Plekhanov 1910

On Mr Windelband’s Book

Source: Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 3 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976), pp. 419-23.
Transcribed: for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Moscow Editor’s Note: ‘Plekhanov’s review was published in Sovremenny Mir, no 1, 1910. Sovremenny Mir (Contemporary World) – a literary, scientific and political monthly published in St Petersburg from 1906 to 1918. Wilhelm Windelband (1848-1915) – German neo-Kantian philosopher.’

Wilhelm Windelband, Philosophy in the Spiritual Life of Nineteenth-Century Germany (authorised translation from the German by MM Rubinstein, Zveno Publishers, Moscow, 1910).

This book comprises a series of lectures delivered in 1908 in the Free German Higher Institute at Frankfort-on-the-Main. The task of the lectures was, ‘in the context of the general historical development of the German nation during the nineteenth century to elucidate the elements of a world-outlook which play a definite role in this development, and in which life itself is reflected’. Obviously a very interesting and important task. But in order to fulfil it, in order to elucidate how German social life in the nineteenth century was reflected in the German world-outlook of that period, it is necessary, first of all, to master thoroughly the basic proposition of materialism: that it is not thinking which determines being, but being which determines thinking. Wilhelm Windelband is a talented writer, but he is far from having grasped this proposition. His views on materialism in general and historical materialism in particular are the views of a prejudiced idealist who remains blind to the most important and strongest sides of the theory he is trying to refute. Consequently, first, all the pages of his book which deal with materialism are totally unsatisfactory. Secondly – and this is even more important – the task set in the study remains unfulfilled. As a matter of fact, Windelband furnishes only a few more or less apt hints as to how the development of the German world-outlook in the nineteenth century must be explained by the development of modern Germany’s social life. But he provides no explanation which is to any degree consistent and cohesive; and as for the development of German social thought during the last third of the nineteenth century, his exposition, as we shall see in a moment, suffers from quite serious errors. It could not be otherwise. Whoever takes up the study of the history of social thought in one or more of its manifestations cannot now with impunity ignore materialism.

However, we shall deal first of all with what we have called our author’s more apt hints. Here are the most noteworthy of them. Windelband says:

We have the right to see at all times the most noble task of philosophy precisely in this, that it forms the self-consciousness of developing cultural life. It does this indirectly and involuntarily, unconsciously and semi-consciously even where the thinker, to all appearances, follows – and thinks that he follows – exclusively his individual yearning for knowledge, the motives, as free as possible from all the requirements of the surrounding world, of his own intellectual satisfaction. Precisely because of this, the significance of philosophical systems lies, in the last analysis, not in the transient formulas of their conceptions, but in those contents of life which find their explanation in it...

Similarly also here, in observing the course of development through which our people passed in the nineteenth century, we must everywhere regard theories as the sedimentary deposit of life – and this is not only permissible, it is even imperative, the more so since this is one of the pivotal questions of that development itself. (pp 5-6)

Nothing could be more true. And since this is the case, one must regard as particularly naive those people who wonder at the terms ‘bourgeois philosophy’, ‘proletarian theory’ and the like. For if philosophy does represent ‘the self-consciousness of developing cultural life’, it is natural that in the period of cultural development characterised by the predominance of the bourgeoisie in social life, philosophy itself – all its dominant trends – bears the stamp of the bourgeoisie. That goes without saying. No less understandable is the fact that when the proletariat begins to revolt against the rule of the bourgeoisie, theories expressing its anti-bourgeois aspirations begin to spread in its midst. Of course, every scientific view may be understood superficially and one-sidedly. Its superficial and one-sided understanding by particular individuals or whole groups of people can produce distorted, ludicrous, caricatured conclusions. We know this, having seen it in the examples of our Shulyatikovs, Bogdanovs, Lunacharskys, etc, etc. But is there, can there be, any scientific view that is proof against wrong understanding by people ill-prepared to assimilate it? There is not and there cannot be such a view. No matter how ridiculous are the Shulyatikovs, Bogdanovs and Lunacharskys, no matter how much they distort Marx’s teaching, this teaching still remains correct. No matter how this or that ‘mind still unripe, fruit of yet scant learning’, [1] misuses expressions such as proletarian theory, bourgeois philosophy and the like, these expressions do not cease to be theoretically valid; proletarian theories as well as bourgeois philosophy really do exist as distinct aspects of ‘the self-consciousness of developing cultural life’. There is nothing one can do about this, beyond accepting it for information and guidance. To take it for guidance means to understand that the contemporary philosophy of Western Europe, in which the bourgeoisie hold such powerful sway, cannot but be the self-consciousness of the bourgeoisie. The pity is that this very simple truth finds great difficulty nowadays in penetrating the minds of even those who, generally speaking, take the side of the working class. Hence the reason why such people both in Russia and in Western Europe very often disseminate with great zeal philosophical theories that are the last word of bourgeois reaction against the proletariat’s strivings for emancipation. This is a very sorry spectacle which we are forced by the very course of European cultural development to contemplate.

But to get back to Windelband with his more or less apt hints. Here is yet another one of them:

When reading the arguments on the basis of which Schiller, in his letters on the aesthetic upbringing of man and in his treatise on naive, sentimental poetry, extolls, in accordance with his aesthetic theory, the Hellenic world as the true humanity, one clearly feels throughout an action of contrasts, in which everything which the present lacks in terms of the ideal is asserted as reality in antiquity. Escaping into the past is, properly speaking, the same as escaping into the ideal. (p 30)

This again is very true and very well put. The ‘action of contrasts’, which Hegel spoke of in his day, explains very much in the history of the intellectual development of every society divided into classes. It is so great that he who does not sufficiently take it into account risks making the most crude errors in study of such history. Unfortunately, Windelband himself is not always able to define correctly the ‘action of contrasts’ he acknowledges. Needless to say, this reduces the ‘value’ of his investigation quite considerably.

Here is a vivid example to confirm what I have just said. In characterising the social life of Western Europe in the nineteenth century, Windelband writes:

Hegel’s words have come true: the masses are moving forward. They have entered into the historical movement which, in essentials, was previously playing itself out above their heads, in the thin upper layers of society. The masses are asserting their rights not only in political development, but in all spheres of spiritual history, in the same measure as in the economic sphere. All strata of the body politic are demanding for themselves, with all seriousness and energy, full participation in all the benefits of society, both spiritual and material, launching out in every sphere of social life with the claim to participate in it and to assert their interests. Thus, our life has been given a completely new cast, and this social expansion forms the most important basis for the extensive and intensive enhancement of life which mankind experienced in the nineteenth century. (pp 136-37)

This is true, of course. Contemporary social life in Western Europe has, in fact, been given a ‘completely new cast’ as a result of the ‘masses moving forward’. But the author forgot that this onward movement of the popular masses has encountered, and continues to encounter, strong resistance from the upper classes. Once having forgotten this, naturally he also lost sight of the fact that the resistance of the upper classes to the onward movement of the masses was bound to find its reflection in the whole course of Europe’s intellectual development, and especially in the history of literature, art and philosophy. Consequently, he has given a quite incorrect interpretation of that preaching of individualism which brought fame to the name of Friedrich Nietzsche. Windelband says:

Thus, we are undergoing a levelling down of historical distinctions, and the establishment of a uniformity of life, about which not one of the previous ages in human history had the faintest notion. But from this there now emerges the grave danger that we shall thereby lose what is most valuable, that which, strictly speaking, first constitutes and at all times constituted culture and history, viz: the life of personality. The sense of this danger pervades deep down the whole spiritual life of the last decades, and bursts out from time to time with passionate energy. Alongside this outwardly magnificently developing material culture there is growing a fervent need for one’s own inner life, and together with the democratising and socialising life of the masses there is springing up an ardent opposition of individuals, their upstriving against suppression by the mass, their primitive striving to disburden their own personality. (pp 142-43)

The question arises: how can ‘individuals’ be suppressed by the ‘mass’ who themselves are suppressed in class-divided capitalist society? It would be a waste of time searching in the book under review for the answer to this inevitable question. Windelband does not want to understand that in so far as modern individualism, which found its most brilliant representative in the person of Friedrich Nietzsche, is a protest against the forward movement of the mass, it voices not fear for the rights of personality, but fear for class privileges. This is not only true; it is gradually becoming common knowledge. Take literature, for example, Professor Leon Pineau in his book L'Evolution du roman en Allemagne au XlX-e siècle (Paris, 1908), portrays modern individualism – the individualism of the ‘neo-Romanticists’ – as a reaction against the contemporary socialist movement (see, in the book mentioned, Chapter XV – ‘Le roman néo-Romantique: symbolique, réligieux et lyrique’). There is no doubt at all about his being right. But the contemporary socialist movement is not directed against ‘personality’ at all. Quite the reverse. It strives to defend those rights – which are being constantly violated as a result of the dependent position of the enormous majority – of ‘personality’ in contemporary society, that is, of the proletariat. Therefore contemporary individualism cannot be considered in any respect a movement in favour of the rights of the individual in general. It is a movement in favour of the rights of the individual belonging to a particular class. And it very well understands – for example in the person of the same Friedrich Nietzsche – that the interests of such personality can be protected only by suppressing the ‘personality’ of another and incomparably more numerous class, viz: the proletariat. But Windelband remains blind to all this. This may seem strange, but it is explained by the fact that his own philosophical views reflect some negative aspects of social life today.

Mr M Rubinstein has translated Windelband’s book not at all badly, which is surprising, since we seldom find even moderately tolerable translations.


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

1. The first line of AD Kantemir’s (1708-1744) satirical poem To My Intellect (on those who disparage learning) – Editor.