G.V. Plekhanov

Socialism and the Political Struggle



Every class struggle is a political struggle.
Karl Marx

Since the Russian revolutionary movement finally took the path of open struggle against absolutism, the question of the socialists’ political tasks has become the most vital and most burning question for our party. Because of it people have drifted apart who had been attached to each other by many years of joint practical work, because of it whole groups and organisations have fallen to pieces. It can even be said that all Russian socialists have temporarily been split into two camps supporting diametrically opposite views on “politics”. Extremes were unavoidable in this matter, as always in such cases. Some considered the political struggle as almost tantamount to betrayal of the people’s cause, as a manifestation of bourgeois instincts among our revolutionary intelligentsia and a defilement of socialist programme purity. Others not only recognised that struggle as necessary, they were even ready, for the sake of its imaginary interests, to compromise with the liberally-minded oppositional elements of our society. Some even went to the extent of considering any manifestation of class antagonism in Russia as harmful for the present. Such views were held, for instance, by Zhelyahov, who, as his biographer says, “imagined the Russian revolution not exclusively as the emancipation of the peasant or even (?) the workers’ estate, but as the political regeneration of the whole Russian people generally”. [1] In other words, the revolutionary movement against the absolute monarchy merged in his imagination with the working class’s social-revolutionary movement for its economic emancipation; the particular, specially Russian task of the present hid from view the general task of the working class in all civilised countries. The difference could not go any farther, a break became inevitable.

Time, however, smoothed out extremes and resolved a considerable number of the disputed questions to the satisfaction of both sides. Little by little all or nearly all recognised that the political struggle which had been taken up must he pursued until a broad emancipation movement in the people and society destroyed the edifice of absolutism as an earthquake destroys a poultry-house, if Marx’s forceful expression can be used here. But to very many of our socialists this struggle still appears as some kind of forced compromise, some temporary triumph of “practice” over “theory”, a mockery by life of the impotence of thought. Even the politicians, in justifying themselves against the reproaches showered on them, avoided all appeal to the basic propositions of socialism, and referred only to the incontestible demands of reality. At the bottom of their hearts they themselves apparently also believed that political tendencies were by no means suited to them, but they consoled themselves with the consideration that only in a free state could they let the dead bury the dead and, renouncing all political considerations, devote themselves wholly to the cause of socialism. This vague conviction sometimes led to misunderstandings that were not without their curious side. Analysing the speech of “the Russian guest” at the Chur Congress and attempting to justify itself against the allegation that it dabbled in politics, Narodnaya Volya noted, among other things, that its supporters were neither socialists nor political radicals, but simply, Narodovoltsi. The terrorist organ presumed that “in the West” the attention of the radicals was absorbed exclusively by political questions while the socialists would not have anything to do with politics. Anybody who knows the programmers of the West European socialists understands, of course, how erroneous such an idea is as far as the enormous majority of them are concerned. It is well known that Social-Democracy in Europe and America never maintained the principle of political “abstention”. Its supporters do not ignore “politics”. Only they do not consider the task of the socialist revolution to be “the regeneration of the whole people generally”. They try to organise the workers into a separate party in order in order thus to segregate the exploited from the exploiters and give political expression to the economic antagonism. Where in our country did they get the certitude that socialism calls for political indifference – a certitude which is in glaring contradiction with reality? Schiller’s Wallenstein tells Max Piccolomini that human reason is broad, whereas the world is narrow, so that thoughts can live at ease together in the former while there are harsh clashes between things in the latter. Must we say that in our brain, on the contrary, concepts of things which in practice not only get on very well together, but are utterly unthinkable without their mutual connection, cannot live side by side? To answer that question we must first of all make clear the conceptions of socialism which our revolutionaries had during the epoch when political tendencies arose among them. Once convinced that these conceptions were erroneous or backward we shall consider what place is given to the political struggle by the doctrine which even its bourgeois opponents do not refuse to call scientific socialism. All that we shall have to do then will be to make in our general conclusions the corrections which are inevitable when we consider the various peculiarities of the contemporary state of affairs in Russia – and our subject will be exhausted; the political struggle of the working class against its enemies belonging to one historical formation or another will finally reveal to us its connection with the general tasks of socialism.


[1] See the pamphlet Andrei Ivanovich Zhelyabov, p.10.


Last updated on 7.10.2003