The Waning Status of the “Intellectual”
The death of H. G. Wells and the celebration of the ninetieth birthday of G. B. Shaw is a reminder of the social influence of a group of which they were outstanding representatives. Wells may have been a first-class novelist and Shaw an equally first-class dramatist, but what concerns us is their advocacy of the pernicious doctrine of “ intellectualism,” based upon a mythical middle-class layer of society; this group of self-styled intellectuals have so often, during the post hundred years, striven to control the working-class movement, basing their claim to leadership upon the alleged incapacity of the workers to handle their own affairs. Although the modern claim is rooted in the losing battle of small and pushful proprietors for independence and for protection against the crushing power of large industry, it is not new in history. The children of these small traders found and eagerly swallowed it, as a foundation for their conceit, in the course of their educational training, especially in the writings of Aristotle, who had the intellectual’s contempt for those who were bereft of the sources of learning. For two thousand years or more it has been argued that the people who comprise the lowest class in society were a dangerous rabble, born without the intellectual capacity to rule society; this in spite of the fact that it was ex-slaves who administered the system that built up and held together one of the largest empires the world has ever seen, by means of the Roman civil service. Some of these ex-slaves even rose to the imperial purple and proved no worse, if no better, than their former masters.
In the period between.the last two wars, and partly fostered by the experiences of Russia, a group of professional people of one kind and another banded themselves together to give vent to their wails against unkind providence, and to their ambitions, in the name of Technocracy. They had, however, learnt wisdom in their method of pushing their claims; they did not press the idea that the workers lacked intelligence, that was one of the Fabian failings they did not wish to repeat, and anyhow they had to bring forward something new in order to arrest interest. They put the matter another way. They urged that society itself, as well as the productive forces, had become so complicated that direction requires a high measure of technical skill, that only people who have had a long and intense technical education, out of reach of the mass of the population, are capable of acting as directors, which is a highly specialised occupation; and that these directors come from a special group which is neither capitalist nor worker. Need we add that the technocrats themselves belong to this group of prodigies.
Before looking a little closer into the social origin of the “intellectuals” let us take a passing glance at something that seriously affects their conceited claims. During the war thousands of office boys, errand boys, grocers’ assistants, carters, mechanics, and hosts of other similar young workers, male and female, received a thorough technical education in the course of a year or less while training for the Army, Navy and Air Force. They became extremely efficient, performing highly technical jobs that had previously been the private preserves of a favoured few.
This settled the question and proved, on the one hand, that there is no inherent lack of capacity on the part of the worker, and, on the other hand, that technical efficiency can be rapidly acquired, given the means find the inclination. It may be argued that capacity is not now in question, that the point is will there be the opportunity for the capacity to be trained in peacetime. The answer is that the capacities of the workers are being trained, and to an increasing extent as time passes; even the ranks of the “intellectuals,” already honeycombed with average workers, is threatened with an avalanche. The training of these capacities to an ever greater extent is one of the necessary outcomes of modern machine industry.
The worker of to-day is educationally a vastly different type from his fellow of a hundred years ago, and the growing demands of industry compel an intensification of technical education. As an example of the mental capacity of an ordinary member of the working class we may legitimately ask what chance the average technocrat would stand against the tatterdemalion who haunts racing circles and engages in the complicated and highly technical business of putting a shilling on horses in successive races in such a way than an initial capital of a shilling may give him an afternoon’s pleasure and agony? Are those who attain ruling positions in society sprung from a special class? Hitler was a house-painter, Mussolini a journalist, Napoleon a soldier. Are Morrison, Bevan, Bevin, Shinwell, Ben Smith and the rest products of this special class? Yet these are the people who did and do occupy the seats of government, directing social affairs.
From whence come the “intellectuals,” what are they and what special power, if any, presided at their birth? As already indicated, the “intellectuals,” in the main, sprang from the ranks of the small-trading section of society; that section whose members rarely rise into the capitalist class and who are frequently reduced to the ranks of the ordinary worker. At present their real position is that of small producers and distributors working for the large concerns and suffering all the agonies of a precarious independence. In times of crisis they face ruin, at all times their working and sleeping hours are haunted with the fear of losing the little to which they cleave so tightly, and which stands between them and bankruptcy.
They are fertile soil for currency schemes, which promise the money they are so short of for their petty operations, and for all kinds of illusory short cuts to wealth. Little removed from the ordinary worker, they cling all the more fiercely to a sham superiority. Sons and daughters from this section become scientists, doctors, civil servants, bank clerks and members of the various professions. Even when they produce scathing social criticisms they rarely forget their social halo. Educational facilities, born out of the needs of capitalism, introduced the children of the average worker, through scholarships or fortunate circumstances, into the charmed circle of the “intellectual,” where they imbibed the current ideas of superiority and shamefacedly try to forget their past. The passing of time with the pressing needs of capitalism has lowered the prestige and eased the process of producing “intellectuals”; nowadays they can be produced like sausages from a sausage machine, and are as like each other as are sausages.
So much for the origin of the intellectuals”; now what is their social position? Simply that of wage slaves producing surplus value for the capitalists, individually or collectively. The scientist, the writer or the bank clerk sells his services to the capitalist just like any other worker does. In return he receives a wage, a salary, or a fee that represents his cost of subsistence. The value of the services he renders is greater than the value of his cost of subsistence, and the difference between the two represents the surplus value taken by the capitalist. Thus the “intellectual” is subject to the prevailing system of exploitation, dependence, insecurity of livelihood, and oppression; this in spite of the fact that here and there a Wells or a Shaw may succeed in acquiring wealth.
These facts may be galling to the pride of the “intellectual” and take a long time to sink in, but in the fullness of time a glimmering of the truth does sink in. Not many years ago the “intellectual,” with his “middle class” delusion, was convinced that he had a fundamental identity of interest with the capitalist, but experience began to raise doubts; some sections, including bank clerks, commenced to form defensive organisations. That was a step forward. Lately there has been a giant stride forward.. For the first time bank clerks have engaged in a strike on a large scale. The Irish bank officials have been on strike for five weeks, coming at last into the main stream of the class struggle and taking a belated step towards recognising the fundamental identity of interest of all those who depend for their livelihood upon the sale of their mental and physical energies. In the not far distant future the other grades of workers afflicted with the “middle class” obsession will be forced to accept a similar outlook and the halo surrounding the “intellectual” will finally disappear.