Monday, January 6, 2020

3301. Plekhanov: An Alternative Assessment

By Paul D'Amato, International Socialism, January 1, 2020
Georgy Valentinovich Plekhanov: December 11, 1856-May 30, 1918
Reading the literature of not only academic Marxism, but also of the Marxist tradition overall, it would be easy to conclude that Plekhanov, the founder of the Russian Marxist movement, had very little, if anything, to contribute to Marxism. Indeed, if his name is mentioned at all, it is to dismiss him as a proponent of “Second International Marxism,” as a crude, vulgar, mechanical, technological determinist; a fatalist who considered socialism a product of inexorable historical processes. It is commonly argued that Plekhanov’s view of history allowed no room for conscious human intervention, that for him everything which happens in the realm of the “superstructure”—political conflicts, class struggle—was merely a passive reflection of what goes on at the economic “base” of society.
May of these critiques trace the roots of this alleged deviation back to Frederick Engels, who, it is claimed, diverged from Marx’s ideas (though there is no evidence that Marx or Engels considered their ideas to be divergent in any fundamental way.) Here is an example from a 1964 book by George Lichtheim:
[Engels’] philosophy… became the cornerstone of the Soviet Marxist edifice. There is no mistaking the line of descent, which runs from Engels, via Plekhanov and Kautsky, to Lenin and Bukharin. They all, whatever their differences, share the common faith in “dialectical materialism” as universal “science” of the “laws” of nature and history… The cast-iron certainty which Engels imported into Marxist thinking found its counterpart at the political level in an unshakable conviction that the stars in their courses were promoting the victory of the socialist cause.1
The pat dismissals of Plekhanov on the academic left are usually very brief and provide little direct evidence. I’ll cite just one example. The former Italian Marxist Lucio Colletti, in his 1969 book From Rousseau to Lenin, asserted that Plekhanov encouraged “the most vulgar forms of materialism,” considering humans as a “mere link in the material, objective chain of being whose action is ‘determined’ by a superior, transcendent force—Plekhanov called it ‘Matter.’’’ And he concludes that Plekhanov’s was a “philosophy of providence, which can justly be accused of fatalism.”2 This is all he has to say.
The International Socialist Tradition has also been by and large very dismissive of Plekhanov. Alex Callinicos, in his book Marxism and Philosophy, argues that Plekhanov believed in a “historical teleology, in which the outcome of the process is predetermined.” Chris Harman, in “Base and Superstructure” (ISJ 32), dismisses Plekhanov in a few paragraphs, saying that he held that “the development of production automatically resulted in changes in the superstructure.” He also writes, “Just as Kautsky’s interpretation of Marxism dominated in the parties of the Second International, Plekhanov’s was taken up as the orthodoxy by the Stalinist parties from the late 1920s onwards.”3
As revolutionary Marxists, we must be wary of such judgments. The whole train of “Western Marxism” in the last several decades has been in the direction of an idealist renunciation of the centrality of class and class struggle, toward the belief that material circumstances in no way determine the course of historical development; or even towards the rejection that history is a law-governed process at all. Terms like “reductionism” have been bandied around and used as freely and imprecisely as the word “fascism” on the left. It is nothing new to accuse Marxists of fatalism and reductionism—the Russian populists accused Plekhanov of both in the late 1800s on the basis of his (correct) assessment of the unavoidability of capitalist development in Russia. Eduard Bernstein, the German socialist who developed the first reformist “revision” of Marxism, criticized materialists as “Calvinists without God” (because Calvin argued that everything was predetermined). Bernstein believed that capitalist contradictions were getting weaker, and that socialism, rather than being an imperative born out of the material contradictions developing within capitalism, was merely a desirable ethical goal that capitalist development was bringing ever-closer. Thus, the first to attempt to transform Marxism into a theory of peaceful social reform criticized Marx’s alleged philosophical problems much in the same way that Marxism is attacked today by many.
More often than not, a “crude” materialist is seen as anyone who believes that being determines consciousness, that the natural world historically precedes the emergence of human society, or that socialism is possible on the basis of the material conditions created by capitalist development. A reductionist is anyone who sees the working class as central to the struggle for socialism. In other words, a “crude” materialist is… a Marxist—much in the same way that a “sectarian” is often presented, not as (if the term is used correctly) someone who refuses to work with anyone with whom he has any disagreement, but as anyone who thinks it is important to build a revolutionary organization.
Such pat dismissals of Plekhanov are starkly at odds with the overall assessment of him made by Lenin and Trotsky. Lenin wrote in 1908—that is, after it was clear that Plekhanov had abandoned Bolshevism for Menshevism—that Plekhanov was “the only Marxist in the 2nd International to criticize the incredible platitudes of the revisionists from the standpoint of consistent dialectical materialism. This must be stressed all the more emphatically since profoundly mistaken attempts are being made at the present time to smuggle in old and reactionary philosophical rubbish disguised as a criticism of Plekhanov’s tactical opportunism.”4 Lenin even went so far as to argue in 1921 that one could not become a “real, intelligent communist without making a study … of all of Plekhanov’s philosophical writings.”5
Trotsky argued that attempts to criticize Plekhanov for anything other than his tactical and political departures from revolutionary Marxism were unwarranted. In 1922, four years after Plekhanov’s death, He wrote:
Plekhanov did not create the materialist dialectic, but he was its most convinced, passionate, and brilliant crusader in Russia from the beginning of the 80s. And this required the greatest penetration, a broad historical outlook, and a noble courage of thought. These qualities Plekhanov combined also with lucidity of expression and an endowment of wit. The first Russian crusader for Marxism wielded his sword superbly. How many wounds he inflicted!6
This is not to deny that Plekhanov veered into arguments that one could conclude are deterministic, schematic or fatalistic on occasion (A case can be made that Marx did the same7). Nor is it to defend Plekhanov’s political views (for example, like many Marxists of the Second International, including Lenin before 1916, he believed that the difference between anarchists and socialists was that the former opposed the state, whereas the latter were for “seizing” it8). But the body of Plekhanov’s writings on materialism and the dialectic—particularly up until 1903—are anything but mechanical or deterministic.
A Brief Biography of Plekhanov
Plekhanov was considered the father of the Russian Marxist movement. He moved from populism—with its faith in the revolutionary potential of the Russian peasantry to leap beyond capitalism straight to socialism via the peasant commune, to Marxism in the early 1880s. He published his first important Marxist work in 1883, arguing against the Narodniks (as the populists were called) that the development of capitalism in Russia was already taking place, destroying the peasant commune and pushing to the fore a new class which would be central to fighting absolutism—the newly-developing working class. He and another leading founder, Pavel Axelrod, were the first to develop the idea of working class hegemony, or leadership, in the coming bourgeois revolution. “The revolutionary movement in Russia,” Plekhanov wrote, “will triumph only as a working class movement or else it will never triumph.”9 This became Lenin’s guiding principle as a Russian Marxist. Plekhanov wrote extensively against the Narodniks also on the philosophical plain, defending Marx’s materialism in works such as The Development of the Monist View of History.
This analysis that the industrial working class in Russia, which at the time Plekhanov developed these ideas, was a very small percentage of the total population, would by the leading hegemonic force in the coming bourgeois-democratic revolution against Tsarism, already represented a substantial departure from vulgar Marxist thinking (which Plekhanov later adapted to when he became a Menshevik after 1903) that since Russia’s revolution was a bourgeois revolution, it must be led by the bourgeoisie.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s Plekhanov joined forces with Lenin and others to publish the paper Iskra, whose aim was to unite all the scattered local socialist groupings in Russia into one united party. While Lenin devoted much of his writings to a direct criticism of “economism”—the view that socialists need only assist workers in their economic struggles and leave the political struggle to the liberals—Plekhanov devoted his pen to attacking the revisionism of the German socialist Eduard Bernstein, particularly his rejection of materialism and his call to go “back to Kant.” In his criticisms of Bernstein, as an aside, he also, in a preface he wrote to the Communist Manifesto in 1900, defended the concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and argued that not only in Russia, but in the West, workers would in spite of parliamentary forms be compelled to use violence to achieve their aims. In defense of his arguments he pointed out the inability of French Socialist minister Millerand, despite his position in a democratic government, to prevent “the shooting down of workers who have dared to disobey the capitalists.”10
In the 1903 split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Plekhanov, who at first sided with Lenin, eventually cast his lot with the Mensheviks, arguing that the bourgeois nature of the coming revolution necessitates “tactfulness” towards the bourgeoisie so as not to frighten them from it. The about-face on the question of the role of the working class was not completely unexpected. In Plekhanov’s first major Marxist work his views on the role of the Russian liberals is ambivalent. He both calls for working class hegemony and for an alliance with liberal sections of the bourgeoisie. He both criticizes the European bourgeoisie for their spinelessness and advocates that Russian socialists should advance a minimum program for a constitution, which could “arouse sympathy” among liberals and not “scare anybody with the yet remote ‘red spectre.’”11 These clearly foreshadowed the politics of Menshevism. Yet in later works he could still write, “the bourgeoisie of today has become a reactionary class: it is out to ‘turn back the wheel of history,’”12 and that Bernstein’s main concern “consists in not frightening the democratic bourgeoisie.”13
In 1905 he opposed the Moscow insurrection as “premature,” arguing that the socialists should not have taken up arms—to Lenin’s great ire. At the outbreak of World War One, Plekhanov proved himself a “defensist,” in favor of a “defense” of Russia’s borders against rapacious Germany. Notably, according to Trotsky, Plekhanov revised his philosophical views and came closer to accepting Kantianism as a result of his stance taken on the war. In 1917 Plekhanov opposed the Bolshevik seizure of power on the basis that the material conditions were not ripe for socialism. He died in 1918.
Plekhanov’s activity as a revolutionary before 1903 was conditioned by two important factors: exile and, until the 1890s, a barely awakened working class movement in Russia. Erudite, well-read, and a sharp polemicist, Plekhanov was well-suited to his task, providing a theoretical foundation among a layer of the intelligentsia for building a socialist movement in Russia. Yet his development as a Marxist outside the context of a lively workers’ movement and his virtual permanent exile produced serious weaknesses. His writings reflect this in their lapses into scholasticism. When one reads Plekhanov, there are many flashes of brilliance, but beyond establishing the theoretical foundations for a Marxist movement, he foundered. With Lenin, there is always a sense that each article is written with a definite aim in building the movement. Everything he wrote could be titled “what is to be done.” Plekhanov’s writings are more removed from the class struggle.
Trotsky wrote of Plekhanov that he could not make the transition from a Marxian propagandist and polemicist to become a “politician of the proletariat”; so that while the rise of the workers’ movement gave Lenin strength and raised new problems to be solved, the very same process irritated Plekhanov and accentuated his feelings of isolation and impotence.
Plekhanov’s Materialism
I want to spend some time going over some aspects of Plekhanov’s views on historical, or to use his term, “dialectical” materialism and attempt to address the question of his alleged determinism, crude materialism, fatalism, evolutionism, and whatever other terms of abuse that I’ve missed. In particular, I want to look at his views on the role of the individual in history, his views on the relationship between the base and superstructure, and his arguments on fatalism and “one-sidedness.”
Plekhanov’s views on historical materialism were developed primarily in response to the Russian populists, whose views on social change in Russia were both voluntarist and utopian. Voluntarism sees the human will as determinant in history. A voluntarist argues that, for example, socialism can be built at any given level of economic development, provided human beings will it to be. Utopian socialists are a good example of this. Utopians devise social systems to which they expect society to conform on the basis of either “reason” or on the essential goodness of human nature. Rather than seeking to change society based on the very conditions created by that society, they counterpose their “utopia” to what exists, with no practical bridge between the two. Naturally, quite often utopianism and voluntarism go together. Another example is the anarchist Bakunin, who argued that all that was necessary for the European revolution to succeed were a few hundred committed revolutionaries to lead it.<14
Plekhanov’s writings against the Russian populists are in many ways a basic, orthodox defense of Marx and Engels, a restatement with fresh examples and against fresh opponents, of the basic tenets of historical materialism; that people make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing. He had to defend Marxism against accusations of fatalism and determinism from Narodniks who wanted to deny the inevitability of capitalist development in Russia.
He thus argued, echoing Marx, that humans emerge from nature, are part of the natural world, but are also distinct from the rest of the natural world because they adapt themselves to their environment by “changing their artificial organs”—by making tools. He argues that once humans begin to produce their existence, rather than simply collect it from nature, their physical evolution gives way by and large to historical development. Paraphrasing Marx, he says that in acting on nature, human beings changes their own nature. He argues that the social relations which people enter into to produce their existence corresponds to a given state of the productive forces, and that this economic base forms the foundation on which arises legal, political, artistic and ideological relations. He argues, for example, that earlier peoples who gathered and hunted and as yet had no technology to produce (domesticate or grow) their subsistence had neither the means nor the inclination to produce a surplus. Their constant need, on a daily basis, to travel in search of food, meant that they had to live in small bands and share their goods in common. This mode of life produced in turn a corresponding set of religious ideas and beliefs, and so on. He wrote, for example, in “On the Materialist Conception of History,”
In their striving to satisfy their needs, men make their own history. Of course, these needs are originally set by nature, but are then considerably modified quantitatively and qualitatively by the properties of men’s artificial environment. The productive forces at men’s disposal determine all their social relations. It is primarily the state of the productive forces that determines the relations entered into by men in the social process of production, i.e. their economic relations.15
This is essentially a restatement of dozens of statements made by Marx and Engels that the economic base (the mode of production corresponding to the interaction of the forces and relations of production) is the key determinant factor in history.16
There is no doubt that only saying that productive forces determine social relations—without understanding that the relations of production in turn act back upon and influence the development of the forces of production, could open Plekhanov up to the accusation of mechanical determinism; But is the criticism valid? In his long piece, “Essays in the History of Materialism,” Plekhanov argues that “production relations are an effect; productive forces are a cause.” He then adds: “In its turn, however, an effect turns into a cause; production relations become a new source of the development of the productive forces.”17
It should be noted that Plekhanov’s was well aware of the accusation that Marxism was fatalist and saw socialism as evolving out of a process of economic development independent of human will; and he spent a great deal of time debunking this idea, writing, for example: “People often see in the materialist understanding of history a doctrine which proclaims man’s subordination to the yoke of a remorseless and blind necessity. Nothing could be more false than that idea!”18 And he writes in an essay “In Defense of Economic Materialism” the following:
The strange prejudice still widespread in Russia that the theory of economic materialism [i.e., Marxism] dooms the “individual” to inactivity and that if the “economic” materialists are right, then “everything” will come about of itself, and it will remain for the “individual” to wait with folded arms. I will not inquire here into the source of this prejudice, but shall merely say that it will at once vanish as soon as our intellectuals will go to the trouble of giving some thought to the theory of “economic” materialism.19
Plekhanov’s materialism made plenty of room for the role of human agency. His aim was to show how only a materialist understanding could show that while human beings make history, they do in conditions inherited from the past and on the foundations of social relations that were based on the level of material development of a given society. But to get to a new society, the material prerequisites are not the only thing needed; human consciousness of the need for change and the social force capable and willing to carry it out needed to exist.
Human consciousness, he argued, arises on “the basis of social being … However, once they have arisen on the basis of social being, the forms of human consciousness become part of history. Historical science cannot limit itself only to society’s economic anatomy.”20 He argued that human consciousness is influenced only “indirectly” by the economic base. “Human concepts arise on the foundation of social relations,” he writes in another article, “Once they have arisen such definite concepts must inevitably themselves influence social relations.”
Plekhanov ridiculed the argument attributed to Marxists that history develops blindly and “by itself.” “It goes without saying that this elimination of outmoded institutions and relations does not come about by itself—an absurd idea which is often attributed to the dialectical materialists by their opponents.”21 And he continues:
Marx calls the totality of the production relations the economic structure of society. But such relations are nothing but the mutual relations between people in the social process of production. Consequently, any change in the relations of production is a change in the relations existing between people. That is why it is quite absurd to speak of the “self-development” of such relations, which are claimed to take effect “of themselves” without people participating in them.22
And he wrote in an 1896 essay:
When it is asserted that, according to the theory of economic materialism, everything takes place of itself and will continue to do so, the essence of that theory is wholly distorted. It affirms that social relations (in human society) are relations between people; no major step in mankind’s historical advance can take place without the participation, not merely f people but of a vast multitude of people, i.e., the masses. The necessity of the masses taking part in great historic events makes it essential that the more developed and morally outstanding individuals should exert their influence on them. This gives full scope for fruitful work by individuals; should there appear among the latter such that would become Oblomovs [a lazy character in a famous Russian novel] under the influence of economic materialism, the fault would lie, not with economic materialism but with those particular individuals, for they are patently most incapable of logical thinking, and are an “effect” highly prone to inactivity.23
In his introduction to the Communist Manifesto Plekhanov further emphasized the central role of consciousness in transforming society, arguing that socialists aim to instill socialist consciousness in workers because they recognize the significance of ideas. There again he points out that once ideas have arisen on the basis of a given set of social relations, those ideas, in turn, influence the economic relations in society through human beings’ “socio-political activities.” He notes that this has been an essential feature of Marxism since the Communist Manifesto:
Had Marx and Engels, from the very start of their political careers, not attached importance to the political and the “intellectual” factors and precluded their impact on the economic development of society, their practical program would have been quite different: they would not have said that the working class cannot cast off the economic yoke of the bourgeoisie without taking over the political power. In exactly the same way, they would not have spoken of the need to foster class consciousness in workers: why should that consciousness be developed if it plays no part in the social movement and if everything takes place in history irrespective of the consciousness, and exclusively through the force of economic necessity? And who does not know that the development of the workers’ class-consciousness was the immediate practical task of Marx and Engels from the very outset of their social activities?24
As a defender of Hegel’s dialectical method, Plekhanov criticized the “gradualist” view of history, arguing that quantitative changes give way to qualitative breaks in gradualness—that periods of slow change are inevitably punctuated by violent leaps, i.e., revolutions.25 Thus he argued that major historical transformations were not based on the superstructure passively reflecting the base, but rather on the clash of classes and ideas at the level of the superstructure: “The economy hardly ever triumphs of itself; it can never be said of it, fara da se [it takes care of itself]. No, never da se but always by means of the superstructure alone.”26
It is not true that in Plekhanov there was no trace of fatalism: he did tend to argue for socialism as if its coming was inevitable (as did Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, etc.). But he also argued that a belief in its coming need not lead revolutionaries to fold their arms passively. On the contrary, the view that conditions were favorable for building socialism, he argued, would act as a spur to action. Cromwell, for example, was a great historical actor, yet he believed that all his actions were divinely ordained by God, and he was merely God’s instrument. Plekhanov argued that a view of history which rejects historical necessity and laws is much more prone to passive fatalism. For if history consists of the accidental play of forces, then the effects of groups or individuals to direct history will be lost in a morass of conflicting tendencies. Therefore it is fruitless, if you accept this understanding of history, to try and direct historical events.
That is why, for example, 18th century utopians looked to a benevolent monarch to step in to “fix” society. Marxists, on the other hand, know they can intervene actively in the historical process and play a role in its development because their actions correspond to real historical conditions and possibilities. Plekhanov answered critics who said that the belief in the historical necessity of socialism would lead to passivity by arguing the following:
Several writers…claim that if the triumph of socialism is a historical necessity, then the practical activity of the Social Democrats is completely superfluous. After all, why work for a phenomenon to occur which must take place in any case? But this is nothing but a ridiculous, shabby sophism. Social Democracy considers historical development from the standpoint of necessity, and its own activity as a necessary link in the chain of those necessary conditions which, combined, make the triumph of socialism inevitable. A necessary link cannot be superfluous. If it were suppressed, it would shatter the whole chain of events.27
In other words, without conscious action on the part of revolutionaries, socialism could not come about.
Incidentally, it was not only Plekhanov’s views on the hegemonic role of the working-class in Russia’s bourgeois revolution that became part of Lenin’s core politics, but also Plekhanov’s arguments concerning consciousness and the role of the “vanguard” party. On the question of the mixed consciousness of the working -class, he wrote:
The course of idea lags behind the course of things; that is why people’s awareness of the relations existing between in the social process of production lags behind the development of those relations. Besides, even within one and the same class, consciousness does not develop at one and the same rate: some of its members grasp the essence of a given order of thing sooner than others do, this making it possible for the advanced elements ideologically to influence those that are backward, and for socialists to influence those proletarians that have not yet achieved a socialist world-outlook.28
And he wrote elsewhere in 1901: “The entire working class is one thing, and the Social Democratic Party is another, for it forms only a column drawn from the working-class—and at first a very small column… I think that the political struggle must immediately be started by our Party which represents the advance guard of the proletariat, its most conscious and revolutionary stratum.”29
The Role of the Individual in History
This leads me to Plekhanov’s essay “On the question of the individual’s role in history.”30 Again, the International Socialist Tradition dismissed this work as “mechanical”: Callinicos attacked it at a Marxism event I went to many years ago, and Chris Harman & John Rees counterposed it to Trotsky’s analysis of Lenin’s role in the Russian Revolution. The debate centers around Plekhanov’s comment that historical conditions give rise to a situation such that if one “great man” dies, another fills his place. So for example, if Napoleon had died before coming to power, another person would have been “found” to fill the social demand for a dictator of Napoleon’s type. He makes this formulation, for example, about Robespierre:
Let us assume that he was an absolutely indispensable force in his party; but even so, he was not the only force. If the accidental fall of a brick had killed him, say, in January, 1793, his place would, of course, have been taken by somebody else, and although this person might have been inferior to him in every respect, nevertheless, events would have taken the same course as they did when Robespierre was alive.
This admittedly mechanical understanding of the role of individuals in the historic process is counterposed to Trotsky’s argument that had Lenin not been present in Russia in 1917, the Bolshevik Party would not have “rearmed” itself politically in time to make the revolution; that the party could have let slip, at least for a number of years, the revolutionary opportunity. Trotsky wrote in his diary in 1935:
Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place—on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring – of this I have not the slightest doubt!31
But if we delve more deeply into what Plekhanov has to say on this question, it can be seen that his argument about history always finding a replacement figure to carry out necessary events was not unqualified, and at least in one place dovetails closely to Trotsky’s view. Rather than tossing out Plekhanov’s views on the role of the individual, we should combine them, or supplement them with Trotsky’s insight.
Plekhanov tries, in his essay, not to fall into the extremes of fatalism or voluntarism in discussing the role of individuals. So he rejects, for example, the view of Bismarck that “we cannot make history; we must wait while it is being made.”32 And he also rejects the opposite view which denies the existence of any historical laws and places all historical initiative in the hands of “great men.”
He concludes that individuals can indeed make history, but not in any direction they so choose. For the activities of individuals to make a historical mark, they must correspond to historical trends that exist independently of their will. He puts it this way:
Individuals can influence the fate of society by virtue of definite traits of their nature. Their influence is sometimes very considerable but the possibility of its being exercised and its extent are determined by society’s organization and the alignment of its forces. An individual’s character is a “factor” in social development only where, when, and to the extent that social relations permit it to be.
He thus argues, in reference to art for example, that talent that actually manifests itself and becomes a social force must itself be a product of social relations. Great men, according to Plekhanov, are those whose particular talents and personal traits make them best suited to solve the problems society has posed. Great men (he doesn’t talk about women) are, for example, people who see more clearly than others the course of history’s development and “do more than the rest to facilitate” the defeat of old, outmoded relations and ideas.
This seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable general argument on the role of individuals. But what of the argument that great figures can always be replaced, and that even if the replacement is inferior to the first person, history will more or less follow the same path. There can be no doubt that Plekhanov overstated his point. But we should be careful to not oversimplify what he is arguing, as his critics often do. In the case of Napoleon, Plekhanov argues that the confluence of historical forces would likely would have given rise to another strong figure to fill the vacant role. But he does not argue that subsequent developments would be identical to what happened with Napoleon in power:
The place Bonaparte succeeded in occupying would, probably, not have remained vacant. Let us assume that the other general who had secured this place would have been more peaceful than Napoleon, that he would not have roused the whole of Europe against himself, and therefore, would have died in the Tuileries and not on the island of St. Helena. In that case, the Bourbons would not have returned to France at all; for them, such a result would certainly have been the “opposite” of what it was. In its relation to the internal life of France as a whole, however, this result would have differed little from the actual result. After the “good sword” had restored order and had consolidated the power of the bourgeoisie, the latter would have tired soon of its barrack-room habits and despotism. A liberal movement would have arisen, similar to the one that arose after the Restoration; the fight would have gradually flared up, and as “good swords” are not distinguished for their yielding nature, the virtuous Louis-Philippe would, perhaps, have ascended the throne of his dearly beloved kinsmen, not in 1830, but in 1820, or in 1825. All such changes in the course of events might, to some extent, have influenced the subsequent political, and through it, the economic life of Europe. Nevertheless, under no circumstances would the final outcome of the revolutionary movement have been the “opposite” of what it was.
Plekhanov, moreover, again revisits the question of historical fatalism and sharply rebuts the idea that one can passively wait while history is made behind our backs, arguing that if one excises the decisive role of individuals from the historical process, one is guilty of faulty math:
Let us suppose that phenomenon A must necessarily take place under a given sum of circumstances, S. You have proved to me that a part of this sum of circumstances already exists and that the other part will exist in a given time, T. Being convinced of this, I, the man who sympathizes with phenomenon A, exclaim: “Good!” and then go to sleep until the happy day when the event you have foretold takes place. What will be the result? The following. In your calculations, the sum of circumstances necessary to bring about phenomenon A, included my activities, equal, let us say, to a. As, however, I am immersed in deep slumber, the sum of circumstances favorable for the given phenomenon at time T will be, not S, but Sa, which changes the situation. Perhaps my place will be taken by another man, who was also on the point of inaction, but was saved by the sight of my apathy, which to him appeared to be pernicious. In that case, force a will be replaced by force b, and if a equals b (a=b), the sum of circumstances favorable for A will remain equal to S, and phenomenon A will take place, after all, at time T.
Here Plekhanov points out that it is possible that “a” isn’t replaced, which could lead to the event “S” not taking place:
But if my force cannot be regarded as being equal to zero, if I am a skillful and capable worker, and nobody has replaced me, then we will not have the full sum S, and phenomenon A will take place later than we assumed, or not as fully as we expected, or it may not take place at all.
Regarding the outcome of the Russian Revolution—if we see Lenin as the “skillful and capable worker” in this scenario—the sudden death of Lenin, we must agree with Trotsky, could have had a profoundly negative effect—the revolution might have been delayed or have even failed to materialize, because in a revolutionary situation timing is essential, and it is easy to let the moment pass at which the optimal conditions for the success of a working-class revolution exist. This argument dovetails with Plekanov’s analysis: “S” (in this case, the October Revolution) minus “a” (Lenin) would have resulted either in the revolution “taking place later than we assumed, or not as fully as we expected,” or it “may not” have taken “place at all.”
Lenin’s role in 1917 is perfectly explained by Plekhanov’s attitude to the role the individual: he was a “factor” in Russian history only insofar as he was the foremost representative of the interests of forces created by a set of social relations he did not create: combined and uneven development of capitalism in Russia, the rapid creation of a working class easily driven from economic to political struggle, a cowardly bourgeoisie, a decrepit but repressive autocracy. He also could not play the role he did had he not, with others, built a workers’ party with deep roots in the most militant sections of the class. Lenin was able, through the Bolshevik party, to influence events only because he had an instrument that did not contradict the general trend of Russian history.
Plekhanov’s analysis also helps to explain the impossible position Lenin and the Bolsheviks found themselves after they seized power. Despite his qualities as a great working-class leader, he found himself incapable of preventing the revolution’s slide into a bureaucratic morass, because material condition in Russia after the defeat of world revolution and years of debilitating civil war would not permit the creation of a new society founded on equality and abundance. As Plekhanov writes: “Whatever the qualities of a particular individual may be, he cannot eliminate the given economic relations if the latter correspond to a definite state of the productive forces.” Given Russia’s backwardness, the disintegration of industry and of the working class, and the failure of world revolution, Lenin, despite his great qualities, was unable to prevent “the old crap” from reviving in Russia. The sense of powerlessness was expressed in a 1922 speech by Lenin:
Well, we have lived through a year, the state is in our hands; but has it operated…in the way we wanted in this past year? No…. How did it operate? The machine refused to obey the hand that guided it. It was like a car that was going not in the direction the driver desired, but in the direction someone else desired; as if it were being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand, God knows whose, perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both. Be that as it may, the car is not going quite in the direction the man at the wheel imagines, and often it goes in an altogether different direction.33
I therefore agree with Duncan Hallas’ view that Chris Harman, in his essay “Base and Superstructure” “creates a straw man called ‘Kautsky/Plekhanov.’” —“Each of them did contribute substantially to the ‘deterministic Marxism’ characteristic of sections of the Second International. However much of what Kautsky and especially Plekhanov said on these matters is, I believe, correct.”<34
There can be no doubt that our tradition has been right to emphasize a materialism which accords a fundamental role to conscious human intervention to transform society. Our tradition has done a great deal to keep alive Lenin’s central stress on the necessity of revolutionary organization to make a socialist revolution a living potential, and on the idea that history is made by masses of self-conscious oppressed and exploited people.
But we must not lose sight of other areas of attack on Marxism: the attack from academic circles and a great deal of the progressive left on the whole idea of determinacy, that material conditions determine consciousness, and that the working class is prepared by its conditions of life to fight for socialism. Here some of Plekhanov’s writings are quite useful, in demonstrating, with detailed analysis and example, the materialist method.
We must also avoid philosophical determinism, which attacks “2nd International Marxism,” not for its capitulation to imperialism and reformism, but for its alleged fatal philosophical flaws. The degeneration of the 2nd International is better explained by looking to the social basis of opportunism—the trade union bureaucracy, the strength of the parties’ (particularly the German SPD) parliamentary factions, and their adaptation to electoralism which necessitated making appeals to the lowest level of class consciousness rather than the highest.
Marx wrote:
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.35
If we are to take this proposition seriously, then we must admit that there is an element of the dreaded determinism in Marxism. We must reject out of hand anti-Marxist arguments, which denounce as “crude” any attempt to argue that human behavior is materially constrained by the level of development of the productive forces. It is this understanding that provides us with a materialist explanation of the failure of the Russian Revolution, and to not fall into the trap of blaming Bolshevik original sin.
It is possible, indeed necessary, for Marxists to recognize this, without falling into the belief that history leaves no room for conscious human action. Of course, today, the material conditions for socialism are extremely overripe. The question for us today is a question of organization and consciousness above all else. But to remain Marxists, we must argue that conscious, organized human action to change society must base itself on the real existing material conditions prevailing; that is what distinguishes Marxist materialism from idealism.

1 George Lichtheim, Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 246. The originator of the idea that Engels’ distorted, or diverged, from Marx, began, incidentally, with George Lukacs in History and Class Consciousness, where he claimed to be “defending orthodox Marxism against Engels himself,” chiefly criticizing Engels for having, along with Hegel, “extended the [dialectical] method to apply also to nature.” George Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, “What is Orthodox Marxism,” at There are some excellent essays in defense of Engels which show conclusively that Marx and Engels, as close friends and collaborators, never diverged on any fundamentals, including on their conception of the dialectic. See, for example, George Novack, “In Defense of Engels, in Polemics in Marxist Philosophy (New York: Monad Press, 1978), 85–116. See also John Rees, “Engels’ Marxism,” at
2 Lucio Colletti, From Rousseau to Lenin (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972), 70–71.
5 Lenin, “Once Again on the Trade Unions,” Collected Works, Vol. 94 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), 94;
7 Provided you take the particular statements out of context of his overall argument, which is dialectical. For example, one could quote Marx from the Poverty of Philosophy: “The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” If this is all Marx wrote on the subject, then one would have to conclude that he was a technological determinist; but it would not be Marx who is one-sided, but those quoting him out of context. (
8 See Plekhanov, “Anarchism and Socialism,” at
9 G. Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works [hereafter PW] Vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 400.
10 “Initial Phases of the Class Struggle Theory,” PW vol. 2 (1976)466.
11 “Socialism and the Political Struggle,” PW vol. 1, 101.
12 “Essays on the history of materlaism,” PW 2, 182.
13 “Initial Phases,” 465.
14 “But for the very establishment of the…triumph of revolution over reaction, the unity of revolutionary thought and action must find an agent in the thick of the popular anarchy.… That agent must be the secret universal association of international brothers.” Bakunin goes on to argue that this secret association will become “a kind of revolutionary general staff” that need only consist of a small group: “A hundred powerfully and seriously allied revolutionaries are enough for the international organization of the whole of Europe.” Like “invisible pilots in the thick of the popular tempest,” Bakunin wrote to a supporter, “we must steer it [the revolution] not by any open power but by the collective dictatorship of all the allies—a dictatorship without insignia, titles, or official rights, and all the stronger for having none of the paraphernalia of power.” E.g., none of the accountability. [Michael Bakunin, Selected Writings, Arthur Lehning, Ed. (New York: Grove Press, 1973), 172, 180]
15 “On the materialist understanding of History,” PW2, 231-32.
16 In “Base and Superstructure” Chris Harman recognizes that the forces of production is the independent variable; that changes in the productive forces—the means that people have at their disposal to produce their existence, conditions, or gives rise to a corresponding set of production relations—or the way that people must organize themselves to produce things. He says, “the ‘relations of production grow out of the forces of production.” He criticizes a formulation by Callinicos made in his book Marxism and Philosophy, which argues that the relations of production are primary, calling it idealist. Yet this argument places Harman squarely in an orthodox Plekhanovite camp.
18 Ibid, 176.
19 PW vol. 2, 199.
20 “On the materialist understanding of history,” PW2, 232.
21 “Some remarks on history,” PW 2, 215.
22 “On the ‘economic factor,’” PW 2, 258.
23 “In defense of economic materialism,” PW2, 200.
24 “Initial phases of the class struggle theory,” PW2, 463.
25 See “Essays on the history of materialism,” PW2, 125.
26 “In defense of economic materialism,” 202.
27 This article is reworked from a much older article, and unfortunately I have been unable to find the original source in Plekhanov. Ironically, Lucio Colletti also quotes this passage—which argues that without the intervention of organized socialists socialism is not possible—as proof that Plekhanov was a “fatalist.” (Colletti, From Rousseau to Lenin, 70).
28 “Initial phases of the Class Struggle Theory,” PW vol. 2, 453.
29 Quoted in Jonathan Frankel, ed., Vladimir Akimov on the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism (London: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 47.
30 PW2, 283-315. Another slightly different translation can be found at
31 Trotsky, Diary in Exile (London 1958), pages 53-54.
31 Plekhanov, PW2, 295.

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