Leon Trotsky

Political Profiles

Passing Thoughts on Plekhanov

(April 1922)

THE WAR drew up a balance-sheet of an entire epoch of socialism and weighed up and evaluated the leaders of that epoch. Amongst them it mercilessly liquidated Plekhanov too. The latter had been a great man. It is a pity to think that the whole of the present younger generation of the proletariat which joined the movement from 1914 onwards know of Plekhanov only as a sponsor of the Alexinskys, a collaborator of the Avxentievs and almost as a sympathizer of the notorious Breshkovskaya; namely the Plekhanov of the era of his ‘patriotic’ downfall. He had been a great man and it is as a great figure that he has gone down in the history of Russian social thought.

Plekhanov did not create the theory of historical materialism nor did he enrich it with new scientific conquests. But he did introduce it into Russian life. This was a service of enormous importance. It was necessary to triumph over the individualist revolutionary prejudices of the Russian intelligentsia wherein the arrogance of backwardness found its expression. Plekhanov “naturalized” Marxist theory and thereby de-naturalized Russian revolutionary thought. Through Plekhanov it began for the first time to speak the language of real science and established its ideological links with the labour movement of the whole world; it discovered for the Russian revolution concrete opportunities and perspectives by finding a basis for them in the objective laws of economic development.

Plekhanov did not create materialist dialectics but from the beginning of the 1880s he was their convinced, passionate and brilliant crusader in Russia. And to do this the greatest perceptiveness, a broad historical outlook and a noble courage of thought was demanded. Plekhanov combined these qualities with a lucidity of exposition and a talent for wit. The first Russian crusader for Marxism wielded his sword superbly. How many wounds he inflicted! Some of those inflicted upon that talented epigone of populism, Mikhailovsky, possessed a mortal character. In order to appreciate the force of Plekhanov’s thought one must have some conception of the density of that atmosphere of Narodnik, subjectivist and idealist prejudices which reigned in the radical circles of Russia and the Russian exiles. And yet these circles represented the most revolutionary aspect of what Russians of the second half of the 19th century had brought forward.

The spiritual development of today’s advanced working class youth follows (fortunately!) quite different paths. The greatest social avalanche in history separates us from the time when the Beltov-Mikhailovsky duels were fought out. [1] That is why the form of Plekhanov’s best – that is, the most polemical – works has dated just as the form of Engels’ Anti-Dühring has dated. For the young thinking worker Plekhanov’s views are incomparably more comprehensible and familiar than the views that he demolishes. Consequently the young worker has to expend far more attention and imagination in order to resurrect the views of the Narodniks and the subjectivists than to understand the force and precision of Plekhanov’s blows. That is why Plekhanov’s books cannot nowadays achieve a wide circulation. But the young Marxist who has the opportunity to work systematically on broadening and deepening his world outlook will certainly turn to Plekhanov as the first fount of Marxist thought in Russia. To do this it is necessary each time to work oneself back into the ideological atmosphere of Russian radicalism of the period between the 1860s and the 1890s. No easy task. But one will nevertheless be rewarded with a widening of theoretical and political horizons and the aesthetic satisfaction which the successful labour of lucid thought in struggle against prejudices, confusion and stupidity brings.

Notwithstanding the powerful influence that the French masters had upon him, Plekhanov remained wholly a representative of the old Russian school of publicists (Belinsky, Herzen and Chernyshevsky). He loved to write spaciously not being ashamed to make a digression and to divert the reader with a joke, a quotation and then another joke.

For our “Soviet” era which slices up words which are too long into parts and clamps the splinters together, Plekhanov’s style seems archaic. But it reflects an entire era and of its kind it remains excellent. The French school had laid its beneficial imprint on it in the shape of preciseness and transparent clarity of exposition.

As an orator Plekhanov was marked by those same qualities as he had as a writer, both to his advantage and his disadvantage. When you read a book by Jaures and even his historical works you feel it to be an orator’s speech noted down. With Plekhanov it is the other way round. In his speeches you hear the writer speaking. The literature of orators like the oratory of writers can provide very fine examples. But literature and oratory are nevertheless two different elements and two different arts. Jaurès’ books therefore weary one with their oratorical tension. And for the same reason Plekhanov the orator frequently produced the second-hand, and thus dampening, impression of a skillful reader of his own articles.

He was at his peak in the theoretical disputes in which entire generations of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia immersed themselves. Here the very stuff of the argument draws together literature and oratory. He would be at his weakest in speeches of a purely political nature, that is in those which had the task of joining the audience together in a unity of a positive outcome and of fusing their wills into one. Plekhanov spoke like an observer, like a critic, like a publicist but not like a leader. His whole destiny denied him the opportunity of directly addressing the masses, of summoning them to action and of leading them. His weak sides flowed from the same source as did his chief merit: he was a forerunner, the first crusader of Marxism on Russian soil.

We have said that Plekhanov has left scarcely any works which could have entered the everyday ideological use of the working class. Perhaps an exception is The History of Russian Social Thought; yet in a theoretical respect this work is far from impeccable: the conciliationist and patriotic tendencies of Plekhanov’s politics in his last period succeeded in at least partially undermining his theoretical foundations. Finding himself caught up in the insoluble contradictions of social-patriotism, Plekhanov began to seek guidance from outside the theory of the class struggle, now from that of the national interest and now from that of abstract ethical principles. In his last writings he makes a monstrous concession to morality by attempting to make it the criterion of politics: ‘the defensive war is a just war’. In the introduction to his History of Russian Social Thought he restricts the field of action of the class struggle to the sphere of internal relations, replacing it in international relations by national solidarity. [2] But this has nothing to do with Marx at all but Sombart. Only whoever knows what an irreconcilable, brilliant and triumphant struggle Plekhanov had waged over the decades against idealism in general, against conventional philosophy in particular and against the school of Brentano and its quasi-Marxist falsifier Sombart, is able to appreciate the depth of the theoretical fall which Plekhanov accomplished under the pressure of national-patriotic ideology.

But this fall had been prepared for. Let us repeat: Plekhanov’s misfortune sprang from the same root as did his immortal service: he was a forerunner. He was not the leader of the active proletariat but merely its theoretical harbinger. He defended polemically the methods of Marxism but he did not have the opportunity of applying them in practice. Though living for several decades in Switzerland he did remain a Russian exile. Opportunist municipal and cantonal Swiss socialism with its extremely low theoretical level hardly interested him. There was no Russian party. For Plekhanov its place was taken by the “Emancipation of Labour” group, that is a close circle of sympathizers (Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich and Deutsch, who was serving hard labour). The more Plekhanov strove to strengthen the theoretical and philosophical roots of his position the more he was short of these political roots. As an observer of the European labour movement he passed utterly without attention over the most colossal political manifestations of petty-mindedness, cowardice and compromise by the socialist parties; yet he was always on his guard against theoretical heresies in socialist literature.

This violation of the unity of theory and practice which had grown out of the whole destiny of Plekhanov proved fatal to him. He proved unprepared for the great political events in spite of his great theoretical preparation. The 1905 revolution had already caught him unaware. This profound and brilliant Marxist theoretician took his bearings in the events of the revolution by means of an empirical and essentially Philistine focus. He felt unsure of himself and evaded specific answers getting away with algebraic formulas and witty anecdotes for which he nurtured a great partiality.

I first saw Plekhanov at the end of 1902, that is in the period when he was concluding his excellent theoretical campaign against populism (Narodism) and against revisionism and found himself face to face with the political problems of the imminent revolution. In other words Plekhanov’s era of decline was beginning. Only once have I happened to see and hear Plekhanov in, so to speak, his full flower and his full splendour: this was in the programme commission of the Second Party Congress held in London in July 1903. The representatives of the Rabocheye Delo’ grouping Martynov, and Akimov, and the representatives of the ‘Bund’s Lieber and others and also one of the provincial delegates attempted to introduce amendments, for the most part theoretically incorrect and poorly thought out, to the draft party programme which had been worked out largely by Plekhanov. In the discussion in the commission Plekhanov was inimitable and ruthless. At every question raised and at every quibble he quite effortlessly mobilized his outstanding erudition and made his audience, including his opponents, convinced that the question only started where the authors of the amendment thought it finished. With a scientifically organized conception of the programme in his head, confident in himself, his knowledge and his strength, with a merry twinkle of irony in his eye, his spiky whiskers merry too, his just slightly theatrical but vivid and expressive gestures Plekhanov sat in the chair and illuminated the whole of the numerous section like a living firework of learning and wit. His brilliance lit up a flush of adoration on every face and on those of his opponents ecstasy struggled with embarrassment.

In the discussion of tactical and organizational questions at the same congress Plekhanov was immeasurably weaker and at times really quite helpless producing bewilderment amongst those very delegates who had admired him in the programme section.

As long ago as the Zurich International Congress in l893, Plekhanov had declared that the revolutionary movement in Russia would triumph either as a workers’ movement or not at all. This meant that there was not and never would be a revolutionary bourgeois democratic movement capable of winning power in Russia. But from here the conclusion flowed that a victorious revolution carried out by the proletariat could not end in any other way than with the transfer of power into the hands of the proletariat. Plekhanov however drew back from this conclusion in terror. And he thereby politically rejected his own old theoretical premises. Nor did he create any new ones. Hence his political helplessness and his stumbling terminated in his calamitous patriotic downfall.

In the period of the war as in the period of revolution there remained for the true pupils of Plekhanov nothing else than to wage an irreconcilable struggle against him.

The frequently unexpected and, without exception, worthless supporters and admirers of the Plekhanov of the era of his decline collected after death everything most erroneous said by him into a separate publication. In this way they merely helped to separate out a sham Plekhanov from the real one. The great Plekhanov is the real one and he wholly and indivisibly belongs to us. It is our obligation to restore the intellectual figure of Plekhanov to his full stature for the benefit of the young generation. These hasty lines do not of course represent even an approach to this task. But it must be tackled and it will be highly rewarding. Yes, it is high time a good book was written about Plekhanov.

War and Revolution, Vol.1, April 25, 1922


1. In 1895 Plekhanov, by using the pseudonym of Beltov, managed to get his most successful and brilliant pamphlet On the Question of the Development of the Monist View of History past the Tsarist censorship.

2. “The course of development of any given society divided into classes is determined by the course of development of these classes and their mutual relations, i.e. in the first place by their mutual struggle where it is a question of internal social order and in the second place by their more or less close collaboration where it is a question of defending the country from external attacks.” (G.V. Plekhanov: History of Russian Social Thought, Moscow 1919, p.11.)

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Last updated on: 10.4.2007