Plekhanov, Georgy

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PLEKHANOV, GEORGY (1856–1918), Russian revolutionary and social philosopher.

Often called the "Father of Russian Marxism," Georgy Plekhanov was born into a minor gentry family on 11 December (29 November, old style) 1856, in Gudalovka, a village in Tambov Province. In 1873, after completing his studies at the Voronezh Military Academy, he enrolled in a St. Petersburg military school, with the intention of becoming an army officer. Affected by the vogue of science among Russia's engaged youth, he soon transferred to the St. Petersburg State Mining Institute. Before long he abandoned his studies to participate wholeheartedly in the burgeoning populist revolutionary movement. His military training and the allure of science undoubtedly helped shape his character.

In the period from 1875 to 1880 Plekhanov was active in the populist movement's efforts to foment a peasant uprising and thereby create an agrarian socialist society. Foreshadowing his future, his efforts happened to center on urban workers, and his writings exhibited unmistakable signs of Marxist influence. A leader of the populist Land and Liberty group for a while, he spearheaded opposition to its increasing resort to terrorism. The alternative group he formed, Black Repartition, did not endure, and in 1880 Plekhanov fled abroad to avoid arrest. He did not return to Russia until 1917.

In exile Plekhanov resided mostly in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1883, with a few friends, he established the Emancipation of Labor group, Russia's first Marxist revolutionary organization. In two major works, Socialism and Political Struggle (1883) and Our Differences (1885), he launched a destructive critique of populism and laid the ideological basis of Russian Marxism. Russia, he argued, had embarked on a capitalistic development that was creating the preconditions for the overthrow of Russian autocracy and the installation of a bourgeois-democratic regime. The Marxists must organize the emerging industrial proletariat for the struggle against autocracy. Thereafter, continuing capitalistic development would multiply the numbers of the proletariat, and, under social democratic leadership, the working class would ultimately carry out a socialist revolution. This two-phase revolutionary scheme was central to Russian Marxist thought for many years.

During the formative years of the labor movement in Russia, Plekhanov made influential contributions to debates within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) over both economic development and revolutionary strategy. Meanwhile, Plekhanov had continued his polemics against the populists. According to Vladimir Lenin, Plekhanov's opus On the Development of the Monistic Conception of History (1895) "reared a whole generation of Russian Marxists." He also produced tracts defending Marxist orthodoxy against the reformist revisionism of the German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein, and a Russian tendency called "economism," which allegedly slighted political struggle, concentrating instead on the betterment of working conditions. These battles over theory and tactics were waged together with Lenin and others, who, in 1900, began publishing the militant journal Iskra (The spark).

A controversy over the character of the party split the second congress of the RSDLP into what became known as the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. Plekhanov initially sided with Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, but soon after joined the Mensheviks in attacking Lenin's dictatorial tendencies. For the rest of his life, Plekhanov generally associated with the Mensheviks, while frequently criticizing them. As a prominent member of the Second International, Plekhanov assumed a "defeatist" stance toward his country in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). By contrast, he supported the Triple Entente during World War I, as he feared that the victory of German militarism would spell disaster for Russia's workers.

The Revolution of 1905 tested the revolutionary scheme Plekhanov had devised and found it wanting. Key groups—the bourgeoisie, the peasants, and the proletariat—all acted contrary to his predictions. Yet Plekhanov did not modify his theory, and his political influence declined in the next decade. In the last two decades of his life, Plekhanov nevertheless produced significant philosophical, artistic, literary, and historical studies.

In 1917 Plekhanov greeted the February upheaval as the long-awaited bourgeois-democratic revolution. Returning to Russia, he urged continuation of the war to victory, but his pleas for soldier, peasant, and worker restraint fell on deaf ears. After the October Revolution, he harshly criticized the Bolsheviks' march to power and warned that a socialist revolution in socioeconomically backward Russia must end catastrophically. Overzealous Red Guards subsequently harassed him as "an enemy of the people," leading him to leave St. Petersburg. Plekhanov died on 30 May (17 May, old style) 1918 in Terioki, Finland.

See alsoBolsheviks; Lenin, Vladimir; Mensheviks; Revolution of 1905 (Russia).


Baron, Samuel H. Plekhanov: The Father of Russian Marxism. Stanford, Calif., 1963.

——. Plekhanov in Russian History and Soviet Historiography. Pittsburgh, Pa., 1995.

Plekhanov, Georgy. Sochineniia. 24 vols. Moscow, 1923–1927. The most complete edition of Plekhanov's works.

——. History of Russian Social Thought. Translated by Boris M. Bekkar and others. 1938. Reprint, New York, 1967.

——. Selected Philosophical Works. 2nd ed. 5 vols. Moscow, 1975–1981. Includes a number of his most important writings.

Samuel H. Baron