The Unknown Revolution, Book One : Part 01, Chapter 02

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(1882 - 1945) ~ Bolshevik-Aligned Leader of the Russian Nabat Anarchists : March of 1920 saw him taken to Moscow, where he would remain prisoner until October, when he and many other anarchists were released by virtue of a treaty between the Soviet Union and Makhno's army. Voline then returned to Kharkov, resuming his old activities... (From : Rudolph Rocker Bio.)
• "Socialism, so mighty in Germany, Austria and Italy, has proved powerless. 'Communism', itself very strong, especially in Germany, has proved powerless. The trade unions have proved powerless. How are we to account for this?" (From : "The Unknown Revolution," by Voline.)
• "Yet there is consolation to be had. The masses learn through all too palpable first hand experience. And the experience is there." (From : "The Unknown Revolution," by Voline.)
• "As we know, there it was an authoritarian state communism (Bolshevism) that scored a stunning and rather easy victory in the events of 1917. Now, these days, nearly seventeen years on from that victory, not only is communism proving powerless to resist fascism abroad, but, where the regime within the USSR itself is concerned, the latter is more and more often being described more and more deliberately as 'red fascism'." (From : "The Unknown Revolution," by Voline.)


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Part 01, Chapter 02

Chapter 2. Repression, Violence and Failure; Development Continues (1825–1855)

The reign of Nicholas I lasted from 1825 to 1855. From a revolutionary point of view nothing striking characterizes these years. This thirty year period is nevertheless notable in several important respects.

Having ascended to the throne in the shadow of the Decembrist revolt, Nicholas I undertook to hold the country in an iron vise so as to squelch in the bud any expression of liberalism. He strengthened absolute rule to the limit and succeeded in transforming Russia jnto a bureaucratic and repressive state. !

The French revolution and the revolutionary movements which subsequently shook Europe were nightmares for him. He undertook extraordinary precautionary measures.

The entire population was closely watched. The arbitrariness of the bureaucracy, the police and the courts no longer had any limits. Any expression of independence, any attempt to elude the iron fist of the police was ruthlessly repressed.

Naturally there was not even a shadow of freedom of speech, assembly, or association.

Censorship thrived as never before.

All infractions of the “laws” were punished with the utmost severity.

The Polish uprising of 1831 (drowned in blood with a rare ferocity), as well as the international situation, led the emperor to further accentuate the militarization of the country. People’s lives were regulated as in barracks and severe punishment fell on anyone who tried to avoid the imposed discipline.

This sovereign well deserved the name: Nicholas the Fierce.

In spite of all the measures — or rather because of them and their nefarious effects, which the Czar in his blindness did not take into account — the country (namely certain sections of the population) expressed its discontent at every opportunity.

The landed nobles, pampered by the emperor who considered them his main support, exploited the serfs with impunity and treated them abominably. The peasants became perceptibly irritated. Acts of rebellion against the “pomeshchiks” (lords) and against the local authorities reached alarming proportions. Repressive measures began to lose their effectiveness.

The corruption, incompetence, and caprice of the functionaries grew increasingly unbearable. Since the Czar needed the support and the violence of the functionaries to “keep the people in line,” he would hear nothing and see nothing. The anger of those who suffered from this state of affairs only grew more intense.

The vital forces of the society did not stir. Only the official routine, absurd and impotent, was allowed.

This situation was unavoidably leading toward the future decomposition of the entire system. Powerful only in appearance, the “regime of the knout” was rotten inside. The immense empire was already becoming a “giant with clay feet.”

Growing sections of the population were becoming aware of this state of affairs.

The spirit of opposition against this impossible system was infecting the entire society.

It was in these circumstances that the magnificent evolution — both rapid and important — of the young intellectual stratum began.

In a country as large and prolific as Russia, youth were numerous among all classes of the population. What was their general outlook?

Leaving aside the peasant youth, we can observe that the more or less educated younger generations professed advanced ideas. Mid-nineteenth century youth did not readily accept the slavery of the peasants. Czarist absolutism shocked them. The study of the Western world, which no amount of censorship could prevent (on the contrary, the censorship gave rise to a taste for forbidden fruit), stimulated their imaginations. The rise of the natural sciences and of materialism made a strong impression on them. It was during this same period that Russian literature, taking its inspiration from humanist principles, flowered and exerted a powerful influence on youth, in spite of the censorship, which it successfully circumvented.

At the same time, economically, the labor of the serfs and the absence of all freedoms no longer responded to the pressing needs of the time.

For all these reasons, intellectuals, particularly the youth, were theoretically emancipated toward the end of the reign of Nicholas I. The intellectuals were resolutely opposed to serfdom and absolutism.

It was during this period that the well-known nihilist current was born, as well as asharp conflict between conservative “fathers” and fiercely progressive “sons,” a conflict superbly depicted by Turgenev in his novel, Fathers and Sons.

Outside of Russia a widespread and deeply rooted misunderstanding accompanies the word “nihilism,” which originated some 75 years ago in Russian literature and which, due to its Latin origin, passed into other languages without being translated.

In France and elsewhere, “nihilism” is generally understood as a revolutionary political and social doctrine, invented in Russia where it has or had numerous organized adherents. People still speak of a “nihilist party” and of its members, the “nihilists.” None of this is exact.

The term “nihilism” was introduced into literature and subsequently into the Russian language by the celebrated novelist Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883) in the middle of the nineteenth century. In one of his novels Turgenev used this word to describe a current of ideas — and not a doctrine — which appeared among young Russian intellectuals at the end of 1850. The term caught on and quickly became part of the language.

This current of ideas had an essentially philosophic and largely moral character. Its field of influence was always limited since it never went beyond the intellectual stratum. Its standpoint was always personal and pacifist, which did not keep it from being animated by a generous spirit of revolt and guided by the dream of happiness for all humanity.

The movement which was set off by this current (if one can speak of a movement) did not go beyond the domains of literature and customs (moeurs). Any other type of movement would have been impossible under the regime of the time. However, in these two domains it did not hesitate to draw the logical conclusions which it not only formulated but also sought to apply individually as rules of conduct.

Within these limits, the movement paved the way for I an intellectual and moral development which led Russian youth toward some very broad and progressive conceptions. One result was the emancipation of educated women, an achievement of which late nineteenth-century Russia could justly be proud.

In spite of its strictly philosophical and individual character, this intellectual current, due to its humanistic and liberating spirit, carried the germ of later social conceptions which gave rise to a real revolutionary movement that was both political as well as social. “Nihilismprepared the ground for this movement, which appeared later under the stimulus of European ideas as well as internal and external events.

Outside of Russia, the “nihilist” current is generally confused with the later movement which was led by parties or organized groups with a program of action and concrete goals. But it is only to the current of ideas which was a precursor of this movement that the term “nihilist” should be applied.

As a philosophical conception, nihilism was based on materialism and individualism, understood in their broadest, even exaggerated, sense.

Force and Matter, the famous work of Buchner (German materialist philosopher, 1824–1899), was translated into Russian, clandestinely lithographed, and thousands of copies were distributed despite the risks. This book became the Bible of Russian intellectual youth of the time. The works of Mole-schott, Charles Darwin and several materialist and naturalist authors also exerted a great influence.

Materialism was accepted as an unquestionable absolute truth.

As materialists, the nihilists engaged in an unrelenting war against religion and against everything which escapes pure reason or positive proof, against everything which is beyond material reality or beyond values with no practical use — in short, against everything which is spiritual, sentimental or idealistic.

They scorned aesthetics, beauty, comfort, spiritual enjoyment, sentimental love, fashion, the desire to please. They went so far as to completely reject art as a manifestation of idealism. Their great ideologist, the brilliant publicist Pisarev, who died in an aceident when he was young, formulated (in one of his articles) his famous parallel between a worker and an artist. Pisarev held that any cobbler was infinitely more admirable ttyan Raphael, since the first produces useful material objects while the paintings of the second serve no purpose. In his writings, Pisarev fervently applied materialistic and utilitarian principles to dethrone the great poet Pushkin. The nihilist Bazarov in Turgenev’s novel, says, “Nature is not a temple but a laboratory, and man is there to work.”

When speaking of the “unrelenting war” waged by the nihilists, one must understand a literary and verbal war, and no more. Nihilism’s activity was limited to a veiled propaganda of its ideas in journals and among intellectuals. It was not easy to spread this propaganda since it was necessary to take into account the censorship as well as the Czarist police, which suppressed “foreign heresies” and all independent thought. The “external” manifestations of nihilism consisted mainly of dressing very plainly and behaving uninhibitedly. For example, nihilist women generally had short hair, often wore glasses to make themselves ugly and emphasize their contempt for beauty and stylishness, dressed in coarse clothing to defy fashion, walked like men and smoked in order to proclaim the equality of the sexes and demonstrate their contempt for the rules of convention. These extravagances did not in any way diminish the seriousness of the movement. The impossibility of any other type of “exteriorization” explained and, in large measure, justified them. In the realm of personal morality, the nihilists practiced an absolute rigorism.

But the main principle of nihilism was a form of specific individualism.

Originally a very natural reaction against everything which the Russia of that period suppressed, this individualism ended up by denouncing, in the name of absolute individual freedom, all constraints, obligations and obstacles, and all the traditions imposed on man by society; the family, customs, morals, beliefs, established conventions.

The complete emancipation of the individual, whether man or woman, from everything which might infringe on his independence or his freedom of thought: this was the basic idea of nihilism. It defended the sacred right of the individual to total liberty and to the inviolability of his life.

The reader can understand why this current of ideas is called nihilism. This term was used to describe the partizans of an ideology which accepted nothing (in Latin, nihil) of that which was natural and sacred for others: family, society, religion, traditions. When one asked such a person, “What do you admit, what do you approve in the environment which surrounds you and which claims to have the right and even the duty to control you?” he answered: “Nothing!” (Nihil). He was a nihilist.

In spite of its essentially indivualistic and philosophical character (it defended the freedom of the individual in an abstract manner rather than against the ruling despotism), nihilism prepared the ground for the concrete struggle against the real and immediate obstacle, for concrete political, economic and social liberation.

But it did not itself undertake this struggle. It did not even ask the question: “What can be done to actually liberate the individual?” To the very end it stayed in the realm of purely ideological discussions and purely moral achievements. The other question, the question of direct action for liberation, was posed by the next generation, during the period between 1870 and 1880. It was then that the first revolutionary and socialist groups were formed in Russia. Action began. But it no longer had anything in common with the “nihilism” of former days. Even the word was discarded. It remained in the Russian language as a purely historical term, a relic and souvenir of the intellectual movement of 1860–1870.

The fact that abroad people erroneously use the term “nihilism” to refer to the entire Russian revolutionary movement before “Bolshevism” and speak of a “nihilist party,” is due to lack of knowledge of the real history of the revolutionary movements in Russia.

The outrageously reactionary government of Nicholas I refused to recognize either the real situation or the intellectual ferment. Instead, it defied society by creating a secret political police (the well-known Okhrana: “Security”) and special corps of police to destroy the movement.

Political persecutions became a true scourge. We might remember that during this period the young Dostoyevsky was almost executed, and was imprisoned for belonging to a completely harmless study group inspired by Petraschevsky; that thefirst great Russian critic and publicist, Belinsky, barely succeeded in making himself heard; that another great publicist, Herzen, was forced to become an expatriate; not to mention accomplished and active revolutionaries like Bakunin. J

All of this repression did not succeed in calming the agitation, the causes of which were too deeply-rooted. It succeeded even less in improving the situation. The Czar’s remedy was to strengthen the repressive and bureaucratic apparatus still more.

Concurrently, Russia was drawn into the Crimean War (1854–1855). This was a catastrophe. The vicissitudes of the war factually demonstrated the bankruptcy of the regime and the real weakness of the Empire. The “clay feet” gave way for the first time. (Naturally the lesson served no important purpose.) The State’s political and social sores were exposed.

Nicholas I, defeated, died in 1855 as soon as the war was lost. Perfectly aware of the bankruptcy but unable to face up to it, he probably died of the moral shock. Some even insisted that he committed suicide by poisoning himself. This interpretation is highly plausible but there is no proof.

We must insist on a little known fact to help the reader understand what follows.

In spite of all the weaknesses and obstacles, during this period, the country made considerable cultural and technical progress.

Driven by inescapable economic necessities, “national” industry was born, simultaneously giving birth to a working class, a “proletariat.” Large factories were established in several cities. Harbors were opened. Coal, iron and gold mines began to operate. Transportation networks were enlarged and improved. The first express railway was constructed, connecting St. Petersburg (Leningrad) and Moscow, the two capitals of this immense country. This railway is an engineering marvel, since the region between these two cities is unsuited for this type of construction; the land is not firm and frequently consists of swamps and marshes. The distance between St. Petersburg and Moscow is about 600 versts (400 miles). From the standpoint of an economically rational construction, there could be no question of a straight route. It is said that Nicholas I, who took a personal interest in the project (the state was doing the construction), ordered various engineers to draw up and present blueprints with estimates. These engineers, taking advantage of the situation, presented the Emperor with projected routes which were extremely complicated, entailing numerous switchbacks, etc. Nicholas understood. Glancing briefly at the blueprints, he pushed them aside, took a pencil and piece of paper, drew two points, connected them with a straight line and said, “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” It was a formal order, without appeal. The engineers had only to carry it out, which they did, thus accomplishing a genuine feat. It was a gargantuan task, accomplished at an unbelievable cost, causing devastating hardship for thousands of workers.

From its completion, the “Nicholayevskaya” (Nicholas’s) railway has been one of the world’s most remarkable railways: there are exactly 609 versts (405 miles) of track in an almost perfect straight line.

We should note that the emergent working class continued to retain close ties with the countryside from which it came and to which it returned as soon as the “outside” work was finished. Furthermore, as we have seen, the peasants, attached to the land of their lords, could not leave it permanently. Before they could be employed in industrial projects,, special arrangements had to be made with their landowners. The real workers of the cities — at this time itinerant craftsmen — were a very small contingent. Thus we are not yet dealing with a “proletariat” in the proper sense of the term. But the impetus for the creation of such a proletariat was already there. The need for reliable and regular laborers was one of the pressing economic reasons which demanded the abolition of serfdom. Two or three generations hence the class of wage laborers, the real industrial proletariat, no longer tied to the land, was going to appear in Russia, as it had elsewhere.

There were also great advances in the cultural realm. Well-to-do parents wanted their children to be educated and cultured. The rapidly growing number of high school and college students forced the government to continually increase the number of secondary schools and institutions of higher education. Economic and technical needs, as well as the general development of the country, also demanded educational establishments. At the end of Nicholas’s reign, Russia had six universities: in Moscow, Dorpat, Kharkov, Kazan, St. Petersburg and Kiev (listed in the order of the dates of their founding) as well as several schools for advanced technical or special studies.

Thus the widespread legend that all of Russia at this time was uneducated, barbarian, almost “savage,” is false. The peasant population under serfdom was indeed uneducated and “savage.” But the inhabitants of the cities had no reason to envy the cultural achievements of their western counterparts, except in some purely technical realms. As for the intellectual youth, they were, in some respects, even more advanced than the youth of other European countries.

This enormous, paradoxical gap between the mentality of the enslaved population and the cultural level of the privileged strata has already been mentioned earlier.

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November 30, 1946 :
Part 01, Chapter 02 -- Publication.

February 22, 2017 17:38:36 :
Part 01, Chapter 02 -- Added to

April 17, 2020 15:42:38 :
Part 01, Chapter 02 -- Last Updated on


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