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First Russian Followers of Marx


In the mid-nineteenth century Marx’s ideas seemed to have little relevance for a backward and agrarian country like Russia. Moreover, many Russian intellectuals did not believe their country would ever be capitalist and shared the vision of a unique destiny for Russia conjured up by Slavophiles and, later, by Narodniks. However, the crisis of Narodnichestvo of the early 1880s made many dissidents disillusioned with peasant socialism. By that time, as a result of the ‘Great Reforms’, Russia’s industrial proletariat and, with it, the working-class movement began to emerge. This attracted the attention of some revolutionary-minded intellectuals who became increasingly interested in the Marxist idea of a socialist revolution led by the urban proletariat.  

In 1883, in exile in Switzerland, the first Russian Marxist group was set up under the leadership of George Plekhanov (1856-1918).  The members of this small organization - ‘Emancipation of Labor’ - had been active Narodniks in the past, former activists of the ‘Black Repartition’ group which had emerged as a propagandist wing of the ‘Land and Liberty’ after its split in 1879.

George Plekhanov 

Plekhanov and his associates were deeply concerned by the ideological crisis in which Narodnichestvo had found itself by the early 1880s and they sought to find a solution by subjecting their views to a complete overhaul. They did not abandon their basic socialist ideals, but they now came to see capitalism as a necessary evil, an unavoidable stage in the evolution of mankind which more advanced countries and nations already pursued and which Russia would not be able to escape.  

Their theoretical inquiries led them to the following conclusions: the post-reform Russia was taking the capitalist path and this would inevitably lead to the complete disintegration of the peasant commune. Therefore Narodniks’ belief in the triumph of ‘communal socialism’ was groundless. The pauperization of the peasantry would lead to the growth and consolidation of the proletariat. It would be the proletariat which could and should lead Russia to socialism by establishing its dictatorship and carrying through necessary changes in all spheres of life. In order to prepare the proletarian revolution, it was necessary to give the emerging labor movement a right direction, provide it with a scientifically-based ideology and arm it with a program of action. These tasks could only be carried out by revolutionary intelligentsia, steeped in the spirit of Marxist teaching. 

The members of the ‘Emancipation of Labor’ group sought to forge this new intelligentsia by converting to Marxism as many former supporters of Narodnichestvo as possible. They translated key writings of K. Marx, F. Engels and their followers into Russian and produced their own works, in which they analyzed the situation in Russia from Marxist positions. A particularly important role in the dissemination of Marxism in Russia was played by Plekhanov’s books Socialism and Political Struggle (1883) and Our Disagreements (1885). By subjecting the main propositions of Narodnichestvo to severe criticism and by persistently affirming the theoretical supremacy of Marxism, Plekhanov and his adherents hoped to bring at least part of the revolutionary-minded public under the banners of the new ideology.

At the beginning, Plekhanov’s group seemed to make little headway in Russia, as most Russian socialists continued to believe that Russia would bypass capitalism. However, the industrial upsurge of the 1890s made the Marxist approach seem more relevant to Russia, and the ‘Emancipation of Labor’ group began to attract disciples among a younger generation of revolutionary intellectuals. Marxist literature widely circulated among the intelligentsia, provoking heated arguments and debates, in the course of which the new movement of social thought acquired both vehement opponents and avid supporters. First Marxist circles began to spring up inside Russia, mainly comprised of  university students. They wanted to study the Marxist theory and establish contacts with factory workers.

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