Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov

The Russian revolutionist and social philosopher Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov (1856-1918) is considered the founder of Russian Marxism.

Georgi Plekhanov was born on Nov. 29, 1856, to a petty gentry family with a tradition of military service. In 1873 he entered the Konstantinovskoe Military School in St. Petersburg. Because of an unresolved conflict between loyalty to the czar and to the people, he left school after one semester.

Plekhanov entered the Russian revolutionary movement at a time when its efforts to establish a new order based on the peasant commune were at a low ebb. Rejected by the peasants and repressed by the police, the socialist revolutionaries established a conspiratorial and centralized revolutionary organization, Land and Liberty. When the organization divided over the question of whether to continue socialist agitation or to begin political struggle by means of terror, Plekhanov rejected the use of terror and formed the Black Redistribution. To escape arrest he fled to Europe in 1880.

In Geneva, Plekhanov continued his study of Marxism, and in 1883 he founded the first Russian Marxist revolutionary organization, the Group for the Emancipation of Labor. His Socialism and Political Struggle (1883) and Our Differences (1885) are his major theoretical contributions to Russian Marxism. Plekhanov criticized his former comrades for failing to recognize the decline of the peasant commune and the growth of Russian capitalism with a proletariat and bourgeoisie, which made possible the strategy of a two-stage revolution: first, the proletariat with the bourgeoisie against the czarist autocracy to achieve the bourgeois revolution; second, the proletariat against the bourgeoisie to achieve the socialist revolution.

Socialist revolutionaries in Russia condemned Plekhanov's transition from populism to Marxism as heresy. His influence in Russia was minimal until the 1890s, when unrest produced by serious famine and rapid industrialization turned many socialists to Marxism. His Marxist view of history, The Development of the Monistic View of History (1894), published under the pseudonym Beltov, pointed ultimately to victory for the revolutionaries and helped to spur the formation of Marxist groups within Russia and to secure him an international reputation among European Social Democrats. In Essays on the History of Materialism (1896) Plekhanov invented the term "dialectical materialism" to describe Karl Marx's use of G. W. F. Hegel's dialectic on a materialistic basis.

V. I. Lenin, who at this time entered the Russian Social Democratic movement, soon went beyond Plekhanov's ideas and advocated a Marxist party in which the leaders formed a disciplined and conspiratorial group. The question of organization divided the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democrats in 1903. At first Plekhanov supported Lenin and the Bolshevik faction, but he soon feared that Lenin had confused a dictatorship of the proletariat with a dictatorship over the proletariat. His attempt to take an independent stand between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks was weakened by the Russian Revolution of 1905, which tested his theory of the two-stage revolution and found it inadequate. It proved that the more militant the proletariat became, the more the bourgeoisie sided with rather than against the czarist autocracy.

In 1909 Plekhanov began The History of Russian Social Thought, his attempt to relate social thought to the prevailing mode of production. He applied the same methodology to art and literature and produced the first substantial Marxist literary criticism in his Letters without Address, which he had begun in 1899.

Following the collapse of the Russian monarchy in February 1917, Plekhanov insisted that Russia was only in the bourgeois stage of revolution and that it must remain in the war against Germany. This stance alienated him form the militant revolutionaries who favored the popular demand for peace and land. After the Bolsheviks seized power in October, Plekhanov found himself isolated and ill. He died on May 30, 1918.


Further Reading on Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov

The only complete study of Plekhanov and his times in a Western language is Samuel Baron, Plekhanov: The Father of Russian Marxism (1963). It is both a perceptive study of Plekhanov's life and writings and a profound analysis of the relationship of Russian Marxism to Russian populism, social democracy, and bolshevism. Another excellent guide to Plekhanov's relationship to the Russian revolutionary movement is in Leopold H. Haimson, The Russian Marxists and the Origins of Bolshevism (1955).

Additional Biography Sources

Baron, Samuel H., Plekhanov in Russian history and Soviet historiography, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.