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Birth of the Intelligentsia – 1750–1831

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


Maciej Janowski

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.
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← 6 | 7 → Foreword


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...

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