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East European Perspectives: December 12, 2001

12 December 2001, Volume 3, Number 22
Intellectuals And Politics -- The Case Of Slovenia (Part I)

By Rudolf M. Rizman

"Intellectuals are key democratic agents as they stimulate informed discussion about pressing social problems, fulfilling this role by cultivating civility in public life and promoting the subversion of restrictive common sense." (Goldfarb, 1998, p. 1)

The departure from socialism and the initiation of a democratic transition was most probably, and with very rare exceptions, the monumental work of intellectuals. By saying this, we do not by any means intend to diminish the credit of other social groups in ending single-party rule. The cynical remark that only intellectuals are qualified to write their own version of recent history has a limited value in this regard. The pronounced role of intellectuals in the "great transformation" could well be one of the crucial defining characteristics valid for most -- not all -- of the transitions in Eastern and Central Europe. The link between intellectuals and democracy was not, however, a matter of mere contingency. In general, one can argue that intellectuals can help the public to discuss social problems openly and systematically. Another important dimension is that they can facilitate the development of a more civilized political argument (Goldfarb, 1998, p. 1).

Politically active intellectuals in the socialist states of Eastern and Central Europe thus substantially contributed to the opening of public spaces and the eventual demise of essentially undemocratic regimes. It can probably be argued that where this was not the case, the collapse of the authoritarian regime was accompanied by the use of sheer violence, leading to bloodshed (as happened, for example, in Romania). This does not make intellectuals, least of all scholars among them, into deities. Scholars were, like everybody else, astonished to see the sudden and unanticipated domino-style collapse of communism. But when that happened, they immediately knew who deserved the credit.

But such awareness was not the close-guarded secret of intellectuals. There were three main things that the former authoritarian rulers feared: first, they feared each other --hence the repeated (violent at first, more "civilized" later, if this was possible) "purges" within the party; second, they had a paranoiac suspicion of "foreign enemies;" last, but by no means least, they were apprehensive of nonconformist intellectuals. Even when intellectuals claimed that they were powerless -- for example, Vaclav Havel and Jacek Kuron (the latter by his famous saying: "What is to be done, when nothing can be done?" (Bernik, 1997, p. 74) -- this carried a strong moral message about the humanly unacceptable reality in the societies in which these intellectuals lived. Such statements not only mobilized other concerned intellectuals, but also influenced other strata as to the root causes of the grave social conditions.

Here one should mention the much exaggerated warnings by such prominent sociologists as Hungarians George Konrad and Ivan Szeleny (1979), but also American Alvin Gouldner (1979), about the transformation of intellectuals into a "new class," which received the deserved critique of American sociologist Daniel Bell. (1980). However, even in those darkest, almost unbearable social conditions, there were intellectuals who did not betray their role, asking in what way they could contribute to bring about democracy. Notwithstanding the sociological fact that intellectuals very often express uncertainty about their own identity -- which is not a common behavioral characteristic of other social groups -- one cannot ignore that even when so doing, they engaged in a specific performance of their role as indispensable players in the pursuit of democracy.

Non-Conformist Intellectuals And The Communist Regime

Neither were the rulers convinced that intellectual lamentations about powerlessness could bring them peaceful slumber. When in the late 1960s public opinion surveys in Slovenia showed that the educated stratum (intellectuals), rather than the holders of positions of authority, enjoyed the highest average prestige, as should have been expected from the established "political correctness," the Central Committee demanded that the person responsible for the research be punished and replaced. This was one of the main reasons that the Communist leaders tried hard to "solve" this problem by co-opting intellectuals into the Communist Party, where they could function as neither more nor less than as part of the amorphous "working class," in which they would be defined merely as "intellectual workers." Not all the intellectuals, however, were nonconformists and it would be mistaken to idealize the category in a moral sense, that is, to use any value-laden denominator for their typical stands in this regard. Some were easily corrupted by the former regime, and not so rarely some well-known intellectuals even helped (notwithstanding their either "good" or "bad" intentions) entrench the essentially undemocratic political system.

From a short-term perspective, it was, of course, rewarding -- and many intellectuals were not at all ashamed of that -- to renounce autonomous critical thinking in exchange for certain material and non-material rewards (privileges, leading functions, awards, medals, and the like). In the long run, however, this was counterproductive for the regime itself: it only further generated a general awareness among intellectuals, as well as among other groups, of the corruption and moral perversity of the old regime. This is, to cite Polish sociologist Jerzy Jedlicki (1995, p. 34), one of the reasons that the intelligentsia in the post-Communist period so often "cultivates the art of forgetting rather than the art of remembering." The same author is also correct in stating that many writers, artists, historians and philosophers had succumbed to totalitarian temptations, and in asking, "How many well-known names were inscribed, in the Stalinist years, on the list of shame, not of glory?" On the other hand, if the "carrot" did not end up working -- and one should admit that often the choice was not available at all -- then the "stick" was eventually applied: take, for example, the long prison terms of Milovan Djilas, Vaclav Havel, and Adam Michnik. In this regard the political oligarchs of the day, for "preventive" reasons, erred more on the side of excess than not.

In fact, nonconformist intellectuals represented a relatively small minority, one rather easily monitored by the regime's security apparatus. Most of the educated stratum seemed content with the role of the so-called "silent majority," one which nevertheless intimately felt that an intellectual "vanguard" was in actual fact also defending their own interests when that "vanguard" was demanding that professional autonomy must be guarded against the paternalistic attempts of the party-state to reduce and eventually abolish any vestige of intellectual independence (Bernik, 1994). The "silent majority" was not as passive as the name would imply: from the regime's point of view, it also involved risks, because it was not always clear how far and deep the ideas of individual nonconformist intellectuals had penetrated within the larger intellectual group, and what networks within this group were providing "logistics" and sanctuary for "the independents'" activities. The party ideologues allusively "reminded" intellectuals that they do not have to engage in manual labor for their daily survival, which seemed quite a "convincing argument" for many in an allegedly "socialist" society. Even the intellectuals themselves found it difficult to reject this idea outright and disregard its possible punitive consequences. In a way, the cunning party demagogues succeeded in their aim: on one hand, they "got" the working class on their side, and on the other, they succeeded in inoculating a feeling of "guilt" among the intellectuals themselves. Quite a number of them well understood the "message" and were willing to extol Communist ideology to the skies to pay the ransom for the fact that their hands did not get dirty. Later on, Communist ideology softened such stands, although its more sophisticated language in this respect still included the understanding that "intellectuals" were, overall, privileged and should be grateful to "society," (i.e. the Party), for it.

It is important to note, however, that different socialist regimes treated differently their respective nonconformist intellectuals. In Bulgaria, Romania, and Albania, any intellectual heresy was more or less unimaginable and efficiently crushed upon its initial emergence. On the other hand, in countries such as Hungary, Poland, and Yugoslavia (Slovenia), the regimes tolerated some limited autonomy of intellectual thinking and acting, and eventually engaged into a direct or indirect dialogue with them and even appropriated or implemented some of their ideas (or did both). Slovene sociologist Lev Kreft (1998) systematically researched the dynamics and evolution of the relationship between the regime and the intellectual opposition in Slovenia in general, focusing on the case of the monthly "Perspektive" in particular. Differing practices in the region later greatly influenced the modes of transition towards democracy (Bernik, 1994, pp. 133-134). Where nonconformist intellectual activities were totally nonexistent due to instant suppression, the accumulated tensions culminated in an outburst of mass protests which mercilessly swept away the old elite and replaced it with a seemingly new one. In the second case, one could see the gradual emergence of democratic political institutions alongside the parallel emergence of a new political elite.

The ultimate stand of intellectuals towards a regime -- for or against it -- is not, or at least should not be, the only criterion for measuring their social role. Their options are many (strictly sociologically speaking, they surpass those of any other social group, including the ruling elite) and vary within different social and cultural contexts, not to mention the historically embedded opportunities. Tismaneanu (1998, p. 155) cautioned against too hastily drawing lines in this regard. He is correct that intellectuals remain politically important in both respects: that is, when they identify the values which support civic visions of the public good, advocate individualism, rationalism, and modernity in general, as well as when they articulate the ideals of an organic community, and overemphasize national symbols or idolatry of blood, soil and ancestry. It can be easily seen that intellectuals have influenced their social milieu in either a positive or negative manner, both during the most repressive times as well as in times of democratic transition, and that as a consequence a critical investigation is required of the implications of their manifest, as well as their latent functioning in a society.

Having said all this, I nevertheless agree with British historian Timothy Garton Ash, a qualified witness and analyst of these turning-point events, when he dubs the demise of Communism and the beginning of democratic transitions a "revolution of intellectuals" (Garton Ash, 1990). He was, of course, speaking in the plural, because the modalities of intellectual involvement and their share in the revolutionary process differed from one country to another. Garton Ash was, of course, aware that intellectuals were not the only determining factor in these processes, and that, moreover, they were themselves surprised in most cases that the great change, although desired, came about sooner than expected. Here I leave the reader with the unanswered puzzle or paradox concerning the earlier-mentioned fact that scholars (that is, intellectuals) in the former socialist countries did not anticipate the collapse of the old regime, although they had played such a prominent role in its collapse. One of the feasible solutions of the paradox might be found in the complex and uncertain nature of social processes that scholars (sociologists, political scientists, and others) are faced with. Intellectuals in general (and the intelligentsia in particular) in Eastern and Central Europe often played the role of "agents of great transformations," that is, of as a "class" of distinguished people never at ease with the existing state of affairs in their respective society, without necessarily being aware of the social role they were playing.

The "revolutionary" role of intellectuals in the pre- and post-1989 era is, however, not a unique or unprecedented sociological case in history, as is often wrongly assumed. Seymour Martin Lipset, in "The First New Nation" (1963), produces a list of features distinguishing the new United States polity from old polities, and on that list two relevant characteristics mentioned by the American politologist are: the forging of a new national identity and the role of intellectuals in politics. In his view, intellectuals in the U.S. played an indispensable role in fashioning the constitution, the structures of federalism, and the separation of powers. Lipset was referring to intellectuals and political theorists like Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and (John) Adams.

Although the author did not intend to suggest that the new nations in the 20th century would necessarily recapitulate the American experience, he nevertheless suggested that intellectuals in the most recently established new states had played the roles of innovators and agents of social change. The ideas Lipset had in mind in this respect were those of nationhood, democracy, and equality. This established sociological pattern was, no doubt, also evident in a number of the new states that emerged after the break-up of the Communist multinational empires, not the least among them being Slovenia.

Intellectuals As 'Producers' Of New Reality

As in the U.S., Slovenian intellectuals played a foremost role in shaping the new national awareness, in debates on the country's new constitution and in preparing the ground for political pluralism, that is to say, in the formation of new, democratic political parties. Comparisons, on the other hand, also offer an opportunity to acknowledge deviations from the pattern. Here we will mention only two relevant differences. The first difference may be considered a disadvantage, while the second tells something about the positive novelty of democratic achievements in the world. The intellectuals struggling within Communist and post-Communist frameworks, roughly speaking, formally matched some of the sociological attributes of the above-mentioned American historical figures, except in one important detail: while the Slovene were all intellectuals and later pragmatic politicians as well, they had never been "businessmen" and "landlords." This structural characteristic did not appertain only to intellectuals, but applied to all the strata of a former "socialist" society that had excluded the notion of private property as a substantial and legitimate social classification category. This, among other things, may explain why politically-engaged intellectuals in the post-Communist aftermath often have difficulties in connecting their (sometimes splendid) ideas with transparent and socio-economically rooted interests. The second difference resides in the fact that nonconformist intellectuals, both in the old regime and after its demise, did not have to discover "great" and genuinely "new" ideas. Such ideas were already available, if one were to only mention human rights and the modern notions about the (pre)requisites of democracy and its constituent characteristics. Although quite a few analysts of the events of 1989 blamed intellectual "revolutionaries" for deficits as far as "new ideas" were concerned, I am inclined to agree with Garton Ash (2000, pp. 397-398), who drew attention to a probably more important fact: namely, that those intellectual "revolutionaries" had nevertheless produced a "new reality." Moreover, continues Garton Ash, their important contribution to the recent history is their "discovery" of a "non-revolutionary revolution, the evolutionary revolution," a revolution of thinking and acting that was not so much, if at all, about "what," but about "how."

At this point we need to clarify the concepts of "intelligentsia" and "intellectuals," respectively, that we have used thus far. The concept of intelligentsia was originally imported from Germany at the beginning of the 19th century, and developed its specific social and political contents, first in Russia and Poland, and later in other parts of Eastern and Central Europe. The concept is related to the educated class and was defined in a positive, value-charged sense, as referring to a cohesive group that, by its nature, resists any unjust power. Most definitions of "intellectuals" go beyond an all-too-common and narrow understanding of this group as being made up by people who merely can claim some high educational credentials. That is insufficient, for most definitions also stipulate that in order to be an "intellectual" one's complex knowledge somehow has to be linked to a critical attitude towards the existing social and political order. The group as a whole, and its individual members, are thus characterized by a proclivity to see political and social issues as moral ones, which includes potential sacrifices for what it believes in. Moreover, the intellectuals' "chosen mission" and moral authority are said to lead them to a sense of guilt and personal responsibility, if matters in society or at the national level are not as proper as they should be. All these attributes secure for intellectuals unusual attention in this part of the world, in whatever they do or do not do; in most cases they are treated with deep reverence, and people invest in them, particularly at critical times, in their high hopes and expectations. If there exists anything like a "collective charisma," then this epithet should, no doubt, be stuck to them. This is what was meant in Russia and Poland when using the term "intelligentsia," while in the former Czechoslovakia (and, I would add, in Slovenia), the same attributes were believed to be those of "intellectuals." (Bjorling, 1995, pp. 8-9).

Of course, one cannot leave aside the obvious question: why intellectuals and not someone else? First, because no polity, even the most totalitarian, can function without some reliance upon the "knowledge complex" and its more or less continuous production and diffusion in the society. Pol Pot's Cambodia tried hard to prove the opposite, but, as we know, this inhuman "experiment" did not survive its authors. A second, and, for our purpose, more relevant answer, rests in the fact that, where organized opposition political activity is suppressed, the intellectuals remain as the only social group that disposes of the means and knowledge to articulate the ideas of a free society and advance them. In this sense, we can speak of a long tradition of political engagement of "men of letters" in Eastern and Central Europe, as well as, of course, beyond this region.

In "liberal" Communist regimes we should also take note of a third answer, namely that the growing aspirations of intellectuals, who (regardless of the preceding state of affairs) were encouraged by the relative improvement in economic, political, and social conditions in the former regime, and went on to demand further change. Due to internal or external constraints, those "liberal" regimes were unable or unwilling to respond. One can easily notice abundant empirical evidence for this approach (see, for example, Bernik and Fabjancic, 1998).

The intellectuals were, however, far from being a compact and homogeneous group. The former regime knew well how to exploit the fact that not all intellectuals and, generically speaking, the disciplines with which they were associated had the same critical attitude. For example, the "technical" intelligentsia did not, by and large, represent a threat to the regime, and there were indeed not that many in its ranks who would dare criticize this or that contentious aspect of political power. The rulers, in turn, did not much care about the technical intelligentsia's ideological profile, or about its political views, provided these were not expressed in public. It was completely another matter with intellectuals coming from the humanistic and social sciences. The so-called "creative intelligentsia" (see Shafir, 1981), usually consisted of philosophers, writers, sociologists (political scientists among them were rather rare), journalists, and artists. These were (or are) members of the educated strata, who had more chances and were better qualified to articulate dissatisfaction with existing social conditions than had those belonging to other intellectual professions -- not to mention "common" people. In order to construct an elementary autonomy and rid themselves of political control over their professional activities, they had to discover new ways within the given constraints of single-party rule to be able to convey their problems to a wider public audience.

The author is professor of sociology at the University of Ljubljana.


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