MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of People

Alexander Radishchev, the first Russian revolutionary

Authors: Pavel Yudin and Mark Rosenthal;
Written: 1954;
First published: 1954 in A Short Philosophical Dictionary, fifth edition;
Source: https://filslov.ru
Translated:by Anton P.

Radishchev, Aleksandr Nikolayevich (1749-1802)

Radishchev was the founder of revolutionary emancipatory thought in Russia, the founder of Russian revolutionary literature. The development of revolutionary and emancipatory thought in Russia was closely connected with those heroic traditions that Radishchev laid the foundation for. Lenin highly appreciated the merits of Radishchev as a thinker and revolutionary leader, as a fighter against serfdom and Tsarist despotism.

In the era of Radishchev, serfdom in the most cruel forms raged in Russia. Having suppressed the Pugachev revolt, the frightened government of Catherine II fell upon the peasants with new punitive measures, new fierce decrees that intensified the already unbearable serfdom. The peasantry responded with new revolts. The question of the struggle against serfdom arose before the best, progressive people in all its acuteness. Radishchev did not remain a calm observer of this unbridled arbitrariness and violence against the people, he raised his voice of protest against serfdom and autocracy.

A striking evidence of this is his famous book “Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow” (1790), published in Radishchev’s own printing house and published anonymously. For Russia at that time, the publication of the book “Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow” was like a thunderclap. Its creation and publication was a heroic deed of a revolutionary. In his book, Radishchev masterfully depicts the horrors of serfdom, the oppressed position of the Russian working people – the breadwinners of society, the producers of all the wealth of the country.

In condemning the flagrant arbitrariness of the serf-owners, Radishchev reaches deep political conclusions; he sees the root of evil not in individuals or violations of the law, but in the law itself, in the serf system, in the autocracy. Catherine II ordered the arrest of the author and a severe reprisal against him. He was sent to the prison of Ilimsk in Siberia “for ten years of hopeless stay.” But neither prison, nor the threat of execution, nor exile broke the freedom-loving spirit of Radishchev. In Siberia, Radishchev wrote the famous philosophical treatise “On Man, his Mortality and Immortality,” taking on the struggle of a materialist, resolutely opposing idealism and mysticism.

After the death of Catherine II, Radishchev’s friends achieved his return from Siberia. They even managed to include him in the commission for drafting laws. But this did not change Radishchev’s attitude to serfdom and autocracy. He kept aloof, still sharply opposed arbitrariness and put forward projects for a radical change in the state system, thus inciting the serf-owners against him. He was threatened by a new arrest. Hounded by the Tsar’s servants, Radishchev committed suicide. Before his death, he said: “The offspring will avenge me.

The first noble revolutionary Alexander Nikolaevich Radishchev was an outstanding thinker of his time, an artist of words, a philosopher and an economist. Together with Lomonosov he is rightfully considered the founder of Russian materialist philosophy. His materialism is remarkable for its revolutionary content, a protest against serfdom and Tsarism. Speaking out against the idealism and mysticism of the Masons, against their reactionary views, Radishchev argued the primacy of matter, arguing that the brain is a material organ of thought. In his views on matter, he as a whole did not go, and even could not at that time go beyond the metaphysical concepts of the 18th century.

But the idea of development is already noticeably making itself felt in his deep reasoning. He looked at motion as an inalienable property of matter. He criticizes the idealistic theory of preformism (Haller and Bonnet) as pseudo-scientific, as a product of idle fantasy, as well as the doctrine of “entelechy,” which was the source of vitalism. Radishchev approached the understanding of the influence of the environment on the development of organisms, to the idea of the inheritance of acquired traits. At the same time, Radishchev criticized the theory of vulgar materialists who equated thought with matter.

In matters of cognition, Radishchev also took materialistic positions, believing that thought has as its source the sensory perception of reality. Putting forward and substantiating the theory of natural equality of all people without distinction of class and race, Radishchev branded and exposed the oppression of some people by others. He criticized the racist theories of the “natural” division of society into slaves and slave-owners, condemned the savage arbitrariness of the autocracy and substantiated the right of the oppressed people to revolt and overthrow the rule of tyrants. He condemned the slavery that prevailed in America with shame. His accusatory words against American planters and slave traders have not lost their meaning today. Radishchev expressed ingenious – for the 18th century – thoughts on the role of agriculture, industry and technical inventions in the historical progress and in the mental development of a person.

Linking the tasks of social education with the general tasks of the struggle against serfdom and autocracy, Radishchev also made a great contribution to the development of advanced Russian and world pedagogical science. M. I. Kalinin noted that Radishchev’s thoughts on education to this day can be considered progressive. Radishchev’s views were the highest achievement of social and political thought of his time. The significance and influence of his revolutionary ideas went far beyond the borders of Russia. But above all, Radishchev had a tremendous influence on the subsequent development of revolutionary thought in Russia itself. The Decembrists and the revolutionary democrats of the 1840s and 1860s learned from Radishchev, they were inspired by his selfless struggle against the autocracy.

Radishchev devoted all his life to the struggle for the freedom and happiness of his people, his Motherland. He deeply believed in the mighty forces of the Russian people, in the great future of his native country. The main works of Radishchev are “A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow,” “A Letter to a Friend Living in Tobolsk,” “The Life of Fyodor Vasilyevich Ushakov,” “On Man, His Mortality and Immortality,” an ode to “Freedom” and others. The selected philosophical and socio-political works of Radishchev were published in 1952.