"Marxism is a complete theoretical system." -- Georg Plekhanov

Plekhanov, Georg "Fundamental Problems of Marxism," Marxist Library Volume 1, edited by D Riazanov, International Publishers, NY, translation from the second Russian Edition, published at Moscow, 1928, by Eden and Cedar Paul. Originally published in Russian in 1907

Today, the original works of Marx and Engels are easily obtainable, even on-line. But these works were generally not available around the world until long after they were written. Most of young V.I. Lenin's revolutionary contemporaries practiced the crudest of theories. Many of them, including Lenin's own older brother, were influenced by an unscientific populism known as narodism. Georg Plekhanov's great contribution was to translate Marxist writings into Russian, and therefore make scientific efforts possible.

Without intending to distract from the importance of Plekhanov's work, which Lenin acknowledged even after their ways had parted, his writings are not as accessible as they must have been when written in their time and place. For the most part, the author is grinding up the ideas of contemporaries who, while probably well known then, aren't even footnotes to history for most people in the 21st century. One may be impatient with a long and clever put down of Tikhomirov, because, who the heck was Tikhomirov anyway? Plekhanov's intellectual style also hinders an easy reading. He uses obscure words like "philippics" instead of "aggressive verbal attacks."

Nevertheless, there is great value in these concise arguments. The Editor's Preface says, "The present work.. the last of Plekhanov's writings, containing a systematic exposition of dialectical materialism, appeared in 1908, a quarter of a century later. [later than his first work in 1883.] His first work had made a "decisive break with the time-honoured prejudices of the narodniks."

Even though he was the first to bring Marxism to the Russian language, Plekhanov does not hold himself to be the final say-so of truth. The introduction, (pg x): says, "Obviously the development of scientific socialism is not yet finished."

On pg xiii, he explains Marx and Engels' relationship to an important predecessor: "Marx modifies Feurbach's fundamental thesis as follows: 'It is not the consciousness of men which determines their existence, but, conversely, it is their social existence which determines their consciousness.'" He argues against gradualism, the "vulgar theory of evolution, according to which neither nature nor history makes jumps, according to which all the changes in the world occur by a process of gradual transformation."

"Fundamental Problems of Marxism," except for professorial language and dated references to forgotten philosophers, makes a good study guide to basic components of Marxism. For example, in buttressing historical materialism, Plekhanov takes up anthropology. Like Frederick Engels, Plekhanov was greatly impressed with the anthropological work of Lewis Morgan. He wrote on page 32, "Lewis Morgan has shown that the remarkable difference between the social evolution of the New World and that of the Old, is to be explained by the lack in the New World of animals capable of being domesticated, and by the differences between the flora of the New World and the Old." On page 35 he compares the pastoral African Masai tribe, who never gave quarter and never took prisoners, because they saw no use for slave labor. Next to them, the agricultural Wakamba took prisoners and used them for slaves. "The appearance of slavery as an institution thus presupposes that the social forces have reached a degree of development at which the exploitation of the labour of prisoners has become possible."

Further on historical materialism, on page 49, Plekhanov tells us, "Economic life develops under the influence of an increase in the forces of production." He does a long quote from Marx about how no new system can come about until the old system has exhausted every bit of its ability to develop the forces of production, then it gives birth to the revolutionary struggle for an even better system.

Well before Lenin's great pamphlet, "The State and Revolution," Plekhanov interpreted the Marxist view of the state. Page 53 says, "...The modern State authority is nothing more than a committee for the administration of the consolidated affairs of the bourgeois class as a whole." Commenting on the class struggle on page 64, he says, "Hegel already pointed out that every system of philosophy is nothing more than the ideological expression of its time."

Plekhanov clarifies our modern problems with lies and liars on page 82: "Marx said very truly that the greater the development of antagonisms between the growing forces of production and the extant social order, the more does the ideology of the ruling class become permeated with hypocrisy.""

Perhaps the best exposition in Plekhanov's work is on the fundamental argument that revolutionaries have always had with timid reformers, gradualism. The chapter begrinning on page 97, "Sudden changes in nature and history." explains qualitative change as opposed to incremental quantitative change. As against the gradualists, Plekhanov asserts on page 98, "Marx was an ardent defender of revolutionary activity." His statements are clarity perfected: "Quantitative changes, accumulating by slow degrees, become in the end qualitative changes. These transitions occur by jumps and cannot occur in any other way. 'Gradualists' of one kind of another, those who make a dogma of moderation and of meticulous order, cannot understand this phenomenon,..."

But must revolutionaries consider the use of force to defend qualitative changes? Plekhanov asserts, on page 107, "Force has always been the midwife of an old society pregnant with a new one. That is what Marx said, and he is not the only one to have such thoughts."

Despite his clear understanding of Marxism, Plekhanov wasn't right about everything. He says, "According to Marx, the four different methods of production, known as the oriental or Asiatic, the classical, the feudal and the modern (capitalist) method may, generally speaking be considered a four successive epochs of the economic evolution of society." Marx and Engels do name and explain those four different methods, but the oriental method was never considered part of a hierarchy or succession, according to Engels in an introduction to "Pre-Capitalist Formations." Plekhanov is not considered a supporter of the 1917 Russian revolution, but he died in 1918, so a final resolution of his quarrels with Lenin are not part of history, and Lenin continued to reference Plekhanov as a great contributor.

Further study:

Plekhanov, George, "The Role of the Individual in History," International Publishers, NY, 1940. Apparently, Lenin recommended this pamphlet after 1917, even though Plekhanov had made plenty of errors by then. This highly intellectual, highly name-dropping, piece asserts correctly that historical materialism works. Individual historical leaders aren’t interchangeable because some of them were better than others, but essentially what was going to happen would have happened without them, because individuals do not cause great historical change. Great historical change comes from changes in how people develop their economies, as Marx explained. The Narodniks, of course, believed that change could only come about because of the heroic efforts of great individuals.

This was published 1898, at a time when Plekhanov must have been considered the greatest of all Russian Marxists. From the intro; “The opponents of Marxism long ago argued that Marxism repudiated the role and significance of the individual in social development and that it converted historical progress itself into something fatalistic, nameless and impersonal. This false argument was put forward with particular zeal in the nineties of the last century by the Russian Narodniks (Populists), the bitterest enemies of Marxism.”

The Narodniks, it goes on to say, argued that the mass movement was insignificant and that only individual “heroes” (often actually terrorists) could make a difference. Plekhanov put them down.


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