‘Introduction to Georgi Plekhanov’s ‘Fundamental Problems of Marxism’ by David Riazanov. International Publishers, New York. 1928.

Plekhanov in 1917.

Originally written in 1907, Plekhanov’s ‘Fundamental Problems of Marxism’ is mainly concerned with dialectical materialism in the method of Marx. David Riazanov provided this valuable introduction to a 1928 edition, translated and printed in the U.S. by International Publishers as the first volume in its ‘Marxist Library.’

‘Introduction to Georgi Plekhanov’s ‘Fundamental Problems of Marxism’ by David Riazanov. International Publishers, New York. 1928.

PLEKHANOV’s famous pamphlet, Socialism and the Political cal Struggle, which opened the history of revolutionary social democracy in Russia, was published in 1883. The present work, Fundamental Problems of Marxism, the last of Plekhanov’s writings, containing a systematic exposition of dialectical materialism, appeared in 1908, a quarter of a century later.

Socialism and the Political Struggle embodied a decisive break with the time-honoured prejudices of the narodniks. To the baffled revolutionary movement it disclosed a new road, along which success, sure though slow, could be attained. It pointed out that in the actualities of Russian life there was going on a process of social and economic evolution which by degrees but persistently was sapping the foundations of the old régime. It prophesied that the Russian working class, developing with no less inevitability than capitalism, would give Russian absolutism its death-blow, and would take its place (an equal among equals) in the ranks of the international army of the proletariat.

Riazanov at work.

But Plekhanov did not confine himself to criticism of the outworn theory and practice of the narodniks. In a brilliant sketch which is as valuable to-day as when it was penned, he expounded the “fundamental problems” of scientific socialism, and pointed to the method of dialectical materialism as the most trustworthy weapon in the struggle.

“What is scientific socialism? By this name we denote the communist doctrine which, in the early forties, began to emerge out of utopian socialism, under the powerful influence of Hegelian philosophy, on the one hand, and of classical political economy, on the other; we mean the doctrine which gave the first adequate explanation of the whole course of civilisation, pitilessly demolishing the sophisms of the bourgeois theoreticians; the doctrine which in the panoply of all the knowledge of the century’ rallied to the defence of the proletariat. Not only did this doctrine give a lucid demonstration of the inconsistencies of the adversaries of socialism; but, furthermore, when showing their mistakes, it supplied the historical explanation of these errors. Thus it was able (as Haym once said of the philosophy of Hegel) ‘to harness to its triumphal car all the opinions it had refuted.”

“Just as Darwin enriched biology with the theory of the origin of species, a theory at once amazingly simple and rigidly scientific, so the founders of scientific socialism showed that in the development of the forces of production, and in the struggle of these forces against antiquated social conditions of production, there was implicit the great principle of the transformation of social species.”

It must not be supposed, however, that, in recommending scientific socialism to Russian revolutionists, Plekhanov recommended it as a rule-of-thumb method or as “‘a definitive truth against which there was to be no appeal.” He wrote: “Obviously the development of scientific socialism is not yet finished. That development cannot come to an end with the writings of Marx and Engels, any more than the theory of the origin of species can be supposed to be worked out once for all in the writings of Darwin. The establishment of the main principles of the new doctrine must be followed up by a detailed study of the subsidiary problems that arise for consideration, a study that will complete the revolution in science brought about by the authors of the Communist Manifesto. The outlooks of all the branches of sociology will be amazingly widened by the adoption of these authors’ new philosophical standpoint. Such a beneficial influence is already becoming manifest in the domain of the history of law and in that of the theory of primitive culture.”

Plekhanov thought it expedient to emphasise the following peculiarity of the doctrine he was expounding: “Though scientific socialism derives from Kant and Hegel (among others), it is the deadly enemy of idealism. Scientific socialism hunts idealism out of its last refuge, sociology, where the positivists had given it so cordial a welcome. Scientific socialism is based upon the materialist conception of history, this meaning that it explains the spiritual history of mankind as the outcome of the development of social relations (partly influenced by the natural environment).”

Plekhanov was a man of many-sided activities. While hard at work helping in the creation of the revolutionary party of the proletariat, while applying a new method to the study of the concrete tasks of the con- temporary Russian movement and investigating “the destiny of capitalism in Russia,” and while simultaneously engaged in multifarious practical undertakings, Plekhanov nevertheless found time for a detailed examination of the basic problems of Marxism, concentrating more and more on the history of philosophy, civilisation and art. Furthermore, while working at the further development of the ideas of Marx and Engels, Plekhanov was busied in the defence of these ideas against various revisionists in Russia and elsewhere, against those who wanted to “supplement,”’ “amend,” or “replace” certain Marxian principles by bourgeois dogmas that were long outworn.

A young Plekhanov.

Plekhanov’s Fundamental Problems of Marxism is mainly concerned with the philosophical and historical aspects of scientific socialism. For him, Marxism is a complete philosophy, a general outlook on the universe, a philosophy permeated by a single idea, one and indivisible. He protests against the attempts of Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, Bazarov and Friche to detach the historical and economic parts of Marxism from its philosophical foundation. He protests against all attempts to “provide a new basis” for Marxism by coupling it with some other philosophy, such as neo-Kantianism, Machism, empirio-criticism etc.—attempts which are usually made in response to promptings derived from some philosophical trend which happens to be in favour among bourgeois scholars.

Plekhanov held (expressing this opinion for the first time in his criticism of Bernstein) that the materialism of Marx and Engels was based upon Spinozism, after this latter had been freed by Feuerbach from its theological lumber. Like Feuerbach, the founders of scientific socialism recognised the unity, but not the identity, of thought and being. Marx’s amendments to Feuerbach’s philosophy consisted mainly in this, that Marx contemplated the mutual relations between object and subject from the side from which the subject is seen to assume an active role, as functional and not merely contemplative.

“By acting on nature outside himself and changing it, man simultaneously changes his own nature.”

Plekhanov is right in saying that Marx was strongly influenced by Feuerbach’s Preliminary Theses on the Reform of Philosophy, an article published in 1843, in the second volume of Arnold Ruge’s Anekdota, whose first volume had contained an article by Marx on the Prussian censorship.

“Thought is conditioned by existence, not existence by thought. Being is self-determined…has its foundation in itself.” This thesis, adds Plekhanov, is laid down by Marx as the foundation of the materialist conception of history.

The statement is not perfectly correct. Marx radically modified and supplemented Feuerbach’s thesis, which is as abstract, as little historical, as the “Man” Feuerbach put in the place of “God” or of “‘Reason”’ (the Hegelian modification of “God”). “The human essence is not an abstraction inherent in the individual man,” writes Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach. “In actual fact, this essence is the totality of social relations.” Precisely because Feuerbach does not arrive at this conclusion, he is obliged “to ignore the course of historical evolution…and to set out from the hypothesis of the abstract, the isolated, human individual.”

In accordance with his criticism of the “abstract man,” Marx modifies Feuerbach’s fundamental thesis as follows: “It is not the consciousness of men which determines their existence, but, conversely, it is their social existence which determines their consciousness.” The basic error of all philosophical systems endeavouring to explain the relations between thought and being, is that, like Feuerbach, they have ignored the fact that “the abstract individual analysed by them really belongs to a specific form of society.”

In his earliest writings, Plekhanov repeatedly emphasised the difference between the dialectical method of Marx and Engels and the vulgar theory of evolution, according to which neither nature nor history makes jumps, according to which all the changes in the world occur by a process of gradual transformation. In his criticism of Tikhomirov, who from being a revolutionist had become a reactionary, he explained once more to the “new defender of absolutism” that sudden changes form an inevitable part of the evolutionary process. This brilliant paper on Sudden Changes in Nature and History is included in the present volume for two reasons: it is scarce; and Plekhanov refers to it in his Fundamental Problems of Marxism.

Of especial interest in the latter work are the sections in which the author shows how contemporary sociologists find it necessary (unconsciously, for the most part), in view of the extant conditions of their science, to give a materialist explanation of the phenomena they are studying. Every new discovery throwing light on the history of civilisation, of mythology or of art, supplies fresh arguments in support of the materialist conception of history. Even two decades ago, in 1908, Plekhanov could have greatly multiplied his instances of this kind drawn from bourgeois writers upon historical and sociological topics. Without realising the fact, these scientists use a terminology, assemble materials and record facts which all combine to show the soundness of the Marxian outlook.

In conclusion, a few words on the present edition of Fundamental Problems of Marxism. Besides the fragment on Sudden Changes in Nature and History, it contains an extensive excerpt from the preface written by Plekhanov for Engels’ essay on Feuerbach. In accordance with Plekhanov’s wishes, these remarks on Dialectic and Logic were included in the German translation of the Fundamental Problems, published in 1910. Furthermore, the notes added by Plekhanov to that edition are given here. I have myself supplemented the work by a few explanatory notes and further references. All my own contributions are signed.

Fundamental Problems of Marxism by Georgi Plekhanov, edited by David Riazonov, translated by Eden and Paul Cedar. International Publishers, New York. 1928.

PDF of full book: https://archive.org/download/dli.ministry.13244/E02180_Fundamental_Problems_Of_Marxism_text.pdf

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