Sergey Nechayev- Main author of The Catechism of the Revolutionary
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons
The origins of Russian Anarchism and Nihilism have always been heavily analyzed by historians, however, very rarely has academia put any significant emphasis on Nechayev’s contributions to the methodology of “Revolution” as practiced by Leninist radicals. This paper deals with the revolutionary principles of Sergey Nechayev, the co-author of “The Catechism of the Revolutionary”, and that of Vladimir Lenin. The main argument examines the extent by which the “Catechism of the Revolutionary” influenced Lenin’s early ideological work and revolutionary ideals.
In 1869, when “The Catechism of the Revolutionary” was released, Russia’s political and social landscape was diffused with enumerable intellectual ideologies, among which, nihilism and anarchism began sprouting in prominence. Essentially, the failure of introducing Western liberal ideas into Russian society, and the inconsistency of the Emancipation Act of 1861 lead to the dissatisfaction of the Russian intelligentsia. Moreover, the old traditional values of autocracy which still held the Russian nation with a strong grip fueled radicalism among all intellectuals. This, in turn, ultimately led to the rise of fanaticism, as a reaction to the lack of significant change in the old autocratic hierarchy, which is best evidenced by Sergei Nechayev. Both men were products of the imminence of anarchism and nihilism in late 19th century , and both found answers to Russia’s problems in the destruction of the autocracy.
Specifically, Nechayev blatantly suggested that the revolutionary’s “task is [the] terrible, total, universal and merciless destruction” of all things that pertain to statehood and societal organization. This statement is, in itself, a summary of the extremist views expressed within his famous 1869 manifesto, “The Catechism of the Revolutionary”. Nechayev’s themes of anarchical pseudo-nihilism which advocated for complete revolutionary action emphasized the importance of transforming society into an ‘organism’ simply based on the idea of perpetual revolution. In other words, as explained by numerous historians, Nechayev and Bakunin’s manifesto advocated “the nihilist’s commitment to destruction” of the Tsarist regime and implementation of a new political structure through violent revolution. This idea, inherently became the driving force behind the application of extremist theoretical dialectics in the Russian intelligentsia, which had some effect on the shaping of the political ideologies of young intellectuals and the radical group Narodnaia Volia. It is interesting to note that as a young man in university, in the late 1880’s, Lenin joined a circle headed by a student named Bogorz whose main goal was to revive the radical Naradnoia
Volia, People’s Will. However, despite the document’s rise to fame in the 1870s, the main proponents expressed never materialized as a political entity, because of Nechayev’s irregular fanaticism which caused strains not only with Bukanin but the rest of his political associations. The document’s degree of success as a political manifesto has long presented a source of contention between historians and intellectuals: what was the importance of Nechayev and Bakunin’s manifesto? The answer lies in the different perspectives.The “Catechism of the Revolutionary” had failed to materialize politically because of its relative fanaticism during its preliminary years. However, it had profoundly influenced Leninism, which ultimately changed the nature of Russian political activism, in the period before 1917.
The thesis of this piece is that “The Catechism of the Revolutionary” had a significant influence on the ideology of Lenin, specifically on the proponents of revolutionary ideals. More precisely, it is evident that Lenin’s ideas on ‘violent revolution’ and the principles of the ‘revolutionary character’ were relatively similar to those found in the “Catechism”. These principles had an effect on the way Lenin’s ideological discourse developed, specifically in the early years of his career as a revolutionary, which in turn had led to his radicalism within the Bolshevik Party. Many historians have covered Lenin’s Marxist influences, but few have concentrated primarily on his ideas of pure revolution. Although, when the discussion of Lenin arises it is very difficult to separate his Marxist influences, from that of his revolutionary ideals, it is important to put some thought into the way his ideas about revolution were formed. The reason for this is because, perhaps, by studying the Catechism’s influence on Lenin, it becomes easier to deduce his deviations from pure Marxism, and the creation of Leninism as an ideology. Marxist theoretical dialectics has studied endlessly the reason why Lenin’s Marxist principles had deviated from Marx and had skipped the capitalist stage of the “laws of development” to impose violent socialist revolution over a country that was not prepared. However, this subject requires a study of it’s own.
The purpose here is to find out whether Nechayev did in fact shape some of Lenin’s ideals about violent revolution and even revolutionary terrorism which he had imposed during the so called “Marxian Crisis” of 1917. This will be primarily achieved through the analysis of “What is to be done?”, and “Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution”. Both pamphlets are intricate arguments for the creation of revolutionary cohesion. Moreover, a discussion of Wallace’s interpretation of Nechaev’s influences on Lenin will be used to form context to the depth of the issue.
Lenin on Nechayev
Historiography gives evidence that Lenin supported Nechayev’s radical claims on the stance of revolution. In fact, Lenin had commented on Nechayev that he had possessed a great ability as an “political organizer”, perhaps to fit his descriptions as an avid agitator. Lenin went as far to describe the political aims of the Bolshevik party to be similar to that of Nechayev. However, there was one element which Lenin, for the sake of his image above all, had omitted from his ideology and that is Nechayev’s views on political and individual terrorism. For instance, Ulam points out that Nechayev’s ideology transcended that of lunacy, but had a “connection” to the “tactics and thoughts of Lenin”. Some historians, such as Volgokogonov went as far to say that Lenin greatly admired Nechayev for his radical revolutionary work. Of course there is no real way to prove this, as Lenin did not in fact present any hard or complex views on Nechayev, as most of what he has said about him has been compiled from excerpts of letters and memoirs. As Wallace infers, the best way to actually understand Nechayev’s influence on Lenin is to compare his publications and works to that of the “Catechisms of the Revolutionary”. The best works, in this case, are that of “What is to be done?”, and “Two Tactics of Social Democracy”. The reason is because they had been created by Lenin at a stage when his political ideology was still in the process of formation.
After the Red Revolution, Lenin was already grounded in his dogma which had become irreversible. It is better to understand his idea of ‘revolution’, and compare it to that of Nechayev, at a time when his socio-political thought was still fragile. Specifically during the time period of 1901 and 1905.
Lenin’s “What is to be done?”
Lenin mentions in his famous 1902 pamphlet that the “organization of the revolutionaries” was indispensable to the cause of Marxism in Russia. Not very different from the manner in which Nechayev expressed the need for the revolution to become the sole purpose of the individual and organization. However, many other points arise in the contents of Lenin’s pamphlet, among which the idea that the Marxists of Russia needed to form a political body of like-minded intellectuals, which would create a “vanguard” that would propel the interests of organized workers against the autocracy of the state. Of course, Lenin was referring to the party of Social Democrats, which despite its name did not advocate for temperate socialism but rather full on Marxist principles. It would be wise to call this publication one of the first which presented Lenin’s plan for the formation of a Marxist-Leninist party. There are numerous points in the pamphlet which correlate with Nechayev’s ideas on the formation of a revolutionary structure.
It is evident early on in the pamphlet that Lenin advocated for the formation of the revolutionary character, specifically in his discussion of the spontaneity of the masses in conjunction with the Social Democrats. Here, he discusses that the reason the Social Democrats had largely failed as a political organization, in late 19th century, was due to their inability to form a cohesive unit of ideological revolutionary mindedness. In fact, he coined it as “the lack of consciousness and initiative among the revolutionary leaders” to explain that the organizational body lacked true complexity and motivation. Furthermore he explains this as the reason why the
Social Democrats devolved into units of “trade-unionism”, rather than strong revolutionary groups. Essentially, Lenin’s ideas about the strength of the revolutionary body can be easily be correlated with Nechayev’s own discussion of the comradery and that revolutionary passion that should be used to achieve the conclusions of the party and the revolutionary group. Nechayev mentions that the revolutionary must only have a necessary attachment to those who are dedicated to the revolution. Therefore, Lenin, like Nechayev, advocated for the strength of the revolutionary process, which is why he spent more than half of his pamphlet criticizing the Social Democrats. However, Nechayev’s fanaticism does not transpose into Lenin’s more practical and logical assumptions on the solidarity needed in the revolutionary context. These main goals to appear to be similar in weight. The problem of spontaneity is also not seen to be discussed by Nechayev, however he deliberated the idea of destruction almost in the tone on the immanency of revolution. Moreover, Necheyv calls solidarity as “superfluous” giving testament to his individualist anarchism, but contradicts himself by mentioning that the revolutionary must form strict organization in order to effectuate the ultimate goal of the movement- destruction of autocracy. The importance Lenin puts on revolutionary organization is undoubtedly present in Nechayev’s “Catechism”. Moreover, Lenin uses the revolutionary power, as expressed by the Naradnoya Voyla in the 1870s, but describes it as essentially unable to adhere to the more complex organization of party politics. It is interesting to note that the Naradonoya Voyla, as a nihilist group, were influenced by Nechayev directly, mainly in the precepts of their fanaticism.
During the prominent discussion of the failures of the Social Democratic party, Lenin attributes their un-cohesiveness to their “lack of revolutionary experience and practical training”, not only referring to the individual revolutionary but the movement as well. He continues to describe the lack of experience as one that was based in the inability of understanding revolutionary ideology and the abilities necessary to move the political mass of the movement into shape. These two factors also had an important effect on the manner in which the leaders of the party failed to understand the revolutionary dogma. Nechayev devotes a whole section in his “Catechism” to the very problem of revolutionary training, more precisely the revolutionary’s duty to himself. Nechayev explains that the whole purpose of the revolutionary’s life is the revolution itself, and nothing else. The entire structure of one’s life must be composed and consumed by his devotion to the principles of his or the ’cause’. Again, Lenin does not dwell in the fanatic ideas of Nechayev but there is a stark similarity in composition on the character of the revolutionary in both authors.
It is extremely important to point that the time period between both publications is extremely evident in the complexity of Lenin’s understandings of Russia’s circumstance in 1901-1902, one which was highly unstable due to Nicholas’ II weak rule. Lenin’s complex understanding of the socio-economic situation of Russia was also due to his understanding of scientific Marxism, unlike Nechayev who seemed to wear his radical heart on ‘his sleeve’.
The last point which must be dealt with is Lenin’s idea of the “vanguard”. He emphasizes that without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary leadership while describing the insistent need of forming principally a vanguard party, whose many purpose is the end of the autocracy and the establishment of a Marxist government. Despite the fact that the pamphlet was published 15 years before the Red Revolution it holds in itself principles of ‘forced revolution’ and the deviations of Marxist principle theory, as discussed earlier. Something which starkly shows that much of Lenin’s own modification of Marxism came as early as the turn of the century. However, the idea of a vanguard acting as the elite in the formation of the party does not resonate with Nechaye’s own ideas about the revolution. Nechayev proclaims a devout hatred to the rank system of society, and what seemed as all leadership. His own ideas are associated rather with the power of the individual over the dictatorship of the state. However, this being said it is not wrong to assume that Lenin’s main objective of the “vanguard” is to lead the party to the ultimate destruction of the autocracy. Nechayev also proclaims the same frivolous need for destruction but by the hands of the individual. It is rather Lenin’s own complexity that called for the need of a strong leadership to take hold of the revolutionary masses. Moreover, the fact of the matter was that Lenin’s origins were from the elite classes of Russia, while Nechayev was a ‘peasant’ by birth. If this was the reason for their difference, it does not essentially matter. The main issue is that despite their difference they both put an almost cardinal emphasis on the revolutionary and the theory of revolution in order to achieve the ultimate end of one’s political group or party.
All in all, Lenin’s general comprehension of the theory of revolution in “What is to be done?” seems to be comparable to that of Nechayev. It is without a doubt, that he omitted Nechayev’s radical views from his dogmatic approach to the ideology of revolution but it is evident that Lenin puts a great deal amount of importance on organization and order. Moreover, Nechayev’s Catechism by no means discussed Marxism or left wing principles, but held radical ideas on the social and political formation of the revolutionary character. The same was done by Lenin who described the need for the Social Democrats to change its class leadership in the ideals of revolution to achieve their ultimate goals. It was this same principle in “What is to be done?” that contributed to the split of the Social Democrats into Lenin’s Bolsheviks and the Menshiviks in 1904. Many of the principles proposed by Lenin in “What is to be done?” did not materialize in 1905, which partially accounts for the revolution’s ultimate failure, specifically the fact that there was no real organization of the revolutionary masses under one wing . The partisan style of political and revolutionary groups all seemed to achieve different things by different means which was the greatest weakness of the revolutionaries of 1905. Between the publication of Lenin’s What is to be done and the Revolution it seemed that there just wasn’t enough time to organize the party accordingly specially after the strife between Martov and Lenin in 1904. This was one of the reasons why the democratic bourgeois revolution 1905 never materialized to its true potential.
Lenin’s “Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution”
After the failure of the 1905 Revolution, Lenin quickly published his controversial response to the ill-organized frameworks of the Social Democrat party, composing a new model for a ‘democratic revolution’. At first glance the work seems to be a simple criticism of the failures of the Mensheviks, specifically in their ability to organize masses effectively, as well as some internal party disputes. However, it soon becomes evident that Lenin advocated that a democratic revolution could lead to the institution of a proleterian revolution. Therefore, Lenin argued that once the Tsar is abolished, the institution of Marxism could easily be achieved. In the process of his arguments he again emphasizes the importance of revolutionary ideals both on the character and the party to essentially bring both types of revolutions into effect. By the time this pamphlet was written it is evident that Lenin’s experience had increased tremendously as his arguments in favor of violent revolution also turned out to be far more complex than those of “What is to be done?”.
Two essential elements can be seen as comparable in this case; that of Nechayev’s “merciless destruction” and “the professional revolutionary”. Wallace mentions that these two factors were major influences on Lenin, but does not provide evidence for their existence within Lenin’s pamphlet. As mentioned before, it is crucial to provide literary evidence to find these comparisons valid.
The idea of “merciless destruction” was described by Nechayev to be the complete and utter dismantling of the aristocracy, the autocracy, society and state. Essentially, he argued for the complete abolishment of all the principles of the Tsarist regime, which would pave the way for a new society to be established. Lenin argues in his chapter, “What Is A “Decisive Victory of the Revolution Over Tsarism”?” in the “Two Tactics”, that the abolishment of the old regime could only be achieved through the establishment of a new one, in this case the provisional government. Essentially, both men had believed that the only way change could be instituted was through the violent insurrection of the ‘old’ structure . Wallace describes this as one of Nechayev’s influences on Lenin. Whether this was just a coincidental matter seems raise a few questions. However, it is interesting that the idea of the destruction of the government comes up numerous times in Lenin’s pamphlet. For instance, in the chapter of “The Tactics of “Eliminating The Conservatives from the Government”, Lenin writes that the “government is isolated and lacks public sympathy” and it is for this reason “it is easy to destroy it”. It is quite interesting that Lenin uses the the theme of destruction or abolishment when discussing the Bolshevik’s need to end a certain political group, such as the conservatives, or the government itself. This perhaps is a testimony to Lenin’s own radical nature, as he would rather see the destruction of the ‘old’ , than a simple process of replacement. It is most likely that the instability of 1905 also had an effect on his radicalization as a political agitator.Moreover, it is highly likely that the failure of the 1905 Revolution had an affect on Lenin’s own belief that the Tsardom could not be changed, but only abolished. The reason this might be the case is because the idea of destruction was not covered so complexly and with such a radical fervor in What is to be done of 1902. Perhaps, it is not wrong to assume that the times had pushed Lenin to be more radical in his views, at least closer to Nechayev.
The problem of the “professional revolutionary” was one that had seemed far more prominent in 1905. Specifically, in the chapter “The Abolition of the Monarchist System and the Republic”, Lenin puts a great deal of emphasis on the ‘tasks of the revolutionary’. Nechayev’s radical view asked that the revolutionary leave aside all personal aspects of one’s life and define himself for the single purpose of destructive revolution. Lenin seems to have taken the principles of revolution and established them to the wider scope of party politics, rather than the individual. He had kept the importance of professional revolution as the one unyielding trait, but had established it as a proponent of the masses. This is best described in his argument in the formation of revolutionary communes, or revolutionary provisional governments, where he proposes that a the commune take the role of leader during the revolution. He was arguing that if a revolution is to take place, the single and most important role of the domineering party is to administer the effectiveness of revolutionary takeover. Therefore, Lenin seemed to replace all the individual aspects in the Catechism with that of group politics. Overall, it is evident that Lenin’s radicalism shifted considerably from his arguments set forth in What is to be done. Specially as they seem to closer to Nechayev’s own ideas, in 1905 than they did in 1902.
Despite all of the correlations that have been presented on the ideology of revolution between the two men, one important and crucial distinction remains. Wallace argues that Nechayev inherently believed in the establishment of a “social revolution”, headed by individualism, while Lenin advocated for a “political revolution”. Moreover, Nechaev did not trust the masses, or groups for that matter, to be the engine by which the end of Tsardom would occur. On the other hand, Lenin completely believed that change could only be propagated through the proletariat of Russia. Wallace however fails to come up with a sound explanation as towhy this was. It was most likely due to the major difference in political ideology between the two. Lenin was a devout follower of the teaching of Marxism and Socialism, where the idea of masses and party politics were inherently the cohesive unit of most of Marx’s teachings. The idea of political revolution seemed to be the only logical step in the liberation of the working class from the elite classes, one that would aim immediately at the dethroning of the autocratic government. All the while, Nechaev was a nihilist and anarchist. Wallace described Nechaev as an advocate of ruthlessness, and an individual who was determined to achieve his ends, by any means. What this means is that Nechaev was an individualist, most likely due to the nature of the ideology of anarchism and nihilism which promotes individuality. His main concern as expressed in the “Catechism” was the stirring of anarchy through destruction of all societal elements. Therefore, he starkly favoured revolution through petty means of violence on the low scale elements of society. Wallace describes that Nechayev wanted to appeal to the human element of revolution while Lenin concentrated on the political spectrum. The reason this is important is because although the two men held two different ideologies, it is interesting to see how Nechayev’s ideas, although founded in anarchy, had affected Lenin.
The “Catechism of the Revolutionary” had an important influence on Lenin’s specific idea of violent revolution and the revolutionary character. Although Nechayev and Lenin saw different types of revolutions occurring on distinct levels of society, they shared one main conclusion to be true: violent revolution was the only way the destruction of the Tsardom could be accomplished.
What is meant by this is that although Nechayev advocated for social revolution while Lenin for political revolution, the main concern is that Lenin had the same conceptions as Nechayev over its process. Moreover, Lenin took the ideals of Nechayev’s ‘revolutionary traits’ and applied them to the large context of his political party, the Bolsheviks, rather than that of the individual, as Nechayev implied. Although “What is to be done” and “Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution” were immensely superior in complexity to Nechayev’s simple manifesto, the elements of its revolutionary dialectics were profoundly visible in sections of the two pamphlets. Specifically, that of the organization of masses under the consensus of revolution, and the construction of the revolution as being the sole purpose of the party. In this case Lenin took the principles of which Nechayev advocated to the individual and transferred them to his own view of how a political ‘vanguard’ is to be molded. Wallace points out that Nechaev’s only purpose was that of destruction, with the nihilistic objective of nothingness. It is clear that Lenin’s own objectives were that of destruction, but subsequently, the construction of Marxism. Therefore, it is clear that both were concerned with the process of destabilization through revolutionary action. Lenin and Nechaev were revolutionary characters, whose main purposes were to impose radical and immediate changes upon their landscape. Their goals were motivated by the quintessential Russian thought at the time, which Wallace explains to be the “predominance of society over the individual or worker”. Although their differences in ideology became apparent, the ideology of the revolutionary became a partially ‘universal’ construct between the two men. An universality that became a reality, as the pot of revolution had been cooking all throughout the 19th century. Nechayev was merely a product of the Tsardom’s brutal regime and the intricate complexities of the Russian socio-political stage, as was Lenin.
“Our task is terrible, total, universal, and merciless destruction.”
-Nechayev. The Catechism of the Revolutionary(1869), para. 6.
“History has now confronted us with an immediate task which is the most revolutionary of all the immediate tasks confronting the proletariat of any country. The fulfilment of this task, the destruction of the most powerful bulwark…”
– Lenin. What is to be done?- “Critiscism in Russia”(1902)
Adam B. Ulam. The Bolsheviks: The Intellectual and Political History of the Triumph of Communism in Russia.(Harvard University Press April 1, 1998),pp 628.
Dmitri Volkogonov. Lenin.(Simon and Schuster:1998), pp. 576.
Ian Wallace. The Influences of Chernyshevsky, Tkachev, and Nechaev on the political thought of V.I. Lenin. (Phd. Diss, McMaster University, 1992), accessed November 11th 2012, http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi? article=7993&context=opendissertations, pp.182.
John Marmysz.Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a response to Nihilism. (Suny Press:2003), pp.209.
Karl Marx. “Money-Capital and Real Capital” in Capital Vol 3, 1894.
Luciano Pellicani. “Revolutionary Apocalypse:Ideological Roots of Terrorism”(Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003). 301.
Sergei Nechayev. “The Revolutionary Catechism” 1869, Marxist Organization, accessed November 23d 2012, http://www.marxists.org/subject/anarchism/nechayev/catechism.htm
Suny, Ronald. The Soviet Experiment:Russia, the USSR, and the Successor State.(Oxford Press:2011) pp 588.
Paul Avrich. Bakunin & Nechaev.(Freedom Press: 1974), pp. 32.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.”Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution” Lenin’s Collected Works, 1962, Moscow,Volume 9, pp. 15-140.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.”What Is To Be Done?:Burning Question of OurMovement”Lenin’s Collected Works, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961, Moscow, Volume 5, pp. 137
Zoltan Barany. “The Volotalie Marxian Concept of the Dictatorship of the Proleteriat” Studies in East European Thought. Vol 49, No. 1 (Mar. 1997). pp 1-21. accessed November 15th ,2012 http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/stable/20099623
Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 1, on June 18th, 2014.