A New Book on Nihilism

A BOOK on nihilism 1 has the great advantage just now of being at any rate timely, for this is a subject about which it is hard to get any precise information. Almost everything that we hear or read of it is so tempered by the prejudices of those who make the statements that we do not find it easy to get at the exact core of truth beneath what we take to be manifold exaggerations. Under these circumstances, a book like Signor Arnando’s cannot fail to be of interest. It might be fair to say that the book is more interesting than satisfactory, and this would not be a harsh statement, in view of the difficulty of forming a final decision on a subject which is so obscure as nihilism. Fully to make up our minds, it is necessary that we should have a complete knowledge of the present and past condition of Russia, and that we should know just what are the aims of the nihilists, and whether these could not be attained by other means than those they use. Even then there arises the question, How far will they be able to do better than the present rulers, if they succeed in their undertakings ?

That Russia is abominably governed, not even Mr. Gladstone will deny. All the testimony we can obtain goes to show that the official world is foul with corruption. From Gogol’s Revisor and Dead Souls down to the latest book about Russia, the dishonesty of officials is and has been a prominent mark for satire. The censorship, which is very rigid about almost every other criticism of the government, seems here to be disarmed and to encourage, or at least not to discourage, any amount of ridicule. Certainly, Russia is not the only country in which there are dishonest officials, but, if all accounts are true, “ our own ” William M. Tweed was but a clumsy apprentice by the side of some of the descendants of Rurik.

Then as to the severity of the government ; it is almost impossible for an English, French, or even German speaking person to read of the unwisdom of those in authority without a desire to buy a bottle of petroleum and join the nihilists. Fortunately, the English elections came just in time to refute those pessimists who saw, or feared they saw, the whole world making ready for social wars by arming civilization against brute force, by asking for a paternal, or more exactly a sort of step-fatherly, government for protection against the results of its own injustice. What a paternal government is when it has everything its own way may be seen by observation of the present condition of Russia. Yet with this illustration before us, in the reaction from excessive faith in the people, there are some who think the millennium sure if we put all the power in the hands of one man. In Russia the position of this one man is exceptionally favorable ; the vast mass of the population is blindly devoted to him and distinctly unable to comprehend or to desire any change ; the nobility is closely dependent upon him, and his position clearly resembles that of Zeus in the Greek mythology. Yet there are few private citizens who would care to change places with him.

To give a moderately full account of the wrongs inflicted on the people by the government would be a long task. Their extent may be conjectured from the violence of the attack that the nihilists are making upon society. If we could put ourselves for a few minutes in the position of these fanatics, our views might be changed. We should probably perceive that action and reaction were not only opposite but equal, and that the bitterness of the assault that is made upon society on the whole only counterbalances the wrongs the people have suffered. Signor Arnando’s book states the cause of complaint that thoughtful Russians have against their government very clearly, and all the more impressively because his own feelings are distinctly on the side of law and order; in fact, he at times yields to superfluous little outbursts of indignation at the errors of the nihilists, with a vigor that the reader could well spare.

The whole history of nihilism is one of the most interesting studies of the present times. Herzen and Bakunin led the revolt against the power of despotism, and with their hatred of a severe government they combined all that was to be learned from the socialism of Western Europe. Bakunin was most wild in his statements ; everything was to go by the board, and on the ruins, after they were reduced to chaos, was to be built a new social system. If he could have procured a sufficient quantity of dynamite, he would have brought civilization to the condition of a powder-mill after an explosion. He was not a reformer, but a destroyer, a madman, but, as events have shown, he has found many followers. Büchner’s famous book, Kraft und Stoff, is looked upon by the students as the expression of all truth, and Schopenhauer’s philosophy is most warmly admired. There is something childlike in this thorough-going belief that many educated Russians feel for what the rest of the world looks at with less slavish adherence. This quality is but another form of the same docility that the lower orders of the Russians show for their Czar; only directed to new idols. Races that have an outlet for their energies are able to assimilate a vast number of theories, — the more contradictory they are, the better; they are not able to give so lasting attention to any one system of philosophy as to be able or willing to adopt it for a religion ; they are distracted by a thousand cares, duties, and pleasures. But in Russia it was different: the curtain was lifted for a moment, Büchner and Schopenhauer were standing in full view, and the impression was at once made, as on a prepared plate of a photographer, where the torpor of Russian life gave no chance for blurring and confusion. Moreover, the hopelessness that the views of Büchner and Schopenhauer encouraged chimed in with the despair of the oppressed Slavs, and they were ready enough to applaud the men who, if they had tried, could not have flattered them more dexterously than by giving to their gloom the sanction of a system of philosophy.

The Germans have already shown us something of the same disposition to be greatly moved by theories in the paucity of more active interests, just as in our own country we see how a so-called practical life by its intensity diminishes the chance for interest in intellectual matters. How thoroughly the Russian government has warped the minds of the young by absurd restrictions is notorious, and it has only itself to blame if, after, so to speak, digging its own grave, it happens to fall into it. The theories of the young Russians may be as crude as the wild notions with which, say, young collegians half appall and half weary their elders in their vacations, for every generation has to worship for a season the false gods in fashion in its day, but the only cure for such enthusiastic narrowness is more light, not repression. Repression has made nihilism the expression of political despair. What would be a healthy effervescence is turned by subjection into a most alarming danger.

In Arnando’s book may be found copious extracts from the writings and speeches of Herzen and Bakunin, and a curious résumé of a nihilist novel, which shows more clearly than anything the childishness of much of the enthusiasm of these fanatics. Childishness in adults, however, has to be met by treatment that shall correspond with the person’s age, and not by personal chastisement and shutting up in closets ; but those are the methods that the Russian government has seen fit to adopt, for its own greater injury, and nihilism seems but to thrive the more. The whole story is a curious one, and it presents so wide a contrast to our own difficulties that a study of Russian affairs might be of use to those who are accustomed to talk about the affinity between that country and the United States.

The only resemblance is that both enter late into the company of civilized nations, but from diametrically opposed quarters, — they struggling against despotism, and we against excessive license. Certainly, civilization is not yet wholly monotonous, however wide-spread may be the use of black hats, so long as these contradictory ways of looking at men’s relations to one another are open to study. Pessimists may despair of our future, but think what a stock in trade they would have if they only lived in Russia, with the chance of a free trip to Siberia and plain fare there, at the expense of the government, if they gave expression to their melancholy forebodings !

  1. Le Nihilism et les Nihilistes. Ouvrage traduit de l’Italien de J. B. ARNANDO par HENRI BELLENGER. Paris: M. Dreyfous. Boston: C. Schöonhof. 1880.