MEXICO CITY – The role of the politically committed intellectual has a long and ubiquitous history. The Spanish-French novelist and screenwriter Jorge Semprún, who died recently, was for many years a member of the Spanish Communist Party’s Central Committee, and subsequently served as Minister of Culture in Spain’s first post-Franco Socialist government. Dissidents like Václav Havel had a decisive impact in the downfall of Eastern Europe’s communist regimes.
And, as recently as a few months ago, a French intellectual’s activism was crucial to initiating the so-far unsuccessful attempt to bring down Libya’s Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. For it was Bernard-Henry Lévy who convinced French President Nicolas Sarkozy to meet with Libya’s rebel leaders, an encounter that led directly to France taking a leading role in persuading the United Nations Security Council and US President Barack Obama to back military intervention.
But perhaps no one exemplified the tradition of the intellectuel engagé better than Jean-Paul Sartre. His point of view was quite different from that of artists and thinkers in the liberal tradition, like Octavio Paz and Isaiah Berlin. For Sartre (and for many of his contemporaries), intellectuals must not only express political stances, but must also be actively engaged in politics, fighting for the right causes (whatever that meant).
This led some, like Sartre, to defend Stalin and the Gulag; others, like André Malraux, formed part of Charles de Gaulle’s government; and still others, somewhat later, became unconditional defenders of Israel and its policies.