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Intelligentsia Elegy

eye on the news

Intelligentsia Elegy

American intellectuals are at odds with the workings of democracy. February 3, 2017
Politics and law
The Social Order

The Russian language boasts a formidable literary tradition. A handful of Russian words have made their way into English agitprop, apparatchik, commissar, gulag, Kalashnikov, nomenklatura, pogrom, samizdat, vodka, and now kompromat. But while the Russian language is expressive, it is mostly a borrower, not a lender, of words. The word intelligentsia made its first English appearance in 1918, shortly after the Russian Revolution. It exploded in usage thereafter. What was missing from the West’s conceptual inventory in 1918 that we had to import a foreign word from Revolutionary Russia?

Intelligentsia, a very Russian concept, is difficult to pin down with precision. Russia has always been a caste society and the intelligentsia was a particular caste, consisting of educated people who did not fit into one of the traditional categories—clergy, nobility, peasants, merchants, or the urban middle class. But the line of demarcation for membership was never clear. When I was a child in the Soviet Union, I thought it meant nice Jewish people who read books, wore spectacles, tucked in their shirts, and didn’t slurp their soup. In my parents’ circle, these were mostly engineers and scientists, with a smattering of musicians and doctors. None had any sort of formal connection to academic social science or the humanities, since in the U.S.S.R. these fields were political minefields, difficult for decent people to negotiate. But most seemed to dabble in poetry or playwriting, and all could recite large chunks of Evgenii Onegin from memory.

The concept of the intelligentsia was easier to define negatively. Anyone connected with the organs of state power—government functionaries, law enforcement, the military—fell way outside the pale. Party membership was disqualifying. A more-than-casual interest in sports, while not in itself disqualifying, was deeply suspect. Ultimately, membership came down to a self-designation, a certain recognizable set of manners, turns of phrase, and habits of mind. It was an aesthetic and an outward pose. “Intelligentnost’”—the quality of belonging to the intelligentsia—stood for whatever was perceived to be the opposite of the backwardness, stupidity, alcoholism, profanity, ignorance, and mud of provincial Russian life. Taken too far, it could become a kind of cult: a pious, atheistic godliness.

As a metaphysical ideal of intelligentnost’, imagine a professor of philology at the University of Vienna around the turn of the last century settling down in his library with a brandy, his pince-nez, and a volume of Proust, after an evening at the Philharmonic, where he watched Gustav Mahler conducting Beethoven. This fantasy of antique Central European gentility stood in contrast with a shabby and stunted Soviet reality. Decades of exposure to constant propaganda inevitably left its mark on all but the strongest of intellects. Cut off from contact with the outside world and normal cultural, intellectual, and artistic influences, the Soviet intelligentsia’s tastes were frozen sometime around 1937. Its members found escape in their book collections, which were always nearly identical, consisting of the same multi-volume editions of the nineteenth-century Russian and European classics, certain twentieth-century modernists and social realists, as well as volumes of foreign exotics like Lion Feuchtwanger, Mark Twain, John Dos Passos, Jack London, O. Henry, Ernest Hemingway, and a few other officially approved Westerners. Anton Chekhov was especially well-loved. A physician by temperament and training (the most intelligent of professions), his plays and short stories had no discernible politics and were characterized more than anything else by their fellow-feeling and concern with human decency.

In my family, intelligentnost’ was always viewed in a positive light, to the absurd extent that normal everyday activities—holding your fork, brushing your hair, choosing a pair of pants—became expressions of it. But it was not without its critics. The most devastating critique of the Russian intelligentsia was mounted by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in a 1974 essay called Educationdom (Obrazovanshchina). Solzhenitsyn traced the sources of the Bolshevik revolution and its cataclysmic aftermath to the vices of the old intelligentsia, which included “a sectarian, artificial distancing from the national life,” unsuitability for practical work, an obsession with egalitarian social justice that “paralyzes the love of and interest in truth,” and a “trance-like, inadequate sense of reality.” There were other, darker vices, too: “fanaticism, deaf to the voice of everyday life”; a hypnotic faith in its own ideology and intolerance for any other; and the adoption of “hatred as a passionate ethical impulse.” Worse still for Solzhenitsyn was the intelligentsia’s fervent rejection of Christianity, replaced by faith in scientific progress and a mankind-worshiping idolatry. This atheism was all-embracing and uncritical in its belief that science is competent to dispose of all religious questions, finally and comprehensively. In Solzhenitsyn’s view, the intelligentsia had yielded to the temptation of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor—may the truth rot, if people are the happier for it.

In the Soviet intelligentsia of his own day, Solzhenitsyn saw only a spiritually spent shadow of its pre-revolutionary predecessor—subverted by the Soviet state and stripped of the few virtues that the old class possessed. For the Russian intelligent of the old type, personal interests were unconditionally and selflessly subordinated to social causes. Where once members of the intelligentsia yearned to give themselves over to an all-encompassing worldview, now they were ruled only by a tired cynicism. Where before the intelligentsia felt a sense of obligation to and repentance before “the people,” now there was only a sense that it was the people who were guilty and stubbornly refused to repent. The Soviet intelligentsia felt little empathy or connection with its own history and possessed no principles that differed significantly from the principles put into practice by the Soviet regime. “The old intelligentsia really stood in opposition to the state to the point of open warfare, and that’s how things turned out,” says Solzhenitsyn. The contemporary intelligentsia, by contrast, had sold out to the state for a few crumbs of privilege. Its main flaw, according to Solzhenitsyn, was moral cowardice. Indeed, it was itself complicit in the regime’s crimes and its system of lies.

If some of Solzhenitsyn’s criticisms sound familiar to American conservatives, it may be because the qualities he despairs of are endemic to educated elites everywhere. Or, it may be because our American intelligentsia has been Russified over the past century. You would think that a free society would give full expression to the intelligentsia’s virtues. Yet, somehow our own intelligentsia, lacking any serious need for moral courage, has managed to concentrate in itself the worst aspects of its Russian cousins: sanctimony without sacrifice; obsession with egalitarian social justice that “paralyzes the love of and interest in truth”; hatred of its own history and the confusion of that hatred with a “passionate ethical impulse”; an exaggerated sense of its own rights and entitlements; contempt for the views of ordinary people; a transparently false, pretentious pose of acting only on the basis of undisputed facts and disinterested principle. If in the Soviet case we see a servile intelligentsia crouching defensively against an all-powerful totalitarian police state, in the United States we see a different dynamic: a powerful, self-assured intelligentsia increasingly at odds with the workings of democracy.

Recently, I traded Facebook quips with a friend who teaches at a prominent Southern university:

Friend: Obama didn’t know how to work with Congress. But he was a thoughtful, restrained president and a policy wonk. He just didn’t know how (or want) to play the games necessary to get things done.

Me: Yes, he would have made a wonderful emperor.

Friend: At first I thought you were being sarcastic, but actually you’re probably correct. He’d likely have been a decent benevolent dictator.

If only America could be Communist China for just one day, lamented New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. If only we could be ruled by an all-powerful junta of Harvard professors. Or by a plenary committee of nine eminent jurists.

Of course, mutual antipathy between intellectuals and democracy dates back at least to classical antiquity, when the Athenian assembly put Socrates on trial for corrupting the youth. The Athenian intelligentsia fought back. When Plato produced his blueprint for the ideal Republic, it looked much more like authoritarian Sparta than democratic Athens.

The United States was bound to be at odds with its intellectual class. Unlike Tsarist Russia, with its rigid system of castes and ranks, the United States was from the beginning an egalitarian republic, with no native intelligentsia. In the nineteenth century, Tocqueville found that, “there is no class . . . in America, in which the taste for intellectual pleasures is transmitted with hereditary fortune and leisure and by which the labors of the intellect are held in honor.” Tocqueville conceived of the intelligentsia in French terms and identified it with aristocracy. But Americans were doers, not navel-gazers. They lacked a “taste for intellectual pleasures” but possessed a huge appetite for acquiring practical knowledge.

For more than a century after Tocqueville, intellectuals remained at the margins of American society. American elites were industrial and financial, and the nation’s rude and boisterous culture reflected their tastes and preferences. But change was inevitable. New universities—notably Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago—were being founded along Germanic lines. These were not social clubs for the scions of railroad barons and banking magnates, but factories of pure knowledge. Then, in the 1930s and 1940s, the intelligentsia received a huge boost from an infusion of large numbers of refugees from Nazi Europe, including Viennese philologists with a taste for Proust and Mahler. But it was only after World War II that the American intelligentsia really came into its own. Economic changes were making possible increasingly large returns on investment in university education. The GI Bill exposed ever-larger numbers of Americans to the world of professional intellectuals. And, with the establishment of the Educational Testing Service, the academic elite created a highly efficient engine for sorting Americans according to intellectual ability and channeling them, by means of the university admission system, into different social strata.

More than 70 years of this social sorting have given us a distinctive, insular, and powerful intellectual elite, shaped by the prejudices, anxieties, and affectations of the faculty lounge; separated from the rest by ever-greater social, economic, and cultural distance; and hardening into a self-perpetuating caste. This ruling intelligentsia—or “educationdom,” in Solzhenitsyn’s biting formulation—more and more resembles the ruling aristocracy of Tocqueville’s day:

In an aristocratic people, among whom letters are cultivated, I suppose that intellectual occupations, as well as the affairs of government, are concentrated in a ruling class. The literary as well as the political career is almost entirely confined to this class, or to those nearest to it in rank. These premises suffice for a key to all the rest.

The American intelligentsia remains hard to define. A good working definition may be a class of educated people who, like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, are able to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Here, in no particular order, is a full day’s worth: colleges are hotbeds of rape culture; Cuba has excellent health care; the New York Times has no partisan bias; Islamophobia is a meaningful word; poverty causes crime; poverty causes terrorism; global warming causes terrorism; gender is a social construct; capitalism causes racism; racism causes crime; racism causes poverty; Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia; and so on.

At least in the Soviet case, complicity in a soul-crushing system of official lies was coerced at the point of a bayonet. It is disturbing that, with our intelligentsia, these beliefs are self-inflicted.

The election of Barack Obama was the singular triumph of this class. His election was celebrated for the milestone in race relations that it represented. But among the intelligentsia, this ecstasy was heightened considerably because he was One Of Us. His imminent canonization as a secular saint is best understood in the context of the arrival of the intelligentsia at the apex of American political power.

Obama was only the second professional intellectual to be elected president, the first being Woodrow Wilson. It is probably not a coincidence that these two presidents have been temperamentally our least democratic. Unlike Wilson, who taught Greek and Roman history and wrote a highly influential tome on the Constitution that excoriated the Founding, Obama was an obscure, part-time University of Chicago Law School lecturer who had produced no original scholarly work. I studied law at Chicago while Obama taught there, yet it never occurred to me to take a class with him. He did manage to write two books about himself and was undeniably talented at stimulating the intelligentsia’s erogenous zones, prompting Garrison Keillor to swoon on NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion about how wonderful it was that at last we had our first president who was a “real writer.” (Abraham Lincoln could not be reached for comment.)

Not to take anything away from Obama—he would have made a perfectly adequate assistant professor of political science at Northern Illinois University, if he had developed the self-discipline for academic work. But the reaction to him of the intelligentsia—the public intelligentsia, the sub-intelligentsia, the pseudo-intelligentsia, and the lumpen-intelligentsia—was embarrassingly self-parodic.

“If there is hope,” wrote Winston Smith in 1984, “it lies in the proles.” George Orwell, who put that thought in Winston’s head, was among the most anti-intellectual of intellectuals, but I doubt that he meant for us to take Winston’s hope seriously. I, for one, don’t. But we certainly have the proles to thank for the great intelligentsia panic of 2016. The peasants grabbed their pitchforks, ungratefully turned their backs on Obama’s intellectualism, and replaced him with a “tribune of the rustics and deplorables,” as Victor Davis Hanson has dubbed Donald Trump. To gauge just how galling this is to the intelligentsia, read any Garrison Keillor column since November 9, 2016.

Photo by Anton Chekhov and family by Keystone/Getty Images

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