Plekhanov 1899

Reply to an International Questionnaire from the Newspaper
La Petite République Socialiste

Source: Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 2 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976), pp 421-22. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Moscow Editor’s Note: ‘Plekhanov’s reply to an international questionnaire of the newspaper La petite République Socialiste was published together with a number of answers by socialists from other countries in a fortnightly supplement to the newspaper on 22 September 1899.’

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Dear Citizens

You have honoured me by wishing to learn my opinion on the following questions:

Can a socialist party, without betraying the principle of the class struggle, intervene in clashes between various bourgeois groupings, whether with the purpose of saving political freedom or, as in the Dreyfus case [1] in defence of humanity?

In what measure can the socialist proletariat take part in a bourgeois government; does the principle of the class struggle contradict, absolutely and in all cases, the partial gaining of governmental power by a socialist party?

I shall reply with the greater willingness since these questions, as you have so correctly pointed out, present international interest. They are of such importance that the entire future of our Party hinges on the way in which socialists deal with them in one sense or another.

Here is what I think of the matter.

As I see it, the socialist proletariat is not only entitled but is in duty bound to intervene in clashes between various bourgeois groupings whenever it finds that useful to the interests of the revolutionary movement. However, that intervention can be of use to the revolutionary movement and should take place only in cases when it is capable of giving greater activity and determination to the struggle between the bourgeoisie, that is, the possessors of the means of production, on the one hand, and the proletariat, that is, the class exploited by the possessors of those means, on the other.

For the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat to become ever more active and resolute, it is necessary for the proletariat to become more and more imbued with the consciousness of the opposedness of its interests to those of its exploiters. The proletariat’s revolutionary consciousness is that awesome dynamite of the socialists that will explode present-day society. Everything that promotes the development of that consciousness should be considered a revolutionary means, and therefore acceptable to socialists; everything that blunts that consciousness is anti-revolutionary, and should therefore be condemned and rejected by us. That is the main principle all our tactics should be based on.

Adhering as I do to that point of view, I am inclined to think that socialists’ participation in a bourgeois government would bring us more harm than good, since it would lead to a weakening of the proletariat’s revolutionary consciousness. I am aware, however, that there are exceptions to any rule, and that, if understood in absolute terms, any principle becomes metaphysical. I therefore allow the possibility of individual and exceptional cases of a socialist party being obliged to agree to one of its representatives joining a bourgeois ministry, but the right of decision should, in such cases, always belong to the party, not to any particular member.

It should also be added and emphasised that any decision to join a bourgeois government can be made by socialists only with an immediate and clearly expressed aim - that of speeding up the disintegration of present-day society.

Accept, dear comrades, assurances of my friendly esteem.

G Plekhanov


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

1. The Dreyfus Case - a provocative trial of Dreyfus, a French General Staff officer of Jewish nationality, who was falsely charged with espionage and high treason. It was staged in 1894 by reactionary monarchists in the French army. Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment by a court martial. The Dreyfus case was used by the French reactionary circles to foment anti-Semitism and attack the republican regime and democratic liberties. When in 1898 socialists and progressive bourgeois democrats (such as Emile Zola, Jean Jaurès and Anatole France) started a campaign for re-examination of the Dreyfus case, the latter assumed a markedly political character. The country was split into two camps, with the republicans and democrats on one side, and the bloc of monarchists, clericals, anti-Semites and nationalists on the other. Under pressure of public opinion, Dreyfus was pardoned and released in 1899, but it was only in 1906 that he was acquitted by the Court of Cassation and reinstated in the army.