University of Oregon
INTELLIGENTSIA, based on a word of Latin origin meaning intelligence, has come into the modern global vocabulary from Russia. By the 1870s the word identified a particular type of publicly active Russian intellectual. The word supplied a taxonomic label for a distinct group of people whose professional identity or public function were no longer described by the traditional categories of the Russian social structure into which they were born, nor did they fit the categories of the state’s own rankings and definitions of state service.
The customary social hierarchy [ID], divided the Russian population into sosloviia. Sosloviia were formally defined and enforced social formations:
middling urbanites [meshchanstvo]
Education and/or pursuit of a livelihood alienated many mid-19th century Russians from family traditions. These traditions were, in any event, often in decline.
Seeking new lives as old social-estate definitions failed them, they found it difficult or repugnant to accept positions within the service hierarchy, the other major category of social existence in the Russian tradition. Emperor Peter I established the Table of Ranks [ID]. By mid-nineteenth century, many rejected, even resisted, state concepts of service careers. Many refused to pursue “rank” [chin] in the civilian, military, church or court hierarchies. Raznochintsy [people of various rank] was a term also used to describe them because their new identity did not fit them to conventional concepts of chin.
They moved into professions, experimented with realms of thought and adopted modes of behavior that bore little relationship to received categories of parental social existence. The most famous intelligenty were revolutionists, but the revolutionary movement grew out of a more generalized crisis at the heart of Russian social/service hierarchies. Most men and women of the creative professions and trained specializations found themselves in a state of identity crisis in the final decades of the Russian old regime. CF: Alexander Herzen [TXT] and Era of Great Reforms [LOOP] The Russian Empire was just then experiencing a decline of customary ways based on serf agriculture [serf emancipation], hereditary social structure, and official Orthodoxy. At the same time Russia experienced an intrusion of modern ways [EG] based on market economies, industry, democracy, science and technology.
The state itself insisted on abolishing the foundations of two central social estates, serfs and gentry owners. And the state was a major promoter of modernization. The old social/service hierarchies no longer worked for most Russians. They did not, in truth, work for the state either. Nonetheless, officials enforced adherence to these superannuated structures of class status and service rank down to the end of the Empire. This is the setting within which the famous Russian intelligentsia arose.
The Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin [LOOP], might best be thought of as an especially focused and narrowed political fraction of this novel “class” or “stratum”. In fact the Soviet Union never claimed to be a “classless society”. Intelligentsia was identified as one of three formal “classes” of revolutionary Soviet society, along with peasants and workers. These three formal Soviet classes were characteristically listed in the order of their revolutionary significance: workers, peasants and intelligentsia. By the Soviet time, the restless intelligentsia of the 19th century had become urban professionals and service personnel of a recognizable modernizing 20th century sort.
The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, however, shunned close identity with the intelligentsia. It preferred to think of itself as being without any particular social identity except in so far as it was the vanguard of the working classes, the quintessential distillation of the class interests of workers, a “specter” floating above the machinery of class determinism (remembering here that curious word as it appeared in Marx and Engel’s “Communist Manifesto”).
For its part, the intelligentsia, particularly the creative and non-governmental professional intelligentsia, shunned close identity with the masses and with political power, particularly with Soviet apparatchiki. As early as 1909 a group of Russian thinkers brought out an influential book, Vekhi (Signposts) [ID], which railed against the narrowly positivistic and all-too political traditions of the Russian intelligentsia. From the earliest years of Soviet power, creative intelligenty assumed a dissident attitude toward the Communist Party and its manipulative programs. [Example]
However, in the Gorbachev era the intelligentsia presented itself in an expanded or metamorphosed guise as a fledgling “civil society” [ID] and, throughout Eastern Europe, contributed to the fall of Lenin’s focused and narrowed fraction. More recently the imprisoned business tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovskii [ID] described what he thought of as the great failure of the “liberal” intelligentsia at the turn of the 21st century to become more political in its relationship to state power and to cease neglecting the larger 90% of the Russian population.
The Russian intelligentsia are a distinct feature of historical Russian political culture, but they have also foreshadowed the experience of many peoples over the whole globe in the half century or so that followed 1917. History’s first self-conscious intelligentsia in Russia provided a model that seemed particularly suited to the experience of Latin American, African, Near Eastern, and Asiatic societies. [NB! surprising influence of the Russian model on USA public intellectuals, e.g., Van Wyck Brooks (ID).]
Something like an intelligentsia arose in every area of the globe that found itself in the grip or under threat of European imperialist dominion. In those areas that experienced externally influenced modernization or internally generated drives against economic and social “backwardness”, there an intelligentsia characteristically made an appearance. Thus it is no accident that a near universal social phenomenon, the modernizing intellectual elite, should be labeled with national variations on the Russian word (e.g., interigenchiya in Japanese). Where trained intelligence has been a scarce commodity, or where learned minorities felt the need to mobilize for political action, the Russian word has found a use. The “intense law-making minorities” of many regions of the world have organized themselves in “cadre parties” [ID], of intelligents to gain or hold power and to mold new worlds.
And this phenomenon has even deeper ancestry. Many cultures reveal shamans, priesthoods, monasteries, mandarin scholars or the like in central roles of national leadership, in or out of power. In The Republic Plato described the philosopher king and the role of “guardians” in the perfect society. In the years just after the French Revolution, Saint-Simon [ID] defined the role of the savant, a technocratic elite of manufacturers, engineers, scientists, and creative intellectuals and artists. Later theorists, like Harold Lasswell [citations], Edward Shils [citation], Karl Mannheim [citations], Antonio Gramsci [citations], Zygmunt Bauman [citations], Boris Kagarlitsky [citations], Gyorgy Konrad [citations], and Ivan Szelenyi [citations] explored the role of the modern intelligentsia. Some praised and some condemned these “symbol experts” and “managerial elites.” The nineteenth-century German social critic Wilhelm Riehl [citation] was fascinated and appalled by them. In our century Elie Halévy [ID] assumed an equally ambiguous position in his Era of Tyrannies. Jose Ortega-y-Gasset [ID] seemed to recommend them, while Julien Benda [ID], Milovan Djilas [ID], Waclaw Machaijski [citation], and Max Weber [ID] warned against them. Many of these themes influence modern theorists of trans-national corporations and the managerial executives of the global market economy.
Hundreds of studies of the intelligentsia have been written, but few of them might now be thought of as “social histories.” In the English literature on the topic, the dominant theme has been philosophical or psychological. Mannheim’s use of Alfred Weber’s idea of “the socially unattached intelligentsia” has influenced many to deal with the intelligentsia outside of their precise social and economic setting. In this form we learn of intellectuals who sometimes seem like “supermen” or psychopaths. Biography, rather than prosopography (group biography) or aggregate analysis of cohorts, has been the preferred form of analysis.
In quite the opposite direction, in the original homeland of the intelligentsia, Russia, the study of the intelligentsia has been immersed in the study of larger and necessarily vaguer categories: social classes as defined by Karl Marx. In the Soviet Union under Communist rule, the social history of the intelligentsia was constantly fragmented as a result of the enforced need to deny any independent social existence to that “stratum.” In this form, the intelligentsia was a dependent historical variable, always functioning as an expression of this or that class interest: thus the “bourgeois” or “aristocratic” intelligentsia.
Thus also it was possible to explain how pre-revolutionary elites were able to ally themselves with an alien social class. Lenin’s father, for example, was a noble, elevated to that social position by state service, yet Lenin the radical intelligent was able to “choose” alliance with the working class. Lenin and his party, in this form, could not have its own independent “interests”. They pretended to serve the interests of supposedly more substantial reality, the proletariat.
Three larger tasks present themselves to social history. First, the intelligentsia must be “reattached” to their precise social environment and described within their specific institutions and organizations. This task is being fulfilled by an increasing number of studies that distinguish many varieties of intellectual public activists among the intelligentsia: e.g., economic managers, financial planners, liberal professions (especially journalists, teachers, lawyers, physicians), technical and scientific specialists, political ideologists, scholars, philosophers, theologians, and creative artists.
Second, the particular “interests” of the various sectors of the intelligentsia must be given proper weight along with their “ideologies.” All too often intellectuals are treated as if they did not eat or shelter themselves, or as if they had no intrinsic and quotidian vested interests. What is “intellectual capital,” what are the exchange value and social utility of knowledge or trained ability?
To illustrate the previous two paragraphs, consider the Russian debating society in the 1840s, the so-called “Petrashevtsy” [TXT]. Once situated properly, they no longer seem to be “a revolutionary movement”. They were instead a group of insipient intelligentsia, out of place in their native land and hustling to make a place for themselves.
Third, the rich interrelationship between the intelligentsia and other social formations must be described more closely, especially in the era of electronic media. The time may come when the social history of the intelligentsia will help illuminate the social history of other aggregates, especially those, like the peasantry, who are too often thought to have nothing but grubby daily “interests” and very little spiritual, intellectual or ideological culture.