Pisarev, Dmitrii

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Pisarev, Dmitrii Ivanovich


Born Oct. 2 (14), 1840, in the village of Znamenskoe, now in Lipetsk Oblast; died July 4 (16), 1868, in Dubbeln, now part of the city of Jurmala, Latvian SSR; buried in St. Petersburg. Russian publicist and literary critic, materialist philosopher, and revolutionary democrat.

The son of a nobleman, Pisarev graduated from the faculty of history and philology at the University of St. Petersburg in 1861. In 1859 he headed the book-review section of the journal Rassvet (The Dawn), and from 1861 to 1866 he was the leading critic and ideological force of the journal Russkoe slovo (The Russian Word). From July 1862 through November 1866 he was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress for an illegal article urging the overthrow of the autocracy; it was there that he wrote more than half of his works. In 1867 and 1868 he contributed to the journals Delo (Affairs) and Otechestvennye zapiski (Fatherland Notes).

Pisarev’s world view was formed in the context of the revolutionary situation of 1859–61, and the peak of his creativity coincided with the years of reaction. While sharing the political program and many of the theoretical concepts of N. G. Cherny-shevskii, he sought to resolve certain issues in a different way. In 1861 and 1862 he developed the critical aspect of revolutionary ideology, rejecting the existing system, sharply criticizing despotism, serfdom, and liberalism, and advocating the overthrow of the authorities. Beginning in 1863 he presented a positive program that sought new means for furthering the democratic movement in view of the collapse of hopes for an immediate popular revolution.

As a philosopher, Pisarev advocated natural-science materialism. He opposed idealism and religion, regarding the latter as a “harmful impediment to the intellectual and social movement” (Poln. sobr. soch, vol. 5, St. Petersburg, 1904, p. 359). He advocated verification of all theories and authoritative statements by means of criticism and demanded independence of thought. Although he rejected philosophical dialectics when it “diffused into words,” he was willing to utilize it “as a weapon of struggle” (Soch, vol. 1, Moscow, 1955, p. 302). Pisarev sought a philosophy that would “advance the masses, smash decrepit idols, and shake obsolete forms of civic and social life”(ibid.p 126).

Pisarev’s sociological views constituted an early attempt to extend materialism to an interpretation of social phenomena. He regarded economic activity as the “inward aspect of history” (ibid., vol. 3, 1956, p. 120) and labor as the sole source of human wealth; he found the cause of all social misfortunes to be “the appropriative drive” (ibid., vol. 2, 1955, p. 284). He ascribed the decisive role in history to those who preform physical labor. But the people, oppressed by material cares and deprivations, can fulfill this role completely only in the era of revolutions, whose results had not hitherto corresponded to the energy expended in promoting them. Comparing revolutions to “forced murder” (ibid., vol. 4, 1956, p. 288), Pisarev acknowledged their conformity to historical law and their necessity; the return of the old order becomes impossible if revolution “makes its way into the world of material interests” and “refashions the entire system of economic relations” (Izbr. proizv., 1968, p. 216).

Pisarev saw the meaning of historical progress in the successive liberation of the toiling people from various forms of exploitation and in the gradual awakening of the people’s independence. He recognized the inevitability of feudalism’s replacement by capitalism and of the downfall of the “tyrannical dominance of capital”; the resulting onset of socialism would usher in “a new era of justice, physical health, and material prosperity” (Soch, vol. 2, pp. 308, 270).

Pisarev’s socialist ideals were clearly expressed as early as 1862 in The Bees and were substantiated and developed between 1863 and 1867 in such works as Essays From the History of Labor, The Historical Ideas of Auguste Comte, and Heinrich Heine. His Utopian socialism was not populist in nature. He did not place his hopes in the obshchina (peasant commune) but rather believed that, following the example of Western Europe, Russia would pass through the capitalist stage of development. Pisarev accepted only the critical aspect of the Utopian socialists’ doctrines. He advocated the founding of a new social science, and in its rapprochement with the masses’ revolutionary initiative he saw “the only possibility for a future renewal” (ibid., vol. 4, p. 212).

While asserting that the revolution would be carried out by the people in accordance with “inner necessity” (ibid., vol. 2. p. 68), Pisarev considered it impossible to promote revolution artificially, and believed that the preconditions for its impending emergence did not exist. The sociological theory of realism developed by Pisarev between 1863 and 1865 in Flowers of Innocent Humor, Reasons of Russian Drama, The Realists, and Let Us See! was an attempt to create a program for the achievement of socialism “independent of historical events” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 126).

Pisarev explained the defeat of the “revolutionaries of 1861” by the oppressed state of the people and their lack of comprehension concerning their own interests. Incentives for the growth of the people’s self-awareness would arise during the course of economic development, which had to be directed by “thinking realists” (socialists). The chief issue, that of the people’s labor, would be advanced by an extensive expansion of workers’ associations. Pisarev regarded this expansion as a ready basis for resolving the issue of the working class, which would inevitably be posed in Russia in the future. He advanced the principle of the “economy of intellectual forces,” which demanded that all the efforts of thinking people, “the entire store of accumulated human knowledge,” be concentrated on solving the problem of “the hungry and the naked” (ibid., vol. 3, p. 105). His “theory of realism” accorded primary importance to the dissemination of scientific knowledge; such knowledge would promote the growth of industry, improve farming, and increase the number of “thinking realists.”

In the field of ethics, Pisarev advocated utilitarianism and rational egoism. He approached an understanding of the class-determined nature of morality in such works as The Thinking Proletariat. The personal advantage of the “new men” (“thinking realists, with an attitude of love toward labor”) coincides with the common good; their egoism accommodates the broadest love for humanity, and among such people no distinction exists “between duty and free inclination” (ibid., vol. 4, p. 18). All their efforts are directed toward decreasing human suffering and increasing human enjoyment.

Pisarev devoted much attention to pedagogy in such works as Our University Science, Pedagogical Sophisms, and School and Life. Criticizing the existing system of education, he advocated upbringing during the educational process, schools accepting all social classes, a broad general education based on mathematics and the natural sciences, and instruction in manual labor and in physical training.

Pisarev’s aesthetic views were formulated in the article “The Destruction of Aesthetics” (1865) and were most consistently expressed in the article “Pushkin and Belinskii” (1865). These views were based on the principle of the “economy of intellectual forces” and were “strictly utilitarian.” Pisarev asserted that there was no social significance in painting, sculpture, music, or lyric poetry. He believed that, given the existence of hungry people, “it is premature, absurd, disgusting, unseemly, and harmful for society to concern itself with the satisfaction of other needs of secondary importance that have developed among a tiny minority of sated people who have grown fat” (Soch., vol. 3, 1956, p. 451). Pisarev’s erroneous attempt to “overthrow” Pushkin had its source in a wish to interest young people in literature dealing with contemporary problems. At the same time, his literary criticism contained outstanding commentaries on N. G. Chernyshevskii’s novel What Is To Be Done? and on the works of Heine, Turgenev, L. N. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, V. A. Sleptsov, and N. G. Pomialovskii.


Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vols. 1–6, supplementary fasc. St. Petersburg, 1909–13.
Soch., vols. 1–4. Moscow, 1955–56.
Izbr. proizv. Leningrad, 1968.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.