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nihilism(nī`əlĭzəm), theory of revolution popular among Russian extremists until the fall of the czarist government (1917); the theory was given its name by Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons (1861). Nihilism stressed the need to destroy existing economic and social institutions, whatever the projected nature of the better order for which the destruction was to prepare. Nihilists were not without constructive programs, but agreement on these was not essential to the immediate objective, destruction. Direct action, such as assassination and arson, was characteristic. Such acts were not necessarily directed by any central authority. Small groups and even individuals were encouraged to plan and execute terroristic acts independently. The assassination of Czar Alexander II was one result of such terrorist activities. The constructive programs published by nihilists include the establishing of a parliamentary government; the programs were on the whole moderate in comparison with the revolutionary measures of 1917. Nihilism was too diffuse and negative to persist as a movement and gradually gave way to other philosophies of revolt; it remained, however, an element in later Russian thought.
See S. Rosen, Nihilism (1969); M. Novak, The Experience of Nothingness (1970); C. Glicksberg, The Literature of Nihilism (1975); D. A. Crosby, The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism (1988); D. M. Levin, The Opening of Vision: Nihilism and the Postmodern Situation (1988).
in Russia, a term describing the frame of mind and social attitudes of the progressive raznochintsy (intellectuals of no definite class) of the 1860’s, expressed by a resolute rejection of existing ideology, morality, and behavioral norms.
Nihilism emerged during the revolutionary atmosphere of 1859–61. A progressive phenomenon, it reflected the crisis in the system of serfdom and represented an important stage in the development of revolutionary-democratic ideology.
Nihilism rejected religious prejudices, idealist philosophy, dictatorial attitudes in social and family life, the liberal denunciation of society, “art for art’s sake,” and “knowledge for the sake of knowledge” and demanded freedom for the individual and equality for women. It propagandized a “rational egoism” and utilitarianism and advocated the study of natural science. Owing to the vagueness of their positive program, however, the nihilists tended toward oversimplification, bluntness, and excessive polemics. Nihilism had no coherent world view; the factor that united its adherents was the rejection of existing reality. As a result, both revolutionary-democratic activists and moderate liberals abandoned nihilism by the end of the 1860’s.
The ideas of nihilism were reflected in the journal Russkoe slovo (The Russian Word), in which D. I. Pisarev played a leading role. In the broad sense, the term “nihilist” is applied to the entire revolutionary-democratic camp of the 1860’s headed by N. G. Chernyshevskii and N. A. Dobroliubov’s journal Sovremennik (The Contemporary).
The term “nihilism” became popular after the publication of I. S. Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons (1862), in which the protagonist, Bazarov, is called a nihilist. Before this, nihilistic ideas were referred to in polemical journalism as the “negative tendency,” and their exponents as svistuny (from Svistok, a satirical journal affiliated with Sovremennik). Reactionary publicistic writers seized upon the term during a lull in the revolutionary situation and used it as a derisive epithet. As such, it was extensively employed in publicistic articles, official government documents, and antinihilistic novels, notably A. F. Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas, N. S. Leskov’s Nowhere to Go, and V. P. Kliushnikov’s The Mirage, in order to discredit revolutionary ideology and the democratic movement. Its opponents ascribed to nihilism the negation of all spiritual values, amoralism, and a desire to destroy the foundations of civilization.
Although the term “nihilism” had nearly disappeared from polemical literature by the end of the 1860’s, it reappeared later in reactionary social and political writing at a time when the class struggle had become more intense; it was applied to all revolutionaries. Some contemporary foreign bourgeois authors have falsely extended the term to include those groups in the Russian liberation movement that were inherited by the Bolsheviks.
REFERENCESKoz’min, B. P. Literatura i istoriia. Moscow, 1969. Pages 225–42.
Novikov, A. I. Nigilism i nigilisty. Leningrad, 1972. Pages 34–117.