Contrasting in tone, style, and content, Grigorij Machtet’s depictions of American rural life in the mid-late 1870’s, “The Prairie and the Pioneers” and “Frey’s Community,” nonetheless share some common themes with Maxim Gorky’s portrait of American urban life in the beginning of the twentieth century, “City of the Yellow Devil.” While similarly disparaging the actions of the American bourgeoisie and the greed often shown in the business world of the US, their views on American democracy diverge sharply. Although they view two different dimensions of American life, at two different points in history, with two different perspectives, and, as the logical result, tell two different stories and come to two different conclusions, there remain linkages between their experiences, their stories, and their interpretations of America.
Both authors recognize greed-driven and exploitative business dealings as a staple of American economics. Machtet describes the prairie merchants as “people of a special cast of mind and morality…whose entire task and goal is to make money without producing anything” (Prairie 32). He goes on to describe with amazement, tinged slightly by sarcasm, the business of buying goods in one area only to resell them in another, for ludicrously high prices (32). Thus, he highlights one of the ironies of capitalism: that one can make more money by skillfully manipulating the market than by actual productive labor. In other words, the man who actually produces a thing profits less than the man who simply buys it and sells it strategically.
Machtet then pauses to further explore the merchant phenomenon. Recognizing that the merchants engage in price-fixing, he explains their ability to avoid the usual decrease in prices resulting from competition (Prairie 32). His analysis of this situation points out one of the weaknesses of the “Invisible Hand” Theory1: it presupposes fair play and “perfect competition”2. The merchants Machtet speaks of capitalize upon high transaction costs3, as well as mutual agreements to keep the prices uniformly high, made possible by their already existing oligopoly4.
Machtet also recounts, rather humorously, but nonetheless critically, a company’s attempt to get President Grant to wear their socks, bearing their trademark (Frey’s 63). He notes that although the scheme outraged Grant, his vehement refusal generated publicity for the company (63). Again, Machtet mentions the merchant class, this time using the event of a political scandal to draw people to town and thus provide more business for themselves (65). Throughout, Machtet points out some of the negative conditions in America generated by the capitalist system.
Similar criticism occurs in Gorky’s essay, but here it becomes the main point of emphasis. Describing the “greediness of the Yellow Devil’s rich slaves,” Gorky portrays the vicious inequality that develops between the bourgeoisie and the “pitiful microbes of poverty,” the men and women whose labor feeds the city’s economy (Gorky 137). Through extended metaphors, Gorky describes the city itself as a type of inhuman monster, ruthlessly and insatiably devouring the lives, labor, and indeed the very souls of the people who work there (133). This personification artfully aims its cry of outrage at the people who own the grim factories and “the dark, silent skyscrapers…square, devoid of any desire to be beautiful” (133). Gorky’s constant references to gold, symbolizing the profit motive, recognize the private lust for more and more wealth, greater and greater economic growth, as the force which sets this monstrous machine in motion, imbuing it with life by transforming humanity into a mere tool used for its own purposes. The self-interested, short-sighted pursuit of profit by the few forces the many into a mechanical life of subjugation.
Gorky also provides a detailed description of the dehumanization and alienation resulting from the squalid conditions and bleak life of the proletariat (Gorky 137). He describes children fighting like wild dogs over scraps of food found in trash bins (137). Describing what those who live in the city often cannot see for themselves, he tells of the bitterly ironic illusions shrouding the vision of the people: “They have gotten used to their striving without a goal, used to thinking that there is a goal. In their eyes there is no anger toward the rule of iron, no hatred for its triumph” (135).
Machtet describes American democracy in glowing terms, praising the public involvement of the citizens (Prairie 26). He praises the democratic process by which the people adopted the Fence Law instead of the Herd Law, ignoring the fact that this decision, no matter how democratically reached, put the burden of extra time and work on those who were the poorest and newest to the community, those who had the least to spare (32).
Naively trusting in complete democracy, Machtet praises the mob “justice” that reigned in the prairie ( Prairie 47). With little chance to observe such things, let alone analyze and study them in a legal and statistical sense, Machtet comes to this conclusion not through reason or understanding of the facts, but from romanticization of life on the American prairie, and of the peasantry in general.
Gorky, on the other hand, takes a negative view of American democracy, seeing it as merely a transparent mask adorning the visage of a monstrous “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” Using irony and personification, Gorky unmasks the hypocrisy of America, the destruction of the ideals it claims to represent, as he describes the statues of America’s founding fathers, neglected and ignored, all shreds of their former glory buried and forgotten beneath the glitz and grime or modern industrial capitalism (Gorky 134).
He goes on to further describe the so-called freedom of the masses, who despite suffrage and civil rights, still live lives controlled by their bosses, their companies, their economic status, still suffer under the horrid despotism of the time clock.5
The anti-capitalist stances of both Machtet and Gorky show through in their essays, but more openly and strongly in Gorky’s. Both have a political agenda in their writing. While Machtet praises American democracy, Gorky reviles it as just another trick of the ruling classes. The differences in the focus and content of their writing may largely generate from the difference in their politics and their experiences. Machtet, devotee of peasant socialism and visitor of the 1870’s American frontier, caught a glimpse of rural life which, at the time, remained more autonomous and freer from exploitation than city life. Also, Machtet envisions a form of socialism similar to the peasant commune. Thus, he focuses more on the methods of organization for these smaller, autonomous units, rather than the overarching governmental system, if there were to be any at all, ideally. Having looked to America as a possible spawning pool for socialist experiments, he seeks out possible opportunities and favorable conditions along that front.
Whereas Gorky, Bolshevik and visitor of an American industrialized city a year after the Russian Revolution of 1905, finds quite different conditions and takes a different political focus. While Machtet follows a more utopian socialist path, Gorky adheres to scientific socialist theory. Thus, he focuses on the class structure, the economic system, and the government resulting from it. His experiences show him the dark side of American life, the brutal economic inequalities that the market and democracy have both failed to solve. Having long viewed capitalism as a menace and America as a land engulfed by it, Gorky focused more intently upon the negative aspects of American urban life.
In the conclusion of “The Prairie and the Pioneers”, Machtet speaks of the Blue Valley meeting of clergy and worshipers (Prairie 50). Describing their diatribes against modern life and hopes for the future, he looks upon these people as good, pious, intelligent, and almost saintly. He concludes with the words: “And they say that they know this paradise and will show the way to it. There the sun shines eternally and there is neither sadness nor sorrow!” (50). Gorky’s essay, after pausing to notice a glimmer of hope in the existence of such men as a lone, rebellious thief, concludes with a final bleak personification: “The dismal City of the Yellow Devil raves in its sleep” (Gorky 142). In their journeys to America, Machtet saw the American Dream and Gorky saw the American Nightmare. One spoke of people like angels, the other of the devils of poverty and greed.
Gorky, Maxim. “City of the Yellow Devil.” America Through Russian Eyes. Ed., Trans. Olga Peters Hasty and Susanne Fusso. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. 128-143.
Machtet, Grigorij. “Frey’s Community.” America Through Russian Eyes. Ed., Trans. Olga Peters Hasty and Susanne Fusso. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. 54-82.
Machtet, Grigorij. “The Prairie and the Pioneers.” America Through Russian Eyes. Ed., Trans. Olga Peters Hasty and Susanne Fusso. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. 16-53.
1 The “Invisible Hand” Theory, posited by Adam Smith, states that the diverse market forces within the self-interest-driven, capitalist system, counterbalance each other to create natural equilibrium and stability within the system.
2 “Perfect competition” entails a large market of many buyers and sellers, none of whom can individually manipulate the price of a product, as well as a homogeneous product, well-informed consumers, and the absence of transaction costs.
3 Transaction costs are the extra time, money, etc. spent in acquiring lower priced goods, due to fees, tariffs, having to travel a farther distance, etc. In other words, the relative inconvenience of attaining goods for a lower price.
4 An oligopoly is a market condition in which there are many buyers and only a small group of sellers for a given product.
5 “…it is only the independence of the axe in the carpenter’s hand, of the hammer in the blacksmith’s hand, of the brick in the hands of an invisible mason who, grinning slyly, is building one enormous but cramped prison for everyone” (Gorky 135).