Socialism and the intelligentsia: The ideas of Jan Machajski in historical retrospect - Paul Flewers

A balanced critique of the anti-Bolshevik socialist Jan Machajski by Paul Flewers, from a Trotskyist influence perspective.

The predominance of intellectuals in the leadership of most if not all left wing organisations, and their presence to some degree or another amongst the rank and file, often give rise to the idea that socialism and/or Marxism represent the interests of intellectuals, that the working class is merely the agency by which the intellectuals are to gain power, and that socialism merely means the replacement of one ruling elite by another. This idea is often spread about by those who wish to keep the working class firmly under the influence of bourgeois ideology, and who are indeed part of today’s ruling elite. But such ideas have also had a long history within the working class movement, and those adhering to these ideas consider that they have been validated by the experience of the Russian Revolution. One of the most noteworthy exponents of these ideas was the Polish revolutionary Jan Waclaw Machajski, who developed his theories in late Tsarist Russia, that is to say, in a period and in a place in which intellectuals played an exceptionally predominant part within the revolutionary movement.

The term ‘intelligentsia’ is problematic as although there is general agreement that it constitutes a discrete social stratum, there are two widely accepted definitions of it, particularly in respect of Russia. The first and more commonly accepted definition is relatively narrow, and refers to intellectual opposition in countries in which what is fashionably called ‘civil society’ is or has been stunted, and which in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was of a liberal or socialist character. Boris Kagarlitsky says:

‘The traditional role of the intelligentsia is to speak out in the name of the people against the undemocratic state: the intelligentsia defends not only its own interests, but those of the oppressed, viewing its activity as closely connected with the struggle for democracy. It is precisely these moral principles which used to bind the intelligentsia into a single whole.’1

The second definition, adhered to by Machajski and later on by the Soviet bureaucracy, is extremely broad, and quite simply means anyone with higher education.

I. Peasants, Workers, Intellectuals and Anti-Intellectualism

Although the Russian intelligentsia put itself at the service of the Russian masses, it did not necessarily mean that the masses were enamoured of the intellectuals’ efforts to serve them, or indeed wanted to have anything to do with them. Paul Avrich, the sympathetic historian of Russian anarchism, says that ‘nowhere in Europe was there greater hostility towards the educated classes than in the villages of mother Russia’.2 The hostile reception that the populists received when they ‘went to the people’ in the 1870s came as a shock to them. Hostility was expressed at various times by workers to the involvement of students and other intellectuals in the early days of the working class movement.3

Manifestations of such hostility continued with the growth of the labour movement and the formation of organisations such as the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. The predominance of intellectuals in the leadership of not merely the RSDLP but of other radical organisations,4 the manner in which the parties were organised, and the predilection of their leaders for debates and disputes which seemed a long way from the interests of the working class, helped to strain relations between the intellectuals and the workers. It should not, however, be considered that these relations were always poor, and evidence exists to show that workers and intellectuals did also work amicably together.5 It would be in order to suggest that workers would welcome the intellectuals’ intervention in their activities if they felt that it was of some help, but would resent their involvement if they thought it condescending, arrogant or irrelevant.

John Keep says that the complex and hierarchical structures of the RSDLP gave the intellectuals who were mid-range party leaders, the committee men, considerable control over a network of committees and other party bodies, which they ran often with little reference to the rank and file, or which had ‘a semi-fictional existence’, which led to them ‘confusing the actual circumstances that confronted them with the imaginary situation they desired to bring about’, and becoming very much out of touch with those whom they deemed to represent. This tendency was less common among the rank and file members, ‘and does much to explain the tension that developed between them and the intellectuals’.6

Another observer says that the split in the RSDLP in 1903 seemed to many workers to be ‘doctrinal hair-splitting’, and the continuing factional dogfights ‘reinforced anti-intelligentsia feelings’.7

Stalin revealed that the social democrats’ working class base was not looking with much sympathy upon the dense philosophical debates amongst the party leaders in foreign exile. In 1911 he said that ‘in general the workers are beginning to look upon the emigration with disdain: "Let them crawl on the wall to their hearts’ content; but as we see it, let anyone who values the interests of the movement work, the rest will take care of itself."’ And he reflected that antipathy when he declared that the philosophical debate between Bogdanov and Lenin was a ‘tempest in a teacup’.8

Not only were there anti-intellectual sentiments amongst the masses, they existed within the intelligentsia itself. The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin fulminated against Marx’s concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat:

‘That would be the rule of the scientific intellect, the most autocratic, the most despotic, the most arrogant, and the most insolent of all regimes. There will be a new class, a new hierarchy of genuine or sham savants, and the world will be divided into a dominant minority in the name of science, and an immense ignorant majority.’9

Avrich says that ‘most Russian anarchists harboured a deep-seated distrust of rational systems and of the intellectuals who constructed them’, although this anti-intellectualism ‘existed in varying degrees’ within the anarchist movement.10 The growing reformist trends within Western European socialism was another factor in the development of anti-intellectualism in the anarchist movement, not least in Russia.

Syndicalists, too, often adopted an anti-intellectual stance. Daniil Novomirski, a leading anarcho-syndicalist in Odessa, and a former social democrat, wrote in 1905:

‘Which class does contemporary socialism serve in fact and not in words? We answer it 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 raznochintsi, or déclassé intelligentsia.’11

An anti-intellectual current developed quite early on within the Russian social democratic movement with the rise of the economists. Many socialist leaders were impressed by the workers’ spontaneous activity during the large strike wave in the mid-1890s, and came to conclude that the social democratic movement should limit itself to working around the demands that the strike movement was throwing up, rather than pushing the wider Marxian project. Avrich says:

‘Underlying the anti-intellectualism of the "economists" was the conviction that the intelligentsia looked upon the working class simply as the means to a higher goal, as an abstract mass predestined to carry out the immutable will of history. According to the "economists", the intellectuals, instead of bringing their knowledge to bear on the concrete problems of factory life, were inclined to lose themselves in ideologies that had no relation to the true needs of the workers.’12

The early years of this century saw a number of writers elsewhere in Europe who were very critical of the intelligentsia, including Arturo Labriola, Hubert Lagardelle, Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Michels and Georges Sorel. Their outlooks differed and their theories varied, but they all expressed the problem of the relationship between intellectuals and the workers’ movement, and rooted the growing moderation of the socialist movement in the predominance of intellectuals within its leadership.13

II. Machajski and Makhaevism

Jan Waclaw Machajski was born in 1866 to a poor family in the Congress Kingdom of Poland, which was under Russian rule. His father was a minor official. He attended university, where he became radicalised. Aligning himself with the most militant elements of Polish socialism, he eschewed the growing nationalist wing within the Polish socialist movement, whom he saw as downgrading the struggle of the working class. It was during his period of exile in Siberia that he began to study the problems of the social democratic movement. His writings were circulated around the exile settlements, and provoked a considerable amount of animated discussion.14 At first his critique of the revisionist trends in the social democratic movement was along conventional Marxian lines. However, he soon started to question the nature of Marxism itself, and he continued with this after his escape and his move to Switzerland. Unfortunately, as far as I am aware, there no English editions of his writings, and his ideas are necessarily filtered through the perceptions of his biographers and critics.

Machajski felt that Marxism allowed the ‘continual penetration of non-proletarian elements into the revolutionary army of the proletariat’, which would ‘hinder its development and its definitive attack on the bourgeois order’.15 He eschewed the struggle for democratic and political rights, and considered that the working class movement should concentrate purely upon economic issues, as the other issues would lead the socialists into deals and arrangements with non-proletarian forces.

Machajski’s thinking was greatly affected by a series of articles on the intelligentsia written in the mid-1890s by Karl Kautsky. Kautsky noticed that as capitalism developed, there was a great increase of people who were involved in intellectual work, who made their living by the sale of their ‘special knowledge and talents’.16 This new social stratum had no independent class interests of its own, and apart from those directly associated with the control and exploitation of the ruling class, the majority of its members were, as Marshall Shatz, Machajski’s biographer, paraphrases Kautsky:

‘... a potential ally of the proletariat by virtue of its role as a bystander in the process of capitalist exploitation, its lack of a homogenous class interest, and its broader intellectual horizon, which gave it a greater capacity than any other part of the population for rising above its own interests and looking at the needs of society as a whole.’17

Machajski rejected the conception of this new stratum being a potential ally of the working class. For him, these intellectuals were part of the exploiting class, as bad as any capitalist. They may not have owned any means of production, but they did possess a privileged access to knowledge:

‘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.’18

This was the crucial point. Machajski considered that the intelligentsia formed an exploiting class. It did not produce value, only the working class did that, so it lived off the surplus value expropriated from the working class by means of high salaries received through its monopoly of knowledge:

‘Bourgeois society passes on to its offspring surplus value appropriated under the guise of a reward for labour "of a higher quality", and the greatest riches of mankind — knowledge, science — become the hereditary monopoly of a privileged minority.’19

For Machajski socialism did not represent the abolition of classes, but the accession to power of the intellectuals, who would then constitute a ruling class. This had two variants. In Western Europe, where the social democrats considered that capitalism had developed sufficiently for socialism to be upon the agenda, Machajski considered that they were aiming to use the working class to defeat the bourgeoisie in order to impose their rule as a ruling class of intellectuals. In Russia, where the social democrats were aiming for the establishment of a bourgeois republic, Machajski said they ‘tirelessly affirmed the impossibility of a proletarian revolution in Russia only so that the Russian intelligentsia could organise its own bourgeois revolution, with the workers serving merely as cannon-fodder’,20 presumably to fill the place of the absent bourgeoisie. Either way, of course, the working class would lose out.

Both Shatz and Avrich consider that much of Machajski’s critique of the relationship between socialism and the intelligentsia paralleled that of Bakunin, although the former says ‘he never acknowledged his influence’.21 Certainly, as we have seen, other theorists reached similar conceptions independently. Avrich says that ‘the anti-political and anti-intellectual arguments’ of the Economists also ‘made an indelible impression’ upon Machajski.22

Although the ideas of Machajski had some resonance amongst the working class, he had little success in building a movement of any stature, despite the prevalence of anti-intellectual sentiments. The problem facing Machajski was that he was unable to go beyond attacks upon the intelligentsia and broad calls for revolt. He had no concept of transition from a workers’ revolt to a new society, nor could he speculate upon the nature of that new society. Shatz considers that his ideas were ‘both too broad and too narrow to serve as an effective revolutionary ideology’:

‘Its criticism of the intelligentsia appealed to people of such divergent viewpoints and interests that it could not weld them together as a cohesive force... At the same time, Makhaevism was too narrow in that it was an essentially negative viewpoint. While criticising and rejecting the ideals and programmes of the other revolutionary movements, it offered in their place only the haziest vision of a new and better world and no prospect of achieving it in the near future.’23

In his sympathetic review of a French edition of Machajski’s works, Adam Westoby says that he ‘rejects the idea of workers’ power realising universal interests, and the Marxian vision of human emancipation under communism’, and states that ‘the stirring question what mankind may do if it gains control of its social life remains a closed book’.24 Machajski was, therefore, more notable for his theories of the intelligentsia than for his record as a practical political activist.

Machajski’s silence on the issue of organisation has been seen as ominous. Ernest Haberkern considers that his hostility to intellectuals and his view that the educational development of workers would merely put them in a better position to deceive the rank and file, logically led him to look favourably at the more lumpenised sections of society, to favour a conspiratorial form of organisation, and to be hostile to representative organisations and to democracy in general.

Haberkern notes an ironic parallel between the German revisionist Eduard Bernstein and Machajski in that both considered that the growth of the middle class put paid to the proletariat becoming a majority within society. But whereas Bernstein concluded that the socialists should accommodate to the middle class, Machajski concluded that the working class would become even more marginalised in a modernising, democratising society, and that workers were obliged to work in a perpetually conspiratorial manner. Haberkern says:

‘Only an underground conspiracy can carry out the kind of blackmail the oppressed minority must use to achieve its end. Machajski does not object to the demagogic and sham character of representative institutions under capitalism... Instead, he objects to such institutions to the extent that they do represent more or less accurately the real sentiments of the majority.’25

And just as Bakunin and Machajski shared a hatred of intellectuals, their shared condemnation and rejection of organised political bodies as playthings of the intelligentsia was matched by an equal predilection for conspiratorial bodies in which the absence of any structure would mean the absence of any accountability.26

III. Machajski, Lenin and the Intelligentsia

It is ironic that Lenin and Machajski came close to agreeing around one the most fundamental issues which divided them. In 1902 Lenin looked at the role of the intelligentsia in the development of Russian social democracy. He said that ‘the theory of socialism... grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals’, and that ‘in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of social democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working class movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia.’27 Although Machajski would have violently disagreed with Lenin’s opinion that the working class ‘exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness’,28 his concept of the social origins of socialism coincided with that of Lenin.

Considering that many observers have seen Russian social democracy as being a movement, in one way or another, of the Russian intelligentsia, Lenin’s own opinion of that stratum was pretty low, notwithstanding his own membership of it and his acknowledgement of its historical role.29 He often complained about its apparent refusal to accept any form of discipline, which he put down to ‘the ways of thinking which reflect the petit-bourgeois mode of life’.30

Even at the time when Lenin was attempting to create a narrow cadre party, he specifically looked to working class activists who, despite the overwhelming problems facing them, had become politically conscious socialists, or as he put it, ‘the working class intelligentsia’. He implored his party comrades to ‘make every effort’ to ensure that the ranks of this working class intelligentsia ‘are regularly reinforced, that its lofty mental requirements are met, and that leaders of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party come from its ranks’.31 In What Is To Be Done?, usually considered to be a work of extreme elitism, he emphasises that ‘all distinctions as between workers and intellectuals... must be effaced’.32 Lenin wanted to raise the level of knowledge of the working class movement as far as possible up to the level of the intelligentsia.33

Because of this, however, Lenin’s ideas and practice have been seen as the most effective means for the intelligentsia to seize power. In a work which has some affinity with Machajski’s concepts, two recent emigré writers from Eastern Europe, George Konrád and Ivan Szelényi, consider that Bolshevism was in essence the organisational form that the intelligentsia took in its struggle for power. Tsarist society was increasingly unable to contain social conflicts, and there was the chance that it would collapse, ‘and if it did the moment would be at hand when a well-prepared and well-organised minority might seize political power’: ‘Thus for Lenin the function of the workers’ party was not to represent workers’ interests, but to prepare for the seizure of power and serve as the organisational prototype of a new form of state power.’34 This is why Lenin concentrated so much upon the organisational form of the party. Konrád and Szelényi claim that not only did the Bolshevik style of party with its cadres of professional revolutionaries militate against it ever becoming a mass working class party, but it ensured that anyone joining it would be drawn into the intelligentsia and its quest for state power. The validity of this will be investigated below.

IV. 1917: The Revolution of the Intelligentsia?

Using the term in its narrower sense, conservative commentators have long considered that the intelligentsia was largely responsible for the October Revolution, and that the establishment of the Soviet regime represented its victory. Ascribing to this ‘class in opposition’ astonishing power as it acted as ‘the catalytic agent that precipitated the Russian revolution’, the leading conservative historian Richard Pipes makes this truly gross assertion:

‘Nothing in early twentieth century Russia inexorably pushed the country towards revolution, except the presence of an unusually large and fanatical body of professional revolutionaries. It is they who with their well-organised agitational campaigns in 1917 transformed a local fire, the mutiny of Petrograd’s military garrison, into a nationwide conflagration.’35

Another right wing observer, Martin Malia, says that ‘for decades the intelligentsia was able to exert a political pressure on the autocracy greater than that exercised by more palpable classes such as the gentry or the bourgeoisie’, and this culminated in 1917, with it ‘assuming absolute power over all classes’.36

Radical observers defined the intelligentsia in a much broader manner, but their conclusions were often very similar. Machajski considered that the October Revolution had been a timid affair, as the Bolsheviks had not properly expropriated the bourgeoisie because they ‘retreated before the will of the intelligentsia’ and ‘saved the bourgeoisie from ruin’. Moreover, the Bolsheviks were ‘not fighters for the emancipation of the working class, but defenders of the lower strata of existing bourgeois society, and of the intelligentsia above all’.37

The anarchists adopted various attitudes towards the Soviet state, from friendly if critical cooperation, through tolerance, to outright opposition. The more critical anarchists continued with their anti-intellectual stance, seeing the Soviet republic as ‘state capitalist’ and ruled by ‘a new class of administrators — a new class born largely from the womb of the intelligentsia’, as one anarchist put it in 1918.38 In the early 1920s, Peter Arshinov posed the Bolshevik seizure of power within the framework of an analysis of the Russian intelligentsia which bore some resemblance to the ideas of Machajski. After 1825, he argued, the intelligentsia gradually became ‘a well-defined social economic group’, just like other ‘dominant privileged groups who stood outside the working population’, and its ideas became a ‘statist system’:

‘The doctrine of the state itself, the idea of managing the masses by force, was always an attribute of individuals who lacked the sentiment of equality and in whom the instinct of egoism was dominant; individuals for whom the human masses are a raw material lacking will, initiative and intelligence, incapable of directing themselves... It is not by chance that contemporary socialism shows itself to be the zealous servant of this idea: it is the ideology of the new ruling caste.’39

He considered that the October Revolution represented the accession to power of the intellectuals, the ‘socialist democracy’, of whom the Bolsheviks were merely the most artful. The Soviet system was ‘nothing other than the construction of a new class domination over the producers, the establishment of a new socialist power over them’, the plans for which having been ‘elaborated and prepared during several decades by the leaders of the socialist democracy’.40

At least one anarchist journal attempted a more functional analysis. An article from 1918, which Avrich calls ‘a remarkable departure’41 from the anarchists’ usual concept of the Bolsheviks as betrayers of the Russian working class, declared:

‘The separation of management from labour, the division between administrators and workers flows logically from centralisation. It cannot be otherwise. There are no other words to the song. The song goes thus: management implies responsibility, and can responsibility be compared with ordinary labour? Responsibility demands special rights and advantages.’42

Critical left wing currents emerged amongst the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution, and in the early 1920s established themselves within and later outwith the official communist movement, not merely within the Soviet Union, but on an international basis as well. One of their main criticisms of the Soviet regime was its use of ‘bourgeois specialists’, who were merging with the personnel of the increasingly bureaucratised party and state machinery to form a nascent new ruling elite. In his study of dissident communists, Robert Daniels says that an ‘anti-intellectual sentiment’ was ‘characteristic of much of the extreme left’, even if, especially after 1921, ‘the opposition’s support was definitely concentrated in intellectual circles’.43

These currents were particularly hostile to what Alexandra Kollontai of the Workers Opposition called the ‘specialists’ and ‘pseudo-specialists’ who would ‘throw out the worker, and fill up all the high administrative posts of our industrial and economic institutions’. Accusing the party programme of ‘being gradually transformed into an upper class policy’, she called for the expulsion ‘of all non-proletarian elements’ from the party: ‘Only then will it [the party] be able vigorously to repel all the influences that are now being brought to bear on it by petit-bourgeois elements, peasants, or by the faithful servants of capital — the specialists.’44 The Workers Truth group in 1922 considered that a ‘new bourgeoisie’ comprised of ‘responsible party workers, directors of factories, managers of trusts, presidents of executive committees, etc’ had emerged in the Soviet Union.45

Soviet and Western commentators have often attempted to connect the views expressed by oppositional communists after 1917 with those held by Machajski.46 In his article on Gavriil Miasnikov, an Old Bolshevik who moved into opposition during the early 1920s, Avrich says that ‘in his strong anti-intellectual bias, coupled with his scorn for managers and bureaucrats, Miasnikov esembled... Machajski’, and that ‘the similarities between them are undeniable’:

‘For bureaucrats and intellectuals, Miasnikov’s contempt was unbridled. He branded the Bolshevik hierarchy an "oligarchical caste", a "high-handed bunch of intellectuals", a "managerial fraternity" that held the reins of industry and government in its hands.’47

However, what is probably the most far-going explanation by an oppositional communist of the rise of the Soviet elite, that elaborated by Trotsky, is notable as it does not concentrate upon the intelligentsia.48

Some left communists came to deny that there had ever been a proletarian revolution in Russia. They recognised, or came to recognise, Russian Marxism as a movement of the intelligentsia, which, in the absence of a bourgeoisie, was obliged to lead the fight against absolutism. Unable to get support from the Western bourgeoisie, which was by now opposed to revolutionary upheavals, the Russian intelligentsia was obliged to rely upon the proletariat, and, as the council communist Anton Pannekoek put it, Russian Marxism ‘necessarily assumed another character than in Western Europe’: ‘It was still a theory of a fighting working class, but this class had to fight first and foremost for what in Western Europe had been the function and work of the bourgeoisie, with the intellectuals as its associates.’ The Russian Revolution necessarily introduced a ‘new system of state capitalism’, as the Russian intellectuals, ‘with the basis of a rapidly developing production system under their direction, saw the future open up before them as the ruling class of an immense empire’.49 In a Soviet prison camp, Vladimir Smirnov, a member of the Democratic Centralist faction, told the Yugoslav communist Ante Ciliga:

‘There has never been a proletarian revolution, nor a dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia, there has simply been a "popular revolution" from below and a dictatorship from above. Lenin was never an ideologist of the proletariat. From beginning to end he was an ideologist of the intelligentsia.’50

Whether this oppositionist had come across Machajski is not said, but the common thread of ideas is visible.51

It is incorrect to view the October Revolution as a seizure of power by the intelligentsia. Using the term in the broad sense, only a small proportion of ‘educated society’ supported the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, and large numbers of white collar employees in both the public and private sectors staged a protest strike against it, refusing to serve the new regime.52 It is wrong to consider the Bolshevik party in 1917 to be an organisation of the intelligentsia, although many of its leaders were from an intellectual background or were members of the ‘working class intelligentsia’, to use Lenin’s term. The party’s membership increased from 23 600 in January 1917 to around 200 000 in August,53 the bulk of its recruits were workers, and support for the party grew tremendously within working class organisations.

It is equally incorrect to view the Soviet regime as being the rule of the intelligentsia. The notion expressed by left communists and leftist critics of the Bolsheviks that ‘bourgeois specialists’ formed part of a ruling elite is absurd. To be sure, they were materially privileged; they had to be effectively bribed into working for the new regime, but they had no political power. Nonetheless, the relationship between the party-state apparatus and the masses rapidly became antagonistic. Was this due to the lust for power on the part of the intelligentsia, or were other factors involved?

It is clear that the establishment of a soviet regime in backward Russia would immediately pose problems. As the Soviet government and state apparatus claimed to represent the popular masses, this meant that the organisations that under previous governments had been set up to defend the working class were now in a position of mediating between the workers expressing their local and individual interests, and the apparatus, which had much wider interests and concerns. In theory, there was no essential contradiction between the Soviet apparatus and the working class. But the precipitous decline in industry, food shortages, the need to increase discipline at work, etc, quickly led to tensions between the working class and the institutions of the Soviet regime. Within a few months of the October Revolution, many workers were becoming disillusioned with the Bolsheviks, either showing less interest in politics, or supporting non-Bolshevik parties. The sheer struggle for survival led many workers to dabble in petty trading, often using the factory’s scarce resources to make household items and farm tools to exchange for agricultural produce. Many others left for the countryside. As the Civil War progressed, many prominent Bolsheviks considered that the working class had become declassed.

The establishment of the Soviet regime brought to the fore the problems posed by the absorption of the most politically aware workers into party and state institutions. In his study of Petrograd workers, David Mandel says:

‘The transformation of these [proletarian] organisations into organs of administration and of the Bolshevik Party into a ruling party, the assumption of new administrative responsibilities by worker militants and their loss of direct continuous contact with the factory milieu inevitably gave rise to a certain "administrative outlook". It expressed itself, however imperceptibly at first, in changes of attitude and tone towards the remaining factory masses, in the development of a certain condescension and impatience towards their problems and particularly their protests, and in a growing intolerance of the worker opposition.’54

Within a few months of the October Revolution, a wide range of problems — the low level of popular culture caused by the general backwardness of society, and the increasing difficulties caused by economic collapse and the Civil War — led to the party-state apparatus falling out with the control of the masses, and in fact moving towards becoming a ruling group over society as the party tended to substitute itself for the disintegrating proletariat.55 Robert Conquest says that by the end of the Civil War, and especially when it became clear that European proletarian revolutions were no longer on the immediate agenda, the party was ‘cut off from its social justification’, and was ‘left quite evidently representing no one, or not many, in the actual world’: ‘It now felt that it represented not so much the Russian proletariat as it existed, but the future and real interests of that proletariat.’56

The Bolshevik party itself changed. The percentage of workers in the party stood at 60.2 per cent in 1917, but had decreased to 41 per cent in 1921, rising after a large-scale purge to 45 per cent in 1922.

The percentage of white collar workers stood roughly at 30 per cent throughout the period, and the percentage of peasants grew from 7.5 per cent in 1917 to 28.2 per cent in 1921, dropping to 26 per cent in 1922.57 On the other hand, the proportion of workers elected to the party’s central committee increased as the committee grew in size, from 12 per cent in April 1917, through 22 per cent in August 1917, to 44 per cent in 1922.58 However, after 1917 the description of worker referred to his or her background, and in 1919 only 11 per cent of working class members were still employed in industry, 60 per cent were engaged in administrative work in the state, party and trade union structures, and 25 per cent were in the Red Army.59 The party-state apparatus was losing its working class roots, and was becoming increasingly divorced from the proletariat. The dynamic relationship that grew up in 1917 between the Bolsheviks and the working class had largely been destroyed during the Civil War, and in many respects the party-state apparatus was relating to the proletariat as an external, alien phenomenon, a process that was to become more profound as the 1920s drew by.

In an article that will be familiar to readers, Christian Rakovsky touched on this issue. Looking back in 1928, he said that whilst the proletariat is on the offensive, it exhibits ‘the maximum of unity and cohesion’. After it seizes power, only one of its parts ‘becomes the agent of that power’. Controlling this situation necessitates ‘educating politically the dominant class in such a way as to make it capable of holding the state apparatus, the party and the syndicates, of controlling and directing these organisms’. If this proves impossible, then the functional differentiation between the party-state apparatus and the proletariat would become a social differentiation, which is what occurred in the Soviet republic.60

V. Conclusion

If, as Pipes says, the rise of Russian intelligentsia was connected with ‘the emergence... of the concept of the "critically thinking personality" as the agent of progress in a backward society’, and with the influence of Western rationalist and radical views,61 then it can hardly be surprising that a large number of intellectuals adhered to the most radical product of Western society — the socialist movement — and constituted the bulk of its leadership. Moreover, it is not surprising that the preponderance of intellectuals within the leadership of socialist organisations led at times to suspicion and even hostility amongst those whom the organisations claimed to represent, and this led to a questioning by intellectuals themselves of their position in society, a process which was not limited to Russia.

But this is not to say that socialism — the overthrow of capitalism and the introduction of a classless society based upon the social ownership of the means of production; in other words, the aim of the Bolsheviks — was or is synonymous with the interests of the intelligentsia, however it is defined. Can the intelligentsia have a ‘class interest’? The intelligentsia in Russia was more developed as a discrete social formation than in any other European country specifically because the modern ideas that were attractive to thinking men and women were that much more in contrast to the miserable level of elite political culture than in countries to its West. The very nature of Tsarist society was sufficient to disgust and alienate the vast bulk of educated opinion, and to encourage significant numbers of them actively to oppose it.

However it is defined, the intelligentsia is not an inherently cohesive social stratum, and even in Russia it was not to adhere as a whole to radical views. In more advanced countries, where being an intellectual did not necessarily mean standing in opposition to the regime, much of the radical intelligentsia was to move away from a revolutionary viewpoint, and adopted a political strategy of obtaining reforms within the bounds of capitalism, moving closer to the non-socialist intelligentsia, and starting a process of integration into the existing class structure. In more backward and repressive countries, and especially in Russia, reformism did not seem to be much of an option, and a more radical strategy seemed more relevant. Nevertheless, even in Machajski’s days, some sections of the intelligentsia were liberal to start with, others (such as the former Legal Marxists) had abandoned socialism, and the radical intelligentsia as a whole fragmented with the collapse of Tsarism. Had Russia become a stable parliamentary democracy in 1917 — not that I think that this was possible — the Mensheviks would have become a standard reformist party, the Bolsheviks would have been marginalised, and the political activity of the bulk of the intelligentsia would have been concerned with reforms.

The rise of the party-state apparatus above the Soviet proletariat, and its eventual emergence as a self-conscious ruling elite, was not due to any immanent tendency of the intelligentsia to become a ruling stratum, but was essentially due to the problems involved in the exercise of political power by the Bolsheviks, in particular their separation from the working class, which was a result of, on the one hand, the specific conditions that existed in Russia during that period, and, on the other hand, factors that will confront any proletarian revolutionary regime which takes power, even under more advantageous conditions. The elite that emerged in the late 1920s was not synonymous with the intelligentsia. Indeed, the crucial period in the formation of the Soviet social formation — the time of the first Five Year Plan — was as a matter of necessity preceded by the purging of the revolutionary intelligentsia in the party,62 accompanied by the destruction of much of the existing intelligentsia, and followed by the building of a new intelligentsia, one which was rigidly controlled by the ruling elite. Moreover, it was from this new Soviet intelligentsia that the leading figures of the opposition movements of the post-Stalin era were eventually to emerge, and these were only rarely socialist in outlook.

Machajski’s ideas do raise some interesting questions about the relationship between the intelligentsia and the working class. But, all in all, he was wrong to consider that socialism was the ideology that expressed the class interests of the intelligentsia, as the idea of socialism as a truly transformative concept was never at any time synonymous with the intelligentsia as a whole, even in Russia, and the Soviet leadership was never synonymous with the intelligentsia. He was also wrong to view the Russian Revolution as the seizure of power by the intelligentsia. For all its thought-provoking insights, Machajski’s critique of the intelligentsia cannot provide a theoretical framework for understanding the evolution of the Soviet regime.


1. B Kagarlitsky, The Disintegration of the Monolith, London, 1992, p32.

2. P Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, Princeton, 1967, p100.

3. Hence, in 1883 Plekhanov was at pains to deny that the intelligentsia had any nefarious designs, and that the dictatorship of the proletariat would be a dictatorship of ‘a group of revolutionary raznochintsi’ (GV Plekhanov, ‘Socialism and the Political Struggle’, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 1, Moscow, 1974, p95).

4. The historian of the Socialist Revolutionary Party says that ‘the bulk of the membership — certainly of the articulate membership — was always intellectual’ (OH Radkey, ‘Chernov and Agrarian Socialism Before 1918’, in EJ Simmons (ed), Continuity and Change in Russian and Soviet Thought, Cambridge, 1955, p68).

5. See E Acton, Rethinking the Russian Revolution, London, 1992, p103.

6. JLH Keep, The Rise of Social Democracy in Russia, Oxford, 1963, pp170-1.

7. M Shatz, Jan Waclaw Machajski: A Radical Critic of the Russian Intelligentsia and Socialism, Pittsburg, 1989, p127.

8. Cited in R Tucker, Stalin as Revolutionary, New York, 1974, p149.

9. Cited in P Avrich, ‘What is Makhaevism?’, Soviet Studies, Volume 17, no 1, July 1965, p67, original emphasis.

10. Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, op cit, p91.

11. Cited in Avrich, ‘What is Makhaevism?’, op cit, p72. Novomirski was to join the Bolsheviks in 1919, but he fell out with them over the New Economic Policy.

12. Avrich, ‘What is Makhaevism?’, op cit, p70.

13. See Shatz, op cit, pp89ff; D Beetham, ‘Reformism and the "Bourgeoisification" of the Labour Movement’, in C Levy (ed), Socialism and the Intelligentsia 1880-1913, London, 1987, pp106ff. Whilst Michels did not rule out the idea that intellectuals could play an important role in a socialist organisation, and he agreed with the German socialist leader Franz Mehring in saying that ‘the intellectuals are of great value to the proletariat in the elaboration of the theory of the class struggle; they display the historical nexus between the labour movement and the world process as a whole’, he urged great caution. He pointed to the growing need for labour institutions to employ leaders with specialist knowledge in order to deal with increasingly complex social legislation, etc. This would result in the transformation of intellectually gifted proletarians into employees whose mode of life would become ‘that of the petit-bourgeois’, and lead to them drifting apart from the rank and file until they lost ‘all true sense of solidarity’ with the working class. He concluded:

‘When the workers choose leaders for themselves, they are with their own hands creating new masters whose principal means of dominion is found in their better instructed minds... Nothing would be more disastrous for the workers than to tolerate the exclusive rule of the intellectuals.’(R Michels, Political Parties, New York, 1962, pp108-9, 300-1)

14. Trotsky met Machajski, and said that his writings were studied by political exiles. They enjoyed the first essay, a critique of the opportunist tactics of German social democracy, but not the second, a critique of Marx’s economic writings which, in words that show Trotsky’s feelings of incredulity 30 years later, ‘ended with the amazing conclusion that socialism is a social order based on the exploitation of the workers by a professional intelligentsia’. Trotsky concluded that Machajski’s works gave him ‘a powerful inoculation against anarchism’ (LD Trotsky, My Life, Harmondsworth, 1970, p133). Nevertheless, he apparently had a hard time arguing with him, and ‘had the unfamiliar sensation of being silenced by the torrent of argument’ (A Westoby, review of JV Machajski, Le Socialisme des Intellectuels, Critique, no 14, 1981, p122).

15. Shatz, op cit, p32.

16. Cited in ibid, p32.

17. Ibid, p33. See Beetham, op cit, pp118-21.

18. Cited in Shatz, op cit, pp34-5.

19. Cited in ibid, pp35-6.

20. Cited in ibid, p186, original emphasis.

21. M Shatz, ‘Jan Waclaw Machajski: The "Conspiracy" of the Intellectuals’, Survey, no 62, January 1967, p52.

22. Avrich, ‘What is Makhaevism?’, op cit, p70.

23. Shatz, Machajski, op cit, pp143-4.

24. Westoby, op cit, p123.

25. E Haberkern, ‘Machajski: A Rightfully Forgotten Prophet’, Telos, no 71, Spring 1987, p122, original emphasis.

26. Bakunin’s proposed revolutionary organisation was in no sense democratic, see H Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution: The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, New York, 1986, pp93ff.

27. VI Lenin, ‘What Is To Be Done?’, Collected Works, Volume 5, Moscow, 1977, pp375-6. Lenin’s claim that much of his thinking on this issue was derived from Kautsky is disputed by Kautsky’s grandson, John Kautsky. He considers that Kautsky ascribed a far less important role to the intellectuals in the labour movement than Lenin. See JH Kautsky, ‘Lenin and Kautsky on the Role of Intellectuals in the Labor Movement’, Karl Kautsky: Marxism, Revolution and Democracy, New Brunswick, 1994, pp53ff.

28. VI Lenin, ‘What Is To Be Done?’, op cit, p375. This was a polemic against the economists, so it was an overstatement, and Lenin was later to some degree to alter his opinion.

29. Marcel Liebman explains this dichotomy by saying that in the nineteenth century, the Russian intelligentsia was a subjective concept ‘indicating not so much a special position in society and a particular economic function as a certain kind of outlook’, whilst after the turn of the century its members ‘became increasingly numerous in the administration and in industry and business’, and thus was ‘turning away from the revolutionary lures to which it had formerly been susceptible’ (M Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, London, 1980, p102).

30. VI Lenin, ‘One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back’, Collected Works, Volume 7, Moscow, 1977, p389.

31. VI Lenin, ‘A Retrograde Trend in Russian Social Democracy’, Collected Works, Volume 4, Moscow, 1972, p281.

32. Lenin, ‘What Is To Be Done?’, op cit, p452, original emphasis.

33. This was not always the case in practice. Isaac Deutscher gives a graphic description of the crude conception of Marxism that was held by many of the Bolshevik committee men:

‘They accepted certain basic formulas of Marxist philosophy, handed down to them by popularisers of the doctrine, as a matter of intellectual and political convenience. These formulas seemed to offer wonderful clues to the most complex problems — and nothing can be as reassuring to the half-educated as the possession of such clues. The semi-intelligentsia from whom socialism recruited some of its middle cadres enjoyed Marxism as a mental labour-saving device, easy to handle and fabulously effective.’ (I Deutscher, Stalin, Harmondsworth, 1966, pp127-8)

This was equally applicable to activists in other socialist organisations. Reflecting in 1960 upon his days as a young Marxist in Russia, the old Menshevik David Dallin said that he and his comrades, who were drawn from a wide social span — university and technical students, salesmen, workers and craftsmen — constituted a ‘semi-intelligentsia’, and who, on studying a few Marxian and Darwinian books, eagerly adopted a ‘primitive interpretation’ of Marxism, and were convinced that they had ‘the perfect philosophy’ which had ‘the answers to all questions’ (DJ Dallin, ‘Social Change and Soviet Foreign Policy’, From Purge to Coexistence: Essays on Stalin’s and Khrushchev’s Russia, Chicago, 1964, pp182ff).

34. G Konrád and I Szelényi, The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, New York, 1979, p140. John Kautsky makes a similar point, and sees Lenin as a prototype Third World moderniser, attempting to initiate the hot-house economic development of a backward country by means of an intelligentsia-led revolution. See

Kautsky, op cit, pp77-8.

35. R Pipes, The Russian Revolution 1899-1919, London, 1990, p122. One need only consider the struggle of the peasantry for land, the widespread war-weariness, the demands of non-Russians for autonomy or independence, and working class unrest — none of which were sparked off by the intelligentsia — to expose the idiocy of this over-rated historian.

36. M Malia, ‘What is the Intelligentsia’, in R Pipes (ed), The Russian Intelligentsia, Columbia, 1961, p4.

37. Cited in Shatz, Machajski, op cit, p152. More conservative observers disagreed. A former Tsarist general, Nicholas Golovin, recalled 1917 as a period during which ‘the hatred of the masses was directed mainly against this intelligentsia’, and that ‘it was not so much the fact of owning property as the fact of education — a thing that made the intelligentsia outwardly different from the uneducated — which chiefly marked those possessing it for destruction’ (NN Golovin, The Russian Army in the World War, New Haven 1931, pp23-4).

38. Cited in Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, op cit, p192.

39. P Arshinov, History of the Makhnovist Movement 1918-1921, London, 1987, pp34-5.

40. Ibid.

41. Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, op cit, p192.

42. Cited in P Avrich (ed), The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution, London, 1973, p124. Avrich suggests that this was the work of Grigorii Maksimov. If so, Maksimov’s critical faculties were considerably blunted and vulgarised by the time he wrote The Guillotine at Work in the 1940s.

43. RV Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution, Cambridge, 1960, pp51, 160.

44. A Kollontai, ‘The Workers Opposition’, Selected Writings, London, 1984, pp167, 168, 193.

45. Cited in EH Carr, The Interregnum 1923-1924, London, 1954, p80.

46. For example, see Shatz, Machajski, op cit, pp153ff. In 1921 Lenin criticised the Workers Opposition as a ‘Makhaev deviation’ (VI Lenin, ‘Outline of a Speech at a Meeting of Supporters of the "Platform of Ten"’, Collected Works, Volume 42, Moscow, 1971, p282). There is, however, no record of the speech itself.

47. P Avrich, ‘Bolshevik Opposition to Lenin: GI Miasnikov and the Workers’ Group’, Russian Review, Volume 43, no 1, January 1984, p18.

48. Trotsky’s analysis of the degeneration of the Soviet Union need not be outlined here as it will be familiar to readers.

49. A Pannekoek, Lenin as Philosopher, London, 1975, pp94, 100.

50. A Ciliga, The Russian Enigma, London, 1979, p280.

51. Nevertheless, it must be emphasised that however much the criticisms made by the left communists of the role of the intelligentsia bore some resemblance to those made by Machajski, there is a great difference between the two schools of thought in that the left communists did not reject Marxism, and they considered that Leninism represented a perversion of Marxism.

52. See D Mandel, ‘The Intelligentsia and the Working Class in 1917, Critique, no 14, 1981, pp67ff.

53. L Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, London, 1970, pp172-3.

54. D Mandel, The Petrograd Workers and the Soviet Seizure of Power: From the July Days 1917 to July 1918, Basingstoke, 1984, p397.

55. Despite his optimism in respect of the capabilities of the Russian working class around the time of the October Revolution, Lenin soon realised that the dreadfully low level of culture in Russia was a tremendous handicap. Although considerable numbers of educated people came around to serve the Soviet regime, he was to become increasingly preoccupied with the problem of the low cultural level, particularly within the working class. In March 1919 he said that due to this, the Soviet regime was in fact a ‘government for the working people’ run by the ‘advanced section of the proletariat’, and ‘not by the working people as a whole’ (VI Lenin, ‘Report on the Party Programme’, Collected Works, Volume 29, Moscow, 1977, p183, original emphasis).

56. R Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment, London, 1990, p7. Moshe Lewin, however, says that by the end of the Civil War, the Soviet regime did have a social base, but it was quite different from that of 1917, and ‘consisted of the army, the police and major sections of the bureaucracy, which, even though hostile to the Bolsheviks, had no other masters to serve’ (M Lewin, The Making of the Soviet System, London, 1985, p201).

57. Liebman, op cit, p304.

58. TH Rigby, Political Elites in the USSR, Aldershot, 1990, p31.

59. Liebman, op cit, p305.

60. C Rakovsky, ‘The "Professional Dangers" of Power’, Selected Writings on Opposition in the USSR 1923-30, London, 1980, pp126. I think that the situation was retrievable even as late as the latter half of the 1920s.

Successful proletarian revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries would have created a democratising impulse within the Soviet leadership, and there would then be every reason to encourage the revival of class consciousness within the proletariat. In the absence of revolutions in the West, however, the trend towards the Soviet leadership becoming a self-conscious ruling elite continued, and the emergence during the First Five Year Plan of 1929-33 of such an elite put paid to any genuine democratising tendencies, except as oppositional movements.

61. R Pipes, ‘The Historical Evolution of the Russian Intelligentsia’, in Pipes, The Russian Intelligentsia, op cit, p48.

62. Trotsky’s emphasis upon the intellectual superiority of the Left Opposition over Stalin’s faction is thoroughly justified. See LD Trotsky, Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and his Influence, New York, 1970, pp398-9. The Right Opposition around Bukharin was also intellectually far superior to Stalin’s faction.

from Collective Action Notes