Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Nineteenth Century "Rules for Radicals"

When one thinks of the professional socialist revolutionary, many names spring immediately to mind: Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Che Gueverra, and Fidel Castro, to name a few. Much more obscure is Sergei Nechaev, a petulant socialist who lived during the mid-nineteenth century. Nechaev continues to be an inspiration for leftist revolutionaries and progressives to this day; traces of his thought can be found in the writings of men from Vladimir Lenin to Saul Alinsky to the DailyKos and Huffington Post.

According to his biography, Nechaev was a serf rightfully indignant at the Tsarist regime, and especially the "phony liberator" Alexander II. But his righteous indignation would transform into pathos; his maudlin and existentially angst-ridden writings would influence the Narodnaya Volya ("People's Will"), the quintessential terrorist group that carried out the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, to more recent terrorist groups such as the Red Army Faction (sometimes inaccurately referred to as the Baader-Meinhoff gang) and nearly all leftist terrorist and revolutionary groups today.

Nechaev, who was a founding member of the Narodnaya Rasprava, or "People's Vengeance," is perhaps best remembered for co-writing, along with Mihkail Bakunin, the revolutionary anthem "The Catechism of a Revolutionist." The writhing and faux-stoic call to arms should be immediately familiar to any student of the political left, a nineteenth century "Rules for Radicals," if you will:

1. The revolutionist is a doomed man [doomed or obrechennyi, in older usage signifying also "consecrated"]. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and not even his own 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. [...]

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. [...]

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.

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 [see link] and even the Winter Palace of the tsar. [...]

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]...

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, our conspiracy, our task.

To put Nechaev's exhortations to obliterate the State, a true call to destructive anarchism that is not equivalent to the libertarian desire for a rule of law that protects the individual, liberty, and property, we can cite Matthew Carr's The Infernal Machine, "a history of terrorism" with a leftist bent:
Nechaev's vision of a secret terrorist organization made up of ruthless amoral Jacobins was both a theoretical and tactical innovation, in which the relationship between the ends and means posed no moral problems, since 'everything is moral which assists the triumph of the revolution. Immoral and criminal is everything that stands in its way.' [...]

In Nechaev's apocalyptic imagination the energies of his revolutionary generation were to be entirely devoted to that 'intensification and an increase in those calamities and evils which must finally exhaust the patience of the people and drive it to a popular uprising.' (19)
Nechaev's writings immediately recall the writings of the immensely influential 1960s radical Saul Alinsky, whose "Reveille for Radicals" and "Rules for Radicals" directly impacted the thinking of both President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Alinsky is famous for his "ends justify the means" mentality, which he shares with the Italian Communist revolutionary Antonio Gramsci (both borrow heavily from the writings of the political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli).

Sergei Nechaev's "The Catechism of a Revolutionist" (1869) anticipates the unscrupulous socialist activists and revolutionaries of the twentieth century who would adopt a Gramscian strategy and Alinskyite tactics to infiltrate the American political and economic system and direct it toward self-destruction. One might call Nechaev the "godfather" of modern socialist revolutionaries; both of red terrorist groups like the Weather Underground, and infiltrators and subverters of the school of Saul Alinsky, the "godfather" of American social activism and agit-prop.

2 comments:

Reaganx said...

="phony liberator" Alexander II.=

I dislike the czarist regime but I wouldn't go so far as to call him phony. Though he can be criticized for not giving Russia a constitution and a parliament, his reforms were very "libertarian" in their nature - he attempted to assert the principle of judicial independence, entrenched local self-government and abolished some forms of censorship. And, of course, he laid the foundation of Russian capitalism by abolishing serfdom.
It is indeed ironic that perhaps the most "liberal" (in the good sense) of all Russian rulers was killed by a group that claimed to be anti-despotic but in fact facilitated Russia's regress back to despotism - that is, socialism.

Reasonsjester said...

I made up the phrase "phony liberator" to convey the opinion of his socialist critics following his (partial) emancipation of the serfs. Perhaps I should have been clearer what I meant. Best, RJ