Plekhanov 1909

On Mr V. Shulyatikov’s Book

Source: Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 3 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976), pp. 299-305.
Transcribed: for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Moscow Editor’s Note: ‘Plekhanov’s review of V Shulyatikov’s book was published in the journal Sovremenny Mir, no 5, 1909. Sovremenny Mir (Contemporary World) – a literary, scientific and political monthly published in St Petersburg from 1906 to 1918. Vladimir Mikhailovich Shulyatikov (1872-1912) – Russian literary critic and philosopher; opposed idealism from positions of vulgar sociology, thereby distorting Marxism.’

V Shulyatikov, Justification of Capitalism in West European Philosophy (From Descartes to Mach) (Moscow Book Publishers, Moscow, 1908).

Mr Shulyatikov writes:

A traditional attitude to philosophy has been established in intellectual circles, where it is regarded as a kind of Privatsache, as something in the nature of a domain where one may exercise individual judgement, individual appraisals, and individual creativeness. It is asserted in these circles that even the most radical divergences in philosophical questions are by no means evidence of the existence of social antagonisms; philosophical ideas are represented as being too inadequately and too weakly linked with any class substratum. The defence of a particular class position does not, therefore, predetermine, in the generally held view, support for a particular philosophical school. On the contrary in this case a wide freedom of choice is permissible. [!] (p 5)

According to the author, similar views are held by very many Marxists too:

They are convinced that in the ranks of the proletarian vanguard a motley variety of philosophical views is permissible, that it is of no great importance whether the proletarian ideologists preach materialism or energetics, neo-Kantianism or Machism. It is thought that philosophy is a quite innocent affair. (p 5)

Mr Shulyatikov positively rejects the idea that philosophy is ‘innocent'; he thinks such a belief is a naive and very lamentable mistake:

Philosophy is not the happy exception [he says]; on the speculative ‘heights’ the bourgeoisie remains true to itself. It speaks about nothing else but its own immediate class interests and aspirations, but it speaks in a very peculiar language, difficult to understand. All philosophical terms and formulas without exception that are employed by the bourgeoisie, all these ‘concepts’, ‘ideas’, ‘views’, ‘notions’, ‘sensations’, all these ‘absolutes’, ‘things-in-themselves’, ‘noumena’, ‘phenomena’, ‘substances’, ‘modes’, ‘attributes’, ‘subjects’, ‘objects’, all these ‘spirits’, ‘material elements’, ‘forces’, ‘energies’, serve to designate social classes, groups, nuclei and their inter-relationships. To know the philosophical system of any one of the bourgeois thinkers is to have a picture of the class structure of society, drawn with the aid of conventional signs and reproducing the social profession de foi [1] of a certain bourgeois group. (p 6)

In these remarks of our author, a grain of truth is mixed with much ‘naive’ error. Of course, it would be foolish to think that philosophical ideas are not connected with a ‘class’ substratum. But we are completely in the dark as to why the bourgeoisie on the speculative ‘heights’ ‘speaks about nothing but its own immediate class interests and aspirations’. Besides meditating upon these immediate matters what is there to prevent the intellectual representatives of the bourgeoisie, perched on these heights, from also pondering over somewhat more remote interests and aspirations? It is true that the investigator’s task is very much simplified if he presupposes that the philosophical ideas of the given class always express only the immediate interest of that class. But simplicity is far from always being a virtue. We shall see this presently from the example of Mr Shulyatikov himself.

Mr Shulyatikov, who considers himself to be a ‘Marxist philosopher’, assumes, ‘therefore’ (that is, obviously because philosophy expresses the immediate interests of the bourgeoisie), that ‘the question must be put resolutely’. He says:

The task of a Marxist philosopher must not be reduced to altering the details of such a type of pictures. These pictures cannot be accepted as something that could be utilised and coordinated with the proletarian world-outlook. This would mean lapsing into opportunism, an attempt to combine that which cannot be combined. In our view, the task confronting the Marxist philosopher is something quite different. It requires, prior to engaging in philosophical constructions, revaluation of philosophical concepts and systems, proceeding from the point of view we have outlined above. (p 7)

You observe that our ‘Marxist philosopher’ intends to carry through a whole revolution. This is commendable. But the road to hell is known to be paved with good intentions. We shall see how Mr Shulyatikov manages to fulfil his laudable intentions. Applying himself to the assessment of philosophical values, he remarks that very little has been done in this respect, although ‘the first brilliant attempt at such a revaluation took place some years ago’. Here he has in mind Mr A Bogdanov’s article ‘Authoritarian Thought’ published in a collection of his articles, The Psychology of Society. Mr Shulyatikov is convinced that the article concerned opens up a new era in the history of philosophy. According to him:

... following the appearance of this article, speculative philosophy lost all right to operate with its two fundamental concepts of ‘spirit’ and ‘body'; it was established that these concepts took shape on the background of authoritarian relationships and the antithesis between them reflected the social antithesis – the antithesis of the organising ‘upper strata’ and the executing ‘lower strata’. With amazing consistency, bourgeois critics have turned a deaf ear to the work of this Russian Marxist... (p 7)

We shall discover shortly how valuable were the ideas which Mr Shulyatikov extracted from Mr Bogdanov’s ‘brilliant’ article. At the moment we feel the reader’s attention ought to be focussed on the following circumstance. In Mr Shulyatikov’s opinion Mr Bogdanov’s article deprived speculative philosophy of the ‘right’ to operate with the concepts of ‘spirit and body’. Let us take for granted that it really did. But surely Marx also ‘operated’ with these two concepts? Undoubtedly he did so in his own way, regarding them from the standpoint of a materialist, but none the less he ‘operated’ with them. Therefore, the question arises: what fate befell Marx’s materialist philosophy with the appearance of Mr Bogdanov’s shattering article? Was this philosophy also deprived of the ‘right’ to operate in its own materialist fashion with the concepts ‘spirit’ and ‘body'? If not, it is clear that Mr Bogdanov’s article did not open up a new era at all. If the answer is yes, it is no less clear that the ‘Russian Marxist’ on whom Mr Shulyatikov relies has distinguished himself in philosophy by overthrowing, in passing, the philosophy of Marx himself. But the Marxist whose philosophical work is to overthrow Marxist philosophy is a Marxist of a very special cut. His Marxism consists not in following Marx, but in refuting him. And that is actually the case; the ‘Russian Marxist’ who has inspired Mr Shulyatikov is among the followers of that same Ernst Mach whom Mr Shulyatikov lists among the bourgeois ideologists (see the chapter: Empiriocriticism, pp 132-47).

Now let us see what this strange Marxist, who follows a bourgeois philosopher, has taught Mr Shulyatikov:

The leader-organiser and the rank-and-file member of society executing his commands – such is the first social antithesis known to history. At the beginning it amounted to no more than a simple contrasting of roles. With the passing of time it came to signify something more. Economic inequality made its appearance; the organisers were transformed gradually into owners of the instruments of production which had formerly belonged to society. And parallel with this, like an echo of the progressing social stratification, the concept of the contrasting principles of spirit and body took shape. (p 11)

First of all, it is quite untrue to say that the first social antithesis known to history was that between the leader-organiser and the rank-and-file member of society executing the leader’s commands. The first social antithesis originated as a contraposing between man and woman. In saying this, I am, of course, not referring to the physiological but to the sociological division of labour between them. This division of labour put its stamp upon the whole structure of primitive society and the whole of its world-outlook. But the notion of spirit, or, more correctly, of soul, did not spring from this division of labour. Modern ethnology has ascertained the genesis of this notion pretty well. All the new data obtained by this science confirm the correctness of Tylor’s theory of ‘animism’, according to which primitive man animates all nature, and the soul, whose presence or absence explains all natural phenomena, is conceived by him as something which in ordinary conditions is inaccessible to his senses. Death, sleep and swooning are among the phenomena which most facilitated the appearance of the concept of soul. But sleep, death and swooning are not the outcome of social contrasts, but of man’s physiological make-up. So that to explain the origin of the concept of soul – and, consequently, of spirit – by social contrasts is to misuse a method which promises extremely valuable discoveries in the future, but the use of which in practice presupposes two indispensable conditions: first, a certain capacity to think logically, and secondly, knowledge of the facts. Unfortunately, we must recognise that these two conditions are conspicuously absent from Mr Shulyatikov’s work.

We have just seen how badly he knows the facts relating to the primitive history of mankind, while his clumsy meditations on the ‘innocence’ of philosophy show how ill-equipped he is for logical thinking. After all, to assert that ‘all philosophical terms without exception’ serve to designate social classes, groups, nuclei and their relationships, is to reduce an extremely important question to a simplicity that can only be characterised by the epithet: ‘Suzdalian’. [2] This word denotes neither a ‘social class’, nor a ‘group’, nor a ‘nucleus’, but simply a vast wooden-headedness. There is not the least shadow of doubt that the division of society into classes had a decisive influence on the course of its intellectual development. And it is just as incontestable that the division of society into classes was the outcome ‘in the last instance’ (Engels’ expression) of its economic development. However, influence is one thing, and immediate reflection is another. Besides, to say that the economic development of society conditions ‘in the last instance’ all other aspects of its development is to recognise, precisely by these four words, ‘in the last instance’, the existence of many other intermediate ‘instances’, each of which influences all the others. Thus, as you see, we get a very complicated system of forces at work, in the investigation of which ‘Suzdalian’ simplicity can yield nothing except the most comical results. Mr Shulyatikov has already shown us a sample of this ‘Suzdalian’ simplicity. According to him, when Kant wrote about noumena and phenomena, he not only had in mind various social classes, but also, to use the expression of the old wife of one of Uspensky’s bureaucrats, he ‘aimed at the pocket’ of one of these classes, namely, the bourgeoisie. The outcome is something like a caricature of human thought, a caricature which would justly arouse much indignation were it not so utterly comic.

There is not enough space to offer other samples: we shall be content with one more. Mr Shulyatikov writes:

To Avenarius, the world appears as an agglomeration of central nervous systems. ‘Matter’ is thoroughly stripped of all ‘qualities’, whether ‘primary’ or ‘secondary’, formerly considered its inalienable attributes. Positively everything in matter is determined by ‘spirit’, or, in the terminology of the author of The Critique of Pure Experience, by the central nervous system. (p 114)

Why does Avenarius think this? Here is the reason:

Contemporary capitalism is extremely ‘elastic’: to the owners of capital there is not just one type of worker given once for all, but today there are workers of a certain profession and a certain skill, tomorrow of another profession and another skill, today Ivan, tomorrow Paul or Jacob...

Enough! This is so good that we ask ourselves: is Mr Shulyatikov, by some chance, joking? Maybe he is writing a parody of Marxism? As a parody, his book is very biting, and even talented but, of course, quite unfair.

In conclusion, we have to remark that we are still in utter darkness as to whether the materialist philosophy of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels is ‘permissible’ among class-conscious proletarians.


Notes are by the Moscow editors of this edition of the work, which are noted ‘Editor’, or the MIA, which are suitably noted.

1. Declaration of principles – MIA.

2. Suzdal – here rough work. Prior to the Revolution cheap icons were produced in the Suzdal uyezd, hence the term – Editor. [A more contemporary equivalent would be ‘the Woolworth’s end of the market’ – MIA.]