Georgy Valentinovich Plekhanovich Plekhanov ( [ɡʲɪˈorɡʲɪ(November 29Jul. December 11, 1856greg.-Terikhoki, Finland; May 30, 1918) was a Russian revolutionary, theoretician and propagandist of Marxism, of which he is considered the founder in Russia.
Born into a family of the lower nobility with a military tradition in Tambov province, Plekhanov abandoned his military and engineering studies in 1875 to devote himself to revolutionary work.
He participated in the demonstration in front of the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg in 1876, and later joined the new Bakuninist revolutionary organization Earth and Freedom (Zemliá i Volia). During the following years, he actively participated in various agitation activities for the organization and began to write small revolutionary works for the organization”s publication. The lack of results in the agitation of the peasantry, however, led part of the organization to advocate concentration on terrorism as a method of overthrowing the autocracy. Plekhanov opposed this position strenuously and, failing to get the tendency abandoned, in 1879 succeeded in splitting the formation. Two new organizations were formed, one pro-terrorist and the other pro-agitation, which Plekhanov joined as a leading member. This organization proved a failure compared to the first, and, in early 1880, Plekhanov was sent abroad with other comrades to avoid arrest.
In his long exile, which would last thirty-seven years, Plekhanov gradually abandoned his initial Bakuninism and converted to Marxism. He took advantage of his distance from Russia to complete his theoretical education and to read Marxist works which, together with the failure of the agitation and the new analyses of the decadence of the Russian commune, gradually led him to social democracy. Until 1896, the family suffered great hardship due to lack of income and Plekhanov had to change residence several times due to political problems; he lived in Switzerland, France and Great Britain. The privations led him to fall ill with tuberculosis, a disease that decades later ended his life. In 1882 he began publishing Marxist works in defense of political and socioeconomic activity. Attempts to reunite with the Russian terrorists having failed, he founded with other exiles the Group for the Emancipation of Labor, an organization for writing Marxist publications, the first Russian Marxist organization. In the works for the Group, Plekhanov laid the foundations of Russian Marxism, with his conviction about the similarity of evolution in Russia and that of Western Europe, the two stages to reach socialism, the importance of class consciousness, that of the urban proletariat, as well as the relevance of the radical intelligentsia. His theses influenced a whole generation of revolutionaries.
A multifaceted scholar, he contributed many ideas to Marxism in the field of philosophy and on the role of art and religion in society. He wrote extensively on historical materialism, on the history of materialist philosophy, on the role of the masses and individuals in history, on the relationship between the base and the superstructure, on the importance of ideologies, on revolutionary democrats such as Visarion Belinsky, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Aleksandr Herzen or Nikolai Dobrolyubov, on the origin of art, etc.
In the 1890s, his influence among the growing Russian revolutionary movement increased; at the end of the decade, however, this growth was threatened by the emergence of new critical currents, Russian economism and German revisionism, which led him to devote himself intensely to their criticism. Intolerant of the new currents which he considered completely erroneous, he transmitted this attitude to Vladimir Lenin, part of the organization with which the Group had allied itself at the end of the century against the economists. In the new joint publication, Iskra, Plekhanov obtained privileges as editor, but the main influence was that of Lenin, with whom he shared the defense of what they considered orthodox Marxism. During the Second Congress of the new Social-Democratic Party Plekhanov aligned himself with Lenin, still fearful that economism would divide the formation and desirous of maintaining unity and orthodoxy. The struggles with the new currents accentuated his Jacobinism and brought him closer to the Bolsheviks. With a sharp pen, Plekhanov polemicized during his life with the terrorist revolutionaries of Narodnaya Volia, Narodnik populism, anarchism and liberalism, as well as with the Marxist currents that he considered mistaken, contributing to the spread of Marxism among the workers and intellectuals of Russia.
Soon after the congress, however, Plekhanov broke with Lenin and moved relatively close to the Mensheviks. His attempts to reunify the factions failed and his influence in the party was declining. In the Russian Revolution of 1905 he promoted, with little success, cooperation with the bourgeoisie against the autocracy. Favorable to the inclusion of the workers in the legal labor organizations to encourage the development of their class consciousness, he opposed, however, the liquidationists, who wished to do away with the clandestine organizations of the party and limit themselves to the former.
During the First World War he abandoned his early internationalism to defend a nationalist and intensely defensist position, favorable to the Entente in the war, which did not enjoy popularity in Russia. After the February Revolution of 1917, he returned to Russia, where his attitude in favor of cooperation with the bourgeois parties and the continuation of the war isolated him from the bulk of the socialists. Opposed to radical reforms, he flatly rejected the radical positions of the Bolsheviks. Opposed to their seizure of power, he predicted the advent of civil war before going into exile in Finland, where he died in the spring of 1918.
Plekhanov was born in Gudalovka, a village in Tambov Governorate on November 29July 11, 1856greg. His father, Valentin Petrovich Plekhanov, of Tatar descent, belonged to the lower nobility and had pursued a military career and participated in both the Crimean War and the crushing of the Polish uprising of 1863. The family had a military tradition: several of Plekhanov”s uncles and some of his older brothers were military men. The father had inherited 270 acres and about fifty serfs, holdings that doubled after he married his second wife, Plekhanov”s mother. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 caused the family to lose half of its land and enter into difficulties in maintaining the estate; in 1871 the father abandoned the exploitation of the property and obtained a job in the newly created zemstvos. After his father”s death in 1873, his mother decided to sell the land still owned by the family.
Plekhanov”s father, a conservative and traditionalist, attached to his aristocratic rank and military career, opposed the reforms pushed by Alexander II of Russia. He was a stern and irascible father to his twelve children, and at times a violent man. He instilled in the young Plekhanov a sense of manhood and courage that hardened his character. He wanted his children to be autonomous, self-reliant and active. Valentin Petrovich imbued Plekhanov with his pride, frankness and reserve: his followers would later often describe him as imposing, austere and reserved, and he had few close friends throughout his life.
His mother, Maria Fyodorovna Belýnskaya, was twenty-three years younger than Valentin Petróvich, whom she married when he was 45 years old and had seven children – Plekhanov had eleven siblings and was the eldest of the children from his father”s second marriage – modest, kind and intelligent. Modest, kind and intelligent, she had been a governess and studied at the Smolny Institute and after her husband”s death she worked as a teacher to support the family. Plekhanov”s mother had a very good relationship with her first-born son and strengthened his intellectual gifts, besides instilling in him his altruism and sense of justice. To the paternal strength of character, Plekhanov united the maternal values.
Plekhanov did not receive formal education until the age of ten, when in 1866 he entered the second year of the Voronezh Military Academy. Intelligent, he did not, however, excel in his studies at the military academy for lack of interest, although by then he was already a voracious reader. He graduated in 1873 and left for the capital, St. Petersburg, where he entered the Konstantinovskoe Military School, already an atheist, but not yet a revolutionary. Influenced more and more by his readings, he suffered a crisis of conscience as he weighed the possibility that a military career would force him to serve the tsar against the people; after a semester he dropped out of military school, asked to postpone his military service and began preparing to enter the Mining Institute out of a utilitarian spirit, like other contemporaries.
His rapprochement with the revolutionaries grew in the following years: he attended clandestine meetings of revolutionaries, his readings of a social and political nature occupied more and more of his time, and in the winter of 1875-1876 he gave shelter in his residence in the capital to Pavel Axelrod, who was wanted by the police. At the beginning of 1876, he already allowed the use of his room for political meetings and a few months later he welcomed Lev Deutsch, a fearless revolutionary who would later become his collaborator.
His increasing involvement in revolutionary activities caused his studies to suffer and, at the end of his second year at the Instituto de Minería, he was expelled for not attending classes. In the summer of 1876, he visited his mother in the countryside to communicate his decision to dedicate himself to revolutionary work, a decision not well received by the family. It was the last time he saw his mother. He returned to the capital in the fall.
From this period dates a description by Plekhanov that is considered to be faithful to reality.
In manners, forms and customs, Plekhanov also differed sharply from us: he was polite, correct and gave the impression of a well-bred young man, whereas we, with our “nihilistic manners,” had earned a reputation as troublemakers.Recalling now the young man of twenty whom I have described and comparing him with the mature Plekhanov, I find no appreciable differences in his manners, forms or character: the general form remained almost unchanged. Until old age, he retained his dark complexion, military bearing and graying hair.Women found him attractive, but in the regular features of his face there was something Mongolian, which he himself explained by his distant Tatar ancestry that was reflected, in his own words, in his surname: Ple-jan-ov.
In Zemliá i Volia
On December 6Jul. 18, 1876greg, he took part in the demonstration in front of the Kazan Cathedral in the capital of the new group Zemlya i Volia (“Land and Freedom”), which was intended to protest the treatment of populists arrested in the provinces for their futile attempts to stir up the peasantry and, at the same time, to provoke further protests. At the demonstration, smaller than expected, the young Plekhanov gave a brief but impassioned speech in favor of Nikolai Chernishevski and the rest of those arrested by the authorities. The police broke up the rally and arrested several demonstrators, but Plekhanov, already committed to the revolutionary cause and turned fugitive, was among those who managed to escape in the confusion.
Wanted by the police, he fled abroad and only returned to Russia in mid-1877. In October 1876, he had married Natalia Smirnova, a medical student from Oriol, radical and divorced with children from whom Plekhanov separated two years later and formally divorced in 1908. During his first exile, Plekhanov passed fleetingly through Paris to settle later in Berlin, where he came into contact with the German social democrats, whom he despised from his Bakuninist position for what he considered excess of moderation and lack of revolutionary spirit. During his absence the centrist Zemlya i Volia was organized, and Plekhanov could not participate in the debates on its program and organization, but, on his return to Russia, he joined it with dedication and participated in agitation activities among peasants, workers, students and Cossacks. During this period of revolutionary agitator, the young Plekhanov traveled with an iron fist, dagger and pistol.
His first mission after his return from exile was the agitation in the lower Volga where he was almost captured by the police. In mid 1878, the Cossacks began to protest against certain government measures that they considered infringed their traditional rights and Plekhanov tried to stir up the protests. In the polemics of the time with the supporters of Pyotr Lavrov, opposed to the revolts as counterproductive, he was already nicknamed “the orator” and demonstrated his qualities as a dialectician that would later make him famous. A self-confident dialectician, capable of highlighting the positions of his adversary by exposing their consequences, of embellishing his own arguments with historical and literary quotations, he employed biting wit and caricature to ridicule his adversary, accusing him of submission to bourgeois ideology and finally denying his authority on the subject of the discussion. These skills made Plekhanov a formidable adversary in debates, but prevented him from winning over rivals and converting them to his point of view, which later limited his power as a politician.
In December 1877, he agitated students for the trial of 193 populists and attended the funeral of the poet Nikolai Nekrasov, where, together with the 45-year-old writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, he praised the deceased for the social consciousness of his verses.
A few days later, already in 1878, he agitated the workers of a cartridge factory in which several workers had died with Plekhanov”s first surviving pamphlet. The same rebellious tone was reflected in his pamphlets of that year in which he lashed out against the trial of Vera Zasulich, the end of jury trials for those accused of political crimes, the mistreatment of student demonstrators, the treatment of those arrested in protests or the actions of the Ottoman basi-bozuk in Bulgaria. In the spring of that year, he was commissioned to revise the statutes of Zemliá i Volia. That same year he became intensely involved in the strike of the New Textile Company in the capital, where he impressed the striking workers with his intelligence, courage and dynamism. The strike served Plekhanov to test the ingenuity of the workers, who wished to solve their hardships by appealing to the crown prince. During the strike, he was arrested by chance, but not being recognized, he was released. Several months later he again avoided arrest when, returning from the Don region where he had been supporting the new Cossack protests, he found that much of the revolutionary organization had been arrested by the police. Thanks to the efforts of Plekhanov and Mikhailov, a few months later Zemlya i Volia was active again and had a new publication under the name of the group. During this period, he combined his activity as editor of Zemlya i Volia with agitation among the factory workers.
At Chorni Peredel
The division of opinion in Zemlya i Volia between those like Plekhanov who favored agitation among the population to oppose the tsarist autocracy and those who advocated the extension of terrorism in the face of the apparent lack of response to the agitation, especially in the countryside, led to the dissolution of the organization.
Although the sector advocating the intensification of terrorism was in the minority, at the congress which brought together twenty-four delegates on May 25-July 6, 1879greg. on an island near Voronezh it won the support of the majority for concentrating the organization”s efforts on terrorist attacks against the Government; Plekhanov, in complete opposition, left the meeting and was considered excluded from it from that moment on. Subsequent attempts by his supporters to undo the conclusions of the congress and return the organization”s emphasis to agitation led to the dissolution of Zemlya i Volia and the formation of two new organizations, one that brought together those who advocated terrorism and another that grouped together supporters of traditional political agitation. The split occurred in October and the former comrades decided to divide the funds and not to use the old name of the defunct formation: the terrorists took the name of Naródnaya Volia (“The People”s Will”) and the agitators that of Chorni Peredel (“Black Repartition”, after the traditional name of the agrarian reform desired by the populists). The separation was amicable and the two organizations promised to help each other. Plekhanov became the soul and intellectual leader of the new formation, besides being the one who had contributed the most to its creation.
Soon the terrorist formation proved to be the most attractive to those who wished to rebel against the autocracy, and the organization of Plekhanov and his co-religionists was unable to attract enough members willing to march into the countryside to agitate among the peasantry, while some of the veteran populists returned from the countryside, disenchanted with life in the provinces. In January 1880, a police raid dismantled virtually the entire organization, which was reduced to a handful of exiles and a few groups in Russia. Among the exiles were Plekhanov himself, Vera Zasulich and Lev Deutsch (or Deich) who, in the face of persistent rumors of police action in the capital where they had returned in late 1879, were sent into exile by the organization in January 1880, a few days before the raid.
Early years of exile and conversion to Marxism
At the time of his exile, Plekhanov remained an anarcho-socialist populist, convinced that the survival of the Russian commune would allow the country to pass to socialism without first passing through a capitalist phase. His knowledge of the studies of Marx and Engels was still limited. As a populist, the aim of the revolution for him was the destruction of the State, considered intrinsically oppressive, unlike the social democrats, who proclaimed the necessity of a strong centralized State to reach the socialist phase. His attitude towards politics was negative, like that of Bakunin”s other followers, and he preferred to concentrate on socio-economic action, crucial for the revolution. Once convinced of the futility of agitation in the countryside and of the need to go into exile, he tried to take advantage of his passage to Western Europe to broaden his training, both in general and specifically revolutionary matters. The departure abroad also meant his abandonment of revolutionary agitational activity and the beginning of his dedication to political theory and study; his erudition, already noted earlier, was accentuated in the period of exile.
The lack of results in the agitation of the peasantry, the improbability of a peasant uprising, and Orlov”s study of the crisis of the commune in Russia and the growth of capitalism in the country, together with his growing familiarity with Western socialist writings, caused Plekhanov to rethink his political position.
In 1880 their first daughter, Vera, was born to his companion – and future wife from 1908 – Rosalia, who did not accompany Plekhanov to care for the child and finish her medical studies, which could support the family if necessary, as Plekhanov lacked income in exile. The girl would die two years later, the first of the couple”s two daughters to die in infancy of the four born of the relationship.
Plekhanov settled in Geneva believing that his exile would last a few weeks, at most a few months, but he only returned to Russia 37 years after his departure in the early 1880”s. His first two years of exile, from 1880 to 1882, were the most transcendental of Plekhanov”s career in the intellectual aspect, since it was in this period when he abandoned his previous populism to embrace Marxism that he would not abandon. Plekhanov is considered the last Russian Westernizer in the tradition of Belinsky, Herzen or Chernyshevsky, a multifaceted intellectual in his interest in Western philosophy, economics, history and, above all, socialist works; these studies led him to adopt Marxism. His contributions in sociology and philosophy are considered remarkable, his talent as a writer, great, and he is the leading figure of Russian Marxism.
One of his first influences abroad was Pyotr Lavrov, despite Plekhanov”s earlier disputes with his supporters in Russia; Lavrov, a populist, was sympathetic to the social democracy of Marx and Engels and shared Plekhanov”s respect for knowledge and the importance he attached to the theory of the revolutionary movement. With the arrival of Plekhanov in Western Europe began a period of three years of collaboration between Plekhanov and Plekhanov in which Lavrov helped him with his knowledge of socialism, his contacts and financially, given Plekhanov”s poverty. after the arrival of Rosalia to collaborate with Lavrov. The economic situation of the family was delicate due to the need to support an indigent friend of Rosalia”s who lived with the couple and died in 1882 and the birth of two more daughters in 1881 and 1883. The Russian authorities had denied Rosalia a medical diploma when they learned of her relationship with Plekhanov, thus preventing her from practicing medicine and supporting the family economically. The economic hardship persisted during much of the period of exile, and was relieved mainly by the scholarly articles that Plekhanov managed to sell to various journals, at first thanks to Lavrov”s mediation.
In 1880 Plekhanov learned German in order to be able to read the works of the German Marxists in the original and was very impressed by Friedrich Engels” critique of Pyotr Tkachov, who harshly attacked the basis of Russian populism (narodnik). Engels denied the validity of the Russian commune, which he considered in decline in the face of growing capitalism, the revolutionary character of the peasantry, and asserted that the next revolution in Russia would be bourgeois and not socialist. In his description of the situation in Russia in 1882, Plekhanov made an analysis very similar to that raised by Engels in his criticism of Tkachov and the populists in 1875. Marx and Engels” criticism of the populists, by then more moderate, nevertheless influenced Plekhanov”s process of moving away from populism and towards Marxism. In his third and last article for Chiorny Peredel, of January 1881, Plekhanov already showed his rapprochement to Marxism, but he had not yet abandoned his earlier populism, and tried to reconcile the two. His main obstacle to abandoning populism was his fear that the acceptance that only an advanced capitalism could precede the socialist revolution would render the efforts of the Russian revolutionaries useless: if the commune was in crisis and could not guarantee a special transition to socialism and Russian capitalism would take decades or centuries to develop, the activities of the revolutionaries were meaningless. Plekhanov”s solution was to postulate that socialists should participate in the first bourgeois revolution that would end the autocracy in alliance with the bourgeoisie, but preparing at all times to confront the bourgeoisie and advance toward socialism once the autocracy was defeated and the bourgeoisie took power. Socialists should not only concentrate on seizing political power, as the terrorists did, nor ignore politics and focus on social and economic agitation, as the populists did, the two activities to implement socialism. This attitude, arising from his study of the Communist Manifesto, proved to be a landmark in Plekhanov”s life.
In 1882 he produced a new Russian translation of the Communist Manifesto for which Marx himself wrote a foreword – the first had been Bakunin”s in 1869. By then Plekhanov fundamentally defended the positions of Marx and Engels, but considered their judgment of the situation in Russia, increasingly favorable to terrorists and populists, to be erroneous. Engels did not welcome the creation of the Marxist Group for the Emancipation of Labor and Plekhanov”s Marxist analysis of the Russian situation in his Our differences Plekhanov had based his examination of the situation in Russia on the writings of Marx and Engels in the 1840s, with which Russia in the 1880s had great similarities (political backwardness, semi-feudalism, primarily agrarian economy, incipient capitalism) in his view. In the 1880s, both Marx and Engels had adopted a much more favorable attitude to the Russian populists, close to Blanquism, and did not take kindly to Plekhanov”s criticisms of them.
His first purely Marxist work was his Socialism and Political Struggle of 1883, the culmination of his transition to social democracy. Plekhanov believed that there was no difference between the historical evolution of Russia and Western Europe and that the transition to socialism would follow the same path in both. His studies on the history of Russia, which he considered an intermediate society between the West and the East, influenced some of his political positions.
Plekhanov”s conversion did not produce a new organization for some time: the new Group for the Emancipation of Labor, founded together with Vera Zasulich and Leon Deutsch, did not emerge until the end of 1883. Meanwhile, attempts to reunite the former members of Chiorny Peredel and Narodnaya Volia followed one after another, but ultimately failed. Despite the enthusiasm for the terrorist actions of some of the exiles, including the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in March 1881, Plekhanov remained convinced that they were wrong and that their actions would not lead to the establishment of socialism. His move from Paris to Geneva in the autumn of 1881 highlighted the differences that arose with some of the émigrés, who wanted union with Narodnaya Volia at all costs. Plekhanov wanted union, but with an ideological shift in the formation towards Marxism. Finally, after a progressive drift apart in 1883, the two sides broke off negotiations and on September 12 the formation of the Group, the first Russian Marxist organization in history, was announced.
The first two years of the organization, through its “library of contemporary socialism”, laid the ideological foundations of Russian Marxism. Plekhanov”s two main contributions were his Socialism and Political Struggle (1883) and Our Differences (1885). The latter work is considered to have contained “practically all the basic ideas that made up the baggage of Russian Marxism up to the end of the century”. The same ideas contained in this work later continued to influence notably the Menshevik faction and, to a lesser extent, the Bolshevik faction, after the breakup of the Social-Democratic party in 1903. Plekhanov, for his part, maintained for the rest of his life the defense of the principles reflected in his works of the first half of the 1880s. If the first work still contained elements of conciliation with the populists, these were totally absent from the second. In his analysis of the situation in Russia, Plekhanov denied the basis of populism: the vitality of the commune which should make it possible to achieve socialism while avoiding the capitalist phase Plekhanov claimed that capitalism had already installed itself in Russia, was growing and was destroying the commune, making it impossible to base the socialist transformation on this decaying institution. On the contrary, Plekhanov defended the need to base revolutionary activity on the progressive socialization of production and labor, both in the city and in the countryside and the growing urban proletariat, in his opinion the revolutionary class par excellence of the capitalist phase.
For Plekhanov, socialism would be the end of a long economic evolution and the last event of a class struggle to be waged in politics. In his opinion, it was impossible to try to skip one of the stages, the capitalist one, essential for the creation of the conditions that would allow the introduction of socialism, as the Russian populists pretended to do. For Plekhanov, the passage to socialism required a highly industrialized society in a capitalist system. Capitalism had to wipe out the majority of the petty bourgeoisie of peasant proprietors and push the majority into the proletariat, urban and agrarian, which in turn had to eliminate the capitalism that had created them. For Plekhanov, the proletariat par excellence was formed by the factory workers, although the rural proletariat (the day laborers) and poor peasant proprietors would also collaborate in the task. Plekhanov considered that, at the right time for the implementation of socialism, the proletariat would already include the majority of the population, and this would come about thanks to the awareness of their class interests produced during the previous period. These were to guide the revolutionary instincts of the workers, fostered by their experience of capitalism, towards socialism. That consciousness-raising was to take place slowly during the bourgeois period, once the autocracy had been eliminated and the freedoms won which would allow the proletariat to organize itself, defend its rights and propagate its ideology among its members. Unlike Lenin, Plekhanov did not consider the proletariat incapable of developing class consciousness on its own and in need of the radical intelligentsia, but he did believe that the latter could accelerate the process of consciousness-raising, natural in the capitalist system. The struggle to abolish the autocracy should ally the proletariat temporarily with the bourgeoisie and it would be the former and not the latter who would lead the struggle. The bourgeois revolution should grant the proletariat “the possibility of political development and education”. Its development and organization at this stage should enable it to become a ruling class, which would later displace the bourgeoisie from power. The initial weakness of Russian capitalism should also allow the early organization of the proletariat so that the transition from the liberal to the socialist phase would be accelerated.
The peasantry of that time was considered by Plekhanov to be petty bourgeois and reactionary, bent on halting the advance of capitalism, not to establish socialism, but to defend their productive system of small proprietors. Because of their ideal of halting capitalist progress, which Plekhanov believed necessary, the peasantry was excluded from the revolutionary classes.
Plekhanov”s theses served to train a whole generation of Russian revolutionaries, attracted to Marxism by his works, in which they saw proof that Marxist analysis was applicable not only to Western Europe, but also to Russia.
Plekhanov”s activity was concentrated in the Group during the twenty years of its existence, from 1883 to 1903 -it was dissolved during the Second Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers” Party-. Unlike the second decade of the period in which the Group played a prominent role in the revolutionary movement, in the first decade the Group represented fundamentally the entire Russian social-democratic movement and meant a time of hardship, isolation and frustration for its few members. The Tsarist repression of the revolutionary movement in Russia, the growing indifference of the intelligentsia and the difficulty of replacing the arrested revolutionaries hindered the expansion of the Marxism defended by the Group. The predictable hostility with which the new organization was received among the Russian populists was joined by the less expected hostility of the Western European social democrats, more interested in putting an end to the Russian autocracy by any method than in implanting social democracy among the Russian revolutionaries. Despite this situation, the Group set itself the objective of producing and distributing Marxist literature (both translations of Marx and Engels and its own works on the situation in Russia or social and economic analyses). The Group wished to put a definitive end to sympathy for Narodnik populism and attract the intelligentsia, essential for instilling class consciousness in the workers and facilitating their socialist organization, to Marxism. The task of the Group was revolutionary propaganda.
The Group”s first setbacks arose from the death of one of its five members, V. I. Ignátov, of tuberculosis in 1885 and the arrest of Lev Deutsch in mid-1884. The former had provided most of the Group”s meager funds while the latter had been in charge of administration, internal organization and contacts with other groups. His loss proved irreparable, for none of the remaining members – Vera Zasulich, Pavel Axelrod and Plekhanov himself – had Deutsch”s ability in these tasks. Plekhanov, moreover, tried to concentrate as much as possible on the development of political theory and to leave the organizational tasks to his comrades.
The Group”s first contacts with other revolutionary circles in Russia were few and short-lived, as these were systematically dismantled by the Russian police. The remoteness of Russia, the reluctance to admit new members into the Group and Plekhanov”s harsh criticism of potential adversaries, sometimes frowned upon by his comrades, further hindered collaboration with other revolutionary organizations. In addition, the lack of external financial support drove the Group”s members and their families into poverty. In order to survive, Plekhanov had to become a tutor for children of wealthy Russian families residing in Switzerland, Axelrod set up a kefir factory and Zasulich took a minor job. Despite this, the families of the revolutionaries suffered serious privations and, in Plekhanov”s case, the incessant activity, the scarce food and the lack of sleep made him ill with tuberculosis. Seriously ill between 1885 and 1888, he managed to partially recover, but he had relapses and the disease finally killed him in 1918. His companion Rosalia resumed plans to practice as a doctor to support the family, but she only managed to do so in 1895, once she had obtained her degree in Switzerland.
In 1889, the accidental explosion at the hands of Russian terrorists of a certain fuel with which they were experimenting, causing several deaths, led the Swiss authorities to demand Plekhanov”s departure from the country. He settled in the French border town of Mornex, accompanied by Vera Zasulich, who followed him to take care of him; he had to live for the next five years separated from his family, who remained in Switzerland and whom he was only able to visit occasionally. In 1894 he was expelled from France as a result of a press campaign against him for his criticism of the French rapprochement with Russia; after considering moving to the United States, he finally moved to Great Britain in the fall of 1894. Meanwhile, his third daughter had died in 1893, which plunged Plekhanov into depression. In 1889, after the founding congress of the Second Socialist International in Paris, Plekhanov traveled to Britain to meet Engels through a mutual acquaintance; Plekhanov always treated him reverentially. The two became closer after Plekhanov settled in Britain, expelled from France, until his return to Geneva at the end of 1894. That same year, months before his death, Engels allowed the Group to republish his work critical of Tkachov and the Populists and tacitly admitted his previous mistake in supporting the latter and criticizing the Russian Social-Democrats.
By the end of the 1880s and the beginning of the next decade, the works of the Group and especially of Plekhanov had begun to have greater influence among Russian revolutionaries and to spread social-democratic thought among them. The new activity of the Russian intelligentsia, partly encouraged by the nefarious governmental management of the famine of 1891, favored the social democrats. Prominent Russian figures in politics (Lenin, Yuli Martov, Pyotr Struve), economics (Mikhail Tugan-Baranovsky), philosophy (Sergey Bulgakov) or literature (Maxim Gorky) were attracted by Marxism. The permissiveness of the Russian government, eager for the Marxists to discredit the populists, considered the most dangerous opposition, produced the multiplication of social democratic publications in Russia, which led to a great expansion of its activity Plekhanov played a prominent role in the social democratic expansion in Russia and began to publish, albeit under various pseudonyms to avoid tsarist censorship. His work On the Development of the Monist Conception of History (1895) had a special impact, with great influence on the intelligentsia of the time. Already in 1892, he had advised not to limit himself to propaganda in small circles, but to expand social democratic activity among the workers through agitation related to economic issues, which was very successful.
The Group greatly increased its influence and contacts with revolutionary groups in Russia: in 1893 Yuli Martov”s St. Petersburg Social Democrats asked the Group to represent them at that year”s congress of the Socialist International in Zurich. The following year, the period of increased tolerance of the Russian authorities towards the Social Democrats and the accelerated growth of their organizations began: the Group advised the formation of a political party.
Opposition to new trends
At the end of the 19th century, two socialist currents emerged that advocated the abandonment of the revolutionary ideal in order to achieve the implementation of socialism through reforms: revisionism and economism. The main proponent of the former was the German social democrat Eduard Bernstein, who advocated a pragmatic socialism that abandoned revolutionary oratory and advanced towards socialism through parliamentary political activity and trade union action, a position closer to the experience of the workers and far removed from the theory of the socialist ideologues. The appearance of Bernstein”s theory and its supporters made a very strong impression on Plekhanov and Axelrod, who opposed it. Both admitted as true part of Bernstein”s arguments, but opposed his conclusions. Faced with the continuation of Bernstein”s attack on the foundations of Marxism in Die Neue Zeit (New Times), Plekhanov tried to harshly refute his positions with the permission of Karl Kautsky from August 1898. For Plekhanov, Bernstein”s theory was completely incompatible with social democracy and he fought it vehemently, calling it a “betrayal of Marxism”. Plekhanov”s efforts and the successive condemnations of the position of Bernstein and his followers during the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century did not put an end to this current. Unable to accept that the revisionist and Fabian currents were due to the “opportunist” working-class mentality, Plekhanov blamed the situation on the intellectuals of the new currents. For Plekhanov their attitude denoted vacillations in their task of socialist consciousness and had produced the accommodation of the workers with reformed capitalism. The controversy with these reformist currents accentuated the Jacobin tendency in Plekhanov and had important consequences in the evolution of Russian socialism.
Economism emerged in Russia at the same time as revisionism in Germany. Its emergence was a consequence of the growth of the socialist movement in Russia and its increasing inclusion of proletarian elements, more interested in economic matters than in political aims. Concentrating on trying to refute the theses of the proponents of revisionism, Plekhanov did not lash out against the economists until two years after its emergence, in 1900. For Plekhanov, the latter current was simply a Russian variant of the German one, which threatened his efforts to create a Marxist-based social democratic party. Plekhanov considered that the two currents underestimated the importance of the intelligentsia in the socialist movement. The fact that the champions of the new current also had a long history of friction with the Group accentuated its confrontation with them. The main attack on the economists by Plekhanov came with his publication of the Vade-mecum after months of negotiations between the factions in which a formal agreement was reached that did not bear fruit. The following month, the Group abandoned its association with the Union of Russian Social-Democrats, which grouped part of the economists. The following month, it formed a new related organization, the Revolutionary Social-Democratic Organization and encouraged the polarization between supporters and opponents of the economist theses. Plekhanov”s criticism of the economists was sharp, as he considered that they were dividing social democracy; he perceived the controversy as similar to the previous one with the populists: a new disregard for the political aspect of the revolutionary task as opposed to the economic ones. According to Plekhanov, the new current abandoned its task of encouraging class consciousness among the proletariat and limited itself to trying to achieve economic objectives, often local ones, losing sight of the political ones and the global vision of the social democratic movement.
We do not rebel against agitation based on economics, but against those agitators who do not know how to take advantage of the economic conflicts of the workers with the employers to develop the political consciousness of the workers.
For Plekhanov, the economists lost sight of the ultimate goal of the movement by concentrating excessively on the immediate tasks. Instead of inculcating and encouraging class consciousness among the workers, a crucial mission of the intelligentsia for Plekhanov, the economists limited themselves to adapting to the needs and desires of the workers themselves, still unaware of what he took to be their true interests. As depositaries of the knowledge of the historical laws that led according to Marxist theses inevitably to socialism through their mastery of theory, the intelligentsia was for Plekhanov the transmitter of this knowledge to the workers and the economists seemed to abandon this task to become mere auxiliaries of the workers” unions. He did not hesitate to publish private letters and to personally attack his adversaries in the dispute. Considering the views of the economists to be completely erroneous, he opposed any kind of agreement with them and advocated their expulsion from the Social-Democratic organizations.
After his release, Lenin, Martov and Potrerov had decided to found a new publication that would bring together the various organizations and requested the support of the Group. In August Lenin had a violent discussion with Plekhanov in which the latter rejected tolerance towards the other social-democratic currents and groups; in it Plekhanov showed his condescension and vanity in his treatment of Lenin who, however, ended up recognizing the correctness of Plekhanov”s position later on. The dispute with the economists and revisionists had radicalized Plekhanov, who opposed any tolerance and had accentuated his already existing Jacobinism. Plekhanov considered by then that his views and those of his supporters were correct and indisputable. The conciliatory attitude towards those whom Plekhanov believed should be expelled for their defense of positions he considered erroneous infuriated him. Finally the new publication, Iskra (The Spark), was founded in December 1900, but Plekhanov obtained certain important concessions: although the editorial board consisted of the three members of the Group, Lenin, Martov and Potrerov, in the voting Plekhanov had two votes and in case of disagreement among the six members the opinions of the members of the Group were to appear in the publication without any modification or cutting. A second philosophical and theoretical publication, Zariá (The Dawn) remained in practice in Plekhanov”s hands. The statutes of the publication also eliminated the conciliatory elements originally proposed by Lenin and stuck to the defense of the supposed orthodoxy according to Plekhanov”s wishes. Soon the relationship between Plekhanov and Lenin, in charge of the editorial direction from Munich, improved again and he showed his admiration for his efficiency and seriousness in this task.
The party, its formation and division
Plekhanov, satisfied with Lenin”s harsh criticism of economists and revisionists in his What Is To Be Done? expressed no doubts at the time of its publication in 1902 about the criteria of party organization that Lenin reflected in the work. Lenin stated his preference for a small, disciplined, conspiratorial party, formed by professional revolutionaries with great mastery of political theory, free of those who could be influenced by bourgeois ideologies or lacked a sufficiently developed class consciousness. Although open to the most class conscious workers, the structure proposed by Lenin excluded from the party the bulk of the proletariat, considered still too primitive to be able to be part of it. The difference between Lenin and Plekhanov in the work was more in detail than in substance: both vehemently defended what they considered Marxist orthodoxy, opposing the other currents, and Lenin simply emphasized somewhat more the need to have a developed class consciousness to belong to the new party. At that time when the party did not exist in name only, the few differences on its organization did not alarm Plekhanov.
That same year, the friction between Plekhanov and Lenin was due not to disagreements over the party structure expressed in the latter”s work, but over the draft program, which Plekhanov presented at the beginning of the year at Lenin”s request. The criticism it aroused between Lenin and Martov caused Plekhanov to withdraw his proposal and harshly criticize Lenin”s counter-proposal. The differences between the two threatened to dissolve the Iskra association. Once the disagreements seemed to have been pacified, a new bitter criticism by Plekhanov of the section on agrarian policy reignited the confrontation. Finally, Axelrod and Zasulich succeeded in getting Plekhanov to apologize to Lenin and, thanks to Lenin”s conciliatory attitude, consensus returned to the group, although the incident showed once again the growing disagreement between the two.
Plekhanov opened and chaired the Second Party Congress, which began in Brussels in July 1903. The aim of the congress was the creation of the Social-Democratic political party, which existed in name only, the approval of its program and its organizational statutes. Wishing to control the form the new formation was to take, the Iskra members had tried to ensure that the majority of the delegates were in principle favorable to their proposals regarding both the program and the organization of the party. Attempts by the minority opposition, consisting mainly of the two economist delegates to separate Plekhanov and Lenin by asserting the importance of the class-conscious proletariat in the party as opposed to what they saw as the overemphasis on the intellectuality of Lenin”s program proposal, proved unsuccessful. Despite the doubts of some Iskra editors, Plekhanov maintained his support for Lenin in order to maintain unity against the economists. Plekhanov also supported centralism in the party, which should allow the central committee to intervene without restrictions in the organizations that joined the party, a point criticized by the Bundists.
In the great dispute that led to the split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Plekhanov decisively supported Lenin”s proposal, which was defeated: that of admitting into the party only those willing to participate actively in its organizations, without allowing sympathizers to enter. According to Plekhanov, the wording proposed by Lenin was to prevent the party from admitting opportunist elements and did not assume that the level of knowledge of Marxist theory that Lenin would require would exclude from the party the majority of the workers. Lenin”s proposal was, in Plekhanov”s eyes, to prevent the entry into the party of those intellectuals incapable of submitting to party discipline and imbued with “bourgeois individualism” and thus strengthen the formation. Once the slim majority was achieved by the withdrawal of the Bund delegates and the economists, Lenin proceeded to take control of the party organs. Claiming an improvement in the management of Iskra, Lenin proposed to reduce the editorial board to Plekhanov, Martov and himself, which would have given him control in alliance with Plekhanov; Martov refused to accept it and the congress left control of the publication, converted into an official party organ, in the hands of Plekhanov and Lenin as co-editors. The congress ended with the control of the party institutions (the central committee, the official publication and the party board) by the Bolsheviks and with Plekhanov having endorsed them. He had also been appointed chairman of the party board and retained as editor of Iskra alongside Lenin. In a famous speech that he later regretted, he also affirmed the preeminence of the interest of the revolution, judged by the party, over any democratic principle. Plekhanov considered the party infallible with respect to the revolution as the bearer of the socialist conscience and, therefore, legitimized to correct possible “wrong” choices by the people. His traditional Jacobinism and the influence of his opposition to the currents that arose at the end of the 19th century had led him to place himself close to the Bolsheviks and to accentuate his tendency towards centralism in the party.
Plekhanov continued to support Lenin at the congress of the Foreign League of Revolutionary Social Democracy, the organization charged at the second congress with representing the party as successor to the Group for the Emancipation of Labor, which ended with the repudiation of Lenin”s position and endorsement of that of the Mensheviks. Lenin”s growing intransigence towards his opponents, however, increasingly displeased Plekhanov, who wished to avoid a split in the newly formed party. Plekhanov began to advocate mutual tolerance in order to avoid division. In October 1903, he decided to resign from the editorial board of Iskra, but Lenin, to avoid appearing to force him to do so, decided to be the one to resign: immediately, Plekhanov reinstated on the board the former editors excluded at the congress. This change also automatically added Axelrod and Martov to the five-member party board. Plekhanov”s change deprived Lenin of control of the board; Plekhanov”s attempts at mediation between the factions failed. His change of attitude toward Lenin after his closeness during the party congress, however, damaged Plekhanov”s prestige.
Plekhanov began to criticize Lenin more and more harshly, not only on organizational matters, but also on theoretical and tactical ones. His intransigence could weaken the party by depriving it of supporters and his insistence on centralism and theoretical orthodoxy could be excessive; according to Plekhanov, simply by branding dissidents as opportunists, revisionists or Bernstein supporters “the hardliners are ready to cheerfully exclude from the party one category after another of comrades as one strips off leaf after leaf of an artichoke.” In an earlier critique of a similar one by Trotsky, Plekhanov described the possible character of the party if it followed Lenin”s guidelines:
Imagine that the central committee that we all recognize possessed the right to “liquidate” that we are still debating. This is what would happen: as the date of a congress approaches, the central committee would “liquidate” the elements which did not satisfy it, it would elect everywhere its creatures and, filling all the committees with them, it would ensure without difficulty a submissive majority in the congress. The congress, made up of creatures of the central committee, cheers the latter, approves all its actions, successful or unsuccessful, and applauds all its plans and initiatives. There would then be in reality neither majorities nor minorities in the party, since we would have reached the ideal of the shahs of Persia.
For Plekhanov, the Bolsheviks “evidently confuse the dictatorship of the proletariat with the dictatorship over the proletariat”. He favored control of the state by the proletariat as a class, but not by a minority claiming to represent it. He rejected what he considered the excessive Leninist importance of the intelligentsia, which he seemed to consider as the sole repository of the socialist consciousness which the masses, with opportunist tendencies, lacked. This led, according to Plekhanov, to the party being reduced to the intelligentsia which would simply use the masses to achieve its ideological aims. In opposition to this, Plekhanov proposed a gradual transfer of control of the party to the workers, once they had acquired class consciousness, which would put an end to the “tutelary” period of the intelligentsia.
In mid-1905, in an attempt to pressure Mensheviks and Bolsheviks to reconcile and reunify the party, Plekhanov resigned from his post in Iskra and from the party board. In 1906, the Fourth Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers” Party was held, which apparently reunified the party, but the unity was not real given the differences between the currents and Plekhanov”s attempts to maintain it failed. From 1905, he began to criticize the Mensheviks more harshly, whom he believed, fearing being labeled opportunists, held too radical a position. Convinced of the need to spread class consciousness among the masses, he opposed the boycott of the elections to the First Duma and defended the work of the workers in trade unions and electoral campaigns, which should promote it. His attempts to enlist the support of leading international Marxist figures in favor of his position of vigilant cooperation with the bourgeoisie proved a total failure: Kautsky backed the Bolsheviks in their analysis of the situation in Russia. Opposed to any change despite the facts of the revolution which questioned his theories or the opposition of those whose opinion he valued, Plekhanov showed himself doctrinaire and incapable of adapting to reality.
Plekhanov was seriously ill when the Russian Revolution of 1905 broke out and did not travel to Russia. Since 1895 he had been back in Geneva, where the Swiss authorities allowed him to return and where, once his wife was finally able to start practicing medicine, the family lived more comfortably. Since then his habits had hardly changed: he worked in his new studio from eight in the morning to six in the evening, allowing no interruptions, stopped for a short rest, dinner and a walk, received visitors and then usually worked several more hours in the evening. His studies, apart from politics, covered literature, ethnography, or art. Always accompanied by a book, a notebook and a pencil, he went for long walks and was a regular figure in the university area of Geneva.
Plekhanov maintained an internationalist attitude in the Russo-Japanese War, favorable to the revolution and the defeat of the Russian autocracy in the conflict. At the congress of the International of August 1904 in Amsterdam, he showed his solidarity with the Japanese representative Sen Katayama. The need to put an end to the Russian autocracy in order to facilitate the advance of socialism made Plekhanov redouble his efforts to recompose the internal unity of the POSDR, for he feared that the internal divisions would not allow it to play the important role he gave it in the imminent revolution. He published his attitude toward the contest in his Patriotism and Socialism, in which he defended proletarian solidarity and denied the patriotism of the workers, closer to each other despite their different nationalities than to the other social classes of their country. The interests of humanity in general, according to Plekhanov, should be above those of the nation; with the goal of revolution ever present, the socialists should support the belligerent country that seemed to favor the advance toward socialism.
Having become a respected figure in international socialism, he was considered a “living monument” that many Russians abroad came to visit. Expecting to meet the archetype of the revolutionary, many were surprised to see the bourgeois life Plekhanov led once the long years of poverty were over: the family occupied an apartment with a maid at 6 rue Candolle and spent winters on the Italian Riviera because of Plekhanov”s tuberculosis. His daughters had studied in European schools and Plekhanov himself was always well groomed.
Once he was minimally recovered to travel, circumstances in Russia had worsened for the revolutionaries and he was advised not to return. The impossibility of going to Russia during the revolution upset Plekhanov who confessed to his wife that he felt “as if he had left the battlefield”. This feeling led him in 1917 to go to Russia even if his illness led to his death rather than be absent again during the revolution.
Plekhanov”s revolutionary theory and the weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie made necessary the intervention of the proletariat to put an end to the autocracy, but they posed a problem: the proletariat had to confront it not to achieve power for itself, but for its class enemy, the bourgeoisie. The period of bourgeois rule, necessary according to his theory for the organization and conscientization of the proletariat, also carried the danger of disillusionment. His support for the collaboration of socialists and bourgeois against the autocracy, even in spite of the growing conservatism of the liberals, meant that Plekhanov found himself among the most right-wing positions of the POSDR, rejected by Bolsheviks, who accused him of opportunism, and Mensheviks, who were wary of collaboration with the bourgeoisie. He proved incapable of accepting the difficulty and posing alternatives to the problem of finding a tactic which would increase the activity of the workers in favor of their interests and at the same time achieve the alliance of the bourgeoisie. The need to achieve the bourgeois revolution indispensable according to his principles for the later socialist one led Plekhanov to try to moderate the class consciousness and antagonism with the bourgeoisie which he had tried to instill all his life. His position, however, received dwindling support and his attempt to enlist the support of international socialism failed.
The relationship between the intelligentsia, inclined to theory, and the proletariat, which might not follow the objectives set by the social democratic theoreticians, also presented a problem for Plekhanov”s theory. Intermittently, Plekhanov also showed Jacobinist tendencies, attributing great importance to the group of chosen ones with greater Marxist consciousness.
The Bolshevik tactics and the bulk of the Mensheviks (close to Trotsky”s theory of permanent revolution), were analyzed and criticized by Plekhanov after the failure of the revolution. He supported collaboration with the liberals who again defended the majority of the Mensheviks and work in legal organizations, which should serve to increase class consciousness among the workers, but again distanced himself from the majority of them in subsequent disputes over the need to put an end to underground organization and activities.
His refusal to change or adapt the theories he had developed over the decades despite changes in the Russian situation meant that the last decade after the 1905 revolution was short on political input for Plekhanov. His attempts to reconcile party factions received little support and failed; in 1912 the party was formally split in two, although Plekhanov continued to try to achieve reconciliation. Shortly before the outbreak of the world war he founded, together with a small number of supporters, a new organization gathered around a new publication, Unity.
In the dispute over liquidationism – the defense of the need to dissolve the party and clandestine actions in order to concentrate the activities of the socialists on legal tasks – he opposed those who favored this position, which he considered contrary to the revolution and close to economism. Given the influence of the current among the Mensheviks, Plekhanov”s opposition led to his isolation from the bulk of the faction, bringing him partially closer to the Bolsheviks again. His previous relationship with Axelrod, very close until the second party congress, was deeply soured by Plekhanov”s harsh criticism and the use in the controversy of his private letters. His efforts to reunify the factions and his opposition to the tactics of the Bolsheviks, however, separated him from Lenin. In practice, Plekhanov”s maintenance of the ideas he had developed as a member of the Group for the Emancipation of Labor alienated him from both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks.
Between 1908 and 1914 and even after the outbreak of World War I, Plekhanov”s activity shifted to other fields such as literature, art, philosophy or history, and he devoted himself less and less to politics. In 1909 his interest in history, always intense, became more pronounced, and he began writing his History of Russian Social Thought, which he left unfinished at his death. Plekhanov was not only an outstanding political theorist, but is considered one of the most gifted, cultured and influential Russian authors of his time.
After Austria-Hungary”s declaration of war on Serbia, Plekhanov left Paris, where he had gone to gather material for his historical work, for Brussels, where an extraordinary meeting of the International Socialist Bureau was to be held. At this meeting the Austro-Hungarian socialists were unwilling to oppose the warmongering desires of their government, but the German and French representatives maintained the internationalist and anti-war position that the International had held since the beginning of the century. After the assassination of Jean Jaurès shortly thereafter, his successor as head of the French Socialist Party, Jules Guesde, an old friend of Plekhanov, abandoned internationalism, announced his readiness to vote in favor of the war credits requested by the French Government and later joined the Council of Ministers. For their part, the German Social Democrats complied with their Government”s order to put an end to the demonstrations and voted in favor of the war credits on the day of the German ultimatum to Belgium.
The changes in the attitude of the European socialists coincided with those of Plekhanov: from opposition to the war, he went on to defend the victory of the Entente and the German defeat. For Plekhanov, when the world conflict finally broke out in France, this country represented the cause of progress while Germany was the nation that embodied imperialism and militarism. He considered the Central Empires guilty of the conflict and the defense of the Entente as the simple defense of the attacked. The actions of the SPD also caused him deep disillusionment. After forty years of opposition to the Tsarist government, Plekhanov went on to defend it and to participate in the recruitment of Russian volunteers for the French front, as well as advocating the favorable vote of the Socialist deputies of the Duma for the war credits, unlike other more moderate “defensist” Socialists. His attitude towards the Tsarist Government was extremely moderate. He adopted a defensist position which caused astonishment and sadness among his followers. His position led him to the extreme right of the party and practically isolated him from all his former party comrades. His evolution towards the revisionist position and his adoption of the right of defense of the fatherland was accompanied on the philosophical side by his rapprochement with Immanuel Kant, whom he had previously harshly criticized. Plekhanov”s views were reflected in the new publication The Call, printed in Paris, which brought together various social democrats and social revolutionaries from the most right-wing sectors.
Even with the growth of opposition to the war in Russia, Plekhanov did not change his attitude, but tried to slow down the change and strengthen the defense of the country; he feared that a possible revolution would bring disorder and harm his performance in the conflict. With the Russian bourgeoisie opposed to any revolutionary fickleness, a possible revolution could not fit Plekhanov”s premises of a passage to socialism in two stages with a first bourgeois phase and a seizure of power by the socialists seemed to him the worst possibility for the working class. Plekhanov preferred a Russian victory which, although it would strengthen the reactionary autocracy, should allow, according to his analysis, the economic development of the country, necessary for the evolution towards socialism. He opposed the resolutions of the Zimmerwald and Kienthal conferences, in which he did not participate.
Plekhanov”s position on the war garnered little support in Russia, isolated him politically and nullified his influence in the country. This powerlessness to control events and the alienation of his former comrades affected Plekhanov, who as early as 1916 was described by a former follower as wounded and dejected by the situation. Lenin accused him of being a “social-chauvinist” in his April Theses.
The news of the February Revolution of 1917 and the end of the monarchy in Russia reached Plekhanov while he was at the spa founded by his wife in San Remo, and at first he did not consider it necessary to abandon his work on The History of Russian Social Thought and return to Russia. He soon changed his mind, considering that the revolution seemed to have achieved the cooperation between socialists and bourgeoisie that he had predicted was necessary in the first revolutionary phase. Eight days after the abdication of the tsar, the Plekhanov couple left San Remo for Russia, despite the risk to Plekhanov”s health, whose tuberculosis had worsened. Determined not to be absent from Russia in this second revolution, Plekhanov insisted on continuing the journey despite the severe constipation he was suffering from.
The British authorities facilitated his return in the hope that his presence in Russia would serve to restore the vigor of the Russian war effort; he arrived in Petrograd on March 31July 13, 1917greg. together with a delegation of Entente socialists. A large crowd received him at Finlyandsky Station, where some of his supporters and Nikolai Chkheidze as representative of the Petrograd Soviet also awaited him.
At first, the moderate socialist leaders who controlled the Soviets (councils) agreed with Plekhanov on the need to collaborate with the liberal Provisional Government, but opposed his intense defensism and his criticism of Order No. 1. The popular clamor among the troops in favor of peace made it impossible for the Petrograd Soviet to adopt Plekhanov”s extreme defensist position. Opposed to the peasant land occupations, he rejected the call of the First Congress of the Peasant Soviets to nationalize the land and advocated compensation to expropriated landowners. To the workers he also advised moderation in order to maintain national unity, trying at all times to reduce the class struggle which he had advocated all his life; his attempts failed to stop the popular radicalization which took place throughout 1917. Favorable to the social-bourgeois coalition, he supported the coalition governments, feared for their continuity in the July crisis and defended the moderation of the masses to achieve the establishment of bourgeois democracy which he believed necessary before the transition to socialism. His opposition to Lenin”s position was total. In his attempt to stop the rapprochement of the population to the Bolsheviks he gave credence to the rumors about Lenin”s relationship with the Germans during the July Days, accused them of anarchists, Bakuninists and demagogues and defended the repression of Kérenski after the Days. He criticized the moderate socialists for their supposed lukewarmness towards the Bolsheviks.
His opposition to the moderates and the Bolsheviks caused him to quickly lose prestige and influence among the revolutionaries; he did not participate in the activities of the soviets and refused a seat on the Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) when the members refused to allocate him two seats on it. The mistrust of the moderates took the form of the Executive Committee”s veto of Plekhanov”s candidacy as a minister in the cabinets formed in May and July. Without a seat in the Soviets or in the Provisional Government, Plekhanov had to content himself with the chairmanship of a government commission for the improvement of the conditions of railway workers, a marginal post. Without the confidence of the moderate Socialists, he was increasingly considered a Kadete, since his opinions were hardly distinguishable from theirs. Estranged from his former Socialist comrades, he received the praise of the liberals. Opposed to Kornilov”s coup, the latter, however, weighed the possibility of including him in his Government.
He criticized from the pages of Yedinstvo the October Revolution, which he considered would fail to impose a socialist regime: the proletariat did not constitute the necessary majority of the population, the peasantry was not interested in socialism, but in obtaining possession of the land and the revolution in Germany would not take place; all this would lead to a civil war and the loss of what had been won since the February Revolution. A few days later, the publication was banned by the new authorities and, after appearing under another name for a couple of issues, it was definitively suppressed. A few days after the seizure of power by Lenin and his followers, a group of soldiers and sailors burst into his house on the outskirts of Petrograd in search of weapons, without recognizing him. Fearing for his life after the smear campaign against him, he did not reveal his identity to the departure; days later the new Government (Sovnarkom) issued a decree to protect him. By then his wife had decided to transfer him to the French Red Cross hospital in the capital and, in January 1918, after the murder of two former ministers there by a gang of soldiers and sailors, to a sanatorium in Terijoki (then Finland), where he resided until his death a few months later.
Lucid, although already very ill, he was disillusioned by the events. and his body was transferred to Petrograd, where he lay in state for several days and was honored by the crowd, which, however, had not supported him in life. He was buried in the Vólkovskoe or Vólkovo Cemetery, in the sector called Literátorskie mostkí (Литераторские мостки), near his relative Visarión Belinski.