Alexander Herzen
Alexander Herzen; drawing by David Levine

In the pantheon of the Russian Revolution, Alexander Herzen stands as one of Lenin’s greatest predecessors—founder of the revolutionary populism that was the precursor of Russian Marxism, and editor of the émigré journal The Bell (Kolokol) which, smuggled into Russia in the late 1850s and early 1860s, helped to form the consciousness of the first generation of Russian revolutionaries.

In the West, those who have heard of Herzen at all see him rather differently. Here he is known primarily for his brilliant memoirs, My Past and Thoughts, which recount his childhood and youth as a Russian aristocrat in the reign of the tyrannical Nicolas the First, his participation in the circles for philosophical discussion that were the seedbed of the radical intelligentsia, and after his emigration in 1847, his life in England and Europe as a propagandist for the cause of Russian socialism. A unique blend of personal revelation, social commentary, and philosophical reflection, the memoirs are both a great work of literature and the major statement of a thinker whom Isaiah Berlin has described as being, along with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, one of Russia’s three moral preachers of genius.

Herzen was incontestably the most original of Russian moralists: his sweeping attack on accepted values and beliefs, while in the familiar Russian tradition, was not accompanied by the equally conventional prescription of some salvationary formula to set in their place. Instead, he preached against the tyranny of all moral absolutes and ideological abstractions, arguing that respect for human freedom demanded that one resist the temptation to set up one’s own ideal as the final goal of history. In his philosophical reflections on the European revolutions of 1848, From the Other Shore, he predicts that socialism will develop until it reaches its own extremes and absurdities:

Then once again a cry of denial will break from the titanic chest of the revolutionary minority, and again a mortal struggle will begin, in which socialism will play the role of contemporary conservatism and will be overwhelmed in the subsequent revolution, as yet unknown to us.

As Isaiah Berlin has remarked, Herzen displayed an extraordinarily sensitive grasp of the complexity of political and social processes, and was far more consistently “dialectical” than the “scientific” socialists who demolished their rivals’ utopias but could do no better than replace them with fantasies of their own.

Herzen’s views on liberty have lost none of their relevance, but most of his political writings (addressed mainly to a Russian audience) remain untranslated: the idea that an early novel, written for the same audience, might have a wider appeal, seems simultaneously to have occurred to several translators (while Michael Katz was at work on what he expected to be the first English translation of the book, two others appeared, one in Canada and one in the Soviet Union).

Begun in 1841 and first published complete in 1847 (the year of Herzen’s emigration to the West), the novel is set in a Russian provincial town whose dignitaries are described in a series of vignettes which convey with Gogolian grotesqueness the brutality and ignorance of the Russia of Nicolas the First. The plot centers on a love triangle. The hero (largely modeled on Herzen himself) is a classic superfluous man. Unable to find any useful outlet in Russian society for his prodigious energy and talents, he fixes his last hopes of self-fulfillment on the love of an intelligent and sensitive woman, the illegitimate daughter of a landowner, who, after the humiliations of an ambiguous position in her father’s household, is married off by him to a naive romantic. Ultimately she refuses to abandon her husband; the hero departs to live out his life aimlessly abroad, while she sinks into a terminal illness and the husband sets out to drink himself into oblivion.

Miraculously passed almost untouched by the censor, Who Is to Blame? was rapturously received by Herzen’s radical contemporaries, who (together with the majority of later critics) chose to interpret its answer to the title question as the clear and simple proposition that human misery in Russia had one single significant cause: a political and legal system based on outdated notions of property and authority, symbolized in the novel by the marriage bond, whose preservation has been achieved at the cost of three ruined lives. Sixteen years later, Nicolai Chernyshevsky raised what seemed the next question on the agenda in the novel What Is to Be Done?, which had a far wider impact. Chernyshevsky’s emblematic heroes and heroines, in their contempt for the sexual and social conventions of their time, served as models of behavior for a generation of Russian revolutionaries. When the Russian didactic novel had followed its inexorable course to the canon of socialist realism, Herzen’s work was remembered only by its title, as a scholarly footnote in the history of the genre.


Katz’s introduction to his translation attempts to relieve Who Is to Blame? of this dubious honor by presenting it as an undiscovered treasure of Russian literature—a novel of ideas and artistic complexity combining a witty commentary on contemporary society with a rich variety of universal themes: social injustice, romantic love, the status of women, and the search for the meaning of life (to name only a few). The text itself reads smoothly, although Katz’s effort to capture the verbal brilliance of the original is hobbled by the scrupulous translation, in square brackets, of every one of Herzen’s frequent gallicisms (surely even the monolingual reader can make a guess at the meaning of “point d’honneur“?). However, as an exercise in promotion, the introduction claims too much. Herzen’s plot is sketchy and melodramatic and his characters have a repertoire of emotional expression recalling the French sentimentalist novels that he had devoured as an adolescent. As a work of literature, Who Is to Blame? is likely to remain a historical curiosity; but Katz’s attempt to revive it is misdirected rather than misconceived.

Although one might not suspect it from his introduction, which contains no reference to the substance of the political and social ideas that were Herzen’s contribution to posterity, Herzen was not, even in his youth, attracted by a literary career. He was a moralist whose main preoccupation was with getting his message across by whatever means came to hand. The critics were certainly mistaken (as Katz points out) in drawing the simple moral that they did from the book: as in any fairly competent work of fiction, the characters’ misfortunes spring from a variety of causes, some of them mere accidents. But it does not follow, as Katz seems to imply, that Herzen’s Russian readers were mistaken in taking it to be primarily a didactic work. A more appropriate introduction would see the novel as a tentative sketch of that dual criticism of the status quo and its radical opponents that Herzen presented over the next few years to Western as well as to Russian readers in the brilliant philosophical dialogues of From the Other Shore.

Who Is to Blame? grew out of the introspection of the first generation of the Russian intelligentsia. With the prospect of political change remote, they were drawn to the most utopian of contemporary Western formulations of the problem of liberty. One of these was the negation of religious and metaphysical abstractions proposed by the left Hegelians as the means of ending mankind’s self-estrangement. A second was the ideal of the realization of full human potential through the “rehabilitation of the flesh,” which was preached by the French utopian socialists and in the feminist novels of George Sand, which enjoyed a vogue in Russia in the early 1840s.

To the Russian cultured elite, who for lack of more absorbing pursuits were obsessed with their personal relations, the subjection of women in marriage seemed the symbol par excellence of what was most intolerable in the Russian system: the sacrifice of human dignity to the fetishes of authority, property, and legality. George Sand’s demand that sexual relations be governed by the sole criterion of the individual’s free determination of his or her urges seemed to open up vast revolutionary vistas. The Russian radicals of the 1840s denounced the social institution of marriage as vehemently as in the next decade they would denounce serfdom. In the case of the most extreme radical of Herzen’s generation, Mikhail Bakunin, the call for free and spontaneous expression of the passions led, by a series of effortless transitions, to a revolutionary anarchism based on the proposition that the urge for destruction is a creative urge.

But if the theme of Herzen’s novel was in tune with the spirit of the times, its treatment contained deviations from George Sand’s code, deviations too subtle to disturb his readers greatly but notable as an early example of that double-edged criticism which was to make him such an embarrassment to the radical camp. His contemporaries explained the heroine’s failure to follow the imperatives of passion by the general failure of Russian women to achieve the necessary degree of moral emancipation. But such an interpretation does not account for Herzen’s sympathy with the heroine (who bears a marked resemblance to his adored wife Natalie, herself illegitimate and raised in humiliating subjection), his emphasis on her courage and moral independence from her milieu, or for the existence of another complicating motive: her affection for her husband. The husband struggles between jealousy and the desire to perform a feat of altruism by offering his wife, together with her freedom, the loyalty of a brother and friend (the only choice that the liberated morality allowed to rejected mates). When jealousy wins, Herzen comments:


We shall not blame him. Such unnatural acts of righteousness and intentional self-abnegation are not at all in keeping with human nature; they belong more to the realm of imagination than to reality.

The Russian leftists who read the book were not sensitive to irony directed against their own idols, and Herzen’s attitude toward the new morality became clear to his contemporaries only when he spelled it out to them after observing that morality in action in the revolutionary outpourings of 1848. He found in the “inevitable litanies” of brotherhood, democracy, and progress a disturbing resemblance to the hollow rhetoric of the old order:

Religious in its very negation, superstitious in its doubt, [French thought] rejects one set of authorities in the name of another: its very concepts of freedom are saturated with conservatism and reaction

and in a series of reflections on the revolution addressed to his Moscow friends, he accused Sand, along with the majority of French radicals, of preaching “Christianity and romanticism transposed onto our morality, abstract duty and obligatory virtues, official, rhetorical morality without any relation to real life.”

The social implications of contemporary theories of sexual liberation are more fully discussed in My Past and Thoughts, where Herzen argues that doctrines that sever the link between marriage and the family and proclaim the absolute independence of the individual from all ties and responsibilities are not as radical a response to the social institution of marriage as they seem. Both extremes prohibit the expression of legitimate human emotions on doctrinaire grounds. The one was used to stone women for infidelity; the other prohibits jealousy as the product of an outdated sense of ownership. Against the civil code the novelists had set up a physiological dogma—the absolute infallibility and irresistible force of the passions. But the view that man was subject to ungovernable forces was hardly consistent with the European left’s common goal of rational autonomy:

I refuse to admit the sovereign position given to love in life: I deny it autocratic power and protest against the pusillanimous excuse of having been carried away by it. Surely we have not freed ourselves from every restraint on earth, from God and the Devil, from the Roman and the criminal law, and proclaimed reason as our sole guide and governor, in order to lie down humbly, like Hercules at the feet of Omphale…? Surely woman has not sought to be free from the yoke of the family…or not striven for her right to independent work, to learning and the standing of a citizen, only to begin over again cooing like a turtle dove…and pining for a dozen Leone Leonis [a character in one of Sand’s novels] instead of one?

In all serious historical choices there were truth and falsehood on both sides, a fact that the dialectic of “bold denial” ignored: “a brusque entweder/oder will lead you nowhere. At the moment of the complete negation of one of the terms it comes back….”

“Those who were yesterday the slaves of marriage are now becoming the slaves of love”—the flaw in the dialectic of liberation which led to this trap had become evident to Herzen during the years when he was working on his radical novel. His main output during those years, as a leader of the Russian Hegelian left, was a series of expository articles exploring the pathology of alienation through an analysis of intellectual types. He criticized not only those who defended the status quo by appealing to religious or metaphysical fetishes but also the romantics who based their utopias on the same order of abstraction. The radicals of Herzen’s generation believed that through their intellectual denial of the existing order they had secured the inner freedom which was halfway to the revolutionary goal. But Herzen saw Hegelian negation as only the beginning of a painful process of development toward an integrated personality that held its conflicting drives in dynamic equilibrium, no longer dominated by any one but bringing them all into play in the determination of both ends and means. In Herzen’s view the answer to what he defined as the greatest of contemporary problems—how to secure the maximum possible liberty for the individual without atomizing society—lay in man’s relations with himself.

His perception of the relations between inner and outer realities had perhaps less in common with contemporary radical ideologies than with the complex model of moral harmony worked out in the chaotic aftermath of the French Revolution by Friedrich Schiller in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man—a work that Herzen pronounced to be much in advance of its time. The same could be said for his novel, whose heroine, in her recognition of the competing claims of love and passion and in her inability to resolve a conflict of loyalties, is far closer to Herzen’s model of the morally developed individual than were the critics who claimed to solve her problem for her by appealing to advanced principles. In From the Other Shore, which Herzen began as a series of reflections for the benefit of his Russian friends in the year that his novel was published, he warns against the tendency of European thought—the product of a culture that had advanced for centuries under the two banners “Romanticism for the heart, idealism for the mind”—to impose an artificial symmetry on a messy reality. The first sign of personal and political maturity, he argues, is the recognition that the most serious problems have no neatly satisfactory solutions, the “reconciliations” between opposites effected by religious and metaphysical systems being merely disguises for the sacrifice of one element of the problem to another.

Herzen was to admit that he found his own advice extraordinarily difficult to follow. In temperament he had far less in common with political moderates than with his contemporary Bakunin, the unrepentant apostle of bold denial. In the most profound of his political statements, his Letters to an Old Comrade, written at the end of his life and addressed to Bakunin, Herzen recalls their common youthful faith in the power of destructive criticism; but the rotten structures of Europe had proved much more resilient than they had expected, and in 1869 the prospects for socialism seemed remote. It was tempting in this situation, he wrote, to look for culprits, stir up vindictive passions, and seek to break down obstacles by force. But the freedom which was their common ideal could not admit the traditional means used by fanatics to enforce their utopias. In present circumstances to compromise, conciliate, and seek to understand was more revolutionary than to blame, punish, and destroy. To be carried away by the passion of one’s convictions was a form of self-betrayal, a reversion to a more primitive stage of consciousness.

The same message was contained in a much smaller compass in Who Is to Blame? Herzen’s early insights into bogus feminism deserve not to be forgotten. Not only are they still controversial; they also contained the germ of that criticism of bogus radicalism for which he is principally remembered.

This Issue

December 19, 1985