nihilism (nĪˈəlĭzəm) [key], theory of revolution popular among Russian extremists until the fall of the czarist government (1917); the theory was given its name by Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons (1861). Nihilism stressed the need to destroy existing economic and social institutions, whatever the projected nature of the better order for which the destruction was to prepare. Nihilists were not without constructive programs, but agreement on these was not essential to the immediate objective, destruction. Direct action, such as assassination and arson, was characteristic. Such acts were not necessarily directed by any central authority. Small groups and even individuals were encouraged to plan and execute terroristic acts independently. The assassination of Czar Alexander II was one result of such terrorist activities. The constructive programs published by nihilists include the establishing of a parliamentary government; the programs were on the whole moderate in comparison with the revolutionary measures of 1917. Nihilism was too diffuse and negative to persist as a movement and gradually gave way to other philosophies of revolt; it remained, however, an element in later Russian thought.
See S. Rosen, Nihilism (1969); M. Novak, The Experience of Nothingness (1970); C. Glicksberg, The Literature of Nihilism (1975); D. A. Crosby, The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism (1988); D. M. Levin, The Opening of Vision: Nihilism and the Postmodern Situation (1988).