Very little has been written in the West about Georgii Plekhanov, although he was a key figure of the Russian and international socialist movement, performing the roles of philosopher, historian, and propagandist of Marxism. He was also one of the founders of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, the precursor of the Russian Communist Party.
In matters of Marxist theory, Vladimir Lenin regarded him as the ultimate authority. Although Lenin and Plekhanov ended up as bitter political antagonists, with the latter strongly opposing the October Revolution of 1917, the leaders of the new Soviet state published the works of Plekhanov on Marxist theory, which they saw as a vital educational tool.
Plekhanov may be a largely forgotten figure today. Yet some of the mistaken or polemical views that he expressed about the ideas of Karl Marx, or the history of Russia’s revolutionary movement, still shape our understanding of those questions today.
Land and Liberty
Georgii Valentinovich Plekhanov was born in 1857 in the village of Gudalovka in the Tambov province of central Russia. His family belonged to the minor landowning nobility, his father being a retired army officer. His mother, who was much younger than her husband, was a well-educated woman, and it was from her that Plekhanov received his early education.
Initially intending to follow his father’s profession, Plekhanov studied at the military academy in Voronezh and the Konstantinovskii Artillery School in St Petersburg. He decided, however, that he was not cut out for a military career. In 1874, he enrolled in the St Petersburg Mining Institute.
While he was a student at the Mining Institute, Plekhanov first came in contact with members of the Russian revolutionary movement, and he himself began to conduct propaganda among the St Petersburg workers. In December 1876, Plekhanov organized and took part in Russia’s first revolutionary demonstration, which was held at the Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg.
Several participants were arrested, but Plekhanov himself escaped and began his life as a dedicated revolutionary. The following year, he went abroad, spending several months in Paris and Berlin. On his return to Russia in 1877, Plekhanov became a leading member of the revolutionary organization Land and Liberty.
The members of Land and Liberty were inspired by the ideas of the Russian anarchist thinker Mikhail Bakunin. They believed that the peasants were inherently communist since they lived in village communities, so it was sufficient to conduct agitation among them in order to stir them up in rebellion against the state.
Also in accordance with the ideas of Bakunin, members of Land and Liberty held that it was futile to engage in political activity in bringing about the social revolution, as this was a distraction from the essential purpose of the organization. Land and Liberty excluded the use of terrorism as a form of political action, though the group considered that it might be justified as a reprisal against the authorities.
This position began to change in response to the failure of the “going to the people” movement to induce the peasants to rebel. There was also a growing conviction among revolutionaries that the assassination of the tsar was necessary as the first step in the radical transformation of Russia’s social and political structure. In 1879, Land and Liberty split, giving rise to two new organizations: People’s Will, which favored the use of terror, and Black Repartition, led by Plekhanov, which eschewed any type of political action — terror in particular.
Russia and Marxism
In January 1880, Plekhanov began his exile in Geneva with the small group of followers constituting Black Repartition. The group never enjoyed the popularity of People’s Will, especially after the latter group organized the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.
In 1883, Plekhanov launched a new group, the Emancipation of Labor, whose standpoint he elaborated in the pamphlet Socialism and the Political Struggle (1883). He argued that People’s Will had been in the right on the question of political tactics, including terrorism. But it had gone too far in the opposite direction and aimed to take power by conspiracy, behind the backs of the people.
More momentous was Plekhanov’s contention that the revolution in Russia would not take the form of a peasant rebellion but would rather be a proletarian revolution as envisaged by Karl Marx. By making this argument, Plekhanov turned his back on the mainstream of the Russian revolutionary movement.
Lev Tikhomirov replied to Plekhanov’s pamphlet on behalf of People’s Will, predictably objecting that the social class on which Plekhanov proposed to base the revolution still barely existed, which meant postponing the revolution into the distant future. Plekhanov answered Tikhomirov in the pamphlet Our Differences (1885), in which he further condemned the ideology of People’s Will. Plekhanov claimed that the peasant village community on which the organization pinned its hopes for the establishment of a socialist society in Russia was in the process of advanced disintegration.
In exile, the Emancipation of Labor organization remained a small sect, isolated from the revolutionary movement in Russia. On the other hand, Plekhanov’s social democratic stance led him to gravitate toward the West European socialists. He could count among his acquaintances and correspondents such figures as Friedrich Engels, Karl Kautsky, Wilhelm Liebknecht, August Bebel, and Rosa Luxemburg.
Plekhanov attended the founding congress of the Second International in Paris in 1889. There he gave a speech ending with the declaration that the Russian revolutionary movement would either triumph as a proletarian movement, or it would not triumph at all.
Plekhanov published articles in the German socialist press, some of them taking the lead in criticizing Eduard Bernstein’s attempts to revise the main tenets of Marxist doctrine. By doing so, he enhanced his reputation as one of the leading Marxist theoreticians in Europe.
By the start of the twentieth century, events had turned in Plekhanov’s favor. In the wake of the tsar’s assassination, People’s Will had been almost completely eliminated. Under Alexander III, industry developed rapidly during the 1880s and ’90s, which meant that there was now a significant number of industrial workers in several urban centers in Russia. In St Petersburg, Moscow, Vilna, and other towns, workers’ social democratic groups began to appear from the late 1880s onward, some of which made contact with Emancipation of Labor.
In 1900, Plekhanov joined forces with Lenin, Julius Martov, and others to publish the newspaper Iskra (the Spark). This was intended to serve as a focus bringing together local social democratic groups into a single unified organization. From this effort, there emerged the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), which at its second congress in 1903 split into Bolshevik and Menshevik fractions.
At the 1903 congress, Plekhanov supported Lenin and the Bolsheviks against the Menshevik wing led by Martov. He subsequently changed affiliations and sided with the Mensheviks. However, Plekhanov’s individualistic personality meant that he was never entirely at ease in any political grouping, resulting in conflicts with the Menshevik leadership.
The Russian revolution of 1905 gave Plekhanov the opportunity to formulate the tactics of the Social Democrats in the long-anticipated situation. These turned out to be at variance with the opinions of the more radical RSDLP members.
Plekhanov’s reasoning was that since the proletariat was small in numbers, it needed allies. The peasants could not serve this purpose, since, as his own experience had shown, they had no revolutionary inclinations. It followed, therefore, that the best ally for the proletariat would be the bourgeoisie and the liberal intelligentsia.
Plekhanov was convinced that in a revolutionary situation, this group would prove to be a formidable opponent of the autocracy. In the event, the Russian bourgeoisie did not live up to Plekhanov’s expectations and capitulated to the government, while the peasant movement proved to be a major element in the revolution.
In the years following the 1905 revolution, a “Liquidationist” current appeared within Menshevism, arguing that there was no longer any need for an underground party organization in the new conditions. Plekhanov joined with the Bolsheviks in denouncing this as heresy. Between 1907 and 1910, he also cooperated with Lenin in a campaign against the current of Russian socialist philosophy represented by Alexander Bogdanov, which was viewed as a threat to Marxist orthodoxy.
However, Plekhanov’s accord with the Bolsheviks collapsed after the outbreak of World War I. Unlike most members of the RSDLP, who either regarded the war as one that should be purely defensive, or, like Lenin, desired Russia’s defeat, Plekhanov was an ardent advocate of an Entente victory over the Germans.
He maintained this position even after he returned to St Peterburg in April 1917, contributing pro-war articles to the newspaper Edinstvo (Unity). He regarded the revolution in October 1917 as a Bolshevik conspiracy and condemned it out of hand. By now in poor health, Plekhanov was moved from Russia into Finland, and spent the last months of his life in a sanitorium in Terijoki. He died on May 30, 1918.
Plekhanov and Marxist theory
Biographies of Plekhanov invariably present his early intellectual evolution as a transition from “Narodism” (or populism) to Marxism. In fact, even at the start of Plekhanov’s revolutionary career, Marx was a major intellectual influence upon him. His earliest theoretical article, for example, which was published in the journal Land and Liberty in 1879, makes reference to a number of influences including Mikhail Bakunin, Auguste Comte, and Karl Marx.
It is important to note how the members of Land and Liberty used the term “Narodnik.” They held that the function of revolutionaries was to strive to achieve the concrete aspirations of the common people. The term to describe a revolutionary of this kind was “Narodnik.”
The slogan that Plekhanov considered to be the best embodiment of the Narodnik principle was as follows: “The emancipation of the working class is the affair of the working class itself.” These were the opening words of the constitution of the International Workingmen’s Association and had been written by Karl Marx himself.
In the pamphlet Socialism and the Political Struggle, Plekhanov emphasizes that he has not abandoned the Narodnik principle. On the contrary, he argues, it is the People’s Will organization that has betrayed it by adopting conspiratorial methods. In Our Differences, on the other hand, Plekhanov uses the term Narodnik in quite a different way: he now applies it to the adherents of People’s Will and claims that Narodism is a doctrine that postulates the uniqueness of Russia’s historical and economic development, rooted in the Slavophilism of the 1840s.
Plekhanov performed this move to turn the tables on his opponents. At that time, the Emancipation of Labor group was a tiny sect on the fringes of the Russian revolutionary movement, whereas People’s Will represented its mainstream, the product of its historical evolution to date. By designating the whole of the Russian revolutionary movement, apart from Emancipation of Labor, as Narodnik, Plekhanov could create the impression that he and his group espoused the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels while his opponents were adherents of a peculiar ideology with nationalist connotations.
Plekhanov was writing at a time when few of Marx’s works other than Capital were known. His interest in philosophy led him to be a pioneer in unearthing the Hegelian origins of Marx’s system. He was encouraged in this direction by the publication of a memoir by Engels titled Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, on which he wrote a commentary. Although Marx himself had used Hegelian terminology extensively in the first edition of Capital of 1867, he had largely eliminated this in the second edition of 1872, and purged it completely from the French edition of 1872–75.
In 1889, Plekhanov made use of his knowledge of Hegelian philosophy in a polemical essay against Tikhomirov, who had argued that social change came about gradually. In reply Plekhanov asserted that Hegel’s philosophy taught that development took place in “leaps,” which Plekhanov considered to be the essence of dialectics.
In the article “For the 60th Anniversary of Hegel’s Death,” published in German in 1891, Plekhanov first gave currency to the term “dialectical materialism” — one that neither Marx nor Engels ever used themselves — to characterize Marx’s philosophical method. He elaborated on the term in his book On the Question of the Development of a Monist View of History, in which he argued that “dialectical materialism” was a synthesis of classical German philosophy and the French materialism of the eighteenth century.
Plekhanov’s final major work was his History of Russian Social Thought, which he began in 1909. The first volume, which was published in 1914, contained a sketch of Russian history that attempted to explain Russia’s autocratic government and its tendency to expand its territory by colonization. The work, however, remained unfinished at Plekhanov’s death.
Although Plekhanov had little influence as a politician at the time of his death, he still commanded respect as a Marxist theoretician, and Lenin recommended that his writings should be thoroughly studied. His collected works, edited by David Riazanov, were published between 1923 and 1927 in twenty-four volumes.
Until 1924, when the Lenin cult became all pervasive, Plekhanov was regarded as the ultimate authority on Marxist theory. In the Stalin era, Plekhanov was denounced as a Menshevik and an opponent of Lenin. After Stalin’s death, however, he was rehabilitated, and his philosophical works were republished. In Russia today, Plekhanov is esteemed as a pioneer of Marxist thought in the country.
However, Plekhanov is not a reliable guide to Marx’s ideas. All of Plekhanov’s Marxist writings are polemical, and directed at proving that his political adversary is in the wrong. His approach to Marxist texts is purely utilitarian, and this does not preclude altering them if it suits his purpose.
Plekhanov’s coinage of the term “dialectical materialism” is based on a misapprehension about Marx’s intellectual evolution, and his idea that the essence of “dialectics” consists of “leaps” from quantity to quality shows a misunderstanding of Hegel’s system. Yet Plekhanov’s coinage has passed into general usage, and his version of Russian intellectual history with its “Narodnik” current has been widely accepted. His influence has extended well beyond the times in which he lived.