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The Fate of Narodnichestvo

 

The theoretical struggle between Narodnichestvo and Marxism was intense. Throughout the 1880s Narodniks fiercely defended their ideological system trying to maintain its dominant position within Russian social thought. However, the post-reform capitalist development, the disintegration of the village commune, the conservatism and apathy of the peasantry compelled a growing number of intellectuals to give up old dogmas and turn to the study of Marxism instead. Life increasingly seemed to give more substance to the theoretical inquiries made by Russian Marxists, such as Plekhanov, Lenin and others, who argued that the future Russian revolution would be a proletarian one. The proletariat in the alliance with the peasantry and leading it was to carry through the socialist transformation. Marxism seemed to show the way forward for Russia in the new circumstances. 

 
 
 
Lenin's "League of Struggle" (1895)
 
 

The growing popularity of Marxism cannot be attributed simply to the crisis of the rival socialist ideology of Narodnichestvo. The spread of Marxism in Russia must be seen in the wider context of the modernizing processes that were beginning to affect the post-reform Russia. The development of capitalism, the appearance of the elements of civil society, the government-sponsored industrialization of the 1890s  seemed to indicate that Russia, after all, took the road followed by the leading group of industrialized nations. The Western model of development appeared to display certain major advantages manifested in an accelerated cultural, economic and technological progress, the establishment of a parliamentary system, the expansion of democratic freedoms. All this gave credibility to the arguments of the Russian advocates of  ‘Westernism’.

However, the new generation of the socialist-minded opposition saw the process of ‘Westernisation’ and ‘Europeanisation’ of Russia through the prism of the Marxist theory -  as the struggle for the ultimate victory of the ideal of social justice. The conversion of Russian radicals to Marxism was, to a great extent, influenced by the successes of the West European social-democratic movement, which in those days adhered to the theoretical tenets of Marxism. The appearance of labor legislation, trade unions, social and political rights of workers represented real achievements in the struggle for social equality in the West. Russian radicals were convinced that the European social-democratic movement was an influential force that helped to bring about these progressive developments, making a significant contribution to the democratization of Western European society. These achievements were proof enough for them of the scientific correctness of Marxism.     

But the growing preoccupation of more and more radical intellectuals with the revolutionary theories of Karl Marx did not mean that the tradition of Narodnichestvo died out. In the 1890s the popularity of Narodnichestvo reached its lowest point, but at the start of the twentieth century the movement overcame its crisis and revived. Representing two different currents within the general tradition of socialist thought, Marxism and Narodnichestvo continued to develop side by side influencing each other and stimulating the common quest for a socialist alternative to capitalist development. Russian peasant socialism and proletarian socialism were, as one writer has put it, ‘two skeins entangled’. And it was not just the socialist goal that they had in common. Both Russian Marxists and Narodniks also agreed about the special role of the intelligentsia in the liberation movement and both sought to identify and mobilize a social class (the peasantry or the proletariat) that could become the main agent of revolutionary change.     

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