Malia Martin, “What Is the Intelligentsia?” Daedalus, Vol. 89, No. 3, The Russian Intelligentsia (Summer, 1960), , MIT Press, pp. 441-458.
To blase Westerners one of the most engaging quahties of the Russian intellectuals of the old regime is the moral passion with which they attacked the great questions of the human condition, and their pursuit to a ruthlessly logical conclusion?in life no less than in thought?of the heady answers such exalted inquiry invariably brings. It is this quahty which the two giants of the tradition, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, in spite of so much that separates them, have in com mon and which gives Russian hterature of the last century its unique character and power. In lesser figures this same moral quest is often expressed just as intensely but with a na?ve, utilitarian bluntness that is conveyed by such classic titles of their works as Who Is To Blame?, What Is To Be Done?, Who Are The Friends of The Peo ple? Like Marx, whom some of them eventually followed to a shat tering outcome of their searchings, they wished "not just to under stand the world, but to change it." Still, they had first to understand, and their moral utilitarianism was ultimately founded on an exacerbated faculty of introspection.
Their initial question was always, "Who are we?"?as individuals, as Russians, as thinking men in a barbarous society. A more pragmatic way of putting the same question was, "What is the intelligentsia?" The number of works so entitled is legion, with almost as many dif ferent, ardent answers. The subject of this essay, then, is one of the classic questions of modern Russian life, yet about which it is al ways possible to say something new, since it is as rich as that life itself. The term intelligentsia was introduced into the Russian language in the 1860's by a minor novelist named Boborykin, and became cur rent almost immediately. This fact is of more than anecdotal signifi cance, for it suggests that the group so designated did not acquire full awareness of its identity until that time. Yet almost all author ities would agree that the origins of the group itself went back to the "circles" of the 1830's and 1840's, which introduced into Russia the ideological turn of mind in the form of German philosophical idealism. Still, the fact that there was a term for the group under Alexander II, whereas there was none under Nicholas I, indicates a watershed in its development that coincides with the beginning of the Great Reforms after 1855. It was Turgenev who, in his greatest novel, gave the classical terminology to describe these two stages: the aristocratic "fathers" and the plebeian "sons." Very roughly, the intellectual difference between the two was the difference between idealists and materialists; nevertheless, both were what Napoleon once contemptuously dubbed "ideologues." A third stage came after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 with the advent of a more heterogeneous body sometimes baptized the "grandsons," or the various Populist, Marxist, and even neo-Kantian groups of the end of the old regime, who revived in different ways the legacy of their predecessors, but who remained just as thoroughly ideological. It is this primacy of the ideological that is fundamental to the group as a whole; the intelligentsia, therefore, should not be taken to mean just the revolutionary opposition. Indeed, the word ever since it came into being has had two overlapping meanings: either all men who think independently?of whom Pisarev's "critically thinking realists," or "nihilists," were only the most extreme and famous manifestation; or, more narrowly, the intellectuals of the opposition, whether revolutionary or not. "Fathers," "sons," and "grandsons," therefore, are all unmistakably intelligentsia, and might for convenience's sake be designated "classical intelligentsia." There are two other groups, however, which are candidates for inclusion under the same rubric.
Some writers on the subject would consider as intelligentsia all oppositional figures since the end of the eighteenth century, including Radishchev and Novikov under Cath erine II and the Decembrists under Alexander I. Yet here we find nothing approaching a consensus, and this in itself indicates that although these figures had certain characteristics in common with their successors, they were not yet the real thing. Because of this equivocal status, therefore, they are best considered as no more than a "proto-intelligentsia," and though some account must be taken of them here, they will not be central to the story. Finally, it is clear that after 1917 the term intelligentsia suffered a drastic change. Although Marxism makes no provision for such a class, the Soviet regime has officially proclaimed what it calls the intelligentsia as one of the three pillars of the socialist order, to gether with the proletariat and the toiling peasantry. The term, however, no longer has any connotations of "critical" thought, be cause all questions have now been answered; still less does it have the "classical" and "proto-"intelligentsias. In addition, it should be simply all those who "toil" with their minds instead of with their hands, that is, the technological, liberal-professional, managerial, administrative, or merely white-collar personnel of the state. Only the Party presents a partial exception to this definition, for, as we shall see, it has preserved something of the intelligentsia's spirit, if not of its personnel. Otherwise, the Soviet intelligentsia is so differ ent from its predecessor as to deserve a separate name?such as Trot sky's "bureaucracy" or Djilas' "new class"?and just as certainly, a different mode of analysis. This discussion, therefore, will be limited to what has been called the "classical" and "proto-'mtelligentsias. In addition, it should be said that, since the subject is complex, much simplification is inevit able. In the remarks that follow, the emphasis will be on the more radical and revolutionary elements of the intelhgentsia, who, if they were by no means the whole of the movement in the nineteenth cen tury, are a likely choice for special consideration in a general survey for the practical reason that they eventually had the greatest impact on history. The word intelligentsia itself most probably is no more than the Latin intelligentia?discernment, understanding, intelligence?pro nounced with a Russian accent.* Yet such bold use of a term for an abstract mental faculty to designate a specific group of people ob viously implies a very exalted notion of that group's importance, and its members?intelligenty, "the intelligent or intellectual ones"? are clearly more than intellectuals in the ordinary sense. Whether merely "critically thinking" or actively oppositional, their name in dicates that they thought of themselves as the embodied "intelli gence," "understanding," or "consciousness" of the nation. In other words, they clearly felt an exceptional sense of apartness from the society in which they lived. To use an old qualificative of German idealism which the intelhgentsia in its more lucid moments under stood only too well, and which in a diluted sociological meaning now enjoys a great vogue in America, they were clearly "alienated" in tellectuals of some sort.
[…] With this triumph the extraordinary fortunes of the intelhgentsia as a group came to an end, for in the new society which it created the conditions that had called it into being no longer existed. None theless, even though the body of the intelhgentsia died, much re mained of the spirit. It has often been noted that the ordinary logic of revolutions has not obtained in Soviet Russia and that for over forty years, in spite of temporary retreats, no real Thermidor has come to put an end to ?ie original ideological impetus. This remark able staying-power has not been founded, however, on the continuity of the nucleus of intelligenty who established the regime, since most of them eventually perished at its hands. Nor is this continuity wholly supphed by the equally unconventional yet real "new class" which has come into being with the Party bureaucracy. Rather, the cohesion of the Soviet regime is most clearly founded on the primacy, for all "classes" who have held power in it, of abstract principles over life, and on a ruthless will in bending reahty to the tenets of what it claims is a scientific materialism, but which, to the profane, appears as a passionate ideological vision. How and why all this should be, however, is a problem as vast and as difficult to encompass as that of the intelhgentsia itself, and one that can properly be the subject only of a separate study. Nev ertheless, there is one remarkable element of continuity between the old "class" of the intelligentsia and the "new class" of the Party which must be emphasized here. The brutal utilitarian use of the ideologi cal by the Soviets is no more than a sectarian version of the spirit of the pre-Revolutionary intelligenty carried to a nee plus ultra by the experience of power. In spite of its demise as a group, the more radical intelhgentsia is with us still as a force. Its ideal vision, what ever one may think of it, has become, in a debased but potent form, the very fabric of Russian reality.