Special pages :
Passing Thoughts on Plekhanov
|Written||25 April 1922|
Published in Voina i Revoliutsiia (War and Revolution), Vol.1, April 25, 1922
Published in Fourth International, New York, Vol.4 No.3 (Whole No.31), March 1943, ppp.92-94
Published in the collection Political Profiles, 1972
The two different translations are given
Text from Political Profiles[edit source]
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. 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. 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.
Text from Fourth international[edit source]
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 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.
- ↑ 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.
- ↑ 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.)
- ↑ 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