George Plekhanov was born in Tambov, Russia on 26th November 1857. As a young man he joined the Land and Liberty and 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.
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. They believed that a socialist revolution would only come with the development of a revolutionary industrial workers’ party. Peter Lavrov pointed out that almost 90% of the Russian population and that a revolutionary vanguard would create a dictatorship: "Whenever a dictatorship succeeded in establishing itself it had to spend more time and effort in retaining its power and defending it against its rivals than upon the realization of its programme, with the aid of that power. The abolition of dictatorship assumed by a party can only be dreamed about before the usurpation takes place. In the struggle of parties for power, in the class of open or concealed ambitions, every moment furnishes an added reason and necessity for maintaining the dictatorship, creates a new excuse for not relinquishing it. A dictatorship can be wrested from the dictators only by a new revolution."
In books such as Socialism and the Political Struggle (1883), Our Differences (1884) and On the Development of the Monist View of History (1895), 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 Jules Martov, it was printed in several European cities and then smuggled into Russia by a network of SDLP agents.
At the Second Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party in London in 1903, there was a dispute between Vladimir Lenin and Jules Martov, two of SDLP's leaders. Lenin argued for a small party of professional revolutionaries with a large fringe of non-party sympathizers and supporters. Martov disagreed believing it was better to have a large party of activists.
Jules Martov based his ideas on the socialist parties that existed in other European countries such as the British Labour Party. Lenin argued that the situation was different in Russia as it was illegal to form socialist political parties under the Tsar's autocratic government. At the end of the debate Martov won the vote 28-23 . Vladimir Lenin was unwilling to accept the result and formed a faction known as the Bolsheviks. Those who remained loyal to Martov became known as Mensheviks.
Plekhanov admired Vladimir Lenin but feared that his ideas were too close to those of Peter Tkachev. When Lenin made his speech at the s Plekhanov remarked that: "This is the stuff of which the Robespierres are made." He argued: "Imagine that the Central Committee possessed the still-debated right of liquidation. The Central Committee everywhere liquidates the elements with which it is dissatisfied, everywhere seats its own creatures and, filling all the committees with these creatures, without difficulty guarantees itself a fully submissive majority at the congress."
Alexander Shotman was one of those who had difficulty deciding whether to support Lenin or Plekhanov. He pointed out: "When Plekhanov spoke, I enjoyed the beauty of his speech, the remarkable incisiveness of his words. But when Lenin arose in opposition, I was always on Lenin's side. Why? I cannot explain it to myself. But so it was, and not only with me, but with my comrades and workers."
Along with Jules Martov, Pavel Axelrod, Leon Trotsky, Irakli Tsereteli, Lev Deich, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, Moisei Uritsky, Noi Zhordania and Fedor Dan, 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 Gregory Zinoviev, Anatoli Lunacharsky, Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Lashevich, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Mikhail Frunze, Alexei Rykov, Yakov Sverdlov, Lev Kamenev, Maxim Litvinov, Vladimir Antonov, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Gregory Ordzhonikidze and Alexander Bogdanov.
Plekhanov retained control of Iskra and he used the journal to attack Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. He 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 seats 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. The British ambassador, George Buchanan, reported back to London: "As regarded the war, both Mensheviks and SRs advocated the speedy conclusion of peace without annexations or contributions. There was, however, a small Menshevik group, led by Plekhanov, that called on the working classes to cooperate for the purpose of securing the victory over Germany, which would alone guarantee Russia's new freedom."