The appearance of Regis Debray’s Le Pouvoir intellectuel en France was a major cultural event in France.footnote1 Critical reaction was instant and passionate; the book was soon a talking-point and—on a scale appropriate to a book of its kind—a best-seller. But if the public evidence pointed straightforwardly to literary success, the occasion itself was nonetheless a complex one. Le Pouvoir intellectuel was an analysis of French culture and its intellectuals that blended familiar themes with preoccupations of a not at all familiar, even antithetical kind. Philosophical and theoretical at one end of its discursive range, at the other it immersed itself in the mundane affairs of its subject, freely naming institutions and individuals, restaurants and bars. It was also a political intervention, made after the emergence of the New Philosophers and the defeat of the Union of the Left, and intended as an explanation of the cultural mechanism that had been at work in these linked events. The complexities of the work were deepened further by the career of the author: Debray was quite open about his own past associations with the institutions and milieux that he now attacked, and was too lucid not to anticipate the role of his personal publicity-value in stimulating response to his book.

The English translation appears in very different conditions; some of the issues that engaged French readers may recede now, and will perhaps be replaced by others. At all events, it is in the nature of the case that some spontaneous perceptual re-ordering will occur. It may be useful, then, to discuss some contexts and perspectives of reading, both ‘original’ and ‘acquired’, that seem appropriate to Teachers, Writers, Celebrities. These notes will attempt first to situate it in the history of French writing about intellectuals, and in relation to other relevant traditions; then to examine the historical specificity of the French intelligentsia and to suggest some pertinent comparisons and contrasts with Britain and the United States, paying particular attention to the phenomenon of ‘intellectual corporatism’;footnote2 and finally to look again at the complex cultural make-up of the book.

‘Le clerc ne trahit jamais.’ Debray’s studied declaration at once evokes and challenges a whole tradition of intellectual self-reflection. The homeland of this tradition is France, and its inception, in its modern form at least, may be dated from the appearance of Julien Benda’s Le Trahison des clercs in 1927. The cultural matrix of Benda’s book was liberal humanism, its politics, amidst the crisis of post-war Europe, an unworldly rejection of all national particularism or social partisanship in the name of the disinterested service of humanity as a whole. La Trahison des clercs is internationally significant as a classic statement of this outlook; its added significance in France is that it laid down the protocols of a distinctive cultural occasion that was to recur in subsequent crises and under the auspices of radically contrasting positions.

Benda’s symbolic counterpart between the wars was Paul Nizan, whose Les Chiens de garde (1932) was one Communist intellectual’s ‘greatminded harangue’ (Debray) against the political quietism of academic philosophy. Some fifteen years later, after the Liberation, Nizan’s friend Sartre launched Les Temps Modernes with a declaration of intellectual commitment, and wrote Qu’est-ce que le littérature? to demonstrate that the writer was, qua writer, necessarily on the left. The antitype, in the Cold War fifties, was Raymond Aron’s L’Opium des intellectuels. May 1968 and its aftermath saw a great proliferation of such documents, of which Sartre’s 1970 interview ‘l’Ami du peuple’ and the Godard-Gorin film Tout va bien are among the better-known instances. The confusions and disappointments, the reversals and the desertions of the later seventies have proved no less conducive to this traditional activity than the antithetical conditions of ten years ago. The ‘bad objects’ of the Parisian high intelligentsia may vary (approximately, from Power to the Gulag to the Devil—and back) but an unassimilable ‘plebeian’ stance is widely advocated as appropriate to the age. And here, now, in Debray’s book, is another—oppositely intended—challenge.

This tradition, then, is not confined to any particular political or intellectual position; it has been a prominent and constant theme in the national culture of twentieth-century France. This consideration is decisive for any attempt to understand the phenomenon. For the moment, however, it is more pertinent to note a related, ‘intrinsic’ feature of the tradition: in spite of the wide variety of its tributaries, it has retained a marked discursive coherence. It has characteristically been an ethics (or, in the twin classical sense, a ‘politics’) of intellectual life. Benda’s text was patently and proudly a work of moral prescription founded on an ontology of the intellectual as social being. Nizan’s was structurally similar, even if the imperatives were now political and the ground of being was history as class struggle. The socialist politics of Qu’est-ce que la littérature? were premissed on the existentialist ethics of Sartre’s technical philosophy, the intermediary being an aesthetic conception of the novel as a ‘pact of freedoms’.footnote3 Rationalist, phenomenological or dialectical-materialist, liberal or socialist, these and kindred writings sustained a common discourse whose basic character was always (not only or even principally in the pejorative sense) moralist.

Teachers, Writers, Celebrities lies uneasily among its predecessors, for the main novelty of the book is precisely its practical challenge to moralism and the analytic options and occlusions characteristic of it. It represents, in fact, a major break in the tradition. Ethics is displaced here by politics, ontology by history and sociology. Benda invoked the changeless truth of a calling and prescribed its functions accordingly; Debray seeks to analyse the formation and re-formation of a determinate occupational bloc. Sartre’s investigation of the relations between intellectuals and their audience concluded that writing was constitutionally leftist, that the vocation of writer was a political fatality; Debray’s object, by contrast, is to discover the structured tendencies of intellectual behaviour in successive cultural production-systems and to show how these dictate the posture of the intelligentsia in given political situations. The ‘mediological’ discourse so initiated is markedly more historical, markedly more materialist than anything in its parent tradition.

Indeed, the novelty of the book remains clear in international comparison. When Debray complains that France is the ‘political paradise’ of the intelligentsia but the ‘purgatory’ of its analysts, he does too much justice to the implied national contrasts. More precisely, he underestimates the extent to which the selfsame or similar, essentially philosophico-literary discourse on ‘the clerisy’ permeats the cultures of the advanced capitalist world, not excepting the younger, scientific disciplines that claim to have superseded it. Such notions are active in the work of Parsons, for example, and just as clearly in that of Gramsci—whose nearly complete isolation, as a Marxist, in this field of theory and research tells its own tale.footnote4 Whether Debray himself has entirely settled accounts with this ‘erstwhile philosophical consciousness’ is a consideration that will be taken up. But the main emphasis should fall on the originality of his book. Precedents may be cited for its various themes and analytic strategies—its combination of theoretical argument and concrete analysis, the historical sketch of the French intelligentsia that forms the centre of the book, the insistence on the specific economics of culture and, related to this, the systematic integration of statistical with more conventional (‘qualitative’) kinds of evidence. What is novel here is the combination, and the purpose that it is designed to serve. No one, Marxist or other, has made so concerted an attempt to analyse what might be called, in Marx’s terms, the ‘social being’ of ‘social consciousness’, the intelligentsia as a social category at work, in one of its major modern incarnations. By this alone, Debray’s book sets a standard for future research.