History Of Intellectuals Research Paper

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The noun ‘intellectuels’ appeared in France in the 1890s and was largely diffused thanks to the polemics around the Dreyfus Affair (in particular the so-called ‘Manifeste des intellectuels,’ published after the famous J’accuse paper by Zola issued on January 13, 1898, in L’Aurore). This diffusion not only occurred in France but also, sooner or later, in the whole of Europe and even in America (North and South) (Drouin 1994). There are two exceptions to this large diffusion of the new concept: Germany and Russia where there existed former and akin notions, Intelligenz and intelligentsia, already used as social or political denominations (Muller 1971). Previous uses of the English translation, ‘intellectuals,’ are attested too before the 1890s, but they seem to have been too rare to have known a broad social circulation (Williams 1976). In the same way, in America, ‘intellectuals’ became a common notion only in connection with newspaper commentaries about the Dreyfus Affair (Bender 1987).

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To understand why this new terminology received a European or even international diffusion, it is necessary to recall the issues of this historical moment. What was at stake in this crisis was not only a political problem but also the affirmation of a new group, defender of universal values against the reason of State (Charle 1990). These values justified the fact that writers, artists, scholars, students, members of liberal professions, and so on, intervened on a collective basis in the political debate, although they were not them- selves, for the main part, professional politicians. The other specificity of this moment was that, in other countries, this same cause or other similar ones favored the intervention of intellectuals, but generally in various patterns and with different contents. Since that period, social sciences have debated at a theoretical level, in order to find universal characteristics underlying this new vocabulary (Shils 1972). As a matter of fact, the emergence of intellectuals cannot be assimilated to the apparition of a new permanent social group as some historians or sociologists suggest regularly, wrongly mixing intellectuals, intelligentsia and professions (Bell 1973, Perkin 1989). To know in reality what is meant by the words, intellectuals, intellectuels, Intellektuelle, intellettuali, intelectuales, and so on, it is necessary to define them within their specific cultural, social, and historical contexts.

1. The French Case

In France, even before the Dreyfus Affair, the neologism ‘intellectuels’ was used by avant-garde circles as a social mark. The intellectuel was some kind of mandarin, who despised politics and wanted to distinguish himself from middle class, dominant writers and academics. Intellectuel was a sort of superlative of what Flaubert meant by the word ‘artiste’ (Bourdieu 1992). But, since the neologism was widely used during the Dreyfus Affair, the initial cultural meaning was replaced by a strong emphasis laid upon the political acception. In the first phase of the Dreyfus affair, the intellectuels were an equivalent of ‘dreyfusards’ and, afterwards, when antidreyfusard intellectuals also intervened in a collective way, the word intellectuels began to define a special category of people who defended political positions based on arguments of social authority, i.e., their competence as thinkers, historians, scientists, professors, writers, or artists.

In France, the birth of intellectuels may be first explained by a growing inadequacy of former cultural patterns confronted to the buoyant cultural expansion of the last decades of the nineteenth century. Intellectual professions, far more numerous now, defended their social and symbolic status at once so that collective attitudes appeared, breaking with older individualistic habits. But this defense may be argued on two different grounds: with intellectual and pure values or on professional and pragmatic issues. Against avant-garde writers or academics, generally militating for the first option, professional associations appeared during the same period that were more attached to material interests. The first use of the term intellectuels was reserved for the first type of elitist fraternity. It was to be the germ of its political transformation as for the Russian intelligentsia diffused a bit earlier in the 1870s. As in Russia too, reformed universities played a major role in the process of emergence and mobilization of nonconformist intellectuals.

The second paradoxical factor of ideological and political change, was the early crisis of parliamentary democracy in France. After the stabilization of the Third Republic, apolitism predominated among intellectuals as if the end of history was already reached. A new politicization occurred with the crisis of official parties and the emergence of extremist factions, which had a large echo among avant-garde writers (in particular anarchism and, to a lesser degree, socialism). This new trend prepared what is the specificity of the Dreyfus Affair, the invention of a new relationship with politics outside the official political scene. Intellectuals in this new terminology pretended to practice politics in a different way. This was possible because the legitimacy of Republican elite laid on the same bases as the legitimacy of intellectuals themselves, i.e., upon merit and individual talent. But in so far as these elite appeared incompetent or corrupted after different crises and scandals (Boulangism, Panama scandal, and so on), intellectuals preserved from these faults might pretend to offer an alternative elite necessary to lead any genuine democracy.

Students, avant-garde writers, and even younger generations of academics, before and during the Dreyfus Affair, expressed these new revendications of being the true representatives of the people against politicians. The State itself, with its growing intolerance towards literary innovations or extremist parties (especially anarchism) contributed to the mobilization of authors against juridical prosecutions through collective manifestos just before the Dreyfus affair.

The Dreyfus affair presented both a true continuity with preceding years and a break due to the scale of mobilization. Afterwards, the main following mobilizations of intellectuals obeyed the same collective rites and values (Ory and Sirinelli 1986). Its founding importance was to prove that this type of mobilization might lead to real political consequences. This twofold mobilization (of dreyfusards and antidreyfusards) was new and defined, on both sides of the political scene, a general definition of intellectuals, which was not limited to leftist intellectuals. On the contrary in other countries, the equivalents of intellectuels are, generally speaking, confined to one side of the political spectrum.

2. The Peculiarities Of English Intellectuals

In contrast with France, it is generally argued that no intellectuals exist at all, in the continental acception, in the UK. Since around 1980, British historians and sociologists reacted against this strong and vulgarized anti-intellectual bias. Some authors speak of an intelligentsia (Allen 1986, Heyck 1982), i.e., an elitist avant-garde, others of ‘public moralists,’ which enhances the role of dominant and academic intellectuals (Collini 1991) or of a ‘professional class’ which assimilates intellectual professions to a new class (Perkin 1989). A comparative approach shows that two specific factors may explain the strong difference with the French situation, in spite of the proximity of economic and political conditions in intellectual life, the persistent elitism of English academic life and the relative proximity between intellectual professions and political elite. Established elites, even if they were obliged to reform and enlarge the political system at the end of the nineteenth century, were not contested as an illegitimate power elite, to the degree they were in France. In fact, English dominant intellectuals mainly shared the same values and background as gentlemen and political leaders because they were largely issued from the same public schools and universities.

In front of these dominant intellectuals, appeared, in the last decades of the twentieth century, new types of intellectuals who presented outsider profiles. The best known were the Fabians who could not attend the best colleges and universities and had to find their way through journalism, literature, new academic institutions (e.g., the London School of Economics) or militant politics. But these avant-gardes were very different from contemporary French avant-gardes. They limited their intervention to one main field: for the Fabians, social and political questions, for aesthetes, aesthetic life, and so on. They pretended to create a voluntary structure and to indirectly influence the official sphere indirectly, not at all to destroy or affront it directly.

Even when mobilization occurred on a larger scale, as during the Boers war, English intellectuals used the official means of actions and respected legal frameworks. Finally, the main difference lay in the very different function of the State in England and in Continental Europe. In England, militant intellectuals endeavored to enlarge its role to correct social injustice, whereas, in France and even more in Germany, intellectuals tried first to weaken its authoritarian trends.

3. The German Case

Even if the word Intellektuelle, derived from French, continues almost until now to bear a derogatory nuance (Bering 1978), the German genuine equivalents Intelligenz, Gebildete, and Geistige, have been used for a long time but do not imply, as the French term, the same political or social behaviors. This early appearance of the question of ‘intellectuals’ may be shown through the recurrent discussion about the academic proletariate (first in the Vormarz period, then in the 1880s, and finally in the Weimar period: Titze 1990), with the ideological debates within the socialdemocratic party about the place of Intelligenz (Gilcher-Holthey 1986), and also with the Antisemitimusstreit in 1879. This last famous polemic about the role of Jews in German society between the conservative historian Treitschke and his liberal colleague Mommsen, a former Forty-eighter (former participant to revolutionary troubles of 1848 in Germany), appears very near, in its arguments, to the debate between opposing French dreyfusards and antidreyfusards. The rights of minorities and, in particular, of individuals and Jews, lay at the center. Other affairs concerning academic freedom (Arons case or Spahn case), or freedom of creation, like the mobilization against the lex Heinze (1900), show too that the debates about intellectual autonomy were as crucial in Germany as in France and that they succeeded several times to mobilize some groups of intellectuals (Charle 1996).

But, in all cases, mobilization was limited to specific groups and to particular issues which did not put into question the whole structure of State itself as in France. A mere political explanation (an Empire opposed to a Republic) does not suffice. What was specific and new in the Dreyfus case was the convergence of different intellectual groups about common values. In Germany, the corporatist ethos remained stronger even about general issues; free intellectuals and State intellectuals (mainly university professors) despised each other. Academics began at that time to live apart from the political sphere and preferred a general cultural function as State or Bildung’s defenders through different associations. Only a small minority of free intellectuals and very few in the Academe put into question dominant elite or national causes.

The Gebildete assumed that they represented the true public opinion and that they were the best interpreters of general causes, but they intended to remain in their own field in order to serve their country best. This German intellectual and geographical fragmentation hindered the linkage between local or professional struggles for autonomy (Engelhardt 1986, Hubinger and Mommsen 1993, Ringer 1969, 1992).

4. Southern Europe

In Spain as in Italy, the local equivalent of intellectuels seemed also to be in use in the 1890s in connection with, or even before, the Dreyfus case. The French example was very influential for the Spanish and Italian intellectuals because French cultural influence, in the two peninsulas, was already very strong since the French Revolution. Also, the inner social and political situations of Spanish and Italian intellectuals presented some analogies with the French context. As their French homologues, they thought that their countries went through a deep crisis (economic backwardness, military defeat in Spain, emigration, social riots and parliamentary corruption in Italy), which implied some sort of public intervention to find solutions. The strong anticlericalism and antimilitarism, the link between intellectuals and extreme left movements, the emergence of a new nationalism in both countries, also recalled the French debates at the turn of the twentieth century (Serrano and Salaun 1988). Obvious differences also existed: the weaker public audience of intellectuals depending on the cultural backwardness of popular classes (high level of analphabetism) and the persistence of a large sector of opinion among Catholics, hostile to the cultural inheritance of Enlightenment, very influent in both countries, and an overproduction of laureati in Italy which could explain a strong commitment of academics to extremist parties (Barbagli 1974, 1982, Michels 1921).

5. Twentieth-Century Changes Of Meanings

The intertwining of the sociological and the political or ethical viewpoints was perpetually renewed during the history of French intellectuals after the Dreyfus affair. A new sociologization of the word occurred with the attacks against previous dreyfusards in the pre-world-war period. The ‘parti intellectuel,’ to use Peguy’s phrase, was charged by their former allies (for example Georges Sorel) for having used the political struggle in order to conquer eminent positions of power. For their critics, this political party in fact constituted a social cluster of arrivists, a new elite of mandarins backing upon leftist politicians (Prochasson 1992).

Between the two World Wars, there was a revival of the political and ideological emphasis on the meaning of the word during what has been called the ‘Francofrench war’ between the right-wing ‘parti de l’intelligence’ and the left-wing ‘intellectuels de gauche.’ This trend is enhanced because, at the same time, extreme left movements tried to restrict the notion to a sociological sense. The influence of Soviet Marxism may be found here in which intellectuels become a mere synonym for the Russian word intelligentsia which is nearer a sociological concept after the October revolution than the term intellectuels is in French. Intellectuels in the phraseology of the Communist Parties are assimilated to a social group in order to deny them any political autonomy and oblige them to define their political attitude within the limits of the Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy and to renounce to their own vision which is, in the French political tradition, far more linked with the French Revolution legacy and the defense of Human Rights (Benda 1927). This intertwining of two traditions after the 1930s explains why leftist intellectuals used social concepts to attack their rightist opponents, while in contrast, rightist intellectuals laid the stress on the idealist conception of the intellectuals’ role; they opposed themselves to materialism (i.e., leftist intellectuals influenced by Marxism) instead of only taking the defense of tradition as before (Sapiro 1999).

The decline of Marxism in the intelligentsia and the excess of sociological terrorism in intellectual struggles during the 1950s and 1960s (Boschetti 1985) explain why French contemporary intellectual life is dominated by some sort of revival of the primitive meaning of the word intellectuel. This complete historical cycle is one of the origins of the renewed interest for the study of intellectuals as political and social actors by French and foreign scholars in the 1980s and 1990s (Bourdieu 1992, Jennings 1993, Judt 1992, Julliard and Winock 1996, Sirinelli 1990, Trebitsch and Granjon 1998).

Anti-intellectualism, which was so frequent in England and Germany before World War I seemed to somewhat decline after the mobilization of all types of intellectuals (scholars as well as writers or journalists) during the Union sacree for propaganda or practical applications devoted to National Defense. It conferred on them a new importance in all political contexts. After World War I, the democratization of politics, in both the UK and Weimar Germany, now placed intellectuals in a political context quite similar to the French one. The growing influence of left parties, of Marxist ideas, of international questions (communism, fascism, pacifism, fear for a new world war) gave birth to international debates among European intellectuals (or even American, if the case of New York intellectuals may be included: Wald 1987). Nevertheless, this did not mean that the specific national traditions were forgotten. Even if notions like Intellektuelle or intelligentsia were present more than before in the German or English public debate, they never obtained the general influence or consensus which their equivalents enjoyed in France, Italy, or Spain (Bering 1978, Stark 1984). Even innovative sociologists such as Karl Mannheim continued in general to use the older lexis even to propose their new conceptions of a free-floating intelligentsia ( freischwebende Intelligenz: Mannheim 1929). Debates about the social decline of ‘intellectual workers’ in Germany or Central Europe used too old phrases such as geistige Arbeiter (Jarausch 1990, Titze 1990). The anti-intellectualism of the Nazi movement and the huge migration (after 1933) of progressist or Jewish intellectuals out of Germany and Central Europe stopped, for almost two decades, this timid convergence with the Latin tradition of intellectuals.

The decline and fall of the different fascist or communist regimes in the second half of the twentieth century gave a new actuality to the oppositional figure of intellectuals, in particular in Central and Eastern Europe (the ‘dissidents’ who recalled the nineteenth century meaning of intelligentsia). In Southern Europe, in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, revolutionary intellectuals or militants for the Human Rights also rejuvenated the nineteenth century European tradition of intellectual youth mobilized for the nation or populist projects. All these convergences or political cycles explain why the historical notion of intellectuals continues to be at the center of many historical, sociological, or philosophical reflexions, trying until today to find general or transhistorical definitions of this term.


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