Critical assessments

Georgi Plekhanov

Our Differences’ [1885]

Selected Philosophical works. Volume 1. Moscow: Progress, n.d.

Chapter I: A Few References to History

Russian Blanquism

It is now ten years since the most important programmes of the seventies appeared. Ten years of efforts, struggle and sometimes bitter disappointments have shown our youth that the organisation of a revolutionary movement among the peasantry is impossible under the present conditions in Russia. As revolutionary doctrines, Bakuninism and Narodism are antiquated and are now received with joy only in the conservative-democratic literary camp. Their fate will be either to lose their distinctive features altogether and merge with new and more fruitful revolutionary trends or to congeal in their old form and serve as a buttress for political and social reaction. Our propagandists of the old type have also disappeared from the stage. But that is not the case with the theories of P.N. Tkachov. Although for full ten years “every day has brought us new enemies and created new social factors hostile to us”, although the social revolution “has encountered” in that time certain considerable “obstacles”, Russian Blanquism is now raising its voice with particular force and, still confident that “the contemporary historical period is particularly favourable for the carrying out of the social revolution”, it is continuing to accuse all “dissenters” of moderation and meticulousness, repeating in a new key the old refrain: “now, or in a very remote future, perhaps never! or “we have not the right to wait”, or “let each one gather his belongings and hasten to set out”, and so on. And it is this strengthened and, if we may so express it, rejuvenated Tkachovism that everybody has to deal with who would like to write about the present “differences” in Russian revolutionary spheres. All the more must it be taken into account in the study of “the fate of Russian capitalism”.

I have already said more than once that Mr. Tikhomirov’s article What Can We Expect from the Revolution? is only a new and supplemented edition – though at the same time inferior many respects – of the social and political views of N. Tkachov. If I have not been mistaken in determining the distinctive features of Russian Blanquism, the literary activity of the “Narodnaya Volya party” boils down to a repetition of Tkachov’s teachings in different keys. The sole difference is that for Tkachov “the time we are passing through” referred to the early seventies, while for the publicists of the “Narodnaya Volya party” it coincides with the late seventies and early eighties. Completely lacking what the Germans call the “sense of history”, Russian Blanquism has very easily transferred and will transfer this concept of the particularly favourable “time” for the social revolution from one decade to another. After proving a false prophet in the eighties, it will renew its prophecies with an obstinacy worthy of a better fate ten, twenty or thirty years later and will go on doing so right up to the time when the working class finally understands the conditions for its social emancipation and greets the Blanquist doctrine with Homeric laughter. For the dissemination of Blanquism every moment of history is favourable except a time which is really favourable for the socialist revolution.

But it is time to define more exactly the expressions I use. What is Blanquism in general? What is Russian Blanquism?

P.L. Lavrov hopes, as we have seen, that “the majority of the members” of the Emancipation of Labour group “may any day now be in the ranks of Narodnaya Volya”. He affirms that “Mr. Plekhanov himself has already undergone a sufficiently great evolution in his political and social convictions for us to have reason to hope for new steps on his part in the same direction”. If the “Narodnaya Volya party” professes – as far as can be judged by its literary works – the Blanquist standpoint, it turns out that my “evolution” too is taking place “in the same direction”. The Marxism which I profess at present is consequently but a purgatory through which my socialist soul must pass to obtain final rest in the lap of Blanquism. Is that so? Will such an “evolution” be progressive? How does this question appear from the standpoint of modern scientific socialism?

“Blanqui is first and foremost a political revolutionary,” we read in an article by Engels, “a socialist only in feeling, who sympathises with the people in their sufferings but has no special socialist theory of his own and proposes no definite measures for social reorganisation. In his political activity he was mainly a so-called ‘man of action’ who was convinced that a small number of well-organised people who choose the right moment and carry out a revolutionary attempt can attract the popular masses with one or two successes and thus carry out a victorious revolution. During the reign of Louis Philippe he could naturally organise such a group only, of course, in the form of a secret society and what happened then was what always happens when there is a conspiracy. The people forming it, wearied by continuous restraint and vain promises that it would soon come to the final blow, ended by losing all patience and ceasing to obey, and then one of two things remained: either to allow the conspiracy to fall to pieces or to start the revolutionary attempt without any external occasion. An attempt of that kind was made (on May 12, 1839) and was suppressed at the very outset. This conspiracy of Blanqui, by the way, was the only one that was not discovered by the police …

“From the fact that Blanqui viewed every revolution as a Handstreich by a small revolutionary minority, it naturally follows that a revolutionary dictatorship must be established after a successful upheaval; naturally not a dictatorship of the whole revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of a small number of those who have carried out the Handstreich and who themselves were previously subject to the dictatorship of one or a few of the elect.

“The reader sees,” Engels continues, “that Blanqui is a revolutionary of the old generation. Such conceptions of the course of revolutionary events have already grown too obsolete for the German working-class party, and even in France they can arouse sympathy only in the least mature or least patient workers.”

Thus we see that socialists of the latest, scientific school consider Blanquism as an already obsolete standpoint. The transition from Marxism to Blanquism is not impossible, of course – all sorts of things happen – but on no account will it be acknowledged by any Marxist as progress in the “political and social convictions” of any of their fellow-thinkers. Only from the Blanquist standpoint can such an “evolution” be considered progressive. And if the honourable editor of Vestnik Narodnoi Voli has not radically changed his views of the socialism of Marx’s school, his prophecy concerning the Emancipation of Labour group is bound to puzzle every impartial reader.

We see further from this quotation from Engels that Tkachov’s conception of the “forcible revolution” as something “imposed” on the majority by the minority is nothing but Blanquism which could be called the purest if the editor of Nabat had not taken it into his head to try to prove that in Russia there is no need even to impose socialism on the majority, who are communist “by instinct, by tradition”.

The distinctive feature of the Russian variety of Blanquism is therefore merely the idealisation of the Russian peasantry borrowed from Bakunin. Let us now pass on to Mr. Tikhomirov’s views and see whether they come under this definition or are a new variety of “Russian socialism”. […]

Chapter IV: Capitalism and Our Tasks

[…] Like a true follower of Blanqui, or rather of Tkachov, when Mr. Tikhomirov sets out to discuss some revolutionary question he first of all tries to substitute his own will for historical development, to replace the initiative of the class by that of a committee and to change the cause of the whole working population of the country into the cause of a secret organisation. It is not easy to perform such tricks before the eyes of people at all acquainted with the propaganda of modern socialism or even only half convinced that “the emancipation of the workers must be conquered by the workers themselves”. That is why our author tries to prove that the cause of the Executive Committee will be the cause of the whole people, not only as interests go but also as far as will and consciousness are concerned. Forced to admit that historical development has so far but little promoted the elaboration of socialist consciousness and revolutionary (not merely rebellious) tendencies in the Russian people, he endeavours with all the more zeal to convince us of the stability and unshakability of the prehistoric forms of the Russian way of life and outlook. […]

[…] It is here that the difference between the standpoints of the Social-Democrats on one side and of the Blanquists on the other is revealed. The former demand objective guarantees of success for their cause, guarantees which they see in the development of consciousness, initiative and organisation in the working class; the latter are satisfied with guarantees of a purely subjective nature; they abandon the cause of the working class to individuals and committees, they make the triumph of the ideas they hold dear depend on faith in the personal qualities of some or other members of the conspiracy. If the conspirators are honest, brave and experienced, socialism will triumph; if they are not resolute or capable enough, the victory of socialism will be postponed, perhaps for a short time if new and more capable conspirators are found, but for an infinitely long time if there are no such conspirators. All is here reduced to hazard, to the intelligence, ability and will of individuals.

Let it not be said that the Russian Blanquists of today do not deny the importance of preparatory work among the working class. No doubt whatsoever is possible on this score after Kalendar Narodnoi Voli has declared that the working population in the towns is of “particularly great importance for the revolution” (p.130). But is there even a single party in the world which does not acknowledge that the working class can greatly help it to achieve its aims? The present-day policy of the Iron Chancellor clearly shows that even the Prussian junkers do not lack such awareness. Now all appeal to the workers, but they do not all speak to them in the same tone; they do not all allot them the same role in their political programmes. This difference is noticeable even among the socialists. For the democrat Jacobi the foundation of one workers’ union was of more importance socially and historically than the Battle of Sadowa. The Blanquist will of course perfectly agree with that opinion. But he will agree only because it is not battles but revolutionary conspiracies that he sees as the main motive forces of progress. If you were to suggest that he choose between a workers’ union and a “repentant nobleman” in the person of some divisional general, he would prefer the latter to the former almost without thinking. And that is understandable. No matter how important the workers are “for the revolution”, high-placed conspirators are still more important, for not a step can be made without them and the whole outcome of the conspiracy can often depend on the conduct of some “Excellency”. From the standpoint of the Social-Democrat a true revolutionary movement at the present time is possible only among the working class; from the standpoint of the Blanquist the revolution relies only partly upon the workers, who have an “important” but not the main significance in it. The former assumes that the revolution is of “particular importance” for the workers, while in the opinion of the latter the workers, as we know, are of particular importance for the revolution. The Social-Democrat wants the worker himself to make his revolution; the Blanquist demands that the worker should support the revolution which has been begun and led for him and in his name by others, for instance by officers if we imagine something in the nature of the Decembrists’ conspiracy. Accordingly the character of the activity and the distribution of forces also vary. Some appeal mainly to the workers, others deal with them only incidentally and when they are not prevented from doing so by numerous complicated and unpredictable ever-growing needs of the conspiracy which has begun without the workers. This difference is of immense practical importance and it is precisely what explains the hostile attitude of the Social-Democrats to the conspiratorial fantasies of the Blanquists. […]

Chapter V: True Tasks of the Socialists in Russia

[…] It is useless to say much about the anarchists. They would recommend “propaganda by action” to the handicraftsmen and would advise them to blow up some inn or to maim some manufacturer. No systematic mode of action can be indicated by a programme whose main feature is the negation of logical order and system of any kind. The most interesting for us are the Blanquists. In France, Blanqui’s native country, his followers have a systematic mode of action only insofar as their programme loses all its distinctive features and merges with that of the “workers’ party”, as we see in the electoral campaigns, the propaganda of the class struggle, etc., etc. But whenever the Blanquists preserve intact their “particular imprint” their mode of action becomes deprived of any kind of guiding thread and is reduced to the formula: “Let’s make a noise, brothers, let’s make a noise!” Today they agitate for the presentation of a revolver to Brzozowsky as a mark of honour, tomorrow they will demand the abolition of the standing army and the day after they will get excited over a “Chapel of Atonement”, and so on. Of course, such “noisy” activity is out of the question for Blanqui’s Russian followers, i.e., for open or secret supporters of Nabat. The Blanquists’ propaganda in Russia is necessarily reduced mainly to “terror” and their organisational work to setting up secret conspiratorial societies. The question is: What role in this can the handicraftsman play as such, i.e., without getting lost among the intelligentsia, but remaining in his craft and maintaining all the relations to capital which history has imposed on him? Only isolated individuals can take part in the terrorist struggle. Now it is not the time to invite the handicraftsmen to unite in a single workers’ party, for the “worker capable of class dictatorship hardly exists; hence he cannot be given political power”, etc. All the weavers can do is to place their hopes in the future and support the revolutionary party in its striving to seize power in the hope that the result of that seizure will be “the foundation of the socialist organisation of Russia”. […]

[…] What do you think, reader? Will such activity be the most practical of all that are possible? You will say that its success will be too slow and unsure. We grant that. But other forms of activity hold out still less certainty of success. Neither anarchist “propaganda by action” nor Blanquist conspiracies will advance the class struggle a single step in Russia, and it is on the course of that struggle that the emancipation of the workers depends. […]

‘Utopian Socialism in the Nineteenth Century’ [1913]

Selected Philosophical Works. Volume 3. Moscow: Progress, 1976.

[…] It is now time to remind the reader that a minority of the socialists in France at that time was in no way opposed either to politics or to the class struggle. In its mode of thought this minority differed substantially from the majority with whom we have been occupied till now. The minority was descended directly from Babeuf and those who shared his views. One of the active participants of the ‘Conspiracy of Equals’, a descendant of Michelangelo, Philippe Buonarroti, a native of Tuscany who became a French citizen by decree of the Convention, appeared in nineteenth-century utopian socialism as the bearer of the revolutionary traditions of the Babouvists. His work (which I mentioned earlier), Histoire de la conspiration pour l’égalité, dite de Babeuf, suivie du procès auquel elle a donné lieu, was published in Brussels in 1828 and was of enormous importance in shaping the ideas of the revolutionary minority of the French socialists. The very fact that this minority came under the influence of a former member of the ‘Conspiracy of Equals’ demonstrates that, as distinct from the majority, it was not embarrassed by memories of the ‘catastrophe of 1793’. The most famous representative of this minority, Auguste Blanqui, remained until the end of his long life an indomitable revolutionary.

Whereas Saint-Simon insisted on measures which would put an end to revolution and the majority of the French socialists quite agreed with him on this, the minority, under the influence of Babouvism, fully shared the view of the ‘Equals’ that the revolution had as yet not been completed, since the rich had seized all the good things of life. Therein lies the cardinal difference between the two trends of French utopian socialism: one aimed to put an end to the revolution, the other wished to continue it.

Those who desired to put an end to the revolution naturally endeavoured to secure agreement among the warring social interests. Considérant wrote: ‘For each class the best means of ensuring its particular interests is to link them with the interests of other classes.’ All peaceable utopian socialists thought in such a way. They only differed on the measures needed to harmonise the interests of all classes in society. Almost every one of the peaceable founders of socialist systems invented his own special plan to safeguard the interests of the propertied class. For example, Fourier recommended that in the future society the product of labour be so distributed that the workers’ share be five-twelfths, the capitalists’ four-twelfths, and the representatives of talent, three-twelfths of the total product. All the other peaceable utopian plans of distribution invariably made some concession or other to the capitalists; if it had been otherwise, the interests of the propertied class would not have been assured and, consequently, all hope of a peaceful solution of the social problem would have been lost. Only those socialists who were not afraid of this contingency, that is to say, those who were in favour of revolutionary action, could afford to ignore the interests of the capitalists and the ‘rich’ generally. Such action was preferred by the ‘Babouvists’ at the end of the eighteenth century and those French socialists of the nineteenth century who were influenced by Babouvists. Since they saw no need to spare the interests of the ‘rich’, people of this turn of mind declared outright that they were not only revolutionaries but also communists. Generally speaking, the concept ‘socialism’ then differed in France from the concept ‘communism’ by the fact that in their draft plans of the future social system the socialists allowed for some — often quite significant — inequality of property, whereas the communists rejected it.

As we have just seen, inclination to a revolutionary turn of mind was to make it easier for French reformers to adopt a communist programme. And, in fact, revolutionaries like Théodore Dézamy and Auguste Blanqui upheld the ideas of communism. However, not all the communists of those days were revolutionaries; the most notable representative of peaceful communism was Etienne Cabet. He expressed most vividly the peaceable tendency of the majority of the French socialists when he said: ‘If I had the revolution in my grasp, I would not open my hand even if I had to die in exile.’ Like the eighteenth-century Enlighteners, Cabet believed in the omnipotence of reason. He was of the opinion that the benefits of communism could be understood and appreciated even by the propertied class. The communist revolutionaries did not rely on this and, consequently, preached the class struggle.

However, we should not think that their tactics resembled those of the present-day international Social-Democracy, which also of course does not reject either the class struggle or politics. They were predominantly conspirators. In the history of international socialism it is hardly possible to find another conspirator so typical as Auguste Blanqui. Conspiratorial tactics leave very little room for the independent action of the masses. Although the French communist revolutionaries relied more on the masses than their contemporaries — the peaceable socialists, nevertheless, in their conception of the future transformation of society, the masses were only to support the conspirators, who were to carry through the main action by themselves. Conspiratorial tactics are always an unmistakable sign of the inequality of the working class. They become a thing of the past as soon as the working class reaches a definite level of maturity. […]