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Trends within Narodnichestvo


The ideas of Herzen and Chernyshevsky had to a large extent prepared the appearance in the late 1860s - early 1870s of the ideology of revolutionary Narodnichestvo. They had sown the seeds of the movement which found its full expression in the works of Michael Bakunin (1814-76), Peter Lavrov (1823-1900), Peter Tkachev (1844-86) and other prominent Narodniks.  

Michael Bakunin

The theoreticians of Narodnichestvo were firmly convinced that mankind in its development would inevitably reach socialism, and Russia, in their opinion, had an obvious advantage over many other countries. The basic difference between Russia and Western Europe was the survival of the commune. They believed that the commune had preserved the socialist ideal of collective ownership, which had long disappeared in the rest of Europe. The commune distributed the peasantsí basic productive resource - land - on egalitarian principles, thus ensuring a basic equality of wealth. The optimism of the Narodniks stemmed from the conviction that the village commune represented an embryo of socialism and was therefore a guarantee of a relatively smooth and painless transition to a new social order.

Russiaís prospects looked particularly attractive to the Narodniks because they hoped that the germs of socialism inherent in the village commune would enable her to side-step capitalism and thus avoid the proletarization of the peasantry and the formation of the exploiting class of bourgeoisie. In order to restructure society on socialist foundations it was necessary to release the innate socialist potential of the commune by freeing it from socio-economic and political pressures. This was to be achieved by transferring all the land to peasants, lifting the crippling burden of taxation, removing  administrative-police controls.

The leading ideologists of Narodnichestvo agreed on these general theoretical propositions, but they differed over how to implement them into life. Bakunin, a daring revolutionary and an Ďapostleí of anarchism, pinned his hopes on a spontaneous peasant uprising. In his opinion, the peasants were ready for revolution, all they needed was a push that should be provided by the revolutionary intelligentsia. The intelligentsia should not try to dictate its program to the people but work to re-ignite in Russian village communes the dormant spirit of freedom and make them realize the need to unite in the struggle for their liberation.

The emphasis on infusing the masses with revolutionary ardor rather than on a carefully planned organization of revolution was a weak side of Bakuninís approach. Despite this, his ideas were extremely popular among the most radicalized young people who yearned for practical action and wished to make revolution immediately. The adherents of Bakuninís ideas represented the insurrectionist tendency in revolutionary Narodnichestvo.

Lavrov, who was a professor of mathematics in military educational institutions and had the rank of a colonel of the Russian army, also supported the idea of the peasant insurrection and considered the intellectual-revolutionaries to be the force which would be able to stir up the masses to revolution.  But in contrast to Bakunin, he believed that the intelligentsia needed time to find common language with the peasantry and convince it of the necessity of revolution. He advocated a prolonged period of intensive propaganda of the ideas of revolutionary Narodnichestvo among the peasantry. Lavrovís supporters represented, accordingly, the propagandist trend. His views about the necessity of establishing a broadly-based, popular party that would deliberately plan and carry through the socialist revolution would inform the activities of the next generations of Russian  radicals. 

Peter Lavrov

Peter Tkachev

Finally, there was the conspiratorial trend, that reflected the attitude of the segment of the intelligentsia which was skeptical of the peopleís power to make the revolution and pinned its hopes on forming a conspiracy with the aim of overthrowing the tsarist government and accomplishing socialist transformations. The main theoretician of this trend was Tkachev, who believed that the popular masses and the intelligentsia were too far apart and that the gulf between them could not be bridged.  In the conditions of the autocratic-bureaucratic system, it was impossible, he argued, to raise peasants to a revolution. The intelligentsia could rely only on its own efforts to free the peasant commune. It should form a conspiracy, stage an armed coup, seize government power and then implement the necessary transformations from above.

Some analysts have argued that the basic points of Tkachevís program - the decisive role of a centralized and disciplined conspiratorial party; the necessity for a seizure of political power by a minority revolutionary organization; and the establishment of a strong minority dictatorship which would introduce socialism by decree from above - had foreshadowed some of Leninís views on party organization and the relationship between the revolutionary party and the proletariat. Tkachev, therefore, is often seen as the essential link between Chernyshevsky and Lenin, the legatee of Narodnichestvo and the precursor of Bolshevism.

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