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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.

If Turgenev were living at this hour, the young radicals whom he might wish to describe, and perhaps to explain with some sympathy, are those who wish to rescue men from the reign of those very “sophisters, economists and calculators” whose coming Burke lamented—those who ignore or despise what men are and what they live by. Some among the new insurgents of our time appear to favor—so far as they can bring themselves to be at all coherent—a vague species of the old, Natural law. They call for a society in which men treat one another as human beings with unique claims to self-expression, however undisciplined and wild, not as producing or consuming units in a centralized, world-wide, self-propelling social mechanism.

Bazarov’s progeny has won; and it is among the descendants of the defeated, despised “superfluous men,” of the Rudins and Kirsanovs and Nezhdanovs, of Chekhov’s muddled, pathetic students and cynical, broken doctors, that both the extremists and the moderates are to be found, those who are preparing to man the revolutionary barricades, and their more quiescent allies. Yet the similarity with Turgenev’s predicament does hold: the most uncompromising among the modern rebels (although their number, at present or in the future, and, even more, their seriousness, are still in question) declare, as Bazarov and Pisarev and Bakunin maintained, that the first requirement is the clean sweep, the total destruction of the present system; the rest is not their business. The future must look after itself. Better anarchy than prison; there is nothing in between.

This violent and sporadic cry meets with a similar response in the breasts of our contemporary Shubins and Kirsanovs and Potughins, the small, hesitant, self-critical, not always very brave band of men who occupy a position somewhere to the left of center and are morally repelled both by the hard faces to their right and the intermittent outbreaks of hysteria and mindless violence and demagoguery on their left. Like the men of the Forties, for whom Turgenev spoke, they are at once horrified and fascinated. They are shocked by the irrationalism of the handful of dervishes on the left, yet they are not prepared to reject wholesale the position of those who claim to represent the young and the disinherited, the furious champions of the poor and the socially deprived or repressed. This is the notoriously unsatisfactory, at times agonizing, position of the modern heirs of the liberal tradition.

I understand the reasons for the anger which my book provoked in a certain party,” wrote Turgenev just over a hundred years ago. “A shadow has fallen upon my name…. But is this really of the slightest importance? Who, in twenty or thirty years time, will remember all these storms in a teacup, or indeed my name, with or without a shadow?”5 Turgenev’s name still lies under a shadow in his native land. His artistic reputation is not in question; it is as a social thinker that in Russia he is even now the subject of a continuing dispute. The situation that he diagnosed in novel after novel, the painful predicament of the believers in liberal Western values, a predicament once thought peculiarly Russian, is today familiar everywhere. So, too, is his own oscillating position, his horror of reactionaries, his fear of the barbarous radicals, mingled with a passionate anxiety to be understood and approved of by the ardent young.

Still more familiar is his inability, despite his greater sympathy for the party of protest, to cross over unreservedly to either side in the conflict of ideas, classes, and, above all, generations. The figure of the well-meaning, troubled, self-questioning liberal, witness to the complex truth, which, as a literary type, Turgenev virtually created in his own image, has today become universal. These are the men who, when the battle grows too hot, tend either to stop their ears to the terrible din or attempt to promote armistices, save lives, avert chaos.

As for the storm in a teacup, of which Turgenev spoke, so far from being forgotten, it blows, in one form or another, over the entire world today. If the inner life, the ideas, the moral predicament of men matter at all in explaining the course of human history, then Turgenev’s novels, especially Fathers and Children, quite apart from their literary qualities, are as basic a document for the understanding of the Russian past and, it may be, of our future, as the plays of Aristophanes for the understanding of classical Athens, or Cicero’s letters, or novels by Dickens or George Eliot, for the understanding of Rome and Victorian England.

Turgenev may have loved Bazarov; he certainly trembled before him. He understood, and to a degree sympathized with, the case presented by the new Jacobins, but he could not bear to think of what their feet would trample. “We have the same credulity,” he wrote in the mid-Sixties, “and the same cruelty; the same hunger for blood, gold, filth…the same meaningless suffering in the name of…the same nonsense as that which Aristophanes mocked at two thousand years ago….”6 And art? And beauty? “Yes, these are powerful words…. The Venus of Milo is less open to question than Roman law or the principles of 1789”7—yet she, too, and the works of Goethe and Beethoven would perish. Cold-eyed Isis—as he calls nature—“has no cause for haste. Soon or late, she will have the upper hand…she knows nothing of art or liberty, as she does not know the good….”8 But why must men hurry so zealously to help her with her work of turning all to dust? Education, only education, can retard this painful process, for our civilization is far from exhausted yet.

Civilization, humane culture, meant more to the Russians, late-comers to Hegel’s feast of the spirit, than to the blasé natives of the West. Turgenev clung to it more passionately, was more conscious of its precariousness, than even his friends Flaubert or Renan. But unlike them, he discerned behind the philistine bourgeoisie more ferocious opponents—the young iconoclasts bent on the total annihilation of his world in the certainty that a new and more just world would emerge. He understood the best among these Robespierres, as Tolstoy, or even Dostoyevsky, did not. He rejected their methods, he thought their goals naïve and grotesque, but his hand would not rise against them if this meant giving aid and comfort to the generals and the bureaucrats.

He offered no clear way out: only gradualism and education, only reason. Chekhov once said that a writer’s business was not to provide solutions, only to describe a situation so truthfully, do such justice to all sides of the question, that the reader could no longer evade it. The doubts Turgenev raised have not been stilled. The dilemma of morally sensitive, honest, and intellectually responsible men at times of acute polarization of opinion has, since his time, grown world-wide. The predicament of what, for him, was only the “educated section” of a country then scarcely regarded as fully European, has come to be that of men in every class of society in our day. He recognized this predicament in its very beginnings and described it with imcomparable sharpness of vision, poetry and truth.

Appendix

As an illustration of the political atmosphere in Russia in the Seventies and Eighties, especially with regard to the mounting wave of political terrorism, the account that follows of a conversation with Dostoyevsky by the famous editor, A. S. Suvorin, may be of interest. Both Suvorin and Dostoyevsky were loyal supporters of the autocracy and were at this time looked upon by liberals, not without reason, as strong and irredeemable reactionaries. Suvorin’s periodical, New Times (Novoye vremya), was the best edited and most powerful extreme right-wing journal published in Russia toward the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Suvorin’s political position gives particular point to this entry in his diary.9

On the day of the attempt by Mlodetsky10 on Loris Melikov I was with F.M. Dostoyevsky.

He lived in a shabby little apartment. I found him sitting by a small round table in the drawing room, he was rolling cigarettes; his face was like that of someone who had just emerged from a Russian bath, from a shelf on which he had been steaming himself…I probably did not manage to conceal my surprise, because he gave me a look, and after greeting me, said, “I have just had an attack. I am glad, very glad, to see you,” and went on rolling his cigarettes. Neither he nor I knew anything about the attempted assassination. But our conversation presently turned to political crimes in general, and the [recent] explosion in the Winter Palace in particular. In the course of talking about this, Dostoyevsky commented on the odd attitude of the public to these crimes. Society seemed to sympathize with them, or, it might be truer to say, was not too clear about how to look upon them. “Imagine,” he said, “that you and I are standing by the window of Datsiaro’s shop and looking at the pictures. A man is standing near us, and pretending to look too. He seems to be waiting for something, and keeps looking round. Suddenly another man comes up to him hurriedly and says, ‘The Winter Palace will be blown up very soon. I’ve set the machine.’ We hear this. You must imagine that we hear it—that these people are so excited that they pay no attention to their surroundings or how far their voices carry. How would we act? Would we go to the Winter Palace to warn them about the explosion, would we go to the police, or get the corner constable to arrest these men? Would you do this?”

No, I would not.”

Nor would I. Why not? After all, it is dreadful; it is a crime. We should have forestalled it.11 This is what I had been thinking about before you came in, while I was rolling my cigarettes. I went over all the reasons that might have made me do this. Weighty, solid reasons. Then I considered the reasons that would have stopped me from doing it. They are absolutely trivial. Simply fear of being thought an informer. I imagined how I would come, the kind of look I might get from them, how I might be interrogated, perhaps confronted with someone, be offered a reward, or, maybe, suspected of complicity. The newspapers might say that ‘Dostoyevsky identified the criminals.’ Is this my affair? It is the job of the police. This is what they have to do, what they are paid for. The liberals would never forgive me. They would torment me, drive me to despair. Is this normal? Everything is abnormal in our society; that is how these things happen, and, when they do, nobody knows how to act—not only in the most difficult situations, but even in the simplest. I might write about this. I could say a great deal that might be good and bad both for society and for the government; yet this cannot be done. About the most important things we are not allowed to talk.”

He talked a great deal on this theme, and talked with inspired feeling. He added that he would write a novel, the hero of which would be Alyosha Karamazov. He wanted to take him through a monastery and make him a revolutionary; he would then commit a political crime; he would be executed. He would search for the truth, and in the course of this quest would naturally become a revolutionary….

This is the third part of a three-part essay on Turgenev which was first given in November, 1970, as the Romanes lecture in the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford. It was published as a pamphlet in December, 1972, by Oxford’s Clarendon Press which has now issued a corrected text, soon to be available in the US to those who write directly to the Oxford University Press in New York.

  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.

  5. 5

    Po povodu ‘Ottov i detey’ ” (1869), Literaturnyye i zhiteyskiye vospominaniya, p. 159.

  6. 6

    Quoted from Dovol’no (Enough), an address read by him in 1864, which was later caricatured by Dostoyevsky in The Possessed. See Sobraniye sochineniy, vol. ix, pp. 118-119.

  7. 7

    Ibid., p. 119.

  8. 8

    Ibid., p. 120.

  9. 9

    Dnevnik A. S. Suvorina, ed. M. Krichevsky (Moscow/Petrograd, 1923), pp. 15-16. This entry for 1887 is the first in the diary of Dostoyevsky’s and Chekhov’s friend (and Chekhov’s publisher).

  10. 10

    Ippolit Mlodetsky made his attempt on the life of the head of the government on February 20, 1880, some weeks after Khalturin’s failure to blow up the Winter Palace. He was hanged two days later.

  11. 11

    The Russian word can also mean “give warning.”

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