Christophe Charle, Birth of the Intellectuals: 1880-1900, David Fernbach and G.M. Goshgarian trs. Cambridge: Polity, 2015; 280 pp. ISBN: 978-0745690353.

Reviewed by Christina Rawls, Roger Williams University.

J’accuse! The 2015 English translation of Christophe Charle’s modern French classic is well overdue. (It was first published in 1990.) In this book, Charle traces the decades before and after the Dreyfus Affair (which began with Albert Dreyfus’ conviction for treason in 1894), particularly the birth and drastic change involved in the category “intellectual,” and the division of intellectuals into the left and the right. The book is organized into two parts: Part One is titled “Intellectuals before the Intellectuels,” and Part Two, “Intellectuels and the Field of Power.” It ends with a helpful group of relevant charts and statistical data, as well as a separate, “Conclusion to the English Edition.” This work is indispensable for anyone interested in the history of the title and practice of being an “intellectual,” especially for those interested in the “leading class” of the 1870s up through the “elites” of the 1890s.

The Dreyfus Affair was a highly publicized court hearing and involved a social debate about the role and extent of the State and French Army in social rule. Charle brilliantly traces the recent invention of the concept of “intellectuals,” that arose during these two decades in France. As Charle writes, “Histories of the Dreyfus Affair usually affirm, following contemporaries, that it was, above all, a debate internal to the intellectual field or dominant social groups. Without gainsaying this self-evident truth, the analyses proposed here show that these appearances concealed a more complex combat, in which larger social stakes found a new translation.” (183) Charle’s extensive research on the interconnections and changing social strata between knowledge, societal values, military rule, religious doctrine, and political revolution in late 19th Century France is of critical importance. One can see the effects of these societal shifts pervade history thereafter (for example, in the revolutions of May 1968). Charle writes, “The crisis represented by the Dreyfus Affair holds a place apart in the historiography of the Third Republic.” On Charles’ view, due to its wide-ranging influence, the Dreyfus Affair is comparable with the changes that occurred during the French Revolution. (112)

As society became more and more modernized, the French army began to change. Wars were at hand, and the social order and public opinions were shifting. Knowledge was no longer the privilege of the few and “men of letters,” no longer the only intellectuels (with an ‘e’), even if they were all male. (24-25) Doctors, publicists, politicians, and some professors were already known as specialists in their fields, as elites, or “the best.” Yet, growing numbers of authors and artists (including poets and literary historians) heeded the call of the American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson to challenge the “scholars” and create new ways of thinking, new ideas and expanding knowledge, all in the name of freedom of thought and choice. Charle writes, “The expansion in teaching personnel and the effort at building up education that followed the republican reforms opened up new outlets for authors of textbooks and manuals.” (32) It also included the use of signed petitions of support in either direction. With democracy and literacy on the rise, the political and social climates vied for various factions of power. “The function of the term ‘elite’ was to replace the term ‘bourgeoisie…’” (56) Where some saw the opportunity to engage in higher education as specialists, others formed groups of intellectuals who had strength and power in numbers. The social significance and meaning of what it is to be learned, to be an artist, a teacher, an author and all related designations was drastically changing, yet in France in particular the authority of the scientist and literary elite was held up with respect. In addition to the growing quasi-Marxist ideal (compared to the old intellectuels), who “used ideas to keep the people in thrall,” the neologism intellectuel gained a social category all its own. Prior, the concept and term had been used mostly in literary magazines to establish dominance of a more humanitarian understanding over power hungry politicians and religious leaders. As Charle reports, “The first significant use in a collective sense is to be found in Le Désespéré by Leon Bloy.” The term soon changed its ‘e’ to an ‘a’ to designate a group instead of an individual: “Bloy referred here to an ideological community organized around certain aesthetic slogans or principles…forming an avant-guard readership.” (40) Nonetheless, the initiation of the term was in France and concerned changing social norms, freedom of thought and the rise in numbers of students in higher education, the use of the military, an increase in the printing of journals and newspapers, and rising public concern and interest in their ability to effect social change.

The spread of Marxism was understandable, but it didn’t last long without a significant challenge from diverging political factions (and the Church). “Intellectuels” now designated a group with a more sociological meaning. The growing sentiment between the access to knowledge and a university education with experts, elites, intellectuals (that is, professors, mostly all male) and the reorganization of disciplines or fields of specialization and the massive shifts in politics and what it meant to be a good politician were obviously split by the 1880s, as evidenced by Antonin Dubost, a future republican minister quoted by Charle:

I know petty bourgeois and even modest craftsmen, whom a lack of university degrees or their own poverty keeps far from any sort of leading class, but who would nevertheless, from a social standpoint, put many a duke, astronomer, Academician or poet to shame. The fact is that, in order to discover a capacity for politics, one has to plunge into the mass of society and examine its desires and needs in order then to find the best combinations to satisfy them. (51)

What is striking about such sentiments is that an attitude was growing, one separating the increasing number of those who wanted an education and to become more learned from the power and desire to control a region or one’s country—as if the two were wholly unrelated. As well, the false accusation that the learned were (or are) not aware of the “desires and needs” of the masses around them is nothing new. This misperception is a charge against philosophers, for example, often projected in ignorant ways—yet another reason Charle’s book is relevant to the growing tensions in our global and local political climates today. In the time where there existed only small numbers of “men of letters,” one might understand this attitude, but in a time of increasing literacy and general education for more citizens, the need was growing for others who did not want to attend universities or study in great depth but instead maintain control of the polis through political, military, and/or religious force. Religious influence had always been present, but science and positivist thinking was now on the rise as well. “Science, spread by a renovated university system, would remake the elite and overcome ideological divisions by enlarging the pool from which elites were drawn…” (52) This helped, and the authority of scientists and literary writers was respected in France earlier than in other developed countries. At the end of the two decades leading into the 20th Century, Charle writes, “Thus, by the end of 1898, the Dreyfusard intellectuels had won their bet… A transition had clearly been made from ‘Intellectuels’, with all the initial scornful connotations, to intellectuels without the capital I – men of the mind who were champions of a political tendency.” (130)

So it is clear, whereas Dreyfusism was born and bred among the intellectual communities and new disciplines of research with rising numbers of students attending institutes of higher education, anti-Dreyfusism relied on its “model of hierarchical recruitment…” and the State. (159) In addition, Charle writes that the “rejection of the anti-Semitism animating many anti-Dreyfusards was an extension of their centuries-old struggle for religious equality.” (161) The foundation and professional habits of Dreyfusard intellectuals relied on the ideal of the universality of reason (and they read their Plato, Leibniz, and Kant too), whereas the authority of the anti-Dreyfusard positions relied on the Church, the State, the army, and what was written in the newspapers. Yet, whereas you will find the most Dreyfusards within the fields of history and philosophy, it appears there were many anti-Dreyfusards within those two areas of study as well. Hence, the debate between the ancients and the moderns, between the traditional ideals and the new, more democratic ideals ensued. In the 1880s the debate raged between the men-of-letters and those in charge of the French army versus the new literary writers, artists, and publicists who could reach and interact with public opinion regarding changing social norms. By the 1890s, more individuals were attending college, and the term and idea of the “intellectual” itself became the debate. Thus, a division between the validity and importance of an educated man’s knowledge and an uneducated but nonetheless knowledgeable man widened. Intellectuals became known as “elites” with a lack of practical wisdom and pragmatic experience. The negative connotations grew and, sadly, still hold today. When will we learn that there are many different forms of valuable knowledge and experiences, and that no one man or woman can hold it all? We are social beings.

Charle writes, “’Intellectual’, for the professors, was a gratifying title that allowed them to transcend the limitations associated with being a scholar or scientist, whereas, in the literary field, thanks to the alchemy of the collective, this new role partially closed the gap…between unknown and famous writers…” (168) The levels of freedom and anti-militaristic sentiments and actions of the writer or the academic, of public opinion and its publication, or of one’s choice of religion or lack-there-of, etc. were the issues underlying all of these massive social shifts. Even more interesting, perhaps, is that the neologism “intellectual” and its superficial stereotypes, “crystallized, as a new, uprooted social group and as possible fomenters of trouble,” who did not hold any type of well-known occupational status. Nonetheless, ‘J’accuse!’ turned out to mean ‘I accuse the left-wing intellectuels!’” (179) Charle concludes, “Thus this opposition between the two types of dominant intellectuals around whom the battle of the Dreyfus Affair was organized in fact already existed; yet, without the affair, it would never have become a division traversing the whole intellectual field.” (180)

But all this meant, according to Charle, was that certain political powers felt they could better control those who were not considered “the best” in their fields of expertise. In other words, the above became a strategic way to divide society into those who valued learning and continued education in various academic disciplines and those who could not get into or did not want to attend any formal institution for higher education. In an odd way, capitalism thrived with such a split, and those with political power knew it. The number of people on each side of the division grew. Both sides of the argument (for and against the Dreyfus Affair and all related) were able to gain support through petitions, elected officials, the church, the working man, the artists, the scholars, those who were in or who wanted to be in college, and others besides. All sides were able to find support for their assessments, and a cultural and social war broke out as a result. “What a factor of order, of stability, of security is this elite made up of workers steadily arriving to swell the excessively thin ranks…” (58) But not everyone can be an expert. That’s no reason to try and eliminate them and begin the all-too-current and dangerous, growing sentiment we still experience today of anti-intellectualism and laziness in the desire to read, write, and think critically. Things would change yet again once the term “intellectual” was not restricted to Dreyfusards alone. Anarchism was on the rise. (131) (Anarchists could be either intellectuals or anti-intellectuals, educated or uneducated, just as they are today in varying extremes.)

As we enter the ordeal of the decades long Dreyfus Affair (a crisis of a rapidly changing society), a theme is established: the intellectuels versus the bourgeoisie—or as we might still know it today, the capitalist, income-driven individualist versus the collective oriented, humanitarian scholar, teacher, or artist. The only problem with Charle’s research at this point is the lack of attention to who dominated both sides of this story: the white man. Women and people of color are all generally left out of the analysis, although there are a few solid references to France’s immigration policies. Thus, we see how psychological and actual racism was on the rise during the Dreyfus Affair, when those with social capital and power started to lose their power and control over society around 1880. Charle writes, “This ad hominem polemic turned the procedure of extrapolating to a whole social group back on the Dreyfusards. Enlightened opinion was accordingly demoted to the level of a compendium of great men’s quirks. The intellectuels are an ‘obscure elite’ because their rank and file are embittered souls…” (127) Of course, this was and is not the case, but it was the reaction to the increase in power afforded to those who studied and taught the increasing numbers of college students, as well as an increase in literacy. Historically speaking and, relevant to contemporary times indeed, these shifts are critical. Professors and their students (academics!) could now be publicly viewed on the same expert level, for better or worse, as the men-of-letters, the scientists, the military, and the Church.

The final chapters of this work are also exhaustive and historically important. They discuss in great detail the growing sentiments and actions of the now acceptable intellectual (with an ‘a’) Left and Right. For the Left, it was a question of defending Truth and Justice, not only the freedom to write and think any longer (as that was established). For the Right, it became the defense of the Fatherland and its army, “social institutions considered to be above everything else.” (149) As academics were typically excluded from other forms of social power, intervening with public opinion, with students, and with the conclusions and research of scholarly experts were the route to achieving more Truth and Justice. (153) And again, it was Émile Durkheim in Bordeaux who established the first courses in social science, in a place where Charle notes the “Catholic institutions were massively anti-Dreyfusard.” (154) Engagement in the debate now became the role of public intellectuals (academics) and abstention the choice of “notables implanted in local society.” The signing (or lack-there-of) of infamous and influential petitions demonstrates this phenomenon. Charle continues, “Opposite this traditionalist legal pole stood the most Dreyfusard Parisian institutions: they were the most engaged and, at the same time, the ones that most nearly approximated the ideal of the research university inspired by Germany. Among them were the Ecole des chartes, the EPHE, and the Ecole normale supérieure.” (156)

A solid critique of Christophe Charle’s work is that he does not address the rather large and obvious gender disparity in who was viewed as an expert or intellectual and the important roles women played in such a large social movement, where “literary writers are concerned only secondarily with sociology…” Enter the “Radicals” and the true separation of church and state at the start of the 20th Century, where many female intellectuals can be found, and for whom credit can be given. What we find from 1900 onward is the increasing ideal of equality among human beings and the intellectuals (with an ‘a’), which means (and meant) to be a professional; that is, to be true to one’s craft, talents, and timeless humanitarian spirit. You’ll find radicals today, in our teaching and in our actions in general—and not necessarily in our publications or lack-there-of. You’ll find us at the ballot box and in the classroom, as well as on the streets. We continue to challenge the status quo and authority of the state through art, teaching, voting, writing and continued understanding with the scales of intersectional justice and liberty leading the way. Charle’s scholarly research on the changes in the French social, political, military, and educational systems in the late 19th Century are vital to our continued understanding of the left-right dichotomy and the place of intellectuals in society, as his insights can be applied directly to why we are where we are today (including in the U.S.), and how such revolutionary changes, for better and worse, take place. J’accuse!