Tomasz Zarycki, Deputy Director of the Institute for Social Studies at the University of Warsaw
What is the intelligentsia?
Is it a new social strata, taking a substantial role in the development of societies? Why does it exist? And what is its role? Read this historical reflection and current perspective on the intelligentsia in Eastern Europe and Russia.
The intelligentsia when seeing from the historical perspective may be seen as an Eastern European substitute for the Western bourgeoisie rather than a communist period “anomaly”. Until 1917 its main opponents were on one hand the landowners and aristocracy and on the other the elite of the autocratic state, in particular, Russian Empire. Once the old Empires collapsed, the Polish intelligentsia became the ruling, or at least dominant strata of the newly established Polish second republic, which was aspiring to follow the model of the modern nation-state. In Russia the intelligentsia could also be seen as victorious group of the revolution, however the new Soviet state was taken over by a relatively narrow faction of the radical leftist intelligentsia, which soon eliminated, quite often physically, most of its remaining intelligentsia and non-intelligentsia competitors. Soon, the ruling group of the Soviet Union transformed itself into a strongly institutionalized state elite, later known as the nomenclatura.
The communist period deprived much of the old intelligentsia elite of its previous privileged positions but elevated many of their younger left oriented colleagues to the highest positions. What was crucial, that with all its communist ideology of equality and internationalism, communist Poland’s identity was based on some of the key intelligentsia values like recognition of fundamental role of sacrifice and suffering for the sake of national and social causes or key role assigned to history, culture and intellectual figures seen as the main incarnation of the national character. At the same time communists eliminated the main historical opponents of the intelligentsia, landowners and bourgeoisie The leftist intelligentsia originally embraced the idea of building of a socialist of communist Poland, but with time and most of its elite gradually distanced itself from the political elite. This became apparent in particular after 1968 when the nationalist faction of the communist party gain the upper hand in the political field and later, when in 1970 the party has been dominated by the technocratic group. With time and decay of the legitimization of the communist ideology and dependence on the Soviet Union, most of the intelligentsia members were turning their backs on the communist state elite in Poland, which by the way in contrast to its Soviet equivalent, was never able to transform itself into a self-reproducing social class. Thus at the time of the fall of communism (about 1989) majority of the intelligentsia elite was openly declaring anti-communist ideology and was relatively united in its support for democratization and the so called “return to Europe”. The intelligentsia at that time also supported the radical economic reforms and integration with Western institutions. “Normalization” understood as transforming Poland into a Western type society and economy, which took place after 1989 has been seen by many as leading to final dissolution of the intelligentsia, as Poland was seen as joining the Western Europe and adapting its political, cultural and economic norms.
What is often overlooked is that the radical political and economic reforms in Poland did not produce a new strong national bourgeoisie or any other new elite, which could potentially challenge and eventually replace the intelligentsia. Here again the Polish story differs considerably from the path taken by Russia at the same time. While in Russia after a short period of democratization intelligentsia enjoyed relative political influences and access to the mainstream mass media, the process of radical consolidation of the state power took place, Poland did not witness comparable processes.
However, the Polish former communists were not only very ineffective in the implementation of this strategy given their restricted power and weakness of the Polish state. Moreover, their actions resulted in an assertive counter-action, in particular taken by the following governments formed by the former anti-communist forces with considerable intelligentsia membership. Their strategy, devised largely as a counter-measure to block the attempts of conversion of post-communist political power into economic capital, was relying the radical privatization of state assets with Western investors seen as the most wanted strategic buyers. Implementation of this plan assumed that it will not only prevent emergence of the post-communist “political capitalism” in Poland but also will be instrumental for accelerating modernization. At the same time, the inflow of Western capital was seen as beneficial for the Polish economy and linked with the arrival of the Western know-how and integration of the country into the Western economic and political system, which would secure its irrevocable “escape form the East”, that is the Russian zone of influences. At the same time, considerable part of the members of the intelligentsia elite, which are now working for foreign companies or are employed as state officials, enjoys much higher income and more stable employment conditions that majority of those working for or owning small businesses. Thus many of the intelligentsia members are becoming relatively affluent, however, they are not becoming businessmen at the same time, at least their identities are not transforming into those based on the economic capital only. One reason for this is that they realize that their privileges (including well paid positions at Western companies in Poland and abroad) are largely dependent on their assets of cultural and also social capital coming from their intelligentsia families and friends. These assets of cultural and social capital are at the same time their most stable resources, which won’t disappear in case of a major economic or political crisis, including the outflow of Western investments, which may not be excluded in this part of Europe.
This may be one of the explanations why despite apparent “economization” or “marketization” of the Polish society, Polish politics remains largely culturalistics. One has to note at the same time that the Western companies generally do not interfere with Polish cultural life and politics, at least they don’t do this more assertively or openly than in most other peripheral countries, where effects of cultural globalization and EU regulations are clearly visible. This withdrawal of the Western actors from the direct interference in the fields of culture and politics creates the effect of perceived intelligentsia hegemony as it remains the key authority in these realms, one which is unchallenged by neither local bourgeoisie or any other elite like for example strong state elite of the Russian type.
Summing up, one could say that despite all of the complains about the crisis of the intelligentsia in Poland, it seems that its role, even if considerably transformed, remains crucial. One can point to several positive and negative aspects of this situation. In any case the intelligentsia ethos remains at the center of the Polish civic culture. On the one hand it may be seen as giving the intelligentsia several not always well deserved structural privileges. On the other hand it provides Poles with widely shared moral code, which is very instrumental in modernization of the country and maintenance of the moral order in the turbulent times of the post-communist transformation.