Some encounters with Georgy Valentinovich Plekhanov
I have few personal recollections of Georgy Valentinovich. Our meetings were infrequent, although they were not devoid of significance and I gladly record my memories of him.
In 1893 I left Russia for Zurich, as I felt that I could only acquire the education I needed by going abroad. My friends the Lindfors gave me a letter of introduction to Pavel Alexandrovich Axelrod.
Axelrod and his family received me with delightful hospitality. By then I was a more or less convinced Marxist and considered myself a member of the Social Democratic party (I was eighteen and had begun work as an agitator and propagandist two years before going abroad). I am very much indebted to Axelrod for my education in socialism and, however far apart he and I may have moved subsequently, I look upon him with gratitude as one of my most influential teachers. Axelrod was full of awe and reverence for Plekhanov and spoke of him with adoration. This, added to the impression of brilliance that I had already gained from reading Our Differences and various other articles by Plekhanov, filled me with an uneasy, disturbing sense of expectation at the prospect of meeting this great man.
At last Plekhanov came from Geneva to Zurich, brought there by a dispute among the Polish socialists on the nationality question. The nationally-minded socialists in Zurich were headed by Jodko. Our future comrades were led by Rosa Luxemburg, then a brilliant student at Zurich University. Plekhanov was to pronounce on the conflict. For some reason his train was late, so that my first sight of Plekhanov was destined to be slightly theatrical. The meeting had already begun; with rather wearisome emphasis Jodko had been defending his viewpoint for half an hour when into the Eintracht Hall strode Plekhanov.
That was twenty-eight years ago. Plekhanov must have been slightly over thirty. He was a well-proportioned rather slim man in an impeccable frock coat, with a handsome face made particularly striking by his brilliant eyes and - his most marked feature - by thick, shaggy eyebrows. Later at the Stuttgart Congress one newspaper spoke of Plekhanov as 'eine aristokratische Erscheinung'. Indeed in Plekhanov's appearance, in his diction, his tone of voice and his whole bearing there was the ineradicable stamp of the gentry - he was a gentleman from head to toe. This was apt to offend some people's proletarian instincts, but when one remembered that this gentleman was an extreme revolutionary and one of the pioneers of the workers' movement, Plekhanov's aristocratic air became something impressive and moving: 'Look what sort of people are on our side.'
I have no intention of writing a character-study of Plekhanov - that is a task for another occasion - but I would note in passing that in Plekhanov's very appearance and manner something made me, a young man, involuntarily think: Herzen must have been like that.
Plekhanov sat down at Axelrod's table, where I was also sitting, but we exchanged no more than a few sentences.
Plekhanov's speech itself rather disappointed me, perhaps by contrast with Rosa's speech which was as sharp as a razor-blade and as brilliant as silver. When the loud applause for her speech had died down, old Greulich, even then gray-haired, even then looking like Abraham (I saw him, by the way, twenty-five years later looking almost as lively as he had on that occasion although, alas, by then neither he nor Plekhanov were progressive socialists) mounted the rostrum and said in a specially solemn tone: 'Now comrade Plekhanov will speak. He will speak in French. His speech will be translated but, my friends, please try and maintain absolute silence and follow his speech with attention.'
This appeal by the chairman for reverential silence and the huge ovation with which Georgy Valentinovich was greeted combined to move me to tears. A mere youth, which made it pardonable, I was extremely proud of my great fellow-countryman. But his speech, I repeat, rather disappointed me.
For political reasons Plekhanov wanted to adopt a midway position. As a Russian he obviously found it awkward to speak out against the Polish national spirit, although he was theoretically wholly on Rosa Luxemburg's side. At all events he emerged from this difficult situation with honour and with great skill, playing the part of the wise conciliator.
Georgy Valentinovich then stayed for several more days in Zurich and at the risk of seeming rude I lingered whole days at the Axelrods' to seize every possible chance of talking to him.
The opportunities were numerous. Plekhanov loved talking. I was a boy who was well-read, not unintelligent and extremely eager. In spite of my awe of Plekhanov I got on my high horse and, as it were, invited combat on various philosophical questions. Plekhanov liked this; sometimes he would deal playfully with me like a big dog with a puppy and would knock me on my back with an unexpected swipe of his great paw, sometimes he grew angry and sometimes he would expound his views with great earnestness.
Plekhanov was an absolutely incomparable conversationalist in the brilliance of his wit, the wealth of his knowledge, the ease with which he could mobilize the most enormous concentration of mental power on any subject. The Germans have a word 'geistreich' - rich of mind. It exactly describes Plekhanov.
I should mention that Plekhanov did not shake my faith in the great significance of 'left realism', i.e. Avenarius's philosophy. He said jokingly to me: 'Let's talk about Kant instead, if you really want to flounder about in the theory of knowledge - he at least was a man.' Although Plekhanov was capable of dealing an intellectual knock-out blow on occasions, he was also prone to strike off-target.
However, these talks had an immeasurably great influence on me when Plekhanov dwelt on the great Idealist philosophers Fichte, Schelling and Hegel.
Naturally I was already well aware of the enormous significance of Hegel in the history of socialism and of the impossibility of having a proper grasp of the Marxist philosophy of history without a sound acquaintance with Hegel.
Later Plekhanov was to accuse me in one of our public disputes of not having studied Hegel properly. Partly thanks to Plekhanov I had in fact read Hegel with some thoroughness, but I would have done so in any case, as befitted an aspiring socialist theoretician. Fichte and Schelling were another matter. I thought it quite adequate to have read about them in histories of philosophy, considering them to be a dead letter and not worth studying. Plekhanov, however, spoke of them with unexpected enthusiasm. Without for a moment relapsing into any heresy such as 'Back to Fichte!' (later proclaimed by Struve), he nevertheless held forth to me in such a fervent, glorious paean to Fichte and Schelling as the architects of a monumental philosophical edifice that I immediately ran to the Zurich national library and plunged into reading the works of those great Idealists, who were to leave such a stamp not only on my whole philosophical outlook but indeed on my entire personality.
It is a great shame that Plekhanov did no more than touch on the Idealist philosophers. He knew them exhaustively, indeed with astonishing exactitude, and could have written a book on them which would certainly have been no less brilliant than his book on the materialist precursors of Marxism. It is true, I think, that in Plekhanov's undoubtedly rather Bazarov-like mind, of the forerunners of Marxism his favourites d'Holbach and Helvetius were dearer to him than the Idealists. But anyone who imagined that he ignored that other great root of Marxism would be doing Plekhanov an injustice.
Georgy Valentinovich suggested that I should visit him to continue our talks; but it was a year or so before I was able to go to Geneva from Paris. Those, too, were happy days. Georgy Valentinovich was then writing his foreword to the Communist Manifesto and had become very interested in art. I had always been passionately interested in it and consequently the chief theme of our talks was the dependence of the cultural superstructure on the economic base of society, especially where art was concerned. I used to meet him in his study in the rue de Candole and sometimes in the Cafe Landolt where we would spend hours over many a mug of beer.
I remember one incident which made a tremendous impression on me. Plekhanov was pacing up and down his study explaining something. Suddenly he walked over to a cupboard, took out a large album, laid it on the table in front of me and opened it. It contained some wonderful engravings by Boucher, extremely frivolous and - by my standards of those days - almost pornographic; I at once said something to that effect, that here was a typical indication of the decadence of a ruling class on the eve of revolution.
'Yes,' said Plekhanov, looking at me with his glittering eyes, 'but look how superb they are - what style, what life, what elegance, what sensuality.'
I shall not attempt to record the rest of the conversation - it would mean writing a minor treatise on rococo art. I can only say that Plekhanov more or less anticipated all of Hausenstein's main conclusions, although I do not recall him telling me exactly whether or not Boucher's art was fundamentally a bourgeois art that had been merely transplanted into a framework of court life.
To me his aesthetic perception was astounding - his powers of judgement on matters of art were wide-ranging and unprejudiced. Plekhanov's taste was, I think, infallible. On any work of art that he disliked he could express himself in two words, with an absolutely lethal irony which totally disarmed you if you happened to disagree with him. About works of art which pleased him Plekhanov spoke with such precision, at times with such excitement that it became obvious why he was an influential writer on the history of art. His relatively modest studies, dealing only with a few periods, have become one of the cornerstones of subsequent work in that field.
From no book, from no museum, have I ever gained so much stimulation and insight as from those talks of mine with Georgy Valentinovich.
Unfortunately our subsequent meetings took place in rather less happy circumstances, where we encountered each other as political enemies.
I did not meet Plekhanov again until the Stuttgart Congress. The Bolshevik delegation had appointed me their official representative on the very important committee set up to work out the Party's policy towards the trades unions. Plekhanov represented the Mensheviks. At the very start a dispute arose within the Russian delegation. The majority voted for our viewpoint and the waverers eventually swung over to our side. The matter was in no sense a personal victory of mine over Plekhanov: he defended his thesis brilliantly, but the thesis itself was unacceptable. Plekhanov insisted that close alliance between the Party and the trades unions might be detrimental to the Party, that the task of the trades unions was to improve the workers' lot within the capitalist system whereas the Party's task was to destroy that system itself. He advocated independence. The opposing tendency was headed by the Belgian De Brouckere. (De Brouckere was then a very left-wing socialist whose thinking had much in common with ours, although he was later to deviate.) De Brouckere stood for the need to penetrate the trade-union movement with a socialist consciousness of the indissoluble unity of the working class, the guiding role of the Party and so on. In the reigning atmosphere of heated discussion of the general strike as a fighting weapon, everyone was tending to reconsider their previous views. We were all aware that parliamentarism was becoming a more and more inadequate weapon, that without the trades unions the Party would never accomplish the revolution and that after the revolution the trades unions were bound to play a major part in rebuilding a new world. As a result, Plekhanov's attitude, represented at the international level by Guesde, was ultimately rejected both by our committee and by the Congress itself.
To my surprise I detected a certain trace of the 'Old Believer' in Plekhanov's political attitudes. For the first time his orthodoxy seemed slightly ossified and it occurred to me that politics were far from being Plekhanov's strong suit. One might have deduced this in any case from the way in which he wavered between one and the other of the Party's two main factions.
We next met at the Stockholm Congress, where this characteristic behaviour of Plekhanov's became all too evident. He was far from being a convinced Menshevik at this congress. In part his aim was conciliationist. He stood for Party unity (this was, after all, the 'Unification' congress) and maintained that if revolutionary feeling were to increase in Russia the Mensheviks would find no allies except from the ranks of the Bolsheviks. On the other hand he was frightened by the rigidity of the Bolsheviks' position. In his opinion Bolshevism was not orthodox. Indeed the main feature which differentiated the two factions at that time was their policy on the peasantry.
The scheme of the revolution as the Mensheviks envisaged it was as follows: a bourgeois revolution was in progress in Russia, which would culminate in a constitutional monarchy, or at best in a bourgeois republic. The working class should support the protagonists of this capitalist revolution, simultaneously wresting from them positions of advantage for their future task of opposition and - ultimately - of revolution. It was assumed that there would be a considerable time-lag between the bourgeois revolution and the socialist revolution.
Comrade Trotsky held the view that both revolutions, although they might not coincide, were so inter-connected that we would face a situation of 'permanent revolution'. Starting with a seizure of power by bourgeois political forces, the Russian people would enter a revolutionary period; along with it the rest of the world, too, would not emerge from this period until the total completion of the social revolution. It is undeniable that in formulating these views comrade Trotsky showed great prescience, although his timing was wrong by fifteen years.
Incidentally I should point out that in a leading article in New Life I also outlined the possibility of a seizure of power by the proletariat and of the retention, under proletarian control, of a form of capitalism which would rapidly evolve towards socialism. I described a situation remarkably similar to our present N.E.P., but I was given a telling-off by L. B. Krasin who found my article ill-advised and un-Marxist.
The Bolsheviks, with comrade Lenin at their head, were in fact extremely cautious; they held that there were no signs of the proletarian social revolution having begun, but they thought that this revolution had to be encouraged as much as possible without engaging in any theoretical guesswork and prediction, which were foreign to Vladimir Ilyich's nature. In practical terms the Bolsheviks advanced confidently along the correct path. To bring about a plebeian revolution, a revolution similar to the French Revolution that could be taken even further than '93, an alliance with the bourgeoisie was useless: consequently our tactics demanded a break with the bourgeoisie. But we had no intention of isolating the proletariat, for whom we envisaged the enormous task of organizing an alliance with the peasantry, above all with the poor peasantry. Plekhanov was incapable of understanding this. Addressing Lenin he said: 'This new idea of yours sounds a pretty ancient one to me!' Why 'ancient' ? Because it seemed to be borrowing the worn-out policy of the S.Rs and to cause us to abandon our characteristic emphasis on the proletariat.
Plekhanov's failure to comprehend our standpoint should not be lightly dismissed as being no more than a typical example of his blinkered super-orthodoxy. Were we not, in the course of our great revolution, once obliged to include some S.Rs, even if left S.Rs, in our government, and was this move entirely free of danger ? Are we not delighted now that the childish policies of the left S.Rs themselves have caused their severance from the government? The fears of a 'peasantization' of the Soviet government, of which comrades Shlyapoikov, Kollontai and others occasionally warn us, are unfounded, but the soil which nourishes them is clear to everybody. At the moment it is impossible to say with absolute certainty how a joint workers' and peasants' government will succeed, although everything appears to support comrade Lenin's predictions at the Party Congress that the huge deadweight of the peasantry which, once the plans for a political union of towns and country are completed, will have to be carried with us, is slowing down our movement; but it will never cause us to deviate from the straight and narrow path towards communism.
But all that lay then in the future. At the time, one thing was clear: the workers'-and-peasants' revolution is a proletarian revolution, a bourgeois-and-workers' revolution is a betrayal of the working class. To us this was clear, but not to Plekhanov. I remember that during a very biting speech by Plekhanov my neighbour in the next seat, Alexinsky, then a Bolshevik extremist, nearly boxed his ears but was stopped in time by comrade Sedoi, himself a pretty fiery character, who seized him by the coat-tails.
Alas, all that was to end much later in the miserable alliance between Alexinsky and Plekhanov.
It was at the Stockholm Congress that I moved a vote of censure against Plekhanov. My objection amounted to contrasting his view with that of another orthodox theoretician, Kautsky. This was easy, because at that time Kautsky in his pamphlet 'The Motive Force of the Russian Revolution' had shown himself to be in sympathy with us. But Plekhanov was particularly annoyed by my reply to his accusation of Blanquism, when I said that as far as practical notions of making and leading an actual revolution were concerned, he had apparently gathered his ideas from the operetta Mademoiselle Angot. In his final rejoinder Plekhanov said some very angry words.
Several more years went by and we met again at the Copenhagen international congress, when our hopes for the first Russian revolution had foundered. I attended the Copenhagen Congress as a representative of the Forward group with a consultative vote, but I had practically joined the Bolsheviks and they looked upon me as one of them; indeed they again empowered me to represent them on one of the most important committees - the committee dealing with the cooperatives. The same thing happened here. Plekhanov insisted on the strictest separation of the Party from the cooperatives, fearing contamination by the cooperatives' small-shopkeeper mentality.
I should mention that at the Copenhagen Congress Plekhanov was much closer to the Bolsheviks than to the Mensheviks. As far as I remember Vladimir Ilyich was not too interested in the cooperatives, but nevertheless the Russian delegation listened to my report on the committee and to Plekhanov's objections. Our differences were more or less parallel to those which had arisen between us at Stuttgart on the subject of the trades unions. On this occasion, however, Plekhanov had had little experience of the problem under discussion and there was no particular cause for a clash with him.
In spite of all this, we remained personally on very good terms. He invited me several times to his rooms, we would leave the congress meetings together and he enjoyed giving me his off-the-record impressions of the conference. Plekhanov had by then aged a great deal and was ill, so seriously ill in fact that we were all concerned about him. This did not stop him from being as sharp as ever, and making witty remarks to left and right, strongly biased though they were. He was fondest of all of the old guard. He spoke particularly warmly and graphically of Guesde and of Lafargue, who was already dead. I mentioned Lenin. Here Plekhanov fell silent and he replied to my enthusiasm in terms that were not exactly deprecatory - if anything they were sympathetic - but were somehow vague.
I remember how during a speech by Vandervelde Plekhanov said to me: 'Isn't he exactly like an archdeacon ?' His bon mot struck me so forcibly that to this day I cannot disentangle the image of an Orthodox deacon chanting the responses from the rhetorical fervour of that famous Belgian. I remember, too, in the course of a speech by Bebel how Plekhanov surprised me by the lapidary precision of his remark: 'Look at that old man - he has exactly the head of Demosthenes.' At once there arose before my mind's eye the famous statue of Demosthenes and the likeness seemed truly striking.
After the Copenhagen Congress I had to read a report on it at Geneva and at that meeting Plekhanov was my opponent. Later we arranged a few more discussion meetings, sometimes of a philosophical nature (for instance on a lecture by Deborin) and there Plekhanov and I met again. I was extremely fond of having discussions with Plekhanov, despite their complexity and difficulty, but I will refrain from describing them here as I might appear rather one-sided.
After Plekhanov defected from the revolutionary cause, i.e. after his deviation into social-patriotism, I never saw him again.
This is not, I repeat, an attempt to draw a character-sketch of Plekhanov as a man, a thinker or a politician, but it is simply a contribution to the body of literature on Plekhanov drawn from my personal recollections. It may be that they are coloured rather subjectively, but a writer is inevitably subjective. Let the reader accept them as such. No one man, in any case, is capable of encompassing such a great figure with absolute objectivity. That monumental image can ultimately only be recreated from a host of varying opinions. But one thing I can state: Plekhanov and I often clashed, his printed remarks about me were largely negative and hostile, yet in spite of that my memory of Plekhanov is extraordinarily bright, it is a joy to recall those glittering eyes, that astounding intellectual agility, that greatness of spirit or, as Lenin put it, that physical force of his brain, that aristocratic forehead crowning a great democrat. In the final analysis even our great differences, as they are transmuted into the stuff of history, largely drop from the scales whilst the brilliant aspects of Plekhanov's character will endure forever.
In Russian literature Plekhanov stands close to Herzen, in the history of socialism he belongs to that constellation (Kautsky, Lafargue, Guesde, Bebel, old Liebknecht) which revolves round those twin suns, Plekhanov's demigods of whom he - strong, intelligent, incisive and proud as he was - would speak only with the voice of a disciple: Marx and Engels.
Note: Anatoly Lunacharsky (1873-1933) wrote the book "Revolutionary Silhouettes" in 1918. It was issued in a couple of editions until 1924, now this now that biography was cut out or put in. This text is taken from the 1923 edition. In the last edition, the profiles of Trotsky, Zinoviev and others were omitted. The book was never published again. Stalin was almost not mentioned at all in the book, which maybe was the biggest problem with it. /KET