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nihilism faq

[ 1911 Encyclopedia ]

NIHILISM, the name commonly given to the Russian form of revolutionary Socialism, which had at first an academical character, and rapidly developed into an anarchist revolutionary movement. It originated in the early years of the reign of Alexander II., and the term was first used by Turgueniev in his celebrated novel, Fathers and Children, published in 1862. Among the students of the universities and the higher technical schools Turgueniev had noticed a new and strikingly original type—young men and women in slovenly attire, who called in question and ridiculed the generally received convictions and respectable conventionalities of social life, and who talked of reorganizing society on strictly scientific principles. They reversed the traditional order of things even in trivial matters of external appearance, the males allowing the hair to grow long and the female adepts cutting it short, and adding sometimes the additional badge of blue spectacles. Their appearance, manners and conversation were apt to shock ordinary people, but to this they were profoundly indifferent, for they had raised themselves above the level of so-called public opinion, despised Philistine respectability, and rather liked to scandalize people still under the influence of what they considered antiquated prejudices. For aesthetic culture, sentimentalism and refinement of every kind they had a profound and undisguised contempt. Professing extreme utilitarianism and delighting in paradox, they were eady to declare that a shoemaker who distinguished himself in his craft was a greater man than a Shakespeare or a Goethe, because humanity had more need of shoes than of poetry. Thanks to Turgueniev, these young persons came to be known in common parlance as “Nihilists,” though they never ceased to protest against the term as a caluminous nickname. According to their own account, they were simply earnest students who desired reasonable reforms, and the peculiarities in. their appearance and manner arose simply from an excusable neglect of trivialities in view of graver interests. In reality, whatever name we may apply to them, they were the extreme representatives of a curious moral awakening and an important intellectual movement among the Russian educated classes (see ALEXANDER II., of Russia).

In material and moral progress Russia had remained behind the other European nations, and the educated classes felt, after the humiliation of the Crimean War, that the reactionary regime of the emperor Nicholas must be replaced by a series of drastic reforms. With the impulsiveness of youth and the recklessness of inexperience, the students went in this direction much farther than their elders, and their reforming zeal naturally took an academic, pseudo-scientific form. Having learned the rudiments of positivism, they conceived the idea that Russia had outlived the religious and metaphysical stages of human development, and was ready to enter on the positivist stage. She ought, therefore, to throw aside all religious and metaphysical conceptions, and to regulate her intellectual, social and political life by the pure light of natural science. Among the antiquated institutions which had to be abolished as obstructions to real progress, were religion, family life, private property and centralized administration. Religion was to be replaced by the exact sciences, family life by free love, private property by ccllectivism, and centralized administration by a federation of independent communes. Such doctrines could not, of course, be preached openly under a paternal, despotic government, but the press censure had become so permeated with the prevailing spirit of enthusiastic liberalism, that they could be artfully disseminated under the disguise of literary criticism and fiction, and the public very soon learned the art of reading between the lines. The work which had perhaps the greatest influence in popularizing the doctrines was a novel called S/ito Dyelati? (What is to be done?), written in prison by Tchernishevski, one of the academic leaders of the movement, and published with the sanction of the authorities!

Since the time of Peter the Great, Russia had been subjected to a wonderful series of administrative and social transformations, and it seemed to many people quite natural that another great transformation might be effected with the consent and cooperation of the autocratic power. The doctrines spread, therefore, with marvellous rapidity. In the winter of 1861—1862 a high official wrote to a friend who had been absent from Russia for a few months: “ If you returned now you would be astonished at the progress which the opposition—one might say, the revolutionary party—has made. . . . The revolutionary ideas have taken possession of all classes, all ages, all professions, and they are publicly expressed in the streets, in the barracks, and in the government offices. I believe the police itself is carried away by them.” Certainly the governp~iert was under the influence of the prevailing enthusiasm for reform, for it liberated all the serfs, endowed them liberally with arable land, and made their democratic communal institutions independent of the landed proprietors; and it was preparing other important reforms in a similar spirit, including the extension of self-government in the rural districts and the towns, and the reorganization of the antiquated judicial system and procedure according to the modern principles adopted in western Europe.

The programme of the government was extensive enough and liberal enough to satisfy, for the moment at least, all reasonable reformers, but the well-intentioned, self-confident young people to whom the term Nihilists was applied were not reasonable. They wanted an immediate, thorough-going transformation of the existing order of things according to the most advanced socialistic principles, and in their youthful, reckless impatience they determined to undertake the work themselves, independently of and in opposition to the government. As they had no means of seizing the central power, they adopted the method of endeavouring to bring about the desired political, social and economic changes by converting the masses to their views. They began, therefore, a propaganda among the working population of the towns and the rural population in the villages. The propagandists were recruited chiefly from the faculty of physical science in. the universities, from the Technological Institute, and from the medical schools, and a female contingent was supplied by the midwifery classes of the Medico-Surgical Academy. Those of each locality were personally known to each other, but there was no attempt to establish among them hierarchical distinctions or discipline. Each individual had entire freedom as to the kind and means of propaganda to be employed. Some disguised themselves as artisans or ordinary labourers, and sought to convert their uneducated fellowworkmen in the industrial centres, whilst others settled in the villages as school-teachers, and endeavoured to stir up disaffection among the recently emancipated peasantry by telling them that the tsar intended they should have all the land, and that his benevolent intentions had been frustrated by the selfish landed proprietors and the dishonest officials. Landed proprietors and officials, it was suggested, should be got rid of, and then the peasants would have arable, pastoral and forest land in abundance, and would not require to pay any taxes. To persons of a certain education the agitators sought to prove that the general economic situation was desperate, that it was the duty of every conscientious citizen to help the people in such a dilemma, and that the first step towards the attainment of this devoutly to be wished consummation was the limitation or destruction of the uncontrolled supreme power. On the whole the agitators had very little success, and not a few of them fell into the hands of the police, several of them being denounced to the authorities by the persons in whose interest they professed to be acting; but the great majority were so obstinate and so ready to make any personal sacrifices, that the arrest and punishment of some of their number did not deter others from continuing the work. Between 1861 and 1864 there were no less than twenty political trials, with the result that most of the accused were condemned to imprisonment, or to compulsory residence in small provincial towns under police supervision.

The activity of the police naturally produced an ever-increasing hostility to the government, and in 1866 this feeling took a practical form in an attempt on the part of an obscure individmsal called Karakozov to assassinate the emperor. The attempt failed, and the judicial inquiry proved that it was the work of merely a few individuals, but it showed the dangerous character of the movement, and it induced the authorities to take more energetic measures. For the next four years there was an apparent lull, during which only one political trial took place, but it waf subsequently proved that the Nihilists during this time were by no means inactive. An energetic agitator called Netchaiev organized. in 1869 a secret association under the title of the Society for the Liberation of the People, and when he suspected of treachery one of the members he caused him to be assassinated. This crime led to the arrest of some members of the society, but their punishment had very little deterrent effect on the Nihilists in general, for during the next few years there was a recrudescence of the propaganda among the labouring classes. Independi~nt circles were created and provided with secret printing-presses in many of the leading provincial towns—notably in Moscow...

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