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The Liberal Camp

Paul Miliukov

The revolutionary camp was not the only force that strove to undermine the foundations of autocracy. Dissension had spread to many liberal-minded intellectuals, too, who also saw an urgent need of reforms. The liberal intelligentsia tried at all cost to prevent revolution and social upheavals. However, they realized that the regime’s procrastination over the issue of reform only served to aggravate social tensions. For this reason, the liberals sought to do everything possible to compel the tsar and the ruling circle to take the road of reform.

The ideological and social complexion of Liberalism itself was undergoing change. In the mid-nineteenth century Liberalism had been an ideology of disgruntled nobles concerned to reduce the powers of autocracy and its bureaucracy. Since 1864, the zemstvos had provided the institutional base for this ‘gentry’ (or ‘zemstvo’) Liberalism. Its chief aim had been to create institutions through which forces outside the bureaucracy could shape government policy. Liberal nobles had proposed to the tsar the creation of a national zemstvo, or Duma, as far back as 1862, and again in 1895. Though they saw this purely as an advisory body, the government regarded the idea as a threat to autocracy. In 1895 Nicholas II dismissed the idea as no more than a ‘senseless daydream’.

The late 1890s saw the development of a new, radical, trend within Liberalism which became known as ‘New Liberalism’. Many of the ‘new liberals’ were ex-Marxists (particularly those who used to belong to the so-called legal Marxists and the right-wing of ‘economists’) or former Narodniks who disagreed with the terrorist tactics of Socialist-Revolutionaries. In contrast to the older ‘gentry’ Liberalism, the new trend relied more on the raznochintsy element within the intelligentsia. New Liberalism sought to combine the basic principles of old Liberalism with social programs of democratic socialism but rejected the Marxist conception of socialism. The intellectuals representing this trend emphasized the need for democratic and social changes. They also tried to free Russian Liberalism from some of its outdated Slavophile ideas and give it a more westernizing orientation.

The most prominent ideologists of the new liberal trend were Sergei Bulgakov, Paul Miliukov, Vladimir Nabokov, Fedor Kokoshkin, Peter Struve and others. In 1902 in Germany members of the liberal-minded intelligentsia with the financial support of zemstvo liberals published the first issue of an illegal paper, Liberation. Its editor-in-chief, Struve, had been a prominent legal Marxist in the mid-1890s. The first issue contained an appeal to the autocratic government to launch a far-reaching political reform. It was written by the historian Paul Miliukov (1859-1943), who sought to convince the Tsar in the necessity of adopting a constitution. Miliukov believed that it was possible to combine the Marxist and the liberal visions of Russia’s future and thus form a united front of the entire opposition to exert maximum pressure on the authorities. 

In the pages of the Liberation Miliukov came up with the idea of establishing an illegal liberal organization It received broad support among the intelligentsia. Numerous circles began to spring up which shared the liberal platform of the newspaper. However, it proved impossible to unite the two main strands of Russian Liberalism. In July 1903 the ‘new liberals’ established an illegal liberal organization called the ‘Union of Liberation’, whose program borrowed some of its more radical ideas from Marxism. Their demands included an elected Legislative National Assembly with real legislative powers. Their chief aim was the abolition of autocracy, though many of them favored a constitutional monarchy of some sort. A few months later, in November 1903, the ‘Union of Zemstvo Consititutionalists’ was set up by constitutionally-inclined members of the liberal bourgeoisie. The members of the more radical ‘Union of Liberation’ were against a merger with the zemstvo constitutionalists whom they perceived as too right-wing. The zemstvo liberals, in their turn, were reluctant to make concessions to the radicalism of the intelligentsia.

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