George Plekhanov was born in Gudalovka, Russia, on 26th November 1857. As a young man Plekhanov joined ‘Land and Liberty’ and he was the party’s main speaker at the famous Kazan Square rally in St Petersburg on 6th December 1876.
In October 1879, ‘Land and Liberty’ split into two factions. The majority of members, who favoured a policy of terrorism, established the People’s Will. Plekhanov became the leader of the Black Repartition group that rejected terrorism and supported a socialist propaganda campaign among workers and peasants.
Plekhanov was forced into exile in January 1880. He became Russia’s leading Marxist and in 1883 joined with Pavel Axelrod to form the ‘Liberation of Labour’ group. This group argued that it would be impossible to overthrow Russia’s authoritarian government and replace it with peasant communes.
In his writings books, Plekhanov argued that a successful Marxist revolution could only take place after the development of capitalism. According to Plekhanov, it was the industrial proletariat who would bring about a socialist revolution.
Plekhanov was strongly opposed to the political views of people such as Sergei Nechaev and Peter Tkachev, who argued that it would be possible for a small group of dedicated revolutionaries to seize power from the Tsar. Plekhanov warned that if this happened, you would replace one authoritarian regime with another. That a “socialist caste” would take control who impose a system of “patriarchal authoritarian communism”.
In March 1898, the various Marxist groups in Russia met in Minsk and decided to form the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP). The party was banned in Russia so most of its leaders were forced to live in exile. In 1900 the group began publishing a journal called ‘Iskra’. Edited by Plekhanov, Vladimir Lenin and Julius Martov, it was printed in several European cities and then smuggled into Russia by a network of party agents.
In 1903 when the SDLP spilt over the future direction of the party, Plekhanov compared Lenin to Robespierre stating that he feared that one form of authoritarian rule (the tsarist regime) would be succeeded by another form of authoritarian rule – that of the proletariat. This was something that Plekhanov could not accept.
Along with Jules Martov, Leon Trotsky, Plekhanov joined the Mensheviks. However, he had now lost the support of a large number of important figures in the Social Democratic Labour Party, including Zinoviev, Stalin and Kamenev.
Plekhanov retained control of ‘Iskra’ and he used the journal to attack Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the name given to the majority who broke with the old SDLP and followed Lenin and his belief in a professional elite that would guide the proletariat to power.
Plekhanov predicted that if Lenin and his Central Committee ever gained power it would impose a communist dictatorship on the Russian people. In one article he wrote in May 1904, Plekhanov claimed that Lenin’s Central Committee would liquidate “the elements with which it is dissatisfied, everywhere seat its own creatures and, filling all the committees with these creatures, without difficulty guarantees itself a fully submissive majority at the congress.”
As a result of his theories, Plekhanov was an unenthusiastic supporter of the 1905 Revolution. Described as a defeatist, Plekhanov gradually lost the loyalty of the Mensheviks. This problem increased when he supported Russia’s participation in the First World War.
George Plekhanov died in 1918.