Commentary Magazine


The Role of the Intellectuals

An essay on the current social significance of the floating stratum variously known as “the intellectuals” or “the intelligentsia” must at the outset face the obvious problem of coming to terms with its own implied assumptions: notably, the belief that the theme warrants yet another effort at clarification. This could easily turn out to be a piece of self-deception. Intellectuals, after all, are people who specialize in generalities. A writer who assigns an important role to their particular function possibly overrates an activity which by some (unattainable) standard of judgment may not rank quite so high as he supposes. As against this, it is arguable that the intelligentsia has hitherto managed to keep its role concealed: partly from lack of awareness, partly from a justified apprehension of the consequences were it publicly admitted that much of what passes for “cultural life,” “informed opinion,” “enlightened attitudes,” etc.—not to mention “spiritual values”—could readily be subsumed under some such unfeeling label as “intelligentsia thinking.” So far from inflating its own importance, the intelligentsia, it might be said, pretends that it does not carry much weight, and on occasions even protests that it does not really exist.

The assumption here made, however, is that the intelligentsia exists and that it matters, though perhaps not quite in the way most of its members commonly think. Moreover, we take it for granted that anyone who reflects on the part played by the social stratum to which he himself belongs cannot help believing that it is a significant one.

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I

As everyone knows, or ought to know, the intelligentsia is a modern, that is to say, a post-medieval phenomenon, its distant forerunners being the humanists of the 15th and 16th centuries. If one wants to push the date further back, one may conceivably include among the precursors the wandering scholars, vagrant ex-students, and unfrocked priests and monks of the later Middle Ages; not, however, the clergy, since they formed a closed corporation, possessed all the attributes of an “estate,” and derived both their revenue and their influence from sources other than those commonly at the disposal of professional intellectuals. If these distinctions were to be challenged—possibly on the grounds that the medieval clergy were simply intellectuals who in a theocratic society had a corporate monopoly of information, and consequently of power—one might redefine the terms so as to draw a sharper line of division between the medieval and the modern “intelligentsia.” Such redefinition, however, would not affect the argument that the stratum currently called the intelligentsia has in fact arisen from those non-clerical groups who first make their appearance in the later Middle Ages (characteristically as an element subversive of the established order). By the 18th century, the churches and the intellectuals are already so clearly distinguished—at any rate in Western Europe—as to exclude the possibility of lumping them together under the same label.

The intelligentsia, then, is a product of the secularization of society. With the spread of this phenomenon from Western to Eastern Europe, and latterly to Asia and Africa, it becomes plain that the process has a certain regularity which does not depend on local conditions, though from a different aspect each historical situation is unique. Thus the Russian intelligentsia of the 19th century, and the modern intellectual proletariat of the so-called “underdeveloped” (i.e., pre-industrial) regions, react differently to socio-political stresses; and their reactions differ even more strikingly from those of their Western predecessors who grew up in a stabler environment with a slower tempo of change. But to the sociologist or the historian of culture they look alike, not least in respect of their hostile attitude to the “medieval” (i.e., religious) integration of the pre-modern age.

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Now for a brief glance at the varying fortunes of the intelligentsia in the liberal, or bourgeois, age which lies behind us. In its political role we encounter the new stratum on the threshold, so to speak, of modernity: at the onset of the French Revolution. This is the first great upheaval in which intellectuals not merely provide general ideas, but actually hold power, or at least share it for a time with political leaders who have been indoctrinated with the new beliefs. Later the division of function between politicians and intellectuals tends to run parallel with the growing cleavage between bourgeois conservatism and intelligentsia radicalism: the intellectual vanguard becomes critical of the society it helped bring into being, and its plebeian stratum thereupon proceeds to get the socialist movement under way. Indeed, from one aspect socialism is the creation of the proletarianized intelligentsia—chiefly in France—between 1830 and 1870. The members of this group not merely formulate the general principles of the new movement, but are decisive in shaping its basic attitudes: hostility to the propertied class, to the state, to the church—in short, to everything that blocks complete fulfillment of the aims defined by the radical wing of the Enlightenment at the climax of the Great Revolution in 1793/4. Some, though not all, of the same intelligentsia values later find a new embodiment in Marxism, but in the main they are carried forward by the various “national” schools of French socialism, whose rebellious activity comes to a disastrous climax in the Paris Commune of 1871. Since these ideas and strivings are profoundly marked by romanticism—another current manifestation of the intelligentsia’s hostility to bourgeois society—they tend to assume Utopian and impractical shapes, and frequently come into conflict with the soberer and less violent aspirations of the real labor movement. The latter gradually emancipates itself from the influence of intelligentsia radicalism and—by a somewhat paradoxical development—adopts Marxism as a more scientific and less Utopian version of the socialist faith. This is not altogether a misunderstanding, as the history of German socialism is to show, but it contains an element of misapprehension which becomes manifest in the Russian Revolution. Hence the 1917 upheaval revives both the typical utopianism of the romantic age and the key role of the intelligentsia—at any rate until the moment when the intelligentsia is once more expelled from the political stage and forced to take up the role of the “critical consciousness.”

These developments, which can only be sketched out here, naturally have their counterpart on the other side of the political fence. With the decline of classical 19th-century conservatism and liberalism (which continue to lead a spectral existence in the pages of academic journals, but no longer shape the most active minds among the intelligentsia) the inevitable polarization of thinking and feeling that accompanies every major social crisis promotes a new alignment among all groups which are in principle hostile to bourgeois society, but differ over ways of combating it, and on the question of what should take its place. Fascism, like socialism and communism, is an intelligentsia movement, and moreover just as hostile to the bourgeois integration as are its competitors, from whom it differs, however, in its romantic irrationalism and elite-worship. This actually becomes the principal factor in its eventual defeat, since irrationalism in philosophy is incompatible with a rational choice of means in politics, while the open repudiation of democracy does away with the principal check upon uncontrolled personal despotism. The fascist crisis signifies nevertheless that liberal society, at any rate in Europe, is on the point of giving up the ghost, its dominant class having lost the will and the capacity to rule. The trend continues after 1945, notwithstanding the defeat of fascism.

What currently passes for bourgeois society in the principal Western countries—even those that escaped the fascist crisis—no longer fits the old categories. The new, partly planned and socialized, industrial society is not yet post-capitalist, but it is certainly post-bourgeois, in the sense that its basic institutions are no longer held together by a class of independent property-owners, but rather controlled by a hierarchy of planners, managers, bureaucrats, and technicians, who are about to evolve a new ethos as well as new forms of political and social life. Together with the bourgeoisie, the proletariat also tends to disappear. Both are “sublated,” i.e., transformed and partly preserved in a new state. Their common ground—the market economy of liberal capitalism—suffers a slow erosion and they are being “socialized” by an impersonal process which they do not altogether welcome, but which nonetheless exerts its influence over them. Since the new society is bound together by a different modus operandi, the class struggle in its 19th-century form comes to an end, and with it the ability of the intelligentsia to change sides and act the part of revolutionary “vanguard.” In the stratified society of post-bourgeois industrialism—whether described as “socialism,” “modern capitalism,” “managerialism,” or by some other term—the intelligentsia can no longer play the same role as in the “open society” of 19th-century capitalism. It settles down, forgets its “vanguard” ideology, becomes status-conscious, and even at last acquires something like a theoretical awareness of its own existence.

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If under present-day conditions the intelligentsia tends to fade out of the political struggle, is this equivalent to saying that the intellectual content of politics is bound to evaporate? To anyone brought up in the tradition of intelligentsia politics the question must appear almost meaningless. But it would not have seemed meaningless in the early 19th century, or at the height of the Victorian epoch. A coherent ruling class makes use of intellectuals, but does not identify the content of politics with the changing opinions of a stratum that happens to specialize in general ideas. The notion of “class,” however, implies a kind of stability which belongs to the 19th century rather than to our own age. It suggests a combination of traits—ownership, hereditary status, shared outlook—which still retains something of the permanence at one time assigned (in principle anyhow) to the medieval estates. A class in this sense, even though not fixed and privileged like an estate, is able to establish traditions which can be shared with newcomers and passed on to rising social strata. It is a truism that such transmission has become increasingly difficult because ideas and values nowadays lose currency much more rapidly than in the past. Yet at the same time, social patterns tend rather to grow more rigid and hierarchical. This appears above all in the almost universal rise of bureaucratic power, as a result of which the frontier between “state” and “society,” so sharply defined in the last century, is increasingly blurred.

The consequent loss of personal freedom is at the heart of the mental and emotional corrosion which has overtaken classical liberalism. It may in the long run have an equally depressing effect on the democratic socialist movement. When one remembers that it was possible for Shaw to distribute his enthusiasm impartially between Marx, Ibsen, and Wagner, one realizes with a start how much that was intrinsically romantic and “bourgeois,” i.e., individualist and libertarian, even anarchistic, was involved in the old socialist ethos. With the moderns, whose disillusionment is adequately portrayed by Silone and Orwell, socialism becomes stoical and gloomy. It renounces the hope of bringing communal existence into conformity with the human essence (“realizing the aims of philosophy,” in Marx’s phrase) and contents itself with a rearguard action against what it conceives to be a hopelessly corrupt civilization.

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II

Disillusionment always occurs at the point where a movement has “seen through” its own limitations. The latter in turn become visible only after an attempt has been made to transcend them. Such transcendence is involved in the strained effort to realize the original aims of the movement, conceived under circumstances different from those which attend their actual fulfillment. Realization remains incomplete, not only because conditions have changed in the meantime, but because the program was from the start shot through with metapolitical ideas and anticipations. In the history of liberalism, the French Revolution marks the watershed between the naive utopianism of the Enlightenment and the commonplace outlook of the Western middle class around 1850. By that time the radical intellectuals were already becoming disillusioned with the achievements of liberalism, and critical of its guiding notions, but the bulk of the class from which they stemmed—and to which in effect they belonged—had not caught up with them and still regarded the ideas of 1776 and 1789 as the ultimate standards of judgment. Yet when the same ideas were first formulated, they were considerably ahead of what was then thought possible by the majority of “sensible” people—i.e., non-intellectuals—and in fact appeared utopian.

The factor of time lag, however, is not the only one in this recurrent cleavage. The intellectuals not only run ahead of the general movement: they also experience in a much higher degree the desire to see ultimate aims translated into reality, whereas the bulk of their following is content with an approximation. Once parliamentary government and free trade had been secured, the middle class was satisfied, and left it to the radical intellectuals to agitate for full democracy. Similarly, the long-range and short-range goals envisaged in socialism appear quite differently to the socialist intelligentsia and to the industrial working class: the two strata which together make up the modern labor-socialist movement. They have enough in common to cooperate in the political field, but their interests do not necessarily coincide in all respects, and the resulting tension can be dangerous to their morale. In other ways too it is apparent that the present situation differs from the characteristic problem of middle-class liberalism a century ago: there is today less fear of democracy as a potential threat to social privilege. This fear is the common theme of mid-Victorianism, and the almost hysterical form it then took has no parallel today, unless Western nervousness in the face of the emerging peoples of Asia and Africa be regarded as the modern counterpart of bourgeois alarm over the menace of popular rule a century ago. The corroding effect of this alarm upon the morale of the propertied class—not to mention the aristocratic governing caste which still monopolized office but had already lost control of legislation—can be studied in the writings of the Victorians who set the tone around the time of the American Civil War and the second Reform Bill of 1867. Here the contrast between Macaulay (who died in 1859) and Bagehot is instructive. Macaulay, for whom the first Reform Bill of 1832 was the formative event of his life, still displays the unbroken self-confidence of an older generation of liberals, to whom full democracy was not so much a threat as a self-evident absurdity. Indeed he disclaims the very title of liberalism, preferring to describe himself (quite accurately) as a Whig, i.e., a middle-class supporter of that oligarchy whose principles might be summed up under the three headings of Protestantism, patriotism, and parliamentary government (with a narrow franchise). “You call me a Liberal,” he observes in one of his letters, “but I don’t know that in these days I deserve the name. . . . I am in favor of war, hanging, and Church Establishments.” Here is the authentic voice of the 18th century, specifically of the Whig tradition, whose last great representative in British politics is Winston Churchill.

There is not a trace of such naive brutality in Bagehot, who already represents a much more modern type: cynical, neurotic, and “realistic” in the manner of a privileged class with an uneasy conscience. Yet the careers of both men overlap, with the important difference that Bagehot witnessed the breakthrough of democracy in the 1860’s, when Gladstone moved away from Whiggery and founded the Liberal party, to cope with the newly enfranchised industrial masses; while across the ocean democracy found an embodiment in Lincoln (whom Bagehot characteristically described as “a village lawyer”). Where Macaulay despised democracy, Bagehot had learned to fear it, and he did much to implant this fear in the cultivated upper-middle class. Bagehot, as any student of his writings perceives at first glance, is far more sophisticated than Macaulay, but he altogether lacks the older man’s self-confidence and his belief in the validity of his principles. Where Macaulay is complacent, forthright, and occasionally brutal, Bagehot sounds unpleasantly timorous, cynical, and evasive, thus betraying a sense that reality may be dangerous to his values. The difference in tone between the two men is not merely stylistic: it heralds the disintegration of liberalism as a political philosophy relevant to the industrial age. Bagehot’s personal neurosis, to which his recent biographers have drawn attention, foreshadows the growth of nervous instability in the cultivated upper class, a change of mood which lays that important stratum open to irrational fears and narrows the gap between it and the intelligentsia. Thus in various ways he typifies the beginning of a process which eventually culminates in the general crisis of liberal civilization.1

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The important point to note here is that in an “open society” of the 19th-century type the professional intelligentsia’s ability to play a political role is linked to its relative freedom of movement as a floating stratum which can attach itself, wholly or in part, to social classes other than the one which originally gave birth to it. From the standpoint of those committed to the existing order, such shifting from class to class of course is treachery, and it explains the wariness with which the intelligentsia has been regarded ever since its dangerous instability was first perceived or suspected. The decisive change occurs with the French Revolution. Burke’s denunciation of pettifogging attorneys and rattlebrained journalists, who presume to legislate for mankind, inaugurates a chorus of woe which is later taken up by liberals frightened into conservatism by the advance of radical democracy. After 1830, and in particular after 1848—when the “revolution of the intellectuals” touches off a premature proletarian insurrection in Paris—the intelligentsia splits into warring camps. Its plebeian ranks rally to democracy and even socialism, while the patrician upper layer turns conservative: albeit in the 19th-century sense of the term (i.e., without any special fondness for monarchy, aristocracy, or the church, but with a great fondness for “law and order”—meaning unconditional defense of property against the threatening onslaught of the “masses”).

This anti-democratic frame of mind carries over into, and thoroughly confuses, the discussion of socialism, since in actual fact the industrial proletariat—once it appears on the scene as organized labor—is no threat to civilization but rather its chief bulwark against the irrational tendencies emanating from the crisis of the established order. Here we have a reversal of roles which reaches its culmination under fascism, where the déclassé Lumpenbourgeoisie and its ideologists continue to clamor for “order,” and to fulminate against the “masses,” in the very act of themselves destroying the foundations of civilized existence. Neo-conservatism, with its glorification of a non-existent golden age of pre-industrial harmony and contentment, is a feeble-witted and correspondingly harmless form of the same mental aberration. At the opposite end of the political spectrum, the rationalist drive toward total reorganization of society according to a predetermined plan finds a new embodiment in communism. These rival movements feed on each other, mobilize social forces rendered desperate by the collapse of the bourgeois integration, and finally exhaust each other. Their conflict terminates only with the disappearance of the common framework supporting the edifice of bourgeois civilization.

Although the state of affairs just described is commonly in the minds of people who say that we live in a post-revolutionary age, they do not always perceive that it really signifies the end of an era in which class conflicts had major political significance. Where status wrangles, or sectional disputes among interest groups, take the place of struggles over the form of society, politics loses its ideological (in every sense) flavor, and intellectuals no longer find much to interest them in the rivalry of parties operating within a common framework of ideas and institutions. As in 18th-century England, the party game becomes an affair of “ins” and “outs,” from which revolutionary ideas and passions are effectively excluded. In this perspective the antagonism between liberals and socialists—defined as supporters or opponents of the market economy and individualism—gives way to a new alignment dividing centralizers and autonomists, authoritarians and libertarians, believers in over-all state control and supporters of regional decentralization, functional autonomy, corporate self-government, etc. The issue, one might say, is no longer “liberty,” but “liberties,” in the traditional sense of corporate privileges (e.g., for universities and other autonomous corporations). If such conditions are going to shape the specifically modern problem, the intelligentsia may come into its own again: though only in the event that it manages to acquire or forge collective instruments which are not themselves subject to bureaucratic control.

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III

But what is the precise role of the intellectuals, individually and as a group, under the new circumstances? The question is difficult to answer because of the dual nature of the intellectual, as someone whose ideas are supposed to be—and occasionally are—valid for his age, and as a member of a specialized stratum which produces its own kind of ideology, i.e., “false consciousness.” Moreover, the two functions merge in practice, so that genuine insights and ideological distortions are not simply jumbled together externally, but frequently appear as different aspects of the same body of thought. J. S. Mill’s doctrine of representative government, or Marx’s theory of class conflict, to take two notable examples, are so constructed that they cannot be neatly divided into empirical and philosophical, or scientific and Utopian, constituents. After a sufficient lapse of time it is indeed usually possible to distinguish what is valid from what is merely speculative in a theoretical construction; but one must not overlook the fact that the “merely speculative” element, though of no interest to the practitioners of politics, may conserve insights of long-range importance for a later age. Again, it does not follow that because parts of the structure are scientifically unsound, they are “ideological” in the sense of reflecting a distorted group interest or prejudice. They may reflect nothing at all save the personal bias of the theorist; on the other hand, ideas that do conform to group attitudes may nonetheless be quite sound.

For all that, however, one must still try to distinguish intellectual creations from intelligentsia opinions, though the former commonly have their source in the latter, and conversely help in turn to shape the outlook of the entire stratum within which every kind of intellectual activity—scientific, artistic, philosophical, etc.—occurs. The term “stratum,” incidentally, commits one to a certain view of society, inasmuch as it dispenses both with the romantic notion of the intellectual as a solitary individual floating in a vacuum, and with the currently fashionable vagueness which causes people of similar antecedents or occupations to be lumped together into the same “class.” A stratum, as distinct from a class, has no direct relation to what Marx called “the production and reproduction of material life,” though its members may form an important section of one of the major classes. The assumption here, of course, is that classes are defined in relation to “means of production.” Anyone is free to choose a different nomenclature, on condition of making it plain what sort of criterion has been adopted. This clearly is easier if one has no axe to grind, but axe-grinding is not confined to conservatives and defenders of the established order; it is just as frequent among radicals.2 The fact that the radical intelligentsia, which for over a century spearheaded all major revolutionary movements in the West, showed so little interest in the sociological approach to radical politics, is itself revealing. In principle it ought to be plain that one cannot analyze intellectual constructions without coming upon intelligentsia attitudes; but plain or not, the idea has never commended itself to a majority of those engaged in “social criticism.”

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Here we touch upon what is commonly described as the politicization of culture. In our part of the world this is still regarded as a problem peculiar to the Soviet orbit, but—quite apart from the experience with fascism—the West cannot be said to be altogether innocent of its own politicizing of culture. It is not even certain that innocence is commendable, if it encourages helplessness in the face of unrestrained commercialism decked out as “consumer sovereignty.” The scandal of the mass media is there to show what happens when society fails to establish generally accepted standards in a domain where the “satisfaction of needs” is by no means synonymous with “progress.” (Not to mention the fact that needs can be artificially created or inflated.) As the repository of society’s cultural traditions, the intelligentsia has a responsibility which cannot be adequately discharged by any other group, and intellectuals cannot therefore compromise their own standards without doing harm to the body politic.

If this statement is not compatible with a certain simplified notion of democracy as the “consumer sovereignty” of everyone capable of reading a newspaper or an advertisement, so much the worse for those who cling to such notions. For the present and the immediate future it remains true that standards will either be set by the intellectual elite or by those interested in reducing the general level to the lowest common denominator. But to say this is also to imply that the intelligentsia—if it wants to play a definite part in the new society—cannot simply content itself with affirming a faith in democracy. It must work out political concepts which harmonize the democratic idea with an understanding of its own role under conditions where the major questions are no longer left to the free play of market forces, but are increasingly determined by centralized decision-makers of one kind or another. Failing greater awareness of this, the standing temptation to back some kind of totalitarianism will not be easily avoided.

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The totalitarian temptation attacks the intelligentsia at its weakest point because totalitarianism seems to offer the hope of a new social and cultural integration. Totalitarianism is essentially an attempt to reorganize society in accordance with a preconceived plan, and is therefore particularly attractive to intellectuals, though in practice it interferes with their freedom and therefore repels them after the event—when it is too late. Fortunately, a really severe crisis is needed to get an effective totalitarian movement under way. For practical purposes this danger may be ruled out in an economically stable environment which preserves a modicum of cohesion. The crisis of the bourgeois social order in Europe after 1914 has come to an end, and there seems to be no particular reason why something similar should occur in America where the new society is already more or less established. It is very unlikely that the West will see a repetition of the upheaval which gave rise to the fascist and communist mass movements of the 30’s and 40’s. The degree of consolidation now achieved is much greater than after the First World War, when the decadence of European liberalism let loose forces whose very existence was undreamed of before 1914. These forces were clearly related to the collapse of the bourgeois integration and the resulting irresponsibility of the proletarianized intelligentsia. At the height of the crisis, the intelligentsia—organized in the communist and fascist movements—even turned on the bourgeoisie and tried to destroy it. That attempt was really a pathological phenomenon, for the intelligentsia was itself originally a stratum of the middle class, and its assault on bourgeois society was in the nature of parricide. Now, however, we seem to have entered a period of social stability in which the main energies of the intelligentsia are once more centered upon the cultural field.

Thus far we have been dealing with the negative side of the matter. Positively, it may perhaps be affirmed that there are opportunities inherent in the growth of organization: simply because this trend involves the conscious reshaping of social patterns which in the past grew up spontaneously and without much thought. The crux here is the importance assumed by the intellectual function under conditions where society becomes increasingly dependent both upon specialization in the various departments of social life, and upon integration at a higher level. Up to now the failure has lain at the second stage. The increasing rationalization of the most varied and extensive spheres of existence has not led to a commensurate growth of rationality at the top level where the key decisions are taken. On the contrary, rational choice of means has proved compatible with extreme irrationality in the (conscious and unconscious) selection of ends. Germany under Hitler was a particularly disastrous instance, but a similar contrast is apparent in the Soviet orbit, notwithstanding the doctrinaire rationalism of the official ideology, which serves to integrate the various sectors of public life and interpret them to each other. Here the element of irrationality—after being solemnly expunged from the official consciousness and driven into limbo—reasserts itself in the Manichaean division of the world into redeemed (communist) and unredeemed (non-communist) parts: a caricature of the older religious faith, but with (literally) explosive power behind it. Nor is the West altogether free from such mental aberrations, in which the unresolved conflict between scientific methods and ideological goals find bizarre and potentially dangerous expression.

Whatever ground for optimism that nonetheless exists must be sought in long-range considerations. At least it may be said that in principle the transition to a more highly organized form of existence implies a superior level of rationality and consequently a larger social role for the intellect. If the argument sounds question-begging—there is after all no guarantee that the transition is actually going to be made: we may blow ourselves up instead—it can still be said that the past half century gives no encouragement to the advocates of irrational behavior. Romanticism in politics has faded out, et pour cause! It may also be suspected that the fascist rebellion was in the nature of a rearguard action, as it was certainly in conflict with the relentless march of global forces hostile to worshippers of the “will to power” and “thinking with the blood.” If the liberal integration collapsed at one decisive moment, the rational principle in the end asserted its supremacy.

There is further ground for cautious optimism in the reflection that the choice has currently been narrowed down to a simple question of survival, and that this dramatic confrontation occurred after, and not before, the extreme proponents of destructive, death-worshipping romanticism had been eliminated. Lastly, the social revolution which—as on previous occasions—accompanied and speeded a decisive step forward in the control of nature, may already be over, at least so far as the West is concerned. There are still a number of countries where social change will come via class conflict, but in the West class conflict is fading out. What takes its place is the evolution of a new directing stratum and the struggle to determine its orientation. That is why all contemporary politics not concerned with the problem of the growth of organization and central planning are so trivial and boring. The mechanism continues to revolve, but the spirit has departed. This is as true of democratic electioneering in the West as of totalitarian phrasemongering in the East. The dearth of outstanding personalities is illustrative of the stalemate. The great figures of the revolutionary age now about to end—Churchill, de Gaulle, Stalin, Roosevelt—are already beginning to look somewhat archaic. What succeeds them is the confusion and mediocrity inseparable from the reaction to a prolonged and exhausting crisis. Nor are we better off for theorists of the first magnitude. It will take time for a new integration to establish itself. Meanwhile one may note such signs of change as are already beginning to declare themselves.

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IV

Are there such signs? It is at any rate possible to think that we are in for a new era of rationalism. For reasons which should now have become a little clearer, a new rationalist ethos, if it should prevail, is likely to run parallel with a considerable growth in the socio-political weight of the intellectual stratum. Alternatively, if one prefers the simplified version of historical materialism popular in some quarters, one may invert this statement and say that the growing importance of the technical and scientific intelligentsia is going to reduce the area of mischief still open to political movements of a more primitive type. Either way we get a perspective that is slightly more comforting than the currently fashionable existentialist prophecy of doom. Given the assumption that the world can turn the nuclear corner without total disaster, there seems to be some ground for supposing that rational integration will at last penetrate to the areas of decisive choice. Without being a hopeless visionary one can even now foresee circumstances in which—to take merely one example—the inhabitants of some particular human plague-spot will publicly express a preference for being governed by the United Nations Secretariat rather than by homegrown fanatics, be they military dictators, political rabble-rousers, or just plain bunglers. If that happened, it would constitute what might be called rationalization in politics, and everyone who has the good of the world at heart ought to hope that the first such instance will occur in the coming decade. Politics of course is not everything, but an outbreak of common sense in this sphere would be an important step forward.

More generally, we may perhaps surmise that the trend toward greater organizational complexity, and its corollary central planning, cannot fail to enhance the significance (and the responsibility) of the stratum which does the thinking for the rest of society. If one is right in believing that social evolution will henceforth proceed, if at all, by means of rational organization, then it cannot be a matter of indifference that the chief vehicle of the process should in recent decades have become more clearly identifiable. When one has said the worst that can be said about the intelligentsia, it remains a fact that this stratum carries within itself the main potentiality of evolution still open to mankind. Or if that sounds too portentous, one can rephrase it by saying that we have here at least an identifiable organ of societal development whose spontaneous tendencies are in tune with the requirements of the next historical phase. The latter formulation would seem to do justice to an observable trend, while skirting the danger of “historicism,” i.e., policy-making in the guise of prophecy. It is not a question of trying to divine the predetermined course of history, but rather of indicating where the future still appears to lie open. For of course there is no guarantee—at least from our limited standpoint—that the experiment will come off; in other words: that the transition to a wholly rational, scientifically controlled, planetary order will be made without disaster or relapse into totalitarian fantasy. One can only suggest that progress, if it occurs at all, is going to depend on the survival and further perfection of the stratum which incorporates the main evolutionary tendency. That this is not the proletariat may distress some surviving romanticists, but need not upset any followers of Marx who have taken his method rather than his system to heart. The issue transcends such 19th-century quarrels (on both sides: for liberals will have to get out of the habit of playing Mill off against Marx). It is an aspect of a situation in which, as was remarked before, the rival classes are being “sublated,” and there is consequently nothing further to be hoped (or feared) from the class struggle.

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The tentative conclusion which emerges, then, is that social evolution is increasingly going to depend on mind, and consequently on the quantitative and qualitative growth of the stratum which embodies the capacity of the intellect to introduce order into the environment. The “open conspiracy” to effect the same purpose—proclaimed by a few writers half a century ago—may be regarded as an imaginative foreshadowing of a situation which has actually come to pass in our days, with the exhaustion of traditional passions and the disappearance of the class structure inherited from the 19th century. It is this structural transformation which has made it possible to envisage corning social changes in terms of conflicts within the new directing stratum which is about to evolve out of the nonspecialized (or omnispecialized) part of the old 19th-century intelligentsia. Where liberalism and socialism are now seen to have erred was in supposing that the whole development was bound to remain a party matter. Actually it is the result of the end of the class struggle as the principal vehicle of social change, and the emergence of a type of society in which the major transformations increasingly result from conscious decision-making. By comparison with the liberal century—which may be said to have opened in 1830 and run its course by 1930—the new situation represents, among other things, a shift in the balance between state and society such as to make the state the dominant partner. In its opening phase this was one of the preconditions of totalitarianism, and of revolutionary intelligentsia politics in general. The long-run tendency toward greater complexity of organization, central planning, and conscious control, need not, however, be identified with the political turmoil of the transition period which, for the West, has come to an end. The tendency persists in its own right and thereby makes possible the conversion of the intelligentsia into the directing stratum of industrial society.

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Social evolution, in the measure that it takes place, is likely to be directed from now on by the “brain” of the body politic, as distinct from the hit-or-miss mechanism of class conflict characteristic of the preceding age. Societies which remain permanently below this level of advance are not due to disappear: they simply cease to participate in the general movement. The same applies to political sects, or schools of thought, which continue to repeat slogans appropriate to an earlier phase. If the foregoing all sounds decidedly unromantic, there may be some consolation in the thought that it represents merely the abstract outline of a process which is certain to generate its own heat as it goes along. The new society, like the old, will have its problems, and the discovery that some of them are insoluble can be relied upon to keep the presses fed with blueprints for utopia.

But what is the justification for supposing that society will develop both a degree of rationality and an institutional mechanism adequate for the task of planetary organization? The question had better be rephrased: what are the criteria for judging that some such development is actually under way? For there is of course no guarantee that the requisite level will be reached without disaster. What is required is a kind of social mutation, if that expression may be permitted. Reference has already been made to evolution being carried forward by a stratum which represents, as it were, the “brain” of the social organism. How far can one push these analogies without lapsing into absurdity? The answer, it would seem, depends on whether it is possible to identify an actual phenomenon of growth in the directing stratum of society which can be described in terms appropriate to natural and social science alike. Is there such a phenomenon? We know at any rate that in nature no organism of great complexity can function without a central mechanism capable of processing a great deal of information: in other words, a brain. We also know that increasing complexity of organization has historically been linked to greater mental convergence, meaning thereby a tendency for central mechanisms—biological, social, cultural—to take shape, and ultimately to take command of the situation.3 On this rather trite, but perhaps not altogether useless, analogy it can at least be suggested that there may be a link between the drive for global organization and the growing importance of the social stratum which incorporates the rational principle. The connection is not perhaps immediately obvious, but “the banal fact of the earth’s roundness”4 is clearly responsible for a great deal of our present trouble, just as in the past it may have been behind the particular form taken by evolution over much lengthier spans of time. In any case it would seem evident that the nuclear threat could not have occurred in an “unlimited environment” leaving ample room for migration to “safe” portions of the globe. The same might be said of the growing pressure upon the more highly civilized nations arising from the “population explosion” in backward countries. The resulting web of circumstances is really not amenable to political guidance of the old-fashioned hit-or-miss kind typified by the familiar cycle of war-revolution-disintegration, with the replacement of one historic class by another serving as a mechanism of adaptation. That is not to say that the old familiar process no longer operates—it does, but plainly at the risk of blowing us all into the stratosphere. Also there is the simple fact that social evolution by way of historic conflict between one class and another—or one social order and another, or one group of nations and another—is not merely an extremely clumsy and dangerous mode of adaptation, but much too slow and haphazard to keep step with the fantastic rate of technological change. If it goes on in future at all, it will have to do so at a level just below the really important one. What the important one is has already been indicated.

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To pursue our analogy: the increasing centralization of public life—which is really what one means in saying that the individualist era is closed—is at the same time a process whereby decision-making is located in a directing stratum, or “brain.” Historically, the social group which embodies the tendency toward centralization stems from the intelligentsia of bourgeois society, although it is not identical with it. The growth of this stratum in all its aspects—from the managerial and technocratic to the genuinely intellectual—is the specific mode of evolution open to a society which has become fully industrialized, i.e., fully subject to the rule of technical-scientific rationality. Increasing complexity and growing rationality are two sides of the same coin. The stratum within which the dual advance manifests itself—not passively, but as a willed, consciously intended, process—is ipso facto the only one capable of getting the whole movement under control. By the same token it incorporates the rational principle itself (and probably mankind’s only chance of survival). The growth of the intelligentsia—now that it has finally emerged from the chrysalis of the bourgeois epoch, with its antagonistic classes and its increasingly irrational political upheavals—is the precondition of orderly progress, though not in itself a sufficient guarantee that further evolution will in fact take place. That “progress” in this sense does signify “evolution” appears from the simple consideration that what we are witnessing is an instance of that mental “convergence” toward a directing center which has been operative as far back as natural and social history can be traced. However speculative such ideas may sound, it will at any rate be conceded that the sudden appearance at the same time of a new type of society, a new pattern of global organization, and an unexampled threat to life itself, cannot be merely due to a set of coincidences. Unless all these tendencies operate so as to bring about a social mutation of the type here sketched out, it is going to be very difficult to make sense of the simultaneous convergence of so many novel and unprecedented factors. At the risk of sounding both unduly speculative and irritatingly dogmatic, one may therefore conclude that what the entire crisis has been building up to is a change which is going to locate the mechanism of further evolutionary advance in the stratum which represents the “brain” of the social organism. That this stratum has, in part at least, grown out of the old intelligentsia which fought and lost so many battles to make society more rational, may perhaps serve as some consolation to the less dispirited among its survivors.

Is this all? Probably not, but it will not do to push the analogy too far. One may note, however, that the evolutionary pattern is repeated in the tendency for new directing organs to take shape in response to pressures which evoke an intellectual effort that is at the same time an attempt to control the environment. As we have tried to suggest, these pressures arise at the circumference of the field and press back upon the center, thereby calling attention to the need for control over forces that threaten to get out of hand. It is a pattern that appears to have a lengthy evolutionary record behind it. Whether one says that mind is generated in the process, or that the brain responds by synthesizing the information brought to its attention, makes little difference. The relevant point is that it has now become a life-and-death matter for society to respond to the emergence of new material forces in such a manner as not to let a wholesale catastrophe occur. This situation is new; it has evidently been brought about—as everyone says—by the fantastic discrepancy between the rate of scientific-technological advance and the failure of social evolution to keep step. But there is considerable reluctance to admit that the eventual response is likely to involve some qualitative change in our mental habits. The bare idea of dispensing with “politics” in the traditional sense strikes people as bizarre, though in practice the integration of scientific and political decision-making is already far advanced (mostly with the aim of blowing the planet to bits). It will take some further time for the notion to sink in that control of nature involves a far-reaching social reorganization, and that in future this kind of decision can no longer be left to the accidents of political upheavals or the “successful” outcome of wars.

_____________

 

Of course none of the foregoing is altogether new: H. G. Wells had a premonition of it many years ago. The strange thing is that we are now actually on the threshold of its happening, while the politicians go on drooling about stone-age issues, and most intellectuals are sunk in despair because the particular sect they fancy has not converted a majority of the electorate. If the remarks set forth here have indicated an alternative approach to the problem of what is going on around us, they will at any rate not have been entirely useless. The great trouble is that we find it extremely difficult, with our limited perspective, to visualize the kind of “convergent integration” that will be needed to get the whole planetary movement under control. All that the biological parallel really tells us is that there has to be a rational focus somewhere. For clearly, rationalization, to be effective, must have a center. Or to put it differently, consciousness must come to “a point at which all the impressions and experiences knit themselves together and fuse into a unity that is conscious of its own organization.”5 This, however, is not simply a postulate; it is inherent in the process, reflection being “the power acquired by a consciousness to turn in upon itself, to take possession of itself. . . .”6 If the case were otherwise, psycho-social evolution would never have got to the present point. Whether it goes on would seem to depend on the outcome of the current race between potentially destructive and rationalizing tendencies, the latter coming to a focus in the various modern attempts—of which Communism is certainly one—to formulate something like a planetary consciousness. All this can perhaps be made palatable to empiricists by saying that after all the whole drive is merely the counterpart of the actual unification of the globe which is going on under our eyes. The Russians, with their lunar expeditions, should be the last to protest at such an explanation, which incidentally pays due tribute to their recent scientific achievements. And the rest of us? In any event, we may suppose that the last word has not yet been spoken.

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Footnotes

1 See H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society (1958), passim, for the continuation of this process after 1890.

2 See C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Oxford University Press (1959), passim.

3 Compare Julian Huxley's preface to The Phenomenon of Man, by Teilhard de Chardin (1959).

4 Huxley, ibid., p. 17.

5 Chardin, op. cit., p. 165.

6 Ibid.

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