Tkachev, Petr Nikitich

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Tkachev, Petr Nikitich


Born June 29 (July 11), 1844, in the village of Sivtsovo, Velikie Luki District, Pskov Province; died Dec. 23, 1885 (Jan. 4, 1886), in Paris. Russian revolutionary, Narodnik (Populist), and ideological proponent of the Jacobinist current in Populism. Literary critic and writer on public affairs.

By birth a member of the minor landed gentry, Tkachev graduated by examination from the law faculty of the University of St. Petersburg in 1868. His literary activity dated back to 1862. In 1865 he began to contribute to the journals Russkoe slovo and Delo under such pen names as P. Nikitin, P. Nionov, and “One and the Same” (Vse tot zhe).

Tkachev’s revolutionary propaganda among students led to his being detained in prison, and he was constantly under police surveillance. During the St. Petersburg student riots of 1868–69, Tkachev and S. G. Nechaev headed the radical minority. Arrested in 1869, Tkachev was one of the defendants in the Trial of the Nechaevtsy; after serving a prison sentence, he was banished to his birthplace. He fled the country in 1873. While living abroad, he contributed to the journal Vpered! and was affiliated with a group of Polish and Russian émigrés with Jacobinist tendencies. After his split with P. L. Lavrov, Tkachev published the journal Nabat (1875–81). Tkachev and K. M. Turskii were among the founders, in 1877, of the Society for the Liberation of the People—an organization whose activities in Russia were insignificant. In the mid-1870’s, Tkachev was close to the French Blanquists and contributed to their journal Ni dieu, ni maitre. In late 1882 he fell seriously ill, and his remaining few years were spent in a mental hospital.

Tkachev’s views were shaped by the democratic and socialist ideology of the 1850’s and 1860’s. Rejecting the idea that Russian society was unique in its structure, Tkachev contended that national reforms would move the country toward capitalism. He claimed that the triumph of capitalism could be prevented only by adopting socialist economic principles in place of bourgeois doctrines. Like all the Narodniki, Tkachev tied his hopes for the socialist future of Russia to the peasantry; the peasants, in his view, were communists “by instinct and tradition, ” being imbued with “the principles of communal ownership.” Unlike others, however, Tkachev regarded the peasants as incapable—because of their passivity and ignorance—of effecting a socialist revolution on their own. In his judgment, the transformation of a commune into a “socialist nucleus” could only take place after the existing governmental and social structure was done away with.

In contrast to the apolitical tendencies prevailing in the revolutionary movement, Tkachev’s ideas were based on political revolution as the first step toward social revolution. Like P. G. Zaich-nevskii, Tkachev believed that creating a secret, centralized, and conspiratorial revolutionary organization was the surest guarantee of successful political revolution. According to Tkachev, revolution meant the seizure of power and the establishment of a dictatorship by a “revolutionary minority.” Such action would clear the way for “constructive revolutionary activity, ” which—unlike “destructive revolutionary activity”—depends for its effectiveness on conviction alone. Ideologically, Tkachev differed from Bakunin and Lavrov in his advocacy of political struggle, his call for the organization of revolutionary forces, and his recognition of the need for a revolutionary dictatorship.

Tkachev referred to his philosophical viewpoint as “realism, ” meaning thereby “a world-view that is strictly based on reality, rationally scientific, and also, for that very reason, human to the highest degree” (Izbr. soch, na sotsial’no-politicheskie temy, vol. 4, 1933, p. 27). As an opponent of idealism, Tkachev equated it on the epistemological level with metaphysics, and on the social level with an ideological apologia of the existing system. His evaluation of any theory was based on its relationship to social issues.

From the works of N. G. Chernyshevskii and, in part, of Marx, Tkachev assimilated certain aspects of the materialist conception of history: he recognized the economic factor as the prime mover in social development, and he examined the historical process in terms of the conflict of economic interests between classes. Guided by these principles, Tkachev criticized the use of the subjective method in the sociology of Lavrov and N. K. Mikhai-lovskii as well as their theories of social progress. On the matter of the individual’s role in history, however, Tkachev tended toward subjectivism: in his judgment, historical reality has a distinctive property—namely, it does not exist outside and apart from human actions. The individual is viewed as an active and creative force in history. Furthermore, what is possible in history has no fixed limits, and therefore, according to Tkachev, an “active minority” of individuals can and must introduce “into the process of social development much that not only is causally unrelated to, but at times is even decidedly contrary to both the historical antecedents and the given social conditions” (ibid., vol. 3, 1933, p. 193). Taking this as a given, Tkachev interpreted the historical process as one in which the source of progress lies in the will of an active minority. This interpretation, in turn, served as the philosophical basis of Tkachev’s theory of revolution.

As a literary critic, Tkachev was a follower of Chernyshevskii, N. A. Dobroliubov, and D. I. Pisarev. In his elaboration of Dobroliubov’s theory of “real criticism, ” Tkachev called for works of art of high moral content and social significance. He frequently ignored the aesthetic merits of artistic works; thus he erred in his judgment of several contemporary works, attacking Turgenev’s portrayal of folk life as a distortion, rejecting Saltykov-Shche-drin’s satire, and labeling Tolstoy a “salon writer.”

Tkachev’s doctrine was rejected by the revolutionary Narodniki of the late 1860’s and early 1870’s, who emphasized the importance of a social rather than a political revolution. It was only in the late 1870’s that the logic of the historical process led members of the People’s Will (Narodnaia Volia) toward direct political action against the autocracy. In Lenin’s words, “The attempt to seize power, which was prepared by the preaching of Tkachev and carried out by means of the ‘terrifying’ terror that did really terrify, had grandeur” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 6, p. 173). While holding in high esteem the contributions of Tkachev and the People’s Will, Lenin criticized the conspiratorial tactics of Blanquism (see ibid., vol. 13, p. 76). The rout of the People’s Will meant, in fact, the defeat of Tkachev’s theory and the simultaneous collapse of the Jacobinist, or Blanquist, wing of the Russian revolutionary movement.


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Izbr. soch., vols. 1–6. Moscow, 1932–37.
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