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The Great Amateur

MORE THAN BAKUNIN and even Turgenev, whose novels formed a central source of knowledge about Russia in the West, Herzen counteracted the legend, ingrained in the minds of progressive Europeans (of whom Michelet was perhaps the most representative), that Russia was nothing but the Government jack-boot on the one hand, and the dark, silent, sullen mass of brutalized peasants on the other—an image that was the by-product of the widespread sympathy for the principal victim of Russian despotism, the martyred nation, Poland. Some among the Polish exiles spontaneously conceded this service to the truth on Herzen’s part, if only because he was one of the rare Russians who genuinely liked and admired individual Poles, worked in close sympathy with them, and identified the cause of Russian liberation with that of all her oppressed subject nationalities. It was, indeed, this unswerving avoidance of chauvinism that was among the principal causes of the ultimate collapse of The Bell and Herzen’s own political undoing.

After Russia, Herzen’s deepest love was for Italy and the Italians. The closest ties bound him to the Italian exiles, Mazzini, Garibaldi, Saffi and Orsini. Although he supported every liberal beginning in France, his attitude toward her was more ambiguous. For this there were many reasons. Like Tocqueville (whom he personally disliked), he had a distaste for all that was centralized, bureaucratic, hierarchical, subject to rigid forms or rules. France was to him the incarnation of order, discipline, the worship of the state, of unity, and of despotic, abstract formulae that flattened all things to the same rule and pattern—something that had a family resemblance to the animating principle of the great slave states—Prussia, Austria, Russia. With it he constantly contrasts the decentralized, uncrushed, untidy, “truly democratic” Italians, whom he believes to possess a deep affinity with the free Russian spirit embodied in the peasant commune with its sense of natural justice and human worth. To this ideal even England seemed to him to be far less hostile than legalistic, calculating France: in such moods he comes close to his romantic Slavophile opponents. Moreover, he could not forget the betrayal of the revolution in Paris by the bourgeois parties in 1848, the execution of the workers, the suppression of the Roman revolution by the troops of the French Republic, the vanity, weakness, and rhetoric of the French radical politicians—Lamartine, Marrast, Ledru-Rollin, Felix Pyat.

HIS SKETCHES of the lives and behavior of leading French exiles in England are masterpieces of amused, half-sympathetic, half-contemptuous description of the grotesque and futile aspects of every political emigration condemned to sterility, intrigue, and a constant flow of self-justifying eloquence before a foreign audience too remote or bored to listen. Yet he thought well of individual members of it: he had for a time been a close ally of Proudhon, and, despite their differences, he continued to respect him; he regarded Louis Blanc as an honest and fearless democrat, was on good terms with Victor Hugo, and he liked and deeply admired Michelet. In later years he visited at least one Paris political salon—admittedly, it was that of a Pole—with evident enjoyment: the Goncourts met him there and left a vivid description in their journal of his appearance and his conversation.8

Although he was half German himself, or perhaps because of it, he felt, like his friend Bakunin, a strong aversion from what he regarded as the incurable philistinism of the Germans, and what seemed to him a peculiarly unattractive combination of craving for blind authority with a tendency to squalid internecine recriminations in public, more pronounced than among other émigrés. Perhaps his hatred of Herwegh, whom he knew to be a friend both of Marx and of Wagner, as well as Marx’s onslaughts on Karl Vogt, the Swiss naturalist to whom Herzen was devoted, played some part in this. At least three of his most intimate friends were pure Germans; Goethe and Schiller meant more to him than Russian writers; yet there is something genuinely venomous in his account of the German exiles, quite different from the high-spirited sense of comedy with which he describes the idiosyncracies of the other foreign colonies gathered in London in the Fifties and Sixties—a city, if we are to believe Herzen, equally unconcerned with their absurdities and their martyrdom.

As for his hosts, the English, they seldom appear in his pages. Herzen had met Mill, Carlyle, and Owen. He was on reasonably good terms with several editors of radical papers (some of whom, like Linton and Cowen, helped him to propagate his views, and to preserve contact with revolutionaries on the continent as well as with clandestine traffic of propaganda to Russia), one or two radically inclined Members of Parliament, including a minor minister. In general, however, he seems to have had even less contact with Englishmen than his contemporary and fellow exile, Karl Marx. He admired England. He admired her constitution; the wild and tangled wood of her unwritten laws and customs brought the full resources of his romantic imagination into play, The entertaining passages of My Past and Thoughts in which he compared the French and the English, or the English and the Germans, display acute and amused insight into the national characteristics of the English. But he could not altogether like them: they remained for him too insular, too indifferent, too unimaginative, too remote from the moral, social, and aesthetic issues which lay closest to his own heart, too materialistic and self-satisfied. His judgments about them, always intelligent and sometimes penetrating, are distant, acid, and tend to be conventional. A description of the trial in London of a French radical who had killed a political opponent in a duel in Windsor Great Park is wonderfully executed but remains a piece of genre painting, a gay and brilliant caricature. The French, the Swiss, the Italians, even the Germans, certainly the Poles, are closer to him. He cannot establish any genuine personal rapport with the English. When he thinks of mankind he does not think of them.

Apart from his central preoccupations, he devoted himself to the education of his children, which he entrusted in part to an idealistic German lady, Malwida von Meysenbug, afterwards a friend of Nietzsche and Romain Rolland. His personal life was intertwined with that of his intimate friend Ogaryov, and of Ogaryov’s wife who became his mistress. In spite of this the mutual devotion of the two friends remained unaltered—the Memoirs reveal little of the curious emotional consequences of this relationship.

For the rest, he lived the life of an affluent, well-born man of letters, a member of the Russian and, more specifically, Moscow gentry, uprooted from his native soil, unable to achieve a settled existence or even the semblance of inward or outward peace, a life filled with occasional moments of hope and even exultation, followed by long periods of misery, corrosive self-criticism, and, most of all, overwhelming, omnivorous, bitter nostalgia. It may be this, as much as objective reasons, that caused him to idealize the Russian peasant, and to dream that the answer to the central “social” question of his time—that of growing inequality, exploitation, dehumanization of both the oppressor and the oppressed—lay in the preservation of the Russian peasant commune. He perceived in it the seeds of the development of a non-industrial, semi-anarchist, “free” socialism. Only such a solution, plainly influenced by the views of Fourier, Proudhon, and George Sand, seemed to him to avoid the crushing, barrack-room discipline demanded by Western Communists from Cabet to Marx; and from the equally suffocating, and, it seemed to him, far more vulgar and philistine ideals contained in moderate, half-socialist doctrines, with their faith in the progressive role of developing industrialism preached by the forerunners of social democracy in Germany and France and of the Fabians in England. At times he modified his view: toward the end of his life he began to recognize the historical significance of the organized urban workers. But all in all, he remained faithful to his belief in the Russian peasant commune as an embryonic form of a life in which the quest for individual freedom was reconcilable with the need for collective activity and responsibility. He retained to the end a romantic vision of the inevitable coming of a new, just, all-transforming social order.

Herzen is neither consistent nor systematic. His style during his middle years has lost the confident touch of his youth, and conveys the consuming nostalgia that never leaves him. He is obsessed by a sense of the power of blind accident, although his faith in the values of life for its own sake, of art, of social freedom, of personal relationships, remains unshaken. Almost all traces of Hegelian influence are gone. “The absurdity of facts offends us…it is as though someone had promised that everything in the world will be exquisitely beautiful, just and harmonious. We have marvelled enough at the deep abstract wisdom of nature and history; it is time to realise that nature and history are full of the accidental and senseless, of muddle and bungling.” This is highly characteristic of his mood in the Sixties; and it is no accident that his exposition is not ordered, but is a succession of fragments, episodes, isolated vignettes, a mingling of Dichtung and Wahrheit, facts and poetic license.

His moods alternate sharply. Sometimes he believes in the need for a great, cleansing, revolutionary storm, even were it to take the form of a barbarian invasion likely to destroy all the values that he himself holds dear. At other times he reproaches his old friend Bakunin, who joined him in London after escaping from his Russian prisons, for wanting to make the revolution too soon; for not understanding that dwellings for free men cannot be constructed out of the stones of a prison; that the average European of the nineteenth century is too deeply marked by the slavery of the old order to be capable of realizing true freedom, that it is not the liberated slaves who will build the new order, but new men brought up in liberty. History has its own tempo; patience and gradualism—not the haste and violence of a Peter the Great—can alone bring about a permanent transformation. At such moments he wonders whether the future belongs to the free, anarchic peasant, or to the bold and ruthless planner; perhaps it is the industrial worker who is to be the heir to the new, unavoidable, collectivist economic order.9 Then again he returns to his early moods of disillusionment and wonders whether men in general really desire freedom: perhaps only a few do so in each generation, while most human beings only want good government, no matter at whose hands; and he echoes de Maistre’s bitter epigram about Rousseau: “Monsieur Rousseau has asked why it is that men who are born free are nevertheless everywhere in chains; it is as if one were to ask why sheep, who are born carnivorous, nevertheless everywhere nibble grass.” Herzen develops this theme. Men desire freedom no more than fish desire to fly. The fact that a few flying fish exist does not demonstrate that fish in general were created to fly, or are not fundamentally quite content to stay below the surface of the water, forever away from the sun and the light. Then he returns to his earlier optimism and the thought that somewhere—in Russia—there lives the unbroken human being, the peasant with his faculties intact, untainted by the corruption and sophistication of the West.

  1. 8

    See entry in the Journal for 8th February, 1865—”Dinner at Charles Edmond’s (Chojecki)…A Socratic mask with the warm and transparent flesh of a Rubens portrait, a red mark between the eyebrows as from a branding iron, greying beard and hair. As he talks there is a constant ironical chuckle which rises and falls in his throat. His voice is soft and slow, without any of the coarseness one might have expected from the huge neck; the ideas are fine, delicate, pungent, at times subtle, always definite, illuminated by words that take time to arrive, but which always possess the felicitous quality of French as it is spoken by a civilized and witty foreigner.

    He speaks of Bakunin, of his eleven months in prison, chained to a wall, of his escape from Siberia by the Amur River, of his return by way of California, of his arrival in London, where, after a stormy, moist embrace, his first words to Herzen were ‘Can one get oysters here?”’

    Herzen delighted the Goncourts with stories about the Emperor Nicholas, after the fall of Eupatoria during the Crimean War, walking in the night in his empty palace, with the heavy, unearthly steps of the stone statue of the Commander in Don Juan. This was followed by anecdotes about English habits and manners—”a country which he loves as the land of liberty”—to illustrate its absurd, class-conscious, unyielding traditionalism, particularly noticeable in the relations of masters and servants. The Goncourts quote a characteristic epigram made by Herzen to illustrate the difference between the French and the English characters. They go on to report the story of how James de Rothschild managed to save Herzen’s property in Russia.

  2. 9

    This is the thesis in which orthodox Soviet scholars claim to discern the beginnings of a belated approach to the doctrines of Marx.

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