G.V. Plekhanov

The Development of the Monist View of History

Appendix I
Once Again Mr. Mikhailovsky,
Once More the “Triad” [1*]

In the October issue of Russkoye Bogatstvo, Mr. Mikhailovsky, replying to Mr. P. Struve, again has made some observations on the philosophy of Hegel and on “economic” materialism. [2*]

According to him, the materialist conception of history and economic materialism are not one and the same thing. The economic materialists draw everything from economics.

“Well, but if I seek the root or foundation not only of the legal and political institutions, of the philosophical and other views of society, but also of its economic structure, in the racial or tribal peculiarities of its members, in the proportions of the longitudinal and transverse diameters of their skulls, in the character of their facial angle, in the size and inclination of their jaws, in the size of their thorax, the strength of their muscles, etc.: or, on the other hand, in purely geographical factors – in the island position of England, in the steppe character of part of Asia, in the mountainous character of Switzerland, in the freezing of rivers in the north, etc. – will not this be the materialist conception of history? It is clear that economic materialism, as an historical theory, is only a particular case of the materialist conception of history ...” [1]

Montesquieu was inclined to explain the historical fate of peoples by “purely geographical factors.” To the extent that he consistently upheld these factors, he was undoubtedly a materialist. Modern dialectical materialism does not ignore, as we have seen, the influence of geographical environment on the development of society. It only ascertains better in what way geographical factors influence “social man.” It shows that the geographical environment provides men with a greater or lesser possibility of developing their productive forces, and thereby pushes them, more or less energetically, along the path of historical progress. Montesquieu argued thus: A certain geographical environment determines certain physical and psychical qualities of men, and these qualities bring in their train this or that structure of society. Dialectical materialism reveals that such an argument is unsatisfactory, and that the influence of geographical environment shows itself first of all, and in the strongest degree, in the character of social relations, which in their turn influence the views of men, their customs and even their physical development infinitely more strongly than, for example, climate. Modern geographical science (let us again recall the book of Mechnikov and its foreword by Élisée Reclus) fully agrees in this respect with dialectical materialism. This materialism is, of course, a particular case of the materialist view of history. But it explains it more fully, more universally, than could those other “particular cases.” Dialectical materialism is the highest development of the materialist conception of history.

Holbach said that the historical fate of peoples is sometimes determined for a whole century ahead by the motion of an atom which has begun to play tricks in the brain of a powerful man. This was also a materialist view of history. But it was of no avail in explaining historical phenomena. Modern dialectical materialism is incomparably more fruitful in this respect. It is of course a particular case of the materialist view of history but precisely that particular case which alone corresponds to the modern condition of science. The impotence of Holbach’s materialism showed itself in the return of its supporters to idealism: “Opinions govern the world.” Dialectical materialism now drives idealism from its last positions.

Mr. Mikhailovsky imagines that only that man would be a consistent materialist who explains all phenomena with the help of molecular mechanics. Modern dialectical materialism cannot discover the mechanical explanation of history. This is, if you like, its weakness. But is modern biology able to give a mechanical explanation of the origin and development of species? It is not. That is its weakness. [3*] The genius of whom Laplace dreamed would have been, of course, above such weakness. But we simply don’t know when that genius will appear, and we satisfy ourselves with such explanations of phenomena as best correspond to the science of our age. Such is our “particular case.”

Dialectical materialism says that it is not the consciousness of men which determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness; that it is not in the philosophy but in the economics of a particular society that one must seek the key to understanding its particular condition. Mr. Mikhailovsky makes several remarks on this subject. One of them reads as follows:

“... The negative halves” (!) “of the basic formula of the materialist sociologists contain a protest or a reaction not against philosophy in general, but evidently against that of Hegel. It is to the latter that belongs ‘the explanation of being from consciousness’ ... The founders of economic materialism are Hegelians and, in that capacity, insist so stubbornly ‘not from philosophy,’ ‘not from consciousness,’ that they cannot, and do not even attempt to, burst out of the circle of Hegelian thought.” [2]

When we read these lines we thought that here our author, like Mr. Kareyev, was groping his way to the “synthesis.” Of course, we said to ourselves, the synthesis of Mr. Mikhailovsky will be a little higher than that of Mr. Kareyev; Mr. Mikhailovsky will not confine himself to repeating that thought of the deacon in G.I. Uspensky’s tale The Incurable [4*], that “the spirit is a thing apart” and that, “as matter has various spices for its benefit, so equally has the spirit.” Still, Mr. Mikhailovsky too will not refrain from synthesis. Hegel is the thesis, economic materialism is the antithesis, and the eclecticism of the modern Russian ‘subjectivists is the synthesis. How could one resist the temptation of such a “triad”? And then we began to remember what was the real relationship between the historical theory of Marx and the philosophy of Hegel.

First of all we “noted” that in Hegel historical movement is not at all explained by the views of men or by their philosophy. It was the French materialists of the eighteenth century who explained history by the views, the “opinions” of men. Hegel ridiculed such an explanation: of course, he said, reason rules in history – but then it also rules the movement of the celestial bodies, and are they conscious of their movement? The historical development of mankind is reasonable in the sense that it is law-governed; but the law-governed nature of historical development does not yet prove at all that its ultimate cause must be sought in the views of men or in their opinions. Quite on the contrary: that conformity to law shows that men make their history unconsciously.

We don’t remember, we continued, what the historical views of Hegel look like according to Lewes [5*]; but that we are not distorting them, anyone will agree who has read the famous Philosophie der Geschichte (Philosophy of HistoryEd.). Consequently, in affirming that it is not the philosophy of men which determines their social existence, the supporters of “economic” materialism are not controverting Hegel at all, and consequently in this respect they represent no antithesis to him. And this means that Mr. Mikhailovsky’s synthesis will not be successful, even should our author not confine himself to repeating the idea of the deacon.

In the opinion of Mr. Mikhailovsky, to affirm that philosophy, i.e., the views of men, does not explain their history, was possible only in Germany in the 40s, when a revolt against the Hegelian system was not yet noticeable. We now see that such an opinion is founded, at best, only on. Lewes.

But how poorly Lewes acquaints Mr. Mikhailovsky with the course of development of philosophical thought in Germany is demonstrated, apart from the foregoing, by the following circumstance. Our author quotes with delight the well-known letter of Belinsky, in which the latter makes his bow to the “philosophical nightcap” of Hegel. [6*] In this letter Belinsky says, among other things:

“The fate of a subject, an individual, a personality is more important than the fate of the world and the weal of the Chinese emperor, viz., the Hegelian Allgemeinheit” (Universality – Ed.).

Mr. Mikhailovsky makes many remarks on the subject of this letter, but he does not “remark” that Belinsky has dragged in the Hegelian Allgemeinheit quite out of place. Mr. Mikhailovsky evidently thinks that the Hegelian Allgemeinheit is just the same as the spirit or the absolute idea. But Allgemeinheit does not constitute in Hegel even the main distinguishing feature of the absolute idea. Allgemeinheit occupies in his work a place no more honourable than, for example, Besonderheit or Einzelheit (Individuality or Singleness – Ed.) and in consequence of this it is incomprehensible why precisely Allgemeinheit is called the Chinese Emperor, and deserves – unlike its other sisters – an attentive and mocking bow. This may seem a detail, unworthy of attention at the present time; but it is not so. Hegel’s Allgemeinheit, badly understood, still prevents Mr. Mikhailovsky, for example, from understanding the history of German philosophy – prevents him to such an extent that even Lewes does not rescue him from misfortune.

In the opinion of Mr. Mikhailovsky, worship of Allgemeinheit led Hegel to complete negation of the rights of the individual. “There is no system of philosophy,” he says, “which treats the individual with such withering contempt and cold cruelty as the system of Hegel” (p.55). This can be true only according to Lewes. Why did Hegel consider the history of the East to be the first, lowest stage in the development of mankind? Because in the East the individual was not developed, and had not up till then been developed. Why did Hegel speak with enthusiasm of ancient Greece, in the history of which modern man feels himself at last “at home”? Because in Greece individual personality was developed (“beautiful individuality” – “schöne Individualität”). Why did Hegel speak with such admiration of Socrates? Why did he, almost first among the historians of philosophy, pay a just tribute even to the sophists? Was it really because he despised the individual?

Mr. Mikhailovsky has heard a bell, but where he cannot tell.

Hegel not only did not despise the individual, but created a whole cult of heroes, which was inherited in its entirety thereafter, by Bruno Bauer. For Hegel heroes were the instruments of the universal spirit, and in that sense they themselves were not free. Bruno Bauer revolted against the “spirit,” and thereby set free his “heroes.” For him the heroes of “critical thought” were the real demiurges of history, as opposed to themass,” which, although it does irritate its heroes almost to tears by its slow-wittedness and its sluggishness, still does finish up in the end by marching along the path marked out by the heroes’ self-consciousness. The contrasting of “heroes” and “mass” (“mob”) passed from Bruno Bauer to his Russian illegitimate children, and we now have the pleasure of contemplating it in the articles of Mr. Mikhailovsky. Mr. Mikhailovsky does not remember his philosophical kinship: that is not praiseworthy.

And so we have suddenly received the elements of a new “synthesis.” The Hegelian cult of heroes, serving the universal spirit, is the thesis. The Bauer cult of heroes of “critical thought,” guided only by their “self-consciousness,” is the antithesis. Finally, the theory of Marx, which reconciles both extremes, eliminating the universal spirit and explaining the origin of the heroes’ self-consciousness by the development of environment, is the synthesis.

Our opponents, so partial to “synthesis,” must remember that the theory of Marx was not at all the first direct reaction against Hegel: that that first reaction – superficial on account of its one-sidedness – was constituted in Germany by the views of Feuerbach and particularly of Bruno Bauer, with whom our subjectivists should long ago have acknowledged their kinship.

Not a few other incongruities have also been piled up by Mr. Mikhailovsky about Hegel and about Marx in his article against Mr. P. Struve. Space does not permit as to enumerate them here. We will confine ourselves to offering our readers the following interesting problem.

We know Mr. Mikhailovsky; we know his complete ignorance of Hegel; we know his complete incomprehension of Marx; we know his irresistible striving to discuss Hegel, Marx and their mutual relations; the problem is, how many more mistakes will Mr. Mikhailovsky make thanks to his striving?

But it is hardly likely that anyone will succeed in solving this problem; it is an equation with too many unknowns. There is only one means of replacing unknown magnitudes in it by definite magnitudes; it is to read the articles of Mr. Mikhailovsky carefully and notice his mistakes. True, that is a far from joyful or easy task: there will be very many mistakes, if only Mr. Mikhailovsky does not get rid of his bad habit of discussing philosophy without consulting beforehand people who know more about it than he does.

We shall not deal here with the attacks made by Mr. Mikhailovsky on Mr. P. Struve. As far as these attacks are concerned, Mr. Mikhailovsky now belongs to the author of Critical Remarks on the Question of the Economic Development of Russia, and we do not wish to aspire to the property of another. However, Mr. P. Struve will perhaps forgive us if we permit ourselves to make two small “observations.”

Mr. Mikhailovsky is insulted because Mr. P. Struve “struck at him” with a question-mark. He is so insulted that, not confining himself to pointing out faults of style in the language of Mr. Struve, he accuses him of being a “non-Russian,” and even recalls the story of two Germans, one of whom said he had “shooted” a crow, and the other corrected him, saying that grammar required “shotted.” Why did Mr. Struve, however, raise his hand, armed with a question-mark, against Mr. Mikhailovsky? It was because of his words: “The modern, economic order in Europe began to come into existence at a time when the science which manages this sphere of phenomena was not yet in existence, etc.” The question-mark accompanies the word “manages”, Mr. Mikhailovsky says: “In German that may not perhaps sound well” (how biting: “in German”!), “but in Russian, I assure you, Mr. Struve, it arouses no question in any one, and requires no question-mark.” The writer of these lines bears a purely Russian name, and possesses just as much of the Russian soul as Mr. Mikhailovsky: the most sarcastic critic will not venture to call him a German: and nevertheless the word “manages” arouses a question in him. He asks himself: if one can say that science manages a certain sphere of phenomena, could not one after this promote the technical arts to be chiefs of particular units? Could not one say, for example: the art of assaying commands alloys? In our opinion, this would be awkward, it would give the arts too military an appearance, in just the same way as the word “manages” gives science the appearance of a bureaucrat. Consequently, Mr. Mikhailovsky is wrong. Struve failed to react to the question; it is hard to say how he would have corrected Mikhailovsky’s unhappy expression. Let us assume that he would have “shotted” a crow. But it is unfortunately an accomplished fact that Mikhailovsky has already “shooted” several crows. And yet he does not seem to be a “non-Russian.”

Mr. Mikhailovsky in his article raised an amusing outcry about the words of Mr. Struve: “No, let us recognize our lack of culture and go into training by capitalism.” [7*] Mr. Mikhailovsky wants to represent affairs as though these words meant: “let us hand over the producer as a victim to the exploiter.” It will be easy for Mr. P. Struve to demonstrate the vanity of Mr. Mikhailovsky’s efforts, and it will probably be seen now by anyone who has carefully read the Critical Remarks. But Mr. Struve nevertheless did express himself very carelessly, whereby he probably led into temptation many simpletons and rejoiced the heart of some acrobats. That will teach you a lesson, we shall say to Mr. Struve, and we shall remind the acrobatic gentry how Belinsky, at the very end of his life, when he had long ago said good-bye to Allgemeinheit, expressed the idea in one of his letters that the cultural future of Russia can only be ensured by the bourgeoisie. [8*] In Belinsky this was also a very clumsy threat. But what was his clumsiness aroused by? Generous fascination by the West. It is the same fascination that brought about, we are convinced, the awkwardness of Mr. Struve. It is permissible to make a noise on the subject of that clumsiness only for those who have no reply, for example, to his economic arguments.

Mr. Krivenko too has declared war on Mr. P. Struve. [9*] He has his own cause of offence. He wrongly translated an extract from a German article by Mr. P. Struve, and the latter has exposed him. Mr. Krivenko justifies himself, and tries to show that the translation is almost correct; but his are lame excuses and he still remains guilty of distorting the words of his opponent. But you can’t ask too much of. Mr. Krivenko, in view of his undoubted resemblance to a certain bird, of whom it has been said:

Sirin, that heavenly bird,
Its voice in singing is loudly heard;
When the Lord’s praise it sings,
To forget its own self it begins.

When Mr. Krivenko is shaming the “disciples,” to forget his own self he begins. Why can’t you let him alone, Mr. Struve?



1. Russkoye Bogatstvo, October 1894, Part II, p.50.

2. Ibid., pp.51-52.


Editorial Notes

1*. This appendix (Once Again Mr. Mikhailovsky, Once More the “Triad”) was published in the very first edition of the book The Development of the Monist View of History.

2*. In the review Literature and Life (On Mr. P. Struve and his Critical Remarks on the Subject of Russia’s Economic Development), Russkoye Bogatstvo, 1894, No.10. (N.K. Mikhailovsky, Collected Works, Vol.VII, St. Petersburg 1909, pp.885-924.)

3*. Plekhanov’s statement is radically at variance with the basic principles of Marxist-Leninist dialectics. Dialectical materialism has never aimed at reducing all natural and social phenomena to mechanics, at giving mechanical explanations of the origin and development of species and of the historic process. Mechanical motion is by no means the only form of motion. “... The motion of matter,” Engels says, “is not merely crude mechanical motion, mere change of place, it is heat and light, electric and magnetic tension, chemical combination and dissociation, life and, finally, consciousness.” (F. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Moscow 1954, p.51.)

4*. G. Uspensky’s tale The Incurable is from the series New Times, New Troubles.

5*. Lewes, George Henry (1817-1878), English bourgeois philosopher, positivist and physiologist.

6*. Quotation from Belinsky’s letter to Botkin, March 1, 1841, in which Belinsky broke with the philosophical system of Hegel. See Chapter 4, Note 6*.

7*. Struve’s Critical Remarks on the Subject of Russia’s Economic Development was the object of profound criticism by V. I. Lenin in his Economic Content of Narodism and the Criticism of It in Mr. Struve’s Book published in 1894; Lenin exposed the liberal views of Struve and advanced the viewpoint of the revolutionary Marxism. Struve’s call “to go into training by capitalism” was defined by Lenin as a purely bourgeois slogan.

8*. In a letter to P.V. Annenkov on February 15 (27), 1848, Belinsky wrote: “When, arguing with you about the bourgeoisie, I called you a conservative, I was a real ass and you were a clever man ... Now it is clear that the internal process of Russia’s civil development will not begin before the time when the Russian nobility are transformed into bourgeois.” (V.G. Belinsky, Selected Letters, Vol.2, Goslitizdat Publishing House, 1955, p.389.)

9*. Krivenko wrote about P. Struve’s book Critical Remarks on the Subject of Russia’s Economic Development which was published in 1894, in the afterword to his article On the Needs of People’s Industry. (Russkoye Bogatstvo, 1894, No.10, pp.126-30.)

10*. The heavenly bird Sirin – an image of a mythical heavenly bird with a woman’s face and breast used in old Russian manuscripts and legends.


Last updated on 30.12.2004