‘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 to set up another, forsaking “Providence” only to embrace a “law of progress” guaranteeing ultimate success. “Could you please explain to me,” Herzen asked in From the Other Shore, “why belief in God is ridiculous and belief in humanity is not; why belief in the kingdom of heaven is silly, but belief in utopias on earth is clever? Having discarded positive religion, we have retained all the habits of religion.”

Scholars have long recognized that Herzen’s romanticism reflected his early enthusiasm, while a student at Moscow University, for German philosophy, but, Kelly argues, his realism actually goes back to the same period of the 1820s and 1830s, where it derives from his studies in the sciences. Unlike other Russians, for whom science was just another religion, Herzen discovered in it a Baconian distrust of all abstractions and, still more important, a place for ineliminable contingency. For Kelly, even Herzen’s early work “Dilettantism in Science” shows him to be a “Darwinian avant la lettre,” appreciating not just the evolution of species but also nature’s absolute absence of teleology. In historical change as in biological evolution, Herzen came to argue, laws and chance interact. Repeat a situation and it might develop differently.

In this respect, Herzen was far ahead of his time. For other thinkers of the early nineteenth century, science suggested something quite different, an ironclad determinism. In this view, chance was just a word for causes we have not yet identified. The intellectual historian Élie Halévy famously called this line of thinking “moral Newtonianism,” and it could be found not just in the utilitarians whom Halévy studied, but also in discipline after discipline and across the political spectrum. Before Auguste Comte coined the term “sociology,” he planned to call his new discipline “social physics,” and Léon Walras, a founder of modern economics, modeled economic equilibrium on the stability of the solar system. Herzen’s essays refer to such thinking as “the mysticism of science.” For him, the very point of scientific thought was its stripping away of all comforting illusions and all historical guarantees, not just God but countless God substitutes as well.


Kelly contrasts Herzen with his enemy Marx, who regarded communism as

the definitive solution of the antagonism between man and nature, and between man and man…the conflict between existence and essence, between objectification and self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and species. It is the solution of the riddle of history and knows itself to be this solution.

In From the Other Shore, Herzen insisted that there are no definitive solutions, that history has no aim, and that at any moment multiple futures are possible. “There is no libretto…. In history, all is improvisation, all is will, all is ex tempore.” The contrast, Kelly observes, could not be more striking. To think that one has solved the riddle of history and that all morality is on one’s own side is to justify literally any action one might take, and so Berlin regarded Herzen as having foreseen what the twentieth century so amply demonstrated: that the greatest evil is committed by those who would extirpate it forever.

Herzen’s conversation, whether in intellectual debates as a student or in visits with European radicals abroad, enthralled everyone. Tolstoy, who rejected Herzen’s opinions and was stingy with praise, observed that he had never met anyone with “so rare a combination of scintillating brilliance and depth.” Dazzling with daring metaphors and attacking with unexpected witticisms, Herzen would suddenly switch sides and make fun of his own overwrought enthusiasm. This capacity for dialogue, with himself as well as others—and with himself in the presence of others—captivated Dostoevsky. He especially admired the conversations dramatized in From the Other Shore, in which Herzen’s opponent often comes out on top. As Dostoevsky observed in his Diary of a Writer:

Self-reflection—the ability to make an object of one’s deepest feeling, to set it before oneself, to bow down to it, and, perhaps immediately after, to ridicule it—was developed in him to the highest degree.

Herzen found his voice in My Past and Thoughts, whose first part was published in 1854, and in which the great figures of his day—Belinsky, Bakunin, Turgenev, Garibaldi, Mazzini, James Rothschild, Victor Hugo, and many others—come to life. He met many of them during the roughly ten years he lived in London (1852–1864). Herzen had an uncanny ability to capture not only their heroic qualities but also the weaknesses that made them limited and human like the rest of us. We hear their characteristic tones of voice and idiosyncratic turns of phrase.

My Past and Thoughts is less a conventional autobiography than a collection of anecdotes, and Herzen may be the greatest anecdotalist of his times. Many illustrate the absurdity of tsarist education and bureaucracy. It seems that the director of Moscow University, Prince Alexander Golitsyn, decreed that when one professor was ill another would have to lecture in his place, and so “Father Ternovsky often had to lecture in the clinic on women’s diseases and Richter, the gynecologist, to discuss the Immaculate Conception.”

When Herzen and his friend the poet Nicholas Ogarev were investigated, the police mistook the many volumes of Adolphe Thiers’s History of the French Revolution for revolutionary propaganda and then made the same mistake regarding Georges Cuvier’s Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe terreste. He described the adventures of the hopelessly ill soldier who was prematurely declared dead but recovered, and who could not get himself reinstated among the living. His heirs were especially resistant.

In one of the best stories in My Past and Thoughts, the tsar summoned Herzen back to Russia from London, and when he refused to go, threatened to seize his property. In Paris, Herzen turned to James Rothschild, with whom the Russian government was arranging a large loan. Rothschild assumed ownership of Herzen’s estate, knowing that the tsar was not about to let the deal fall through over such a trivial matter, and thus rescued Herzen’s wealth.

A type that was soon to dominate Russian literature, the ideological hero, made its first appearance in My Past and Thoughts. In this case the hero was Herzen himself, and he tells the story of his life, even his private life, in philosophical terms. He relates how he and other “men of the forties” tried to see their whole lives in terms of German philosophy. “Everything that in reality was direct, every simple feeling, was exalted into abstract categories and came back from them without a drop of living blood, a pale, algebraic shadow…. The very tear that started to the eye was strictly referred to its proper classification” in Schelling and Hegel. Hegel’s Phenomenology had to be accepted unconditionally, like Holy Writ, and it was pored over the way rabbis dissect Scripture:


People who loved each other avoided each other for weeks at a time because they disagreed about the definition of “all-embracing spirit,” or had taken as a personal insult an opinion on “the absolute personality and its existence in itself.”

This enthusiasm for abstract ideas stayed with Herzen, as, indeed, it became characteristic of the Russian intelligentsia generally. To live outside of Hegel or Feuerbach or Schiller was to be only half-alive: “A person who has not lived through Hegel’s Phenomenology…who has not passed through that furnace and been tempered by it, is not complete, not modern,” Herzen explained. He was equally enthralled by Feuerbach’s purely anthropological explanation of religion in The Essence of Christianity:

After reading the first pages I leapt up with joy. Down with the trappings of masquerade; away with the stammering allegory. We are free men…there is no need for us to wrap the truth in myth.

Only upon reflection did it occur to him that philosophy might itself be a myth disguising truth and constituting a new form of subjugation.

In passages like these, one can hear both of Herzen’s distinctive tones, romantic nostalgia and knowing irony. And the irony does not always have the final word because it, too, can become the object of nostalgia. Where are the witticisms of yesteryear?

Sometimes the nostalgia comes almost unalloyed. One of the most famous stories in his memoirs concerns Herzen and Ogarev as boys, on the Sparrows Hills overlooking Moscow, swearing, in imitation of characters from Schiller, to be true to the cause of the Decembrist revolutionaries. With the sun setting, the cupolas glittering, and a fresh breeze blowing,

we stood leaning against each other and, suddenly embracing, vowed in sight of all Moscow to sacrifice our lives to the struggle we had chosen.

This scene may strike others as very affected and theatrical, and yet twenty-six years afterward I am moved to tears as I recall it; there was a sacred sincerity to it, and our whole life has proved this.

Never one to miss a literary allusion, Herzen referred to this vow as his “Hannibalic oath.” His references to the event actually succeeded in making it a mythic moment in Russian history.

In his journalism and memoirs, Herzen found it hard to resist theatrical gestures and soaring rhetoric. Without any of his trademark irony, he described a reunion with Ogarev after a long separation:

I kept a crucifix that Nick had given me at our parting. And the four of us [including their wives] threw ourselves on our knees before the divine sufferer and prayed, thanking him for the happiness he had sent us after so many years of suffering and separation. We kissed his nail-pierced feet, kissed one another, saying “Christ has risen.”

Years later Herzen wrote to Ogarev that this was “one of those supreme moments of life, at which it would be fitting for a person to die.” He never forgave Ogarev’s wife’s astonishment at the melodramatic scene.

His prose often suffered from excess. Endless sentences, allusions to literature and Roman history, aphorisms, witticisms, and quotations from French, German, and Latin—all compete for space with countless clichés. No more than a muzhik could resist a drink could Herzen forgo adding yet another synonym or piling on another uplifting metaphor. Kelly cites one distended sentence, too long to quote in full here, that concludes:

…one must be possessed by a violent passion or a violent madness to plunge of one’s own free will into this whirlpool, which tries to redeem all its confusion by means of rainbows of prophecy and great visions, constantly cutting through the fog and constantly unable to disperse it.

Alexander Herzen

Private Collection/Look and Learn/Elgar Collection/Bridgeman Images

Alexander Herzen

He loved italics. Not by chance, these are the moments when Herzen seems least skeptical and most seduced by his own rhetoric.

Kelly’s core story concerns how Herzen overcame his romantic dreams to embrace a thoroughgoing, Darwinian skepticism. He experienced political disappointments, like the failure of the 1848 revolutions and the coup of Louis-Napoleon in 1851, personally, just as he experienced personal catastrophes, like his wife’s affair with Herwegh and her death soon after, politically. Perhaps the most moving passages in My Past and Thoughts concern his jealousy and rage at Herwegh’s cowardly duplicity—we don’t have the other side of the story—and Herzen’s absurd attempts to seek revenge by asking other European revolutionaries to form a “court of honor” condemning him. Here as elsewhere in his memoirs he excused himself by seeing personal events as if they were part of the revolutionary cause. “I am only to blame in that I believed too naively in the new society,” he explained. Herzen and his wife were “two Russian natures wrestling with Western depravity.” As Kelly observes, this way of understanding his wife, along with his self-absorption, go a long way to explain her need for affection elsewhere.

Although these tragedies drove him to seek pseudoreligious consolation in philosophy and politics, they also taught him that such consolations are specious. He had long been familiar with the psychological mechanisms used to find some sort of meaning in purely contingent experience. Even before his emigration, the young Herzen had written in an article entitled “Apropos of a Drama”:

There is something about chance that is intolerably repellent to a free spirit…. He wants the misfortunes that overtake him to be predestined—that is, to exist in connection with a universal world order; he wants to accept disasters as persecutions and punishments: this allows him to console himself through submission or rebellion.

Only gradually did he apply this insight to himself and his own views. It took him a long time and a lot of backsliding to conclude at last that chance is real and that “nature and history are going nowhere,” which is not a bad thing because it means “they are ready to go anywhere.” We have no consoling destiny, but we have real opportunity. “The future does not exist,” he wrote in From the Other Shore. “It is created by the combination of a thousand causes, some necessary, some accidental, plus human will…. History…knocks simultaneously at a thousand gates.” Precisely because there are always more possibilities than can be realized, our actions truly matter.

Herzen brilliantly constructed dialogues in which both sides voice opinions he himself had held. From the Other Shore intersperses three such dialogues with five essays occasioned by the disappointments of 1848. The book’s moral, if there is one, appears just before the second dialogue:

We become oblivious to our metaphors, and take turns of phrase we use for reality. Unaware of the absurdity of it, we introduce our own petty household rules into the economy of the universe for which the life of generations, peoples, of entire planets, has no importance.

In each dialogue, a skeptical older person discusses history with an idealistic younger one. The skeptic draws on experience and the spirit of empirical science to make short work of the idealist’s faith in comforting abstractions. In response, the idealist points to the cost of such cold realism, which freezes the soul and paralyzes the will to action. “Your detachment seems to me suspect,” the young man complains. “It is too like dead despair, the detachment of a man who has lost, not only hope, but lack of hope.” The skeptic answers: “to understand is already to achieve.”

“There are few nervous disorders more recalcitrant than idealism,” the skeptic insists. When the idealist quotes Rousseau’s inspiring line, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” the skeptic retorts that you might as well say, “Fish are born to fly—but everywhere they swim.”

Most famously, the skeptic anticipates the dangers of continually sacrificing present people for the sake of a utopian future that may never come. After all, utopian thinkers reason, no finite sacrifice is too great for an infinite payoff. The skeptic counters: we must recognize that every moment, like every culture and every person, is an end in itself.

Each historical moment is complete and self-contained…. And what, pray, is the end of the song that the singer sings?…the melody that dies as soon as it has resounded?… I prefer to think of life…as an end attained than as a means to something else.

Using the rhetorical trump card of the day, the young man insists that

throughout all the changes and confusions of history there runs a single red thread binding it into one aim. This thread—is progress…. Is it possible that in all this you do not see a goal?

Herzen’s most quoted lines reply to this challenge:

If progress is the end, for whom are we working? Who is this Moloch who, as the toilers approach him, instead of rewarding them, only recedes, and as a consolation to the exhausted, doomed multitudes…can give back only the mocking answer that after their death all will be beautiful on earth? Do you truly wish to condemn all human beings alive today to the sad role of…wretched galley slaves, up to their knees in mud, dragging a barge filled with some mysterious treasure and with the humble words “progress in the future” inscribed on its bows?… This alone should serve as a warning to people: an end that is infinitely remote is not an end, but, if you like, a trap; an end must be nearer—it ought to be, at the very least, the laborer’s wage, or pleasure in the work done.

Kelly brilliantly recreates real dialogues between Herzen and his contemporaries. Most striking, and most relevant today, is her account of his long argument with Turgenev. Western scholars have typically treated Turgenev as the sanest of Russians because he always supported Western liberal values. Kelly sees things differently.

The two authors’ friendship dates to the time Turgenev spent in Paris in 1848–1849 when he became a friend of the Herzens. They corresponded intermittently and met twice in London, with their last encounter, in 1862, leading to a rift in their friendship. Herzen sent Turgenev chapters of his memoirs, and Turgenev sent Herzen drafts of his fiction.

As Kelly aptly notes, “their affinity was based above all on their common suspicion of doctrines, systems, and utopian faiths.” But Turgenev strongly objected to the deep faith Herzen had in the Russian common people, whom he saw as the alternative to decadent, Western, bourgeois civilization. Did the peasants not preserve their ancient institution of the commune, Herzen asked, and does that not promise a specifically Russian socialism? Westernizing liberals imagine that one must progress by traveling the same historical path trodden by Europe, but in fact Russia can bypass all that European bourgeois vulgarity. Turgenev had no patience with such nationalism.

The vulgarity you discover in the Western bourgeoisie, Turgenev wrote in one letter, is common to “bipeds in general.” You resemble a doctor who, after a careful examination of a patient’s symptoms, concludes that the source of all his trouble is that he is a Frenchman. How is it, Turgenev asked, that you, an enemy of mysticism, “mystically abase yourself before the Russian [peasant] sheepskin coat” and see in it that same utopian Absolute you make fun of in philosophy? When peasants do not behave as you describe and value what you hate, you find excuses “with that ecstasy peculiar to all skeptics who have grown sick of skepticism.”

Russia is not a Venus de Milo, Turgenev asserted, and she does not differ much from her Western European sisters, “except, perhaps, that she is a little broader in the beam.” There is no alternative to Westernization. Invoking Herzen’s favorite biological metaphors, Turgenev argued that Russians belong

to the European family, “genus Europaeum,” and consequently, by the invariant laws of physiology, must proceed along the same path. I have yet to hear of a duck which, belonging to the genus duck, breathed through gills like a fish.

Herzen replied that historical change, no less than biological evolution, allows for different outcomes:

The general path of development allows for an endless number of unforeseen deviations, such as the elephant’s trunk and the camel’s hump. There are any number of variations on the single theme of the dog: wolves, foxes, harriers, borzois, water spaniels and pugs.

In a world of contingency, universal laws may lead to opposing results: “The future is a variation improvised on a theme of the past.”

Scholars have usually seen this debate as a contest between Turgenev’s sober realism and Herzen’s unfortunate lapse into romantic Slavophilism, a Russian mania to the present day. For Kelly, by contrast, the essential argument concerns two models of change, one derived from Newtonian physics and allowing for a single outcome, and the other from Darwinian evolution, which allows for many possibilities. In the Darwinian perspective, which is no less scientific, chance, contingency, and choice, in their interaction with loose regulating principles, are essential elements of the world. Framing the issue in this way, Kelly has given us not only the best portrait of Herzen, but also a profound contribution to intellectual debate today.