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…
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