Fathers and Children: Turgenev and the Liberal Predicament Part III

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

Alexander Herzen

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 …

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