Herzen: The Hero of Skeptical Idealism

‘Herzen Against Herzen’; photograph by Sergei Lvovich Levitsky, 1865
Russian National Library, St. Petersburg/Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
‘Herzen Against Herzen’; photograph by Sergei Lvovich Levitsky, 1865

To some, Alexander Herzen commands respect as “the first Russian socialist,” to others as the best debunker of revolutionary dreams. Born in 1812, he was the illegitimate son of a wealthy aristocrat, who gave him the German surname Herzen (meaning “of the heart”) in tribute to the boy’s mother, a German girl he had smuggled into Russia disguised as a boy. Trained at Moscow University in physics and biology, Herzen decisively shaped what we have come to know as the Russian intelligentsia.

As a young man, he wrote passable fiction and some splendid meditations on the implications of scientific thinking, but his real career began when he went abroad just in time to witness the failed European revolutions of 1848. In response he wrote his major philosophical work, From the Other Shore (1850), a series of essays and dialogues on the nature of history. The radical journal he published in London, The Bell, was smuggled into Russia where for several years it shaped not only the thought of leftists but even that of the government, then engaged in liberating the serfs. Today, Herzen is best known as the author of Russia’s greatest autobiography, My Past and Thoughts (begun in 1852 and still unfinished at his death in 1870), the main source of Tom Stoppard’s drama about Russian radical thought, The Coast of Utopia. Stoppard presents Herzen as a paradoxical set of unresolvable contradictions, and his admirers still argue over his legacy.

Lenin placed Herzen in “the line that leads from the Decembrists to the Bolsheviks,” while Isaiah Berlin credited him with inspiring Berlin’s own tolerant pluralism. Though a tireless advocate for the oppressed, Berlin explained, Herzen voiced

a deep distrust (something that most of his allies did not share) of all general formulae as such…and…of the great, official historical goals—progress, liberty, equality, national unity, historic rights, human solidarity—principles and slogans in the name of which men had been, and doubtless would soon again be, violated and slaughtered, and their forms of life condemned and destroyed.

Aileen Kelly’s new intellectual biography of Herzen demonstrates, for the first time, how the many conflicting assessments of him could all be correct. Her Herzen oscillates between opposing impulses, inclined in turn to romantic utopianism and ironic realism. His irony reflects not only his disappointments at the failure of radical activities in Russia and Western Europe, but also personal tragedies: his wife had a disastrous affair with another radical, the German poet Georg Herwegh, and his mother and youngest son both died when the ship on which they were sailing sank. Interrogating his own thought processes, he recognized just how people deceive themselves with comforting illusions. Radicals, he came to argue, dethrone one idol only…

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