Leon Trotsky

A Note on Plekhanov

(April 1922)

Written: 24 April, 1922.
First Published: In Russian in the Russian periodical Under the Banner of Marxism, Nos.5-6, 1922.
Source: Fourth International, New York, Vol.4 No.3 (Whole No.31), March 1943, ppp.92-94.
Translated: Margaret Dewar, for Fourth International.
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2003. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

EDITOR’S NOTE: G. V. Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism, was born in 1856. He died in 1918. In publishing Trotsky’s article on Plekhanov, the new English periodical Free Expression for November 1942 states:

“Plekhanov’s works are still little known in this country; only two or three slender volumes have been published. Owing to the Stalinist regime’s departure from internationalism, revolutionary socialists have not been able to benefit by Ryazanov’s colossal labor in preparing for publication twenty two volumes of Plekhanov’s writings as part of a library of scientific socialism.

“Of Plekhanov’s works Lenin has written: ‘... It is impossible to become a real communist without studying – really studying – all that Plekhanov has written on philosophy, as this is the best of the whole international literature of Marxism.’

“We hope that the following article by Leon Trotsky, published for the first time (we believe) in the English language, will arouse interest in a study of the available works of Plekhanov.”

These remarks apply with equal force here in America.

The First World War and the Russian revolution flung Plekhanov into the camp of his former opponents, the opportunists against whom he had conducted for so many years a merciless and brilliant

A. Voronsky, the outstanding Soviet critic and editor (purged by Stalin for his adherence to the Trotskyist Left Opposition) wrote:

“Plekhanov’s point of view on the February revolution and the Provisional Government is well known. But not many know that during the October days Plekhanov flatly came out against the attempts of Kerensky to seize Petrograd with the aid of Krasnov’s cossacks. When Kerensky, approaching Petrograd, seized Krasnoye Selo, a well-known revolutionist was sent to G.V. Plekhanov as an emissary, or it might be that he came on his own initiative. He was a friend of Plekhanov’s and proposed that the latter take upon himself the task of getting together a ministry just as soon as the cossacks had entered Petrograd. Plekhanov’s answer was: ’I have given forty years of my life to the proletariat and I do not intend to shoot them down even when they are following the false path.’”

Trotsky’s article on Plekhanov constitutes a part of the Introduction to the first and second volumes of Trotsky’s collected works. This Introduction was written on April 24, 1922, and published for the first time in the Russian periodical Under the Banner of Marxism, Nos. 5-6, 1922. (Translated from the Russian by Margaret Dewar.)

The war has drawn the balance sheet of an entire epoch in the socialist movement; it has weighed and appraised the leaders of this epoch. Among those whom it has mercilessly liquidated is also to be found G. V. Plekhanov. This was a great man. One becomes sad at the thought that the entire young generation of the proletariat today who joined the movement since 1914 is acquainted with Plekhanov only as a protector of all the Alexinskys, a collaborator of all the Avksentievs and almost a co-thinker of the notorious Breshkovskaya [1] that is to say, they know Plekhanov only as the Plekhanov of the epoch of “patriotic” decline. This was a truly great man. And into the history of Russian social thought he has entered as a great figure.

Plekhanov did not create the theory of historical materialism, he did not enrich it with new scientific achievements. But he introduced it into Russian life. And this is a merit of enormous significance. It was necessary to overcome the homegrown revolutionary prejudices of the Russian intelligentsia, in which an arrogance of backwardness found its expression. Plekhanov “nationalized” the Marxist theory and thereby denationalized Russian revolutionary thought. Through Plekhanov it began to speak for the first time in the language of real science; established its ideological bond with the world working-class movement; opened real possibilities and perspectives for the Russian revolution in finding a basis for it in the objective laws of economic development.

Plekhanov did not create the materialist dialectic but he was its convinced, passionate and brilliant crusader in Russia from the beginning of the eighties. And this required the greatest penetration, a broad historical outlook, and a noble courage of thought. These qualities Plekhanov combined also with a brilliancy of exposition and an endowment of wit. The first Russian crusader for Marxism wielded the sword famously. And how many wounds he inflicted! Some of them, like those he inflicted on the talented epigone of Narodnikism, Mikhailovsky, were of a fatal nature. In order to appreciate the force of Plekhanov’s thought one has to have an understanding of the tenseness of that atmosphere of Narodnikist, subjectivistic, idealistic prejudices which prevailed in the radical circles of Russia and the Russian emigration. And these circles represented the most revolutionary force that emerged from Russia in the second part of the nineteenth century.

The spiritual development of the present advanced working youth proceeds (happily!) along entirely different ways. The greatest social upheaval in history is between us and the period when the Beltov-Mikhailovsky duel took place. (Under the pseudonym Beltov, Plekhanov in 1895 succeeded in getting past the Czarist censor his most triumphant and brilliant pamphlet On the Question of the Development of the Monistic Outlook of History.) That is why the form of the best, i.e., precisely the most brilliantly polemical works of Plekhanov has become dated, just as the form of Engels’ Anti-Dühring has become dated. For a young, thinking worker, Plekhanov’s viewpoint is incomparably more understandable and more akin than those viewpoints which he shattered. Consequently, a young reader has to give more attention and use more imagination to reconstructing in his mind the viewpoint of the Narodniki and the subjectivists, than he does to appreciating the force and accuracy of Plekhanov’s blows. That is why his books cannot today attain a wide circulation. But the young Marxist who has the opportunity to work regularly upon the widening and deepening of his world outlook will invariably turn to the original source of Marxist thought in Russia – to Plekhanov. For this it will each time be necessary retrospectively to work oneself into the ideological atmosphere of the Russian radical movement from the ’60s to the ’90s. No easy task. But in return, the reward will be a widening of the theoretical and political horizons, and the esthetic pleasure that a successful effort toward clear thinking gives in the fight against prejudice, stagnation and stupidity.

In spite of the strong influence of the French masters of letter on Plekhanov, he remained entirely a representative of the old Russian school of publicists (Belinsky, Herzen, Chernyshevsky). He loved to write at length, never hesitating to make digressions and in passing to entertain the reader with a witticism, a quotation, another little joke ... – For our Soviet age, which cuts too long words into parts and then compresses the parts of several words into one word, Plekhanov’s style seems out of date. But it reflects a whole epoch and, in its way, remains superb. The French school beneficially made its impression on his style in regard to his accuracy of formulation and lucidity of exposition.

As an orator Plekhanov was distinguished by those same qualities he possessed as a writer, both to his advantage and disadvantage. When you read books by Jaurès, even his historical works, you get the impression of a written-down speech of an orator. With Plekhanov it was just the reverse. In his speeches you hear a writer speaking. Oratorical writing as well as literary oratory may reach very high standards. But nevertheless writing and oratory are two different fields and two different arts. For this reason Jaurès’ books tire one with their oratoric intensity. And for the same reason the orator Plekhanov often created the double – hence the dampening – effect of a skillful reader of his own article.

He reached the heights in the theoretical controversies in which whole generations of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia never tired of immersing themselves. Here the material of the controversy itself brought closer together the art of writing and that of oratory. He was weakest in speeches of a purely political character, i.e., those which pursue the task of binding the audience in a unity of concrete conclusions, molding their wills into one. Plekhanov spoke like an observer, like a critic, a publicist, but not like a leader. He was never destined to have the opportunity to directly address the masses, summon them to action, lead them. His weak sides come from the same source as does his chief merit: he was a forerunner, the first crusader of Marxism on Russian soil.

We have said that Plekhanov left hardly any such works as could become part of the wide, every-day use of the working class. The sole exception is, perhaps, the History of Russian Social Thought; but this work is far from irreproachable in point of theory: the conciliatory and patriotic tendencies of Plekhanov’s politics of the last period succeeded – at least partly — in undermining even his theoretical foundations. Entangling himself in the cul-de-sac contradictions of social patriotism, Plekhanov began to look for directives outside the theory of the class struggle – now in national interests, now in abstract ethical principles. In his last writings he makes monstrous concessions to normative morality, seeking to make of it a criterion of politics (“defensive war is a just war”). In the introduction to his History of Russian Social Thought he limits the sphere of action of the class struggle to the field of domestic reationships; in international relationships he replaces the class struggle by national solidarity. (“The course of development of every given society, divided into classes is determined by the course of development of those classes and their mutual relationships, i.e., first, by their mutual struggle where the internal social order is concerned, and, secondly, by their more or less friendly collaboration where the question of the defense of the country from exter nal attack arises.” G. V. Plekhanov, History of Russian Social Thought, Moscow 1919, page 11, Russian edition.) This, however, is no longer according to Marx, but rather according to Sombart (a well-known social-democratic economist – Translator). Only those who know what a relentless, brilliant and successful struggle Plekhanov waged in the course of decades against idealism in general, normative philosophy in particular, against the school of Brentano and its pseudo-Marxist falsifier Sombart – only they can appreciate the depth of Plekhanov’s theoretical downfall under the pressure of national patriotic ideology.

But this downfall was prepared: Plekhanov’s misfortune came from the same source as came his immortal merit – he was a forerunner. He was not a leader of an acting proletariat but only its theoretical precursor. He polemically defended the methods of Marxism but had no possibility of applying them in action. Having lived for several decades in Switzerland, he remained a Russian émigré. The opportunist, municipal and cantonal Swiss socialism, with an extremely low theoretical level, scarcely interested him. There was no Russian party. For Plekhanov its place was taken by the “Emancipation of Labor Group,” i.e., by the close circle of co-thinkers (composed of Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulitch, and Deutsch doing hard labor in Siberia). Since he lacked political roots, Plekhanov strove all the more to strengthen the theoretical and philosophical roots of his position. In his capacity as observer of the European workers’ movement he very often left out of consideration most important political manifestations of pettiness, pusillanimity, and conciliationism on the part of the socialist parties; but he was always on the alert in regard to theoretical heresy in socialist literature.

This disturbance of the balance between theory and practice, which arose from the whole circumstances of Plekhanov’s life, proved fatal for him. In spite of his wide theoretical groundwork, he showed himself unprepared for great political events: already the revolution of 1905 took him by surprise. This pro. found and brilliant Marxist theoretician oriented himself in the events of the revolution by means of empiric, essentially rule-of-thumb appraisals; he felt unsure of himself, whenever possible preserved silence, evaded definite answers, begged the question with algebraic formulas or witty anecdotes, for which he had such a great fondness.

I first saw Plkehanov at the end of 1902, i.e., in that period when he was finishing his superb theoretical campaign against Narodnikism and against revisionism, and found himself face to face with the political questions of the impending revolution. In other words, the period of decline had begun for Plekhanov. I only once had the opportunity to see and hear Plekhanov as it were at the height of his strength and fame: that was in the program commission of the Second Party Congress (July 1903, in London). The representatives of the Rabochoye Delo Group, Martynov and Akimov, the representatives of the Bund, Lieber and others, and a few of the provincial delegates were attempting to bring forward amendments to the draft of the party program, mainly the work of Plekhanov, amendments largely incorrect theoretically and ill-considered. In the commission discussions Plekhanov was inimitable and merciless. On every question or even minor point that arose he brought to bear his outstanding erudition without any effort and forced his listeners, even his opponents, to become convinced that the problem only began precisely where the authors of the amendment thought it to end. With a clear scientifically finished conception of the program in his mind, sure of himself, of his knowledge, his strength; with a merry, ironical twinkle in his eyes; with bristling and also merry moustache; with slightly theatrical but lively and expressive gestures, Plekhanov, who occupied the chair, lit up the numerous gathering like a human firework of erudition and wit. This was reflected in the admiration that lit up all faces, even those of his opponents, where delight struggled with embarrassment.

Discussing tactical and organizational questions at that same Congress, Plekhanov was infinitely weaker, sometimes seemed to be quite helpless, evoked perplexity of the very same delegates who admired him on the program commission.

At the Paris International Congress of 1889 Plekhanov had already declared that the revolutionary movement in Russia would conquer as a workers’ movement or not at all. That meant that in Russia there was not and could not be a revolutionary bourgeois democracy capable of triumphing. But from this there followed the conclusion that the victorious revolution, achieved by the proletariat, could not end other than with the transfer of power into the hands of the proletariat. From this conclusion, however, Plekhanov recoiled in horror. Thus he politically denied his old theoretical premises. New ones he did not create. Hence his political helplessness and vacillations, crowned by his grave patriotic sinfall.

In time of war, as in time of revolution, nothing remained for the true disciples of Plekhanov but to wage an irreconcilable struggle against him.

Plekhanov’s admirers and adherents, in the epoch of his decline, often unexpected and always worthless, have since his death gathered together in one separate edition all his worst writings. By this they only helped to separate the false Plekhanov from the real one. The great Plekhanov, the true one, belongs entirely and wholly to us. It is our duty to restore to the young generation his spiritual figure in all its stature.


[1] Alexinsky was a Russian social democrat who later became a monarchist and a White Guard. Aksentiev was a right Social-Revolutionary, one of the Ministers of Kerensky’s government and later also a White Guard. Breshkovskaya was a participant of the Russian revolutionary movement of the ’70s. She opposed the October revolution. – Editor

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Last updated on: 1.1.2007