James Meador

1874: Two Takes


ISSUE 66 | EMPIRICISM | JUL 2016

What follows is a story and some opinions about two things that happened in 1874: one was the publication of a long essay, the other was a failed revolutionary movement.

I.


Ilya Repin, Arrest of a Propagandist, 1880-92

Voinaralsky and Jurgenson were with me but for a few days. Voinaralsky urged me to join the ranks of the propagandists and carry out propaganda in the local area. He said nothing about secret societies as he did not consider them necessary. On the contrary, on his view it was necessary to carry out this work openly and thereby recruit suitable persons for an open uprising against the existing state order. I objected to Voinaralsky that there could be no revolution and among the peasants none would find sympathy with his ideas. The two peasants from village of Vasilevka I had invited were Ivan Sergeev and Ivan Semaev (I do not remember their surnames). The first of the men was very religious, and I had already warned Voinaralsky about this, so that he would not speak too sharply against the clergy and government. He objected that the more sharply he conducted the discussion the sooner they would understand him.

From the testimony of teacher L.M. Kanaev on the propaganda activities of P.I.Voinaralsky and N.A.Jurgenson in Vasil'evka village, Stavropol uiezd, Samara governorate. 13 June 1876

This excerpt from a court transcript in the trials of two rank-and-file activists neatly encapsulates what can only be described as a political tragedy. This was the heyday of the Russian populist movement (narodnichestvo, its members “Narodniks”), a wave of political direct action that crystallized in the early 1870s out of an older, more diffuse milieu of student protest and utopian socialist radical thought. It is now perhaps best remembered for its explosive apotheosis in the 1874 campaign of political agitation dubbed “going to the people.” As the story is usually told, enthusiastic students dropped out of school en masse in order to foment peasant rebellion, but were soon arrested en masse by the “Third Section,” or political police. They were reported to the authorities by the very people who had been supposed to embrace the message of political liberation that the students sacrificed so much to bring to them. While it was and is easy to mock this naïveté, the students’ faith in peasant radicalism was in many respects a reasonable assumption. Serfdom had been abolished just over a decade earlier, and the conditions of emancipation offered little in the way of material improvements in quality of life for what was roughly one third of the population of the Russian Empire; in many (perhaps most) cases, peasants were worse off than before, with piles of debts to their former owners and reduced access to productive land. The populists thought they could count on long-standing grudges against landlords and a deep-seated tradition of peasant revolt. This notion was buttressed by their stubborn belief that people would sooner or later recognize where their real interests lay (a belief that persists coelacanth-like in the depths of progressive thought). What appeared instead were massive waves of repression of radicals across the Russian Empire, among the largest and most famous of which was the “trial of the 193”— whose name alone points at the scale of these arrests and the reprisals that followed.

The populists wildly misjudged the readiness of the peasants to overthrow the government as well as the strength of the repressive force of the state itself. Yet this failure of judgment was not universal: there was some disagreement within the nascent radical movement in the lead-up to the beginning of the mass actions. The most prominent hesitation came from members of a pioneering radical group called the Chaikovtsy. As historian of the radical student movement Daniel Brower puts it, the Chaikovtsy served as a “cultural nucleus radiating inspiration and innovation for the receptive student community in the capital and the provinces of Russia.”1 They refined and popularized the forms of social organization (reading groups, communal houses, cafeteria co-ops, libraries) and interpersonal morality (rigorist, egalitarian revolutionary asceticism) that helped what had been a minor subcultural phenomenon to become a mass political movement. The Chaikovtsy became influential in no small part through their role in directly helping to set up other circles, to whom they supplied legal and illegal books at low or no cost; this distribution network served as a central medium of sociality and coordination for the nascent movement. Yet despite the wide respect they commanded within the more or less horizontally-organized radical scene, the Chaikovtsy became critical of the growing calls for “going to people” that led to the formation of the mass movement of 1874. As the veritable vanguard of the movement, they had organized of a series of reconnaissance missions to the countryside from 1872 onward that culminated in an ill-fated propaganda raid in the fall of 1873, shortly before the real preparations began for the mass raids of the next year. As the historian of the revolutionary movement Nikolai Troitskii relates,

This allowed the Chaikovtsy to imagine concretely the possibilities for revolutionary propaganda in the countryside, and to judge their personal preparation for it. It appeared that they did not possess the necessary skills and abilities to carry out propaganda among the exceptionally ignorant and disorganized peasantry, while the peasants for their part were much less receptive to propaganda than expected. As a result they were decidedly critical in appraising their experience with propaganda among peasants accumulated prior to the massive campaigns in the countryside.2

Despite their prominence within the movement, the objections of the Chaikovtsy were largely ignored, folding in the face of calls for immediate revolution – a position associated both at the time and retrospectively with Bakunin and his followers.

This would seem to be as unambiguous an illustration as one could wish of empiricism's practical priority over abstract speculation. The Chaikovtsy had already “been there” and found, to their chagrin, that the peasants weren't as radical as they had hoped. Most rank-and-file populists hadn't been there, and as a result their massive direct-action campaign was an unmitigated disaster that led directly to the end of their movement as such. This kind of morality play manifestly retains its popularity for us. Some of its relatives include the critique of so-called white-saviorism, as evidenced in the moral outrage evoked by selfies of beaming (white) American undergraduates surrounded by (brown) impoverished children. Its narrative skeleton might be summarized by the maxim that good intentions prove feckless, masturbatory, or vitiate themselves cruelly in the absence of real knowledge of those they seek to help. Yet the populists and their successors would have agreed in principle with the importance of knowledge presumed by this form of morality. Accordingly, as they dropped out of the state-run school system in the early 1870s they had turned to focused study of the latest works of political economy as well as the manual skills required for laboring together with the workers and peasants. As Troitskii states,

Everyone agreed that before going 'to the people' one needed to acquire skills for physical labor and learn some kind of specialized craft in order to be able to speak to workers and craftsmen. From this emerged a wave of engagement with organizing every kind of workshop (carpentry, cobbling, blacksmithing, etc), which from the fall of 1873 popped up like mushrooms after rain across all of Russia; 'engrossment with this thought went so far that those who wanted to finish their education were accused of being scum and traitors to the people, even if they were in the third or fourth year. Everyone dropped out of school, and in its place workshops began to appear.'3

“Going to the people” was heroic effort inspired by the best Europe had to offer, an attempt to transform the Russian Empire from a despotic backwater into a egalitarian utopia. It represented the fruits of an astonishing effort by a thousands of people, most in their teens or early twenties. Young men consciously and collectively threw away promised positions of power within the existing political order in pursuit of an uncertain but better future, while the small but significant number of young women who participated in the movement forfeited their privileged place in society for sanctions no less harsh than those suffered by their comrades. It was by general acclimation a failure, its efforts for naught.

* * *

In that same year of 1874 when the populists began their “flying propaganda” raids across the vast expanses of the rural Russian Empire, the philologist Friedrich Nietzsche published a long essay, in its most popular translation On the Use and Abuse of History for Life. He railed against “the cumulative jumble of acquired knowledge that has no outward effect” and “the fact that we honor history more than we do life. Indeed, we rejoice in the fact that 'science has begun to take control over life.'” His target (here as elsewhere) was what he took to be the common sense of the age, the ideology of techno-social-scientific progress that the bourgeois “thinking public” took for granted and that persists in a diminished form today in certain segments of society. In the nineteenth century, it was this widely shared faith in progress and science (in both of which history was a key component) that helped to animate the radical political milieu from which the populists emerged. Accordingly, in a different way it spurred and materially supported Nietzsche's dedication to understanding the ancient Mediterranean in its own terms rather than more convenient and familiar ones. In this sense both the Narodniks and Nietzsche emerged against the general atmosphere of pan-European cultural and epistemological optimism that perished in the Great War.

* * *

Two datapoints from 1874: one appears to demonstrate the disaster that emerges from failure to pay attention to facts on the ground, while the other seems to argue that too fact-rich a diet is harmful to life itself. As stated, I think this misses what's important in both cases.

For Nietzsche, what is at stake is not a question of facts per se, but rather of too great a sympathy that cedes too much ground to too heterogeneous a set of ideologies and life projects. The delicate flower of European decadence

has cultivated in himself a sensibility so tender and sensitive that absolutely nothing human is alien to him; his lyre can echo in kindred tones the sounds of the most diverse ages and persons; he has become an echoing passivity whose resonance, in turn, has a resounding effect on other passivities of the same sort, until ultimately the air of an age is filled with the buzzing counterpoint of such tender and kindred echoes.

Lest this (self) mockery be mistaken for praise, Nietzsche repeatedly emphasizes that such a pursuit of inner polyphony fundamentally warps any human who falls prey to it:

knowledge constantly flows into him from inexhaustible sources; alien and disconnected facts crowd in upon him; his memory opens all its gates and is still not open wide enough; nature struggles as best it can to receive, order, and honor these alien guests, but they themselves are involved in a struggle with one another… the modern human being drags around with him a huge number of indigestible stones of knowledge, which then on occasion, as in the fairy tale, make quite a racket inside his stomach.

That racket is the “buzzing counterpoint” of “kindred echoes” seen in sober daylight. To put a more contemporary spin on it, Nietzsche is attacking the intellectual foundations of liberalism in its contemporary multicultural incarnation – at least those forms that valorize appreciation of diversity for its own sake as the ends of political education.

For the view of the populists as short on fact, faith in a cardinal difference between facts on the ground and facts in texts may or may not be a dogma of empiricism, but here such a presumption paints their failure as the triumph of empty abstraction over practical circumspection. Yet it wasn't as if the populists didn't care about facts; if anything, it was that they cared about the wrong facts. They were most impressed by theoretical-technical knowledge and practical skills, whereas one supposes they would have done better to be more interested in people. Nor was this a limitation borne of focusing on books rather than real life; life is not always the best teacher. By the 1870s, elite fascination with the Russian peasantry had produced a voluminous literature; in principle at least, reading the right books with the right questions in mind could have provided much of the perspective they lacked.

Yet here again, their assumptions were in many ways reasonable in context. Their presumption of an unproblematic solidarity with the peasantry emerged against the background of a social order whose rigidity and complexity it is hard to oversell. The Russian Empire was organized not in terms of class but in terms of estates. Not just de facto but de jure inequality was the law of the land; there were separate laws and separate courts for different categories of subjects. Profession was in many cases strictly hereditary; famously, priests sons had their calling settled from birth – and this probably had something to do with the fact that many of the most famous Russian revolutionaries were seminary dropouts. Marriage was performed by and strictly within the confessional arms of the state (Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, etc) that as a rule required conversion if bride and groom did not already share the same faith. Positions within the court, civil, and military bureaucracy conformed to a standardized 14-position Table of Ranks, whose higher positions defined the hereditary nobility. Even a low rank granted immunity from corporal punishment. And so on.

By the 1860s students had the distinction of possessing the most diverse origins of any social group in the Empire; they also shared a commitment to horizontality and mutual aid that self-consciously aimed to efface social origins. One can wave this away cynically as the temporary byproduct of the need to meet recruitment targets for a rapidly expanding state bureaucracy that could no longer be staffed by the gentry alone. Yet this does nothing to change the fact that these experiences of socialization into the student estate were critical to assumptions that broader kinds of socioeconomic differences could be overcome. The Russian students had firsthand experience overcoming difference in social background in a way that it is difficult for us to imagine.

All this took place in a context where economic and cultural liberalism in even its most milquetoast forms was perceived as a threat to the ancien regime. Taking reactionary measures against what passed for political centrism elsewhere was already a tradition of sorts, fatefully inaugurated by the violent repression of calls for constitutional monarchy in the so-called Decembrist uprising of 1825. This thoroughgoing and mind-bogglingly indiscriminate application of state power (much like the war on drugs) had many curious consequences from an outside perspective. Positivism became a prominent strain in revolutionary ideology in the second half of the nineteenth century, and many who might have otherwise been timid reformists were given the stark choice of revolution or reaction. By no means all, but a substantial minority chose revolution together in the 1870s.

Before proceeding any further, I should lay down my cards and try to articulate what I see as the difference between liberalism and leftism, as well as why they may seem so superficially similar today in the US. Starting with the latter, for the leftists and liberals most familiar to the imagined readership of this periodical, the easiest answer is a vulgar sociological one. Due in part to the various active and passive forms of repression of traditions of protest and activism associated with marginalized communities and the radical labor movement, the brick-and-mortar institutions within which new leftist movements have most often emerged in recent decades have been those of higher education. These institutions, as a rule, are administered by liberals who inhabit a more-or-less white, aspirationally upper middle-class cosmology, traditionally oriented to the three-channeled God of fact-based reality (NPR-PBS-NYT). One is free to hold critical attitudes to the specific failures of fact-based reality reportage, but it remains a primary reference point in more ways than one. I would argue that the differences that emerge are primarily in orientation that presume this shared background; liberals and leftists are intimately familiar with each other because they either grew up together liberally or learned how to pass as if they had (or, perhaps, refused to). The selection bias mentioned above is also a preservation bias: these are the leftist movements we know or know best because of their legibility to institutions that pretend to monopoly on institutional memory.

Absent this shared background, their differences begin to appear quite stark. Liberals are concerned to deliver a world safe for actually existing human sociocultural diversity. Accordingly, building and maintaining a big tent is what keeps them busy.4 Leftists for their part don't have the same kind of commitments to diversity in its actually existing form because they believe some of this diversity is bad and needs to be eliminated rather than tolerated. While this has the happy consequence of avoiding some of the paradoxes of toleration, it is fueled in the first instance by a sense of outrage that people are unequal in ways that they simply should not be. As I see it, the left has always constituted itself through opposition to consequential cultural differences of one kind or another, with particular ire reserved for entrenched hierarchy: master/slave, owner/worker, ruler/ruled, patriarch/household. These are pretty remarkable goals given the importance of the differences in question (and human differences in general). By hook or by crook, figuring out how to get people who are attached to existing regimes of human differentiation to accept the loss of this diversity is what keeps leftists busy.

II.

A first pass at 1874 suggested the deleterious consequences of both deficiencies and overdoses of fact. Yet in both cases it seems that what was at stake wasn't fact per se, but knowledge of others who were in some important and problematic respects different from the knower – differences that do not seem to hinge on matters of fact except in a derivative sense. These differences seem somehow inherently prone to conflict. One way to approach this divergence is in terms of what philosopher and latter-day Nietzschean Bernard Williams describes as reasons – “reasons for action” – possible answers to the question why that involve intentions, plans, and agents rather than natural law or mechanical causality. Reasons provide the scaffolding for actions on the more conscious and reportable end of the spectrum; the salience of something like a reason is what makes an action intentional in a narrow sense. They are also a fundamental unit in ethics, as their presence, absence, and/or quality constitute most of what we're evaluating when we engage in acts of moral judgment. On this same picture, deliberation is where one's reasons rub up against each other until one or several emerge in a governing coalition overseeing some particular course of action. You could say Nietzsche was an early adopter of memes (in the original sense lol).

The problem with history on this view is not as an overabundance of inert and useless facts, but rather the proliferation of reasons problematic precisely because they are not inert. This leads to the disruption of equilibrium within one's own reasons, an equilibrium that ultimately provides something like a coherent way of being in the world – the different sorts of projects and involvements one carries forward through time. These various reasons need not (nor should they) be reducible to some single, all-consuming goal. But at a minimum they should not contradict each other in an uncontrolled way, or fail to constitute a more or less well-organized whole amongst themselves. It was something like the absence of vital, aesthetic unity within one's reasons that Nietzsche saw as intimately linked with the passivity that was one of his most consistent targets, precisely because he perceived it as so great a personal threat given his own line of work.

While natural scientific knowledge is by no means free of ethical controversies, I suspect that knowledge of others' reasons is a much more consistent source of trouble. Acknowledging a reason as coherent seems always on the edge of slipping into endorsing it as a potential reason for one's own actions, even if one strenuously condemns it with the same breath. Understanding a foreign perspective amounts in an important sense to endorsing it and assuming it as one's own; substantive perspective-taking is an act of moral communion. Accordingly, sharp moral conflict entails or requires an inability to see conflicting perspectives as coherent on their own terms – conflict means a stark refusal to understand. Among friends and friendly media I've encountered fairly robust recognition that Brexit and Trump voters have real and valid complaints in light of their abandonment to the vagaries of upward redistribution and offshoring inaugurated in the 1980s. Yet in the political milieu in which I find myself, that potential sympathy evaporates instantly into false-consciousness arguments as soon as one touches on their xenophobia. This despite the fact that few would nevertheless fail to agree that xenophobia is perhaps the single largest obstacle to the solidarity required for real political change. Even entertaining the possibility that immigrants are a major political problem is unacceptable, full stop, and this thereby forecloses any possibility of deeper sympathy. And just to be clear: I don't think deeper sympathy is achievable or desirable on these terms.

Nietzsche suggests in typically vitalist fashion that one should seek to understand other perspectives only to the extent that this understanding wards off hunger. In order to learn “how to utilize the past as a powerful nourishment” one “must organize the chaos within him [sic] by concentrating on his genuine needs.” Those genuine needs are those reasons (or “values”) that are in one way or another non-negotiable. To escape the metabolic metaphor for a moment, one might say that only in pursuit of one's reasons should one seek to understand others' reasons, and then only in a subsidiary role.

The populists emerged as and through a radical pedagogy that emphasized thoroughgoing reformation of persons and social relations through relentlessly and collectively attacking the individual habits that gave them coherence in time. The reasons that motivated and justified this exacting path were not (and could not have been) accessible to everyone. The failure to consider the reasons of recently emancipated peasants as important objects of concern was a natural consequence of their own biographical trajectories, which pivoted on the principled rejection of the norms and forms of kinship, gender, and livelihood they had grown up with. Their experiences of effortless, institutionally catalyzed solidarity as students was ultimately a limitation; they were of necessity low-information humanists (as perhaps all humanists must be). Yet here at least one begins to see where the two threads converge positively, as Nietzsche had nothing but praise for “precisely those who were little troubled by the 'That's how it is,' but instead pridefully followed a 'This is how it should be.'”

“This is how it should be” is nourished by a refusal to accept others' opinions as binding, valid, or real. The main tools the left has inherited in this respect are false-consciousness arguments, a way of plastering over problematic reasons with a set of ready-mades that appeal to factors the agents in question will as a rule not recognize as their own – these being things like ideology, material conditions, habit, unconscious or not. In Williams' terms these are external reasons, and one of his most infamous conclusions is that external reasons are one-way projections that are toothless as instruments of suasion, moral or otherwise. This seems right – few are likely to be convinced of their errors by a third party telling them they don't really understand why they're doing something. But then suasion may not exactly be the point.

Electoral politics requires any serious contender to have means for disposing of dissenting opinions in service of their own unassailable consensus (whether through denying these opinions standing, seriousness, sincerity, etc), but false-consciousness arguments seem to be something else. Their persistence and viability across a whole gamut of political systems alone attests to their independence, but the form of the argument itself demonstrates one of what I think of as the hallmarks of left-ish thinking. False-consciousness arguments cede an enormous amount of what was human agency to what amounts to stipulated objective forces of some sort. These moves dissolve most of what we habitually to think of as us back into a notional environment within which we may or may not have some degree of influence. I like to rationalize this as a kind of minimalism: we do indeed engage in meaningful acts of deliberation and make choices that matter, but a lot less often and about fewer things than we might think. The good news is that leftist goals tend to be quite simple, which is to say potentially achievable precisely because realizable in more than one way.

My own “This is how it should be” for the present centers on clarifying (that is, narrowing) the ethico-political values we see as actually important for leftist politics – figuring out what it is that really matters, and what matters less or not at all. I think the stakes for this exercise lie in extracting whatever forms of egalitarianism can be made more generally viable from a highly specific matrix of classed habits, a matrix that in self-indulgent moments of pessimism and defeat might appear to be both the American left's cradle and grave, much as the student estate was for the populists. For now at least, my sense is that leftists and liberals look too similar from the outside for the left to seem like much of an alternative to anything. Specifically, I suspect the ways both understand and fail to understand others look too similar.

Habits live in down-to-earth places – the problem is figuring out where to direct one's limited attention and effort. Presumably not cobbling, blacksmithing, or perhaps even small-scale sustainable farming (although I'm willing to accept that the jury may still be out on this one). One low-hanging branch might be found in various forms of cosmopolitan moralizing about American provincialism. Does liking or disliking spicy food say anything morally significant about a person? I think for many would-be citizens of the world (perhaps despite themselves) it does. This vast, uncharted category of petty, half-conscious acts of moral censure would probably be under strict scrutiny and labeled micro-aggression if its stakes were different, but due to what I can only surmise is the notional importance of wider cultural horizons and solidarity beyond the boundaries of the nation I often find myself passing silent judgment my own and others' consumption habits. That these sorts of judgments are on reflection instantly recognizable as class distinctions of the most transparent sort does nothing to change their consequences – whether they are overtly voiced or conveyed through fleeting facial expressions or shared glances. Alternatively, if I am mistaken about their importance, recognizing them as (among other things) class distinctions does nothing to eliminate their necessity for maintaining some aspect of an egalitarian politics with aspirations that extend beyond nationalism. This seems particularly important to grapple with given that way that cross-class solidarity and cosmopolitan proclivities seem to be locked in subtle but profound contradiction with one another at present. Presumably this contradiction will not persist indefinitely in this specific form, especially in light of the much touted demographics of Brexit/Trump, if it is indeed as simple as that.

In the meantime, I want to argue for the long-term benefits of a minimalist, transactional approach to politico-cultural conflict and a refusal to adopt the frame of a clash of worldviews (let alone “tradition” vs “modernity”). Part of this involves trying to take a more reflective and critical stance with respect to liberal discomfort with things like eating at McDonald's or refusing to recognize someone's perspective. Presumably the main field in which much of this cultural labor will continue to take place is mass media (understood broadly). In ways that I do not fully understand, fiction in particular seems to provide a buffer for considering otherwise repellent ethical sensibilities and perspectives – and it does so in a way that hedging and devices of reported speech cannot match. On the other hand, the populists (and their successors) self-consciously modeled themselves and their social forms on Chernyshevsky's utopian novel What is to be done? - making the Russian revolutionary movement perhaps one of the most impressive achievements of fan-fiction in European history. Fiction thus seems to be one of the most powerful ways both to selectively expand and consolidate moral horizons (though perhaps not both at the same time). In any case, it's a fair bet that the greatest changes will not be changes in matters of fact per se, but changes in political narrative prepared to a substantial degree in the workshop of fiction. The question of whose voices (or in the terms I'm using here, the reasons these voices articulate or imply) are worthy of consideration constitutes the stakes of the ongoing struggles over both form and content in cultural production.

I opened my description of the populists by calling their story a political tragedy, and I believe this holds in a strict sense, hubris – nemesis. If I can be so crass as to extract an ultimate moral from it: no one should hope to liberate people with such a shallow understanding of where they're coming from. But major, constitutive aspects of where all of us are coming from is precisely what leftist politics seeks to change, and if we're really trying to destroy our own foundations it's not obvious what reasons one should heed or hold on to. The suggestion I've tried to develop here looks toward navigating this potentially productive contradiction by promoting a left ethical sensibility that is fundamentally minimalist in orientation – in short, less dilatory moralizing, more on point moralizing. In pursuit of this singular form of diversity, I would recommend our own excrescences of morality as objects worthy of as much scrutiny as we can bear. As one heir and critic of the populists suggested in parting: “Better fewer, but better.”

1 Brower, Daniel R. Training the Nihilists: Education and Radicalism in Tsarist Russia. Cornell UP: 1974. p. 203

2 Troitskii, N.A. “The First of the Brilliant Pleiades” : The Great Propaganda Society, 1871-1874. 2nd Ed. Saratov: Saratov University Press, 1991. Scanned and edited: Mariia Alekseeva. ¶3. http://scepsis.net/library/id_2955.html

3 Ibid.

4 The small print reads: non-big-tent-compatible products are unsupported and their use may be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Even absent the standard paradoxes of tolerating the intolerable, a variety of other kinds of diversity for a variety of reasons end up under erasure; there is nothing obvious about the kinds of human variation that should matter. Why not openly – rather than just implicitly – valorize socioeconomic diversity as a positive good? “We should all be proud to live in a country with so many different kinds and experiences of class immobility.” This is what I gather Liberalism means for most people outside of the US.