Plekhanov 1907

Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Death of Karl Marx

Source: Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 3 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976), pp. 84-87.
Transcribed: for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Moscow Editor’s Note: ‘This article was written at the beginning of 1908 and was apparently intended for the Italian press. It is not known whether it was published at that time or not; in Russian it was first published in the journal Vestnik Kommunisticheskoi akademii (The Proceedings of the Communist Academy), nos 2-3, 1933.’

The class-conscious proletariat of all lands could best honour the memory of the great founder of the International by endeavouring to understand the immense significance Marx’s theory has for our times.

This theory is known to have been the object of numerous assaults by the so-called critics of Marx. Unfortunately, these assaults were not lacking in effect. In the ranks of the militant proletariat of the whole civilised world there are not a few people who firmly believe that Marxism as a theory has already outlived its time and must now give way to new views, the motley combination of which is known as critical socialism. But their belief has as little foundation as had the ‘criticism of Marx’ itself.

Marxism is not just an economic teaching (dealing with the course of development of capitalist society); nor is it just an historical theory (‘historical materialism’); nor can it be described as economic teaching plus historical theory. Marx’s economic teaching is not something standing alongside his historical theory. It is thoroughly permeated with the historical theory, or more truly, it is the outcome of the study of economic development during the present epoch from the standpoint of that historical theory, aided by the mighty method of historical materialism. That is why those who say that Capital is not only an economic but also an historical work are right.

However, even that is not all. The significance of Marx’s achievements in theory is not limited to his remarkable works in the field of political economy, and, as it used to be called, the philosophy of history. ‘Historical materialism’ is only a part of Marx’s materialist world-outlook, as will be easily appreciated by anyone who undertakes the pleasant task of reading Engels’ famous polemical work directed against Mr Eugen Dühring. The first part of this work, written, so to speak, under the eyes of Marx and indeed partly with his assistance, is devoted to philosophy in the proper meaning of the term.

The philosophical side of Marxism is, however, almost completely ignored even by many of those who would like to remain loyal to Marxism. This is the sole reason why such ridiculous attempts have been made to combine Marxism either with the philosophy of Kant, or with the philosophy of Mach, or with some other philosophical systems having absolutely nothing in common with the world-outlook of the author of Capital. But to wish to combine Marxism with philosophies which have nothing in common with it is to reveal a total lack of comprehension of the fact that all aspects of Marx’s world-outlook are closely linked with one another, and that, consequently, one cannot arbitrarily remove one of them and replace it by a combination of views no less arbitrarily selected from quite another world-outlook. And in fact we find that all those who have attempted to carry out this preposterous operation on Marxism have always turned out to be very bad Marxists. What they wrote about Marx’s philosophy, and especially about his dialectics, was not only wrong, but simply ludicrous. And if their ‘critical’ exercises of this kind were not met with homeric laughter by those who knew this subject, it was only because, as I said before, the number of people well versed in Marxism is very small. [1]

Quite recently, one respected Italian reformist, in the first chapters of his book on new roads to socialism, revealed the most complete, the most improbable, and the most childish lack of understanding of dialectics in general and the materialist dialectics of Marx in particular [2] – without evoking any ridicule.

But if the ideologists of the proletariat often display this total incomprehension of Marx’s philosophy, they are the real losers, while the philosophy itself suffers but little. Their views lose all semblance of system, and enter into abnormal association with views elaborated by ideologists of the modern bourgeoisie, that is to say, of a class moving to its decline. It may be said without any exaggeration that a disapproving altitude to the philosophy of Marx is a variety of philosophical decadence.

Moreover, things are no better with regard to the ‘criticism’ of other aspects of Marx’s doctrine. Criticism is obviously an excellent thing. But it has this quality only when the person engaged in criticism does in fact take a critical attitude to his subject. It is anything but splendid when under the pretext of criticism, the ‘critic’ only repeats ideas of others which he has adopted without any criticism. Such criticism is the direct opposite of what criticism should be. But it is just this type of alleged criticism of Marx with which the so-called revisionists and syndicalists [3] have been busying themselves during the last ten years. This criticism was only an uncritical repetition of what had been said with the more or less clearly acknowledged aim of apologetics by the present-day ideologists of the bourgeoisie. If this criticism did signalise some kind of movement, it was a regressive and by no means progressive movement. And exactly because this type of criticism was a movement backwards and not forward, the most critical minds were in reality not those who abandoned themselves to its attractions, but those who displayed the most critical (I do not simply say: negative) attitude towards it.

The ‘critics’ of Marx have said, and still repeat, that the course of economic development of capitalist society during the past quarter of a century has refuted Marx’s expectations and predictions. But when they are called upon to state which specific expectations and predictions they mean, they point not to the ideas expressed by Marx, but to those attributed to him by people who were either unwilling or unable to understand him. I shall take as an example the notorious ‘theory of impoverishment’. Marx was said to have held the view that the position of the proletariat worsens in capitalist society, not only relatively, but also absolutely. It will suffice to read the following passage from The Poverty of Philosophy to realise how wrong that is:

As for the working classes, it still remains a very debatable question whether their condition has improved as a result of the increase in so-called public wealth. If the economists, in support of their optimism, cite the example of the English workers employed in the cotton industry, they see the condition of the latter only in the rare moments of trade prosperity. These moments of prosperity are to the periods of crisis and stagnation in the ‘correct proportion’ of three to ten. But perhaps also, in speaking of improvement, the economists were thinking of the millions of workers who had to perish in the East Indies so as to procure for the million and a half workers employed in the same industry in England three years’ prosperity out of ten. [4]

As you see, there is still a vast difference between this ‘very debatable question’ and the theory of the absolute impoverishment of the proletariat which is usually ascribed to Marx by his ‘critics’. And the theory of the relative worsening of the position of the proletariat [5] is actually developed in Capital.

Or perhaps I shall be told that in this respect there is no room for doubt: that in reality there is a very significant improvement in its position that can be achieved by the working class of today? In that case, I shall cite the situation of the British working class, who thanks to certain exceptional circumstances, have wrested much larger concessions from their employers than the proletariat of the European continent have been able to. Does the reader know why it is so important for the British working class to win old age pensions? Because, as Charles Booth has pointed out, one-third of the old people in Britain die in workhouses, that is, fall into pauperism. It is not hard to guess to which class these aged people belong, who have to undergo this wretched experience. But in view of this, it is very difficult to deny that capitalism, while developing the productive forces of society to an enormous degree, allows the proletariat only insignificant access to the fruits of this development. That is precisely Marx’s theory of impoverishment.

The so-called criticism of Marx has exposed, not the flaws that were peculiar to Marxism, but the failure to understand Marxism which was peculiar to its critics.

There is only one course for the real critic of Marxism to adopt: correctly to master the materialist method and apply it to the study of those aspects of historical development – for example, the history of ideology – on which Marx and his friend and collaborator, Engels, spent little or no time. Only in this way is it possible to uncover the weak points of any scientific method – if there are any. Of course, such a criticism demands a great deal more serious intellectual labour than that required to master the theories which now find such a ready market among both the erudite and the merely educated bourgeoisie: Kantianism, immanent philosophy, Brentanoism, ‘pure economics’, and so on and so forth. Let us hope that the second quarter of a century since the death of Marx which is now beginning will witness, at last, the flowering of such a criticism, which will at the same time constitute the greatest theoretical triumph of Marxism.


Notes are by Plekhanov, except those by the Moscow editors of this edition of the work, which are noted ‘Editor’.

1. Marxism is an integral theoretical system, as may be judged by a reading of Dühring’s Umwältzung. Every aspect of this system is closely linked with all other aspects, each one shedding light on all the others, thus aiding in their comprehension. One cannot select one aspect and limit oneself to its acknowledgement, while eliminating or ignoring the remainder. That would be mutilating Marxism, it would be plucking out its heart, transforming this living theory into a mummy, and not content even with that, concentrating all attention only on one part or another of the mummy. In this lies the grandeur of Marxism, and in this, too, lies the reason why so many of those who are honestly trying to understand it, do so wrongly. To understand Marxism correctly it is essential to have a very wide education, and none of the writers who have undertaken to criticise Marxism has that.

2. Plekhanov is referring to A Bonomi’s book Le vie nuove del socialismo (The New Ways of Socialism, Remo Sandron, Milano-Palermo-Napoli, 1907) – Editor.

3. Those who believe that the teaching of the self-styled revolutionary syndicalists is a return to Marxism are very much mistaken. As a matter of fact, under the banner of this doctrine a regressive movement to the views of Proudhon and Bakunin is taking place. In Italy, this regressive movement is occurring under the most powerful influence of modern ‘Manchesterism’ – the bourgeois school of ‘pure economics’.

4. Compare Wage Labour and Capital where the theory of relative impoverishment is presented. [Plekhanov was misled in denying the absolute impoverishment of the working class under capitalism. Numerous facts testify that absolute impoverishment of the proletariat is taking place in capitalist society. His reference to Marx is also unfounded as Marx proved that accumulation of capital is accompanied by absolute and relative impoverishment of the proletariat – Editor.]

5. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 6 (Moscow, 1976), p 160 – Editor.