Rosa Luxemburg
Rosa Luxemburg; drawing by David Levine

The titles of both books under review have the ring of contributions to a fashionable cult: an impression confirmed in the case of the first by the anxious propitiation of the cult’s priestesses on page 10: “I have referred to the heroines of this book throughout by their first names or nicknames, not through any measure of condescension or disrespect….” The author’s sincerity is not to be doubted; he treats his subjects in the characteristic style of those eager to be counted in the ranks of the unprejudiced: self-conscious respect verging on sentimentality (page 190: “Angelica was determined to remain loyal—but to whom, to what?”).

The introduction raises portentous issues: “Almost unique among the great ideological movements of the nineteenth century, socialism numbered women among its leadership. Were they to be treated as ‘men’?…And could a movement as patriarchal in its origins…as Marxism ever adapt itself to the real, rather than the rhetorical, equality of women?” But little enlightenment on these questions is to be gained from the ensuing chaotic jumble of reflections on women and on Marxism.

The first study in Mr. Florence’s book is of a woman of middle-class background and education, whose position as Marx’s daughter encouraged her to dabble in advanced ideas, feminist and socialist, crowning her rebellion by an adulterous and unhappy union with a disreputable member of the socialist fringe. Marx’s bourgeois attitudes with regard to his own family are too well known to surprise many people, and this study is of interest only to those who want Victorian scandal and anecdote.

The other two studies in Marx’s Daughters center on the political careers of Angelica Balabanoff and Rosa Luxemburg, both daughters of well-to-do assimilated Jewish families, one Russian, the other Polish, who both devoted their lives to Marxist socialism. We are taken on a breathless tour around the monuments of Marxism—the Second International, Bernstein, Plekhanov, Lenin, Zimmerwald, Spartacus, the Comintern, with a commentary geared to journalistic cliché (“Already nationalism was rearing its ugly head.” “Nowhere was treason a popular cause in the summer of 1914”). The essay on Balabanoff has the merit of attempting to rescue from obscurity a thinker about whom too little has been written, in spite of her role in the forefront of the international socialist antiwar movement inaugurated at Zimmerwald in 1915, and her curious relationship as teacher and confidante with the young Mussolini, whom she helped in 1902 to rescue from destitution and to educate in socialism, later editing with him the Italian socialist organ Avanti.

However, there is no such justification for the essay on Rosa Luxemburg, whose importance as a theorist and opponent of Lenin’s centralism has earned her, quite apart from J.P. Nettl’s monumental biography (which makes no apology for calling her Rosa), a plethora of studies, large and small, to which this adds nothing.

Ironically, the book’s epigraph, Turgenev’s prose poem on a Russian woman revolutionary preparing to sacrifice everything in total commitment to the cause, suggests a question which, if pursued, might have made a contribution to examining the issues raised in the introduction and given the book a raison d’être and a thematic coherence. The question is why, while middle-class radical women in England, and elsewhere in Western Europe, devoted greater energy to feminism than to socialist revolution, their counterparts in Russia and Russian Poland tended to be passionately committed to the second at the expense of the first. The author notes in passing that Rosa Luxemburg believed that to invest energy in the women’s movement was to settle for petty politics instead of revolutionary struggle, and that Angelica Balabanoff believed that women’s rights could not be separated from the general revolutionary movement. But he does not comment on these views, thus eschewing a subject of genuine historical and sociological importance, to which a contribution is made by Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar.

Here the rather coy title introduces material of considerable interest: extracts, mostly translated for the first time, from the memoirs of five prominent Russian women revolutionaries: Vera Figner, Vera Zasulich, Praskovya Ivanovskaya, Olga Lyubatovich, and Elizaveta Kovalskaya, members of the populist movement which dominated Russian radicalism of the nineteenth century. As is pointed out in the foreword, women in the Russian revolutionary movement have been almost universally neglected in studies of the period (although an important exception should be mentioned—J.M. Meijer’s monograph on the Russian student colony in Zurich, Knowledge and Revolution). This neglect is unfortunate; their role deserves to be seen as far more than an episode in the history of women’s liberation.

In March 1877, Ivan Turgenev, commenting in a letter to his publisher on criticism of the heroine of Virgin Soil, the dedicated young woman revolutionary Marianna, refers to the mass trial then taking place in Russia of young propagandists who three years previously had gone to the villages to preach socialism to the peasants:


It’s an odd thing: one Aristarch, for instance, has claimed that there are no Mariannas, that I invented them—and suddenly here we have a trial, where out of 52 revolutionaries 18 are women—a thing…unheard of in Europe at any time!1

In the following year this peculiarity of the Russian revolutionary movement was brought to the attention of the European public in an even more sensational way, by the trial of Vera Zasulich, a young woman revolutionary who had shot the governor of St. Petersburg, General Trepov, for having ordered the flogging of a political prisoner. Contrary to the government’s expectations, she was acquitted by the jury and widely acclaimed in Russia as symbolizing by her act the protest of Russian society against the brutalities of arbitrary rule.

The trial intrigued the European press, which had hitherto attributed what was known of the participation of women in radical movements in Russia to “nihilism,” a vague and sinister concept, used freely to denote a sort of Pandora’s box of violent, depraved, and anarchic tendencies, emanating from wholesale negation of all civilized values and traditions. The London Times’s first report of the trial was in line with such conceptions: the accused was reported to be a nihilist woman avenging an assault on her lover; and the jury’s extraordinary verdict was explained by a rumor that they were religious fanatics who refused to pass a death sentence during Lent. When more facts became available, most of the European press concurred in representing Zasulich as a female Nemesis, one of the Charlotte Cordays of history, whose rare appearances gave emphasis to its dramatic moments.

The second version was as wide of the mark as the first. That combination in Zasulich’s act of nihilistic contempt for conventions and moral fervor, which so confused Western commentators, was not a freak accident of personality, but the expression of the two fundamental and inseparable characteristics of Russian populism—nihilism and moralism. Moreover, the dramatic initiative of her act symbolized the complex process of effect and cause whereby women, drawn into the movement by the specific character of Russian nihilism, intensified its moral impetus.

Nihilism was a response to the predicament of the intelligentsia, the product of Russia’s developing role as a European power in the early nineteenth century, whose contact with advanced European ideas and values sharply alienated them from their backward society. They felt themselves to be, in the words of Peter Chaadayev’s famous Philosophical Letter, in “a state of chaotic fermentation of the things of the moral world, similar to the revolutions of the earth which preceded the present state of our planet.” Before they could hope to function coherently as moral beings, and to assume a useful role in their society, they had to interpret the gap between their intellectual development and their country’s backwardness, by answering such fundamental metaphysical questions as the significance and destiny of Russia in the scheme of human progress. Hence that religious attachment to ideas as means of salvation characteristic of the intelligentsia: an “integral world view”—an all-embracing system reconciling fact and value, was the essential precondition of an “integral personality,” to which all generations of the intelligentsia aspired, a personality in whom will and intellect, moral conviction and act were harmonized.

Those most frustrated by the oppression of the autocracy seized on Western socialist doctrines as the path to this ideal, and found that their alienation gave them an advantage over their Western mentors, for even the most radical of these remained too attached to past traditions to carry the liberating implications of socialism to their logical extreme. The Russian whose past was unrelieved barbarism and slavery was in this sense freer than Western man. The first classic statement of what would later be known as nihilism is made by Alexander Herzen in his article of 1851, Le Peuple Russe et le Socialisme, where he defiantly addresses the West in the person of Michelet:

Vos doutes, nous les acceptons; votre foi ne nous émeut pas. Vous êtes pour nous trop réligieux. Vos haines, nous les partageons; votre attachement pour l’héritage de vos ancêtres, nous ne le comprenons pas; nous sommes trop opprimés, trop malheureux pour nous contenter d’une demi-liberté. Vous avez des ménagements à garder; des scrupules vous retiennent; nous autres, nous n’avons ni ménagements, ni scrupules…. Qu’avons-nous donc a démêler avec vos devoirs traditionnels, nous, les mineurs, les déshérités? Et comment pourrions-nous franchement accepter une morale fanée, une morale ni chrétienne ni humaine, existant seulement dans les exercises de rhétorique, et dans les réquisitoires des procureurs?… Nous voyons clairement que la distinction entre vos lois et les oukases gît principalement dans la légende du préambule…. Le code-Nicolas est dirigé exclusivement contre les hommes et en faveur de l’autorité. Le code-Napoleon ne nous paraît pas avoir d’autre caractère. Nous traînons assez de chaînes que la force nous a imposés pour les alourdir encore d’autres, dues a notre propre choix…. Nous sommes esclaves parce que nous n’avons pas le moyen de nous affranchir; toutefois, du camp ennemi nous n’accepterons rien.

Here is the essence of Russian nihilism—a ruthless negation of traditionally sacred values and institutions, impelled by a moral need for a faith more total and liberating than any offered by the West. This faith found its ideal in millenarian populism, in the belief that Russia possessed in the peasant commune a relic of a primitive state of harmony existing before man enslaved himself to such abstract products of his alienated reason as the state, and which, if developed into conscious socialism, would inaugurate a new age in which men would fulfill themselves as integral beings.


In the wholesale negation of oppressive institutions, religious, political, and moral, whereby the intelligentsia sought to prepare the ground for this ideal, the social and political subjugation of women was a central target. There was no entrenched tradition of male political hegemony in the way: the mass of educated men being as deprived of civil and political rights as women, political discussion took place in the home and women became accustomed to participate in it. The legal and moral subordination of the woman in the family was hotly criticized and women’s emancipation seen as an integral part of that all-round fulfillment of the personality to which the intelligentsia aspired.

The revolt of a new young generation in the 1860s, which first gave the term “nihilism” currency and notoriety, was no more than a more rigorously consistent application of their predecessors’ conception of negation as the path to a socialist liberation of the personality. N. Dobrolyubov, one of the intellectual leaders of the period, in a famous article of 1860, “When Will the Real Day Come?” attacks the generation of the “fathers” for being content to remain divided Hamlets, whose moral idealism was never translated into action, and calls for “people who are whole, who from childhood are in the grip of one idea, having grown together with it to such an extent that it is necessary for them either to secure its triumph or to die….” For this generation the moral wholeness demanded by the socialist ideal must not be a thing of the future but must be epitomized in the personality of the propagandist himself. As a first step he must free himself much more consistently than before from the moral values and ideas of the bad old world.

At its most extreme this emancipation took the form of a narrow materialism which accepted as true only what could be scientifically demonstrated. The belief that scientific truth was the path to a millenarian “wholeness” led to the most prosaic of such truths being propounded with a moral fervor both comic and moving. This religious attitude to science as a means of salvation is reflected particularly vividly in letters of a typical representative of this generation, Dmitri Rogachev. Writing from prison after his arrest for revolutionary activities in 1877, he answers the queries of his wife and sister about how to lead more useful lives by prescribing a course of self-education comprising mathematics, mechanics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, botany, zoology, biology, anthropology, geology, physiology, psychology, philosophy, geography, history (economic, political, and intellectual), law, literature, art, philosophy of history, and sociology. The aim of this program is to compose a view of the world “which would harmonise fragmentary and contradictory facts and give them shape and integrality; this last automatically imparts the same character to…behaviour.”2

The integral world view to which study was the means was centered on the ideal of a rational, just society based on the commune, and the urge to harmonize beliefs with action culminated in the great “movement to the people” of 1873-1874 when thousands of intellectuals went to the villages to teach and preach socialism, with all the fervor of a religious crusade motivated, as participants themselves confessed, by a desire for moral purification as much as by practical aims.

The concern of the nihilists of the 1860s to integrate beliefs with action is particularly striking in their attitude to women’s emancipation, which they moved from the intellectual to the practical plane. A powerful movement arose, encouraged by all the intellectual leaders of nihilism, demanding the economic emancipation of women, through admission to higher education and the professions. The government rejected their demands, but professors sympathetic to their cause taught at evening courses for women and at the end of the decade many went abroad to study at Zurich, the first European university to admit women for degrees.

Generated by the same thirst for knowledge as the radical movement, the women’s movement soon fused with it. Vera Zasulich recounts how as a young girl, envious of the advantages given to boys, she decided to educate herself to avoid becoming a governess: “And then, the distant specter of revolution appeared, making me equal to a boy; I, too, could dream of ‘action,’ of ‘exploits,’ and of ‘great struggle.’ ” This development was typical; women’s attempts to educate themselves brought them into contact with radical literature and they came to see their emancipation in terms of a fight for the right to be as useful to the people as men; to this end most studied medicine or midwifery.

The comparatively greater effort required from women than from men to break free of parental and family ties led to their even greater dedication to the self-mortifying moralism of the nihilist view of the world. The Russian government in a decree of 1873 forbidding women to study in Zurich declared that they had been “carried away by communist theories of free love.” In reality, these “jacobins of female emancipation,” as Herzen called them, were distinguished by an asceticism of habits and dedication to study. A Swiss woman student describes an encounter in the Russian eating-room with Olga Lyubatovich, then a seventeen-year-old student at Zurich:

Behind the table was sitting an enigmatic being, whose biological character was at first all but clear to me: a roundish, boyish face, short-cut hair, parted askew, enormous blue glasses,…a coarse jacket, a burning cigarette in its mouth—everything about it was boylike, and yet there was something which belied this desired impression. I looked stealthily under the table—and discovered a bright-coloured, somewhat faded cotton skirt. The being took no notice at all of my presence and remained absorbed in a large book, every now and then rolling a cigarette which was finished in a few droughts.3

The moral rigor of these women was epitomized in a circle which gathered in Zurich for discussions on socialist literature. Called the Fritsche, after their landlady, they were characterized by extreme asceticism. Vera Figner relates how one of the group was severely censured for confessing to a passion for strawberries, and when they decided to join with a similar circle of men, they requested that celibacy be introduced into the rules, a request rejected by the men. Women, in particular Sofya Perovskaya, played a leading role in the formation of the most important of the circles of study and propaganda of the turn of the Sixties, and a school for future revolutionaries—the Chaikovsky circle. Its members saw themselves as knights dedicated to the moral preparation of the intelligentsia for its work among the people, believing that a revolutionary party must be a model of the principles of truth and justice which will characterize the new society. Sofya Perovskaya was so dedicated to maintaining this standard in her behavior and that of others that she earned the title “Cato the Censor.”

As indicated by the subsequent mass trials, women participated in the “movement to the people” in almost as great numbers as men. When the government’s vigilance prevented further work among the people, the populists were forced to consider a political battle, a tactic they had always rejected on the grounds that the political liberties so gained would benefit only the exploiting classes and perpetuate the people’s economic misery. The decision was agonizing for most; Vera Figner describes her own and Sofya Perovskaya’s reluctance to leave their work of schoolteaching and medical help in the villages; reason called them to terrorism, but feeling, “the striving for a pure life,” urged them to remain with the peasants.

A crucial event in the turn to terrorism was Vera Zasulich’s attack on Trepov. At her trial she described how when Trepov’s savage flogging of a prisoner for the crime of failing to remove his cap in his presence had aroused no protest in the press, “then, seeing no other means to that end, I decided, even at the cost of my own life, to prove that one cannot be sure of going unpunished in thus violating the human personality.”4

In her unhesitating consistency, Vera Zasulich epitomizes the contribution of women to the Russian revolutionary movement. The moral resolution which the practice of nihilism demanded from them was relatively greater than from men, and it gave their participation a distinctive character of unhesitating and total consistency in that unity of conviction and act which was the essence of Russian nihilism. Zasulich’s sacrifice illustrated convincingly to many that for those who were dedicated to the emancipation of the personality there was no way other than terrorist action to win the minimal liberties necessary for propagating their ideas. In the People’s Will, the terrorist organization subsequently formed, ten out of the twenty-eight members of the Executive Committee were women who like Vera Zasulich had been formed by the nihilism of the Sixties and were characterized by the same unrelenting consistency. Thus Vera Figner asserted at her trial that, having decided that terrorism was necessary, she took this road to the end: “I have always demanded of a person consistency and harmony of word and deed, and it seemed to me that if I had theoretically recognised that something could be done only by force, I was obliged to take direct part in any violent activities undertaken by the party to which I belong.”

The urge for moral wholeness was channeled into terrorism (the Jacobin amoralism connected with the name of Nechaev was an aberrant phenomenon, condemned by the populist movement as a whole): all egotism, all posing was rejected; the terrorists’ only aim was to win power for the people and the climax of their fight was the trial where for the first time in their lives they would be able to proclaim in public the populist faith and moral ideals which had motivated their actions. The most impressive of such proclamations was at the trial of the five assassins of Alexander II in 1881. It was dominated by the personality of Sofya Perovskaya, the main organizer of the assassination, who expressed in her life the moral essence of the movement. A member of the high aristocracy, whose urge for education had led her to escape from a despotic father, she had dedicated her life to the peasants, working in the villages and subsequently taking time off from conspiratorial activity to study for a diploma in midwifery. She was the first woman to be hanged in Russia, and when arrests decimated the organization, its chief representative in Russia, and the most wanted revolutionary until her arrest in 1884, was Vera Figner.

It is perhaps indicative of their more exclusive dedication to the moral aspects of populism that women left little contribution to its theory; but they left many memoirs of immense value for an understanding of the motivations of the movement. Five Sisters, by making some of these more available, does a great service. It is a pity, in view of the absence of studies on the subject, that the introduction is so short and sketchy. Still, the book helps to convey that understanding of the populist faith which, as Vera Figner movingly recounts, was the last and overwhelming concern of the captured terrorist at that moment when

the president, turning to the dock, says in a special, solemn voice: “Prisoner, you have the last word!”…. The last word! What significance…in that short formula! The accused is given the opportunity, the only one in extraordinary tragic surroundings and…perhaps the last in his life, to express his moral essence, to explain the moral justification of his acts…and in the hearing of all to say what he wishes to say, what he must say…if the moment is lost the accused…will never again raise his voice, he will not be heard out; his voice will fall silent in prison…or will die with its owner on the scaffold.5

This Issue

July 17, 1975