‘Sudden Changes in Nature and History’ (1889) by Georgi Plekhanov from ‘Fundamental Problems of Marxism’ edited by David Riazanov. International Publishers, New York. 1928.

Evolution or Revolution? Plekhanov closes the gap. An early gem from noticed and polished by David Riazanov as an addition for the 1928 publication of 1908’s ‘Fundamental Problems of Marxism.’ Written twenty before that text, this marvelous essay is extracted from Plekhanov’s pamphlet ‘A New Champion of Autocracy, Or Mr. L. Tikhomirov’s Grief,’ itself a reply to Tikhomirov’s ‘Why I Ceased to be a Revolutionary.’ This version translated by Eden and Paul Cedar.

‘Sudden Changes in Nature and History’ by Georgi Plekhanov from ‘Fundamental Problems of Marxism’ edited by David Riazanov. International Publishers, New York. 1928.

Tikhomirov writes: “Here in Russia, and not here alone, an idea is widely prevalent that we are living in a ‘period of destruction’ which, it is supposed, will end in a terrible revolution, with torrents of blood, dynamite explosions and so on. After that, we are given to understand, a ‘period of construction’ will begin. This outlook on the social movement is utterly wrong-headed and, as I have already pointed out, is nothing more than the political reflex of the outworn ideas of Cuvier and other members of the cataclysmic school of geologists. In reality, destruction and construction go hand-in-hand, being inconceivable without one another. When a phenomenon is moving towards its destruction, this can only happen, in truth, because something new is being formed in its place; and. conversely, the formation of a new order of things is nothing else than the destruction of the old order.”

Lev Tikhomirov.

The train of thought is somewhat confused, but it is possible to disintegrate from it two main theses:

1. In Russia, and elsewhere, revolutionists have no idea of evolution, of a gradual change in the type of phenomena—to borrow an expression used in another place by Tikhomirov.

2. If they had an idea of evolution, of a gradual change in phenomena, revolutionists would not imagine that we are living in a period of destruction.

Let us consider how things are in this respect “elsewhere,” that is to say in the western world.

As every one knows, there actually is in progress in the West, a revolutionary movement on the part of the working class, which aspires to economic emancipation. What we now have to ask ourselves is, whether the theoretical spokesmen of this movement, the socialists that is to say, have been able to harmonise their revolutionary tendencies with a satisfactory theory of social evolution?

No one who has the first beginnings of a knowledge of contemporary socialism can fail to answer this question in the affirmative. Both in Europe and in America, all the socialists worth taking seriously adhere to Marx’s teaching, and who does not know that this teaching is, before all, the doctrine of the evolution of human societies? Marx was an ardent defender of revolutionary activity. He had the keenest sympathy with every revolutionary movement directed against the extant social and political order. A critic may, if he pleases, refrain from sharing such “destructive” sympathies. Still, he is not entitled to believe that, because Marx had such sympathies, Marx’s imagination was exclusively ‘fixed upon forcible revolutions,” that he ignored social evolution, slow and progressive development. Not only did Marx not forget evolution but he discovered many of the most important laws of social evolution. According to the picture in his mind, the history of mankind unrolled in a harmonious fashion, not fantastically; and he was the first to conceive such a harmonious picture. He was the first to show that economic evolution leads to political revolutions. Thanks to him, the contemporary revolutionary movement has an aim that is clearly fixed and a theoretical basis that has been strictly formulated. If these things are so, how can Tikhomirov fancy himself able, by a few loosely worded phrases concerning social construction, to prove the inconsistency of the revolutionary trends existing in Russia and elsewhere. One can only suppose that he has not taken the trouble to try and understand socialist doctrine.

Nowadays Tikhomirov is inspired with repugnance for “sudden catastrophes” and ‘forcible revolutions.” That is his own affair; he is not the first to turn his back on revolution and will not be the last. But he is wrong in thinking that “sudden catastrophes” are impossible in nature and in human society. First of all, the “suddenness” of such catastrophes is a relative notion. What is sudden for one person is not sudden for another. For the ignorant, an eclipse of the sun occurs suddenly, but it is not a sudden occurrence for an astronomer. The same thing applies to revolutions. These “political catastrophes” occur “suddenly” for ignorant persons and for the great multitude of self-satisfied philistines, but they are not sudden for one who has been watching the course of phenomena in the social environment. Furthermore, if Tikhomirov were to turn his attention to nature and history, even while contemplating them from the point of view of the theory he now holds, he would expose himself to a number of overwhelming surprises. He has made a mental note to the effect that in nature there are no jumps and that, if we leave the world of revolutionary mirages and come to the firm ground of reality, “we can only speak, scientifically, of the slow transformation of any given type of phenomenon.” None the less, nature makes jumps, without troubling herself about all these philippics against suddenness. Tikhomirov is certain that “the outworn ideas of Cuvier” are erroneous and that “brusque geological catastrophes” are nothing but a product of the imagination. Well, let us suppose that he is in the south of France, leading a sheltered existence, without any hint of alarms or perils. Then, suddenly, there comes an earthquake, like that of two years ago. The ground shakes violently, houses tumble down, the inhabitants run out terrified; in a word, there is a genuine catastrophe, indicating incredible heedlessness on the part of mother nature. Learning from this bitter experience, Tikhomirov is compelled to reconsider his geological concepts and come to the conclusion that “the slow transformation of phenomena” (in this case, the phenomena of the earth’s crust) does not exclude the possibility of changes of another order, changes which, from a certain outlook, may appear sudden and may seem to be produced violently. (1)

Now let us suppose that Tikhomirov puts a saucepan full of water on a stove. The water will remain water as long as its temperature is rising from 32 degrees to 212 degrees. He will have no occasion to be alarmed about any suddenness. Then will come a moment when the temperature reaches a critical point and, all of a sudden (what a terrible thing!), a catastrophe occurs; the water is changed into steam, just as if its imagination had been running on forcible revolutions.

Now Tikhomirov cools the water down, and the same strange story repeats itself at the other end of the scale. By slow degrees, at first, the temperature of the water falls, while the water remains water. Now comes a moment when the cooling down reaches freezing-point and the water is changed into ice, regardless of any theory that the idea of sudden revolutions is a false one.

Tikhomirov is watching the development of one of those insects which are subject to metamorphoses. The changes in the chrysalis go on slowly and, until the time arrives for a new order of things, the chrysalis remains a chrysalis. The observer rubs his hands joyfully, saying: ‘‘Here everything is going on as it should. Neither the social organism nor the animal organism experiences any of those sudden upsets whose existence I have been forced to recognise in the inorganic world. At any rate, when devoting herself to the creation of living beings, nature has recovered her sobriety.” Soon, however, his happiness is dashed. One fine day, the chrysalis undergoes a “forcible revolution,” splits up the back and makes a new entry into the world as a butterfly. Thus Tikhomirov has been compelled to admit that even the organic world is not insured against “sudden changes.”

It would be exactly the same if Tikhomirov were to direct his attention to his own evolution. Beyond doubt, he would discover there a similar sharp turn, a like revolutionary change. He would have to remember some particular drop which filled the cup of his impressions to the brim and made it run over, so that he was transformed from a more or less hesitating defender of the revolution into its more or less sincere opponent.

Tikhomirov and I will set to work at addition. We will take the number five, and, being thoroughly respectable persons, we will add to it one by one “‘gradually,” making six, seven, eight. Up to nine, everything goes well. But when, after this, we want to add another unit, a disaster occurs. Suddenly, without any plausible reason, our units get changed into a ten. The like misfortune befalls us when we pass from tens to a hundred.

Tikhomirov and I will not be able to enjoy music, for here there are too many sudden transitions of all kinds which will put our “conceptions” to flight.

To all Tikhomirov’s confused arguments concerning “forcible revolution,” contemporary revolutionists can answer by asking this simple question: ‘What are you going to do about those sudden upsets which have already occurred in real life and which, in any case, represent periods of destruction? Are we to declare them null and void; or are we to regard them as the work of frivolous and futile people whose actions are not worth the attention of a serious-minded sociologist? ” Whatever we may decide to do about such phenomena, it must certainly be admitted that history records many violent revolutions and political catastrophes. Why, then, should Tikhomirov imagine that any one who thinks that similar phenomena may occur in the future is cherishing “erroneous social conceptions’’?

History makes no jumps! This is perfectly true. On the other hand, it is equally true that history has made a number of jumps, has witnessed a number of violent revolutions. Instances could be quoted in abundance. What is the meaning of this contradiction? Only that the former of the two theses has not been correctly phrased, and that is why it is so often misunderstood. What ought to have been said was that history never makes jumps unless the way has been prepared for them. There can be no sudden change without a sufficient cause, and this cause is to be found in the previous march of social evolution. But, inasmuch as this evolution never ceases in societies that are in course of development, we may say that history is continually engaged in preparing for such sudden changes and revolutions. It goes on doing this assiduously and imperturbably; it works slowly; but the results of its efforts, these sudden changes, these political catastrophes, are absolutely inevitable.

The transformation of type undergone by the French bourgeoisie was a slow process. The bourgeois of the time of the Regency differed in many respects from the bourgeois of the days of Louis XI., but, speaking generally, the one and the other belonged to the same type, that of the burgher of the old regime. As the centuries passed, he had grown richer, better educated, had developed more extensive needs, but he had not ceased to be the plebeian who had always and everywhere to give ground before the noble. Then came the year 1789, when the bourgeois raised his head proudly. A few years more, and he had become the king of the castle. How has this change been effected? “With torrents of blood,” to the rolling of the drums, accompanied by “explosions of gunpowder”—though not by explosions of dynamite, since high explosives had not yet been invented. The bourgeois forced France to undergo a “period of destruction,” recking not of the fact that in days to come there would be a pedant to proclaim that forcible revolutions are a “false conception.”

Very slowly there was a change of type in Russian social conditions. The petty princedoms, whose internecine quarrels had dismembered the country, disappeared; the boyars submitted to the authority of the tsar and became simple nobles, compelled, like all their class, to devote themselves to the service of the crown. Muscovy subjugated the Tartar khanates, annexed Siberia and the border countries of the south, but still remained the capital of an Asiatic realm. Then Peter the Great appeared, and effected a violent revolution in the life of the country. A new period of Russian history, the European period, began. The slavophils reviled Peter as “antichrist,” precisely because he effected a sudden revolution. They declared that, in his eagerness for change, he had forgotten the need for gradual evolution, for a slow transformation of the social system. But every one competent to think must surely be able to understand that the sudden overturning of the extant order effected by Peter the Great was a change imposed by the historical evolution of Russia, which had paved the way for the revolutionary transformation.

Quantitative changes, accumulating by slow degrees, become in the end qualitative changes. These transitions occur by jumps and cannot occur in any other way.

“Gradualists” of one kind or another, those who make a dogma of moderation and of meticulous order, cannot understand this phenomenon, although it was long ago brought into relief by German philosophy. Here, as on many other occasions, we shall do well to quote Hegel, who certainly cannot be charged with a passion for “revolutionary activity.” He wrote. “The ordinary notion of the appearance or disappearance of anything, is the notion of a gradual appearance and disappearance. Nevertheless, there are transformations of being which are not only changes from one quantity to another, but also changes from the quantitative to the qualitative; such a transformation is an interruption of ‘gradual becoming’ and gives rise to a kind of being qualitatively different from the preceding. Every time that there is an interruption of ‘gradual becoming,’ there occurs a jump in the course of evolution, after which the place of one phenomenon has been occupied by another. Underlying the theory of gradualness is the idea that that which makes its appearance already exists effectively, and only remains imperceptible because it is so very small. In like manner, when we speak of the gradual disappearance of a phenomenon, we represent to ourselves that this disappearance is an accomplished fact and that the phenomenon which takes the place of the extant one already exists, but that neither the one nor the other is as yet perceptible. . . . In this way, however, we are really suppressing all appearance and all disappearance . . . To explain the appearance or the disappearance of a given phenomenon by the gradualness of the transformation is absurdly tautological, for it implies that we consider as having already appeared or disappeared that which is actually in course of appearing or disappearing.” (2) This is equivalent to saying that if you had to explain the origin of the State, you would simply imagine a microscopic organisation of the State which, gradually becoming larger, would at length make people aware of its existence. In the same way, if you had to explain the disappearance of primitive clan relations, you would suppose their becoming by degrees more and more minute until they ceased to be visible, and then the trick would be done. I need hardly say that by such ways of thinking we shall not get far in the sciences. One of Hegel’s greatest merits was that he purged the doctrine of evolution of these absurdities. But what does Tikhomirov care about Hegel and his merits? Tikhomirov has told us, once for all, that the theories of the western world are not applicable to Russia.

Notwithstanding his views regarding forcible revolutions and political catastrophes, we can rest assured that, at the present moment, history is preparing, in the most advanced countries, a revolutionary change of altogether exceptional importance, and one which, we may presume, will be achieved by force. This change will affect the way in which products are distributed. Economic evolution has brought into being titanic forces of production; and, if these forces are to be kept at work, there must be a particular kind of organisation of production. The forces in question can only be applied in large-scale industrial establishments where work is carried on collectively; they necessitate social production.

The individual appropriation of products, deriving from the utterly different economic conditions of a period when petty industry and petty agriculture were dominant, is in flagrant conflict with this social method of production. Thanks to the extant methods of appropriation, the products of the social labour of the workers become the private property of the entrepreneurs. This primary economic contradiction is the cause of all the other social and political contradictions in contemporary society. It is a contradiction which becomes ever more flagrant. The entrepreneurs cannot dispense with the social organisation of production, for this is the source of their wealth. Nay, competition forces them to extend the social organisation of production to branches of industry where it does not yet exist. The great industrial enterprises crowd out the petty producers, and in this way bring about an increase in the number of the working class and intensify its power. The fatal dénouement is at hand. In order to do away with the contradiction between the extant method of production and the extant method of distribution, a contradiction harmful to the workers, these must seize political power, which is at present in the hands of the bourgeoisie. If you like to phrase it thus, you may say that the workers must bring about a “political catastrophe.’’ Economic evolution is necessarily leading to a political revolution; and this latter, in its turn, will be the cause of important changes in the economic structure of society. It is by slow degrees that the method of production assumes a social character; but the appropriate change in the method of distribution will be the outcome of a forcible revolution.

That is how the historical movement is proceeding, not here in Russia, but in the West. Tikhomirov, although he is so much concerned to “watch the powerful civilisation of France,” has absolutely no “conception” of the social life of the West.

Forcible revolutions, ‘‘torrents of blood,” scaffolds and executions, gunpowder and dynamite—these are distressing phenomena. What are you going to do about them, since they are inevitable? Force has always been the midwife of an old society pregnant with a new one. That is what Marx said, and he is not the only one to have such thoughts. F.C. Schlosser, the historian, was convinced that only “by fire and sword” are great revolutions in the destiny of mankind accomplished. (3) Why is there this distressing necessity? Whose fault is it? Can it be that truth is not yet all-powerful in this world of ours?

Not yet! The reason is to be found in the difference between the interests of the different classes of society. For one of these classes, it is advantageous, and even indispensable, that social relations shall be remodeled. For the other class, it is advantageous, and even indispensable, to oppose any such remodeling. To the members of one class, the proposed remodeling promises happiness and freedom; to the members of the other class it will bring the abolition of their privileged position and even their total suppression as a privileged class. What class is there which does not fight to maintain its own existence? What class is there which has no instinct of self-preservation? The social regime profitable to any given class, seems to the members of that class, not merely just, but the only possible one. The members of this class consider that any attempt to change the extant order is an attempt to destroy the foundations of human society. They think that they are called upon to defend these foundations, even by force. Hence “torrents of blood,” hence the clash of arms.

Besides, the socialists, when meditating on the approaching social revolution, can console themselves with the idea that the more widely their “‘subversive” doctrines are diffused, the more the working class has been developed and organised and disciplined—the fewer will be the victims in the inevitable ‘“‘catastrophe.”

Nevertheless, the triumph of the proletariat, by putting an end to the exploitation of man by man, and thus to the division of society into a class of exploiters and a class of exploited, will make civil wars, not only useless, but impossible. Thenceforward, mankind will advance by the sole “power of truth,” and will no longer have occasion for the argument of the mailed fist.

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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