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What Follies and Paradoxes!

We all know the story of the man who observes, looking backward at some failed experiment, “Well, you know, it seemed like a good idea at the time.” He may have been a scientist, a political theorist, or a repentant fanatic. He may also well have been a Russian, for practically everything that has happened in Russia since the time of Peter the Great has happened because some man of power once thought it a good idea. And an idea in Russia exists to be implemented by the means of power, even though it may have been conceived in abstraction, barren argument, apparent helplessness.

Which is why ever since the self-creation of its intelligentsia in the eighteenth century, Russia has always presented itself as a perfect paradise for the historian of ideas. What rich and varied contradictions! What follies and what paradoxes! The morals of the dogmatist depend on the certainty of solution, so that every idea in Russia moves blindly and ominously toward action, like the bronze hooves of Peter the Great’s horse in Pushkin’s poem, echoing over the stone pavements of Peter’s city.

When John Stuart Mill said the foundation of liberal democracy was “a question of time, place, and circumstance,” he did not have the Russian experience specifically in mind, but had he done so he might well have doubted whether such a favorable combination was ever likely to occur there. In the tyranny of ideas in Russia, could democracy take natural root? Democracy is a sound instinct which tends to bumble along without needing to ask itself whether it was born of a good idea or a bad, or any coherent idea at all: its own history obscures its conception, and, as Churchill once remarked, the best thing about it is that other forms of government are worse. But in Russian historical politics the correct idea itself must be both beginning and end.

In her excellent book on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian thinkers, Aileen Kelly vividly makes this point in two quotations, not deliberately contrasted but speaking with eloquence for themselves. The first is from a letter by the anarchist Kropotkin, written shortly before his death in 1921, bitterly accusing the Bolshevik chief of unacceptable methods: “How can you, Vladimir Ilich, you who want to be the apostle of new truths and the builder of a new State, give your consent to the use of such…unacceptable methods? Such a measure is tantamount to declaring publicly that you adhere to the ideas of yesterday” (my italics).

After Lenin’s triumph the artist Vladimir Tatlin was commissioned to design a monument, far exceeding the Eiffel Tower in height and straddling the broad river Neva in Petrograd. It would symbolize humanity’s ascent to freedom. An awestruck commentator wrote that “you will be carried up and down by mechanical methods…while before you there will flash a propagandist’s forceful, laconic phrase….The latest news, resolution or decree, the latest invention, all delivered in bursts of simple, clear ideas.” The tower was never built, but it had certainly seemed like a good idea at the time, at least to those artists and intellectuals who viewed the Revolution as a great opportunity for the future to be new and exciting. One intellectual who was not impressed was Yury Zamyatin, the author of We, an anti-utopian nightmare which was to influence both Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984.

By their nature utopias are built on the dominance of an idea. Isaiah Berlin, the most illuminating as he was also the most modest historian of Russian ideology, always maintained, in Aileen Kelly’s words, “that a truly liberal pluralism is irreconcilable with the view that there is one universal solution to the problem of social existence.” A society dominated by one idea is bound to be or to become a tyranny, and eventually to collapse. There may be plenty of exceptions, but at least it can be said with confidence that it was the final decay of the Marxist-Leninist utopian idea that led to the fall of the Soviet Union.

In contrast to historians like Leonard Schapiro and Robert Conquest, who have emphasized the authority of dogma as the be-all and end-all of Russian political thought, Isaiah Berlin always laid stress on the equal and paramount importance in Russia not of an idea but of a tradition, that unformulated tradition of mutual help and cooperation at the grassroots level which lay behind the aspirations of the Populist movement. That movement had its ruthless side no less than Bolshevism. It was its fanatical arm, “the People’s Will,” that carried out the political assassinations of the 1860s and 1870s. But the general influence of Populism was wide-reaching and salutary until both the movement and its ideals met their catastrophic political end with the triumph of the Bolsheviks in 1917. Like Isaiah Berlin, Aileen Kelly has always had a deep admiration for this alternative way in the history of Russian political development, suggesting in the early stages of her book that the historians of the West who study the rise and fall of Soviet communism should pay it more attention than they do.

In her first two chapters she contrasts the attitudes of Schapiro and of Berlin as representative of what might be termed the negative and the positive approach to the traditions and development of Russian political culture. She shows a scrupulous fairness in reviewing the unspoken debate, but ends up on the side of Isaiah Berlin, and, incidentally, on the side of those authors and thinkers who for Berlin constituted the true Russian political heroes, most notably Herzen and Turgenev. Taking its present clear and comprehensive shape from essays written over the last twenty years, beginning with her essay on Berlin’s Russian Thinkers in 1978, Kelly’s book is by far the best study of its kind available today. It is full of information, speculative, wise, witty, rich above all in insights—on Herzen and Schopenhauer and their equivocal relationship; on Boris Chicherin, “the liberal conservative” of the 1860s; on Bakunin and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; on the fatal charms of the millennium. It always emphasizes those humbler Russian populist solutions which time and history have conspired to forget. Toward Another Shore is a masterpiece of its kind, so absorbing that one wants to read it all in one sitting despite its variety and its length; for it is a book that is wonderfully easy to read, and one with no axe to grind. At the same time it argues a case—its own kind of case—illuminatingly and with great subtlety and distinction.

While the Soviet Union was still a threat, to argue (as I do in this book) that we might be morally enlightened by the insights of Russian radical humanists was to swim against the ideological stream in the West. Liberal societies had never been more secure in their goals and values, and historians who identified with those values were not disposed to concede merit or insight to those whom they saw as having prepared the ground for the evils of Bolshevism. It has been noted that in dealing with the socialist tradition, such historians operate with a form of retrospective historicism that has peculiar affinities with the predictive historicism of Karl Marx; their verdicts on the ideals and motives of early socialists are delivered with the hindsight of those who know that socialism was destined for catastrophic failure.

This approach is now much less common: a fact that has less to do with the demise of the “Evil Empire” than with a deeper and more pervasive revolution, whose form Herzen dimly discerned in his vision of another shore. The “postmodern” condition has been variously defined, but there is a consensus that its basic component is that we can no longer anchor our values in any universal ground, whether God, Reason, or History. The spectacular failure of twentieth-century attempts at the rational ordering of peoples and human affairs, combined with developments in science, philosophy, psychology, and social theory, has eroded our faith in all “grand narratives” of progress.

The past and its ideas—the ideas which have gone wrong but which seemed good ones at the time—remain nonetheless our main criterion for the future. But we have now generally accepted what might be called a social version of Heisenberg’s scientific paradox: the uncertainty principle which arises from the fallibility of the observer himself. As Aileen Kelly puts it, the most “unsettling” of new historicist approaches acknowledges that “there is no transcendental point outside empirical reality from which to judge human practices…. Categories and values of any human group are a function of their time, the localized product of contingent circumstances.” We are left in fact with nothing much more to go on than the primacy for truth and meaning of the Nietzschean will to power.

Here Aileen Kelly quotes to telling effect a passage from Dostoevsky’s A Writer’s Diary in which he states, just as would a modern commentator, that we are living in a time of “casual families,” in which parents and children have no shared beliefs, and society is fragmented in its search for what we would now call “self-becoming” or “personal authenticity.” A Heisenberg-related social principle means that it is no longer society that is striving forward to a Hegelian or utopian goal, but each separate individual, who owes no duty except to his or her own wish for self-fulfillment. I recall receiving a letter from the famous Japanese sociologist Takeo Doi, about an essay in which I had opposed the received idea that marriage should never be taken for granted and that married couples should constantly be striving to perfect it in a mutual image of fulfillment. As it happened Doi had himself just written an essay called “Taking for Granted,” suggesting that this Western phrase neatly expressed the whole spirit of Japanese populist culture. The individual was not expected in any crude sense to “conform,” because conformity was itself only a letting go and a taking for granted, an unawareness of any goal of fulfillment.

Aileen Kelly suggests that something similar existed and still exists in the Russian collective and populist mentality, and in the traditions that resisted the corrosive march of modern ideas. Is the critic Michael Bakhtin, who ironically enough has become something of a cult in fashionable Western literary circles, the modern exponent of this old Russian Byt, the way of life that Berlin, and Kelly with him, have held to be the truest and most salutary legacy of Russian thought? Bakhtin, as Kelly points out, is the inspiration of new work on anti-ideological thinking, which writers like Caryl Emerson and Gary Saul Morson have explored in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. They have made use of Bakhtin’s critical vocabulary to define their own style of inquiry into what has come to be known as “prosaics,” based on Bakhtin’s own emphasis on what he called “the prosaic wisdom” of the novel form. Is it therefore the Russian novelists—Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy—to whom both Russia and the West should be looking, rather than conducting what in Schapiro’s or Conquest’s case are moderately gleeful autopsies on the disastrous legacy of the Russian ideologues?

Aileen Kelly has taken such a look, although her magnificent book contains very much more besides, traveling by way of novelists and ideologues to an examination of utopias and pessimists, and the attempts to construct a Bolshevist ethics, and concluding (as Berlin himself would have done) with a salutation to the genius of that most civilized and perspicuous of all Russian nineteenth-century thinkers, Aleksandr Herzen.

Aileen Kelly is particularly illuminating on the strange relationship, half hostile, half admiring, that Dostoevsky had with Herzen. Visiting Herzen in London in 1862, Dostoevsky praised his meditation From the Other Shore, the shore of exile, in which Herzen had mused on the defeat of European revolution in 1848. From the Other Shore takes the form of a dialogue with an imaginary opponent, and what Dostoevsky liked most, he told Herzen, was that the opponent in this dialogue was so clever that he often drove the author himself into a corner. Dostoevsky indeed admired the book so much that he copied its method in his own A Writer’s Diary, as Gary Saul Morson has effectively shown. Both books are “dialogical,” setting the utopian against the anti-utopian argument, achieving their own forms of new enlightenment by failing to reach any resolution, but ending in what followers of Bakhtin would call a fertile aporia—more vulgarly, an ideological gridlock. Neither Dostoevsky nor Herzen were skeptics, but they could not fail to be ironists, romantic ironists in the new style as defined by the critic D.C. Muecke, who is quoted by Kelly: “Caught between his aspirations for an ideal he knows is beyond his reach, and his limitations of which he is equally aware, the only possibility for this ironist is a continual dialectical process of ironic affirmations and negations.”

Kelly finds in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground views that echo the argument of From the Other Shore. Herzen, she writes,

was not a nihilist, an idealist, or a hesitant inhabitant of some middle ground. Among his contemporaries, only Dostoevsky seems to have seized on the essential characteristic of his thought: ‘Self-reflection—the ability to make an object of one’s deepest feelings, to set it before oneself, to bow down to it, and perhaps immediately after, to ridicule it—was developed in Herzen to the highest degree.’

Kelly writes that this comment from the first chapter of A Writer’s Diary “was not intended as a tribute.”

Indeed it was not. Both the venomous and the religious sides of Dostoevsky’s mentality often accused Herzen in the Diary of being the symbol of a national and moral sickness. And yet he paid the exile the supreme compliment of imitation, not only in the Diary but in his novels, where he uses the more dramatized dialogical method which Bakhtin analyzed. Isaiah Berlin, who not only loved Herzen but found his habits of reflection and irony so personally congenial, used to say that Dostoevsky, whatever else he was, “was not a very nice man.” Neither of course was Dostoevsky’s character the Underground Man, that wonderful emanation from the lower regions who comes so much alive, and in so forceful a way, by being himself the very opposite of Goethe’s Mephistopheles, der Geist der stets verneint, the Dark Spirit who denies everything in life.

The Underground Man does not deny—on the contrary he asserts—his own vision of life, what he himself requires his own life to be like. With passionate conviction, he refuses to behave as a human being should; that is to say, to act according to the utilitarian precepts of “correct” dogmatists like Chernyshevsky. He refuses a woman’s love because that would disturb his own chosen way of life. What he wants is the right not to be happy, or to be happy in his own perverse way. Of course the way of life he has chosen makes him miserable, but that too is preferable to living like a so-called rational man. He has freed himself from the Hegelian absurdities of the historical process, because, as he points out, “There’s only one thing you can’t say about history—that it is rational.”

Notes from Underground represents Dostoevsky’s most powerful piece of anti-utilitarian propaganda, but Dostoevsky is not on the side of his Underground Man, any more than Herzen in From the Other Shore is on his own side, or on that of his imaginary opponent. Although they distrusted the revolutionary and Hegelian view of history—Dostoevsky indeed loathed it—they were making a living use, consciously or unconsciously, of the Hegelian dialectic: thesis and antithesis cannot but produce their own personal synthesis, at the level of art or reflection. In Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky went on to project a more positive synthesis for his hero Raskolnikov. He repents of his crime and, baptized by love, goes forward, at least notionally, into the sort of “new life” that revolutionaries themselves projected; even though, as Bakhtin would point out, the ironic cycle of doubt and affirmation never came to an end in Dostoevsky’s own creative mind.

Nor did it in Herzen’s. Aileen Kelly quotes and stresses a prediction of his, which is “all the more remarkable in that it was made by the founder of Russian socialism.” The victory of socialism, Herzen wrote, would solve nothing. It would generate its own inner contradictions and absurdities, until “a mortal struggle will begin, in which socialism will play the role of contemporary conservativism and will be overwhelmed in the subsequent revolution, as yet unknown to us.”

Monumental as seemed his personality and his art, Tolstoy as artist and man was, in Kelly’s account, equally divided.

The standard picture of Tolstoy the thinker, especially in his later life, tends to be static and singularly unattractive: a self-appointed and self-righteous sage with absurdly simplistic and utopian views on the organization of society; a moral despot and domestic tyrant whose narrow and unshakeable dogmatism wrecked his marriage and drove his wife to the verge of madness. This picture is not consistent with the spiritual journey recorded in the letters and diaries. Their dominant note to the very end is not dogmatism but doubt, so intense as to bring Tolstoy close to suicide….

In his brief and brilliant study The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isaiah Berlin portrayed Tolstoy as a genius misunderstood by his admirers, and in a sense by himself as well, a genius with a boundless sense of the variety and the absurdity of life; one who like the fox in the Greek proverb “knows many things,” but who longed continually and fruitlessly for the “one big thing” known to the hedgehog, the one true way to live. Well before Berlin, however, the most perceptive of all Tolstoy’s critics had made the same point, in detail and with great subtlety, pointing out, for example, that Tolstoy has involuntarily made the real hero of War and Peace not the seeker Pierre, but Nikolai the soldier and barin, the sterling representative of those upper classes who hold Russia and her empire together, and whose achievements are the ones eloquently celebrated in the breadth and sweep of the great novel. I am surprised that Aileen Kelly does not mention this immensely shrewd Jewish philosopher from Kiev, Lev Shestov, whose essays on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, their divided genius and its relation to nineteenth-century philosophy, are some of the most illuminating written about Russian authors.

But the greatest author of all, at least under Russian eyes, is not in the least concerned with ideology and philosophy. The Mozartian brio of Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet and one of Europe’s greatest too, possesses a freedom which his fellow countrymen have always recognized and adored—freedom from power, from religion, from metaphysics and polemics. Pushkin’s freedom has nothing to do with cynicism, everything to do with the joy of existence. When the French historian Jules Michelet published in 1852 a tirade against the Russian government and people, claiming that they had the mentalities of barbarians and slaves, and were devoid of moral sense, it was the young refugee Aleksandr Herzen who wrote an angry response, proclaiming the true freedom of the Russian people from the shackles of a theological and philosophical culture which unthinkingly sacrificed the individual to ideological abstractions like spirit and state and universal progress. Had Pushkin still been alive, and in the habit of engaging in such combative prose polemics, it might have been Pushkin himself speaking.

In her brilliant final chapter, “The Divine Inventor, Chance,” Aileen Kelly returns to the message of the epigraph from Pushkin with which her book began.* Herzen, whose personality in many ways resembled Pushkin’s, was a profound believer in the liberating power of Chance, a theme of Pushkin’s own greatest poems. So it is fitting that Aileen Kelly should couple the twin heroes, Herzen and Pushkin, at the opening and conclusion of her admirable and remarkable study. Dostoevsky, as she points out, was in sufficient sympathy with Herzen to perceive that the latter’s overriding “faith in the self-sufficing value of contingent existence” could itself be interpreted as a form of religious belief.

Such a religion, for Herzen, could itself be a bringer of new hope and enlightenment. Going still further, she argues that

from the perspective of our time [Herzen] can be seen as anticipating hermeneutic philosophers who argue that the historicity of the self does not render moral generalizations meaningless and who detect in history the unifying thread of a spiritual quest: the search to articulate our intuitive sense of the good.”

It is toward that shore that the best as well as what has come to seem the most progressive Russian thought of the nineteenth century was directing its voyage.

  1. *

    In verse as graceful as it is mischievous and deadpan, Pushkin refers to the gifts that are bestowed by “the spirit of enlightenment,” but more importantly by “the divine inventor, Chance.”

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