Good for the Populists

In the Name of the People: Prophets and Conspirators in Prerevolutionary Russia

by Adam B. Ulam
Viking, 418 pp., $15.00

Diary of a Russian Censor

by Aleksandr Nikitenko, abridged, edited, and translated by Helen Satz Jacobson
University of Massachusetts Press, 397 pp., $20.00

To the Russian Marxists, the populism that dominated Russian radical thought for nearly half a century before them was all heart and no head, a movement of high-minded but ineffectual idealists, which formed a sentimental prologue to the real business of revolution. But many Western historians attribute much greater significance to it, arguing that the roots of Soviet despotism are traceable ultimately to revolutionary populism, from which the Bolsheviks took the method, inimical to orthodox Marxism, of enforcing a socialist ideology through the violent action of a professional revolutionary elite.

This interpretation is followed in the most recent work on Russian revolutionary populism, In the Name of the People, by Adam Ulam. Mr. Ulam concentrates on the phenomenon of terrorism as the key to the populist psychology. His argument is as follows: the populist ideal of socialism based on the peasant commune had no roots among the people themselves; it was the construction of alienated intellectuals, whose thirst for faith found satisfaction in worship of the virtues of the primitive masses. Unable to arouse mass support for their religion, they channeled their desire for the speedy realization of utopia into a fanatical cult of violence, manifested at its most extreme in the notorious Nechaev’s murderous cell of revolutionaries whose dictum it was that the most criminal of means were sanctified by the revolutionary end.

In the mid-1870s it became clear, according to Mr. Ulam, that the intelligentsia’s god had failed it when a mass pilgrimage to preach to the peasants in the villages revealed them to be apathetic and even hostile to their worshipers. Those who remained in the movement were able to salvage their illusions by returning to their obsession with political terror, forming a party whose goal was the assassination of the tsar. They continued to deceive themselves that they were the spokesmen of the people, but in reality they were merely satisfying, through “childish and criminal” means, their own hankering for heroics. Terror, deprived of its alleged justification, the people, became an end in itself, a form of existentialism. This “tragic situation” contained some of the seeds of twentieth-century totalitarianism: dispensing with the idealism of the populists, the Bolsheviks took over their party mystique and techniques, and developed them to their logical conclusion by establishing the dictatorship of an elite over the masses.

This is strong didactic history: we are led in smooth logical steps from the initial delusion to the inevitable tragic denouement. But the neatness of the author’s thesis is achieved through a method of selection and emphasis that seriously distorts his historical data. On the basis of a paradigm that reduces conflicts of ideas to a misleading simplicity, he develops a psychological approach to his subjects of the kind that, as one modern historian put it, surrounds a hard core of interpretation with a thin layer of facts. The attraction of this type of psychohistory is that it offers a clear and dramatic explanation of the origins of some of the great evils…

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