Plekhanov: The Father of Russian Marxism
Students of the Russian Revolution have long been aware that there is a puzzle near the heart of this extraordinary phenomenon. The puzzle—it would perhaps be going too far to call it a mystery—has to do with the manner in which Marxism took hold among the Russian intelligentsia between 1880 and 1900, or thereabouts. Specifically, the question relates to the exact manner in which faith in Marx replaced the earlier home-grown Populist socialism of Herzen and Chernyshevsky, among the remnants of the Narodovoltsi who survived the collapse of their party in the 1880’s. Narodnichestvo had seemingly triumphed with the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. Yet it dissolved almost immediately afterward under the blows of police persecution. Lenin’s elder brother, executed in 1887, was among the last believers in this lost cause. A few years later the younger Ulianov joined the budding Marxist movement. What had happened in the interval?
The question is complex and involves the personalities of a great many people who flit through the pages of Professor Baron’s scholarly biography of the man who started it all: George Valentinovich Plekhanov. This narrative has topical as well as historical interest, for Plekhanov was Lenin’s teacher—though in the end the pupil revolted and struck out on his own. Indeed, a whole generation of Russian socialists was reared on Plekhanov’s writings. By 1903 their author—middleaged, famous, and cantankerous—presided irritably over the Bolshevik-Menshevik dispute, pronounced a plague on both their houses, and tried in vain to stay neutral. In 1914 his adherence to official “social patriotism” and defense of the fatherland came as a tremendous blow to Lenin and precipitated the final split between them. By 1917 Plekhanov had moved so far to the right that some of the Mensheviks repudiated him, while all opponents of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s October coup took their cue from him. Lenin raged against him and had him read out of the revolutionary movement. Yet when he died in Finland on May 30, 1918, his body was brought back to Petrograd to lie in state; and a few years later Lenin urged the republication of his philosophical writings. Ever since then the Soviet authorities have been in a quandary about Plekhanov. His collected works are now being issued in sumptuous editions, with reproachful prefaces listing his deviations from Leninism. He is both an arch-heretic and a classic of what is officially known as Marxism-Leninism. In fact the Kremlin has no choice in the matter. On its philosophical side at least, “Marxism-Leninism” is the work of Plekhanov; but for him it would never have seen the light.
There is a paradox here, for the October Revolution destroyed Plekhanov’s life-work, which was the establishment in Russia of a Social-Democratic tradition on the European pattern. His socialism was that of Marx; he wanted it to be democratic, and had no great faith in the capacity of his countrymen to follow the road he had mapped out for them. On his death bed he said despairingly to an old friend:…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.