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Georgi Plekhanov: Tragedy of a forerunner

 

 

Georgi Plekhanov

 

By Doug Enaa Greene

 

July 28, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — When the names of Russian Marxism are remembered, those of Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin figure as leading lights. However, these figures built upon the pioneering work of Georgi Plekhanov. Plekhanov almost single-handedly introduced Marxism into the Russian Empire and popularized it for a generation of socialist militants. However, Plekhanov's Marxism was seriously flawed in a number of ways and he was not up to the challenge of revolutionary politics. It fell to the generation who came after him to carry the struggle forward to victory. Yet Plekhanov's limitations do not take away from his contributions as a pioneer, something always recognized by his Marxist pupils.

 

I. Early life

 

Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov was born on November 29, 1856, in the village of Gudalovka as one of twelve children. His father Valentin Plekhanov was a member of the lower stratum of the hereditary nobility; he possessed an estate of 270 acres and 50 serfs. Georgi was an especially gifted child and devoured books from an early age. At the age of 10, his formal education began when he entered the Voronezh Military Academy hoping to become an officer. At school, Plekhanov excelled in his studies and his intellectual horizons expanded when he was introduced to the radical writers Vissarion Belinsky, Nikolay Chernyshevsky and Nikolay Dobroliubov.[1] Despite being a military school, liberals and reformers ran the Voronezh Military Academy, lightening discipline and broadening the curriculum.

 

Following the death of his father in 1873, Plekhanov left the Academy and enrolled in the St. Petersburg Metallurgical Institute. Two years later, he met a revolutionary named Pavel Axelrod (both a future Marxist and Menshevik) and they fast became friends. Thanks to the influence of Axelrod, Plekhanov was drawn into the Russian Narodnik (or populist) Movement, becoming an important activist in Zemlya i Volya (Land and Freedom) in 1876.

 

II. Populism

 

a. Terror

 

Narodism was the main radical movement in Russia in the mid-19th century. Although the abolition of serfdom by Tsar Alexander II in 1861 was celebrated, the peasantry was not given land. Instead, peasants were forced to compensate the landlords for their land over the next 49 years (this was only canceled in 1907). “Emancipation” ended up being a different form of serfdom with the peasantry still mired in poverty and hungry for land. However, the peasantry still owned land through the mir or obshchina, which “was a free association of peasants which periodically redistributed the agricultural land to be tilled; its decisions bound all its members.”[2] Land in the mir was periodically redivided among its members on the basis of a census to ensure that everyone had an equal share. However, the end of feudalism and the beginnings of capitalism threatened to undermine the foundations of the obshchina.

 

For Russian radicals such as Alexander Herzen, the obshchina, would form the cornerstone of socialism. The Narodniks built on Herzen's idea, arguing that Russia did not have to endure the primitive accumulation of capitalist industrialization and the creation of a proletariat, but that the commune, once cleansed of its feudal and patriarchal elements, could serve as the foundation of Russian socialism. However, the time for Russia to avoid capitalism was limited, since the monarchy was fostering social forces to undermine the commune. The Narodniks saw the peasantry as a revolutionary force that despite being crushed beneath despotism and poverty, still retained a love of freedom and were naturally socialist.

 

By the early 1860s, the first Populist groups, inspired by Chernyshevsky, had arisen, engaging in conspiratorial terrorist actions against the Tsar. These efforts failed and they were followed in the 1870s by the "going to the people" movement of intellectuals and students who went to the countryside in order to convert the peasantry to revolutionary ideas. The movement was described by one participant as “like a religious movement, with all the infectious nature of such movements. Men were trying not just to reach a certain practical end, but also to satisfy a deeply felt duty, an aspiration for moral perfection.”[3] However, the peasantry feared and distrusted these outsiders, with their modern culture and urban ways, and in many cases turned them over to the police. According to the historian Franco Venturi, in 1874 the movement was crushed and “770 people had been handed over to justice, of whom 612 were men and 158 women. Provisional liberty had been given to 452 people, and 265 kept in prison. Only 53 had been able to escape.”[4] The “going to the people” movement was a complete and utter fiasco.

 

While the Narodniks did not give up, they did change their strategy. Once again, terrorism was adopted by the Narodniks — with their goal of assassinating the Tsar. The Narodniks believed that the autocracy was so centralized that if the Tsar was killed then the whole repressive apparatus would come crumbling down. They believed that heroic actions by a small minority would galvanize the peasantry to rise up. For the next several years, the Populist's launched an unprecedented campaign of terror, targeting state officials, the police and the Crown. Although painted as fanatics and insane, Narodnik volunteers were driven by passion, courage and determination. The American writer Georgi Kennan described the Populists he met in prison as follows:

 

I made the acquaintance of characters as truly heroic in mold – characters of as high a type as any outlined in history, and saw them showing courage, fortitude, self-sacrifice and devotion to an ideal beyond anything of which I could believe myself capable.[5]

 

b. Black Repartition

 

On December 6, 1876, shortly after Plekhanov joined the Narodnik movement, he organized one of the first political demonstrations on Russian soil. In the Square of Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Plekhanov addressed a crowd of 150 to 500 students and workers denouncing the autocracy and ending his speech by declaring “Long live the social revolution! Long live Zemlya i Volya!” A red banner was also unfurled, making this not only Russia's first workers' demonstration, but also the first time a red flag was raised. Plekhanov was forced to go underground, sleeping with a pistol under a pillow, but he was arrested in 1877 and 1878. Plekhanov's prestige was enhanced by the 1876 demonstration and he was elected to the inner circle of Zemlya i Volya.

 

Although the Populists saw the peasantry as the main revolutionary force, they believed that the working class could play an auxiliary role. Although Russia was still overwhelmingly a rural country, by 1870 there were 800,000 workers in the cities. These workers maintained close ties to their families on the land and had only gone to the cities for work because they could find none in the countryside. In fact, class struggle by the proletariat was “caused not so much by problems of wages or working conditions, as by the thirst for land of these worker-peasants. Their demands were combined with a mute resistance to long military service and were often expressed with violence.”[6] Based on this, it was only natural that the Populists looked to the workers to support the peasants' struggle. St. Petersburg had the largest working class in the Empire, “who were not only extremely keen to learn and to read typical self-educated men from workshops and factories but who were also well able to hold their own views on the various political ideas about which they had heard the students speak.”[7]

 

Plekhanov's knowledge of life in the capital and the factory workers meant that he was put in charge of the “worker section” of Zemlya i Volya. Plekhanov was in St. Petersburg during the major strike wave of 1877-79, where he saw the power of the organized working class.[8] However, the Narodniks remained focused on terrorism and a peasant uprising, seeing the working class movement as a secondary theater. In 1879, Plekhanov argued for a new approach:

 

In the past, and not without reason, we put all our hopes and directed all our forces at the village masses. The urban worker held only second place in the revolutionaries' calculations. Only extra resources were, as it were, devoted to him... Today it is difficult to find a factory, a workshop or even a craftsman's shop which does not contain some Socialist workers.' It was now up to the revolutionaries to move over from propaganda to organization, to concern themselves with wages and not just search among the workers for new elements for the party. Above all, they must stop thinking that the workmen would have only a secondary role in the revolution of the future. The agricultural problem, the question of the self-administration of the obshchina, land and liberty: all these are just as close to the heart of the workers as of the peasants. In a word, it is not a question of masses cut off from the countryside but of part of the countryside. Their cause is the same; their struggle can and must be the same...Thanks to all this they will constitute a precious ally for the peasants when the social revolution breaks out.[9]

 

Plekhanov remained a Populist, but an alternative path was now being unveiled. As he reflected several years later, “Russian industry is not standing still. Poverty snatches the peasant from the land and drives him into the factories and workshops. The center of gravity of the economic problem is shifting towards industry.”[10] This was a momentous and prophetic insight of the leading role that Russia's working class would play in the future revolution.

 

As the terror campaign bogged down and alternative strategies were debated, in October 1879, Zemlya i Volya split in two. One group was Narodnaya Volya (meaning both “People’s Will” and “People’s Freedom”), who upheld the terrorist tradition of populism. Plekhanov led a separate organization named Chernyi Peredel (Black Repartition) — that supported equal distribution of land among the “black” people or peasants and increased agitation among the working class. However, Chernyi Peredel was dead on arrival, its efforts at agitation thwarted and its organization broken up by police repression. In 1880, Plekhanov was forced to leave Russia for Switzerland. His exile would last for 37 years.

 

Meanwhile, the People's Will success in assassinating Tsar Alexander II on March 1, 1881 was also their downfall. The Narodnik hope that a heroic minority, acting in place of the masses, would spark a revolution by killing the head of state was proven false. Instead, the Autocracy cracked down — breaking Narodnaya Volya by imprisoning real and suspected revolutionaries. The repressive power of the state was not weakened after the Tsar's death, but greatly strengthened. For more than a decade, Russia remained quiet and revolutionary politics could only be whispered, if that.

 

c. The Emancipation of Labor

 

While abroad, Plekhanov met with German and French Marxists and anarchists, and observed the conditions of the European labor movement. He also studied widely, reading on geology, anthropology, zoology, organic chemistry and the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Plekhanov quickly adopted Marxism, discarding his old Populist ideas on terrorism, the peasantry and the commune. For Plekhanov, the materialist conception of history provided a firm basis for both understanding society and revolutionary practice. Yet Engels viewed Plekhanov with reserve and distrust, seeing his politics as doctrinaire and sectarian. Despite Plekhanov's professed loyalty to scientific socialism, Marx and Engels were closer in many respects to the Populists (more below). Engels' attitude to Plekhanov softened and by 1885, he wrote to Vera Zasulich about

 

how proud I am to know that there exists among the younger generation in Russia a party which frankly and unreservedly accepts the great economic and historical theories evolved by Marx, and which has broken for good with all the anarchic and to some extent Slavophil traditions of its predecessors. And Marx himself, had he lived a little longer, would have been no less proud than I.[11]

 

There was a lot for Engels to be proud of. Plekhanov established himself as a brilliant and trailblazer Marxist theorist with a series of works – Socialism and the Political Struggle (1883); Our Differences (1884); Towards the Monist Theory of History (1895); and Fundamental Problems of Marxism (1907). These works contained not only polemics against populism, but introduced and popularized Marxist theory to Russia. Plekhanov did not just write on philosophy, but on art, literature, politics, and history — which gave his work range and depth. The next generation of Russian revolutionaries, who largely adopted Marxism, did so through Plekhanov, “without which,” Trotsky said, “one could not have arrived at Social Democratic positions.”[12] Toward the end of his life, Lenin offered the highest praise of Plekhanov's writings, stating:

 

Party members that you cannot hope to become a real, intelligent Communist without making a study — and I mean study — of all of Plekhanov’s philosophical writings, because nothing better has been written on Marxism anywhere in the world...[13]

 

In 1883, Plekhanov and four other co-thinkers Axelrod, Vera Zasulich (both well known in the Narodnik movement), Lev Deutsch and Vasily Nikolaevich Ignatov formed Russia's first Marxist organization - the Group for the Emancipation of Labor. The group saw their task as “spreading socialist ideas in Russia and working out the elements for organizing a Russian workers’ socialist party.”[14] The first years were rocky and their fate was uncertain. The group engaged in polemics with the Narodniks who saw them as traitors and splitters. Furthermore, Deutsch was captured by the Russian police in 1884 and Ignatov died in 1885, leaving them with just three members. The Emancipation of Labor Group was a small minority, living in exile, and struggling against the stream with unpopular ideas. Very few Russians were able to establish contact with the Marxists. The three lived in poverty and their organization was always short of funds. Yet they had boundless confidence in themselves and their ideas, and forged close ties in common struggle.

 

Although the Emancipation of Labor Group was an isolated minority in Russia, they were linked with the mass parties of the Second International. Before the end of the century, Marxist and socialist ideas were championed by millions in France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Italy and beyond. And it appeared that those parties were growing from strength to strength with each passing day. For a persecuted group that could fit in a single room, here was living proof that they were swimming with the tide of history. While many European socialists showed much greater sympathy for the Narodniks than Russian Marxism, this changed as the former were fractured into a thousand pieces while the latter began to sink roots into the working class. Although Plekhanov was little known in Russia, he became one of the leading figures of European socialism. According to Isaac Deutscher,

 

At least since the death of Friedrich Engels in 1895, if not even earlier, he was Europe’s first philosophical exponent of Marxism. The interpretation of the economic – political aspects of the doctrine had fallen primarily to Karl Kautsky, behind whom stood the authority of the most powerful and successful socialist party in the world. Plekhanov was the subtler and the more brilliant mind and he held the pride of place as the interpreter of dialectical materialism. He confronted Marxist theory with the philosophical currents of the time, as no one has done it since; and he used Marxism more systematically than either Franz Mehring or Antonio Labriola did as a tool of literary and artistic criticism.[15]

 

III. Plekhanov's Marxism

 

a. The Populists, Marx and Plekhanov[16]

 

Although Plekhanov's Emancipation of Labor Group was the first avowedly Marxist organization in Russia, this did not mean that Marxism was unknown to Russia. In 1872, Das Kapital was translated into Russian (the first translation of the work). The translator was Nikolai Frantsevich Danielson, who was a prominent Narodnik ideologue. Since the Tsarist censors considered Das Kapital a strictly scientific work and “that very few people in Russia will read it, and even fewer will understand it,” it was published legally.[17] The first printing of Das Kapital — all 3000 copies — sold out quickly. Clearly, there was a receptive audience in the Russian Empire for Marx's ideas. No one was more surprised about this than Marx himself, who remarked: “A man never knows what he may achieve, or what strange fellowship he may have to suffer.”[18]

 

Marx and Engels, who had long considered Russia to be “the greatest enemy of all advance, the greatest stronghold of reaction”,[19] were now suddenly excited by revolutionary prospects in Russia. The two men learned the Russian language, and devoured literature, statistics and sociology on the Tsarist Empire. They also began a lively correspondence with the Populist revolutionaries. For the Narodniks, Das Kapital's description of the horrors of primitive accumulation and the exploitation of the proletariat was seen as a call for them to do everything possible to avoid the maturation of capitalism in Russia. “Having learned from Marx about the high price of capitalist development, [the Narodnik] refused to pay this price, and set his hopes on the alleged possibility of restoring the archaic forms of social life and adapting them to fit the new conditions.”[20] While Russian critics accused Marx of saying that the Tsarist Empire was fated to follow the same path of capitalist development as western Europe, he objected:

 

Only this: if Russia is tending to become a capitalist nation, on the model of the countries of Western Europe, — and in recent years it has gone to great pains to move in this direction — it will not succeed without having first transformed a large proportion of its peasants into proletarians; and after that, once it has been placed in the bosom of the capitalist system, it will be subjected to its pitiless laws, like other profane peoples. That is all! But this is too little for my critic. It is absolutely necessary for him to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historico-philosophical theory of general development, imposed by fate on all peoples, whatever the historical circumstances in which they are placed, in order to eventually attain this economic formation which, with a tremendous leap of the productive forces of social labor, assures the most integral development of every individual producer. But I beg his pardon. This does me too much honor, and yet puts me to shame at the same time.[21]

 

Marx planned to rewrite portions of Das Kapital to take account of his studies of Russia — a task he was unable to carry out. While Marx's writings on Western Europe stated that industrialization was the prerequisite for socialism and that the industrial working class was the main social force for revolutionary change, Russia posed an enigma. What base was there for socialism in Russia when both capitalism and the working class barely existed? The Populists had answered that Russia could avoid capitalism by basing socialism on the rural commune — an idea Marx took seriously. In a letter to Vera Zasulich, Marx wrote:

 

The analysis in Capital therefore provides no reasons either for or against the vitality of the Russian commune. But the special study I have made of it, including a search for original source¬ material, has convinced me that the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia. But in order that it might function as such, the harmful influences assailing it on all sides must first be eliminated, and it must then be assured the normal conditions for spontaneous development.[22]

 

Marx went so far as to say that the commune offered Russia the “finest chance ever offered by history to a nation, in order to undergo all the fatal vicissitudes of the capitalist regime.”[23] Marx and Engels qualified this statement to add that the commune would only become the basis for Russian socialism if it was accompanied by revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries. In the preface to the 1882 Russian edition to the Communist Manifesto, they said:

 

If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that the two complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for communist development.[24]

 

Marx and Engels sympathized with the terrorist efforts of the Narodniks, but they viewed their tactics as a “specifically Russian and historically inevitable mode of action which no more lends itself to moralizing — for or against...”[25] Yet Marx saw the assassination of the Tsar as a necessary first step to revolution in Russia which “must ultimately and certainly lead to the establishment of a Russian Commune.”[26] In 1885, Engels thought Russia was “approaching their 1789.” In light of those remarks, Engels approved of the Narodniks' “Blanquist” strategy:

 

Well, if ever Blanquism, the fantasy of subverting the whole of a society through action by a small group of conspirators, had any rational foundation, it would assuredly be in St Petersburg. Once the match has been applied to the powder, once the forces have been unleashed and the national energy has been converted from potential to kinetic (another of Plekhanov's favorite and, indeed, excellent metaphors) — the men who have sprung the mine will be swept off their feet by an explosion a thousand times more powerful than they themselves, one which will seek whatever outlet it may find in accordance with the prevailing economic forces and resistances.[27]

 

When the Emancipation of Labor Group began organizing, Plekhanov hoped to wean Marx and Engels away from Narodism. As mentioned above, in 1881, Vera Zasulich wrote to Marx for his thoughts on Populist tenets on the role of the commune and whether Russia was destined to go through the same evolution as Western Europe, she naturally expected (along with Plekhanov) that the founder of scientific socialism would agree with them. However, Zasulich and Plekhanov were bitterly disappointed when Marx finally responded (after writing four drafts) that capitalism's

 

'historical inevitability'... is expressly limited to the countries of Western Europe.... Hence the analysis provided in Capital does not adduce reasons either for or against the viability of the rural commune, but the special study I have made of it, and the material for which I drew from original sources, has convinced me that this commune is the fulcrum of social regeneration in Russia, but in order that it may function as such, it would first be necessary to eliminate the deleterious influences which are assailing it from all sides, and then ensure for it the normal conditions of spontaneous development.[28]

 

Marx and Engels did not impose a universalist, linear, evolutionist or deterministic model on Russia, rather their methodology allowed them to look at alternative forms of development for underdeveloped social formations. Despite Plekhanov and the Emancipation of Labor Group's protestations of orthodoxy, if “orthodoxy” means upholding Marx and Engels as the last word, then the “orthodox Marxism” of the 1880s and 90s was represented by the forces of Populism.

 

However, Marx's reply was not published by Plekhanov and the Emancipation of Labor Group. The letter was only discovered by the Russian Marxist scholar David Riazanov in 1911, who proceeded to ask Plekhanov and Zasulich about why its contents were never published. Both claimed to have “forgotten” the whole affair.[29] A more likely answer is that Plekhanov considered Marx's answer insufficiently “Marxist” and “orthodox.” It took until the 1890s before Engels accepted Plekhanov's view, admitting that the opportunity of the commune serving as the foundation of an alternative course for Russian socialism had passed:

 

If we in the West had been quicker in our own economic development, if we had been able to upset the capitalistic regime some ten or twenty years ago, there might have been time yet for Russia to cut short the tendency of her own evolution towards capitalism. Unfortunately we are too slow...[30]

 

Although Marx and Engels' methodology prevented them from imposing rigid schema and they were open to the emergence of new revolutionary possibilities, in the long run, Plekhanov and the Marxists (despite their mechanical determinism) were correct about the course of Russian development. The Narodnik strategy of terrorism did not work. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II did not bring down the autocracy or usher in the revolution, but instead destroyed the Populist movement. And capitalism was taking root in Russia — undermining the commune, creating modern industry and both a bourgeoisie and a proletariat.

 

For Plekhanov what mattered was not the subjective factor (as the Populists claimed), but objective laws: “The accident of human arbitrariness and human prudence gives place to conformity to law, i.e., consequently, to necessity.”[31] Plekhanov applied Marx's laws of social development (as he understood them) to Russia to prove that capitalism was developing in Russia, undermining the commune and creating both a bourgeoisie and a proletariat. To accomplish this, Plekhanov emphasized the deterministic and universalist aspects that were only implicit in Marx's work.

 

At first, Plekhanov was not so inflexible, but kept the possibilities for different stages of development open. “To Marx’s teaching is attributed the absurd conclusion that Russia must go through exactly the same phases of historical and economic development as the West.”[32] As time went on, Plekhanov was no longer willing to make what he perceived to be theoretical concessions to Populism and his Marxism became more orthodox than Engels. Something which the latter found irksome.[33]

 

According to Plekhanov, the Tsarist state was fostering the development of capitalism, which he saw as a civilizing and progressive force. Capitalism would therefore free Russia from backwardness, barbarism and medievalism, creating a society similar to those of Western Europe. As he declared: “all hopes for Russian socialism rested on the further development of Western political traditions, economic institutions, and culture.”[34] However, capitalism and the approaching bourgeois revolution had arrived late to Russia. While capitalism was necessary for Russia, Plekhanov believed that the proletariat would be the leading force in the struggle against the autocracy. The proletariat had to achieve hegemony (Plekhanov first introducing this term into social democratic debates) in the coming anti-Tsarist struggle. As for the prospects of bourgeois rule, Plekhanov said, “its domination cannot be a long one.”[35]

 

Plekhanov did not believe that the dispossession of the peasantry was a necessary precondition for their involvement in the socialist movement. This position was strangely at variance with the “Marxist orthodoxy,” which Plekhanov championed:

 

Let us make a reservation to avoid misunderstandings. We do not hold the view, which as we have seen was ascribed to Marx’s school rather than it existed in reality, and which alleges that the socialist movement cannot obtain support from our peasantry until the peasant has been turned into a landless proletarian and the village commune has disintegrated under the influence of capitalism. We think that on the whole the Russian peasantry would show great sympathy for any measure aiming at the so-called “nationalisation of the land”. Given the possibility of any at all free agitation among the peasants, they would also sympathise with the socialists, who naturally would not be slow in introducing into their programme the demand for a measure of that kind. But we do not exaggerate the strength of our socialists or ignore the obstacles, the opposition which they will inevitably encounter from that quarter in their work. For that reason, and for that reason only, we think that for the beginning they should concentrate their main attention on the industrial centres.[36]

 

In the passage above, Plekhanov saw the peasantry as an undifferentiated whole without class divisions, similarly to how Populists view the people. His demand for land nationalization was meant to benefit the entire peasantry, not just poor peasants or rural workers. At this point, Plekhanov did not view the peasantry as a single “reactionary mass.” He saw the peasants' “natural economy” as eroding under the impact of capitalism, but since this process was incomplete, it prevented both “small peasants and rural workers becoming an effective political force.”[37] Since Plekhanov did not conceive of the peasantry undertaking struggle on their own, but responding to a political program which socialists have already drawn up, this task fell to the working class.[38]

 

Plekhanov also saw the peasantry as symptomatic of Russian backwardness and barbarism that needed to be overcome through the “civilizing” school of capitalism. Plekhanov viewed the indifference of the peasantry to the revolutionary struggle as proof that they were not natural allies of the working class. In the second Draft Programme of the Russian Social-Democrats, he went so far as to say: “The main bulwark of absolutism is precisely the political indifference and intellectual backwardness of the peasantry.”[39] While the peasantry remained mired in their backwardness, Plekhanov saw the bourgeoisie as a progressive force: “Our bourgeoisie is now undergoing an important metamorphosis: it has developed lungs which require the fresh air of political self-government...”[40] This was a foretaste of Plekhanov's later politics, where he advocated a working class alliance with the bourgeoisie, arguing that “the proletariat would support the bourgeoisie in a revolution in which the latter would necessarily emerge in the end as the leading class.”[41]

 

By the time of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Plekhanov's support for the liberal bourgeoisie in its struggle against the autocracy was opposed by the more radical positions of Lenin's “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat” (calling for proletariat hegemony and an alliance with the peasantry in the bourgeois revolution) and Trotsky's “permanent revolution” (where the proletariat was the leading class and Russia could even telescope the bourgeois stage). Plekhanov's advocacy for the working class to tail the bourgeoisie and shelving its more radical demands, since these would frighten the liberals, became one of the hallmarks of Menshevism.

 

Plekhanov's biographer, Samuel Baron summarizes his mature thinking as follows:

 

In keeping with his long-held strategy, Plekhanov was most preoccupied during the revolutionary crisis of 1904–6 with the question of the relations between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In his estimation, the developing upheaval could only be a bourgeois revolution, and, inevitably, the bourgeoisie would have a prominent part in it; but the proletariat was destined to strike the decisive blows. Provided each played its prescribed role, absolutism would be overthrown, the bourgeoisie would become the governing power in a democratic regime, and the proletariat would be in possession of the rights which would enable it to prepare for its economic emancipation later on...[42]

 

….Taking his Marxian writings as a whole, one sees that Plekhanov’s account of the movement to socialism unmistakably depended upon a “natural” evolutionary process, in conformity with law…he did not quite manage to bring voluntarism into a perfect balance with determinism — even at the level of logical argument. How much more likely it was that imbalances might arise at the level of practice.[43]

 

b. The individual in history

 

One of Plekhanov's most famous works was On the Individual's Role in History (1898) that puts forward a Marxist critique of the “great man theory of history." Traditionally, Marxists are guided by Marx's understanding that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”[44] This social existence is shaped and determined by an ensemble of social relations (mode of production, relations of production, the class struggle). The focus is not on the individual, but on the totality of social relations:

 

In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.[45]

 

Marxists focus on studying political economy, class relations and engagement in the class struggle. While Marx's understanding of history was not linear or teleological — whereby one mode of production follows another as surely as the sun rises in the east — this was not shared by his “orthodox Marxist” successors, who did have a fatalistic conception of history that negated the role of the individual.

 

Plekhanov attempted to fit the role of the individual into his rigid conception of historical laws, arguing that while the individual could not be reduced to the economic factor alone, the individual could act in accordance with the necessities of historical necessity and progress. As he elaborates,

 

if I know in what direction social relations are changing owing to given changes in the social-economic process of production, I also know in what direction social mentality is changing; consequently, I am able to influence it. Influencing social mentality means influencing historical events. Hence, in a certain sense, I can make history, and there is no need for me “to wait while “it is being made.”[46]

 

Plekhanov stated that a belief in determinism was compatible with a range of political action on the part of the individual.

 

Plekhanov went on: “Owing to the specific qualities of their minds and characters, influential individuals can change the individual features of events and some of their particular consequences, but they cannot change their general trend, which is determined by other forces.”[47] In other words, the individual could leave their mark on an event, but the basic outcome would be the same since it will be determined by larger social forces. In fact, Plekhanov says that if a particular individual was not present at an event (he uses the examples of Robespierre and Napoleon), their “place would, of course, have been taken by somebody else, and although this person might have been inferior to him in every respect, nevertheless, events would have taken the same course as they did when Robespierre was alive.”[48]

 

While Plekhanov (following Marx)[49] is correct to argue that larger social forces determine and shape the role and the position of the individual actor, he is wrong to assert that the individual's role is bound to be played by someone else and that the general outcome will be the same regardless. Plekhanov does not consider the role of chance, accidents and contingency in shaping the outcome of a particular event. By contrast, Marx argues:

 

World history would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favorable chances. It would, on the other hand, be a very mystical nature, if “accidents” played no part. These accidents themselves fall naturally into the general course of development and are compensated again by other accidents.[50]

 

Plekhanov's polemic On the Individual's Role in History was directed, in part, against the Narodnik focus on heroic figures. Plekhanov wanted to develop a clearer materialist understanding of the role of the individual in relation to freedom and necessity. He followed Engels' line of reasoning in the Anti-Duhring that “Freedom does not consist in any dreamt-of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends.”[51] Plekhanov believed this method entailed a break with fatalism. Yet Plekhanov's argument fails on its own terms since “if we eliminate him, a replacement will be called for and such a replacement will be found — tant bien que mal (trans. for better or worse), but found he will ultimately be.”[52] Geniuses cannot easily be replaced because they cannot be reduced to the average type. As the Marxist historian Paul Blackledge observed, the claim that individuals are always replaceable in the ‘long run’ contradicts a central dictum of Plekhanov’s thought, which he repeated endlessly and which Lenin took up as a guiding motto: ‘there is no abstract truth: truth is always concrete’.”[53]

 

While the class struggle is the motor of history, Plekhanov does not look at how that struggle is carried out. For the oppressed classes, their struggle is mediated through unions, parties, revolutionary organizations and individuals. And we can say with certainty that if a particular individual was not present at an event, the outcome would have been completely different. To give an example, look at Trotsky's discussion of the role of Lenin during the Russian Revolution. Trotsky applies a Marxist method to view the multiple objective and subjective factors that produced the Bolshevik Revolution. He recognizes that the October Revolution would not have succeeded without the mediation of the Bolshevik Party and the individual figure of Lenin to lead it on the proper path.

 

In the 1932 speech, In Defense of October, Trotsky discusses the eight main factors which produced October Revolution,

 

The rotting away of the old ruling classes-the nobility, the monarchy, the bureaucracy. The political weakness of the bourgeoisie, which had no roots in the masses of the people. The revolutionary character of the agrarian question. The revolutionary character of the problem of the oppressed nationalities. The significant social burdens weighing on the proletariat.

 

To these organic preconditions must be added certain highly important connected conditions. The Revolution of 1905 was the great school or in Lenin's phrase, "the dress rehearsal" of the Revolution of 1917. The Soviet's as the irreplaceable organizational form of the proletarian united front in the Revolution were created for the first time in the year 1905. The imperialist war sharpened all the contradictions, tore the backward masses out of their immobility, and thus prepared the grandiose scale of the catastrophe. But all these conditions, which fully sufficed for the outbreak of the Revolution, were insufficient to assure the victory of the proletariat in 'the Revolution. For this victory one condition more was necessary...The Bolshevik Party.[54]

 

However, it is the role of the Bolshevik Party that concerns us here. Trotsky knew that it was not possible for a revolution to succeed wholly by way of the actions of a few individuals, but that a revolutionary situation, with its roots in objective conditions, had to exist. Once a revolutionary situation matured, success was by no means guaranteed. When the masses are pressing forward with all their energy, there was the danger of that energy dissipating in isolated and sporadic outbursts. Based on the experience of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky argued that a spontaneous revolution cannot succeed, but needs an organization to channel the energy of the masses toward the seizure of power. Trotsky describes the interconnection between the party and the masses with this colorful metaphor: “Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”[55]

 

However, the “piston box” of the Bolshevik Party was initially caught unaware by events and disoriented in early 1917. After the fall of the Tsar, the Bolsheviks clung to their old formulas of going through a bourgeois-democratic revolutionary stage before moving onto a proletariat revolution. In following this orthodox conception, the Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd “critically” supported the Provisional Government, while the masses were struggling for their own interests and developing Soviet power against Kerensky. The Bolsheviks on the ground were not aware of the possibilities, ruptures and leaps which the February Revolution had opened up. As Trotsky recognized, “The most revolutionary party which human history until this time had ever known was nevertheless caught unawares by the events of history. It reconstructed itself in the fires, and straightened out its ranks under the onslaught, of events. The masses at the turning point were 'a hundred times' to the left of the extreme left party.”[56]

 

Returning to Russia from exile, Lenin was able to recognize that a socialist revolution was now on the agenda. In his April Theses, Lenin argued that

 

The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution — which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organization of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie — to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.[57]

 

At first, the Bolsheviks balked at Lenin's support for Soviet Power and opposition to the Provisional Government. In the end, the Bolsheviks were able to change course and became a pole of attraction for the revolutionary masses in Russia, producing the world's first successful socialist revolution.

 

It is likely that the Bolshevik Revolution would never have come to pass without the intervention of Lenin. While the Bolsheviks were a revolutionary party, it “must inevitably produce its own organizational conservatism; for otherwise it would lack the necessary stability. This is wholly a question of degree.”[58] And yet, this same organizational stability, which helped the Bolsheviks to withstand the blows of Tsarist repression became a danger during the 1917 Revolution. Trotsky goes on,

 

in a revolutionary party the vitally necessary dose of conservatism must be combined with a complete freedom from routine, with initiative in orientation and daring in action. These qualities are put to the severest test during turning points in history ... when an abrupt change occurs in a situation and when new tasks arise as a consequence, frequently pursue the political line of yesterday and thereby become, or threaten to become, a brake upon the revolutionary process.[59]

 

Lenin was able to navigate the rocky waters of revolutionary Russia, listening to the insurgent masses and orient the Bolsheviks toward them. Trotsky highlights the central role of Lenin during the Revolution as follows,

 

For the sake of clarity I would put it this way. Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place — on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring — of this I have not the slightest doubt! If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I doubt whether I could have managed to overcome the resistance of the Bolshevik leaders. The struggle with "Trotskyism" (i.e. with the proletarian revolution) would have commenced in May 1917, and the outcome would have been in question. But I repeat, granted the presence of Lenin the October Revolution would have been victorious anyway.[60]

 

Throughout his work on the Russian Revolution Trotsky understands the role of larger social forces and how the individual is shaped and impacted by them. In doing so, Trotsky grasps the role of contingency and produces a more rigorous Marxist understanding of events and the role of the individual than Plekhanov.[61]

 

c. Dialectical Materialism[62]

 

In contrast to many Marxists in the Second International, whether Eduard Bernstein, Jules Guesde, Rosa Luxemburg, Otto Bauer and Karl Kautsky, Plekhanov was well-known as an expert in Marxist and Hegelian philosophy (in contrast to the marginal figure of Antonio Labriola). While Hegel was out of fashion in Europe, he remained a force amongst the Russian intelligentsia. Plekhanov's Marxism had a decidedly Hegelian cast. He did not view Hegelianism as an evolutionary and deterministic unfolding of the dialectical triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, but rejected this formula as “simply lunatic nonsense...”[63] Rather, the triad “does not in the least serve him as the main principle” of Hegelian philosophy.

 

While Plekhanov's philosophy tended toward determinism, he did not see Hegelianism as an evolutionary philosophy: “every time gradualness is interrupted, a leap takes place. Hegel goes on to show by a number of examples how often leaps take place both in Nature and in history, and he exposes the ridiculous logical error underlying the vulgar ‘theory of evolution’.”[64] As John Rees notes, there are passages in Plekhanov's works that “recall the philosophical underpinning which Marx gave to his notion of working-class self-emancipation,” such as the following:

 

More than that, it means making materialism — as we have already shown earlier — fatalistic, condemning man to complete subordination to blind matter. Marx noticed this failing of French materialism, and even of Feuerbach’s, and set himself the task of correcting it. His “economic” materialism is the reply to the question of how the “concrete activity” of man develops, how in virtue of it there develops his self-consciousness, how the subjective side of history comes about. When this question is answered even in part, materialism will cease to be dry, gloomy, melancholy, and it will cease to yield idealism first place in explaining the active side of human existence. Then it will free itself of its characteristic fatalism.[65]

 

Although Plekhanov's understanding of Hegel was far ahead of his contemporaries, he was unable to sufficiently distinguish Hegel from Marx's criticism of him. He tended to assimilate Marx's materialism to that of Feuerbach. Plekhanov said of Marx's Eleven Theses on Feuerbach, “The Theses in no way eliminate the fundamental propositions in Feuerbach’s philosophy, but only correct them, and — what is most important — call for an application more consistent (than Feuerbach’s) in explaining the reality that surrounds man, and in particular his own activity. It is not thinking that determines being, but being that determines thinking.”[66] Plekhanov failed to understand that Marx's critique was directed at both uncritical positivism as well as uncritical idealism, and “tended, first, to allow two strands of thought to remain unreconciled within his system” leading to reductionism.[67] Furthermore, Plekhanov tended to naturalize history, viewing the laws of social development as binding just “as certainly and surely as the rising of the sun in the morning.”[68] This was carried to such an economist extreme by Plekhanov that he stated “the degree to which a particular people is prepared for true and genuine democracy is determined by the degree of its economic development.”[69] Plekhanov's philosophy of economic determinism was thus a natural corollary to his Menshevik politics. In a sense, we could say that Plekhanov and the Mensheviks were “right Hegelians” with their fatalism and iron laws of history, while Lenin and the Bolsheviks were “left Hegelians” stressing dynamism and action.

 

Lastly, Plekhanov's Marxism had little comprehension of dialectics. He did not view society as a contradictory totality or change as driven by the class struggle. When Lenin studied Hegel during WWI to clear his mind of the cobwebs of the outmoded thinking of Second International Marxism, he pointed out:

 

Dialectics is the theory of knowledge of (Hegel and) Marxism. This is the “aspect” of the matter (it is not “an aspect” but the essence of the matter) to which Plekhanov, not to speak of other Marxists, paid no attention.[70]

 

For all of Plekhanov's fledgling philosophical strengths, over time, the fatalistic evolutionary faith in the growth of the productive forces of capitalism came to dominate his philosophy, while revolutionary change based on working class self-emancipation receded far into the background.

 

IV. The thaw

 

At the beginning of the 1890s, the Russian autocracy was developing modern industry on par with those of the advanced capitalist powers along with a concentrated and highly militant proletariat.[71] The process of Russian development was described by Victor Serge:

 

A vast internal market is assured to it thanks to the more intensive labor of the peasants who are, increasingly, devoting all their time to the farming of grain crops and abandoning the local production of the fabrics, tools, etc. that they consume. Foreign capital gushes in. The total industrial production of Russia, valued in 1877 at 541 million rubles, rises to 1,816 million in 1897; and the stake of foreign capital in it rises to 1,500 million rubles.[72]

 

While Russian capital was expanding, the number of workers grew to fill the factories of these new industries. “From 1887 to 1897, the number of proletarians in the engineering industry goes up from 103,000 to 153,000 and in the textile industry from 309,000 to 642,000.”[73] For the barons of industry, the working class was little more than beasts of burden:

 

The textile workers in the Moscow region usually lived inside the mill itself, sleeping in the workshops. Even in the case of the best-paid workers it was rare for a family to have the use of one whole room; several families would generally be crowded together in a single room. There was an entire population of wretched cellar-dwellers in the cities. Infant mortality was frightful, and the working day was often as long as fourteen hours.[74]

 

Plekhanov saw the newly-formed working class as ripe for revolutionary struggle. He proposed a two-layered strategy for socialists to reach the workers — agitation and propaganda. He described the difference as follows:

 

A sect can be satisfied with propaganda in the narrow sense of the word: a political party never... A propagandist gives many ideas to one or a few people, while an agitator gives only one or a few ideas but to masses of people... Yet history is made by the masses.[75]

 

Plekhanov wanted Marxists to move away from being small circles and foment mass agitation among the working class around a series of political and economic slogans. Aside from the Jewish socialists, most Marxists failed to make this transition. However, Plekhanov's group remained aloof from the struggle and provided little help to the socialist circles. According to Tony Cliff, from 1891-1895, there were six attempts by Russian Marxists imploring the Emancipation of Labor Group to help produce agitational literature. Each one failed.[76]

 

It fell to activists in Russia to lead the way in agitating among the working class. One of the pioneers of Plekhanov's approach to agitation and propaganda was the young Marxist and activist named Vladimir I. Lenin. Whereas Plekhanov was largely separated from contact with the working class, Lenin was intimately connected with them. Lenin not only applied what he learned from Plekhanov in organizing the working class, but in doing so, he surpassed his teacher.

 

In 1894, a year after arriving in St. Petersburg, Lenin joined with Julius Martov, G.M. Krzhizhanovsky and others to form the St. Petersburg League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class (in homage to Plekhanov's group). Lenin's group numbered no more than two dozen intellectuals and workers, but they were tireless in their agitation.

 

In one of Lenin's early, works, he summed up the tasks for Marxists as the following:

 

Large-scale capitalism, on the contrary, inevitably severs all the workers’ ties with the old society, with a particular locality and a particular exploiter; it unites them, compels them to think and places them in conditions which enable them to commence an organized struggle. Accordingly, it is on the working class that the Social-Democrats concentrate all their attention and all their activities. When its advanced representatives have mastered the ideas of scientific socialism, the idea of the historical role of the Russian worker, when these ideas become widespread, and when stable organizations are formed among the worker to transform the workers’ present sporadic economic war into conscious class struggle — then the Russian WORKER rising at the head of all the democratic elements, will overthrow absolutism and lead the RUSSIAN PROLETARIAT (side by side with the proletariat of ALL COUNTRIES along the straight road of open political struggle to THE VICTORIOUS COMMUNIST REVOLUTION.”[77]

 

Lenin observed that the development of capitalism had created a militant working class movement. If the working class was to become aware of its historic mission, then it required the intervention of Marxists. Lenin had believed that the workers would heed the socialist message because it was needed. Lenin undertook to put the dual strategy of propaganda and agitation into action. In regards to propaganda, Lenin taught the advanced ideas of Das Kapital to a few people through joint study. Nadezhda Krupskaya (Lenin's future wife) described his practice as follows:

 

[He] read Marx's Capital to the workers and explained it to them. He devoted the second half of the lesson to questioning the workers about their work and conditions of labor, showing them the bearing which their life had on the whole structure of society, and telling them in what way the existing order could be changed. This linking of theory with practice was a feature of Vladimir Ilyich's work in the study-circles. Gradually other members of our circle adopted the same method.[78]

 

Lenin said that workers who gained a knowledge of their class mission would, in turn, become propagandists and agitators for the socialist cause, drawing larger groups of workers into the movement.

 

Lenin later summed up his activity as

 

to merge our activities with the practical, everyday questions of working-class life, to help the workers understand these questions, to draw the workers’ attention to the most important abuses, to help them formulate their demands to the employers more precisely and practically, to develop among the workers consciousness of their solidarity, consciousness of the common interests and common cause of all the Russian workers as a united working class that is part of the international army of the proletariat.[79]

 

To be a Marxist agitator meant more than explaining the larger socialist mission to the proletariat; it also meant investigating their conditions of daily life and how it was linked to larger political questions. For example, Lenin conducted investigations of factory legislation in order to show how

 

these laws to the workers made it much easier to show them the connection that existed between their position and the political regime. Evidences of this study are traceable in quite a number of articles and pamphlets which Ilyich wrote at the time for workers, notably in the pamphlet The New Factory Act, and the articles "On Strikes," "On Industrial Courts" and others.[80]

 

Lenin's investigations of laws and their political consequences were used to raise proletarian consciousness and focus on the broader political struggle.

 

In asking what it concretely meant to raise workers' consciousness and link it to the political struggle, Lenin said in The Tasks of Russian Social-Democrats:

 

In conducting agitation among the workers on their immediate economic demands, the Social-Democrats inseparably link this with agitation on the immediate political needs, the distress and the demands of the working class, agitation against police tyranny, manifested in every strike, in every conflict between workers and capitalists, agitation against the restriction of the rights of the workers as Russian citizens in general and as the class suffering the worst oppression and having the least rights in particular, agitation against every prominent representative and flunkey of absolutism who comes into direct contact with the workers and who clearly reveals to the working class its condition of political slavery.[81]

 

In their struggle for immediate demands, the workers see the connection of their local struggle to the relations of power and exploitation. Since every strike was illegal, even if it was for simple “bread and butter” demands, demands for political freedom could not be avoided. At the same time, the goal of social democrats was not to just link economic demands to larger politics, but to use every manifestation of tyranny to bring home their message and raise the level of conflict.

 

In What is To Be Done? Lenin brought home this point:

 

the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.[82]

 

Since socialist organizing in Russia could not be conducted openly, like in Germany or France, it was necessary for revolutionaries to know the basic rules of conspiracy, such as eluding the police and printing clandestine leaflets. Krupskaya describes Lenin's skill in the art of conspiracy as follows:

 

A result of this going about round the workers' circles was that the police kept a close watch on us. Of all our group Vladimir Ilyich was the most experienced in secrecy methods of work. He knew the through yards, and was a master hand at giving sleuths the slip. He taught us how to use invisible ink and to write messages in books by a dotted code and secret ciphers, and invented all kinds of aliases....Vladimir Ilyich taught us the use of cipher, and we coded almost half a book.[83]

 

Although it was imperative for revolutionaries to know the rules of conspiracy due to state repression, Lenin was committed to establishing political freedom, so social democrats could agitate openly: “The struggle of the Russian working class for its emancipation is a political struggle, and its first aim is to achieve political liberty.”[84]

 

Lenin's activity in St. Petersburg lasted two hectic years. He was arrested along with other members of the St. Petersburg League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class in 1896. Yet the seeds had been planted. Massive strikes rocked St. Petersburg in 1895, 1896 and 1897. A mass strike in 1896 “took place under the banner of Social Democracy. This was a strike of textile workers in May 1896, in St. Petersburg. The members of the League, or rather those of its members who survived arrest, played a central role in the massive strike. It began as a protest against the nonpayment of wages for the three-day holiday celebrating the coronation of Nikolai II.”[85] In this strike, there was a clear linking of political (against the Tsar) and economic demands (non-payment of wages).

 

While the strikes were a success in demonstrating how deep Social-Democratic ideas had spread among Petersburg workers, they also showcased the need for a durable all-Russian party organization to coordinate and generalize the struggle. In pursuit of that goal, in 1900, Lenin left Russia with Alexander Potresov and Julius Martov to work with Plekhanov's group to establish an all-Russian newspaper to act as a collective organizer.

 

The meeting between Plekhanov and Lenin went disastrously. In a confidential report, Lenin described Plekhanov as “suspicious, distrustful...I tried to observe caution and avoided all “sore” points, but the constant restraint that I had to place on myself could not but greatly affect my mood ... There was also “friction” over questions concerning the tactics of the magazine, Plekhanov throughout displaying complete intolerance, an inability or an unwillingness to understand other people’s arguments, and, to employ the correct term, insincerity.[86]

 

For Lenin, this was a bitter lesson to not place undue trust in revered elders like Plekhanov:

 

We had received the most bitter lesson of our lives, a painfully bitter, painfully brutal lesson. Young comrades “court” an elder comrade out of the great love they bear for him — and suddenly he injects into this love an atmosphere of intrigue ... An enamored youth receives from the object of his love a bitter lesson — to regard all persons “without sentiment,” to keep a stone in one’s sling. Many more words of an equally bitter nature did we utter that night.[87]

 

Despite their rocky start, Plekhanov and Lenin were able to work together on the paper Iskra — once it was agreed that Plekhanov had two votes on the editorial board, while the others had one vote each. Lenin and the younger cohort had expected to run the paper and were taken aback by Plekhanov's arrogant and despotic behavior. Perhaps there was an element of jealousy in Plekhanov directed towards the young activists taking the helm of the movement from him. Plekhanov had prepared the road, but he was isolated from the working class and the growing revolutionary fervent in Russia. It would soon be clear that he was not up to the challenge of revolutionary politics.

 

V. “I cannot fire against my own comrades.”

 

On March 1, 1898, nearly 15 years after the founding of the Emancipation of Labor Group, a group of nine social democrats gathered in the city of Minsk to formally establish the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). The nine participants at the First Congress were secondary figures in the socialist movement — five of them were members of the Jewish Bund and the other groups represented came from Moscow, Kiev, Petersburg and Yekaterinoslav. This meeting included none of the well-known figures in Russian Social Democracy (such as Plekhanov, Martov or Lenin). The Congress released a Manifesto written by the political economist Peter Struve (shortly to depart the socialist movement) that stated the party's goals, such as an eight-hour day, freedom of the press and speech, a democratic republic and the creation of socialism. Following the conclusion of the First Congress, all nine delegates were arrested by the Tsarist Police (who had kept them all under close surveillance). From 1898 to 1917, no further party congresses took place on Russian soil. Although, the RSDLP 's founding congress failed to unite Russian social democrats into a single party, its lasting achievement was to plant a potential red banner for revolutionaries to rally around.

 

The Second Congress of the RSDLP (its true founding convention) was held in 1903 in Brussels and London. When Plekhanov had began 20 years ago, the number of Russian Marxists existed was miniscule. Now many different Marxist groups existed throughout the empire such as the Jewish Bund, Economists, socialists in the Borderland regions, and the Iskra Group. Since 1900, Lenin, Martov and Plekhanov had managed to work together on Iskra — which served as an organizing center for the underground party in Russia and took a leading role in preparing the agenda for the Congress. The goal of the Iskra Group was to create a centralized all-Russian socialist party who would assume political leadership of the working class struggle against Tsarism.

 

At the beginning of the Second Congress, the Iskra Group possessed a clear majority of 33 votes (out of 51 total). The Jewish Bund had 5 votes and the economists 3 votes. So long as the Iskra group remained united, they would be easily be able to pass their agenda. For example, Plekhanov spoke for other members of Iskra when he upheld the dictatorship of the proletariat as the goal of the party:

 

Every democratic principle must be considered not by itself, abstractly, but in relation to that which may be called the fundamental principle of democracy, namely salus populi suprema lex. Translated into the language of the revolutionist, this means that the success of the revolution is the highest law.[88]

 

The party program, which passed (with one abstention), was essentially the same as the draft submitted to it by the Iskra Group. It was not until the 22nd session of the Congress devoted to the party rules over the definition of membership that the first cracks appeared inside the Iskra Group. Martov and Lenin each put forward separate drafts. Lenin's proposed that

 

Article I should define a party member as one 'who recognizes the Party's program and by personal participation in one of the party's organizations.' Martov proposed a substitute with the identical language, except that the final italicized phrase read: 'and by regular personal assistance under the direction of one of the party organizations.'[89]

 

To simplify their respective positions — Lenin wanted a tightly-organized party of professional revolutionaries, while Martov was in favor of a broader and looser party. Although Axelrod opposed Lenin, Plekhanov supported him:

 

I have one preconceived idea, but the more I reflect on what has been said, the stronger is my conviction that the truth lies with Lenin ... Intellectuals may hesitate for individualistic reasons to join the party, so much the better, for they are generally opportunists ... For this reason if for no other, the opponents of opportunism should vote for his draft.[90]

 

In the final vote, Martov's draft won 28 to 23 (thanks to backing from the Bund and the Economists). The Iskra vote was now split and Lenin found himself in the minority. When it came to electing leading bodies of the RSDLP, the Congress approved Lenin's proposal that Iskra should be the sole representative of the party abroad and serve as the main organ of ideological leadership. It was assumed that the editorial group of Iskra would be composed of the current six editors, but now Martov, Potresov, Axelrod, and Zasulich were opponents of Lenin and Plekhanov. Lenin proposed creating a group of three editors (Martov, Plekhanov and himself). After a long and bitter debate, Lenin's proposal passed and an editorial board of three was elected. However, Martov refused to participate, splitting Iskra. The vote on the editorial group split the party into Bolsheviks (majority) and Mensheviks (minority). However, the lines of demarcation between the two factions were confused; differences would sharpen over time and the split would be finalized in 1912.

 

Lenin made his case for the new editorial group by arguing that the needs of the revolution took precedence, not those of sentimentality. The three editors had contributed the most articles to the old journal, while the others had done very little.[91] However, for longtime veterans like Zasulich and Axelrod, it seemed like they were cast aside.

 

Plekhanov had supported Lenin's proposal on the composition of the editorial group, thereby finding himself in the Bolshevik camp. However, the split placed him in a difficult predicament. He was now arrayed against several of his lifelong comrades and friends. For 20 years, Plekhanov's Emancipation of Labor Group had served as a tight-knit group who had struggled in the wilderness for socialism. Now they were being torn apart: “I cannot fire against my own comrades. Better a bullet in the brain than a split...There are times when even the autocracy has to give in.”[92] Shortly after the congress, Plekhanov changed his mind and invited Martov, Axelrod, Zasulich, and Potresov to rejoin the editorial board of Iskra. Lenin resigned in anger.

 

Plekhanov moved into the Menshevik camp and shifted to its right-wing. During the 1905 Revolution, Plekhanov maintained that Russia was on the verge of a bourgeois revolution and, therefore, socialists should ally with the liberals. His position was not shared by Lenin, Kautsky, Trotsky, Luxemburg or David Riazanov, all of whom contemplated the possibility of workers achieving hegemony in the upcoming revolution.[93] Plekhanov saw these radicals as acting contrary to the laws of history. In response to the Moscow Uprising of 1905, Plekhanov condemned their efforts, stating: “they should not have taken to arms." Lenin replied to this curt dismissal: “We should have taken to arms more resolutely, energetically and aggressively; we should have explained to the masses that it was impossible to confine things to a peaceful strike and that a fearless and relentless armed fight was necessary."[94] Plekhanov's practical defeatist stance in 1905 reduced his standing and authority among Russian Social Democracy, and he focused more on historical, political and philosophical studies instead.

 

In 1914, Plekhanov openly supported the war effort of Tsarist Russia. This put him in a distinct minority in the Russian socialist movement, since both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks opposed the war effort. Plekhanov's stance irrevocably and completely separated him from Lenin. In October 1914, Lenin attended a lecture Plekhanov delivered in Laussane, Switzerland in support of the Entente effort. The crowd was made up overwhelmingly of pro-war socialists who cheered Plekhanov's rousing chauvinist speech. Lenin spoke for only ten minutes, to the sound of heckles, about the necessity of turning the imperialist war into a civil war. As Krupskaya recounts, “Plekhanov retorted with his usual display of wit. The Mensheviks, who were an overwhelming majority, wildly applauded him. The impression was that Plekhanov had won the day.”[95]

 

Around the same time, Plekhanov had a heated exchange with one of his devoted disciples, the Russian-Jewish-Italian socialist Angelica Balabanoff over the socialist attitude to the war. Plekhanov, the greater teacher of Marxism, had forgotten his own lessons:

 

Georgi Plekhanov: "Where is your love for Russia?"

 

Angelica Balabanoff: "What do you mean - my love for Russia? Must my attitude toward war change because Russia is involved? Would other imperialist governments not act as Germany has done in Belgium if it were necessary to gain their ends? Wasn't it you who taught me the real causes of the war? Didn't you warn us that this slaughter was being prepared and that we must oppose it?"

 

Georgi Plekhanov: "So far as I am concerned, if I were not old and sick I would join the army. To bayonet your German comrades would give me great pleasure."[96]

 

When the February Revolution of 1917 occurred, which ended his exile, Plekhanov could only denounce it for endangering the Russian war effort. Plekhanov's homecoming found him politically isolated. He was seen as so anti-revolutionary, that when General Kornilov launched a coup d'etat to crush both the Provisional Government and the revolutionary left, Plekhanov was considered for a position in the cabinet. Plekhanov declined the dubious “honor.” When the Bolsheviks seized power in October and realized his life-long dream, he condemned them as a “revolting mixture of Utopian idealists, imbeciles, traitors and anarchist provocateurs."[97] He died in Finland on June 12, 1918, disillusioned and alone.

 

VI. Conclusion

 

Plekhanov was a pioneer, he walked a new path and held aloft the light of revolution at its darkest hour. He was the first champion of a new idea. Although he was not up to the historical task of seeing that idea through to its end, he played the pivotal role of disseminating it to a generation of workers and socialist militants, who ultimately made it a reality.

 

Notes

 

[1] Samuel H. Baron, Plekhanov: The Father of Russian Marxism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1963), 4-7.

 

[2] Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia (New York: Alfred A. Knof, 1960), x-xi.

 

[3] Ibid. 503.

 

[4] Ibid. 506.

 

[5] Quoted in Tony Cliff, Building the Party: Lenin 1893-1914 (Chicago: Haymarket, 2002), 15.

 

[6] Venturi 1960, 508.

 

[7] Ibid. 538.

 

[8] Cliff 2002, 20.

 

[9] Venturi 1960, 625-6.

 

[10] Ibid. 661.

 

[11] “Engels to Vera Zasulich - 23 April 1885,” Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 47 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 279. Henceforth MECW.

 

[12] Leon Trotsky, The Young Lenin (New York: DoubleDay, 1972), 151-2.

 

[13] “Once Again on the Trade Unions, the Current Situation and the Mistakes of Trotsky and Bukharin,” Lenin Collected Works 32 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), 94. Henceforth LCW.

 

[14] Georgi Plekhanov, “Programme of the Social-Democratic Emancipation of Labour Group,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1883/xx/sdelg1.htm

 

[15] Isaac Deutscher, “The Mensheviks: George Plekhanov,” in Ironies of History: Essays on Contemporary Communism (Berkeley: Ramparts, 1966), 210-211.

 

[16] This section draws heavily on the following two works: Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010) and Theodor Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and 'The Peripheries of Capitalism, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983).

 

[17] Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 139.

 

[18] “Marx to Engels - 24 March 1870,” MECW 43.462.

 

[19] Quoted in Anderson 2010, 43.

 

[20] Quoted Cliff 2002, 12-13.

 

[21] “Letter from Marx to Editor of the Otecestvenniye Zapisky – November 1877,” MECW 24.200.

 

[22] Shanin 1983, 124.

 

[23] MECW 24.199 (footnote 21).

 

[24] “Preface to the Second Russian Edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party,” MECW 24.426.

 

[25] “Marx to Jenny Longuet - April 11, 1881,” MECW 46.83.

 

[26] “Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: To the Chairman of the Slavonic Meeting - 21 March 1881,” MECW 24.372.

 

[27] “Engels to Vera Zasulich - 23 April 1885,” MECW 47.280.

 

[28] “Marx to Vera Zasulich - 8 March 1881,” MECW 46.71-2.

 

[29] Shanin 1983, 127-33.

 

[30] “Engels to Nikolai Danielson - 24 February 1893,” MECW 50.111.

 

[31] Georgi Plekhanov, “For the Sixtieth Anniversary of Hegel’s Death,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1891/11/hegel.htm

 

[32] Georgi Plekhanov, “Socialism and the Political Struggle,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1883/struggle/chap2.htm

 

[33] Esther Kingston-Mann, Lenin and the Problem of Marxist Peasant Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 34.

 

[34] Ibid. 32.

 

[35] Georgi Plekhanov, “Socialism and the Political Struggle,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1883/struggle/chap3.htm

 

[36] Ibid.

 

[37] Ibid. 185.

 

[38] Athar Hussain and Keith Tribe, Marxism and the Agrarian Question (Hong Kong: MacMillan Press, ltd., 1983), 182.

 

[39] Georgi Plekhanov, “Second Draft Programme of the Russian Social-Democrats,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1887/xx/sdelg2.htm. A position singled out for criticism by Lenin in “A Draft Programme of Our Party,” LCW 4.245-8.

 

[40] Georgi Plekhanov, “Our Differences,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1885/ourdiff/ch02-a.html

 

[41] Perry Anderson, “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci”, New Left Review 100 (1976-1977): 15. For a contrast of Plekhanov's views on the peasantry with those of Lenin see my “Blanquism and Leninism,” Cultural Logic. http://clogic.eserver.org/2012/Greene.pdf and “At the Crossroads of Blanquism and Leninism,” LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal. http://links.org.au/node/4708

 

[42] Baron 1963, 263.

 

[43] Ibid. 116.

 

[44] Karl Marx, “Preface to a Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy”, MECW 16.469.

 

[45] Ibid.

 

[46] Georgi Plekhanov, “On the Role of the Individual in History,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1898/xx/individual.html

 

[47] Ibid.

 

[48] Ibid.

 

[49] “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” See “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” MECW 11.103-4.

 

[50] “Karl Marx to Kugelmann - April 17, 1871,” MECW 44.136-7.

 

[51] “Anti-Duhring,” MECW 25.105.

 

[52] “Engels to W. Borgius - 25 January 1894,” MECW 50.266.

 

[53] Paul Blackledge, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 61.

 

[54] Leon Trotsky, “In Defense of October,” Marxists Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1932/11/oct.htm

 

[55] Leon Trotsky History of the Russian Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967a), xix.

 

[56] Ibid. 435.

 

[57] “The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution aka. April Theses,” LCW 24.22.

 

[58] Leon Trotsky, Lessons of October (London: Union Books, 1993), 65.

 

[59] Ibid.

 

[60] Leon Trotsky, Trotsky's Diary in Exile – 1935, Trans. Elena Zarudnaya (Cambridge Harvard University Press), 53-4.

 

[61] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-1940 (New York: Verso Books, 2003), 195-205. This is a generally sympathetic work on Trotsky, but Deutscher takes issue with his view on the indispensability of Lenin and castigates Trotsky for giving too much prominence to personal factors.

 

[62] This section draws heavily on John Rees, The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition (New York: Routledge, 1998), 138-146.

 

[63] Georgi Plekhanov, “The Development of the Monist View of History,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1895/monist/ch04.htm

 

[64] Georgi Plekhanov, “Fundamental Problems of Marxism,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1907/fundamental-problems.htm

 

[65] Georgi Plekhanov, “The Development of the Monist View of History,” (note 63); This passage is discussed in Rees 1998, 142-3.

 

[66] Georgi Plekhanov, “Fundamental Problems of Marxism,” (note 64).

 

[67] Rees 1998, 145.

 

[68] Quoted in Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution (New York: Verso, 1981), 31.

 

[69] Georgi Plekhanov, “Our Differences,” (note 40).

 

[70] “On the Question of Dialectics,” LCW 38.360.

 

[71] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), 292-301; Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967a) 3-16; Robert Service, A History of Modern Russia: From Nicholas II to Vladimir Putin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 1-23.

 

[72] Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972), 28.

 

[73] Ibid.

 

[74] Ibid. 28-9.

 

[75] Quoted in Cliff 2002, 38.

 

[76] Ibid. 42.

 

[77] “What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats,” LCW 1.300.

 

[78] Nadezhda Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (New York: International Publishers, 1960), 18.

 

[79] “The Tasks of the Russian Social Democrats,” LCW 2.329.

 

[80] Krupskaya 1960, 20.

 

[81] “The Tasks of the Russian Social Democrats,” LCW 2.332

 

[82] “What is to be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement,” LCW 5.423. Plekhanov's own negative view of Lenin's What is To be Done? Can be found in Georgi Plekhanov, “What is Not to Be Done” in The Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, 1899‒1904: Documents of the ‘Economist’ Opposition to Iskra and Early Menshevism, ed. Richard Mullin (Boston: Brill, 2015), 483-495.

 

[83] Krupskaya 1960, 20.

 

[84] “Draft and Explanation of a Programme for the Social-Democratic Party,” LCW 2. 96.

 

[85] Cliff 2002, 48-9.

 

[86] “How the 'Spark' Was Nearly Extinguished,” LCW 4.333-4.

 

[87] Ibid. 342.

 

[88] Quoted in Cliff 2002, 91.

 

[89] Bertram Wolfe, Three Who Made a Revolution: A Biographical History (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1964), 240.

 

[90] Quoted in Cliff 2002, 94.

 

[91] Ibid. 98.

 

[92] Baron 1993, 246.

 

[93] For more on the debate over the nature of the 1905 revolution see: Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, ed., Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record (Boston: Brill, 2009).

 

[94] “Lessons of the Moscow Uprising,” LCW 11.173.

 

[95] Krupskaya 1960, 288 and Christopher Read, Lenin: A Revolutionary Life (New York: Routledge, 2005), 131.

 

[96] Baron 1963, 323.

 

[97] Quoted in Serge 1972, 92.

 

Comments

You talk about Trotsky and

You talk about Trotsky and Lenin but I'm rather disappointed that you didn't talk about his influence on Stalin and how large (if large) it was

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