Narodniks was the name for Russian revolutionaries of the 1860s and 1870s. Their movement was known as Narodnichestvo or Narodism. The Russian word народ means "the people" and the term Narodnik derives from the Russian expression Хождение в народ ("Going to the people"). The Narodniks consisted of a number of different groups that were composed of members of the Russian intelligentsia and young aristocrats who had denounced their privilege in the autocratic system. The Narodniks were distinguished from the Russian liberals who believed in Westernization and capitalism, and the Marxists who believed in the proletariat. The Narodniks were Russian Populists whose call of "going to the people" was based on their belief in the Russian peasantry. They were socialists who believed that the Peasant Commune or Мир (Mir, which also translates as "world" and "peace") was the basis of a new, distinctly Russian socialist order. Their utopian visions were sadly misplaced, as the peasants rejected and even killed some of them.
Narodism arose in Russia after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 (under Emperor Alexander II), which signaled the coming end of the feudal age in Russia. Based on a socialist perspective, the Narodniki argued that freed serfs were being sold into wage slavery, in which the bourgeoisie had replaced landowners. Narodism aimed to become the political force to counter this phenomenon. Narodniks viewed certain aspects of the past with a dose of nostalgia: resenting the former land ownership system, they objected against the uprooting of peasants from the traditional obshchina (the Russian peasant commune).
Narodniks rallied in response to the growing conflicts between the peasantry and the so-called kulaks (the more prosperous peasant farmers). Groups created did not establish a concrete organization, but shared the common general aims of overthrowing the Russian monarchy and the kulaks, and distributing land among the peasantry. Rejecting the orthodox Marxist argument, the Narodniks generally believed that capitalism was not a necessary result of industrial development, and that it was possible to skip capitalism altogether, and enter straight into a kind of socialism.
The Narodniks believed the peasantry was the revolutionary class that would overthrow the monarchy, regarding the village commune as the embryo of socialism. However, they believed that the peasantry would not achieve revolution on their own, but instead that history could only be made by heroes—outstanding personalities—who would lead an otherwise passive peasantry to revolution (see Great man theory).
In the spring of 1874, the conflict between the richer and poorer peasants brought turbulence to Russia's urban centers, and the Narodnik intelligentsia left the cities for the villages, going "to the people," attempting to teach the peasantry their moral imperative to revolt. They found almost no support. The result was a debacle.
Given the Narodniks' social background, generally middle and upper middle class, they had noted difficulties in addressing Russian peasants and their culture. They spent much time learning peasant custom, dress and dance. In some cases, they even had to learn Russian, as the Russian aristocracy and educated elites from the West generally spoke French or German. On arriving into some villages dressed appropriately and singing and dancing, putting into practice what they had learned, the Narodniks were viewed with suspicion by many of those Russian peasants who were completely removed from the more modernized culture of the urban life. Some peasants viewed these "strange" people as witches; many Narodniks were hounded by vigilante groups, and often maimed with farm utensils or put through frenzied trials and burned at the stake.
The Imperial secret police responded to the Narodniks' attempt with extreme repression: revolutionaries and their peasant sympathizers were beaten, imprisoned and exiled. In 1877, the Narodniks revolted with the support of thousands of revolutionaries and peasants. However, the movement was again swiftly and brutally crushed.
In response to the repression of the open, spontaneous organization of Narodniki, Russia's first organized revolutionary party was formed; the Narodnaya Volya ("People's Will") was initiated with a new revolutionary program suited to the extremely repressive conditions, which favored secret society-led terrorism.
Although Narodnaya Volya did not last for long either, the later Socialist-Revolutionaries, Popular Socialists, and Trudoviks all shared similar tactics, with ideas and practices originally set down by the Narodniks.
After the fruitless struggle to unite the peasantry in a movement to overthrow the Emperor, which failed at least in part due to the peasantry's idolization of the Царь or Tsar as the "little father" (the Russian word for father отец is the root of the word Tsar), Narodism developed the practice of terrorism: the peasantry, they believed, must be shown that the Emperor was not supernatural, and that he could be killed. This theory, called "direct struggle," was meant to show an "uninterrupted demonstration of the possibility of struggling against the government, in this manner lifting the revolutionary spirit of the people and its faith in the success of the cause, and organizing those capable of fighting". This theory also led to short-term failure; the peasantry as a whole was horrified when Narodnaya Volya was successful in their assassination attempt, killing Tsar Alexander on March 13, 1881. The events did, however, help sow the roots of the coming Russian Revolution of 1905, which laid the foundation for the successful Russian Revolution of 1917.
Narodism represented a non-Marxist variant of socialism. As such, they rejected the Marxist belief in the vanguard of the proletariat. Based on Russia's own unique history, the Narodniks were influenced by the Slavophile view that Russian institutions were unique, unlike those of Western Europe, and thus real social equality could only be achieved through the already-existing institutions, like the peasant's village commune. While they were socialist, they nonetheless were viewed by the Marxist revolutionaries as misguided.
Vladimir Lenin defined Narodism as:
"By Narodism we mean a system of views, which comprises the following three features:
1) Belief that capitalism in Russia represents a deterioration, a retrogression. Hence the urge and desire to 'retard', 'halt', 'stop the break-up' of the age-old foundations by capitalism, and similar reactionary cries.
2) Belief in the exceptional character of the Russian economic system in general, and of the peasantry, with its village commune, artel, etc. in particular. It is not considered necessary to apply to Russian economic relationships the concepts elaborated by modern science concerning the different social classes and their conflicts. The village-commune peasantry is regarded as something higher and better than capitalism; there is a disposition to idealize the 'foundations'. The existence among the peasantry of contradictions characteristic of every commodity and capitalist economy is denied or slurred over; it is denied that any connection exists between these contradictions and their more developed form in capitalist industry and capitalist agriculture.
3) Disregard of the connection between the 'intelligentsia' and the country's legal and political institutions, on the one hand, and the material interests of definite social classes, on the other. Denial of this connection, lack of a materialist explanation of these social factors, induces the belief that they represent a force capable of 'dragging history along another line', of 'diversion from the path', and so on.
Narodism had a direct influence on politics and culture in Romania, through the comments of Constantin Dobrogeanu-Gherea and advocacy from the Bessarabian-born Constantin Stere (who was a member of Narodnaya Volya in his youth). The various groups the latter helped found included one formed around the literary magazine Viaţa Românească (led by Stere, Garabet Ibrăileanu, and Paul Bujor).
A self-defined Poporanist (from popor, Romanian for "people," mirroring the origins of the term Narodnik), Stere eventually rejected revolution altogether. Nevertheless, he shared the Narodnik view that capitalism was not a necessary stage in the development of an agrarian country (and the implicit rejection of Marxist tenets), a perspective which was to leave a mark on Ion Mihalache's Peasants' Party (and its successor, the National Peasants' Party), as well as on the philosophy of Virgil Madgearu.
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