Guns, flags and words: ETA and the figure of the intellectual

David Jiménez Torres (david.jimeneztorres [at]

Since the 1890s, when the term ‘intellectual’ began to be used as a noun in the major European languages, the figure that is referred to with this term has become one of the most significant and polemical ones of the cultural imaginaries of Western nations. While there has been no shortage, over the past century, of analyses and even histories of ‘the intellectuals’ as a political, social or cultural phenomenon, Stefan Collini recently proposed that we also examine the intellectual as a discursive phenomenon.

Collini parts from the idea that since the very appearance of the term there has been a debate over what type of people it actually refers to, what their goals or means are, etc; he further points out how much the various definitions of the term ‘intellectual’ have taken place within contests for symbolic legitimacy among specific figures or groups. That is, defining what we mean by ‘intellectual’ has always been part of grander power struggles and we should therefore not accept any given definition as universally valid but rather as the result of a specific cultural or historical situation. The history of intellectuals should therefore not be a mere enumeration of culturally or politically salient figures, but also a reconstruction of the debates that have surrounded the attempt to define what is meant by referring to individuals as ‘intellectuals’. In doing this type of research, we could detach ourselves from the frequently tendentious debates that have surrounded the figure of the intellectual over the past century and analyse what these debates can tell us about the societies that produce them. These conclusions seem perfectly applicable to Spanish culture throughout the twentieth century. It is very clear, for example, that early-twentieth-century figures like Miguel de Unamuno, Ramiro de Maeztu or Azorín operated under different notions of what being an intellectual meant and what type of demands this status placed on them as public figures. Stephen Roberts’s excellent biography of Unamuno shows how much the latter’s output changed depending on the evolution of his idea of what an intellectual was or should be. Maeztu’s production during his London years is often motivated by a desire to make Spanish intellectuals behave more like their British counterparts (by which he often meant the Fabian Society). The distinction between a generación del 98, generación del 14 and generación del 27 also refers, in many ways, to different ways of exercising intellectual influence over society. Lastly, I published an article recently looking at the debate regarding the meaning of the term ‘intellectual’ that took place within the larger disputes between aliadófilos and germanófilos during the First World War. With this in mind, I have recently started to work on the different perceptions of the figure of the intellectual that have been held in Spain during the second half of the twentieth century. In particular, I have focused on pronouncements issued in relation to the long violent conflict in the Basque Country that has had the terrorist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (E.T.A.) at its epicentre. The choice of examining the figure of the intellectual in relation to E.T.A. has been based on the salience that the latter has had in Spanish politics and culture over the past fifty years, a salience that has turned E.T.A. into something which most figures of some cultural standing had to take some type of stand on (be it for or against). Furthermore, E.T.A.’s recourse to violence, and its links with the wider ideology of Basque nationalism, begs a number of questions that have often been asked of the figure of the intellectual: can the intellectual ever legitimise violence? What relationship should these figures have with the nation, and with nation-building processes? What should the intellectuals’ relationship to ‘power’ be, and how do we define ‘power’ –  is it just the state, or can it also include those who have the power and willingness to gun down a person in the street for thinking differently from them?

“Una cuestión de compromiso. ETA y la figura del intelectual”. 

Talk by David Jiménez Torres at the University of the Balearic Islands (31/3/2015)

Interestingly, the first important pronouncement in this regard comes from ETA itself, through its 1964 document entitled “Carta abierta de ETA a los intelectuales vascos”. Despite being published six years after the birth of the organisation, it is one of first instances of ETA breaking out of its customary secrecy and divulging a document about its aims and priorities. In the letter, ETA claims to be doing this because it is worried by the mounting social condemnation towards its use of violence. And it finds itself particularly concerned by “la posición de otros vascos que, por su mayor dedicación –dedicación exclusiva en muchos casos- a las cosas del espíritu y del arte, se diría deben estar más presentes que nadie en los problemas de su pueblo y que, sin embargo, no se toman las molestias de informarse sobre las causas y efectos de ese fenómeno que está desarrollándose en nuestra patria ocupada y que puede ser calificado de nuevo nacionalismo vasco.” It is in order to explain things to this group that the organisation claims to write “esta nuestra primera carta dirigida a los intelectuales vascos”. And the letter afterwards includes a list of occupations which merit being considered within this category: “poetas, profesores, pintores, escultores, músicos, sacerdotes, novelistas, periodistas, técnicos, investigadores, filósofos, dramaturgos, actores, cineastas, ensayistas, profesiones liberales…”. We thus see that ETA’s letter operated with an understanding of the “intelectual” as someone belonging to a broad category of people, to a stratum of society whose professions led them to engage primarily with the matters of “espíritu”. But we can see from the beginning the ambiguity and instability of this definition. For in order to be an intellectual, must one be a full-time poet, painter, sculptor or musician, or is it enough to partake in these occupations as a hobby? And what could lie beyond the final ellipsis of the list of occupations, especially once the entirety of the “profesiones liberales” has been invoked? Moreover, why is no definition provided of the “espíritu”, when this far-from-straightforward term seems to be the central criteria of intellectual-ness? And does that term not fit ill with the Marxist vocabulary that ETA employs throughout the rest of the letter, indeed throughout the entirety of its communiqués? ETA moved on to demand that intellectuals commit themselves to participating in their twin struggle to end capitalism and to liberate the Basque people from ‘foreign’ oppression. A commitment that was not heeded, if we are to pay attention to an article published by playwright Alfonso Sastre in 1980. Sastre, who has a long history of involvement in ETA’s political arm, Herri Batasuna, published a piece entitled “Carta a 33 intelectuales vascos” in which he condemned the recent criticisms of a number of intellectuals towards ETA’s use of violence. Sastre accused these intellectuals of “cobardía civil” and “colaboración con el Poder”, referring to them as “intelectuales cortesanos”. The image he provides of intellectuals is therefore of a group that is as frivolous as it is disingenuous, people who have not heeded ETA’s call for support, but have instead sold their commitment to the highest bidder. What is interesting is that this image of intellectuals as a social group that is either separate from ETA or in direct opposition to it is surprisingly similar to what appears in some writings coming from the anti-ETA camp during the 80s and 90s, and the image that they put forward of the role that intellectuals are playing vis-à-vis ETA. In his book Contra las patrias (1984), for example, Fernando Savater said that “los intelectuales” had been playing an important role in legitimising ETA’s violence (p. 126). A role that Savater critizised vehemently, arguing that neither “la prolongación de la lucha armada y aún menos su justificación” could be understood or forgiven. And in his work Sacra Némesis, author Jon Juaristi repeatedly employed the term “intelectual” when referring to specific ETA leaders and militants, describing the group of youths that founded ETA in the 1950s as “un grupúsculo de intelectuales en ciernes” (95). This is not a novelty as far as discussion of ETA goes, as we know that the youth wing of the PNV during the 1960s often referred (in a derogatory manner) to the group that had just founded ETA as “intelectuales”. We can thus see some examples of the instability that Collini pointed out in terms of how groups and individuals conceive and discuss the activities of ‘the intellectuals’. The fact that both ETA and Sastre, on the one side, and Savater and Juaristi on the other, could present “the intellectuals” as people who were working for the other side of such a dramatic dispute shows not an incongruity in terms of how we understand ETA, but rather a set of incongruities in terms of how we discuss “intellectuals” and their role in society. Further research will examine a wider array of documents produced in relation to ETA and will examine how discourse on “the intellectuals” from both the pro- and anti-ETA camps evolved during the 2000s and in the few years that have lapsed since the declaration of ETA’s definitive ceasefire in 2011.

Further reading:

Collini, Stefan. 2006. Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Elorza, Antonio (ed.). 2006. La Historia de ETA (Madrid: Temas de Hoy)

Juaristi, Jon. Sacra Némesis: nuevas historias de nacionalistas vascos (Madrid: Espasa)

Maeztu, Ramiro de. 1911. La revolución y los intelectuales (Madrid: Bernardo Rodríguez)

Roberts, Stephen G. H. 2007. Miguel de Unamuno o la creación del intelectual español moderno (Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca)

Savater, Fernando. 1996. Contra las patrias (Barcelona: Tusquets)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s