You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Hard Times for the Intellectuals

In 1937, Walter Kotschnig published a book with the prosaic title of Unemployment in the Learned Professions. It was a survey, country by country, of the plight of those with higher learning, and it described the political tensions that flowed from their frustrations.

For the past 16 years, in the United States at least, those frustrations were abated. Job opportunities swelled hugely in government; when these contracted the universities opened wide; new opportunities were provided by the largess of the foundations. And yet, as always, the intellectuals were apprehensive. It was said of them that when they voted for Stevenson they voted their class interests. The recent budget cutting of the Eisenhower administration proves how apt was that remark. For the first time in their history the American intelligentsia, and primarily the professionals trained in the social sciences, face mass unemployment.

Some of this unemployment is an inevitable consequence of the dismantling of wartime wage, price and demobilization agencies. More of it, however, arises from the determination of Congress to cut budgets, with the intellectuals becoming the victim of much of the knife wielding. In the State Department, for example, the entire research and intelligence branch studying Russian and Asian Communism was cut off limb and branch; many valuable services such as the bibliographies of articles on Russia, the studies of phases of Russian life, studies of Soviet culture, medicine, the reports of defectors, and other data which were available to interested students have been discontinued. These cuts have been extended beyond Washington. Nearly 30 percent of the posts occupied by Americans at the US Embassy in London have been abolished, with the result, according to the New York Times correspondent, that “the flow of information to Washington on economic and political matters, not only from Britain but from large sections of the Middle and Far East closely tied to London, will be to cut to a trickle or will dry up…” The Voice of America has almost been decimated, its feature staffs and desks virtually eliminated and much of the broadcast material simply limited to reprints of articles.

“The hard fact,” reported Doris Fleeson recently, “is that leading Republicans have no intellectuals of any bent, conservative or liberal, whom they admire and trust.” Sophisticated conservatives, called in by Roosevelt or Truman, are suspect because they served Democratic Administrations. Since government planning on any broad scale is necessarily a function of intellectuals, the general animus against the intellectuals extends to any proposal of imaginative dimension, a fact which was noted and deplored by the recent report of the President’s Commission on Psychological Warfare and Strategy.

So far, about 100,000 jobs (not all professional, of course) have been lopped off the Federal payroll. Another 134,000 jobs, presumably of a policy-making and confidential nature, were withdrawn from civil service last month, and the way is now open for the GOP to oust Democratic holdovers, regardless of merit.

If 50,000 should be fired, then, in an economy where two to three million unemployed is considered merely “frictional” or transient, this residue of unemployed intellectuals is statistically insignificant. But more than economics is at stake. It is the crucial sociological importance of this group that has to be understood.

What are these unemployed? They are by and large economists, political analysts, historians, sociologists, psychologists, and that assorted breed described best as “semi-skilled intellectuals,” those who do the administrative chores, labor and cultural liaison, or set up the information and library programs in government agencies here and abroad. In a rough way, the situation is analogous to the twenties when the US Army rapidly reduced its staffs, and men whose sole training lay in their military skills as junior officers found themselves “cashiered.” In most cases, with some travail, these men found new careers in business. But where will today’s intellectuals go?

The colleges cannot absorb them. In 1947, when the first large economy slash hit Washington, many of the intelligentsia were able to return to colleges whose budgets were bolstered by heavy government endowments in the form of GI payments and research money. Today it is the graduate student GI, having found a government job, who is hit hardest. And the colleges, heavily dependent upon government, are being hit equally hard by the force of the government economy drives.

The extent to which research as a whole is now dependent upon government is an amazing feature of the past decade. In 1940, the US government spent $100 million for all types of scientific activities; in 1952, the US government was spending $1.9 billion. Of the total national expenditure of $3.3 billion last year for research, the Federal government was footing 60 percent of the bill. A corollary feature was the growth of government sponsored research by non-government agencies. In 1940, sponsored research was less than 10 percent of the government’s research expenditure. In 1952, it was 75 percent.

Some further statistics are in order to illustrate this tremendous dependence on government. Of the money allocated to non-profit institutions, 53 percent came from the Defense Department, 36 percent from the Atomic Energy Commission, five percent from the old Federal Security Administration (largely US Public Health), four percent from Agriculture, two percent from all other departments. In 1951-52, 225 educational institutions received $295 million from the government in research funds.

In all these instances, the social sciences fared poorly. Seventy-two percent of research funds went into the physical sciences, 19 percent into biology and physiology; the social sciences received three percent. In fact, when the US government last year set up the National Science Foundation to sponsor research, Congress refused to set up a National Social Science Foundation.

While the colleges are inadequate to the task of absorbing the unemployed intellectuals, private foundations, despite the bonanza of Ford, cannot take up the slack. Community service or civil rights groups and Jewish defense agencies, which in the past have given employment to intellectuals, are not in budget straits. Even the trade unions are not taking back the several hundred bright young intellectuals who were seeded into overseas aid and information programs, wage boards and production authorities; for one thing government salaries are higher than those unions pay, for another, the recently displaced intellectuals are too big for their old-time jobs as educational directors of the “plastic raincoat division of the Amalgamated Garment Workers.”

The one area of employment left is business. And, by and large, business doesn’t want the unemployed intellectuals. (How many Russian area specialists can Wall Street firms employ?) Even those with usable skills, like the economists, find few opportunities, for corporations and trade associations are suspicious of economists or NLRB examiners whose experience has been in government. The business community fears that this depression-bred, war-fostered intelligentsia is too liberal. It would rather pick its personnel from the newer crop of more compliant individuals now leaving the colleges.

It was this age group, desperate, and without responsibilities, who led the onslaught against the European status quo. “In Germany,” wrote Kotschnig, “the 40,000 or 50,000 workless university graduates in 1931-1933 became, together with the unemployed subalterns of the old imperial army, the spear-head of the national socialist movement.” These “armed Bohemians,” in Konrad Heiden’s phrase, these footloose and restless déclassé, formed an advance elite of reactionary and militaristic movements in western and central Europe. But the new unemployed intelligentsia of the US will not become lumpen intellectuals. Nor will they, despite the suspicions of business, go Communist. American liberalism, for all the protestations of Whittaker Chambers, has taught the educated American about the dangers of Stalinism; or, perhaps, to round out the credit, the Communists themselves have given the intellectual a hard lesson in organizational manipulation. And, if the American intellectual is not fiercely anti-Communist, and sometimes not sufficiently tough-mindedly for fear of “playing into the hands of McCarthy,” he is certainly non-Communist and deaf to the blandishments of any of the Communist groups.

What will happen to these intellectuals if they are not summoned back to government service? Probably most will be absorbed into family businesses which they had rejected in the development of more advanced abilities. There will then be an erosion and loss of a valuable group of social skills and talents.

By and large it has not traditionally been the responsibility of democratic governments to look after their intelligentsia, and the problem for the US is a new one. In the theory of the open society men pick their occupations in accordance with the needs of the market. Unfortunately, however, the Eisenhower Administration, wedded as it is to the principle of the free market, does not understand that the demand for intellectuals varies widely and swiftly while their numbers slowly change. In the twenties there was intellectual unemployment, but largely of the literary intelligentsia. It was fed and sustained by WPA in the thirties. In the forties it was absorbed in the expanding cultural markets of publishing, radio, Hollywood and government. The new class, however, is a more narrowly defined technical intelligentsia, brought into being in response to the demands of government. Most of the individuals who have lost and are losing their jobs are in the 28-38 age category with two children and a down payment on a house. They have spent five to 10 years in detailed specializations on such problems as the movement of transients in different labor markets, the structure of the Viet Nam Communist movement, and the setting up of consumer price indices. Even if ideological considerations alone did not compound the problem, transfer to other occupations is not simply a matter of pulling up stakes and moving on.

A deeper sociological problem is also at stake. The intellectuals, as Karl Mannheim and Joseph Schumpeter understood so well, form the cultural elite of the country; their attitudes and influence extend far beyond their own class. The intellectual, thought Schumpeter, is inevitably hostile to a capitalist society because his expectations can never be wholly fulfilled regarding his worth. In the past 15 years the intellectuals, however, had made their peace with America. There was their disillusionment about Russia, the tangible evidence of the marvelous growth capacity of the economy, the feeling that even in an economy dominated by large corporations the innovating role of technology and the “countervailing roles” of rival sectors made flexibility and balance achievable; in turn the expanding economy provided new opportunities for social mobility and cultural employments.

Now, on a political level, this image is proving wrong. But it is more than a political exclusion if the intellectual from the social order that bodes ill. “The most essentially negative effect of this [intellectual] unemployment,” wrote Karl Mannheim about the thirties, “consists in the destruction of what one might call ‘planning for life’.” The sudden disruption of stable expectations, the destruction of a sense of career “increases to an extraordinary degree the suggestibility of the individual and strengthens his belief in the miraculous cure-alls.” Large-scale intellectual unemployment becomes, in effect, one of the chief factors disrupting the “rationalization of man.”

Beyond these immediate considerations looms a far more portentous shadow, the “proletariat with the A.B. degree.” This lengthening shadow is neither Republican or Democratic in origin. Flushed with the wartime success of 60 million jobs, we forget that the high aspirations of the American society and the status pressures of college education may result in an over-production of technical intellectuals. In 1948 Harvard President Conant warned that “my chief concern comes…from a fear that we may educate more doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists and college professors than our economy can support.” And Seymour Harris, in his 1949 study, The Market for College Graduates, estimated that by 1969 there will be two or three college graduates for every job commensurate with their training. By 1970, if expectations are fulfilled, there will be 15 million college graduates, a large proportion of whom, having taken specialized training, will be seeking professional status. The pressure is increased because in our “skill society” education is the primary ladder of social mobility.

In a free society no government can take ultimate responsibility for the employment of a large class of intelligentsia; and if it did other deleterious consequences would follow. Yet it can seek to mitigate the effects of erratic swings in demand. The old German imperial army, faced with the problem of what to do with men they had persuaded to enlist for 14 years in order to have a tough, professional army, and then were too old to soldier and to young to retire, found a solution by reserving them posts in the police and postal services (thus also ensuring the regime of loyal bureaucratic cadres). In a vague way we do the same for those who have spent years in service by providing for veterans’ preference. But the problem is too important to consider only in terms of those who have given service time. A little reflection on the part of the Eisenhower administration would show that the $250 million saved in salaries by firing 50,000 intellectuals does not make up for the public loss of gifted and important skills and the blasting of many valuable careers.

In Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa, a “hidden revolution” is taking place. In the classic but un-Marxist pattern, it is being made not by the down-and-out but by the intelligentsia. In once colonial areas like Burma or Indonesia, the withdrawal of the English and Dutch bureaucracies made it almost a revolution by default. In other areas, like the Middle East, the struggle will be more acute. For revolutions occur when an ascending class finds its ambition frustrated. The problem is more acute in the non-capitalist world; the process is also at work in the West.

One lesson, surely, that the Eisenhower Administration needs to learn is to gauge the consequences of social policy not in terms of the traditional and narrow criteria of economy and efficiency, but by the criteria of social balance. A free society is not a formless or anarchic one. Certain planning is necessary to insure freedoms, certain guidance needed to provide a set of stable expectations not only for the dollar but for the American family.