The label applied to a group of moderate Russian Social Democrats at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.
An offshoot of the legal Marxists, the economist group emphasized the role of practical activity among industrial workers. According to their theories, activism at the rank-and-file level would lead to social change: Agitation for a ten–hour day, limitation on fines for petty infractions, better sanitation in the workplace, and so forth would ignite conflict with tsarist officialdom. Class conflict would provoke revolutionary political demands and eventually lead to a bourgeois–liberal revolution, which all Russian Marxists of the time thought necessary before the advent of socialism. For the time being, though, these economist Marxists were willing to follow worker demands rather than impose an explicitly socialist agenda on the laboring class. Workers involved themselves in strikes, mutual aid societies, and consumer and educational societies to raise their class consciousness. Thus this faction criticized the leading role assigned to the revolutionary intelligentsia by scientific Marxists such as Georgy Plekhanov and Pavel Axelrod.
Organized as the Union of Social Democrats Abroad, the economists published the newspaper Rabochaia Mysl from 1897 to 1902 in St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Warsaw. While mostly concerned with worker grievances and local conditions, this newspaper (at first produced by St. Petersburg workers) did bring out a "Separate Supplement" in issue 7, written by Konstantin Takhtarev, that was critical of the more radical Marxists. The economists also sponsored the journal with a more political and theoretical character: Rabochee Delo, published from 1899 to 1902 in Switzerland. Economism is sometimes linked to the leading German revisionist Marxist Eduard Bernstein (1850–1932).
In 1899 one of the economists, Yekaterina Kuskova, wrote a "Credo," which came to the attention of Vladimir Ilich Lenin, who penned a protest the same year. That group's practical and local emphasis continued to be attacked, somewhat unfairly, by Lenin and his supporters in Iskra (Spark) and later in "What Is to Be Done?" (1902). Lenin argued that the opportunist notions of economism, as opposed to his revolutionary activism, justified a split in Russian Social Democracy the following year.
Several of the leading economists, for example, Sergei Prokopovich, later became liberals, like the more famous legal Marxist Peter Struve. Both Prokopovich and Kuskova became anticommunists and participated in an emergency relief committee during the 1920–1921 famine. Soon afterward they were arrested in the general crackdown on Lenin's opponents.
See also: lenin, vladimir ilich; marxism
Harding, Neil. (1977). Lenin's Political Thought, vol. 1. London: Macmillan.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich. (1978). Collected Works, vol. 4. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Martin C. Spechler