Russian Thought lecture 6: Populism: the Intelligentsia and the People

Readings: Alexander Herzen, “The Russian People and Socialism” (1851); Petr Lavrov, “Historical Letters” (1868-9); Nikolai Mikhailovskii, “What is Progress?” (1869); Mikhail Bakunin, “Statism and Anarchy, Appendix A” (1873)

Unlike the other movements we have studied in this course so far, which have been purely theoretical, the subject of today’s lecture – Populism (narodnichestvo), and related varieties of Russian anarchism – is somewhat different, because there is both a theoretical and a practical or active side. Our interest for this course remains primarily on the theoretical dimension, but it is important to understand how this theory related to action, and where the theoreticians stood in relation to the revolutionary movement that developed out of Populism (which will be the main focus of today’s lecture), so I’m going to begin with the theory of Populism, and then look at how that theory related to the actions of the Populists and the development of the revolutionary movement.

Populism had many varieties, but as a distinctive movement it developed mainly out of the radical Enlighteners or Nihilists of the 1860s – Chernyshevsky’s work was an important factor in this development. The different factions within Populism were united by a common faith in the Russian people or narod (hence narodnichestvo – relating to the population, not popularity) and in particular in the institution of the village commune. This was seen an alternative to the capitalist development that the radicals perceived not only in Europe, but rapidly taking hold in Russia as well. This idea is first apparent in radical thought in Herzen’s “The Russian People and Socialism” (1851), and in later guises was seen as a possible means of bypassing the capitalist stage of development and moving straight onto socialism.

It should be remembered, however, that the concept of the intrinsic value of the narod is far from being an exclusively radical idea (although the idea of the narod as rebellious is only found in radical thought – and not even universally there). We see similar ideas about the Russian peasantry, for example, in Dostoevsky’s writing (albeit placed in a Christian context of the narod as a God-bearing people who will bring salvation to Russia and the world), and, more generally, in Slavophile thinking, which resembles Populism in some ways, but is very different in others:

both the Slavophiles and the populists or narodniki cherished a sincere love for the Russian peasant masses, as well as for such of their time-honored institutions as the obshchina or mir (the village commune) on the one hand and the Russian artel (the artisan co-operative) on the other. In the obshchina in particular, with its collective ownership of land, they both saw an institution of a unique social and moral significance. But while the Slavophiles were looking for their ideal in the pre-Petrine past, the Populists kept turning their eyes towards a future which, in their opinion, had much to do with the obshchina but very little with the sentimentalized paternal monarchism of the Slavophiles. (Janko Lavrin, p. 307)

Populism, moreover, rejected the Orthodox dimension that was central to Slavophile thinking; this was a secular doctrine of radicals who rejected traditions of church because (like Herzen) they saw it as an institution of authority that supported the state and therefore denied freedom to individuals.

Their emphasis was on liberty and democracy, but the Populists’ primary goals (in the early stages at least) were generally social rather than political, focused on the welfare of the peasantry. This changed later with the development of the revolutionary movement and terrorist organizations (about which more later), and indeed even as a starting point their political convictions were essentially revolutionary: they followed Herzen, Bakunin and Chernyshevsky in viewing the autocracy as the main source of evil and suffering because it entrenched inequality and the absence of freedom, and they advocated the abolition of the state as the only possible solution to this (and this is where they overlap significantly with anarchist philosophy, which influenced many of the Populists). The idea was that following the destruction of the state, a federation of communes would emerge as ideal autonomous social structures (Ulam, p. 21). The extract from “Statism and Anarchy” (1873) by Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) that we will be looking at next week is a good example of the conception of the village mir as an autonomous institution based on communal self-government that has the potential to oppose, and ultimately destroy, the state. Unlike Herzen, Bakunin sees the narod as a primarily rebellious force – albeit one hampered by traditional beliefs – and he proposes that the main task of revolutionaries should be to forge links between communes in order to create a common ideal that will enable the many separate peasant revolts to come together in a more powerful and sustained movement.

Bakunin’s aims were always primarily political (unlike the early Populists), and in fact it’s safe to say the welfare of the peasantry was not particularly high on his list of priorities. Nor was he a consistent theoretical writer; action was always far more important to him. So while his conception of the peasant commune was an important influence on the Populists’ general idea of the narod, Populist theory itself developed in a rather different, and often more abstract, way. With that in mind, I want to focus on the theoretical underpinnings of the Populists’ faith in the narod and in the peasant commune as a social structure, by looking at the work of Petr Lavrov and Nikolai Mikhailovsky.

Pyotr Lavrov (1823-1900)

Pyotr Lavrov (1823-1900)

Pyotr Lavrov (1823-1900) has been described as “one of the most attractive figures in the nineteenth-century Russian revolutionary movement” who was “universally respected by socialists regardless of theoretical differences or political viewpoints” (Walicki, p. 235) – which was extremely rare in a movement characterized by factionalism, division and in-fighting. He was from a family of wealthy landowners and was educated at the military academy in Petersburg, thereafter teaching mathematics at various military academies. He was made a colonel in 1858, and became interested in philosophy around this time. Among his early writing, Sketches in the Domain of Practical Philosophy (1860) outlined a theory of anthropologism, to which Chernyshevsky’s “Anthropological Principle in Philosophy” was a response. Lavrov started out as a liberal, but became more radical, and was in touch with the leadership of the first Zemlia i volia (Land and Freedom) group. In 1866 he was arrested in the aftermath of Karakozov’s assassination attempt on the tsar, and was exiled to Vologda province. His “Historical Letters” were written and published while he was still in exile in 1868-9, and in 1870 the revolutionary German Lopatin (the first Russian translator of Marx’s Capital) helped him to escape abroad. In Europe Lavrov made contact with the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) and participated in the Paris commune, before being sent to organize help in Belgium and England. It was then that he met Marx and Engels, which was the start of a lasting friendship (see Pomper, pp. 122-3 on this) – again this was unusual, as ironically Marx generally had very little time for Russian revolutionaries. Whilst in London he published the revolutionary journal Vpered (Forward) from 1873-6 – like Herzen’s Kolokol earlier, this became a very important forum for émigré revolutionary writing (you can read more about his activities in London here). Lavrov was more radical than many of his supporters at home in Russia, and did not just advocate peaceful propaganda; he thought the education of the peasantry was important, but saw the future in the Russian commune and agrarian socialism, and may well have influenced Marx on this question. Nevertheless,

he condemned the Nechaev line that all means were permissible in the revolutionary struggle, warned against revolutionary adventurism, and emphasized the need for a lengthy and careful preparatory struggle. He shared the general Populist belief in the priority of social over political goals and agreed with Bakunin that the introduction of socialism could not be reconciled with the retention of the state apparatus. (Walicki, p. 236)

The reference here is to Sergei Nechaev (1847-1882), a notoriously opportunist revolutionary, author of the “Revolutionary Catechism” that espoused the use of any means, including violence, in the political struggle. He was famous for duping Bakunin into believing he had a large, secret revolutionary organization in Russia, and for arranging the murder of a student to bind a group of radicals together in a conspiratorial organization – Dostoevsky used these events as the inspiration for his novel Demons (Besy, 1871-2).

After the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, Lavrov joined Narodnaya volya and edited the party journal in Geneva, but when this movement fell apart he went back more to scholarly work, before his death in Paris.

What is notable about Lavrov’s thinking is the way in which he connects everything to ideas of social justice, and tries to create a theory that encompasses both history and the need for contemporary action, and which give impetus to changes in society. Lavrov was not a materialist — his conception of knowledge was confined to phenomena and the relations between them — but he saw different types of phenomena: sensory phenomena (possible objects of sense-experience), as well as phenomena of consciousness, which are accessible to introspection and give rise to psychology. He viewed the physical sciences as dealing with the concrete phenomena of what exists, but proposed that human beings also strive to realize things that do not yet exist, and insists that this is also part of life that must be studied and taken into account. However, he rejected religion and metaphysics as unprovable.

Like Chernyshevsky, he had an anthropological conception of world, a focus on the human which led him to advance a “subjective method” based on the understanding of man as the studying subject as well as, frequently, the object of study:

Though there are various distinct sciences, there would be no science at all without the human being as an active subject. Man can, of course, objectify himself as an object of scientific study, in physiology, for example, or anthropology or psychology. But it is man who performs the objectifying of himself and who constructs science. In spite, therefore, of their heterogeneity the sciences have a common integrating factor, namely the human being. Obviously, in astronomy the human being is not the object of study, but there would be no astronomy without the human being. The modern world-view should therefore be “anthropological,” in the sense that the human being should be recognized as the creator of and common integrating factor in all the sciences. (Copleston, p. 127).

So how does Lavrov get from this point to a Populist philosophy? As Pozefsky states, from Lavrov’s earliest writing,

By offering his countrymen a more authentic model of the personality, he hoped to facilitate their efforts at social reform. […] he preached an anthropological philosophy that placed physical man at the foundation of morality.
His model of the personality had not two parts (body and spirit) but three: consciousness (the higher forms of culture), tradition (the lower forms of culture), and nature. Of these, he privileged consciousness, which allowed human to shape their own lives and distinguished them from other animals. (Pozefsky, p. 28)

We see a similar conception in the “Historical Letters,” where nature is unconscious and tradition is semi-conscious, but it is only in the fully conscious being that ideas of betterment for oneself and society can develop, resulting in a desire for social revolution. Thus the human being is an active subject who conceives goals and pursues them. In doing so he perceives himself as free, even if he acknowledges that according to science he is subject to determining laws (the laws of nature); he still considers himself to be freely acting from the subjective point of view, and this feeling is ineradicable (here we see a very different view from that of Chernyshevsky). Freedom is in fact the crucial concept:

Lavrov […] was a social reformer. He did not believe in the inevitability of progress. Social advances depended on human choice and human action, and the human being, Lavrov was convinced, could not choose and pursue social goals except with the idea of freedom. Social activism and belief in freedom were inseparable. (Copleston, p. 130)

For Lavrov there were two types of philosophy: the theoretical and the practical. The former was concerned with questions such as “what is the case?” and the latter with the question of “what ought to be the case?” or “what ought to exist?” The idea of freedom for Lavrov lies at the base of “practical” philosophy (i.e. moral philosophy) as what ought to be, but this seems to create a contradiction between the theoretical and practical points of view: he describes freedom as (from the theoretical point of view) an “illusion,” but also as (from the practical standpoint) inescapable and ineradicable. So it is unclear whether he is saying that the human being is a free agent or just perceives himself as such. Possibly he is asserting that man cannot choose without the idea of being free, but there is clearly an unresolved tension here. Nevertheless, the subjective point of view is manifested in thought directed towards the attainment of social ideals, and this involves treating people as free agents pursuing goals and evaluating those goals. This forms the basis of Lavrov’s conception of progress, but it also relates to how he viewed many subjects of study. History, in particular, is “a science which treats of human beings pursuing ends or goals” (Copleston, p. 129), and the historian reflects on history in relation to his own values and ideals, and the extent to which historical events approximate to or diverge from them.

So it is important to understand that Lavrov was not only developing a theory; the practical side of his thinking was equally, if not more, important, and his thinking was constantly directed towards that practical aspect. Thus his denial (however contradictory) of historical laws as inhibiting freedom can be related to his refusal to accept the Marxists’ view of the iron law of historical determinism which said a country had to go through the capitalist phase of development before it could arrive at socialist revolution; Lavrov, like Chernyshevsky, saw the possibility of Russia bypassing this – and this is a central tenet of Populist thinking. His aim was socialism, and he believed in the power of people – an elite group at first who help prepare the minds of the narod for revolution – to achieve that:

His “critically thinking individuals” represented, for him, the conscience of society, and his emphasis on the orientation of critical inquiry to practice, to action, was an expression of his conviction that human reason and will could influence history and determine its course. (Copleston, p. 138)

There are inconsistencies in Lavrov’s ideas, but he was trying to deal with real problems on both philosophical and practical levels: the conflict between freedom and necessity; the problem of reconciling the individual’s good to common good of society; and the arrangement of society to allow individual to develop.

Nikolai Mikhailovsky (1842-1904)

Nikolai Mikhailovsky (1842-1904)

Nikolai Mikhailovsky (1842-1904) in contrast was not a revolutionary, although he had contacts with revolutionary groups, but was a prominent sociologist, publicist and theoretician of the populist movement. The key idea to discuss here is his definition of progress, and how this relates to populist thinking. Mikhailovsky emphasizes the opposing forces of society and the individual, and perceives their “progress” as a movement in opposite directions, so that the homogeneity of one is balanced by the heterogeneity of the other, and movement towards heterogeneity in society, for example, will lead to greater homogeneity of the individual within that society. He discusses interesting implications of this for the position of women, for example, but in terms of the purely Populist dimension of his thinking, it is the idea of the abolition of the division of labour that is important:

It expresses the very essence of the backward-looking Populist utopia, with its idealization of the self-sufficient primitive peasant economy. Mikhailovsky frequently reaffirmed that the interests of the integral individual coincided with the interests of ‘undivided’ nonspecialized labor, or, in other words, with the interests of the Russian peasantry. The Russian peasant, like primitive man, lived a life that was poor but full; he was economically self-sufficient; and he could therefore be called an example of an all-around and independent personality. He satisfied all his needs by his own efforts, making use of all his capacities, so that he was farmer and fisherman, shepherd and artist in one person. The peasant community was egalitarian and homogeneous, but its members had differentiated and many-sided personalities. The low level of complex cooperation enabled them to preserve their independence, whereas simple cooperation united them in mutual sympathy and understanding. This moral unity was expressed in the common ownership of the land and the self-government of the Russian mir. (Walicki, p. 256)

There was little agreement on such subjects, and certainly, Lavrov objected to Mikhailovsky’s conception of progress:

Abolishing the division of labour […] would obstruct technological and scientific advance, and absolute social “homogeneity” would prevent the emergence of “critically thinking individuals,” who were to be the carriers of new ideas. The implementation of Mikhailovsky’s “formula of progress” would result in a stagnating, non-progressive society; indeed, if this view of progress was accepted, it would be tantamount to proclaiming that history had always been a retrogressive progress. (Walicki, p. 257)

But the two authors did agree that “the welfare of the people—this is the welfare of the individual laborer—must be regarded as the only yardstick of progress” (Walicki, p. 261), and that the high price of capitalism they understood from their reading of Marx should not be paid in Russia.

So although they disagreed on some subjects, Lavrov and Mikhailovsky in many ways represent the moderate wing of populism. Both agreed that the autocracy had to be overthrown in order for equality and the welfare of the people to be achieved, but neither of them advocated violence. And their ideas were instrumental in instigating the first manifestation of Populist ideas in action.

The idea of the peasant as a multi-skilled, heterogeneous, independent being in Mikhailovsky’s conception, and, in particular, Lavrov’s proposition that the educated minority in society had a debt to the majority of workers whose labour underpinned their own lives of comfort and privilege, inspired the “Going to the People” movement (Khozhdenie k narodu), which began in 1874. This was essentially a spontaneous movement – it was not organized, and nobody was really openly propagandizing for it – but nevertheless it was a very important moment when large numbers (at least hundreds, probably thousands) of mainly young people went into the Russian countryside to meet the people. There were different aims in the movement: some wished to educate the narod and spread propaganda, to enlighten the peasants and create the conditions necessary for a later revolution, while others were intent on stirring up revolt immediately. Neither was successful. Although many of the young people did have practical skills – there were a good number of doctors, for instance – they often ended up learning skills from the peasants rather than teaching them, while the more radical elements found the peasants very conservative and unreceptive to revolutionary ideas – many of the narodniki were indeed handed over to the police by the very peasants they were attempting to help. Hundreds were arrested and tried – in particular there were two famous trials in 1877. The first, “the trial of the fifty,” resulted in many of the defendants receiving long prison sentences, but they impressed many people with their courage and honesty. The “trial of the 193” which followed saw greater sympathy for the defendants. Some were acquitted, and others received lighter sentences, although they were deported to Siberia.

These events were important because they led to a change in tactics among the radicals. Even many who had previously rejected violence came to the conclusion that nothing in Russia would change through peaceful activity alone, there would be no mass movement among the peasantry, and revolution would have to come from above. (The memoirs of Vera Figner (1852-1942) give a good account of the sort of change of heart many experienced at this point – having spent several years working as a doctor in the countryside, she realized that only violent actions would change anything.)

As a result, the second, secret “Land and Freedom” society was formed 1876, and was very broadly based, including figures we would not normally associate with Populism, such as the anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921), and the Marxist theoretician (and later founder of the Social Democrats), Georgi Plekhanov (1856-1918). This society had a moderate wing generally known as the “Lavrovites,” who still wanted to focus on spreading revolutionary propaganda, and a radical wing influenced by Bakunin, which did advocate violence. Some factions turned to terrorism, leading to the attempt by Vera Zasulich (1849-1919) on life of governor of Petersburg in 1878, Sergei Kravchinsky (Stepniak, 1851-1895) killing the chief of the secret police in the same year, and Alexander Solov’ev making an unsuccessful attempt on life of tsar in 1879. This disturbed orthodox populists, leading to a split in that year. The moderate section was known as Chernyi peredel (Black Repartition), named after the popular dream of the just distribution of the land among the ‘black’ people, i.e. peasants. It was led by Plekhanov and joined by Zasulich, but only lasted a year before Plekhanov fled to Switzerland.

The “innovators” meanwhile formed Narodnaya volya (meaning the People’s will and/or freedom), and their programme was based on overthrowing autocracy and establishing government in accordance with the people’s will. The difference between this group and traditional populists was the rejection of the priority of social over political goals, advocating the overthrowing of the state as an instrument of and creator of the social classes that entrench inequality in Russian life. A primary mover here was Lev Tikhomirov (1852-1923), a member of the Executive Committee of Narodnaia volia, who later became disenchanted with revolution and became a leading conservative thinker:

Tikhomirov used this […] theory in support of his own thesis that in Russia the struggle against the possessing classes must necessarily turn into a political struggle against the state that had called these classes (including the bourgeoisie) into being and was their main source of strength. (Walicki, p. 233)

At the most extreme end of Populism, the ideas of Pyotr Tkachev (1844-1886) had some influence. He perceived the possibility of revolution in Russia – because of the communal tendencies of Russia and the weak grip of capitalism – through violent means, but also advocated the seizure of power by conspiracy (Hardy, pp. 29-30) and its maintenance through a revolutionary dictatorship:

the “leveling of individuality” was a task that would fall to the revolutionary vanguard who, after seizing power, would organize a national system of child-rearing and education, and would deliberately restrain the development of outstanding individuals who threatened the accepted level of social equality. (Walicki, p. 248)

In this guise we can see his distance from Populism, despite his apparent sympathy with the movement. Tkachev, contra Mikhailovsky, advocated the homogeneity of both society and the individual, and, even more significantly, rejected the abolition of the state – quite the opposite. In this sense, while he often seems like the caricature revolutionaries from Dostoevsky’s Demons, he in fact probably represents the strongest link between the Populists and the Bolsheviks.

Within the ranks of Narodnaya volya, therefore, there were still differences of opinion about the idea of political struggle, but basically by the end of the 1870s everyone in the organization agreed that the most effective way of forcing change was to assassinate the tsar. They succeeded on the third attempt, but the result was far from what they had hoped:

the assassination of the tsar was followed not by chaos and revolutionary disturbances but by the consolidation of autocracy. Instead of political freedom, there arose an even more reactionary government; and instead of the tremendous increase in the strength and popularity of the party, the arrest of its most important leaders put an effective end to its activities. (Walicki, p. 234)

In the 1880s and 1890s, increased industrialization meant that the idea of bypassing the capitalist phase of development in Russia – the centre of Populist ideology – looked increasingly unlikely. As a result, some of the early Populists, such as Plekhanov, converted to Marxism, while the more extreme Bakuninite wing of Populism later found expression in the Socialist Revolutionary party.


Bakunin, Mikhail, Statism and Anarchy, Appendix A (1873), in A Documentary History of Russian Thought From the Enlightenment to Marxism, ed. W. J. Leatherbarrow and D. C. Offord (Ardis, 1987)

Copleston, Frederick C., Philosophy in Russia: from Herzen to Lenin and Berdyaev (University of Notre Dame, 1986)

Figner, Vera, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, authorized translation (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1991)

Hardy, Deborah, “Tkachev and the Marxists,” Slavic Review, 29.1 (1970), 22-34

Herzen, Alexander, ‘The Russian People and Socialism: An Open Letter to Jules Michelet’ (1851), in Herzen, Alexander, From the Other Shore and The Russian People and Socialism, trans. Moura Budberg and Richard Wollheim (Oxford University Press, 1979)

Lavrin, Janko, “Populists and Slavophiles,” Russian Review, 24/4 (1962), 307-317

Lavrov, Petr, “Historical Letters” (1868-9), in Edie, J.M., J.P. Scanlan and M.B. Zeldin, eds., Russian Philosophy, 3 vols. (University of Chicago Press, 1965), 2: 134-47

Mikhailovskii, Nikolai, “What is Progress?” (1869), in Edie, J.M., J.P. Scanlan and M.B. Zeldin, eds., Russian Philosophy, 3 vols. (University of Chicago Press, 1965), 2: 177-87

Pomper, Philip, Peter Lavrov and the Russian Revolutionary Movement (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1972)

Pozefsky, Peter C., The Nihilist Imagination: Dmitrii Pisarev and the Cultural Origins of Russian Radicalism (1860–1868) (New York and Oxford: Peter Lang, 2003)

Ulam, Adam B., Ideologies and Illusions: revolutionary thought from Herzen to Solzhenitsyn (Harvard University Press, 1976)

Walicki, Andrzej, A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism (Stanford University Press, 1980)

Leave a comment


  1. Jeffry A. House

     /  February 23, 2013

    You don’t really say so here, but Lavrov seems much influenced by Kant, and perhps later theoreticians of the subjective such as Fichte.

  2. Yes, I think that’s right. Dostoevsky once said something like “we have all crossed the bridge of Kant’s philosophy,” and I think there is still a great deal that is unexplored in the relationship between Russian thought and its German influences – Hegel and Schiller used to get the most attention, more recently it has been Nietzsche…

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