Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Marshall S. Shatz, Jan Waclaw Machajski: A Radical Critic of the Russian Intelligentsia, University of Pittsburg Press, Pittsburg, 1989, pp251, $29.95

Machajski and the group of ideas called Machaevism, which he brought together and defended from the turn of the century through into the Russian Revolution, played only a very minor rôle in the building of the Russian revolutionary movement. To this reviewer at any rate, the mention of his name merely stirred a vague memory of him being mentioned, although only briefly, by Trotsky in My Life when referring to some long forgotten debate among Tsardom’s Siberian exiles.

The book does not disguise the limitations of its subject matter. And yet ... this very fair and balanced history will undoubtedly leave many with an uneasy feeling. Even today, 64 years after his death, Machajski’s idea about the intelligentsia or middle strata, and its power to dominate the working class movement, will strike many as an advance warning of dangers which became only too real in the ruthless rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy. To others it will seem to explain the reason why the working class movement has, as they see it, been betrayed by so many of its political leaderships.

Machajski was concerned with the growing reformist trends in Social Democracy, and with the untrustworthiness of the Russian intelligentsia. He presented an original and even Marxist-sounding explanation. Just as the bourgeoisie and the proletariat pursued their own class interests, so it must also be regarded as natural and inevitable that the middle class strata, primarily composed of ‘intellectual workers’ would do likewise. Control by these groupings of the knowledge-ideas factors which are essential for commodity production and the administration of modern society, already gives them power and considerable rewards. How much better, however, to ensure that such power became ever more dominant and secure through a centrally planned society? Socialism or Social Democracy were not to be regarded as ideologies in the interests of the working class, but as ideologies founded on the interests of an already relatively favoured section of society, the middle strata or intelligentsia.

Such a theory immediately calls into question any possibility of ever formulating an ideology which conforms to objective reality. According to Machajski’s logic, all attempts at evolving such an ideology would be doomed to distortion by the sectional or class interests of those intellectual workers responsible for producing it. As Shatz points out, Machajski never faced up to this contradiction. His main conclusion was to set up a group called the Workers’ Conspiracy which, according to Shatz, played little practical rôle in its short existence. Presumably it was to contain some intellectuals such as Machajski, although how these were to be identified as trustworthy and unbiased was left unclear.

To this vague idea he added the equally vague concept of a self-led working class in an upsurge that would claim the entire surplus of society after inflicting a massive defeat on both bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. Oddly enough, he also pressed for one relatively simple and almost reformist demand. Workers should ensure that any surplus wealth they appropriated from society be used for the full-time advanced education of all workers’ children. This argument came close to being market based – if everyone were to be intellectually trained, no one would be able to claim the special privileges that the middle strata had always been able to command.

The question of how ideologies, and, in particular, Socialist ideologies do or can arise is not addressed by this book. Shatz is writing about Machaevism and not about such philosophical issues. What the book does do is to report on the debates in Russian society about the nature and functions of their middle strata.

Machajski’s ideas sprang from his analysis and experience of the specific Russian intelligentsia, expressing, as he saw it, the interests of the Russian middle class. This book brings out very well the need to be clear about the exact structures and the continually varying nature of the middle layers of society. The author outlines the diffuse nature of the Russian middle classes, stretching from the remains of the gentry who had been partially dispossessed by the earlier land reforms inaugurated by Tsardom, the small but growing industrial-based sector, to the expanding professions and the restless students. All these groupings were hemmed in by the autocracy. Politically they evolved few ideas of their own beyond the terrorist bomb and slavish legalism. Their incoherence and frustrations were compounded by the flooding in of Western ideologies whether appropriate or inappropriate to their society. Machajski himself, moved from a Polish nationalism tinged with Socialism, through a form of Marxism to a ‘workerist’ criticism of both European Social Democracy and Russia's intelligentsia – and finally moved on to his own anti-Socialist form of Socialist-Anarchism!

The book continually reasserts the Russian based starting point but tentatively explores how far such ideas can be applied to other times and other places. In fact one of Shatz’s most thought provoking sections deals with the near-extermination of the pre-1917 intelligentsia in the purges of the 1930s, and its replacement by a new ex-worker become apparatchik-intelligentsia. Khrushchev perhaps best embodied the nature of the changeover. His personal manners may well have identified his working class origins. They did not define the social function he was actually performing.

This book should be regarded as more than a specialist biography of an obscure Socialist responsible for an even more obscure sect. Marshall Shatz writes clearly and with very few preconceptions. The central ideas of Machajski may well prove to point to yet one more dead end, but in a period when the Marxist movement must face up to a massive self-questioning we have to check and recheck virtually all our ideas to see where the Socialist enterprise started to go so terribly wrong. We may have to go further back than we expect. It was not merely 1917 that was a blind turning. Revolutionary History must increasingly be a history of such ideas rather than of people and groupings.

Planning this review produced 10 pages of notes including a number of awkward questions still to be answered. How, indeed, do we avoid the distortion of Socialist theory by the unconscious bias of the intellectuals, who must of necessity be involved in its evolution? What are the intellectual disciplines needed constantly to check that Socialist ideology both accords with reality and is acceptable to a clear majority of the population? How should intellectual workers and manual workers (if this is a valid dividing line) relate to each other in existing labour movements? How do we break down the unconscious middle class arrogance of a very high proportion of the present labour movement?

This book presents a good starting point for asking some of the right questions and for asking them without the harsh polemical style which unfortunately came to dominate Socialist histories. Getting the answers, however, is going to be more difficult.

Frank Ward



Name spelling and even people’s initials can vary when anglicised from the Polish or Russian. Machajski can appear as Makhaiski, Machajskii and his initials as KV as well as JW.

Updated by ETOL: 12.7.2003