Isaac Deutscher 1964

The Mensheviks: George Plekhanov

Source: Ironies of History: Essays on Contemporary Communism (London, 1966). This review of Samuel Baron, Plekhanov: The Father of Russian Marxism (London, 1964) was originally published in The Listener, 30 April 1964. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The Mensheviks are sometimes labelled the Girondins of the Russian Revolution; but they are still waiting for their Lamartine, for the historian who would be willing to identify himself with their ideas, their experience and their tragedy. So far the Bolsheviks have monopolised the historians’ attention. There has been no lack, at least here in the West, of writers willing to embrace the Menshevik cause, and even to do so with some ostentatiousness. But those writers prefer to compose volumes of anti-communist polemics rather than to present us with any historical image of Menshevism. Meanwhile even as an émigré school of thought Menshevism has reached its end: its veterans are nearly all dead and even the Sotsialisticheskii Vestnik, its famous periodical, has ceased publication.

Any survey of Menshevism must offer an assessment of the stature and the role of George Plekhanov, whom his American biographer, Mr Samuel Ho Baron, describes, tritely but truly, as ‘the father of Russian Marxism’. It is difficult to imagine the Russian Revolution (or even Leninism) without Plekhanov’s work. It was Plekhanov who made of the advance of Marxism into Russia a brilliant intellectual conquest. He was assisted by Paul Axelrod, Vera Zasulich and Leon Deutsch; former Narodniks, Populists, who like himself had been compelled to leave Russia: with them he formed the so-called Group of the Emancipation of Labour in Geneva, early in the 1880s.

Beyond this tiny and poverty-stricken circle of propagandists, there was, for many years, almost no Marxism and no social-democratic movement among the Russians. Plekhanov and his friends were the real vanguard of revolution, or rather the vanguard of a vanguard that was to come before the end of the century. Yet when, after twenty years of propaganda, in 1903, the movement which they had inspired split into factions, Plekhanov and his associates all became Mensheviks; not one of them turned into a Bolshevik.

Like all Narodniks, Plekhanov at first expected that the rural commune, which still seemed to be surviving in the Russia of the 1870s, would provide the base for a predominantly agrarian native socialism; and that the peasantry would rise to remake Russian society. Bakunin was the formative political influence; the great anarchist, despite his bitter feud with Marx, conveyed to many young Populists a profound admiration for Marx and Marxism.

These pages in Plekhanov’s biography take us back to the milieu of the Russian intelligentsia and to its intense ideological searchings, which it is now all too fashionable to view only through the prism of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed. There is no question that in his savage satire Dostoevsky caught some real weaknesses and vices of the Populist movement; but he overlooked its virtues. The milieu of The Possessed is the milieu of the young Plekhanov: the landlord’s son, and the student of the Mining Institute of St Petersburg, might have rubbed shoulders with the Verkhovenskys, the Stavrogins and the Shatovs. Moreover, the distance between the novelist himself and that milieu was sometimes negligible. Thus we see Dostoevsky, at the height of his fame and at the close of his life, and Plekhanov, at twenty and at the threshold of his political career, facing each other over the coffin of Nekrasov, the famous poet of the Populists. The scene might have been taken from Dostoevsky’s own pages – and it is a pity that Plekhanov’s biographer has made so little of it. The novelist was still in that slightly remorseful mood, in which the success of The Possessed at the Tsarist court had put him. He tried to show a little innocuous friendliness towards the radicals and revolutionaries. Nekrasov’s funeral was a good occasion for that. At the poet’s grave Dostoevsky compared him with Pushkin, a somewhat exalted and insincere comparison. Then Plekhanov spoke on behalf of a group of revolutionaries (who had come to the cemetery armed with revolvers and ready, if need be, to fight off the gendarmes). An altercation occurred, for Plekhanov objected to the comparison between Pushkin and Nekrasov, saying that Pushkin had done little more than ‘sing of the toes of ballerinas’. The grim confrontation, the queer argument, the revolvers – how close we are to Varvara Petrovna’s salon in The Possessed.

Yet the gulf between the old Dostoevsky and the young Plekhanov, though deep, was less wide than it appeared. Shortly after the encounter at the cemetery, Plekhanov was already breaking with Populism and attacking precisely those of its weaknesses and vices that Dostoevsky had stigmatised. In the famous dispute of the Norodnovoltsy, held at Voronezh in 1879, Plekhanov – still only twenty-two – carried the argument to a breach, because he objected to the party’s acting in isolation from the people, ‘behind the people’s back’, and to its allowing itself to be carried away by terrorism. It was on the terrorism and the arrogant self-sufficiency of the revolutionaries that Dostoevsky had also dwelt so penetratingly, so obsessively and so distortingly. But whereas Dostoevsky blamed the revolutionary idea for the faults of the revolutionaries, Plekhanov criticised those faults for the sake of the revolutionary idea. Dostoevsky called the revolutionaries to redeem their sinful souls through religion and mysticism. Plekhanov found an answer to their critical problems in – Marxism. Dostoevsky saw Russia’s salvation in her urodivyie, her holy lunatics and cripples, capable of living in utter abnegation and true Christianity. The young Plekhanov himself stands as a living refutation of The Possessed: he symbolises the self-regeneration of the revolutionary movement, its moral and political metamorphosis, its passage from terrorism and Populism to Marxism.

Plekhanov had left Russia early in 1880. He was to remain in exile for over thirty-six years, almost till the end of his life. He devoted his first years abroad to a diligent and fascinated first-hand study of Marxism. He also watched attentively the changes occurring in Russia’s social structure. The rural commune was a crumbling anachronism on which nothing could be built, socialism least of all. He saw the peasantry succumbing to the market economy, to private property and capitalism – these peasants, therefore, were to him no longer the force of elemental revolution idealised by the Narodniks, but the retrograde class, submerged in the ‘rural idiocy’ of which Marx spoke.

What then were the chances of socialism in Russia? In the bourgeois West the industrial workers were fighting for socialism. But in pre-industrial Russia there were very few urban workers, and even those few were only displaced peasants. How long would it take for modern industry and a socialist proletariat to grow up? Writing to Marx in 1881, Vera Zasulich wondered: ‘If... our rural commune were to perish, the socialist in Russia would have no alternative but to devote himself to... calculations designed to find out... in how many centuries Russian capitalism will perhaps attain a development similar to that of Western Europe.’ Here, in this suggestion of a centuries-long wait under capitalism, was perhaps the seed of the future Menshevik failure. Marx in his reply preferred to encourage even the utopian Narodnik hopes about the rural commune rather than to countenance the fatalistic prospect of ‘centuries of capitalism’.

Plekhanov’s prognostications were more complex and elastic than Zasulich’s, but he accepted the axiom that Russia must go through her own capitalist development to the end before she could even begin to move towards socialism. The coming revolution was to be bourgeois, not socialist. This was to be an article of faith with nearly all Russian socialists, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks alike, until the year 1917. Yet what was the socialists’ role in a bourgeois revolution? What could fighters for the emancipation of labour strive for in an upheaval which could only establish a new mode of the exploitation of labour? Plekhanov answered that the workers must wrest their rights and political freedoms from Tsardom; that they should struggle, if possible, in alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie; and continue the struggle even after the revolution, if need be, against the bourgeoisie. The long-term dilemma, however, remained unresolved.

Plekhanov did not content himself with translating Marxism into the Russian idiom. He was one of the leading lights of European socialism as well, one of the foremost spokesmen of the newly-formed International. 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. When the great controversy between the revisionists and the orthodox Marxists began in the late 1890s, Plekhanov at once moved into the fray as the most irreconcilable of the Marxists – only Rosa Luxemburg, who was much younger, was as uncompromising. He turned even against Kautsky when that official guardian of orthodoxy tried diplomatically to assuage the controversy. Incidentally, one should not judge the intellectual quality of that original debate against revisionism by analogy with the pidgin Marxism to which Moscow and Peking are treating us just now. As to Plekhanov: his biographer rightly remarks that here was a major paradox in his fortunes: the very success of his anti-revisionist campaign paved the way for Bolshevism and for his own defeat.

The relationship between Plekhanov and Lenin is of absorbing historical interest. Even in the heat of controversy, Lenin willingly acknowledged himself as Plekhanov’s disciple. ‘It is impossible’, he wrote as late as in 1920, ‘to become an intelligent and genuine communist without studying, precisely studying, all that Plekhanov has written on philosophy, for what he has written is the best that can be found in the whole international literature on Marxism.’ Plekhanov, on the other hand, never quite freed himself of the sentiment with which he had first welcomed the young Lenin as his political descendant, who would not merely continue his work but bring it to fruition. This distinguishes Plekhanov’s attitude to Lenin from that of all other Mensheviks. He did not in fact join the Mensheviks at once during the 1903 split. At first indeed, he, alone of all the leading Russian Marxists, stood with Lenin. Only later did he have second thoughts and begin to vacillate. Then he moved away from Lenin in 1905, during the great dress rehearsal for the revolution, when he already acted the ultra-Menshevik part that was to be his in 1917. He dogmatically insisted on the exclusively bourgeois character of the revolution; he demanded that the party accept the liberal bourgeoisie as its ally, as its senior ally. ‘We should not have taken up arms’ was the moral he drew from the Moscow insurrection of 1905. But afterwards he again moved closer to Lenin and cooperated with the Bolsheviks, when all Menshevik and intermediate groups boycotted them.

Even in 1912, when Lenin proclaimed his own faction to be the party and declared that the Mensheviks and whoever went with them placed themselves outside its ranks – even then Plekhanov still stuck to Lenin. He felt that Lenin was drawing the conclusions from his, Plekhanov’s, premises and theories. This was broadly true, except in one point: Plekhanov, ever since he had in the 1880s turned to the industrial worker, put the peasant out of his mind, as it were. Lenin, having, with Plekhanov, turned to the industrial worker, then turned back to the peasant in order to win him as an ally for the worker, a junior ally. Plekhanov saw in this a relapse into the illusions of Populism, of which his own Marxism was the absolute negation. Lenin’s Marxism, being somewhat further removed from Populism, was free enough to reabsorb much of the old Populist sensitivity to the peasantry and yearning for accord with the muzhik.

Only the outbreak of the First World War separated Plekhanov and Lenin finally and irrevocably. Lenin proclaimed it to be the socialist’s duty to turn the imperialist war into civil war, while Plekhanov voiced without inhibition his social patriotism. In 1917, when he returned to Russia, he adopted so ‘moderate’ and anti-revolutionary a posture that even the most right-wing Mensheviks avoided having any connexion with him. This was a sad homecoming after thirty-six years. And it was the bitter irony of Plekhanov’s life that when, in September 1917, General Kornilov was staging his coup d'état – the coup that was intended to destroy Kerensky’s government and moderate socialism as well as Bolshevism – he wanted Plekhanov as a minister in his cabinet. Needless to say, the old philosopher was above such temptations. Intense though his bitterness against Lenin was, it knew limits. Plekhanov’s bitterness was all the more intense the less he now understood the Bolsheviks: he castigated them as Bakunin’s followers, as anarchists, destroyers of the Russian state, and as belated Narodniks who had abandoned Marxism for the old, discredited utopia of a peasant socialism. An exhausted and disillusioned man, he died shortly after the October Revolution, on 12 June 1918.

The relationship between Plekhanov and Lenin, so complex and ambivalent, recalls to one’s mind the connexion between another intellectual inspirer of revolution and another revolutionary leader, Erasmus and Luther. Plekhanov is the Erasmus of pre-revolutionary Russia, the Marxist Erasmus. ‘Erasmus seems at times’, writes Johan Huizinga, the Dutch historian, ‘the man who was not strong enough for his age. In that robust sixteenth century it seems as if the oaken strength of Luther was necessary, the steely edge of Calvin, the white heat of Loyola. Not only were their force and their fervour necessary, but also their depth, their unsparing, undaunted consistency...’ The ‘oaken strength’ of Lenin and the ‘steely edge’ of Trotsky, it may be said, accorded also better with the needs of 1917 than Plekhanov’s ideas and character. His misfortune was that he had exhausted himself in the great intellectual labour through which he had prepared the revolution, just as Erasmus had spent himself in the work of criticism and enlightenment through which he had paved the way for the Reformation. Each performed his task within the limits that his time, his generation and his historical situation set him. Neither was able to transcend those limits.

The following letter in response from OA Kerensky appeared in The Listener, 21 May 1964.

The Mensheviks

I was sad to read Mr Isaac Deutscher’s comments (The Listener, 30 April) on the Mensheviks and on Plekhanov in particular. This Trotskyite enthusiast obviously labours under the conviction that the Bolshevik coup d'état in October 1917 against the democratic government established by the revolution in February was not a major tragedy of history but a welcome development on the road to Marxist communism. Otherwise how could Mr Deutscher say that when Plekhanov returned to Russia in 1917 he ‘adopted so “moderate” and anti-revolutionary a posture that... this was a sad home-coming after thirty-six years'! Mr Deutscher obviously does not know, or does not wish to know, that Plekhanov and other socialists returned to Russia after the revolution full of joy and hope. Even according to Lenin, Russia then was the freest country in the world! Mr Deutscher apparently considers that ‘the “oaken strength” of Lenin and the “steely edge” of Trotsky accorded better with the needs of 1917 than Plekhanov’s ideas and character'! What an insult to the memory of this great democratic socialist leader and to all the others who perished in the dungeons of GPU, what a blind misunderstanding of the needs of 1917.

If Mr Deutscher cares nothing for the sufferings of the Russian peoples under the ‘steely edge’ of Lenin – Trotsky – Stalin, sufferings which even Mr Khrushchev does not dare to hide, Mr Deutscher might have at least condemned the ‘needs’ of 1917 from the Western, and indeed world, point of view – the view that was so well understood by Plekhanov and other Russian democratic leaders – namely that the Kaiser’s victory in 1917 would have been the end of democracy for generations to come. (The situation repeated itself with Hitler in 1941.) Lenin also knew this, but chose to help the Kaiser in the hope of producing communism out of the chaos. (Stalin repeated his master’s lesson in 1939.) In the event, Lenin’s gamble came off, and Plekhanov’s high principles failed. He died a broken-hearted man. Surely success is no excuse for praising immorality.

O A Kerensky (Rome)