A Peter Julius Lecture from
Fall 2008

Reading: Nechaev, Catechism of a Revolutionist (1869)

What happens after the revolution?

  • Sorel quoted Marx as having said, “Anyone who plans for what will happen after the revolution is a reactionary.”

Reactions to Nechaev?

  • A fanatic… a terrorist… an ambitious revolutionary.
  • This was a widely published document and continues to be so.

What is the relationship between this guy and Bazarov?  

  • He studies only useful sciences, not for the purpose of improving agriculture, but for fomenting revolution. Everything needs to be destroyed. 

What would Turgenev think of this guy?

  • He is so unrealistic (even if he is a real person.) Means and ends?

Where have we run into this philosophy before in your educational life?

  • It’s Machiavelli taken to real extremes. The end is revolution and the destruction of the social order. The means to the end?  Infiltration… winning the support of the lower orders by deceit if necessary… and then destruction of the ruling class.

Serge Nechaev (1847-1882) The Terrorist Option

Born in Ivanova, already in mid 19th c. partly industrialized town. His daddy was a waiter, sign painter and caterer. Origins: petit-bourgeoisie, not gentry: his ancestors were serfs, but he is now urban, not a peasant, He belongs to a new political group that will become larger and larger and larger: the proleteriat. His father made sure his kid went to school. At age 18 in St. Petersburg, he passes a test to become a high school student. There, he hangs out with college students in the late 1860’s  who are way into revolution. He falls in with the same guys who hung out with the radicals.

1869: Attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander II, and the Third Section (the tsar's secret police) cracks down on all of the radicals. Nechaev leaves and goes to Western Europe. He tells the exiles there that he had been arrested too but managed to escape from prison. He has abandoned his buddies. When he gets to Switzerland, he is immediately embraced by the leading intellectual exiles in Russia. His closest companion and mentor is Bakunin, the anarchist writer for Herzen’s The Bell. Here is this young guy adopted by Bakunin, perhaps his lover. So how did this guy mix in with the leading intellectuals of the left in Europe? He writes The Catechism of the Revolutionary.

He sneaks back into Russia and forms a revolutionary organization, and while this organization is at work, Nechaev thinks perhaps that one member of this group is an informant or a rival, and he convinces three other guys to help him murder the 'traitor' and dump his body into a frozen lake. He is forced to flee to Switerland once again. He returns to Bakunin and is adopted again. He steals letters from Bakunin to use to blackmail him in case Bakunin ever turns on him. The exiles grow tired of him for being excessively radical. The Swiss police catch Nechaev, and he is returned to Russia where he is sentenced to 20 years hard labor. He converts his guards and helps organize the terrorist group the People’s Will which will eventually succeed in assassinating the tsar.

As Paul Avrich pointed out: "The last ten years of Nechayev's life were spent in solitary confinement in the Peter-Paul Fortress... When General Potapov of the secret police visited his cell and offered him leniency if he would serve as a spy, Nechaev struck him across the face, drawing blood. For the next two years his hands and feet remain in chains until the flesh begins to rot."  (Spartacus) In 1882 he dies of scurvy.

How could this guy whose personal qualities are self evidently dishonorable earn the resepct of the chief members of Russia's revolutinary elite? How could these people find him someone worth helping? What would explain his appeal to other revolutionaries?

  • In any given circumstance, he was the most radical person in the room. He takes his ideas the furthest. He is the most passionate.
  • Secondly, he is NOT from the educated gentry, so this guy possesses legitimate grievances. He has experienced the suffering of the oppressed classes. The biggest problem the intellectuals had was the gulf between them and the supposed beneficiaries of their rebellious aims.
  • Raznochintsy: people who are of non gentry background. One of the things that happens to the revolutionary movement in Russia during the 2nd half of the 19th century is the rise of the raznochintsy. Nechaev is both passionate and from the people. Isn’t this true with rappers? Don’t they need to have been shot in order to earn the same sort of street cred?

Foreground to Text:

This has been a useful blueprint for revolutionaries since its publication: the Red Brigade, Black Panthers. Al Quaeda also run along similar lines. Nechaev-ism. Good American liberal historians like to cite Nechaev because he appears to be a forbearer of the dirty Commie rats. For the Communists, the ends justified the means, and the means could include murder and war. So referring to Nechaev is  a way of saying Stalin is nothing more than Nechaev, and anyone can see that this is wrong.

What kind of human being could follow this ideology?

  • A really sleazy guy without ethics. An evil person. You can blacken any radical by associating him with Nechaev. He was acquainted with Dostoevsky and in fact Dostoevsky write a book with Nechaev as the hero: The Devils.

What will Dostoevsky say about this guy?

  • He embodies the dead end moral degradation of the nihilist ideology. By deliberately going against society, he is being shaped by it. He is probably right that society is corrupt but in destroying it he is destroying himself which does not make for a good new leader. The will is the supreme tool of the war of personality which composes social dynamics.
  • The logic of commitment: Once you are committed to a cause, the only way to achieve the cause is to make a greater and greater commitment to the cause. Am I radical enough? Am I militant enough to get to the goal which I think is important? Dostoevsky understood that it is hopeless to think that lukewarm people are going to make the change.

Who said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”?

  • Barry Goldwater.

  Yeats' comment?

  •   The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst

    Are full of passionate intensity

Reasons for Terrorist Action:

  • The real power game is played hardball. Soft actions do not influence the results.
  • Terrorism sows fear and economic chaos which makes countries much more difficult to rule and therefore hastens the approach of a general revolution.
  • Terrorism effectively pushes more moderate ideologies out of the reformist camp, thus solidifying and strengthening the resolve of now tested fighters.
  • The premeditated actions of King and Gandhi caused  death and injury to innocent children and therefore are not essentially different from, say, strapping a bomb to a baby and leaving it in the police station.

Reasons Against Terrorism:

  • Terrorism is sure to provoke a violent response from the ruling regime, and their crackdown will not be against terrorists alone. The regime will give permission for the police to crack down on all forms of dissent with the result that ANY chance at incremental progress will be denied. (So terrorism really is directed against the more moderate reformists.)
  • Terrorist willingness to use any action to attain power will damage the intellectual integrity of the perpetrator resulting with a new government of morally damaged leaders. At any event, they will be habitualized to violence and use violence as their principle method of rule.
  • Terrorism is not as effective nor as morally damaging to the revolutionaries as pacifist methods of civil disobedience ala Thoreau, Gandhi and King.

The Duties of the Revolutionist to Himself
The Relations of the Revolutionist with his Revolutionary Comrades
The Relations of the Revolutionist within [his revolutionary] Society
The Attitude of the Society toward the People]


The Duties of the Revolutionist to Himself

1.  The revolutionist is a person doomed [obrechennyi, in older usage signifying also "consecrated"].  He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name.  Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution.

2.  The revolutionist knows that in the very depths of his being, not only in words but also in deeds, he has broken all the bonds which tie him to the civil order [grazhdanskim poriadkom] and the civilized world with all its laws, moralities, and customs, and with all its generally accepted conventions.  He is their implacable enemy, and if he continues to live with them it is only in order to destroy them more speedily.

3.  The revolutionist despises all doctrines and refuses to accept the mundane sciences, leaving them for future generations.  He knows only one science: the science of destruction.  For this reason, but only for this reason, he will study mechanics, physics, chemistry, and perhaps medicine.  But all day and all night he studies the vital science of human beings, their characteristics and circumstances, at every possible level of social existence.  The object is perpetually the same: the surest and quickest way of destroying the whole filthy order.

4.  The revolutionist despises public opinion.  He despises and hates the existing social morality in all its manifestations.  For him, morality is everything which contributes to the triumph of the revolution.

Anything that stands in its way is immoral and criminal.

5.  The revolutionist is a person obrechennyi [see first line]. He is merciless toward the state and toward the whole formal social structure of educated society [soslovno-obrazovannogo obshchestva]; and he can expect no mercy from them.  Between him and them there exists, declared or concealed, a relentless and irreconcilable war to the death.  He must accustom himself to torture.

6.  Tyrannical toward himself, he must be tyrannical toward others.  All the gentle and enervating sentiments of kinship, love, friendship, gratitude, and even honor, must be suppressed in him and give place to the cold and single-minded passion for revolution.  For him, there exists only one pleasure, one consolation, one reward, one satisfaction -- the success of the revolution.  Night and day he must have but one thought, one aim -- merciless destruction.  Striving cold-bloodedly and indefatigably toward this end, he must be prepared to destroy himself and to destroy with his own hands everything that stands in the path of the revolution.

7.  The nature of the true revolutionist excludes all sentimentality, romanticism, infatuation, and exaltation.  All private hatred and revenge must also be excluded.  Revolutionary passion, practiced at every moment of the day until it becomes a habit, is to be employed with cold calculation.  At all times, and in all places, the revolutionist must obey not his personal impulses, but only those which serve the cause of the revolution.


The Relations of the Revolutionist with his Revolutionary Comrades

8.  The revolutionist can have no friendship or attachment, except for those who have proved by their actions that they, like him, are dedicated to revolution.  The degree of friendship, devotion and obligation toward such a comrade is determined solely by the degree of his usefulness to the cause of total revolutionary destruction.

9.  It is superfluous to speak of solidarity among revolutionists.  The whole strength of revolutionary work lies in this.  Comrade-revolutionists [tovarishchi-revoliutsionery] who possess the same revolutionary passion and understanding should, as much as possible, deliberate all important matters together and come to unanimous conclusions.  When the plan is finally decided upon, then the revolutionist must rely solely on himself.  In carrying out acts of destruction, each one should act alone, never running to another for advice and assistance, except when these are necessary for the furtherance of the plan.

10.  All comrades should have under them second- or third-degree revolutionists -- i.e., comrades who are not completely initiated.  These should be regarded as part of the common revolutionary capital placed at his disposal.  This capital should, of course, be spent as economically as possible in order to derive from it the greatest possible profit.  The real revolutionist should regard himself as capital consecrated to the triumph of the revolution; however, he may not personally and alone dispose of that capital without the unanimous consent of the fully initiated comrades.

11.  When a comrade is in danger and the question arises whether he should be saved or not saved, the decision must not be arrived at on the basis of sentiment, but solely in the interests of the revolutionist cause.  Therefore, it is necessary to weigh carefully the usefulness of the comrade against the expenditure of revolutionary forces necessary to save him, and the decision must be made accordingly.


The Relations of the Revolutionist within [his revolutionary] Society [kobshchestvu]

12.  The new member, having given proof of his loyalty not by words but by deeds, can be received into the society [tovarishchestvo] only by the unanimous agreement of all the members.

13.  The revolutionist enters the world of the state, of the privileged classes [soslovnyi...mir], of the so-called civilization, and he lives in this world only for the purpose of bringing about its speedy and total destruction.  He is not a revolutionist if he has any sympathy for this world.  He should not hesitate to destroy any position, any place, or any man in this world.  He must hate everyone and everything in it with an equal hatred.

All the worse for him if he has any relations with parents, friends, or lovers; he is no longer a revolutionist if he is swayed by these relationships.

14.  Aiming at implacable revolution, the revolutionist may and frequently must live within society while pretending to be completely different from what he really is, for he must penetrate everywhere, into all the higher and middle-level social formations [sosloviia], into the merchant's commercial establishment, into the church, the gentry estate, and the world of the bureaucrat [mir biurokratskii] and military, into literature, and also into the Third Section and even the Winter Palace of the tsar.

15.  This filthy social order can be split up into several categories.  The first category comprises those who must be condemned to death without delay.  Comrades should compile a list of those to be condemned according to the relative gravity of their crimes; and the executions should be carried out according to the prepared order.

16.  When a list of those who are condemned is made, and the order of execution is prepared, no private sense of outrage should be considered, nor is it necessary to pay attention to the hatred provoked by these people among the comrades or the people.

Hatred and the sense of outrage may be partially and temporarily useful insofar as they incite the masses to revolt.  It is necessary to be guided only by the relative usefulness of these executions for the sake of revolution.  Above all, those who are especially inimical to the revolutionary organization must be destroyed; their violent and sudden deaths will produce the utmost panic in the government, depriving it of its will to action by removing the cleverest and most energetic supporters.

17.  The second group comprises those who will be spared for the time being in order that, by a series of monstrous acts, they may drive the people into inevitable revolt.

18.  The third category consists of a great many brutes in high positions, distinguished neither by their cleverness nor their energy, while enjoying riches, influence, power, and high positions by virtue of their rank.  These must be exploited in every possible way; they must be implicated and embroiled in our affairs, their dirty secrets must be ferreted out, and they must be transformed into slaves.  Their power, influence, and connections, their wealth and their energy, will form an inexhaustible treasure and a precious help in all our undertakings.

19.  The fourth category comprises ambitious office-holders and liberals of various shades of opinion.  The revolutionist must pretend to collaborate with them, blindly following them, while at the same time, prying out their secrets until they are completely in his power.  They must be so compromised that there is no way out for them, and then they can be used to create disorder in the State.

20.  The fifth category consists of those doctrinaires, conspirators, and revolutionists who cut a great figure on paper or in their circles [kruzhki].

They must be constantly driven on to make compromising declarations: as a result, the majority of them will be destroyed, while a minority will become genuine revolutionists.

21.  The sixth category is especially important: women.  They can be divided into three main groups.

First, those frivolous, thoughtless, and vapid women, whom we shall use as we use the third and fourth category of men.

Second, women who are ardent, capable, and devoted, but who do not belong to us because they have not yet achieved a passionless and austere revolutionary understanding; these must be used like the men of the fifth category.

Finally, there are the women who are completely on our side -- i.e., those who are wholly dedicated and who have accepted our program in its entirety.  We should regard these women as the most valuable or our treasures; without their help, we would never succeed.


The Attitude of the Society toward the People [narodu]

22.  The Society has no aim other than the complete liberation and happiness of the narod -- i.e., of the people who live by manual labor.  Convinced that their emancipation and the achievement of this happiness can only come about as a result of an all-destroying popular revolt, the Society will use all its resources and energy toward increasing and intensifying the evils and miseries of the people until at last their patience is exhausted and they are driven to a general uprising.

23.  By a revolution, the society [tovarishchestvo] does not mean an orderly revolt according to the classic western model -- a revolt which always stops short of attacking the rights of property and the traditional social systems of so-called civilization and morality.  Until now, such a revolution has always limited itself to the overthrow of one political form in order to replace it by another, thereby attempting to bring about a so-called revolutionary state.  The only form of revolution beneficial to the people is one which destroys the entire State to the roots and exterminates all the state traditions, institutions, and classes [klassy] in Russia.

24.  With this end in view, the Society therefore refuses to impose any new organization from above.  Any future organization will doubtless work its way through the movement and life of the people; but this is a matter for future generations to decide.  Our task is terrible, total, universal, and merciless destruction.

25.  Therefore, in drawing closer to the people, we must above all make common cause with those elements of the masses which, since the foundation of the state of Muscovy, have never ceased to protest, not only in words but in deeds, against everything directly or indirectly connected with the state: against nobility, against bureaucracy [chinovnichestva], against priests, against the merchant gild, and against the parasitic kulak [rich peasant].  We must unite with the world of adventurous robber bands, the only genuine revolutionists in Russia.

26.  To weld this world into one single unconquerable and all-destructive force -- this is our organization [organizatsiia], our conspiracy, our task.