Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
NIHILISM, about which we have heard so much for some years past, is not entirely new. It has existed for a long time even under this strange name; it has been the fashion in the schools and universities of Russia for the past twenty years among the male students and short-haired female students, whether native or foreign. Although it may have seemed antiquated and almost forgotten before it received its recent popularity and vigor, nihilism was always held in high favor by the youth of Russia, and attracted the attention of the police and the government long before the attempts of 1878 and 1879 excited the curiosity of Europe.
—Nihilism is not a system in the same sense as the positivism of Auguste Comte, or the pessimism of Schopenhauer; it is not a new form of the old doctrines of skepticism or naturalism. In philosophy it is scarcely anything more than the grossest and wildest materialism. In politics it is a socialistic radicalism, less anxious to improve the condition of the masses, than to destroy all existing social and political order. It is not a party, for it has no aim but destruction; under its standard we find revolutionists of all kinds, authoritarians, federalists, mutualists and communists, who agree only in postponing till after their triumph shall be secured, all discussion of a future organization of the world.*73 The name of nihilism, a name that suitably expresses its scientific nullity and its destructive aspirations, is merely a sobriquet rejected by most of its professors.*74
—In its principle and instincts, as in its aims and methods, nihilism has but little that is original. With all its exaggerations it is hardly more than a pupil of the revolutionary schools of the west, a pupil that prides itself on excelling its master, and exceeds at pleasure their rashest teachings in order to show what it has drawn from them. Although it has thousands of zealous and sincere followers, it can not be called a science or a school, so long as study, science or scientific methods, which it so loves to parade, have in reality no place in it. Nearly everything it possesses in this regard is derived from theories or treatises outside itself.
—Nihilism, or rather Russian radicalism, can, it is true, boast a national theorist, a utopian legislator or prophet of the future, who, in his brief career as an apostle, from 1855 to 1863, acquired an influence over the youth of the country which his misfortunes served but to increase. This Russian Proudhon, or Lasalle, has been exiled for nearly twenty years in the depths of Siberia, where he passed seven years at hard labor in the mines in punishment of his revolutionary propagandism, and where he has grown old in isolation and inaction far from all communication with Russia and the outer world. This man is Tchernychevski, an able writer and an indefatigable worker, armed with a powerful logic and a biting irony, a vigorous and subtle intellect, an enthusiastic and energetic character, and a mind thoroughly Russian alike in its defects and in its good qualities. Philosopher, economist, critic, novelist, a missionary of the dread doctrines of which he has been one of the first martyrs, Techernychevski has given the theory or summa of Russian radicalism in his scientific treatises, and in an eccentric and rambling romance, written in a prison dungeon, he has published its poem and its gospel.*75
—It is perhaps no injustice to Tchernychevski to attribute more of his ascendency over his disciples and over the young heads of Russia to his long and fastidious romance than to his didactic treatises. This man, whose influence had dethroned that of Herzen and about whom Siberia and long suffering have thrown the halo of martyrdom, was regarded by many of his fellow-countrymen as one of the giants of modern thought, one of the great pioneers of the future, a Fourier, or rather a Russian Karl Marx. Not-withstanding all the admiration of which he has been the object, and the real-originality of his mind, the ideas of Tchernychevski present nothing very original, either in political economy or philosophy. The form and details may be new and individual; the basis of the theories is German, English and French. What gives to the work of Tchernychevski, at least to his romance, the greatest savor of the soil, is perhaps the sort of mystic and visionary realism which is found among many nihilists. Great, however, as has been the ascendency of Tchernychevski and some other writers of the same school over the youth of Russia, the nihilism of to-day is far from following blindly the lessons of the masters whom it glorifies; it draws more from their romantic visions than from their scientific deductions.
—From a psychological point of view, nihilism may be said to result from the union of two opposite tastes in the Russian character, a taste for the absolute and a taste for realism. From this unnatural union has resulted this revolting monster, one of the most direful children of the modern mind. We find in it also an example of that impatience of all restraint and of that rashness in speculation which are frequent among the Russians, but which make less pretense to science or method among them than they do among the Germans. From a moral and political point of view, nihilism is first of all a pessimism with which nature and climate have somewhat to do. Seeing nothing but evil everywhere, it aims at overthrowing everything—government, religion, society, the family—in order to replace all by a better world. Nihilism has in it nothing of the critical skepticism which compares and examines, and which reserves its judgment. It is a negation which asserts itself boldly and admits of no investigation; which becomes a sort of retrograde dogmatism as narrow, as blind and not less imperious and intolerant than the traditional beliefs whose yoke it rejects.
—In the intemperance and rudeness of the negation which they hurl at all that mankind honor and respect, many of the nihilists display the foolish boyishness of youthful incredulity, something of the disorderly waywardness of minds recently emancipated. For many of those who profess them the theories of nihilism are but a sort of protest against the ancient superstitions which still rule the masses, against political servility, intellectual hypocrisy or the social conventionalities that too often rule the higher classes.
—If you should ask a nihilist in what his doctrine consisted, he would reply: "Take earth and heaven, the state and the church, kings and God, and hurl them down and spit upon them; this is our doctrine." This definition would be a subject of raillery for an adversary, as it could hardly be less exact. The expression, however, is not shocking to the ears of a Russian as it is to ours; spitting enters quite extensively into Muscovite superstitions. They spit to avert an evil, they spit as a sign of astonishment, they spit as a sign of contempt. The nihilist delights in spitting upon everything, he loves to set at defiance the spirit of veneration and humility which is active in the Russian of the lower ranks, who doubles himself in two before his superiors as before the images of the saints. This shows what a profound discordance of ideas and sentiments afflicts the nation. The two extremes are here met with in the moral as well as the physical order, in man as well as in nature, the most artless political and religious veneration is confronted by the most brazen intellectual and moral cynicism.
—This coarse negative materialism is not the whole of nihilism; this monster born of opposite inclinations has another face, very different but equally Russian, namely, mysticism. These men, so disdainful of all faith, of all metaphysical dreams and of everything ideal, have also their speculations or their dreams. At the root of this naturalistic realism there is a sort of idealism anxious to make for itself a course in the unexplored field of the possible. From the midst of the pessimism that curses the existing social order springs an unbridled optimism, which ingenuously discounts the wonders of a utopian future. In Russia, most of the young men, the greatest injury you could offer to whom would be to call them idealists, and who would consider it as the greatest possible humiliation to be regarded as such, do not hesitate to abandon themselves to the wildest dreams and reveries in matters which seem to offer least opportunity for them. It is in the domain of economy and social science, in the domain of positive realities, that the Russian, whether nihilist or not, abandons himself with the greatest freedom to utopian vagaries and the search for the absolute. It is while following the path of realism and utilitarianism, that he abandons himself to theories and chimeras; he travels, as it were, in a circle, and abandons the speculative spirit only to return to it, like a traveler who, after passing the antipodes, would reach by another route the country he has left behind. The sphere which requires the greatest sobriety of mind is that in which the Russian (and in this he is not alone) gives the freest scope to his imagination. With a great difference of science and method, have we not seen something of this preposterous speculation among the most pronounced adversaries of metaphysics, among certain positivists, for instance, who have sometimes reached, in economic and political questions, conclusions so little in keeping with their method and in fact so little positive? This contradiction, which is so frequent among most socialists or radicals, this sort of change of front which is explained, in the most negative schools, by an imperative want of the ideal and of faith in a better world, is nowhere of more frequent occurrence or more striking than it is among the Russians. Here their national spirit manifests itself with all its contrasts, with its defiance and disdain of received beliefs, with its ingenuous confidence in doubtful theories and its taste for paradoxes.
—De Tocqueville has remarked that in our day the revolutionary spirit acts after the manner of the religious spirit. This can be more truly said of Russia than of any other part of the world. Revolution has become a religion among the nihilists, whose dogmas are as little discussed as a revelation, and whose obligations are nearly as imperative as the commandments promulgated in the name of the Divinity. Negation has assumed among them the aspect and character of faith; it possesses its enthusiastic fervor and a zeal that nothing can check. Nihilism has its devotees and its illuminati, its confessors and its martyrs, just as it has its gods and its idols. From this point of view, the common opinion which formerly took nihilism for a sect, was not so far wrong as it seemed at first sight. With its absolute spirit, impatient of all criticism, its sturdy faith and the impassioned devotion with which it inspires so many scattered followers, it is really a sort of religion, whose deaf and insensible god is the people adored in their degradation, a sort of church whose bond of union is love for this suffering god, and whose law is hatred of its persecutors. By the blind ardor of their faith, their rejection of all that is foreign to their doctrine, their exclusivism and fanaticism, many of these proud nihilists bear a most striking resemblance to the coarse popular sects, their contempt for which they can never sufficiently express.
—These detractors of all faith and all supernatural hope, these contemners of all spiritualism, are themselves idealists and mystics after their own fashion. We may frequently perceive this in their language, and even in their writings. Although most of them profess to disdain, as childishness or useless superfluities, poetry, pictures and allegories, they can not withstand their seductions. These enemies of all superstition and of all veneration, who pretend to recognize in the noblest acts of devotion merely an instinctive impulse or a refined egoism, constantly praise the heroes and heroines of their cause, more like saints martyred for their faith than like modern conspirators.*76 Any one who will read the celebrated romance of Tchernychevski, "What can be done?" will be surprised at its singular union of mysticism and realism, of practical and prosaic observations, and vague and dreamy aspirations, all jumbled together in that strange work of radical doctrinarianism. In this long and sluggish history, which pretends to portray for us the reformers of society and the sages of the future, her own destinies and the destinies of woman and of humanity are revealed to the heroine in symbols and dreams These readily transparent allegories may, it is true, have been suggested to the already imprisoned author by the necessity of not too fully arousing annoying censure. In the prisoner's romance there is, by the side of this humanitarian mysticism, a sort of natural asceticism, which to us seems queerer still. The revolutionary ideal, the finished type of the man of the future, a certain Rakhmetof, not only possesses all the perfections of the fraternity combined, but, like a Christian anchorite or an Indian ecstatic, Rakhmetof chooses to renounce all the joys of life and the pleasures of sense; he denies himself and mortifies himself in order to be like his suffering god, the oppressed people.*77 When fruits were served him, Rakhmetof eat only apples, because apples were the only fruit the people could eat. If he did not clothe himself in sackcloth, this upholder of the rights of the flesh, instead of sleeping upon a bed, chose to lie upon a piece of felt filled with nails an inch long.
—There are undoubtedly few Rakhmetofs outside of novels: among the admirers of Tchernychevski, too many abandon themselves to the barefaced licentiousness authorized by their dismal doctrines; this stoicism, this contempt of material enjoyments imperiously demanded for others, is, however, sometimes found in real life. Among the innovators of both sexes who profess and often practice free love, are found some who, by a strange contradiction, hold themselves in honor bound not to use the rights which they lay claim to. As a matter of course, this is more common among women, who are ever predisposed to contradictions, and more desirous than men of ennobling every whim. It is among certain of these devotees of nihilism, among these young girls who are its most ardent proselytes and most courageous missionaries, that we find the best illustrations of all the generous sentiments and unconscious idealism that can lie concealed under this repugnant materialism. Among these women who preach the suppression of the family and the free intercourse of the sexes, among these young women with short hair, who delight in imitating the gait and the language of young men, it is no uncommon thing to meet some whose conduct, far from being in accord with their cynical principles, is pure and irreproachable, despite all the outward appearances of an adventurous and loose life, and the promiscuous immorality in which the wisest among them seem to delight.
—Nihilism has its virgins, and many a female conspirator of twenty, arrested and transported of late years, has carried with her to Siberia a virtue all the more meritorious as their doctrines set no value on it. A still more remarkable fact is, that nihilism has its mystical or platonic unions, its couples who, married ostensibly in the eyes of the world, choose to act as though they were not married. This is what is called, in the sect, a fictitious marriage. Since the trial of Netchaief, there has scarcely been a political case that has not brought to light some of these singular unions. It is difficult to understand what impels the enemies of society to this simulacrum of marriage. For many, especially for young girls, it is a means of emancipation which facilitates political propagandism. It gives the young woman who is enrolled in the holy cause a husband in order to give her the freedom of a married woman; sometimes he is the man who has instructed and converted her, more frequently he is a friend, sometimes a stranger procured for the purpose. Solovief, the author of the first attempt upon the life of Alexander II. in 1879, had contracted a marriage of this kind. In reality the affianced marries only the sect, and the parties often separate the very day of their nuptials, to go each his own way, and extend the propagation of their sect. Solovief had done thus, and when his wife and himself left their province for St. Petersburg they dwelt apart. For some, the fictitious marriage is an association, a sort of co-operation of two companions; for many, this may be a means of proving in the least manner possible that they have been united by a union blessed by the church and sanctioned by the state, a means of placing themselves beyond the reach of the law and the prejudices of society by appearing to submit to them. The husband does not enjoy the rights which religion and the law give him, the wife retains her liberty in the legal engagement, and after the regular marriage ceremony has been performed and she refuses herself to her husband, she can, with the consent of the latter, if she choose, indulge in free love. Finally, for some others, the fictitious marriage is a sort of novitiate or term which, after some months or years of trial, gives place to a more natural union. Thus it is, if I am not mistaken, that in the romance of Tchernychevski, Vera and Laponkhof live at first as brother and sister, having two apartments under the same roof, separated by a neutral ground, until the day when one single chamber shall unite the two, while awaiting which the husband discovers the reciprocal affection of one of his friends and his wife, and discreetly disappears in order not to cause them any embarassment or scruple, only to return under another name at the expiration of several years, to share as a neighbor and a companion the happiness of the new couple.
—Nihilism is no longer purely negative; it has become ardently revolutionary and socialistic. The faith, enthusiasm and religious devotion of its followers are shown most plainly in its processes of propagandism—in the rashness of their attempts, and in their constancy in braving transportation and death. This sad courage before judges and executioners has been often exhibited by other sectaries and other revolutionists of different countries; there never yet was a perverse folly but had its believers and martyrs. The peculiarity of contemporary Russian nihilism is its manner of addressing itself to the people, of going into the people (itti v narod), to use their own chosen expression. In order to make itself better understood by the people, the plan of its propagators is to mingle with them, to assimilate themselves to them, to live their life of privation and manual labor, forgetting their habits and prejudices of education. In this, the missionaries of nihilism seem to have wished to imitate the first apostles of Christianity. In what other country can we in our day find young men of good family, university students, throwing off the garb and customs of their class, to work as common workmen in the forges or manufactories, in order to be better able to understand the people and to initiate them in their doctrines? In what other country do we see well-bred young women, after returning from travel abroad, congratulating themselves on finding a place as cook in the house of a foreman of a manufacturing establishment, in order to be able to approach the people and study personally the labor question? In Russia, where manners, ideas and even dress more widely separate the different classes, this social abolition of classes, even for a time, must surely be more difficult than anywhere else. In this manner of propagating their doctrine, by putting themselves directly in contact with the mass of the people, do we not discover, in the midst of all their aberrations, the positive instinct, the realistic sense of Russia, which, instead of remaining hovering in the misty regions of theory, descends to the side of the workman and the peasant in the factory, or the forge, or the school? The practical spirit of the Russian is curiously intermingled with his theoretical eccentricities, just as a sort of idealism ingrafts itself upon his most decided naturalism.
—No sadder sight, perhaps, can meet the eye of the observer than this alliance, in the young people of both sexes, of opposite and nearly equal extreme qualities and defects, than this prostituting the noblest and most generous instincts of the human heart to the service of the most revolting doctrines. Be this as it may, it can not be denied that nihilism, so repugnant in its principles, so insignificant in its methods, so ridiculous in its pretensions, and so odious in its attempts, reveals certain qualities of the Russian mind and character, and precisely those which are most frequently denied it. If it shows in their full deformity some of the unpleasant features of the national temperament, which is too often inclined to extremes, it enlightens with a sinister glimmer one of its noblest and least apparent traits. This people, so often accused of passivity and intellectual torpor, nihilism shows us is capable of energy and initiative; capable of sincere and active enthusiasm; capable, in fine, of devotion to ideas. From this point of view, I would venture to say that this sad phenomenon does honor to the nation which suffers from it. It is not misery, ignorance, cupidity and ambition that are the active fomenters of the revolutionary spirit in Russia, as they are in other countries, but it is frequently passions that are originally high and noble. The men who claim to be the apostles of human fraternity and unity, know how to share, when occasion requires, the labor of the humble and the suffering of the poor, and they fully realize the fact that, in their country, revolution is not a career nor a game in which ambition has everything to gain and the agitators have but little cause to fear for their safety. Most of the nihilists, at least most of those who figure in the trials, are very young men and very young women. It is among the young men, or, to be more exact, among the youth, of the country, that the revolutionary faith finds most of its adherents. Age seems soon to lead most of them, if not to skepticism, at least to lukewarmness, discouragement and prudence. Is it not a remarkable fact that in the innumerable political trials of the last ten years scarcely any but young men have been implicated? Of all the conspirators condemned or arrested, there are very few thirty years of age, few have passed the age of twenty-five, and most of them, as Mirsky, the author of the attempt upon Gen. Dreuteln, were minors. In a country in which radical ideas have already been handed down in the schools for more than a generation, this phenomenon leads to the belief that age has considerable to do with this effervescence of negation and revolution. Russia is not the only country where young men inclined to every chimera become at the end of ten or fifteen years practical, positive, commonplace men, adapting their principles and their ideas to the advancement of their interests. There is nothing more common everywhere than these recantations which reassure the politician while saddening the moralist; but this contrast between the different seasons of life, between youth and maturity, have often seemed to me more regular and more marked in Russia than elsewhere. The Russian is, perhaps, thanks to his practical good sense, more quickly disabused of his revolutionary reveries, and impressed with the lack of proportion between the means and the end of these agitations. Thus to attack with such poor weapons a power so strong, men must be either inspired or childish. There is also in this perhaps an additional trait of the national character, which is inclined to go from one extreme to another. Thus it always happens that there are few countries in which parents and children find it so difficult to understand one another. In this respect the picture by Ivan Turgeneff in "Fathers and Children" is still true. By contact with real life, practical and positive instincts, egotistical instincts ordinarily regain the ascendency over revolutionary, romancing and utilitarian idealism, to such an extent as completely to choke their aspirations or relegate them to the tranquil sphere of dreams. Hence it is that there are so many young nihilists swearing to destroy everything, and so many men willing to endure everything and to preserve everything. Hence it is, in a word, that there are so many Russians whose ideas never conflict with their interests; among whom the profession of the sturdiest theoretical radicalism is united without difficulty to the care of their fortune and the common occupations of their calling.
—Must we attribute to this kind of conversion brought about by age the singular transformation of entire generations, such as that of 1860, for example? No generation of any age ever had more faith in the good, greater confidence in improvised institutions or greater taste for liberal innovations. Now, the noble anxiety for the advancement of moral interests and the regeneration of the country of most of these men who but just now were passionately applauding reforms and demanding new ones every day, has, in a few years, given place to skepticism, indifference, and a too exclusive preoccupation for material and personal advantages. Such a subsidence, such a moral decadence, after an over-excitement of some years, is indeed nothing more than natural; the same thing has happened in France after each revolution. The phenomenon is none the less remarkable in Russia, on this account. In the Russian mind, discouragement seems always to follow close on enthusiasm, dejection close upon exaltation. Is the fault attributable to their political system, or to the temperament of the people? Perhaps to both causes at once.
—Nihilism or Russian radicalism is most frequently an affair of age; we may say it is a disease of youth, and this not merely of individual cases, but even of the nation generally. It is her intellectual and political youth and her historical inexperience that make Russia so forward in speculative boldness, so disdainful of the experience of others on so many questions, and so confident in the facility of a social transformation. Added to this is a secret self-love. Even when he accepts the ideas of the west, the Russian loves to strain them, to surpass them in revolution as in everything else; he is a pupil who endeavors to excel his masters, a new comer who readily considers his elders timid and backward. The Russian frequently feels toward the west something of the sentiments of a young man toward a middle-aged or old man; even while he appreciates our ideas or our lessons, he is inclined to believe that we are resting by the way, and he undertakes to pursue to their end the ways and ideas which others have opened to him. "Between you and me, what are your nations of Europe?" one of the first Russians I ever knew inquired of me a long time ago. "They are graybeards who have given all that they are capable of giving, and of whom nothing more can reasonably be expected; we shall not find it hard to surpass them when our turn shall come." But when will this turn come? Many are tired waiting for it. Unfortunately, this natural presumption is far from always implying labor or real effort. Too many Russians await the grand future of their country as something which is bound to come some day, just as the fruit ripens upon a tree; too many others, disdaining what is possible and railing at the liberty of which the west furnishes them the example, profess themselves disgusted skeptics; while the most impatient among them, imagining that they can metamorphose their country with a single stroke of the revolutionary wand, have recourse without scruple to the most foolish and odious machinations.
—Bloody anarchy and the dissolution of the empire would be the inevitable results of a revolution in Russia. Fortunately for civilization there are few countries in which even the transitory triumph of the revolutionists is less probable. The extent of the empire, the dispersion of the population, and the small number of the cities, are so many obstacles to those surprises which elsewhere overturn a government in a few days. It has no Paris to declare a revolution, and even in the capital there are no people to establish one. The only possible revolutions in Russia will be revolutions of the palace, and the country has lost the tradition even of these since the time of Paul I.
—We must decline to consider Russia as a volcano ready to burst forth. Certain prophets have been declaring there existed there all the precursory signs of a revolutionary explosion for the past fifty years. We often hear it said that Russia is on the eve of its 1789, and that the end of the nineteenth century in that country will recall the close of the eighteenth century in France. Such comparisons are based upon remote and vague analogies. The autocratic empire may some day, soon perhaps, have its 1789; I should be greatly surprised if it were to have, at least in this century, its 1793. There is in this Russian movement nothing of the spirit which agitated all classes in the nation at once under Louis XV.; besides, there is in Russia nothing of the universal weariness, the profound hatred and the incurable defiance that rendered the suppression of the ancient régime impossible without violence and excess. In France, under Louis XVI., the ground was covered with combustible matter that had been amassed during centuries, and needed but a spark to start the greatest conflagration the world has ever seen. In Russia, under Alexander II and III., the atmosphere is filled with sparks carried by the winds from the west; flashes and sinister glimmerings meet the eye, but the inflammable matter is wanting or is too scattered to feed a grand conflagration. It may still be said to-day, as in 1825 and 1848, that the material for a revolution is lacking in Russia.
—Who are the men who pretend to seize upon an empire of more than eighty million souls? Some thousands of young men without experience, without practical ideas, without influence, incapable alike of producing or directing a revolution; unknown, misunderstood and regarded with suspicion by the people: presumptuous children, ignorant of life and believing everything possible to their weakness. What are their arms, their resources, their means of action? Pamphlets, and circulars either written or printed, among a people the greater part of whom can not read. And what else? The arm of some hired assassin, cut-throat or incendiary. They approve of every means and dare everything in the dismal field of criminal warfare which alone is open to them; but the stiletto, the rifle and the mine are not enough to produce a revolution. If there is a country in which the government is upheld by the slender thread of a human life, that country is no longer Russia.
—The energy and tenacity, audacity and self-abnegation, the sombre and fanatical heroism of the enemies of the state, but serve to make manifest to all their utter impotency. Organization is not perhaps what they lack. To contrive their plot they would have but to copy the models afforded them by the revolutionists of other countries, to appropriate to themselves the old machinery of secret societies and hidden governments, now brought to such perfection, with their affiliated branches and their hierarchy of supervising committees, their mysterious and anonymous chiefs, blindly obeyed by followers to whom they remain unknown. For their organization and propagandism, they have, in the blind enthusiasm of their youth, the indifference or disaffection of society and the unpopularity of the police or administrative corruption, aids and facilities which they could not have in any other country in Europe. They have been wonderfully aided by the contradictions and blunders of the government or its agents; their boldest attempts have long enjoyed the benefit of impunity. What profit have they derived from these advantages? Not enjoying like the carbonari or Mazzini of Italy, or the Polish revolutionists of 1863, the alliance of the national spirit, all the efforts of their committees, whether at home or abroad, have been without fruit. They have succeeded in murdering some functionaries, and even Alexander II. on March 13, 1881, in burning houses, quarters, and almost entire towns; but they have not been able to raise the smallest insurrection. In vain have they assailed at once the people of the cities and the country, the bureaucracy, and even the army. It has not helped them any to have accomplices among their official adversaries, and to gain auxiliaries in the ranks of the army, such as Lieut. Dubrovine, the terrorist officer hung at St. Petersburg in 1879. They have succeeded only in rendering themselves odious to the people, furnishing arms to the enemies of progress. If they have forced the government to resort to extraordinary precaution and severity, it is the country that has suffered by it, the country whose progress they have retarded and which retains a just grudge against them for it.
—The nihilist agitation of 1878 and 1879 manifested the absolute powerlessness and real weakness of the revolutionists. Do we mean by this that all this nihilist movement, this effervescence of spirits among certain classes of young men, is not fraught with damage to the state or danger to the government? Decidedly not. The evil, the actual peril, is not a revolution, which is to-day senseless, chimerical and impossible; it is a weakening and sterile agitation constantly renewed; it is a sort of periodical fever, with violent attacks succeeding regularly to periods of apparent calm and depression. The imminent danger is not political but intellectual and moral anarchy, which exhausts the nation in fruitless efforts; which leaves the country disturbed, enervated, without any clear guidance or definite policy, without any distinct horizon; which leaves the state exhausted and enfeebled in all its resources. In addition to this, such a state of things can not continue indefinitely; it will not take a great many years, not a generation perhaps, to render any catastrophe possible.
—Because radicalism has not extended beneath the surface of the nation, it does not follow that it is not a serious malady, over which the Russian character is sufficiently strong and healthy to triumph by itself. The revolutionary spirit is one of those evils which nature alone can not cure. Nihilism is an ulcer which, if it be not attended to, threatens to become incurable, to eat through the whole social body, and, little by little, to extend to the vital organs.
—The remedy, the efficacious treatment, is to be found neither in repressive nor preventive measures. It is vain to dream of striking at the roots of the evil in the universities and colleges. It would be in vain, according to the advice of some distinguished minds, following the plan renewed by the emperor Nicholas, to lay the blame on modern studies and culture, to modify the course of instruction, to substitute classical studies for the physical sciences, or vice versa; it would be in vain to limit the number of students, or restrict the sphere of studies, to exclude the women and young girls who aspire to superior education and equality with the other sex; it would be in vain to forbid those numerous foundations of scholarships which charity or vanity, either public or private, establish in colleges or universities, that serve but to recruit the class of educated proletarians; there would always remain support enough and proselytes enough for nihilism. It would be in vain, as has often been contemplated, to submit the universities and their students to military discipline, to oblige students to wear a uniform, to shut them up in boarding schools or barracks; these would only be palliatives, better adapted to conceal the progress of the evil than to heal it. To effect a cure, in our opinion, another regimen must be adopted. There are diseases that were formerly treated by dieting and blood-letting, which we cure to-day with stimulants, tonics, fresh air and exercise. Russia's case is of this number; she should be placed under a more strengthening regimen.
—Modern science possesses no sure preservative or certain specific against the revolutionary epidemic. None but an ignorant man or a charlatan would promise either. The revolutionary spirit is one of the evils which nations must, in our day, accustom themselves to live with; the question is, in Russia, as it is everywhere else, to be strong enough to endure it. Of all the means and all the remedies proposed for this end, the surest seems to be political liberty. This is an old receipt, and out of fashion with many, and for some even worse than the evil which it pretends to combat; it is, in our opinion, the only efficacious one. All the governments that have honestly and patiently tested it have been benefited by it. Russia's greatest misery is an absolute want of political liberty. A lawful avenue must be opened to the vague aspirations that are springing up among the youth of the country and in society, or there will be an explosion.
Notes for this chapter
Under the influence of Bakunin and of the international, most of the Russian revolutionists, in and out of the empire, seem to have had for their formula the confederation of independent and productive communes. In 1874, after the establishment of the journal "Vpered" by Lavrof, discussions having arisen in the beginning as to the manner of preparing and directing the revolution, a refugee named Tkatchef, in a pamphlet entitled "On Revolutionary Propagandism in Russia," declared that "the party of action," instead of preoccupying themselves with the question of future organization, should have nothing in view but their work of destruction. This counsel has been adopted by an immense majority of the Russian revolutionists.
The term nihilism is taken, we believe, from a novel of Ivan Turgeneff, "Fathers and Children," in which the celebrated novelist describes the first generation of nihilists. J. de Maistre had already used the word rienisme (nothing-arianism) in a more or less analogous sense somewhere in his letters on Russia, if we are not mistaken. The nihilists ordinarily style themselves revolutionists, democrat-socialists, or simply propagandists.
Tchernychevski began his career in 1855 by a treatise on natural æsthetics, on the relations of art and reality (Esteticheskiia otnochéniia iskoustva i desvitelnosti.) A little later, in an essay entitled "The Anthropologic Principle in Philosophy" (Antropologitcheskii v filosifl), he explained a system of transformist materialism, defended the unity of principle in nature and in man, and reduced all morality to pleasure or utility. In 1860 he published, in the Sovremennik review, a translation, with an appended criticism on the "Political Economy of John Stuart Mill." In this book the Russian writer employs, for the benefit of socialism, all the arms he can secure from certain theories of the English school of economists, Malthus and Ricardo in particular. Finally, in 1863, the Sovremennik, which was soon after suppressed, published anonymously the romance "What can be done?" (Ohto delal), written in the prisons of St. Petersburg.
We here give, as an example, the translation of some verses addressed to Lydia Fiquer, one of the young heroines of the recent political trials (Detooubüstvo, Geneva, 1877). "Strong, oh young girl, is the impression made by thy enchanting beauty; but still greater than the charm of thy face is the charm of thy purity of soul. * * * Full of sadness is the image of the Saviour, full of sadness are his divine features; but in the fathomless depths of thy eyee there is more love than suffering."
End of Notes
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