Before the year 2018 reaches its end, the 100th anniversary of the death of Georgi Plekhanov should be noted and remembered. He is sometimes referred to as the “father” of Russian Marxism, and for good reason.
Plekhanov was the most important figure in the early Russian Marxist movement, a major theorist and voice in the Second International; and, as a member of the editorial board of Iskra, a collaborator with Lenin in the first years of the twentieth century.
Plekhanov and Lenin were to go their separate ways. By the time of the October Revolution in 1917 Plekhanov had moved considerably to the right. Despite this he was held in the highest respect by the Bolsheviks.
Born in Tambov of a moderately well-to-do family, Plekhanov studied in St.Petersburg. In 1875 he met Pavel Axelrod and was drawn into revolutionary activity. He joined the Zemlya y Volya (Land and Liberty) group, which espoused a radical populism based on the peasantry. Plekhanov was arrested a couple of times and then moved to Europe, where he spent many years in exile.
He met Social Democrats from the Second International and established contact with the ageing Engels. He studied Marxism. In 1883 he, along with Axelrod, Vera Zasulich, Lev Deutsch, and Vasily Ignatov formed the Emancipation of Labour Group, the first Russian Marxist organisation. It had just five members: soon Ignatov died and Deutsch was arrested and sent to Siberia, reducing it to three.
But with writings like Plekhanov’s Our Differences and Socialism and Political Struggle it established a distinctive Marxist analysis which won supporters (including Engels: Marx had died in 1883, and before his death was very sceptical about Plekhanov’s group).
In the 1890s, workers’ strikes and local Marxist circles more or less linked to the ideas of the Emancipation of Labour Group burgeoned. In 1898 the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party was founded, but only as a name (all the members of its committee were soon arrested).
In 1900, Plekhanov joined with Lenin and others to launch a Social-Democratic (meaning Marxist) paper from exile, called Iskra. They were soon joined by the “Pen” – a young revolutionary just escaped from exile in Siberia, better known as Leon Trotsky.
The ground was beginning to shift. In Trotsky’s autobiography, My Life, he remarks, “His [Plekhanov] strength was being undermined by the very thing that was giving strength to Lenin – the approach of the revolution. All of Plekhanov’s activity took place during the preparatory, theoretical days. He was a Marxian propagandist and polemist-in-chief, but not a revolutionary politician of the proletariat”.
At and for a while after the Second Congress (the first real congress) of the RSDLP in 1902 Plekhanov allied with Lenin. But soon he went over to the Mensheviks, who had split by refusing to accept the Congress decision about the editorial board of Iskra, and he was with the right wing of the Mensheviks in the revolutionary upheaval of 1905.
In 1912, the “Pro-Party Mensheviks” led by Plekhanov allied with the Bolsheviks to declare themselves no longer just a faction, but the sole real RSDLP. But then, in 1914, Plekhanov and his close comrades supported Russia in World War 1. Three years later Plekhanov opposed the October Revolution in 1917. He left Russia shortly after October, and died in Finland.
Plekhanov’s theoretical contributions were enormous and are still worth reading today. He published The Materialist Conception of History in 1891, Essays on the History of Materialism in 1895, and The Role of the Individual in History in 1898, and many other writings.
His long essay Fundamental Problems of Marxism (1908) was widely read, and along with many of his other writings republished by the Bolshevik government after his death.
He was one of the first and most vehement to oppose the so-called “revisionist” ideas of Eduard Bernstein in the German Social Democratic Party, and a strong opponent of varied philosophical-idealist trends within the Second International.
Shortly after the death of Plekhanov, Trotsky, who had been one of his most vociferous critics, paid this tribute to the man who had kept him off the Iskra editorial board before 1902. Trotsky was addressing the 17th Joint Session of the All Russian Central Executive Committee of Trade Unions on 4 June 1918,
"He is dead but the ideas which he forged in the best days of his life are immortal just as the proletarian revolution is immortal. He is dead but we, his pupils, are living and fighting under the banner of Marxism …
"And before we turn to today’s struggle against oppression and exploitation, against lies and slanders, I call on all of you to silently stand and solemnly honour the memory of Plekhanov."