Can we learn from the Russian radicals? | Jake Scott
In the 1860s, following a burst of revolutionary fervour and a series of failed intellectual movements, there suddenly gripped the minds of many young socialists that the hope for Russia’s revolutionary future lay in the latent radicalism of the peasantry, the narod. Narod, for English speakers, offers a great possibility for analysis, as it means (contextually dependent) a group of individuals, the nation, or the common people. For the narodniki, however, the narod was taken to mean, in the context of the word narodnichestvo, something extraordinarily familiar: populism.
Populism, in 1860s Russia, was not quite what it means today, but similarities remain. What made Russian populism quite unique was its outgrowth of a quite specific intellectual circumstance. In the mid-nineteenth century, Russia was plagued by a particularly difficult question: as the twin legacy of Pyotr the Great and the Napoleonic Wars brought Russia closer to the Western World, the Russian intellectual classes were torn over what modernisation ought to look like. Should it be a case of following the Western (European) example of increased marketisation, industrialisation, and the (seemingly) inevitable development of capitalism that would follow, as well as the concomitant concepts of individualism, centralisation, and liberalism?
Or, was Russia to take its own path, of a unique place in history that might offer an alternative Western model? Russia was, after all, a rather successful polity in comparison to the European nations, and though it existed somewhat on the periphery, much like the Ottoman Empire it had its own way of doing things. One such tradition was that of the peasant commune, a form of collectivised land management in which the farms surrounding a rural village would be apportioned according to the number of able-bodied, fully-grown men each Spring.
Each ‘answer’ proved increasingly unable to respond to the demands of Russian modernity, and as a result the spread of one particular idea found its way into Russia: socialism. Socialism, for man Russians, was a way of transcending the above question, as it would bring with it the benefits of Western life – an advanced industrial society and efficient governance – without the dangerous atomisation of individualism and liberalism. Indeed, one German sociologist travelling through the Russian countryside in the mid-1850s remarked that the peasant commune offered a form of ‘embryonic socialism’.
For the socialist intellectuals, however, Russia had a particular problem to get over. The Russian people were deeply patriotic and reactionary, fearing change and challenges to the regime. Socialists, then, developed a multitude of possible answers to this problem. Some became anarchists, some developed the first ideological expression of terrorism in the West, and some became populists.
The populists, the narodniki, were broadly speaking a group of middle-class intellectuals who, in the mid-1860s, arranged to ‘go to the people’, in a genuinely spontaneous outpouring of revolutionary fervour. This campaign saw nearly 100,000 young, middle-class and aristocratic men and women, many of them students, dress in the Russian smock, grow their beards in the customary Russian way, speak in as close to a regional dialect as they possibly could, and live amongst the narod. They did this to try and tap into what they saw as a latent radicalism amongst the narod that could spread socialism and help Russia modernise in a uniquely socialist way.
Why did they do this? Apart from the above; they were genuinely convinced in the radicalism of the Russian people and the ‘redemptive possibility’ of socialism in ‘saving’ Russia from the developmental stagnation the intellectual classes believed had left Russia in the past.
There was another reason, one more fascinating than intellectual circumstance. This is to do with a prevailing sense of middle-class guilt. In socialism in general, there exists belief in a form of ‘original sin’ of oppression, centred on a view of power relations. I have written elsewhere regarding this topic, and an excellent discussion can be found in Roger Scruton’s The Uses of Pessimism, but here suffice to say that socialism understands all forms of relationship to be ones of power, and all forms of power to exist in a ‘zero-sum’ manner, meaning that any interaction between individuals must result in one emerging the ‘victor’ and another the ‘loser’.
The middle-class revolutionaries who ‘went to the people’ in this manner did so out of a belief that they had benefited from a great injustice in their past. As either middle-class individuals or petty aristocrats, their belief in socialism inculcated in them a sense that they had gained an unacceptable position in their lives thanks to their ancestors’ oppression of the narod. Moreover, it was their duty, their obligation to rectify this historic wrong, and in its place help to build a better future with no injustice at all.
This is a product of a particular form of belief in the socialist principle of class consciousness: that, first of all, the narod’s latent radicalism was hidden below a false consciousness, and if that was peeled away they would realise the ‘true’ circumstances they were in, and their radicalism would be fully expressed; and second, that they, as beneficiaries of a system rotten to the core, ought to realise their own class consciousness and the part they play in the maintenance of a corrupt system.
I think we can learn from these radicals. Not to emulate them – their campaign was an incredible failure, with locals reporting them to the gendarmes for political radicalism, or in many cases actively physically punishing them themselves. Instead, we need to learn from them to examine our current radical middle-class.
After all, the psychology of these radicals sounds eerily familiar. Swap out the words ‘class consciousness’ with ‘privilege’, for instance, and you very quickly see a statement that would trip off the tongue of any champagne socialist or white, middle-class BLM supporter. A belief in an historic injustice upon which the entire edifice of society is built, fuels our contemporaries’ faith in the validity of their actions, and the necessity of undoing, by any means possible, the entirety of society.
This is often referred to as a sense of ‘white guilt’, but it goes wider and deeper; an underlying belief in ‘class consciousness’ is what permeates the radical belief in ‘privilege’ and the inability to see beyond that boundary, like a veil that hangs over the eyes. How often do you hear middle-class radicals tell you that you cannot see past your privilege, or that if you’re ‘not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem’? Never mind the claim that you benefit from a system, even if you’re not complicit in it.
The Russian radicals have, however, one more important lesson to teach us: the performative elements of activism. It was not that long ago, historically speaking, that people still dressed and spoke as well as they possibly could, with faith that if you spoke well and appeared respectable, you would get ahead. It seems that, in recent years, our own middle-class radicals have done what they can to take inspiration from their mid-nineteenth century counterparts, and emulate the very people they claim to be helping.
You find, for instance, that these people do what they can to dress or speak like the people they’re ‘fighting for’, using slang or adopting the dress codes in a sort of caricature of what they think these groups ‘ought’ to look or sound like.
So yes, we can learn from the Russian radicals; they are a mirror to our contemporaries who think they’re doing the ‘right thing’ by ‘fighting the system’. We can only hope their campaign fails, as did the narodniki’s.