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Political Nihilism

Nihilism, Nihilists, and Nihilistic Philosophy in Russia


It is true that early Russian Nihilism had a strong apolitical streak and that later nihilistic philosophies also tended to be apolitical in nature; nevertheless, even Russian Nihilism also contained a very strong element of political activism. Those who argued against the reality of traditional morality and authority also often argued that the social structures which served to uphold morality and authority should be taken down, by force if necessary.

Although nihilism is often associated with a generally depressing and fatalistic attitude about life, that doesn't accurately describe the perspective of political nihilists. Although it is true that their opinion about prevailing social and political structures was very negative, they were were nevertheless quite optimistic about the possibilities for the future. Indeed, they were very future-oriented, believing that taking apart both past and current values was necessary for the creation of a positive future.

This optimistic perspective may best be found in a statement by the Russian anarchist Bakunin, who wrote as early as 1842 that "the negation of what exists ... for the benefit of the future which does not exist" is the primary theme of nihilist politics. Perhaps the most succinct expression of the nihilistic program of what needs to be done in society was summed up in a statement by the leading Russian Nihilist Dmitri Pisarev:

    "Here is the ultimatum of our camp. What can be smashed must be smashed; whatever will stand the blow is sound, what flies into smithereens is rubbish; at any rate, hit out right and left, no harm will or can come of it."

For obvious reasons this sort of nihilism shares a great deal in common with the political philosophy most commonly known today as anarchism. Indeed, some argue that the Latin nihil can be accurate translated into the Greek anarche, although the Greek midenismos would seem more appropriate. Regardless of how one views the technical translation question, it remains true that this political nihilism and modern anarchism are close relatives, if not essentially the same thing.

Both seek the elimination of false systems of morality, authority, and government, all of which only serve to limit human freedom and perpetuate repression in the name of things like tradition or religion. The solutions proposed by nihilists, like those proposed by anarchists, might be violent or they might not — and in both cases it has been the most violent solutions and groups which tend to be most closely identified with the label, thus leading to unnecessary misunderstandings about the position and prejudice on the part of the general public.

As nihilism spread beyond Russia, it generally lost its revolutionary and anarchist overtones, becoming much more apolitical than it even was within Russia. This may be largely due to the fact that the political and social situation in Europe and the Americas wasn't nearly so bad as that in Russia at the time.

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