Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism

By Avrahm Yarmolinsky | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IX
POPULISM

I N a sense the dozen or so years after the Crimean War, that are somewhat improperly termed the "sixties", were the Russian equivalent of the Enlightenment, 'our brief eighteenth century', as Leon Trotsky labelled the period. It was the seedbed of radical ideas. in his report on the state of his see for 1859, Metropolitan Philaret deplored the prevalence of 'censorious and blasphemous literature', resembling the writings that had prepared the way for the French Revolution. Bakunin called Herzen 'our mighty Voltaire.' Indeed, Herzen, Chernyshevsky, Dobrolubov, Pisarev came close to being the counterpart of the Encyclopacdists. Like the latter, they attacked feudal privilege, absolutist rule, and Church authority, they professed materialism and attributed to the intellect a leading part in the dynamics of social change. But while the philosophes stopped short of questioning the right of private property, by and large the Russian ideologues were democrats committed to Socialism.

That doctrine, it has been pointed out, had secured the allegiance of a segment of the Russian educated public as far back as the 'forties. in the virtual absence of laissez-faire liberalism, it filled an ideological void for a tiny intellectual élite, alienated alike from the masses and from the emergent middle-class, cut off from political experience by a jealous government, and so doomed to spin out theories in a vacuum. From the first, the effort was to adapt socialist principles to Russian conditions, real or imaginary. The resulting incompletely integrated complex of ideas had as its core an ethically and emotionally motivated agrarian Socialism. It dominated the radical scene from the 'sixties until nearly the end of the century, when it found a formidable rival in Marxism. The name by which it went was narodnichestvo (populism). The term, which gained currency in the seventies, suggests the important part played in this ideology by the concept of narod (people), in the sense of demos, the broad social base, the great body of manual workers, specifically the peasantry. With concern for the material welfare of the masses

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