George Novack

Marxism and the Intellectuals

(December 1935)

Source: The New International, New York, Volume II Number 7, December 1935, pp. 227–232.
Transcription/Editing: Daniel Gaido.
HTML Markup: David Walters.
Proofreading: Einde O’Callaghan (February 2018).
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2005. This work is completely free to copy and distribute.

I. The Marxist Theory of the Intellectual

Since the theory of historical materialism, which lies at the very heart of Marxism, is the crowning achievement of the bourgeois intellectual, it is no more than an act of historical justice to apply it to the intelligentsia itself. Castes of learned men existed long before the rise of bourgeois society. The Egyptian and Aztec priesthoods, who had a monopoly of learning and allowed it to die with them, the Greek philosophers and the medieval scholars, possessed many of the traits which distinguish the intellectual from his fellows. But the intelligentsia as a highly self-conscious and separate grouping with its own interests and institutions is a peculiar product of bourgeois society and the highly developed division of labor within it.

The structure of capitalist society is exceedingly complex. While, from the economic and political standpoint the relationships between the two basic classes become ever-more clearly defined, from the viewpoint of the division of labor the population becomes increasingly differentiated into a vast multitude of sub-classes and occupational groups, each performing special social functions and possessing its peculiar character, interests, institutions, traditions, techniques, and psychology.

One of the most important sections of these middle-class groups comprises the professions. Historically, the intelligentsia has evolved together with the professions and remains today in the most intimate connection with them. Intellectuals are usually (though not necessarily) professionals of one kind of another, teachers, writers, scientists, artists, politicians, etc.

Since the professional may be identical in person, if not in function, with the intellectual, it is often difficult to draw the dividing line between them. The practitioner of every profession theorizes occasionally about specific problems in connection with his work, and to that extent is an intellectual. It is only, however, when the professional carries on the task of theoretical inquiry in a conscious, sustained, and comprehensive manner, extending beyond his own profession, that he can be said truly to have transformed himself into an intellectual.

The practical and theoretical sides of an art or science may be fused in the life work of a single person, as Lenin united the theory and practice of revolutionary politics in the imperialist epoch, or as Sir Francis Bacon combined the theory and practice of scientific method at the dawn of modern science. But, along with the professionalization of technical training and the institutionalization of branches of learning which reach their highest development in present-day society, there ensues a further specialization. A deep division of labor springs up between the theorists and practitioners of the arts and sciences. Thus we have theoreticians of aesthetics, who have never produced a work of art, and painters who have never given an abstract thought to their work; practical politicians and professors of politics; field scientists and laboratory scientists; experimental physicists and mathematical physicists. There have even been established “schools of business administration”, like that at Harvard, where the art of exploitation is taught in the grand manner, and the science of capitalist apologetics developed to the same refined degree as the scholastics developed Catholic theology.

Finally, out of the division of labor in the academic domain have emerged entire departments of philosophy and the social sciences, given over to the task of speculating upon the most profound philosophical, historical, and social problems. The professional philosopher is the most consummate expression of the modern intellectual, as the professional theologian was the highest representative of the medieval learned caste.

The native habitat of the professional intellectual in modern as well as in medieval society is the university. The growth of universities furnishes one of the best indices to the evolution of the intelligentsia. It must be noted in this connection that the leading institutions of learning are usually supported and controlled by the ruling classes, as a center for the dissemination of their ideas. Plato’s Academy was for the sons of the Greek aristocracy, just as Plato’s philosophy was the reasoned expression of the world view of the Greek aristocrat. The medieval universities were in the hands of the higher estates of the clergy and the nobility. Oxford and Cambridge have been, since their inception, finishing schools for the scions of the masters of England and training schools for their auxiliaries the clergy and governmental bureaucracy. Today in the United States the capitalist plutocracy controls the purse strings and the faculties of the great privately endowed institutions like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, and Leland Stanford, while the upper strata of the middle classes set the prevailing tone in the state universities.

Classes which are struggling toward the heights, or have recently attained them, must establish new centers of instruction in opposition to the official universities. Thus the industrial bourgeoisie in nineteenth-century England was compelled to found independent universities and technical schools in the manufacturing cities of London, Birmingham and Manchester.

The same task confronts the working class today. It must organize its own schools in which intellectuals who have been educated (and miseducated) in bourgeois institutions and ideas must inevitably be the first teachers. As the proletariat becomes conscious of its historical mission, it will develop its own intelligentsia. In the future socialist society the need for a separate intelligentsia will gradually die away.

Meanwhile, as Kautsky pointed out, “the vehicles of science are not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia. It was out of the heads of members of this stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians, who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow this to be done.” (Quoted from Kautsky by Lenin, What Is To Be Done, p.40) There is nothing peculiar in this service rendered by the radical intellectuals to the proletariat. For it is precisely the performance of this function that gives the intelligentsia its distinctive social character. Intellectuals are specialists in the production and propagation of ideas. They constitute the sensorium of modern society, the concentration points where ideologies emerge into consciousness; take systematic shape; and are then diffused through the body politic. In various professional capacities, as teachers, writers, politicians, etc., the intelligentsia disseminates not only scientific knowledge but the ideas which classes entertain about themselves and their aims.

The intelligentsia is not a class, nor does it stand above the classes. It is a functional group whose members are pressed, consciously or unconsciously, into the service of all classes. As the intelligentsia is recruited from all ranks of society, it is extremely heterogeneous in its social composition. Different individuals and groups among the intelligentsia may have totally different social origins, aspirations, and allegiances. Intellectuals can combine the most diverse elements within themselves. We find upper-class intellectuals with sympathies for the proletariat; proletarian intellectuals who have become sycophants of the ruling class; and middle-class intellectuals who claim to be altogether above class connections.

Socially, the intellectuals enjoy a certain measure of prestige in bourgeois society; economically, they are subject to the same vicissitudes as other middle class groups. The intellectuals who command the highest esteem and influence among the rulers of society are more often those who serve them most zealously than those whose intellectual abilities and achievements are greatest. To such gentlemen go the presidencies and professorships, the editorial chairs, and the research foundations.

The average intellectual is no better off economically than the average white-collar worker; the free-lance intellectuals who haunt the Bohemias of the metropolitan centers are even less fortunate. Except in rare cases,[1] intellectuals function not as factors in capitalist economy, but as part of the social institutions stemming from it. So long as these institutions maintain them in comparative comfort, they will remain loyal to the class that supports them. The impact of the crisis, however, has hurled crowds of helpless intellectuals and professionals into space, like so many disassociated atoms. To cite but a single instance: two thousand of the ten thousand chemists, who live and work within 50 miles of New York, were laid off on December 1932, chiefly because the big corporations had cut their research staffs to the bone. (Science, Dec. 16, 1932, p. 562) These discontented and dislocated people are among the most inflammable elements in contemporary society.

Because of their economic insecurity, social rootlessness, and mixed composition, intellectuals constitute one of the most unstable, mobile, and sensitive groups in modern society. The mercurial character of their social and intellectual movements make them excellent barometers of social pressures and revolutionary storms. Impending social changes are often anticipated by restlessness among the intelligentsia. The French Encyclopedist of the eighteenth century who frequented the salons of the nobility and taunted them with the idea of revolution; the Northern abolitionists and Southern fire-eaters; the Communist and Fascist intellectuals, who are beginning to spring up on all sides in the United States today, fight on an ideological plane the battles to be fought in grim reality between opposing classes on the morrow.

The intelligentsia therefore becomes a microcosm of capitalist society, mirroring in a contracted compass and often in a distorted manner the real conflicts in the world around them. This peculiar character of the intellectuals endows their history with a significance lacking in the development of other professional groups, just as the articulateness of the intellectuals, and their function as the spokesmen of party and class interests, give their intellectual expressions, and even their political affiliations, an importance disproportionate to their numbers and actual power.

As the demagogue believes that his fiery orations are the decisive influences in the actions of the masses he sways, so deluded intellectuals come to hold that they are the prime movers of society. They inflate their self-esteem to a point where they conceive themselves to be the sole creators, conserves, and continuators of “the values of civilization” and the mainspring of social progress. Thus Preserved Smith, an American scholar, categorically asserts at the beginning of his three-volume history of Western culture, that “the history of Western Europe is the history of the intellectual class.”

Whereas the members of real ruling classes base their claim to supremacy upon social position or economic power, this intellectual élite claim the right to rule by virtue of an ability to produce or appreciate works of art, science, or philosophy. Arrogating a superior social status to themselves, they further declare that, as creators, scientists, or philosophers, they have been washed clean of the material motives and class interests that stain their baser fellow citizens. They make a religion of “art”, torn up from its social roots and abstracted from its social milieu, like Flaubert, or a religion of “science” in the abstract, like Renan, in order to exalt themselves above the vulgar herd. The perennial wish-fulfillment dream of the intellectual to be the monarch of mankind is best embodied in Plato’s mythical republic, where the philosopher is king—and the laboring masses are helots.

Such priestly and romantic attitudes on the part of the intellectuals are rather a reaction against their actual impotence in society than an indication of their strength, just as Pope Pius the Ninth’s proclamation of papal infallibility was a reflex of his loss of temporal power. Such an illusory feeling of power and independence can end only in a miserable fit of the blues and a sense of utter sterility. Paul Valery created a metaphysical monster named M. Teste whom he regarded as the high point of human evolution, but who was in reality a caricature of all such intellectuals, including his creator. Teste’s mental processes were so lightning fast, so precise, and so profound that he felt no need for practical activity. His chief traits were a callous inhumanity and sick headaches.

Robert Michels, a clever but unreliable student of modern society, asserts that intellectuals are generally revolutionary. This generalization is extremely one-sided and incorrect. Intellectuals exhibit all the political shadings of the society in which they live from the ultra-conservative to the ultra-revolutionary. Indeed, some intellectuals have worn every possible political color in the course of one career.

Burke, DeMaistre, Carlyle and Irving Babbitt may serve as examples of reactionary intellectuals, who become the rationalizers of the interests of classes which had outlived their usefulness and entered into decline. From the historical perspective of their anachronistic standpoint, such intellectuals may be shrewd, even though superficial and uncomprehending, critics of their own society. From opposite premises, they may even find themselves in temporary agreement on certain questions with the most advanced radical intellectuals, as Engels and Carlyle agreed on the miserable state of the English working class.

Such influential American liberals of the past decade as Beard and Barrington among the historians, Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Lewis Mumford, and Waldo Frank among the literary critics, and Veblen among the economists are typical of liberal intellectuals who have accomplished important cultural work during a period of relative social solidarity and stability. As the crisis deepens and the class struggle sharpens, the position of such liberals becomes increasingly untenable and they begin to lose their progressive functions. Unless the liberals succeed in pointing themselves and their ideas in a revolutionary direction, they change willy-nilly into retrogressive influences.

Radical intellectuals are those who ally themselves either in their ideas or actions with the revolutionary class, which, at a certain stage of social development, places itself at the head of the progressive forces in the nation.

Radical intellectuals have been at the head of bourgeois revolutions in almost every country. As ideological leaders, they have worked hand in hand with the political and military leaders of the revolutionary forces. Milton and Cromwell, Paine and Washington, Marat and Robespierre, Mazzini and Garibaldi are well-known examples of such alliances. Bourgeois intellectuals like Voltaire and Diderot, who tilted at established institutions like the Church, and petty bourgeois intellectuals like Rousseau who demanded the overthrow of all the ideas and institutions of the established order were the heralds of bourgeois revolution in France.

Radical intellectuals have played an especially prominent part in the bourgeois democratic revolutions of colonial and semi-colonial countries in our own time. The national revolutionary movements in Czarist Russia, the Balkan countries (Masaryk and Benes in Czecho-Slovakia), India, China, Turkey, the Latin American countries, Cuba, and the Philippines, have been inspired and directed by professional intellectuals and intellectual professionals. The recent anti-British demonstrations of the Egyptian nationalist students in Cairo are but the latest in a long line of such insurgent colonial movements, initiated by students, teachers, and lawyers.

These declassed intellectuals, smarting under a sense of the inferiority and oppression of their people or class, and with a wider historical horizon than the uneducated masses, have helped rouse the colonial peoples from their age-long apathy and inertia, brought them to their feet, given them a political program, and led them into action. This role of the radical intellectuals, and particularly of the young students, stands out boldly in the first stages of the Chinese Revolution. In A Chinese Testament, Tan Shi-Hua tells how in 1921 the students translated the first Marxist books from English and Japanese into Chinese and formed “The Group for Popular Education” to carry the message of revolution to the awakening workers. In 1925, the Chinese sailors said “the students are our only leaders.” It was the shooting of the students in Shanghai that gave the signal for the revolutionary uprising.[2]

Owing to the freer access to educational facilities, the differences between the intellectuals and the masses are not so marked in highly developed capitalist countries as they are in the backward colonial lands. The social distinctions between the well-educated and the uneducated persist, but in an attenuated form. There is no great unbridgeable gulf between the illiterate masses and the educated classes as in the days when the learned constituted a closed caste; nor could there be, in such a country as the United States, where college graduates are dumped unceremoniously almost overnight into the ranks of the proletariat and the permanently unemployed.

Bourgeois and petty-bourgeois intellectuals have also taken prominent places in the labor movements of the advanced capitalist countries. In the nineteenth century, even before the advent of Marxism, such petty bourgeois intellectuals among the Utopian socialists as Proudhon in France and Chernychevsky in Russia were the ideological leaders of the working class.

Many of the most important political and intellectual leaders of the Marxist parties have been middle-class intellectuals. This is true of Marx and Engels, the founders of the movement. Bebel and Dietzgen the elder were of proletarian origin, but these two stand out as conspicuous exceptions in a galaxy which includes Lassalle, DeLeon, Plekhanov, Liebknecht, Luxembourg, Lenin and Trotsky. All of these intellectuals, “having grasped the historical movement as a whole”, broke with the class of their origin, and merged their lives with the fate of the working class. Trotsky informs us that, of the 15 original members of the Council of People’s Commissary elected on the day following the October insurrection, eleven were intellectuals and only four workers.

It is said that radical intellectuals are unstable and unreliable allies of the working class. There is a certain element of truth in this accusation. Since, socially speaking, intellectuals form a parasitic group, even the most radical intellectuals may have stronger social and ideological ties with the existing order than they consciously suspect. Long after the umbilical cord is cut and the youth has declared his independence, the mature man is not free from the subtle subconscious influence of his parents. At crucial moments, deep-seated attachments, reinforced by the exceptionally heavy pressure exerted by alien classes, may generate a mood of vacillation in the intellectual, holding him back from decisive action and a sharp break with the bourgeois world.

Then too, intellectuals are prone to idealize revolution in the first flush of their enthusiasm, only to remain on the sidelines or run for cover into the opposing camp when they come face to face with the revolution itself. A classic instance is Wordsworth and his fellow romantics in England, who thought that “to be young was very heaven” in the morning of the French Revolution, only to turn their backs upon it in disillusion and disgust when the class war broke out in deadly earnest.

Nevertheless, the best of the revolutionary intellectuals do not flinch in the decisive hour. Their theoretical training and insight are safeguards. Persons with a correct and comprehensive grasp of the forces at work in a given revolutionary situation are more apt to stand firm under fire than empirics who rely upon their “practical sense” and spontaneous improvisations alone (i.e. upon their own prejudices and limitations). Just as determined revolutionary armies like the Roundheads under Cromwell and the Red Army under Trotsky, who knew what they were fighting about and why, made superior fighting forces to the mercenary troops of their counter-revolutionary opponents.

Since Marxism, the science of the proletarian revolution, is itself the supreme creation of middle-class intellectuals, and every Marxist party has had its quota of militants drawn from the radical intelligentsia, a Marxist party can, least of all political organizations, ignore the role that intellectuals may play in the struggle of the working class for emancipation. But the relationship between the radical intellectuals and the revolutionary workers’ party must be correctly understood. Although individual intellectuals may take a place in the leadership of the party by their talents, energy and devotion, intellectuals are generally an auxiliary force of the party with their own special talents to contribute to its work. There is a place for intellectuals inside the party, in the mass organizations it supports, and in many party activities. But the main body of the party must be recruited from, and rest squarely upon, the vanguard of the working class. The party and its leadership must have a solidly proletarian core.

II. Non-Marxist Theories of the Intellectual

The important role played by radical intellectuals in the labor movement, and particularly in the Marxist parties, has led some thinkers to attack Marxism as an anti-proletarian philosophy. The most brilliant and insidious of these attacks upon Marxism and the Marxist conception of the role of the intellectual in the revolutionary ranks, was made by Waclaw Machajski, a Russo-Polish revolutionist, whose theories were circulated among the revolutionists of Eastern Europe during the early part of the century, although they have never exercised any influence upon the masses nor attracted any large corps of disciples.

According to Machajski, socialism was not a movement for the joint emancipation of hand and brain workers, as the socialists claimed, but of the brain-workers alone. These brain-workers, composed of declassed lower middle-class intellectuals like Marx, Engels, etc. and self-educated workers like Bebel, together with their liberal-democratic counterparts, were simply using the manual workers for their private purposes. The radical intellectuals (as well as the capitalists) exploited the workers. The sole difference between them lay in their methods of exploitation. Higher education was the capital which enabled the intellectuals to befuddle and mislead the workers. The exploitative character of Marxian socialism was demonstrated on the one hand by the persistent betrayals of the interests of the poorly paid manual workers by the parliamentary socialists, and on the other hand by the fact that even the revolutionary wing of the social democracy, the Bolsheviks, neither promised nor gave equal wages to all workers, but deferred such equality to an indefinitely distant future.

Machajski attempted to lay a theoretical foundation for his position by accusing Marx of deliberately concealing the exorbitant share of the national income consumed by the governmental bureaucracy in the formulae of reproduction given in the second volume of Capital, in order to mask the narrow class character of socialism and deceive the masses of manual workers. He asserted that, although socialists and the Socialist parties may attain state power, socialism, which to him meant universal equality of income, would not be established. He found confirmation for his views in the actions of the Bolsheviks. The October Revolution, according to Machajski, simply substituted one set of unprincipled political adventurers for another. The dictatorship of the proletariat was merely a disguise for the dictatorship of the professional intelligentsia over the proletariat. The Soviet state was not socialist in its tendencies, as the communists claimed, but a form of state capitalism, which was not to be distinguished fundamentally from the Fascist state.

Max Nomad, a veteran radical journalist, who has been propagating Machajski’s doctrines in this country, sums up the process in the following alliterative phrases: “Having achieved recognition, influence and power, the apostles of yesterday become apostates, the tribunes turn traitors, and the rebels renegades.” It must be admitted that there is much in the history of the degeneration of the parties of the Second and the Third Internationals to give a superficial plausibility to Machajski’s charges, but his explanation of these phenomena is false to the very core.

Machajski’s theory was not immaculately conceived. It is only a more sophisticated and subtle brand of the anarcho-syndicalist ideology, which has contended with Marxism for the hegemony of the proletarian movement since the days of Proudhon and Bakunin. As Trotsky notes in his pamphlet on The Soviet Union and the Fourth International, “Machajski only ‘deepened’ sociologically and economically the anarchist prejudices against state socialism.”

Ultra-radical as such ideas appear at first glance, they are in reality nerveless and reactionary. This can be seen from the fact that they have been so readily adopted, and used as a weapon against Marxism and Bolshevism, by such theoreticians of Fascism as Michels and Pareto. If Fascism and communism are only alternative forms of state capitalism, in which the working class is exploited by rival groups of bureaucratic intellectuals, it can make no difference to the workers whether a Mussolini or a Stalin rules over them. This theoretical conclusion, implicit in Machajski’s position, plays straight into the hands of the worst reactionaries.

The reactionary character of Machajski’s ideas can also be seen in the practical conclusions he himself drew from them. According to him, “a workers’ government” was a contradiction and an impossibility. Governments were bureaucracies, staffed by the educated class and operated in their interests. Manual workers should avoid them like the plague. True to the spirit of this anarcho-syndicalist doctrine, Machajski enjoined the workers to restrict their struggles against the capitalist class to the fight for higher wages, and their struggles against the capitalist state to social services, such as the dole. The aim of the working class should be, not the smashing of the capitalist state and its replacement by a workers’ regime, as the Marxists taught (for this attempt would simply result in the substitution of a new gang of intellectual exploiters for the old) but universal equality of wages!

Whatever the political form of class-rule, equality of wages would guarantee equality of educational opportunity, and thus the monopoly of learning which had enabled one bureaucratic group after another to exploit the ignorant and illiterate manual workers would be abolished. In order to realize this aim, Machajski like Bakunin advocated the formation of a band of secret revolutionists, who would guide the spontaneous outbursts of the masses against their exploiters into these channels, and would eventually become powerful enough to call an international strike, which would bring every oppressing government to its feet. After this final revolution, in which the manual workers would have thrown the last group of exploiting bureaucrats, the socialist intelligentsia, off their backs, universal social and economic equality would at last be attained.

However revolutionary these conclusions sound, they are really the product of sociological shallowness and political impotence. Machajski reduces the whole course of the class struggle in history to the petty compass of a family quarrel among competing groups of bureaucratic intellectuals. He is unable to distinguish between a class and a professional group within a class. Consequently, he cannot see the difference between a political overturn, such as the shift from bourgeois democracy to Fascism, which takes place within the boundaries of a single class rule, and a genuine social revolution in which political power is transferred, not from one ruling group within the same class to another, but from one class to another.

The logical political consequences of this theoretical error are the inability to pursue a revolutionary policy before the seizure of power by the proletariat, and the tendency to follow a counterrevolutionary policy after a victorious proletarian revolution. If the day-to-day struggles of the working class are to be limited to economic and social demands, excluding political questions, the working class is not only deprived of the invaluable weapon of parliamentary maneuvering and political propaganda, but they will be bound hand and foot, ready to be delivered to the Fascists, who have then a free field left for their activities. From the proposition that the Soviet state is not a dictatorship of the proletariat but a dictatorship over the proletariat, there would logically follow the necessity of overturning the Soviet state in behalf of the working class. Such a position has nothing in common with that of the Bolshevik-Leninists. It is necessary to cleanse the Soviet state of the Stalinist bureaucracy precisely in order to defend and strengthen the existing workers’ regime in the Soviet Union, which the policies of the bureaucracy are undermining and threatening to destroy.

Machajski further fails to distinguish between social parasitism, which exists under all forms of government, and class exploitation, which arises from the antagonistic property relations of class societies. Social parasitism exists today, for example, in the bureaucracies of both the Soviet Union and Germany, but the social relations of production in the two countries are at opposite poles. The Soviet Union is a workers’ state which has socialized the main means of production; Germany is a capitalist state in which the instruments of production remain in the hands of private owners. The percentage of the social income consumed by the bureaucracies of both countries cannot alter this fundamental and all-important difference.

Machajski’s advocacy of immediate and all-embracing equality of wages as the principal goal of the working class is simply an echo of the anarchistic dream of attaining Utopia “in twenty-four hours”. It does not take into account the actual level of productive forces and the need for the further development of the basic means of production, when the working class seizes power, a problem presented in an acute form to the Russian proletariat. Differential wages as a stimulus to production, and the further investment of capital in the means of production, are indispensable instruments of socialist progress. The demand for immediate equality of wages represents in reality an enslavement to bourgeois ideology, which can conceive of no other form of the division of social income. Machajski’s emphasis upon equality of wages as the touchstone of socialism springs from the social and economic backwardness of the region of Europe whence he came, where the petty producers predominated. Only a person brought up in an unindustrialized area with an illiterate population could place so much weight upon the demand for equality of wages as to mistake it for the socialist revolution, and upon the distinction between the educated and non-educated as to confuse it with the class struggle.

Machajski’s attacks are typical of the attitudes of anarcho-syndicalists in all countries toward intellectuals, even among those groups organized and led by intellectuals themselves. The anti-intellectualism of the I.W.W., their contempt for “swivel-chair artists” and “pen-pushers”, exemplified by Bill Haywood’s characterization of Daniel DeLeon as “a theorizing professor”, was a sign of the theoretical backwardness of the proletarian movement in the United States. The disdain of the terrorists among the Russian Social Revolutionaries and the Chinese students for the theoretical scruples of their Marxist comrades against acts of individual terror is another expression of the same attitude.

Marxism teaches that thought and action are dialectically interdependent and in living unity. In political problems, as in all others, the Marxist can tolerate no contradiction between his thought and his action, but constantly strives to bring the one into conformity with the other, and both into conformity with the objective situation before him. The theorists of anarcho-syndicalism and other backward radical schools, on the contrary, elevate action above theory and spontaneity above reasoned policy. Its more sophisticated theorists disparage the intellect as an instrument of attaining objective knowledge in favor of some supposedly superior source of knowledge, such as intuition or impulse, and advocate action in itself regardless of social conditions and political consequences. Witness the popularity of Sorel’s highly intellectualized idealization of violence, his opposition of Bergsonian intuition to Marxist analysis; his preference for myths over principled theory as a guide for political action in the pre-war syndicalist movements in Europe.

This pitting of theory, as a product of intellectual activity, against action as a product of vital activity, this setting of brain against brawn or head against heart, is essentially a sign of reaction, wherever it is encountered. The reactionary side of the anti-intellectualist theories of such syndicalists as Sorel is thrown into high relief by the ease with which his leading ideas have been absorbed and developed by Fascist ideologists. The narrow-minded contempt of the anarcho-syndicalists for all revolutionary theory but their own, and for all theorists but themselves, retards the process of clarification necessary to promote the revolutionary movement. The same thoughtlessness encourages acts of sabotage and individual terror, which aid only the cause of reaction.

III. Reaction and Anti-Intellectualism

Not only is anti-intellectualism an evidence of reaction; all forms of reaction are fundamentally anti-intellectual. However adroit and highly tinted the ideological coverings of reaction may be, they reveal their falsity and hollowness when they are tested in the course of events and confronted with things as they are.

The intellectual defenders of reaction usually abandon the attempt to reason out their position in a straightforward logical manner and rely instead upon some substitute for logical and scientific method. Reaction in every sphere of experience, political, artistic and cultural, disparages the intellect as an organ of objective knowledge and leans upon some presumably more fundamental factor such as intuition, blood-sense, tradition, revelation, emotion, etc. This can be seen in all the great reactionary movements in philosophy and politics from the French Revolution to the present lay. Burke’s defense of tradition against the implacable logic of bourgeois revolutionists, DeMaistre’s brief on behalf of the Catholic Church and the guillotine as the foundation of the state, Carlyle’s exaltation of divine inspiration and the strong man, are instances which spring readily to mind. The truth of this observation can best be seen in the Fascist movements of our own time.

Like all forms of reaction, Fascism is not only inimical to the best interests of the intellectuals as a functional group; it is an avowed enemy of intellectual activity itself. Fascism did not originate in theory, boasts Mussolini, but in action. The Fascists improvised an ideology after their seizure of power in order to cloak the nakedness of reaction and to dupe gullible intellectuals, just as they deceive the mass of people in a thousand and one matters. The Fascist glorification of violence for its own sake in the form of war, oppression and terror, its more subtle appeals to the heart, the “blood-sense”, or the racial instincts against the thinking mind, its suppression of all the live growing shoots of art and science, make Fascist society a sterile soil in which it is impossible for the arts and sciences to flourish. Hitler’s burning of the books was symbolic of the descent into cultural barbarism which inevitably accompanies the triumph of Fascism.

A few examples from the writings of representative thinkers in the still democratic countries of Europe, who concern themselves with the social role of the intellectual, will throw light upon the nature of the alliance between reaction and anti-intellectualism. In France, Maurras, the rationalizer of Gallican and Royalist reaction, warns the intellectual that he must choose between “blood” and “money”, that is, between a capitalist plutocracy with a king at its head or a democracy. He, of course, has chosen the side of “blood”, and so we discover him as one of the instigators of the first French Fascist putsch on February 6, 1934. Julien Benda, speaking for the Mother Church against the dissenting nationalist Gallicans, is more subtle in his arguments. Hiding the Holy Trinity under the Platonic Trinity, he advises the intellectuals to shun all political activity as unworthy of their time-honored social role as guardians of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. He wishes intellectuals to be unspotted by contact with the world around them. The artist, scientist and philosopher should, like the monk and priest, remain aloof from the cares and concerns of the mass of humanity. They should be pure vestal virgins of thought, tending the sacred flame, while Caesar tyranizes at home and his legions plunder the provinces and war on neighboring peoples—and Mother Church, no doubt, blesses both.

In England, T.S. Eliot tells the intellectual that he must choose between two creeds, Christianity and communism. Both are to be accepted on faith as mystical means of salvation; it is a matter of arbitrary preference which one chooses. Muddle-headed Middleton Murry hastens to assent, and while Eliot lays his head upon the broad bosom of the Anglican Church, Murry espouses a pseudo-communist creed as though he had become the mystic bride of Marx.

(This is the first of two articles on the social, economic, and political role of the intellectual in bourgeois society. In the next issue, we propose to deal with the reactions of the advanced intellectuals and intellectual groups in the United States to the world crisis of capitalism.)


[1] A schoolmaster is a productive worker (i.e. one who produces surplus value for the capitalist) when, in addition to working in order to improve the intelligence of his scholars, he slaves to enrich the school proprietor.” (Capital, Vol. 1, p. 522.)

[2] Tan also presents us with the other side of the picture. In China until very recently learning has been a monopoly of the mandarin class, as it was in Europe in the Middle Ages. When Tan’s father became a local leader of Sun Yat Sen’s party of Tung Men Huei, which united all “liberty-loving intellectuals” against the Manchu dynasty and led the successful overthrow in 1911, “the intellectuals, holders of lofty, learned titles, accused my father behind his back. ‘A man with a degree, an intellectual aristocrat, how can he stand at the head of boatmen and bandits? How can he betray the Emperor?’ The respectable intellectuals also protested against the edict of the revolutionists that all Chinese should cut off the braids which signified “A Manchu Slave”. They muttered: “an outrage! A braid is not a symbol of enslavement; a braid is a symbol of one’s loyalty to the Emperor, to one’s ancestors, to the great laws and science of ancient times. They begin by cutting off braids, but they’ll end by breaking up the sacred altars in our houses, and by evicting the best people, like mangy dogs, from their estates.” Respectable intellectuals, who know which side their bread is buttered on, do not differ much from country to country or from time to time.


Last updated on: 6 February 2018