George Plekhanov

George Plekhanov

George Plekhanov was born in Tambov, Russia on 26th November 1857. As a young man he joined the Land and Liberty and was the party's main speaker at the famous Kazan Square rally in St Petersburg on 6th December, 1876.

In October, 1879, Land and Liberty split into two factions. The majority of members, who favoured a policy of terrorism, established the People's Will. Plekhanov became the leader of the Black Repartition group that rejected terrorism and supported a socialist propaganda campaign among workers and peasants.

Forced into exile in January, 1880, he became Russia's leading Marxist and in 1883 joined with Pavel Axelrod to form the Liberation of Labour group. This group argued that it would be impossible to overthrow Russia's authoritarian government and replace it with peasant communes. They believed that a socialist revolution would only come with the development of a revolutionary industrial workers’ party. Peter Lavrov pointed out that almost 90% of the Russian population and that a revolutionary vanguard would create a dictatorship: "Whenever a dictatorship succeeded in establishing itself it had to spend more time and effort in retaining its power and defending it against its rivals than upon the realization of its programme, with the aid of that power. The abolition of dictatorship assumed by a party can only be dreamed about before the usurpation takes place. In the struggle of parties for power, in the class of open or concealed ambitions, every moment furnishes an added reason and necessity for maintaining the dictatorship, creates a new excuse for not relinquishing it. A dictatorship can be wrested from the dictators only by a new revolution."

In books such as Socialism and the Political Struggle (1883), Our Differences (1884) and On the Development of the Monist View of History (1895), Plekhanov argued that a successful Marxist revolution could only take place after the development of capitalism. According to Plekhanov, it was the industrial proletariat who would bring about a socialist revolution.

Plekhanov was strongly opposed to the political views of people such as Sergei Nechaev and Peter Tkachev, who argued that it would be possible for a small group of dedicated revolutionaries to seize power from the Tsar. Plekhanov warned that if this happened, you would replace one authoritarian regime with another. That a "socialist caste" would take control who impose a system of "patriarchal authoritarian communism".

In March, 1898, the various Marxist groups in Russia met in Minsk and decided to form the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP). The party was banned in Russia so most of its leaders were forced to live in exile. In 1900 the group began publishing a journal called Iskra. Edited by Plekhanov, Vladimir Lenin and Jules Martov, it was printed in several European cities and then smuggled into Russia by a network of SDLP agents.

At the Second Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party in London in 1903, there was a dispute between Vladimir Lenin and Jules Martov, two of SDLP's leaders. Lenin argued for a small party of professional revolutionaries with a large fringe of non-party sympathizers and supporters. Martov disagreed believing it was better to have a large party of activists.

Jules Martov based his ideas on the socialist parties that existed in other European countries such as the British Labour Party. Lenin argued that the situation was different in Russia as it was illegal to form socialist political parties under the Tsar's autocratic government. At the end of the debate Martov won the vote 28-23 . Vladimir Lenin was unwilling to accept the result and formed a faction known as the Bolsheviks. Those who remained loyal to Martov became known as Mensheviks.

Plekhanov admired Vladimir Lenin but feared that his ideas were too close to those of Peter Tkachev. When Lenin made his speech at the s Plekhanov remarked that: "This is the stuff of which the Robespierres are made." He argued: "Imagine that the Central Committee possessed the still-debated right of liquidation. The Central Committee everywhere liquidates the elements with which it is dissatisfied, everywhere seats its own creatures and, filling all the committees with these creatures, without difficulty guarantees itself a fully submissive majority at the congress."

Alexander Shotman was one of those who had difficulty deciding whether to support Lenin or Plekhanov. He pointed out: "When Plekhanov spoke, I enjoyed the beauty of his speech, the remarkable incisiveness of his words. But when Lenin arose in opposition, I was always on Lenin's side. Why? I cannot explain it to myself. But so it was, and not only with me, but with my comrades and workers."

Along with Jules Martov, Pavel Axelrod, Leon Trotsky, Irakli Tsereteli, Lev Deich, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, Moisei Uritsky, Noi Zhordania and Fedor Dan, Plekhanov joined the Mensheviks. However, he had now lost the support of a large number of important figures in the Social Democratic Labour Party, including Gregory Zinoviev, Anatoli Lunacharsky, Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Lashevich, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Mikhail Frunze, Alexei Rykov, Yakov Sverdlov, Lev Kamenev, Maxim Litvinov, Vladimir Antonov, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Gregory Ordzhonikidze and Alexander Bogdanov.

Plekhanov retained control of Iskra and he used the journal to attack Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. He predicted that if Lenin and his Central Committee ever gained power it would impose a communist dictatorship on the Russian people. In one article he wrote in May, 1904, Plekhanov claimed that Lenin's Central Committee would liquidate "the elements with which it is dissatisfied, everywhere seats its own creatures and, filling all the committees with these creatures, without difficulty guarantees itself a fully submissive majority at the congress."

As a result of his theories, Plekhanov was an unenthusiastic supporter of the 1905 Revolution. Described as a defeatist, Plekhanov gradually lost the loyalty of the Mensheviks. This problem increased when he supported Russia's participation in the First World War. The British ambassador, George Buchanan, reported back to London: "As regarded the war, both Mensheviks and SRs advocated the speedy conclusion of peace without annexations or contributions. There was, however, a small Menshevik group, led by Plekhanov, that called on the working classes to cooperate for the purpose of securing the victory over Germany, which would alone guarantee Russia's new freedom."

George Plekhanov died of tuberculosis in Terijoki on 30th May, 1918.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) David Shub was a member of the Social Democratic Labour Party and was a loyal supporter of George Plekhanov.

A split occurred in the Land and Freedom group in 1879, when an executive committee was set up to organize terrorist acts. A small faction, headed by George Plekhanov, rejected the policy of terrorism and became known as the Black Repartition.

The larger group called itself the People's Will. Both believed that the Russian peasant was by nature strongly inclined to Socialism. Contrary to the Marxist notion that only the industrial working class could bring Socialism, they believed that in Russia the peasant could play the same role as the industrial proletariat in other countries. But the People's Will believed that Socialism could not be realized for some time; the immediate goal was the expropriation of the estates in favour of the peasantry and the establishment of civil liberty.

On Sunday 13th March 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by members of the People's Will.

(2) Elizabeth Kovalskaia, was a member of Land and Liberty. In 1879 she joined George Plekhanov in the Black Repartition group.

I recall a very stormy meeting about the printing press which Black Repartition held in one of its conspiratorial apartments. Maria Krylova, who had been serving as the proprietress of Land and Liberty's printing operation, emphatically refused to let the People's Will have the press - she was even prepared to use arms against them, if they took any aggressive actions to get it. George Plekhanov was also strongly opposed to giving up the press, but at the same time, in his characteristic manner, he wittily and venomously ridiculed Krylova's plan for "armed resistance".

(3) Alexander Shotman attended the 2nd Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party and after the debate joined the Bolsheviks. He explained his decision in his book, Reminiscences of an Old Bolshevik, published in 1932.

When Plekhanov spoke, I enjoyed the beauty of his speech, the remarkable incisiveness of his words. But when Lenin arose in opposition, I was always on Lenin's side. Why? I cannot explain it to myself. But so it was, and not only with me, but with my comrades and workers.

(4) George Plekhanov, Iskra (1st May, 1904)

Imagine that the Central Committee possessed the still-debated right of liquidation. The Central Committee everywhere liquidates the elements with which it is dissatisfied, everywhere seats its own creatures and, filling all the committees with these creatures, without difficulty guarantees itself a fully submissive majority at the congress. The congresses, constituted of the creatures of the Central Committee, amiably cries "Hurrah!", approves all its successful and unsuccessful actions, and applauds all its plans and initiatives.

(5) George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia and Other Diplomatic Memories (1922).

As regarded the war, both Mensheviks and SRs advocated the speedy conclusion of peace without annexations or contributions. There was, however, a small Menshevik group, led by Plekhanov, that called on the working classes to cooperate for the purpose of securing the victory over Germany, which would alone guarantee Russia's new freedom. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, were out and out 'Defeatists'. The war had to be brought to an end by any means and at any cost. The soldiers had to be induced by organized propaganda to turn their arms, not against their brothers in the enemy ranks, but against the reactionary bourgeois governments of their own and other countries. For a Bolshevik there was no such thing as country or patriotism.

(6) Nikolai Sukhanov, was a leading member of the Petrograd Soviet. In his book The Russian Revolution 1917, he recalled George Plekhanov visiting the Executive Committee during the Russian Revolution.

The next morning, in my absence, Plekhanov paid a visit to the Executive Committee. This was apparently the first and last visit to leading Soviet circles. Against my expectations, illness prevented him from assuming a worthy place in the Soviet and the revolution. Perhaps it was not illness alone that hindered him: there was such a sharp dividing line between Plekhanov's position and that of the Soviet that Plekhanov may have thought he had to keep away from this alien institution.

Plekhanov's part in the events of 1917 was limited to his writings in the tiny, little-read and completely un-influential paper Yedinstvo (Unity). His adherents constituted a small group, not represented in the Soviet precisely because of their complete negligibility.

(7) George Plekhanov, Open Letter to the Petrograd Workers (28th October, 1917)

The reason the events of the last few days pain me so much is not because I do not wish to see the cause of the working class triumph, but, on the contrary, because with all the fibres of my being I wish for the triumph of the workers. The class-conscious elements of our proletariat must ask themselves the question: Is our proletariat ready to proclaim a dictatorship? Everyone who has even a partial understanding as to what economic conditions are necessary for the dictatorship of the proletariat will unhesitatingly answer no to this question.

No, our working class is far from ready to grasp political power with any advantage to itself and the country at large. To foist such a power upon it means to push it towards a great historical calamity which will prove the greatest tragedy for all Russia.

It is said that what the Russian worker will begin the German worker will finish. But it is a great mistake to think so. There is no doubt that in an economic sense Germany is much further developed than Russia. The social revolution is nearer in Germany than it is in Russia. But even among the Germans it is not yet a question of the day.

That means that the Germans will not finish what the Russians have started, nor can it be done by the French, the British, or the Americans. By seizing power at this moment, the Russian proletariat will not achieve a social revolution. It will only bring on civil war, which will in the end force a retreat from the positions won in February and March of this year.