:: Article

Comrade Plekhanov

By Edward Lee-Six

In late August 1900, Lenin was travelling by train from Zürich to Geneva. He was thirty years old, and newly released from a year’s imprisonment in St Petersburg (for distributing seditious literature to striking workers), followed by two years’ exile in Siberia. The man he was travelling through Switzerland to meet was fifteen years his elder, the pioneer of Russian Marxism, and in a foul mood. Lenin felt love for this man, Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov, akin to “infatuation” (Lenin’s own scare quotes), but he was warned by his comrade, Potresov, that Plekhanov was ‘wrought up’, ‘very suspicious’. After his first conversation with Plekhanov, Lenin added ‘rechtaberisch [self-righteous] to the nec plus ultra’; Lenin must reach beyond the bounds of his own language to express his frustration with Plekhanov.

The moment of the encounter was politically fragile: Plekhanov’s trail-blazing Emancipation of Labour group had just split from the Union of Russian Social-Democrats Abroad because of the latter’s ‘economism’, an anti-revolutionary deviation bitterly challenged by Plekhanov and his followers. Lenin wanted to combat the anti-revolutionary tendencies of ‘economism’, ‘revisionism’, and the increasingly influential ‘legal Marxists’ (a group which believed that a transition to capitalism was inevitable), by founding Iskra (‘spark’). Iskra was to be the underground publication of the revolutionary Russian left, determined to forge ideological unity in the Russian Social Democrat Labour Party (RSDLP) at a time of dangerous vacillation and fragmentation on the left. As far as Lenin was concerned, founding a newspaper was not bookishness or paper-work, but the first step towards ‘creating militant preparedness’ and training strong political organisations throughout Russia.

This crucial event in the history of revolution was also the meeting of two generations. On the one hand, the young firebrand Lenin and his comrades Potresov and Martov (thirty-one and twenty-six years old respectively); on the other hand, the imposing Plekhanov and his associates, Pavel Borisovich Axelrod (a fifty-year-old who funded his revolutionary activities from the proceeds of his small kefir production company) and the charismatic Vera Ivanovna Zasulich, once famous for shooting the governor of St Petersburg with a British Bulldog revolver, now also in her fifties. The 1900 gathering in Geneva of these six revolutionaries in exile is important, not merely because Iskra came out of it, but also because it marks the watershed of first generation Russian revolutionism: although not immediately apparent, for Plekhanov out-manoeuvred Lenin and secured domination of the Iskra editorial board, the Geneva clash revealed political differences which would prove insurmountable, as Plekhanov’s version of Marxism strained to rise to the revolutionary times.

Plekhanov played dirty with his younger comrades, sulking, bullying, lying, even resorting to anti-Semitic tirades. While evading criticism of those he had previously protected, he insisted on taking a much harder line than Lenin on others. Plekhanov boycotted the whole project when he didn’t get his way, but ended up with a double vote on the editorial committee of Iskra and dominating influence on its content. When Lenin and Potresov realised they’d been had by their idol, it hurt. Lenin wrote:

Never, never in my life, had I regarded any other man with such sincere respect and veneration, never had I stood before any man so “humbly” and never before had I been so brutally “kicked”. […] We had been scared like little children, scared by the grown-ups threatening to leave us to ourselves […] Our indignation knew no bounds. Our ideal had been destroyed; gloatingly we trampled it underfoot like a dethroned god.

Although a compromise for the Iskra editorial board would be found this time, Lenin would continue to venerate and be wounded by Plekhanov, past the point of no return. Within a few years, Plekhanov was one of Lenin’s most recurrent targets. In ‘Plekhanov, Who Knows Not What He Wants’, Lenin acknowledges Plekhanov’s valuable support for the underground struggle of 1909-11, ‘the difficult years’, but characterises him as politically muddled. Small errors of judgment cost Plekhanov dearly, according to another of Lenin’s essays: ‘like the bird in the fable, Comrade Plekhanov was caught in the snare by only one tiny claw’. Shortly after the October Revolution, Lenin could only look back nostalgically to the ‘time when Plekhanov was a socialist’. The list of Lenin’s anti-Plekhanov polemics goes on — Plekhanov even finds himself lumped with Kautsky as one of the ‘renegades’, ’embellishing social-chauvinism and […] ridiculing all thought of revolution’ in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. But, meanwhile, Lenin continued to read Plekhanov’s every word with great interest, and often agreed with him, especially on questions of aesthetics: in Tolstoy, the two once again found a common cause. When Plekhanov’s materialist reading of the novelist challenged the pieties of the sycophants squabbling over Tolstoy’s legacy (he had died in 1910), Lenin notes, in a letter to Maxim Gorky, ‘we see eye to eye’. The point is not so much to take sides here, as to register the uneven textures of Plekhanov’s thought, which not only moves dizzyingly from the political to the philosophical to the aesthetic, but yokes hardline and compromise positions, nobility and bullying, lucidity and aberration.

Our understanding of Plekhanov’s aesthetic must, take into account that its development is contemporary with a political turning point: his turning away from nascent Leninism and what would become the Bolshevik path to Revolution is inseparable from his pioneering work on a Marxist apprehension of art. Plekhanov’s materialist aesthetic is forged in the crepuscular light of waning involvement in the revolution itself: the work central to this essay, Art and Social Life, was written just a few years before the Revolution from which Plekhanov was totally alienated, and his subsequent death as an exiled opponent of the Bolsheviks. Beyond this apparent contradiction between a militantly engagé aesthetics and an anti-revolutionary politics, we must ask whether the one is discernable in the other. For Arthur Rothstein, one of Plekhanov’s translators into English, and a founding member of the CPGB, there is a clear continuity from the aesthetic problems of Plekhanov’s thought — acceptance of a Kantian notion of ‘faculty’, for example — and ‘the more fundamental philosophical inconsistencies in his interpretation of Marxism which led him eventually to join with the Mensheviks’. Plekhanov’s writing on art deserves to be rediscovered as political literary criticism, not only because it is one of the very first mobilisations of Marxist materialism in the realm of aesthetics, but also because, against its own grain, it reveals its aesthetics as political in its very aporias.


When Plekhanov began writing on literature and art, criticism was dominated by implicit epistemologies radically incompatible with Marxism. Foremost among these was idealism, as incarnated by Hegelian philosophy. As for many Marxists, Plekhanov’s relationship with this kind of idealism is especially rich because he refutes it in the strongest terms, while remaining profoundly indebted and receptive to it. Thus, while embracing the Hegelian proposition that something (a society, for instance) changes, and does so because of the development of internal contradictions, Marxism and idealism situate the root of that development on different levels: for Hegelians the qualities of the ‘idea’ are the radical cause of historical movement (to what extent this is literally the case for Hegel himself is a moot point), while, according to Marxism, change is always produced by the material development of society’s productive forces. The implications of idealism for politics and aesthetics are far-reaching: politics becomes a matter of changing opinions, while works of art are, primarily, the products of reflection and inspiration. Plekhanov traces a lineage from the Enlightenment belief in the power of thought (‘C’est l’opinion qui gouverne le monde’) to utopian socialism, and, thence, to the thought of his most influential precursors. The intellectual landscape in which Plekhanov is attempting to carve out a path allows for conflict — even class struggle — but, in the last analysis, refers that conflict back to ideas. Plekhanov writes of utopian socialists:

They were convinced that the fate of [contemporary] society would be decided by the “views” held by its members […] They did not ask themselves why it was that the dominant views in that particular society were such and not others.

The writings of Chernyshevsky, pioneer of Narodnism (the Russian brand of nineteenth-century populist socialism), are characteristic in this respect, typified by a ‘lack of stability’ as they shift ‘from materialism to idealism and from idealism to materialism’. Thus, for example, Chernyshevsky believed that ‘literature should be the expression of social consciousness’. This view bridges the false division between the social and the aesthetic, while doing so in terms of ‘should’, according to the criteria of Enlightenment rationality mixed with utopian idealism. The task Plekhanov sets himself is to rewrite Chernyshevky’s essentialist thought on ‘what art should be’ as a historically minded analysis of what art is. Stuck between the socially responsible aesthetic of utilitarian idealists — Belinsky, then Chernyshevksy, then Chernyshevsky’s disciple, Dobrolyubov — for whom the role of art is ‘to reproduce life and to pass judgment on its phenomena’ (Plekhanov’s paraphrase) or  to ‘promote consciousness’ (Belinsky’s words), and, on the other hand, the Romantic art pour l’art school incarnated by Pushkin, Plekhanov re-writes the terms of the debate altogether:

If we are to approach the subject correctly, we must look at it not from the standpoint of what ought to be, but of what actually is and has been. We shall therefore formulate the question as follows:

What are the most important social conditions in which artists and people keenly interested in art conceive and become possessed by the belief in art for art’s sake?

As we approach the answer to this question, it will not be difficult to answer another one closely connected with it and no less interesting, namely:

What are the most important social conditions in which artists and people keenly interested in art conceive and become possessed by the so-called utilitarian view of art, that is, the tendency to attach to artistic productions the “significance of judgments on the phenomena of life”?

This moment, performed by Plekhanov in 1912 Paris, in the ‘Salle d’Horticulture de France’, is doubly pivotal for the history of aesthetics. Not only does Plekhanov propose to approach art from the perspective of ‘social conditions’, but to approach our approach to art from this perspective, asking what are the conditions which produce our understanding, as well as the objects of this understanding. Not just the fruits of analysis, but the discourse of that analysis itself, are included in this method, which thereby opens the way for its own reflexive refinement.

Mechanical materialism

At the other extreme, Plekhanov fends off mechanical materialism and crudely sociological approaches to art. For if art is the product of social conditions it is of the highest importance that it is not directly so. Plekhanov’s aesthetics never countenances that a work is produced in a particular way exclusively because of physiological or cultural laws (in the style of Mme de Staël’s writings on Northern versus Mediterranean ‘character’) or in order to respond directly to a material situation. On the contrary, Plekhanov savours the potential disparities between the concrete conditions of production and the works generated by those conditions. He returns frequently to the changing taste of the picturesque: ‘A wild landscape pleases us because of its contrast to the urban scenes of which we are tired. Urban scenes and formal gardens pleased 17th-century people because of their contrast to wild places.’ As a society’s productive forces evolve towards urbanisation and comfort, artistic productions follow an opposite trajectory, towards the wild and rugged.

Two important points arise from this. First, that the degree of the indirectness of the relation between art and material conditions increases as the forces of production develop. Second, that a mechanical materialism, which expects a direct link between art and material conditions, falls back on the very idealism from which it seems so distant: it invests the ideal with a power to reliably reveal the material, conceiving of the cultural as transparently and horizontally equal to the material. Plekhanov concludes an anthropological study of artistic production in nomadic and hunter-gatherer societies by noting:

The close connection between the state of the productive forces of the so-called primitive peoples and their art had been recognised by investigators long ago. But as the vast majority of them adhered to an idealist standpoint, they, as it were, recognised this connection despite themselves and explained it incorrectly. For example, the well-known historian of art, Wilhelm Lübke, says that the art productions of primitive peoples bear the stamp of natural necessity, whereas those of the civilised nations are infused with intellectual consciousness. This differentiation rests on nothing but idealist prejudice. In reality, the art of civilised peoples is no less under the sway of necessity than primitive art. The only difference is that with civilised peoples the direct dependence of art on technology and mode of production disappears.

On the one hand, Plekhanov rejects the simultaneously mechanical, idealist (and, in this case, racist) conclusion that intellectual inferiority explains the seemingly straightforward link between the modus vivendi of so-called primitive peoples and the art they produce. On the other hand, he introduces a crucial consideration which crudely sociological approaches to art ignore: the mediation of class struggle. Only an aesthetic which recognises the mediating (that is, distorting) effect of class and ideology can begin to account for the manifold contradictions between the ‘opinions’ of individual artists and the work they produce, or between cultural tropisms and the material needs of a society.

Correct and false ideas

But even as Plekhanov reaches the most fruitful point in his adaptation of Marxist materialism to aesthetics, he exposes his serious theoretical weaknesses, namely objectivism and false scientificism. The question of how an artist can hold a conservative or reactionary personal political conviction while producing works of the greatest interest to the Left has always been at the forefront of Marxist aesthetics. Already in the 1880s, Engels was fascinated by the Balzac case: how can this royalist nevertheless unmask the system to which he subscribes? ‘His great work,’ Engels writes, ‘is a constant elegy on the irretrievable decay of good society, his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction. But for all that his satire is never keener, his irony never bitterer, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathizes most deeply — the nobles.’ Engels explains this apparent paradox as the ‘triumph of realism’. Building on the suggested identity of realism with the real or with truth, Plekhanov advances an explanation as unsatisfactory as it is disarmingly simple. Sympathy with the progressive force in history (the proletariat) is not a matter of politics, according to Plekhanov, but a matter of fact, a question of ‘objectivity’ and ‘correctness’. When a conservative writer is able to express a class dynamic convincingly, this is a moment of scientific correctness and objectivity; when the writer lapses into reactionary discourse, this is an error of subjectivity. Hence, on Flaubert, Plekhanov argues:

Flaubert considered it his duty to be as objective in his attitude to the social environment he described as the natural scientist is in his attitude to nature. […] And to the extent that Flaubert succeeded in being objective, to that extent the characters he drew in his works acquired the significance of “documents” the study of which is absolutely essential for all who engage in a scientific investigation of social psychology. Objectivity was a powerful feature of his method; but while he was objective in the process of artistic creation, Flaubert never ceased to be deeply subjective in his opinion of contemporary social movements

Here, Plekhanov ironically runs the risk of the idealism he denounces: he sounds like those utopian socialists who believed that what mattered was having the right ideas. More than this, he dissolves a political struggle into a matter of fact, a potentially anti-revolutionary position: why fight for revolution if the advance of the proletariat is as certain as objective truth? This, according to Andrew Rothstein, amounts to confining ‘literature and criticism to a passive and contemplative role’. In contrast to this is the fiercely partisan, Leninist stance in favour of creating ‘a truly free literature, openly linked with the proletariat’. Although dismissing Maxim Gorki as a didactic ‘propagandist of Marxist views’, Plekhanov remained convinced of the necessity of an artist’s ‘correct ideas’: ‘when the interests of the bourgeoisie ceased to be the interest of all the labouring masses, and especially when they came into conflict with the interest of the proletariat’ then bourgeois art became radically limited. ‘The ideology of a ruling class loses its inherent value as that class ripens for doom.’ Plekhanov concludes: ‘when a false idea is made the basis of a literary work, it imparts to it inherent contradictions that inevitably detract from its aesthetic merit’. This way of thinking resonates uncomfortably with the claims we saw Lübke make above about ‘the intellectual consciousness’ of ‘civilised nations’. True, Lübke’s crude anthropology speaks of a whole culture, while Plekhanov evaluates the work of an individual artist; Plekhanov’s sense of correctness is much more rigorous than Lübke’s ‘infusion’. But in both cases, art is nevertheless reduced to an extension of thought, a non-specific and transparent vehicle for expressing intellectual correctness. The irony is that in attempting to enshrine progressive art as historically necessary, Plekhanov falls into the mechanistic philosophy of ‘inevitability’ characteristic of the vulgar Marxism he repudiates, and, by implication, neutralises the need for the forging of proletarian culture.

As Plekhanov resorts to scientific concepts to bolster his ‘objective’ aesthetics, dogma and mysticism rear their heads. We see this unfolding as he mobilises Darwin’s theory of antithesis, an idea posited in The Theory of Emotion in Man and Animals, according to which we have gestures of emotion which have no function (are not ‘serviceable’) except as the opposite of a gesture which does have practical function. Thus, ‘When a dog throws itself belly upwards at the feet of its master’ (Plekhanov’s example), this gesture has no meaning or practical function, except as the opposite of antithetical gestures of hostility. Darwin’s theory is arresting, piercingly lucid, and can be applied intriguingly to culture. For instance, Plekhanov writes of the Restoration:

What was useful to the British nobility was not its inclination for vices that were the opposite of the bourgeois virtues, but rather the emotion that prompted this inclination, namely hatred of a class whose complete triumph would signify the equally complete abolition of the privileges of the aristocracy.

Plekhanov combines the principle of antithesis (that the culture of the decadent aristocracy is significant only to the extent that it is antithetical to bourgeois thrift and efficiency) with Darwin’s concept of ‘correlated variation’, according to which ‘when slight variations in any one part occur, and are accumulated through natural selection, other parts become modified’ — here, a feeling of class hatred finds its correlative variation in a set of behaviours. Plekhanov’s ideas — anticipating T.S. Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’ by a few years — are persuasive and innovative, revealing him to be at the cutting edge of natural sciences, as well as politics and philosophy. However, he does not take the measure of his translation of a biological principle to a phenomenon with social causes (although he makes explicit the fact of this translation). The risk, which Plekhanov underestimates, is to introduce a deterministic ‘natural’ law into analysis of art, thereby reducing mercurial cultural production to a mechanistic functioning, much as he does with his case for the objectivity of ‘correct ideas’ in progressive literature. Plekhanov’s point about contrasting tastes for the urban versus the wild (and vice versa) was convincing as a historical point, but it becomes shaky if we take the Romantic picturesque as law of nature, rather than a specific and historical resistance to urbanisation. V. Scherbina, Soviet Plekhanov scholar of the Cold War period, accuses Plekhanov of accepting the principal of antithesis ‘uncritically’ and mistaking ‘a particular case of dialectical movement’ for ‘a general law of artistic development’. This is characteristic of Plekhanov’s writing on art: a brilliant idea catches itself out on what seems a detail, but which reveals itself to be insurmountable (‘like the bird in the fable, Comrade Plekhanov was caught in the snare by only one tiny claw’); in the effort to defend a materialist aesthetic against idealism and vulgar sociology, Plekhanov opens the back door to the very concepts he set out to expunge.

Political errors

Faced with the apparent contradiction of a pioneering Marxist aesthetics, on the one hand, and conclusions which are sometimes underwhelming, non-historical, or non-dialectical, on the other, Leninist scholars have attributed Plekhanov’s weak points to his Menshevik politics. For Andrew Rothstein, Plekhanov’s aesthetic and philosophical problems ‘reflect’ the errors which drew him to Menshevism. Shcherbina takes a more decisive line: Plekhanov’s ‘sudden turning to Menshevism’ ‘explains’ his incorrect ideas. There is an unavowed reflexivity here. Plekhanov’s belief in the necessary correctness of a writer’s views comes back to bite him. Scholars have learned the lesson of Plekhanov’s case that reactionary ideas limit artistic success, and re-write it as ‘Menshevik ideas limit aesthetic lucidity’. While Stalinist aesthetics embraces some aspects of Plekhanov’s thought, it dismisses other aspects tainted with Menshevism, and in so doing, this aesthetics ironically reinforces the very objectivism it denounced. Moreover, what we make of ‘aesthetic Menshevism’ may well be different now from then: the 2017 centenary of the 1917 Revolutions was rarely Bolshevik in mood. Even on the Left, there is clear preference for February over October: Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of the far-Left American magazine, Jacobin, in the 1917 commemorative issue, bent over backwards to take his distance from the Bolshevik Revolution, deeming it at best as a ‘justified gamble’ that ‘failed’. In France, the philosophers of the Left, Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, denounce Bolshevism as the dishonest and undemocratic instrumentalisation of the Soviets in L’Ombre d’octobre. (Only Tariq Ali’s Dilemmas of Lenin disrupts the monotonous landscape of dutiful condemnation.) Maybe 2018 — the centenary of Plekhanov’s death — will not expect of him the unwavering Bolshevism that 1918 did. Maybe Plekhanov will be rediscovered as an anti-Bolshevik, much as his aesthetics, when it has been noticed in non-Communist circles, has been recuperated as testament to his ‘personal aesthetic sensitivity’, in contrast to his regrettable choice ‘to press all art into the Procrustean bed of the Marxian historical process’ (the words of Samuel H. Baron, author of Plekhanov: The Father of Russian Marxism). In other words, today’s reception of Plekhanov — should such a reception occur at all — would be constantly threatened by an anti-Bolshevism which risks giving us a diluted, non-political Plekhanov. If it is time to progress beyond the now familiar reading of his aesthetics as ‘Menshevik renegade’, will we do so in a way that builds on Plekhanov’s thought or that circumnavigates it?

Even in his lifetime, Plekhanov isolated himself from potential allies: he rejected contemporary artistic movements, describing Cubism, for example, as ‘nonsense cubed’, while only accepting a Marxist criticism of art, an approach that hardly existed beyond himself. When he finds an ally, it is ‘Beltov’, ‘a certain Russian partisan of the materialist view of history’: of course, Beltov is one of Plekhanov’s pen names. Sometimes, he explicitly finds a partner and ally in himself:

If my conviction is justified — and I believe it is fully justified — we may presume that the development of our aesthetic tastes is likewise, in part, prompted by its influence. Is this presumption corroborated by the facts? I think it is.

What choice did he have but to agree with himself? Maybe we are at last in a position to enter into dialogue with Plekhanov. As scholars in modern languages, English, classics, and so on, secure their own obsolescence by rebranding themselves ‘cultural historians’ or by reducing their field to ‘the history of ideas’, Plekhanov’s old enemy, idealism, is as threatening as ever. Meanwhile, the ‘assessment objectives’ of A-level literature combine the shamelessly subjectivist (students are encouraged to ‘express their opinions’) with the dogmatically mechanistic (‘the context of Hamlet is the Elizabethan world-view which justified revenge’ etc.). A dose of Plekhanov’s materialist aesthetic, alive to other disciplines, but not uncritically (the materialists’ ‘field of investigation begins precisely where that of the Darwinists ends’, he reminds us) might be due. Equally, learning the lessons of Plekhanov is also to ask why he couldn’t free himself from a notion of objective beauty which merely masks his personal tastes, and how the historical turns into the metaphysical. It is not difficult not to hear these problems resonating with those of today’s criticism, especially if we impute to them an insufficiently thorough engagement with dialectics and an inability to commit fully to a materialist aesthetic. As Lenin’s train travelled East, away from Geneva and towards Munich, leaving Plekhanov on the shores of the placid lake, Marxist aesthetic theory was at the bittersweet pivot of promises made, but not yet fulfilled. The pivotal moment has turned out to be a long one: in the hundred years since Plekhanov’s death, many of the questions of Marxist aesthetics have remained unanswered. A return to Plekhanov seems, now as much as ever, a good way to start keeping those promises.

Edward Lee-Six is writing a PhD on Samuel Beckett at Trinity College, Cambridge.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 6th, 2018.