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Fathers and Children: Turgenev and the Liberal Predicament Part III

For more information about Isaiah Berlin, see the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. For permission to reprint any material by Isaiah Berlin, contact Curtis Brown Group Ltd.

It is time that Saturns ceased dining off their children; time, too, that children stopped devouring their parents like the natives of Kamchatka.

Alexander Herzen1

Critical turning points in history tend to occur, we are told, when a form of life and its institutions are increasingly felt to cramp and obstruct the most vigorous productive forces alive in a society—economic or social, artistic or intellectual—and it has not enough strength to resist them. Against such a social order, men and groups of very different tempers and classes and conditions unite. There is an upheaval—a revolution—which, at times, achieves a limited success. It reaches a point at which some of the demands or interests of its original promoters are satisfied to an extent that makes further fighting on their part unprofitable. They stop, or struggle uncertainly. The alliance disintegrates. The most passionate and single-minded, especially among those whose purposes or ideals are furthest from fulfillment, wish to press on. To stop halfway seems to them a betrayal.

The sated groups, or the less visionary, or those who fear that the old yoke may be followed by an even more oppressive one, tend to hang back. They find themselves assailed on two sides. The conservatives look on them as, at best, knock-kneed supporters, at worst as deserters and traitors. The radicals look on them as pusillanimous allies, more often as diversionists and renegades. Men of this sort need a good deal of courage to resist magnetization by either polar force and to urge moderation in a disturbed situation. Among them are those who see, and cannot help seeing, many sides of a case, as well as those who perceive that a humane cause promoted by means that are too ruthless is in danger of turning into its opposite, liberty into oppression in the name of liberty, equality into a new, self-perpetuating oligarchy to defend equality, justice into crushing of all forms of nonconformity, love of men into hatred of those who oppose brutal methods of achieving it. The middle ground is a notoriously exposed, dangerous, and ungrateful position.

The complex position of those who, in the thick of the fight, wish to continue to speak to both sides is often interpreted as softness, trimming, opportunism, cowardice. Yet this description, which may apply to some men, was not true of Erasmus; it was not true of Montaigne; it was not true of Spinoza, when he agreed to talk to the French invader of Holland; it was not true of the best representatives of the Gironde, or of some among the defeated liberals in 1848, or of stout-hearted members of the European left who did not side with the Paris Commune in 1871. It was not weakness or cowardice that prevented the Mensheviks from joining Lenin in 1917, or the unhappy German socialists from turning communist in 1932.

The ambivalence of such moderates, who are not prepared to break their principles or betray the cause in which they believe, has become a common feature of political life after the last war. This stems, in part, from the historic position of nineteenth-century liberals for whom the enemy had hitherto always been on the right—monarchists, clericals, aristocrats, bureaucrats, supporters of political or economic oligarchies, men whose rule promoted, or was indifferent to, poverty, ignorance, injustice, and the exploitation and degradation of men.

The natural inclination of liberals has been, and still is, toward the left, the party of generosity and humanity, toward anything that destroys barriers between men. Even after the inevitable split they tend to be deeply reluctant to believe that there can be real enemies on the left. They may feel morally outraged by the resort to brutal violence by some of their allies; they protest that such methods will distort or destroy the common goal. The Girondists were driven into this position in 1792; liberals like Heine or Lamartine in 1848; Mazzini, and a good many socialists, of whom Louis Blanc was the most representative, were repelled by the methods of the Paris Commune of 1871. These crises passed. Breaches were healed. Ordinary political warfare was resumed. The hopes of the moderates began to revive. The desperate dilemmas in which they found themselves could be viewed as being due to moments of aberration which could not last.

But in Russia, from the 1860s until the revolution of 1917, this uneasy feeling, made more painful by periods of repression and horror, became a chronic condition—a long, unceasing malaise of the entire enlightened section of society. The dilemma of the liberals became insoluble. They wished to destroy the regime which seemed to them wholly evil. They believed in reason, secularism, the rights of the individual, freedom of speech, of association, of opinion, the liberty of groups and races and nations, greater social and economic equality, above all in the rule of justice. They admired the selfless dedication, the purity of motive, the martyrdom of those, no matter how extremist, who offered their lives for the violent overthrow of the status quo. But they feared that the losses entailed by terrorist or Jacobin methods might be irreparable, and greater than any possible gains; they were horrified by the fanaticism and barbarism of the extreme left, by its contempt for the only culture that they knew, by its blind faith in what seemed to them Utopian fantasies, whether anarchist or populist or Marxist.

These Russians believed in European civilization as converts believe in a newly acquired faith. They could not bring themselves to contemplate, still less to sanction, the destruction of much in the past, even the Czarist past, that seemed to them of infinite value for themselves and for all men. Caught between two armies, denounced by both, they repeated their mild and rational words without much genuine hope of being heard by either side. They remained obstinately reformist and nonrevolutionary.

Many suffered from complex forms of guilt: they sympathized more deeply with the goals upon their left; but, spurned by the radicals, they tended to question, like the self-critical, open-minded human beings that they were, the validity of their own positions. They doubted, they wondered, they felt tempted, from time to time, to jettison their enlightened principles and find peace by conversion to a revolutionary faith, above all by submission to the domination of the zealots. To stretch themselves upon a comfortable bed of dogma would, after all, save them from being plagued by their own uncertainties, from the terrible suspicion that the simple solutions of the extreme left might, in the end, be as irrational and as repressive as the nationalism, or elitism, or mysticism of the right. Moreover, despite all its shortcomings the left still seemed to them to stand for a more human faith than the frozen, bureaucratic, heartless right, if only because it was always better to be with the persecuted than with the persecutors.

But there was one conviction which they never abandoned: they knew that evil means destroyed good ends. They knew that to extinguish existing liberties, civilized habits, rational behavior, to abolish them today, in the belief that, like a phoenix, they would arise in a purer and more glorious form tomorrow, was to fall into a terrible snare and delusion. Herzen told his old friend, the anarchist Bakunin, in 1869, that to order the intellect to stop because its fruits might be misused by the enemy, to arrest science, invention, the progress of reason, until men were made pure by the fires of a total revolution—until “we are free”—was nothing but a self-destructive fallacy. “One cannot stop intelligence,” Herzen wrote in his last and magnificent essay,

because the majority lacks understanding, while the minority makes evil use of it…. Wild cries to close books, abandon science, and go to some senseless battle of destruction—that is the most violent and harmful kind of demagoguery. It will be followed by the eruption of the most savage passions…. No! Great revolutions are not achieved by the unleashing of evil passions…. I do not believe in the seriousness of men who prefer crude force and destruction to development and arriving at settlements….2

And then, in an insufficiently remembered phrase, “One must open men’s eyes, not tear them out.”3 Bakunin had declared that one must first clear the ground: then we shall see. That savored to Herzen of the dark ages of barbarism. In this he spoke for his generation—the “men of the Forties”—in Russia.

This is what Turgenev, too, felt and wrote during the last twenty years of his life. He declared that he was a European; Western culture was the only culture that he knew; this was the banner under which he had marched as a young man: it was his banner still.4 His spokesman is Potughin in Smoke, when he says, “I am devoted to Europe, or to be more precise to…civilization…this word is pure and holy, while other words, ‘folk,’ for example, or…yes, or ‘glory,’ smell of blood….” His condemnation of political mysticism and irrationalism, populist and Slavophile, conservative or anarchist, remained absolute.

But short of this, these “men of the Forties” were less sure: to support the left in its excesses went against the civilized grain; but to go against it, or even to remain indifferent to its fate, to abandon it to the forces of reaction, seemed even more unthinkable. The moderates hoped, against all evidence, that the ferocious anti-intellectualism which, liberals in Russia told Turgenev, was spreading like an infectious disease among the young, the contempt for painting, music, books, the mounting political terrorism, were passing excesses due to immaturity, lack of education; they were results of a long frustration; they would disappear once the pressures that had generated them were removed. Consequently they explained away the violent language and the violent acts of the extreme left, and continued to support the uneasy alliance.

This painful conflict, which became the permanent predicament of the Russian liberals for half a century, has now grown world-wide. We must be clear: it is not the Bazarovs who are the champions of the rebellion today. In a sense, the Bazarovs have won. The victorious advance of quantitative methods, belief in the organization of human lives by technological organization, reliance on nothing but calculation of utilitarian consequences in evaluating policies that affect vast numbers of human beings, this is Bazarov, not the Kirsanovs.

The triumphs of the calm moral arithmetic of cost effectiveness, which liberates decent men from qualms, because they no longer think of the entities to which they apply their scientific computations as actual human beings who live the lives and suffer the deaths of concrete individuals—this, today, is rather more typical of the establishment than of the opposition. The suspicion of all that is qualitative, imprecise, unanalyzable, yet precious to men, and its relegation to Bazarov’s obsolete, intuitive, pre-scientific rubbish heap, has, by a strange paradox, stirred both the anti-rationalist right and the irrationalist left to an equally vehement opposition to the technocratic establishment in the middle. From their opposed standpoints the extreme left and the extreme right see such efforts to rationalize social life as a threat to what both sides regard as the deepest human values.

  1. 1

    Sobraniye sochineniy, vol. x, p. 319.

  2. 2

    K staromu tovarishchu” (“To an Old Comrade”), Fourth Letter, 1869, Sobraniye sochineniy, vol. xx, pp. 592-593.

  3. 3

    Ibid., p. 593.

  4. 4

    Letter to Herzen, November 25, 1862.

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