Alexander Ivanovich Herzen was born in his father’s house in Moscow on April 6, 1812, some six months before Napoleon occupied the city; he died in Paris on January 21, 1870, during the last days of the Second Empire. His father, Ivan Alekseyevich Yakovlev, came of an ancient, wealthy, and aristocratic Moscow family. During his travels abroad he met Luisa Haag, the daughter of a minor official in Württemberg, and returned to Moscow with her. He established her as mistress of his household, but, perhaps for reasons of social disparity, did not marry her. Her son Alexander did not inherit his father’s name, and was called Herzen almost as if to mark the circumstances of his birth.
He seems to have been treated in every other respect as his father’s true son and heir: he received the normal education of a well-born young Russian of those days, and after a succession of private tutors, among whom he remembered best a French émigré with crypto-Jacobin views and a Russian student of mildly radical leanings, he entered Moscow University in 1829, and attended lectures on philosophy, literature, and the natural sciences, or what went under that name in Moscow at that time.
Like other young men in Europe in the new dawn of radical thought, he admired the writings of French socialists and German Idealist philosophers, and defended their views with fervor and wit in the Moscow literary salons. His contemporaries liked (or disliked) him for his gaiety and charm, his passionate and uncompromising character, his overflowing imagination and wide culture, his sensitiveness, his rapid, darting, bold, and, as one of his friends called it, “predatory” intellect, his dialectical skill, above all his singular combination of generous moral idealism and a biting, intolerant, often highly destructive, ironical humor.
Herzen found himself politically suspect comparatively early in his university career, probably for discussing and supporting left-wing social views, and his subsequent career in government service was broken by two periods of exile, in each case for entertaining “dangerous” ideas. Both in exile and in Moscow and St. Petersburg he wrote, and occasionally published, essays, short stories, and novels, imbued with that spirit of violent protest against the political and social environment of his time which in varying degrees characterized all the revolté young intellectuals in Russia during the reign of Nicholas I, and in particular his friends Turgenev, Bakunin, Stankevich, Granovsky, Belinsky, Ogaryov, and other members of the remarkable group of young radicals who created the traditions of the Russian intelligentsia.
Herzen’s early essays are typical of the preoccupations of the time: they deal with historical and philosophical topics—the “new” French sociological school of historians (he actually translated Augustin-Thierry’s Merovingian Stories), the nationalism of the Slavophils, distinctions in subject and method between the various arts and sciences. There are semi-Hegelian disquisitions on the true vocation of man in the nineteenth century and on the relations of nature to history; fragments of autobiography; an elegant and amusing account of the difference between the spirit of Petersburg and that of Moscow; and finally a lengthy dissertation on the competing dangers of dilettantism and pedantry.
The last of these essays is perhaps the acutest and best written. Herzen draws an entertaining and very telling contrast between easily excited but superficial amateurs who view facts through a telescope and do not see the trees for the wood, as against the microscopic pedantry of professional scholars, happy victims of the worst German academic models. He enjoys himself equally at the expense of both these failures of perspective, but, on the whole, is severer toward the amateurs who are terrified by the prospect of losing their own precious, unique individuality in preoccupation with scholarly pursuits, than to the professionals who see nothing, and cling timorously to their own narrowly specialized field.
As for Herzen’s novels and stories, they are typical radical denunciations of conventional morality and social oppression, written under the influence of Schiller, the French romantics, George Sand, and the passionate “literature of protest” of the period. His best novel, Who Is to Blame?, deals with a situation common enough at that time—of a rich and unhappy young Russian land-owner (the “superfluous man”) vainly struggling against his environment, a figure to become celebrated later in the novels of Herzen’s contemporaries, Goncharov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, but especially Turgenev, the prototype of many a Russian Hamlet, too idealistic and too honest to accept the squalor and the lies of conventional society, too weak and too civilized to work effectively for their destruction, and consequently displaced from his proper function and doomed to poison his own life and the lives of others by neurotic behavior induced by the vices of a society that sins against the moral ideals which the author holds dear, a society either irremediably corrupt, or still capable of regeneration, according to the author’s social or religious beliefs.
On his father’s death in the spring of 1846, Herzen, now financially secure, asked himself what career he was to pursue. He was ambitious and knew this; he wished to make his mark in the world, to build himself a monument. His spectacular failure to be a model government official had shown him plainly that there was no room in Russia for a high-spirited, gifted, violently liberty-loving, romantically inclined aristocratic young man who wished to enter the field of public activity. In the winter of 1847, taking with him his wife, his mother, and his entire household, he left for Paris. He never saw Russia again.
After slowly crossing Germany and France the travelers reached the French capital. In Paris Herzen plunged head-long into the great ferment of ideas and emotions in which the political émigrés, gathered there from every European country, lived their agitated lives. The arresting quality of his mind and personality made an impression even in that extraordinary assembly of talent and genius; he was, with Bakunin, almost the first denizen of the barbarous and frightening Russian Empire to be recognized as an equal by the political thinkers of the fabled West—as an equal intellectually, and not, like other cultured Russian travelers, as a gifted and agreeable visitor from an exotic land, or an indolent and curious passer-by. A new revolution was clearly gathering in Europe and Herzen was caught in its mounting tide.
During 1848-1849 he traveled in Switzerland, Savoy, and Italy, and his descriptions of the stirring events which he witnessed in Rome and Paris during the annus mirabilis are masterpieces of acute observation and literary talent. He does not conceal his sympathies: he detests kings and priests, soldiers and policemen, bankers, bourgeois politicians, authors of appeals to good sense and order; he idealizes the blouses bleues—the workers of Paris—and pays a glowing tribute to the noble and simple-hearted plebeian masses in Rome; he is for republicans, for revolutionaries, for the triumvirs of Rome, for Garibaldi, for the leader of the Roman populace whom he calls Cicerovacchio, for Saffi and Mazzini. He speaks with affection and irony about his friend Bakunin, the greatest of Russian political agitators, invaluable on the first day of a revolution, disastrous on the second; he admires and likes Proudhon, Michelet, the Swiss radical James Fazy; his most intimate friends are the revolutionary German poet, Wagner’s friend, Georg Herwegh, and Herwegh’s wife.
By a bitter irony of circumstance the relationship between himself, his wife (and first cousin) Natalie, and Herwegh began more and more to resemble the plot of his own Who Is to Blame?, in which a fascinating stranger falls in love with the happily married wife of a man who trusts him, and duly destroys himself and his friends. Herzen perceived this analogy himself and rejected it with indignation. His “superfluous” hero Bel’tov was at least capable of moral agony and heroic martyrdom, whereas Herwegh now seemed to him a contemptible philistine and scoundrel, married to an equally repulsive wife. Herzen set down the details of the entire episode with a self-revealing candor and painful precision, oddly unexpected in so proud and sensitive a man. Natalie, betrayed by her lover, returned to her husband, to die in his arms a year later.
Blow followed blow. Herzen’s mother and one of his sons were drowned in a tempest off Genoa. The revolution in Europe collapsed ignominiously in one country after another. In a state of acute personal and political misery, Herzen left France and settled in the free but, to him, bleak and chilly atmosphere of England. He lived in and near London intermittently until the middle 1860s. In London he established his own “free” printing press, and in the 1850s began to publish two periodicals in Russian, The Polar Star (the first issue appeared in 1855) and The Bell (in 1857), which marked the birth of systematic revolutionary agitation—and conspiracy—by Russian exiles against the tsarist regime.
Herzen’s house—or houses, for he moved from one to another constantly—became a place of pilgrimage for the radical exiles of many lands, particularly Poles, with whom he was one of the few Russians to remain on warm terms all his life, and Italians, to whom he early lost his heart. His attitude to Frenchmen was more reserved: the self-importance, the rhetoric, the monomania of the ci-devant tribunes of the people and their entourage offered too much material for his highly developed sense of the ridiculous. He found the mystical Hungarian worship of Kossuth more bizarre than awe-inspiring; the Germans, in particular Karl Marx and his friends, he found unbearable.
As for the English, he met few among them. He paid a visit to the aged and senile Owen; he corresponded with Carlyle; he respected Mill. He was helped by Joseph Cowan and other radicals. But on the whole, little attention was paid to him in England, and he responded with mingled admiration and dislike for his hosts. His warmest friendships remained those of his early years, with his Russian friends and contemporaries—first and foremost with the poet Ogaryov, with whom he set up house in London in the 1850s, and with Bakunin, who had escaped from his Siberian exile, and whom, in the 1860s, he viewed, as before, with a mixture of irritation and indulgence. He delighted in the stream of Russian visitors who came to see him—writers and journalists, liberal aristocrats with a taste for taking political risks, old Slavophil opponents, vehement young radicals who thought him a useless relic of a previous epoch, dissident Orthodox priests, university professors, old acquaintances of all sorts, whom his growing prestige drew toward what had in fact become the official center of the opposition to the Russian government.
Herzen became a European celebrity, and The Bell, which specialized in exposing specific abuses and in naming names, in the heyday of its fame—the late 1850s and early 1860s—exercised a unique influence even in official circles in St. Petersburg. After the suppression of the Polish Rebellion in 1863, its influence—it had supported the Poles in the face of almost universal patriotic indignation in Russia—began to fall precipitately. After lingering in a desultory manner in London, where he lived intermittently and not too happily with Ogaryov’s gifted and neurasthenic wife, Herzen traveled in Italy and Switzerland, and died in Paris on January 21, 1870. He is buried in Nice and his statue stands above his tomb.
Early in his London period he began his celebrated autobiography or biographical memoirs—the Past and Reflections, on which his fame as a writer ultimately rests. This work is a literary and political masterpiece, worthy to stand beside the great Russian novels of the nineteenth century.
The book has no formal design but consists of a succession of episodes connected by a loose chronological sequence, in the course of which Herzen records private and public experiences, draws vignettes of personalities and predicaments, offers analyses of present and future social and political conditions both in Europe and Russia, together with scattered personal observations, fragments of a diary, epigrams, historical and psychological sketches, travel notes, accounts of the impact made upon him or of the role played by political or historical ideas; vivid and exact descriptions of his feelings, of incidents in his life, encounters, conversations, confessions, entertaining and memorable sketches of the characteristics and eccentricities of various groups of émigrés in London and elsewhere, of episodes in their lives, and of their reactions to one another and to their English hosts—this vast and apparently heterogeneous amalgam held together by a gift for narrative and descriptive writing which, in its own kind, has never been excelled. Past and Reflections is an autobiography of the first order of genius, and remains preeminent even in the nineteenth century, which was exceedingly rich in this genre. It has been translated into several languages, but it is only in the author’s native land that it is recognized as a major classic, comparable in quality and scope with War and Peace.
Besides this famous work, Herzen, during more than twenty years of uninterrupted activity as a publicist—the voice of free Russia abroad, calling for revolution—poured out a mass of articles, letters, essays, proclamations, the best of which are original masterpieces both of journalism and of art. He was one of the most perspicacious observers of the European scene in the nineteenth century—in this respect only Marx and Tocqueville are comparable to him—and the Letters from France and Italy (he called an earlier version Letters from Avenue Marigny), which he sent in installments to his friends in Moscow, to be printed in the radical Russian journal The Contemporary, contain the best general analyses of the political and social scene of the West just before and during the revolution of 1848. He continued to observe, record, and analyze public and private life in France, in England, in Russia, in articles and improvisations, all his life. Unsystematic, brilliantly entertaining and permanently valuable, these fragments are scattered in the thirty volumes of the great Soviet edition of his works, and still form a unique account of the public life of Europe in the middle years of the last century.
More important than most of these historical sketches is the long essay which Herzen entitled From the Other Shore. This is an attempt to assess the consequences, and point the moral, of the final failure of the European revolutions of 1848. As a piece of writing this essay exhibits, at any rate in the original, that combination of acuteness, irony, imagination, moral distinction, fiery, often poetical, eloquence, and penetrating intellectual force coupled with an elegance of style and poignant feeling, which forms the peculiar quality of Herzen’s personality as a writer. It is designed as a post-mortem on the liberal and democratic doctrines—and phraseology—which had suffered shipwreck in the failure of the revolution, and contains ethical and political ideas which are of interest not simply as scattered pensées but as an expression of a moral and social philosophy of considerable originality, possessing affinities with views fully articulated only in our own time.
From the Other Shore deals with the debacle of 1848 neither in the detached and ironical mood of Tocqueville’s celebrated memoir, nor as an application of a specific theory of society to contemporary events like the two essays on the same theme by Karl Marx. Herzen wrote neither to justify individuals and parties, nor to demonstrate a particular philosophy of history. But he resembled Marx and Tocqueville in that he, too, sought to describe the situation, to examine the views and ambitions and desires of the various parties and individuals and classes, and their social and historical roots; to consider the manner and the causes of the betrayal of the revolution by its principal supporters; to expose the emptiness and the confusions of the social and political programs themselves—and to trace this to specific fears, muddles, and evasions on the part of those high-minded but craven liberals who “at the same time undermine the old order and cling to it, light the fuse and try to stop the explosion.”
Herzen’s essay is, in the main, a frontal attack upon the doctrine at that time preached by almost every left-wing orator in Europe (with the notable exception of Proudhon, Stirner, and a handful of anarchists to whom no one listened), about the sacred human duty of offering up oneself—or others—upon the altar of some great moral or political cause, some absolute principle or abstract noun capable of stirring strong emotion, like Nationality, or Democracy, or Equality, or Humanity, or Progress.
For Herzen these are merely modern versions of ancient religions which demanded human sacrifice, faiths which spring from some irrational belief (rooted in theology or metaphysics) in the existence of vast and menacing powers, once the objects of blind religious worship, then, with the decay of primitive faith, degraded to becoming terms of political rhetoric. The dogmas of such religions declare that mere invocation of certain formulas, certain symbols, renders what would normally be regarded as crimes or lunacies—murder, torture, the humiliation of defenseless human bodies—not only permissible, but often laudable.
Against this Herzen advances his own positive beliefs: that man is, within narrow but discernible limits, free; that he is neither the impotent plaything of natural forces, nor a trivial unit in a uniform mass of historical raw material intended by some unknown deity for consumption by the great historical process—the Hegelian “slaughter-bench of history”—and consequently dedicated to self-immolation, that thereby the march of the spirit might be rendered more glorious. This is the doctrine at the heart of historical romanticism as interpreted both by the reactionary right and by the revolutionary left; and indeed has formed the content of much subsequent German thought and art, with its recurrent emphasis upon the supreme value of the death and transfiguration, if need be, of entire peoples and civilizations in wars and revolutions and other forms of terrible, but inevitable, and thereby sanctified cataclysm.
Herzen rejected this as nothing but a sadistic mythology possessing no moral justification, founded on no empirical evidence. He believed that morality was not a fixed, objective, eternal code, a set of immutable commandments which human beings were merely required to discern and obey, whether they were ordained by a personal deity or were found in “nature” or “the logic of history.” He maintained that men create their own morality; that, animated by that egoism without which there is no vitality and no creative activity, the individual is responsible for his own choices, and cannot plead the alibi of either nature or history for failing even to try to bring about that which he considers, for whatever reason, to be good, or just, or delightful, or beautiful, or true.
This denial on his part that it was, in principle, possible to formulate general and eternal moral rules, made without a trace of Byronic self-dramatization or Nietzschean hyperbole, is a doctrine that is not often encountered in the nineteenth century; indeed, in its full extent, not until well into our own, where it forms a bridge between empiricists endowed with moral imagination and existentialists who have something genuinely intelligible to say. It hits both right and left: against romantic historians, against Hegel, and to some degree against Kant, against utilitarians and against supermen, against Tolstoy and against the religion of art, against “scientific” and “evolutionary” ethics, against all the churches. It is empirical and naturalistic, recognizes values that are absolute for those who hold them, as well as change, and is overawed neither by determinism nor by socialism. And it is very independent.
Herzen attacked with particular indignation those who appealed to general principles to justify savage cruelties and defended the slaughter of thousands today by the promise that millions would thereby be made happy in some invisible future, condoning unheard-of miseries and injustices in the name of some overwhelming but remote felicity. This attitude Herzen regards as nothing but a pernicious delusion, perhaps a deliberate deception; for the distant ends may never be realized, while the agonies and sufferings and crimes of the present remain only too real; and since we know so little of the future, and possess no means of accurate prediction, to affirm the opposite and seek to condone the effects of our brutal acts by holding out such hollow promises is either lunacy or fraud. We cannot tell whether the millions will ever achieve the happy condition we have so confidently guaranteed to them; but what we do know is that thousands will perish, unheard, today. Distant ends are for Herzen not ends at all, but a monstrous delusion—ends must be closer at hand, “the laborer’s daily wage, or pleasure in the work performed.”
Inhabitants of the twentieth century scarcely need to be reminded of the tyranny of the great altruistic systems; of liberators who crush, of “the arithmetical pantheism of universal suffrage” and “superstitious faith in republics” on the one hand, or the brutal arrogance of minorities on the other. Herzen, however, was writing over a century ago, in a time of mounting democratic eloquence, when the enemy was cold-hearted individualism, or clerical and dynastic despotism, and against them there rose the vast, visionary utopias of socialists and Catholics, Hegelians and positivists and many another among the great metaphysical and religious system-builders of the nineteenth century.
This was the dominant current, and Herzen resisted it both intellectually and emotionally, because it seemed to him to threaten individual liberty. As a thinker in the Western tradition (and, despite his paeans to the Russian peasant, Herzen’s populism, like Tolstoy’s, derives from Rousseau rather than native soil), he is enlightened and skeptical. He belongs to the tradition of Erasmus and Montaigne, Bayle and Fontenelle, Voltaire and Constant, Humboldt and the English philosophic radicals, of all those who protest against despotism wherever they find it, not merely in the oppression of priests or kings or dictators, but in the dehumanizing effect of those vast cosmologies which minimize the role of the individual, curb his freedom, repress his desire for self-expression, and order him to humble himself before the great laws and institutions of the universe, immovable, omnipotent, and everlasting, in whose sight free human choice is but a pathetic illusion.
All such systems seemed to Herzen equally spurious. In From the Other Shore he attacks the meanness and enviousness of the bourgeoisie which crushes everything original, independent, or open, as he attacks clerical or military reaction, or the hatred of freedom and barbarous brutality of the masses. He has a sense of impending doom no less vivid than Marx or Burkhardt, but whereas in the writings of both Marx and other Hegelian visionaries there is an unmistakable note of sardonic joy in the very thought of vast and destructive powers unchained against the bad old world, Herzen is free from the desire to prostrate himself before the mere spectacle of irresistible power; he is free from contempt for or hatred of weakness as such, and from the romantic pessimism which is at the heart of the nihilism and fascism that were to come. If communism—the revolt of the masses—is ever allowed to sweep across Europe, it will be “dreadful, bloody, unjust, swift,” and, in the name of the blood and tears of the oppressed, will mow down all that civilized men hold dear.
But, unlike the apocalyptic prophets of his time, Herzen thinks this cataclysm neither inevitable nor glorious. When he warns his friends against the “Phrygian cap” or the red flag of the masses as being no less murderous than the “bloodstained sword” of the ruling class, he does so not out of romantic despair, but with a positive purpose, because he thinks that knowledge, reason, will power, courage can avert the danger, and alter the course of mankind. It may, of course, be too late; Europe—the West—may well be going under; must Russia, too, be submerged in the tidal wave?
The clearest exposition of Herzen’s hopes and fears for his country is contained in the open letter addressed to the celebrated French historian, Jules Michelet. A friend of the great poet Mickiewicz—“the martyr of Europe,” the greatest of all the victims of Russian oppression—and of his fellow exiles from Poland, Michelet had written passionately denouncing the Russians as inhuman savages unfit to associate with European nations. Herzen replied temperately, with genuine sympathy for the Poles, and expounded, in answer to Michelet, some of those optimistic, and indeed utopian, notions on which, as he grew progressively more pessimistic about the prospects of the Western world, he had fixed his hopes.
He saw salvation in the communal organization of the Russian peasants, and wrote eloquent pages about their generous and spontaneous Russian character uncontaminated by the corroding doubts and moral squalor of the Western world in decline. He had somehow persuaded himself that the uncorrupted Russian peasantry, with its natural socialism, would of itself suffice to solve the “greatest problem of the century”—how to reconcile the claims of individual liberty with the demands of an inevitably more and more centralized authority, how to preserve personal life without “atomizing” society, the central dilemma which “the Western world had thus far failed to solve.” Collectivized production together with the preservation of the rights and freedoms of individual persons—rights and freedoms for which neither Marx nor Cabet nor Louis Blanc had shown the least sympathy—that is the answer with which the Russian peasant will astonish the world.
True, the peasant commune had not been sufficient to save Russia from the nightmare of Byzantium, or the Tartar yoke, or the big stick of German officialdom, or the Tsar’s knout; but armed with Western scientific techniques, the unbroken Russian moujik would yet teach the world a great lesson in social organization. Russian populism, whether sentimental or realistic, owes more to the ungrounded optimism with which Herzen comforted himself than to any other single source.
Herzen struck impartially in all directions, and so was duly condemned by both sides: by the right wing as a subverter of Church and State; by the left, particularly by the new young revolutionaries in Russia, as a self-indulgent skeptic, too rich, too civilized, too elegant, too much a gentleman, too comfortably established in the West to understand the harsh realities of the Russian situation, and dangerous, too, because prone to sound a note of disillusion, even of cynicism, and so to weaken the sinews of the revolution—liable to become ironical and, worse still, entertaining, at a time when serious men must decide to commit themselves to one side or the other without so much fastidious regard to their private consciences and scruples.
Herzen replied to “the youth of the Sixties” that organized hooliganism and nihilism solved nothing; and in one of his last writings drew his own vignette of the “new men”: the new generation would say to the old:
“You are hypocrites, we will be cynics; you spoke like moralists, we shall speak like scoundrels; you were civil to your superiors, rude to your inferiors; we shall be rude to everyone; you bow without feeling respect, we shall push and jostle and make no apologies….”
On the whole, it is Herzen’s totalitarian opponents both of the right and of the left that have triumphed. And it is a singular curiosity of history (of a kind which Herzen himself delighted to describe with incomparable malice and wit) that, on the strength of laudatory references to him by Lenin, this enemy of authority, who was, perhaps, the most devastating, as he certainly was the most understanding, opponent of the many communisms of his day—the enemy of all dogma, who declared that salus populi was as vicious a cry as lèse majesté that no ideal at which one was forbidden to smile was worth anything at all—it is a strange irony that Herzen, who had no love for Marx and the “Marxids” (as he called them) either personally or politically, should find himself canonized in his native country today as one of the sacrosanct founders of the new way of life.
The “nihilists” of the 1860s and the socialist writers of a later date who attack him for his liberal inclinations are a good deal more honest and consistent. Their suspicions turned out to be valid enough. For Herzen does like the style and color of free human beings; best of all he likes fire, originality, aesthetic feeling, even when it is found in oligarchies and aristocracies. He has no affinity with the mass of the oppressed as such, only indignation and a desire for justice. The qualities that he loves best are those which they too seldom possess—imagination, spontaneity, humanity, civilized feelings, natural generosity, courage, wide horizons, instinctive knowledge of what individual freedom is, and hatred of all forms of slavery or arbitrary rule, or human humiliation and degradation.
He extols these virtues wherever he finds them, even in the camp of the oppressors; and rejects political formulas and generalizations however deeply sanctified by the martyrdom of fighters for a cause which he called his own. He declares over and over again that words and ideas offer no substitute for experience, that life teems with exceptions, and upsets the best-made rules and systems. But in his case this attitude led not to detachment or quietism—to the tolerant conservatism of Hume or Bagehot—but was allied to an impatient, passionate, rebellious temperament, which made him the rarest of characters, a revolutionary without fanaticism, a man ready for violent change, never in the name of abstract principles, but only of actual misery and injustice, of concrete conditions so bad that men were morally not permitted—and knew that they were not permitted—to let them exist.
Starting from this kind of clear-sighted empiricism, which was influenced by the imaginative sweep of Hegel but rejected his metaphysical dogmas, Herzen gave expression to theses original enough to be rediscovered only in our own time: that the great traditional problems which perennially agitate men’s minds have no general solutions; that all genuine questions are of necessity specific, intelligible only in specific contexts; that general problems, such as “What is the end (or the meaning) of life?” or “What makes all events in nature occur as they do?” or “What is the pattern of human history?” are not answerable in principle, not because they are too difficult for our poor, finite intellects, but because the questions themselves are misconceived, because ends, patterns, meanings, causes differ with the situation and outlook and needs of the questioner, and can be correctly and clearly formulated only if these are understood. It is Herzen’s grasp of this fact that made him the forerunner of much twentieth-century thought, and marks him as a man with a quality akin to philosophical genius.
Herzen never forgot, as some of his most inspired fellow revolutionaries often did, that actual human beings, and specific problems, can be lost sight of in the midst of statistical generalizations. In his discussion of what men live by, there occurs the smallest proportion of abstraction and generalization, and the highest proportion of vivid, three-dimensional, “rounded” perception of actual character, authentic human beings with real needs, seeking attainable human ends, set in circumstances which can be visualized. And in the course of his analyses he uses the Russian language with a virtuosity to which no translation is ever likely to do complete justice. It was not for nothing that Tolstoy admired his writing and Dostoevsky recognized him as a poet.*
Essayist, agitator, publicist, revolutionary, philosopher, novelist, author of at least one work of genius, Herzen achieved a position in the history not merely of Russian literature but of Russia itself (as his friend, the critic Belinsky, had prophesied when they were both still in their early thirties) that is today unique and secure. But he deserves to be read beyond the borders of Russia, if only for his moral and political ideas. Many of his predictions were falsified by events, and his practical remedies, since they were not, and perhaps could not have been, applied, can be written off as utopian. But his central insights remain as fresh and arresting today as when they were first uttered by him more than a hundred years ago, and their relevance to our times seems even greater than to his own.
Since this was written, almost a quarter of a century ago, nothing, it seems to me, has happened to lessen the relevance to our own times of Herzen’s analysis of the shipwreck of liberal illusions in 1848-1849. He was not a liberal or a constitutionalist, but a radical and a revolutionary: he rejected the cautious gradualism of his erstwhile friends Granovsky and Turgenev. But unlike Marx, Herzen did not believe that men’s theory and practice are unalterably conditioned by their relations to the forms of production at work in their societies. He believed that ideas in men’s heads (not themselves determined by some historical libretto) could be decisive in generating great social changes, both good and evil; and the recent history of the oscillation between right-wing tyrannies and left-wing dictatorships (as well as the rise of governments which contain the worst elements of both) does not disprove this.
For those who, like Herzen, believe that faith in impersonal forces or causes, justifying acts which would be accounted monstrous on any normal reckoning, is fatal to all that men live by, and that the free play of the mind is indispensable to the existence of a tolerable human society, his essay remains one of the sharpest and most vivid statements of what is at stake for people who are not prepared to sacrifice their right to doubt and differ for the sake of obedience and security. Brave and civilized men like Sakharov or Mihajlov, or the humane Spanish and Portuguese socialists are today the true heirs of Herzen. Perhaps the old adage that heresies cannot be crushed by brute force is, despite all the tragic examples to the contrary, not after all quite the pious fallacy that John Stuart Mill once gloomily pronounced it to be.
April 19, 1979
In his Diary of a Writer Dostoevsky expresses his deep admiration for From the Other Shore and tells the story of how he personally congratulated Herzen on it, saying that what had particularly impressed him was the fact that the author’s opponent in the dialogue was not a man of straw, but a formidable controversialist who managed to drive Herzen into awkward corners—”Ah, but, of course, that is the whole point,” Herzen replied. ↩