Nihilism may refer either to a political movement and an ethical philosophy. Political nihilism, and its violent tendencies, emerged from of the political and social conditions in Russia in the second half of the 19th century, characterized by inept state control to peasant apathy. It was encouraged by the contemporary idea of ethical nihilism, but was ultimately no more than a manifestation of this philosophy.
The term "nihilism" was first employed in Ivan Turgenev's 1862 novel Fathers and Sons, whose protagonist, a young physician, rebels against the tradition and social order of Russia, believing them to be meaningless. At first, writes the seasoned revolutionary Sergei Kravchinski, the term Nihilist "was used in a contemptuous sense, but afterwards was accepted from party pride by those against whom it was employed".
Nihilists went by many other names as well, some of which "they considered more ennobling". Among these, Ronald Hingley lists "radicals, revolutionaries, Populists and 'honest men' . . . Jacobins, leftists, terrorists, socialists, progressives, anarchists, Men of the Sixties, new People, liberals, 'mixed-rankers', seminarists, reds, students, the intelligentsia and the freedom movement".
The nihilist rebellion sustained a philosophical and literary movement that "flourished in the first decade after the Emancipation of the Serfs," that of the 1860s. Despite its romantic origin, Nihilism became essentially anarchist in outlook — a demonstration of the ambiguity of the term. Nihilism was associated with the intensification of political revolutionary activity in Russia, after the relatively stable period in Russia that followed the Decembrist uprising of 1825. This new "insurrectionary strain in history was made up of rioting and the political murder of leading figures".
Nihilism and populism
Russia in the 1860s had as tsar Alexander II, whose rule was by most standards considerably less oppressive than that of his predecessor Nicholas I. Though he inherited and maintained the secret police, called the "Third Section", he also reformed Russia's legal structure. He looked to the West for Russia's future and modernized both the state and armed forces, while engaging other European nations in imperial competition. Yet this policy also cost Russia in her ill-fated Crimean War, and "ruthlessly demonstrated" to some "the rottenness of the whole Russian social edifice". Encouraged also by the weakness of Alexander's reforms with regard to improving the conditions of lower classes, conspiracy groups developed, though drawing mainly from the Russian intelligentsia. Unlike the Hapsburgs, and more particularly Germany under Otto von Bismarck, the tsar failed to see the value of a concessionist strategy in subduing the more radical forces in his nation.
Alexander's unwillingness to reform is most apparent in his Emancipation of the Serfs of 1861. Peasants at that time, and in fact for the rest of the century, accounted for approximately four fifths of the entire Russian population. Following the lead of Abraham Lincoln in the United States, Alexander II nationalized the mir or zemstvo system, which freed serfs from feudal bonds and permitted them to collectively own their land. But this apparent improvement had numerous disadvantages for the peasants. They would be forced to provide the state with redemption payments and grain until 1906, and were not permitted to leave their communes. Both Russia's wars and industrial revolution were fed by the money and bodies of the peasants, and many urban workers continued to live and work much of the year in their original village. As for their participation, the uneducated peasants had no channels through which to voice their needs. "Even over the local activities of the zemstvo," writes Edward Acton, "consultation with the peasantry was little more than a formality".
It was through the plight of these beaten, illiterate, and uncreative people that Nihilism first caught the attention of the Russian public. The movement known as populism, begun in the 1870s, saw hundreds of educated young men and women go out among the peasants to try and discern their needs, particularly in the summer of 1874. They incorporated the peasants' "age-old conviction that the land ought to belong to those who worked it" within their own vision of a reborn Russia, based on "free, decentralized, democratic and egalitarian peasant socialism". Recalling how the announcement of redemption payments accompanying emancipation had provoked violent resistance among some peasants, the populists identified their own frustrations with the state and its reforms with the peasant restiveness. They saw the peasants as "good, simple, trusting as children [who] not only did not mistrust, but welcomed them with open arms and hearts". The populists felt it their duty both "to enlighten the rural folk whose vast numbers would compel the tsar to relieve their plight" and to "repay the debt they felt educated society owed the toilers".
The Nihilists' hopes were dashed when they found the peasants a hostile and distrustful people, who reported them to the local authorities whenever they appeared. Mass arrests were made, and the agitators were tried in well-publicized trials, particularly between 1877 and 1878. But the tsar's measures, as they would often do during his reign, failed to have the effect Alexander hoped. Rather than deter potential radicals, the trials evoked sympathy. As Sergei Kravchinski recounts, even "those who could not but consider such men as enemies were bewildered at the sight of so much self-sacrifice". The experience of these young Nihilists convinced them to turn from propaganda to anarchistic terrorism. Public demonstrations were abandoned following the 1878 trials, and Nihilism's flirt with relatively peaceful protest would not be resurrected again until the creation of the Social Revolutionary party in 1901. Their failed attempt to ally peasant and radical frustration turned many of the intelligentsia (generally the very same people) to anarchism and nihilism.
Nihilism and terrorism
Initially, terror functioned for individual Nihilists as a retaliation against "the indignities inflicted upon imprisoned colleagues". But the public sensation that resulted from their attacks convinced some radicals "that far-reaching political change and at best even revolution could be precipitated by a sustained campaign of terror directed at key members of the regime". The secret organization was nothing new to Russia, but only after this experience did Nihilists actively promote terror. They had hoped, for instance, that in 1863 simultaneous peasant revolts and an armed rebellion in Poland would cripple Alexander's regime, but they did little to make their wishes real. Land and Liberty, Nihilism's first stable underground group, coordinated these efforts between 1876 and 1879; it was followed by a more tightly knit organization called Narodnaya Volya, or the People's Will. The irony of these names, of course, lies in their implicit admission that the Nihilists had failed to achieve rapport with the Russian people, most significantly in the form of peasantry.
The new direction of the Nihilist movement became clear to all on January 24, 1878, when a girl named Vera Zasulich fired her revolver at a General Trepoff, who had ordered the gratuitous flogging of an innocent political prisoner. Though she was acquitted by a jury and supported by public sympathy, Alexander (after returning to St. Petersburg from a devastating war in Turkey) "ransacked the whole city in search of the acquitted Zasulich, in order to put her again in prison". Then, with the killing of head of police General Mesentzeff on August 16 of the same year, the new Nihilism "boldly threw down its glove in the face of autocracy". These activities culminated in the assassination of Alexander II on March 1, 1881, an event long plotted by the People's Will. Ironically, the tsar was about the make "the first, tentative moves" in the direction of reform, including the acceptance of a proposal to create "machinery for a measure of consultation on national issues, with representatives of 'society' drawn from the zemstvos and municipal dumas".
This was the peak of Nihilist terrorism that would last into the beginning of the twentieth century. During this time a "not insignificant number of high officials . . . were either shot or blown apart", though the number of executions by public hanging that constituted the state's response was considerably greater. In fact, the reactions of the government and underground existed in a sort of dialectical unity in which each perpetuated — while attempting to destroy — the other. The punishments given by the tsar were harsh: up to "fifteen years of hard labor were inflicted, for two or three speeches, made in private to a handful of working men, or for a single book read or lent". But the experience of public humiliation, imprisonment or exile naturally aroused even "in the most gentle and tender minds thoughts of blood, of hatred, and of vengeance".
In the years following the assassination of Alexander II, repression of the Nihilists was more successful. Alexander III replaced the relatively prosperous reign of his father with one of firmly reasserted autocracy. The concessions Alexander II had made were "vigorously repudiated," and the "government was purged of reformers and office entrusted to staunch conservatives". More efficient police protected the tsar, and in removing earlier constraints on the tsar's power he managed to destroy the People's Will.
In halting "any further movement in the direction of public participation" and crushing "expressions of dissent", the new tsar actually helped to mobilize the underground groups, and "recruitment to the radical subculture continued unabated during the 1880s". Nevertheless, Nihilism changed in this period, as members began a "reappraisal of the potential for revolution" and a rethinking of Nihilist strategy. Their lack of success in disabling the Russian state through terror turned many away from the pursuit of a destruction and decomposition of the whole society, not merely "a revolution in government" or "the victory of party over party", as Edmund Burke described such social revolutions.
As occurred in many countries that were becoming increasingly industrialized and modernized, Nihilists looked to political means to remove class inequality. One group that emerged (in 1901) was the Social Revolutionary party, whose goal "was the division of large estates among the peasants and cooperative enterprise". Traditional Nihilism also lost support as Marxist theory began to penetrate the Russian intelligentsia, particularly after the conversions of Georgi Plekhanov and Lyubov Axelrod, two Populists studying in Switzerland. They agreed with Marx's belief that terrorism and assassination were ineffective, and created the Russian workers' Social Democratic party in 1898.
The Nihilists, while they eventually fragmented and disappeared as a group, sustained a legacy "of revolutionary analysis, underground organization and political propaganda without parallel in the West". Thus it was possible for "some quite respectable British and French journals" to inform their readers after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 that it was Lenin's "nihilists" that had taken power.
It should be remembered that the Nihilist movement was "born as a fashion in clothing, manners and reading-matter". Among their quirks Hingley mentions "the men going about with huge beards and long hair flopping over their shoulders, while girls had their hair bobbed and renounced such frivolities as combs . . . and allowing men to kiss their hands".
Nihilists were remarkably young, and in witnessing the "intervention by the authorities against student activism, the impediments of censorship," and "the limited employment opportunities", they often began their activities while still at school. Despite their youth, they "were renowned for complexions of extreme pallor deriving from constant nervous strain," as well as their dirty, "chewed fingernails, untidy clothes" and "unwashed appearance".
Nihilists were also scorned "for the loudness of their voices and for the brusque or downright rude manner in which they spoke, generally to refute traditional beliefs". Yet they "had a strong puritanical streak", and were clearly people of principle: both men and women Nihilists were incensed by the subjection of women — both professionally and sexually — to their husbands. Those women who rebelled and left their homes often chose to study in foreign cities, notably Zurich, where they "found not only schools of medicine . . . but also a great social movement of which many had no conception". When the tsar perceived that these attractions were really "cesspits of Nihilism," he essentially ordered the Russian students home, thus foolishly "strengthening the revolutionary movement on Russian soil".
Nihilists were not mere hooligans: "it was not public lavatories or the upholstery of railway carriages that they wanted to wreck, but society itself". Nihilism drew on dissatisfied members of Russian intelligentsia; as the children "of poor gentry, of minor officials and of priests or lower clergy" they were still considered relatively privileged members of society. They were all intent on obtaining some education, though "to be expelled before taking a degree was almost as much of a Nihilist diploma as having entered a university in the first place".
In the Nihilist library were included the scientific works of "Louis Blanc, Comte, Darwin, Fourier, Lassalle, John Stuart Mill, Robert Owen, Saint-Simon and Herbert Spencer". Their subculture was fed in the 1850s and 1860s by revolutionary authors such as Herzen and Chernyshevsky, and by newspapers both legal and illegal.
Conversely, the Nihilist movement managed to inspire great works by Ivan Turgenev and even Fyodor Dostoevsky in his youth. But they were anti-aesthetic: art "was absolutely renounced by the Nihilists, together with everything that excites the sentiment of the beautiful".
Most Nihilists were atheists. Their general lack of political experience was manifest in the attempts of the Populists to appeal to the mysticism of peasants. But all of these "highly pacific struggles" caught "the same spirit of rebellion and almost the same fanaticism" of the terrorist.
Ethical vs. political nihilism
How is one to reconcile the different elements of nihilism? While ethical nihilism is "the theory that morality cannot be justified in any way and that all moral values are, therefore, meaningless and irrational," political Nihilism is "the social philosophy that society and its institutions are so corrupt that their complete destruction is desirable". Where is the connection between a nihilistic world view, and an attitude that is better described as "annihilation?"
The simple answer is: they really are two different ideas. In fact, the latter is the best possible human approximation of the former. In contrast to their philosophical skepticism, for instance, Nihilists maintained an almost religious belief in science, proclaiming a war "against everything that was not based upon pure and positive reason". With this naturalist attitude common in the nineteenth century came beliefs in human creativity and the perfectibility of society, and hence humans themselves. As Joseph Conrad wrote of them, Nihilists had "the strange conviction that a fundamental change of hearts must follow the downfall of any given human institutions", and that human creativity could produce a new and better civilization. While negating all of "the obligations imposed upon the individual by society, by family life, and by religion", and in fact trying to reduce society to nothing but a collection of autonomous individuals, nihilism still maintained a faith in the human capacity to create as well as destroy.
Yet as James Sire makes clear in his discussion of nihilistic philosophy (or rather the repudiation of it), nihilism derives naturally from naturalism. Nihilism does not merely deny traditions and morals, it denies everything, including knowledge and even the possibility of knowing. A true human, however, cannot help but think, and "think their thinking has substance", and even the strictest nihilist cannot practice his or her faith without "something against which to do battle" — that is, something to negate.
More importantly, while nihilism denies any basis for moral responsibility, this does not imply the necessity of destroying the foundation of morals (as far as the nihilist is concerned, anyway): the stability of society. Political nihilists generally lived strictly regulated lives, and despised a government they felt was based "upon complete moral anarchism". As Peter Kropotkin - one of the most famous exponents of Nihilism - said: "Those who long for the triumph of justice . . . perceive the necessity of a revolutionary whirlwind which will sweep away all this rottenness".
Furthermore, when nothing is immoral for the nihilist, any course of action is open, but when he or she puts "one foot in front of the other in other than a haphazard way," the value of that particular course of action is confirmed. Although the nihilist denies self-determinacy, since "freedom must be a determinacy unrecognized," the Russian movement strove constantly to chart the course of society's future. Interestingly, Marxism also stipulated that the human potential for causing change is insignificant against the incontrovertible laws of history — and it too seems to contradict itself by demanding the intelligent and active participation in revolution. No sane human could be a consistently "abide by the imperative of nihilism", and few would want to — for according to nihilism, the examined "life is not worth living".
- Kravchinskii, S. M. Underground Russia: Revolutionary Profiles and Sketches from Life. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1883.
- Hingley, Ronald. Nihilists. New York: Delacorte Press, 1967.
- Loubère, Leo A. Nineteenth-Century Europe: The Revolution of Life. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1994.
- Acton, Edward. "Russia: Tsarism and the West." Themes in Modern European History, 1830-1890. B. Waller, Ed. Unwin Hyman, 1990.
- Ulman, Adam Bruno. In the Name of the People. New York: The Viking Press, 1977.
- Nelson, Brian R. Western Political Thought: From Socrates to the Age of Ideology. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1996.
- The New York Public Library Desk Reference. The Stonesong Press, Inc. 1989.
- Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988.
- Brower, Daniel R. Training the Nihilists. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1975.