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: “Did we not begin the propaganda of Marxism too early in backward, semi-Asiatic Russia?” The question tormented the dying man; it has plagued many others since then. It even reverberates in Trotsky’s last writings. Yet there was an aspect of Plekhanov that appealed to the youthful Lenin. The scholarly recluse in Geneva had begun his career as a typical revolutionary agitator in the illegal Populist movement of the 1870’s; and although from the start he opposed “individual terrorism,” he was by no means inclined to rely exclusively on peaceful propaganda. Violence and armed conflict remained at the center of his political thought, causing him to sympathize with Jacobins, and setting him off from the German Social-Democrats, even the most orthodox among them with whom he usually found himself in agreement. As late as 1903, the year of the first Bolshevik-Menshevik split, he held out for salus populi suprema lex, defended the idea of a “temporary dictatorship” during the revolution, and even anticipated the Lenin of 1918 by suggesting that a hostile legislature might have to be dissolved—a statement he lived to regret.

Professor Baron throws light on all these matters, and for good measure lets the reader see what sort of man it was who in 1883 assembled a tiny group of exiles around him in Geneva, and over two decades patiently built them up into the leadership of a mass movement. Like other revolutionaries of his age—above all like Marx, who served him as the ultimate test, and to whose doctrine he was rigidly faithful—plekhanov was both a scholar and a man of action. At times he was also a conspirator: His early years in the movement were spent on the run from the Tsarist police. As a “repentent nobleman” and one-time military cadet—he had originally set out to be an Army officer—he retained a healthy interest, unusual among these bookish revolutionaries, in the physical side of things, and never quite forgot that politics is about live people. Altogether he emerges as an attractive figure: lively, witty, cultivated, intelligently interested in art and literature, and not without a touch of aristocratic hauteur—a point noted with some asperity by Trotsky in his Memoirs. What he would have thought of the boorish Soviet writers who misquote his essays one can easily imagine.


Yet there are two sides to this matter, for Plekhanov could not have become the “father of Russian Marxism” had he not constituted a link between the older Populism of the intelligentsia, and the Leninist variant officialized after 1917. Politically this is evident, and Professor Baron goes to some length to establish the precise steps whereby between 1880 and 1990 the Populist inheritance was incorporated within the new Social-Democratic creed. The intellectual side of the process is more difficult to grasp, especially for the reader who has not been brought up on Russian history, and who may find it difficult to understand why Lenin in 1902 should have taken the title of his seminal What Is To Be Done? (the bible of Bolshevism) from a novel written by Chernyshevsky in prison forty years earlier. The point is important for an understanding of the central fact about Leninism—which is that it represents the synthesis of Populism and Marxism. The Bolshevik Revolution has two grandfathers, Marx and Chernyshevsky, and Plekhanov was the man who took the major step toward fusing these respective traditions into a system which Lenin then applied in practice. Professor Baron, who sympathizes with Plekhanov, is a little reluctant to make this point, but it emerges clearly enough and helps the reader to grasp the internal logic which propelled the whole movement along the path it has taken over the past half century.

The reviewer of what is clearly destined to become a standard work does well to remember that an author is not obliged to write the kind of book that appeals to all his readers. Professor Baron is so clearly master of his subject that all implied criticisms have to be prefaced with an apologetic note to the effect that they represent mere personal desiderata. For my part I should have welcomed an expansion of the lone chapter on Plekhanov’s historical and philosophical writings. His scattered utterances on the subject of Russia’s semi-Asiatic past, and on the whole topic of Oriental despotism, are important and in their day had a certain originality, though they were doubtless in part inspired by Engels. Further light on this theme would have been welcome. About the value of Plekhanov’s excursions into philosophy and literary criticism, Professor Baron tends to be a shade uncritical. This is a delicate subject, for it raises the question how far the inadequacy of the Russian intellectual tradition as such, rather than the straitjacket of late nineteenth-century positivism and “orthodox Marxism,” must be held responsible for the somewhat doctrinaire tone of Plekhanov’s utterances. Once more one is faced with the uncomfortable thought that the USSR is faced with the enormous influence which the Populists—notably that baleful trio: Chernyshevsky, Belinsky, and Dobrolyubov—exerted upon the minds of radical intellectuals who later became the founders of Russian Marxism. Plekhanov was as certain as they were that, in the words of his biographers, “only ideas promoting communion between men are capable of inspiring the artist.” It would be unfair to hold him responsible for the inanities of Soviet art criticism, but the reader of this biography cannot fail to realize that there is a great deal of traditional Russian thought in what currently passes for Marxism in that country. Candor also compels the statement that, though an earnest student of Kant and Hegel, Plekhanov was not an orginal thinker, and that his philosophical writings do not rise markedly above the standard of competence to be expected from the better sort of late nineteenth-century scholar. If he was more incisive than his German contemporaries, Kautsky and Bernstein, he was scarcely more productive of original syntheses.

To the historian, he is a puzzling and even tragic figure: the father of a movement whose triumph made nonsense of his own deepest beliefs. Plekhanov broke with Lenin when Bolshevism turned against democracy. What he would have thought of Stalin, for whose bloody despotism there was indeed no place in his system, hardly bears contemplation. And yet he cannot be called a failure, for his cast of mind still dominates the thought of Soviet intellectuals who take up the perennial problem of Russia’s relationship to the West. The deepest impulse of Plekhanov’s life was the desire that his native country should shake off its “semi-Asiatic” heritage and turn its face toward Europe. Is it not possible that he will yet be vindicated when the Soviet intelligentsia—now given access to his writings—deciphers their message?


This Issue

October 31, 1963