1) The Death of an Autocrat

On March 1, 1881 the carriage of Tsar Alexander II was passing along the Catherine Canal in St. Petersburg, when a young man suddenly threw what looked like a snowball. The explosion that followed missed its mark, and the tsar dismounted, unharmed, to speak to some wounded Cossacks. At that moment, a second terrorist, Grinevetsky, rushed forward and with the words “it is too early to thank God,” threw another bomb at his feet. An hour and a half later, the Emperor of all the Russias was dead. This act marked the culmination of one of the most remarkable periods in revolutionary history—a period in which a handful of dedicated and heroic young men and women took on the combined might of the Russian tsarist state. Yet the very success of the terrorists in eliminating the figure at the apex of the hated autocracy simultaneously dealt the deathblow to the so-called Party of the People’s Will which had organized it.

The phenomenon of the Russian Narodniks (“populists,” men of the people) was a consequence of the extreme belatedness of Russian capitalism. The decay of feudal society proceeded faster than the formation of the bourgeoisie. Under these conditions, sections of the intelligentsia, especially the youth, broke away from the nobility, bureaucracy, and clergy and began to look for a way out of the social impasse. However, when they looked around for a point of support within society, they could not be attracted by the crude, backward and underdeveloped bourgeoisie, while the proletariat was still in its infancy, unorganized, politically untutored, and small in numbers, particularly in comparison with the many millions of peasants who made up the dumb, oppressed, and crushed majority of Russian society.

It was therefore understandable that the revolutionary intelligentsia should look to the “people” in the person of the peasantry as the main potential revolutionary force within society. This movement had its roots in the great turning point in Russian history in 1861. The emancipation of the serfs that took place in that year was by no means, as has been frequently suggested, the result of the enlightened benevolence of Alexander II. It flowed from the fear of a social explosion after Russia’s humiliating defeat in the disastrous Crimean War of 1853–56, which, like the later war with Japan, served to cruelly expose the tsarist regime. Not for the first, nor the last time, military defeat revealed the bankruptcy of the autocracy, providing a powerful impetus to social change. But the Edict of Emancipation solved none of the problems and, indeed, made the lot of the mass of the peasants considerably worse. The landlords naturally made off with the best plots of land, leaving the most barren areas to the peasants. Strategic points such as water and mills were usually in the hands of the landlords who forced the peasants to pay for access. Worse still, the “free” peasants were legally tied to the village commune or mir which had collective responsibility for collecting taxes. No peasant could leave the mir without permission. Freedom of movement was hampered by the system of internal passports. The village commune, in effect, was transformed into “the lowest rung of the local police system.”[1]

To make matters worse, the reform allowed the landlords to cut off and appropriate one-fifth (in some cases, two-fifths) of the lands formerly cultivated by the peasants. They invariably chose the best and most profitable parts—woods, meadows, watering places, grazing grounds, mills, etc.—which gave them a stranglehold over the “emancipated” peasant. Year after year, a greater number of peasant families sunk hopelessly into debt and impoverishment as a result of this swindle.

The emancipation of the serfs was an attempt to carry through reform from the top to prevent revolution from below. Like all important reforms, it was a byproduct of revolution. The Russian countryside had been shaken by peasant uprisings. In the last decade of the reign of Nicholas I, there were 400 peasant disturbances, and an equal number in the following six years (1855–60). In a space of 20 years, 1835–54, 230 landowners and bailiffs had been killed, and a further 53 in the three years before 1861. The announcement of the emancipation was met by a further wave of disorders and uprisings, brutally suppressed. The hopes placed by an entire generation of progressive thinkers on the ideas of reform were cruelly betrayed by the results of the emancipation, which turned out to be a gigantic fraud. The peasants, who believed that the land was rightfully theirs, were cheated in all directions. They had to accept only those allotments laid down by the law (by agreement with the landlord) and had to pay a redemption fee over a period of 49 years at 6 percent interest. As a result, the landlords retained approximately 71,500,000 desyatins of land, and the peasants, representing the overwhelming majority of society, only 33,700,000 desyatins.

In the years after 1861, the peasantry, hemmed in by repressive legislation on “poverty lots” and impoverished by the weight of debt, staged a series of desperate local uprisings. But the peasantry, throughout history, has always been incapable of playing an independent role in society. Capable of great revolutionary courage and sacrifice, its efforts to shake off the rule of the oppressor have only succeeded where leadership of the revolutionary movement has been taken up by a stronger, more homogeneous and conscious class based in the towns. In the absence of this factor, the peasant “jacqueries,”[2] from the middle ages onwards, have inevitably suffered the cruellest defeats. The result of the scattered nature of the peasantry, its lack of social cohesion, and lack of class consciousness.

In Russia, where capitalist forms of production were still at the embryonic phase, no such revolutionary class existed in the towns. Yet a class, or more accurately caste, of largely impoverished students and intellectuals, the raznochintsy (those without rank) or “intellectual proletariat” proved exceptionally sensitive to the subterranean mood of discontent which lay deep within the recesses of Russian life. Years later, the terrorist Myshkin declared at his trial that “the movement of the intelligentsia was not artificially created, but was the echo of popular unrest.”[3] As always, the ability of the intelligentsia to play an independent social role was no greater than that of the peasantry. Nevertheless it can act as quite an accurate barometer of the moods and tensions developing within society.

In 1861, the very year of the Emancipation, the great Russian democratic writer Alexander Herzen wrote from exile in London in the pages of his journal Kolokol (The Bell) urging the youth of Russia to go “to the people!” The arrest of prominent publicists like Chernyshevsky (whose writings were influenced by Marx and who had a big impact on Lenin and his generation) and Dimitri Pisarev, demonstrated the impossibility of peaceful liberal reform. By the end of the decade of the 1860s, the basis of a mass revolutionary movement of populist youth had been laid.

The appalling conditions of the masses in post-reform Russia moved the best sections of the intelligentsia to anger and indignation. The arrest of the most radical of the democratic wing, Pisarev and Chernyshevsky, only served to deepen the alienation of the intellectuals and push them further to the left. While the older generation of liberals accommodated themselves to the reaction, a new breed of young radicals was emerging in the universities, immortalized in the figure of Bazarov in Turgenyev’s novel Fathers and Sons. The hallmark of this new generation was impatience with the fumbling of the liberals, whom they treated with contempt. They believed fervently in the ideas of a complete revolutionary overturn and a radical reconstruction of society from top to bottom.

Within 12 months of the emancipation, the “reforming tsar” had moved towards reaction. There was a clampdown on intellectuals. The universities were placed under the oppressive vigilance of the reactionary Minister of Education, Count Dimitri Tolstoy, who imposed an educational system designed to crush independent spirits and stifle imagination and creativity. The schools were forced to teach 47 hours of Latin a week and 36 hours of Greek, with a heavy emphasis on grammar. Natural science and history were excluded from the curriculum as potentially subversive subjects—and the system of policing the mind was rigidly enforced under the baleful eye of the school inspector. The heady days of “reform” gave way to the bleak years of police surveillance and grey conformity. The move to reaction was intensified after the unsuccessful Polish uprising of 1863. The revolution was drowned in blood. Thousands of Poles were killed in battle, hundreds were hanged in the repression that followed. The brutal Count Muravyov personally hanged 128 Poles and transported 9,423 men and women. The total exiled to Russia was twice that number. Peter Kropotkin, the future anarchist theoretician, witnessed the sufferings of the Polish exiles in Siberia where he was stationed as a young captain of the Imperial Guard:

I saw some of [them] on the Lena, standing half naked in a shanty, around an immense cauldron filled with salt brine, and mixing the thick, boiling brine with long shovels, in an infernal temperature, while the gate of the shanty was wide open to make a strong current of glacial air. After two years of such work, these martyrs were sure to die from consumption.[4]

But, beneath the permafrost of reaction, the seeds of a new revolutionary revival were swiftly germinating. The case of Prince Kropotkin is a striking example of how the wind blows the tops of the trees first. Born into an aristocratic family, this one-time member of the Imperial Corps of Pages was, like many of his contemporaries, affected by the terrible suffering of the masses and driven to draw revolutionary conclusions. A keen scientist, Kropotkin vividly describes in his memoirs the political evolution of an entire generation: “But what right had I to these higher joys,” he asked himself, “when all around was nothing but misery and the struggle for a moldy bit of bread; when whatever I should spend to enable me to live in that world of higher emotion must needs be taken from the very mouths of those who grew the wheat and had not bread enough for their children?”

The cold cruelty towards the Poles showed the other face of the “reforming tsar,” a man who, in Kropotkin’s words, “merrily signed the most reactionary decrees and then afterwards became despondent about them.”[5] The corrupt and degenerate system of autocratic rule, the dead hand of bureaucracy, the all-pervasive whiff of religious mysticism and obscurantism roused all the living forces of society to revolt. “It is bitter,” wrote the poet Nekrasov, “the bread that has been made by slaves.” The revolt against slavery spurred the revolutionary student youth to search for a way out. Echoing Herzen, their watchword became: “V Narod!” (To the people!). To these courageous and dedicated youth, the words uttered by Herzen made an indelible impression: “Go to the people . . . That is our place . . . Demonstrate . . . that from among you will emerge not new bureaucrats, but soldiers of the Russian people.”[6]


[1] See Bernard Pares, A History of Russia, 404.

[2] This refers to the numerous peasant uprisings that took place in France during the late Middle Ages. They invariably had an extremely violent character.

[3] Quoted in Trotsky, The Young Lenin, 29.

[4] Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, vol. 1, 253.

[5] Ibid., vol. 2, 20 and 25.

[6] Quoted in S.H. Baron, Plekhanov—The Father of Russian Marxism, Spanish edition, 21.

2) ‘Going to the People’

This movement of mainly upper-class youth was naïve and confused, but also courageous and utterly selfless, and left behind a priceless heritage for the future. While criticizing the utopian character of their program, Lenin always paid warm tribute to the revolutionary valor of the early Narodniks. He understood that the Marxist movement in Russia was raised on the bones of these martyrs, who cheerfully gave up wealth and worldly comforts to face death, prison and exile for the sake of the fight for a better world. Theoretical confusion was only to be expected in a movement as yet in its infancy. The absence of a strong working class, the lack of any clear traditions or model from the past to light their path, the dark night of censorship which prevented them from having access to most of the writings of Marx; all this deprived the young Russian Revolutionaries of the chance to understand the real nature of the processes at work in society.

To most of the youth, Marx was seen as “just an economist,” whereas Bakunin’s doctrine of “implacable destruction,” and his calls for direct action, seemed to be more in tune with the spirit of a generation tired of words and impatient for results. Pavel Axelrod, in his memoirs, recalls how the theories of Bakunin gripped the minds of the radicalized youth with its striking simplicity.7 The “people,” according to Bakunin, were revolutionary and socialist by instinct—going right back to the Middle Ages—as shown by peasant revolts, the Pugachov uprising, and even brigands, who were held up as a good example to follow! All that was required to ignite a universal revolt, he maintained, was for the students to go to the villages and raise the standard of revolution. Local uprisings would soon provoke a general conflagration, bringing the whole existing order crashing down.

In a striking passage, Trotsky graphically recaptures the spirit of these youthful pioneers:

Young men and women, most of them former students numbering about a thousand in all, carried socialist propaganda to all corners of the country, especially to the lower reaches of the Volga, where they sought the legacy of Pugachov and Razin.8 This movement, remarkable in its scope and youthful idealism, the true cradle of the Russian Revolution, was distinguished—as is proper to a cradle—by extreme naïveté. The propagandists had neither a guiding organization nor a clear program; they had no conspiratorial experience. And why should they have? These young people, having broken with their families and schools, without profession, personal ties, or obligations, and without fear either of earthly or heavenly powers, seemed to themselves the living crystallization of a popular uprising. A constitution? Parliamentarianism? Political liberty? No, they would not be swerved from the path by these western decoys. What they wanted was a complete revolution, without abridgement or intermediate stages.9

In the summer of 1874, hundreds of young people from upper or middle class backgrounds went out to the villages, burning with the idea of rousing the peasantry to revolution. Pavel Axelrod, one of the future founders of Russian Marxism, recalls the radical break which these young revolutionaries had made with their class:

Whoever wished to work for the people had to give up university, renounce his privileged condition, and his family, turn his back even upon science and art. They had to cut all the bonds which linked them to the highest social classes, burn their bridges behind them. In one word, they had to voluntarily forget about any possible road of retreat. The propagandist, so to speak, had to effect a complete transformation of his inner essence, so that he would feel at one with the lower strata of the people, not only ideologically, but also in his habitual everyday behavior.10

These courageous young men and women had no definite program, other than to find a road to “the people.” Dressed in old working clothes bought from secondhand stalls in markets, clutching false passports, they travelled to the villages hoping to learn a trade which would enable them to live and work undetected. The wearing of peasants’ clothes was not the theatrical gesture it might appear at first sight. Kropotkin points out that:

The gap between the peasant and the educated people is great in Russia, and contact between them is so rare that not only does the appearance in a village of a man who wears the town dress awaken general attention, but even in town, if one whose talk and dress reveals that he is not a worker is seen to go about with workers, the suspicion of the police is aroused at once.11

Unfortunately, this admirable revolutionary spirit was founded upon theories which were fundamentally unsound. The mystical idea of a “special Russian road to socialism” which could somehow leap from feudal barbarism to a classless society, skipping the phase of capitalism, was the source of an endless series of errors and tragedies. A false theory inevitably leads to a disaster in practice. The Narodniks were motivated by revolutionary voluntarism—the idea that the success of the revolution can be guaranteed by the iron will and determination of a small group of dedicated men and women. The subjective factor,12 of course, is decisive in human history. Karl Marx explained that men and women make their own history, but added that they do not make it outside of the context of social and economic relationships established independently of their will.

The attempts of the Narodnik theoreticians to establish a “special historical path” for Russia, different from that of Western Europe, inevitably led them down the road of philosophical idealism and a mystical view of the peasantry. The theoretical confusion of Bakunin—a reflection of the very underdeveloped and inchoate class relations in Russia—found a ready audience among the Narodniks, seeking an ideological justification for their vague revolutionary aspirations.

Standing reality on its head, Bakunin portrayed the mir—the basic unit of the tsarist regime in the village—as the enemy of the state. All that was necessary was for the revolutionaries to go to the village and rouse the “instinctively revolutionary” Russian peasants against the state and the problem would be solved, without recourse to “politics” or any particular form of party organization. The task was not to fight for democratic demands (since democracy also represented a form of state and therefore another expression of tyranny) but to overthrow the state “in general” and replace it with a voluntary federation of local communities, based on the mir, purged of its reactionary features.

The contradictory elements of this theory rapidly became evident when the Narodnik youth attempted to put it into practice. The revolutionary exhortations of the students were met with sullen suspicion or outright hostility by the peasants, who frequently handed over the newcomers to the authorities.

Zhelyabov, one of the future leaders of the Narodnaya Volya party (People’s Will), graphically described the Narodnik youth’s desperate efforts to win over the peasants “like fish beating their heads against the ice.”13 Despite the terrible conditions of oppression and exploitation, the Russian peasant, who believed that “the body belongs to the tsar, the soul to God and the back to the squire,” proved impervious to the revolutionary ideas of the Narodniks. The shock and disappointment of the intelligentsia is echoed in the words of a participant:

We ourselves were too blindly assured of the imminence of the revolution to notice that the peasants had not nearly as much of the revolutionary spirit as we wanted them to have. But we did notice that they all wanted the land to be divided up among them. They expected the Emperor would give an order and the land would be divided up . . . most of them imagined he would have had it carried through long ago if he had not been prevented by the big landowners and the officialsthe two archenemies of both the Emperor and the peasants.

The naïve attempt to pass for peasants frequently had its tragicomical side, as one of the participants, Debogori-Mokrievich, recalls:

The peasants did not want to let us stay the night in their cottages: quite obviously they did not like the look of our dirty, ragged clothing. This was the last thing we expected when we first dressed up as workmen.14

Sleeping out in the open, hungry, cold and tired, their feet bleeding from long marches in cheap boots, the spirits of the Narodniks were dashed against the solid wall of peasant indifference. Gradually, inexorably, those who had not been arrested drifted back, disillusioned and exhausted, to the towns. The movement of “going to the people” was swiftly broken by a wave of arrests—more than 700 in 1874 alone. It was an expensive defeat. But the heroic and spirited speeches of defiance hurled from the dock by the arrested revolutionists served to kindle a new movement which began almost immediately.

The Narodniks swore by “the people” in every other sentence. Yet they remained completely isolated from the peasant masses they idolized. In reality, the entire movement was concentrated into the hands of the intelligentsia:

The Populists’ worship of the peasant and his commune was but the mirror image,” wrote Trotsky, “of the grandiose pretensions of the ‘intellectual proletariat’ to the role of chief, if not indeed sole, instrument of progress. The whole history of the Russian intelligentsia develops between these two poles of pride and self-abnegation—which are the short and long shadows of its social weakness.”15

But this social weakness of the intelligentsia merely reflected the underdeveloped state of class relations in Russian society. The rapid development of industry and the creation of a powerful urban working class which was to be brought about by a massive influx of foreign capital in the 1890s was still the music of an apparently remote future. Thrust back upon their own resources, the revolutionary intelligentsia sought salvation in the theory of a “special Russian road to socialism,” based upon the element of common ownership which existed in the mir.

The theories of guerrillaism and individual terrorism which have become fashionable among certain circles in recent times repeat in caricatured form the antiquated ideas of the Russian Narodniks and terrorists. Like the latter, they try to find a base in the peasantry of the Third World, in the lumpenproletariat, in fact, any class except the proletariat. Yet such ideas have nothing in common with Marxism. Marx and Engels explained that the only class capable of carrying through the socialist revolution and establishing a healthy workers’ state leading to a classless society was the working class. And this is no accident. Only the working class, by virtue of its role in society and in production, especially large scale industrial production, possesses an instinctive socialist class consciousness. Not accidentally, the classical methods of struggle of the proletariat are based upon collective mass action: strikes, demonstrations, picket lines, the general strike.

By contrast, the first principle of every other social class is the individualism of the property owner and exploiter of labor, both big and small. Leaving aside the bourgeoisie, whose hostility to socialism is the first condition of its existence, we have the middle class, including the peasantry. The latter is the social class least able to acquire a socialist consciousness. In its upper reaches, the wealthy peasant, lawyer, doctor, parliamentarian, stand close to the bourgeoisie. However, even the poor landless peasant in Russia, although formally a rural proletarian, had a consciousness very far removed from his brothers in the cities. The one desire of the landless peasant was to possess land, i.e., to become transformed into a small proprietor. Individual terrorism and “guerrillaism,” in all its multiplicity of forms, are the methods of the petty bourgeoisie, particularly the peasantry, but also the students, intellectuals and lumpenproletariat. It is true that under certain conditions—particularly in the present epoch—the mass of the poor peasants can be won over to the idea of collective ownership, as we saw in Spain in 1936. But the prior condition for such a development is the revolutionary movement of the working class in the towns. In Russia, the working class came to power by mobilizing the poor peasants, not on the basis of socialist slogans, but on the basis of “land to the tillers!” This fact, in itself, shows how far the mass of Russian peasants stood from a socialist consciousness even in 1917.

To the Narodniks, lacking in a sound theoretical basis, and setting out with a confused and amorphous concept of class relations (“the people”), the Marxist argument of the leading role of the proletariat sounded like so much hairsplitting. What did the working class have to do with it? Clearly Marx and Engels had not understood the special situation in Russia! The Narodniks, in as much as they considered the role of the workers in the towns, regarded them as an aberration—as “peasants in factories,” capable of playing only the role of auxiliaries to the peasantry in the revolution—precisely the opposite to the real relationship of revolutionary class forces, as subsequent events demonstrated.

As a crowning paradox, despite all the prejudice of the Narodnik theoreticians, almost the only area where the revolutionary appeals got an echo was among the despised “town peasants,” as they called the factory workers. Like the modern guerrillas, the supporters of Zemlya i Volya (Land and Freedom) adopted the policy of taking revolutionary workers out of the factories and sending them to the countryside. Plekhanov, before he became a Marxist, participated in this kind of activity and was able to see the consequences:

“The factory worker who has worked in the city for several years,” he wrote, “feels ill at ease in the country and goes back to it reluctantly . . . Rural customs and institutions become unendurable for a person whose personality has begun evolving a little . . .”

These were experienced people, sincerely devoted to and profoundly imbued with Populist views. But their attempts to set themselves up in the countryside led to nothing. After roving about the villages with the intention of looking for a suitable place to settle down (at which some of them were taken to be foreigners), they shrugged their shoulders at the whole business and finished by returning to Saratov where they established contacts among the local workers. No matter how astounded we were by this alienation from the “people” of its urban children, the fact was evident, and we had to abandon the idea of involving workers in a purely peasant business.16

According to the Narodnik theory, the town worker was further away from socialism than the peasant. Thus, a Narodnik organizer in charge of work among the workers of Odessa complained that “the men in the workshops, spoiled by urban life and unable to recognize their links with the peasants, were less open to socialist propaganda.”17 Nevertheless, the Narodniks did conduct work among the workers and obtained important results. The initiator of this pioneer work was Nikolai Vasilevich Chaikovsky. His group established propaganda circles in the workers’ districts of Petersburg, where Kropotkin was one of his propagandists. Reality forced sections of the Narodniks to come face to face for the first time with the “worker question” which, expelled by Bakuninist theories by the front door, persistently flew back through the window. Even at this very early period, the Russian working class, despite the extreme smallness of its numbers, was beginning to set its stamp upon the revolutionary movement.

The attitude of the workers to the “young gentlemen” was instructive. The Petersburg worker I.A. Bachkin recommended to his fellow workers: “You must take the books from the students, but when they begin to teach you nonsense, you must knock them down.” It was possibly Bachkin of whom Plekhanov was thinking when he passed the remark about the unwillingness of the workers to go to the villages to work. Bachkin was arrested in September 1874 and, upon his release in 1876, he told Plekhanov that he was “ready, as before, to work for revolutionary propaganda, but only among the workers . . .
‘I don’t want to go into the country on any account’ he argued. ‘The peasants are sheep, they will never understand revolution.’”18

While the Narodnik intelligentsia wrestled with the theoretical problems of the future revolution, the first stirrings of class consciousness were emerging in the urban centers. The emancipation of the serfs represented a collective act of violence against the peasantry in the interests of the development of capitalism in agriculture. The landlords were, in effect, “clearing the estates” for capitalism, as Lenin explained, accelerating the process of inner differentiation of the peasantry through the crystallization of a class of rich peasants (kulaks) at the top and a mass of impoverished peasants at the bottom. In order to escape the grinding poverty of village life, the poor peasants migrated in massive numbers to the towns, in search of jobs. In the period 1865–90, the number of factory workers increased by 65 percent, with those employed in mining increasing by 106 percent. A.G. Rashin gives the figures of the number of workers in European Russia (in 1,000s) as follows:19

YearFactories and workshopsMiningTotal

The development of industry experienced a particularly powerful impetus during the 1870s. The population of St. Petersburg grew from 668,000 in 1869 to 928,000 in 1881. Torn from their peasant backgrounds and hurled into the seething cauldron of factory life, the workers’ consciousness underwent a rapid transformation. Police reports chartered the growing discontent and audacity of the workforce: “The crude, vulgar methods employed by factory employers are becoming intolerable to the workers,” complains one such report. “They have obviously realized that a factory is not conceivable without their labor.” Tsar Alexander read the reports and pencilled in the margin: “Very bad.”

The growth of this labor unrest permitted the establishment of the first organized workers’ groups. The Southern Workers’ Union was set up by E. Zaslavsky (1844–78). Son of a noble but impecunious family, he went “to the people” in 1872–73, became convinced of the uselessness of this tactic and began propaganda work among the workers of Odessa. Out of these worker circles, with weekly meetings and a small subscription, the Union was born. Its program started from the premise that “the workers can get their rights recognized only by means of a violent revolution capable of destroying all privileges and inequality by making work the foundation of private and public welfare.”20 The Union’s influence grew rapidly until it was smashed by arrests in December 1875. The leaders were sentenced to hard labor. Zaslavsky himself got ten years. His health undermined by the harsh conditions of imprisonment, he became deranged and died of tuberculosis in prison.

A more substantial development was the Northern Union of Russian Workers, set up illegally in the autumn of 1877 under the leadership of Khalturin and Obnorsky. Victor Obnorsky, son of a retired NCO, was a blacksmith, then a mechanic. While working at different factories in St. Petersburg, he became involved in workers’ study circles, and had to flee to avoid arrest to Odessa, where he came into contact with Zaslavsky’s Union. He travelled abroad as a sailor, where he was influenced by the ideas of the German Social Democracy. Returning to St. Petersburg, he met P.L. Lavrov and Axelrod, the leading lights in the Narodnik movement. Stepan Khalturin was an important figure in the revolutionary movement of the late seventies. Like Obnorsky, a blacksmith and a mechanic by trade, he began his activity in the Chaikovsky group, where he worked as a propagandist. In his series of pen portraits of Russian worker militants, Plekhanov has left an enduring picture of this working-class revolutionary:

When his [Khalturin’s] activities were still on the right side of the law, he willingly met students and tried to make their acquaintance, getting every kind of information from them and borrowing books. He often stayed with them until midnight, but he very rarely gave his own opinions. His host would grow excited, delighted at the chance to enlighten an ignorant workman, and would speak at great length, theorizing in the most “popular” way possible. Stepan would gaze carefully, looking up at the speaker. Every now and then his intelligent eyes would reflect an amiable irony. There was always an element of irony in his relations with the students . . . with the workers, he behaved in a very different way . . . he looked upon them as more solid and, so to speak, more natural revolutionaries and he looked after them like a loving nurse. He taught them, he sought books and work for them, he made peace with them when they quarrelled and he scolded the guilty. His comrades loved him dearly: he knew this, and in return gave them even greater love. But I do not believe that even in his relations with them, Khalturin ever gave up his customary restraint . . . In the groups he spoke only rarely and unwillingly. Among the workers of Petersburg, there were people just as educated and competent as he was: there were men who had seen another world, who had lived abroad. The secret of the enormous influence of what can be called Stepan’s dictatorship lay in the tireless attention which he devoted to every single thing. Even before the meeting began, he spoke with everyone to find out the general state of mind, he considered all sides of a question, and so naturally he was the most prepared of all. He expressed the general state of mind.21

Khalturin was an outstanding representative of a type: the worker-propagandist active in the circles in the first period of the Russian labor movement. Yet even he was drawn into terrorist activities in the subsequent period, organizing a spectacular attempt on the tsar’s life.


7 See Axelrod, Perezhitoe i Peredumannoe, 111–2.

8 Emilian Pugachov, a Don Cossack, led a great uprising of the Cossacks and serfs against the gentry in 1773, in the reign of Catherine the Great. The rebellion initially met with success, with the mass seizure of land and the capture of a string of imperial fortresses. The rebels took Kazan and could have taken Moscow but, despite riots which broke out in a number of towns, the peasant rebellion proved incapable of linking up with the urban masses against the common enemy—the gentry and the autocracy. Although the rebels proclaimed the abolition of serfdom, they lacked a coherent political program capable of creating a broad revolutionary movement of the masses. This fatal weakness, plus localist tendencies, lack of organization and discipline, eventually undermined the revolt. The rebellion disintegrated and Pugachov was executed in Moscow in January 1775.

9 Trotsky, The Young Lenin, 28.

10 From Axelrod, The Working Class and the Revolutionary Movement in Russia, quoted in Baron, Plekhanov, 25.

11 Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, vol. 2, 119.

12 By the “subjective factor” Marxists mean the conscious factor in history—the action of men and women to change their lives and destinies, as opposed to the objective conditions, established by social development, which provide the basis for such actions. Most specifically, it refers to the role of the revolutionary party and leadership in the struggle for the socialist transformation of society.

13 D. Footman, Red Prelude, 86.

14 Quoted in D. Footman, Prelude, 47 and 49 (my emphasis).

15 Trotsky, The Young Lenin, 25 (my emphasis).

16 Quoted in Fyodr Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism, 162–63.

17 Quoted in F. Venturi, The Roots of Revolution, 511.

18 Ibid., 800 in both quotes.

19 A.G. Rashin, Formirovaniye Rabochego Klassa Rossiy, 12.

20 Quoted in Venturi, Roots, 515 and 516.

21 Ibid., 543.

3) ‘Land and Freedom’

In the meantime, the remnants of the Narodnik movement were attempting to regroup their forces in the towns under a new banner. In 1876, Zemlya i Volya was set up by the Natansons, Alexander Mikhailov, and George Plekhanov. The new underground organization was headed by a General Council with a smaller elected Executive Committee (or Administrative Center). Subordinate to these bodies were a Peasants’ Section, a Workers’ Section, a Youth (Students’) Section, and a new development, a “Disorganization Section,” an armed wing for “protection against the arbitrary conduct of officials.” The program of Zemlya i Volya was based on a confused idea of “peasant socialism”—all land was to be transferred to the peasants and self-determination was to be granted to all parts of the Russian empire. Russia was to be run on the basis of self-governing peasant communes. However, all this was subordinate to the central objective of the revolutionary overthrow of the autocracy, which was to be carried out “as speedily as possible”—the extreme haste being due to the idea of preventing the undermining of the peasant commune (the mir) by capitalist development! Thus, the real originators of “socialism in one country” were the Narodniks, who sought to deliver society from the horrors of capitalism by espousing the idea of a “special path of historical development” for Russia, based on the supposed uniqueness of the Russian peasantry and its social institutions.

On December 6, 1876, an illegal demonstration of anything up to 500—mainly students—assembled on the steps of Kazan Cathedral, with cries of “land and freedom” and “long live the socialist revolution!” The demonstration was addressed by a 21-year old student called George Plekhanov, whose revolutionary appeal led to the beginning of years of exile and underground life. Born in 1855, the son of an aristocratic family from Tambov, Plekhanov, like many of his generation, cut his teeth on the writings of the great school of Russian democratic authors—Belinsky, Dobrolyubov, and, above all, Chernyshevsky. While still an adolescent, he joined the Narodnik movement, participating in dangerous missions, including the release of arrested comrades and even the liquidation of an agent provocateur. Arrested several times, he always succeeded in escaping from his tsarist captors.

Following his daring speech, Plekhanov was forced to flee abroad, but his prestige was such that he was elected, in his absence, as a member of the “basic circle” of Zemlya i Volya. Returning to Russia in 1877, the future founder of Russian Marxism led a precarious underground existence. Armed with a knuckleduster and a pistol which he kept under his pillow at night, he went first to Saratov, on the lower Volga, where he was subsequently put in charge of the “worker section” of Zemlya i Volya. The young man’s firsthand experience of work with factory workers had a profound effect on his thinking, which undoubtedly helped him to break with Narodnik prejudices and find a road to Marxism.

In December 1877, an explosion in the gunpowder store at an arms factory on Vasilevsky Island killed six workers and injured many more. The workers’ funeral turned into a demonstration. Plekhanov wrote a manifesto which ended with the words:

Workers! Now is the time to understand reason. You must not expect help from anyone. And do not expect it from the gentry! The peasants have long been expecting help from the gentry, and all they have got is worse land and heavier taxes, even greater than before . . . Will you too, the workers in towns, put up with this forever?22

The author got his reply far sooner than he, or anyone else, expected. The economic boom which arose from the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78) created the conditions for an unprecedented explosion of strikes, spearheaded by the most downtrodden and exploited section of the class, the textile workers. Not for the last time, the more oppressed and volatile textile workers moved into action far more quickly than the big battalions in the metal industries. The workers went to ask for help from “the students,” through the agency of a number of individual worker-revolutionaries.

Plekhanov, as head of the worker section of Zemlya i Volya, found himself virtually in control of the movement. Unfortunately, the Narodniks had no idea what to do with a workers’ movement which did not really enter into their scheme of the universe. In the space of two years, St. Petersburg saw 26 strikes. Not until the massive strike wave of the 1890s was this to be equalled. The members of the Northern Union played a prominent part in these strikes, and, by the first months of 1879, it reached its high water mark, with 200 organized workers and another 200 in reserve, carefully distributed in different factories. They were all linked to a central body. The workers’ circles even had a library, also carefully split up between different underground groups and widely used even by workers outside the Union. The resourceful Khalturin set up an underground printshop. Obnorsky entered into agreements with a workers’ group in Warsaw, “the first example of friendly relations between Russian and Polish workers,” as Plekhanov observed with satisfaction.23

But within months of the appearance of the first issue of its illegal journal, Rabochaya Zarya (Workers’ Dawn), the police smashed the Union’s printshop and the bulk of its membership was swept away by a wave of arrests into hard labor, imprisonment, and exile. The result of the breakup of this first solid organization of the working class was catastrophic. Khalturin and others drew pessimistic conclusions and went over to terrorism. It took ten years and countless unnecessary sacrifices for the movement to get the terrorist bug out of its system.

From its very outset, the revolutionary movement in Russia was divided by the polemics between “educators” and “insurrectionists,” the two lines being broadly identified with the respective positions of Lavrov and Bakunin. The failure of the movement “to the people” brought this disagreement to the point of an open split. In the period 1874–75, there were thousands of political prisoners in Russia, youngsters who had paid the price of their defiance with the loss of their freedom. Some were later released on bail and kept under surveillance. Others were exiled to Siberia by administrative order. The rest merely rotted in jail awaiting trial. Of those who remained active and at liberty, some decided to return to the villages, but this time as school teachers or doctors, devoting their time and energies to humble educational work and waiting for better days. But for others, the realization that Bakunin’s theory of an “instinctively revolutionary peasantry” was false meant that an entirely different road had to be found.

Zemlya i Volya was never a mass organization. A few dozen, mainly students and intellectuals in their 20s and 30s, made up its active membership. But the seeds of dissolution were present from the outset. Lavrov’s supporters looked to “open the people’s eyes” by peaceful propaganda. “We must not arouse emotion in the people, but self-awareness,”24 he argued. The frustrated attempts to provoke a mass movement of the peasantry by means of propaganda gave rise to a new theory whereby Bakuninism was stood upon its head. From “denying politics” and especially political organization, a section of the Narodniks effected a 180° turn and set up a secret, highly centralized terrorist organization—the Narodnaya Volya—designed to provoke a revolutionary movement of the masses by means of the “propaganda of the deed.”

The latest military humiliation of tsarist Russia in the Russo-Turkish War revealed anew the bankruptcy of the regime and gave fresh heart to the opposition. The leaders of Narodnaya Volya were determined to wage a war against the autocracy in a kind of terrorist single combat which would encourage “from above” the flame of revolt. A section of the youth was now burning with impatience. The words of Zhelyabov, future leader of Narodnaya Volya, sum the whole thing up:

“History,” said Zhelyabov, “moves too slowly. It needs a push. Otherwise the whole nation will be rotten and gone to seed before the liberals get anything done.”

“What about a constitution?”

“All to the good.”

“Well, what do you want—to work for a constitution or give history a push?”

“I’m not joking, just now we want to give history a push.’25

These four lines show up starkly the relation between terrorism and liberalism. The terrorists had no independent program of their own. They borrowed their ideas from the liberals, who leaned upon them to give emphasis to their demands.

In the autumn of 1877, nearly 200 young men and women were brought to trial for the crime of “going to the people.” They had already spent three years in jail without trial and there were numerous cases of ill-treatment meted out to the prisoners by brutal warders and officials. For the revolutionaries the systematic ill-treatment, torture, and humiliation suffered by the prisoners was the last straw. One particularly atrocious case caused widespread indignation in July 1877. When General Trepov, the notorious Petersburg police chief, had visited the Preliminary Detention Center, a young “political” called Bogolyubov refused to stand up. He was sentenced to 100 lashes on Trepov’s orders. A decisive turning point was passed in January 1878 when a young girl by the name of Vera Zasulich fired a shot at Trepov. This action, which Zasulich had planned and executed all on her own, was intended as a reprisal for the ill-treatment of political prisoners. After the Zasulich affair, the swing towards the “propaganda of the deed” became irresistible, particularly since, against all expectations, the jury had found her not guilty.

Initially, the use of terror was conceived as a limited tactic for freeing imprisoned comrades, eliminating police spies, and for self-defense against the repressive actions of the authorities. But terrorism has a logic of its own. In a short space of time, the terrorist mania took possession of the organization. From the outset, there were doubts about the “new tactics.” In the pages of the official party journal critical voices were raised:

“We must remember,” says one article, “that the liberation of the laboring masses will not be achieved by this (terrorist) path. Terrorism has nothing in common with the struggle against the foundations of the social order. Only a class can resist against a class. Therefore, the main bulk of our forces must work among the people.”26

The adoption of the new tactics caused an open split in the movement, between the terrorists and the followers of Lavrov who argued in favor of a prolonged period of preparation and propaganda among the masses. In practice, the latter trend was moving away from revolutionism, advocating the politics of “small deeds” and a “little by little” gradualist approach. The right wing of Narodnism was becoming indistinguishable from liberalism, while its more radical section prepared to stake everything on the force of the bullet and the “revolutionary chemistry” of nitroglycerine.

In the recent period, attempts have been made by the modern terrorists to distinguish themselves from their Russian forebears. The Narodnik terrorists, it is asserted, believed in individual terrorism, substituting themselves for the movement of the masses, whereas modern proponents of “armed struggle” or “urban guerrillaism” see themselves only as an armed wing of the mass struggle, whose purpose is to detonate the masses into action. Yet the supporters of Narodnaya Volya never claimed to be acting as a self-sufficient movement. Their stated objective was to initiate a mass movement, based on the peasantry, which would overthrow the state and institute socialism. Their aim was also supposed to be the “detonation” of the mass movement by giving a courageous example.

However, politics has a logic of its own. All the appeals of the Narodnaya Volya in the name of the masses merely served as a smoke-screen to reveal a deep-seated distrust in the revolutionary capacity of those same masses. The arguments advanced more than a century ago in Russia to justify terrorism have a strikingly similar ring to the arguments of “urban guerrilla” groups in more recent times: “We are in favor of the mass movement, but the state is too strong,” and so on and so forth. Thus, the terrorist Morozov affirmed:

Observing contemporary social life in Russia the conclusion is reached that, because of the arbitrary conduct and violence of the government, no activity at all is possible on behalf of the people. Neither freedom of expression, nor freedom of the press exists to work by means of persuasion. In consequence, for every vanguard activist it is necessary, first and foremost, to put an end to the present system of government, and to struggle against it there is no other means than to do it with arms in hand. As a consequence, we will fight against it in the style of William Tell, until we reach the moment when we win free institutions under which it will be possible for us to discuss without obstacles in the press and in public meetings all the political and social questions, and decide upon them by means of the free representation of the people.27

The Narodniks were courageous, but misguided, idealists who confined their targets to notorious torturers, police chiefs guilty of repressive acts, and the like. More often than not, they subsequently gave themselves up to the police in order to use their trials as a platform for the indictment of existing society. They did not plant bombs to slaughter women and children, or even to murder ordinary soldiers. On the rare occasions they killed individual policemen, it was to get hold of weapons. Yet, despite this, their methods were completely incorrect and counterproductive, and were roundly condemned by the Marxists.

The allegedly “modern” theories of urban guerrillaism only repeat in caricature form the old pre-Marxist ideas of the Russian terrorists. It is quite ironic that these people, who frequently lay claim to be “Marxist-Leninists,” have not the vaguest idea that Russian Marxism was born out of an implacable struggle against individual terrorism. The Russian Marxists scornfully described the terrorist as “a liberal with a bomb.” The liberal fathers spoke in the name of “the People,” but considered the latter too ignorant to be trusted with the responsible work of reforming society. Their role was to be reduced to passively casting a vote every few years and looking on while the liberals in Parliament got on with their business. The sons and daughters of the liberals had nothing but contempt for Parliament. They stood for the revolution, and, of course, “the People.” Except that the latter, in their ignorance, were unable to understand them. Therefore, they would resort to the “revolutionary chemistry” of the bomb and the revolver. But, just as before, the role of the masses was reduced to that of passive spectators. Marxism sees the revolutionary transformation of society as a conscious act carried out by the working class. That which is progressive is that which serves to raise the consciousness of the workers of their own strength. That which is reactionary is that which tends to lower the workers’ own opinion of their role. From this point of view, the role of individual terrorism is a wholly reactionary one. Thus, the policy of individual terrorism is most harmful to the cause of the masses precisely when it succeeds. The attempt to find shortcuts in politics frequently leads to disaster. What conclusions are the workers supposed to draw from a spectacularly successful act of individual terrorism? Only this: that it is possible to attain their ends without any necessity for the long and arduous preparatory work of organizing trade unions, participating in strikes and other mass actions, agitation, propaganda, and education. All that would be seen as an unnecessary diversion, when all that is needed is to get hold of a bomb and a gun, and the problem is solved.

The history of the twentieth century provides some tragic lessons in what happens when revolutionaries try to substitute the heroic actions of an armed minority for the conscious movement of the working class. Most often—as with the Narodnaya Volya—the attempt to challenge the might of the state by such methods leads to a terrible defeat and the strengthening of the very apparatus of repression that was meant to be overthrown. But even in those cases where, for example, a guerrilla war succeeds in overthrowing the old regime, it can never lead to the establishment of a healthy workers’ state, let alone socialism. At best, it will lead to a deformed workers’ state (a regime of proletarian Bonapartism) in which the workers are subjected to the rule of a bureaucratic elite. In fact, such an outcome is predetermined by the militaristic structure of terrorist and guerrillaist organizations, their autocratic command structure, lack of internal democracy and, above all, the fact that they function outside the working class, and independently of it. A genuine revolutionary party does not set itself up as a group of self-appointed saviors of the masses, but strives to give an organized and conscious expression to the movement of the workers themselves. Only the conscious self-movement of the proletariat can lead to the socialist transformation of society.

A section of the old Zemlya i Volya movement attempted to resist the trend towards terrorism, but was swept aside. An attempt to reach a compromise at the Voronezh Congress of June 1879 failed to stop the split which finally took place in October of that year with a formal agreement of both sides to dissolve the organization. The funds were divided and both sides agreed not to use the old name. The terrorist faction adopted the name of Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will), while the remnants of the old school “village” Narodniks took the name of the Cherny Peredel (Black Redistribution), echoing the old Narodnik idea of an agrarian revolution. It was from the latter organization, led by Plekhanov, that the first forces of Russian Marxism were to emerge.


22 Ibid., 548.

23 Ibid., 556.

24 Ibid., 556.

25 Quoted in Footman, Red Prelude, 87.

26 Quoted in J. Martov, Obshchestvennoe i Umstvennoe Techeniye v Rossii 1870–1905 gg, 44.

27 Quoted in Baron, Plekhanov, 56 (my emphasis).

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.