Tony Cliff

Plekhanov: The Father of Russian Marxism

(January 1957)

From Socialist Review, Vol.  No. 4, January 1957.
Reprinted in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp. 296–300.
Transcribed by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Thanks to Ted Crawford.

A hundred years ago, an December 11, 1856, George Vaientinovich Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism and precursor of the Russian workers’ movement, was born.

The Populists

The greatness of his historical contribution can be gauged only when set against the background of the anti-Tsarist liberatory movement as it existed prior to his work.

For decades already the heroic acts of individual terrorism directed against the Tsar and his henchmen by the Populists (Narodniks) had captured the imagination of Western Socialists. Herzen, one of the fore-runners of Populism, stated the belief of these fighters: “The man of the future in Russia is the peasant, just as in France it is the workers.” (A. Herzen, Collected Works (Russian), Petrograd 1919–25, Vol. 6, p. 450). The peasants, argued the Populists, could pass straight into Socialism without passing through the stage of capitalism, by basing themselves on the mir – the Russian village community. Under this system the land of the village, except for that on which the peasants’ houses stood and the small plots which surrounded them, was the property of the whole village. Part was used as common pasture and the rest was divided into strips, a certain number of which were allotted to each family according to its size. From time to time the land was redivided among the peasants. In the mir the Populists visualised the peasants as the standard-bearers of the future.

Plekhanov discovers the Russian working class

However, history mapped its path out differently. Before long it became clear that capitalism was developing in Russia, that a new class of wage workers was coming into being, and that the mir was disintegrating.

As early as the end of 1878 and the beginning of 1879, large scale workers’ strikes and disturbances broke out in the centres of Russian industry, and Plekhanov, at the time a Populist, was forced to recognise that the working class born of this developing capitalism, would play a part in the coming Russian revolution. In a leading article in a Narodnik paper, Zemilia i Volio on 20 February, 1879. he candidly wrote: “The agitation of the factory workers which has continuously grown in strength and now occupies everybody’s attention, compels us to deal earlier than we had calculated with the role which the town worker should p lay in this organisation ( the revolutionary battle organisation of the people’). The question of the urban worker is one which life itself, independently, pushes forward and raises to an appropriate plane despite all the a priori theoretical resolutions of the revolutionary activists.” (G.V. Plekhanov, Works (Russian), Second Edition, Moscow-Leningrad, 1923–7, Vol. 1, p. 67)

Plekhanov still believed that the revolution would be brought about by the peasants, but thought that the workers would help them by initiating revolts in the towns and agitating in the villages. He was now just a step from recognising the decisive role that the working class would inevitably play in the revolution, concentrated as it was in large factories and living in big towns, compared with the subsidiary role to be played by the peasants, dispersed as they were in small villages and using individual methods of production.

Plekhanov becomes Marxist

In Socialism and the Political Struggle (1883) be exposed the main fallacies of the Populists and counterposed to their ideas the principles of Marxism. The importance of its new ideas prompted Lenin to compare this pamphet with the Communist Manifesto for its effect on the Russian working class movement. The next year, in replying to the attack of the Populists, Plekhanov published another outstanding essay, entitled Our Differences, which Engels called a turning point in the development of the revolutionary movement in Russia.

In these works and others that followed, Plekhanov applied the Marxist method to an analysis of Russian reality. Although he was not the creator of the theory of dialectical materialism or historical materialism and had not actually enriched them with new discoveries, he nevertheless carried out the important task of introducing them into Russian life, doing so in a series of brilliant works. With great strength of expression, precision and beauty, lucidity of exposition and brilliance of style, Plekhanov “Russified” Marxism. His works on philosophy, the cultural history of Russia, art and literature alone would have earned him a permanent and prominent place among the Soviet classics. Of Plekhanov’s philosophical essays Lenin wrote: “It is impossible to become a real Communist without studying-really studying-all that Plekhanov has written on philosophy, as this is the best of the whole international literature of Marxism ...”

But above all, the importance of Plekhanov’s work for the future history of Russia was his conclusion that the key role in the struggle against Tsarism would belong to the young Russian working class. As he said at the foundation Congress of the Socialist International (1889): “The proletariat created through the disintegration of the village community will overthrow the autocracy ... The Russian Revolution can only conquer as a working man`s revolution – there is no other possibility, nor can there be any.” (Works, Vol. 4, p. 54)

Inspired by the same thoughts, Plekhanov’s disciples, on founding the Russian Social-Democratic Workers, Party (1898) declared: “The farther east we go in Europe the weaker, more abject and more cowardly becomes the bourgeoisie, and the more its cultural and political tasks fall to the lot of the proletariat. On its strong shoulders the Rusian working class must bear and will bear the task of winning political liberty. This is a necessary step, but only the first step towards the realization of the great historic mission of the proletariat, to the foundation of a social order in which there will be no place for the exploitation of man by man.”

The overthrow of Tsarist absolutism would be effected neither by the peasants nor the cowardly bourgeoisie, but by the working class, said Plekhanov. How well history was to confirm this prognosis!

Analysis of Peasantry

Breaking with the Populists, Plekhanov did not have any of their illusions about the Sodalist nature of the peasant. He knew that the peasant was a small capitalist attached to private property and individual production. He wrote in 1891: “The proletariat and the ‘muzhik’ (peasant – ed.) are political antipodes. The historic role of the proletariat is as revolutionary as the historic role of the ‘muzhik’ is conservative. The muzhiks have been the support of oriental despotism for thousands of years. In a comparatively short space of time, the proletariat has shaken the ‘foundations’ of West European society.” (Works, Vol. 3, pp. 382–3.)

While Plekhanov was right in emphasizing the non-Socialist nature of the peasantry, he was wrong, as future events showed, not to point out the revolutionary, anti-Tsarist and anti-feudal potentialities of this same class. During the Russian revolution of 1917 the peasantry showed its one progressive historical face, sweeping feudalism from the countryside in a revolutionary upheaval. Having accomplished this, it then showed its other historical face, wrapping itself round with conservatism and proving in time to be the bulwark of a new “ oriental despotism.” It was by relying on the backward agricultural countryside, on the muzhik, against the worker, that the Stalinist bureaucracy rose to independence of workers’ democratic control, and developed into an absolute autocracy.

Socialism in a backward country

Considering the youthfulness and small size of the Russian working class, and the backwardness of the country’s productive forces, Plekhanov time and again warned that the revolution might lead to a seizure of power by Socialists, who wanted to suppress economic inequality, before the material conditions necessary for social equality-wealth and abundance were p resent. Where the productive forces are meagre, economic and cultural progress is not possible except trough the exploitation of the majority by a minority: equality would be equality of poverty and ignorance.

He wrote in 1883: “After having seized power. the revolutionary socialist government must organise national production, it will then have (possibly) ... to seek an issue in the ideals of patriarchal and authoritative communism, by mod ernising it only to the extent that the sociczlised production will be controlled by a ‘Socialist’ caste, instead of by the ‘Sons of the Sun’ and their functionaries as in ancient Peru ... Such Peruvian tutelage, further, would never succeed in initiating the Russian people into Socialism. On the contrary, it would cause them to lose all ability to progress unless they returned to the same economic inequality, the suppression of which should have been the immediate object of the revolutionary government. And we say nothing of the play of international complications ...” (Socialism and the Political Struggle).

Thus Plekhanov clearly saw the dilemma of a Socialist government in a backward country: either stagnation based on equality, or a new division of society into an exploiting and an exploited class.

The only path leading out of this blind alley was pointed to later by Lenin, Trotsky and other Russian Marxists. They sought a solution through the spreading of the revolution to more advanced countries. Thus, for instance, Lenin said: “We always staked our play upon an international revolution and this was unconditionally right ... we always emphasized ... the fact that in one country it is impossible to accomplish such a work as a socialist revolution.” (Lenin, Works (Russian), Third Edition, Vol. 25, pp. 273–4. My emphasis.)

Tragedy of a forerunner

The course of history did not contradict Plekhanov’s formulation of the alternatives facing a revolutionary socialist government in backward Russia. The Russian revolution, isolated by the defeat of the German, Austrian and Hungarian revolutions, led to the rise of a new tutelage, of an authoritarian, exploitative bureaucracy.

Plekhanov suffered from one great weakness. Being a precursor of the actual Russian labour movement, he scarcely had the opportunity of addressing the masses of the workers, organising them and leading their struggle. He thus lacked experience of the true capacity of an active revolutionary working class.

This weakness, wedded to a number of elements in Plekhanov’s theory (his emphasis on the backwardness of the country, the smallness of its working class, the conservative nature of the peasant) led him to compromise with the Russian liberal bourgeoisie. During the latter years of his life he opposed Bolshevism and supported Menshevism.

It would take us too far afield to follow Plekhanov’s drift toward this compromise, which culminated in his support of Tsarism during the 1914 war.

These blots, however, cannot cancel out Plekhanov’s important contribution as the father of Russian Marxism, and consequently as the father of the Great Russian Revolution.

Today, the working class of Russia, oppressed by an autocracy not less tyrannical than that of the Tsar, can yet find a weapon of struggle in the Marxist works of Plekhanov. Plekhanov’s prophetic motto on his journal Iskra (Spark) was: “The spark lights the fire.” The spark of revolutionary Marxism has already once lit the fire that burned the citadel of oppression. The same spark will do it again.

Last updated on 16 February 2017