G.V. Plekhanov

Socialism and the Political Struggle



Socialist propaganda has enormously influenced the whole course of intellectual development in the civilised countries. There is hardly a single branch of sociology that has not felt its impact in one sense or another. It has in part destroyed old scientific prejudices and in part transformed them from a naive delusion into a sophism. It is understandable that the influence of socialist propaganda must have affected the supporters of the new teaching still more powerfully. All the traditions of previous “political” revolutionaries have been ruthlessly criticised, all methods of social activity have been analysed from the standpoint of the “new Gospel”. But as the scientific substantiation of socialism was complete only with the appearance of Capital, it is easy to understand that the results of this criticism have by no means always been satisfactory. And as, on the other hand, there were several schools in utopian socialism which had almost equal influence, little by little a kind of medium socialism, as it were, has been worked out, and this has been adhered to by people who did not claim to found a new school and were not among the particularly zealous supporters of previously existing schools. This eclectic socialism, as Frederick Engels says, is “a mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of future society by the founders of different sects, as excite a minimum of opposition; a mish-mash which is the more easily brewed the more the definite sharp edges of the individual constituents are rubbed down in the stream of debate, like rounded pebbles in a brook”. [2] This medium socialism, the same author notes, still reigns in the heads of most of the worker socialists in England and in France. [3] We Russians could add that exactly the same mish-mash reigned in the first half of the seventies in the minds of our socialists and represented the general background against which two extreme trends stood out: the so-called Vperyod group and the Bakuninists. The former showed a tendency towards German Social-Democracy, the latter were a Russian version of the anarchist faction of the International. Differing very greatly from each other in almost all respects, the two trends were at one – strange as that is – in their negative attitude to “politics”. And it must be confessed that the anarchists were more consistent in this respect than the Russian Social-Democrats of the time.

From the anarchist point of view the political question is the touchstone of any working-class programme. The anarchists not only deny any deal with the modern state, they go so far as to exclude from their notions of “future society” anything that recalls the idea of state in one way or another. “Autonomy of the individual in an autonomous community” – such has been the motto of all consistent supporters of this trend. We know that its founder – Proudhon – in his publication La Voix du peuple set himself the not quite modest task “to do as regards the government” (which he confused with the state) “what Kant did as regards religion” [4] and carried his anti-state zeal so far as to declare that Aristotle himself was “a sceptic in matters of state”. [5] The accomplishment of the task he had set himself was very simple and followed, if you like, quite logically from the economic doctrines of the French Kant. Proudhon was never able to imagine the economic system of the future otherwise than in the form of commodity production, corrected and supplemented by a new, “just” form of exchange on the basis of “constituted value”. For all its “justice”, this new form of exchange does not, of course, preclude the purchase, sale or promissory notes which go with commodity production and circulation. All these transactions naturally presuppose various contracts and it is these that determine the mutual relations between the transacting sides. But in modern society “contracts” are based on common legal standards compulsory for all citizens and safeguarded by the state. In the “future society” everything would supposedly proceed somewhat differently. Revolution, according to Proudhon, was to abolish “laws”, leaving only “contracts”. “There is no need for laws voted by a majority or unanimously,” he says in his Idée générale de la Révolution au XIX siècle, “every citizen, every commune and corporation will establish their own particular laws” (p.259). With such a view of the matter, the political programme of the proletariat was simplified to the extreme. The state, which recognises only general laws compulsory for all citizens, could not even be a means for attaining socialist ideals. Making use of it for their aims, the socialists only consolidate the evil by the rooting out of which “social liquidation” should begin. The state must “decline”, thus affording “every citizen, every commune and corporation” full freedom to decree “their own particular laws” and to conclude the “contracts” which they require. And if the anarchists do not waste time during the period preceding the “liquidation”, these “contracts” will be concluded in the spirit of the System of Economic Contradictions and the triumph of the Revolution will be assured.

The task of the Russian anarchists was simplified still more. “The destruction of the state” (which little by little replaced in the anarchist programme its “decline” recommended by Proudhon) was to clear the way for the development of the “ideals” of the Russian people. And as communal land tenure and organisation of crafts into artels occupy a very prominent place in these “ideals”, it was presumed that the “autonomous” Russians of democratic origin would conclude their “contracts” not in the spirit of Proudhon’s reciprocity but rather of agrarian communism. As a “born socialist”, the Russian people would not be long in understanding that mere communal land tenure and communal ownership of the instruments of production do not guarantee the desired “equality” and would be forced to set about organising “autonomous communes” on completely communist foundations.

The Russian anarchists, however – at least those of the so-called rebel shade – bothered little about the economic consequences of the popular revolution they preached. They considered it their duty to remove those social conditions which, in their opinion, hindered the normal development of national life; but they did not ask themselves which road that development would take once it was freed from external hindrances. That this peculiar refashioning of the famous motto of the Manchester School, laissez faire, laissez passer, to make it look revolutionary, precluded all possibility of seriously appraising the contemporary condition of our social and economic life and did away with every criterion for determining even the concept of the “normal” course of its development – this did not occur either to “rebels” or to the “Narodniks” who appeared later. At the same time it would be utterly hopeless to attempt such an appraisal as long as Proudhon’s teachings remained the point of departure of our revolutionaries’ considerations. The weakest point of those teachings, the point in which they offend logic, is the concept of commodity and of exchange value, i.e., those very premises on which alone the correct conclusions about the mutual relations of the producers in the future economic organisation can be based. From the standpoint of Proudhon’s theories no special importance attaches to the circumstance that contemporary Russian communal land tenure by no means precludes commodity production. The Proudhonist has no inkling of the “inner, inevitable dialectics”, which transforms commodity production at a definite stage of its development into ... capitalist production. [6] And that is why it did not occur to his Russian cousin to ask himself whether the divided efforts of “autonomous” persons, communes and corporations would suffice for the struggle against this tendency of commodity production which threatens one fine day to supply a certain proportion of the “born” Communists with “honourably acquired” capitals and to turn them into exploiters of the remaining masses of the population. The anarchist denies the creative role of the state in the socialist revolution for the very reason that he does not understand the tasks and the conditions of that revolution.

We cannot enter here into a detailed analysis of anarchism in general or of Bakuninism in particular. [7] We wish merely to point out to readers that both Proudhon and the Russian anarchists were completely right from their point of view when they raised “political non-interference” to the position of main dogma in their practical programme. The social and political composition of Russian life in particular, it seemed, justified the negation of “politics” which is compulsory for all anarchists. Before entering the field of political agitation the “inhabitant” of Russia has to become a citizen, i.e., to win for himself at least some political rights, and first of all, of course, the right to think as he pleases and to say what he thinks. Such a task amounts in practice to a “political revolution”, and the experience of Western Europe has clearly “shown” all anarchists that such revolutions have not brought, do not and cannot bring any benefit to the people. As for the consideration that the people must be educated politically by taking part in their country’s public life, that could not be put into practice, if only for the reason that the anarchists consider, as we have already seen, that such participation is not education, but perversion of the popular masses: it develops in them “belief in the state” and therefore the tendency to statehood, or as the late M.A. Bakunin would have said, “infects them with its official and social venom, and, in any case, distracts them at least for a short time from what is now the only useful and salutary matter – from revolt.” [8] And at the same time, according to the philosophy of history of our “rebels”, it appeared that the Russian people had shown its anti-state tendency by a whole series of large and small movements and could therefore be considered mature enough politically. So down with all “dabbling in politics”! Let us help the people in its anti-state struggle. Let us unite its dispersed efforts in one revolutionary stream – and then the awkward edifice of the state will crash, opening by its fall a new era of social freedom and economic equality! These few words expressed the whole programme of our “rebels”.

In this sketchy review of the programmes of the different groups of Russian revolutionaries we must not forget that the views according to which “all constitutions” were only more or less unprofitable contracts with the devil, as old F. H. Jacobi put it – such views, we say, were typical not only of the Narodniks and anarchists. If the reader knows about Frederick Engels’ polemic with p.Titachov, [9] he will probably remember that the editor of Nabat, a who disagreed with the Bakuninists on the question of practical struggle, was in perfect agreement with them on their basic views about the social and political condition of our country. He looked at it through the same prism of Russian exceptionalism and the “inborn communist tendencies of the Russian people”. [10] Like a genuine Blanquist he did not deny “politics”, of course, but he understood it exclusively as a plot whose purpose is to seize state power. This purpose, it seems, occupied the whole field of vision of our Blanquists of that time and led them to many contradictions. To remain consistent they had to admit that their activity could be useful to the cause of progress only in the exceptional case that the blow they dealt would not deviate a hair’s breadth from its target. If their planned seizure of power is a failure, if their plot is discovered or the revolutionary government is overthrown by the liberal party, the Russian people, far from winning anything, will risk losing much. The last of the supposed cases is particularly disastrous. The liberals will establish a strong government which will be far more difficult to fight than modern “absolutely absurd” and “absurdly absolute” monarchy, while “the fire of economic progress” will destroy the radical bases of the people’s life. Under its influence exchange will develop, capitalism will consolidate itself, the very principle of the village commune will be destroyed – in a word, the river of time will wash away the stone from which the communist heaven is within hand’s reach. In cases of failure the Russian Blanquists would be bound to do terrible damage to the cause of popular emancipation and thus fall into the tragic position of William Tell, who had to risk the life of his own son. And as they have hardly distinguished themselves by the skill of the mythic Swiss “seditionary”, the Russian people would not shout to them:

Shoot! I fear not!

if it adopted their view on the “radical bases” of its life and had been invited to give its opinion about their programme.

Such a narrow and hopeless philosophy of Russian history was bound to lead logically to the amazing conclusion that Russia’s economic backwardness was a most reliable ally of the revolution and that stagnation was to be blazoned as the first and only paragraph of our “minimum programme”. “Every day brings us new enemies, creates new social factors hostile to us,” we read in the first, November, issue of Nabat for 1875. “Fire is creeping up to our state forms, too. Now these are dead, lifeless. Economic progress will stir life in them, will breathe into them a new spirit, will give them the strength and the fortitude which they have so far lacked”, and so forth. But if Joshua succeeded as the Bible relates, in stopping the sun “for ten degrees”, the time of miracles has passed and there is not a single party which could shout: “Stop, productive forces! Do not move, capitalism! “ History pays as little attention to the fears of revolutionaries as to the jeremiads of reaction. “Economic progress” does its work without waiting for the anarchists or the Blanquists to put their intentions into practice. Every factory founded in Petersburg, every new wage-worker employed by a Yaroslavl handicraftsman strengthens the “flame of progress”, which is supposed to be fatal to the revolution, and consequently decreases the probability of popular victory. Can such a view of the mutual relations of the various social forces in Russia be called revolutionary? We do not think so. In order to make themselves revolutionary in substance and not in name alone, the Russian anarchists, Narodniks and Blanquists should first of all have revolutionised their own heads, and to do so they should have learned to understand the course of historical development and been able to lead it instead of asking old mother history to mark time while they laid new, straighter and better beaten roads for her. The Vperyod group understood the immaturity and erroneousness of the outlooks just expounded, and there was a time when it could have obtained dominating intellectual influence among our revolutionaries. That was the time when practical experience had shaken the foundations of the old anarchist Narodism and all its supporters felt that their programme needed to be seriously reconsidered. Then a consistent criticism of all its theoretical and practical principles could have made the impending turn in the movement still more decisive and irrevocable. The Vperyod group could most conveniently have undertaken that criticism; maintaining almost entirely the standpoint of the Social-Democrats, they were completely free from all Narodnik traditions. But in order to be successful, their criticism should not have condemned, but elucidated and generalised the vital requirements of Russian life which were more and more driving our revolutionaries on to the road of political struggle. And yet the Vperyod group rejected “politics” just as resolutely as the anarchists. I admit that they did not think socialism to be incompatible with interference in the political life of the bourgeois state, and they fully approved of the programme of West European Social-Democracy. But they presumed that in the modern state “founded on law” the possibility of openly organising the working class into a political party of its own is bought at too high a price – by the final victory of the bourgeoisie and the deterioration of the workers’ condition corresponding to the epoch of capitalism. They forgot that in appraising this situation one must take into account not only the distribution of the national income, but also the whole organisation of production and exchange; not only the average quantity of products consumed by the workers, but also the form which those products take [11] ; not only the degree of exploitation, but also, in particular, its form; not only the fact of the enslavement of the working masses, but also the ideas and concepts which emerge or may emerge in the head of the worker under the influence of this fact. [12] They would hardly have agreed that the factory worker was bound to be more receptive to socialism than the temporarily bound peasant; still less would they have admitted that the transition, for instance, from natural economy to money economy increases the possibility of a conscious movement of the working masses for their own economic emancipation. The philosophical and historical parts of Marx’s teaching remained for them an unread chapter in their favourite book; they believed too much in the omnipotent influence of their propaganda to seek support for it in the objective conditions of social life. And like the socialists of the utopian period, they held that the whole future of their country, including the social revolution, could be achieved by that propaganda. Posing the question in this way, they could have said with the anarchists, parodying Proudhon’s well-known saying: la révolution est au-dessus de la politique. But that was just the reason why they could not get our movement out of the state of inertia it had got into at the end of the seventies owing to the rejection of all political struggle, on the one hand, and the impossibility, on the other, of creating a working-class party of any strength under contemporary political conditions.

The honour of giving new scope to our movement belongs beyond dispute to Narodnaya Volya. Everybody still recalls the attacks that the Narodnaya Volya trend drew upon itself. The writer of these lines himself belonged to the resolute opponents of this trend, and although he perfectly admits now that the struggle for political freedom has become a burning issue for modern Russia, he is still far from sharing all the views expressed in Narodnaya Volya publications. That does not prevent him, however, from acknowledging that in the disputes which took place in the Zemlya i Volya organisation about the time of its split, the Narodnaya Volya members were perfectly right as long as they did not go beyond our practical experience. That experience was already then leading to amazing and completely unexpected conclusions, although we did not dare to draw them precisely because of their unexpectedness. Attempts at the practical struggle “against the state” should already then have led fundamentally to the thought that the Russian “rebel” was compelled by the insuperable force of circumstances to direct his agitation not against the state generally, but only against the absolute state, to fight not the idea of state, but the idea of bureaucracy, not for the full economic emancipation of the people, but for the removal of the burdens imposed on the people by the tsarist autocracy. Of course, the agrarian question lay at the root of all or nearly all manifestations of popular dissatisfaction. It could not be otherwise among an agricultural population, where the “power of the land” is felt in absolutely the whole make-up and needs of private and social life. This agrarian question kept crying out for a solution, but it did not rouse political discontent. The peasants waited calm and confident for this question to be solved from above: they “rebelled” not for a redistribution of the land, but against oppression by the administration, against the excessive burdens of the taxation system, against the Asiatic way in which arrears were collected, and so on and so forth. The formula which applied to a large number of the cases of active protest was the “legal state”, not “Land and Freedom” (Zemlya i Volya) as it seemed to everybody at the time. But if that was so, and if revolutionaries considered themselves obliged to take part in the scattered and ill-considered struggle of isolated communes against the absolute monarchy, was it not time they understood the meaning of their own efforts and directed them with greater purposefulness? Was it not time for them to call all the progressive virile forces of Russia to the struggle and, having found a more general expression for it, to attack absolutism in the very centre of its organisation? In answering these questions in the affirmative, the members of Narodnaya Volya were only summing up the revolutionary experience of previous years; in raising the banner of political struggle, they only showed that they were not afraid of the conclusions and consciously continued to follow the road which we had taken although we had an erroneous idea of where it led to. “Terrorism” grew quite logically out of our “rebelliousness”.

But with the appearance of Narodnaya Volya, the logical development of our revolutionary movement was already entering a phase in which it could no longer be satisfied with the Narodnik theories of the good old time, i.e., a time innocent of political interests. Examples of theory being outgrown by practice are not rare in the history of human thought in general and of revolutionary thought in particular. When revolutionaries introduce some change or other into their tactics or recast their programme one way or another, often they do not even suspect what a serious test they are giving the teachings generally acknowledged among them. Many of them indeed perish in prison or on the gallows, fully confident that they have worked in the spirit of those teachings, whereas in substance they represent new tendencies which took root in the old theories but have already outgrown them and are ready to find new theories to express them. So it has been with us since the Narodnaya Volya trend consolidated. From the standpoint of the old Narodnik theories, this trend could not stand criticism. Narodism had a sharply negative attitude to any idea of the state; Narodnaya Volya counted on putting its social-reform plans into practice with the help of the state machine. Narodism refused to have anything to do with “politics”; Narodnaya Volya saw in “democratic political revolution” the most reliable “means of social reform”. Narodism based its programme on the so-called “ideals” and demands of the peasant population; Narodnaya Volya had to address itself mainly to the urban and industrial population, and consequently to give an incomparably larger place in its programme to the interests of that population. Briefly, in reality, the Narodnaya Volya trend was the complete and all-round denial of Narodism, and as long as the disputing parties appealed to the fundamental propositions of the latter, the “innovators” were completely in the wrong: their practical work was in irreconcilable contradiction with their theoretical views. It was necessary completely to reconsider these views, so as to give Narodnaya Volya’s programme singleness of purpose and consistency; the practical revolutionary activity of its supporters had to be at least accompanied by a theoretical revolution in the minds of our socialists; in blowing up the Winter Palace we had at the same time to blow up our old anarchic and Narodnik traditions. But here, too, the “course of ideas” lagged behind the “course of things” and it is still difficult to foresee when it will catch up at last. Unable to make up their minds to break with Narodism, the new group was obliged to have recourse to fictions which brought with them at least a semblance of a solution of the contradictions inherent in their programme. The idea of Russian exceptionalism received a new elaboration, and whereas previously it had led to the complete rejection of politics, it now turned out that the exceptionalism of Russian social development consisted precisely in economic questions being and having to be solved in our country by means of state interference. The extremely widespread ignorance here in Russia of the economic history of the West provided the reason why nobody was amazed at “theories” of this kind. The period of capitalist accumulation in Russia was contrasted with the period of capitalist production in the West, and the inevitable dissimilarity between these two phases of economic development was cited as a most convincing proof of, first, our exceptionalism and, second, the appropriateness of the “Narodnaya Volya programme” determined by that exceptionalism.

Need it be added that our revolutionary writers, like the majority of Russian writers generally, considered the “West” from the standpoint of the Jewish boy in Weinberg’s well-known story. To this poor schoolboy the whole world seemed as though it were divided into two equal parts: “Russia and abroad”, notable points of distinction existing for him only between these two “halves” of the globe, but “abroad” seemed to him a completely homogeneous whole. Russian writers, propagandists of “exceptionalism”, introduced only one new thing into that clever geographical classification: they divided “abroad” into East and West, and, not stopping long to think, began to compare the latter with our “glorious state”, which was ascribed the role of a kind of “Middle Empire”. The historical development of Italy was thus identified with that of France and no distinction was seen between England’s economic policy and Prussia’s; Colbert’s activity was lumped together with Richard Cobden’s and the peculiarly “patriotic” physiognomy of Friedrich List was lost in the crowd of “West European” political economists who followed Turgot’s advice and tried “to forget that in the world there are states separated by frontiers and organised in different ways”. Just as all cats appear grey and resemble one another perfectly in the dark, so the social relations of the various states in the “West” lost all distinction in the reflected light of our exceptionalism. One thing was evident: the “Franks” had already “gone bourgeois” long ago, whereas the “brave Russians” had preserved the “primitive” innocence and were advancing to their salvation as a chosen people along the road of exceptionalism. To reach the promised land they only had to keep unswervingly to that path of exceptionalism and not be surprised that the Russian socialists’ programmes contradicted the scientific principles of West European socialism and sometimes their own premises!

A typical sample of the fictions quickly thought out to conform Narodnaya Volya’s practical programme with Narodnik theories was the famous prophecy that if only we managed to achieve universal suffrage, 90 per cent of the deputies in the future Russian Constituent Assembly would be supporters of the social revolution. Here the theory of our exceptionalism reached the limit beyond which it was threatened with ruin by plain common sense. The Narodniks of the “old faith” firmly held to their dogma of exceptionalism but all the same admitted that this exceptionalism still needed some finishing touches. Some found that the Russian people still had a too embryonic bump ... sorry! – feeling of bravery and independence; others strove to put the exceptionalist sentiment of the Russian people into practice in the form of a no less original revolutionary organisation. But they all equally acknowledged the necessity for preliminary work among the people. Narodnaya Volya went further. In the leading articles of the very first issues of its journal it began to develop the thought that such work is, first, fruitless (“wasting our energy beating about the people like a fish on the ice”) and, secondly, superfluous, because 90 per cent of the deputies sympathising with the social revolution are more than enough to carry out the aspirations of the Russian Narodniks. Narodnaya Volya’s programme could not have given itself a Narodnik character otherwise than by carrying to absurd extremes all the typical features of the Narodnik world outlook.

This is what constitutes the negative service of the fictions of Narodnaya Volya. They aroused the critical thought of the Russian revolutionaries by presenting to them in an exaggerated form the “exceptional” features of their Narodnik programme. But one can hardly say anything about the positive service of these fictions. They temporarily strengthened the energy of the fighters, who needed a theoretical foundation for their practical work, but, being strung hastily together, they did not stand the slightest impact of serious criticism, and by their fall they compromised the cause of the struggle waged under their banner. Having dealt the death-blow to all the traditions of orthodox Narodism by its practical activity and having done so much for the development of the revolutionary movement in Russia, Narodnaya Volya cannot find a justification for itself – nor should it seek one – outside modern scientific socialism. But to adopt this new standpoint it must make a thorough review of its programme, for the theoretical errors and gaps in that programme could not but give it a definite one-sidedness in practice.

Before saying in which sense this review must be undertaken, let us endeavour, according to our plan, to elucidate scientific socialism s attitude to the political movements of the working class.


[2] See Entwicklung des Sozialismus, S.18.

[3] [Note to the 1905 edition.] Now Marxism has definitely triumphed in France; its basic propositions are acknowledged, in a more or less distorted form, even by “opportunists” of Jaurès’ camp.

[4] See Confessions d’un te’volutionnaire, Preface, p.4. 12

[5] To what extent Aristotle was “a sceptic in matters of state” is obvious from the first chapter of the first volume of his Politics, in which he says that “the state is the most accomplished form of community”, that its purpose is “the supreme good”, and that it is therefore a phenomenon “natural in the highest sense of the word, and man is an animal predestined by his very nature to the state form of community”. (Book I, Chap.1, #I-XI of the German Sussemil edition of 1879.) The author of Politics is just as much a “sceptic” in questions of state as Proudhon in questions of commodity production; the former could not imagine any other, higher form of community, the latter did not suspect that products could be distributed among the members of society without taking the form of commodities.

[6] See Das Kapital, 2. Auflage, S.607-08.

[7] Let us simply remind our reader of the objection made to Proudhon by Rittinghausen. “Power, government and all its forms,” said the tireless propagandist of the theory of direct popular legislation, “are only varieties of the species that is called: interference by society in people’s relations with things and, consequently, with one another ... I call on M. Proudhon to throw into my face, as the result of his intellectual labour, the following conclusion: ’No, there must be no such interference by society in people’s relations with things and, consequently, with one another!’ “ See Legislation directe par le peuple et ses adversaires, pp.194-95. Rittinghausen thought that “to pose the question in this way means to solve it”, for “M. Proudhon himself admits the necessity for such interference”. But he did not foresee that the pupils would go much further than the teacher and that the theory of anarchy would degenerate, finally, into a theory of “social amorphism”. The anarchists of today recognise no interference by society in the relations of individuals, as they have repeatedly stated in certain of their publications.

[8] See M.A. Bakunin’s extremely interesting and typical pamphlet Science and the Vital Cause of the Revolution.

[9] See “Offener Brief an Herm Fr. Engels”.

[10] To be persuaded of this one needs but to compare the “Letter to Frederick Engels” just referred to with Bakunin’s pamphlet quoted above.

[11] i.e., whether they appear as commodities or are directly consumed by the producer’s family, his master, and finally, the state, without ever reaching the market.

[12] We request that it be borne in mind that we are talking not of the editorial board of the journal Vperyod, but of the supporters of that publication working in Russia.


Last updated on 7.10.2003