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The Great Amateur

But this Rousseau-inspired vision, as he grows older, begins to fade, His sense of reality is too strong. For all his efforts and the efforts of his socialist friends, he cannot deceive himself entirely. He oscillates between pessimism and optimism, skepticism and suspicion of his own skepticism, and is kept morally alive only by his hatred of all injustice, all arbitrariness, all mediocrity as such—in particular by his inability to compromise to any degree with either the brutality of reactionaries or the hypocrisy of bourgeois liberals. He is preserved by this, buoyed up by his belief that such evils will destroy themselves, by his love for his children and his devoted friends, and by his unquenchable delight in the variety of life and the comical absurdities of human character.

On the whole, he grew more pessimistic. He began with an ideal vision of mankind, largely ignored the chasm which divided it from the present—whether the Russia of Nicholas, or the corrupt constitutionalism in the West. In his youth he glorified Jacobin radicalism and condemned its opponents in Russia—blind conservatism, Slavophile nostalgia, the cautious gradualism of his friends Granovsky and Turgenev, as well as Hegelian appeals to patience and rational conformity to the inescapable rhythms of history, which seemed to him designed to ensure the triumph of the new bourgeois class. His attitude, before he went abroad, was boldly optimistic. There followed, not indeed a change of view, but a cooling-off, a tendency to a more sober and critical outlook. All genuine change, he began to think in 1847, is necessarily slow; the power of tradition (which he at once mocks at and admires in England) is very great; men are less malleable than was believed in the eighteenth century, nor do they truly seek liberty, only security and contentment; communism is but Tsarism stood on its head, the replacement of one yoke by another; the ideals and watchwords of politics turn out, on examination, to be empty formulae to which devout fanatics happily slaughter hecatombs of their fellows. He no longer feels certain that the gap between the enlightened elite and the masses can ever, in principle, be bridged (this becomes an obsessive refrain in later Russian thought), since the awakened people may, for unalterable psychological or sociological reasons, despise and reject the gifts of a civilization which will never mean enough to them. But if all this is even in small part true, is radical transformation either practicable or desirable? From this follows Herzen’s growing sense of obstacles that may be insurmountable, limits that may be impassable, his empiricism, skepticism, the alternations of hope and gloom, the latent pessimism, and intermittent despair of the middle Sixties.

THIS IS the attitude10 which some Soviet scholars interpret as the beginning of an approach on his part toward a quasi-Marxist recognition of the inexorable laws of social development—in particular the inevitability of industrialism, and of the central role to be played by the proletariat. This is not how the majority of Herzen’s Russian left-wing critics interpreted his views in his lifetime, or in the half century that followed. To them, rightly or wrongly, these doctrines seemed symptomatic of retreat, vacillation, and betrayal. For in the Fifties and Sixties, a new generation of radicals grew up in Russia, then a backward country in the painful process of the earliest, most rudimentary beginnings of slow, sporadic, inefficient industrialization. These were men of mixed social origins, filled with contempt for the feeble liberal compromises of 1848, with no illusions about the prospects of freedom in the West, determined on more ruthless methods; accepting as true only what the sciences can prove, prepared to be hard, and if need be unscrupulous and cruel, in order to break the power of their equally ruthless oppressors; bitterly hostile to the aestheticism, the devotion to civilized values, of the “soft” generation of the Forties.

Herzen realized that the criticism and abuse showered upon him as an obsolete aristocratic dilettante by these “nihilists” (as they came to be called after Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, in which this conflict is vividly presented for the first time) was not altogether different from the disdain that he had himself felt in his own youth for the aristocratic and ineffective reformers of Alexander I’s reign; but this did not make his position easier to bear. That which was ill-received by the tough-minded revolutionaries pleased Tolstoy, who said more than once that the censorship of Herzen’s works in Russia was a characteristic blunder on the part of the government; the government, in its anxiety to stop young men from marching toward the revolutionary morass, seized them and swept them off to Siberia or prison long before they were even in sight of it, while they were still on the broad highway; Herzen’s had trodden this very path; he had seen the chasm and warned against it, particularly in his “Letters to an Old Comrade.” Nothing, Tolstoy argued, would have proved a better antidote to the “revolutionary nihilism” which Tolstoy condemned, than Herzen’s brilliant analyses. “Our young generation would not have been the same if Herzen had been read by them during the last twenty years.” Suppression of his books, Tolstoy went on, was both a wicked, and from the point of view of those who did not desire a violent revolution, an idiotic policy.

At other times, Tolstoy was less generous. In 1860, six months before they met, he had been reading Herzen’s writings with mingled admiration and irritation: “Herzen is a man of scattered intellect, and morbid amour-propre,” he wrote in a letter, “but his breadth, ability, goodness, elegance of mind are Russian.” From time to time various correspondents record the fact that Tolstoy read Herzen, at times aloud to his family, with the greatest admiration. In 1896, during one of his angriest, most anti-rationalist moods, he said, “What has Herzen said that is of the slightest use?”—as for those who maintained that the generation of the Forties could not say what it wanted to say because of the rigid Russian censorship, Herzen wrote in perfect freedom in Paris, and yet managed to say “nothing useful.”

What irritated Tolstoy most was Herzen’s socialism. In 1908 he complained that Herzen was “a narrow socialist,” even if he was “head and shoulders above the other politicians of his age and ours.” The fact that he believed in politics as a weapon was sufficient to condemn him in Tolstoy’s eyes. From 1862 onward, Tolstoy had declared his hostility to faith in liberal reform and improvement of human life by legal or institutional change. Herzen fell under this general ban. Moreover, Tolstoy seems to have felt a certain lack of personal sympathy for Herzen and his public position—even a kind of jealousy. When, in moments of deep discouragement and irritation, Tolstoy spoke (perhaps not very seriously) of leaving Russia forever, he would say that whatever he did, he would not join Herzen or march under his banner: “he goes his way, I shall go mine.”

He greatly underrated Herzen’s revolutionary temperament and instincts. However skeptical Herzen may have been of specific revolutionary doctrines or plans in Russia—and no one was more so—he believed to the end of his life in the moral and social need and the inevitable coming, soon or late, of a revolution in Russia—a violent transformation followed by a just, that is a socialist, order. He did not, it is true, close his eyes to the possibility, even the probability, that the great rebellion would extinguish values to which he was himself dedicated—in particular, the freedoms without which he and others like him could not breathe. Nevertheless, he recognized not only the inescapable necessity but the historic justice of the coming cataclysm. His moral tastes, his respect for human values, his entire style of life, divided him from the tough-minded younger radicals of the Sixties, but he did not, despite all his distrust of political fanaticism, whether on the right or on the left, turn into a cautious, reformist, liberal constitutionalist. Even in his gradualist phase he remained an agitator, an egalitarian, and a socialist to the end. It is this in him that both the Russian populists and the Russian Marxists—Mikhailovsky and Lenin—recognized and saluted.

It was not prudence or moderation that led him to his unwavering support of Poland in her insurrection against Russia in 1863. The wave of passionate Russian nationalism which accompanied its suppression, lost him sympathy even among Russian liberals. The circulation of The Bell declined. The new, “hard” revolutionaries needed his money, but made it plain that they looked upon him as a liberal dinosaur, the preacher of antiquated humanistic views, useless in the violent social struggles to come. He left London in the late Sixties and attempted to produce a French edition of The Bell in Geneva. When this periodical, too, failed, he visited his friends in Florence, returning to Paris early in 1870, before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. There he died of pleurisy, broken both morally and physically, but not disillusioned; still writing with concentrated intelligence and force. His body was taken to Nice, where he is buried beside his wife. A life-sized statue still marks his grave.

HERZEN’S IDEAS have long since entered into the general texture of Russian political thought—liberals and radicals, populists and anarchists, socialists and communists, have all claimed him as an ancestor. But what survives today of all that unceasing and feverish activity, even in his native country, is not a system or a doctrine, but a handful of essays, some remarkable letters, and the extraordinary amalgam of memory, observation, moral passion, psychological analysis, and political description, wedded to a major literary talent, which has immortalized his name. What remains is, above all, a passionate and inextinguishable temperament and a sense of the life and ferment of nature, an infinity of unpredictable possibilities, which he felt with an intensity which not even his uniquely rich and flexible prose could fully express.

He believed that the ultimate goal of life was life itself; that the day and the hour were ends in themselves, not a means to another day or another experience. He believed that remote ends were a dream, that faith in them was a fatal illusion; that to sacrifice the present, or the immediate and foreseeable future, to these distant ends must always lead to cruel and futile forms of human sacrifice. He believed that values were not found in an impersonal, objective realm, but were literally created by human beings and changed with the generations of men, but were nonetheless binding upon those who lived in their light; that suffering was inescapable, and infallible knowledge neither attainable nor needed. He believed in reason, scientific method, individual action, empirically discovered truth. But he tended to suspect that faith in general formulae, laws, prescription in human affairs was an attempt, sometimes catastrophic, always irrational, to escape from the uncertainty and unpredictable variety of life to the false security of our own symmetrical fantasies. He was fully conscious of what he believed. He had obtained his knowledge at the cost of painful, and, at times, unintended, self-analysis, and he described what he saw in language of exceptional vitality, precision, and poetry. His purely personal credo remained unaltered from his earliest days: “Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have,” he declared in a self-revealing passage of the kind that so deeply shocked the stern young Russian revolutionaries in the Sixties. Yet even they and their descendants did not and do not reject his artistic and intellectual achievement.

Herzen was not, and had no wish to be, an impartial observer. No less than the poets and the novelists of his nation, he created a style, an outlook, and, in the words of Gorky’s tribute to him, “an entire province, a country astonishingly rich in ideas,”11 where everything is immediately recognizable as being his and his alone, a country into which he transplanted all that he touched, in which things, sensations, feelings, persons, ideas, private and public events, institutions, entire cultures, were given shape and life by his powerful and coherent historical imagination, and have stood up, untouched by the forces of decay, in the solid world which his memory, his intelligence, and his artistic genius recovered and reconstructed. My Past and Thoughts is the Noah’s ark in which he saved himself, and not himself alone, from the destructive flood in which many idealistic radicals of the Forties were drowned. Genuine art transcends its immediate purpose and lives on. The structure that Herzen built in the first place, perhaps, for his own personal salvation, built out of material provided by his own predicament—out of exile, solitude, despair—survives intact. Written abroad, concerned largely with European issues and figures, these reminiscences are a great, perhaps the greatest, most lasting monument to the civilized, sensitive, morally preoccupied and gifted Russian society to which Herzen belonged, and for which alone he wrote; their vitality and fascination have not declined in the hundred years that have passed since the first chapters saw the light.


Herzen’s Circle June 20, 1968

  1. 10

    See footnote 9.

  2. 11

    Istoriya Russkoy Literatury. p. 206. (Moscow, 1939.)

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