Trotsky: The Russian Populists - Advancing Through Heroism and Agony

Submitted by Anon on 22 May, 2004 - 10:08 Author: Leon Trotsky

Click here for the series on The Roots of Bolshevism of which this article is part
In previous issues of Solidarity, we have outlined in some detail the history of revolutionary populism in 19th-century Russia. We will later discuss the development of the early Marxist critique of this populism and examine the process in which Marxism came in the 1880s and 1890s, in part, to displace populism.

This brilliant and concise account by Leon Trotsky, written in the 1930s, of the history we have covered sums up. It has been abridged from Trotsky's account, in The Young Lenin.

The movement of liberation, before becoming a mass movement toward the end of the [19th] century, passed during its earlier decades through a rich experience on a laboratory scale.

In one of the famous political trials of the 1870s, known as "the case of the 193," the principal defendant, Ippolit Myshkin, advanced the thesis that, after the peasant reform, there had arisen, outside the peasantry itself, "a whole faction… prepared to respond to the call of the people, and serving as the nucleus of a social revolutionary party. This faction was the intellectual proletariat".

The decomposition of the feudal society proceeded at a faster pace than the formation of the bourgeoisie. The intelligentsia, a product of the decay of the old classes, found neither an adequate demand for its skills nor a sphere for its political influence. It broke with the nobility, the bureaucracy, the clergy, with their stale culture and serf-owning traditions, but it did not effect a rapprochement with the bourgeoisie, which was still too primitive and crude.

It felt itself to be socially independent, yet at the same time it was choking in the clutches of tsarism. Thus, after the fall of serfdom, the intelligentsia formed almost the sole nutritive medium for revolutionary ideas - especially its younger generation, the poorest of the intellectual youth, university students, seminarians, high-school boys, a majority of them not above the proletariat in their standard of living and many below it.

The state, having need of an intelligentsia, reluctantly created one by means of its schools. The intelligentsia, having need of a reformed regime, became an enemy of the state. The political life of the country thus for a long time assumed the form of a duel between the intelligentsia and the police, with the fundamental classes of society almost entirely passive.

…Since the struggle was forced upon the "intellectual proletariat" by its whole situation, it had to have some grand illusions.

Having just broken away in the realm of consciousness from medieval customs and relationships, the intelligentsia naturally regarded ideas as its chief power. In the 1860s [the intelligentsia] embraced a theory according to which the progress of humanity is the result of critical thought. And who could serve better as the representatives of critical thought than itself, the intelligentsia? Frightened, however, by its small numbers and isolation, the intelligentsia was compelled to resort to mimicry, that weapon of the weak. It renounced its own being, in order to gain a greater right to speak and act in the name of the people.

"[T]he people" meant the peasants. The tiny industrial proletariat was only an accidental and unhealthy branch of the people. The Populists' worship of the peasant and his commune was but the mirror image of the grandiose pretensions of the "intellectual proletariat" to the role of chief, if not indeed sole, instrument of progress.

The whole history of the Russian intelligentsia develops between these two poles of pride and self-abnegation - which are the short and the long shadows of its social weakness.

The revolutionary elements of the intelligentsia not only identified themselves theoretically with the people, but tried in actual fact to merge with them. They put on peasants' coats, ate watery soup, and learned to work with plough and axe. This was not a political masquerade, but a heroic exploit. Yet it was founded on a gigantic quid pro quo. The intelligentsia created a "people" in its own image, and that biblical act of creation prepared for it a tragic surprise when the time came for action.

The earliest revolutionary groups set themselves the task of preparing a peasant uprising.

[I]n 1860 in Petersburg, a small underground organization known as "Young Russia" [was organised]. Its immediate aim was: "a bloody and implacable revolution, which shall radically change the whole foundation of contemporary society."

The government answered with repressive measures whose fury gives the measure of its fright. For attempting to issue a proclamation to the peasants, Chernyshevsky, the famous Russian political writer and genuine leader of the younger generation, was pilloried and condemned to hard labour. By this blow the tsar had hoped, with some reason, to behead the revolutionary movement for some time to come.

On April 4, 1866, the twenty-five-year-old Dimitri Karakozov, a former student from the petty nobility, fired the first bullet at Alexander II as the tsar emerged from the Summer Garden. Karakozov missed the tsar, but ended the "liberal" chapter of Alexander's reign. Attacks on the press, and police invasions of peaceful homes, put fear in the hearts of the liberal circles - none too brave to begin with. The independent elements of the bureaucracy began to fall in line.

Six years elapsed between the first proclamation and the first armed attack on the tsar [1866]. The intelligentsia thus completed, in the dawn of its revolutionary activity, its first small cycle: from the hope for an immediate peasant uprising, through the attempt at propaganda and agitation, to individual terror. Many similar mistakes, experiments, and disappointments lay ahead. But, from the abolition of serfdom [in 1861], begins a unique phenomenon in world history: six decades of underground exploits by a body of revolutionary pioneers leading to the explosions of 1905 and 1917.

Two years after the Karakozov affair, an obscure provincial teacher, Nechayev, instructor in theology in a parish school, one of the mightiest figures in the gallery of Russian revolutionaries, attempted to create a conspiratorial society called "The People's Revenge," or "The Axe." Nechayev arranged for a peasant uprising to occur on the anniversary of the reform, February 19, 1870, when the transitional relations in the villages were, according to the law, to be replaced by permanent ones. But again no insurrection followed. The affair ended with the murder of a student suspected of betrayal. Having escaped abroad, Nechayev was turned over to the tsar by the Swiss Government and ended his days in the Peter and Paul Fortress.

In revolutionary circles the word Nechayevism was long to be a term of harsh condemnation, a synonym for risky and reprehensible methods of attaining revolutionary goals. Lenin was to hear himself accused hundreds of times of "Nechayevist" methods by his political opponents.

The 1870s opened a second cycle in the revolutionary movement, considerably wider in scope and intensity but reproducing in its development the sequence o£ stages already familiar to us: from the hope for a popular uprising and the attempt to prepare it, through clashes with the political police with the people looking on indifferently, to individual terror.

Nechayev's conspiracy, built wholly upon the dictatorship of a single person, evoked in revolutionary circles a sharp reaction against centralism and blind discipline. Reborn in 1873, after a short calm, the movement took on the character of a chaotic mass pilgrimage of the intelligentsia to the people. Young men and women, most of them former students, numbering about a thousand in all, carried socialist propaganda to all corners of the country, especially to the lower reaches of the Volga, where they sought the legacy of Pugachev and Razin.

This movement, remarkable in scope and youthful idealism, the true cradle of the Russian revolution, was distinguished - as is proper to a cradle - by extreme naïveté. The propagandists had neither a guiding organization nor a clear program; they had no conspiratorial experience. And why should they have? These young people, having broken with their families and schools, without profession, personal ties, or obligations, and without fear either of earthly or heavenly powers, seemed to themselves the living crystalization of a popular uprising. A constitution? Parliamentarism? Political liberty? No, they would not be swerved from the path by these Western decoys.

What they wanted was a complete revolution, without abridgements or intermediate stages.

The theoretical sympathies of the youth were divided between Lavrov and Bakunin. Both these captains of thought had come from the nobility, and they had been educated in the same military schools in Petersburg, Mikhail Bakunin ten years earlier than Pyotr Lavrov. Both ended their lives as émigrés - Bakunin in 1876. Lavrov lived till 1900.

The artillery-school teacher, Colonel Lavrov, an eclectic with an encyclopedic education, began to develop in legal journals his theory of "the critically thinking personality".

His doctrine of duty to the people fitted to perfection the Messianism of the intelligentsia, whose theoretical haughtiness was combined with a constant practical readiness for self-sacrifice. The weakness of Lavrovism lay in its failure to indicate any course of action aside from the abstract propaganda of revealed gospel.

[I]t did not satisfy the more resolute and active among the young. Bakunin's doctrine seemed incomparably more clear, and better still, more resolute. It declared the Russian peasants to be "socialist by instinct and revolutionary by nature". It saw the task of the intelligentsia as a summoning of the peasants to an immediate "universal destruction," out of which Russia would emerge a federation of free communes.

Patient propagandism could only fall back under this assault from integral rebellion.

In the full armor of Bakuninism, which became the ruling doctrine, the intelligentsia of the 1870s considered it self-evident that they need only scatter the sparks of "critical thought," and both steppe and forest would burst into a sheet of flame.

"The movement of the intelligentsia," Myshkin later testified at his trial, "was not artificially created, but was the echo of popular unrest."

Although in a broad historical sense true, this idea could in no way establish a direct political connection between popular discontent and the revolutionary designs of the rebels. By a fatal combination of circumstances, the rural districts, which had been restless throughout almost the whole of Russian history, quieted down just at the moment when the cities became interested in them, and quieted down for a long time.

The intelligentsia's impassioned, impatient, and powerful attraction toward the peasantry clashed with the peasants' embittered distrust for everything that issued from the gentry, from city folk, from educated people, from students. The villages not only did not open their arms to the propagandists, but repelled them with hostility. This fact decided the dramatic course of the revolutionary movement of the 1870s, and its tragic end.

Only a new generation of peasants, growing up after the reform, was to gain an acute new awareness of its land hunger, its burden of taxation, its oppression as a class, and undertake - this time under the guiding influence of the working class - to smoke out the landlords from their settled nests. But it took a quarter of a century to bring this about.

In any case, the movement "to the people" during the 1870s suffered a complete defeat. Neither the Volga nor the Don, nor yet the Dnieper region responded to the call. Moreover, carelessness in the precautions necessary for illegal work soon betrayed the propagandists. An overwhelming majority of them - more than seven hundred persons - had been arrested by 1874. The public prosecutor conducted two great trials, which are remembered in the history of the revolution as "the case of the 50" and "the case of the 193." The challenge thrown in the face of tsarism by the condemned over the heads of the court stirred the hearts of several generations of the young.

In accord with the populist doctrine, which denied a future to Russian capitalism, the proletariat was assigned no independent role at all in the revolution. It happened accidentally, however, that propaganda, designed in its content for the villages, found a sympathetic response only in the cities. The school of history is rich in pedagogical resources. The movement of the 1870s was perhaps most instructive in the fact that a program carefully cut to the pattern of a peasant revolution succeeded in assembling only the intelligentsia and some individual industrial workers. This exposed the bankruptcy of Populism and prepared the first theoretical elements of its revision.

But before arriving at a realistic doctrine grounded upon the actual trends within society, the revolutionary intelligentsia had to experience the Golgotha of the terrorist struggle.

[T]he fierce governmental assault on the propagandists of the first line - years of pretrial detention, decades at hard labor, physical violence, insanity, and suicide - awakened a burning desire to pass from words to action. But how else could the immediate "work" of small circles express itself than in isolated blows at the most hated representatives of the regime? Terrorist moods began to make their way more and more insistently.

On January 24, 1878, a solitary young girl shot the Petersburg chief of police, Trepov, who had recently ordered a prisoner, Bogolyubov, subjected to corporal punishment. This pistol shot of Vera Zasulich - twenty years later Lenin was to work on the same editorial staff with this remarkable woman - was merely the instinctive expression of a passionate indignation. Yet in this gesture lay the seed of a whole political system.

A half year later on the streets of Petersburg, Kravchinsky, a man equally skilled with pen and dagger, killed the all-powerful chief of gendarmes, Mezentsev. Here, too, it was a matter of avenging slaughtered comrades in arms. But Kravchinsky was no longer a loner; he acted as a member of a revolutionary organization.

The "colonies" scattered among the people had need of leadership. A little experience of the actual struggle overcame their prejudices against centralism and discipline, which had seemed somewhat tinged with "Nechayevism." The provincial groups readily adhered to the newly formed centre, and thus from selected elements was formed the organization called Land and Freedom, a body of revolutionary Populists truly admirable in the composition and solidarity of its cadres.

But alas, the attitude of these Populists toward the people, who were proving so unsympathetic to the bloody sacrifices of the revolutionaries, became more and more touched with skepticism. Zasulich and Kravchinsky seemed by their example to be summoning their followers to seize weapons and, without awaiting the masses, rise immediately in defense of themselves and their own. Half a year later, after the murder of Mezentsev, a young aristocrat, Mirsky - this time on the direct decision of the party - shot at Drenteln, the new chief, but missed!

In the spring of 1879, Alexander Solovyov proposed to kill the tsar.

The leaders of Land and Freedom hesitated. This terrorist leap into the unknown frightened them. The party refused its sanction, but this did not stop Solovyov. On April 2 [1879], in Winter Palace Square, he fired three shots from a revolver at Alexander II. This attempt was unsuccessful; the tsar escaped unharmed. The government, of course, came down with a new hail of reprisals upon the press and the youth of the country.

The attempt of Solovyov, which Land and Freedom found it impossible to disavow, did not remain, like the shot of Karakozov, an isolated act. Systematic terror became the order of the day.

In June 1879, breaking with the group of orthodox Populists who refused to forsake the villages, Land and Freedom shed its skin and entered the political arena as the People's Will. To be sure, in its manifesto the new party did not renounce propaganda among the masses. On the contrary, it decided to devote two thirds of the party funds to it, and only one third to terror. But this decision remained a symbolic tribute to the past. The revolutionary chemists had no difficulty in explaining in those days that dynamite and nitroglycerine, widely popularized by the Russo-Turkish War, could be easily prepared at home. The die was cast.

At the same moment, propaganda having disappointed all expectations, was once and for all replaced by terror and the revolver, having revealed its inadequacy, was replaced by dynamite. The whole organization was reconstructed to answer the needs of terrorist struggle. All forces and all funds were devoted to the preparation of assassinations. The "villagers" among the revolutionaries felt utterly forgotten in their faraway comers.

[Those who resisted this turn, amongst them Plekhanov] tried in vain to create an independent organization, the Black Redistribution (Cherny Peredel), which was, however, destined to become a bridge to Marxism and had no independent political significance. The turn to terror was irreversible.

The programmatic announcements of the revolutionaries were revised to correspond with the demands of the new method of struggle.

Land and Freedom had spread the doctrine that a constitution was in itself harmful to the people, that political freedom ought to be one of the by-products of a social revolution. The People's Will acknowledged that the achievement of political liberty is a necessary precondition for social revolution. Land and Freedom had tried to see in terror a mere signal for action given to the oppressed masses from above. The People's Will set itself the task of achieving a revolution by terrorist "disorganization" of the government.

What had been at first a semi-instinctive act of revenge for victimized comrades, was converted by the course of events into a self-contained system of political struggle. Thus the intelligentsia, isolated from the people and at the same time pushed forward into the historic vanguard by the whole course of events, tried to offset its social weakness by multiplying it with the explosive force of dynamite. It converted the chemistry of destruction into a political alchemy.

Together with the change of tasks and methods, the centre of gravity of the work was abruptly shifted from village to city, from the cities to the capital. The headquarters of the revolution must henceforth directly oppose the headquarters of the government. At the same time, the psychological makeup of the revolutionary was altered altered and even his external appearance. With the disappearance of his naïve faith in the people, his carelessness with regard to conspiracy became a thing of the past, too. The revolutionary pulled himself together, became more cautious, more attentive, more resolute. Each day he was faced anew with mortal dangers. For self-defense he carried a dagger in his belt, a revolver in his pocket. People who two or three years before had been learning the shoemaker's or carpenter's trade in order to merge with the people, were now studying the art of assembling and throwing bombs and shooting on the run. The warrior replaced the apostle. While the rural propagandist had dressed almost in rags in order to resemble "the people" more closely, this urban revolutionary tried to be outwardly indistinguishable from the well-to-do, educated city dweller.

Yet striking as was the change that took place in these few short years, it was easy enough, under both disguises, to recognize the same old "nihilist." Dressed in a worn-out coat, he had not been one of the people; in the costume of a gentleman, he was not a bourgeois. A social apostate seeking to explode the old society, he was compelled to adopt the protective coloration now of one and now of the other of its two poles.

The revolutionary path of the intelligentsia thus gradually becomes clear to us. Having begun with a theoretical self-deification under the name of "critical thought", it then renounced itself in the name of a merger with the people, in order, after that failed, once more to arrive at a practical self-deification personified by the terrorist Executive Committee. Critical thought implanted itself in bombs, whose mission was to turn over the destinies of the country to a handful of socialists. So it was written, at least, in the official program of the People's Will.

In fact, the renunciation of the mass struggle converted socialist aims into a subjective illusion. The only reality remaining was the tactic of frightening the monarchy by bombs, with the sole prospect of winning constitutional liberties. In their objective role, yesterday's anarchist rebels, who would not hear of bourgeois democracy, had become today's armed squadron in the service of liberalism. History has ways of putting the obstreperous in their place. Her agenda called not for anarchism, but political liberty.

The police caught them and hanged them unfailingly. From August 1878 to December l879, seventeen revolutionaries were hanged for two governmental victims. There remained nothing to do but give up striking at individual state dignitaries, and concentrate the entire strength of the party on the tsar.

It is impossible even now, at a half century's distance, not to be struck by the energy, courage, and organizational talent of this handful of fighters. The political leader and orator Zhelyabov, the scientist and inventor Kibalchich, women such as Perovskaya and Figner, peerless in their moral fortitude, were the cream of the intelligentsia, the flower of a generation. They knew how, and taught others how, to subordinate themselves completely to a freely chosen goal. Insurmountable obstacles seemed not to exist for these heroes who had signed a pact with death.

Before destroying them, the terror gave them a superhuman endurance. They would dig tunnels under a railroad track down which the tsar's train was to roll; and then under a street that his carriage was to pass through; they would climb into the tsar's palace with a load of dynamite - as did the worker Khalturin - and set it off.

On March 1, 1881, on a street of the capital, after the young man Rysakov had missed his aim, another young man, Grinevitsky, throwing a second bomb of the Kibalchich make, killed himself and Alexander II simultaneously. This time a blow was struck at the very heart of the regime. But it soon appeared that the People's Will itself was to burn up in the fire of that successful terror.

The strength of the party was concentrated almost entirely in its Executive Committee. The terrorist struggle, at least, including the work of technical preparation, was carried on exclusively by members of the central staff.

How many of these fighters were there? The numbers are now known beyond a doubt. The first Executive Committee consisted of twenty-eight persons. Up to the first of March, 1881, the general membership, never all active at once, comprised thirty-seven persons.

[But i]t seemed as though the mysterious party had legions of fighters at its command. The Executive Committee carefully cultivated this hypnotic belief in its omnipotence. But one cannot hold out long on hypnosis alone. Moreover, the reserves dried up with unexpected swiftness.

Their heroism undoubtedly did evoke emulation. Very likely, there was no shortage of young men and women ready to blow themselves up along with their bombs. But there was now no one to unite and guide them. The party was disintegrating.

By its very nature, the terror expended the forces supplied to it during the propaganda period long before it could create new ones. "We are using up our capital," said the leader of the People's Will, Zhelyabov. To be sure, the trial of the assassins of the tsar evoked a passionate response in the hearts of individual young people. Although Petersburg was soon swept all too clean by the police, People's Will groups continued to spring up in various provinces until 1885. However, this did not go to the point of a new wave of terror. Having burned their fingers, the great majority of the intelligentsia recoiled from the revolutionary fire.

It was no better with the liberals, to whom the terrorists, after turning from the peasantry, were looking with more and more hope.

[Frightened,] the liberals hastened to discover in the People's Will not an ally, but the chief obstacle on the road to constitutional reforms. In the words of the most leftist of the[m], I I Petrunkevich, the acts of the terrorists only "frightened society and infuriated the government."

Thus, the more deafeningly the dynamite exploded, the more complete became the vacuum that surrounded the Executive Committee, which had once arisen out of a relatively broad movement of the intelligentsia. No guerrilla detachment can long hold out amid a hostile population. No underground group can function without a screen of sympathizers. Political isolation finally exposed the terrorists to the police, who with growing success mopped up both the remnants of the old groups and the germs of the new. The liquidation of People's Will by a series of arrests and trials proceeded rapidly, against the background of the reactionary backlash of the 1880s.