Lavrov, Pëtr Lavrovich (1823–1900)

views updated


Pëtr Lavrovich Lavrov was a Russian philosopher and social thinker, a major theoretician of Russian Populism and the leading exponent of a distinctive form of positivism in nineteenth-century Russian philosophy (also elaborated by Nikolai Mikhailovskii). Lavrov was born in Melekhov, the son of a landed gentleman and retired artillery officer. He was sent to the Artillery School in St. Petersburg in 1837 and received his commission upon graduating in 1842. In 1844 he joined the faculty of the Artillery School, and for more than twenty years (during which he rose to the rank of colonel), he taught mathematics and the history of science at military institutions in St. Petersburg. At the same time Lavrov read widely in philosophy and gained a reputation as a writerfirst for his poetry and after 1858 for his scholarly essays in philosophy. In the 1860s, the increasing liberalism of his social views aroused the suspicion of the tsarist authorities. Arrested in 1866, he was exiled to the provinces in the following year. In 1870 he fled to Paris, where he played an active role in the Commune of 1871. After sojourns in London and Zürich, he settled in Paris in 1877. A friend of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Lavrov became the voice of Russian socialism abroad and a revered figure in the international socialist movement. He died in Paris.

Lavrov developed an early interest in socialism through reading François Marie Charles Fourier and other leading socialists; he was particularly attracted to the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Aleksandr Herzen. Philosophically, Lavrov's initial scientific orientation evolved in the direction of positivism rather than in the direction of the "materialism" that was prevalent in Russian radical circles of the day, among such thinkers as Nikolai Chernyshevskii and Dmitrii Pisarev. However, his positivistic philosophy was based more on German models than on Auguste Comte. Lavrov did not become acquainted with Comte's writings until the middle of the 1860s; by then his thinking had been given strong direction by a close study of Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, the neo-Kantian Albert Lange, and "young Hegelians" such as Ludwig Feuerbach and Arnold Ruge.

In his first important philosophical writings, which consisted of several long essays written between 1858 and 1861, Lavrov criticized materialism as a metaphysical system that unnecessarily restricts science to matter in motion. Distinguishing between material phenomena, conscious phenomena, and historical phenomena, he maintained that phenomena of the last two classes cannot be dealt with by the methods of the natural sciences. The phenomena of consciousness, in particular, require a "subjective," introspective method, and furthermore, these phenomena must be regarded as scientifically primary, since every investigator must begin from the facts of his own consciousness. Calling this approach "anthropologism," Lavrov developed it into a neo-Kantian positivism that, while it rejected supernaturalistic metaphysics and religion, did not reject moral imperatives. It stressed the thought and action of the free individual who finds in his own consciousness an absolute sanction to strive toward the realization of moral ideals such as individual dignity and social justice. While material phenomena are governed by universal natural laws, man's conscious conviction that he is free is inescapable and thus may be taken as a foundation for practical philosophy. Moral ideals are ultimately grounded in man's striving for pleasure, but in the consciousness of the cultivated individual they present themselves as nonegoistic, universal imperatives.

In his best-known philosophical work, Istoricheskie pis'ma (Historical letters), first published serially in the magazine Nedelia (Week) in 1868 and 1869, Lavrov continued his attack upon materialistic reductionism by applying "anthropologism" to history. Arguing that man can view history only "subjectively" and teleologically, he defined the goal of history as the physical, moral, and intellectual development of the individual. On this basis he maintained that the "critically thinking individuals" who have already achieved such development have a moral obligation to extend the opportunity for development to the masses, whose toil has given the privileged few the leisure and the resources needed for self-cultivation. Lavrov asserted that in coming to understand the defects of existing social institutions and in actively striving to reform them, the "critically thinking individuals" both discharge their "debt to the people" and serve as the moving forces of history. He envisaged a future in which all social institutions will conform to man's natural needs and the coercive institutions of the state will be all but eliminated. Istoricheskiye Pis'ma had a great impact on the Russian revolutionary youth of the 1870s.

Lavrov was able to develop his socialist program more explicitly abroad, where he was free from tsarist censorship. From 1873 to 1876 he edited the journal Vperyed! (Forward!), the chief organ of Russian Populist socialisma form of agrarian socialism, inspired by Herzen and Chernyshevskii, which stressed the Russian village commune and the possibility it afforded Russia of moving directly to a socialist order, thus bypassing the evils of capitalism. Lavrov's political theory was further elaborated in Gosudarstvennyi element v budushchem obshchestve (The state element in future society), published in London in 1876. Acknowledging the need for revolution, Lavrov at first stressed the value of preparatory education and propaganda. Later he came to condone revolutionary terrorism and was associated with the Russian extremist party, Narodnaia volia (The people's will).

In his later socialist views, which were closer to those of Marx, Lavrov gave more attention to class conflict and to the process of production, but he never adopted a fully Marxist view of history or social dynamics. His emphasis remained moralistic and individualistic, with its focus on the development and activity of the "critically thinking individual." The philosophical outlook reflected in Lavrov's Istoricheskiye Pis'ma remained fundamentally unchanged in his last major work, which consisted of two lengthy introductory volumes of an unfinished intellectual history titled Opyt istorii mysly novogo vremeni (Essay in the history of modern thought; Geneva, 1894).

See also Chernyshevskii, Nikolai Gavrilovich; Comte, Auguste; Engels, Friedrich; Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas; Fourier, François Marie Charles; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Herzen, Aleksandr Ivanovich; Kant, Immanuel; Lange, Friedrich Albert; Marx, Karl; Materialism; Mikhailovskii, Nikolai Konstantinovich; Pisarev, Dmitri Ivanovich; Positivism; Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph; Russian Philosophy; Socialism.


works by lavrov

Sobranie sochinenii (Collected works). 11 numbers. Petrograd, 19171920.

Izbrannye sochineniia (Selected works). 4 vols. Moscow, 19341935.

Filosofiya i sotsiologiya. 2 vols. Moscow, 1965.

Historical Letters. Translated by James P. Scanlan. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1967.

O religii (On religion). Moscow: Mysl, 1989.

works on lavrov

Itenberg, B. S. P. L. Lavrov v russkom revoliutsionnom dvizhenii (P. L. Lavrov in Russian revolutionary movement). Moscow: Nauka, 1988.

Kazakov, A. P. Teoriia progressa v russkoi sotsiologii kontsa XIX veka (P. L. Lavrov, N. K. Mikhailovskii, M. M. Kovalevskii) (The theory of progress in late nineteenth-century Russian sociology [P. L. Lavrov, N. K. Mikhailovskii, M. M. Kovalevskii]). Leningrad: Izdatel'stvo leningradskogo universiteta, 1969.

Pomper, Philip. Peter Lavrov and the Russian Revolutionary Movement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Semenkova, T. G. Ekonomicheskie vzgliady P. L. Lavrova (The economic views of P. L. Lavrov). Moscow: Vysshaia shkola, 1980.

Venturi, Franco. Il populismo russo. Rome, 1952. Translated into English by Frances Haskell as Roots of Revolution. New York, 1960.

Volodin, A. I. Lavrov. Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 1981.

Zenkovsky, V. V. Istoriya Russkoy Filosofii. 2 vols. Paris, 19481950. Translated into English by George L. Kline as A History of Russian Philosophy. 2 vols. New York and London, 1953.

James P. Scanlan (1967)

Bibliography updated by Vladimir Marchenkov (2005)

About this article

Lavrov, Pëtr Lavrovich (1823–1900)

Updated About content Print Article