Click for: CSSHS Archive Main Page
Vol. XVI • 1994

Plekhanov and Solovyov: A Study of Materialist and
Idealist Monism from The Biblical Creation Perspective
Ellen Myers

The principal philosophical themes occupying European philosophical thought at the turn of the twentieth century are not only still with us today but have spread around the globe. They are materialist and idealist monism. Both view the world as one ("monist"), excluding the transcendent God and Creator of the Bible. Materialist monism, a modern movement which includes Marxists and secular humanists, asserts that in principle there is nothing but matter. Idealist monism, prominent today in the New Age movement but really a perennial strain of pantheistic thought surfacing over and over again from pagan antiquity till now, claims that in principle there is nothing but mind or spirit or "idea." In Russia in the 1890s two important philosophers represented these two branches of monism, the chief theoretician of Russian Marxism Georgi Plekhanov (1856-1918) and the mystical idealist Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900). We will study their philosophies from the biblical creation perspective.

Both Plekhanov and Solovyov began to write and publish under Alexander III (tsar 1881-1894). Their thoughts found considerable support under Alexander III's ineffectual successor Nicholas II (tsar 1894-1917). Nicholas II's abdication in 1917 and murder in 1918 were, of course, largely due to the success of the revolutionary Marxism so ardently championed by Plekhanov. The influence of Solovyov was more subtle but widely disseminated among non-Marxist Russian religious thinkers before 1917, and later spread beyond Russia chiefly through the writings of the emigre philosopher Nikolai Berdiaev (1874-1948).

Plekhanov was known as the "Father of Russian Marxism." He founded the first Marxist organization in Russia and dominated the Russian Marxist movement for some twenty years. He was an important figure in the international socialist-communist movement as well. He taught that reality is nothing but matter in motion. It is subject to scientific laws which can account for any and all phenomena in principle if not yet in actuality. Scientific, successful solutions to any conceivable problem may be confidently expected. This is the gist of Plekhanov's most influential book, significantly named On the Development of the Mon ist View of History. Lenin said that this book "had helped to educate a whole generation of Russian Marxists."1 However, Lenin and Plekhanov gradually parted company. Communist historians neglected Plekhanov after 1924, as did the West.

Plekhanov coined the term "dialectic materialism" in 1891 in an essay on Hegel.2 He became alienated from Lenin and the Bolsheviks because they insisted that, contrary to orthodox Marxist theory, a socialist-communist revolution was possible in Russia without first passing through an intermittent "second stage" of capitalist industrialization. He thought that the bourgeois middle class need not be totally excluded from participation in the revolution. He also understood that the overwhelming majority of the Russian people, the peasants, did not want nationalization of all property, especially the land. Already before 1917 he foresaw and feared the revolutionary leaders' turn to despotism by seizing power, imposing the revolution on the people from above as proposed by Lenin, and then retaining power indefinitely.3

During World War I Plekhanov departed from strict Marxist orthodoxy. He even came to accept the military defense of Russia against Germany on nationalist grounds. Perhaps his study of the social history of Russia had convinced him that nationalism also motivates human action, not only economics as Marx taught. Still more surprising, he now embraced the absolute ethics of Kant, which he had hitherto rejected on the Marxist materialist grounds that man's behavior is determined by his historical and economic circumstances and can therefore be neither absolute nor freely chosen. Yet if no longer a solid Marxist, Plekhanov remained a monist to his dying day. Early in 1918 when, repudiated by the Communist Party, on his deathbed in the final stages of tuberculosis, alone and destitute, he comforted his wife with these words:

"And, then, what is death? A transformation of matter." And turning his glance toward the window, "Do you see that birch which leans tenderly against the pine? I, too, perhaps will one day be transformed into a similar birch. What is so bad about that?" ... On his gravestone, at his own request, appeared the words from Shelley's Adonais: "He is made one with nature."4
Plekhanov's "comfort" in the face of death was stated in terms of reincarnation reminiscent of Buddhism or Hinduism, branches of pantheist idealist monism. It included a bit of subjective anthropomorphism, the birch's "tenderness," unbecoming a strict materialist and unsubstantiated even from the idealist monist perspective. Plekhanov, much like popular New Age propagandists today, overlooked the possibility that he might be reincarnated as a spider or toad. And in what sense could birch, spider or toad still be he, Plekhanov? In the face of death monism in either its materialist or its idealist form offers no real comfort.

Actually there is no ultimate difference between materialist and idealist monism, between pantheism and atheism, much as Plekhanov had earlier insisted there was (for instance, in his Development of the Monist View of History). He himself came to see that there were close parallels between modern Marxist materialism and the seventeenth century pantheist philosopher Baruch Spinoza. He

...considered modern materialism to be closely affiliated to the outlook of Spinoza, agreeing with Feuerbach as to the nonessentiality of its theological component. "This Spinozism," he wrote, "freed from its theological lumber by Fenerbach, was the philosophy which Marx and Engels adopted when they broke away from idealism.....the Spinozism of Marx and Engels was materialism in its most modern form."5
An attentive study of Spinoza's pantheist determinist system which explicitly equates "God" with "Nature" will confirm this judgment.6 The direct link between monist idealist Hegelianism and monist materialist Marxism is even stronger evidence that monism is the root of which pantheist monist idealism and atheist monist materialism are but the branches, or the coin of which they are but the two sides.

A further fundamental link between materialist and idealist monism is their shared cosmology of evolutionism. This is so of necessity, for without biblical creation only evolutionism can account for the emergence of the present world. Thus Plekhanov found iupport for Marxism in the work of Darwin, Haeckel, Huxky and De Vries. Similarly, Solovyov also praised Darwin and uncritically accepted him.7 In our own day the glaring scientific inadequacies of Darwinism have led both Marxist atheist materialist and New Age pantheist idealist monists to embrace the scientifically no less preposterous "punctuated equilibrium" evolutionist model instead. Repelled by the reductionism of materialist monism, a not inconsiderable number of Russian thinkers of the 1890s turned to the mystic idealist monism formulated by Vladimir Solovyov. James H. Billington notes that

Solov'ev's conception of renovation was, in many respects, even more revolutionary and utopian than that of the Marxists. No less than the materialist Plekhanov, the idealist Solov'ev offered an absolute, monistic philosophy to the new generation. "Not only do I believe in everything supernatural," he wrote, "but strictly speaking I believe in nothing else."8
If Marx and Plekhanov were interested not so much in philosophical speculation but rather in changing the world, so was Solovyov: "`The time has come not to run away from the world but to change it,' he wrote to the woman he loved, unconsciously recapitulating Marx's well-known dictum on the task of the philosophers to change the world."9

Solovyov's philosophy began quite literally with a "vision," the vision of the supposed "divine feminine principle" in the Godhead:

At the age of nine he had the first of his visions ... the divine woman, whom he later called sophia, came to him holding a flower in the midst of shining light and is typical of the occult mystical tradition which he did much to revive and make respectable in Russia. A second vision of sophia came to him in the British museum where ... he was studying Gnostic philosophy. He set off immediately for Egypt, where he had a third vision of sophia ...10
Solovyov shared his concept of a supposed "feminine principle" in the Godhead with the ancient gnostic philosophies he studied. In his lecture on "Godmanhood" he identified "sophia" with the quality of Christ as the Logos, defining her as "the idea which God had before him as Creator and which He realizes" in His creation. Man "is attracted ... to the quality of sophia in Christ himself."11 He referred to the book of Proverbs as the supposed biblical justification of this concept.

All things existed for Solovyov in "all-unity" (useedinsevo) with God. In a manner reminiscent of the pantheist idealist thought of G. F. W. Hegel, the emergent evolutionism of Henri Bergson (1859-1941), and of the whole ancient theosophic, gnostic occult tradition, he postulated that God Himself was seeking self-expression, and even self-realization, in and through His creation, and taught that "evolution is not through materialistic means but through creative spirit."12 Man must strive for self-realization within this unity with God through "sophia," and also through his own creative experience. All this is thoroughly heretical from the biblical point of view. Elevating a supposed "feminine principle," reified as "sophia," to ontological inherence in the Godhead is idolatry.

Nevertheless, this aspect of Solovyov's thought led to a revival in Russian art. The search for a "spiritual" reality "behind" or "beyond" common everyday events or things in Russian Symbolist literature and Suprematist painting of the early twentieth century also had roots in Solovyov. In one important respect Russian art and literature of the time were wiser than Solovyov himself. they were preoccupied, as he was only at the very end of his life, with evil spiritual reality behind material reality, with decadence and with outright demonism. Thus some responsibility is his for the rise of interest in the diabolic, the demonic, and the morality-defying lifestyle of the period. Solovyov also declared in his book The Meaning of Love that his sexual ideal was androgyny (the union of male and female sexuality in one person, reflecting the "feminine principle" in the Godhead). This perennially recurring abnormal, occult concept was adopted after Solovyov's death by Dmitri Merezhkovsky and Zinaida Hippius, the main leaders in the search for a "new religious consciousness" in Russia in the early 1900s.

Solovyov profoundly desired the unity of all Christians. He praised Catholicism and the papacy, and also, inconsistently, Protestants and their exercise of liberty of conscience directly under God. However, he defined the church universal as an organized institution rather than the spiritual fellowship of individual believers. His ecumenical ideals were far removed from the actual state of divided Christendom at the time and thus impracticable. Nevertheless, and despite his many grave philosophical departures from the biblical Christian faith, Solovyov exercised considerable influence upon a number of Russian thinkers who, after a pilgrimage through Marxism, returned to the Orthodox faith.

Much as Plekhanov forsook a number of ingredients of the materialist Marxist monism he had espoused in his earlier life, so Sokvyov, too, came to a change of mind and heart. In fact, in the last years of his life he repented of and rejected his mystic idealist monism and returned to the Orthodox Christian faith. He abandoned his rosy optimism about a future theocracy guided by "sophia." One of his last works is a small book named Three Conversations (Tri razgovora), which ends with his description of the future Antichrist. In an altogether admirable analysis of pre-revolutionary Russian religious thought in general, and of Solovyov's philosophy in particular, Georgii Florovsky points out that Solovyov repudiated

...his "first metaphysic" - the gnostic mysticism and external theocratism closely linked with it of his early and middle years. ... in the "Povest ob Antikhriste" ("Tale of the Anti-Christ"), Solovyov places in the mouth of that "religious pretender," inspired by the spirit of evil, his own former intentions of an all-encompassing, reconciling, organizing synthesis, as the way of doing a great favor to humanity and overcoming forever all the evil suffering of universal life.l8
Solovyov's "first metaphysic" was flawed from the start by gnostic notions opposing the biblical, transcendent, personal Creator. His mystical idealist monism denied that God, the Creator ex nihilo of all things, was ontologically different from the world, which he presented in the manner of ancient pantheism and the New Age movement today as one monistic whole in "all-unity" with God. Hence his answers to the problems of Russia at the turn of the century were falsely "spiritual," that is, without clear and concrete relevance. In this respect atheist materialist monism as promoted by the Marxist Plekhanov appeared - also falsely, as shown by the subsequent inhumanity, suffering, and economic bankruptcy brought about by victorious Communism - more oriented to actual reality.

The internal contradictions and insoluble problems of Marxism and historical determinism have been exhaustively discussed by numerous commentators. What has not been pointed out sufficiently, clearly and often enough is that it is impossible to arrive at any valid conclusions or truth about the world on the foundation of monism, whether in pantheist idealist or atheist materialist form. This is so because monism by definition includes man himself as part and parcel of the totality of all that exists. Therefore a consistent monist cannot claim to be standing outside and above the rest of the world (as the philosophic subject over against the philosophic object) to validly evaluate or even describe it from above or outside. The part cannot evaluate the whole.

This applies especially to history. It is already impossible, as historians know, to write history exactly "as it really was" (Ranke). How much more impossible it is, then, to validly delineate the alleged "scientific laws" governing history as Marx and Plekhanov attempted to do. History is not a "science" in the empirical, testable, predictive sense. Jt is a record of human action, which in turn is the result of chance or impersonal determinism if monism be true and if there be no transcendent, sovereign, personal God Who created and sustains man and the world. If this personal God does not exist, the dead are not raised (for the monist's reincarnation is not personal resurrection), there is no human accountability, human action makes no difference in the last analysis, and we can only say with St. Paul, "Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die" (1 Corinthians 15:32).

Only the transcendent, sovereign, personal God and Creator of all things out of nothing by His Word, and His revelation of Himself and His creation to man can make sense out of history and the world, and give meaning to human action. Only the transcendent, sovereign God and Creator can enable man to speak truly of this world, for only in this God can man borrow the required epistemological transcendence to evaluate it. In his famous Socratic Memorabilia Johann Georg Hamann, the great defender of the Christian faith in the eighteenth century, already stated that a philosophy like that of Socrates which antedates Christ and is unaware of Him can honestly do nothing in the service of truth but humbly admit its own ignorance, and he praised Socrates for saying, "i know that I know nothing." Would that philosophers today, postdating God's historical self-revelation in Christ, would humbly admit the bankruptcy of their atheist materialist or pantheist idealist monist premises and confess their ignorance together with Socrates in the service of truth. Would that they could go all the way with Solovyov in repentance, conversion and submission to God, the Creator and Lord of all.

1 G. Plekhanov, The Development of the Monist View of History (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956), Publisher's Foreword, p. 6.
2 Samuel H. Baron, Plekhouov (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1963), n. p. 287.
3 lbid., p. 105.
4 lbid., p. 354.
5 ibid., p. 291.
6 For an excellent, concise discussion of Spinoza's thought, see Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy, Vol. 4 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co. Image Books, 1963), pp. 211-269.
7 See Solovyov's article, Beauty, Sexuality, Love in Alexander Schmemann, ed., Ultimate Questions (Creatwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, [1965], 1977), pp. 73-134, especially pp. 50-56.
8 James H. Billington, The Icon nod the Axe (New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1970), p.465.
9 M. Bohachevaky-Chomiak and B. G. Rosenthal, eds., A Revolution of the Spirit: Crisis of Value in Russia, 1890-1918 (a collection of original articles by writers of the period), transi. by Marian Schwartz (Newtonville, MA: Oriental Research Partners, 1982), pp. 7-8.
10 Billington, The Icon nod the Axe, p. 465.
11 Ibid., p. 467.
12 Kenneth Scott Latourette,A History of Christianity (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 1220.
13 "From Florovaky's article, "In the world of Quests and Wanderings: The Passion of False Prophecy and Pseudo-Revelahons, in Bohachevsky-Chomiak and Rosenthal, A Revolution of the Spirit, p. 244.

"Plekhanov and Solovyov: A Study of Materialist and Idealist Monism"
CSSHS • Creation Social Science & Humanities Society • Quarterly Journal

Main Page:  CSSHS Archives