Plekhanov: a Marxist, not Leninist

Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov was born on December 11th, 1856, in a village near the city of Lipetsk, south-west of Moscow, into a gentry family with Tatar ethnic background. His father eventually moved away from smallholder business and accepted a job in a newly-formed local government, or zemstvo.

In 1866, the Marxist theoretician-to-be was entered into a military gymnasium in the city of Voronezh, which he finished with a gold medal. Then he moved to the then Russian capital city of St. Petersburg, where he attended a military academy.

In 1873, his father died, after which Georgi terminated his military education and the next year entered the St. Petersburg College of Mines. While in college, Plekhanov displayed a remarkable love of Knowledge. He read heavily and pondered over what he had read. His speech was noted for the literary richness, whereas he could state his thoughts concisely and clearly. All this earned him respect among both students and teachers. At the time, it was chemistry that he was keen on most of all, and he was planning to continue his chemistry studies abroad.

In 1875, Plekhanov met one of the Populist revolutionaries (Narodniks), Pavel (Pinkhus) Axelrod, who led the young Plekhanov “astray”. Axelrod regarded Plekhanov’s keenness on chemistry as an impermissible luxury and persuaded him to immediately start working for Revolution. Plekhanov joined the ranks of a secret society, “Land and Liberty”, earlier founded by A. I. Herzen and N. G. Chernyshevsky, which engaged in fighting against tsarist autocracy and preparing a peasant revolution in Russia.

In 1876, Plekhanov organized in the city of Kazan one of the first political demonstrations in Russia, in which members of workers’ associations also took part. He delivered before those gathered a fiery speech. The demonstration was broken up, and many its organizers were arrested. Plekhanov managed to escape this time around, but he would be repeatedly arrested thereafter.

In 1879, “The Land and Liberty” broke up into 2 organizations, one of which Plekhanov headed. The major differences arose over the issue of terror as a method of political struggle. Plekhanov decisively and unequivocally came out against terrorism. He regarded it as rashness and a waste of revolutionary energy. Moreover, terror might provoke such repressions from the government which would make mass agitation and propaganda impossible. However, the majority of the Russian revolutionaries of the time were leaning to terror. Lack of understanding on the part of the comrades, and persecution on the part of the authorities forced Plekhanov to leave Russia. In 1880, he went to Switzerland. Initially, he did not plan to stay there for long. In reality, he lived there for almost 40 years.

While abroad, Plekhanov became keen on so called “historical materialism”, that is, an attempt to extend the major tenets of the Hegelian teaching to the development of human society, which had been made by K. Marx and his friend F. Engels. As a result, Plekhanov’s faith in peasantry as the driving force of Revolution was shaken. He came to the conclusion of the impossibility to bring about the communist reconstruction of society in an agrarian and economically backward country. Following Engels, Plekhanov realized that the decay of peasants’ commune in Russia had already begun, and the county was yet to traverse a thorny path of capitalist development.

Plekhanov elaborated on the above ideas in his work “Towards the development of the monist view of history” which was written in London and came out in Russia in 1895. This work as well as the earlier written “Our differences” was levelled against the ideology of Populism, or Narodnichestvo, that prevailed in Russia at the time. The Narodiniks believed that Russia’s road to communism should pass through the peasant commune inspired by the “critically thinking” and “morally developed” individuals. Narodnichestvo remained, perhaps, the last stronghold of Russian unique identity, a beautiful utopia, which many clutched at in a desperate hope to escape from an impending, premature, alien to them, although “scientific”, Marxism. Ultimately, though, the latter proved to be more intimate with Russian mentality.

Repressions provoked by an assassination of the emperor Alexander II in 1881, and the commencement of an industrial boom in Russia corroborated Plekhanov’s views. In 1883, he, jointly with his old friend P. Axelrod, founded “The Liberation of Labour” group, the objective of which was to disseminate Marxism in Russia and also bring together separate Marxist organizations. Plekhanov’s “Group” managed to get many outstanding representatives of Russian intelligentsia involved, including V. I. Lenin. In 1898, the Russian Social Democratic Working Party (RSDRP) was founded. In 1900, the first Marxist newspaper “Iskra” (The Spark) started coming out, in which both Lenin and Plekhanov took direct part.

In 1903, 2nd congress of RSDRP was held, where the illustrious split into “Bolsheviks” and “Menshevics” occurred. Plekhanov for some time managed to stay above the fray, but eventually sided with the Menshevics. First of all, he opposed excessive centralization of the party, which would ensure the party central committee’s control of the of primary organizations’ composition. Here, the differences between Plekhanov and Lenin came to light for first time; and those differences were becoming increasingly exacerbated thereafter.

During the 1905-1907 Russian revolution, Plekhanov stayed abroad. Without casting doubt on the strategic objectives of Marxist doctrine, he regarded the implementation of bourgeois-democratic reforms in Russia as the top-priority task. The Bolsheviks, however, citing the peculiarity of the Russian conditions, put forward the idea of a bourgeois-democratic revolution growing into a socialist one. Plekhanov opposed such a “spurring” of history, believing that, objectively, Russia was not yet ripe for a communist revolution whatsoever. Besides, Plekhanov did not consider RSDRP to be a full-fledged working party, since it largely consisted of intellectuals, not workers. He also came out in favour of proletariat entering into alliance with petty bourgeoisie. Finally, he opposed the idea of an all-Russian strike, and, all the more, an armed revolt. The Bolsheviks, on their side, accused Plekhanov of dogmatism, of infatuating with theory and neglecting revolutionary practice.

In 1906, Plekhanov met the great composer, pianist, philosopher, and prophet, Alexander Scriabin. Strange as it may seem, they liked each other. Their ideological aspirations were different, but it was the commonness of culture that brought them nearer together. Influenced by Plekhanov, Scriabin fully mastered “historical materialism”, although without becoming its follower. On the other part, a social-democratically leaning Plekhanov was not yet burdened with Bolshevistic intolerance. He displayed enough liberality towards Scriabin and would treat him by no means as a class enemy, but, rather, as an ally. “His music, – wrote Plekhanov, – is of a grandiose scale… It represents a reflection of our revolutionary epoch in the temperament and Weltanshauung of a mystic idealist”.

After the revolution had subsided, Plekhanov, staying in his Swiss hideaway, devoted himself to scientific work proper. Considering the experience of revolutionary struggle, his area of interest now included not at all chemistry, but philosophy, history, and cultural studies. He was already regarded as an acknowledged classic of Marxism by then, and many cultural and political figures would come to see him for advice.

Simultaneously with Lenin, Plekhanov struggled for the “philosophical purity” of Marxism, and he was the first to use the term “materialismus militans” (militant materialism). At the time, he levelled his criticism at his fellow party member A. A. Bogdanov’s attempt to “renovate” Marxism and separate Marx from Engels. Plekhanov stressed that the edifice of Marxism rested upon dialectical materialism and identified Bogdanov’s philosophy of “empiroiomonism” as a variety of subjective idealism. For all that, Plekhanov failed to reach the simplicity of Lenin’s interpretation of cognition as “reflection” and put forward the theory of “hieroglyphs” instead.

During the 1st World War, when the ideas of Communist Revolution and proletarian internationalism had quite taken hold of the masses, Plekhanov, again, dared to come out “against” and, as usual, found himself to be in the minority. He called on the Russians to support the government and wage the war till final victory. In doing so, he expressed an apparently paradoxical thought that a defeat in the war would result in the autocracy being only strengthened.

After the February 1917 revolution, Plekhanov, despite his poor health, returned to Russia. He thought that his arrival would help consolidate a new, democratic power in the country and also consolidate all the social forces in a fight against the external enemy (Russia was still drawn into the 1st World War at the time). The Bolsheviks accused him of siding with liberal bourgeoisie. He did not deny it, since he considered bourgeoisie to be an ally of proletariat at this particular stage of historical development. For that very reason he described Lenin’s “April theses”, where the idea of the victory of socialism in one single country taken separately was put forward, as a “folly”.

With the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the hopes for a “natural” development of Marxism in Russia were dashed. Plekhanov went to Finland, where he died before too long. It happened on May 30th, 1918.

How then did it so happen that the “father of Russian Marxism” found himself rejected by the Revolution? And who proved to be right in the end: Plekhanov or Lenin?

The point is that the above-mentioned revolutionary events had a solid religious underlying reason. Matter, Which philosophers had “dug down” to, proved to be God. And He has His own laws of development. Being a Person, He, first of all, seeks how to incarnate Himself. Thence, the supreme expression of Matter is not at all “communism”, but precisely personal embodiment. In other words, Matter is meant to show Its face to the world. It once smiled to Marx “with all its sensual glitter”, then it appeared in Lenin’s screwed-up eyes, and, finally, in Stalin’s veiled grin.

Lenin turned out to be, perhaps, the most pronounced incarnation of Matter. And his fight for the “liberation of man” was, to a great extent, but a disguise of his genuine, “ontological” motives. It was in vain that the Mensheviks, headed by Plekhanov, were taking pains to keep this process within the bounds of “humanism” – it was too late. It was time for this already quite tangible, but yet coarse and unpolished Image of God to manifest Itself. Accordingly, nothing could stop the Bolsheviks, headed by Lenin, in their determination to “go all the way”.

However, both Lenin and Stalin, to Whom His “divine” properties passed on to, failed to fully comprehend Their true mission. Communism turned out to be but a by-product of the above “world process”. Like Nature that fluctuates between Body, Soul, and Mind, Human Society, which is the supreme manifestation of Nature, fluctuates respectively between Communism, Nazism, and Liberalism. Having emerged and taken shape, these teachings cannot but appear as a religious cult. Humanly, one had better to avoid it, and, in terms of common sense, the shabbiest democracy is always better than the most “sublime” dictatorship. And this is where Plekhanov was right.

PS. Plekhanov’s friend and companion-in-arms P. Axelrod died in 1928 in Berlin. To the end of his days, he remained a staunch “Menshevik”. He called the Bolshevik coup “the greatest crime” and “counter-revolution”, which had thrown Russia back to the “times of Ivan the Terrible” (not without reason, Stalin revered the latter as his “teacher”). When living as an emigrant, Axelrod even tried to organize an intervention into the Bolshevik Russia aiming to restore political freedoms there, won in the course of the 1917 February revolution.


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