Plekhanov and Labriola:
The Autonomy of History and the Passivity of Practice
G. V. Plekhanov and Antonio Labriola were almost alone among prominent Marxists in studying the "philosophy" of Marxism during the heyday of the Second International, between 1890 and 1914. Of the two, Plekhanov had the most influence ultimately, thanks to his role as the founder of Soviet Marxism .
Like Engels, Plekhanov presented Marxism as an integrated world view, encompassing a philosophy of nature as well as of history. He also insisted on its philosophical component, and sought to integrate the social theory of historical materialism within a more
comprehensive philosophical materialism. He called this comprehensive philosophy "dialectical materialism." According to Plekhanov, a proper understanding of dialectics made Marxism "competent to solve the problem of the rational cause of all that exists." Plekhanov based his understanding of materialism primarily on Engels and on Feuerbach's materialist "correction" of Hegel. Although his own writings concentrated on theoretical problems of history and society, Plekhanov followed Engels in grounding the universal validity of dialectical thought in laws of nature; Engels, he wrote, had "found that the laws of dialectical thinking are confirmed by the dialectical properties of being." Plekhanov also reiterated Engels's view that consciousness merely comprised the highest emergent form of matter, even if it could never be reduced to simple matter. Modern materialism "tries to explain psychic phenomena by these or those qualities of matter , by this or that organization of the human, or, in more general terms, of the animal body . " Yet despite his doctrinal adhesion to a "dialectics of nature," Plekhanov placed the primary foundation of materialism in epistemology.
Here as elsewhere, Plekhanov largely relied on Feuerbach's example. He believed that Marx's thesis on Feuerbach showed that "man is induced to think chiefly by the sensations he experiences in the process of his acting upon the outer world." Ignoring the fact that Marx had praised idealism for grasping the importance of intentional action and criticized Feuerbach for missing it, Plekhanov interpreted Marx's theses as a "masterly correction" rather than a fundamental critique. He even argued that Marxism could incorporate the essentials of Feuerbach's epistemology as its own. Such a materialist epistemology would take as its guiding theme the determination of consciousness by being.
At the level of social theory, Plekhanov, like Engels, spurned any form of economic reductionism; he granted the self-consciousness of the proletariat a central role in the struggle against capitalism. Both Plekhanov and Labriola advocated a kind of Marxian social psychology to support the Marxist theory of ideology; both also insisted on the interaction of intellectual and material factors. Labriola was particularly emphatic in stressing the importance of consciousness within history. "There is no fact of history which is not preceded, accompanied and followed by determined forms of consciousness,
whether it be superstitious or experimental, ingenuous or reflective, impulsive or self-controlled, fantastic or reasoning."
But the attack by orthodoxy on reductionism was blunted by its insertion within an essentially mechanistic model of society. Plekhanov, for example, wanted the prestige of hard science behind modern materialism: "Modern dialectical materialism cannot discover the mechanical explanation of history. This is, if you like, its weakness ." In Plekhanov's schema, the mode of production characterizing a society determined the structure of its economic relations, which in turn determined the psychology and consciousness of the individual men who interacted within society. Despite claims of reciprocal influence, Plekhanov argued that "the psychology of society is always expedient in relation to its economy, always corresonds to it, is always determined by it." In this context, such dialectical laws as the "leap" from quantity into quality only served to render more ironclad what already had been presented as a closed mechanical system.
The orthodox version of historical materialism resulted in the elevation of history into an autonomous process, independent of human intervention. Claiming that progress in history was caused in a fashion wholly external to men and their intentional acts, Plekhanov asserted that Marx "regarded man's nature itself as the eternally changing result of historical progress, the cause of which lies outside man." Despite his distinctive emphasis on the role of human insight, Labriola struck a similar theme: "Our aims are rational . . . because they are derived from the objective study of things, that is to say, from the explanation of their process, which is not, and which cannot be, a result of our will, but which on the contrary triumphs over our will and subdues it."
Where Marx and Engels had portrayed history as the result of the collective activity of real individuals, the orthodox Marxists depicted an automatic history which implied the passivity of individuals. As Labriola saw it, the question after the rise of scientific socialism was simply "to recognize or not to recognize in the course of human events the necessity which stands over and above our sympathy and our subjective assent." He felt that what predominated in Marx's practical precepts "was a discipline which had its source in the experience of necessity and in the precise doctrine which must proceed from the reflex consciousness of this necessity." This conception of
practice delineated freedom as submission to necessity. Plekhanov, in attempting to find a positive role for the individual within Marxism , suggested another outcome: the glorification of the scientific thinker who adequately reflects necessity. "As human reason can triumph over blind necessity only by becoming aware of the latter's peculiar inner laws, only by beating it with its own strength, the development of knowledge, the development of human consciousness, is the greatest and most noble task of the thinking personality," a "completely and exceptionally idealistic " task.
The passive tendency of orthodox Marxism resulted in a practical passivity, most clearly visible in the work of Karl Kautsky. Kautsky agreed with Plekhanov that "modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge." But the average workingman could obviously make no claim to such "profound scientific knowledge"; therefore, "the vehicles of science are not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia ." It followed that "socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without, and not something that arose within it spontaneously." A passive epistemology here led to the very division of society "into two parts, one of which is superior to society" that Marx had warned against in his 1845 critique of the contemplative bias in traditional materialism. Such contemplative materialism tended to foster a gradualist strategy. Despite his reiterated invocations of revolution and its imminence, Kautsky once confessed that "it is no part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it." Since the socialist revolution was inevitable in any case, practice should focus on moral persuasion and legal reform, rather than direct action.