Intellectuals, society and the left

An article by Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm provides valuable insight into how he saw society in t

New Society 23 November 1978

The distinguished Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm will celebrate his 90th birthday this June. On what turned out to be the eve of Thatcherism in Britain, he wrote this compelling analysis of what he saw as the emergence of a new class out of the ruins of industrial society. Like most others, Hobsbawm failed to predict the return of economic liberalism, but he provided valuable insights into what was to become Blair's new Labour generation.

Selected by Robert Taylor

There is now a large body of intellectuals, who are critical of capitalist society. A mass of dissenting radicals appeared in and around the universities in the 1960s. This may or may not be permanent, and it is not without precedent. But in the developed capitalist countries, till recently, most student movements were on the political right, if they existed at all.

The quickest way of defining intellectuals is: people who have successfully undergone the required level of schooling. They have been ground down between the same millstones.

Nonetheless, their social origin and form of training remain relevant. It is important to know whether a person or group belongs to the first generation to have received higher education or not; whether they passed through an established set or transformed one; whether they belong to the diminishing group of the individually or collectively self-educated.

Whatever the nature of intellectuals one point about them now is of considerable practical importance—their sheer size as a social group. The proportion of students in West Germany in the l970s was, relative to the total population, about 30 times greater than in the Germany of the 1870s. Quite small groups of intellectuals can play a very significant part in the politics of their countries. But we are today dealing, in Britain as elsewhere, with a very substantial mass of people, though not necessarily a homogeneous one.

Intellectuals may attach themselves to wider political and social movements such as the labour movement. They may also form movements on their own, though they often claim only to be keeping the place warm until the masses themselves go into action. The British Labour and Communist parties grew up as basically proletarian bodies with a small number of intellectuals attached. The social democratic party or parties of tsarist Russia were overwhelmingly composed of intellectuals who claimed to—and, in fact, did—represent the workers. It does not follow that every group of marxist intellectuals does.

Broadly speaking, the more developed the class organisation of the manual workers, the greater what the French call its ouvrierisme—ie, its suspicion of people who are not manual workers. An obvious example is the most purely proletarian organisation, the unions. In the major western industrial countries—Britain, the us, West Germany and France—it is still inconceivable that a man of non-working class origin could head a major union of manual workers.

During the past few years, and especially since 1968, groups of intellectuals have played an unusually prominent part in the political and social movements of their nations. This applies to the developed capitalist countries, the socialist countries and the third world. It does not only apply to students as a body—though theirs is the most spectacular example. Action by students in 1968-70 in France, Italy, Germany, the us, Poland, Yugoslavia, Brazil and Mexico. and in the l970s in Thailand. Turkey and Iran, set off working class movements, initiated the overthrow of governments, or produced major responses from governments—including, of course, severe repression. Other smaller bodies of intellectuals have also played an important and often dramatic part: in Czechoslovakia, both during 1968 and since (the Charter 77 movement); in Poland; in the resistance to military regimes in Brazil and Greece; and in the resistance to Mrs Gandhi’s state of emergency in India.

This important role derives largely from the major assets of intellectuals. They are articulate and have access to media of communication, within the limits of what is permitted at home, more freely abroad. They possess built-in networks of communication. even in very unfavourable conditions. Through schools and universities they have ready-made institutions for getting together and acting collectively. And many of these are in capital cities or other places where action is easily noticed. They can act politically when nobody else can, and they act outside the power structure.

Unless others take up the lead of the intellectuals their independent movements are too weak to get far on their own. Students can start revolutions, not make them. But workers and peasants need intellectuals, also. The danger of mass parties and trade unions is of drifting into limited corporative actions or short-term tactical operations, losing sight of the longer term.

Intellectuals have become far more prominent within the labour, socialist and communist movements than before. In Britain, the typical Labour candidate between the wars was a miner or railway- man. Today he or she is much more likely to be someone described as a “lecturer.” This impression is confirmed by a look at the active membership of most divisional Labour parties. As for the ultra-left or new left, it is evident that the great bulk of the activists are not manual workers, however proletarian their labels.

This increasing participation by intellectuals cannot be welcomed without some serious qualifications. On the one hand, we have a multiplication of left-wing or even marxist intellectuals. On the other hand, and dangerously, we have a simultaneous relative decline in the manual workers’ participation in labour movements (except in the trade unions of manual workers, which form a diminishing proportion of the total). This decline is due both to the relative decline of old-fashioned manual labour in the modern economy and also to transfer of potential leaders from workers to intellectuals through the main mechanism of social mobility—namely, the educational process.

In one way this has been politically positive. Between 1870 and 1939, the classic road of social mobility out of the manual working class led partly to professions like school-teaching and lower office jobs in the public sector. These did not cut people off entirely from working class ways and the labour movement, especially in the old industrial areas. But the broadest road led to white-collar jobs in the private sector, for example as clerks. This tended to turn ex-working class people into Tories or even potential supporters of fascism. The mass transfer to mainly subaltern intellectual occupations is much more likely to lead them to, or keep them on, the left.

Yet there is a major difference between an able working class boy or girl who stays on the shop floor and the same person who becomes a socialist militant as a social worker or polytechnic lecturer. Those young workers who never make it to A or o levels are keenly aware of this difference. Students or ex-students are not the same as workers, even when they think they are or ought to be.

The very fact that intellectuals are a rather numerous body, both as a social stratum and as a sector of the left, creates the danger of divergence. There is the danger of a barely concealed contempt for the workers who do not happen to agree with revolutionary intellectuals. This has been rather noticeable on the new left of the us or West Germany. There is the danger of establishing a ghetto in which intellectuals, while claiming to operate within the working class movement, really address each other, often in terms which are incomprehensible to anyone outside.

The three strata

This is not a danger confined to marxists, but to any literate group sufficiently large to develop esoteric interests and an esoteric jargon, especially when both are reinforced by such institutions as colleges. Poets write poems about the act of writing poems—ie, addressed to other poets—and teachers make students read and discuss them, or read critics who discuss them (and who may also be both poets and teachers) in order to pass examinations. Much the same is, unfortunately, true of a lot of marxist philosophers.

Intellectuals are divided both horizontally and vertically. There is, first, a stratum of people in production who require systematic academic training to do their jobs instead of, or as well as, apprenticeship and experience. Many people who would, 50 years ago, have been formed as skilled workers, become something like subordinate technical intellectuals.

There is, second, the even more enormous growth of tertiary occupations of an intellectual kind—for instance, in education, communications and the media, in various kinds of social service and some parts of the swelling administrative bureaucracy, and in the equally expanding fields of planning and research. Part of this could be classified under direct production, given the role of science today.

There is, third, the large number of people who have undergone the basic training as intellectuals but can’t find employment in them, either because the educational machine overproduces intellectuals, or because the economic crisis does not provide enough jobs for them.

As in the medieval Catholic clergy— which formed the bulk of the feudal intelligentsia—there is a marked difference between the modern equivalents of parish priests and of bishops and cardinals, between poor friars and monks of opulent monasteries. In the Reformation and the French revolution, this difference emerged in political and ideological terms. It would be a mistake to underestimate the gap between “high” and “low” intellectuals today.

Some intellectuals are integrated into the ruling class in a way in which labour aristocrats were not and could not be. This is due not only to the increasing importance of technocratic training for business, but also to the use of meritocracy in providing a legitimation for privilege. As the French sociologists, Bourdieu and de Saint Martin, noted at the conclusion of their analysis of 216 major French firms and their heads in 1972: few dominant groups have ever assembled as many principles of legitimation (notably aristocracy of birth, economic success and meritocracy based on success in school) as the present occupants of the positions of power in France.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are activities—primary school teaching and perhaps mass circulation journalism in the past, possibly social work today—in which are intellectuals a bit more closely associated with the workers than in other jobs.

The elite strata are largely selected from the established middle class, especially those who owe their social position precisely to their and their parents’ accumulation of cultural capital. They are often trained in separate elite institutions. The bulk of the first-generation students who are the product of the educational expansion since the 1950s tend to come largely—at least the men—from below the established middle class. They are also, on average, much younger, since they have only some 20 years of recruitment to draw upon.

There is substantial common ground ideologically politically and culturally between many of these intellectual groups. By tradition in the developed countries most have always stood left of centre. In Britain they used to be Liberal and are now largely a sort of Labour, in America Democrats, in France Republicans. These broad left-of-centre alignments have tended also to include the working class; so a sort of alliance between workers and intellectuals goes back a long way. A continuum also stretches from, say, the ideal Guardian reader in Britain, leftwards towards the radical revolutionaries; as witness the genuine moral anguish of West German, and more recently Italian, liberal intellectuals, in bringing themselves to the point of openly condemning left-wing terrorist groups.

We may well ask whether the general attitude of the left-of-centre intelligentsia towards the student explosions of the late 1960s would have been initially as tolerant and sympathetic if these movements had not waved some sort of red flag, but instead a swastika banner (as in Weimar Germany?) I doubt it. And quite right too. And yet this wide if vague inclination to the left conceals big divergences between the conciliated and reformist, and the unreconciled and revolutionary.

Now it might be possible to identify each of these two groups with a particular socioeconomic stratum. For instance, revolutionary intellectuals have been long identified (mainly by bourgeois writers) with strata of marginalised or “alienated” intellectuals—ie, mainly with the mass of those who cannot find jobs at the level which, as intellectuals, they expect. There is something in this, though it tells us little about the selection of the intellectual leaders of actual marxist revolutionary movements, which have been overwhelmingly drawn from intellectuals who could easily have done very nicely for themselves in their bourgeois societies.

But the main difficulty is that the revolutionary and the reformist intellectuals are not so much separate strata as separate stages in the life-cycle. To put it brutally—as Bernard Shaw did in his Maxims for Revolutionists—”every man over 40 is a scoundrel.” That is, in 20 years’ time, if British capitalism lasts, most present-day “revolutionaries,” even if they have not quite given up their convictions, will be open to the criticism of the young of the year 2000.

This is not a function of growing up and maturing. It is because the modern state and public sector, the modern media saturated society, recruit their increasingly numerous officials through the educational system.

So long as the situation is reasonably stable, even intellectuals given to radical dissent can be integrated. The system needs them; and the rewards of accumulating what Pierre Bourdieu calls “cultural capital” are substantial. In France, even the university drop-outs of the middle l970s had much better job prospects than other young people and were getting the pick of all except the very top jobs. The intellectuals thus integrated require some concessions, but these are what bourgeois democratic regimes normally provide for most of their middle classes, and even some non-democratic bourgeois regimes (except at moments of acute crisis) often allow for:

some freedom to speak, read and write, to travel, to engage in political and pressure- group activities, or just to grumble in public.

The demand for, and defence of, these conditions bind large sectors of the established intellectual and professional strata to bourgeois democratic capitalism, however critical they may be of it in other respects. This political platform unites intellectuals across the continents and social systems. It puts them against both the Chilean and the Czechoslovak regimes, against both the Cambodian and the Brazilian, as well as with varying degrees of hesitation and regret

—against some of their own left.

I happen to approve of this platform. These demands for freedom and democracy ought to be an integral part of socialism for all classes. Nevertheless, they are also demands in which the professional middle classes have a specific interest. They have a lot more to lose than their chains.

One reason why many of them are attracted to some sort of left is that they are increasingly employed for salaries, and largely in some way or another by the public sector. They are, as Ralf Dahrendorf rightly says, for equality because they are for equal privilege. They would not change their position much in a socialist society, so long as it met their conditions about freedom.

But what of the marxist intellectuals? We are living through not only an impressive efflorescence, but also a profound crisis of marxist thinking. This has three practical aspects. The marxist analysis of present-day capitalism, however valid in general principle, is in concrete terms largely out of date. The analysis of socialism has largely broken down. Nor does anyone know what actual forces will bring about the transition from capitalism to socialism.

There is today an enormous proliferation of writings which, while claiming to be marxist, throw out the baby with the bath- water. There are people who lend Marx’s name to some current intellectual fashion or guru. There are people who claim to be marxist but reject Marx’s Preface to the Cr1- tique of Political Economy, or think historical analysis is irrelevant to politics. And there has been an enormous growth of marxist metaphysics by philosophers, sociologists and economists whose writings neither interpret the world nor help to change it, but chiefly produce discussion in seminars of other marxist philosophers, sociologists and economists.

To divorce theory from concrete social reality is to divorce theory from political practice and to leave it unguided and arbitrary. It allows people whom Marx and Lenin would have easily recognised as anarcho-syndicalists or narodnik terrorists or even Mazzinian petty-bourgeois nationalists, to pin some sort of marxist badge to their lapels and claim that the practice conforms to their badge. Such interpretations are largely due to the social and political isolation of the students and intellectuals among whom they flourish.

The counterpart of this abstraction is a total concentration on what is immediately relevant for agitation. Exclusive concentration on immediate “relevance” is another way of escaping the major task of today.

This task is to be found somewhere between the extremes of debating the law of value in general, and of writing editorials against education cuts, though of course both are necessary. It is to stand back and take a look at the world in historical perspective—an “academic” exercise, though I don’t see why the adjective is derogatory.

Over the past 25 years we have been living through the most spectacular transformation of human society. It is much more far-reaching than the first arrival of industrial capitalism because it has been deeper and more global. It realises the tendencies of capitalism noted by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. Not only have technology and production been revolutionised—for example, by the transistors which have transformed even the remotest households—but also social structure, human relations, culture, have utterly changed. We are now living out old predictions: the disappearance of the peasantry, the transformation of the family, the collapse of an ancient religion like Roman Catholicism.

With the end of what, looking back, we must recognise as a transitional phase of capitalist development—transitional because it adapted and embodied the heritage of the pre-capitalist past that it was not yet able to destroy—even the structures of traditional capitalist society are in crisis. Even the capitalists no longer know what is happening, as witness the helplessness of their economists and the flight of their ideologists into reaction or religion. (See the recent writings of Daniel Bell, like his essay “The return of the sacred.”)

Socialists are not much better off. The left is groping in semi-darkness. We have no clear perspective on how the crisis can lead to a socialist transformation and, to be honest, no real expectation that it will. The first task is to understand our times.

The failure is particularly grave in Britain, since ours, the oldest country of developed capitalism, is the one in which the breakdown is in many ways the most dramatic, the need for transformation desperately urgent, and the conditions for it better than in most.

This article first appeared in the 16 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran