Those words are from Peter Gabriel's 1980 song about South African anti-apartheid activist, Steven Biko, who was arrested and beaten to death by South African police in 1977. It is a powerful song of protest, and a testament to the belief that ideas can produce social change.
Milton and Rose Friedman expressed a similar belief in the ultimate power of ideas when in Free to Choose they write that: "A tide of opinion, once it flows strongly, tends to sweep over all obstacles, all contrary views."
Modern economics, ironically, is not that comfortable with such a role for the power of ideas -- including the ideas of economists and political philosophers. They are more intellectually comfortable with theories of the political process that myopically focus on the self-interest of the critical actors. It was no doubt a major step forward when poltical economists challenged public interest explanations of all governmental decisions. In analytical politics it is always important to ask: 'Who benefits at whose expense?' But it is one thing to insist that we should be mindful of interest group manipulations, it is quite another step to assume that we can always infer intentions from outcomes in the world of public affairs. Yet that is what modern economists are most intellectually comfortable doing. As a result, ideas as a powerful force of social change are rendered impotent -- the candle to fire; or the shifting tide producing powerful waves, are seen as attractive metaphors for the romantic, but not what a realist would see as capturing anything more than a nice dream about political reality.
Yet change does in fact happen --- wars of independence were fought; slavery was ended; communist revolutions did occur; fascist regimes did have popular support; and communism did end as did apartheid. Change happens, and it is often the case that it can only be understood if the powerful metaphors used above are appreciated. A political economy without ideas is not more scientific, it is merely more narrow and limited. Ideas light fires in the minds of men, and move men to acts of courage as well as horrific acts -- in history as well as today. Just as political economy must be mindful of interests, it must also be mindful of ideas.
Dani Rodrik is one of the most important political economists currently working along these lines. Here is an earlier post from his blog on ideas and interests; here is a more recent blog entry talking about this issue; here is his forthcoming JEP paper on the topic; and Dani Rodrik will address this issue again at the 2014 Public Choice Society meetings.