G.V. Plekhanov

Socialism and the Political Struggle



In the first chapter we endeavoured to explain historically the origin of the conviction that socialism is incompatible with any “politics”. We saw that this conviction was based on Proudhon’s and Bakunin’s teaching on the state, on the one hand, and on a certain inconsistency in our Social-Democrats of the seventies, on the other. Moreover, it was supported by the general tone of the background against which both the tendencies mentioned above stood out. That background consisted, as we said quoting Engels, in a mish-mash of manifold theories of the founders of different socialist sects. The utopian socialists, we know, had an entirely negative attitude to the political movements of the working class, seeing in them nothing but “blind unbelief in the new Gospel”. This negative view of “politics” came to us with the teachings of the utopians. Long before revolutionary movement of any strength began in Russia, our socialists, like the “true” socialists in Germany at the end of the forties (see the Manifesto of the Communist Party, p.32), were ready “to hurl the traditional anathemas against liberalism, against representative government, against bourgeois competition, bourgeois freedom of the press, bourgeois legislation, bourgeois liberty and equality”, forgetting entirely that all these attacks “presupposed the existence of modern bourgeois society, with its corresponding economic conditions of existence, and the political constitution adapted thereto”, i.e., the very conditions that it should still have been a question of assuring in our country.[31]

As a result of all these influences there arose such a firm conviction of the inexpediency of any political struggle except the revolutionary struggle in the narrow and vulgar sense of the word, that we began to regard with prejudice the socialist parties in Western Europe which saw electoral campaigns, for instance, as a powerful means of educating and organising the working masses. All the political and economic gains those campaigns brought seemed to us unpardonable opportunism, a ruinous deal with the demon of the bourgeois state, tantamount to renouncing bliss in future socialist life. We ourselves did not even notice that our theories were involving us in a vicious circle of insoluble contradictions. We regarded the village commune as the point of departure of Russia’s social and economic development and, at the same time, renouncing political struggle, we voluntarily deprived ourselves of all possibility of safeguarding that commune against the present destructive influences by state interference. We were thus forced to remain indifferent spectators of a process which was destroying the very foundation on which we wished to erect the edifice of the future.

We saw, however, that the logic of events had led the Russian movement on to another road and forced the Russian revolutionaries, as represented by the Narodnaya Volya party, to fight for political influence and even dominance as one of the most powerfactors of economic revolution. We also saw that having entered upon that road our movement was growing to such an extent that the social and political theories of different varieties of Proudhonism were too narrow and cramping for it. The course of events peculiar to Russian social life clashed with the course of the ideas dominating among our revolutionaries and thus provoked a new trend of thought.

This trend, we said further, will not rid itself of its characteristic contradictions until it merges with the incomparably deeper and wider current of modern socialism. The Russian revolutionaries must adopt the standpoint of Western Social-Democracy and break with “rebel” theories just as a few years ago they renounced “rebel” practice, introducing a new, political element into their programme. This will not be difficult for them to do if they endeavour to adopt the correct view of the political side of Marx s teaching and are willing to reconsider the methods and immediate aims of their struggle by applying this new criterion to them.

We saw as early as in the second chapter what false conclusions were prompted by the philosophical and historical premises of modern socialism. Narodnaya Volya itself apparently did not notice the erroneousness of those conclusions and was inclined “even to defend Dühring’s sociological standpoint on the predominant influence of the political and legal element in the social structure over the economic”, as P.L. Lavrov put it in describing the most recent tendencies in the Russian revolutionary movement. [32] And it is only by this inclination that we can explain the polemic contained in the home review of Narodnaya Volya No. 6 against some kind of “immediate interpreters of Marx’s historical theory”, who, according to the author, based their views “mainly on Hegel’s famous triad”, not having “any other inductive material” for their conclusions and explaining “Hegel’s law in the sense evil, merely in its extreme development, will lead to good”. [33] It is sufficient to acquaint oneself with the programme of the German Social-Democrats or the French collectivists to see how “Marx’s historical theory” is understood by his West European followers and, if you like, by his “immediate interpreters”. We, for our part, can assure our Russian comrades that these “interpreters” understand “Hegel’s law” by no means “in the sense that evil, merely in its extreme development, will lead to good”, and, besides, that they use it as “inductive material” only when they study the history of German philosophy, in which this law has a very prominent place and which, in any case, it cannot be left out of, just as, according to the popular saying, you cannot leave words out of a song. The passage we quoted is an almost word-for-word repetition of the reproach addressed by Dühring to Marx that in his historical scheme “the Hegelian negation of negation plays, for want of better and clearer means, the role of a midwife with whose help the future emerges from the womb of the present”. [34] But this trick has already received the punishment it deserved from Engels, who showed the utter scientific worthlessness of the former Berlin Dozent’s works. Why, then, repeat other people’s errors and adopt, on such shifting grounds, a negative attitude towards the greatest and most revolutionary social theory of the nineteenth century? For without revolutionary theory there is no revolutionary movement in the true sense of the word. Any class which strives for its emancipation, any political party which aims at dominance, is revolutionary only insofar as it represents the most progressive social trends and consequently is a vehicle of the most progressive ideas of its time. An idea which is inherently revolutionary is a kind of dynamite which no other explosive in the world can replace. And as long as our movement is under the banner of backward or erroneous theories it will have revolutionary significance only by some, but by no means all of its aspects. At the same time, without its members knowing it, it will bear in itself the germs of reaction which will deprive it even of that little significance in the more or less near future, because, as Heine said,

New time needs a new garment
For the new job it’s got to do

And indeed that really new time will come at last – for our country too.

Incorrect understanding of some principles of modern socialism is not, however, the main obstacle preventing our revolutionary movement from taking the road paved by the working class in the West. A closer acquaintance with the literature of “Marxism” will show our socialists what a powerful weapon they have deprived themselves of by refusing to understand and master the theory of the great teacher of the “workers of all countries”. They will then see that our revolutionary movement, far from losing anything, will gain a lot if the Russian Narodniks and the Russian Narodnaya Volya at last become Russian Marxists and a new, higher standpoint reconciles all the groups existing among us, which are all right each in its own way, because despite their one-sidedness each of them expresses a definite vital need of Russian social life.

Another obstacle prevents our movement from developing in the direction just indicated. It consists in our lacking sense of proportion in politics. Since the very beginning of our movement this has prevented our revolutionaries from bringing their immediate tasks into line with their strength and it is due to nothing else than lack of political experience on the part of Russian public figures. Whether we went among the people to disseminate socialist publications, settled in the villages to organise the protesting elements of our peasantry or joined directly in the fight against the representatives of absolutism, we repeated one and the same mistake everywhere. We always overestimated our strength and never fully took account of the resistance that would be offered by the social environment, we hastened to raise a method of action temporarily favoured by circumstances into a universal principle precluding ail other ways and means. As a result, all our programmes were in a state of absolutely unstable equilibrium which could be upset by the most insignificant change in the surrounding atmosphere. We changed those programmes almost every couple of years and could not keep to anything lasting because we always kept to something narrow and one-sided. Just as, according to Belinsky’s words, Russian society had experience of all literary trends even before it had any literature, so the Russian socialist movement managed to try out all possible shades of West European socialism despite the fact that it had not yet become a movement of our working class.

The struggle against absolutism that Narodnaya Volya has undertaken will undoubtedly help greatly to eliminate the onesidedness of the study groups by bringing our revolutionaries out on to a broader path and compelling them to strive to set up a real party. But in order to put a stop to the continual changing of programmes, to rid themselves of these habits of political nomads and to acquire intellectual stability at last, the Russian revolutionaries must complete the criticism which began with the rise of conscious political trends among them. They must adopt a critical attitude to the very programme which has made necessary the criticism of all previous programmes and theories. The “Narodnaya Volya party” is the child of a time of transition. Its programme is the last produced in the conditions which made our one-sidedness inevitable and therefore legitimate. Although it broadens the political horizon of the Russian socialists, this programme in itself is not yet free from one-sidedness. The lack of sense of proportion in politics, of the ability to line up the immediate aims of the party with its actual or potential strength is also still conspicuous in it. The Narodnaya Volya party reminds one of a man who is going along a real road but has no idea of distances and therefore feels sure that he can leave “miles and leagues behind – twenty thousand leagues, ere night, covered in a single flight”. Practice will, of course, shatter his illusion, but that shattering may cost him a great deal. It would be better for him to ask himself whether seven-league strides do not belong to the realm of fantasy.

By seven-league strides we mean the element of fantasy whose existence in the programme referred to we have already pointed out and which was manifested in the second issue of Narodnaya Volya by assurances concerning the social-revolutionary (we do not say socialist) majority in the future Russian Constituent Assembly, 55 and in No.8-9 by considerations on “the seizure of power by the provisional revolutionary government”. We are profoundly convinced that this element of fantasy is highly dangerous for the “Narodnaya Volya party” itself. Dangerous to it as a socialist party because it diverts attention of the working class from the immediate tasks in Russia; dangerous to it as a party which has assumed the initiative of our emancipation movement because it will alienate from the party great resources and forces which, in other circumstances, would accrue to it out of the socalled society. Let us explain this in greater detail.

To whom does Narodnaya Volya appeal, to whom can it and should it appeal in fighting absolutism? “The enlistment in the organisation” – Narodnaya Volya – “of individuals from the peasantry capable of joining it,” we read in Kalendar Narodnoi Voli, [35] “has naturally always been acknowledged as very desirable.... But as for a mass peasant organisation at present, that was considered completely fantastic when our programme was drawn up, and, if we are not mistaken, subsequent practice was unable to change the opinion of our socialists on this subject.” Perhaps the “Narodnaya Volya party” intends to rely on the more progressive section of our labouring population, i.e., on the town workers? It does actually attach great importance to propaganda and organisation among them, it considers that “the urban working population must be the object of the party’s serious attention”. But the very reason on which it bases this necessity shows that in the party’s conception the town workers must be only one of the elements in our revolutionary movement. They “are of particular significance for the revolution, both by their position and by their relatively greater maturity”, the same document explains; “the success of the first attack depends entirely on the conduct of the workers and the troops”. So the impending revolution will not be a working-class revolution in the full sense of the term, but the workers must take part in it because they “are of particular significance for it”. Which other elements, then, will be included in this movement? We have already seen that one of these elements will be the “troops”. but in the army “in present conditions propaganda among the men is so difficult that great hope can hardly be placed upon it. Action on the officer corps is far more convenient: being more educated and having greater liberty they are more susceptible to influence”! That is quite correct, of course, but we will not stop at that for the moment, we will go further. Besides the workers and “the officer corps”, the Narodnaya Volya party has in mind the liberals and “Europe”, in relation to which “the policy of the party must strive to ensure the sympathy of the peoples for the Russian revolution, to rouse sympathy for the revolution among the European public”. To attain this aim “the party must make known to Europe all the disastrous significance of Russian absolutism for European civilisation itself, and also the party’s true aims and the significance of our revolutionary movement as the expression of the protest of the whole nation”. As far as the “liberals” are concerned, “we must point out, without concealing our radicalism, that given the present setting of our party tasks, our interests and theirs compel us to act jointly against the government”.

Thus we see that the Narodnaya Volya party relies not only, nor even mainly, on the working and peasant classes. It also has in mind society and the officer corps, which, in substance, is the very flesh and bone” of that society. It wants to convince the liberal part of that society that “given the present setting of our party tasks” the interests of Russian liberalism coincide with those of the Russian social-revolutionary party. What, then, does it do to that conviction upon the Russian liberals? First of all it publishes the programme of the Executive Committee which Says that “the people’s will would be sufficiently well expressed and Implemented by a Constituent Assembly freely elected by universal suffrage and receiving instructions from the electors”. In its famous Letter to Alexander III the Executive Committee also demanded “the convocation of representatives of the whole Russian people to reconsider the existing forms of statehood and public life and to refashion them according to the desires of the people”. [36] That programme does indeed coincide with the interests of the Russian liberals, and in order to carry it out they would probably be reconciled even to universal suffrage, which the Executive Committee cannot fail to demand. In all this, the programme of the said Committee displays far greater maturity than all those which preceded it. But, not to mention such a huge blunder as to demand freedom of assembly, of speech, of the press and of electoral programmes only “as a temporary measure”, let us recall other statements of the Narodnaya Volya party. The party organ hastened to warn its readers that the majority of the deputies to the Constituent Assembly would be supporters of radical economic revolution. We have already said above that this assurance was no more than a fiction invented to conciliate incompatible elements in the Narodnaya Volya programme. Let us now consider the printed expression of that assurance from the stand-point of tactics. The question is: does an economic revolution suit the interests of Russian liberalism? Does our liberal society sympathise with the agrarian revolution which Narodnaya Volya says the peasant deputies will aim at? West European history tells us most convincingly that whenever the “red spectre” took at all threatening forms the “liberals” were ready to seek protection in the embraces of the most unceremonious military dictatorship. Did the terrorist organ think that our Russian liberals would be an exception to this general rule? If so, on what did it base its conviction? Did it also think that contemporary “public opinion in Europe” was so imbued with socialist ideas that it would sympathise with the convocation of a social-revolutionary Constituent Assembly? Or did it think that although the European bourgeoisie trembled at the red sprectre in their own countries they would cheer its appearance in Russia? It goes without saying that it thought nothing of the sort and forgot nothing of the sort. But why, in that case, make such a risky statement? Or was the Narodnaya Volya party organ so convinced of the inevitable realisation of its prophecy that it considered it necessary to rouse the members of the organisation to take steps corresponding to the importance of the anticipated event? Bearing in mind the fact that the same organ declared work among the people useless, we think the statement was intended rather to calm than to rouse: a social-revolutionary majority in the Constituent Assembly was expected despite the fact that the work referred to now recalls the “Danaides filling bottomless barrels”.

In itself the statement could have been regarded as unimportant, especially as Narodnaya Volya itself had apparently given up its exaggeratedly optimistic hopes about the future composition of the Russian Constituent. We think so, because the leading article in No. 8-9 speaks of the economic revolution which, in the absence of social-revolutionary initiative among the people themselves, must be accomplished by the “provisional revolutionary government” before the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. The author of the article quite rightly sees such a revolution as the only guarantee that “the Zemsky Sobor which is convoked will be attended by true representatives of the people”. Thus, Narodnaya Volya’s former illusion has been shattered completely. But, unfortunately, it has only disappeared to give place to a new one, still more harmful for the cause of the Narodnaya Volya party. The element of fantasy in the programme has not been removed but has only assumed a new form, being now called that very “seizure of power by the provisional revolutionary government” which is supposed to give the party the possibility to carry out the economic revolution referred to. It is obvious that the new “setting of the party tasks” can on no account impress upon either Russian liberalism or bourgeois Europe the idea that they have common interests with the Russian revolutionary movement. However downtrodden and crushed Russian society may be it is by no means deprived of the instinct of self-preservation and in no case will it voluntarily meet the “red spectre” half-way; to point out to it such a formulation of the party tasks means to deprive oneself of its support and to rely only on one’s own strength. But is that strength great enough to warrant the risk of alienating such an ally? Can our revolutionaries really seize power and retain it, if only for a short time, or is all talk of this nothing else than cutting the skin of a bear that has not been killed and which, by force of circumstances, is not even going to be killed? That is a question which has recently become an urgent one for revolutionary Russia....

Let us hasten to make a reservation. The previous pages must already have convinced the reader that we do not belong to the opponents in principle of such an act as the seizure of power by a revolutionary party. In our opinion that is the last, and what is more, the absolutely inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the political struggle which every class striving for emancipation must undertake at a definite stage in social development. Having gained political domination, a revolutionary class will retain that domination and be relatively secure against the blows of reaction only when it uses against reaction the mighty weapon of state power. “Den Teufel halte, wer ihn halt! “ says Faust.

But there is no more difference between heaven and earth than between the dictatorship of a class and that of a group of revolutionary raznochintsi. This applies in particular to the dictatorShip of the working class, whose present task is not only to overthrow the political domination of the unproductive classes in society, but also to do away with the anarchy now existing in production and consciously to organise all functions of social and economic life. The mere understanding of this task calls for an advanced working class with political experience and education, a working class free from bourgeois prejudices and able to discuss its situation by itself. In addition to this, its solution presupposes that socialist ideas are spread among the proletariat and that the proletariat is conscious of its own strength and confident in victory. But such a proletariat will not allow even the sincerest of its well-wishers to seize power. It will not allow it for the simple reason that it has been to the school of political education with the firm intention of finishing it at some time and coming forward as an independent figure in the arena of historical life, instead of passing eternally from one guardianship to another; it will not allow it because such a guardianship would be unnecessary, as the proletariat could then solve the problem of the socialist revolution itself; and finally it will not allow it because such a guardianship would be harmful, for the conscious participation of the producers in organising production cannot be replaced by any conspiratorial skill, any daring or self-sacrifice on the part of the conspirators. The mere thought that the social problem can be solved in practice by anybody but the workers themselves shows complete misunderstanding of this problem, irrespective of whether the idea is held by an “Iron Chancellor” or a revolutionary organisation. Once the proletariat has understood the conditions of its emancipation and is mature to emancipate itself, it will take state power in its own hands in order to finish off its enemies and build up social life, not, of course, on the basis of an-archy, which would bring new disasters, but of pan-archy, which will give all adult members of society the possibility to take part in the discussion and settlement of social matters. And until the working class is sufficiently developed to be able to fulfil its great historical task, the duty of its supporters is to accelerate the process of its development, to remove the obstacles preventing its strength and its consciousness from growing, and not to invent social experiments and vivisection, the outcome of which is always more than doubtful.

That is how we understand the seizure of power in the socialist revolution. Applying this point of view to Russian reality we must admit that we by no means believe in the early possibility of a socialist government in Russia.

Narodnaya Volya considers the contemporary “relation of political and economic factors on Russian soil” particularly “advantageous” to the socialists. We agree that it is more advantageous for them in Russia than in India, Persia or Egypt, but it cannot be compared, of course, with the social relations in Western Europe. And if Narodnaya Volya arrives at its convictions by comparing our system not with the Egyptian or the Persian, but with the French or the English system, then it has made a very big mistake. The contemporary “relation” of social factors “on Russian soil” is the cause of the ignorance and indifference of the popular masses; when were such qualities advantageous for their emancipation? Narodnaya Volya apparently presumes that this indifference has already begun to disappear because among the people “there is growing hatred of the privileged ruling estates and persistent striving for a radical change in economic relations”. But what comes of that striving? “Hatred of the privileged estates” proves nothing at all; it is often not accompanied by a single ray of political consciousness. Furthermore, at the present time we must clearly distinguish between estate consciousness and class consciousness, for the old division into estates no longer corresponds to the economic relations in Russia and is preparing to give place to formal equality of citizens in a “legal state” If Narodnaya Volya considers the contemporary outlook of our peasantry from the standpoint of the development of their class and political consciousness, it will hardly persist in saying that the relation between our social factors is advantageous to the cause of the social revolution. For it certainly cannot consider “advantageous” to that cause the rumours, for instance, circulating among the peasantry about their own struggle against the government. No matter how strongly “hatred of the ruling classes” is shown in these rumours, the fact that the revolutionary movement itself is attributed by the peasants to scheming by the serfdom-minded nobility and the officials is evidence that the “provisional revolutionary government” will be in great danger when the people begins “winning economic equality from those who have been exploiting and oppressing it for centuries”. Then the relation between the factors now interesting us will perhaps display rather disadvantageous qualities for the temporarily victorious conspirators. And then, what is meant by “winning economic equality”?

Is it enough for that to expropriate the big landowners, capitalists and businessmen? Does it not require production itself to be organised in a definite manner? If so, are Russia’s present economic relations favourable to such organisation? In other words, does the “economic factor” offer us much chance of success? We do not think so, and for the following reason. Any organisation presupposes in what is to be organised certain qualities determined by the purpose and character of the organisation. The socialist organisation of production implies such a character of the economic relations as will make that organisation the logical conclusion of the entire previous development of the country and is therefore distinguished by an extremely significant definiteness. In other words socialist organisation, like any other, requires the appropriate basis. But that basis does not exist in Russia. The old foundations of national life are too narrow, heterogeneous and one-sided, and moreover too shaky, and new ones are as yet only being formed. The objective social conditions of production necessary for socialist organisation have not yet matured, and that is why the producers themselves have not yet either the striving or the ability for such organisation: our peasantry can yet neither understand nor fulfil this task. Therefore, the “provisional government” will have not to “sanction”, but to carry out “the economic revolution”, granted that it is not swept away by a wave of the popular movement, granted that the producers are obedient enough.

You cannot create by decrees conditions which are alien to the very character of the existing economic relations. The “provisional government” will have to reconcile itself to what exists, to take as the basis of its reforming activity what it is given by present Russian reality. And on that narrow and shaky foundation the edifice of socialist organisation will be built by a government which will include: first, town workers, as yet little prepared for such a difficult task; second, representatives of our revolutionary youth, who have always kept aloof from practical life; third, the “officer corps”, whose knowledge of economics is certainly subject to doubt. We do not want to make the quite probable supposition that, besides all these elements, liberals will also find their way into the provisional government, and they will not sympathise with, but hinder the social-revolutionary “setting of the party tasks”. We suggest that the reader merely weigh up the circumstances we have just enumerated and then ask himself: has an “economic revolution” which begins in such circumstances much chance of success? Is it true that the present “relation of political and economic factors on Russian soil” is favourable to the cause of the socialist revolution? Is not the confidence that this relation is advantageous one of the fictions borrowed from the old anarchist and rebel outlook and carried to impossible extremes in the programme of the new political party? Yet it is this fiction that determines the most “immediate tasks” of the party and underlies the desire for the immediate “seizure of power” a striving that terrifies our society and makes the entire activity of our revolutionaries one-sided!

Perhaps it will be objected that Narodnaya Volya does not even think of undertaking the socialist organisation of society immediately after seizing power, that the “economic revolution” it plans is intended only to educate the people for a future socialist revolution. Let us see whether this supposition is possible, and if so, what conclusions follow from it.

The leading article of No.8-9 of Narodnaya Volya speaks of the economic equality which will be “won” by the people itself, or, if the people lacks initiative, created by the provisional government. We have already said that so-called economic equality is possible only with a socialist organisation of production. But let us assume that Narodnaya Volya considers it possible under other circumstances too, that economic equality, in its opinion, will be sufficiently guaranteed by the transfer of the land and the instruments of production to the ownership of the working people. Such an opinion would be nothing but a return to the old Narodnik ideals of Zemlya i Volya, and from the economic standpoint it would show the same weaknesses that characterised those ideals. The mutual relations of individual village communes, the conversion of the product of the commune members’ labour into commodities and the capitalist accumulation connected with it would threaten to make that “equality” extremely precarious! With the independence of the mir “as an economic and administrative unit”, with “broad territorial self-government guaranteed by the electivity of all offices”, and “the ownership of the land by the people” which the Executive Committee’s programme demands, the central government would not be able to take steps to consolidate that equality, even if we assume that it would devise measures to abrogate not only the written laws of the Russian Empire, but the laws of commodity production itself. And anyhow, it would be reluctant to take such measures, for it would consist of representatives of the “economically and politically emancipated people” whose ideals would be expressed, at the best, by the words “Land and Freedom” and would leave no room for any organisation of national (let alone international) production.

Let us suppose that in view of this danger Narodnaya Volya’s “provisional government” will not hand over the power it has seized to the representatives of the people but will become a permanent government. Then it will be faced with the following alternative: either it will have to remain an indifferent spectator of the slow decay of the “economic equality” it has established, or it will be obliged to organise national production. It will have to fulfil this difficult task either in the spirit of modem socialism, in which it will be hindered by its own unpracticality as well as by the present stage of development of national labour and the workers’ own habits; or it will have to seek salvation in the ideals of patriarchal and authoritarian communism”, only modifying those ideals so that national production is managed not by the Peruvian “sons of the sun” and their officials but by a socialist caste. But even now the Russian people is too far developed for anybody to flatter himself with the hope that such experiments on it could be successful. Moreover, there is no doubt that under such a guardianship the people, far from being educated for socialism, would even lose all capacity for further progress or would retain that capacity only thanks to the appearance of the very economic inequality which it would be the revolutionary government’s immediate aim to abolish. Not to mention the influence of international relations or the impossibility of Peruvian communism even in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth or the twentieth century.

Anyhow, why speak so much of the results of the seizure of power by our revolutionaries? Is that seizure itself probable or even possible? In our opinion the probability is very small, so small that the seizure of power may be considered as absolutely impossible. Our “thinking proletariat” has already done much for the emancipation of its motherland. It has shaken absolutism, aroused political interest among society, sown the seed of socialist propaganda among our working class. It is intermediary between the higher classes of society and the lower, having the education of the former and the democratic instincts of the latter. This position has eased for it the diversified work of propaganda and agitation. But this same position gives it very little hope of success in a conspiracy to seize power. For such a conspiracy talent, energy and education are not enough: the conspirators need connections, wealth and an influential position in society. And that is what our revolutionary intelligentsia lacks. It can make good these deficiencies only by allying itself with other dissatisfied elements of Russian society. Let us suppose that its plans actually meet with the sympathy of those elements, that rich landowners, capitalists, officials, staff and senior officers join in the conspiracy. There will then be more probability of the conspiracy being a success, although that probability will still be very small – just remember the outcome of most of the famous conspiracies in history. But the main danger to the socialist conspiracy will come not from the existing government, but from the members of the conspiracy itself. The influential and high-placed personages who have joined it may be sincere socialists only by a “fortunate coincidence”. But as regards the majority of them, there can be no guarantee that they will not wish to use the power they have seized for purposes having nothing in common with the interests of the working class. And once the conspirators deviate from the socialist aim of the conspiracy it can be considered not only useless but even harmful for the social development of the country; for hatred of absolutism does not warrant sympathy for the successes of the “most modern Seyans”, as Stepnyak puts it in his well-known book, who would wish to use the conspiracy in their own interests. Thus, the more sympathy a conspiracy of the socialist intelligentsia to seize power in the immediate future meets among influential spheres, i.e., the greater the probability of its outward success, the more open to doubt its results will be; contrariwise, the more such a conspiracy is confined to our socialist “intelligentsia”, i.e., the less the probability of its success, the less doubt there will be about its results, as far as the conspirators’ intentions are concerned. Everything leads us to think that at present a Russian socialist conspiracy would be threatened with a failure of the second kind rather than of the first.

Considering all that has been said we think that only one aim of the Russian socialists would not be fantastic now: to achieve free political institutions, on the one hand, and to create elements for the setting up of the future workers’ socialist party of Russia, on the other. They must put forward the demand for a democratic constitution which shall guarantee the workers the “rights of citizen” as well as the “rights of man” and give them, by universal suffrage, the possibility to take an active part in the political life of the country. Without trying to scare anybody with the yet remote “red spectre”, such a political programme would arouse sympathy for our revolutionary party among all those who are not systematic enemies of democracy; it could be subscribed to by very many representatives of our liberalism as well as by the socialists. [37] And whereas the seizure of power by some secret revolutionary organisation will always be the work only of that organisation and of those who are initiated in its plans, agitation for the programme mentioned would be a matter for the whole of Russian society, in which it would intensify the conscious striving for political emancipation. Then the interests of the liberals would indeed “force” them to “act jointly with the socialists against the government”, because they would cease to meet in revolutionary publications the assurance that the overthrow of absolutism would be the signal for a social revolution in Russia. At the same time another less timid and more sober section of liberal society would no longer see revolutionaries as unpractical youths who set themselves unrealisable and fantastic plans. This view, which is disadvantageous for revolutionaries, would give place to the respect of society not only for their heroism but also for their political maturity. This sympathy would gradually grow into active support, or more probably into an independent social movement, and then the hour of absolutism’s fall would strike at last. The socialist party would play an extremely honourable and beneficial role in this emancipation movement. Its glorious past, its selflessness and energy would give weight to its demands and it would at least stand chances of thus winning for the people the possibility of political development and education, and for itself the right to address its propaganda openly to the people and to organise them openly into a separate party.

But that is not enough: Or more exactly, it is unachievable without simultaneous action of another kind and in another sphere. Without might there is no right. Every constitution – according to Lassalle’s splendid expression – corresponds or strives to correspond to the “real, factual relation of forces in the country”. That is why our socialist intelligentsia must concern itself with changing the factual relations of Russian social forces in favour of the working class even in the pre-constitutional period. Otherwise the fall of absolutism will by no means justify the hopes placed in it by the Russian socialists or even democrats. Even in a constitutional Russia, the demands of the people may be left completely unattended to or satisfied only as far as is necessary to allow them to pay more taxes which they are now almost unable to do as a result of the rapacity of the state economic management. The socialist party itself, having won for the liberal bourgeoisie freedom of speech and action, may find itself in an “exceptional” position similar to that of German Social-Democracy today. In politics, only he may count on the gratitude of his allies of yesterday, now his enemies, who has nothing more serious to count on.

Fortunately, the Russian socialists can base their hopes on a firmer foundation. They can and must place their hopes first and foremost in the working class. The strength of the working class – as of any other class – depends, among other things, on the clarity of its political consciousness, its cohesion and its degree of organisation. It is these elements of its strength that must be influenced by our socialist intelligentsia. The latter must become the leader of the working class in the impending emancipation movement, explain to it its political and economic interests and also the interdependence of those interests and must prepare it to play an independent role in the social life of Russia. They must exert all their energy so that in the very opening period of the constitutional life of Russia our working class will be able to come forward as a separate party with a definite social and political programme. The detailed elaboration of that programme must, of course, be left to the workers themselves, but the intelligentsia must elucidate for them its principal points, for instance, a radical review of the present agrarian relations, the taxation system and factory legislation, state help for producers’ associations, and so forth. All this can be done only by intensive work among at least the most advanced sections of the working class, by oral and printed propaganda and the organisation of workers’ socialist study groups. It is true that these tasks have always held a more or less prominent place in the programmes of our socialists, and Kalendar Narodnoi Voli can convince us that they were not forgotten even in the heat of the bitterest fight against the government (see Preparatory Work of the Party in section C, Urban Workers). But we suggest that everybody who is acquainted with our revolutionary movement should recall and compare how much energy and money was wasted on destructive work and how much was devoted to training elements for the future workers’ socialist party. We are not accusing anybody, but we think that the distribution of our revolutionary forces was too one-sided. Yet it would be vain for us to try to explain this by the quality of the revolutionary forces themselves or of the elements of the working class which, according to their own programme, they should have influenced. The appearance and success of such publications as Zerno and Rabochaya Gazeta show that our revolutionaries have not lost their inclination for propaganda, and our working people are not indifferent to it. Of course these publications made mistakes, at times serious ones, but only he who does nothing makes no mistakes. The main trouble is that in their publications one does not see any of the energy with which printed propaganda is conducted among “intellectual” sections of society, that when a print-shop is closed by the police a new one is not opened in its stead, that when it is impossible to publish them in Russia they are not transferred abroad, and so forth. Of all the journals from abroad – and we had a fair number of them – Rabotnik alone wrote for the people and that was the great merit of its publishers. But Rabotnik has already been closed for a long time and we have heard nothing of new attempts of this kind, with, say, a new programme, better suited to the changed views of the Russian socialists. What has been published here, in Russia, for the workers besides Zerno and Rabochaya Gazeta? Absolutely nothing. Not a single booklet, not a single pamphlet. [38] And that at a time when the revolutionary movement has centred universal attention upon itself, and the people, grasping avidly at the rumours and opinions, have been wondering anxiously: What do these people want? Can one be astonished, after this, at the absurd answers to this question with which for lack of better ones, they are sometimes satisfied? We repeat: we are not accusing anybody, we advise everybody to pay attention to this aspect of the matter so as to make up for the omission in time. [39]

Thus, the struggle for political freedom, on the one hand, and the preparation of the working class for its future independent and offensive role, on the other, such, in our opinion, is the only possible “setting of party tasks” at present. To bind together in one two so fundamentally different matters as the overthrow of absolutism and the socialist revolution, to wage revolutionary struggle in the belief that these elements of social development will coincide in the history of our country means to put off the advent of both. But it depends on us to bring these two elements closer together. We must follow the splendid example of the German Communists who, as the Manifesto says, fight “with the bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way, against the absolute monarchy”, and yet “never cease, for a single instant, to instil into the working class the dearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat”. Acting thus, the Communists wanted “the bourgeois revolution in Germany” to “be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution”.

The present position of bourgeois societies and the influence of international relations on the social development of each civilised country entitle us to hope that the social emancipation of the Russian working class will follow very quickly upon the fall of absolutism. If the German bourgeoisie “came too late”, the Russian has come still later, and its domination cannot be a long one. Only the Russian revolutionaries should not, in their turn, begin “too late” the preparation of the working class, a matter which has now become of absolute urgency.

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, [40] 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. The rural population of today, living in backward social conditions is not only less capable of conscious political initiative than the industrial workers, it is also less responsive to the movement which our revolutionary intelligentsia has begun. It has greater difficulty in mastering the socialist teachings, because its living conditions are too much unlike the conditions which gave birth to those teachings. And besides, the peasantry is now going through a difficult, critical period. The previous “ancestral foundations” of its economy are crumbling, “the ill-lated village commune itself is being discredited in its eyes”, as is admitted even by such “ancestral” organs of Narodism as Nedelya (see No. 39, the article by Mr. N.Z. In Our Native Parts); and the new forms of labour and life are only in the process of formation, and this creative process is more intensive in the industrial centres. Like water which washes away the soil in one place and forms new sediments and deposits in others, the process of Russian social development is creating new social formations by destroying the age-old forms of the peasants’ relation to the land and to one another. These new social formations contain the embryo of a new social movement which alone can end the exploitation of Russia’s working population. The industrial workers, who are more developed and have higher requirements and a broader outlook than the peasantry, will join our revolutionary intelligentsia in its struggle against absolutism, and when they have won political freedom they will organise into a workers’ socialist party whose task will be to begin systematic propaganda of socialism among the peasantry. We say systematic propaganda because isolated opportunities of propaganda must not be missed even at present. It is hardly necessary to add that our socialists would have to change the distribution of their forces among the people if a strong independent movement made itself felt among the peasantry.

That is the “programme” which life itself suggests to the Russian revolutionary socialist party. Will the party be able to carry out of this programme? Will it be prepared to give up its fantastic plans and notions, which, it must be admitted, have a great appeal to sentiment and imagination? It is as yet difficult to answer that question with certitude. The Announcement of the Publication of Vestnik Narodnoi Voli speaks of the political tasks of the revolutionary party only in the most general terms. Vestnik’s editorial board describes those aims as “absolutely definite” and apparently does not consider it necessary to define them again in its announcement. That is why there is ground for fear that it will not consider it necessary either to ask itself whether the “absolutely definite conditions” of present Russian actuality correspond to the “absolutely definite aims” of the Narodnaya Volya party. In that case the new publication will leave unsatisfied the most urgent need of our revolutionary literature, the need for a critical reconsideration of obsolete programmes and traditional methods of action. But we hope that the future will dissipate our fears. We wish to hope that the new publication will take a sober view of our revolutionary party’s tasks, on whose fulfilment the party’s future depends. Social life will be just as pitiless to the party’s present illusions as it was to those of our “rebels” and propagandists. It is better to follow its directions now than to pay for its stern lessons later by splits and new disappointments.




[31] What is said here does not apply, however, to the group which published Narodnoye Dyelo in Geneva, a group which repeatedly affirmed its negative attitude to the “theory of political non-interference”.

[32] See the article View of the Past and the Present of Russian Socialism, Kalendar Narodnoi Voli, 1883, p.109.

[33] [Note to the 1905 edition.] Subsequently, our “legal” N. Mikhailovsky and Bros., repeated this nonsense in all keys. It must be noted in general that in their disputes with us these gentlemen could think of nothing new in comparison with what was written against us in illegal literature. Let anybody who wants to convince himself of this read Tikhomirov’s article What Can We Expect from the Revolution? in the second issue of Vestnik Narodnoi Voli and compare it with the arguments Beltov had to refute much later in his book. “Illegal” thought long ago outstripped “legal” thought in our country.

[34] See Kritische Geschichte der Nationaloekonomie und des Sozialismus, dritte Auflage, S.498.

[35] Preparatory Work of the Party, p.129, note. [Plekhanov’s italics]

[36] See Letter to Alexander III, Kalendar Narodnoi Voli, p.14.

[37] [Note to the 1905 edition.] The sympathy of “society” is very important for us and we can – or more exactly we had many chances to – win it without changing one iota of our programme. But, of course, it requires tact to make the possibility a reality, and that is what we have not always got. For instance, we sometimes allow ourselves to abuse “capital” about, though, or course, not because of, its “rebellion”. Marx would never have made such a gross tactical blunder. He would have considered it worthy of Karl Grün and other “true socialists”.

[38] [Note to the 1905 edition] From this we see that the idea of a popular Publication is by no means a novelty in our literature. But this did not prevent it from seeming a dangerous novelty to many comrades no further back than on the eve of our Second Congress, when I was almost its only supporter on the staff of Iskra. This idea has now been practically realised – with greater or lesser success. Better late than never. But if you could hear, reader, what amazing arguments were brought out against this idea in the not-far-off time just mentioned, you would exclaim, like Faust: Wie weh, wie weh, wie weh!

[39] “This year,” we read in the Supplement to Listok of N. V. No.1 (1883, p.61), “there was a whole series of strikes which, thanks to the workers’ lack of organisation, were mostly failures! “

[40] [Note to the 1905 edition.] i.e., under a constitution.

Last updated on 7.10.2003