The roots of Bolshevism. Plekhanov: father of Russian Marxism

Submitted by Anon on 12 August, 2004 - 2:53 Author: Sean Matgamna

Click here for the series on The Roots of Bolshevism of which this article is part
"The task of our revolutionary intelligentsia therefore comes, in the opinion of the Russian Social Democrats, to the following: they must adopt the views of modern scientific socialism, spread them among the workers and, with the help of the workers, storm the stronghold of autocracy. The revolutionary movement in Russia can triumph only as the revolutionary movement of the workers. There is not and cannot be any other way out for us."
George Valentinovich Plekhanov, speaking at the Founding Congress of the Second International in Paris, July 1889

"Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement", so said Lenin. Lenin? In the 20th century many Marxist publications (including more than one I've had a hand in) have carried that quotation "from Lenin" emblazoned on the masthead or editorial page. In fact it originates not with Lenin, but with George Plekhanov, advocating Marxist as against populist ideas. The passage in which it occurs is a great deal richer than the much-cited single sentence can convey; and it speaks directly to today's pixillated left, encouraged by inadequate scraps of "anti-imperialist" theory into reactionary support for such as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic:

"For without revolutionary theory there is no revolutionary movement in the true sense of the word. Any class which strives for its emancipation, any political party which aims at dominance, is revolutionary only insofar as it represents the most progressive social trends and consequently is a vehicle of the most progressive ideas of its time. An idea which is inherently revolutionary is a kind of dynamite which no other explosive in the world can replace. And as long as our movement is under the banner of backward or erroneous theories it will have revolutionary significance only by some, but by no means all of its aspects. At the same time, without its members knowing it, it will bear in itself the germs of reaction which will deprive it even of that little significance in the more or less near future…."

Plekhanov wrote that in 1883, in the first manifesto of consistent Marxism in Russia, Socialism and the Political Struggle. Lenin was then a 13-year-old schoolboy living quietly in his Tsar-accepting conservative-liberal family.

This common misattribution* is typical of the idea of the relationship between "Lenin" and his Russian Marxist teachers which "Leninist" piety, Stalinist falsification and simple ignorance have combined to create.

The real relationship was greatly different.

Plekhanov was indeed "The father of Russian Marxism", but in a far more substantial sense than "forerunner", distant initiator.

We have seen Plekhanov in his late teens as an underground organiser of workers and as the orator at the first worker-organised illegal political demonstration in Russian history, at the Our Lady of Kazan Square, St Petersburg in 1876.

We saw Plekhanov, the Bakuninist opponent of all "politics", breaking with those populists who turned to the politics of killing the Tsar to force the autocracy to concede a constitution, in the name of continuing to organise the peasants and workers for mass action, and of confining terrorism to a subordinate place in the arsenal of the revolutionaries.

Polemically demolishing populism, Plekhanov put the working class into the leading place in his conception of the Russian revolution, more than a decade before it began to happen in Russian life.

After a gestation of some years duration, during which Plekhanov, Zassulich, Axelrod and Deutsch completed their transformation from populists into Marxist Communists (in the terminology of that time, Social Democrats), the Group for the Emancipation of Labour (GEL) began its work in 1883, the year Karl Marx died.

What was new in the Marxism of the GEL was the group's militant rejection of all variants of the idea that there would be a special Russian road to socialism. They broke entirely with the framework and conclusions of all past Russian socialism.

Still in his 20s, Plekhanov produced the seeding works of Russian Marxism, Socialism and the Political Struggle (1883) and Our Differences (1884)**.

Using the method of Marx to analyse Russian conditions, Plekhanov arrived at conclusions about the road to socialism in Russia which Marx had balked at drawing. It was with some justice that the populist polemicists could accuse Plekhanov of being more "Marxist" than Marx himself.

In their 1882 introduction to a new Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels had left the question of a special Russian road to socialism open. They noted that: "During the Revolution of 1848-49 not only the European princes, but the European bourgeois as well, found their only salvation from the proletariat, just beginning to awaken, in Russian intervention. The Tsar was proclaimed the chief of European reaction. Today he is a prisoner of war of the revolution, [hiding from assassins] in Gatchina, and Russia forms the vanguard of revolutionary action in Europe".

They thought a qualitative difference still existed between Russian society and the capitalist society dealt with in the Communist Manifesto:

"The Communist Manifesto had as its object the proclamation of the inevitably impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face to face with the rapidly developing capitalist swindle and bourgeois landed property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina [the village commune], though greatly undermined, yet a form of the primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?

"The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development."

Where Marx and Engels had left the door ajar for Russian populism, Plekhanov in Our Differences closed it with a reverberating slam.

By the early/mid-80s, GEL had already worked through, sketched out, or at least identified and tackled, all of the political questions, and even the key tactical issues, posed by Russia's peculiarities to the Russian Marxists. It elaborated the politics which would animate the Iskra/Zarya group when, at the start of the 20th century, it began to organise the Marxist circles scattered through urban Russia into a coherent Marxist party.

The Iskra project - to use a newspaper as the organising centre from which to politically and organisationally unite the circle-scattered, politically unfocused forces of revolutionary Marxism - was initiated and, mainly, carried out by the younger Marxists. But the political authority of Plekhanov and the GEL were irreplaceable to making Iskra/Zarya the authoritative centre around which to regroup the scattered forces of Russian revolutionary Marxism.

The political ideas elaborated by GEL held as the basis of Russian Social Democracy until the 1905 Revolution. In the revolution differing estimations of the role the bourgeois class would play in what all agreed would be a bourgeois-democratic revolution began to reshape and redefine the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. (Neither side had seen the dispute on organisation at the 1903 Congress as politically decisive.)

In 1905, Lenin began to insist that workers and peasants would have to make the bourgeois-democratic revolution despite, and in opposition to, the bourgeoisie and their parties. He called for a Democratic Dictatorship of Workers and Peasants; and he began to elaborate the practical implications of that idea for tactics and slogans in the Revolution.

Trotsky went further, arguing that the only possible Russian "bourgeois-democratic revolution" would be led by the working class, at the head of the peasantry (and not, as Lenin believed, in equal partnership with them). In passing, the working class would carry through the historic tasks of the bourgeoisie - establish a Constituent Assembly, a democratic republic, democratic rights - and then go on, without any period of stable bourgeois power, to create a workers' government. This was Trotsky's theory of "Permanent Revolution".

And that is exactly how it happened in 1917.

Identifiable versions of these guiding ideas of Lenin and Trotsky, or approximations to them, are in the 1880s already to be found, in an underdeveloped and unconcretised form, to be sure, in the writings of Plekhanov and Axelrod. When it came to it, in 1905, the former GEL people became convinced that the revolution could not, after all, do without the bourgeoisie, while Trotsky, Lenin and the Bolsheviks (and initially such Mensheviks as Dan and Martinov) took the opposite fork in the road, facing up to the fact that they would have to.

As well as being the great scholar of Russian Marxism, Plekhanov was in the Iskra years still the embodiment in that movement of the heroic, audacious, stop-at-nothing, militant spirit of the earlier revolutionaries.

It was Plekhanov who proclaimed at the Congress of 1903* that a future Marxist government might well have to violate the rules of formal democracy in the interests of the revolution, insisting against mush hostility that the well-being of the revolution would override all other considerations.

If the RSDLP was the first Marxist Party to write the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" into its programme, and it was, that was the work of Plekhanov.

Yet in the 1880s Plekhanov and GEL seemed to have failed.

Inevitably, GEL too suffered the consequences of the collapse of revolutionary populism after the killing of the Tsar (March 1881) and from the disillusion, inertia and fear of the police that paralysed the opposition-minded intelligentsia for a decade.

GEL had the added disadvantage that immediately it could be only a negative, critical force, directed against both the old and the new populism. What it stood for positively lay still in the future.

Where Chorny Peredel, the populist group which Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zassulich and others had set up in 1879, failed because it had clung to the old populist policy of organising the peasants long after that policy had repeatedly failed in the 1870s - the failure that had generated Narodnaya I Volya's turn to terrorism and politics - GEL failed as an organisation for many years because it oriented to organising the industrial workers as an independent political force when that class was still very weak.

As we have seen in earlier articles, Marxism in Russia remained until the mid 1890s and the onslaught on populism by the "second wave" of Russian Marxists, the "legal Marxists" - Struve, Tugan-Baranovsky, Bulgakov, etc - only an element in the eclectic education provided in the surviving populist circles.

Both GEL and Chorny Perede were out of their time. But GEL's time was coming.

Personally Plekhanov and the others had a bad time of it. Lev Deutsch, Vera Zassulich's partner, the organiser on whom GEL relied, was arrested in Germany and handed over to the Russian authorities, to be jailed and then exiled to Siberia.

For a long time they had no contact at all with Russia.

They did not recruit amongst Russian exiles, fearing that ill-educated newcomers would dilute the group's politics, or organisationally destabilise it.

And they faced tremendous personal difficulties. Plekhanov, who had a young family, had a hard time reconciling himself to the savage poverty that, circumstances being as they were, was the price of doing the work he had undertaken. Observing the poverty in which the French Marxist Jules Guesde had learned to live, helped reconcile him to it.

Both Plekhanov and Zassulich were consumptives. Plekhanov almost died of it in the 1880s, and did die of it in 1918. Axelrod, the one most concerned with organisational questions, who lived by making and selling a sort of yogurt, suffered from psychological conflicts that often made political and literary work impossible.

Nadezda Krupskaya later recorded the impression Axelrod made on Lenin and herself during the Iskra period:

"Pavel Borisovich had lost three-quarters of his working capacity; he did not sleep for nights at a stretch and wrote with extreme intensity for months on end, without being able to finish the article he had started. Sometimes it was impossible to decipher his handwriting owing to the nervy way in which it was written. Axelrod's handwriting produced a profound impression on Vladimir Illyich. 'It's simply awful', he often used to say, 'if you get into such a state as Axelrod'. He more than once spoke about Axelrod's handwriting to Dr Kramer during his last illness."

Plekhanov sometimes despaired. He responded to a letter in which Axelrod had tried to cheer him up:

"Your expression, 'chosen one of history' makes me laugh. How can anyone be persuaded that he was chosen by history? That is possible only with reference to the past, but with reference to the present, it is senseless and only braggarts and swindlers can look at themselves through such flattering spectacles. And I, I simply am probably a failure, fit now only for the dusthole. I am ill, I know not from what - it must be despair, and it is true that such as I am now, I am not suited for anything, so what is there to talk about? A squeezed-out lemon should be thrown away into the dusthole and forgotten the sooner, that is all. Your belief in me does honour to your idealism… but if it is prolonged it will be funny: who idolises squeezed-out lemons! Now I am sick and in general my condition is wretched, and what is to come - unknown."

When he wrote that, the tide had already began to turn.

In the years after the 1891 famine, Marxist circles, basing themselves on the politics and the work of GEL, multiplied rapidly throughout urban Russia. They remained separate and isolated from each other and mostly had no contact with GEL.

Some impatient younger people out of Russia saw GEL as conservative, inhibitive, over-assertive and out of touch with new conditions in Russia. The combination of GEL and Lenin, Martov, etc, from the St Petersburg League of Struggle, was for the veterans the first long-term such collaboration.

It involved Lenin, Martov and the others siding with the GEL against those with whom the GEL had fallen out. There is even one academic commentator who argues that the campaign against "economism" waged by Iskra was merely a contrivance, a political blunt instrument, with which Plekhanov, using Lenin, etc, clubbed down his critics.We will examine that.

But indisputably GEL did great work of fundamental significance. An examination of the ideas with which they, and the newer generation, set about building a Marxist working class party in Russia is what will concern us here. We will try to follow them step by step.


* A striking example of misattribution is Perry Anderson's account of "Pre-Stalin Marxism" in Western Marxism. "Our Differences", the seminal work of Russian Marxism, is not mentioned at all and the role it played is attributed to Lenin's "Development of Capitalism in Russia", one of a number of offshoots from Plekhanov's work of more than a decade earlier.
** Our Differences is the generative text of the working class political movement that conquered state power in Russia in October 1917. In it Plekhanov expounded his analysis of Russian society in the form of a devastating systematic examination of populism in all its sub-sections - Lavrovist, Bakuninist and Blanquist alike. It is one of the great books of revolutionary Marxism.
*** Two versions of this speech survive. The other ends:
"The industrial proletariat, whose consciousness is being aroused, will strike a mortal blow at the Autocracy…For the time being our task is to defend… the cause of International Socialism, to spread by all means the teachings of social democracy amongst the Russian workers and to lead them in storming the stronghold of autocracy.
"In conclusion I repeat - and I insist on this important point: the revolutionary movement in Russia will triumph only as a working-class movement or else it will never triumph!"