Plekhanov 1899

The Philosophical and Social Views of Karl Marx

Source: Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 2 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976), pp 423-26. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Moscow Editor’s Note: ‘Plekhanov delivered this speech at a meeting in Switzerland in the late 1890s (most likely in 1897 or early in 1898).’

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Ladies and Gentlemen, Citizens

In view of the limited time granted to speakers today, it is perhaps too bold on my part to attempt to give an appraisal of Marx’s contribution to philosophy and social science. Yet I shall try to do that, and if I do not measure up to that task, so much the worse for me.

Marx’s philosophy springs logically and inevitably from Hegel’s - that is what we are so often told by those who have made a study of the origins of present-day socialism. That is true, but it is not all; far from it. Marx succeeded Hegel in the same way as Jupiter succeeded Saturn, by toppling him from his throne. The appearance of Marx’s materialist philosophy was a genuine revolution, the greatest in the history of human thought. For an appreciation of the significance of that revolution, one has to cast a glance at the condition of materialist philosophy in the eighteenth century.

The idea of evolution in Nature and in human society was almost completely alien to the materialism of those times - that bold and militant philosophy. True, Denis Diderot, one of its most outstanding thinkers of the period, often voiced views that would do credit to our present-day evolutionists. However, these profound and brilliant views did not comprise the essence of the materialists’ doctrine; they were merely exceptions, and as such could only bear out the general rule. I cannot go into details of the matter here, which is why I shall cite only two examples.

Read through Holbach’s celebrated book Système de la Nature and note the chapter in which the author speaks of man’s origin. You will see that the greatest difficulties the author came up against were those that refer to man’s zoological evolution and our planet’s geological evolution.

The second example will be taken from the sphere of morals. The eighteenth-century materialists have been accused by almost all historians of philosophy of having preached selfishness. That as a bad mistake. To Helvétius, Holbach and their friends, the social weal, not the personal, was the foundation of all morality. Salus populi - suprema lex (the public weal is supreme law), said Helvétius. In that case, what is the explanation of a mistake so widespread in the world of philosophy and literature? It derives from a source that has already been mentioned: the materialist philosophers of the eighteenth century could not consider morals from the evolutionary point of view. It is only historical evolution that can explain to us why and how the social weal becomes predominant in the morals that reign in a given society. That evolution, however, most often takes place without the knowledge of individuals, who obey the moral demands of their society or their class as the behest of absolute morality as sanctioned by religion or metaphysics. It is not the individual’s subjective mind but the objective logic of social relations that dictates one course of behaviour or another to the individual. Lacking any knowledge of evolution, the philosophers of the last century could have resort only to what they called Reason.

They tried to prove that even from the standpoint of personal interest, it is better to give preference to the social weal. It is not surprising that the Reason they addressed themselves to often resembled a man with a most excellent heart that prompts the most noble sentiments in him, but with a mind which at the same time cannot escape from the logical labyrinth of individualist utilitarianism.

The first half of our century saw the complete rehabilitation of idealist philosophy. Nobody wished even to hear of materialism, which was regarded with the utmost contempt. If you compare the idealist philosophy of the nineteenth century with the philosophy that preceded the efflorescence of materialism in the last century, you will see that the strongest feature of idealism in our century is that very idea of evolution, which was unknown to the materialists. That was the price paid by materialism for its error.

For its part, the idealist philosophy of our century also proved incapable of solving the problem of evolution. The logical laws of the evolution of the idea - such was the weapon employed by that philosophy whenever it had to ascertain the laws of the evolution of the Universe and the human race. However, the logical laws of the evolution of the idea explain nothing in Nature and society, so the idealists were obliged to address themselves to ordinary facts and laws - the facts and laws of Nature, and those of social history. Thus, Hegel, the greatest idealist of all times and peoples, was obliged to seek in economic evolution explanations of historical facts that were incomprehensible from the idealist point of view. Hegel’s philosophy of history was an involuntary and unconscious tribute to materialism.

On the other hand, what the idealists called the philosophy of the spirit - Philosophie des Geistes - was demolished by difficulties that can be surmounted only by physiological psychology, a science that is totally materialist, whatever may often be said by those who engage in it.

It was thus that, in the second half of our century, philosophy has again become materialist; however, the materialism of our times has been enriched by all the achievements of the evolutionist theory.

You are no doubt aware of the role played by the idea of evolution in various fields of the great science of Nature. Suffice it to recall the names of Kant and Laplace, Lyell and Darwin. But what is the place held by the idea of evolution in the area of social science?

At present very much is being said in sociological literature - and often quite wrongly - about evolution. However, it is not enough to state that social relations are constantly changing; what is necessary is to ascertain the driving force in that change. Darwin did not limit himself to stating that species undergo change; he showed that the struggle for existence was the cause of that change. What, then, is it that brings about changes in social relations? What is the origin of various kinds of social structure?

Marx proved that the economic structure of human society is the foundation whose evolution explains all other aspects of social evolution. That stands to his everlasting credit, one that is even more important than the blasting criticism of present-day society that he gave in his Capital. The key to an understanding of human evolution was first given us by historical theory. It was from Marx that we first received the materialist philosophy of the history of mankind:

My dialectic method [says Marx] is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, that is, the process of thinking, which, under the name of the ‘Idea’, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of the ‘Idea’. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought...

In its mystified form, dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things. In its rational form, it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary. [1]

Sociologists of the Darwin school say a lot about the struggle for existence, which they would wish to perpetuate. Far from ignoring that struggle, Marx’s school explains its inception and all the phases of its historical development. It has shown that, ever since mankind emerged from its primitive condition, it has consisted of various classes, the antagonism between which has been the main driving force of social evolution. We are today witnessing a furious struggle - a life-and-death struggle - between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, between those who toil and those who appropriate the products of their labour. Marx has described to us the phases of that struggle, and indicated its inevitable outcome. He sided with the oppressed, calling upon them to organise and to achieve international unity. That call was answered by the masses of the proletariat. Less than fifty years have passed since there resounded the great call: ‘Working Men of All Countries, Unite!’, and the red banner of international socialism is proudly waving in all countries involved in the capitalist system. With every day, the movement is acquiring ever greater force; with every day, its speed is growing, with every day, the struggle is becoming ever fiercer.

Let us all stand ready, for the day of the decisive battle is at hand!


Notes are by the Moscow editors of this edition of the work.

1. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1 (Moscow, 1974), p 29 - Editor.