The function of intellectuals in society and their task in the proletarian revolution - Franz Seiwert and Franz Pfemfert

A debate on "intellectuals". Seiwert, an artist, writes a somewhat incoherent anti-intellectual piece and Pfemfert, editor of Die Aktion responds with a critique.

Franz W. Seiwert
The exploited class breaks down into two groups: the one that supplies the thinking and the other that does the work and for which the thinking is supplied. The functioning of both is restricted by the exploiting class's desire for profit. The group that supplies the thinking - the intellectuals - not only performs the mental work that generates profit via the manual labor of the proletariat but apparently is also the head of the exploiting class, which receives from it its countenance, its culture, and its life. But only apparently, for in reality it is not capable of thinking a thought that is not determined within the frame of the exploiting class, that does not, transformed by the labor of the proletariat, generate profits. Intellectuals cannot perform any mental work that is independent of the exploiters' interests. They are dependents, exploited like the proletariat, who can only - even in their own garden allotments - perform work that functions in the exploiters' interest. The difference is solely that the ruling class allows intellectuals the illusion of belonging to it because their work is so enormously important for the further existence of such a society For it is not only that the intellectuals can perform mental work exclusively for the ruling class, but that they also interfere with the development of the mental capacity of the manual worker by allowing as teachers, journalists, and engineers, through an extremely refined and clever system, only as much of their mental labor to reach the class of manual workers as is necessary for the latter to perform their work in a profit-generating manner. To render any independent thought among the working class impossible, they have already their own language, their own analytical method, which becomes increasingly incomprehensible to the working class. Because, however, mental labor, like all labor in society, can only be performed collectively and is built upon the experiences Of previous generations, the working class is excluded from this collective mental labor because society, language and method has become incomprehensible to it; at the same time the class is denied the knowledge of preceding generations, which, after all, could likewise conveyed only in the language and method that have become incomprehensible. That which is conveyed to the working class is falsified in the sense that it maintains them in the status of a willing beast of burden and legitimates a society devoted to profit.

The goal is set! It may be that it has not yet been attained today and that the hope exists that, as a result of the internal contradictions of the profit society, it will never be attained But it will not be attained only if, in this regard as well as in the struggle over production, the proletariat turns the internal contradictions in society to its own advantage, becomes clear as to its goal, understands its role in society, and gears its actions accordingly. The goal is set, which means that, if social development continues upon its present course, the whole of humanity will be split into two species differing essentially from each other in all respects. The one will develop a giant head swollen in thought as its most essential element; the other will consist essentially only of' hands. Mutually dependent, both will function according to the overall will of a third species, which, headless and handless like a mollusk, encompasses the two and fills its own belly with the fruits of their labors. With that, humanity will have become incapable of fulfilling its mission of changing the earth and the world, and nature will have to give birth to new forces in order to rid itself of the pest of humanity and begin the changing of the world.

"Divide and conquer" - that is the principle that secures for the ruling class its rule over the slaves. It divides the exploited class into a great number of small groups, which it plays off one against the another. [ ...]

The classless society, just as it must transcend the division of humanity into exploited and exploiter, must also transcend the precondition of exploitation, the division into the knowing and unknowing. [...]

It may be that the impossibility of a classless society has until now been determined by economic and historical conditions. Today, however, economic relations all but demand the transcendence of classes and the profit society based upon them. The historical task of intellectuals who are disposed to the proletariat in thought would be to press the phenomenological relativity identified by the bourgeois cultural system to the point where it finds its source in the absolutism of the individual and his relationship to the whole. Those standpoints that lie outside the sphere of my essence as confirmed by my actions must be given up.

Intellectuals disposed to the proletariat have something of supreme importance to accomplish: to give themselves up, just as the proletariat brings about its own disappearance through its revolution.

Because of the many sins committed against the proletariat by the intellectual in bourgeois society - as teacher, scholar, engineer, priest, doctor, judge, party leader, and artist, where the intellectual has always been the defender and legitimator of the society that produces and sustains him - a few factory organizations have barred intellectuals from taking direct part in their organization. This forces workers to refrain from having someone working or thinking for them and instead to attend to their own cause. However, the workers in the factories are thoroughly dependent on the collaboration of intellectuals. Of primary importance is the subversive work of communist intellectuals in the sense mentioned above, which can accomplish the destruction of existing society. But workers need intellectuals as well to transform the capitalist economy and society along proletarian lines for, in the current situation, it is only the intellectuals who are knowledgeable about social relations and expert in the finely tuned mechanics of capitalist economics and production. [...]

The point would be to bring together all intellectuals disposed toward the proletariat: to organize political economists, engineers, and artists. We call on all who are dedicated to advancing the revolution, rather than the creation of positions and formation of a caste of prominent figures, on all who are not merely seeking leadership roles in the proletarian movement, to join together in pursuit of this work that is barred to us individually by the current organization of society.

Franz Pfemfert
Comrade Franz W. Seiwert demands, on the one hand, for all "intellectuals who are disposed toward the proletariat" to give themselves up; on the other, he takes the union of "all intellectuals disposed toward the proletariat" to be absolutely necessary. I would consider both demands wrong, even if they were not mutually exclusive.

The union of all "proletarian-thinking intellectuals" - that would be roughly, the contrary of those factory organizations that seek to exclude intellectuals from actively participating in the social revolution.

The separation of mental from manual workers has, from the side of the exploiting class, been systematically instituted in the interest of the rule of capitalism; indeed, the types - exclusively mental and exclusively manual workers - only arose in the context of class society. One of the first and most vital acts of the approaching storm of social transformation must be to tear down the wall separating them and to unify all exploited persons in the service of the new, communist order - not the mobilization of the manual proletarians against the mental proletarians!

The distrust of proletarians awakening to class consciousness toward their previous "leaders" is thoroughly understandable, and in the thirteen years of its existence, Die Aktion has appealed over and over to this mistrust. Nowhere has the struggle against the prosperity hyenas been conducted more relentlessly than here. And, in particular, it was the parasites from the camp of intellectuals who have been pilloried and pilloried. But precisely for that reason I am justified and obligated in saying here: the way Comrade Franz W. Seiwert and the way all of the comrades in the factory organizations pose the question and attempt to answer it is not how it must be posed and not where an answer is to be sought if the victory of the revolution is not to be delayed and altogether endangered!

It is not proletarian but petit-bourgeois to treat the intellectuals themselves, the mental workers themselves as inferior beings! Because scoundrels, corruptible creatures, unprincipled lumpen, climbers, toadies, and shameless revolutionary careerists are to be found in abundance among the intellectuals? Because the majority of the mental workers are still in the camp of the exploiters?

Take a look, if you will, among the ranks of the traitorous leadership before you venture to cast stones (or filth) at the intellectuals themselves. Spartacus, Christ, Florian Geyer, Voltaire, Buddha, Marx, Engels, Bakunin, Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, and Lenin were intellectuals; [Gustav] Landauer, [Leo] Jogisches, and [Eugen] Leviné were intellectuals; Erich Mühsam is an intellectual, and Max Hölz! Proletarians, workers, however, are [Friedrich] Ebert, [Philipp] Scheldemann, [Gustav] Noske, [Carl] Severing, [Otto] Bauer, [Carl] Legien, [Heinrich] Brandler, et al. [Otto Emil] Runge, the murderer of Liebknecht, was a worker, the mercenaries who put themselves voluntarily in the service of Noske's bloody work in November 1918 were primarily workers. Manual workers, exploited wage slaves, continue to form the primary line of defense of the bourgeoisie against the revolutionary proletariat.

To the extent that intellectuals have not recognized (or willfully refuse to accept) that they are also among the exploited in the present social order, that they are wage slaves just like the manual worker, and that intellectuals remain in the camp of the class enemy, they are to be judged like the manual workers who still stand on the other side of the barricades. But - and this is the decisive point - not because they are intellectuals, but because they are on the other side! We should be trying to awaken them to class consciousness, precisely, as we do with manual workers who remain captive to bourgeois ideologies.

If however, mental workers have come to acknowledge their class position, if they have freed themselves of the bonds of capitalist thinking, if they wish to Join the struggle against the exploiting class - should they then be treated as second-class soldiers? Why? Because they have occupied themselves with intellectual things? Because they know how to think methodically? Because, as engineers scholars, doctors, writers, mathematicians, etc., they have distanced themselves from the, parasitic class, generally having burned more bridges in doing so than the manual worker who has arrived at the conviction of his class mission - for that, degradation.- Desecrate intellect?

The communist social order for which we are struggling will be founded upon the absolute equality of duties and rights for all working people - or it will not be.

First published as "Die Funktion der Intellektuellen in der Gesellschaft und ihre Aufgabe in der proletarischen Revolution," Die Aktion 13, nos 21-22 (June 14, 1923), 281-285. Taken from the Antagonism website.