MARXIST INTERNET ARCHIVE | History of CP Bolshevik

2. Narodism (Populism) and Marxism in Russia. Plekhanov and His "Emancipation of Labour" Group. Plekhanov's Fight Against Narodism. Spread of Marxism In Russia

Prior to the appearance of the Marxist groups revolutionary work in Russia was carried on by the Narodniks (Populists), who were opponents of Marxism.

The first Russian Marxist group arose in 1883. This was the "Emancipation of Labour" group formed by G. V. Plekhanov abroad, in Geneva, where he had been obliged to take refuge from the persecution of the tsarist government for his revolutionary activities.

Previously Plekhanov had himself been a Narodnik. But having studied Marxism while abroad, he broke with Narodism and became an outstanding propagandist of Marxism.

The "Emancipation of Labour" group did a great deal to disseminate Marxism in Russia. They translated works of Marx and Engels into Russian – The Communist Manifesto, Wage-Labour and Capital, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, etc. – had them printed abroad and circulated them secretly in Russia. Plekhanov, Zasulich, Axelrod and other members of this group also wrote a number of works explaining the teachings of Marx and Engels, the ideas of scientific Socialism.

Marx and Engels, the great teachers of the proletariat, were the first to explain that, contrary to the opinion of the utopian Socialists, Socialism was not the invention of dreamers (utopians), but the inevitable outcome of the development of modern capitalist society. They showed that the capitalist system would fall, just as serfdom had fallen, and that capitalism was creating its own gravediggers in the person of the proletariat. They showed that only the class struggle of the proletariat, only the victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, would rid humanity of capitalism and exploitation.

Marx and Engels taught the proletariat to be conscious of its own strength, to be conscious of its class interests and to unite for a determined struggle against the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels discovered the laws of development of capitalist society and proved scientifically that the development of capitalist society, and the class struggle going on within it, must inevitably lead to the fall of capitalism, to the victory of the proletariat, to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Marx and Engels taught that it was impossible to get rid of the power of capital and to convert capitalist property into public property by peaceful means, and that the working class could achieve this only by revolutionary violence against the bourgeoisie, by a proletarian revolution, by establishing its own political rule – the dictatorship of the proletariat – which must crush the resistance of the exploiters and create a new, classless, Communist society.

Marx and Engels taught that the industrial proletariat is the most revolutionary and therefore the most advanced class in capitalist society, and that only a class like the proletariat could rally around itself all the forces discontented with capitalism and lead them in the storming of capitalism. But in order to vanquish the old world and create a new, classless society, the proletariat must have its own working-class party, which Marx and Engels called the Communist Party.

It was to the dissemination of the views of Marx and Engels that the first Russian Marxist group, Plekhanov's "Emancipation of Labour" group, devoted itself.

The "Emancipation of Labour" group raised the banner of Marxism in the Russian press abroad at a time when no Social-Democratic movement in Russia yet existed. It was first necessary to prepare the theoretical, ideological ground for such a movement. The chief ideological obstacle to the spread of Marxism and of the Social-Democratic movement was the Narodnik views which at that time prevailed among the advanced workers and the revolutionary-minded intelligentsia.

As capitalism developed in Russia the working class became a powerful and advanced force that was capable of waging an organized revolutionary struggle. But the leading role of the working class was not understood by the Narodniks. The Russian Narodniks erroneously held that the principal revolutionary force was not the working class, but the peasantry, and that the rule of the tsar and the landlords could be overthrown by means of peasant revolts alone. The Narodniks did not know the working class and did not realize that the peasants alone were incapable of vanquishing tsardom and the landlords without an alliance with the working class and without its guidance. The Narodniks did not understand that the working class was the most revolutionary and the most advanced class of society.

The Narodniks first endeavoured to rouse the peasants for a struggle against the tsarist government. With this purpose in view, young revolutionary intellectuals donned peasant garb and flocked to the countryside – "to the people," as it used to be called. Hence the term "Narodnik," from the word narod, the people. But they found no backing among the peasantry, for they did not have a proper knowledge or understanding of the peasants either. The majority of them were arrested by the police. Thereupon the Narodniks decided to continue the struggle against the tsarist autocracy single-handed, without the people, and this led to even more serious mistakes.

A secret Narodnik society known as "Narodnaya Volya" ("People's Will") began to plot the assassination of the tsar. On March 1, 1881, members of the "Narodnaya Volya" succeeded in killing Tsar Alexander II with a bomb. But the people did not benefit from this in any way. The assassination of individuals could not bring about the overthrow of the tsarist autocracy or the abolition of the landlord class. The assassinated tsar was replaced by another, Alexander III, under whom the conditions of the workers and peasants became still worse.

The method of combating tsardom chosen by the Narodniks, namely, by the assassination of individuals, by individual terrorism, was wrong and detrimental to the revolution. The policy of individual terrorism was based on the erroneous Narodnik theory of active "heroes" and a passive "mob," which awaited exploits from the "heroes." This false theory maintained that it is only outstanding individuals who make history, while the masses, the people, the class, the "mob," as the Narodnik writers contemptuously called them, are incapable of conscious, organized activity and can only blindly follow the "heroes." For this reason the Narodniks abandoned mass revolutionary work among the peasantry and the working class and changed to individual terrorism. They induced one of the most prominent revolutionaries of the time, Stepan Khalturin, to give up his work of organizing a revolutionary workers' union and to devote himself entirely to terrorism.

By these assassinations of individual representatives of the class of exploiters, assassinations that were of no benefit to the revolution, the Narodniks diverted the attention of the working people from the struggle against that class as a whole. They hampered the development of the revolutionary initiative and activity of the working class and the peasantry.

The Narodniks prevented the working class from understanding its leading role in the revolution and retarded the creation of an independent party of the working class.

Although the Narodniks' secret organization had been smashed by the tsarist government, Narodnik views continued to persist for a long time among the revolutionary-minded intelligentsia. The surviving Narodniks stubbornly resisted the spread of Marxism in Russia and hampered the organization of the working class.

Marxism in Russia could therefore grow and gain strength only by combating Narodism.

The "Emancipation of Labour" group launched a fight against the erroneous views of the Narodniks and showed how greatly their views and methods of struggle were prejudicing the working-class movement.

In his writings directed against the Narodniks, Plekhanov showed that their views had nothing in common with scientific Socialism, even though they called themselves Socialists.

Plekhanov was the first to give a Marxist criticism of the erroneous views of the Narodniks. Delivering well-aimed blows at the Narodnik views, Plekhanov at the same time developed a brilliant defence of the Marxist views.

What were the major errors of the Narodniks which Plekhanov hammered at with such destructive effect?

First, the Narodniks asserted that capitalism was something "accidental" in Russia, that it would not develop, and that therefore the proletariat would not grow and develop either.

Secondly, the Narodniks did not regard the working class as the foremost class in the revolution. They dreamed of attaining Socialism without the proletariat. They considered that the principal revolutionary force was the peasantry – led by the intelligentsia – and the peasant commune, which they regarded as the embryo and foundation of Socialism.

Thirdly, the Narodniks' view of the whole course of human history was erroneous and harmful. They neither knew nor understood the laws of the economic and political development of society. In this respect they were quite backward. According to them, history was made not by classes, and not by the struggle of classes, but by outstanding individ-uals – "heroes" – who were blindly followed by the masses, the "mob," the people, the classes.

In combating and exposing the Narodniks Plekhanov wrote a number of Marxist works which were instrumental in rearing and educating the Marxists in Russia. Such works of his as Socialism and the Political Struggle, Our Differences, On the Development of the Monistic View of History cleared the way for the victory of Marxism in Russia.

In his works Plekhanov expounded the basic principles of Marxism. Of particular importance was his On the Development of the Monistic View of History, published in 1895. Lenin said that this book served to "rear a whole generation of Russian Marxists." (Lenin, Collected Works, Russ. ed., Vol. XIV, p. 347.)

In his writings aimed against the Narodniks, Plekhanov showed that it was absurd to put the question the way the Narodniks did: should capitalism develop in Russia or not? As a matter of fact Russia had already entered the path of capitalist development, Plekhanov said, producing facts to prove it, and there was no force that could divert her from this path.

The task of the revolutionaries was not to arrest the development of capitalism in Russia – that they could not do anyhow. Their task was to secure the support of the powerful revolutionary force brought into being by the development of capitalism, namely, the working class, to develop its class-consciousness, to organize it, and to help it to create its own working-class party.

Plekhanov also shattered the second major error of the Narodniks, namely, their denial of the role of the proletariat as the vanguard in the revolutionary struggle. The Narodniks looked upon the rise of the proletariat in Russia as something in the nature of a "historical misfortune," and spoke of the "ulcer of proletarianism." Plekhanov, championing the teachings of Marxism, showed that they were fully applicable to Russia and that in spite of the numerical preponderance of the peasantry and the relative numerical weakness of the proletariat, it was on the proletariat and on its growth that the revolutionaries should base their chief hopes.

Why on the proletariat?

Because the proletariat, although it was still numerically small, was a labouring class which was connected with the most advanced form of economy, large-scale production, and which for this reason had a great future before it.

Because the proletariat, as a class, was growing from year to year, was developing politically, easily lent itself to organization owing to the conditions of labour prevailing in large-scale production, and was the most revolutionary class owing to its proletarian status, for it had nothing to lose in the revolution but its chains.

The case was different with the peasantry.

The peasantry (meaning here the individual peasants, each of whom worked for himself – Ed.), despite its numerical strength, was a labouring class that was connected with the most backward form of economy, small-scale production, owing to which it had not and could not have any great future before it.

Far from growing as a class, the peasantry was splitting up more and more into bourgeois (kulaks) and poor peasants (proletarians and semi-proletarians). Moreover, being scattered, it lent itself less easily than the proletariat to organization, and, consisting of small owners, it joined the revolutionary movement less readily than the proletariat.

The Narodniks maintained that Socialism in Russia would come not through the dictatorship of the proletariat, but through the peasant commune, which they regarded as the embryo and basis of Socialism. But the commune was neither the basis nor the embryo of Socialism, nor could it be, because the commune was dominated by the kulaks – the bloodsuckers who exploited the poor peasants, the agricultural labourers and the economically weaker middle peasants. The formal existence of communal land ownership and the periodical redivision of the land according to the number of mouths in each peasant household did not alter the situation in any way. Those members of the commune used the land who owned draught cattle, implements and seed, that is, the well-to-do middle peasants and kulaks. The peasants who possessed no horses, the poor peasants, the small peasants generally, had to surrender their land to the kulaks and to hire themselves out as agricultural labourers. As a matter of fact, the peasant commune was a convenient means of masking the dominance of the kulaks and an inexpensive instrument in the hands of the tsarist government for the collection of taxes from the peasants on the basis of collective responsibility. That was why tsardom left the peasant commune intact. It was absurd to regard a commune of this character as the embryo or basis of Socialism.

Plekhanov shattered the third major error of the Narodniks as well, namely, that "heroes," outstanding individuals, and their ideas played a prime role in social development, and that the role of the masses, the "mob," the people, classes, was insignificant. Plekhanov accused the Narodniks of idealism, and showed that the truth lay not with idealism, but with the materialism of Marx and Engels.

Plekhanov expounded and substantiated the view of Marxist materialism. In conformity with Marxist materialism, he showed that in the long run the development of society is determined not by the wishes and ideas of outstanding individuals, but by the development of the material conditions of existence of society, by the changes in the mode of production of the material wealth required for the existence of society, by the changes in the mutual relations of classes in the production of material wealth, by the struggle of classes for place and position in the production and distribution of material wealth. It was not ideas that determined the social and economic status of men, but the social and economic status of men that determined their ideas. Outstanding individuals may become nonentities if their ideas and wishes run counter to the economic development of society, to the needs of the foremost class; and vice versa, outstanding people may really become outstanding individuals if their ideas and wishes correctly express the needs of the economic development of society, the needs of the foremost class.

In answer to the Narodniks' assertion that the masses are nothing but a mob, and that it is heroes who make history and convert the mob into a people, the Marxists affirmed that it is not heroes that make history, but history that makes heroes, and that, consequently, it is not heroes who create a people, but the people who create heroes and move history onward. Heroes, outstanding individuals, may play an important part in the life of society only in so far as they are capable of correctly understanding the conditions of development of society and the ways of changing them for the better. Heroes, outstanding individuals, may become ridiculous and useless failures if they do not correctly understand the conditions of development of society and go counter to the historical needs of society in the conceited belief that they are "makers" of history.

To this category of ill-starred heroes belonged the Narodniks.

Plekhanov's writings and the fight he waged against the Narodniks thoroughly undermined their influence among the revolutionary intelligentsia. But the ideological destruction of Narodism was still far from complete. It was left to Lenin to deal the final blow to Narodism, as an enemy of Marxism.

Soon after the suppression of the "Narodnaya Volya" Party the majority of the Narodniks renounced the revolutionary struggle against the tsarist government and began to preach a policy of reconciliation and agreement with it. In the eighties and nineties the Narodniks began to voice the interests of the kulaks.

The "Emancipation of Labour" group prepared two drafts of a program for a Russian Social-Democratic party (the first in 1884 and the second in 1887). This was a very important preparatory step in the formation of a Marxist Social-Democratic party in Russia.

But at the same time the "Emancipation of Labour" group was guilty of some very serious mistakes. Its first draft program still contained vestiges of the Narodnik views; it countenanced the tactics of individual terrorism. Furthermore, Plekhanov failed to take into account that in the course of the revolution the proletariat could and should lead the peasantry, and that only in an alliance with the peasantry could the proletariat gain the victory over tsardom. Plekhanov further considered that the liberal bourgeoisie was a force that could give support, albeit unstable support, to the revolution; but as to the peasantry, in some of his writings he discounted it entirely, declaring, for instance, that:

"Apart from the bourgeoisie and the proletariat we perceive no social forces in our country in which oppositional or revolutionary combinations might find support." (Plekhanov, Works, Russ. ed., Vol. III, p. 119.)

These erroneous views were the germ of Plekhanov's future Menshevik views.

Neither the "Emancipation of Labour" group nor the Marxist circles of that period had yet any practical connections with the working-class movement. It was a period in which the theory of Marxism, the ideas of Marxism, and the principles of the Social-Democratic program were just appearing and gaining a foothold in Russia. In the decade of 1884-94 the Social-Democratic movement still existed in the form of small separate groups and circles which had no connections, or very scant connections, with the mass working-class movement. Like an infant still unborn but already developing in its mother's womb, the Social-Democratic movement, as Lenin wrote, was in the "process of fatal development."

The "Emancipation of Labor" group, Lenin said, "only laid the theoretical foundations for the Social-Democratic movement and made the first step towards the working-class movement."

The task of uniting Marxism and the working-class movement in Russia, and of correcting the mistakes of the "Emancipation of Labour" group fell to Lenin.

BEGINNING OF LENIN'S REVOLUTIONARY ACTIVITIES. ST.PETERSBURG LEAGUE OF STRUGGLE FOR THE EMANCIPATION OF THE WORKING CLASS