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The Intellectuals in the Political Development of the New States*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 July 2011

Edward Shils
University of Chicago


The gestation, birth, and continuing life of the new states of Asia and Africa, through all their vicissitudes, are in large measure the work of intellectuals. In no state-formations in all of human history have intellectuals played such a role as they have in these events of the present century.

In the past, new states were founded by military conquest, by the secession of ethnic groups led by traditional tribal and warrior chiefs, by the gradual extension of the power of the prince through intermarriage, agreement, and conquest, or by separation through military rebellion. In antiquity, the demand that subjects acknowledge the divinity of the Emperor was no more than a requirement that the legitimacy of the existing order be recognized.

Research Article
Copyright © Trustees of Princeton University 1960

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1 The maxim of the Peace of Augsburg: Cuius regio, eius religio, was the beginning of the specifically modern view that a political order must be based on articulately affirmed beliefs. It too, however, was more concerned with the protection of dynastic interests and the guarantee of public order. The substance of the religion was less important than its acceptance, and in this way it differed from the more intrinsically ideological orientation toward politics that is characteristic of the modern intellectual.

2 The religious reform movements like the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, the Rama-krishna Mission, and the Muslim Brotherhood which contributed so much to national consciousness were primarily movements for the purification of religious life, and for the reform of social institutions. Their political significance was either indirect or an afterthought.

3 The practitioners of the guerrilla warfare and terrorism which have been carried on in various parts of Asia and Africa against the European rulers have always included a significant admixture of intellectuals.

4 It was, in any case, more of a protest against unsatisfactory service conditions than a political movement.

5 This definition is ceasing to be adequate because the extension of opportunities for higher education is changing the composition and outlook of the group of persons who have availed themselves of these opportunities. Furthermore, the increase of those with an advanced technical or scientific and specialized education is creating a body of persons whose interests are narrower than their predecessors' in their own countries, and whose contact with the humanistic and political tradition of the hitherto prevailing higher education is becoming more attenuated. They themselves will not merely be different from the conventional political intellectuals of the colonial or recently colonial countries, but will also less frequently identify themselves as “intellectuals.” This will make a considerable difference. In this respect, the underdeveloped countries will begin to approximate the more advanced countries.

This definition is not intended to deny the existence of a class of traditional intellectuals, largely religious in their concerns. Nor does it seek to obscure the influence of traditional intellectuals in political life (like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Darul Islam, etc.) or of traditional ideas on modern intellectuals.

6 This does not mean that all intellectuals in underdeveloped countries who possess diplomas are intellectually equal, or that all intellectuals possess diplomas. There are a few who do not.

7 By very rough methods I estimated that there might be as many as one hundred professional literary men in India who are able to maintain themselves by their writings. The Director of the Sahitya Akademi thinks that there are only about fifty. Think men of the size of this stratum in Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt, or the Sudan!

8 India is a very partial exception. It is practically alone in its possession of a large corps of intellectuals, a fair number of whom work at a very high level. This is partly a function of the much longer period that modern intellectual life has existed in India. The British stayed longer in India and exercised greater influence there than any other European power did in its colonial territory, and as a result many more modern intellectual institutions came into being.

9 There are other important reasons, growing out of the culture of these countries, which precluded interest in these fields. We do not deal with them here since our interest lies primarily in the political sphere.

10 The stirrings of religious reform and the effort to rehabilitate the dignity of the traditional religious culture became political only when there was an alliance of religious leaders with a politicized modern intelligentsia.

11 Although it is by no means the chief reason, this nationalistic concentration is a significant factor in accounting for the poverty and uniformity of intellectual life of the underdeveloped countries.

12 Vide the Gandhian socialists and the Bhoodan movement in India.

13 Much of the intellectuals' self-accusation rests on the populistic assumption that the “people,” not being distracted or corrupted by modern culture, are the bearers of the traditional culture in its fullness and its glory. This assumption is probably an error; the “people” are quite unlikely to be in more than fragmentary possession of the corpus of traditional culture.

14 Its only parallel in the West is the conduct of the Irish members in the House of Commons in the latter part of the last century and of Communistic members of European parliaments when they were a small minority and did not seek a popular front. The “Irish members” had considerable resonance in India and their influence still survives, even where its origin has been forgotten.

15 Nor were these their only interests. They proposed the liberalization of the legal system, greater equity in its administration, and certain liberal social reforms such as the improvement of the legal position of women, the provision of more ample educational facilities, etc.

Obviously, there was some element of “class” and “self-interest” in some of their demands, such as the insistence that imported foreign manufacturers should not be allowed to enjoy any advantages over indigenously produced industrial goods. The interest of the whole society, the interest of a class and of an individual might all coincide on particular issues. This is probably the most that can be credited to the charge against the first generation made by the actors who came on the political stage a little later.

16 It seems to me not accidental that even now the highest flights of Indo-Anglian prose have the rhetorical quality of high-grade lawyers addressing a court or a parliamentary body.

17 Movements to “re-establish” the glory of African civilization are a much later product.

18 There were of course exceptions like al-Afghani, Mohammed Abdou, and M. G. Ranade.

19 Their influence made itself felt, however, in both India and the Middle East, primarily among modern intellectuals. They exerted little effect on their fellow traditional intellectuals, who persisted in their torpor.

20 The role of exiles and expatriates living in the metropolitan centers of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Switzerland helped to maintain a continuous link between the revolutionary and radical tendencies in the metropolis and those in the underdeveloped countries. These exiles and expatriates provided a sort of training school for young Asians and Africans who had gone abroad to study, and they constituted a continuous representation of the interests of their countries before the public opinion of the ruling metropolis.

Like exiles and expatriates everywhere, they also were more “uprooted” than their countrymen who either stayed at home or returned home after a few years. This “uprootedness” did not, however, diminish the intensity of their politics. Rather, the contrary.

21 And with it, he began his march toward ascendancy over the Western colonialist conscience. A skeptical attitude about the rightfulness of imperialism had already existed in the West for a long time, but it was Gandhi more than anyone else outside the European Socialist and the Communist movements who impressed it on the consciousness of the Western educated classes. As a result, a body of Western allies was formed and its existence was a reassurance and a stimulus to the politicized intellectuals who continued to stand in need of a sustaining tie with modern “Western” culture.

22 In Africa after the Second World War, nationalism, intense politics, socialism, and populism came into life almost simultaneously, as if they were inseparably involved with each other.

23 Where there were few indigenous lawyers or others with higher education, leadership was exercised by clerks with secondary or elementary education. The educated, the évolues—intellectuals—have kept the lead, the highly educated when diey have been available, the less well-educated where the former were lacking.

24 Mr. Nehru is something of an exception, although he too regards the opposition as an unavoidable pestilence, as an inconvenient part of the community which remains, notwithstanding, as much a part of the community as he himself is. At the other extreme is that other intellectual in politics, Dr. Nkrumah, who regards any criticism or disagreement as staatsfeindlich.

25 The professional army officer in the new states is to a certain extent an intellectual since he, especially in the technical branches, is the recipient of a modern education. In fact, the intrusion of the military into politics in the Middle East, at least, may be partly attributed to their attachment to modern ideas about order, efficiency, and probity in government, ideas which are not part of die indigenous tradition of government and which come to them through their modern training. The military coups d'état which have occurred in many of the new states may be interpreted as, at least in part, revolutions of the technological intelligentsia, acting on behalf of modern ideas of efficiency and progress.

26 This, in turn, would increase the demand for an ideological oligarchy, from outside the government, and would also impel the government itself to adopt oligarchical measures.

There is also the opposite danger of a disequilibrium in the relations between the intellectuals and the central institutional system arising from an excessive demand for intellectuals in technological and administrative roles. In countries which entered upon independence with an insufficient supply of qualified intellectuals and a very scanty complement of intellectual institutions, it is definitely possible to draw practically all of the best intellectuals into executive and technological roles, leaving too few for civil and intellectual functions. The rapid growth of the public services and the general trend toward the governmental pre-emption of so many diverse functions might well result in too small a proportion of the intellectual classes being left free for independent creative work and for vital activity in that publicistic borderland between the intellectual and the political.

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