Georgi Plekhanov and the roots of Soviet philosophy

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By Jason Devine January 11, 2017 –– Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal –– Marxism was born through a critical appropriation of Hegel’s method and a radical break with the philosophy of Young Hegelianism.[1] With this, Marx declared that philosophy was over. As he wrote to Ferdinand Lassalle in regards to the Hegelian dialectic, “This dialectic is, to be sure, the ultimate word in philosophy and hence there is all the more need to divest it of the mystical aura given it by Hegel.”[2] Even more explicitly, Engels wrote in an early introduction to his Anti-Dühring: “The Hegelian system was the last and consummate form of philosophy, in so far as the latter is presented as a special science superior to every other. All philosophy collapsed with this system.”[3] Hence, any attempts to revive philosophy i.e. a specific form of ideology, could only be a step backwards from the advance made by Marx and Engels, could only ever be a reactionary project. If carried out within Marxism it can only mean a reversion back to pre-Marxist times, to pre-scientific views in the study of society. Dialectical materialism as the philosophy of Marxism is exactly such a reactionary turn. In fact, dialectical materialism, the ruling philosophy in the USSR, a philosophy which, in whole or in part, countless Marxist-Leninist parties, groups, and sects claim adherence to today, was essentially the product of Georgi Plekhanov. However, Plekhanov’s philosophy of dialectical materialism was not and is not synonymous with Marx’s method, with scientific socialism. Rather, the former can be more correctly described as neo-Young Hegelian. In essence, Plekhanov’s dialectical materialism was a combination of aspects of Hegel’s philosophy, Russian Hegelianism, German Young Hegelianism, and Darwinism all glossed over with a Marxist veneer. Despite this seeming dialectical heritage, Plekhanov’s basic method was a consistent reductionism and which flowed from his basic outlook: mechanical materialism. As I will show below, Plekhanov consistently engaged in various forms of determinism: geographical, biological, and technological. In his mechanical materialism, humanity, the subject, was actually the object and the environment, whether social or natural, the object, was the actual subject. Thus, he located the source of all social change not in the activity of humanity, but rather in some external factor which acted as a stimuli on humanity and impelled it forward. Humanity was seen as merely an empty vessel being filled and carried forward by the inevitable evolutionary stream of history. Thus, Plekhanov, in obliterating human agency, reproduced Hegel’s teleology. All of Plekhanov’s socio-political analyses and his position on the tasks of socialists were the result of the above method and outlook. In his view “The Social-Democrat studies attentively laws and the course of historical development…The Social-Democrat swims with the current of history…The Social-Democrat derives support from evolution.”[4] Despite the reference to swimming “with the current of history,” on the surface it appears that Plekhanov was simply arguing that in order to intervene in history, a revolutionary needs to study history. There seems to be an emphasis precisely on agency here. However, as he argued more extensively elsewhere,
Engels dedicated his entire life to an extremely lofty aim: the emancipation of the proletariat. He also had his “ideal”, but he was not severed for ever from reality. His ideal was reality itself, but the reality of tomorrow, a reality which will be fulfilled, not because Engels was a man of an ideal, but because the properties of the present reality are such that out of it, by its own inner laws, there must develop that reality of tomorrow which we may call Engels’ ideal. Uneducated people may ask us: if the whole point consists in the properties of the reality, then what has Engels to do with it, why does he intervene with his ideals in the inevitable historical process? Cannot the matter do without him? From the objective standpoint the position of Engels appears as follows: in the process of the transition from one form to another, reality seized on him as on one of the necessary instruments of the impending revolution.[5]
Here there is no trace of human agency, of what Marx termed “revolutionary practice.”[6] Instead humans appear as the willing vessels of history, which is making its course towards a pre-ordained destination. It is no accident that here Plekhanov actually echoed Feuerbach and not Marx. In a November 1828 letter to Hegel, Feuerbach wrote:
For the philosophy which bears your name is, as acquaintance with history and philosophy itself teaches, not the affair of a school, but of humanity. At the very least the spirit of the latest philosophy claims, perforce tends, to burst the bounds of a single school, to become a general world-historical and public intuition. There resides in this spirit not only the germ of a higher literary activity, but also of a universal spirit expressing itself in actuality, the spirit, as it were, of a new period in world history. It is thus now a question, so to speak, of founding a Kingdom, the Kingdom of the Idea, of thought which contemplates itself in all that exists and is conscious of itself.[7]
Yet, what Feuerbach wrote was, in its turn, merely an echo of the argument Hegel made at the end of his Lectures on the History of Philosophy:
This long procession of spirits is formed by the individual pulses which beat in its life; they are the organism of our substance, an absolutely necessary progression, which expresses nothing less than the nature of spirit itself, and which lives in us all. We have to give ear to its urgency - when the mole that is within forces its way on - and we have to make it a reality. It is my desire that this history of Philosophy should contain for you a summons to grasp the spirit of the time, which is present in us by nature, and - each in his own place - consciously to bring it from its natural condition, i.e. from its lifeless seclusion, into the light of day.[8]
In comparing these arguments of Plekhanov, Feuerbach, and Hegel the terms can be changed but the structure is fundamentally the same: an external, alien force, the true subject, works through an object, humans, towards an inevitable end. For Hegel, it is the Absolute Mind/Spirit/God which works through humanity; for Feuerbach, it is the philosophy of Hegel which works through the Young Hegelians; and for Plekhanov, it is laws of history which works through the working class. What is common to all of these is that there is no focus on human activity.[9] Lawrence S. Stepelevich has noted about Feuerbach’s letter that,
To Feuerbach, Spirit, after ‘having worked for centuries upon its development and completion’, has finally revealed itself in Hegel’s philosophy. It is now the mission of Spirit, acting through its disciples - the Hegelians, particularly, the Young Hegelians - to rationalize the world. In theological terms, which always seem natural in a Young Hegelian context, the redemption of the world by incarnate reason is now at hand, and from Feuerbach on, this ‘apocalyptic tone, this sense of historical revolution, was the essential ingredient of Young Hegelian metaphysic’.[10]
It is exactly this “Young Hegelian metaphysic,” itself an altered Hegelian metaphysic, which Plekhanov reproduced in his dialectical materialism. The discussion and proof of this will take up the bulk of this work. The Bolsheviks had a high estimation of Plekhanov’s philosophy and through them, the latter served as the foundation for the official philosophy of the early and later Soviet state. However, unlike other major Bolshevik leaders, Lenin did not have an uncritical attitude to Plekhanov’s philosophical views; indeed, his relationship to his mentor was far more complex. This is shown most explicitly in his Philosophical Notebooks. Yet this work was not published in Lenin’s lifetime. This occurred only in 1929-1930 and even then it took a number of decades before this work was published in various foreign languages.[11] There is, in fact, a sharp divergence between Lenin’s views of Plekhanov, as expressed in his Notebooks, and those expressed in public statements and writings. The fact that this bifurcation has been, and continues to be, largely ignored is a major reason for the uncritical acceptance of both dialectical materialism and the place of Plekhanov in the history of Marxism. Plekhanov has been famously referred to as “The Father of Russian Marxism.”[12] As I will show, he was never a Marxist, but rather a neo-Young Hegelian. Therefore, while he was the father of the Russian social-democratic movement, the title of “Father of Russian Marxism,” both in theory and practice, belongs more truthfully to Lenin.... Continue reading full document here