The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(Populism), the ideology and movement of the raznochintsy (intellectuals of no definite class) which dominated the bourgeois democratic stage of the liberation struggle in Russia (1861–95) and reflected the interests of peasant democracy. Combining a radical bourgeois democratic anti-feudal program with Utopiansocialism, Populism opposed both the vestiges of serfdom and the bourgeois development of the country.

Two tendencies—one revolutionary, the other liberal—were manifested in the Russian Populist movement from the very beginning. From the 1860’s through the 1880’s the revolutionary Narodniki (Populists) strove in various ways to bring about a peasant revolution. Liberal Populism, which had not previously played a substantial role, became dominant in the mid-1880’s. Populism exhausted its revolutionary character and was ideologically defeated by Marxism. With the beginning of the proletarian stage of the liberation struggle in Russia, the working class, headed by the Marxist-Leninist party, took the leading role in the liberation movement. Representatives of many of Russia’s nationalities took part in the Populist movement, and its ideology was interpreted in different ways, reflecting the country’s national diversity.

“This is an entire world outlook ... an enormous phase in social thought,” wrote Lenin, referring to Populism in Russia (Tetradi po agrarnomu voprosu, 1900–1916, 1969, p. 21). Russian Populism influenced literature (for example, N. A. Nekrasov, G. I. Uspenskii, and N. N. Zlatovratskii), painting (the pered-vizhniki—the “wanderers,” a progressive art movement), music (the Russian Five), historiography (V. I. Semevskii and A. Ia. Efimenko, for example), and economics (zemstvo statistics—records on public health, education, and agriculture kept by local government bodies).

Ideology. The crisis in the system of autocracy and serfdom hastened bourgeois democratic reforms in Russia. At the same time, the antagonistic social contradictions of bourgeois society emerged in the capitalist relations of the advanced countries of Europe. The bourgeois democratic revolutions in these countries disappointed Russia’s progressive intelligentsia, who began to seek “special paths” for the country’s social reconstruction.

The core of Populist thought was the theory of a noncapitalist path for Russia’s development—the idea of a transition to socialism through the preservation, use, and transformation of the collectivist principles of the peasant commune (obshchina). This prospect envisioned a number of radical social measures: the elimination of landownership by the pomeshchiki (landlords), the distribution of land to the peasants, and the establishment of a democratic people’s government. The theory of the noncapitalist path of development for Russia was advanced at the end of the 1840’s and the beginning of the 1850’s by the founders of Populism, A. I. Herzen and N. G. Chernyshevskii. N. P. Ogarev was a strong propagandist of the ideas of “peasant socialism.” Lenin wrote: ”Faith in a special social order, in the communal system of Russian life; hence—faith in the possibility of a peasant socialist revolution—that is what inspired them and roused dozens and hundreds of people to wage a heroic struggle against the government” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1, p. 271).

From the end of the 1860’s through the 1870’s subjective sociology (P. L. Lavrov and N. K. Mikhailovskii, for example), which proclaimed the motive of historical progress to be “critically thinking people” (the intelligentsia), became the theoretical basis for the noncapitalist path of development. The intelligentsia was described as the repository of enlightenment, moral consciousness (the idea of a “duty to the people”), and the ideals of a just social community. This concept was shared, consciously or unconsciously, by most of the Narodniki. Subjective sociology originated as a reaction by the progressive intelligentsia to the inability of the peasant masses to raise a revolution—a failing that was revealed during the revolutionary situation of 1859–61. Consequently, the social content of subjective sociology reflected revolutionary democratic tendencies. At the same time, its theory was groundless—a manifestation of idealism and subjectivism and a step backward in comparison to Herzen’s and Chernyshevskii’s view.

“Economic romanticism,” whose representatives (V. P. Vorontsov and N. F. Daniel’son, for example) took as their point of departure a comparison of the economic evolution of Western Europe and that of Russia, developed within Populism in the 1880’s. The Narodniki-economists endeavored to demonstrate the lack of prospects for capitalist development in Russia and the need for a transition to “people’s production”—noncapitalist industrialization, the organization of the economy into artels and peasant communes. Although it was, on the whole, an erroneous petit bourgeois theory, economic romanticism directed the attention of social thought to the peculiarities of Russia’s economic development.

The political views of Populism and its strategy and tactics for social action were most vividly presented in revolutionary Populism. In comparison to their predecessors, the dvorianstvo (gentry) revolutionaries, the revolutionary Narodniki took a significant step forward, entering a direct struggle with autocracy and serfdom and providing this struggle with a programmatic foundation. The Narodniki endeavored to prepare the peasant revolution, to secure “land and liberty” for the people, and to eliminate landownership by the pomeshchiki. They waged a struggle against liberalism, proceeding from the assumptions that social revolution takes precedence over political revolution and that democratic and socialist reforms are closely related. Noting the stratification that had begun to take place among the peasantry, the Narodniki assumed that the bourgeois development of the village would be brought to an end by a victorious revolution.

The most important ideologists of revolutionary Populism in the 1870’s were M. A. Bakunin, Lavrov, and P. N. Tkachev. Considering the Russian peasant “a born socialist,” Bakunin summoned the young people to prepare immediately for a popular uprising against the three main enemies: private property, the state, and the church. Under his direct influence, a tendency to advocate “spontaneous revolution” developed in Populism. According to Lavrov, lengthy propagandizing among the popular masses and extensive theoretical and moral training of revolutionaries were necessary for preparing an uprising. Tkachev provided the foundation for the current of political conspiracy (Jacobinism, or Blanquism) in Russian Populism. His point of departure was his belief that the revolution had to begin with a coup d’etat by the revolutionary minority, which, after it had seized power, would draw the masses into socialist reconstruction. These ideas were adopted by the members of the People’s Will group (Narodnaia Volia), who supplemented them with theses concerning the need for a transitional stage on the path to socialism (the establishment of a democratic republic). In addition, People’s Will provided the foundation for terrorist tactics against government figures.

The merit of People’s Will lay in its surmounting, to a large extent, its predecessors’ apolitical attitude and underestimation of the importance of the political struggle. Lenin emphasized that the People’s Will sought “to enlist all the discontented in the organization and to direct this organization to resolute struggle against the autocracy” (ibid., vol. 6, p. 135). At the same time, Lenin indicated that the members of the People’s Will “reduced politics purely to conspiratorial struggle” (ibid., vol. 4, p. 372), and he pointed out that the history of the revolutionary movement in Russia should serve as a warning against methods of struggle such as terror (ibid., vol. 6, p. 375). With the development of capitalism in Russia from the mid-1880’s, the labor movement grew, Marxist ideas spread, and Populism was eased out of its leading position in the liberation movement by revolutionary social democracy.

The activity of revolutionary Populism. The Populist movement originated during the revolutionary situation of 1859–61, when, under the influence of propaganda published in the journals Kolokol (The Bell) and Sovremennik (The Contemporary), the democratic intelligentsia attempted for the first time to carry out revolutionary work among the people. Populist and political tendencies were combined in the activity of the secret society Land and Liberty (Zemlia i Volia), the most active members of which included N. A. Serno-Solov’evich, his brother A. A. Serno-Solov’evich, and A. A. Sleptsov. The first Land and Liberty, which was founded under the ideological influence and with the direct participation of Herzen and Chernyshevskii, was the largest association of revolutionary circles of the 1860’s and the first attempt to establish an all-Russian organization. Populist tendencies were further developed by the Ishutin circle (1863–66), which engaged in propaganda but also became involved in conspiracy. The plan for D. V. Karakozov’s attempt on the life of Alexander II originated in the Ishutin circle.

With the revival of the democratic movement in 1869, S. G. Nechaev tried to found a secret conspiratorial organization, Narodnaia Rasprava (the People’s Summary Justice). The organization’s basic principles were to be unlimited centralism and the blind submission of rank-and-file members to leaders whose identity would be unknown to them. Marx and Engels, the members of the Russian section of the First International, and revolutionary Narodniki in Russia decisively condemned Nechaev’s adventurism. The Chaikovskii group, which gave priority to the question of revolutionary ethics, originated as a counterbalance to the unscrupulous Nechaev venture. Among the active figures in the Chaikovskii group were M. A. Natanson, S. M. Kravchinskii, S. L. Perovskaia, P. A. Kropotkin, F. V. Volkhovskii, S. S. Sinegub, and N. A. Charushin. The members of the group quickly shifted their attention from revolutionary educational activity to preparing for the “going to the people” movement among the peasants.

The 1870’s represented a new stage in the revolutionary democratic movement. The number of participants was immeasurably greater than in the preceding decade. The mass “going to the people” movement, which was the first test of the ideology of revolutionary Populism, began in the spring and summer of 1874. The peasantry did not support the propagandists, however, and toward the end of 1875 the participants in the movement were arrested. Later, they were convicted in the Trial of the 193. The “going to the people” movement revealed the organizational weakness of Populism and indicated the need for a single centralized organization of revolutionaries. The creation of the All-Russian Social Revolutionary Organization (end of 1874—beginning of 1875) was an attempt to overcome these weaknesses. In the mid-1870’s the central issue—how to concentrate revolutionary forces in a single organization—was considered at Populist congresses in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and abroad and debated in the illegal press. The revolutionaries had to choose the centralist or federative principle of organization and define their attitude toward socialist parties in other countries.

As a result of a review of programmatic tactical and organizational views, a new Populist organization was founded in 1876 in St. Petersburg. In 1878 it became known as Land and Liberty (Zemlia i Volia). Its founders and active members included M. A. Natanson, O. A. Natanson, A. D. Mikhatlov, A. D. Oboleshev, G. V. Plekhanov, O. V. Aptekman, A. A. Kviatkovskii, D. A. Lizogub, and V. A. Osinskii. The contribution of Land and Liberty to the Russian revolutionary movement was the creation of a strong, disciplined organization, which Lenin considered “magnificent,” a “model” for revolutionaries (ibid., vol. 6, p. 135). In practical work Land and Liberty shifted the emphasis from “itinerant” propaganda, which had been characteristic of the first stage of the “going to the people” movement, to work in village settlements.

Disappointment in the results of propaganda, the heightening of government repression, and the rise of social unrest with the development of a second revolutionary situation contributed to sharpening the differences of opinion within Land and Liberty. The majority of the Narodniki became convinced of the need for direct political struggle against the autocracy. The first to move in this direction were the Narodniki in the southern part of the Russian Empire.

Terror became one of the chief means for revolutionary struggle. At first, terrorist tactics were manifested in acts of self-defense and revenge for the crimes of the tsarist administration. The weakness of the mass movement caused the Narodniki to rely increasingly on terror. According to Lenin, “terrorism was the result—and also the symptom and concomitant—of lack of faith in insurrection, of the absence of conditions for insurrection” (ibid., vol. 12, p. 180). In August 1879, Land and Liberty split into two independent organizations. The People’s Will group, whose most prominent members included A. I. Zheliabov. A. D. Mikhailov, Kviatkouskii, L. N. Tikhomirov, and N. A. Morozov, united the supporters of the new tactics of political struggle. The Black Partition (Chernyi Peredel), whose members included Plekhanov, Aptekman, V. I. Zasulich, P. B. Aksel’rod, and L. G. Deich, was strictly a propaganda organization.

People’s Will further intensified the principles of centralization and conspiracy worked out by Land and Liberty. The executive Committee (Zheliabov, Mikhailov, Perovskaia, V. N. Figner, M. F. Frolenko and others), whose proclaimed immediate goal was to change the political system by regicide, headed the People’s Will group. In 1880–81, the Executive Committee plotted eight attempts on the life of Alexander II. These efforts met with success on Mar. 1, 1881.

The heroic struggle of People’s Will played an important role in the Russian revolutionary movement. Its greatest contributions were the principle of taking direct action against the tsarist regime and its emphasis on the political struggle. The activity of People’s Will was one of the most important elements in the revolutionary situation of 1879–80. However, the erroneous tactic of political conspiracy and the dominance of terrorism could not lead to a popular revolution and inevitably caused the downfall of People’s Will. Attempts were made to restore the Executive Committee, which was lifeless after the assassination of the tsar, but they were blocked by the provocateur S. P. Degaev. Mass arrests, culminating in a series of trials in the 1880’s (the Trial of the 20, the Trial of the 17, and the Trial of the 14, for example), capped the defeat of People’s Will.

In the mid-1880’s there was a strong tendency toward decentralization in the revolutionary underground (the Young People’s Will). There was also a growing emphasis on work in the provinces. The congress held in 1885 in Ekaterinoslav by the southern People’s Will (B. D. Orzhikh and V. G. Bogoraz, for example) tried to unite revolutionary forces in southern Russia. At the end of December 1886 the Terrorist Faction of the People’s Will Party was organized in St. Petersburg under the leadership of A. I. Ul’ianov and P. Ia. Shevyrev. Its program, though affirming the terrorist struggle, reflected the influence of Marxism. The organization recognized the development of capitalism in Russia and asserted that the working class is the “nucleus of a socialist party.”

People’s Will and organizations ideologically related to it continued to function in the 1890’s. In 1889–90 a revolutionary organization headed by M. V. Sabunaev was active in Kostroma, Vladimir, and Yaroslavl’. In 1891 the Group of the People’s Will was formed in St. Petersburg, and in Kiev, the South Russian Group of the People’s Will. From 1893 to 1894 the Social Revolutionary Party of the People’s Right (M. A. Natanson, P. N. Nikolaev, and N. N. Tiutchev) attempted to unify antigovernment forces in a political struggle against the autocracy. A number of emigrégroups, including the Union of Russian Socialist Revolutionaries (Bern), the Free Russian Press Fund (London), and the Group of Veteran Members of the People’s Will (Paris), became active in the 1890’s, proclaiming as their goal the publication and dissemination in Russia of illegal literature. As Marxism spread in Russia, the People’s Will organizations lost their dominant position. Confronted with new conditions for the class struggle, a new generation of revolutionaries overcame the mistakes and illusions of their predecessors and adopted only the best democratic traditions of revolutionary Populism.

In objective terms, the practical work of the revolutionary Narodniki helped draw the Russian proletariat into the liberation struggle. Lenin pointed out that in the 1860’s and 1870’s “the proletarian-democratic current, however, was unable to free itself from the main stream of Narodism” (ibid., vol. 25, p. 94). The Narodniki considered the urban workers part of the peasantry. The democratic intelligentsia began to propagandize among the workers with the organization of Sunday Schools (1859–62) and the activity of the Ishutin circle, which had developed close ties with the workers during the establishment of producers’ associations. The Narodniki were very active in propagandizing among the urban proletariat from the beginning of the 1870’s. In St. Petersburg, Odessa, and Kiev members of the Chaikovskii organization formed a network of workers’ circles that initially offered general education studies and later emphasized social propaganda. A number of workers (P. A. Alekseev and S. I. Agapov, for example) became outstanding propagandists in factories and plants in Moscow, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, and Tula.

The second Land and Liberty, People’s Will, and Black Partition organized workers’ circles and issued proclamations during the St. Petersburg strikes. The Black Partition published the newspaper Zerno (1880–81), which was aimed at the workers and peasants, and People’s Will issued Rabochaia gazeta (1880–81). In the 1880’s, when the Russian working class became noticeably more active, the Narodniki continued to emphasize terror as the chief method of struggle, significantly intensified their propaganda work in the factories and plants, and organized fighting druzhiny (armed workers’ detachments).

As early as the 1870’s, however, the most progressive workers began to move away from the influence of Populist ideology, establishing their own organizations (South Russian Workers’ Union and North Russian Workers’ Union). Lenin observed that these groups “demanded political rights for the people, they wanted to wage a struggle for those rights, but at that time the Russian socialists mistakenly considered the political struggle a deviation from socialism” (ibid., vol. 4, p. 245). Despite a number of ideological differences, in the 1870’s and early 1880’s the revolutionary Narodniki and the progressive workers were allies in the struggle against autocracy, factory owners, and pomeshchiki.

The revolutionary Narodniki were kept informed about various revolutionary theories from other countries. They were attracted by the struggle of the Western European proletariat, for they assumed that the European liberation movement would hasten the peasant revolution in Russia.

The First International strongly influenced the development of the Russian revolutionary democratic movement. The Russian section of the First International performed a great service by spreading the principles of the International. The ideas of the international brotherhood of workers, of the international ties and unity of the world revolutionary movement, were spread by the Populist periodicals Vpered and Rabotnik, as well as in propaganda pamphlets. In 1876 the newspaper Vpered remarked: “Russian socialists should remember that they are but one link in the international movement of workers and should use all their power to make sure that their like-minded counterparts in various countries look upon them as comrades in a general historical movement.”

In the illegal Populist periodicals the problem of ties between the workers of different countries was advanced. The Paris Commune (1871) had a powerful influence on the revolutionary movement in Russia. In the words of the revolutionary and writer S. M. Stepniak-Kravchinskii, with the appearance of the Paris Commune “Russian socialism entered the militant phase of its development” (Sock, vol. 1, Moscow, 1958, p. 374).

Although the Narodniki did not understand Marxism and considered its teachings “Western” and, therefore, not applicable to Russia, they were influenced by it, and they borrowed some of its principles. The Narodniki were the first to distribute Russian translations of Marx and Engels. In 1871 they published The Civil War in France abroad, and in 1872, they legally published the first volume of Das Kapital in St. Petersburg. The Executive Committee of People’s Will informed Marx in 1880 that Das Kapital had become the handbook of educated people. Marx’ ideas were presented in the propaganda pamphlet Tsar—Hunger, which was written by A. N. Bakh, a member of People’s Will. In the early 1880’s The Communist Manifesto was circulated in the Russian underground.

Marxism’s struggle with Populism. From the 1880’s through the 1890’s, Populism underwent a grave ideological and organizational crisis. During this period the liberal Populist tendency was dominant, operating chiefly in the legal press and the zemstvos (local self-government). The ideological spokesmen for liberal Populism were the contributors to the newspaper Nedelia (Ia. A. Abramov, for example), who advanced the theory of “small deeds,” and V. P. Vorontsov and the publicists associated with N. K. Mikhailovskii’s journal Russkoe bogatstvo (for example, S. N. Krivenko, S. N. Iuzhakov, and N. F. Daniel’son). At a time of ideological and organizational disarray in the Populist movement, liberal Narodniki pursued an opportunistic, compromising line. They turned to the autocracy, which they viewed as a “supraclass” arbitrator, for approval of the basic propositions of Populism (allotment of land to the peasants at the expense of the pomeshchiki’s holdings and the critique of the bourgeois system, for example). This was petit bourgeois utopianism and middle-class radicalism, a serious retreat from the revolutionary traditions of Populism. As a result, “from a political program calculated to arouse the peasantry for the socialist revolution against the foundations of modern society there has emerged a program calculated to patch up, to ’improve’ the conditions of the peasantry while preserving the foundations of modern society” (Lenin, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 272).

Revolutionary practice refuted the Narodniki’s theoretical constructs. Consequently, the progressive intelligentsia in Russia shifted from Populism to Marxism. Marx and Engels carefully studied the revolutionary democratic movement in Russia. Although they hailed the struggle of the revolutionary Narodniki against the tsarist regime, they criticized the petit bourgeois ideas of Russian Utopian socialism.

From the very beginning the Russian Marxists had to adopt a radical critique of the theory and practice of Populism. G. V. Plekhanov was the first to deal with this problem. In works such as Socialism and Political Struggle, Our Differences, and The Development of the Monist View of History, he provided, from the standpoint of historical materialism, a decisive critique of all Populist tendencies, including the theory of the Russian state’s “unique” historical development, and he exposed the groundlessness of Populist concepts. He showed that the future of revolutionary Russia was connected to the working class, and he substantiated the need to create a Russian proletarian, social democratic party throughout the empire.

Plekhanov dealt the first major ideological blows to Populism, but he was unable to provide a precise analysis of the class roots of Populism, its social base, and the role of historical determinism in its development. This was accomplished by Lenin in the 1890’s. In a number of works, including What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats, The Economic Content of Narodism and the Criticism of It in Mr. Struve’s Book, and The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Lenin gave a profound analysis of economic relations in Russia and completed the ideological defeat of Populism. Lenin created the Marxist concept of the history of Populism and disclosed its social class essence. He proved the antiscientific character of the views held by the Narodniki, whose ideology was based on a subjective sociology that denied the very concept of historical necessity. Lenin emphasized the significance of revolutionary Populism as the precursor of the Russian Social Democratic movement, but he castigated the liberal Narodniki as false “friends of the people” who had abandoned revolutionary traditions. He showed that Populism, which in its own time had been a progressive social and political phenomenon, had by the 1890’s become a reactionary theory. By fully revealing the ideology of the Narodniki, Lenin contributed to the affirmation of Marxism in the Russian revolutionary movement.

The Socialist Revolutionaries (SR’s), who formed a party in 1902 out of various Populist groups and circles, were the successors to the Narodniki.


In the beginning of the 20th century, as the bourgeois democratic, anticolonial national liberation movement developed in areas of Asia and Latin America, ideological currents related to Russian Populism emerged. Among their leaders was Sun Yatsen in China. In articles such as “Democracy and Narodism in China,” Lenin wrote about the basic patterns characterizing both Russian Populism and Sun Yat-sen’s ideology and asserted that it was possible that similar ideological forms would emerge “in a number of Asiatic countries” (ibid., vol. 22, p. 120).

The tendencies of Populism are, to some extent, typical of the modern social doctrines and viewpoints of a number of third world countries. Ideas associated with Russian Populism are found in these doctrines in different forms and with varying political emphasis. For example, certain third world social doctrines include a critique of bourgeois reality from the point of view of the small producer and define the peasantry as the leading social group and the intelligentsia as the leader of the social movement. Like Russian Populism, the ideologies of the developing countries are characterized by an inherent ideological contradictoriness, a variety of world outlooks, and diverse political orientations, ranging from the liberal bourgeois to the revolutionary democratic. Marx and Engels and, later, Lenin indicated the possibility of noncapitalist development for young countries, provided that socialist revolutions took place and that the working class supported the developing states. Although communists are critical of the Utopian, petit bourgeois notions and the deviations toward nationalism and bourgeois liberalism that are encountered in the contemporary national liberation movement, they support its revolutionary democratic forces, which have joined the struggle against international imperialism and for the noncapitalist path of development and social progress.



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Tolstoy and Narodnichestvo: The Volkenshteinov Family" by L.
Baluev, Liberalnoe narodnichestvo na rubezhe XIX-XX vekov (Moscow: Nauka, 1995).
As for "terrorism," Lenin hinted at the activities of the "populist" revolutionary circles (narodnichestvo) of the 1870s and 1880s whose members, disillusioned by their inability to reach the masses of peasants, switched to terrorist attacks against high-ranking individuals, including the Tsar himself.
The economism of the Narodnichestvo and Neomarxism had no predisposition for studying spiritual factors of economic development.
This faith in technology goes back even further, beyond Marxism, to Russian populism (in the original Russian sense of the term narodnichestvo) and to the `Crystal Palace' half seen in a dream by the heroine of Chernyshevsky's novel What is to be done?

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