Birth of the Intelligentsia – 1750–1831

A History of the Polish Intelligentsia – Part 1, edited by Jerzy Jedlicki

by Maciej Janowski (Author)
©2015 Monographs 274 Pages
Open Access


The three-part work provides a first synthetic account of the history of the Polish intelligentsia from the days of its formation to World War I. Part one (1750–1831) traces the formation of the intelligentsia as a social class in the epoch of Enlightenment. It stresses the importance of the birth of bureaucratic institutions that created the demand for the educated stratum. It analyses the results of the collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795 – the ominous event that transformed the political geography of East Central Europe. The work combines social and intellectual history, tracing both the formation of the intelligentsia as a social stratum and the forms of engagement of the intelligentsia in the public discourse. Thus, it offers a broad view of the group’s transformations which immensely influenced the course of the Polish history.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword (Jerzy Jedlicki)
  • Chapter 1: At the sources
  • 1. Prehistory
  • 2. The breakthrough: the printing press and the town
  • 3. Places and institutions: Warsaw
  • 4. Places and institutions: The province
  • Chapter 2: Friars, men-of-letters and Jacobins (1764-1795)
  • 1. Where did they come from?
  • 2. The Academic Order
  • 3. The Polish officialdom at its outset
  • 4. Doctors and other foreigners
  • 5. Men-of-letters, artists, blue-stockings
  • 6. Educated man as an ideal
  • 7. Reason enlightened
  • 8. Conclusion
  • Chapter 3: “Some new Trojans…” (1795-1807)
  • 1. “… in their new homeland …”
  • 2. “Sciences augmented”
  • Chapter 4: In the service of the State (1807-1830)
  • 1. How intellectuals turned into bureaucrats
  • 2. In the wake of the Commission of National Education
  • 3. The new people
  • 4. The urban life
  • 5. Ideals: old and new
  • Chapter 5: Toward a revolution
  • 1. The youth, and what they were after
  • 2. The intelligentsia and the authority
  • 3. The Insurrection
  • Index

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The intelligentsia continues to be a heated topic in Poland. Whenever an article involving the intelligentsia appears in the press, you can be sure that a response will come. Since the publication in 1946 of a provocative essay by Józef Chałasiński, the sociology professor1, a discussion on the intelligentsia has been flaming in the press every few years – whether in the Poland called the ‘People’s Republic’ (1944-89) or in the Third Republic (since June 1989), with quite similar questions and beliefs colliding anew. Have the intelligentsia inherited the nobility’s attributes and vices? Have they deserved a collective respect, or rather, disapproval and derision? Have they still some social and ideological role to play, or maybe should they get off the stage and give way to the new classes – for instance, the middle class or ‘experts’, whatever such notions ought to mean?

The rules of singling out the intelligentsia, the class’s composition, stratification, economic situation, the prestige of education, their professional qualifications and attitude toward the other classes, particularly the working class and peasantry, were at times subject to sociological investigation and considerations, but the public discussions owed their emotional charge and vigour particularly to politics. The hottest dilemma has always been, whether in the periods when the nation was subject to a severe test – fighting for independence or during civil resistance against the communist power – whether to be inclined to offer more deference or fortitude; more opportunism or nonconformity, for it is known that these inclinations could be evidenced with the use of the testimony at hand. Today – and every such ‘today’ – the authorities’ attitude toward the educated elite, characterised by respect or contempt, gains a political meaning as it concerns a class that has always proved capable of expressing aloud their likes ←7 | 8→and grievances, even though they may not always have a realistic bearing on the state authorities’ decisions.

When observing and sometimes commenting upon these short-lived recidivisms of the dispute, a historian cannot resist the impression that the topic in question is immortal. It was already in the late 1970s that Ryszarda Czepulis-Rastenis (1928-94), who initiated systematic research on the history of the Polish intelligentsia, remarked that “compared to the social character and national tasks of the Polish intelligentsia, there are very few issues brought up in our literature on an equally frequent basis, for a hundred years now”. This inveteracy of the subject-matter was ascribed by her to its political topicality: on the other hand, journalists of various orientations have endeavoured, with their historical arguments, to support their opinions on the attitudes of the intelligentsia in their own time; on the other hand, popularisers of history and sociological science succumbed to the powerful suggestion of stereotypes. These dangerous liaisons between the cognitive attitude and politics or the moralistic have produced, according to this author, “a certain vagueness, not to say arbitrariness, of opinions. Based on fragmentary, if not intuitive, diagnosis, estimations and generalisations have always come ahead of tested and checked knowledge. Hence, the reference literature is thus abundant, against a scarcity of matter-of-fact findings.”2

Ever since, enormous progress has been made in this area, helped by the decisive contribution by Professor Czepulis-Rastenis, with works of her own3 as well as those that were written or matured for printing that owed to her inspiration and care.4 Today, we have at our disposal dozens of conscientious source studies on Polish intelligentsia milieus for all the Partition areas and Polish ethnic provinces (1795-1918), and for many regions and towns, in the consecutive sections ←8 | 9→of historical time, across professions and institutions. However, when we started thinking about how to depict a synthetic history of the intelligentsia, we realised that the amassed wealth of studies did not make the task easier at all. All the definition-related doubts and the incoherencies appearing in the image of the intelligentsia that we contended with years ago have remained, or even grew exacerbated, as the tested knowledge incremented.

Would we be supposed, therefore, to take an interest in an intelligentsia seen as a conglomerate of the professions referred to, somewhat enigmatically, as ‘brainwork’ or ‘intellectual’ jobs, practices that require at least a secondary education, and calling together for their deserved recognition from the other classes? Or rather, should our field of interest have covered a narrower ideological ‘elite’ aspiring to lead the nation in its social, political and cultural development? Ryszarda Czepulis posed this question many a time, usually opting to conduct research into the social-and-professional stratum, the ‘artisans of mentality’, thus gaining a better cohesiveness of the subject.

For the notion of the elite is highly unambiguous. Authors of ideological programmes, influential publicists, and opinion leaders do not have to be among the outstanding men of science or literature, or creative artists: this is particularly true of a society that for long years was prevented from forming its own national institutions. And conversely: scientists, writers and artists do not always endeavour to influence public opinion. These functions call for entirely different predispositions. This non-convergence of criteria has been noted by the anonymous author of the article O inteligencji w znaczeniu polskim [‘On the intelligentsia, in the Polish meaning’], published in a Lvov periodical in 1861, remarking that those of ‘special education’, even though they would be greatly educated, are not of the intelligentsia if they take an indifferent approach toward the past of their nation and its struggle for rights5.

Out of dozens of the like conditions or postulates, we can drain an idealising pathos; however, the conviction will always remain that ‘the intelligentsia in the Polish sense’ is necessarily identifiable with the guards of national memory, the standard-bearers of patriotic and social ideas – revolutionary or conservative ones; authors and artists – not just the big-timers, but the ones whose works mobilised the national forces in the time of bondage.

The reason why the notion in question is unstable is not really because an ‘elite’ would have been secreted from the ‘intellectual class’ but because of the ←9 | 10→permanent interference with its professional and ideological functions.6 These functions cannot be completely demarcated; and, it proves impossible to finely polish the definitions of the relevant words that have been well-established in colloquial language, with the inseparable shimmering quality of their meanings and associations. The notions such as ‘nobility’ (the szlachta) – particularly after the Partition, which meant the loss of the native country, ‘bourgeoisie’, ‘Jews’ or ‘peasants’ are no more unambiguous than the notion of the intelligentsia, since their economic, legal, confessional, genealogical and mores/morals-related criteria tend to converge and diverge; although overlapping, each of these notions defines a different group of people. And, we have to come to terms with such ambiguity of collective names, if not to trace and identify some advantages because of it, as the vagueness of semantic delimitations reflects a chronic obscurity of the real divisions. A living society that has already quit its estate-founded, or class-based, period is subject to incessant transformation: after all, it is never composed of separate compartments labelled with species name plates.

A social historian’s lot is such that s/he is doomed to using leaky notions.7 ‘Discourse’ methodologists do their best to console him or her, explaining that capacious wholes such as ‘intelligentsia’ or ‘nation’ have no existence in themselves, being in fact nothing more than collective concepts, conventions of language, or rhetorical postulates. This being the case, there is no point asking when and where the intelligentsia was formed and what it was composed of; it makes sense, instead, to ask who made use of this collective aggregate-notion, how, and what for: what kind of a service has it been harnessed for, now and then. With such a concept, the history of the intelligentsia would be reduced to tracing the idea of the intelligentsia, the history of the word and the history of the debate.

This approach is tempting indeed as it repeals the barren disputes rooted in the arbitrariness of a historian who endeavours to impose on a well-bygone epoch a network of notions and categories established by himself/ herself, or definitionally sharpened. Yet, our concern was that by yielding too eagerly to what the narrativists suggest, we might devalue the already huge output of objectivising social history.

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How would we then have to tackle the question of the origins of (the) intelligentsia avant la lettre? The Polish intelligentsia assumed this name only in the middle of the nineteenth century. The studies on its origins or precursors reached as far back as the time of King Stanislaus Augustus, with the recruitment of those aspiring to take jobs with the offices of a Governmental Commission (ministry), the laicisation of teachers – as a profession and social class, or the struggle of sharp-tongued quills for influence on public opinion in the Great Sejm (1788-92) foreground. These three basic processes, as a scholar specialised in the period has found, have led to the formation of a brainwork market, which breached the routines of the class society.8

In the dispute between social history and a history of ‘discourses’, we thus assumed a compromising or, as one might call it, eclectic attitude, spotting the advantages and, also, inconveniences of each stringently approached research strategy. The word ‘intelligentsia’ [inteligencja] – Latinate, drawn by Polish thought from the German philosophical notional resource – caught on across Polish soil as it was in demand: no other notion would have fitted when it came to naming that originally narrow group of people of varied class and profession, better or worse educated, earning a living with their own work and feeling obliged, in this way or another, with respect to a hundredfold broader conceptualised national community.9 Once the name entered circulation and became a ‘home word’ within a couple of years, around 1848, it contributed to the continued consolidation of a class whose contour would never be sharply outlined but whose existence and essence, virtues and drawbacks, obligations and derelictions would become the subject for journalists, men-of-letters, politicians, mentors – in a word, intellectuals themselves – to incessantly reason and argue.

Why it was in the Polish language that the word in question became indispensable earlier than anywhere else; why it appeared in due time, with just a slight time-lag, forms one of the threads of this book. While not anticipating the ←11 | 12→conclusions, let us just say that, along with the country’s agricultural profile, the mediocrity of the third estate, and the rarity of any educational background, be it elementary, the political dismemberment and incapacitation of a community whose elites had already had their national awareness solidified, formed a tangle of conditions that encumbered the scarce urban enlightened class, taken as a whole, with a sense of group obligation that integrated a national society and initiated civilisational changes. This is obviously not to imply that every single member of this class felt such an obligation and was ready to refer its consequences to himself, or herself. However, the new social formation was eagerly baptised under its assumed name, most of its members being aware of the distinction this name implied, and of the expectations attached to it. Wherever else in the world similar conditions coincided, there would always appear a stratum – military, civil, clerical, or mixed – naming themselves the ‘intelligentsia’ and, with it, believing that education, regardless of the profile, furnished them with the obligation and privilege to act as the national avant-garde.

The studies on the shaping of the Polish intelligentsia in individual provinces and towns, which mushroomed in the late 20th century, usually assumed the orientation of social history, endeavouring to determine the origin, education, required professional qualifications, living conditions, promotional opportunities, stratification, the power and reach of the environmental solidarity, the situation of the intelligentsia versus the other social classes and, mostly as a last point, the intelligentsia’s political and cultural activity in the period under research. A resource of abundant and useful knowledge has been amassed according to this pattern indeed, mostly on a local scale, but always opening an opportunity to compare.

Such is the path followed by the authors of this present work. This time, however, the issues under investigation are much broader and the emphases are distributed in a different fashion. We have namely traced the historical peripeteia of a social stratum/ class (not attaching attention to this particular distinction) understood as a segment in the social structure, extending to individuals who perform on a professional basis works, or jobs, calling for an educational background and receiving income from such activity. This is obviously a highly imprecise definition, and unsatisfactory. If we however get involved in a discussion about what it means to ‘work professionally’ or what an ‘intellectual/brain work’ is, or what ‘earned income’ is, and what a school one had to graduate from in order to be classed (then, or by us today?) as a member of the intelligentsia, we will – as usual – definitely get entangled in never-ending casuistic disputes. For the reasons already propounded, we have avoided such futile considerations, knowing that any formalised demarcations would be arbitrary by nature.

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The chronic ambiguity of notions such as intelligentsia – plus the words close in meaning – is an interesting historical phenomenon in itself: it reflects both the objective changes in the social stratification as well as how they have been perceived by their contemporaries, including collective assessments and selfassessments.10 If we are willing to observe such changes, we must not pre-assume any idealising definitional conditions concerning the ethos of the intelligentsia, its moral format, or sense of social mission. We must stick to what we have conceived as our opinion: it is not an ethos that creates and defines the intelligentsia, but rather, it is the intelligentsia that contributes to the moral culture and the mental horizon of its age. An attempt at describing these realities ought to ensue from the research, rather than being a pre-assumption.

The need for a precise definition is normally imposed by social statistics: it has to be known whom to count and whom to exclude. The thing is, the previous efforts made in creating statistical images of professional and local intellectual milieus have occurred, in our opinion, to be relatively not-quite-fruit-bearing. The nineteenth-century official statistics, especially if generated by the tsarist bureaucracy, are not to be relied upon. But the results of calculations and statistical tables produced later on individually by scholars on the basis of preserved bodies of personal files of officials, teachers, physicians, judges, priests, or students, are mostly fragmentary and cannot in most cases justify the workload invested in them. When it comes, for instance, to examining the social background of workers of a dicastery, the conclusion is apparent that the laconic quality of the ‘inservice statistics’ forms and other similar personal sources, their nomenclature, which was archaic already then, and the identifiable information gaps do not entitle us to appearances of arithmetical exactness which a number of authors considered a token of the scholarly reliability of their methodology.

According to the incomplete data available, the share of the staff of some office or students in a school whose background was reportedly the nobility may have amounted to, say, 50% or 60%; what of it, though, if we would not be in a position to find out what nobility and as of what time, namely. The said ‘background’ was of no bearing in the 19th century on professional career opportunities; nor did it necessarily imply that the grandson concerned inherited anything beyond a vague family reminiscence.

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The outcome of research on the development or stagnation of the labour market, which means state and private demand for services and qualifications of people of various professions, have proved more interesting. Such studies have confirmed the known proposition claiming a paradoxical overproduction by the intelligentsia and a surplus in the supply of their services in the early phase of capitalism. This situation was to remain under Russian and Austrian rule, linking the economic interests of the Polish intelligentsia with the accelerated modernisation of the country, and generating rebellious and radical attitudes in the pauperised strata, among the underfed aspiring students and graduates.11

Investigating the attitudes, ideas, morals and mores forms a particularly valuable capital in the output of historians of the Polish intelligentsia. The studies of Ryszarda Czepulis and those of her colleagues and followers, concerning the intellectual milieus’ role models and universe of values, based on a subtle analysis of the enormous collections of letters, memoirs and posthumous recollections, already published or remaining in the manuscript form, have enabled us to find that, beyond any doubt, the intelligentsia of the circles of Warsaw, Vilna, Poznań, Lvov and Krakow, as well as the exponents dispersed in provincial areas, in exile or in emigration, had by the mid-19th century become a class capable of recognising their shared, rather than merely corporative/professional interests, one that emancipated itself from the landowners’ patronage and gained a sense of their own value, in opposition to the noble tradition and mentality, but also in discord with the bourgeois ethos of entrepreneurship and the cult of commercial success.12

The sources on the history of the Polish inter-uprising conspiracies (1832-63), volumes of investigative testimonies, police and judicial files and the clandestine press, as edited and published particularly by the team managed by Stefan Kieniewicz and Wiktoria Śliwowska, have over and over reconfirmed that it was the young intelligentsia who were the main proponents and propagators of ‘democratic faith’ and active patriotism in the era of the Spring of the Nations and of the 1863 Insurrection. One may naturally argue whether there was an ideological abyss between the cautious reformative tactics of ‘organic work’ and the choice of a conspiratorial and insurgent path, or just differences in age, temper ←14 | 15→and estimation of opportunities. Whatever the case, the intelligentsia became in that period a self-reliant factor in Polish politics and independence-oriented ideology, in a variety of its forms. The price they paid for it, especially the young people, was dramatic in almost every generation: the blood they shed, the long years spent in prison or in exile, the broken careers and the bitter sense of a thorough disaster.

The scholars have on this occasion exposed the weak points of this intelligentsia: weak professional qualifications, in many cases; low individual aspirations; romantic epigonism and fragmentary or exiguous scholarly production. The sources make it apparent how secondary the culture of educated strata grew because of the tsarist, Prussian and Austrian repressive measures applied after 1831 – with the shutdown of the universities in Warsaw and Vilnius, the confinement and coerced Germanisation of their counterparts in Krakow and Lvov, the pillages of libraries, the ban on activities of scientific and scholarly societies, the censoring of printed matter and letters, the isolation from the West and from the political émigré community.

Since the 1860s, this new class, discrete from the common people as well as from the moneyed class – but still dependent, to an extent, on aristocratic patronage in the Prussian Partition, in Galicia and in the Lithuanian-Ruthenian lands – occupied a morally sovereign position in what was then the Kingdom of Poland. What it means is that, while still accounting for an exiguous percentage of the population, it became the source of almost all the political and educational ideas, be it legal or illegal. What it also means is that those who wish to trace the vicissitudes and works of the intelligentsia have now to study the history of education across the tiers, as well as of public administration, the judiciary, banking, railroads, medicine, the press, the theatre, literary and artistic life, the Church, political parties and revolutionary movements, exile and katorga penal servitude, emigration, and whatever else. With this multiplicity of searchable fields, there enters a multitude of specialised historical disciplines, together with their specified research instruments. How to combine their observations and findings, so that things are not seen as separate but interconnected, was the actual methodological and writing challenge we set for ourselves.

This early, formational and romantic period in the history of the intelligentsia is the time when the class’s collective physiognomy appears the most conspicuous: the group was so scarce in number; a secondary education, not to say tertiary, was so rare an advantage; these people still felt quite lonesome in a society where respect for gained work, skills, talents, knowledge and noiseless civilisational merits had to be claimed in defiance of the still-strong counterclaims of the civic superiority of a coat-of-arms, lineage and wealthiness.

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But how about the later years, following one more tragic national uprising – the one of 1863 – in which Polish officials and clerks, lawyers, students and graduates of (mainly Russian) universities, civil and military ones, played the leadership role? Of course, Warsaw Positivism and its liberal, thoroughly civil programme of the Europeanisation of the country was an openly intellectual ideology, and it tends to be conceptualised in such terms by historians of literature and of ideas. And this is quite right, as long as one does not neglect that in spite of the provisional successes of the Positivist charge, among the ingredients of Polish culture in that period were the no less powerful and lasting conservative/ Catholic potential, albeit recessive for a short moment then, along with nationalist and, on the other side, socialist impulses that were gaining in strength.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2014 (November)
soziale Schichten Parteipolitik Kulturgeschichte
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 274 pp., 1 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Maciej Janowski (Author)

Jerzy Jedlicki is Professor emeritus at the Institute of History at the Polish Academy of Sciences where he was head of the research group for the history of intelligentsia. He also was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C. Maciej Janowski is Professor at the Institute of History at Polish Academy of Sciences and Recurrent Visiting Associate Professor at the Central European University in Budapest.


Title: Birth of the Intelligentsia – 1750–1831