In class on Monday, we read The Catechism of the Revolutionary by Sergey Nechayev (1869). Nacheyev opens claiming that the revolutionary is a “doomed man.” Nechayev was willing to kill and die for his revolution. He was absolutely devoted and believed that his sacrifice would help bring about change. By calling his text a “catechism,” Nechayev draws on the centuries of devotion shown by Christians to their cause. By implication, like people died for early Christianity, or even Christ himself, so should the revolutionary die for his cause.
A catechism is a summary of instructions for initiates or Greek: κατηχέω, “to teach orally.” We often understand catechisms as a call and response or question and answer formats that instruct and reaffirm the faith of the speakers. Or, perhaps less generously, to indoctrinate listeners. For example, Martin Luther thought the catechism was an important part of developing faith and created simplified versions for parents (fathers) to recite with their children – the Small Catechism. Rather than having the family merely recite the Lord’s Prayer, he turns it into an opportunity to explain and indoctrinate:
Hallowed be Thy name.
What does this mean?
Answer: God’s name is indeed holy in itself; but we pray in this petition that it may become holy among us also.
How is this done?
Answer: When the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we as the children of God also lead holy lives in accordance with it. To this end help us, dear Father in heaven. But he that teaches and lives otherwise than God’s Word teaches profanes the name of God among us. From this preserve us, Heavenly Father.
In other words, catechisms build community and identity by asking congregations to speak in unity. They affirm that everyone saying these words believes this lesson.
Nechayev’s catechism written in smaller, easily memorized paragraphs. Did he intend for the document to be read aloud and recited? Did rooms of Russian revolutionaries recite passages from the text? I can almost see grungy bohemian artists and philosophers whispering in dark corners:
The revolutionary is a dedicated man, merciless toward the State and toward the educated classes; and he can expect no mercy from them. Between him and them there exists, declared or concealed, a relentless and irreconcilable war to the death. He must accustom himself to torture.
Or, maybe Jesus Christ really is the original revolutionary? Only the true believers while know.