Georgii Valentinovich Plekhanov

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Plekhanov, Georgii Valentinovich


(pseudonyms include N. Bel’tov). Born Nov. 29 (Dec. 11), 1856, in the village of Gudalovka, present-day Griazi Raion, Lipetsk Oblast; died May 30, 1918, in Terioki (now Zelenogorsk, Leningrad Oblast). Buried in Petrograd. Russian theoretician and advocate of Marxism. Prominent figure in the Russian and international working-class and socialist movement.

Born into a family of the petty gentry, Plekhanov graduated from a military Gymnasium in Voronezh. In 1873 he went to St. Petersburg, and in the fall of 1874 he entered the St. Petersburg Institute of Mines, from which he was expelled in 1876 for participating in the revolutionary movement. In 1875 he joined the active revolutionary struggle, participating at first in the revolutionary Narodnik (Populist) and “going to the people” movements.

Plekhanov gained some experience in propaganda among the workers in St. Petersburg. In 1876 he took part in the demonstration in front of the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, giving a speech denouncing the tsarist autocracy. After Land and Liberty (Zemlia i Volia), the Narodnik organization, split up in 1879, Plekhanov became one of the leaders of the revolutionary Narodnik group Black Repartition (Chernyi Peredel). From January 1880 to the February Revolution of 1917 he was an émigré in Switzerland, Italy, France, and other Western European countries.

A number of factors contributed to an upheaval in Plek-hanov’s thinking: the relatively rapid development of capitalism in Russia and the strengthening of the working-class movement, the crisis in Narodnik theory and practice, and, on a personal level, experience among the workers, acquaintance with the history of the Western European working-class movement, and above all, a thorough study of works of K. Marx and F. Engels. In 1882–83, Plekhanov developed a Marxist world view. He became a convinced and determined critic of Narodnik ideology. The first advocate and theorist of Marxism in Russia, he was a brilliant popularizer of Marxist theory. In Geneva in 1883 he founded and wrote the programmatic documents for the first Russian Marxist organization—the Liberation of Labor group, whose members were P. B. Aksel’rod, V. I. Zasulich, L. G. Deutsch, and V. N. Ignatov. Members of the group translated and published a number of Marx’ and Engels’ works. Among the works translated by Plekhanov were The Communist Manifesto (1882), Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy, the “Theses on Feuerbach,” and parts of The Holy Family. Plekhanov dealt a heavy blow to the Narodnik ideology with his own works, including Socialism and Political Struggle (1883), Our Differences (1885), and The Russian Worker in the Revolutionary Movement (1895). Lenin declared that Plek-hanov’s On the Question of the Development of the Monistic View of History (1895) “helped to rear a whole generation of Russian Marxists” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 19, p. 313, note).

Plekhanov scientifically refuted Narodnik assertions that capitalism in Russia was an “accidental phenomenon” and that the peasant commune (obshchina) had the capacity to act as a counterweight to capitalism and to serve as a major advantage once the country began its transition to socialism. He showed that Russia was moving steadily toward the development of capitalism and that the task of revolutionaries was to use the processes generated by capitalism to serve the interests of the revolution. Plekhanov taught that the nascent proletariat should be regarded as the chief revolutionary force in the struggle against the autocracy and capitalism. He advocated the development of the workers’ political consciousness and called for a struggle for the creation of a socialist working-class party.

Plekhanov established close ties with many representatives of the Western European working-class movement. He was active in the Second International from the time of its founding in 1889, and he met and became a friend of Engels, who had a high regard for Plekhanov’s first Marxist writings and approved of the activities of the first Russian Marxist group. The Liberation of Labor group, which was headed by Plekhanov, had considerable influence on the Marxist circles formed in Russia in the 1880’s. However, as Lenin emphasized, Plekhanov’s group “only laid the theoretical foundations for the Social Democratic movement and took the first step toward the working-class movement” (ibid, vol. 25, p. 132). In the spring of 1895, Plekhanov first met Lenin, who had traveled to Switzerland. During this meeting they reached an agreement on establishing ties between the Liberation of Labor group and Marxist organizations in Russia. Plekhanov joined the Russian Marxists in the struggle against the liberal Narodniki, “legal Marxism,” and economism and helped expose E. Bernstein’s apostasy from Marxism. Plekhanov’s critique of Bernsteinism is still important in the contemporary struggle against opportunism.

In 1900, Plekhanov participated in the founding of the first all-Russian Marxist newspaper, Iskra, which was inspired and organized by Lenin. Iskra and the journal Zaria (Dawn), whose editorial boards included both Lenin and Plekhanov, became powerful weapons in the struggle to create a proletarian party in Russia. During the drafting of the party program by the editorial board of Iskra, Lenin made some well-founded criticisms of certain points in the draft presented by Plekhanov, noting the absence of references to the dictatorship of the proletariat, the abstractness of the draft, and its underestimation of the revolutionary potential of the Russian working class and its alliance with the peasantry. Lenin made substantial additions to the draft and corrected it. As a result, a consistently Marxist draft program signed by the editors of Iskra and Zaria was elaborated and published for discussion in 1902.

At the Second Congress of the RSDLP in 1903, Plekhanov adopted a revolutionary position and joined Lenin in defending Marxist principles and in struggling against the opportunists. However, Plekhanov failed to free himself completely of the heavy burden of the Social Democratic traditions of the parties of the Second International. Moreover, he could not understand the new tasks arising in the epoch of imperialism. Soon after the Second Congress he went over to Menshevism, becoming one of its leaders. In late 1903 he began to wage a struggle against Leninism, especially on questions of the strategy and tactics of the proletariat and its Bolshevik Party. During the Revolution of 1905–07 in Russia, Plekhanov took an opportunist stand, advocating an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie, condemning the orientation toward an armed uprising, and giving priority to the parliamentary form of struggle. He harshly denounced the December armed uprising of the Moscow workers, declaring that “it was wrong to take up arms.”

Between 1903 and 1917 a fundamental contradiction emerged in Plekhanov’s activity and in his world view: on the one hand, as a Menshevik, he adopted a policy of tactical opportunism and opposed the Leninist course toward a socialist revolution in Russia; on the other hand, as a philosopher, Plekhanov was a militant materialist and a Marxist who fought against bourgeois idealist philosophy. Lenin described Plekhanov as a “distinguished theoretician, who has great services to his credit in the struggle against opportunism, Bernstein, and the philosophers of anti-Marxism—a man whose mistakes in tactics during 1903–07 did not prevent him during the hard times of 1908–12 from singing the praises of the ‘underground’ and exposing its enemies and opponents” (ibid., vol. 48, p. 296). However, Plekhanov’s Menshevism had a negative effect on his philosophical works (ibid., vol. 18, p. 377, note).

During the period of reaction after the Revolution of 1905–07, Plekhanov spoke out against Liquidationism, bogostroitel’stvo (god-creating), bogoiskatel’stvo (god-seeking), and Machism. He held opportunist and social chauvinist views during World War I. Returning to Russia after the February Revolution of 1917, Plekhanov headed the Social Democratic Edinstvo (Unity) group (founded in 1914), supported the bourgeois Provisional Government and its policy of bringing the war “to a victorious conclusion,” and opposed the Bolsheviks and the Leninist course toward a socialist revolution in Russia. Although he had a negative attitude toward the October Socialist Revolution, Plekhanov refused to support the counterrevolution.

Plekhanov had an extraordinary capacity for work. A scholar possessed of encyclopedic knowledge, he did research on history, economics, sociology, ethnology, aesthetics, religion, and atheism, and he was a brilliant and profound Russian philosopher and publicist.

On Lenin’s initiative, extensive research was done on Plekhanov’s literary legacy. During the 1920’s, Plekhanov’s works were published, under a decision adopted by the Soviet government. His library and archives, which were located abroad, were shipped to Leningrad, where the Plekhanov House was established as part of the M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin State Library. Publication of the series Literaturnoe nasledie G. V. Plekhanova (The Literary Legacy of G. V. Plekhanov) was begun. The series has been continued under the title Filosofsko-literaturnoe nasledie (Philosophical and Literary Legacy).

Plekhanov’s role in the history of Marxism and its philosophy was defined by Lenin: “you cannot hope to become a real, intelligent Communist without making a study—and I mean study— of all of Plekhanov’s philosophical writings, because nothing better has been written on Marxism anywhere in the world” (ibid., vol. 42, p. 290). According to Lenin, Plekhanov’s philosophical articles should be included “in a series of standard textbooks on communism” (ibid., note). As Lenin pointed out, “the only Marxist in the international Social Democratic movement to criticize the incredible platitudes of the revisionists from the standpoint of consistent dialectical materialism was Plekhanov” (ibid., vol. 17, p. 20).

Lenin had a particularly high regard for the Marxist philosophical works written by Plekhanov between 1883 and 1903 (Essays in the History of Materialism, On the Question of the Development of the Monistic View of History, The Materialist Conception of History, The Role of the Individual in History, For the Sixtieth Anniversary of Hegel’s Death, and N. G. Chernyshev-skii). In these works, Plekhanov emerged as a militant materialist dialectician, criticizing not only pre-Marxist idealist and metaphysical doctrines but also bourgeois and petit bourgeois philosophical and sociological theories directed against Marxism (for example, neo-Kantianism, positivism, and the subjective sociology of the Narodniki and anarchists). Struggling against revisionist attempts to “renovate” Marxism, Plekhanov showed that “the appearance of Marx’ materialist philosophy was a genuine revolution, the greatest revolution known in the history of human thought” (Plekhanov, Izbr. filos, proizv., vol. 2, 1956, p. 450). He also showed that “all aspects of the Marxist world view are linked together in the closest way … and therefore one cannot arbitrarily eliminate one of them and replace it with a set of ideas equally arbitrarily drawn from a completely different world view” (ibid., vol. 3, 1957, p. 198). Plekhanov demonstrated that only dialectical and historical materialism constitutes the philosophical and theoretical foundation of scientific socialism.

Plekhanov declared that “dialectical materialism is a philosophy of action” (Soch., vol. 7, 1925, p. 245), and he asserted that Marxism is a most powerful weapon for the proletariat in its struggle against its exploiters. Referring to Marxism and the materialist dialectic as the “algebra of revolution,” he emphasized the tremendous role of revolutionary theory and progressive ideas in the transformation of society. “After all, without revolutionary theory there is no revolutionary movement in the true sense of the word. … An idea that is revolutionary in its internal content is a kind of dynamite for which no other explosive in the world may be substituted” (ibid., vol. 2, 1925, p. 71). Plekhanov revealed the continuity between Marxism and the best traditions of philosophical and social thought. He had a high regard for the Hegelian dialectic. For Plekhanov, materialism was the product of a long evolution linked with social struggles and scientific progress.

Criticizing the idealism and agnosticism of Kant and the neo-Kantians, Plekhanov emphasized that the world is knowable. However, he sometimes failed to express himself precisely on this question, as is evident in his uncritical attitude toward the “theory of hieroglyphs.” In works attacking the epidemic of Machism and “religious quests” (religioznye iskaniia) in Russia, Plekhanov wrote that “Machism is merely Berkeleianism slightly reworked and touched up in the colors of ‘20th-century natural science’” (Izbr. filos, proizv., vol. 3, 1957, p. 261). However, he failed to discover the connection between Machism, neo-Kantianism, and other idealist currents, on the one hand, and the crisis in modern physics, on the other. As Lenin observed: “Plekhanov criticizes Kantianism (and agnosticism in general) more from a vulgar-materialistic standpoint than from a dialectical-materialistic standpoint, insofar as he merely rejects their views a limine, [from the threshold] but does not correct them (as Hegel corrected Kant), deepening, generalizing, and extending them, showing the connection and transitions of each and every concept” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 161).

Plekhanov applied the dialectical method primarily to cognition of society. From the dialectic, which he interpreted as the “algebra of revolution,” Plekhanov drew the conclusion that social revolution is a law and an inevitability. Analyzing the history of social doctrines, he cited many historical sources to show that only dialectical materialism can reveal the lawlike character of the sociohistorical process (Literaturnoe nasledie G. V. Plekhanova, collection 5, pp. 4–5). He endeavored to uncover the structure of society and the interaction of its various aspects. From his point of view, Marxist sociological analysis provided the basis for the scientific prediction of the main trends of social development (Izbr. filos, proizv., vol. 3, p. 50). Plekhanov creatively developed Marxist doctrine on the role of the popular masses and the individual in history, debunking the subjective idealist and voluntarist conceptions of individual heroes as the makers of history and showing that “the people, the entire nation, should be viewed as the hero of history” (Soch., vol. 8, 1923, p. 11).

Plekhanov played a prominent role in developing economic thought in Russia. He criticized Narodnik economic theories, the historical school of bourgeois political economy, and J. K. Rodbertus-Jagetzow’s “theory of force.” He analyzed the formation and development of political ideology, law, religion, morality, art, philosophy, and other forms of the ideological superstructure, and he criticized vulgar materialist and metaphysical theories such as A. Bogdanov’s, which overlooked the importance of social consciousness and the political structure in social development. “Economics hardly ever triumphs by itself … but only through the mediation of the superstructure, only through certain political institutions” (Izbr. filos, proizv., vol. 2, 1956, p. 216).

Applying the principles of historical materialism to the analysis of Russian history and to actual conditions in Russia, Plekhanov produced a carefully argued critique of the prevailing view in Russian social thought—the idealist theory of the “ex-ceptionalism” (samobytnost’) of the historical process in Russia. Analyzing the economy of postreform Russia, Plekhanov showed that in its historical development the country was following the same pattern as the other European countries, moving from feudalism to capitalism. He also showed that “the theory of Russian exceptionalism is becoming a synonym for stagnation and reaction” (Soch., vol. 2, 1925, p. 27). Thus, Plekhanov refuted the erroneous trend toward counterposing Russian and Western history. In addition, he demonstrated the un-tenability of the then widely held theory that Russia had a classless society. In describing the specific features of the historical process in Russia, Plekhanov brought out the development of classes and the struggle between them.

Plekhanov was the first Marxist historian of the Russian liberation and revolutionary movement. He correctly distinguished a gentry period and a period of the raznochintsy (intellectuals of no definite class) in the history of the Russian liberation movement, and he asserted that the new, third period of the movement was characterized by class relations between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Plekhanov was also the first Marxist to undertake a scientific exposition of the history of Russian social thought. For this project he collected and systematically organized a vast quantity of sources. His three-volume History of Russian Social Thought, which was, on the whole, written from a Marxist point of view, was the first work to summarize and make generalizations on the history of social thought from the most ancient times to the end of the 18th century. (The first volume of this work was published in 1914.)

Plekhanov made a profound analysis of the social, economic, philosophical, and aesthetic views of Belinskii, Herzen, Cherny-shevskii, and Dobroliubov. He showed that the entire history of Russian revolutionary thought consisted of efforts to find a program of action that would ensure the sympathy and support of the popular masses for the revolutionaries. Plekhanov established the links between Russian Marxism, or Russian Social Democracy, and its predecessors, the revolutionaries of the 1860’s and 1870’s, and he laid the foundations for the study of the history of the Russian working-class movement.

Plekhanov paid a great deal of attention to problems in aesthetics. As a successor to the traditions of the materialist aesthetics of Belinskii, Chernyshevskii, and Dobroliubov, Plekhanov wrote: “From now on criticism (or more precisely, the scientific theory of aesthetics) will be in a position to move forward only by relying on the materialist conception of history” (Izbr. filos, proizv., vol. 5, 1958, p. 312). With this as his point of departure, he examined many problems in the aesthetic reflection of reality, the history of art, and the history of aesthetic thought. The first Marxist writer to criticize the biological theories of the origin of art, Plekhanov argued that art and aesthetic feelings and concepts arise as the result of labor activity. Art is a specific, figurative form of the reflection of human social existence in the consciousness of particular representatives of a particular class in society. In evaluating a work of art the criteria of ideinost’ (ideological commitment) and “being true to life” should be combined with the criterion of artistic quality. Plekhanov was sharply critical of bourgeois art. Although his works on aesthetics contain some erroneous propositions (for example, his assessment of Gorky’s novel The Mother and his schematic distinction between Leo Tolstoy as thinker and as artist), they are still important in the struggle for realism and ideinost’ in art.

Plekhanov made a major contribution to the Marxist history of philosophy and social thought, taking as his point of departure the principle that social consciousness is determined by the evolution of social existence. He criticized the idealist conception of the “filiation of ideas” (that is, their spontaneous evolution), demonstrating that in the final analysis, the history of philosophy and social thought depends on the forward movement of society and on the struggle among classes and is linked with progress in science and art. Plekhanov showed that the philosophical views of a particular thinker do not automatically correspond to his sociopolitical views. He criticized not only the distortions of the philosophical legacy by vulgar materialists and nihilists but also their attempts to trace all errors and incorrect views to selfish class interests (ibid., vol. 1, 1956, p. 651; vol. 3, p. 322).

Criticizing the objectivist concepts of F. Ueberweg, the German historian of philosophy, Plekhanov formulated several methodological requirements for research in the history of philosophy, including clarification of the dependence of philosophical ideas on social development. In addition, he asserted that the historian must make it clear that natural science, psychology, the history of literature and art, and the social sciences, all of which have an effect on philosophical ideas, depend on the level of social development at various stages in history. The historian should also elucidate the unevenness of sociohistorical development at various stages of history and the specific features of sociohistorical development in particular countries, which lead in some cases to a struggle and in others to a temporary “reconciliation” between science and religion.

Plekhanov upheld the materialist and atheist traditions in philosophy and the revolutionary and Enlightenment traditions in Russian and Western European social thought. At times he overemphasized the similarity between pre-Marxist doctrines and Marxist philosophy and sociology, without sufficiently indicating how they differed. Moreover, he somewhat exaggerated Western European influences on Russian philosophy and social thought. However, none of these failings diminishes the scientific value of Plekhanov’s work in the history of philosophy and social thought.

Plekhanov’s works have been systematically published and are widely studied in the USSR. Several of the country’s higher educational institutions are named after him, including the Leningrad Institute of Mines and the Moscow Institute of the National Economy. In 1956 the 100th anniversary of his birth was observed in the USSR, and the Plekhanov Prize was established for the authors of the best scholarly works in philosophy.


Sochineniia, vols. 1–24. Moscow-Leningrad, 1923–27.
Literaturnoe nasledie G. V. Plekhanova, collections 1–8. Moscow, 1934— 40.
Gruppa “Osvobozhdenie truda,” collections 1–6. Moscow-Leningrad, 1924–28.
Izbrannye filosofskie proizvedeniia, vols. 1–5. Moscow, 1956–58.
Katalog biblioteki G. V. Plekhanova, issues 1–4. Leningrad, 1965.
Filosofsko-literaturnoe nasledie G. V. Plekhanova, vols. 1–3. Moscow, 1973–74.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.