Plekhanov 1910

On the Study of Philosophy

Source: Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 3 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976), pp. 455-58.
Transcribed: for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Moscow Editor’s Note: ‘This article appeared in June 1910 in Dnevnik Sotsial Demokrata (Diary of a Social-Democrat), no 12.’

In an interesting letter to me a comrade makes a rather flattering proposal which I think should be answered in print. This is what he writes.

Pointing to the strong interest in belles lettres [1] and philosophy among the class-conscious proletarians, he proceeds:

It seems to me that thought on philosophical questions is being stimulated not only by the gloomy political conditions, but also by the concrete material which is forcing itself on the consciousness of the masses. This has to be put in order. That is why they are taking so eagerly to philosophy, why such facts are possible. I am told in a letter from Kazan: ‘above all, they are interested here in philosophical questions’, and he adds in inverted commas: ‘it’s the topic of the day...’. In Vienna, a report is to be delivered at the Russian emigrants’ May Day meeting on no other subject than philosophy.

Now political interests are awakening again, but philosophical matters will still predominate for a long time and, of course, will remain to a significant extent, also in the new conditions, one of the most valuable conquests of our present gloomy epoch.

It is interesting to do everything possible to encourage these quests and to capture the interest of the masses in favour of a more real world-outlook.

Recently, a worker (from hereabouts) wrote to me: ‘I try to read about philosophy; I try all I know. I think and I can’t understand. And I have little time. The factory takes it all. Haven’t you intellectuals written anything simpler, easier to understand...’

An ‘introduction to philosophy’ is needed, which on the basis of scientific Marxism and the natural sciences, is systematically... if not setting forth, then at least posing all the most essential questions of this subject.

No one could do this better than you, if you are not already working at it, or something similar. Then those who now have to grope their way through the Paulsens and the Wundts [2] and the like will begin with Marxist works.

That is my proposal and the desire of my friends.

I shall begin with the proposal made by my correspondent expressing the wish of his friends. However flattering it is to me, unfortunately, because of numerous other obligations, I cannot accept the proposal at present. And then is it necessary that I should be the one to do it? For more than two years an Introduction to the Philosophy of Dialectical Materialism, written by a very competent comrade, has been lying here. In spite of all my efforts I cannot find a publisher for it. [3] Why? Evidently because the publishers whom I have approached – and I have approached very many – have no hope of selling an Introduction written by a materialist. But if a publisher could be found, the demand which my correspondent rightly notes would be satisfied to a considerable extent. I say ‘to a considerable extent’ and not completely, because the Introduction which is lying here may not be as popularly written as my correspondent wishes. But I can guarantee that it would dispel a multitude of harmful prejudices. If any of the comrades interested in philosophy could find a publisher for this work, we should have less reason for complaint about the absence of a proper handbook on philosophy.

The publishers are well acquainted with the reading public. They know that materialism is not an advantageous proposition at the present moment. But if the publishers, in their own way, are right, we Social-Democrats – those of us who purchase books on philosophy – are partly to blame. Here is an interesting example. In the summer of 1892, I published abroad a Russian translation of Engels’ classic work Ludwig Feuerbach, together with my notes to it and, as an appendix, a chapter of the famous book The Holy Family. By the summer of 1905, another edition was required. At almost exactly the same time, my translation (with the exception of some footnotes) was published in St Petersburg. This was a period when the reading public hungrily bought up every printed work bearing the name of a more or less well-known socialist writer. I was confident that Ludwig Feuerbach, which had been issued in a fairly limited quantity in St Petersburg, would be sold out in no time. It turned out that there was very little demand for it. The only explanation I can find for this is that even socialist readers were seeking something ‘more up-to-date’ than the philosophy of dialectical materialism. So that when comrades bemoan the absence of authoritative philosophical works in the Russian language, I invariably ask them: ‘And have you read Engels’ Ludwig Feuerbach?’ More often than not they reply: ‘No, I haven’t.’ This kind of reply is often given even by people well acquainted with the ‘philosophical’ works of some Bogdanov or other. When I hear these replies, I lose all inclination to talk about what to read on philosophy.

What the author of the letter says is the honest truth. Our reading public will be devoting almost their main attention to philosophical matters for a long time to come. That is understandable. Today, philosophy is the most reliable weapon we have in Russia for adapting our social consciousness to our social being. This being, after all, is assuming a bourgeois character. Consciousness, too, must assume the same character. And philosophy is actively assisting in this.

But not every philosophy is suitable for adapting bourgeois social consciousness to bourgeois social being. Just now only idealist philosophy can serve this purpose. Hence the absence of demand for philosophical works written by materialists.

But surely there are socialists too among the reading public? Of course, there are. Are they, too, turning their backs on materialist works? As we have already said, they are. But why? Obviously because they themselves are coming under bourgeois influence.

This influence is the clue to why Frederick Engels’ Ludwig Feuerbach lies on the shelves at the publishers, while the wretched Bogdanov is printed in many editions.

And Engels is not the only one selling badly. L Axelrod’s splendid Philosophical Essays are hardly any better, and all for the same reason, all through the fault of the socialist readers. This is something well worth thinking about. It is our business as socialists, not to adapt social consciousness to bourgeois social being, but to prepare the minds of the workers for the struggle against that bourgeois being. In this cause, Engels and L Axelrod will be much more useful, not only than the ridiculous and arch-foggy Bogdanov, but also than any of the most prominent philosophical representatives of the bourgeois world-outlook.

It is a shame to have to say so, but it would be a sin to hide it: we make it extremely difficult for ourselves to acquire sound philosophical conceptions. How do our comrades study philosophy? They read, or I will say, for politeness’ sake, they ‘study’ the now fashionable philosophical writers. But these philosophical writers who are now in fashion are thoroughly saturated with idealism. It is quite natural that our comrades ‘studying’ these works become infected with idealist prejudices. And those same Socialists who are fairly well acquainted with the Machs, Avenariuses, Windelbands, etc, etc, have not the slightest notion about the philosophy of Engels, Marx and Feuerbach. So the process finally leads to attempts to build a new ‘philosophical foundation’ for the theoretical structure of Marxism.

In other words: we must begin to study philosophy from a different end altogether. Neither Mach nor Avenarius, neither Windelband nor Wundt, nor even Kant must lead us to the sanctuary of philosophical truth, but only Engels, Marx, Feuerbach and Hegel. Only from these teachers can we learn what we need to know.

I shall speak of this in more detail some other time. Now I want to reply, even if briefly, to the interesting letter from the comrade who honoured me with the proposal mentioned above.

PS: All the same, I cannot conceal from this comrade that his proposal is very, very attractive for me. A year or two ago I toyed for a long time with the idea of writing in as popular a way as I could a criticism of the philosophical works of Max Verwörn. [4] It seemed to me that such a criticism would lay a direct and not very difficult path to the understanding of the fundamental truths of materialist philosophy. I should like to think that I shall still carry out that intention.


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

1. Purely literary essays, etc – MIA.

2. Friedrich Paulsen (1846-1908) – German educationist and neo-Kantian philosopher; Wilhelm Max Wundt (1832-1920) – German bourgeois psychologist and idealist philosopher – Editor.

3. Plekhanov refers to AM Deborin’s book Introduction to the Philosophy of Dialectical Materialism which was published by Zhizn i Znaniye (Life and Knowledge) Publishers in Petrograd in 1916, with a preface by Plekhanov – Editor.

4. Max Verwörn (1863-1921) – German physiologist – Editor.