V. I.   Lenin

In Memory of Herzen

Published: Sotsial-Demokrat No. 26, May 8 (April 25), 1912. Published according to the text in Sotsial-Demokrat.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, [1975], Moscow, Volume 18, pages 25-31.
Translated: Stepan Apresyan
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
Public Domain: Lenin Internet Archive (2004). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
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One hundred years have elapsed since Herzen’s birth. The whole of liberal Russia is paying homage to him, studiously evading, however, the serious questions of socialism, and taking pains to conceal that which distinguished Herzen the revolutionary from a liberal. The Right-wing press, too, is commemorating the Herzen centenary, falsely asserting that in his last years Herzen renounced revolution. And in the orations on Herzen that are made by the liberals and Narodniks abroad, phrase-mongering reigns supreme.

The working-class party should commemorate the Herzen centenary, not for the sake of philistine glorification, but for the purpose of making clear its own tasks and ascertaining the place actually held in history by this writer who played a great part in paving the way for the Russian revolution.

Herzen belonged to the generation of revolutionaries among the nobility and landlords of the first half of the last century. The nobility gave Russia the Birons and Arakcheyevs,[1] innumerable “drunken officers, bullies, gamblers, heroes of fairs, masters of hounds, roisterers, floggers, pimps”, as well as amiable Manilovs.[2] “But,” wrote Herzen, “among them developed the men of December 14,[3] a phalanx of heroes reared, like Romulus and Remus, on the milk of a wild beast.... They were veritable titans, hammered out of pure steel from head to foot, comrades-in-arms who deliberately went to certain death in order to awaken the young generation to a new life and to purify the children born in an environment of tyranny and servility.”[4]

Herzen was one of those children. The uprising of the Decembrists awakened and “purified” him. In the feudal Russia of the forties of the nineteenth century, he rose to a   height which placed him on a level with the greatest thinkers of his time. He assimilated Hegel’s dialectics. He realised that it was “the algebra of revolution”. He went further than Hegel, following Feuerbach to materialism. The first of his Letters on the Study of Nature, “Empiricism and Idealism”, written in 1844, reveals to us a thinker who even now stands head and shoulders above the multitude of modern empiricist natural scientists and the host of present-day idealist and semi-idealist philosophers. Herzen came right up to dialectical materialism, and halted—before historical materialism.

It was this “halt” that caused Herzen’s spiritual ship wreck after the defeat of the revolution of 1848. Herzen had left Russia, and observed this revolution at close range. He was at that time a democrat, a revolutionary, a socialist. But his “socialism” was one of the countless forms and varieties of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois socialism of the period of 1848, which were dealt their death-blow in the June days of that year. In point of fact, it was not socialism at all, but so many sentimental phrases, benevolent visions, which were the expression at that time of the revolutionary character of the bourgeois democrats, as well as of the proletariat, which had not yet freed itself from the influence of those democrats.

Herzen’s spiritual shipwreck, his deep scepticism and pessimism after 1848, was a shipwreck of the bourgeois illusions of socialism. Herzen’s spiritual drama was a pro duct and reflection of that epoch in world history when the revolutionary character of the bourgeois democrats was already passing away (in Europe), while the revolutionary character of the socialist proletariat had not yet matured. This is something the Russian knights of liberal verbiage, who are now covering up their counter-revolutionary nature by florid phrases about Herzen’s scepticism, did not and could not understand. With these knights, who betrayed the Russian revolution of 1905, and have even forgotten to think of the great name of revolutionary, scepticism is a form of transition from democracy to liberalism, to that toadying, vile, foul and brutal liberalism which shot down the workers in 1848, restored the shattered thrones and applauded Napoleon III, and which Herzen cursed, unable to understand its class nature.

With Herzen, scepticism was a form of transition from the illusion of a bourgeois democracy that is “above classes” to the grim, inexorable and invincible class struggle of the proletariat. The proof: the Letters to an Old Comrade—to Bakunin—written by Herzen in 1869, a year before his death. In them Herzen breaks with the anarchist Bakunin. True, Herzen still sees this break as a mere disagreement on tactics and not as a gulf between the world outlook of the proletarian who is confident of the victory of his class and that of the petty bourgeois who has despaired of his salvation. True enough, in these letters as well, Herzen repeats the old bourgeois-democratic phrases to the effect that socialism must preach “a sermon addressed equally to workman and master, to farmer and townsman”. Nevertheless, in breaking with Bakunin, Herzen turned his gaze, not to liberalism, but to the International—to the international led by Marx, to the International which had begun to “rally the legions” of the proletariat, to unite “the world of labour”, which is “abandoning the world of those who enjoy without working”.[5]

Failing as he did to understand the bourgeois-democratic character of the entire movement of 1848 and of all the forms of pre-Marxian socialism, Herzen was still less able to understand the bourgeois nature of the Russian revolution. Herzen is the founder of “Russian” socialism, of “Narodism”. He saw “socialism” in the emancipation of the peasants with land, in community land tenure[6] and in the peasant idea of “the right to land”. He set forth his pet ideas on this subject an untold number of times.

Actually, there is not a grain of socialism in this doctrine of Herzen’s, as, indeed, in the whole of Russian. Narodism, including the faded Narodism of the present-day Socialist-Revolutionaries. Like the various forms of “the socialism of 1848” in the West, this is the same sort of sentimental phrases, of benevolent visions, in which is expressed the revolutionism of the bourgeois peasant democracy in Russia. The more land the peasants would have received in 1861[7] and the less they would have had to pay for it, the more would the power of the feudal landlords have been   undermined and the more rapidly, freely and widely would capitalism have developed in Russia. The idea of the “right to land” and of “equalised division of the land” is nothing but a formulation of the revolutionary aspiration for equality cherished by the peasants who are fighting for the complete overthrow of the power of the landlords, for the complete abolition of landlordism.

This was fully proved by the revolution of 1905: on the one hand, the proletariat came out quite independently at the head of the revolutionary struggle, having founded the Social-Democratic Labour Party; on the other band, the revolutionary peasants (the Trudoviks and the Peasant Union[8]), who fought for every form of the abolition of landlordism even to “the abolition of private landownership”, fought precisely as proprietors, as small entrepreneurs.

Today, the controversy over the “socialist nature” of the right to land, and so on, serves only to obscure and cover up the really important and serious historical question concerning the difference of interests of the liberal bourgeoisie and the revolutionary peasantry in the Russian bourgeois revolution;, in other words, the question of the liberal and the democratic, the “compromising” (monarchist) and the republican trends manifested in that revolution. This is exactly the question posed by Herzen’s Kolokol,[9] if we turn our attention to the essence of the matter and not to the words, if we investigate the class struggle as the basis of “theories” and doctrines and not vice versa.

Herzen founded a free Russian press abroad, and that is the great service rendered by him. Polyarnaya Zvezda[10] took up the tradition of the Decembrists. Kolokol (1857–67) championed the emancipation of the peasants with might and main. The slavish silence was broken.

But Herzen came from a landlord, aristocratic milieu. He left Russia in 1847; he had not seen the revolutionary people and could have no faith in it. Hence his liberal appeal to the “upper ranks”. Hence his innumerable sugary letters in Kolokol addressed to Alexander II the Hangman, which today one cannot read without revulsion. Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov and Serno-Solovyevich, who represented the new generation of revolutionary raznochintsi,[11] were a thousand times right when they reproached Herzen for these   departures from democracy to liberalism. However, it must be said in fairness to Herzen that, much as he vacillated between democracy and liberalism, the democrat in him gained the upper hand nonetheless.

When Kavelin, one of the most repulsive exponents of liberal servility—who at one time was enthusiastic about Kolokol precisely because of its liberal tendencies—rose in arms against a constitution, attacked revolutionary agitation, rose against “violence” and appeals for it, and began to preach tolerance, Herzen broke with that liberal sage. Herzen turned upon Kavelin’s “meagre, absurd, harmful pamphlet” written “for the private guidance of a government pretending to be liberal”; he denounced Kavelin’s “sentimental political maxims” which represented “the Russian people as brutes and the government as an embodiment of intelligence”. Kolokol printed an article entitled “Epitaph”, which lashed out against “professors weaving the rot ten cobweb of their superciliously paltry ideas, ex-professors, once open-hearted and subsequently embittered because they saw that the healthy youth could not sympathise with their scrofulous thinking”. Kavelin at once recognised himself in this portrait.

When Chernyshevsky was arrested, the vile liberal Kavelin wrote: “I see nothing shocking in the arrests ... the revolutionary party considers all means fair to overthrow the government, and the latter defends itself by its own means.” As if in retort to this Cadet, Herzen wrote concerning Chernyshevsky’s trial: “And here are wretches, weed-like people, jellyfish, who say that we must not reprove the gang of robbers and scoundrels that is governing us.”

When the liberal Turgenev[12] wrote a private letter to Alexander II assuring him of his loyalty, and donated two goldpieces for the soldiers wounded during the suppression of the Polish insurrection, Kolokol wrote of “the grey-haired Magdalen (of the masculine gender) who wrote to the tsar to tell him that she knew no sleep because she was tormented by the thought that the tsar was not aware of the repentance that had overcome her”. And Turgenev at once recognised himself.

When the whole band of Russian liberals scurried away from Herzen for his defence of Poland, when the whole of   “educated society” turned its back on Kolokol, Herzen was not dismayed. He went on championing the freedom of Po land and lashing the suppressors, the butchers, the hangmen in the service of Alexander II. Herzen saved the honour of Russian democracy. “We have saved the honour of the Russian name,” he wrote to Turgenev, “and for doing so we have suffered at the hands of the slavish majority.”

When it was reported that a serf peasant had killed a landlord for an attempt to dishonour the serf’s betrothed, Herzen commented in Kolokol: “Well done!” When it was reported that army officers would be appointed to supervise the “peaceable” progress of “emancipation”, Herzen wrote: “The first wise colonel who with his unit joins the peasants instead of crushing them, will ascend the throne of the Romanovs.” When Colonel Reitern shot himself in Warsaw (1860) because he did not want to be a helper of hangmen, Herzen wrote: “If there is to be any shooting, the ones to be shot should be the generals who give orders to fire upon unarmed people.” When fifty peasants were massacred in Bezdna, and their leader, Anton Petrov, was executed (April 12, 1861), Herzen wrote in Kolokol:

If only my words could reach you, toiler and sufferer of the land of Russia!... How well I would teach you to despise your spiritual shepherds, placed over you by the St. Petersburg Synod and a German tsar.... You hate the landlord, you hate the official, you fear them, and rightly so; but you still believe in the tsar and the bishop ... do not believe them. The tsar is with them, and they are his men. It is him you now see—you, the father of a youth murdered in Bezdna, and you, the son of a father murdered in Penza.... Your shepherds are as ignorant as you, and as poor.... Such was another Anthony (not Bishop Anthony, but Anton of Bezdna) who suffered for you in Kazan.... The dead bodies of your martyrs will not per form forty-eight miracles, and praying to them will not cure a tooth ache; but their living memory may produce one miracle—your emancipation.”

This shows how infamously and vilely Herzen is being slandered by our liberals entrenched in the slavish “legal” press, who magnify Herzen’s weak points and say nothing about his strong points. It was not Herzen’s fault but his misfortune that he could not see the revolutionary people in Russia itself in the 1840s. When in the sixties he came to see the revolutionary people, he sided fearlessly with the revolutionary democracy against liberalism. He fought for a   victory of the people over tsarism, not for a deal between the liberal bourgeoisie and the landlords’ tsar. He raised aloft the banner of revolution.

In commemorating Herzen, we clearly see the three generations, the three classes, that were active in the Russian revolution. At first it was nobles and landlords, the Decembrists and Herzen. These revolutionaries formed but a narrow group. They were very far removed from the people. But their effort was not in vain. The Decembrists awakened Herzen. Herzen began the work of revolutionary agitation.

This work was taken up, extended, strengthened, and tempered by the revolutionary raznochintsi—from Chernyshevsky to the heroes of Narodnaya Volya.[13] The range of fighters widened, their contact with the people became closer. “The young helmsmen of the gathering storm” is what Herzen called them. But it was not yet the storm itself.

The storm is the movement of the masses themselves. The proletariat, the only class that is thoroughly revolutionary, rose at the head of the masses and for the first time aroused millions of peasants to open revolutionary struggle. The first onslaught in this storm took place in 1905. The next is beginning to develop under our very eyes.

In commemorating Herzen, the proletariat is learning from his example to appreciate the great importance of revolutionary theory. It is learning that selfless devotion to the revolution and revolutionary propaganda among the people are not wasted even if long decades divide the sowing from the harvest. It is learning to ascertain the role of the various classes in the Russian and in the international revolution. Enriched by these lessons, the proletariat will fight its way to a free alliance with the socialist workers of all lands, having crushed that loathsome monster, the tsarist monarchy, against which Herzen was the first to raise the great banner of struggle by addressing his free Russian word to the masses.


[1] Biron, E. I. (1690–1772)—all-powerful favourite of the Empress Anna Ivanovna. He came from the petty nobility of Courland and was not a Russian subject. But while holding no official position, he exerted great influence on the domestic and partly the foreign policy of Russia. He established a terroristic regime and followed a policy of Germanising the state apparatus. He took advantage of his position to rob the Treasury, take bribes and engage in speculative deals. After the death of the Empress he became Regent for a while. He was overthrown in November 1740 as the result of a coup d’état.

Arakcheyev, A. A. (1769-1834)—One of the most reactionary representatives of the tsarist autocracy, Minister of War in the reign of Alexander I. A man distinguished by brutality and cruelty, he exerted tremendous influence on Russia’s home and foreign   policies. His name is associated with a long period of reaction and police tyranny, brutal militarism, spying, bribery, corruption and soulless, petty formalism, comprising what became known as the “Arakcheyev regime”.

[2] Manilov—a character in Gogol’s Dead Souls. A sentimental, amiable landowner, Manilov personifies pipe-dreaming and empty talk.

[3] The men of December 14 were Russian revolutionary noblemen who fought against serfdom and the autocracy. They revolted on December 14, 1825.

[4] Lenin is quoting from Alexander Herzen’s Ends and Beginnings.

[5] The passage is taken from Herzen’s letters “To an Old Comrade” (the fourth and second letters).

[6] The village commune in Russia was the communal form of peasant use of the land, characterised by compulsory crop rotation, and undivided woods and pastures. Its principal features were collective liability (compulsory collective responsibility of the peasants for timely and full payments, and the fulfilment of all kinds of services for the benefit of the state and the landlords), the periodical redistribution of the land, with no right to refuse the allotment given, and prohibition of its purchase and sale.

The land fords and the tsarist government used the village commune to intensify feudal oppression and to squeeze land redemption payments and exactions from the people.

[7] Thepeasant Reformof 1861 abolished serfdom in Russia. As a result, the landlords were able to cut off for themselves over one-fifth, or even two-fifths, of the peasants’ land. They retained possession of the best parts of the peasants’ allotments (the “cut-off lands”, woods, meadows, watering places, grazing grounds, and so on), without which the peasants could not engage in independent farming. The redemption payments imposed on the peasants for their allotments were nothing short of plunder by the landlords and the tsarist government. To pay off their debts by instalments to the tsarist government, the peasants were granted credit for forty-nine years at 6 per cent interest. Arrears on redemption payments grew from year to year. The former landlord peasants alone paid the government 1,900 million rubles by way of compensation, while the market price of the land transferred to the peasants did not exceed 544 million rubles. The peasants had in effect to pay hundreds of millions of rubles for their land, which led to the ruin of the peasant households.

Lenin described the “peasant Reform” of 1861 as the first act of mass violence against the peasantry for the benefit of rising capitalism in agriculture, as a “clearing of estates” for capitalism by the landlords.

[8] All-Russia Peasant Union—a revolutionary-democratic organisation founded in 1905. Its first and second congresses, herd in Moscow in August and November 1905, drew up its programme and tactics. The Union demanded political freedom and the immediate convening of a constituent assembly. It favoured the tactic of boycotting the First Duma. Its agrarian programme included the demand for abolishing private landownership and transferring the monastery, church, crown and state lands to the peasants without compensation. Its policy was half-hearted and vacillating. While insisting on the abolition of the landed estates, the Union was agreeable to partial compensation for the landlords.

The Peasant Union was persecuted by the police ever since it came into being. It fell to pieces early in 1907.

[9] Kolokol (The Bell)—a political periodical, published under the motto of Vivos voco! (I call on the living!) by A. I. Herzen and N. P. Ogaryov at the Free Russian Printing Works established by Herzen. The periodical was published in London from July 1, 1857 to April 1865 and in Geneva from May 1865 to July 1867. It was a monthly, but occasionally it was brought out twice a month. In all 245 issues appeared.

In 1868 Kolokol was published in French (15 issues appeared), with an occasional supplement in Russian. It had a circulation of 2,500 copies and it was disseminated throughout Russia. It exposed the tyranny of the autocracy, the plunder and embezzlement practised by the civil servants, and the ruthless exploitation of the peasants by the landlords. It issued revolutionary appeals and helped to rouse the people to the struggle against the tsarist government and the ruling classes.

Kolokol was the leading organ of the revolutionary uncensored press and the forerunner of the working-class press in Russia. It played an important role in the development of the general-democratic and revolutionary movement, in the struggle against the autocracy and against serfdom.

[10] Polyarnaya Zvezda (The Pole Star)—a literary-political symposium. Its first three issues were published by A. I. Herzen, and the subsequent ones by Herzen and Ogaryov, at the Free Russian Printing Works in London from 1855 to 1862. The last issue appeared in Geneva in 1868. Altogether eight issues appeared.

[11] The raznochintsy (literally, men of various social-estates) were educated members of Russian society drawn from the small towns folk, the clergy, the merchants and the peasantry, as distinct from those drawn from the nobility.

[12] Turgenev, I. S. (1818-1883)—a famous Russian writer who did much for the development of the Russian literary language. His writings reflected the typical contradictions of Russian society. While protesting ardently against serfdom, he put forward mode rate liberal demands. Lenin said that “Turgenev ... was drawn towards   a moderate monarchist and nobleman’s constitution, ... was repelled by the muzhik democracy of Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky”

[13] Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will)—an illegal organisation of the revolutionary-minded intelligentsia, the Narodniks, founded In 1879 to combat the tsarist regime. It was active until the second half of the 1880s.

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