intellectuals and the other class struggle

When we hear the term class struggle we think of the rich vs the poor, capitalists vs workers and so forth. Discussions of this topic often involve the concept of the ruling class. In fact class struggles are often much more complex and much more interesting. The really bitter struggles often take place within classes.

The idea of a monolithic ruling class that has always exercised power is clearly nonsense. Ruling classes evolve. And evolution can be a brutal process. The survival of the fittest and all that.

In the Middle Ages power was based on the possession of land. This was the age of the aristocracy of land. Even that is an over-simplification since there were often bitter struggles between large land owners and smaller ones and there was very often conflict between the crown and the large land owners so it wasn’t really a monolithic ruling class. Nonetheless it was a ruling class and it was based on land.

The Industrial Revolution changed all that. It created a new aristocracy, the aristocracy of money. Naturally this set off a bitter conflict within the ruling class and of course the aristocracy of money won.

In the 18th century another new aristocracy was emerging. This was the aristocracy of ideas. The intellectual class. Intellectuals in the modern sense hardly existed prior to that time. In the 18th century they emerged and grew and prospered. You could find them in the universities, attending elegant soirées, in coffee houses, anywhere that was safely sheltered from the real world. Intellectuals like theories and the annoying thing about the real world is that it rarely conforms to the theories of intellectuals. As a result intellectuals shun the real world.

There was one thing that really frustrated these intellectuals is that they had no real power. They wanted to run things. They wanted to run everything, including the government.

The intellectuals were part of the ruling class in the broad sense but they also had their own distinct class identity. Their primary loyalty was to their own intellectual class.

This meant that the old aristocracies, of land and of money, were an obstacle. This partly explains the enthusiasm of intellectuals for left-wing political ideas (an enthusiasm that was already becoming evident even before the rise of classical marxism). The intellectuals didn’t care about the working class but they did have an interest in overthrowing the existing order, or at least destabilising it in order to take power themselves.

Intellectuals were also somewhat internationalist in outlook right from the start. They tended to be  rootless cosmopolitans. Not all of them. In the 19th century some were attracted to nationalism. By the mid-20th century however virtually all had adopted some form of internationalism.

Of course the big problem was that intellectuals loved theory and despised reality. There has never been a class with such a lust for political power combined with such a total incapacity for exercising it sensibly. No-one should ever take intellectuals seriously. Unfortunately we have taken them seriously, with catastrophic consequences.

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2 comments on “intellectuals and the other class struggle

  1. James Higham says:

    How did the crown get to be the crown in the first place? How did ruling families arise?

  2. dfordoom says:

    How did the crown get to be the crown in the first place? How did ruling families arise?

    Originally I guess by being the alpha males. Being just that little bit stronger and smarter and having leadership qualities. And getting to marry the daughters of other alpha males, gradually consolidating a position as an elite.

    But I have no idea how stable such elites would have been early on.

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