I'm still reading Richard Pipes' huge book on the Russian Revolution (The Russian Revolution 1899-1919). He talks a good deal about the beliefs and motivations of the radical intelligentsia at the dawn of the 20th century, not just in Russia but in Europe as a whole.
The most noteworthy thing about left-wing intellectuals is of course the amazing extent to which they are out of touch with reality and out of touch with ordinary people in the real world. Pipes offers a salutary reminder that this is not a recent phenomenon - intellectuals have always been entirely disconnected from reality and from real people.
“For intellectuals of this kind, the criterion of truth was not life: they created their own reality, or rather, sur-reality, subject to verification only with reference to opinions of which they approved. Contradictory evidence was ignored: anyone inclined to heed such evidence was ruthlessly cast out.”
Marx of course was a case in point. Marx’s claim to have created a scientific explanation of the evolution of human society was pure fantasy.
Socialism, of both the revolutionary and non-revolutionary varieties, in Russia was entirely dominated by intellectuals. These intellectuals regarded actual workers and peasants with a mixture of mystification, scorn and loathing. If you’re going to achieve democratic socialism the last thing you want is actual workers and peasants having a say in the process. They might not vote the right way. And if you hope to bring about the dictatorship of the proletariat it is essential at all costs to prevent the proletariat from becoming involved.
Lenin was a fine example of the type. His theorising ignored reality altogether. He was prepared to check his theories against the works of other theorists such as Marx but the idea of checking his theories against real-world facts never occurred to him.
In Pipes’ view the Russian Revolution was entirely driven by a very small number of radical intellectuals. The vast majority of the Russian population had no interest in a revolution. It was the intellectuals who wanted revolution.
“But many of those who want to change the world regard human discontent as something not to be remedied but exploited. Exploitation of resentment, not its satisfaction, has been at the centre of socialist politics since the 1840s.”
Pipes also has this rather good quote on what makes left-wing intellectuals tick:
“...Ludwig von Mises thought that intellectuals gravitate to anti-capitalist philosophies ‘in order to render inaudible the inner voice that tells them that their failure is entirely their own fault.’ ”