Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The New Populists

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

The ideologists of globalization might want to find a new public relations firm. As the street battles in Seattle, Prague, Nice, G?teborg and Genoa over the past year and a half have demonstrated, the message of globalization is not exactly getting through. The biggest surprise of the new millennium has been the rise of an antiglobalist resistance, which is both anonymous and everywhere. A new breed of radical has emerged with a call to arms as old as European modernity itself — the struggle against capital and capitalists, against the bourgeois levelling of culture and the savage vulgarity of the market. It would seem that humanity has already been through this many times before.

Yet for the student of Russian history, the anti-globalist movement presents a serious intellectual challenge.

There is something very familiar in the names of the anti-globalist organizations: Black Forest, Black Bloc, Class War, Marxism Lives. Georgy Plekhanov's Black Partition comes immediately to mind along with the heroic attempts of our Narodniki — a 19th-century populist movement — to become Russian Marxists with a human face. This proved a difficult task. The Narodniki, after all, managed to save face before history much more successfully than the Bolsheviks and their "party of a new type." And the Narodniki, with their martyr's zeal and anti-bourgeois politics, proved far less susceptible to the lust for power than the Leninists.

The appearance of the Narodniki in the 1860s and 1870s brought about a revolution in Russian values. The populists flatly rejected official ideology, the achievements of Russia's gentry culture and all notions of bourgeois "progress." They issued instead a call "To the people!" With these words the dissident social thinker Alexander Herzen addressed Russia's radical youth in his journal Kolokol (The Bell), published in London and smuggled, uncensored, back into Russia.

For the populists, the people meant the peasantry, which became a sort of idol in the consciousness of Russia's intelligentsia. Action in the people's service was understood quite differently by those of varying radicalism. The Narodniki were only united, in fact, by a few core beliefs: that the bourgeois system was evil (according to this view the West had diverged from the path of humanity's natural development); that the Russian peasant was a born socialist (hence the socialist transformation of mankind was to emerge naturally from the soil); and that the peasant community was the source of Russia's supreme social and moral values.

In everything else — tactics, forms of organizing and degrees of political radicalism — the Narodniki were extremely diverse. They held study groups, khozhdeniye v narod (going to the people, in the course of which young intellectuals canvassed rural regions and incited the peasantry to rise against the system), and issued peaceful propaganda. Over time these activities developed into secret, strictly disciplined terrorist organizations, such as the famous "Popular Will" group, which carried out the assassination of Emperor Alexander II in 1881.

Because of harsh repressive measures, and the nature of the populist movement itself, such anti-state terrorism gave way in the 1880s and 1890s to the creation of anarchist and socialist-revolutionary political parties. But that is another story altogether.

It is by now axiomatic that political parties evolve to the right, while social movements evolve to the left. But the history of Western radicalism from the 1960s to the 1990s suggests another possibility. Unlike the Russian Narodniki, whose failure to reach the people led them to political terror, the European left have emerged from the underground existence of terrorists into broad movements relying on the support of the press and of public opinion. From this perspective it makes sense to view Ulrike Meinhof, leader of the German terrorist group Red Army Faction, as the granddaughter of Vera Zasulich, who shot and wounded St. Petersburg Governor Fyodor Trepov, then went on to co-found Russia's first Marxist organization. But it makes far less sense to view today's anti-globalists as the descendants of Meinhof. The anti-globalists are progressive intellectuals who can first study computer simulations of street clashes with police on the occasion of yet another European Union summit, then put their plans into action with all the theoretical justification and heartfelt conviction of a 19th-century Russian student "going out to the people."

Russian populism was the first response to the rise of capitalism in this country. An early, perhaps overzealous response. The advantages of industrial growth seemed all too clear to many, and the regime still had time to put it to use for its own benefit. Only later was the new economy seen as a fundamental threat to the traditional political culture of the ruling class. In the immediate aftermath of the 1861 emancipation of the serfs, the populists' nostalgic call to preserve the obshchina (the historical form of social organization in the countryside), to stop the faceless city from trampling rural culture, and to avoid the urban poverty then prevalent in Europe, were all regarded by progressive liberals as an attempt at shock tactic by the raznochintsy, the non-gentry provincial intelligentsia.

After the global catastrophes of the 20th century, brought about by the unmanageable consequences of industrialization, after the staggering price people have paid for the ignorance and ineptitude of the ruling elite, and the very fact that today one percent of the world's population controls 40 percent of the world's wealth — we are compelled to reconsider the legacy of the Russian Narodniki, which Lenin so resolutely ordered us to reject.

According to reports from Genoa, Russians took part in the latest scuffles, but they could hardly be called heirs of the ideas of Mikhail Bakunin, Pyotr Tkachyov and Pyotr Lavrov. It makes more sense to rank them amongst antiglobalism's multicultural army alongside Mexico's Zapatistas, India's rural communists, Marxist Moslems from the Philippines or the Maori Committee for Self-Determination. But Russians have their own beef with the the globalization process and its institutions. The relations established by Boris Yeltsin's government with the World Trade Organization, European Union and International Monetary Fund have logically created a situation in which Russia has been left with mere scraps from the feast of human values.

But no matter how far the Russian antiglobalists raise their consciousness, to survive as a movement they must somehow resist the forces of decay, released by urban rebellion. We've been through all this in Russia. A segment of the radicals who became Narodniki not for ideological reasons, but because of their involvement in what sociologists call "hate groups," quickly degenerated into a politicized, aggressive underclass. The builders of Russia's brave new world would feed on their enormous hate-driven energy.

A pogrom is a pogrom even if it begins beneath the banners of resistance to debt slavery, media pressure and the global policies of multinational corporations.

For this reason I would rest a little easier if all the highly educated functionaries of the antiglobalist movement, the Internet adepts, PR gurus and savvy political activists, would spend a little time reading about the history of Russian social thought during the second half of the 19th century. Fewer shop windows would be smashed. After all, McDonald's bottom line suffers more from mad cow disease than from anti-globalism.

Tatyana Filippova is a historian and editor of Rossiya: Tretye Tysyacheletiye, a journal of social prognosis. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.