Reifications of the intellectual: representations, organization and agency in revolutionary China


  • I thank Thomas Beamish, Helen Dunstan, John R. Hall, Ming-Cheng Lo, Michael McQuarrie, Stephanie Mudge and the BJS editors and referees for their comments. Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange and the University of California, Davis provided financial support for this research.


How did ‘intellectuals’ evolve from a class of subjects in Marxian thoughts to highly visible populations under communism? Such ‘reifications of the intellectual’ have deeply affected subjectivity, conflict and organization, but received little attention in the political sociology of communism. This essay draws on research on classifications and social boundaries to address the objective and subjective foundations of the reifications and their impact on communist rule. The intellectual is viewed as an identification formed and performed around multiple social axes (most notably family background, educational achievement, occupational history, institutional affiliation and revolutionary rank) that reflected broader patterns of communist political domination. I use the Chinese Communist movement to demonstrate that (1) interaction of political contests, ruling strategies and institutional developments turned a diversity of persons into ‘intellectuals’ who were allegedly imbued with reprehensible interests and habits linked to privileged economic classes; (2) constant competitions for power and organizational changes led to classificatory ambiguities and, in turn, allowed individuals some control over their identifications; and (3) the developments profoundly influenced identity, state and class formation. Focusing on the dynamics that produced a highly visible but fluid population of ‘intellectuals’ opens new pathways for comparative research on communism.