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Solzhenitsyn's essay begins by evoking the days when there was such a thing as an intelligentsia in Russia - not just an educated stratum or even the sum total of those engaged in intellectual activity, but a distinct caste with its own moral character - quite analogous to Augustin Cochin's 'small people' - and the critique that was made of it in 1909 in a collection of essays published under the title Vekhi (Landmarks). (5)

(5) Boris Shragin and Albert Todd (ed): Landmarks - a collection of essays on the Russian intelligentsia, 1909 translated by Marian Schwarz, New York, Karz Howard, 1977.

Vekhi was an important event in the development of a distinctively Russian intellectual tradition. It reflected what was perhaps the major alternative line to the variety of Marxism that triumphed with the Bolshevik revolution. It could be seen as the coming together of two tendencies - a group of Marxists known as the 'legal Marxists', and the philosophical idealists of the 'Moscow Psychological Society', founded in 1885 (dissolved in 1922), deeply influenced by one of their members, Vladimir Soloviev, friend of Dostoyevsky and possibly a model for Ivan Karamazov. Soloviev died in 1900. The 1909 collection was preceded by a collection of essays by some of the same writers published in 1903 under the title Problems of Idealism. In his introduction to a modern translation of Problems of Idealism (6) Randall Poole, an American academic, says of the Moscow Psychological Society:

'For leading philosophers in the society, neo-idealism offered compelling intellectual support not only for the autonomy of philosophy but also for rule of law liberalism and constitutional reform.' (p.1)

(6) Randall A. Poole (ed): Problems of Idealism - essays in Russian social history, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2003.

The Psychological Society philosophers argued 'that the positivist criterion of reality was far from exhaustive, and that what it did not exhaust constituted the special domain of philosophy. This domain was human consciousness itself, to the extent that it could be shown to be irreducible to empirical experience ... Neo-Idealism thus took shape as a type of philosophy of consciousness.' (p.4)

The connection between law and idealism (which can be very crudely defined as the understanding that material reality can only be known as a phenomenon of consciousness) derived from a Kantian view of ethics: 'the claim that the irreducibility of ethical ideals to empirical reality gave the individual a certain autonomy relative to the natural and social environment.' (p.14)

We can see that, although the term 'liberalism' is being used, the philosophical underpinnings of this liberalism were very different from the positivist and utilitarian - or even ethical Protestant - underpinnings of liberalism in the United Kingdom.

The 'legal Marxist' contributors to Vekhi had been Marxists who published in the legal press and argued for the merits of capitalism as a stage that had necessarily to be passed before the transition to Socialism. As such they were already in opposition to one of the main strands of the Russian revolutionary tradition - the narodniks (populists), who saw the rural population and particularly the institution of the rural commune, as a model for the Russian future. One of the best known contributors to Vekhi, Nicolas Berdyaev, describes the attraction of Marxism as he encountered it as a student in 1894, in his autobiography, Dream and Reality (7):

'I have asked myself more than once what impelled me to become a Marxist, albeit an unorthodox, critical and free-thinking one; and why I should still have a "soft spot" for Marxism. It is easier to answer this question in negative terms: I could not associate myself with the socialist Populists, or the Social-Revolutionaries as they later came to be known, because their outlook was infirm of purpose and their belief in social revolution by some internal process in the existing peasant commune was a piece of unimpressive idyllism. When they emerged in the shape of the "People's Will" party, which adopted more revolutionary methods (they were responsible for the assassination of Alexander II), they did not in the least change their basic mentality, with its implied submissiveness to the "power of the soil" and its disguised Rousseauism. Marxism, on the other hand, denoted a complete re-orientation and marked a profound crisis of the Russian intelligentsia. The Marxist movement of the late 'nineties was born of a new vision: it brought with it not only emancipation from the routine of populism, but also a purpose and new conception of man. What attracted me most of all was its characteristic appreciation of the moving forces below the surface of history, its consciousness of the historic hour, its broad historical perspectives and its universalism. The old Russian socialism seemed provincial and narrow-minded in comparison. The fact that Marxism took root among the Russian intelligentsia was evidence of a further Europeanisation of Russia and of her readiness to share to the end the destiny of Europe. I myself felt very anti-nationalistic and was never tempted to assert Russia against the West.' (pp.117-8)

(7) Nicolas Berdyaev: Dream and reality - an essay in autobiography, translation  by Katharine Lampert, London, Geoffrey Bles, 1950.

By 1909, however, the Vekhi group had turned from Social Democracy to 'Constitutional Democracy'. To quote the account by Leonard Schapiro (8):

'The main influence in this development came from Petr Berngardovich Struve [...] the most prominent of the renegades from Marxism, if only by reason of the fact that it was he who in 1898 had drawn up the manifesto of the Social Democratic Party. He parted company with Marxism in 1901 and in 1902 founded a paper in Stuttgart, Osvobozhdeniye (Liberation) which became the leading influence in the formation of the party of National Liberation (Kadets) in 1905. Struve became a member of the Kadet party, and sat as a deputy in the short-lived Second Duma in 1907. After the dissolution of the Duma he retired from politics to academic work and to work on Russkaya Mysl' (Russian Thought) [...] Already by 1907 a vast gulf separated Struve from the party which he had done so much to create [...] After the revolution of 1905 he believed that the time had come for liberalism to break with the revolutionary tradition from which the party had in large measure drawn its inspiration. This the Kadets were unable or unwilling to do. In his memoirs of the First and Second Dumas, V.A.Maklakov traces the victory of Bolshevism to this factor above all ...' (p.57).

(8) Leonard Schapiro: 'The "Vekhi" Group and the mystique of revolution', The Slavonic and East European Review, vol 34, no 82 (Dec 1955), pp. 56-76.

He quotes another of the contributors to Vekhi, Semion Frank, saying of Struve that he had 'brought a new note into the typical outlook of the intelligentsia of his day':

'"This note" Frank continues, "I can only describe as government consciousness. Oppositional and particularly radical public opinion felt itself oppressed by the government and completely estranged from it. State power was 'they', a strange and inaccessible compound of court and bureaucracy, pictured as a group of corrupt and mentally limited rulers over real 'national and public' Russia. To 'them' were opposed 'we', 'society', the 'people', and above all the 'caste' of the intelligentsia, concerned for the welfare of the people and devoted to its service, but by reason of its lack of rights capable only of criticising the government power, of arousing oppositional feelings, and secretly preparing a revolt. Petr Berngardovich had within him, and displayed from the very first, the embryo of something quite different [...] He always discussed politics, so to say, not from 'below' but from 'above', not as a member of an enslaved society, but conscious of the fact that he was a potential participator in positive state construction.' (p.58)

We may recognise something of this 'government consciousness' in Solzhenitsyn's Letter to the Soviet Leaders in which, while hardly concealing the contempt he feels for them, he nonetheless gives the leaders his opinion without questioning their right to govern. He determinedly rejects a policy of revolutionary overthrow; and the thesis that the Cadets' inability to break with their revolutionary tradition played a large part in the final success of Bolshevism is a recurring theme of the Red Wheel.