Vice chair of Momentum