The Intelligentsia and Its Revolutionary Mission

By Gaither Stewart – Rome 

"Things as they are don’t seem to me satisfactory…The world as it is, is unbearable." (Albert Camus, Caligula, act 1, scene IV)

"What is so bewildering is the conviction—and it is becoming more and more general—that in all the perils that confront us the direction of affairs is given over to a way of thinking that no longer has any understanding of itself. It is like being in a carriage, descending an increasingly precipitous slope, and suddenly realizing there is no coachman on the box." (The Russian diplomat- poet Fyodor Tyuchev (1803-1873) in a letter to his wife about the dangerous road ahead toward revolution)

I am not an intellectual. But I am an artist and part of the intelligentsia.

What? Not an intellectual! Intelligentsia? What is the difference?

Though most people are vaguely familiar with the word intelligentsia, many confuse it with intellectuals and might be surprised at my claim that I am not of the first but belong to the latter. That distinction is the subject of discussion here—the distinction between uncommitted, if not compromised, intellectuals and the socially committed intelligentsia. That difference is an accusation against the ambivalent situations of many intellectuals in the USA today. That difference can also clarify the positions of educated people in general in all of contemporary Western society.

Since intelligentsia comes to us from the Russian, in research for my recent essays, “Stalin, The Poet, And Life’s Choices” and “The Return of the Proletariat” ( and elsewhere) I studied also the emergence of the intelligentsia in pre-revolutionary Russia and its contribution to the greatest revolution of our times. Most curious are its instructive analogies with and disconcerting divergences from the educated classes in the USA today. The Russian revolutionary example, like Russia itself, is not as distant and exotic as westerners might believe, the Russia that America has propagandized as just another despotic Eastern power.

We should recall that Russia is also the West. It is part of us.

For the great Dostoevsky, Russia is even a far better West, even a better Christendom, for that matter.

At the outset it must be clear that the word, intellectual, does NOT reflect the significance of intelligentsia. Despite dictionary definitions, the two are not the same. For a starter, some intellectuals in our society belong to the intelligentsia. Many do not. For example, pure intellectuals with no pretensions of belonging to the radical intelligentsia occupy the huge and powerful academic world. Therefore, to distinguish between the two one resorts to the transcription of the word from Russian, hopefully to express the true meaning of the latter. Nonetheless, the word intelligentsia too has been internationalized and its meaning at times degraded to banality.

In pre-revolutionary Russia the intelligentsia did not mean a professional part of the population such as writers, academicians, philosophers, sociologists, academicians and educated people in general. Instead it was a social group united by ideas: a similar political direction, philosophy and world outlook. Just read Dostoevsky’s novels and you read novels of the ideas projected by the intelligentsia of then. Historically the word implies radicalism and a desire for drastic socio-political change, a particularly valid consideration for intellectuals in the USA.

The appeal of Marxism to the intelligentsia was and remains a natural process. Marxism contains not only the element of philosophical materialism but also a big and seductive dose of genuine existential philosophy, born from Marx’s German idealism. Faith in the human will. Confidence in human activity by the revolutionary struggle of the classes. The idea that man can overcome the power of (mostly hidden) economic power relations over his life. A positive view of the future. 

Hence, the most learned and educated people in society are most certainly NOT to be considered part of the intelligentsia if they are conservative or reactionary. Examples of intellectuals who are not of the radical intelligentsia are numerous, for example the French intellectuals who at the peak of the Revolution morphed into counter-revolutionaries and fled back to the King and his Court rather than risk the perils of the Revolution of the people.

Similarly, modern French intellectuals of the “ideology is dead” school such as Bernard Henri-Lévy and other so-called nouveaux philosophes, made careers debunking intellectual commitment, which is the role of the intelligentsia. After the overthrow of Communism in East Europe the typically facile message of the nouveaux philosophes was that one could no longer take socialist ideas seriously. Lévy said, oh so misguidedly, so maliciously: “When intellectuals let themselves believe in a community of men, they are never far away from barbarism.” Not only reductive but no less than an apology for totalitarianism, of the natural, right wing kind.

Lévy and his intellectual friends became opportunistic journalists. They found easy targets among French committed writers: Sartre had flirted with terrorists of the German Baader-Meinhof Gang and Debray trained in guerrilla warfare in Bolivia with Che Guevara. Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Régis Debray and also André Gide, despite his flirts with Cold War anti-Communists, were the other side of the moon from the so-called philosophes.

For as always and everywhere post-commitment intellectuals like Lévy find themselves in the blind alley of having to try to justify social injustice. Under the guise of neo-liberal free marketers, conformists coolly tell us that rich countries have no responsibility for problems of the Third World—as if we didn’t all belong to the same world. Given his impeccable credentials as an elegant counter-revolutionary, it should come as no surprise that Henri-Lévy, thick central casting Hollywood French accent and all, is warmly received, some would say fawned upon in the most distinguished precincts of the American media establishment, from the intellectually clueless Charlie Rose to the pseudo-left gnomes at NPR.

Fortunately, many European and Latin American intellectuals have been political and progressive. By force of their commitment they are members of the intelligentsia striving to change the world: such as Sartre and Camus in France. In Latin America Gabriel Garc

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