U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“New Class” Thinking and Historiography

I am curious what our readers make of “new class” thinking. Is it a legitimate way of theorizing about the place of intellectuals in our postmodern, postindustrial society? Or is it anti-intellectual nonsense, an updated version of Julian Benda’s La Trahison des Clercs?

In my research on the culture wars, I credit the popularization of “new class” thinking to the neoconservatives. Out of their political repositioning, they developed a critical theory about a so-called “new class” of intellectuals, broadly defined to include all professionals tasked with manipulating language—although more narrowly applied to humanists and social scientists. Most members of this “new class,” so the theory went, had turned their backs on the society to which they owed their high-ranking status. A private memorandum written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan for his boss President Nixon in 1970 exemplified this withering mode of criticism: “No doubt there is a struggle going on in this country of the kind the Germans used to call a Kulturkampf. The adversary culture which dominates almost all channels of information transfer and opinion formation has never been stronger, and as best I can tell it has come near silencing the representatives of traditional America.”

In this sense, “new class” thinking seems more ideological than analytical, consistent with the anti-intellectual histrionics of Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck, amusingly portrayed by David Bromwich in his recent New York Review of Books piece, “The Rebel Germ.” Bromwich describes how Limbaugh mockingly portrays Democrats as the party of wimpish intellectuals—updating the egghead label applied to early Cold War era Democrats like Adlai Stevenson and his followers—“composed of superannuated aristocrats [and] pretentious arrivistes…” If this is the sole meaning of the “new class,” then there’s nothing much new about it. But plenty of historians and other intellectuals think the concept analytically useful.

Take Christopher Lasch’s biographer Eric Miller, who buys into Alvin Gouldner’s argument about the “new class,” made in his 1982 book, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. In a passage cited by Miller to explain Lasch’s early theories about society, Gouldner writes that a “new class” intellectual “desacralizes authority-claims and facilitates challenges to definitions of social reality made by traditional authorities…” Miller continues, in his own disapproving words:

The unintended effect of this way of seeing was on the one hand to diminish the individual’s sense of agency while on the other to empower the individual to think of herself as subject to no authority beyond the particular, socially constructed, historically contingent institutions of her own circumstance. In the end, social-science-inspired historiography only buttressed a vision of the world in which humans, while shaped by powerful social structures, were morally on their own and finally responsible to no authority higher than their own. The atomizing, antinomian tendencies latent in this individualistic ideology did not bode well for communitarian political hopes—such as those that were fueling Lasch’s nascent historical work and political vision (72-73).

In other words, paradoxically, the early Lasch, and “new class” thinkers like him, laid the groundwork for postmodernism in their dismissal of traditional structures of intellectual authority. I say paradoxically because the later, communitarian Lasch worked so hard to put the pieces of traditional structures of intellectual authority back together. I also say paradoxically because the later Lasch used “new class” thinking in both its political and analytical senses, especially in The True and Only Heaven (1991) and The Revolt of the Elites (1995).

So which is it? (I ask somewhat rhetorically, knowing one does not preclude the other.)

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew,

    Your comment that Benda’s La Trahison des Clercs can be equated to “anti-intellectual nonsense” seems debatable at best, or reductionist at worst. Even the ever-questionable Wikipedia entry you cite acknowledges that while
    Benda was clearly partisan, his rejection of the anti-reason/irrationality/reason-gone-wrong of the right in his period has inspired some 20th century left-wing thinkers (e.g. Chomsky). Now I don’t want defend Benda’s “sensibleness” too much. I only want to assert that, contextually, he wasn’t nonsensical. Anyone who spoke out against Maurras and the Action Francais folks receives a certain kudos in my book.

    Now, to speak of more recent American history, what seems interesting to me is that neoconservatives represent something of the very class of French and German intellectuals Benda himself lamented as treasonous (1970s neoconservatives being pro-war, lamenting reason contrary to their own, giving up on the real socio-cultural accomplishments of liberalism). The Neocons compromised their intellectual independence/honesty to support Nixon, Reagan, etc. This partisan ideology associated with their thinking seems to go to your connection between “new class” thinking and Beck, Limbaugh, etc.

    As for the applications to Lasch, well, at this point the whole Trahison des clercs meme has gone topsy-turvy.

    – TL

  2. I haven’t done much reading here, but didn’t some early 20th century european ‘theory of the elites’ thinking make it into the US through the mediation of trotskyists turned anti-communists? the person i’ve read here is james burnham, writing in the 1940s and after–certainly by the early 1960s he was writing about the evils of the liberal intellectual. this is basically intellectual anti-intellectualism (not too different from maurras, actually), and in burnham’s case it came out of left theories of the rise of the bureaucrats as a new class.

    the interesting slide is between critiques of a ‘new class’ of essentially bureaucratic language specialists, and genuine populist anti-intellectualism. the two do not, it seems to me, naturally or necessarily go together. maybe they fit together only in the context of american democratic rhetoric?

  3. Andrew–
    I think Eric’s right about the origins of “new class” thought–like “political correctness,” it was a term of the Marxist left taken up by the conservative right, at least indirectly through figures like Burnham and other ex-communists. The idea of of a “professional managerial class” of knowledge workers who were detached from immediate ownership of the means of production lent itself to right critiques of intellectual elites, and dovetailed with American brands of populist anti-intellectualism. See:

    Barbara and John Ehrenreich, “The Professional-Managerial Class,” Radical America, Part 1, 11 (March-April 1977): 7-31; Part 2, 11 (May-June 1977): 7-22

    Jean-Christophe Agnew, “A Touch of Class,” democracy 3 (Spring 1983):59-72

    Interesting post! I would add that it’s nice to see all the interesting activity going on on this site in the last couple of weeks.


  4. The first sighting of the “new class” that I remember, though not as that phrase, was in Bakunin’s God and the State. It may have come to the U.S. through Trotskyists, I don’t know, but I think of the concept as one first applied by anarchists to Marxists.

  5. See also –

    Stephen Schryer, “Fantasies of the New Class: The New Criticism, Harvard Sociology, and the Idea of the University,” PMLA 122, 3, 2007. Schryer suggests that Gouldner, in The Future of Intells, 1979, predicted that a new class of professionals would supersede the bourgeoisie — just at the time when Reaganism came along to re-center society in the business class, end the welfare state, etc. He predicted the coming of something that was already on its way out.

    Charles Kurzman and Lynn Owens, “The Sociology of Intellectuals,” Annual Review of Sociology 28, 2002, 63-90. This is a helpful review of literature on intellectuals.

    James J. Chriss, “Gouldner’s Tragic Vision,” The Sociological Quarterly 43, 1, 2002, 81-96; and his Alvin W. Gouldner: Sociologist and Outlaw Marxist. Ashgate, 1999.

    Silvia Pedraza, “A Sociology for Our Times: Alvin Gouldner’s Message,” The Sociological Quarterly 43,1, 2002, 73-79.

    Philip Rieff, ed, On Intellectuals. Anchor, 1969, epsecially the essay by J.P.Nettl.

    Ralf Dahrendorf, Class and Class Conflict in Modern Society, 1959.

    Did any of the marxists draw on Auguste Comte or Saint Simon? How about Max Weber’s rationalization thesis?

    Bill Fine

  6. Taking off from your final paragraph, Andrew, your observation reminds me of the kind of dilemma that Susan Sontag seemed to be in during the late 1970s. She had done much to deflate the somewhat pompous air of moral authority in literary criticism that had reigned, according to her, since the late 19th century only to find that her insight into “new sensibility” had been highjacked by yahoos!

    As early as 1974 she began recanting many of the ideas that had made her famous. “Art that seemed eminently worth defending ten years ago as a minority or adversary taste, no longer seems defensible today,” Sontag declared, “because the ethical and cultural issues it raises have become serious, even dangerous, in a way they were not then. The hard truth is that what may be acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established.”

  7. Thanks for all of the great bibliographic suggestions everyone. At some point I think I’d like to write an article on the strange career of “new class” thinking. I’m very aware of its left-wing origins, by the way, but it was not something very many people spoke about outside Greenwich Village until the neocons (through Burnham and Trilling) got ahold of the concept.

    Tim, give a blogger a little leeway to be hyperbolic! Cheers.

  8. Justin Vaïse, in Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement (Cambridge: Harvard, 2010) (which has been much praised and which I’m just beginning to work through) lists new class theories as one of the “Seven Pillars of Neoconservative Wisdom” that helped define the first of the three “ages” of neoconservatism that structure his history of neoconservatism.

  9. Andrew: My apologies if the first comment seemed too contradictory (or oppositional for its own sake). Read that comment more as ~my insecurity~ about a topic (modern European intellectual history) that I wish I could review more regularly. – Tim

  10. Great post Andrew. Three thoughts that echo a number of the comments above.

    First, I was reminded of Lasch’s little footnote in the introduction to the New Radicalism where he cites Weber to claim that we should more properly refer to the “intellectual as social type” as a new status group rather than a new class. It seems like the oscillations between conceptualizing class and status group are particularly fraught in the U.S., due to the fuzzy ideologies of class in relation to more traditional Marxian interpretations of Europe (commence “why is there no socialism in the US debate now”). On this issue, your post reminded me of a recent intriguing piece on the midterm elections, in which Jack Metzgar argued that the Democratic rhetoric of “middle class” actually works against the way that many people self-identify as “working class” and hear the middle class label as a put down (http://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/the-democrats-and-social-classes/). I’m also reminded of Mark Greif’s recent essay about Bourdieu in the New York Times in connection with a new book he’s involved with about the “death of the hipster”: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/books/review/Greif-t.html. Here again, with Bourdieu and the whole constellation of interpretations about taste, distinction, and cultural capital (the very term itself!), we are moving into interpretations over class fractions that suggest how carefully we need to think about the differences and the overlap between class and status group as interpretive categories.

    Second, the bibliographic turn in the comments made me think a lot about Gramsci, whose trendiness among lefty academics has faded a bit, but who brought such a rich new way of conceptualizing intellectuals to American cultural and political analysis (and whose theories have also was taken up by radicals turned neo-cons).

    Finally, what’s funny about the paradox you so sharply note is that I always understood the interest in “new class” theory to be that it renewed hopes for the bonds of communitarian solidarity to flourish again, as technicians and clerks and engineers became, productively speaking, closer to the old working class and less connected to the bourgeoisie. So there’s still more of a puzzle to work out here, to my mind, about communitarian desires and politics in the “postmodern” context of Lasch’s time—and our own.


  11. Dear Michael and others:

    I’m just returning from a much-needed holiday. Thanks so much for reading the post, and for all of your insightful comments and bibliographic suggestions. I just added several of the suggestions to my list of must-reads.

    I agree with the thread of the comment that new class thinking has become in some ways peculiar to US intellectual history because of all of the slippages in categorization, i.e. class versus status, working class versus middle class, etc. There’s a lot to unpack here, as they say. Cheers.

  12. Did any of the marxists draw on Auguste Comte or Saint Simon?
    Isn’t it accurate to say Saint Simon was a founding French socialist, influencing both Marx and Comte? In particular, he hoped for a science of politics and believed in science as an engine of social (not just material) progress, and called for a new (utopian) social order (more or less imposed from above, onto society, arguably pre-saging “social engineering”). These were pivot points for Marx, who did not so much follow Saint Simon but played off him (Marx was anti-utopian, for instance). Or am I misreading my reading?

Comments are closed.