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The Great Amateur

To his astonishment, he enjoyed this new test of his powers; he displayed administrative gifts and became a far more competent and perhaps even enthusiastic official than he was later prepared to admit, and helped to expose the corrupt and brutal governor, of whom he painted an unfavorable and repulsive portrait. In Vyatka he became involved in a passionate love affair with a married woman, behaved badly, and suffered agonies of contrition. He read Dante, went through a religious phase, and began a long and passionate correspondence with his first cousin Natalie, who, like himself, was illegitimate, and lived as a companion in the house of a rich and despotic aunt. As a result of his father’s ceaseless efforts, he was transferred to the city of Vladimir, and with the help of his young Moscow friends, arranged the elopement of Natalie. They were married in Vladimir against their relations’ wishes. He was in due course allowed to return to Moscow and was appointed to a government post in Petersburg.

WHATEVER HIS AMBITIONS at the time, he remained indomitably independent and committed to the radical cause. As a result of an indiscreet letter, opened by the censors, in which he had criticized the behavior of the police, he was again sentenced to a period of exile, this time to Novgorod. Two years later, in 1842, he was once more permitted to return to Moscow. He was by then regarded as an established member of the new radical intelligentsia, and, indeed, as an honored martyr in its cause, and began to write in the progressive periodicals of the time. He always dealt with the same central theme: the oppression of the individual; the humiliation and degradation of men by political and personal tyranny; the yoke of social custom, the dark ignorance, and savage, arbitrary misgovernment which maimed and destroyed human beings in the brutal and odious Russian Empire.

Like the other members of his circle, the young poet and novelist Turgenev, the critic Belinsky, the future political agitators Bakunin and Katkov (the first in the cause of revolution, the second of reaction), the literary essayist Annenkov, his own intimate friend Ogaryov, Herzen plunged into the study of German meta-physics and French sociological theory and history—the works of Kant, Schelling, and, above all, Hegel: Saint-Simon, Augustin-Thierry, Leroux, Mignet, and Guizot. He composed arresting historical and philosophical essays, and stories dealing with social issues; they were published, widely read and discussed, and created a considerable reputation for their author. He adopted an uncompromising position. A leading representative of the dissident Russian gentry, he owed his socialist beliefs less to a reaction against the cruelty and chaos of the laissez faire economy of the bourgeois West—for Russia, then in its early industrial beginnings, was still a semi-feudal, socially and economically primitive, society—than to a direct response to the agonizing social problems in his native land: the poverty of the masses, serfdom and lack of individual freedom at all levels, and a lawless and brutal autocracy.3 In addition, there was the wounded national pride of a powerful and semi-barbarous society, whose leaders were aware of its backwardness, and suffered from mingled admiration, envy, and resentment of the civilized West. The radicals believed in reform along democratic, secular, Western lines; the Slavophiles retreated into mystical nationalism, and preached the need for return to native, “organic” forms of life and faith that, according to them, had been all but ruined by Peter’s reforms which had merely encouraged a sedulous and humiliating aping of the soulless, and, in any case, hopelessly decadent West. Herzen began as an extreme “Westerner,” but he preserved his links with his Slavophile adversaries. He regarded the best among them as romantic reactionaries, misguided nationalists, but honorable allies against the Tsarist bureaucracy, and later tended systematically to minimize his differences with them, perhaps from a desire to see all Russians who were not dead to human feeling ranged in a single vast protest against the evil regime.

In 1847 Ivan Yakovlev died. He left the greater part of his fortune to Luise Haag and her son, Alexander Herzen. With immense faith in his own powers, and burning with a desire (in Fichte’s words that expressed the attitude of a generation) “to be and do something” in the world, Herzen decided to emigrate. Whether he wished or expected to remain abroad during the rest of his life is uncertain, but so it turned out to be. He left in the same year, travelling in considerable state, accompanied by his wife, his mother and two friends as well as servants; he slowly crossed Germany, and toward the end of 1847 reached the coveted city of Paris, the capital of the civilized world. He plunged at once into the life of the exiled radicals and socialists of many nationalities who played a central role in the fermenting intellectual and artistic activity of that city. By 1848, when a series of revolutions broke out in country after country in Europe, he found himself with Bakunin and Proudhon on the extreme left wing of revolutionary socialism. When rumors of his activities reached the Russian Government, he was ordered to return immediately. He refused. His fortune in Russia and that of his mother were declared confiscated. Aided by the efforts of the banker James de Rothschild who had conceived a liking for the young Russian “baron” and was in a position to bring pressure on the Russian Government, Herzen recovered the major portion of his fortune, and thereafter experienced no financial want. This gave him a degree of independence not then enjoyed by many exiles, as well as the financial means for supporting other refugees and radical causes.

SHORTLY AFTER his arrival in Paris, before the revolution, he contributed a series of impassioned articles to a Moscow periodical controlled by his friends, in which he gave an eloquent and violently critical account of the conditions of life and culture in Paris, and, in particular, a devastating analysis of the degradation of the French bourgeoisie, an indictment not surpassed even in the works of his contemporaries Marx and Heine. His Moscow friends for the most part received this with disfavor: they regarded his analyses as characterstic flights of a highly rhetorical fancy, irresponsible extremism, ill-suited to the needs of a misgoverned and backward country compared to which the progress of the middle classes in the West, whatever its shortcomings, was a notable step forward toward universal enlightenment. These early works—The Letters from Avenue Marigny and the Italian Sketches that followed—possess qualities which became characteristic of all his writings: a rapid torrent of descriptive sentences, fresh, lucid, direct, interspersed with vivid and never irrelevant digressions, variations on the same theme in many keys, puns, neologisms, quotations real and imaginary, verbal inventions, gallicisms which irritated his nationalistic Russian friends, mordant personal observation, and cascades of vivid images and incomparable epigrams, which, so far from either tiring or distracting the reader by their virtuosity, add to the force and swiftness of the narrative. The effect is one of spontaneous improvisation, of exhilarating conversation by an intellectually gay, brilliant and unusually honest man endowed with singular powers of observation and expression. The mood is one of ardent political radicalism imbued with a typically aristocratic (and even more typically Muscovite) contempt for everything narrow, calculating, self-satisfied, commercial, anything cautious, petty, or tending toward compromise and the juste milieu, of which Louis Philippe and Guizot are held up as particularly repulsive incarnations.

Herzen’s outlook in these essays is a combination of optimistic idealism—a vision of a socially, intellectually, and morally free society, the beginnings of which, like Proudhon, Marx, and Louis Blanc, he saw in the French working class; faith in the radical revolution which alone could create the conditions for their liberation. But with this went a deep distrust (something that his allies did not share) of all general formulae as such, of the programs and battle cries of all the political parties, above all, of the great, official, historic goals—progress, liberty, equality, national unity, historical rights, human solidarity—principles and slogans in the name of which men had been, and doubtless would soon again be, violated and slaughtered, and their forms of life condemned and destroyed.

Like the more extreme of the left-wing disciples of Hegel, in particular like the anarchist Max Stirner, Herzen saw danger in the great magnificent abstractions the mere sound of which precipitated merely into violent and meaningless slaughter—new idols, it seemed to him, on whose altars human blood was to be shed tomorrow as irrationally and uselessly as the blood of the victims of yesterday or the day before, sacrificed in honor of older divinities—church or monarchy or the feudal order or the sacred customs of the tribe, that were now discredited as obstacles to the progress of mankind.

Together with this skepticism about the meaning and value of abstract ideals as such, in contrast with the concrete, shortterm, immediate goals of identifiable living individuals—specific freedoms, reward for the day’s work—Herzen spoke of something even more disquieting—a haunting sense of the ever widening, unbridgeable gulf between the humane values of the relatively free and civilized elites (to which he knew himself to belong) and the actual needs, desires, and tastes of the vast voiceless masses of mankind, barbarous enough in the West, wilder still in Russia or the plains of Asia beyond. The old world was crumbling visibly, and it deserved to fall. It would be destroyed by its victims—the slaves who cared nothing for the art and science of their masters; and indeed, Herzen asks, why should they care? Was it not erected on their suffering and degradation? Young and vigorous, filled with a just hatred of the old world built on their fathers’ bones, the new barbarians will raze to the ground the edifices of their oppressors, and with them all that is most sublime and beautiful in Western civilization. Such a cataclysm might be not only inevitable but justified, since this civilization, noble and valuable in the eyes of its beneficiaries, has offered nothing but suffering, a life without meaning, to the vast majority of mankind. Yet he does not pretend that this makes the prospect, to those who, like him, have tasted the ripest fruits of civilization, any less dreadful.

IT HAS often been asserted by both Russian and Western critics that Herzen arrived in Paris a passionate, even utopian social idealist, and that it was the failure of the Revolution of 1848 which brought about his disillusionment and a new, more pessimistic realism. This does not seem sufficiently borne out by the evidence.4 Even in 1847, the skeptical note, in particular, pessimism about the degree to which human beings can be transformed, and the still deeper skepticism about whether such changes, even if they were achieved by fearless and intelligent revolutionaries or reformers, ideal images of whom floated before the eyes of his Westernizing friends in Russia, would in fact lead to a juster and freer order, or on the contrary to the rule of new masters over new slaves—that ominous note is sounded clearly before the great debacle. Yet, despite this, Herzen (unlike Heine who was prey to not dissimilar doubts), remained a convinced, ultimately optimistic revolutionary. The spectacle of the workers’ revolt and its brutal suppression in Italy and in France haunted Herzen all his life. His first-hand description of the events of 1848-9, in particular of the drowning in blood of the July revolt in Paris, is a masterpiece of “committed” historical and sociological writing. So, too, are his sketches of the personalities involved in these upheavals, and his reflections upon them. Most of these essays and letters remain untranslated.

  1. 3

    The historical and sociological explanation of the origins of Russian socialism and of Herzen’s part in it cannot be attempted here. It has been treated in a number of (untranslated) Russian monographs, both pre- and post-revolutionary; the best, most detailed and original study of this topic is Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism by Martin Malia.

  2. 4

    The clearest formulation of this familiar and almost universal thesis is to be found in Mr. E. H. Carr’s treatment of Herzen in The Romantic Exiles and elsewhere. Mr. Malia’s book almost alone avoids it.

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