Mikhailovsky, Nikolai Konstantinovich

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(18421904), journalist, sociologist, and a revolutionary democrat; leading theorist of agrarian Populism.

Born in the Kaluga region to an impoverished gentry family, and an early orphan, Nikolai Mikhailovsky studied at the St. Petersburg Mining Institute, which he was forced to quit in 1863 after taking part in activities in support of Polish rebels. From 1860 he published in radical periodicals, held a string of editorial jobs, and experimented at cooperative profit-sharing entrepreneurship. His early thought was influenced by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, whose work he translated into Russian. In 1868 he joined the team of Otechestvennye zapiski (Fatherland Notes), a leading literary journal headed by Nikolai Nekrasov, where he established himself with his essay, "What Is Progress?" attacking Social Darwinism, with his work against the utilitarians, "What Is Happiness?" and other publications, including "Advocacy of the Emancipation of Women." After Nekrasov's death (1877) Mikhailovsky became one of three coeditors, and the de facto head of the journal.

Mikhailovsky was the foremost thinker and author of the mature, or critical stage of populism (narodnichestvo ). While early populists envisioned Russia bypassing the capitalist stage of development and building a just and equitable economic and societal order on the basis of the peasant commune, Mikhailovsky viewed this scenario as a desirable but increasingly problematic alternative to capitalist or state-led industrialization. The ethical thrust of Russian populism found its utmost expression in his doctrine of binding relationship between factual truth and normative (moral) truth, viewed as justice (in Russian, both ideas are expressed by the word pravda ), thus essentially tying knowledge to ethics.

Together with Pyotr Lavrov, Mikhailovsky laid the groundwork for Russia's distinct sociological tradition by developing the subjective sociology that was also emphatically normative and ethical in its basis. His most famous statement read that "every sociological theory has to start with some kind of a utopian ideal." In this vein, he developed a systematic critique of the positivist philosophy of knowledge, including the natural science approach to social studies, while working to familiarize the Russian audience with Western social and political thinkers of his age, including John Stuart Mill, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Marx. In "What Is Progress?" he argued for the "struggle for individuality" as a central element to social action and the indicator of genuine progress of humanity, as opposed to the Darwinian struggle for survival. According to Mikhailovsky, in society, unlike in biological nature, it is the environment that should be adapted to individuals, not vice versa. On this basis, he attacked the division of labor in capitalist societies as a dehumanizing social pathology leading to unidimensional and regressive rather than harmonious development of humans and, eventually, to the suppression of individuality (in contrast to the animal world, where functional differentiation is a progressive phenomenon). Thus he introduced a strong individualist (and, arguably, a libertarian) element to Russian populist thought, which had traditionally emphasized collectivism. He sought an alternative to the division of labor in the patterns of simple cooperation among peasants. He also worked toward a distinct theory of social change, questioning Eurocentric linear views of progress, and elaborated a dual gradation of types and levels of development (that is, Russia for him represented a higher type but a lower level of development than industrialized capitalist countries, and he thought it necessary to preserve this higher, or communal, type while striving to move to a higher level). In "Heroes and the Crowd" (1882), he provided important insights into mass psychology and the nature of leadership.

Under the impact of growing political repression, Mikhailovsky evolved from liberal critique of the government during the 1860s through short-lived hopes for a pan-Slav liberation movement (18751876) to clandestine cooperation with the People's Will Party, thus broadening the purely social goals of the original populism to embrace a political revolution (while at the same time distancing himself from the morally unscrupulous figures connected to populism, such as Sergei Nechayev). He authored articles for underground publications, and after the assassination of Alexander II (1881) took part in compiling the address of the People's Will's Executive Committee to Alexander III, an attempt to position the organization as a negotiating partner of the authorities. In the subsequent crack-down on the movement, Mikhailovsky was banned from St. Petersburg (1882), and Otechestvennye zapiski was shut down (1884). Only in 1884 was he able to return to an editorial position by informally taking over the journal Russkoye bogatstvo (Russian Wealth). He then emerged as an influential critic of the increasingly popular Marxism, which he saw as converging with top-down industrialization policies of the government in its disdain for and exploitative approach to the peasantry. Simultaneously, he polemicized against Tolstovian anarchism and anti-intellectualism. In spite of the ideological hegemony of Marxists at the turn of the century, Mikhailovsky's writings were highly popular among the democratic intelligentsia and provided the conceptual basis for the neo-populist revival, represented by the Socialist Revolutionary and the People's Socialist parties in the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. Moreover, his work resonates with subsequent Western studies in the peasant-centered "moral economy" of peripheral countries.

See also: intelligentsia; journalism; marxism; nekrasov, nikolai alexeyevich; populism


Billington, J.H. (1958). Mikhailovsky and Russian Populism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Edie, James M.; Scanlan, James P.; and Zeldin, M.B., eds. (1965). Russian Philosophy, vol. 2. Chicago, IL: Quadrangle Books.

Ivanov-Razumnik, R.I. (1997). Istoria russkoi obshchestvennoi mysli. Vol. 2. Moscow: Respublika, Terra. pp. 228-302.

Ulam, Adam B. (1977). In the Name of the People: Prophets and Conspirators in Prerevolutionary Russia. New York: Putnam.

Venturi, Franco. (2001). Roots of Revolution, revised ed., tr. Francis Haskell. London: Phoenix Press.

Walicki, A. (1969). The Controversy Over Capitalism: Studies in the Social Philosophy of the Russian Populists. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dmitri Glinski

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