Leon Trotsky

The Intelligentsia and Socialism


Written: 1910
Publisher: New Park, London, ISBN 0 902030 58 2. First printing January 1966 Second impression 1974. Reprinted from Fourth International (London), Autumn-Winter 1964-65
Source: Volume 20 of Collected (Russian) Works of L.D. Trotsky, Moscow 1926
Translated: Brian Pearce
Online Version: Marxists Internet Archive, 2002
Transcribed: Robert Barrois
HTML Markup: David Walters
Proofreading: Einde O’Callaghan, November 2006.

Ten years ago, or even six or seven years ago, defenders of the Russian subjective school of sociology (the “Socialist-Revolutionaries”) might have successfully utilized for their purpose the latest pamphlet by the Austrian philosopher Max Adler. During the last five or six years, however, we have passed through such a thorough, objective “school of sociology”, and its lessons are written on our bodies in such expressive scars, that the most eloquent apotheosis of the intelligentsia, even coming from the “Marxist” pen of M. Adler, will not be of any help to Russian subjectivism. On the contrary, the fate of our Russian subjectivists is a most serious argument against Max Adler’s allegations and conclusions.

The subject of this pamphlet is the relation between the intelligentsia and socialism. For Adler this is not merely a matter for theoretical analysis but also a matter of conscience. He wants to convince. Adler’s pamphlet, based on a speech made to an audience of socialist students, is filled with ardent conviction. The spirit of proselytism permeates this little work, giving a special nuance to ideas which have no claim to novelty. To win the intelligentsia for his ideals, to conquer their support at whatever cost, this political desire utterly prevails over social analysis in Adler’s pamphlet, giving it the particular tone it has, and determining its weaknesses.

What are the intelligentsia? Adler gives this concept, of course, not a moral but a social definition: the intelligentsia are not an order bound together by a historic vow, but the social stratum which embraces all kinds of “brain-work” occupations. However hard it may be to draw a line of demarcation between “manual” and “brain” work, the general social features of the intelligentsia are clear enough, without any further going into details. The intelligentsia are an entire class – Adler calls them an inter-class group, but essentially there is no difference – existing within the framework of bourgeois society. And for Adler the question is: who or what possesses the better right to the soul of this class? What ideology is inwardly obligatory upon it, as a result of the very nature of its social functions? Adler answers: the ideology of collectivism. That the European intelligentsia, in so far as they are not directly hostile to the ideas of collectivism, at best stand aloof from the life and struggle of the working masses, neither hot nor cold, is a fact to which Adler does not shut his eyes. But it shouldn’t be like that, he says, there are no adequate objective grounds for it. Adler decidedly opposes those Marxists who deny the existence of general conditions which could bring about a mass movement of the intelligentsia towards socialism.

“There exist,” he declares in his foreword, “sufficient factors – though not purely economic ones, but drawn from another sphere – which can influence the entire mass of the intelligentsia, even apart from their proletarian life-situation, as adequate motives for them to join with the socialist workers’ movement. All that is needed is that the intelligentsia be made aware of the essential nature of this movement and of their own social position.” What are these factors? “Since inviolability, and above all, possibility of free development of spiritual interests,” says Adler, “are among the essential conditions of life for the intelligentsia, theoretical interest is therefore fully on an equality with economic interest where the intelligentsia are concerned. Thus, if the grounds for the intelligentsia joining the socialist movement are to be sought principally outside the economic sphere, this is explicable no less by the specific ideological conditions of existence of mental labour than by the cultural content of socialism” (page 7). Independently of the class nature of the entire movement (after all, it’s only a road!), independently of its everyday party-political image (after all, it’s only a means!), socialism by its very essence, as a universal social ideal, means the liberation of all forms of mental labour from every sort of socio-historical fetter and limitation. This premise, this vision, provides the ideological bridge over which the intelligentsia of Europe can and must pass into the camp of Social Democracy.

This is Adler’s basic standpoint, to developing which his whole pamphlet is devoted. Its radical fault, which at once leaps to the eye, is its non-historical nature. The social grounds for the intelligentsia to enter the camp of collectivism which Adler relies on have indeed been there for a very long time; and yet there is no trace, in a single European country, of any mass move by the intelligentsia towards Social Democracy. Adler sees this, of course, just as well as we do. But he prefers to see the reason for the estrangement of the intelligentsia from the working-class movement in the circumstance that the intelligentsia don’t understand socialism. In a certain sense that is true. But in that case what explains this persistent lack of understanding, which exists alongside their understanding many other extremely complicated matters? Clearly, it is not the weakness of their theoretical logic, but the power of irrational elements in their class psychology. Adler himself speaks about this in his chapter Bürgerliche Schranken des Verständnisses (Bourgeois Limits to Understanding), which is one of the best in the pamphlet. But he thinks, he hopes, he is sure – and here the preacher gets the better of the theoretician – that European Social Democracy will overcome the irrational elements in the mentality of the brain-workers if only it will reconstruct the logic of its relations with them. The intelligentsia don’t understand socialism because the latter appears to them from day to day in its routine shape as a political party, one of many, just like the others. But if the intelligentsia can be shown the true face of socialism, as a world wide cultural movement, they cannot but recognize in it their best hopes and aspirations. So Adler thinks.

We have come so far without examining whether in fact pure cultural requirements (development of technique, science, art) are in fact more powerful, so far as the intelligentsia as a class are concerned, than the class suggestions radiating from family, school, church and state, or than the voice of material interests. But even if we accept this for the sake of argument, if we agree to see in the intelligentsia above all a corporation of priests of culture who up to now have merely failed to grasp that the socialist break with bourgeois society is the best way to serve the interests of culture, the question then remains in all its force: can West-European Social Democracy offer the intelligentsia, theoretically and morally, anything more convincing or more attractive than what it has offered up to now?

Collectivism has been filling the world with the sound of its struggle for several decades already. Millions of workers have been united during this period in political, trade-union, co-operative, educational and other organizations. A whole class has raised itself from the depths of life and forced its way into the holy of holies of politics, regarded hitherto as the private preserve of the property-owning classes. Day by day the socialist press – theoretical, political, trade-union – re-evaluates bourgeois values, great and small, from the standpoint of a new world. There is not one question of social and cultural life (marriage, the family, upbringing, the school, the church, the army, patriotism, social hygiene, prostitution) on which socialism has not counterposed its view to the view of bourgeois society. It speaks in all the languages of civilized mankind. There work and fight in the ranks of the socialist movement people of different turns of mind and various temperaments, with different pasts, social connections and habits of life. And if the intelligentsia nevertheless “don’t understand” socialism, if all this together is insufficient to enable them, to compel them to grasp the cultural-historical significance of this world movement, then oughtn’t one to draw the conclusion that the causes of this fatal lack of understanding must be very profound and that attempts to overcome it by literary and theoretical means are inherently hopeless?

This idea emerges still more strikingly in the light of history. The biggest influx of intellectuals into the socialist movement – and this applies to all countries in Europe – took place in the first period of the party’s existence, when it was still in its childhood. This first wave brought with it the most outstanding theoreticians and politicians of the International. The more European Social Democracy grew, the bigger the mass of workers that was united around it, the weaker (not only relatively but absolutely) has the influx of fresh elements from the intelligentsia become. The Leipziger Volkszeitung sought for a long time in vain, through newspaper advertisements, an editorial worker with a university training. Here a conclusion forces itself upon us, a conclusion completely contrary to Adler: the more definitely socialism has revealed its content, the easier it has become for each and everyone to understand its mission in history, the more decidedly have the intelligentsia recoiled from it. While this does not mean that they fear socialism itself; it is nevertheless plain that in the capitalist countries of Europe there must have occurred some deep-going social changes which have hindered fraternization between university people and the workers, at the same time as they have facilitated the coming of the workers to the socialist movement.

What sort of changes have these been? The most intelligent individuals, groups and strata from the proletariat have joined and are joining Social Democracy. The growth and concentration of industry and transport is merely hastening this process. A completely different type of process is going on where the intelligentsia are concerned. The tremendous capitalist development of the last two decades has unquestionably skimmed off the cream of this class. The most talented intellectual forces, those with power of initiative and flight of thought, have been irrevocably absorbed by capitalist industry, by the trusts, railway companies and banks, which pay fantastic salaries for organizational work. Only second-raters remain for the service of the state, and government offices, no less than newspaper editors of all tendencies, complain about the shortage of “people”. As regards the representatives of the ever-increasing semi-proletarian intelligentsia – unable to escape from their eternally dependent and materially insecure way of life – for them, carrying out as they do fragmentary, second-rate and not very attractive functions in the great mechanism of culture, the cultural interests to which Adler appeals cannot be strong enough independently to direct their political sympathies towards the socialist movement.

Added to this is the circumstance that any European intellectual for whom going over to the camp of collectivism is not psychologically out of the question has practically no hope of winning a position of personal influence for himself in the ranks of the proletarian parties. And this question is of decisive importance. A worker comes to socialism as a part of a whole, along with his class, from which he has no prospect of escaping. He is even pleased with the feeling of his moral unity with the mass, which makes him more confident and stronger. The intellectual, however, comes to socialism, breaking his class umbilical cord as an individual, as a personality, and inevitably seeks to exert influence as an individual. But just here he comes up against obstacles – and as time passes the bigger these obstacles become. At the beginning of the Social-Democratic movement, every intellectual who joined, even though not above the average, won for himself a place in the working-class movement. Today every newcomer finds, in the Western European countries, the colossal structure of working-class democracy already existing. Thousands of labour leaders, who have automatically been promoted from their class, constitute a solid apparatus at the head of which stand honoured veterans, of recognized authority, figures that have already become historic. Only a man of exceptional talent would in these circumstances be able to hope to win a leading position for himself – but such a man, instead of leaping across the abyss into a camp alien to him, will naturally follow the line of least resistance into the realm of industry or state service. Thus there also stands between the intelligentsia and socialism, like a watershed, in addition to everything else, the organizational apparatus of Social Democracy. It arouses discontent among members of the intelligentsia with socialist sympathies, from whom it demands discipline and self-restraint – sometimes in respect of their “opportunism” and sometimes, contrariwise, in respect of their excessive “radicalism” – and dooms them to the role of querulous lookers-on who vacillate in their sympathies between anarchism and national-liberalism. Simplicissimus is their highest ideological banner. With various modifications and to varying degrees, this phenomenon is repeated in all countries of Europe. These people are, more than any other group, too blasé, so to speak, too cynical, for a revelation, even the most moving, of the cultural significance of socialism to conquer their souls. Only rare “ideologues” – using this word in both the good sense and the bad – are capable of coming to socialist convictions under the stimulus of pure theoretical thinking, with, as their points of departure, the demands of law, as in the case of Anton Menger, or the requirements of technique, as in that of Atlanticus. But even such as these, as we know, do not usually get as far as the actual Social-Democratic movement, and the class struggle of the proletariat in its internal connection with socialism remains for them a book sealed with seven seals.

* * *

In considering that it is impossible to win the intelligentsia to collectivism with a program of immediate material gains Adler is absolutely right. But this still does not signify that it is possible to win the intelligentsia by any means at all, nor that immediate material interests and class ties do not affect the intelligentsia more cogently than all the cultural-historical prospects offered by socialism.

If we exclude that stratum of the intelligentsia which directly serves the working masses, as workers’ doctors, lawyers, and so on (a stratum which, as a general rule, is composed of the less talented representatives of these professions), then we see that the most important and influential part of the intelligentsia owes its livelihood to payments out of industrial profit, rent from land or the state budget, and thus is directly or indirectly dependent on the capitalist classes or the capitalist state.

Abstractly considered, this material dependence puts out of the question only militant political activity in the anti-capitalist ranks, but not spiritual freedom in relation to the class which provides employment. In actual fact, however, this is not so. Precisely the “spiritual” nature of the work that the intelligentsia do inevitably forms a spiritual tie between them and the possessing classes. Factory managers and engineers with administrative responsibilities necessarily find themselves in constant antagonism to the workers, against whom they are obliged to uphold the interests of capital. It is self-evident that the function they perform must, in the last analysis, adapt their ways of thinking and their opinions to itself. Doctors and lawyers, despite the more independent nature of their work, necessarily have to be in psychological contact with their clients. While an electrician can, day after day, install electric wiring in the offices of ministers, bankers and their mistresses, and yet remain himself in spite of this, it is a different matter for a doctor, who is obliged to find music in his soul and in his voice which will accord with the feelings and habits of these persons. This sort of contact, moreover, inevitably takes place not only at the top end of bourgeois society. The suffragettes of London engage a pro-suffragette lawyer to defend them. A doctor who treats majors’ wives in Berlin or the wives of “Christian-Social” shopkeepers in Vienna, a lawyer who handles the affairs of their fathers, brothers, and husbands, can hardly allow himself the luxury of enthusiasm for the cultural prospects of collectivism. All this applies likewise to writers, artists, sculptors, entertainers – not so directly and immediately, but no less inexorably. They offer the public their work or their personalities, they depend on its approval and its money, and so, whether in an open or a hidden way, they subordinate their creative achievement to that “great monster” which they hold in such contempt: the bourgeois mob. The fate of Germany’s “young” school of writers – now already, by the way, getting rather thin on top – shows the truth of this as well as anything. The example of Gorky, explained by the conditions of the epoch in which he grew up, is an exception which merely proves the rule: his inability to adapt himself to the anti-revolutionary degeneration of the intelligentsia rapidly deprived him of his “popularity”.

Here is revealed once more the profound social difference between the conditions of brain work and manual work. Though it enslaves the muscles and exhausts the body, factory work is powerless to subject to itself the worker’s mind. All the measures which have been attempted to get control of the latter, in Switzerland as in Russia, have proved uniformly fruitless. The brain worker is from the physical standpoint incomparably freer. The writer does not have to get up when the hooter sounds, behind the doctor’s back stands no supervisor, the lawyer’s pockets are not searched when he leaves the court. But in return, he is compelled to sell not his mere labour-power, not just the tension of his muscles, but his entire personality as a human being – and not through fear but through conscientiousness. As a result, these people don’t want to see and cannot see that their professional frock-coat is nothing but a prisoner’s uniform of better cut than ordinary.

* * *

In the end, Adler himself seems to be dissatisfied with his abstract and essentially idealistic formula on the interrelation between the intelligentsia and socialism. In his own propaganda he addresses himself, really, not to the class of brain workers fulfilling definite functions in capitalist society, but to their young generation who are only at the stage of preparing for their future role – to the students. Evidence of this is provided not only by the dedication “To the Free Students’ Union of Vienna” but also by the very nature of this pamphlet-speech, its impassioned agitational and sermonizing tone. It would be unthinkable to express oneself in this manner before an audience of professors, writers, lawyers, doctors. Such a speech would stick in one’s throat after the first few words. Thus, in direct dependence on the human material with which he finds himself working, Adler himself limits his task. The politician corrects the formula of the theoretician. In the end it is a question of struggle for influence over the students.

The university is the final stage of the state-organized education of the sons of the possessing and ruling classes, just as the barracks is the final educational institution for the young generation of the workers and peasants. The barracks fosters the psychological habits of obedience and discipline appropriate to the subordinate social functions to be fulfilled subsequently. The university, in principle, trains for management, leadership, government. From this angle even the German student societies are useful class institutions, since they create traditions which unite fathers and sons, strengthen national self-esteem, implant the habits which are needed in a bourgeois setting, and, finally, supply scars on the nose or under the ear which will serve as the stamp of one’s belonging to the ruling class. The human material which passes through the barracks is, of course, incomparably more important for Adler’s party than that which passes through the university. But in certain historical circumstances – namely, when, with rapid industrial development, the army is proletarian in its social composition, as is the case in Germany – the party can nevertheless say: “I won’t trouble to go into the barracks. It’s enough for me to see the young worker as far as its threshold and [the main thing] to meet him when he comes out again. He won’t leave me, he’ll stay mine.” But where the university is concerned, the party, if it wants at all to carry out an independent struggle for influence over the intelligentsia, must say exactly the opposite: “Only here and only now, when the young fellow is to a certain extent freed from his family, and when he has not yet become the captive of his position in society, can I count on drawing him into our ranks. It’s now or never.”

Among the workers the difference between “fathers” and “sons” is purely one of age. Among the intelligentsia it is not only a difference of age but also a social difference. The student, in contrast both to the young worker and to his own father, fulfils no social function, does not feel direct dependence on capital or the state, is not bound by any responsibilities, and – at least objectively, if not subjectively – is free in his judgement of right and wrong. At this period everything within him is fermenting, his class prejudices are as formless as his ideological interests, questions of conscience matter very strongly to him, his mind is opening for the first time to great scientific generalizations, the extraordinary is almost a physiological need for him. If collectivism is at all capable of mastering his mind, now is the moment, and it will indeed do it through the nobly scientific character of its basis and the comprehensive cultural content of its aims, not as a prosaic “knife and fork” question. On this last point Adler is absolutely right.

But here too we are again obliged to pull up short before a bald fact. It is not only Europe’s intelligentsia as a whole but its offspring, too, the students, who decidedly don’t show any attraction towards socialism. There is a wall between the workers’ party and the mass of the students. To account for this fact merely by the inadequacy of agitational work, which has not been able to approach the intelligentsia from the correct angle, which is how Adler tries to account for it, means overlooking the whole history of the relations between the students and the “people”, it means seeing in the students an intellectual and moral category rather than a product of social history. True, their material dependence on bourgeois society affects the students only obliquely, through their families, and is therefore weakened. But, as against this, the general social interests and needs of the classes from which the students are recruited are reflected in the feelings and opinions of the students with full force, as though in a resonator. Throughout their entire history – in its best, most heroic moments just as in periods of utter moral decay – the students of Europe have been merely the sensitive barometer of the bourgeois classes. They became ultra-revolutionary, sincerely and honourably fraternizing with the people, when bourgeois society had no way out but revolution. They took de facto the place of the bourgeois democratic forces when the political nullity of these prevented them from standing at the head of the revolution, as happened in Vienna in 1848. But they also fired on the workers in June of that same year, in Paris, when bourgeoisie and workers found themselves on opposite sides of the barricade. After Bismarck’s wars had united Germany and appeased the bourgeois classes, the German student hastened to become that figure, bloated with beer and conceit, who, alongside the Prussian lieutenant, is always turning up in the satirical papers. In Austria the student became the banner-bearer of national exclusiveness and militant chauvinism in proportion as the conflict grew sharper between the different nations of this country for influence over the government. And there is no doubt that through all these historical transformations, even the most repellent, the students showed political keenness, and readiness for self-sacrifice, and militant idealism; the qualities on which Adler relies so strongly. Though the normal philistine of 30 or 40 will not risk getting his face smashed in for any hypothetical notions about “honour”, his son will do this, with fervour. The Ukrainian and Polish students at Lvov University recently showed us again that they not only know how to carry out any national or political tendency to the very end, but also to offer their breasts to the muzzles of revolvers. Last year the German students of Prague were ready to face all the violence of the mob in order to demonstrate in the street their right to exist as a German society. Here we have militant idealism – sometimes just like that of a fighting cock – which is characteristic not of a class or of an idea but of an age-group; on the other hand, the political content of this idealism is entirely determined by the historical spirit of those classes from which the students come and to which they return. And this is natural and inevitable.

In the last analysis, all possessing classes send their sons to university, and if students were to be, while at the university, a tabula rasa on which socialism could write its message, what would then become of class heredity, and of poor old historical determinism?

* * *

It remains, in conclusion, to clarify one other aspect of the question, which speaks both for Adler and against him.

The only way to attract the intelligentsia to socialism, according to Adler, is to bring to the forefront the ultimate aim of the movement, in its full scope. But Adler recognizes, of course, that this ultimate aim looms clearer and more complete in proportion to the progress of the concentration of industry, the proletarianization of the middle strata and the intensification of class antagonisms. Independently of the will of political leaders and the differences in national tactics, in Germany the “ultimate aim” stands forth with incomparably greater clarity and immediacy than in Austria or Italy. But this very same social process, the intensification of the struggle between labour and capital, hinders the intelligentsia from crossing over to the camp of the party of labour. The bridges between the classes are broken down, and to cross over, one would have to leap across an abyss which gets deeper with every passing day. Thus, parallel with conditions that objectively make it easier for the intelligentsia to grasp theoretically the essence of collectivism, the social obstacles are growing greater in the way of political adhesion by the intelligentsia to the socialist army. Joining the socialist movement in any advanced country, where social life exists, is not a speculative act, but a political one, and here social will completely prevails over theorizing reason. And this finally means that it is harder to win the intelligentsia today than it was yesterday, and that it will be harder tomorrow than it is today.

In this process, too, however, there is a “break in gradualness”. The attitude of the intelligentsia to socialism, which we have described as one of alienation which increases with the very growth of the socialist movement, can and must change decisively as a result of an objective political change which will shift the balance of social forces in radical fashion. Among Adler’s assertions this much is true, that the intelligentsia is interested in the retention of capitalist exploitation not directly and not unconditionally, but only obliquely, through the bourgeois classes, in so far as the intelligentsia is materially dependent on these latter. The intelligentsia might go over to collectivism if it were given reason to see as probable the immediate victory of collectivism, if collectivism arose before it not as the ideal of a different, remote and alien class but as a near and tangible reality; finally, if – and this is not the least important condition – a political break with the bourgeoisie did not threaten each brain-worker taken separately with grave material and moral consequences. Such conditions can be established for the intelligentsia of Europe only by the political rule of a new social class; to some extent by a period of direct and immediate struggle for this rule. Whatever may have been the alienation of the European intelligentsia from the working masses – and this alienation will increase still further, especially in the younger capitalist countries, like Austria, Italy, the Balkan countries – nevertheless, in an epoch of great social reconstruction the intelligentsia – sooner, probably, than the other intermediate classes – will go over to the side of the defenders of the new society. A big role will be played in this connection by the intelligentsia’s social qualities, which distinguish it from the commercial and industrial petty-bourgeoisie and peasantry: its occupational ties with the cultural branches of social labour, its capacity for theoretical generalization, the flexibility and mobility of its thinking; in short, its intellectuality. Confronted with the inescapable fact of the transfer of the entire apparatus of society into new hands, the intelligentsia of Europe will be able to convince itself that the conditions thus established not only will not cast them into the abyss but on the contrary, will open before them unlimited possibilities for the application of technical, organizational and scientific forces; and they will be able to bring forward these forces from their ranks, even in the first, most critical period, when the new régime will have to overcome enormous technical, social and political difficulties.

But if the actual conquest of the apparatus of society depended on the previous coming over of the intelligentsia to the party of the European proletariat, then the prospects of collectivism would be wretched indeed – because, as we have endeavoured to show above, the coming over of the intelligentsia to Social Democracy within the framework of the bourgeois régime is getting, contrary to all Max Adler’s expectations, less and less possible as time goes by.

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Last updated on: 17.12.2006