The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power
The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class
When Shelley wrote that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” he was not speaking in metaphor. He meant that they really do discover, shape, and announce the moral law. But Shelley was not making a political claim. He did not mean that the power of poetry should be publicly recognized or that poets should occupy the offices of state. In its most general form, however, that latter claim is common enough: that the state should be ruled by its most visionary or at least by its most intelligent citizens, and that they should rule, not by accident or luck, but because of their vision and intelligence.
Mostly, until now, other criteria have prevailed, and it’s been the well-born, the powerful, and the well-to-do who rule the rest of us. Poets and intellectuals have been politically successful in their own right only when they appeared as religious leaders or rode the crest of revolutionary movements. In secular dress and in ordinary times, without magical powers or doctrinal authority, they have been pushed to the sidelines. Sometimes, of course, the well-born and the wealthy are themselves poets and intellectuals, on the side, but they don’t rule because of their writing or thinking; they make other claims on our attention. Or they simply surround themselves with poets and intellectuals, having learned to enjoy the more cultivated forms of flattery. The poet-as-courtier is a common figure in the ancien régime; the intellectual-as-adviser is even more common in modern regimes. Servants of power, sometimes lackeys: it is a position that breeds contempt on the one hand, resentment on the other.
But today, other feelings are apparent: admiration on the one hand, pretension on the other. We live in societies that produce extraordinarily large numbers of educated men and women and that increasingly need their authority and decision-making skills. We even produce more poets (I think) than any previous society ever did. It’s not the poets, however, who are leading “the march to class power,” though they are—so these two books suggest—among the marchers, and already taste the state grants that will be theirs when the goal is reached. The leaders are the more specialized seers of a secular age: masters of ideology and technical experts. Ideologists and experts don’t claim to rule because of their birth or blood or land or wealth, but solely because of their insight. They penetrate the complexity of modern economies and technologies; they have a grip on the historical process; they make predictions about the future. Theirs is a new legitimacy, one not easy to challenge.
Insofar as the modern state is committed to planning, welfare, and redistribution, it plainly requires a vast civil service of educated people; intellectuals are its natural rulers. And so, a certain sort of common sense suggests, intellectuals have set about to create such a state, whose offices only they can fill. By and large, they have succeeded, or they are in the process of succeeding. Here then are our new masters: bureaucrats, technocrats, scientists, and their professional allies, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and social workers. There are splits among these groups, and hierarchies among and within them. But all their members are people with specialized training and knowledge, and all of them enjoy greater prestige and income than their immediate (and their distant) predecessors in Europe and America. They are the “clerks” of the modern world. Are they a “new class,” sharing interests and consciousness? Are they the long-awaited next class?
From the time of Marx until the present day, the most common goal of social research has been to discover the next ruling class. Virtually no one believed or believes in the staying power of the bourgeoisie. Surely there has never been a less prepossessing group of political leaders than the merchants and industrialists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Aware of their own limitations, they have often preferred to leave office to old aristocrats, who have the style for it, or to new professionals, who have the wits.
Since capital is a potent force, aristocrats and professionals mostly do its bidding. When they attempt defiance, they look for support among the people, and it is a special contingent from among the people—industrial workers, steeled by class struggle—who have commonly been described as the legitimate heirs of the bourgeoisie. Marx’s argument focuses not on the workers’ right to succeed but on their will and capacity to do so. He thought that their numbers and then their solidarity would do for them what wealth had done for merchants and industrialists. They might need intellectual support; so had the bourgeoisie. But only the workers, by virtue of their economic position and social strength, could constitute an alternative class.
But the workers have not taken power and held it—anywhere—and in the last three or four decades a number of writers, like James Burnham and Milovan Djilas, have begun to make the case for an alternative succession of intellectuals and managers. Now the Hungarian writers George Konrád and Ivan Szelényi, and the American sociologist Alvin Gouldner, make the case again; Gouldner with rather more enthusiasm than seems warranted by anything we currently know, Konrád and Szelényi with a new theoretical precision and density. Their argument is best understood as a critique of Marx. But this is a critique worked out (as was that of Burnham and Djilas) within what can still be called the Marxist tradition of class analysis. I am not sure whether it is a sign of the strength of that tradition, or of its disintegration, that it can now accommodate predictions so radically divergent from Marx’s own.
Both the accommodation and the divergence are apparent in the way these writers use Marxism against itself. They are sociological Marxists who treat political Marxism, and socialism more generally, as the ideology of the new class. The argument is clearest in the case of Eastern Europe—and therefore in the version of Konrád and Szelényi. Landlords and capitalists were expropriated in the name of the workers, these writers argue, but the chief agents of socialization and its chief beneficiaries were and are the intellectuals (professional revolutionaries and the technical experts they recruit), who now control the economic surplus, try to “maximize” it through central planning or simple confiscation, and distribute it on scientific or ideological principles. They replace the market with the plan, the economy with the state, the old ruling class with themselves.
Konrád and Szelényi’s essay is a piece of samizdat, a banned book in Hungary, written in 1974, smuggled out of the country, and finally published in the West only last year. (Szelényi meanwhile emigrated to Australia.) Its authors insist that they do not intend either to criticize or justify the new class but only to provide an “imminent structural analysis” of it. Their book is, nevertheless, brutally deflationary because it treats the intelligentsia in exactly the same way that classical Marxism treats the bourgeoisie: the new class is only the next class, not (like the Marxist proletariat) the last class. Its members pursue particular interests; they don’t advance universal values. Of course, the vanguard of the new class (the Communist Party) claims to advance universal values, just as the vanguard of the bourgeoisie did in its own revolutionary period. But vanguard rule, now as then, culminates in dictatorship and terror and eventually produces a reaction by the class, whose members demand their own version of normalcy.
The tension between the vanguard and the rest of the new class is today represented by the struggles, in countries like Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland, between the party and the technical intelligentsia. “Socialism with a human face” is the creed of the intelligentsia, and if we ever get a close look at that face, Konrád and Szelényi suggest, we will see that it is not human merely, it is the face of particular men and women, economists, technocrats, managers, and professionals. The technocratic Thermidor is, or will be, more humane and liberal than the party’s Terror, but it is still a form of class rule, not the rule of the associated workers, where everyone is a worker, or of the people generally.
Gouldner’s view of the new class is considerably more optimistic. Indeed, his book is written with a kind of buoyancy, only occasionally curbed, as if he himself were marching along the road to class power, sometimes beset by anxieties, sometimes bursting into song. “The New Class is the most progressive force in modern society…a center of whatever human emancipation is possible in the foreseeable future.” And again, “The New Class is the universal class in embryo but badly flawed.”
I don’t know if that last sentence means that the contemporary intelligentsia represents, so to speak, the infancy of universality, or if it means that the infant is going to grow up deformed. The first meaning is more likely. For Gouldner does not view the new class as a group of men and women defined by their social position, using state power, as the bourgeoisie used capital, to control and distribute the economic surplus.
Instead he defines the new class by its culture; it is a “speech community.” This is not the same thing as a linguistic community: intellectuals are a new class, thank heaven, not a new nation. What they are alleged to share is the “culture of critical discourse”—CCD in Gouldner’s text, where he continually writes as if the new class has CCD in much the same way that capitalists have capital, homeowners have homes, and cancer victims have cancer. At the same time he insists that critical discourse is by its very nature no one’s exclusive possession: it is open, available, anti-authoritarian, consensual…universal. As a ruling class, intellectuals have to give reasons; they can’t just give orders.
But it is absurdly easy to give reasons for giving orders, and I am not sure that the orders are any different, at the receiving end, if they come with, or if they come without, explanations. In any case, there is a sleight of hand involved in treating the capacity for critical discourse as the “capital” of the new class. This formulation leads Gouldner to deny membership to state and corporate bureaucrats, since their culture, he argues, is one of routinized obedience, hierarchy, and official secrecy. In contrast to Hegel, who thought the civil service the very model of a universal class (because its specialty, so to speak, is the general welfare), Gouldner insists that bureaucrats merely follow orders; they are the agents, dull and gray, of other social groups. But when he wants to impress us with the recent growth and current size of the new class, he includes bureaucrats and managers in its ranks (see the table in his book on p. 15). And indeed, without “line officials” in government and corporations, the new class is not very impressive; nor is it easy to see how it might one day rule over the rest of us. If there is a new class, bureaucracy is its cutting edge. One can’t construct scientific categories by excluding groups one finds unlovely, or uncritical.
By contrast, Konrád and Szelényi provide a more inclusive description. The new class, for them, consists of “three partners of equal importance”—the stratum of economists and technocrats, the administrative and political bureaucracy, and the ideological, scientific, and artistic intelligentsia. Serious problems arise when they consider the last group (which includes “marginal intellectuals” like themselves), and I will come back to them later. What is crucial is that all or almost all these people share perceptions and interests: they are “mutually dependent on one another and impregnated with one another’s logic.” It is their standing vis-à-vis the state and their common sense of the purpose of the state that constitute their class unity. The conditions that produce this unity are, however, historically specific. Konrád and Szelényi’s account of that history is probably the most brilliant part of their book, a sustained and powerful analysis of Eastern European social structure since the Middle Ages. The role of the central state, the prestige of office-holding, the weakness of the bourgeoisie, and its inability to support an “organic intelligentsia” of its own—all these factors are marshaled to help explain the appearance of an “intelligentsia of office” replacing the bureaucratic gentry and nobility of an earlier time.
It’s not the case in Eastern Europe that the new class replaces the bourgeoisie, and I am inclined to doubt Gouldner’s claim that it is in the process of doing so in the West. What is actually happening is rather different, and is best approached, I think, by way of an analogy. Just as a parallel nobility, the noblesse de robe, established itself during the early modern period of state centralization, so a parallel bourgeoisie, which we might call the bourgeoisie de robe, is in the process of establishing itself today. As with the absolutist state of the seventeenth century, so the planning and welfare state of our own time, and the giant corporations that exist alongside it, provide new opportunities for social advance.
For a number of reasons, however, it is a mistake to describe the men and women who take advantage of these opportunities as the members of a new class. First, the bourgeoisie de robe reproduces the division of state and economy that is the most fundamental characteristic of bourgeois life. It isn’t, that is, exclusively associated with state power; it develops also within the corporate world and retains a deep commitment to private property. And second, its style of life tends to be as individualist and as firmly based on consumer values as that of conventional business people. The claim that there are new ways of life, like the claim that there is a “new politics,” associated with the new class hardly bears examination. Gouldner writes, for example, that the members were united “in their opposition to the United States’ war on Vietnam.” But that’s only true, again, if one excludes from membership all those men and women—engineers, managers, bureaucrats—who were not significant participants in the anti-war movement. Then “new class” also fits nicely into neo-conservative fantasies, but it’s not an actual social formation. We might argue instead that neo-conservatism, with its simultaneous advocacy of non-ideological planning and market economics, most accurately represents the consciousness of the social groups that Gouldner describes. And so it would make sense to call them a “neo-bourgeoisie,” whose members owe their middle and upper middle class status to their ability to earn educational certificates and to occupy a range of positions in state and economy.
The integration of new intelligentsia and old bourgeoisie is a distinguishing feature of Western social structure. It has been worked out with very little dislocation and without any (visible) form of vanguard politics. The old rulers of our state and economy have not been displaced; they have been joined. And since the bourgeoisie was never an exclusive club, the joining was easy. It certainly did not entail a vast shift of political power. With whatever qualifications, it still makes sense to describe countries like the United States as capitalist societies.
But that is not by any means the whole story of East/West differences. For Western political structures also have a distinguishing feature stressed by Konrád and Szelényi, though not by Gouldner: “the sovereignty of a political mechanism based on representation.” Wherever democratic institutions exist, wealth and technical knowledge are two forms of legitimacy that must compete with political representation. Perhaps that’s only to say that we are ruled by politicians as well as by capitalists and technocrats. Given the current reputation of politicians, that may not mean much. In fact, however, the principle of representation opens large and significant possibilities—first, because it guarantees that politics is not a matter merely of purchase or expertise but a competition of would-be representatives, and second, because it gives a voice or a potential voice to all those men and women without either wealth or technical knowledge upon whose suffrage politicians must depend. It also brings intellectuals into political life—as spokesmen, publicists, and agitators. They defend interests, invent and criticize positions. The ideological conflicts of a democratic society are impossible without them, and while it can be said that they always pursue their own secret goals, it does not appear that they ever agree on what those goals are. Endlessly divided, they make connections with different and opposing social forces.
But what happens when the other forces are weak and the intellectuals themselves—or rather, the intelligentsia as a whole, bureaucrats, technocrats, and so on—come to power? Konrad and Szelényi worry that they are then unable to articulate in critical fashion either their own or anyone else’s interests and ideologies. In Eastern Europe, at least, they are the prisoners of a collective mythology, silent and acquiescent in the face of their own pretensions—unable, for example, to mount a serious campaign against Leninist vanguard theory. And so the denial of representation and the closing down of the political competition in Eastern Europe are only the political recognition of a kind of epistemological closure. Even were the competition open, intellectuals would do nothing more than repeat the official line, for they are themselves (at last!) the officials.
But the book that Konrád and Szelényi have written, though it can’t be published in the country where they wrote it, is significant evidence against this argument. These two wrote as marginal intellectuals. They still participated in the culture of criticism from which their class associates, the intelligentsia of office, have evidently withdrawn. And it is certain that the liberalization of political life in Hungary would reveal others like themselves, ready to cut loose from the new class, to speak for other groups, to challenge state power, and even to defend political liberalism and economic self-management: the mirror image of their own intellectual freedom. And in the United States, where political competition has not been shut down, the status, interests, and ideology of what I have called the neo-bourgeoisie are already the subjects of critical scrutiny by both friendly and hostile intellectuals, none of whom is simply a member (though a few aspire to be nothing more).
Perhaps we should say straightforwardly that marginal intellectuals are the only real intellectuals: Konrád and Szelényi are prime examples. They themselves deny the equation and make fun of Sartre’s remark that an atomic physicist is an intellectual only when he signs a petition against nuclear testing. No doubt that is a piece of sociological, perhaps also of political, silliness. So is Gouldner’s attempt to define the intelligentsia as a class by reference to its critical culture. Still, there is a point here. Like Shelley’s poets, intellectuals belong to a category that isn’t only scientific but also and more importantly normative. The intelligentsia of office and the bourgeoisie de robe: these are scientific categories, and we assign members to them on the basis of their social position. But we recognize intellectuals by other marks. They are committed to rigorous analysis, “imminent critique,” truth-telling. Or better, they are poets too (Konrád is a brilliant novelist), legislators for the mind and spirit. And because of that, they can never be, we can never conceive them to be, the members of a ruling class. They always have an interest in the class that comes next.
The New Masters May 15, 1980