Legal Marxism

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Legal Marxism


an ideological and political trend among some members of the progressive Russian bourgeoisie who sought to make use of certain tenets of Marx’ economic doctrine in establishing a basis for the development of capitalism in Russia. It arose in the 1890’s and was described by Lenin as “the reflection of Marxism in bourgeois literature.” It was called legal Marxism because its leading exponents—P. B. Struve, S. N. Bulgakov, M. I. Tugan-Baranovskii, and N. A. Berdiaev— wrote for the legal press; they also published the journals Novoe Slovo, Nachalo, and Zhizn’.

The most important statement of the ideology of legal Marxism in its initial period was Struve’s book Critical Remarks on the Subject of Russia’s Economic Development (1894). The legal Marxists rejected the idea of proletarian socialism, but they were satisfied that Marxism substantiated the progressive nature of capitalism in contrast to feudalism and demonstrated the lawlike nature of the replacement of feudalism by the capitalist socioeconomic formation. Criticizing the Narodniks (Populists) as defenders of small-scale production, Struve at the same time praised capitalism as a higher stage of social development, urged that “we recognize our lack of culture and learn from capitalism,” and kept silent about its class contradictions. He sought to “correct” Marx’ doctrine of the state and to replace the Marxist theory of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism with the liberal theory of reforming bourgeois society. “They were bourgeois democrats for whom the break with Narodnichestvo signified a transition from petit bourgeois (or peasant) socialism to bourgeois liberalism, and not to proletarian socialism” (Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch, 5th ed., vol. 16, p. 96).

Rejecting socialism as a science, the legal Marxists argued against the philosophical foundations of Marxism. Struve and Bulgakov replaced historical materialism with “economic materialism,” by which they meant only that social progress is directly dependent on economic progress. The leading theoreticians of legal Marxism were influenced by various bourgeois trends and schools and by Bernsteinism. The connection with Bernsteinism was most clearly revealed in 1899 in Struve’s article “Marx’ Theory of Social Development.” In this article he attempted to provide an “epistemological” basis for revisionism, at the same time asserting his own priority in revising certain tenets of Marxism. Although it was contradictory in the realm of theory, legal Marxism expressed the bourgeois theoreticians’ efforts to “take from Marxism all that is acceptable to the liberal bourgeoisie… and cast aside ‘only’ the living soul of Marxism, ‘only’ its revolutionary content” (ibid., vol. 26, p. 227).

Although they opposed revolutionary Marxism, Struve and his supporters attacked, albeit irresolutely, autocracy and advocated bourgeois-democratic liberties, and they criticized Narodnichestvo. For this reason the revolutionary Marxists entered into a temporary alliance with the legal Marxists, which served the purpose of a joint struggle against a common opponent—Narodnik ideology, the main obstacle to the spread of Marxist ideas in Russia.

The collection Material on the Question of the Economic Development of Russia, to which both Social Democrats and legal Marxists contributed, was published in 1895. It included Lenin’s essay “The Economic Content of Narodnichestvo and the Criticism of It in Mr. Struve’s Book,” based on a paper that Lenin had presented to the St. Petersburg Marxists’ circle in 1894 entitled “The Reflection of Marxism in Bourgeois Literature.” In his essay Lenin attacked both the Narodniks and the liberal bourgeois falsifiers of Marxism, criticized the bourgeois objectivism of the legal Marxists, who openly defended capitalism, and asserted and developed the principle of partirnos’ (party-mindedness) in Marxist philosophy.

The access that revolutionary Marxists gained to legal periodicals fully justified their temporary alliance with the legal Marxists. “Thanks to this alliance, an astonishingly rapid victory was obtained over Narodnichestvo, and Marxist ideas (even though in a vulgarized form) became very widespread” (ibid., vol. 6, p. 16).

After defeating Narodnichestvo, Lenin dealt legal Marxism a decisive blow. In a series of articles he showed how the trend had evolved. Having begun as fellow travelers of the Social Democrats, the legal Marxists fully adopted liberal bourgeois views during the intense struggle between the revolutionary Marxists and the Economists. Lenin’s critique of legal Marxism marked the beginning of an entire historical period in the revolutionary Marxists’ struggle against international revisionism. By the time Iskra appeared in December 1900 legal Marxism as an ideological tendency had disappeared. Subsequently, the former leaders of legal Marxism, notably Struve and Tugan-Baranovskii, became enemies of Bolshevism, forming the nucleus of the bourgeois Cadet Party. After the October Revolution of 1917 they joined counterrevolutionary White Guard “governments” and engaged in anti-Soviet activity abroad.


Lenin, V. I. “Ekonomicheskoe soderzhanie narodnichestva i kritika ego v knige g. Struve.” Poln. sobr. soch, 5th ed., vol. 1.
Lenin, V. I. “Chto delat’?” Ibid., vol. 6.
Lenin, V. I. “Predislovie k sborniku Za 12 let.” Ibid., vol. 16.
Lenin, V. I. “Krakh 2-go Internatsionala.” Ibid., vol. 26.
Plekhanov, G. V. “Stat’i protiv P. Struve.” Soch. 3rd ed., vol. 11. Moscow-Leningrad, 1928.
Istoriia KPSS, vol. 1. Moscow, 1964.
Shirikov, L. V. “Razoblachenie V. I. Leninym struvizma (1894–1901).” In the collection V. I. Lenin—osnovateV ivozhd’KPSS. Moscow, 1960.


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