The Socialism of The Intellectuals: Jan Waclaw Machajski


The following article on Jan Waclaw Machajski appeared in issue 1 of Virus, the magazine of the Anarchist Communist Group

Mikhail Bakunin was the first to predict that a new elite could emerge from the socialist movement. The late Colin Parker, writing on Bakunin in the Anarchist Communist Federation pamphlet Basic Bakunin stated:

”Once the role of government was taken out of the hands of the masses, a new class of experts, scientists and professional politicians would arise. This new elite would be far more secure in its domination over the workers by means of the mystification and legitimacy granted by the claim to acting in accordance with scientific laws (a major claim by Marxists). Furthermore, given that the new state could masquerade as the true expression of the people’s will, the institutionalising of political power gives rise to a new group of governors with the same selfseeking interests and the same cover-ups of its dubious dealings.” In a letter to Albert Richard in 1870, Bakunin wrote: “There must be anarchy, there must be — if the revolution is to become and remain alive, real, and powerful — the greatest possible awakening of all the local passions and aspirations; a tremendous awakening of spontaneous life everywhere. After the initial revolutionary victory the political revolutionaries, those advocates of brazen dictatorship, will try to squelch the popular passions. They appeal for order, for trust in, for submission to those who, in the course and in the name of the Revolution, seized and legalized their own dictatorial powers; this is how such political revolutionaries reconstitute the State.”In his Statism and Anarchy Bakunin wrote: “Idealists of all kinds – metaphysicians, positivists, those who support the rule of science over life, doctrinaire revolutionists – all defend the idea of state and state power with equal eloquence, because they see in it, as a consequence of their own systems, the only salvation for society. Quite logically, since they have accepted the basic premise (which we consider completely mistaken) that thought precedes life, that theory is prior to social experience, and, therefore, that social science has to be the starting point for all social upheavals and reconstructions. They then arrive unavoidably at the conclusion that because thought, theory, and science, at least in our times, are in the possession of very few, these few ought to be the leaders of social life, not only the initiators, but also the leaders of all popular movements. On the day following the revolution the new social order should not be organized by the free association of people’s organizations or unions, local and regional, from the bottom up, in accordance with the demands and instincts of the people, but only by the dictatorial power of this learned minority, which presumes to express the will of the people.

This fiction of a pseudo-representative government serves to conceal the domination of the masses by a handful of privileged elite; an elite elected by hordes of people who are rounded up and do not know for whom or for what they vote. Upon this artificial and abstract expression of what they falsely imagine to be the will of the people and of which the real living people have not the least idea, they construct both the theory of statism as well as the theory of so-called revolutionary dictatorship.

The differences between revolutionary dictatorship and statism are superficial. Fundamentally they both represent the same principle of minority rule over the majority in the name of the alleged “stupidity” of the latter and the alleged “intelligence” of the former. Therefore they are both equally reactionary since both directly and inevitably must preserve and perpetuate the political and economic privileges of the ruling minority and the political and economic subjugation of the masses of the people.

Now it is clear why the dictatorial revolutionists, who aim to overthrow the existing powers and social structures in order to erect upon their ruins their own dictatorships, never were or will be the enemies of government, but, to the contrary, always will be the most ardent promoters of the government idea. They are the enemies only of contemporary governments, because they wish to replace them. They are the enemies of the present governmental structure, because it excludes the possibility of their dictatorship. At the same time they are the most devoted friends of governmental power. For if the revolution destroyed this power by actually freeing the masses, it would deprive this pseudo-revolutionary minority of any hope to harness the masses in order to make them the beneficiaries of their own government policy.”

The Polish revolutionary Jan Waclaw Machajski was to develop this idea of a new revolutionary elite. Born at Pintzov(now Brusko Zdroj) in Russian Poland (that part of Poland then ruled by the Russian Tsar, other parts being ruled by Austria and Germany) on 15th December 1866, he was the son of a clerk, whose sudden death threw the family into destitution. His mother ran a pension for students at Kielce High School. A gifted pupil, he entered Warsaw University and took courses in natural sciences and medicine. At first attracted briefly by Polish nationalism, he moved towards revolutionary socialism and Marxism. He was first arrested in 1891 for distributing revolutionary literature and served a four month sentence at Cracow. He was then allowed to emigrate to Zurich. There he lost any illusions he had about Polish socialists who he saw were not fighting to liberate the working class, but to establish an independent Polish state. He was arrested again in 1892 following a strike in Lodz as a result of his writing an appeal to the workers to fight both the Tsar and the bosses.

He now served a three year sentence, first at Cracow and then at Saint Petersburg. After this he was sent to exile in Siberia for 5 years.

In exile Machajski met social democrats and narodniks (populists) who debated what was the way to socialism for Russia, an European model or a transition directly to a new society founded on the rural commune and cooperatives of workers. He had access to the well-stocked library of another exile, where he read both Russian texts and those German social democrat texts that were only then circulating in Russia.

The result of this was a pamphlet that he self-published in 1898, The Evolution of Social Democracy. This was a critique of the reformism and opportunism of German Social Democracy and its increasing integration into the State apparatus. This meant a collaboration of the Social Democratic MPs, elected by the working class, in the conduct of the affairs of the bourgeoisie. This critique did not mean a break with Marxism, it was an attempt to correct its practice. It came before the appearence of the revisionism of Bernstein within German social democracy, which confirmed his theses.

Machajski now began to look for reasons for the development of opportunism and reformism, examining both the late writings of Engels and the early writings of Marx.

Trotsky met Machajski in exile and felt that the latter, in his rejection of the political struggle, was influenced by anarchism, and in particular by anarcho-syndicalism. But Machajski was as unsparing of his criticisms of anarchism as he was of Marxism.

He began to posit the idea that not only the capitalists and the big landlords but a “democratic fraction” of the bourgeoisie were the enemies of the working class. He believed that the development of industry under capitalism led to the emergence of a new layer of qualified workers-technicians, scientists, engineers, managerial and administrative staff. In conjunction with the already established intelligentsia-lawyers, journalists, professors and literati- this group had an important role in the running of capitalism, but without the command structures that industrial and financial capital, big landowners and the military leadership had. “A larger and larger part of bourgeois society receives the funds for its parasitic existence as an intelligentsia, an army of intellectual workers which does not personally possess the means of production but continually increases and multiplies its income, which it obtains as the hereditary owner of all knowledge, culture and civilisation.”

This new class, Machajski thought, was in a vulnerable position, trapped as it was between the old ruling class and the working class. Sometimes it spoke in favour of the working class, sometimes it actively defending its
cause, but only to attempt to control the working class, and at the same time to substitute themselves for the old working class. Thus Machajski developed an early theory of state capitalism, that is, that “ the socialisation of the means of production signifies only the suppression of the private right of property and management of factories and the land”. Further, “The expropriation of the capitalist class still in no way signifies the expropriation of all of bourgeois society. By the suppression of private capitalists, the modern working class, the contemporary slaves, do not stop being condemned to manual labour for all their lives; consequently the national surplus value created by them does not disappear, but passes into the hands of the democratic State, in as much as funds of maintenance of the parasitic existence of all the plunderers, of all of bourgeois society. This last, after the suppression of of the capitalists, continues to be a society dominating all as before, that of the cultivated directors and managers, of the world of “white hands…”.

From an orthodox Marxist position Machajski progressed to seeing Marx as the prophet of this new dominant class. His reading of Das Kapital lead him to believe that Marx privileged this new class. So for Machajski, the “first task of Marxism is to mask the class interest of cultivated society,at the time of the development of big industry; the class interest of privileged mercenaries, of intellectual workers in the capitalist State”.

As a counter measure to this, Machajski posed the revolt of the “horny handed”. In many ways he proposed an apolitical economism similar to some forms of revolutionary syndicalism. In place of social democracy and anarchism, there would be an epoch of international workers’ conspiracies, imposing through world general strikes, their demands on the State. This would eventually lead, through a series of insurrections, to the expropriation not solely of the capitalists, but also of all cultured society, of all the consumers of revenues exceeding that of the worker.

After his five years of exile, Machajski was again arrested and eventually assigned to live in the far east of the Russian empire, at Irkutsk. Here a group of workers gathered around him and produced a leaflet calling for the 1st of May 1902 into a day of economic struggle. He was again arrested and sentenced to 7 years exile in deepest Siberia at Kolyma. He managed to escape to Geneva in Switzerland in autumn 1903. Here he republished his The Intellectual Worker, followed by 2 more pamphlets, The Bankruptcy of Socialism in the 19th Century, and The Bourgeois Revolution and the Workers Cause.

His taste for pure alcohol and his exile and imprisonments had aged him and he appeared to be fifty years old rather than forty.

Meanwhile a workers’ group based on his ideas was formed at Odessa. The 1905 Revolution led to similar groups being formed at Ekaterinoslav, Vilnius, Bialystok, Warsaw and St Petersburg. Machajski himself returned to St Petersburg in 1906 and took part in the Workers Conspiracy group there. Here he reedited his works, now rejecting the idea of progress as sketched by Marx. He refused to call the actions of certain classes revolutionary, rejecting fatalistic economic laws, under the guise of progress. For him the motor of historic change was not the dialectical contradiction between the development of productive forces and social relations, but the antagonism between the elite and the masses, between the order giver and order taker, between the intellectuals and the manual workers.

Whilst denouncing anarchism as part of the intellectual plot against the masses, in many ways his ideas came close to anarchist positions. It should be remembered that he read Bakunin whilst in exile, although he never acknowledged his debt to him. He remarked that the destruction of the State would lead to the suppression of secular pillage, and that whatever regime was in place, bourgeois or socialist, reactionary or progressive, it would matter little if the situation of the workers remained the same. Like the anarchists, he grouped the peasantry together with the proletariat as part of the toiling masses, and added the lumpenproletariat to these categories, meanwhile regarding self-educated workers who had integrated into the system as privileged intellectuals.

Machajski fled Russia in 1907, returning to Switzerland and then moving on to Poland. After fresh persecution he moved to France The outbreak of the Russian Revolution saw his return to Russia. Like many others he welcomed the Bolshevik seizure of power, but criticised the new regime for its timidity in not fully expropriating the bourgeoisie. He soon realised that the new regime was not a friend of the masses and that the intelligentsia was filling all the bureaucratic posts created by it. Thus a new “people’s” bureaucracy was created. Machajski finished by asserting: ”the working masses must lead their revolution themselves, despite the socialist hypnotists. The workers' revolution goes further than all the socialist plans and problems. The emancipation of the workers, the overthrow of the oppression they undergo, are much stronger causes than that of socialism. The latter brings forces for the sole overthrow of the capitalists, but then wants to replace them with the class of hereditary "white-collar" workers, while leaving the class of manual workers and their families in servitude.”

Machajski was obviously not viewed favourably by the new authorities, and the magazine in which his criticisms appeared, The Workers

Revolution, was closed down by them in 1918, after one issue. His health took a turn for the worse, and he survived by acting as a technical proof reader for an official economic magazine. He died of a heart attack on February 19th, 1926.

The anarchist communist Piotr Arshinov writing in the exile anarchist magazine Dielo Trouda in Paris, remarked after the death of Machajski that "From the dawn of the Russian emancipatory movement (1900-1905), Machajski had warned the Russian working class against the belief in democracy, against the so-called "popular power", declaring that behind all these slogans was the offensive of a new dominant group seeking to attack the freedom and independence of the slaves of manual labour, and he called those to fight for their own class interests. " Arshinov noted the extreme hostility that Machajski’s ideas were received in the socialist parties. He delineated the differences between the ideas of anarchism and those of Machajski, who had ended up rejecting all ideologies, whereas anarchism had developed its own ideology based on the daily struggle against capital. All the same, the experiences of the Russian Revolution had confirmed Machajski’s theses as being essentially correct about the character of the current regime in Russia. The movement around Machajski, the Makhaevschtina, had in practice according to Arshinov, been closely allied to the Russian anarchist movement.

Indeed leading anarchists like Olga Taratuta and Vladimir Striga worked closely with Makhaevists in Odessa. Similarly the anarchosyndicalist Novomirski echoed Machajski’s ideas when he wrote in 1905 "Which clan does contemporary socialism serve in fact and not in words? We answer at once and without beating about the bush: Socialism is not the expression of the interests of the working class, but of the so-called raznochintsy, or declasse intelligentsia”. Machajski’s ideas also heavily influenced the Social-Revolutionary Maximalists, a party whose ideas were close to those of revolutionary anarchism.

What criticisms could be made of Machajski? To begin with, at the time some anarchists criticised him for his lack of ideology, and that he ended merely as a revolutionary syndicalist with economistic ideas. Machajski saw demands for higher wages and shorter hours as the fulcrum for revolutionary social change. As Max Nomad wrote:” Under the system of government ownership, the workers, in Machajski's opinion, would still continue their revolutionary struggle. Not in order to "abolish the State," which would be childish, for the State as an instrument of class domination will exist as long as there is a separate class of educated managers and organizers of all branches of economic and public life, as opposed to the mass of uneducated manual workers. Neither would that

struggle have to aim at changing the government, which would be an idle pastime and only lead to the substitution of a new set of intellectuals, or self-taught ex-workers, for the old ones. The only aim of the workers' struggle would be to force the State to raise wages until the manual workers had equalized their standard of living with that of their educated masters. Equality of incomes would create equal educational opportunities for the offspring of technician and menial alike, thus ushering in a classless, and consequently stateless, society.”

Furthermore, in actual fact, if the Bolshevik leadership was primarily made up of intellectuals, as can be seen from a questionnaire put out and answered at a conference of the central committee in 1917,(1) it represented only a fraction of that grouping, as intellectuals in the Cadets, Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries were to see their parties harassed and banned by the Bolsheviks.

We also have a problem with Machajski’s definition of the term intelligentsia. The intelligentsia (intelligentsiya) in Russia was used to describe a grouping- artists, professors, some teachers,lawyers, engineers, writers, journalists, men of letters, philosophers and sociologists. The intelligentsia had been created by the modernising and Westernising Tsar Peter the Great and as such were imbued with ideas of “progress”. Later Tsars frowned on the concept of “Progress” which accounted for the large number of intellectuals that entered the Narodnik movement. As Isaiah Berlin was to write: "The phenomenon, itself, with its historical and literally revolutionary consequences, is, I suppose, the largest, single Russian contribution to social change in the world. The concept of intelligentsia must not be confused with the notion of intellectuals. Its members thought of themselves as united, by something more than mere interest in ideas; they conceived themselves as being a dedicated order, almost a secular priesthood, devoted to the spreading of a specific attitude to life(in A Remarkable Decade in Russian Thinkers, Penguin 2013). However Machajski meant it in a different way, applying it to all those who had a higher education, and including self-educated workers and peasants who had somehow risen out of their class.

We also have the problem of the Bolsheviks’ attitude to the intelligentsia. Lenin was to write in a letter to the writer Maxim Gorky: “The intellectual forces of the workers and peasants are growing and getting stronger in their fight to overthrow the bourgeoisie and their accomplices, the educated classes, the lackeys of capital, who consider themselves the brains of the nation. In fact they are not its brains but its shit…” So whilst Lenin was himself a member of that intelligentsia, he had a very low opinion of it.

Not only was the Russian intelligentsia divided and decimated by emigration after the 1917 Revolution but it was divided between the Whites and the different left parties. In addition Lenin and the Bolsheviks led a campaign against the intelligentsia, including mass arrests of professors and scientists identified with the Cadets. He deported intellectuals from the Cadets, Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries and the various nationalist parties to Germany on the so-called Philosophers’ Ships in 1922.

So it can be argued that the development of state capitalism in Russia and with it the development of a new bureaucratic class, was not so much due to the incipient need of the intelligentsia to become a new ruling class, but to the politics and ideology of the Bolsheviks, their centralisation and increasing bureaucracy, their separation from the working class and their antipathy towards the peasants. In fact a purge of the revolutionary intelligentsia was initiated by Stalin in the late 1920s and early 1930s, resulting in the imprisonment of at least 2,000 of them and the deaths of 1,500 of these in jails and labour camps.

So whilst Machajski’s ideas on the subject of socialism and the intellectuals are thought provoking, it can be demonstrated that socialism was never the universal ideology of the Russian intelligentsia, which remained divided on many levels. At best, it was a fraction of the radical intelligentsia that led the Bolshevik seizure of power.

Finally there was the paradox that Machajski was himself from the intelligentsia, and his rather ineffectual Workers Conspiracy groups included other intellectuals.

Nevertheless his most important theses point to the centrality of the working class the motor of revolution and that intellectuals should not be allowed to form a leadership elite within that revolutionary movement. As we wrote when we were members of the Anarchist Communist Federation in the pamphlet Role of the Revolutionary Organisation (1991 edition): “The intellectual has a role to play in helping to clarify positions inside the organisation, but he/she should never have a privileged position inside it. In fact the practicality of working class people very often outstrips the intellectual in theory and practice. Workers must be the vast majority inside a revolutionary organisation.”


Further reading:

Nomad, Max. White Collars & Horny Hands: the revolutionary thought of Waclaw Machajski

Skirda. A. Le Socialisme des Intellectuels. Paris (1979)

Shatz, Marshall S. Jan Waclaw Machajski: A R

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Jul 1 2020 09:37


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