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
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 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
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
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
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
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