by Ami Blue, Eastern Kentucky University
In “The Formation of the Intellectuals,” Marxist Antonio Gramsci describes the two scenarios from which the world’s intellectuals emerge. Although Gramsci believes that all men can be intellectuals, few men play the role of professional intellectual in economic, social, or political arenas. Benjamin Franklin was crafted from birth by his society—namely his father—to become an American organic intellectual—born and raised by a specific society to affect an economical, social, or political change (Gramsci 1138). Gramsci lists the necessary traits and accomplishments of an organic intellectual in any one of these three discourses, and Franklin emerges not as one—a mere mortal organic intellectual—but as all three types in the more formative early years of his record.
In the economic realm, Gramsci’s organic intellectual takes the form of the capitalist entrepreneur (1138). Franklin exposes his capitalistic endeavors by slickly maneuvering himself into the Pennsylvania Assembly printer’s job (66) and even divulging his interests in the “profitability” of moving up in the political game (98). Franklin’s entrepreneurial efforts began with his part ownership of the newspaper with Meredith, soon followed by his opening his own stationer’s shop (67, 69).
Socially, Gramsci’s ideal organic intellectual is an industrial technician. Franklin exhibits early signs of industry in redesigning the street lamps (118-119), but he also repeatedly comments on his own industry (37, 39, 65, and 69; #6 on the big 13, p. 83) and then marries a woman “as much dispos’d to industry and frugality as myself” (80). Moreover, Franklin’s multitudinous inventions place him among America’s most memorable and famous industrial technicians.
Politically, Franklin secured work printing paper currency (68) and became increasingly involved in state and local political matters (72, 78). In a more service-oriented capacity, he instigated creating America’s first library (72) and restructured and regulated the “city watch,” or fire workers’ union (99-100). These were among the first of his myriad political actions, too plentiful to name here.
Gramsci outlines copious desirable intellectual traits, including capacity for direction, intellect, and assuming the role of confidant to investors and customers. In his letter, Vaughn points to Franklin’s affect on “the future of great men,” as though Franklin hadn’t spent much of his life directing the economical, social, and political decisions of such a crowd (74). As far as intellectual capacity, the book speaks for itself, but Franklin also actively sought intellectual stimulation, thus forming Junto (63). He also enjoyed lifelong patronage from customers (66) and support of investors (67).
Vaughn writes to Franklin, “Your account of yourself . . . will show that you are ashamed of no origin” (75). Gramsci would consider this the final mark of an organic intellectual: one who comes from the place he later restructures politically, economically, or socially—as if shepherded from birth by a diligent father unwilling to see his brilliant son lost at sea. Gramsci adds that only the “elite” among entrepreneurs can organize “society in general” because he will want to favor his own class. Franklin’s love for industry, frugality, and his egalitarian worldview wouldn’t permit him to reserve benefits for only his own; Vaughn says as much when he accredits Franklin with proving “how little necessary all origin is to happiness, virtue, or greatness” (75).
Gramsci provides stricter standards for the elitist organic intellectuals, and Franklin exceeds them all. Here are some questions that arise from all of this in terms of discussion: Considering the upcoming politically charged election and Franklin’s success as an organic intellectual, which of Franklin’s character traits should social activists adopt when hoping to inspire social, political, or economic change? Which of those persons running for President measure closest to Franklin, and into what organic intellectual role(s) does she/he fit? For whom would Franklin vote? What textual evidence affirms your conclusion?
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New York: MacMillian Pub. Co., Inc: 1962.
Gramsci, Antonio. “The Formation of the Intellectuals.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton (2001): 1138-1143.