Speech at the International Workers’ Socialist Congress in Paris

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Author(s) Georgi Plekhanov
Written July 1889


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Source: Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1981, Vol.1, pp.451-454.

The International Workers’ Socialist Congress in Paris, first congress of the Second International, was held from 14 to 21 july 1889

First version[edit source]

It may seem strange for you to see at this workers’ congress representatives of Russia – a country where the working-class movement is still unfortunately extremely weak. We think that revolutionary Russia must not in any case remain aloof from, the modern socialist movement in Europe, but that, on the contrary, her present closer contact with it will be of great advantage to the cause of the world proletariat. You all know the role played by Russian absolutism in the history of Western Europe. The Russian tsars have been crowned gendarmes who regarded it as their sacred duty to defend and support European reaction from Prussia to Italy and Spain. It would be wasting words to speak here of the role which Nicholas, for example, played in 1848 and 1849; it is as clear as daylight that the fall of Russian absolutism would mean the triumph, of the international revolutionary movement in the whole of Europe. The only question is: what conditions are necessary for the revolutionary movement in Russia to be victorious over Russian absolutism?

Certain writers, who have more imagination than knowledge of social and economic matters, represent Russia as a country similar to China and whose economic structure has nothing in common with that of the West. That is completely false. The old economic foundations of Russia are undergoing a process of complete disintegration. Our village community, once so dear even to certain socialists, but which in reality has been the main buttress of Russian absolutism, is becoming more and more an instrument in the hands of the rural bourgeoisie for the exploitation of the majority of the agrarian population. The poorer peasantry are forced to move to the towns and industrial centres, and simultaneously with this, big manufacturing industry is growing and absorbing the once flourishing handicrafts industry in the villages. Incited by the need for money the autocratic government is devoting all its energies to the development of capitalism in Russia. We socialists can only be satisfied with this aspect of its activity, because it is thus digging its own grave. The proletariat which is being formed as a result of the disintegration of the village community will strike a mortal blow at the autocracy. If, in spite of the heroic efforts of the Russian revolutionaries, the autocracy is not yet defeated in Russia, the explanation is that the revolutionaries are isolated from the masses of the people. The forces and the self-sacrifice of our revolutionary ideologists may be sufficient for the fight against the tsar as an individual, but they are insufficient for a victory over tsarism as a political system. 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!

Second version[edit source]

Citizens,

As the list of speakers is a long one and the congress can therefore give them only a short time for their reports on the economic and political situation in the countries they represent, I shall endeavour to make my account of the working-class movement in Russia as short as possible.

It may seem strange to you to see at this congress representatives of Russia – a country where the working-class movement is far from being as developed as in West European countries. But we Russian Social-Democrats think that revolutionary Russia must not in any case remain aloof from the rest of working-class and socialist Europe; on the contrary, her present closer contact with it will be of great advantage to the world socialist movement.

You all know the infamous role that Russian absolutism has been playing up to this very day in the history of Western Europe.

The Russian tsars have been crowned gendarmes who regarded it as their sacred duty to support reaction in all countries from Prussia to Italy and Spain.

It would be wasting words to speak here of the role which the Emperor Nicholas, of woeful memory, played in the well-known events of 1848.

That is why the triumph of the revolutionary movement in Russia would be a triumph for the European workers.

It is therefore important to elucidate how and on what conditions this triumph of the revolutionary movement is possible in Russia.

It is possible, citizens – we are firmly confident of this – only on condition that the Russian revolutionaries succeed in winning the sympathy of the people themselves.

And as long as our movement remains a movement of ideologists and student youth, it may, perhaps, be dangerous for the tsar personally, but it will present no danger for tsarism as a political system.

In order to overthrow and finally destroy tsarism, we must rely on a more revolutionary element than student youth, and this element, which exists in Russia, is the class of the proletarians, a class which is revolutionary by reason of its distressing economic situation, revolutionary in its very essence.

Some economists who have too ardent an imagination and more good will than solid knowledge, depict Russia as a kind of European China, whose economic structure has nothing in common with that of Western Europe. That is utterly false. The old economic foundations of Russia are now undergoing a process of complete disintegration. Our village community about which so much has been said even in the socialist press, but which in fact has been the bulwark of Russian absolutism – this much praised community is becoming more and more an instrument of capitalist exploitation in the hands of the rich peasants, while the poor are abandoning the countryside and going to the big towns and industrial centres. At the same time big manufacturing industry is growing and absorbing the once flourishing handicrafts industry in the villages.

The autocratic government is intensifying this situation with all its might and thus promoting the development of capitalism in Russia. We socialists and revolutionaries can only be satisfied at this aspect of its activity, for it is thus preparing its own downfall.

The industrial proletariat, whose consciousness, is being aroused, will strike a mortal blow at the autocracy and then you will see its direct representatives at your congresses alongside the delegates of the more advanced countries.

For the time being our task is to defend with you the cause of international socialism, to spread by all means the teachings of Social-Democracy among 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!