Georgi Plekhanov

A New Champion of Autocracy


Here in Russia, and not here alone – Mr. Tikhomirov says – the thought has become rooted that we live in some kind of “period of destruction,” which, some people believe, will end with a terrible upheaval, with torrents of blood, dynamite explosions, and so on. After that, it is presumed, a “creative period” will begin. This social conception is entirely erroneous, and as already noted, it is merely a political reflection of the old ideas of Cuvier and the school of geological catastrophes. In actual fact, in real life, destruction andcreation go hand in hand, being even inconceivable without one another. The destruction of one phenomenon originates, properly speaking, because in it, in its place, something different is being created, and on the contrary, the formation of the new is nothing else than the destruction of the old. [1]

The “conception” contained in these words is not distinguished by particular clarity, but in any case the idea can he reduced to two propositions:

  1. “Here in Russia, and not here alone,” revolutionaries have of no idea evolution, of the gradual “change in the type of phenomena,” as Mr. Tikhomirov says elsewhere.
  2. If they had an idea of evolution, of the gradual “change in the type of phenomena,” they would not imagine that “we live in some kind of period of destruction.”

Let us first see how things are in this respect not in Russia, i.e., in the West.

As everybody knows, there is actually in progress in the West a revolutionary movement of the working class, which aspires to economic emancipation. The question is: have the theoretical representatives of that movement, i.e., the socialists, succeeded in conforming their revolutionary aspirations to any at all satisfactory theory of social development?

Nobody who has the slightest idea of modern socialism can fail to answer that question in the affirmative. All serious socialists in Europe and America adhere to Marx‘s teaching, and who does not know that his teaching is first and foremost the doctrine of the development of human society? Marx was an ardent defender of “revolutionary activity.” He sympathized profoundly with every revolutionary movement directed against the existing social and political order. One is not obliged against one‘s wish to share such “destructive” sympathies, but naturally one is not entitled to conclude from them that Marx‘s imagination was “fixed on forcible revolutions,” that he ignored social evolution, slow, gradual development. Not only did Marx not forget evolution, but he discovered many of its most important laws. It was in his mind that the history of mankind was first organized into a harmonic, non-fantastic picture. He was the first to show that economic evolution leads to political revolutions. Thanks to him the contemporary revolutionary movement was given a clearly defined aim and a strictly formulated theoretical basis. But that being the case, why does Mr. Tikhomirov imagine that by a few incoherent phrases about social “creation” he can prove the inconsistency of the revolutionary strivings, existing “here in Russia, and not here alone.” Is it not because he has not given the trouble to understand the teaching of the modern socialists?

Mr. Tikhomirov now feels repugnance for “sudden catastrophes” and “forcible revolutions.” When all is said and done that is his own affair: he is not the first or the last. But he is wrong in thinking that “sudden catastrophes are impossible both in nature and in human societies. First of all, the “suddenness” of such catastrophes is a relative concept. What is sudden for one person may not be sudden at all for another; eclipses of the sun occur “suddenly” for the ignorant but by no means for the astronomer. The same thing applies to revolutions: those political “catastrophes” happen “suddenly” for the ignorant and, the great majority of self-satisfied philistines, but very often they are by no means sudden for the man who understands the social phenomena surrounding him. Secondly, if Mr. Tikhomirov tried to consider nature and history from the standpoint of the theory he now holds, a number of overwhelming surprises would await him. He has fixed in his mind that nature does not make any leaps and that leaving the world of revolutionary fantasy and coming to the firm ground of reality one may speak “scientifically” only of slow “change in the type of phenomena,” and yet nature makes leaps without troubling herself about all those philippics against “suddenness.” Mr. Tikhomirov knows full well that “the old ideas of Cuvier” are erroneous and that “sudden geological catastrophes” are no more than the imagination of scientists. Let us suppose he lives a carefree existence in the south of France, without any hint of alarms or dangers. Then suddenly there comes an earthquake like the one that occurred there two years ago. The earth trembles, houses topple down, the terrified inhabitants flee – in a word, there is a genuine “catastrophe” which probably shows the incredible light-headedness of Mother Nature! Learning from bitter experience, Mr. Tikhomirov attentively checks all his geological concepts and comes to the conclusion that slow “changes in the type of phenomena” (in this case in the condition of the earth‘s crust) do not preclude “upheavals,” which, from a certain standpoint, may perhaps appear “sudden” or “violent.” [2]

Mr. Tikhomirov boils water which does not cease to be water, and is not inclined to any suddenness as long as its temperature increases from 32 to 212 degrees. But when it is heated to the critical temperature – oh, horrible thing! – there is a “sudden catastrophe” – the water turns into steam as if its imagination were “fixed on forcible revolutions.”

Mr. Tikhomirov cools the water and the same strange story repeats itself. The temperature of the water changes gradually, the water remains water. But when it is cooled down to 32 degrees, the water is changed into ice regardless of “sudden revolution” being an “erroneous conception.”

Mr. Tikhomirov observes the development of some insect subject to metamorphosis. The process of development of the chrysalis goes on slowly, and for a time the chrysalis remains a chrysalis. Our thinker rubs his hands with satisfaction, saying, “everything is going on as it should. Neither the social nor the animal organism experiences any kind of the sudden upheavals whose existence I have had occasion to observe in the inorganic world. When it rises to the creation of living beings nature shows more steadiness.” But soon his joy gives place to disappointment. One fine day the chrysalis accomplishes a “forcible revolution” and emerges as a butterfly. Thus Mr. Tikhomirov is compelled to admit that even organic nature is not insured against “sudden changes.”

It will be exactly the same, if Mr. Tikhomirov seriously “gives attention” to his own “evolution”; he will certainly find in it a similar sharp turn, or “revolution.” He will remember what particular drop filled the cup of his impressions and changed him from a more or less hesitating defender of the “revolution” into its more or less sincere opponent.

Mr. Tikhomirov and I are doing exercises in addition. We take the number five and like respectable people “gradually” .add to it one by one, making six, seven, eight ... Everything goes well up to nine. But as soon as we want to add another unit a disaster occurs: our units

Suddenly, without any plausible reason

are changed into a ten. The same unfortunate things happen to us when we pass from tens to a hundred.

Mr. Tikhomirov and I will not deal with music: there we have too many “sudden” transitions and this might put all our “conceptions” out of joint.

To all Mr. Tikhomitov‘s confused arguments about “forcible revolutions” contemporary revolutionaries can successfully answer by asking the simple question: What will you do about those upheavals which have already occurred in our “actual life” and which, in any case, represent “periods of destruction”? Must we declare them nuls et non avenus or regard them as the works of vain and foolish people whose behaviour is not worth the attention of a serious sociologist? However you regard those phenomena, you must admit that there have been violent revolutions and political “catastrophes” in history. Why does Mr. Tikhomirov think that to admit such phenomena in the future is to have “erroneous social conceptions”?

History makes no leaps! That is perfectly true. On the other hand, it is equally true that history has made a number of “leaps” and accomplished a mass of violent “revolutions.” There are countless instances of such revolutions. What does this contradiction mean? Only that the first of these propositions has not been quite correctly formulated and that is why it is often misunderstood. We ought to have said that history does not make leaps which have not been prepared. No leap can occur without a sufficient reason, which is to be found in the previous course of social development. But as this development never stops in societies which are progressing, we may say that history is constantly engaged in preparing leaps and revolutions. It does so assiduously and unflinchingly; it works slowly, but the results of its work (leaps and political catastrophes) are inevitable and unavoidable.

The “change in the type of the French bourgeoisie takes place slowly. The burgher during the Regency is not the burgher of the time of Louis XI, but generally speaking, they both conform to the type of the old regime bourgeois. He has become richer, more educated, more exacting, but he has not ceased to be a roturier, obliged always and everywhere, to give way to the aristocracy. But then comes 1789 and the bourgeois raises his head proudly. A few years more and he becomes the master. But how? With “torrents of blood,” to the rolling of drums, and “explosions of gunpowder,” if not of dynamite which has not yet been discovered. He forces France to undergo a genuine “period of destruction” regardless of the fact that in days to come some pedant might proclaim that violent revolutions are “an erroneous conception.”

The change in “type” of Russian social relationships is slow. The separate principalities disappear, the boyars finally submit to the authority of the tsar and become ordinary members of the class serving the state. Moscow subjugates the Tatar khanates, acquires Siberia, incorporates half of southern Russia, and still it remains the old Asiatic Moscow. Peter appears and effects a “forcible revolution” in the life of Russia as a state. A new period of Russian history, the European period, begins. The Slavophiles called Peter the Antichrist because of the “suddenness” of the revolution which he carried out. They said that in his eagerness for reform he forgot evolution, the slow “change in the type” of the social system. But anybody who can think, will easily realize that Peter‘s revolution was necessitated by the historical “evolution” which Russia had undergone, and by which it had been prepared.

Quantitative changes, gradually accumulating, become, in the end, qualitative changes. These transitions occur by leaps and cannot occur in any other manner. “Gradualists” in politics, of all colours and shades, the Molchalins [1*], who make moderation and meticulous order a dogma; cannot understand this, although it was explained long ago by German philosophy. Here, as on many other occasions, it is useful to remember the view held by Hegel, whom, of course, it would be difficult to accuse of partiality for “revolutionary activity.” He wrote: “The ordinary notion of the appearance or disappearance of anything is the notion of a gradual appearance and disappearance. Nevertheless, there are transformations of being which are not only changes from one quantity to another, but also changes from the qualitative to the quantitative and vice versa; such a transformation is an interruption of ‘gradual becoming‘ and gives rise to a kind of being qualitatively different from the preceding. Underlying the theory of gradualness is the idea that that which makes its appearance already exists effectively, and only remains imperceptible because it is so very small. In the like manner, when we speak of the gradual disappearance of a phenomenon, we represent to ourselves that this disappearance is an accomplished fact and that the phenomenon which takes the place of the extant one already exists, but that neither the one nor the other is as yet perceptible ... In this way, however, we are really suppressing all appearance and all disappearance ... To explain the appearance or the disappearance of a given phenomenon by the gradualness of the transformation is absurdly tautological, for it implies that we consider as having already appeared or disappeared that which is actually in the course of appearing or disappearing.” [3] This means that if you need to explain the origin of the state, you simply imagine a microscopic organization of the state which, gradually changing in size, finally makes the “inhabitants” aware of its existence. In the same way, if you need to explain the disappearance of the primitive clan relations, you endeavour to imagine a small non-being of these relationships and that is all there is to it. It goes without saying that such methods of thinking will not get you far in science. One of Hegel‘s greatest merits was that he purged the doctrine of development of similar absurdities. But what does Mr. Tikhomirov care about Hegel and his merits! Mr. Tikhomirov has the fixed idea that Western theories are not applicable to Russia.

Contrary to our author‘s opinion on forcible revolutions and political catastrophes, we will confidently say that at the present moment history is preparing in the advanced countries a wvolutionary change of extreme importance, which there is every reason to assume will be accomplished by force. It will consist in changing the mode in which products are distributed. Economic evolution has created gigantic productive forces whose practical application requires a very definite organization of production. They are applicable only in large industrial establishments founded on collective labour, on social production.

But the individual appropriation of the products, which grew up under quite different economic conditions in the epoch of flourishing small-scale industry and small-scale cultivation of the soil, is in flagrant contradiction to this social mode of production. The products of the social labour of the workers thus become the private property of the employers. It is this basic economic contradiction which determines all the other social and political contradictions observed in modern society. And this basic contradiction is becoming more and more flagrant. The employers cannot dispense with the social organization of production, for it is the source of their wealth. On the contrary, competition forces them to extend the social organization to other branches of industry where it did not exist before. The big industrial enterprises drive out the small producers thus increasing the number, and consequently the power, of the working class. The fatal denouement is at hand. To remove the contradiction between the mode of production, on the one hand, and the mode in which the products are distributed, on the other, a contradiction which is harmful to the workers, these must win political power which is now practically in the hands of the bourgeoisie. If you wish to put it thus, you may say that the workers must effect a “political catastrophe. Economic evolution leads as sure as fate to political revolution and this latter, in turn, will be the cause of important changes in the economic structure of society. The mode of production slowly and gradually assumes a social character. The mode of appropriation of the products corresponding to it will be the result of a forcible revolution.

That is how the historical movement is taking place not in Russia, but in the West, of whose social life Mr. Tikhomirov has not the slightest conception, although he has indulged in “observing the powerful culture of France.”

Forcible revolutions, “torrents of blood,” scaffolds and executions, gunpowder and dynamite – these are distressing “phenomena.” But what can we do about them, since they are inevitable? Force has always been the midwife at the birth of a new society. That is what Marx said, and he was not the only one to think so. The historian Schlosser was convinced that great revolutions in the destiny of mankind are accomplished only “by fire and sword.” [4] Whence this sad necessity? Whose fault is it?

Or is not everything on earth
subject to the power of truth?

Not, not yet. And this is due to the difference between class interests in society. For one class it is useful or even essential to reorganize social relationships in a certain way. For the other it is useful or even essential to oppose such a reorganization. To some it holds out prospects of happiness and freedom: others it threatens with the abolition of their privileged state, and even with complete destruction as a privileged class. What class will not fight for its existence? What class has no instinct of self-preservation? The social system that is advantageous to one class seems to it not only just, but even the only possible one. In its opinion any attempt to change that system means destroying the foundations of all human society. That class considers itself. called to defend those foundations even by the force of arms if necessary. Hence the “torrents of blood,” hence the struggle and violence.

However, the socialists, in reflecting on the impending social upheaval, may console themselves with the thought that the more their “destructive doctrines spread, the more developed, organized and disciplined the working class will be, and. the more developed, organized and disciplined the working class is, the fewer victims the inevitable “catastrophe” will demand.

And then, the triumph of the proletariat, by putting an end to the exploitation of man by man, and consequently to the division of society into a class of exploiters and a class of exploited, will make civil wars not only useless, but even utterly impossible. Thereafter mankind will advance by “the power of truth” alone and will not need the argument of arms.




1. Why I Ceased to be a Revolutionary, p.13.

2. Because science has rejected Cuvier‘s geological doctrines it does not follow that it has proved the impossibility of geological “catastrophes” or “revolutions” generally. Science could not prove that without contradicting generally known phenomena such as the eruption of volcanoes, earthquakes, etc. The task of science is to explain Those phenomena as the product of the accumulated action of those natural forces whose slow influence we can observe on a small scale at any given time. In other words, geology had to explain the revolutions that affect the earth‘s crust basing itself on the evolution of that crust. Social science had a similar task to deal with and with Hegel and Marx as its spokesmen it has had success similar to that of geology.

3. Wissenschaft der Logik, erster Band, S. 313-14. We quote according to the Nuremberg edition of 1812.

4. His thorough knowledge of history apparently inclined Schlosser even to accept the geological views of Cuvier. Here is what he says about Turgot‘s reform projects which still make the philistines wonder: “These projects contain all the substantial advantages that France acquired later by means of the revolution. They could be achieved only by the revolution; in its expectations the Turgot ministry displayed too much of a sanguine and philosophical spirit: it hoped, contrary to experience and history, to change, by its prescriptions alone, the social structure which had been formed during the course of time and consolidated with firm ties. Radical transformations, in history as in nature, are impossible until all that exists has been annihilated by fire, sword and destruction.” History of the Eighteenth Century, Russian translation, second edition, St. Petersburg, 1868, Vol. III, p.361. “What an amazing fantast that German scholar is,” Mr. Tikhomirov will say.



1*. Molchalin – a character from Griboyedov‘s comedy Wit Works Woe, the type of the careerist, toady and time-server.

2*. Quotation from Heine‘s Zum Lazarus. “Laß die heil‘gen Paraholen. Laß die frommen Hypothesen ...” Plekhanov gives the lines in a translation distorted by the censor. The correct translation by M. Mikhailov was first published in the journal Byloye (Past), No.2, 1906, p.279. It runs:

“Or is not everything on earth accessible to God‘s will?”
                                                                       (H. Heine)


Last updated on 21.8.2003