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On the Class Consciousness of the Intelligentsia

Recently, due to conversations in both internet forums and concrete life, I have been thinking again about the class position of the so-called intelligentsia––academics, university students, artists, and other "mental labourers"––especially in the context of the centres of capitalism.  While I find the somewhat pernicious trend of leftwing anti-intellectualism extremely problematic, I have also found the inverse intellectual resignation troublesome.  It is one thing to argue that the intellectual life should be opened up to those who lack the privilege of access, but it is quite another to argue for the primacy of the privileged leftwing intellectual––especially when these intellectuals often defect to the bourgeois camp, or at the very least show no interest in agitating for revolution, time and time again.

This topic concerns me because, obviously, I currently belong to this class of intellectual workers: I sell my labour in a casualized academic environment while working towards the dream of (someday and somehow) getting a secure job teaching in academia and publishing leftwing articles and books.  I hold no illusions, regardless of my desire, about the efficacy this line of work in an environment that is becoming increasingly casualized… but neither do I hold any of the illusions, which are now all-too-prevalent, that I am also part of a some radical left vanguard by virtue of being trained as an intellectual.

The thing is, there is a reading of Lenin's theory of the vanguard that does hold that leftwing intellectuals will be the ones who primarily compose the core of the party of the advanced guard.  Even worse, there are theorists who even reject Leninism who still argue that the students and intelligentsia are more advanced than workers, especially at the centres of capitalism, because their position in this capitalist context provides them with the necessary tools to understand capitalism and thus lead any revolutionary movement.  There is, after all, an interpretation of Marcuse's writing on advanced capitalism that argues for the recognition of some nebulous class of students as the new revolutionary subject.

And while it is true that students in university are afforded the privilege, if they wish, to possibly make a career out of studying revolutionary theory, this privilege must be recognized primarily as a privilege and not as the qualification for revolutionary leadership.  This privilege increases the longer they are able to remain in academia––crystallizing when they finish graduate school, consummated if they ever achieve tenure.  We must look at those students who, regardless of their desire to learn, are never able to reach university due to their concrete class circumstances.  Or those students who drop out long before reaching graduate school.  And finally those students who are able to remain long enough to make the transition from student to academic.  How do they see themselves as a class, and what is the nature of their political praxis regardless of what they might theoretically claim?  No matter how it might look in a paper designed for a journal, concrete revolutionary praxis most often diminishes from undergraduate to graduate, often evaporating when the student transitions into "recognized" academic.

Here, at the centres of capitalism, leftwing intellectuals like to complain about "petty-bourgeois" shop-keepers, and how they want to be big bourgeois, but the truth is that these intellectuals are generally inclined towards a more petty-bourgeois consciousness than most of the shop-keepers they disdain.  For the small businesses at the centres of capitalism are most often survival attempts on the part of immigrants––many of which will fail, some of which will become little more than family sustenance ventures––run by people who would have otherwise wanted to become intellectuals… Indeed, some of these "petty-bourgeois" immigrants desired to become unionized factory workers only to discover that chauvinism and/or settlerism barred them from this sort of employment.

But these leftwing intellectuals (a classification to which I belong), despite what they might write in an article, are easily bought out.  Allow them to publish their books, afford them liberal free speech, even grant some of them tenure… All-in-all, a better life than the supposedly petty-bourgeois shop-keepers who are consistently frustrated with their attempts to survive as entrepreneurs in a society that treats them as foreign interlopers.  And even if it is true that the immigrant small-business owners whose stores are run by their families dream of being big bourgeois, it is also true that the leftwing intellectuals dream of tenure, prestige, publication deals, and massive offices.

One needs no clearer demonstration of the petty-bourgeois consciousness of self-proclaimed left intellectuals than a labour disruption at the heart of academia: here is a moment of social investigation that reveals what it means to be left in form and right in essence.  Around four years ago, I was a proud participant in a strike composed and maintained by university workers (the analysis of which, split into four parts, can be found here, here, here and here).  And though I believe that unionized workers most often form a part of the labour aristocracy––though they are now, thanks to austerity measures, becoming reproletarianized––my experience in this context taught me that the petty-bourgeois consciousness of academics is even more entrenched than the petty-bourgeois consciousness of trade-unionism at the heart of global capitalism.

Although we are living in a period where academic work is becoming casualized, and the vast majority of university labour is performed by contingent graduate student and contract labour, getting academics to recognize that they were being proletarianized, that they were workers, was like pulling proverbial teeth.  Many intellectuals who saw themselves as either marxist or anticapitalist, and whose work focused on critiquing the current nightmare of capitalism, resisted the politics of a strike where their labour was being devalued––many refused to recognize that they produced the value of the university, instead arguing for the need to be respectable because academics are supposed to be respectable.  Or maybe the strike would harm their grants.  Or maybe a long strike would prevent them from finishing their dissertations.  Or maybe it would adversely affect their ability to apply for real (meaning tenured) jobs.  Or maybe they just didn't want to be classified as similar to other workers––the hoi-polloi plebeians in the wider world of workers.  Hey, "it's cold out there" (as one self-professed left university worker complained at a general membership meeting during the aforementioned strike), so why can't we get back to work and be good little intellectuals?  Unfortunately, the answer to this question, though unspoken at the time, was in agreement: the strike eventually cannibalized itself––the intelligentsia's desire to sell-out soon outweighed its earlier desire to be recognized as a significant work force.

Hell, it's almost humorous: if the trade unions at the centres of capitalism are bought out by super-profits, and thus generally petty-bourgeois, you have to be even more petty-bourgeois to refuse even trade union consciousness!  A union connected to the labour of the intelligentsia goes on strike and large swathes of this intelligentsia resist striking, fight tooth-and-nail against the radicality in said strike, and then complain that the people who wanted to do the minimum of strike work are "ultra-leftists" while pushing for conciliation with the employer… This is one elite cut above being bought out by super-profits; this is what it means to be classified as intelligentsia at the centres of capitalism.

And the ultra-radicals of the intelligenstia left have a ready-made excuse for why their petty-bourgeois consciousness is somehow superior to the petty-bourgeois consciousness of trade unionism.  Unions are bought out; the proletariat is racialized, colonized, in the third world!  Meaning, in this context, a convenient excuse for accepting a larger level of pacification.  Is it any wonder, then, that third-worldism is phenomenon of first world intellectuals?  If we can think of a theory that can defend our unwillingness to actually be active, we can justify our adherence to a doctrine of pseudo-revolutionary inactivity.  "The working classes at the centres of capitalism are all petty-bourgeois but I'm not because I'm a vanguardish intellectual!"  One would expect, however, that if the entire working class in a given region was deproletarianized, the intelligentsia, who were never proletarian to begin with, would be in an even more parasitic social position.

Whatever the case, at the centres of capitalism, the intelligentsia, though sometimes drawn towards leftist (or leftish) ideas, are not the revolutionary class in practice.  While it is true that academic privilege and the intellectual safety of academia often permits access to revolutionary theory and debate, it is also a context that promotes a gap between theory and practice.  If the militancy of the working classes, lacking the ideological unity that can be found in a revolutionary organization, default-expresses itself according to the ideology of the ruling classes (i.e. reformism, social democracy, etc.), the intellectual who thinks of their social vocation as being an intellectual is far below that level of consciousness when it comes to revolutionary practice.

The separation between the mental and the physical, that old division of labour, is sometimes even given leftist justification: "my role is to think and write books for the movement; I don't have time to organize or take to the streets!"  And so the leftist intellectual is also drawn to a default practice of reformism and social democracy, but one divorced from even the marginal amount of militancy.  Better yet, the intellectual can think up sophistic arguments as to why the practice of reformism is somehow "revolutionary" and why even the most banal forms of "illegal" militancy are "counter-revolutionary".  (Take, for example, this article about the G20 written by people, mainly students and intellectuals who are also ironically "anti-intellectual" despite being guilty of the worst excesses of intellectualism, where militancy on the part of the people is treated as identical to the actions of the police.  Nor is this analysis isolated: large portions of the intelligentsia left feel that militancy is wrong, that anyone who engages in these activities is an agent provocateur, and that we should have peaceful marches with the proper permits and such.)  Clever sounding arguments, to be sure, but produced by people whose main reason for rejecting militancy and clinging to reformist opportunism is to live a safe and respectable life… And this type of consciousness, produced by the social being of a heterogeneous intellectual class, militates against a revolutionary consciousness––it is a problem all of us who still belong, in some way, to this class must struggle against.


  1. Hi there. Long time reader, first time caller.

    I've been following your posts on Mao. Combat Liberalism, On Contradiction, It's right to Rebel- but better to have a revolution. Great stuff, and really well presented.

    It seems like Mao and MLM have some relevancy to the task of making a revolution in the imperialist countries, but I have always been confused by certain comrades' tendency to take the lessons of the past and of other countries and try to apply them to the conditions of the here and now, whole cloth.

    I know this is a daunting question, but do you and your organization have a reasonably clear idea of what a revolution in Canada would look like? And what role you envision your organization playing in that process? What would be necessary to carry out the changes that you have identified? Are those necessary things in existence? If not, do you have a reasonably clear idea of what it would take to bring them into existence? Under what circumstances?

    If we don't know the answers to these questions how can we evaluate our work, and how can we guard against opportunism and conservatism on the one hand, and the adventurism and vanguardism on the other? Two sides of the same petty coin, perhaps, but then if so-- what is the role for people like us?

    Thanks for your work here. It's always a pleasure to read.

    -Marq Dyeth
    oenothera (at)

  2. Thanks for the comments. I agree that there is a tendency to abstractly apply lessons [dogmatically] from the past but, at the same time, I think there is a larger tendency to simply ignore the lessons won from the past. Rather than reiterate my entire thoughts on this problematic, however, I'll indicate that I've written frequently on this topic (see the post on marxism beyond Marx, leninism beyond Lenin, and maoism beyond Mao for example) where I talk about a dialectic of continuity-rupture. There are ruptures, but there are also important continuities. The point has always been *how* do we apply abstract universal theoretical developments to concrete particular circumstances. For example, the "dictatorship of the proletariat" might be a universal concept but its application in Russia was a particular application, just as its application in China was different from the Russian instance––both were connected to the concrete realities of these times and places. Indeed, Mao actually has several theoretical pieces about particularizing/regionalizing communism: keeping its universal aspects while creatively applying these universals to particular circumstances.

    So all of this being said, the organization that I support [PCR-RCP] does have a clear idea about what revolution in Canada would look like or, at the very least, how to approach this question. Indeed, it has a programme that developed out of social investigation over a decade and out of the experience of the failure of groups like the WCP and En Lutte, that emerges from doing a serious investigation of the class composition of Canada. It also has argued for a creative and particular application of PPW to the Canadian context, and is engaged in writing a book about this which I think is important: no one really tries to theorize, anymore, just *how* revolution can be accomplished in the global centres. (If you chase down the PCR-RCP links in the pages above, you'll find the programme and the theoretical work that's been translated into english. In particular, I'd also urge you to read the third PWD which is pretty much a manifesto for the founding of the party, though not its programme.)

    Other than that, since I'm just in a group that does mass/support work for the PCR-RCP, I don't think I'm capable of answering all of your questions for several reasons: a) these are questions only a revolutionary organization can fully theorize (and I think the PCR-RCP are theorizing answers to these questions, which is the main reason I was drawn towards supporting them in the first place after years of refusing to support any group, party or pre-party outside of loose movementist groups); b) I think I've tried hard to answer some of the larger questions here in so many other scattered articles on this website.

    Can you be more specific, though, on your question about what is the role for people like us? You mean, in regards to this specific article, about us leftist intellectuals?

  3. I have read with great interest some of the articles and essays you mentioned. Specifically I just finished The Canadian Proletariat and the World Situation: How We Intend To Fight. I thought that it was very good.

    It is indeed unrealistic for me to ask to you succinctly explain your organization's line on PPW in a blog posting. It is also silly of me to look for a pat answer to a question that can only be answered through a lot of study and organizational work. It is also the business of PCR-RCP if it does not want to share its specific plans on the internet. For asking those things in a flip way I apologize.

    But. To my understanding Protracted People's War refers to a concrete set of tactical and strategic military and political goals and methods for accomplishing those goals. I am in favor of protracted struggle, and I believe that there is no other way to bring about the conditions necessary for carrying out fundamental social change. But to call for PPW in conditions like those of Canada strikes me as ungrounded in the realities of the country. Perhaps I speak about things I know nothing about. I am quite sure the leadership of the PCR-RCP knows more about than I do, at any rate.

    To your last point: I do mean what is the role for leftist intellectuals, but I mean it more broadly as well. It could apply to any fraction of the population of Canada. I mean it in the sense of 'how does capital confront my life?' The chaos and violence that suffuses so much of life in the United States is not, in general, reducible to absolute material need. From my perspective it is more useful to talk about stress, emptiness, community disintegration, and deep, everpresent, rage. In short, alienation.

    How can we, in the citadel of capital, have politics and liberation not be about 'other people?'Are the contradictions of life in the rich West not broad enough to allow for the struggles against those contradictions to take place on a similarly broad basis?

    How many people in Canada would it take to carry this thing off? A hundred thousand? A million? Ten million? And would those millions think that they were going to get a raise at the end of it? Or would they fight knowing that they would have to make due with less, having won? But that they might feel more whole. How do you make that proposition to people, and I don't just mean the poor and the oppressed?

    If all this seems to be flirting with autonomism or anarchism, or liberation theology, well that's my history speaking there. But a Leninist who I respect very much asked me these questions that I'm asking you, and he quoted James Boggs when he said that when most (white) American Marxists are asked point-blank 'what is socialism and why should the people struggle for it?' they have a hard time finding an answer. This was not the case for Lenin, or for Mao. They knew, and they would tell you if you could ask them. I believe that the answers they came up with were mostly adequate for their tasks, but that they are not sufficient for ours.

    I'm glad that you are doing what seems to me to be part of the work of determining what is sufficient for our times and our tasks. I hope that you take this in the comradely spirit I mean to give it in.



    1. Of course I find this comradely! (And sorry it took me a bit to respond, but I wanted to reread your comments a few times first.)

      Protracted Peoples War, at least in the way it is understood by the PCR-RCP, is a larger universal category raised against the claim of insurrection-following-protracted-legal-struggle. The argument, as you've already seen since you read the original article in question, is that the insurrection method has failed every time it has been tried and that even the October Revolution was a result of PPW. The tactics as they exist in the developing world would not be used in Canada, but the universal strategy is what is key. Now, I myself am waiting for the party's book on this issue that they've been working for for a long time, which is about looking at what PPW means at the centres of capitalism––particularly Canada.

      Furthermore, PPW can be understood (especially as it emerged through the [failed] PCP experience) as being divided into overlapping moments: strategic defensive, strategic equilibrium, strategic offense. The PCR claims that in Canada we aren't even in the stage of strategic defensive (obviously) and is arguing for a strategy to produce this stage: an accumulation of revolutionary forces and (from what I can tell and what I have experienced) the establishment of various fronts and/or mass organizations. On the one hand waving the red flag to see who falls under it, on the other hand mass work (but not Blanquist mass work) to produce the consciousness necessary for accumulating revolutionary forces. In this regard, and again to mention one of my reasons for being drawn towards them, it is important to note that ever since they founded themselves as a party they have been growing and emerging as a significant "extreme left" force on the Canadian scene. Again, I've written about this at multiple points. (I've also written about the general theory of PPW here, if you haven't seen it already.)

      [As an aside, it is worth noting that the nPCI also pushes a theory of the universality of PPW. The only difference is that they claim that strategic defensive begins the moment the revolutionary party is founded, and thus that they're already in the stage, which to me seems quasi-adventurist.]


    2. (cont. from above)

      Now, as for your other questions...

      I think one of the largest problems at the centres of capitalism is that there is a spirit of opportunism that reigns supreme. And those who even define themselves as communist, especially those who come from a privileged intellectual class, also struggle with this spirit––your friend's statement about how American Marxists have a hard time finding an answer to "what is socialism" is apt. But I would like to suggest that we have a hard time answering this question because, for a long time, we have abdicated our responsibility as leftists and catered to the anti-communism we think is everywhere. As I've said before, when you talk to people who are outside of the mainstream left circles about communism many of them are not hostile––in fact, the normative response is bemusement. "You folks still exist?" Well yes, of course we still exist and the reason the masses, and those who might more readily be drawn to a revolutionary movement don't think we exist, is because we've been hiding in the student movement and the narrow left movementist world.

      But now at this moment of crisis we need to get out there, start agitating amongst the masses and building links, and reclaim our history of building vital revolutionary movements. None of this is to say that we cannot allow for broad movements, and possibly alternate revolutionary lines… As I have argued before, and at multiple times, we have to find a way of being principled without sectarian and, though this seems hard, it actually really isn't. You try to grow as a revolutionary organization and push for revolution and if you aren't doing anything, if you aren't growing in a revolutionary manner, and some other group *is* (that isn't, obviously, some sort of reactionary fascist organization, lol), then you have to maybe consider liquidating your group in their ranks. Unity-struggle-transformation: principled struggle without dogmatism.

      To return to the PCR's call for PPW, we would have to emphasize your comment about the protracted nature. They aren't arguing for some sort of focoist "take to the hills" understanding of PPW; they understand we aren't close to strategic defensive. Instead they're arguing for building a unified revolutionary force that will produce the conditions, eventually, for strategic defensive. The insight comes from this experience: in the 1980s there was a massive Canadian communist ML [quasi Maoist, before there was such a thing as "maoism"] party called the Workers Communist Party. It was really good at building its forces, doing mass work, and creating bases of operation––and in this process, accumulating revolutionary forces. But it made the mistake of following the insurrectionary path: so instead of moving these forces towards a protracted peoples war process, and launching perhaps the phase of strategic defensive (which they might have been able to do), they instead decided to order tons of their members into the ranks of trade unions, etc. to prepare for an insurrection. The end result was the collapse of the WCP: so many of these members, once bound into privileged union leadership positions, left the party––they liked their jobs too much! (I'm simplifying, and there were other factors, but it did break down in the failure of the October Road.) The theory of PPW, at least the way they understand it, comes from this experience.

      Not sure if any of this answers your questions, but I hope you find some of it useful.

    3. Thanks for your answers in depth. It's certainly food for thought.


    4. No problem! Anytime you want to comment, you're more than welcome: these were great interventions.

  4. As regards class analysis, have you tried Erik Olin Wrights idea of 'contradictory class positions'? It may work even for academic people. The term 'intelligentsia' sounds 19th century Russia to me, with a connotion of not only being learned but also taking a moral position and speak out in important social questions even if the government dislikes what you say. How many of this kind do we have today?

    As regards PPW I think (right or wrong) that apart from some ongoing wars in Asia which may succeed, this type of political action belongs to the past. It seems that PLGA in India is quite successful because it rarely uses it military strength. If you ask people in the street of Toronto if they like the idea of a civil war, what will they say?

    1. I haven't read Wright––sounds interesting. I use "intelligentsia" because it is probably the best general category to incorporate students, academics, etc. Just because it sounds 19th century is not a problem: proletariat and bourgeois are old terms and they are still useful.

      Also, I don't think you understand what I mean by PPW and why it's universal. You're focusing on the specific application in particular contexts rather than what the theory itself means, and there is a lot being written on this now. Talking about "civil war" seems to me that you're already jumping ahead to the period of strategic offensive which we're not even close to approaching: a PPW takes in all aspects of struggle surrounding the military aspect and does not, unlike the theory of insurrection (the October Road), think that all we have to do is spend a long period of time waging a protracted legal struggle and then, after a general strike, imagine that the people's will arm themselves and successfully take on the state. Meaning there *will* be a civil war period in any revolution, because the ruling class does not simply just step down, and if we just assume it will happen spontaneously, or just through the insurrectionary method, is theoretically weak. Those of us who argue for PPW also argue that: a) the revolution in Russia was also the result of a protracted peoples war but was not theorized as such; b) every time the method of insurrection has been attempted [aside from the Bolshevik Revolution which was not, we argue in point (a) actually what it was theorized to be] it has failed.

      But if you want to know precisely what we mean by PPW when we speak of it theoretically––which doesn't mean what you have claimed it does––then you should check out this entry where I outlined the theory and also linked to some relevant pieces by the PCR-RCP that is in the process of articulating this theory and how it is applied to the centres of capitalism:

    2. Thanks for taking your time to answer. Suggest you read Olin Wrights book 'Class, crisis and the State'. I used it when I wrote something about white-collar employees in two big Swedish enterprises some years ago.

      Will read your links on PPW and see if I understand the concept better. Maybe the label is wrong if it gives people wrong ideas? Not only outsiders, but also those who claim that they are MLM - the few MLM-people I have encountered here seem to link PPW to civil war.

    3. I don't think the label is wrong because it is taken from Mao's writing on Protracted Peoples War – if people get it wrong, and focus only on civil war, then chances are they haven't been reading what Mao actually wrote in this regard. As for MLM folks getting it wrong, considering how the Revolutionary International Movement asserted that PPW was universal in their statement "Long Live Marxism-Leninism-Maoism!" and did not define it simply as "civil war" [although, to be clear, the stage of strategic offensive will be a civil war] then I'm unsure how this mistake is being made. And you're actually the first person I've encountered who has used this terminology… maybe it's a regional misunderstanding? I don't know.

      I'll check out Wright's book; it sounds interesting.


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