4) The Birth of Russian Marxism

The prospects for Plekhanov’s tendency could hardly have been more bleak. The old tactic of “going to the people” was played out. The peasants were no more receptive to the blandishments of the Narodniks than before. Many old Narodniks finally gave up hope and voted with their feet, returning to a more convivial existence in the towns. Probably influenced by his earlier experience as head of the “workers’ section,” Plekhanov proposed to the members of the Cherny Peredel that they should conduct agitation among the factory workers. Plekhanov sought links with his former worker contacts, among them Stepan Khalturin of the Northern Union of Russian Workers. But the tide was running strongly in favor of terrorism even among the advanced workers. Khalturin himself participated, in February 1880, in an attempt against the life of the tsar. The supporters of Cherny Peredel were utterly isolated. The final blow came in January 1880 when, shortly after the appearance of the first issue of the group’s journal, the police descended on the underground printshop and mopped up practically the whole organization in Russia. The future of the non-terrorist trend in Narodnism, as Trotsky later observed, could not be an independent phenomenon, but only a brief and shadowy transition towards Marxism.

On the other side of the divide, the supporters of Narodnaya Volya appeared to be making spectacular gains. Incredibly, a tiny organization of no more than a few hundred men and women turned the tsar into a virtual prisoner in his own palace. For a time, the tide flowed irresistibly in the direction of Narodnaya Volya, which represented the most determined and revolutionary elements of the youth. The new organization, highly centralized and operating in the strictest secrecy, was headed by an Executive Committee, consisting of A.I. Zhelyabov, A.D. Mikhailov, M.F. Frolenko, N.A. Mozorov, Vera Figner, Sophia Perovskaya, and others. In comparison with the old Narodnik movement, the program of Narodnaya Volya represented an advance, inasmuch as it stood for a clearly political struggle against the autocracy. Lenin, who always paid tribute to the selfless heroism of the Narodnovoltsy, while implacably criticizing the tactic of individual terrorism, wrote later: “The Narodnaya Volya members made a step forward when they took up the political struggle, but they failed to connect it with socialism.”28

The program of Narodnaya Volya envisaged a “permanent popular representative body” elected by universal suffrage, the proclamation of democratic liberties, the transfer of land to the people, and measures to place the factories in the hands of the workers. The movement attracted many of the most courageous and self-sacrificing elements, including Khalturin of the Northern Workers’ Union. He showed great daring and initiative in obtaining a job as a carpenter on the imperial yacht. Having gained official confidence as a model workman, managed in February 1880 to plant a powerful bomb inside the Winter Palace, where he was engaged on repairs, blowing up the tsar’s palace in the middle of his capital! However, the response of the state was to step up repression, creating a virtual dictatorship under General Melikov. The case of Khalturin is particularly tragic. Early on, he sensed the contradiction between the need to build the labor movement and terrorism, as Venturi explains: “Khalturin was constantly divided between the zeal for coercion and his duties as a workers’ organizer. He gave vent to his feelings by saying that the intellectuals had compelled him to start from scratch after every act of terrorism and its inevitable losses. ‘If only they gave us a bit of time to reinforce ourselves,’ he said on each occasion. But then he too was seized by that thirst for immediate action which led him to the scaffold with them.”29

The very successes of the terrorists contained the seeds of their own disintegration. The assassination of the tsar in 1881 unleashed a reign of repression in which the terror of the individual against ministers and policemen gave way to the terror of the entire state apparatus against the revolutionary movement in general.

“Russia was divided into a number of districts,” Kropotkin recalled, “each of them under a governor general who received the order to hang offenders pitilessly. Kovalsky and his friends who, by the way, had killed nobody by their shots, were executed. Hanging became the order of the day. 23 persons perished in two years, including a boy of 19 who was caught posting a revolutionary proclamation at a railway station: this act was the only charge against him. He was a boy, but he died like a man.”30

A young girl of 14 was transported for life to Siberia for trying to rouse a crowd to free some prisoners on their way to the gallows. She drowned herself. Prisoners spent years in remand prisons—dens of typhoid fever—where 20 percent died in a single year awaiting trial. Brutal treatment by warders was answered by hunger strikes, which were dealt with by forced feeding. Even those who were acquitted were still exiled to Siberia, where they slowly starved on the pitiful government allowance. All this fed the indignation of the youth who burned with the desire for vengeance. Victims of the White Terror were replaced with new recruits, who merely ended up as new victims in the infernal cycle of repression-terrorism-repression. A whole generation perished in this way, and at the end of the day, the state, which does not rest on individual generals and police chiefs, emerged stronger than ever, despite the fact that Narodnaya Volya succeeded in assassinating a whole number of prominent tsarist officials.

The new Procurator General, the minister Pobedonostsev, promised a reign of “iron and blood” to wipe out the terrorists. A series of draconian laws gave the government sweeping new powers of arrest, censorship, and deportation, which affected not only the revolutionaries, but even the most moderate liberal tendencies. National oppression was stepped up, with the suppression of all publications in non-Russian languages. Laws were passed to strengthen the grip of the landlord on his peasants. A wave of reaction swept through the schools and universities, designed to crush all forms of independent thought and break the rebellious spirit of the youth. Contrary to the expectations of the terrorists, there was no mass uprising, no general movement of opposition. Very soon, all the hopes born of a generation of self-sacrificing heroism were reduced to ashes. The terrorist wing of Narodnism was swiftly decimated by a wave of arrests. By 1882, its center liquidated and its leaders in jail, the Narodnik movement broke up into a thousand fragments. Yet in the hour when the death-knell of the old Narodnism was sounding, a new movement was rapidly gaining ground in the rest of Europe, and a new class balance of forces was emerging in backward Russia itself.

For years, the ideas of Marx and Engels (albeit in an incomplete and vulgarized form) had been familiar to Russian Revolutionaries. Marx, and especially Engels, had engaged in polemics with the theoreticians of Narodnism. But Marxism had never had a sizeable following in Russia. Its denial of individual terrorism, its rejection of a special “Russian road to socialism” and of the alleged leading role of the peasantry in the revolution was too much for revolutionary youth to swallow. In comparison with Bakunin’s “propaganda of the deed,” the idea that Russia would have to pass through the painful school of capitalism seemed to smack of passivity and defeatism.

The old generation of Narodniks had a barely concealed disdain for theory. Insofar as they resorted to ideological argument, it was really as an afterthought, to justify the practical twists and turns of the movement. In turn they had put forward the idea of the central role of the peasantry, of Russia’s alleged “special historical mission,” Pan-Slavism, and terrorism. Having broken their heads against a solid wall, the ideologists of Narodnism, instead of honestly admitting their mistakes and attempting to work out an alternative strategy and tactic, proceeded to reaffirm the old bankrupt ideas, and, in so doing, sank ever deeper into a morass of confusion.

The first act of the new trend represented by Plekhanov, and a tiny handful of collaborators, was to build firm foundations for the future on the basis of correct ideas, theory, tactics, and strategy. This was the great contribution of Plekhanov, without which the future development of Bolshevism would have been unthinkable. Though still, in his own words, “a Narodnik to the fingertips,” Plekhanov sought an answer to the problems posed by the crisis of Narodnik ideology in a serious study of the works of Marx and Engels. Forced to flee abroad in January 1880, he had met and discussed with French and German Marxists then engaged in a fierce ideological struggle with the anarchists. This encounter with the European labor movement was a decisive turning point in Plekhanov’s development.

In the Russian underground, only a few works of Marx and Engels had been available, mainly on economic questions. Like others of his generation, Plekhanov was acquainted with the Marx of Capital, which the tsarist censors regarded as too difficult and abstract to be dangerous. It is doubtful whether the censors themselves could understand it, so how, they thought, could the workers make head or tail of it? Freed, for a time, from the pressures of direct participation in the revolutionary struggle in Russia, Plekhanov and the others had the enormous advantage of access to literature which was unobtainable there. It was a revelation to him.

Plekhanov’s study of Marxist philosophy, the writings on the class struggle, and the materialist conception of history cast a whole new light on the perspectives for the revolution in Russia. One by one, the old ideas of terrorism, anarchism, and Narodnism crumbled under the onslaught of Marxist criticism. He later summed up the experience:

Anyone who did not live through those times with us can hardly imagine the eagerness with which we threw ourselves into the study of Social Democratic literature, amidst which the works of the German theoreticians naturally occupied the first place. And the more closely we became acquainted with Social Democratic literature, the more we became aware of the weak points of our earlier views, the more we became convinced of the correctness of our own revolutionary development . . . The theories of Marx, like Ariadne’s thread, led us forth from the labyrinth of contradictions with which our minds were stuffed, under the influence of Bakunin.31

However, the break with the past was not easy to accomplish. Deutsch and Zasulich in particular still had illusions in the terrorists. In fact, when the news reached the group of the assassination of the tsar, all of them, with the exception of Plekhanov, were in favor of going back to Narodnaya Volya. The experience had to be gone through. But in any event, Plekhanov understood that the cadres of the future Russian Marxist workers’ party could not drop from the clouds. Narodnaya Volya represented the tradition of a whole generation of struggle against tsarism. Such a movement, steeped in the blood of countless revolutionary martyrs, could not be light-mindedly written off. Precisely because of its traditions, the Narodnik movement, even in the period of its degeneration, still attracted many of the young men and women, confusedly seeking a road to social revolution. Such a man was Alexander Ulyanov, Lenin’s brother, executed for his part in a plot against the life of Alexander III in 1887. Lenin himself had Narodnik sympathies and almost certainly began his political life as a Narodnaya Volya supporter. To save such people as this from futile terrorist gestures was the first duty of the Russian Marxists.

Despite the smallness of its forces, Plekhanov’s group caused alarm in the leading Narodnik circles, which immediately tried to stifle the voice of Marxism by bureaucratic means. The group’s attempts to find a road to the revolutionary youth in Russia soon came up against a stone wall of obstacles erected by the right-wing Narodnik leaders who controlled the party press. The editors of Vestnik Narodnoi Voli (The Narodnaya Volya Herald) refused even to print Plekhanov’s work Socialism and the Political Struggle, his pioneering work directed against anarchism. At first, Tikhomirov, the then leader of Narodnaya Volya, seemed inclined to accept the group’s request to join the organization as a tendency, but after the publication of Socialism and the Political Struggle, Tikhomirov quickly changed his mind and prohibited the admission of an organized group into Narodnaya Volya. First, they would have to dissolve, then each application for membership would be considered individually. The impossibility of a reconciliation was now clear to everyone, and in September 1883 the Marxists formed the Group for the Emancipation of Russian Labor.

At the time of the split, the group contained no more than five members: Plekhanov, Axelrod, and Vera Zasulich were all well-known figures in the Narodnik movement. Vera Zasulich enjoyed European fame as a result of the Trepov affair. Lev Deutsch (1855–1941), Zasulich’s husband, had been an active Narodnik propagandist in South Russia at the end of the 1870s. The role of Vasily Nikolaevich Ignatov (1854–85) is less well known. He had been exiled to Central Russia for participating in student demonstrations. He put up a large amount of money which enabled the group to start its activity before he died, tragically young, of tuberculosis which effectively prevented him from playing much of an active part. Deutsch, having been arrested in Germany in 1884, was sent to Russia to receive a long prison sentence, Ignatov’s death effectively reduced the group to just three people.

Ahead of them lay many years of hard and lonely struggle in the shadow of tedious anonymity. It takes a peculiar kind of courage for a small minority to take a conscious decision to struggle against the stream, isolated from the masses, in harsh conditions of exile, with only the slenderest resources and against apparently overwhelming odds. Not for the last time, the forces of Russian Marxism were reduced to the role of “a voice crying in the wilderness.” The only thing that sustained them was their confidence in the ideas, theory and perspectives. This, in spite of the fact that their ideas appeared to fly in the face of reality. The workers’ movement in Russia was still in its early stages. True, there were the beginnings of a strike movement, but that fell quite outside the scope of the socialists. Such workers’ groups that existed were still dominated by Narodnik ideas. The still feeble voice of the Emancipation of Labor Group was not heard in the factories. Even the students, still under the spell of anarchist and terrorist tendencies, proved difficult enough to reach.

In a letter to Axelrod written as late as March 1889, Plekhanov wrote:

Everyone (both “liberals” and “socialists”) unanimously say that the young people will not even listen to those who speak out against terrorism. In view of this we will have to be careful.

As soon as it was formed, the Emancipation of Labor Group was faced with sharp attacks from all sides for its alleged “betrayal” of “revolutionary” Narodnism. From exile, Tikhomirov wrote to his comrades in Russia warning them not to have anything to do with Plekhanov’s group. The stream of slanders and misrepresentations had an effect. The old Bakuninist, Zhobovsky, commented sarcastically: “You people are not revolutionaries but students of sociology.” The constant theme of these attacks was that the ideas of Marx could not be applied to Russia, and that Plekhanov’s program had been “scrupulously copied from the German.”32

The 1880s saw the decisive victory of the ideas of Marxism in the European labor movement. In their isolation from the movement in Russia, the Emancipation of Labor Group members instinctively drew closer to the mighty parties of the Socialist International. Plekhanov and his comrades wrote for its press, and spoke at its congresses—especially those of the German party, the party of Marx, Engels, Liebknecht, and Bebel. They derived moral comfort from the solid achievements of European Social Democracy. The forces of Russian Marxism were small, but they formed a detachment of a mighty proletarian army, numbering millions in Germany, France, Belgium. Here was a living proof of the superiority of Marxism, not in the language of Capital but in the statistics of trade union memberships, party branches, votes and Parliamentary fractions.

Even the support of European Social Democracy was, however, less than wholehearted. For years its leaders had entertained friendly relations with Narodnik leaders like Lavrov. Privately, the Social Democratic leaders looked askance at what appeared to be no more than an eccentric sectarian splinter group. The sharpness of Plekhanov’s polemics against internationally known figures of the Narodnik establishment caused consternation.

“To tell the truth,” wrote Plekhanov, “our struggle against the Bakuninists sometimes gave rise to fears even among the Western Social Democrats. They considered it inopportune. They were afraid that our propaganda, by causing a split in the revolutionary party, would weaken the energy of the struggle against the government.”

Particularly painful must have been the reservations expressed by Engels in his correspondence with Vera Zasulich. Engels accepted the impossibility of building socialism in a backward country like Russia as the starting point of his analysis. Marx himself, in the preface to the 1882 Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, and other writings, did not rule out the possibility of building a classless society in Russia on the basis of the village community (the mir), but linked it firmly to the perspective of the socialist revolution in the developed capitalist countries of Western Europe.

“If the Russian Revolution,” he wrote, “becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.”33

In his letter to Zasulich dated April 23, 1885, Engels expresses himself cautiously about Plekhanov’s book Our Differences. On the one hand, old Engels conveyed his pride that

in the Russian youth there exists a party which accepts frankly and unambiguously the great historical and economic theories of Marx and which has broken decisively with all the anarchistic and frivolously slavophile traditions of its predecessors.34

Such was not the case with many of the leaders of the Socialist International who looked askance at the tiny handful of Russian Marxists.

Already based on powerful parties with mass support, in their hearts the Western labor leaders were skeptical about the possibilities for creating a revolutionary Marxist workers’ party in Russia. Outwardly respectful of Plekhanov and his group, they privately scratched their heads in bewilderment. What was the point of all these endless disputes about obscure points of theory? Was it really necessary to split over such questions? Why couldn’t these Russians get their act together?

Their skeptical attitude seemed to be justified by the smallness of the group and the slowness of its progress. By comparison, the Narodniks had a much bigger organization, more resources, and infinitely greater influence inside and outside Russia. Yet the seemingly insignificant group of Plekhanov represented the embryo of a mighty mass revolutionary party—a party which, within the comparatively brief span of 34 years, was destined to lead the Russian workers and peasants to the conquest of power and the establishment of the first democratic workers’ state in history.


28 Lenin, Collected Works, Working Class and Bourgeois Democracy, vol. 8, 72; henceforth referred to as LCW.

29 Venturi, Roots of Revolution, 706.

30 Kropotkin, Memoirs, vol. 2, 238.

31 Baron, Plekhanov, 95.

32 Quoted in Baron, Plekhanov, 166 in both quotes.

33 Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. 1, 100–101.

34 Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, 364.

5) The Emancipation of Labor Group

The revolutionary movement in Russia can triumph only as a revolutionary movement of the workers. For us there is no other way out, nor can there be. (Plekhanov—speech to the International Socialist Congress, Paris 1889.)

Hegel once remarked that “When we want to see an oak with all its vigor of trunk, its spreading branches, and mass of foliage, we are not satisfied to be shown an acorn instead.”35 Yet within the embryo of a healthy plant or animal is contained all the genetic information necessary for its future development. It is no different with the development of a revolutionary tendency. The “genetic information” here is represented by theory, which contains within itself a rich store of generalizations based upon past experience. Theory is primary: all subsequent development stems from this. Despite the smallness of its size, the primitiveness of its organization, and rather amateur methods, the great contribution of the Emancipation of Labor Group was to lay down the theoretical roots of the movement. Of necessity, the initial work of the group was confined to winning the ones and twos, of educating and training cadres, of hammering home the fundamental principles of Marxism.

“With all our hearts,” wrote Plekhanov, “we seek to work for the creation of a literature which is accessible to the understanding of the whole peasant-worker masses; we, nevertheless are obliged for the time being to confine our popular literary efforts to the narrow circle of more or less ‘intellectual’ leaders of the working class.”36

The writings of Plekhanov during this period served to lay the theoretical basis for the building of the party. Many of them remain classics to the present time, although they do not receive sufficient attention by students of Marxism. Not by chance, Lenin strongly recommended the republication of Plekhanov’s philosophical writings after the revolution, when the two men had long been political enemies. Socialism and the Political Struggle, Our Differences, and, above all, Plekhanov’s masterpiece, On the Development of the Monist View of History are masterly restatements of the fundamental ideas of dialectical and historical materialism.

Plekhanov’s onslaught threw the Narodnik leaders into disarray. Unable to provide a coherent answer to the Marxist case, they resorted to bitter complaints and spiteful allegations about the new group. Vestnik Narodnoi Voli (no. 2, 1884) alleged that “for them [the Marxists] the polemic with Narodnaya Volya is more topical than the struggle with the Russian government and with other exploiters of the Russian people.”37

How often have Marxists heard such allegations throughout our history! For the crime of insisting on theoretical clarity, for attempting to draw a clear line of demarcation between itself and other political tendencies, Marxism is always accused of the sin of “sectarianism,” of being against “left unity” and so on and so forth. It is one of the great ironies of history that one of Plekhanov’s main Narodnik critics, Tikhomirov (“NV”), who accused the group of disrupting revolutionary unity and submissively accepting the yoke of capital, himself later went over to the camp of monarchist reaction. Not for the first or last time, the advocator of unprincipled “unity” ended up by uniting with the enemies of the working class!

The work of penetrating the movement in Russia, however, proceeded with painful difficulty. The illegal transportation of literature posed enormous problems. Professional people and students, studying abroad, were enlisted to carry illegal literature when going back home on holiday. At various times, members of the group were sent into Russia to establish contacts. Such journeys were extremely hazardous and frequently ended in arrests. People from the interior who managed to establish direct contact with the Group were few and far between, and cherished like gold nuggets. In 1887–88, there was an attempt to set up a Union of Russian Social Democrats abroad, headed by the student Rafail Soloveichik, who had left Russia in 1884. But he clashed with the Group, went back to Russia, was arrested in 1889 and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment, during which he became mentally deranged and committed suicide. Another member of the same group, Grigor Gukovsky, a young student in Zurich, was arrested in Aachen and handed over to the tsarist government. Sentenced to prison, he also committed suicide. There were many such cases. The arm of the tsarist authorities was long. The Group constantly faced the danger of infiltration by police spies and provocateurs. One such spy was Christian Haupt, a worker who was engaged by the police to infiltrate the Russian Social Democratic organizations in exile. Unmasked by the German Social Democrats as a police spy, Haupt was expelled from Switzerland.

Worst of all was the sensation of complete political isolation, aggravated by the inevitable rows and squabbles of exile life. The émigré Narodniks, stung by Plekhanov’s criticism, gave vent to their hurt feelings by heated protests at being called “Bakuninists” and demands for public apologies. The overwhelming majority of the exiles were Narodniks, and implacably hostile to the new group which they regarded as traitors and splitters. Years later, Plekhanov’s wife recalled that “the Narodnaya Volya people and N.K. Mikhailovsky at that time controlled the hearts and minds of the Geneva émigrés and the Russian students.”38

After the murder of Alexander II, a period of rigid hopelessness overcame the whole of Russia . . . The lead roofs [prisons] of Alexander III’s government contained the silence of the grave. Russian society fell into the grip of hopeless resignation, faced as it was by the end of all hopes for peaceful reform, and the apparent failure of all revolutionary movements. In such an atmosphere, there could only emerge metaphysical and mystical tendencies.39

This is how Rosa Luxemburg recalled this bleak decade of reaction. The new tsar, Alexander III, was a giant of a man, strong enough to bend a horseshoe in his hand, but an intellectual pygmy. The real ruler of Russia was Pobedonostsev, the tsar’s former tutor, Procurator of the Holy Synod, who believed that Western democracy was rotten, that only the Russian patriarchal system was sound, that the press must be silenced, that schools must be under Church control, and that the tsar’s rule must be absolute. Village priests were expected to report any politically suspect parishioners to the police, and even their sermons were subject to censorship. All non-Orthodox and non-Christian religions were persecuted. Tolstoyans were regarded as particularly dangerous to church and state. Tolstoy himself was excommunicated. All student protest was ruthlessly put down.

These were hard times. On all sides there was retreat, ideological backsliding, and cowardly apostasy. The old Narodnik trend was in a complete impasse. Having burned their fingers with terrorism, the “extreme revolutionaries” effected another 180° somersault and eventually ended up in the camp of the liberal philistines, preaching a cowardly policy of “small deeds” and harmless cultural-educational work. Commenting on the decay of Narodnism, Martov wrote:

The fall of the revolutionary People’s Freedom was at the same time the collapse of Populism as a whole. Broad circles of the democratic intelligentsia were profoundly demoralized and disappointed in “politics” and their own heroic mission. A modest “cultivation” in the service of the liberal segments of the possessing classes: this was the sign under which the part of the intelligentsia that had remained loyal to Populism entered the grey epoch of the 1880s.40

For the first ten years or so of its existence, the Emancipation of Labor Group was forced to fight a weary battle against the stream. In order to find a road to the young generation, Plekhanov was obliged to seek collaboration with all kinds of confused and semi-Narodnik elements. One such group published a small journal, Svobodnaya Rossiya (Free Russia) which, in the leading article of its first issue, argued the impossibility of “organizing the workers and peasants around revolutionary action” and argued against putting forward ideas which might frighten liberal sympathizers. Contact with Russia resembled a game of blind man’s buff. The situation with the exiles could hardly have been worse. The frustrations of the Group are shown in the correspondence of Plekhanov with his closest collaborators. Even the literary activity of the Group was fraught with difficulties. The Emancipation of Labor Group lived in an atmosphere of continuous financial crisis. Being small in number, and with limited scope for raising cash, they usually depended on what are known in the American theatrical world as “angels,” wealthy sympathizers prepared to finance their literary ventures. Sometimes, these people were not even socialists, such as Guryev who put up the cash for the “three-monthly” Sotsial Demokrat. In general, the publications of the group came out on a very irregular basis. At times, the task must have seemed well-nigh hopeless. In the summer of 1885, Plekhanov wrote to Axelrod in terms verging on desperation: “But really we are standing over an abyss of all sorts over debts, and don’t know and cannot think what to catch hold of to stop ourselves falling in. Things are bad.”41

Throughout the dark days of the 1880s, Plekhanov and his family lived in extreme poverty. At times he gave private lessons in Russian literature for a small salary, living in the cheapest “pension” owned by a butcher who fed him exclusively on soup and boiled meat! Bad food and living conditions undermined his health. For a while he was dangerously ill with pleurisy, the effect of which lasted the rest of his life. Working under enormous difficulties, suffering remorseless pressure from all sides, the Emancipation of Labor Group was held together by faith in its ideas, but also by the colossal moral and political authority of Plekhanov. Within the Group, Plekhanov reigned supreme. Their very isolation made the members rally round in a closely knit circle, welded together by strong political and personal ties. Not for nothing did they later acquire the nickname of “The Family.” And Plekhanov was the indisputable head of the “household”—intellectually, he towered above the others, and yet there existed between them a strong sense of mutual dependence born of years of struggle and sacrifice in a common cause. In such circumstances it was hardly surprising that personal and political questions should become intermixed. Plekhanov was a tower of strength to the others, giving them moral support in times of doubt and personal crises.

The tragedy of people like Axelrod and Zasulich had a two-fold character. Under different historical conditions, these talented individuals could have played a far bigger role in the shaping of events. Long years of isolation in exile had a disastrous effect upon their psychological and intellectual development. Working under Plekhanov’s shadow, their evolution became stultified to the extent that, when conditions changed, they were unable to adapt and were lost to the revolution. Due to the conditions in which the Group was compelled to work for decades, traces of a narrow propaganda circle mentality would almost inevitably tend to creep in. Such factors did not have a fundamental significance in the early years, the long, slow period of theoretical preparation and tiny propaganda circles. Only at a later date, when the Russian Marxist movement was faced with the necessity of stepping over the limitation of the propaganda phase did the negative features of the Emancipation of Labor Group emerge.

For two decades, the membership of the Emancipation of Labor Group stayed virtually the same. Of its founders, V.N. Ignatov died too early to leave much of an imprint. Lev Deutsch was the heart and soul of the organizational side of the work, such as the arrangements for printing and distribution of literature. Pavel Axelrod was a talented propagandist who made a big impression on the young Lenin and Trotsky. His name was for a long time inseparable from that of Plekhanov. Vera Zasulich, a sincere, warm-hearted and impulsive person, suffered more than most from the trauma of exile. Ever impatient to close the gap between the Emancipation of Labor Group and the new generation of revolutionaries in Russia, she was forever taking up the cudgels on behalf of the youth, overcoming the resistance of Plekhanov and encouraging new initiatives—usually unsuccessful—with the youth groups in exile.

The patient work of the Marxists eventually bore fruit. The real reason for the whimpering of the Narodniks about “sectarianism” and “splitters” was the effect which the ideas of Marxism were having on their own followers. It is difficult to overestimate the impact which works like Our Differences (1885) had on the young revolutionaries inside Russia who were avidly looking for a way out of the impasse of Narodnism, which was now in a phase of self-evident decadence. The rightward shift of the Narodnik leaders reached its culminating point with the open renegacy of Tikhomirov—the target of many of Plekhanov’s polemics—who in 1888 published a pamphlet with the title Why I Ceased to Be a Revolutionary.

The collapse of the old revolutionary Narodnism had a profound effect among the youth inside Russia, producing a polarization between the pro-liberal reformist elements and the best elements of the youth, striving to find a road to revolution. Towards the end of 1887, S.N. Ginsburg, having recently returned from Russia, wrote in a worried tone to the Narodnik leader P.L. Lavrov:

Our Political Differences and Socialism and the Political Struggle have had their influence, and a strong one, which we must come to terms with . . . The importance of the individual, the importance of the intelligentsia in the revolution, are completely destroyed by them, and I have personally seen people who have been crushed by his theories. And the main thing is his tone, bold as if he was convinced of his rightness, his negation of all that has gone before, the reduction of all predecessors to a nil—all this is definitely having an influence.42

Ginsburg’s letter shows how, unbeknownst to the exiled Marxists, new groupings were crystallizing in the interior, discussing the failures of the past, drawing up a balance sheet and seeking a new way. Here the ideas of Plekhanov fell upon fertile ground. By the 1890s, the Group began to enjoy an enormous authority in the eyes of the increasing numbers of Marxist youth, and the name of Plekhanov was known in every underground propaganda circle and every police station in Russia.


35 G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, 75.

36 Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 132 (my emphasis).

37 Ibid., 136.

38 Perepiska GV Plekhanova i PB Aksel’roda, 87.

39 J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, vol. 1, 44.

40 Quoted in F. Dan, Origins of Bolshevism, 141.

41 Perepiska GV Plekhanova i PB Aksel’roda, 66 and 21.

42 Ibid., 61.