22.3.09

Intellectuals and socialism

Something interesting I came across in Richard Pipes's The Russian Revolution. Capitalism and democracy enhances the role of intellectuals, but it also increases their discontent. Politicians and businessmen are the elites in democratic capitalist societies, and intellectuals become envious of their authority, prestige and wealth. They can only avoid such humiliations if society becomes 'rationalised' - when reason replaces the free play of economic and political forces. So they turn to socialism, where such spontaneity is the enemy. In a socialist society, intellectuals are in a commanding position - the ones able to plan the economy and end the population's poverty and ignorance.

So socialism works to the advantage of the intelligentsia. Self interest and ideology coincide. Pipes notes that anarchists consistently argue along these lines. Socialism is an idea that masks the class interest, not of liberal bourgeois businessmen, but of discontent bourgeois intellectuals. This is why in the modern world anarchism is a faint shadow of socialism. It attacks the ideology and interests of the intelligentsia, and so remains a marginal political movement.

I quite like this application of Marxist analysis to Marxism. Pipes's fundamental point - that in judging human behaviour we must be aware of both interest and ideology - is valid. Seeing how the two balance out is one of the most fascinating aspects of studying history, and indeed people in general. I agree with Pipes that usually we find ideology and interest pointing in the same direction. I'm less sure of his claim that for intellectuals this direction is always socialism. In the period he focuses on (latter half of 19th century Europe) this may have been the case. But in my 21 century university, most of my professors appear to be MOR liberals. If I was to continue a Marxist, materialist analysis of why that is, I would point to today's heavily bureaucratic (and stable) capitalist state, where intellectuals can easily find employment in the civil service and in government. One of my former tutors, a friend informs me, is now working somewhere in the Houses of Parliament. Another used to work as a civil servant. A third was in management before embarking on a university career. Seems like today, working within the system is easier that trying to overthrow it.

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