Red Letter
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Terrorism and Populism
by George Plekhanov
Estimated Reading Time: 14 min

George Plekhanov (1856-1918) was the first major intellectual spokesman for Russian Marxism. In the early 18070s and 80s, the Russian radicals had been mainly populists. They believed that the motor force for social change in Russia would be the peasants and the basis for a new society would be the peasant commune, thereby enabling Russia to escape the destructive consequences of Western capitalism. In the late 1870's, the populists broke into two groups, one devoted to the policy of “going to the people,” that is, trying to educate groups of peasants, and the other turning to revolutionary terrorism against Czarist officials.

Plekhanov was the first socialist theoretician in Russia who, in the name of Marxism, attacked both wings of populism. He argued against the idealization of the peasantry; he denied that the peasant commune could provide an adequate basis for socialism, since, among other reasons, socialism could be built only on an advanced economy and a modern democratic society; and he urged the creation of a broad socialist party, based largely on the nascent Russian working class, which would collaborate with progressive bourgeois elements to overthrow the Czarist monarchy and establish a democratic republic.

In 1883, he published Socialism and Political Struggle, a fierce attack on both populists and terrorists, from which the following passages are taken. Like other dusty polemics in the literature of socialism, Plekhanov’s arguements against the populists, terrorists, and anarchists—though all but unknown to English-language readers—take developments at the present moment.

Today's reading closely follows Irving Howe's selection from the Essential Works of Socialism. Footnotes slightly abridged.

5. To what extent Aristotle was “a sceptic in matters of state” is obvious from the first chapter of the first volume of his Politics, in which he says that “the state is the most accomplished form of community”, that its purpose is “the supreme good”, and that it is therefore a phenomenon “natural in the highest sense of the word, and man is an animal predestined by his very nature to the state form of community”. (Book I, Chap.1, #I-XI of the German Sussemil edition of 1879.) The author of Politics is just as much a “sceptic” in questions of state as Proudhon in questions of commodity production; the former could not imagine any other, higher form of community, the latter did not suspect that products could be distributed among the members of society without taking the form of commodities.

From the anarchist point of view the political question is the touchstone of any working-class programme. The anarchists not only deny any deal with the modern state, they go so far as to exclude from their notions of “future society” anything that recalls the idea of state in one way or another. “Autonomy of the individual in an autonomous community” – such has been the motto of all consistent supporters of this trend. We know that its founder – Proudhon – in his publication La Voix du peuple set himself the not quite modest task “to do as regards the government” (which he confused with the state) “what Kant did as regards religion” and carried his anti-state zeal so far as to declare that Aristotle himself was “a sceptic in matters of state”. 5 The accomplishment of the task he had set himself was very simple and followed, if you like, quite logically from the economic doctrines of the French Kant. Proudhon was never able to imagine the economic system of the future otherwise than in the form of commodity production, corrected and supplemented by a new, “just” form of exchange on the basis of “constituted value”. For all its “justice”, this new form of exchange does not, of course, preclude the purchase, sale or promissory notes which go with commodity production and circulation. All these transactions naturally presuppose various contracts and it is these that determine the mutual relations between the transacting sides. But in modern society “contracts” are based on common legal standards compulsory for all citizens and safeguarded by the state. In the “future society” everything would supposedly proceed somewhat differently. Revolution, according to Proudhon, was to abolish “laws”, leaving only “contracts”. “There is no need for laws voted by a majority or unanimously,” he says in his Idée générale de la Révolution au XIX siècle, “every citizen, every commune and corporation will establish their own particular laws” (p.259). With such a view of the matter, the political programme of the proletariat was simplified to the extreme. The state, which recognises only general laws compulsory for all citizens, could not even be a means for attaining socialist ideals. Making use of it for their aims, the socialists only consolidate the evil by the rooting out of which “social liquidation” should begin. The state must “decline”, thus affording “every citizen, every commune and corporation” full freedom to decree “their own particular laws” and to conclude the “contracts” which they require.

The task of the Russian anarchists was simplified still more. “The destruction of the state” (which little by little replaced in the anarchist programme its “decline” recommended by Proudhon) was to clear the way for the development of the “ideals” of the Russian people. And as communal land tenure and organisation of crafts into cartels occupy a very prominent place in these “ideals”, it was presumed that the “autonomous” Russians of democratic origin would conclude their “contracts” not in the spirit of Proudhon’s reciprocity but rather of agrarian communism. As a “born socialist”, the Russian people would not be long in understanding that mere communal land tenure and communal ownership of the instruments of production do not guarantee the desired “equality” and would be forced to set about organising “autonomous communes” on completely communist foundations.

The Russian anarchists, however – at least those of the so-called rebel shade – bothered little about the economic consequences of the popular revolution they preached. They considered it their duty to remove those social conditions which, in their opinion, hindered the normal development of national life; but they did not ask themselves which road that development would take once it was freed from external hindrances. That this peculiar refashioning of the famous motto of the Manchester School, Laissez faire et laissez passer (let every man do as he pleases, and every thing take its course) is the economic policy in which the government reduces its interference in the economic affairs to a minimum.laissez faire, laissez passer, to make it look revolutionary, precluded all possibility of seriously appraising the contemporary condition of our social and economic life and did away with every criterion for determining even the concept of the “normal” course of its development – this did not occur either to “rebels” or to the “Narodniks” who appeared later. At the same time it would be utterly hopeless to attempt such an appraisal as long as Proudhon’s teachings remained the point of departure of our revolutionaries’ considerations. The weakest point of those teachings, the point in which they offend logic, is the concept of commodity and of exchange value, i.e., those very premises on which alone the correct conclusions about the mutual relations of the producers in the future economic organisation can be based. From the standpoint of Proudhon’s theories no special importance attaches to the circumstance that contemporary Russian communal land tenure by no means precludes commodity production. The Proudhonist has no inkling of the “inner, inevitable dialectics”, which transforms commodity production at a definite stage of its development into ... capitalist production. And that is why it did not occur to his Russian cousin to ask himself whether the divided efforts of “autonomous” persons, communes and corporations would suffice for the struggle against this tendency of commodity production which threatens one fine day to supply a certain proportion of the “born” Communists with “honourably acquired” capitals and to turn them into exploiters of the remaining masses of the population. The anarchist denies the creative role of the state in the socialist revolution for the very reason that he does not understand the tasks and the conditions of that revolution.

7. Let us simply remind our reader of the objection made to Proudhon by Rittinghausen. “Power, government and all its forms,” said the tireless propagandist of the theory of direct popular legislation, “are only varieties of the species that is called: interference by society in people’s relations with things and, consequently, with one another ... I call on M. Proudhon to throw into my face, as the result of his intellectual labour, the following conclusion: ’No, there must be no such interference by society in people’s relations with things and, consequently, with one another!’ “ See Legislation directe par le peuple et ses adversaires, pp.194-95. Rittinghausen thought that “to pose the question in this way means to solve it”, for “M. Proudhon himself admits the necessity for such interference”. But he did not foresee that the pupils would go much further than the teacher and that the theory of anarchy would degenerate, finally, into a theory of “social amorphism”. The anarchists of today recognise no interference by society in the relations of individuals, as they have repeatedly stated in certain of their publications.

10. To be persuaded of this one needs but to compare the “Letter to Frederick Engels” just referred to with Bakunin’s pamphlet quoted above.

We cannot enter here into a detailed analysis of anarchism in general or of Bakuninism in particular.7 We wish merely to point out to readers that both Proudhon and the Russian anarchists were completely right from their point of view when they raised “political non-interference” to the position of main dogma in their practical programme. The social and political composition of Russian life in particular, it seemed, justified the negation of “politics” which is compulsory for all anarchists. Before entering the field of political agitation the “inhabitant” of Russia has to become a citizen, i.e., to win for himself at least some political rights, and first of all, of course, the right to think as he pleases and to say what he thinks. Such a task amounts in practice to a “political revolution”, and the experience of Western Europe has clearly “shown” all anarchists that such revolutions have not brought, do not and cannot bring any benefit to the people. As for the consideration that the people must be educated politically by taking part in their country’s public life, that could not be put into practice, if only for the reason that the anarchists consider, as we have already seen, that such participation is not education, but perversion of the popular masses: it develops in them “belief in the state” and therefore the tendency to statehood, or as the late M.A. Bakunin would have said, “infects them with its official and social venom, and, in any case, distracts them at least for a short time from what is now the only useful and salutary matter – from revolt.” And at the same time, according to the philosophy of history of our “rebels”, it appeared that the Russian people had shown its anti-state tendency by a whole series of large and small movements and could therefore be considered mature enough politically. So down with all “dabbling in politics”! Let us help the people in its anti-state struggle. Let us unite its dispersed efforts in one revolutionary stream – and then the awkward edifice of the state will crash, opening by its fall a new era of social freedom and economic equality! These few words expressed the whole programme of our “rebels”.

In this sketchy review of the programmes of the different groups of Russian revolutionaries we must not forget that the views according to which “all constitutions” were only more or less unprofitable contracts with the devil, as old F. H. Jacobi put it – such views, we say, were typical not only of the Narodniks and anarchists. If the reader knows about Frederick Engels’ polemic with p.Titachov, he will probably remember that the editor of Nabat, a who disagreed with the Bakuninists on the question of practical struggle, was in perfect agreement with them on their basic views about the social and political condition of our country. He looked at it through the same prism of Russian exceptionalism and the “inborn communist tendencies of the Russian people”.10 Like a genuine Blanquist he did not deny “politics”, of course, but he understood it exclusively as a plot whose purpose is to seize state power. This purpose, it seems, occupied the whole field of vision of our Blanquists of that time and led them to many contradictions. To remain consistent they had to admit that their activity could be useful to the cause of progress only in the exceptional case that the blow they dealt would not deviate a hair’s breadth from its target. If their planned seizure of power is a failure, if their plot is discovered or the revolutionary government is overthrown by the liberal party, the Russian people, far from winning anything, will risk losing much. The last of the supposed cases is particularly disastrous. The liberals will establish a strong government which will be far more difficult to fight than modern “absolutely absurd” and “absurdly absolute” monarchy, while “the fire of economic progress” will destroy the radical bases of the people’s life. Under its influence exchange will develop, capitalism will consolidate itself, the very principle of the village commune will be destroyed – in a word, the river of time will wash away the stone from which the communist heaven is within hand’s reach. In cases of failure the Russian Blanquists would be bound to do terrible damage to the cause of popular emancipation and thus fall into the tragic position of William Tell, who had to risk the life of his own son. And as they have hardly distinguished themselves by the skill of the mythic Swiss “seditionary”, the Russian people would not shout to them:

Shoot! I fear not!

if it adopted their view on the “radical bases” of its life and had been invited to give its opinion about their programme.

Such a narrow and hopeless philosophy of Russian history was bound to lead logically to the amazing conclusion that Russia’s economic backwardness was a most reliable ally of the revolution and that stagnation was to be blazoned as the first and only paragraph of our “minimum programme”. “Every day brings us new enemies, creates new social factors hostile to us,” we read in the first, November, issue of Nabat for 1875. “Fire is creeping up to our state forms, too. Now these are dead, lifeless. Economic progress will stir life in them, will breathe into them a new spirit, will give them the strength and the fortitude which they have so far lacked”, and so forth. But if Joshua succeeded as the Bible relates, in stopping the sun “for ten degrees”, the time of miracles has passed and there is not a single party which could shout: “Stop, productive forces! Do not move, capitalism! “ History pays as little attention to the fears of revolutionaries as to the jeremiads of reaction. “Economic progress” does its work without waiting for the anarchists or the Blanquists to put their intentions into practice. Every factory founded in Petersburg, every new wage-worker employed by a Yaroslavl handicraftsman strengthens the “flame of progress”, which is supposed to be fatal to the revolution, and consequently decreases the probability of popular victory. Can such a view of the mutual relations of the various social forces in Russia be called revolutionary? We do not think so. In order to make themselves revolutionary in substance and not in name alone, the Russian anarchists, Narodniks and Blanquists should first of all have revolutionised their own heads, and to do so they should have learned to understand the course of historical development....

Can our revolutionaries really seize power and retain it, if only for a short time, or is all talk of this nothing else than cutting the skin of a bear that has not been killed and which, by force of circumstances, is not even going to be killed? That is a question which has recently become an urgent one for revolutionary Russia....

Let us hasten to make a reservation. The previous pages must already have convinced the reader that we do not belong to the opponents in principle of such an act as the seizure of power by a revolutionary party. In our opinion that is the last, and what is more, the absolutely inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the political struggle which every class striving for emancipation must undertake at a definite stage in social development. Having gained political domination, a revolutionary class will retain that domination and be relatively secure against the blows of reaction only when it uses against reaction the mighty weapon of state power. Den Teufel halte, wer ihn halt!? Translation: Who traps the Devil, holds him fast.

The Raznochintsy (literally, men of various social-estates) were educated members of Russian society drawn from the small towns folk, the clergy, the merchants and the peasantry, as distinct from those drawn from the nobility.
Den Teufel halte, wer ihn halt!” says Faust.

But there is no more difference between heaven and earth than between the dictatorship of a class and that of a group of revolutionary raznochintsi. This applies in particular to the dictatorship of the working class, whose present task is not only to overthrow the political domination of the unproductive classes in society, but also to do away with the anarchy now existing in production and consciously to organise all functions of social and economic life. The mere understanding of this task calls for an advanced working class with political experience and education, a working class free from bourgeois prejudices and able to discuss its situation by itself. In addition to this, its solution presupposes that socialist ideas are spread among the proletariat and that the proletariat is conscious of its own strength and confident in victory. But such a proletariat will not allow even the sincerest of its well-wishers to seize power. It will not allow it for the simple reason that it has been to the school of political education with the firm intention of finishing it at some time and coming forward as an independent figure in the arena of historical life, instead of passing eternally from one guardianship to another; it will not allow it because such a guardianship would be unnecessary, as the proletariat could then solve the problem of the socialist revolution itself; and finally it will not allow it because such a guardianship would be harmful, for the conscious participation of the producers in organising production cannot be replaced by any conspiratorial skill, any daring or self-sacrifice on the part of the conspirators. The mere thought that the social problem can be solved in practice by anybody but the workers themselves shows complete misunderstanding of this problem, irrespective of whether the idea is held by an “Iron Chancellor” or a revolutionary organisation. Once the proletariat has understood the conditions of its emancipation and is mature to emancipate itself, it will take state power in its own hands in order to finish off its enemies and build up social life, not, of course, on the basis of an-archy, which would bring new disasters, but of pan-archy, which will give all adult members of society the possibility to take part in the discussion and settlement of social matters. And until the working class is sufficiently developed to be able to fulfil its great historical task, the duty of its supporters is to accelerate the process of its development, to remove the obstacles preventing its strength and its consciousness from growing, and not to invent social experiments and vivisection, the outcome of which is always more than doubtful.

That is how we understand the seizure of power in the socialist revolution. Applying this point of view to Russian reality we must admit that we by no means believe in the early possibility of a socialist government in Russia.

37. [Note to the 1905 edition.] The sympathy of “society” is very important for us and we can – or more exactly we had many chances to – win it without changing one iota of our programme. But, of course, it requires tact to make the possibility a reality, and that is what we have not always got. For instance, we sometimes allow ourselves to abuse “capital” about, though, or course, not because of, its “rebellion”. Marx would never have made such a gross tactical blunder. He would have considered it worthy of Karl Grün and other “true socialists”.

Considering all that has been said we think that only one aim of the Russian socialists would not be fantastic now: to achieve free political institutions, on the one hand, and to create elements for the setting up of the future workers’ socialist party of Russia, on the other. They must put forward the demand for a democratic constitution which shall guarantee the workers the “rights of citizen” as well as the “rights of man” and give them, by universal suffrage, the possibility to take an active part in the political life of the country. Without trying to scare anybody with the yet remote “red spectre”, such a political programme would arouse sympathy for our revolutionary party among all those who are not systematic enemies of democracy; it could be subscribed to by very many representatives of our liberalism as well as by the socialists. 37 And whereas the seizure of power by some secret revolutionary organisation will always be the work only of that organisation and of those who are initiated in its plans, agitation for the programme mentioned would be a matter for the whole of Russian society, in which it would intensify the conscious striving for political emancipation. Then the interests of the liberals would indeed “force” them to “act jointly with the socialists against the government”, because they would cease to meet in revolutionary publications the assurance that the overthrow of absolutism would be the signal for a social revolution in Russia. At the same time another less timid and more sober section of liberal society would no longer see revolutionaries as unpractical youths who set themselves unrealisable and fantastic plans. This view, which is disadvantageous for revolutionaries, would give place to the respect of society not only for their heroism but also for their political maturity. This sympathy would gradually grow into active support, or more probably into an independent social movement, and then the hour of absolutism’s fall would strike at last. The socialist party would play an extremely honourable and beneficial role in this emancipation movement. Its glorious past, its selflessness and energy would give weight to its demands and it would at least stand chances of thus winning for the people the possibility of political development and education, and for itself the right to address its propaganda openly to the people and to organise them openly into a separate party.

Terrorism and Populism
Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
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