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Russian Materialism: ‘the 1860s’

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-E050-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 18, 2024, from

Article Summary

No tradition of philosophical materialism existed in Russia until the years conventionally called ‘the 1860s’ – roughly, the period from the death of Tsar Nicholas I in 1855 to the attempted assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1866. During that time philosophical freethinking, under the delayed influence of the French Enlightenment and the contemporaneous influence of post-Hegelian German materialism, came together with political radicalism to create a major social and intellectual movement with a broadly materialist philosophical foundation.

The theoretical underpinnings of the movement were elaborated in Russia (as far as tsarist censorship would permit) by Nikolai Chernyshevskii, Dmitrii Pisarev, Nikolai Dobroliubov, Ivan Sechenov and others, and more freely in emigration by Mikhail Bakunin. Their ‘materialism’ was less a precisely articulated ontological position than a grand, science-worshipping worldview that sought to undermine both religion and the state; its elements included naturalism and universal causal determinism in metaphysics, empiricism in epistemology, reductionism in the philosophy of mind, ‘rational egoism’ in ethics, revolutionary socialism in political philosophy and realism in aesthetics. Because of their extreme opposition to established authority and traditional values, the representatives of this movement came to be called ‘nihilists’, and under that name they were portrayed in best-selling novels of the day by Ivan Turgenev and Fëdor Dostoevskii.

Government repression after 1866 put an end to the open development of this materialist movement, but the writings of its leaders proved to be an inspiration to Georgii Plekhanov and Vladimir Lenin, the founders of Russian Marxism. Under Communism, the materialists of ‘the 1860s’ were honoured in Russia as great philosophers and important precursors of Marx.

Citing this article:
Scanlan, James P.. Russian Materialism: ‘the 1860s’, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-E050-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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