Workers Vanguard No. 953

26 February 2010


Students and Capitalist Society

(Quote of the Week)

A Leninist vanguard party is built through the fusion of the most politically conscious workers with intellectuals who have been won over to the side of the working class. In his 1910 article, “The Intelligentsia and Socialism,” Leon Trotsky examined the role of intellectuals in capitalist society, refuting the view expressed in Austrian Social Democrat Max Adler’s 1910 pamphlet “Socialism and the Intellectuals” that the mass of intellectuals are predisposed to socialism. In particular, Trotsky focused on students, who tend to be polarized to radicalism or reaction under the influence of social struggle, drawing on their differing roles in the defeated European democratic revolutions of 1848.

Among the workers the difference between “fathers” and “sons” is purely one of age. Among the intelligentsia it is not only a difference of age but also a social difference. The student, in contrast both to the young worker and to his own father, fulfils no social function, does not feel direct dependence on capital or the state, is not bound by any responsibilities, and—at least objectively, if not subjectively—is free in his judgment of right and wrong. At this period everything within him is fermenting, his class prejudices are as formless as his ideological interests, questions of conscience matter very strongly to him, his mind is opening for the first time to great scientific generalisations, the extraordinary is almost a physiological need for him. If collectivism is at all capable of mastering his mind, now is the moment, and it will indeed do it through the nobly scientific character of its basis and the comprehensive cultural content of its aims....

Throughout their entire history—in its best, most heroic moments just as in periods of utter moral decay—the students of Europe have been merely the sensitive barometer of the bourgeois classes. They became ultra-revolutionary, sincerely and honourably fraternizing with the people, when bourgeois society had no way out but revolution. They took de facto the place of the bourgeois democratic forces when the political nullity of these prevented them from standing at the head of the revolution, as happened in Vienna in 1848. But they also fired on the workers in June of that same year, in Paris, when bourgeoisie and workers found themselves on opposite sides of the barricade.... Here we have militant idealism—sometimes just like that of a fighting cock—which is characteristic not of a class or of an idea but of an age-group; on the other hand, the political content of this idealism is entirely determined by the historical spirit of those classes from which the students come and to which they return. And this is natural and inevitable.

—Leon Trotsky, “The Intelligentsia and Socialism” (1910)