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Bruce Bucknell

Former British Deputy High Commissioner Kolkata

Part of UK in Minsk

6th September 2013

Readers’ questions: Intelligentsia or chattering classes?

What are your thoughts on the concept of intelligentsia? 

– Alena Belausava

Alena:  thank you for your question.  I liked it because it sparked my curiosity.  I wondered if we have a similar term.  So I had a brief splash around in the shallows of the internet to research the idea.  I’ve come up with a British version, but I’m not sure it matches up to “intelligentsia”.

I’m quite struck by the ambivalence around the term “intelligentsia”.  If I understand correctly, the term originated in the nineteenth century in Russia to describe those in society who earned their living from mental, rather than physical, labour.  I know that’s another “gladwellian simplification”.  But the definition seems to have fluctuated over time:  sometimes covering a wider range of people, including lawyers and other professions, sometimes a narrower range of writers and other “thinkers”.

There are connotations.  I know that Lenin and others, sometimes used it pejoratively as intelligentsia weren’t “productive” in the material sense (and in Soviet times, even the intelligentsia had to serve the proletariat revolution).  Earlier, as used by Marx and other 19th century thinkers, the term was more neutral:  intelligentsia as purveyors of culture.

I don’t think it’s unique to any society that “thinkers” are sometimes lionised, and sometimes persecuted.  There are many anti-intellectual traditions.  But as often as not, the anti-intellectuals or anti-intelligentsia are often themselves thinkers and intellectuals.

And who decides who is part of any “intelligentsia” or not?  Can you define yourself as “intelligentsia”?  I discern the tendency to use the term “intelligentsia” as a way of stigmatizing an individual or group for their intelligence.  That seems to be the essence of the debate over the value of an “intelligentsia”.

I don’t think Britain is so different.

We have a very strong tradition of empiricism.  We tend to believe, understand and accept what we observe for ourselves, or what can be proven from the facts.  Our most important philosophers from the 17th century, above all John Locke, embedded this is in our culture.

The flip side to this is that we also have a long history of scepticism.  As we much prefer an idea that can be proven by fact, we tend to be wary of the elaboration of theory that is logical or based on pure reason.  This is probably the greatest difference of our philosophical tradition from that of our near neighbours, the French.

We will repeatedly question, until we are assured one way or the other on an issue.  Our Parliament still embodies the best of that questioning tradition, as anyone who has access to BBC Parliament can observe for themselves.

Like other nations, Britons can be suspicious of cleverness and intelligence.  We sometimes say others are “too clever by half” or “too clever for their own good”.  Intelligence on its own is not much use, unless it can be applied.  We all need to have wisdom and good judgement to know when we should use our intelligence, and when we should be careful of what appear to be the intelligent, right answers.

Our tradition of scepticism is generally benign (though our print media often gives a very different impression).  A journalist on the right (as in “political right”) came up with the “chattering classes” to describe political opponents.  This dates from the time Lady Thatcher was Prime Minister.  I think the idea was to depict them as idle, chatterers who speak, but don’t actually do or produce anything, or who criticised from the sidelines on the difficult decisions that Lady Thatcher’s government had taken.

The term has become more of an endearment than an insult.  We tend to use it to describe highly educated, liberal and (usually) London-resident people who work in the media, cultural or creative industries.  But there is no sense that the “chattering classes” are a threat, or should be controlled.  If anything, the chattering classes are there to be argued with.

Of course, my country is very lucky to have a long history of continuity.  We are the country of evolution not revolution.  We long gave up persecuting heretics of any sorts.  That wasn’t the case in the early part of the 20th century in the Soviet Union.

There are many other examples of the persecution of thinkers – perhaps the first classical example was the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, who was sentenced to death for his criticism of the Athenian state (although I think the exact reason is not known).  But the loss or persecution of so many artists and other members of the intelligentsia in the earlier Soviet period was a tragedy for all mankind.


When I began this blog, I briefly mentioned Chekhov as being better known in Britain than Pushkin.  We have an especial affinity for the plays of Anton Pavlovich.  It’s unusual for one of his works not to be performed somewhere in Britain.  While the melodrama of Nina’s hysteria now feels dated, Uncle Vanya’s meticulous accounting, or Olga, Masha and Irina’s chatter and jealousies or the Ranevksy-Gayev family’s feeble attempts to hang on to their country property still resonate and entertain.

But Chekhov was much more than a playwright, or even a short story writer.  He travelled extensively in the Russian empire and embraced the cause of prison reform.  He continued to practise as a doctor despite his own tuberculosis.  He engaged in the debates of his day and supported other writers when they had problems with the imperial authorities.

Within his work, he portrayed life and characters as he saw them.  His satirising of the philistinism of Russian rural life, the fantasies of students and longing of regret of landed gentry were imbued with a strong sympathetic humanism.  I think he would have abhored the compromises that Maxim Gorki, for example, made with the Soviet regime, but I suspect Chekhov would have forgiven his fellow writer.

For me, Chekhov is the epitome of intelligentsia – socially and politically engaged, questioning, a great writer and humanist.  If alive today, I’m sure his contribution to public debate on a range of issues would be worth reading.  Is there anyone today to compare to Chekhov?

About Bruce Bucknell

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016. Bruce grew up on a…

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016.

Bruce grew up on a farm in southern England and enjoys walking in the countryside and visiting wild places.

He studied modern history at Durham University, and takes a keen interest in the history of the places he visits.

Bruce used to play cricket when he could see the ball. Now he enjoys watching cricket and many other sports in his spare time.

He has had a varied career in the Foreign Office. Between his postings to Amman (1988-91), Milan (1995-9) and Madrid (2003-7), he has spent much of his career in London mostly dealing with Europe and Africa.

He is married with two grown up sons.