I am currently reading Nihilism Before Nietzsche by Michael Allen Gillespie. The first section is not an easy read, and not a good entry point into philosophy, as it deals with the difficult ideas of German idealist philosophers like Fichte and Hegel. The book, however, is an important one as it ties the ideas of these philosophers to the political nihilism that came later in the nineteenth century.
We often think of nihilism in terms of a depressed person who doesn't find meaning in life. But German idealist philosophy, particularly that of Fichte, had a complex reading of human consciousness in which an "absolute I" attempted to negate the phenomenal or empirical aspects of self and the world around it. So the act of negation becomes central to the activity of self.
Gillespie links this philosophy to the adoption by leading intellectuals of figures like Faust, Prometheus or even Satan as models who were at least partly admired. It's interesting to note that the young Marx fits into this mould. He liked to quote Faust that "Everything in existence is worth being destroyed" and he wrote a drama called Oulanem in which the title character declaims "If there is a something which devours, I’ll leap within it, though I bring the world to ruins–the world which bulks between me and the abyss, I will smash to pieces with my enduring curses."
This emphasis on negation, i.e., on the belief that what exists, whether good or bad, needs to be destroyed, so that a higher aspect of self can be realised, effectively set the self against the existing nature of things. This formula played out in a variety of ways, but I want to focus on one particular instance that Gillespie describes in his book, namely that of the Russian nihilist Chernyshevsky.
This story begins with a novel written by the famous Russian author Turgenev. Turgenev was influenced by the philosophy of his times, admitting once that "I prefer Prometheus, I prefer Satan, the type who revolts, who is an individual". In Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons the lead character Bazarov is a nihilist:
Bazarov is one of the great Promethean revolutionaries in modern literature...The negative character of Bazarov's greatness, however, is part and parcel of his nihilism. As he himself admits, he does not stand for anything. He wants merely to clear the ground...He is a monster of negation and of freedom...As a nihilist, he stakes out a position against not merely autocracy but nature itself, including his own human nature.
Turgenev portrays Bazarov as a flawed character, who is, as one contemporary critic put it, "destroyed in his destroying":
Bazarov is in rebellion against the world and indeed against life itself. Like Fichte's I, he is a monster of will but his will has no object other than freedom. He is thus a creature of pure negation, a destroyer and revolutionary...As sheer negativity, this will cannot construct a positive new reality...
Bazarov believes he is an autonomous, self-creating being, a Prometheus who has freed himself from the rock of political and theological despotism...Turgenev, however, tries to show us that this heroic Prometheanism is essentially tragic, because it rests upon a faulty understanding of man and nature...Bazarov's belief in his own autonomy leads him to violate "natural laws" and he must pay the price that nature extracts...he discovers he is not thoroughly autonomous but bound by nature in ways he cannot overcome.
Some nihilists admired the character of Bazarov, but others saw in him an attack on the nihilist movement. One of those in the latter group was Nicolay Chernyshevsky, who wrote his own highly influential novel What is to be done?, which was an attempt to show that it was indeed possible to organise love, family and social life so that the individual remained absolutely independent.
In the novel, Vera Pavlovna marries Lopukov, but she then falls in love with Kirsanov. Lopukov fakes his death and leaves Russia so that his wife is free to marry Kirsanov. Vera Pavlovna "is driven by a desire for autonomy, to live as she pleases".
This all sounds tawdry, but according to Chernyshevsky it represents the height of human nobility:
These people, according to Chernyshevsky...are only what all men would be if they were not deformed by corrupt social institutions. Jealousy and all the other emotions that degrade human nature are the result of the corrupt "order of things," that is, the existence of private property. He suggests that in a properly ordered society the ill-tempered will all become kind because it will not be contrary to their interests to be kind."
Chernyshevsky sees human nature as being regenerated to an extraordinary degree, as is described in a dream had by the character Vera Pavlovna:
There is nothing loftier than man; there is nothing loftier than woman...It was her own face, kindled with the brightness of love; more beautiful than all ideals left to us by sculptors of ancient time and by the great artists of the great age of art...I have the reverence for purity which "chastity" possessed. But in me it is not as it was in them, but fuller, loftier, keener...till I appeared, people had no idea of perfect enjoyment of freedom.
Gillespie goes on to describe Chernyshevksy's newly configured world as follows:
It is a world of aluminium and glass, a communal world in which almost all work is done by machines and in which there are few old men and women since they remain healthy and youthful until shortly before they die. There is only freedom, satisfaction, and enjoyment, "an everlasting spring and summer, an everlasting joy".
This reminds me of the vision of a new society by the poet Shelley. He too thought that by overthrowing power structures in society that you would radically regenerate human nature. Shelley wanted an Edenic condition of life and bitterly opposed Christianity for suggesting that man's nature was too fallen to realise such an ideal in this world.
There is a difficult mishmash of incompatible visions in Chernyshevsky's novel. He wants absolute autonomy for the individual, so that we can do whatever we please. He also wants to maintain traditional European moral ideals, such as nobility of character, purity and faithfulness. But how can you have people acting egoistically and still maintain moral character?
Chernyshevsky believes that the solution is partly technology (machines will do all the work) and partly social organisation (removal of private property will harmonise my own rational self-interest with a beneficence toward other people).
Even on his own terms, though, the results are hardly persuasive. We are supposed to believe that a young woman who is liberated to act however she pleases, and who therefore leaves her husband for her husband's best friend, is acting according to an unparalleled level of chastity and fidelity.
And, in practice, we know how the attempt to maximise individual autonomy works out. It means, as a matter of logic, accepting that everyone's choices in life are equally valid. This means that the traditional moral structure collapses. There is no longer noble and base, pure or impure, loyal or disloyal. There is only a technocratic organisation of society for enabling the maximum satisfaction of individual desire. The moral ideals change substantially, to focus on non-discrimination, inclusion, openness and tolerance of whatever people choose to do or to be, rather than on the quality of the choices themselves.
And we have had the liberation of sexual choices for women. It does not bring about the highest possible level of purity, chastity and nobility in either men or women. It does not even lead to people making judicious rational choices for their own longer-term interests. It is gradually having a disordering and dissolving effect, and not just because of the existence of jealousy.
The main point I would emphasise here is the reliance of the nihilists and other revolutionaries of the time on the idea of a radical regeneration of human nature. They wanted radical autonomy and a pursuit of self-interest, alongside a higher realisation of traditional moral ideals. They pinned their hopes on the idea that something would change human nature so significantly that such an unlikely and seemingly contradictory utopia might be possible. Many hoped that the regeneration would take place once power structures were overthrown, whether these involved kings and priests, or capitalists (or, in today's language, whiteness and patriarchy).
Again, we had the overthrow of private property in Chernyshevsky's own nation of Russia in 1917 (and Lenin was a great admirer of Chernyshevsky). You would struggle, I think, to view the results as being "an everlasting joy" and a "perfect enjoyment of freedom" brought about by the creation of a loftier and nobler human nature.