Plekhanov, Georgii Valentinovich (1856–1918)

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Georgii Valentinovich Plekhanov, the Russian Marxist, revolutionary, philosopher, sociologist, and historian of social thought, was the son of a poor nobleman. After graduating from a military academy in Voronezh, he studied at the Mining Institute in St. Petersburg. As a student he joined the revolutionary movement and became one of the leaders of the revolutionary organization of the Narodniki (Populists), called Zemlia i volia (Soil and freedom). After Zemlia i volia split into the terroristic Narodnaia volia (People's freedom) and the Bakuninist-anarchist Chernyi peredel (Redistribution of soil) groups, Plekhanov became the leading theoretician of the Chernyi peredel group.

In the beginning of 1880, Plekhanov emigrated to France and then settled in Switzerland. Between 1880 and 1882 he turned from Populism to Marxism, and in 1883 he founded in Geneva the first Russian Marxist group, Osvobozhdenie truda (The emancipation of labor). In the summer of 1889 he took part in the founding congress of the Second International. In the late 1890s Plekhanov was one of the first to criticize both the international revisionism of Eduard Bernstein and its Russian variant, "economism."

In 1900, Plekhanov's group joined forces with a new group headed by V. I. Lenin. The two groups organized the second congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party in London in 1902. The congress accepted a party program written mainly by Plekhanov. Disagreements over the nature of the party led to the split of the party into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Plekhanov supported Lenin at the congress, but he became neutral soon afterward and even leaned to the Menshevik side.

During the first Russian revolution (1905), Plekhanov severely criticized the tactics of the Bolsheviks, but after the defeat of the revolution he again came closer to Lenin. The onset of World War I led to the final parting of Plekhanov and Lenin. Plekhanov urged socialists to support the Allied governments, but Lenin declared war on the imperialist war.

After the February revolution of 1917 Plekhanov returned to Russia. Believing that Russia was not yet sufficiently mature for socialism, he regarded the October revolution as a fateful mistake. Nevertheless, he refused to engage in active struggle against Soviet authority.

As the founder of the first Russian Marxist group, Plekhanov is rightly called the father of Russian Marxism and of Russian social democracy. He was also an outstanding leader of the Second International. But the workers' movement is indebted to Plekhanov for his theoretical work, especially in philosophy, even more than for his practical organizational activity.

General Philosophical Views

Plekhanov regarded himself as an orthodox follower of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and severely criticized those who tried to "revise" the basic teachings of Marx or to "supplement" them with the ideas of Immanuel Kant, Ernst Mach, or some other philosopher. But he insisted that the views of Marx and Engels should be developed further.

In his early writings Plekhanov exhibited the tendencies to reduce philosophy to the philosophy of history and to regard philosophy as a preliminary to science. He later stressed the independent tasks and problems of philosophy and defined philosophy in a broader way, as a study of the basic principles of being and knowledge and of their mutual relationships. Whereas Marx and Engels often insisted on the methodological character of their philosophy, Plekhanov stressed its systematic character. Marxist philosophy, according to Plekhanov, is a system, which Plekhanov named dialectical materialism.

Following Engels, Plekhanov maintained that the basic question of every philosophy was "the question about the relationship of subject to object, of consciousness to being," and he regarded materialism and idealism as two basic answers to the question. Dualism was a possible, but weaker, answer. A consistent thinker must choose between an idealistic and a materialistic monism, but vulgar materialism is not the only alternative to idealism. The real solution is dialectical materialism.

As the concept of matter was not clearly defined by Engels, Plekhanov made several attempts to do so. His formulations were more or less modifications of the traditional materialist view that matter is what exists independently of man's consciousness, affects his sense organs, and produces sensations. Plekhanov tried to show that opposing philosophies that maintain the world exists only in the consciousness of one man (solipsism), only in the consciousness of humankind (solohumanism), or only in that of some superindividual objective spirit (objective idealism) all lead to contradictions. The belief in the existence of the external world is, according to Plekhanov, an unavoidable leap in philosophy. Lenin reproached Plekhanov for such Humean terminology, and Soviet philosophers later exploited this criticism to accuse Plekhanov of Humeanism.

In criticizing idealistic views that mind, spirit, consciousness, or psyche (he used these terms more or less interchangeably) is the only reality, Plekhanov at the same time rejected the view of those materialists who regard mind as a part of matter or (as Engels did) as a form of the movement of matter. Nevertheless, he held that mind is one of the properties of substance, or matter. In some earlier writings Plekhanov affirmed that mind is merely a mode of matter, a property characteristic of matter organized in a certain way. Later he modified his view, maintaining that mind is an attribute of matter, a property that, at least to a minimal, nonobservable degree, belongs to all matter. This theory led to his being accused of hylozoism. Plekhanov first thought that mind could be regarded as a consequence of another, more fundamental property of matter, movement. Later he changed this view and asserted that consciousness is an "inner state" of matter in motion, a subjective side of the same process whose objective side is motion.

Accepting the traditional correspondence theory of truth, Plekhanov tried to explain in a more specific way the character of correspondence or agreement holding between thought and reality. Against naive realism he stressed that "correspondence" does not mean "similarity." He maintained that sensations are "hieroglyphs" because although they can adequately represent things and their properties, they are not "similar" to them. To avoid misinterpretation of his views, Plekhanov later renounced this terminology; nevertheless, he was severely criticized for it by some Soviet philosophers, who held that it was a concession to Kantianism.

Plekhanov often stressed that Marxist philosophy is dialectical materialism and that dialectics is the soul of Marxist philosophy. But in explaining his conception of dialectics, he added little to what had already been said by Marx and Engels. He was more original in his view of the relationship between formal logic and dialectics. Starting from Engels, who likened the relationship between the two to that between lower and higher mathematics, Plekhanov maintained that thinking according to the laws of formal logic is a special case of dialectical thinking. By the help of a number of distinctions, like those between motions and things, between changing and relatively stable things, and between simple and compound things, he tried to determine more precisely the limits of fields in which the two logics could be applied. These explanations, although they gave no final clarification of the problem, nevertheless were the most explicit treatment of the problem in classical Marxist literature and served as the starting point for many later discussions.

Philosophy of History

Plekhanov's views on the philosophy of history have sometimes been misinterpreted. The fault is partly his own. Trying to present Marx and Engels's view on the relations between the economic foundation and the superstructure in a simple schematic way, he produced a formula involving:

1. The state of the forces of production; 2. Economic relations conditioned by these forces; 3. The socio-political regime erected upon a given economic foundation; 4. The psychology of man in society, determined in part directly by economic conditions and in part by the whole socio-political regime erected upon the economic foundation; 5. Various ideologies reflecting this psychology. (Fundamental Problems of Marxism, edited by D. Ryazanov, p. 72)

This formula may be regarded as an adequate schematization of economic materialism, the theory according to which the economic factor (the forces of production) is ultimately predominant in history. However, in other places Plekhanov maintained that neither man as man nor society as society can be characterized by a constant relationship between economic and other factors because such relationships are always changing. He even explicitly criticized the view that the economic factor must always be decisive and called it a "libel against mankind." Plekhanov admitted that so far men have been the "slaves of their own social economy," but he insisted that "the triumph of human reason over the blind forces of economic necessity is possible" (Izbrannye filosofskie proizvedeniia [Selected philosophical works], Vol. II, p. 233).

In his best writings Plekhanov criticized not only the theory of the predominant role of the economic factor but also the theory of factors as such. In polemics against those who attributed the theory to Marx, he maintained that genuine materialists are averse to dragging in the economic factor everywhere and that "even to ask which factor predominates in social life seems to them pointless" (The Materialist Conception of History, p. 13). The question is unjustified because, "strictly speaking, there exists only one factor of historical development, namelysocial man" (Izbrannye Filosofskie Proizvedeniya, Vol. V, p. 363); different branches of the social sciencesethics, politics, jurisprudence, political economyinvestigate one and the same thing, the activity of social man.


Plekhanov was one of the few Marxist thinkers interested in aesthetics and the sociology of art. Criticizing the view that art expresses only feelings, he insisted that it expresses both feeling and thoughts, not abstractly, however, but in lively pictures. He added that the pictorial expression of feelings and thoughts about the world is not an end in itself but is done in order to communicate one's own thoughts and feelings to others. Art is a social phenomenon.

The first task of an art critic, according to Plekhanov, is to translate the idea of a work of art from the language of art into the language of sociology in order to find what could be called the sociological equivalent of a literary phenomenon. After the first act of materialistic criticism, the second actthe appreciation of the aesthetic values of the work in questionmust follow.

Investigating the social roots of the theory of art for art's sake and of the utilitarian view of art, Plekhanov came to the conclusion that the inclination toward art for its own sake emerges from a hopeless separation of the artist from the surrounding social milieu, whereas the utilitarian view of art emerges when a mutual understanding between the larger part of society and the artist exists. The utilitarian view of art can thus be combined with both conservative and revolutionary attitudes.

The value of a work of art is primarily dependent on the value of the ideas it conveys, but correct ideas are not enough for a valuable work. A work of art is great only when its form corresponds to its ideas.

Importance and Influence

Although Plekhanov is not one of those greatest of philosophers who have opened up new vistas to humankind, he was not a mere popularizer of Marxist philosophy. Starting from Engels's interpretation of Marxist philosophy, he improved it and developed it in many directions. He greatly influenced Lenin's conception of Marxist philosophy, and through both his own works and Lenin's he decisively influenced Soviet philosophy between the two world wars. The leaders of the Soviet "philosophical front" in the 1920s, A. M. Deborin and Deborin's most outstanding opponent, L. I. Aksel'rod, were Plekhanov's immediate disciples.

In 1930 a new period in Soviet philosophy began, a period that included severe criticism of Plekhanov. All kinds of accusations were made against Plekhanov, but the Stalinist criticism abated in the 1940s and 1950s, and Plekhanov's philosophical views survived. Nevertheless, the publication of previously unpublished writings of Marx in the 1930s and 1940s and new discussions of Marx's philosophy in the 1950s and the 1960s seem to have produced an interpretation of Marxist philosophy that is more profound than that offered by Engels and developed by Plekhanov and Lenin.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Art, Expression in; Art, Value in; Correspondence Theory of Truth; Deborin, Abram Moiseevich; Dialectical Materialism; Engels, Friedrich; Kant, Immanuel; Lenin, Vladimir Il'ich; Mach, Ernst; Marx, Karl; Marxist Philosophy; Panpsychism; Russian Philosophy.


works by plekhanov


Sochineniya (Works). 24 vols, edited by D. Ryazanov. Moscow and Leningrad, 19221927.

Literaturnoe nasledie G. V. Plekhanova (The literary heritage of Plekhanov). 8 vols. Moscow, 19341940.

Selected Philosophical Works. 5 vols. Moscow: Progress, 197476.

Other Works

Anarchism and Socialism. Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, 1981.

The Development of the Monist View of History. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974.

Essays in the History of Materialism. Translated by Ralph Fox. New York: H. Fertig, 1967.

The Materialist Conception of History. New York: International Publishers, 1964.

K Voprosu o Razvitii Monisticheskogo Vzglyada na Istoriyu. St. Petersburg, 1895. Translated by Andrew Rothstein as In Defense of Materialism: The Development of the Monist View of History. London, 1947; 2nd ed., published as The Development of the Monist View of History, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956.

"K Voprosu o Roli Lichnosti v Istorii." Nauchnoe Obozrenie, Nos. 34 (1898). Translated as The Role of the Individual in History. New York, 1940.

Fundamental Problems of Marxism. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977.

Art and Society & Other Papers in Historical Materialism. New York: Oriole Editions, 1974.

Materialismus militans: Reply to Mr. Bogdanov, edited by Richard Dixon, Moscow: Progress, 1973.

works on plekhanov

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

Baron, Samuel H. Plekhanov: The Father of Russian Marxism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1963.

Fomina, V. A. Filosofskie vzgliady Plekhanova (Philosophical views of Plekhanov). Moscow, 1955.

Hook, Sidney. The Hero in History. New York: John Day, 1943.

Howard, M. C., and J. E. King. "The Political Economy of Plekhanov and the Development of Backward Capitalism." History of Political Thought 10 (1989): 329344.

Kolakowski, Leszek. "Plekhanov and the Codification of Marxism." In Main Currents of Marxism. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Petrović, Gajo. Filozofski pogledi G. V. Plehanova (Philosophical views of G. V. Plekhanov). Zagreb, Yugoslavia, 1957.

Steila, Daniela. Genesis and Development of Plekhanov's Theory of Knowledge: A Marxist between Anthropological Materialism and Physiology. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1991.

Vaganyan, V. G. V. Plekhanov: Opyt kharakteristiki sotsial'no-politicheskikh Vozzrenii (G. V. Plekhanov: An essay on the characteristics of his sociopolitical views). Moscow, 1924.

Vaganyan, V. Opyt bibliografii G. V. Plekhanova (Bibliographical essay on G. V. Plekhanov). Moscow and Leningrad, 1923.

Volfson, S. G. V. Plekhanov. Minsk, U.S.S.R., 1924.

Walicki, A. A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Yovchuk, M. T. G. V. Plekhanov i ego trudy po istorii filosofii (G. V. Plekhanov and his works in the history of philosophy). Moscow, 1960.

Zinoviev, Grigori. G. V. Plekhanov. Petrograd, 1918.

Gajo Petrović (1967)

Bibliography updated by Vladimir Marchenkov (2005)