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#18: Critique and Truth

Kirill Medvedev /// The “Liberal Intelligentsia”: A Brief Ideological Analysis

The “liberal intelligentsia” is one of the most popular and speculative notions in today’s political lexicon. For a start, we will try and understand who has the right to this honorary title.

If your occupation involves intellectual labor and you believe that ideology comes in two stripes-communist and fascist, and that normal (not crazy) people are definitely free of any sort of ideology and hold sensible, liberal market views; if you think that progress is a western movement whose avant-garde is staffed by the developed countries of the west, and is something that cannot be expanded, halted or changed, then you’re probably a member of the liberal intelligentsia in its contemporary Russian configuration. Of course, you will find liberals with much more complicated views. Here, on the contrary, we are focused on a kind of semi-conscious or unconscious ideological residue that has been absorbed as the property of a milieu, as the ideological mainstream of its day and age.

The “liberal intelligentsia” is one of the most popular and speculative notions in today’s political lexicon. For a start, we will try and understand who has the right to this honorary title.

If your occupation involves intellectual labor and you believe that ideology comes in two stripes-communist and fascist, and that normal (not crazy) people are definitely free of any sort of ideology and hold sensible, liberal market views; if you think that progress is a western movement whose avant-garde is staffed by the developed countries of the west, and is something that cannot be expanded, halted or changed, then you’re probably a member of the liberal intelligentsia in its contemporary Russian configuration. Of course, you will find liberals with much more complicated views. Here, on the contrary, we are focused on a kind of semi-conscious or unconscious ideological residue that has been absorbed as the property of a milieu, as the ideological mainstream of its day and age.

In the late Soviet period, the upper crust of this stratum had access to cultural goods that were forbidden, concealed or simply not advertised by the Soviet state. First and foremost among these goods was the culture of Russian modernism as well as the so-called blank spots of history-that is, the “skeletons in the closet” of the Soviet period. Accordingly, during perestroika this stratum acquired a kind of public educational function by communicating and interpreting these revelations and goods. In the early nineties, however, the main current of cultural and historical revelations ran dry, and the broader public’s interest withered. This stratum’s “mission” withered, too, and its natural cultural hegemony ended with it.

The simultaneous emergence of the “red-brown” opposition and the attendant long-term electoral intrigues (still partly with us) united the liberal intelligentsia in some (bad) sense. They gave renewed relevance to those properties of the intelligentsia that had been taking shape since the pre-war period: its gradual disenchantment with Soviet socialism (and, thus, with socialism as such); its reaction to the Stalinist dictatorship (in particular, to the “struggle against cosmopolitanism”); and its grudges against the Soviet regime (“I’m a researcher and I make less than a common laborer!”; “I’m smart and ambitious, but I can’t develop normally in this stinking Soviet Union!”). In short, they revived all the fears, complexes, gripes, and half-baked notions that had gradually transformed the “democratic,” “revolutionary,” “leftist,” “socialist” intelligentsia of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries into the “liberal,” “right-wing,” “bourgeois,” “demo-schizoid” intelligentsia of the late twentieth century.

The mechanical rejection of Soviet power, which was imagined as ochlocratic, having sprouted as it were from Lenin’s famous thesis about the kitchen wench who would run the state, led to a situation in which the values proclaimed by the Soviet regime (most often, on the level of words, not deeds) came to be seen as genuinely inhumane. As a result, the intelligentsia developed a consciousness that was, of course, not at all democratic, but radically bourgeois and elitist. Solidarity was felt to be a perilous delusion. The proletariat was imagined as a potentially dangerous human mass that should at all costs no longer be admitted to the halls of power. (The best thing would be to strip it of the right to vote, as the Bolsheviks had once done with the bourgeoisie.) Wheeler-dealers and black marketeers seemed to be in the same league as freedom-loving poets (because both groups had run-ins with the Soviet regime), and thus art was a “form of private enterprise” (Joseph Brodsky, Nobel Prize lecture.) As Alexander Piatigorsky put it, “This is how they thought about the authorities: Leave us in peace, cretins. Let us do our higher mathematics, theoretical physics, and semiotics, and everything will be fine.” These people still cannot stand to hear about the “workers of Germany” or the “children of Africa.” On the other hand, every decent liberal intelligent will experience any attempt to confiscate a bit of excess profit from the capitalist as a personal tragedy.

In the Putin era, the liberal intelligentsia has finally crashed head-on with its long-cherished dream: the criminal daredevils of the period of primitive accumulation, with their “funny money,” have been replaced by a more or less real bourgeoisie, with its own real, fairly long-term interests. Naturally, this has given rise as well to the determinate management style and ideology that is particular to semi-peripheral capitalism. As a result, the slogans that the liberal westernizing stratum repeated for so many years have today been taken up by Putinist national-liberals as they aggressively celebrate the victory of the “petit bourgeoisie over the intelligentsia.”

The caricature of the “demo-schizoids” (their “cosmopolitan” image, their worship of “universal human values,” their favorite catchphrases, such as “this country” (instead of “Russia”), “the entire civilized world,” etc.) has become the ideal springboard for Putinist agitprop as it tries to foist on the nation the image of “our enemies from the nineties.” This task, by the way, is not all that complicated. If, after the westernizing liberals endlessly affirmed that the US is the most peace-loving nation on earth, everyone’s best friend and ally, TV commentator Mikhail Leontiev comes along and says that the US is an aggressive predator that pursues its own interests in every corner of the globe, then (after Hiroshima, Vietnam, Chile, Iraq, etc., etc.) this latter opinion will sound much more persuasive. How can a critical discourse capable of countering this opinion evolve? What is the role of today’s Russian intellectual? Whom does he represent? Whom does he want to represent?

The intellectuals of the nineties who made claims to this critical function were in one way or another graduates of the “right-wing” cultural underground. (There was no leftist underground, just as-with rare exceptions-there were no leftist dissidents.) Having adopted (along with the new generation) the superficial trimmings of the postmodernist critical program, which was fashionable and sexy in the nineties, they quite naturally ended up not the voice of society at large, much less the voice of the liberal stratum (unlike the “men of the sixties”), but merely the voice of the tiny liberal elite. Despite their intellectualism, they have merely remained the spokesmen for their own milieu-that is, the (post-)Soviet intelligentsia. Depressed and repressed by Soviet socialism, the intelligentsia has aggressively rejected enormous currents of (leftist: Marxian, etc.) thought. It remains captive to its snobbish, condescending images of western lefties. They have “got it so good that all they can do is fuss,” “don’t know what socialism is really like,” “wouldn’t know what to do if they were in our shoes,” and so forth.

The marginal, ideologically precarious position of today’s liberal intelligentsia is likewise bound up with its inability to find support in any of the events of Russian history. Faithfulness to the event known as the October Revolution today provides the grounds (including critical grounds) for an evolving current of new leftism, despite quite stark internal disagreements about various facts of Soviet history-from the Kronstadt Rebellion to the meaning of perestroika. The liberal intelligentsia rejects the Revolution out of hand, preferring instead the myth of a democracy “murdered by the Bolsheviks.” At the same time, it rejects the entire Russian revolutionary tradition, beginning with the Decembrists, that prefaced the Revolution. (The irony is that ALL the forces that embodied the “murdered democracy” of 1917-with, perhaps, the exception of the anecdotal Kerensky-are either too right-wing or too left-wing for today’s opposition liberals.) The other key episodes are the two putsches of the early nineties. Was there a difference between the “defense of liberty from the forces of reaction,” in 1991, and the “crushing of the reactionary parliament” (approved by the majority of the liberal intelligentsia), in 1993? It was precisely these events of Russian history that posed the question that has to be answered in order to counter today’s aggressive national-bourgeois propaganda. This question also immediately touches upon the “democratizing” policies of the US. (As I have already mentioned, the counterfeit confrontation with the US has served as the basis for the official ideology that has been under construction over the past several years.) What, strictly speaking, is “democracy”? The ability of the most “civilized” and enlightened inhabitants of the globe to secure themselves against everyone else? (This point of view is shared both by the current Russian elite and the majority of liberal oppositionists.) Or is it an extraordinarily difficult, risky, daily task that necessarily calls into question such bedrock values of liberal capitalism as parliamentary democracy, the right to private property, and the wage labor system? Correspondingly, how does the stratum of the intelligentsia see itself? As paid professionals who exercise their right to serve the bourgeoisie (mainly, in the production and transmission of ideologies) and identify themselves more with their employers than with other strata of paid laborers and, thus, are guided by one or another form of corporate ethics? Or as intellectuals who move beyond the limits of their class and try to pose and solve in practice the truly difficult questions about universals-about equality and direct democracy?

Unless it answers these questions-unless it engages in an intensive historical self-analysis focused on class, sociopolitical, and, hence, cultural issues-the intelligentsia will find it impossible to adopt any critical stance.

This is a reworked and abridged version of an article originally published (in Russian) on the website www.vpered.org.ru.

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