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James Allen Rogers

Proudhon and the transformation of Russian nihilism

In: Cahiers du monde russe et sovitique. Vol. 13 N4. pp. 514-523.

Citer ce document / Cite this document : Rogers James Allen. Proudhon and the transformation of Russian nihilism . In: Cahiers du monde russe et sovitique. Vol. 13 N4. pp. 514-523. doi : 10.3406/cmr.1972.1892




"In this negation, in this annihilation of the old social mode of life is the terrible strength of Proudhon," Alexander Herzen wrote in his memoirs.1 The relationship of Pierre- Joseph Proudhon and Herzen has been the object of much excellent scholarship,2 but the role of Proudhon in the transformation of the later Russian nihilism of the i86o's has been overlooked. The Russian nihilists borrowed few specific doctrines from Proudhon. They sought instead in his writings a negative spirit akin to their own which denounced the state and society. They saw in Proudhon, as had Herzen earlier, a call for an annihilation of the old social mode of life. Proudhon's works began to appear in Russian translation in the 1860's. This unexpected popularity in Russia sur prised Proudhon, who noted that he was "read and discussed even in the far reaches of Siberia."8 The young nihilist, P. G. Zaichnevskii, translated Proudhon's Qu'est-ce que la proprit ? into Russian, but the police arrested him in 1861 before the manuscript could be delivered to the underground press.4 The early Russian nihilists found congenial not only Proudhon's attack upon the political and economic foundations of the state. His description of revolution as both a progressive and natural phenomenon * This article grew out of a larger study on Darwinism and Russian revolution ary made possible by a Fellowship from the Russian Research Center at thought Harvard University. 1. Alexander Herzen, Sobranie sochinenii (Collected works), 30 vols. (Moscow, 1954-1963), X: 185. 2. Raoul Labry, Herzen et Proudhon (Paris, 1928). See also the excellent essay by Michel Mervaud, "Herzen et Proudhon," CMRS, XII, 1-2 (1971): 1 10-145 and the appended collection of letters: 145-188. 3. R. Labry, op. cit.: 199. 4. Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution (New York, i960): 285. The police also found in Zaichnevskii's room P.-J. Proudhon's De la Justice dans la Rvolution et dans l'glise, 4 vols. (Paris, 1858). F. Venturi, op. cit.: 763, n. 2. Zaichnevskii's circle also translated into Russian Proudhon's Systme des contradictions conomiques ou Philosophie de la misre, 2 vols. (Paris, 1846) as well as his Ide gnrale de la rvolution au dix-neuvime sicle (Paris, 1851). See R. Labry, op. cit.: 239. The dates of publication above are those of the original publication in France.



reinforced their belief that the growth of the natural sciences and human progress were inextricably linked together. Russian radical thinkers of the later 1850's and early 1860's believed that the natural sciences were related to revolutionary thought and socialism as idealism was related to Orthodoxy and the maintenance of the Russian autocracy. The nihilists called upon the natural sciences to attack idealism and to supply those principles by which contemporary Russian society could be judged and condemned.1 The literature popularizing the natural sciences which entered Russia from Western Europe in the late 1850's encouraged a belief in the pro gressive value of the natural sciences. Moreover, the enthusiasm for the natural sciences in Russia extended beyond the radical thinkers to include much of educated society. It reflected larger changes taking place within Russia. The defeat in the Crimean War emphasized the need to rationalize the Russian state and to bring Russian society into the modern world. A qualified belief in the natural sciences, a type of quasi-positivism, consequently became the creed of many thinkers who had no connection with radical thought. More books in the natural sciences than in any other field were published in Russia in the 1860's. This is a significant clue to the general intellectual climate of that decade because the number of books published in Russia doubled in the years from 1861 to 1868.2 The young Russian nihilists were not content, however, with a passive positivism which merely wanted to extend the methodology of the natural sciences as widely as possible. They sought in the natural sciences absolute answers to the problems of human existence. This attitude of 'scientism', when carried to its logical and absurd conclusion, dissolved the barrier between fact and value and led to a nihilistic pursuit of the brute fact for its own sake. Nihilism began to take root among some of the young Russian radicals in the early 1860's. This attitude found encouragement from two different sources: the literature of scientism from Western Europe and increased pressure from the Russian autocracy on dissident student opinion.8 The young nihilists lost faith not only in reform from above but also in revolution from below. They believed that they could depend only on themselves. This attitude led to the concept of a critically thinking elite verifying its ideas only by the laws of the natural sciences. This nihilist doctrine that human progress depended only on an understand ing and diffusion of the teachings of the natural sciences met a strong challenge in 1864 with the appearance of Charles Darwin's The origin 1. See in particular, Dmitrii Pisarev, Sochineniia (Works), 6 vols. (St. Peters burg,1897), I: 375. 2. M. V. Muratov, Knizhnoe dlo v Rossii v XIX i XX vekakh (The book business in Russia in the ith and 20th centuries) (Moscow, 193 1): 103. 3. William L. Mathes, "The origins of confrontation politics in Russian Univ ersities: Student activism, 1855-1861," Revue canadienne d'tudes slaves, II (1968): 26-45.



of species in a Russian translation.1 The leading nihilist, Dmitrii Pisarev, enthusiastically praised Darwin's book in a long review. He strongly emphasized that the core of Darwinian natural selection was a literal interpretation of the idea of the struggle for existence which Darwin had borrowed from Thomas Malthus. Pisarev overlooked Darwin's own insistence that natural selection was far more complex than the idea of the struggle for existence which Darwin had used only in a meta phorical sense.8 Pisarev interpreted Darwinism to mean that in the struggle for existence in nature or human society only the 'fittest' survive. He saw the contemporary European in his historical struggles with less developed peoples as a manifestation of this superiority.8 Pisarev's application of Darwin's biological theory of evolution to human history contained within itself the seeds of racism. It was not Pisarev, however, but his friend, Varthalomew Zaitsev, who created out of Darwinism an overtly racist philosophy. In a review for the radical journal, Russkoe slovo, Zaitsev discussed in August 1864 a book on the unity of human species by the eminent French naturalist, Jean Louis Armand de Quatrefages.4 The book advocated a theory of monogenesis regarding the human species. This meant that all races were ultimately of one species and that any racial differences were only of degree rather than of kind.6 Zaitsev, a former medical student, violently disagreed with the theory of monogenesis. Following Karl Vogt, whose writings circulated widely among the young nihilists,6 Zaitsev insisted upon the validity of the polygenetic theory of man. This theory saw in the differences 1. The translator was Sergei Aleksandrovich Rachinskii, who began the trans lation in 1862. His translation was reprinted several times until a new Russian translation by Kliment A. Timiriazev appeared in 1895. 2. "I should premise that I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphorical sense," Darwin wrote in The origin of species, "including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny." Morse Peckham, d., The origin of species by Charles Darwin. A variorum text (Philadelphia, 1959), III: 25. 3. D. Pisarev, op. cit., Ill: 366-368. Pisarev made no distinction in his review between biological and social evolution. He saw no difference between the struggle for existence in nature untouched by human activity and the struggles of human history. Pisarev crudely interpreted the collapse of the Roman Empire and the colonization of the Pacific as two obvious examples of the struggle for existence resulting in the survival of the fittest. 4. De Quatrefages' theory of monogenesis was independent of Darwin's theory of natural selection which de Quatrefages did not completely accept. He had, however, great respect for Darwin and proposed him for election to the French Academy of Sciences. Darwin considered de Quatrefages an 'excellent naturalist.' See Francis Darwin, d., The life and letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols. (London, 1887), II: 234; III: 118, 154-1555. Jean Louis Armand de Quatrefages, L'unit de l'espce humaine (Paris, 1861). 6. See particularly Karl Vogt, Vorlesungen uber den Menschen, seine Stellung in der Schpfung und in der Geschichte der Erde (Geissen, 1863). Vogt discussed in chapter seven his belief in polygenesis and therefore in the physical and mental inferiority of the black race to the white. Zaitsev reviewed this book for Russkoe slovo (1863): 11-12; (1864): 3.



between races not mere variations from a common species but a differ ence in kind rather than in degree. Zaitsev concluded in his review that this unbridgeable gap between the white and black species meant that the black race was inferior to the white and therefore 'naturally' enslaved.1 Zaitsev's overt racism shocked the radical thinkers. M. A. Antonovich spoke for the revolutionary intelligentsia when he replied in the other major radical journal, Sovremennik, that whatever zoology might say, common sense and the general welfare of humanity must be respected.2 The controversy over Zaitsev's racism led the revolutionary thinkers to question the human implications of Darwinism, the relation shipDarwinism to the idea of progress, and finally the basic assumpt of ion Darwinism, like the natural sciences in general, was the repo that sitory of an impersonal and objective truth. Reflections upon the human implications of Darwinism gave rise to an anthropomorphic criticism of Darwinism guided by the precepts of Proudhon. Among the radical thinkers, Proudhon was widely read. His destructive criticism of the state and its institutions found an echo in the nihilists' approach to political, social and philosophical questions in the early 1860's. They saw in the individual, as did Proudhon, the supreme source of all values. But for the young Russian nihilists, Proudhon was at first only another Western European thinker offering a doctrine with which they could covertly attack the ideals of the society in which they lived. By the middle 1860's, the Russian radical thinkers began to emphasize the positive side of Proudhon's thought: his belief that once liberated from political, economic and spiritual tyranny, men could by voluntary cooperation (mutualit) fully develop themselves in realizing their own goals.3 The idea of mutuality furnished the young biologist and anarchist revolutionary, Nikolai D. Nozhin, with his basic concept in developing an anthropomorphic criticism of Darwinism. Nozhin's revolutionary interpretation of Darwinism was significant because it was the first to come from a trained biologist. Nozhin was born into a well-educated gentry family in 1841 and tutored at home. When he entered the Imperial Alexander Lyce in 1854, he appeared physically under developed and extremely nervous. Many attributed these qualities to his premature birth which left him during his short life with the appearance of a child. The majority of Nozhin's classmates, in prep aration for high positions in the government, studied law and history. But a small group became passionately interested in the natural sciences. 1. V. A. Zaitsev, Izbrannye sochineniia (Selected works), 2 vole. (Moscow, 1934), I: 228-231. 2. Sovremennik (Jan., 1865): 163. 3. P.-J. Proudhon's De la capacit politique des classes ouvrires (Paris, 1865) was widely read by the Russian nihilists in the original French. It was translated into Russian in 1867.



Nozhin was one of this group. The study of the natural sciences was linked in the lyce as elsewhere in Russia with a revolutionary attitude towards the Russian state and society. Hectographed copies of Buchner, Vogt and Moleschott circulated surreptitiously among the students and spread a materialistic and revolutionary outlook. In i860 the students read with equal enthusiasm Darwin's Origin of species in German translation.1 After graduation from the lyce, Nozhin continued his education in chemistry at the University of Heidelberg where he became close friends with Alexander Kovalevskii. Their strong interest in Darwinism led them away from the study of chemistry. Nozhin was the first to give up chemistry for zoology, and was soon followed by Kovalevskii. Both young men read a small German brochure on Darwinism in 1864 which stimulated them to study evolutionary embryology.2 This eventually led them to research in Italy where Kovalevskii gathered the data for his doctoral dissertation while Nozhin prepared his first scientific article.8 When Nozhin returned to St. Petersburg in the beginning of 1865 his friends found that the acclaim which greeted his scientific work had given him new confidence in his analytical powers. He responded to Zaitsev's racist article with a long and sweeping statement incorporating his own scientific experience and the insights into society which he had acquired through the reading of Proudhon. It seemed to Nozhin that Zaitsev was trying to appear brilliantly provocative by his espousal of a rigid scientific determinism that doomed black peoples to an inferior position. Nozhin suggested that the philanthropic point of view, treated with such contempt by Zaitsev, was necessary in the resolution of all practical questions. The natural sciences were limited to the resolution of empirical questions. Science could present alternative answers to social questions but science itself could not make the final decision as to which was morally right. That decision belonged to man alone. Zaitsev, for example, had insisted that the slavery of blacks occurred not by chance but for 'natural and historical' reasons. Nozhin replied that all of human existence was 'natural-historical' and the 1. Sergei Svatikov, "Nikolai Dmitrievich Nozhin (1841-1866)," Golos minuvshego (Oct. 1914): 1-5. Vogt's book which was especially popular with the nihilists has been mentioned above. Ludwig Buchner's book, Kraft und Stoff, Empirischnaturphilosophische Studien. In allgemein verstandlicher Darstellung (Frankfurt a.M., 1855) had an extraordinary vogue among the young Russian radicals and was consequently banned by the Tsarist government. Jacob Moleschott s book, Der Kreislauf des Lebens (Mainz, 1852) was equally popular and inadequate in its knowledge of the contemporary natural sciences. 2. This book, Fur Darwin, by Fritz Miiller was translated by Nozhin into Russian as V zashchitu Darvina (For Darwin) . 3. N. D. Nozhin, "Sur un cas de gnration alternante chez la Geryonia proboscidalis et sur la larve du Rhizostoma Aldrovandi," Bulletin de l'Acadmie impr iale des Sciences de Saint-Ptersbourg, VIII (1865): 214. Alexander Kovalevskii's work on the Ascidians was published in the Mmoires de l'Acadmie impriale des Sciences de Saint-Ptersbourg, X, 15 (1866).



itself.1 struggle against slavery was just as 'natural-historical' as was the slavery Under the stimulus of the controversy over the social significance of Darwinism, Nozhin created a developmental theory of history in which progress became equated with those conditions which created the possibility for the fullest development of each individual personality. Nozhin expressed his theory of history in both scientific and moral terms. He criticized Zaitsev's use of 'scientific authorities' and pointed out that neither Vogt nor Thomas Huxley sanctioned slavery even though both believed in the existence of lower and higher races.2 Moreo ver, even if lower and higher races did exist, Darwin's theory opened the possibility for lower races to evolve to higher stages. Nozhin explained that if Zaitsev carefully studied the relationship of Darwinism to human progress, he would see that the problem was not one of race but of the development of individual personality. Developed individuals could appear anywhere if they were not repressed because of the color of their skin. The supposedly superior white race sank even below the level of animals when it took to itself the right to exercise tyranny over other peoples. Nozhin concluded that the inhuman attitude of racism always arose from the same source: indifference to the suffering of others camouflaged as 'scientific' thought.3 Zaitsev was caught in a dilemma by Nozhin's article. Here was science used against the advocates of scientism. Worse, this was science infused with the insight of Proudhon. Zaitsev, one of the leading Proudhonists among the young Russian radicals, claimed that he found it impossible to understand Nozhin's article: "I would willingly have answered the much more considered article in no. 8 of Iskra if it were not so obscure."4 What Zaitsev found 'obscure' was Nozhin's ability to take the slogans of the nihilists and turn them to radically different conclusions. In Nozhin's developing theory of history, the nihilists' materialistic and mechanistic idea of progress was giving way to a sub jective doctrine in which the objective truth of the natural sciences could not be separated from the subjective goals of man. Nozhin's biological basis for his new theory became more apparent in late 1865 when he reviewed a work by Rudolph Virchow. Nozhin opposed Virchow's emphasis on cellular physiology for scientific and for sociological reasons derived from Proudhon. He believed that what is healthy for the individual cell may not be healthy for the individual as a whole. The health of the individual cell may benefit from the specialization of the organ of which it is a part. But the 1. N. D. Nozhin, "Po povodu statei Russkogo slova o nevol'nichestve" (In connection with the articles of Russkoe slovo about slavery), Iskra, 8 (1865): 114-115. races' Ibid.: 115-116. Charles opposed slavery. See F. Darwin, op. cit., II:lower 2. but he also passionately Darwin also used the phrase 'higher and 374. 3. N. D. Nozhin, "Popoyodu...", art. cit.: 115-117. 4. V. A. Zaitsev, op. cit., I: 239. Zaitsev was comparing Nozhin's article with that of Antonovich.



individual as a fully integrated personality would suffer by such special ization. The division of labor between individuals of the same species forced such specialization which violated the integrity of the individual and gave rise to the struggle for existence.1 A criticism of the division of labor was not a new doctrine among the Russian revolutionary thinkers. What was new was the way Nozhin used it to criticize the Malthusian aspect of Darwinism applied to human society. Economists erred, according to Nozhin, in attribut ing struggle for existence in society to an unjust distribution of the wealth. In fact, such struggle was the result of the division of labor which the economists thought was necessary for the accumulation of capital. By encouraging a division of labor, the economists only further exacerbated the class struggle in society.2 Nozhin's solution to the division of labor was a Proudhonist one: individual anarchism working for the solidarity of all human beings. It was Proudhonist rather than Bakuninist because Nozhin saw in Bakunin's conspiratorial and revolutionary anarchism only the old panaceas of the political economists turned to revolutionary use. Nozhin and Bakunin had met while Nozhin was in Italy, but they did not find each other compatible. Nozhin wanted to reach 'moral' conclusions about social conditions in a 'scientific' way using theories such as Darwin's. Bakunin's ritualized formulas and conspiratorial approach to an anarchist revolution struck Nozhin as obsolete and illfounded. Bakunin, in turn, found Nozhin far too bookish for his own taste, and did not trouble to conceal his contempt for this 'caricature of a nihilist'.3 Moreover, Bakunin saw no value for revolutionary anarchism in Darwinism.4 In St. Petersburg, by contrast, Nozhin found support for his develop ing philosophy among the circle of Proudhonists working on the journal, Knizhnyi vestnik. With them he worked out his ideas in an unfinished series of articles on the meaning and goals of the natural sciences. In the first three articles, Nozhin stressed that the goal of science should not be the growth of the individual scientist nor of science itself but the revolutionizing of social problems. Following Proudhon, Nozhin asserted that state socialism was no panacea for human problems because the political approach was either the result of navet or the desire for exploita tion. Nozhin believed that science as practiced in the past served only to support the existing order. Science as practiced by the 'new man' would stand in direct opposition to the ruling order. Science 1. Knizhnyi vestnik, 24 (1865): 467. A review by Nozhin of Rudolph Virchow's Four lectures on life and pathological conditions. 2. Knizhnyi vestnik, 2 (1866): 46. A review by Nozhin of H. W. Bates, A natur alist on the river Amazon. 3. S. Svatikov, art. cit.: 9. 4. Mikhail Bakunin, "Aux compagnons de la Fdration jurassienne," in Arthur Lehning, d., Michel Bakounine et les conflits dans l'Internationale, 1872 (Leiden, 1965): 57.



was the only area of human activity in Tsarist Russia in which there was still the possibility to do work of a positive and creative character. The ultimate goal of science like that of society should be the achievement of solidarity of all its members by the fusion of their interests. By recognizing this essential goal of development, men would have a cri terion with which to judge the progress and direction of scientific research.1 Nozhin found in the contemporary attitude toward Darwinism a lack of any criterion by which to judge human progress. Darwinism was accepted and applied uncritically by various groups without any study of the significance of Darwinism for the achievement of solidarity for society as a whole. Nozhin blamed Darwin's Malthusian assumption for this uncritical attitude: "Darwin talks about the connection between the struggle for existence and natural selection as if he did not notice that every such connection is limited by the antagonism between these two conditions of growth; therefore, he does not see that the struggle for existence is not helpful for evolution, that by itself it is only the source of pathological phenomena, phenomena diametrically opposed to the laws of physical evolution. "2 Nozhin's new insight into the importance of mutual aid in biological evolution came not from the natural sciences but from the reading of Proudhon's De la capacit politique des classes ouvrires (1865). Nozhin saw in Proudhon's idea of mutuality the basis for a moral and scientific critique of the nihilists' impersonal attitude of scientism. He also found in mutuality the criterion by which to judge human progress. He agreed with Proudhon that mutuality was more than community. It was not merely association but reciprocity of services based on reciprocity of respect. Mutuality growing out of such reciprocity gave each indi vidual meaningful freedom of action in every aspect of his own life.3 Nozhin's primary interest in Proudhon's theory of mutuality was its application to biological evolution rather than to political economy. It seemed to Nozhin that a scientific theory of human evolution ought to stress healthy physiological laws of development over pathological ones. A sound physiological law of development would recognize that organisms of the same species do not struggle for existence against one another unless society has forced them to do so by creating an antagonism of interests through the division of labor. The struggle for existence arises not from population pressure on subsistence as Malthus believed, but from the organization of society around the division of labor. In the absence of a division of labor, organisms of the same species strive to combine with one another, to 1. N. D. Nozhin, "Nasha nauka i uchenye" (Our science and scientists), Knizhnyi vestnih, 1, 2, 3 (1866). 2. Ibid., 7: 175. Nozhin attributed Darwin's 'uncritical acceptance' of the Malthusian doctrine to Darwin's 'bourgeois background.' 3. Ibid.: 176-178.



unify their homogeneous forces, to struggle only with the external forces of nature. This process of cooperation, according to Nozhin, must be the foundation of a healthy law of physiological evolution. Only in this way could society avoid those social contradictions which Proudhon called 'contradictions conomiques' and which were enshrined in the theory of Malthus. Nozhin concluded his long polemic against the Malthusian aspect of Darwinism with the declaration that only mutual aid among men, in the Proudhonist sense of mutualit, could produce fully integrated individuals enjoying health, freedom and anarchy.1 Nozhin's unexpected death in 1866 did not end the controversy over the application of Darwinism to social questions among the Russian socialist revolutionaries. But from that time, the socialist revolutiona ries to accept Darwinism largely within the biological and Proubegan dhonian interpretation first espoused by Nozhin and later elaborated by Nikolai Mikhailovskii. That interpretation suggested that Darwin ismits relationship to the evolution of human society must emphasize in mutual aid over the struggle for existence to produce human solidarity and healthy and fully integrated personalities. The concept of human solidarity also furnished a criterion to relate Darwinism to the idea of historical progress. Any interpretation of Darwinism, such as the Malthusian one, which did not further human solidarity was regressive and inimical to the development of the integral personality. Finally, by replacing the impersonal and mechanistic view of science, advocated by the nihilists, with an anthropomorphic interpretation of Darwinism, Nozhin brought purpose into Darwinian evolution. That purpose was the fullest development of the freedom of the integral personality derived from a transformation of society based on Proudhonian mutual aid rather than on a division of labor. Nozhin's writings on Darwinism marked the decline of the belief, exemplified by Pisarev's early writings, that science existed for its own sake. The nihilists had believed in the objectivity of the natural sciences and the inevitability of human progress but they had never clarified the relation between the two. The controversy over the social signif icance of Darwinism had raised the question of that relationship once again. Nozhin had insisted that the natural sciences were no longer the haven of an objective truth separated from the goals of mankind. Using the ideas of Proudhon to interpret Darwinian evolution, Nozhin transformed the nihilist doctrine of objective science and automatic progress into a subjective theory of historical development finding its fullest expression in human solidarity and mutual aid. Nozhin's close friend, Nikolai Mikhailovskii, developed in much greater detail Nozhin's belief that human solidarity is a subjective although 'necessary' choice of man. It became the basis of his 'subjective method' in historical 1. Ibid.: 178. Nozhin refers specifically to Proudhon's De la capacit politique des classes ouvrires (op. cit.) when*hejnentions the idea of Proudhonian mutuality.



and sociological analysis.1 The rise of the school of Russian subjective sociology, which exerted an extraordinary influence over Russian thinkers, was a direct legacy of the transformation of Russian nihilism under the impact of Proudhonian ideals. Claremont (Calif.), 1972

1. Nikolai K. Mikhailovskii, "Teoriia Darvina i obshchestvennaia nauka" (Darwin's theory and social science), Sochineniia (4th d., St. Petersburg, 19061913), I: 165-350.