Among the forerunners, and even participants, of the narodnik movement we should name the main Russian anarchists: Mikhail Bakunin , Sergey Nechaev, and Peter Kropotkin.
1. Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) we have discussed in the struggle of factions in the First International .2. Sergey G. Nechaev (1847-1882) was one of the first professional revolutionaries in Russia who was not born in a noble family, but whose origins are from the people. Paul Avrich writes that his father was a painter of window signs, and his mother was a tailor, and both of them were serfs in their social origin.
Nechaev writes about himself: "We are from the people, with our hide bitten by the claws of the modern social system, guided by the hatred to things which are not of the people; we don't have any ideas about moral responsibilities and honor to the world which we hate and from which we don't expect anything, but evil... We're children of the hungry, destitute fathers, and mothers who are led to dullness and idiocy.
We, who were brought up in the environment of dirt and ignorance, among insults and humiliation; from the cradle we were despised and oppressed by all kinds of scoundrels, who live happily under the present order of things.
We are those, for whom the family was the threshold of penal servitude, for whom the best period of their youth was spent in struggle with poverty and hunger, and the period of love and enthusiasm (was spent) in a stern pursuit after a morsel of bread.
We are those whose past is filled with bitterness and suffering, and in the future we have the same fill of humiliation, insults, hungry days and sleepless nights, and in the end courts, jails, mines and gallows.
We are in an intolerable condition, and in one way or another, we want to come out of it.
That is why in the change of the existing social order lie all our desires, aspirations, all cherished goals.
We can desire only people's revolution.
We want it, and we will accomplish it".
The principal written work of Nechaev is his Catechism of a Revolutionary which he probably wrote together with Bakunin in 1869. In the "Catechism" he writes that the main business for a revolutionary is revolution. If a person is a revolutionary, all his life should be subordinated to this business. "Those things are moral, which lead to the triumph of revolution. Those things are immoral and criminal, which hinder it". Thus, revolution is an ethical criteria, a goal in life, which defines the choices we make in everyday life.
The problem then becomes: how do you understand "the revolution"? Nechaev understands the revolution in the sense that all means are appropriate, including deceit and murder of members of the revolutionary movement. Marlen Insarov, one of the participants in the current left movement in the former USSR, writes on Nechaev:
"Desiring to obtain an authority which he deemed useful for revolution, he spread the rumor that he was arrested by the police (which was a lie!), but managed to escape from the prison, and after this mystification, in March 1869, went abroad. There he managed to convince Bakunin and Ogarev - but not Herzen! - that he is a representative of a powerful underground organization that exists in Russia, and, with the help of Bakunin and Ogarev, printed a mass of proclamations which he, through the official mail, sent to Russia to all known and unknown addresses. Nechaev knew well that recipients of this mail will be in deep trouble with the police, but his calculation was that the police repression will make real fighters from those representatives of nobility who are still playing with revolution.
The organization which Nechaev created from accidental people, was united only by his indomitable will and grandiose mystification; it wasn't engaged in any serious activity and didn't even attempt anything. When one of the members of the organization, a student of an agricultural academy by the name of Ivan Ivanov, started doubting the existence of a "Committee" and announced his exit from "The People's Reprisal" (so was called Nechaev's organization), Nechaev understood that this was the beginning of an end, the beginning of the breakup of the organization. To forestall the breakup, he convinced several activists of "The People's Reprisal" that Ivanov is a government agent, and on 21 November, 1869, Ivanov was killed. In a few days the murder was solved, Nechaev managed to emigrate abroad, but other participants of the murder were arrested".
However, Nechaev was arrested in Switzerland and transferred to Russia in 1872. He has finished his life as a prisoner in the Peter and Paul fortress in St. Petersburg.
(A very useful text about Nechaev was written by Alexander Maysooryan, in Russian here. )
3. Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) was the last of the great Russian anarchists.
In the early period of his revolutionary activity, Kropotkin participated in the narodnik movement. He wrote: "No handful of people, no matter how talented and energetic they be, can cause a people's uprising, if the people themselves don't get to the consciousness that there is no other solution to the problems... Hence, the most important thing is to lead propaganda among the peasants, to go to the people".
In the middle of his life, Kropotkin wrote a very valuable investigation of the Great French revolution, published in 1909. Here, he presents an idea that a revolution is started only when two opposite movements extend a helping hand to each other; on the one hand, it is the rebel, protest movement coming out of the people, and on the other, a philosophical movement, appearing from intellectuals. For example, we see hunger peasant riots in France in the mid XVIII century and the Enlightenment movement, which involved all the great minds of the Europe of XVIII century.
The final creation of his life, imbibing the conclusions of the previous, is "Ethics", published in Soviet Russia in 1921. In this book, the question of a proper aim in life is raised. Ethics is a set of life rules which help us in achieving our life aim. The life aim can be either personal, narrowly egotistic, or it can be social, altruistic. From observation of life of animals, Kropotkin makes a conclusion that struggle for existence among the species plays a relatively small role in comparison to cooperation, mutual help among each species, and even between different species (as, for example, we see in "Mowgli" of Kipling).
The main thesis of Kropotkin is the following: "In the great struggle for existence, led by each animal kind against hostile climate conditions, external circumstances of life and natural enemies, big and small, only those species have the greatest chance of survival which hold on to the principle of mutual support, while those species which don't die out".
So, mutual support and cooperation are more important to survival of a species than competition.
Next: Narodniki, part 1