What the Friends of the People are and how they Fight the Social

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

What the “Friends of the People” are and how they Fight the Social Democrats


(A Reply to Articles in Russkoe bogatstvo Opposing the Marxists), the first basic work of V. I. Lenin, dealing with questions of dialectical and historical materialism, political economy, and scientific socialism and the idea of uniting socialism with the working-class movement and creating a Marxist working-class party in Russia. The book is part of Lenin’s collected works (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1, pp. 125–346).

In this work, Lenin criticized the views of the ideologists of liberal Narodnichestvo (Populism)—those sham “friends of the people,” such as N. K. Mikhailovskii, V. P. Vorontsov, S. N. Krivenko, and S. N. Iuzhakov, who argued against Marxism in the magazine Russkoe bogatstvo —and formulated the ideological and theoretical principles as well as the basic program and tactics of Russia’s revolutionary Social Democracy.

The book was written in 1894 and clandestinely hectographed in three separate issues. The first issue exposed the Populists’ philosophical views. The second issue, which dealt with their political and economic theories, has never been found (Lenin reiterated his critique of these theories in A Characterization of Economic Romanticism, 1897). The third issue dealt with the Populists’ tactics and their economic and political platform. Hectographed copies of the book were read in the revolutionary circles of St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, Kharkov, and other Russian cities. Members of the Liberation of Labor and other Russian Social Democrats abroad were familiar with the book’s contents.

In the book Lenin demonstrated the complete unfoundedness of the liberal Populists’ philosophical and sociological views and of their subjective-idealist method, which exaggerated the role of ideas and of “critically thinking people” in history and rejected the concept of society’s development according to objective laws. Lenin brought to light the dialectic-materialist essence of Marxist philosophy and the materialist conception of history. Refuting the Populist theory of the “active heroes” and the “passive crowd,” he showed the people to be the true makers of history—the chief moving force of social progress. He exposed the Populists’ attempt to “convict” the Marxists of being caught in the allegedly insoluble “conflict” between historical necessity and individual freedom; he revealed the fallacy of the Populists’ assertion that outstanding individuals can successfully oppose the laws of history, and he showed that the power of the individual lies in his acting in accordance with the immediate requirements of social development rather than in opposition to historical necessity.

Approaching this question from a practical point of view, Lenin pointed out that the acknowledgment of historical necessity could not be reduced to passive contemplation of events but presupposed, under the conditions existing in Russia, vigorous action on the part of the Social Democrats aimed at rallying the working class for the struggle against autocracy and capitalism.

Lenin proved that the Populists’ economic views were as unfounded as their philosophical tenets. The Populists of the 1880’s and 1890’s could no longer deny that capitalism was developing in Russia; they believed, however, that it had no future. They defended the concept of Russia’s “indigenous” road to noncapitalist development, arguing that Russian capitalism was “artificial” in nature because of the country’s lack of a domestic market. The Populists minimized the disintegration of the peasant commune and idealized small-scale commodity production, or “people’s industry,” holding up the latter in contrast to large-scale capitalist production, which would ruin the peasantry and thereby would allegedly reduce the domestic market.

Lenin showed that capitalism not only ruins the peasantry but also stratifies it, dividing it into the basic classes of capitalist society—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The destitute peasant sells his labor power and buys essential consumer goods, while the rural bourgeoisie buys industrial products, including the tools of production. This means that capitalism creates and expands its own domestic market. The Populists misunderstood the very nature of capitalism, especially in its early stages. They claimed that the specific features of cottage industry—its dispersion over rural areas, the fact that the work was done at home, and the absence of large enterprises and consequently of a permanent labor force completely alienated from the land—made it a “people’s industry,” as opposed to capitalist industry. On the basis of his analysis of statistical data, Lenin revealed the fallacy of the Populists’ assertions about the allegedly noncapitalist nature of the cottage industries.

The liberal Populists, having adopted the old erroneous views of peasant socialism and having fallen into even greater error, tried to shield the “people’s industry” from the onslaught of capitalism. Their entire economic program was aimed at smoothing over the country’s increasingly acute class antagonisms. What the liberal Populists proposed was a series of petty reforms that would not have affected the foundations of the bourgeois and landowning system. Having rejected the political program of the revolutionary Populists of the 1870’s, they became the spokesmen of petit bourgeois and kulak interests.

Lenin described how the peasant’s world had split up into rural bourgeoisie and proletariat; in his words, “the old Russian peasant socialism split up with it, making way for workers’ socialism, on the one hand, and degenerating into vulgar petty-bourgeois radicalism, on the other” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1, p. 272). Under these conditions, the representatives of the proletarian party—that is, the Social Democrats—had to take upon themselves the defense of the interests of the broad toiling masses in the cities as well as in the countryside.

In his book, Lenin presented his scientific substantiation of the historic role of the proletariat, which was to lead the liberation movement of the toiling masses and throw off the yoke of tsarism, of the landowners, and of the bourgeoisie. He was particularly emphatic in pointing out that the foremost duty of the Russian Social Democrats was to prepare the assault on autocracy— the essential prerequisite for the coming victory of the working class over capital. The peasantry, with its interest in the complete elimination of all vestiges of serfdom, was the proletariat’s ally in the struggle against the autocratic landowning system. For this reason, Lenin thought it necessary for the Social Democrats to support the peasants’ demands, including “the complete abolition of landed proprietorship” (ibid., p. 299).

Lenin developed the idea of the hegemony of the proletariat formulated by Marx and Engels, showing that the proletariat could play the leading role not only in the socialist but also in the bourgeois-democratic revolution. This was the point of departure for his thesis of the transformation of the bourgeois-democratic revolution into the socialist revolution. Lenin pointed out that the successful struggle of the working class and its allies for the overthrow of tsarism and capitalism was predicated on the existence of an independent proletarian party armed with advanced revolutionary theory. It was essential for the Russian working-class movement to break completely with all forms of Populism and with the theory and practice of petit bourgeois socialism. The Marxists, according to Lenin, must help the proletariat master the theory of scientific socialism and rally into a political force.

Lenin ended his book with the following prophetic words: “the Russian WORKER, rising at the head of all the democratic elements, will overthrow absolutism and lead the RUSSIAN PROLETARIAT (side by side with the proletariat of ALL COUNTRIES) along the straight road of open political struggle toTHE VICTORIOUS COMMUNIST REVOLUTION” (ibid., p. 312).

Lenin’s book was the true manifesto of Russia’s revolutionary Social Democracy; it dealt a crushing blow to the reactionary and Utopian ideology and practice of liberal Populism. The book was important in providing theoretical preparation for the transition from Marxist propaganda of the type engaged in by small study groups to mass agitation carried out among broad strata of the proletariat and to the fusion of scientific socialism with the working-class movement.

As of Jan. 1, 1977, Lenin’s book had gone through 123 printings, with 6,744,400 copies published in 33 languages of the peoples of the USSR and foreign countries.


Istoriia KPSS, vol. 1. Moscow, 1964.


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